Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Mrs. Ramsay and the bay leaf - peering into the dish in To the Lighthouse

This is a piece about how readers change.  And about food.

The long dinner chapter of To the Lighthouse (1928), Chapter XVII of “The Window,” what a masterpiece.  It does so much.  Here is a taste.

… and an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off.  The cook had spent three days over that dish.  And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes.  And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought. (100)

Mrs. Ramsay thinks of celebration but also death, that love “bear[s] in its bosom the seeds of death.”  Then the outside intrudes on her and the dinner guests praise the dish, a boeuf en daube, and mock English cooking as “an abomination (they agreed).”  I have to say, I ate so well in London, the English food included.  No doubt circa 1910, the time of the novel, things were not so good.

The stew is first mentioned about twenty pages earlier, in Ch. XVI.  Mrs. Ramsay is nervous about her big dinner:

… and they were having Mildred’s masterpiece – Boeuf en Daube.  Everything depended upon things being served up to the precise moment they were ready.  The beef, the bay leaf, and the wine – all must be done to a turn.  To keep it waiting was out of the question… things had to be kept hot; the Boeuf en Daube would be entirely spoilt.  (80)

When I last read To the Lighthouse, maybe twenty-five years ago, I suppose I nodded along, sympathizing with Mrs. Ramsay’s anxiety.  This time, though – do you cook? – you saw it, right?  “The bay leaf must be done to a turn”?  The bay leaf!

Boeuf en daube is beef stewed in wine, and is not a difficult dish.  It is classic Provence country cooking, not imperial cuisine.  I can make a daube – come over some time.  One good way to agitate bookish Twitter is to say a book is or is not “difficult,” because the word can mean different things.  In fact, daube is difficult in three ways – let’s use a recipe attributed to Julia Child:

1. The list of ingredients is long.  Nothing exotic, but many pieces.

2.  The preparation ideally takes, as the cook has told Mrs. Ramsay, three days, which requires planning.  One day of marinating, one day of checking the stewpot, one day of just sitting there until reheated.  The amount of work by the cook is, mostly, minimal, although see below.  I am assuming the Ramsay vacation house has a stove.

3.  At one point, you have to make a basic roux, and you could burn that.  I mean, I could.  Pay attention!

Otherwise, this is a forgiving and flexible dish.  It will not be “entirely spoilt,” nor spoilt at all, if reheated.  The meat was actually “done to a turn” the day before the dinner.

As for the bay leaf, and for that matter the wine and many other ingredients, you just toss them in your Dutch oven, or your daubière if you have one, and put it in the oven.

Mrs. Ramsay does not understand what her cook has told her.  Apparently, at some point in the past, there was some fuss over bay leaves.  Perhaps the cook insisted that she could not make a certain dish because there were no bay leaves, and now Mrs. Ramsay fixates on them.  “Done to a turn” may be the cook’s phrase, too.

Now, having said this, the logistics of getting the food to the table at the right temperature for a dinner of twelve or more is a challenge.  Then there is the question of the stove.  A cook at the time often functioned more like a naval engineer, keeping a complex and temperamental machine operating at a consistent temperature.  Too bad Kipling never write a story about this, a great cook and the things she can make her Victorian stove do.  Keeping dishes hot required real skill.  We have it easy, now.

I wonder if I had any idea what boeuf en daube was when I first read this novel.  Now that I know, and even know how to make it myself, an entire extra little dimension of the story unfolds.

So this is one way we change as readers.  We learn things.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Tanizaki's Seven Japanese Tales - Maybe you think I’m just being perverse, but I’ve never been more serious

Seven Japanese Tales (1970, tr. Howard Hibbett) by Juichiro Tanizaki.  Four of the “tales” are short stories from the 1910s and 1920s, pretty obviously newspaper pieces, although heaven forbid an editor mentions where anything is from.  Three tales, two from the 1930s and one from 1959 – impressive career! – are more like novellas.

I thought this would be a good place to get to know Tanizaki, who I had not read at all.  Poking around, I found a review or two saying it was not the place to start.  I suppose I did not think anything in this book was world-class, but I know Tanizaki wrote other books.  And much is visible right here.

The oldest story, “The Tattooer” (1910), made Tanizaki famous.  That is worth seeing.  A sadistic tattooer dreams of creating the perfect tattoo (“a huge black-widow spider,” 167) on the perfect woman.  He does so, but somehow in the process transfers his creative strength to the woman:

“All of my fears have been swept away – and you are my first victim!”  She darted a glance at him as bright as a sword.  A song of triumph was ringing in her ears.  (169)

Sure, why not.  I had picked up somewhere that Tanizaki was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, and in these early stories I can see it, not so much in the Gothic giant spider but in the extreme, self-destructive psychology of the men, who all succumb to Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse.”  I noted Theodore Dreiser borrowing the same idea in The American Tragedy (1925), contemporary to Tanizaki’s early stories, although Dreiser also borrows Poe’s distinctive, bizarre language, Tanizaki much less so, at least in this translation.  But in the character who has a phobia about riding on a train (“Terror,” 1913), or the kleptomaniac who can’t bring himself to tell a lie (“The Thief,” 1921), I can see the shadow of Poe.  “’Maybe you think I’m just being perverse, but I’ve never been more serious’” (184).

Also immediately visible was Tanizaki’s interest in another aspect of the word “perverse.”  Five of the seven stories feature dominant / submissive relationships with a woman in the dominant and a man in the submissive role.  “The Tattooer” is the only one where the man is dominant but becomes submissive.  Some of these relationships are sexual, some not, but the psychology is repeated.  Theme and variation.

The most interesting variation was in “A Portrait of Shunkin” (1933), where the woman is a blind music prodigy and the man is first her servant, then pupil, then lover – husband, really.  She is a tyrant, willful and capricious; he is perfectly devoted.  At one key point, his devotion goes way, way too far, in a way I do not want to describe.  Yikes!  Ick!  Tanizaki seems to like extreme cases.

I thought “Shunkin” was the best-written story, too, in the sense that the sentences were the most interesting.  More phrases and clauses, more rhetorical variation.  In some of the stories, the prose got pretty flat.  The recurrent symbolic songbird theme was blatant but effective:

Nightingales are often long-lived if properly cared for, but they require constant attention.  Left to an inexperienced person, they soon die.  (51)

The Japanese Literature Challenge, now in its 13th year, is ongoing, so I read this book and hope to read another Tanizaki or two.


Monday, February 3, 2020

Yet somehow this is not the Fool’s own book - The Book of the Red King by Marly Youmans - One can only go so far with logic

I read only a few new books last year, but two of them starred Fools - the capital F kind – Kehlmann’s Tyll and Marly Youmans’s The Book of the Red King, a collection of lyric poems that do not make up a narrative, exactly, but suggest one, or many.

I, Fool, unpacked The Book of the Red King
And wrote these words because I could not bear
For every spark and speck of mystery
To die, then sealed them with my foolish kiss.  (from “Naked in the Sands”)

The Fool searches for the Red King; the King awaits the fool.  Or the Fool dreams of the Red King; the King dreams of the Fool.  Who can say which creates the other.  The title is the first of many, possibly endless, literary references.  Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel’s Red King, from Through the Looking-Glass (1871), is on the left – do not wake him!  Youmans’s characters dream a lot, and occasionally try to pass through mirrors (see “The Looking-glass Stop”).

King Lear had a Fool, I was thinking, and then he appeared in “’My Poor Fool is Hang’d,’” although luckily this king rescues his fool, who is hanging by his foot, like the Hanged Man in the tarot deck.  The Fool is himself one of the Major Arcana, and the next poem is “The Tarot Fool.”

Yeats is everywhere, his gyre built into the book’s third major character, a spiral shell that could be the female principle, the Holy Ghost, or a pretty souvenir the Fool picked up at the beach, and in the Red King’s spiral tower.  The cento near the end of the book, “Fool’s Motley,” is composed of lines of Proust, Yeats, Dickens, Christopher Logue, Charles Causley, and other authorial spirits.

I have followed the  writers because I enjoy the pursuit, but they are no help, in the sense that they do not explain the poems, no more than following the motifs of snow, mirrors, stars, games, leaves, or many others from poem to poem.  Stated plainly, they look so simple, but Youmans creates such complex patterns with them, or perhaps she scatters them about like seeds so her readers can create their own patterns.  I have noticed that readers have been reluctant to quickly interpret The Book of the Red King.  See Scott Bailey’s piece, please, or Fred Chappell’s metaphor of the book as “a mystical, metaphysical board game.”  It is a game with a large number of pieces.

Hart Crane is explaining the obscurities of his own poem sequence, The Bridge (1930), to Yvor Winters in a letter: “One can only go so far with logic, then willfully dream and play – and pray for the fusion.”*  The fusion is up to me.

And why is this the book of the Red King
When it was plainly written by a fool?
Its every word proclaims its lunar source,
Yet somehow this is not the Fool’s own book…
The Fool has done nothing to earn the book.
The Fool was given a gift, and that is all.  (from “The Red Book of the King” – note the curious alternative title)

I wonder how the poems look on their own, without their neighbors or any sense of sequence, without my attempt to connect them.  They would look different.  Perhaps my favorite, all by itself, although it fuses with several other poems, is “The Fool Tells the Children a Story at the Solstice,” about Hob, the  speck of dust who dreamed of becoming a star:

Hob floated in the dark’s abyss,
Dreaming of a burning kiss

To change his coat of soil to light,
To pin his flame against the night.

See Bailey’s post for the ending.  Hob’s dream comes true, logically, even.

The Book of the Red King seems to me like a major work, if that is a term anyone still uses in the context of poetry.  I suspect you will have to buy it yourself if you want to read it.

Marly is Friend of the Blog.   We have discussed, in comments here and there over the years, some of the poets who lie hidden behind or around her book.  She has recommended Charles Causley to me several times, but still I have not read him.

* O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, eds. Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber, letter from Nov. 15, 1926, p. 289.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll - All this is true, he says, even what has been made up is true.

One of the new books I read last year, Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll (2017 in German, 2020 in Ross Benjamin’s English) was from the future.  I accidentally bought an Advanced Reader’s Copy – “Not for Sale” the cover declares.  But surely at this point I can think of myself as an Advanced Reader, in English, at least.  Maybe an Intermediate Reader in French still.

Tyll is the merry prankster, a German medieval folklore figure who wreaks havoc with his honestly not-so-merry pranks.  He has some importance in German literary history because Tyll stories were among the early products of German printing.  Some old Tyll leaflets appear on page 4, along with those about “the Ship of Fools and the great priestly folly and the evil Pope in Rome and the devilish Martinus Luther of Wittenberg and the sorcerer Horridus and Doctor Faust and the hero Gawain of the Round Table and indeed about him, Tyll Ulenspiegel, who had now come to us himself.”

In the novel Tyll is about the archetype Tyll come to life for another tour of central Europe, this time during the Thirty Years War (a new round of the evil Pope versus the devilish Luther).  Perhaps the spirit of Tyll inhabits a boy with a talent for juggling and tightrope walking.  Perhaps that boy consciously takes on Tyll’s identity.  If the spirit of Tyll has returned, it is not clear why.  The world of the Thirty Years War is irredeemably awful.  Juggling and ventriloquism can’t solve that problem.  But the novel puts Tyll in the background, mostly, of a number of other people’s stories.  He gives them little nudges, sometimes just by existing.

If I understand Michael Orthofer’s more thorough review, he would like the novel to have been more about Tyll himself.  But it is not.  It is more about the meaning of Tyll.

All this is true, he says, even what has been made up is true.  (126)

The world was once enchanted, and then became disenchanted, by science and bureaucracy and so on, argued Max Weber and many others.  The world of Tyll is still enchanted, in the sense that everyone believes in magic and religion, and the representative scientists are experts in crystals, or dragons, or, in the case of Athanasius Kircher, literally everything.  Kehlmann has some fun with Kircher’s cat piano; I would include an illustration if I could stand the cruelty.

Using the irony of a novel about a magician, Kehlmann seems to be arguing for disenchantment, for a little less magic in the world, for less religion, or at least less religious war, and for modern science, not Kircher’s science:

Kircher had grasped early on that one had to follow reason without being flustered by the quirks of reality.  When one knew how an experiment had to turn out, then the experiment had to turn out like that, and when one possessed a distinct conception of things, then, when one described them, one had to satisfy this conception and not mere observation.  (264)

A good novelist is likely all right with mere observation.  It is not so “mere” in the hands of an artist.  We can have as much enchantment as we want, by means of art.

The book I read begins with a letter to the Dear Reader from Dan Frank, the Editorial Director of Pantheon Books, that is filled with guff, especially the closer: “Whether you are a fan of Neal Stephenson, Jorge Luis Borges, George R. R. Martin, or Margaret Atwood, you will be captivated by the unique and original vision of Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll.”  Stephenson wrote books set in the same century, which is something, although leafing through Quicksilver I will say that Kehlmann is rather lighter on his feet; Borges has me stumped; I have not read Atwood but looked up descriptions of her most famous books and am again baffled; as for Martin, Tyll does not have much in common with the only book of his I have read, the morally instructive Sandkings (1981) but does feature a Winter King and a Winter Queen and lots of characters who are murdered in the usual horrible ways.  I guess Martin fans like that?

I assume this letter is just part of the ARC, not the soon to be published version?  You people who get free books, do they usually come with this nonsense?  How can you stand it?

Thursday, January 23, 2020

A “new book” ramble - caves, Zurbarán, Proust, French nursing homes

Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (2019) is as good as everyone says, so what do I need to say.  It’s a travel book where the locations are caves, mines, and the tunnels of Paris.  The chapter describing Macfarlane’s three-day trek under Paris is completely insane.  Like much great travel writing, the stories of the people who work in, explore, and learn about the caves and mines and so on are really the highlight.

I fear that Macfarlane is some kind of tyrant in England.  Literally every British book in the Travel and Nature sections of the bookstores had a blurb from Macfarlane.  One could read nothing but books blurbed by Macfarlane.  Good books, they looked like good books.  But pity the poor schlub who does not get the Macfarlane blurb.

Józef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (1944 in Polish, 1987 in the original French, 2018 in English) is as good as everyone says.  I suppose you have to enjoy reading about Proust and his novels.  How I love reading about Proust.  Here, though, there is no escaping the strange tension between the fine, enthusiastic, thoughtful essay about Proust and its circumstances, as described in the book’s subtitle, dictated and delivered in a Soviet prison camp for Polish officers as a way of distracting them from the almost certain, sudden death that awaited them.  Art and beauty against horror.  The essay would be outstanding without the horror, but there it is.  The notes and commentary added by the translator, Eric Karpeles, are also outstanding, but I love reading about Proust.

Hannelore Cayre’s La Daronne (2017) is as good as Book Around the Corner says.  The English translation (2019) picked the not quite accurate but necessary title The Godmother.  The narrator is a police interpreter, translating intercepted phone calls by Arabic-speaking drug dealers.  Some useful inside information falls in her lap.  She has an ailing mother with dementia in a nursing home, and can use some money.  She is one cool cat.  Thus, the novel.  The dry, sharp voice is really the appealing thing, as Emma describes.

Isabelle Huppert, perfectly cast, is starring in the movie, although that is the author herself, playing her character, on the cover over at Emma’s site. The author is what in the U.S. would be called a criminal defense attorney.  Emma met Cayre at the Quais du Polar festival; I think my wife did, too.  I must have had something else to do.

Florence Delay, Haute Couture (2018) – no idea what anyone has said about this smart essay in art history by the actress turned writer.  That title could be attached to about anything, but the carefully written book is in fact about the clothes worn by various saints in the paintings of Francisco de Zurbarán, for example Santa Isabel of Portugal, from the Prado, to the left.  Detailed descriptions of the clothes blend into the lives of the saints, and the strange paths their stories take, with miracles and martyrdoms moving from saint to saint over time.  Thus, the book is as much about myth-making as about clothes or painting.  Yet the stories are always embedded in Zurbarán’s painting somewhere.

The book has no illustrations, which is irritating, but I have the internet.  One little bonus: Delay explains why I could not find the dang Zurbarán in the Louvre, despite the clear sign saying where it should be.  They’re locked away in their own room for some reason “because of a lack of personnel” (p. 86).  So Delay, a French Academician can arrange to see it (and even for her it’s not so easy), but a poor schmoe like me has to look at it on the internet, see right, Saint Apollonia.  You do not want to know too much about her martyrdom.  “Between the jaws of the horrible pliers that Apolline holds at the height of her face there is a little white tooth” (87).

With all of the fabrics, garments, and colors, Haute Couture did terrific things for my French vocabulary.  It will never be translated into English, right?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The pleasures of keeping up

One angle I might take, if I were to write something about reading not fewer books but fewer great books, would be a “pop” approach.  It does not come up much here, but I listen to a pretty good heap of current music, mostly jazz and popular music in its various forms, some of which is in no way actually popular.  In some sense I “keep up” with what is going on in contemporary music, and have done so for thirty years.

I understand the appeal of spending time with the art of right now, art that means something in the moment but is ephemeral, that looks cool now but will look like kitsch in a few years.  Maybe it looks like kitsch now.  Kitsch has its own interest and pleasures.

A real music critic may easily listen to a thousand albums from a given year.  I don’t do that, which is its own profession, or hobby, but I pay attention to music critics and what they recommend.  Some of it I love, some is junk; some seems important, some trivial.  That’s all part of the fun.

I don’t think that is how I approach literature, but I see why it would be enjoyable.  I do not quite understand how to transfer the idea of “keeping up” to books, except perhaps for the people who read 500 pages an hour.  Has a professional reviewer, Sam Sacks or Katherine Powers or someone like that, written about “keeping up”?  Maybe they don’t think that way.  I would enjoy reading that essay.

We all listen to music at the same speed.  We sure do not read at the same speed.  Maybe that is not the issue.

Still.  More time spent reading new books looking for their hooks, their energy, for what is new, that would be fun.  I spend a lot of my reading looking for the new, but the new of a hundred years ago, which now, honestly, is rather old.

Michael Orthofer and his Complete Review provide a model example of what I mean by “keeping up.” “There are currently 4509 books under review.” I am pretty sure he reads quite a bit faster than me.

My Best Album of 2019, by the way, is 400: An Afrikan Epic by Dr. Mark Lomax II, available for listening at no cost at his website.  This is a genuine “album” of music, a twelve volume jazz history of the African-American experience.  The first and last volumes are solo drums (Lomax is a drummer), and I cannot say I love those, but I love the rest.  The star performer is the saxophonist, Edwin Bayard, who plays in the idiom of John Coltrane.  For a literary connection, jump to part 8, “Blues in August,” a tribute to August Wilson.

I read, in 2019, roughly twenty books that were more or less new.  With music, I keep neurotic track of what music is really from 2019, but with books that seems silly.  Sillier.  Twenty recent books.  A long way from keeping up, but not total isolation from my own time.  I’ll write about some of them over the next few days.

Monday, January 20, 2020

As we are mock’d with art – a review and a preview – guest-starring Ian McKellen

How I enjoy “year in review” posts on book blogs.  I read all of yours.  Well, I was celebrating the holiday and then on vacation, and my reading of all kinds suffers, so I can say I looked at all of your “best books of 2019” posts.  I enjoyed them to the extent of my power.

The best book I read last year was The Iliad (8th century BC), an old friend that I have read four or five times.  That’s a lot, for me.  In London, I saw “Ian McKellen on Stage,” a one man show.  In the first half, McKellen made a running joke about everyone, including heores like Edmund Hillary, insisting on telling him that “I read The Lord of the Rings every year!”  McKellen said he had never read it at all until he was cast in it.

He seemed a little skeptical of the whole “every year thing.”  But this is a guy who puts on the same show every night, twice on Wednesdays.  It has never occurred to me to have a book that I read every year, but apparently I read The Iliad every ten years.

The next best “book” I read was the poems of Sappho (say 6th century BC), as translated by Guy Davenport in 7 Greeks.  Perhaps that entire astonishing book should fill this slot – Archilochos, Haraclitus, Diogenes.  And next would be The Winter’s Tale (1611, maybe), you know, Shakespeare.

McKellen spent the second half of his show talking about nothing but Shakespeare, reciting famous chunks, telling stories about productions, opinionating.  “I have nothing to say about Troilus and Cressida,” at one extreme, and quite a lot to say about Macbeth on the other.  About The Winter’s Tale, he said it was marvelous “until the action moves into the countryside and the play goes all” – and McKellen made a combination of deflating noise and wriggling hand gesture that I will interpret as “soggy.”  “But then in the last act” – yes, yes, in the last act.  I pulled the phrase in the post’s title from the last act, scene 3.

Last May, during the ill-fated readalong of Henrik Pontoppidan’s big Danish “tormented atheist” novel Lucky Per (1898-1904), I remember seeing a couple of readalongers say that the novel was the best thing they had read all year – they were not too far into Pontoppidan at that point, I guess – and I remember thinking that I had, earlier in 2019, read The Radetzky March (1930), The Age of Innocence (1920), The Tower (Yeats, I mean, 1928), prime Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens, plus that Shakespeare play.  And that was just in January.

I read a lot of really great books.  Perhaps I read too many great books.  What do I think I am doing with it all?  What is the point?  I am mocked with art.  Maybe I should space the best stuff out more.  I would be interested in reading that argument.  Maybe I should write that argument.

Plans:  1. Last year, I read quite a lot of books from the 1920s, and felt that I learned a lot, so I suppose this year I will read mostly books from the 1930s, and if I am fortunate I will learn something from that.  2. Keep reading in French.  3. Read less, write more.