Thursday, May 14, 2020

The last of my April reading - novels, stories, travel, a play - the winter evening was darkening into night and the image of buttered toast loomed large in the mind

The rest of my April reading.  Novels and stories and such.

Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) and Lao She, Rickshaw (1937), already covered.

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930).  A titanic novel.  Some big changes in the history of the novel occur more or less here.  I read Michael Gorra’s Norton Critical Edition, which was itself outstanding.  The biggest surprise in it was how well reviewed – not merely positively, but with understanding – Faulkner was from the beginning, for all the good it did him.  Well, it worked out eventually.

The first Faulkner novel that made it into French was the next one, Sanctuary (1931), but the French saw what was going on immediately.  That is one of the big changes, maybe the first one.

I suppose it had been thirty years since I really read As I Lay Dying, really read it, not just looked into it.  I have read a lot more books since the last time.  Faulkner’s novel still appeared to be full of brand new things.

Frank O’Connor, Guests of the Nation (1931).  His first book, mostly stories set during the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War.  At some point, it occurred to me that the only precedent was Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926), although O’Connor is not as cold-blooded as Babel, and it was no surprise to learn that Red Cavalry was O’Connor’s direct inspiration.  Only two of the fifteen stories are in the 1981 Collected Stories, perhaps because they are work well together, certainly not because they’re not good enough.

Somerset Maugham, Ah King (1933).  Six stories set in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and the like.  I find Maugham more interesting for his subject matter, the odd British people who find themselves in the colonies, than his careful, casual storytelling, and with three books of stories left, he says these are the last ones form Asia.  What the heck is he going to write about?

A favorite bit from “The Book Bag,” where the narrator is distracted while being told a melodramatic tale of Byronic incest – I do like Maugham’s casual narration, just not as much as his subjects:

My eye was caught by a chik-chak, a little brown house lizard with a large head, high up on the wall.  It is a friendly little beast and it is good to see it in a house.  It watched a fly.  It was quite still.  On a sudden it made a dart and then as the fly flew away fell back with a kind of jerk into a strange immobility. (p. 795 in East of West)

Perhaps the Maughamish narrator is identifying with the lizard.

Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key (1931).  I’m still rooting around in crime novels, covering the basics.  Here we have more gangster nonsense.  The “detective” is a mob fixer in an utterly corrupt town, solving a murder mystery for the mob boss even if it ruins his life – the boss’s, or his own, or both.  It is all pretty nuts, but only maybe half as nuts as Red Harvest (1929).

So-called Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death (1936).  Since Cecil Day-Lewis was a poet, I expected his prose to be a little better, even in a detective novel, and sometimes it is, but he seems just as happy with clichés.  The single best character who gives the novel a lot of energy is the main murder victim, and the second-best character gets clonked on the head soon after.  If you want to solve the mystery, just catalogue every moment where you think “Wait, that makes no sense.”  And maybe read The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), which is a good idea regardless.

I’ll try another “Blake” novel.  This is my kind of detective: “They talked for nearly an hour more, until the winter evening was darkening into night and the image of buttered toast loomed large in the mind” (Ch. VI).  He has his priorities straight.

César Aira, Shantytown (2001).  Another one of these, an Aira novel.

An adventure and a play:

Valerian Albanov, In the Land of White Death (1917).  An Arctic adventure, a trek across the ice to from a doomed ship to safety, notable especially because it is Russian.  Albanov’s only map, his great guide, was a copy of Fridtjof Nansen’s Farthest North (1897); I recommend reading Nansen first.

Mark Rylance, I Am Shakespeare (2007).  A play, brilliant, hilarious.  A “who wrote Shakespeare” nut accidentally summons the candidates, including Francis Bacon and Mary Sidney and, you know, Shakespeare (the actor) to his internet show.  Rylance does a terrific job undermining his premise,  but as much as I enjoyed the play and would love to see it performed, I loathe the entire subject.  I’m just sick of it.  But if you’re going to ask these tedious questions, I Am Shakespeare is the way to do it.

All right, that was April.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

My April in Paris - Radiguet, Cendrars, and Janet Flanner - plus James Agee, who I forgot yesterday

I forgot a book yesterday, an odd bird.

James Agee, Permit Me Voyage (1934).  A few good lyric poems.  A weird prose dedication/manifesto.  Some perfect imitations of 17th century forms.  A lot of this book felt like the portfolio of a brilliant undergraduate. I suppose that’s what it is.  The sonnet sequence in particular is full of beauties.  A tribute to Hart Crane ends the book and gives it a title.

Agee was the Hot Young Poet for a couple of years because of this book; a perverse cuss, he immediately abandoned poetry for journalism.  Perfectly consistent with his strange career.  The only other book of his I’ve actually read is a collection of his movie reviews.


What did I read in French in April?

Henri Bosco’s novel Malicroix (1948) I covered earlier.

Blaise Cendrars, Vol à voile (Glide, maybe or Gliding, 1932), a short autobiographical prose piece about the time Frédéric-Louis Sauser ran away from his boring bourgeois Swiss home and especially his fat, sad father to begin his life of adventure and eventually literature.  It is probably mostly invented, fiction, which is fine with me.  The telling is enjoyably scrambled, with the story beginning on the Trans-Siberian railroad, where a Jewish merchant is telling Cendrars all about the functioning of the tea caravans.  Then back to Switzerland.  The last episode, is about Sauser / Cendrars applying for a job in a Munich piano store.  I don’t know how any of this really fits together.

Cendrars’s French is quite difficult.


Raymond Radiguet, Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel (The Ball of the Count of Orgel, 1924).  Another child star.  He wrote Le Diable au Corps (Devil in the Flesh, 1923) when he was seventeen.  It is about a teenage sociopath’s sexual affair with the young woman, barely older, whose husband is away at the front.  Even a teenage prodigy only has so much autobiographical novelistic material, so this next novel is an elaborate pastiche of classic triangle novels like The Princess of Cleves (1678) and Dangerous Liaisons (1782), updated to contemporary Paris.  I felt it should have been more fun than it was, more fizzy, more like Ronald Firbank.  One character, for example, is a Persian prince “with the largest car in the world” (“la plus grosse voiture du monde,” p. 38 in the original edition).  But there was only a little bit of that kind of jolly nonsense.

Radiguet, who died at age 20, spent his last year, whirlwinding literary Paris as Jean Cocteau’s boyfriend.  I will bet that would have made for a good novel.

Radiguet’s French is not so hard.


Joseph Kessel, Les Jours de l’aventure: Reportages, 1930-1936 (The Days of Adventure).  Journalism.  I want to save this one for its own post, when I finish the last adventure, The Snipers of Barcelona.


Janet Flanner, Paris Was Yesterday: 1925-1939.  Not in French, merely about.  Flanner was inventing her role as the New Yorker’s Paris dispatcher, and she becomes better at it – she becomes a better writer – as she figures out what she is doing.  The idea is to tell New Yorker readers what is happening in Paris, in politics and the arts and the crime report.  She becomes expert at sharp, short biographical profiles, often obituaries or some kind of anniversary piece, or covering a new celebrity, like Georges Simenon in 1931:

He is of Breton Dutch stock, is handsome, can write an excellent book in four days (one was started in a glass cage, for publicity’s sake), lives on a yacht in canals, and has used sixteen pseudonyms, of which Simenon (the signature of the latest dozen of his books) will probably become permanent. (77)

A writer could learn something from a sentence like that.  Flanner is never present in her pieces.  She is not like her successor.  No Gopnikizing.

Near the end of the book, Flanner’s job shifts.  Her columns often bear the ironic label “Peace in Our Time,” and she shifts to a different kind of journalism, until it becomes “War in Our Time,” and the book ends.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Random 1930s poetry in English - My wordy wounds are printed with your hair - Lawrence, Thomas, Wheelwright, Eberhart, Yeats

English-language poetry I read in April.

I’ve read a lot of D. H. Lawrence over the last few years, including all of his short fiction, all of his poems, and a few other books.  I have thought about some kind of Lawrence essay, since even at his worst he gives me a lot to think about and is worth reading.

Except for the books I read in April, Mores Pansies and Last Poems, both from 1932, a couple of years after Lawrence’s death.

Lawrence had created an unusual loose-lined form in Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), a collection of poems that were full of his personality.  A perverse cuss, he then abandoned poetry for five years – in his life, an era – only returning to it in Pansies (1929) to, well, to complain.  To rant, whine, moan in doggerel, squibs, aphorisms with line breaks.  The second collection was titled Nettles (1930), which is about right.  Lawrence was sick and angry, and rightfully angry.  England had treated him badly, again and again.  But these are “books” of “poems” to be read, mostly, for biographical reasons.

The scraps in Last Poems show that Lawrence was also messing around with poetry.  It is a grim book.  He is looking directly at his own death.  This book is worth reading, or worth mining for a theoretical Selected Poems:

from The Ship of Death

Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.

The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

And it is time to go, to bid farewell
to one’s own self, and find an exit
from the fallen self.


Dylan Thomas, 18 Poems (1934), Thomas’s first little pamphlet or chapbook or whatever it is.  Thomas was criticized for his sonorous gibberish:

from If I were tickled by the rub of love

If I were tickled by the rub of love,
A rooking girl who stole me from her side,
Broke through her straws, breaking my bandaged string,
If the red tickle as the cattle calve
Still set to scratch a laughter from my lung,
I would not fear the apple nor the flood
Nor the bad blood of spring.

This poem has seven stanzas and is entirely based on slant rhymes – string / spring is an exception – so it is a bit of a virtuoso piece, and of course it is not really gibberish, although like many of Thomas’s early poems it must sound like it when declaimed in the appropriate pub setting.  The apple and flood are pretty big clues.  The poet is being shaped from Eve’s rub, I mean rib, or perhaps has merely been born like everyone else.  Running through 18 Poems is what may even amount to an idea about the biology of life and death and man as a creature of nature, smart stuff given that many of the poems were written by a teenager.

Still, they must be terrific fun at poetry karaoke night.  “My wordy wounds are printed with your hair” and so on.  Even though the principles are different, I thought about E. E. Cummings – “Those aren’t poems – he’s just screwing around with his typewriter!”  Yeah, sometimes.


John Wheelwright, Rock and Shell (1933).  A true Boston patrician turned Modernist poet.  Published three little books then was killed by a drunk driver, age 43.  This one has a superb, bitter tribute, if that is the right word, to Hart Crane.  A subject for future research.


Richard Eberhart, Collected Poems, the first ninety pages or so.  When I got to the war poems I figured I was in the 1940s.  Eberhart is a curious creature, a death-soaked American optimist.  Positive and light-hearted, and his signature poem is about the rotting corpse of a groundhog.  The Groundhog,” 1934.  A superb poem.  Another subject for future research, meaning reading.


William Butler Yeats, New Poems (1938) and the poems from Last Poems and Two Plays (1939).  A great end to a great life.

           Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Neruda establishes indefinitely sad clauses and Salinas lives in pronouns - some 1930s international surrealism

I’m going to try to grind through everything I read in April.  I have never thought I had to write about everything I read.  It is a valued luxury to have nothing to say, although I could just say that.  If I am lucky I will kill off some half-baked posts I feel I should write but never will.  Some of this will be a little more doughy in the middle than usual.  And it will be many posts, obviously, not one giant one.

Beginning in the 1920s and into the 1930s. I detect a trend I call “international surrealism,” by which I mean many poets, all over the world, not just those associated with French Surrealism, are experimenting with some combination of dream-like imagery, radical gaps or jumps between images, and non-referential obscurity, the latter meaning as opposed to the kind of difficult historical or literary references I associate with Pound and Eliot, a separate trend.

Complex, disconnected images with private meanings or with the logic of the meaning deliberately obscured – I do not understand a lot of the poems I have been reading.  That is what I am saying.  That is all right.  I am surveying the field.

A good example is the first part of Pablo Neruda’s Residence on Earth (1933), poems written when he was in the diplomatic service in Asia, not that I could have guessed that from the poems.  Let’s look at a fragment chosen almost at random:

from Dream Horse

Unnecessary, seeing myself in mirrors,
with a fondness for weeks, biographers, papers,
I tear from my heart the captain of hell,
I establish clauses indefinitely sad.  (tr. Donald Walsh)

I love that last line, especially, but as Neruda piles on the phrases – “superstitious carpets of the rainbow,” “the wasted honey of respect,” “a lightningstroke of persistent splendor” – I lose the thread, if there is one, and what if there is not?

One good way to learn to read a poet like Neruda is to read more Neruda, and Residence on Earth has three more parts (1935, 1937, 1947), so we will see how that goes.

A big part of my difficulty with international surrealism is my preference for the material.  This poetry is often pretty abstract.  For example:  My Voice Because of You by Pedro Salinas (1933, tr. Willis Barnstone) which is a book-length poetic sequence about a love affair, so in a sense we have two characters, the poet and his beloved, and in a sense there (probably?) is a narrative as the affair unfolds, but Salinas is in search of essences:

from Poem 13

To live, I don’t want
islands, palaces, towers.
What steeper joy
than living in pronouns!

Just “I” and “you.”  The nouns are often presented plainly, but spin into strange conceits, like in Poem 19, where is all about, and against, math:

Let ciphers burst
and foul the calculation
of time and kisses.

Direct and intense, but also distant and misty if my concentration is not up for it.

The poems of Vicente Aleixandre would fit well here, too, but I read him in May.

At this rate – no, tomorrow I will blast through the British and American poets I fail to understand.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Sylvain Tesson's six months in a cabin on shore of Lake Baikal - I take eighteen bottles: three per month.

Since I was promised a book about solitude in Bosco’s Malicroix and did not really get one, I thought I would mention a real one that I read last year, Sylvain Tesson’s In the Forests of Siberia (Dans les forêts de Sibérie, 2011).  The book exists in English under the embarrassing title The Consolations of the Forest, I assume to attract some of the readers of that recent bestseller about trees.  The German one?  Am I imagining that?  “Bestseller about trees” does not sound plausible.

Tesson is France’s most prestigious travel writer, and France has an audience that takes its travel writers, living and dead, seriously.  He has developed a special interest in Russia, visiting the country in many books.  By chance, earlier today Kaggsy wrote about another of his Russian books, Berezina (2015), in which he recreates Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow on a Soviet motorcycle.

In Forests, Tesson sits still for a while.  He spends February through July of 2010 in a cabin (the one to the upper left) on the shore of Lake Baikal, where he can be alone with himself, watch the weather and the lake, climb the nearby mountains, read, and drink.  There is a human being in another cabin a day’s walk to the north), and a couple of people a day’s walk to the south, and that’s it, at least until the lake thaws.  I was surprised how many visitors Tesson starts to get when the lake thaws.  By then, though, the neighbors to the south have given Tesson a pair of dogs, and the nature of Tesson’s “solitude” has completely changed.  Forests kinda turns into a dog book.

Still, there is as much solitude, or more, than he wants.  Why is Tesson performing the experiment, other than to write this book?  In the first paragraph, he is shopping in Irkutsk.  “I had already filled six carts with pasta and Tabasco.”  He has trouble with the ketchup, because there are fifteen varieties.  “I choose ‘super hot tapas’ Heinz.  I take eighteen bottles: three per month” (p. 21).  This, he thinks, “fifteen kinds of ketchup,” is reason enough “to leave this world” for a while.

He says he told people in France that he was isolating himself “because I had fallen behind in my reading” (32), and I am including the contents of Tesson’s box of books, to which he gives a lot of thought.  “List of Ideal Reading Composed in Paris with Great Care in Anticipation of a Sojourn of Six Months in the Siberian Forest,” is the label to the right.

When one is wary of the poverty of his internal life, it is necessary to carry some good books: one can always fill one’s own void.  The error would be to choose exclusively from difficult books, imagining that life in the woods maintains in you a very high spiritual temperature.  Time passes slowly when one has nothing but Hegel for a snowy afternoon.  (32, all translations are obviously mine)

Some philosophy, some crime novels, of course Robinson Crusoe, of course Walden, lots of American nature writing, remembering that the French for some reason do not produce their own nature writing, although Tesson’s book counts.  I am just assuming that people wandering by Wuthering Expectations are more curious about what Tesson reads than what he sees when the seasons change, although that is awfully interesting, or heaven forbid what he discovers about himself, which will not surprise many readers.  But as usual I prefer a writer’s irony to his sincerity.  Anyways, lists of books, everyone like those.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Malicroix's mythology - white bulls, sun gods, east versus west - this evening, there is nothing in the east but night

It was the East-West motif that helped me solve the Malicroix puzzle.  Our hero Martial comes to the island that is at the center of Malicroix from the East, from Puyloubier.  His home in Puyloubier is Eden, or Arcadia, or Hobbiton, except matriarchal. The penultimate chapter of Malicroix is about Martial’s return to and renunciation of his home; it is filled with fascinating things, but I can’t write about everything in the novel.  Home is extremely familial and social.*  Anyway, it is East.

West is the old home of the Malicroix family is to the West, visible from the island where Martial is trapped.  The history of the family is to the West, in particular the pivotal moment when the patriarch killed the legendary white bull that was threatening his nude niece, Delphine d’or – Golden Delphine.

Martial cannot go West until he completes the first part of his quest.

That bull was hauled across the Rhône and buried under a cross, le Calvaire, which is also visible from the island.  This stuff is so odd that for much of the novel I thought I was misunderstanding the French.  Mais non!

The person who moved the bull – no, I won’t go into all of this.  Malicroix feature a blind ferryman, the sacrifice of a white bull, a revelation on December 25th, a ritual where a character is born or reborn from a rock, and another character who is an avatar of the sun god.  Bosco pulls in elements of Christianity and Greek mythology – Odysseus in the underworld, for example – but all of this stuff has a name, and it’s Mithraism.  Malicroix is a pagan fantasy novel where the hero must complete the ritualistic quest of his ancestor, but for the right reason, for redemption and rebirth rather than revenge.

Readers of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) will know all of this, although will perhaps be disappointed to learn that Bosco beat Gaddis to the full incorporation of Mithraism into fiction.  Bosco has the advantage that Mithraism probably has some genuine relationship to Catharism, and the novel’s setting is more or less in Cathar territory.

The hero, Martial, and the heroine, Anne-Madeleine, lovers who barely speak, directly discuss the East-West motif:

I would leave for the east in a few days.  That space was empty and my heart clenched.

“It’s from there that the night comes,” she told me.  “Let’s go back; I’m cold.”

“But the day also comes from the east, Anne-Madeleine.”

“That’s true; however, this evening, there is nothing in the east but night.” (296-7)

Anne-Madeleine is the avatar of the sun god(dess), and/or of Golden Delphine.  For a while I thought she might turn out to be some kind of ghost.  But no, just an avatar.  Here we see, in the pages before the hero successfully completes the long-deferred Mithraic ritual, the sun / Golden Delphine gives him her approval:

I went to bed and slept for a long time.  When I awoke, the sun was low.  A long finger of light entered through the half-closed shutters.  All gold.  (353)

Readalongists can help me, since I lost track.  Whose room is Martial in at that moment?

The Rhône river runs from north to south – please see the map from a couple of days ago – which with the east-west theme forms another cross, with Martial and his island and his little house in the center.  I have not mentioned but only implied the “four elements” theme.

I will not worry much about what all of this means.  It is enough that it exists.  It would not be quite true to say that there is nothing like it in French literature.  Alain-Fournier and Gérard de Nerval are clear antecedents.  But there is not much like it.

*  This chapter features the uncle who dreams all day, and then at night dreams that he dreams.  For a moment Bosco was writing a Lewis Carroll novel.  P. 329 in the French edition; I am not making this up.  Amazing things in this chapter.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

but her true name, she hides it still - Malicroix's tricky narrator - "Breathe, sir, the exhalations of the sauce!"

I need to pin down the narrator of Malicroix first.  He is a first-person narrator in 1948, so I can assume in advance that he is unreliable, the question being exactly how.  He blames the fever that knocks him out halfway through the novel for his unreliability:

I have tried, as faithfully as I could, to rediscover and recompose my memories.  But a memory burnt by the powers of the fever does not offer a precise guarantee of the past.  Reason will not know how to pull the clear pictures, the legitimate visions.  My imagination, without my knowledge, to fill in the fatal gaps, has had to haul in some invented colors and shadows.  (224-5, tr., as always, mine)

Fitting the theme of silence in the novel, Martial frequently does not state information directly related to the story he is supposedly trying to tell, even when he knows the truth, or at least has an opinion.  He is writing in some kind of “present,” for example, and knows how the story ends.  He could tell me at any point, but does not.

He knows what happens after the story ends.  I know I had trouble catching the moments when Martial switched to the present tense, or to something like it as in the above passage.  With my French, it is an accomplishment if I get the verb right, much less the tense.  If I were to read the novel again, I would keep track of the tense shifts.

For example, during Martial’s fever, a new character appears, a nameless young woman who cares for him.  It takes a while – forty pages – for her to reveal her name:

Later, she told me her name, what she called her “earth name”; but her true name, she hides it still.

Quite a lot of “after-story” is contained in that last clause.  I wonder how much more I missed.

Anne-Madeleine’s refusal to reveal her true name returns me to the theme of silence in all its varieties, its “five songs,” whatever that means.  The true name is the magic name, the one that contains power.  Martial is so often silent or, at his noisiest, indirect, because saying the thing itself somehow breaks the spell.  Thus it takes Martial three pages to tell me that a sheep is, in fact, a sheep.  There is not so much magic in a plain old sheep.

Often he allows others to do the talking.  Martial is on the island because his great-uncle Malicroix has left it to him in his will, given magic spell-like conditions.  The lawyer Dromiols visits the island early in the book and does nothing but talk for fifty pages, filling in the entire back story of the novel and revealing that he is possibly Malicroix’s illegitimate son, and thus feels disinherited.  He is the novel’s villain, and his fatal weakness is that he talks.  It helps the reader, though.

I am wrong, Dromiols does more than talk.  While talking, he eats the most magnificent savory pie I ever hope to encounter in French literature.  Woodcock, plover, grouse, venison, rabbit, mushrooms: “Breathe, sir, the exhalations of the sauce!...  Breathe! Breathe!” (73).  Dromiols is trying to undermine Martial’s mysticism with his delicious materialism.

I don’t know why I promised yesterday to write about the mythology of Malicroix.  The narratology took longer than I expected, and then I got distracted by the pie.  Tomorrow for the mythology.  My point here is that the narrator is a mystic,  by temperament but also as a result of the events of the novel.  It is the mystic, post-novel, who is narrating the novel so the entire substance of the thing is mystical and mythical and esoteric.  Don’t tell the story directly.  The meaning of the story, of the world, is in the gaps, the silence.  The narrator, and the author, somehow have to use words to describe the gaps.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Henri Bosco's mystical Malicroix - the five other songs of silence

A translation of Henri Bosco’s mystical swamp-quest novel Malicroix (1948) recently appeared, translated by Joyce Zonanna, who fell in love with the novel when she was eighteen and has been carrying around her translation for decades.  Dorian Stuber suggested a readalong.  A number of people have been reading along.

All of the many readers of Malicroix have been building the above map in their heads, if they did not happen to come across it earlier.  It is based on Bosco’s own map of his novel.*  The scale is not to be taken entirely seriously.

I was delighted to find the map after I had finished the novel, since I read the book in French and heaven knows what errors that has made in my understanding of it.  But that map was the map I had constructed, element by element, which was reassuring.  I would make the entire west channel of the river more narrow – shift the entire island west a little.

The narrator and protagonist, young Martial Mégremut, spends most of the novel in the one main room of the little house right in the center of the map, in the center of the island in the Rhône.  For long stretches he does as close to nothing as is novelistically possible.  He sits in an armchair, stares into the fire, eats meals prepared by a servant invariably described as “taciturn,” although there is really only one character in the book who talks much, and goes to bed.  Sometimes he is joined at the hearth by an outstanding Briard shepherd dog.  It has become a cliché in contemporary literature to drop in “A dog barked in the distance” or something like it as color, I guess, but in this novel the line is meaningful.

Up to the middle of Malicroix, the novel could be described as “plotless.”

There is a major episode, for example, in which the servant, who is also a shepherd, brings a mysterious beast to the island.  It smells like wool, it has horns, it bleats – what could it be?

Near him, Bréquillet [a Briard shepherd dog], sitting in the grass, contemplated the scene and lifted his sensitive snout towards the moon.  The moon enchanted the clearing, Bréquillet, Balandran [the servant], the beast.  When a breeze touched them, the acid odor of wool crossed the woods. (168, tr. mine, don’t blame Zonanna for my clunks)

Did you guess that the beast is a sheep?  It is, I learn two pages later!  A ram.  This is the art of symbolic anti-climax.  “The next day winter came” (170).  Brought by the ram, in some sense.

Why does Martial spend months on this island with little human contact or other activity?  Some nonsense about a will.  He’ll inherit the island, and a flock of sheep, if he can stay on it for three months.  Psychologically, the interest is that he never quite decides to stay.  Sometimes the weather stops him, and at one point he is ill for quite a while, but even when he has the choice he prefers to let his unconscious mind do the work.  He is not passive, exactly.  He is a mystic.

Martial spends Christmas wandering around the island in blizzard-induced trance, falling deeply into the silence of the snow.  This is what he means by silence; this is what I mean by mysticism:

And wave [of solitude] succeeded wave, solitude succeeded solitude.  Sometimes, as if several chords had composed the inaudible song from it, a silence lifted itself from the silence, a silence more gentle, or more serious, or more pure.  And when the serious silence slid under the pure, the songs superposed from the secret waves called from the great chords the five other songs of silence, and all the snowflakes became stars… (178-9, ellipses in original)

My impression is that readers have been enjoying reading about solitude, watching the fire, and the weather, the wind and rain that keeps Martial from even going for a walk.  This is certainly part of the novel.  But the mysticism is central to what I take the novel to be, as is the quest story, which I am not seeing anybody mention.  Zonanna, in the article I linked above, describes her early reading of the novel: “Having grown up speaking French, I was able to make my way through it–but much of the novel, with its long poetic passages and mysteriously mythic plot–eluded me.”

The mythic plot was exactly what I was looking for, as I was working through the basic “What is this book?” question.  Tomorrow, I will push on to the magical white bull, the sun goddess, the scheming illegitimate son.  East versus West.  Real names versus earth names.  Malicroix is, in a sense, a strange, strange novel, a little bit crackpot.

Page references are to the original NRF edition.

* The map is from Geneviève Lévesque's Une écriture à l'oeuvre dans "Malicroix" d'Henri Bosco, p. 542, her 2010 PhD thesis, available here as a PDF.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Lao She's proletarian classic Rickshaw - a ghost caught in Individualism’s blind alley

How about one more novel where the protagonist moves around all the time.  Mostly within one city, Peking, in this case, Rickshaw by Lao She (1937).  You will find this book on pretty much ever list of the greatest or most important or what have you 20th century Chinese novels.  I know very little about 20th century Chinese novels.

I read the 1979 translation by Jean M. James.  Look at this translator’s note:

Those who have read Evan King’s translation published in 1945 as Rickshaw Boy will wonder if Rickshaw is the same novel.  It is.  King cut, rearranged, rewrote, invented characters, and changed the ending. (p. vi)


One more note, which I found amusing, about the intellectual context, not the translation:

During the twenties and thirties the Chinese literary world expended a lot of time and ink on the question of proletarian literature.  All the left-wing writers were convinced that such literature was needed and must be written…  With so much energy going into polemics over the need for proletarian literature, the left-wing writers did not actually do much creative work.  (xi)

But here it is finally, a real proletarian novel, about a young, strong, ambitious Peking rickshaw driver who lives in a sociologically accurate world and runs into just the kind of trouble his real counterparts would meet.  He dreams of nothing more than owning his own rickshaw, and once in a while he succeeds, but he has no support when anything goes wrong – conscription, illness, a corrupt policeman.  He succeeds by his own strength, and fails by bad luck, until he finally stops trying.  He has become, in the novel’s last line, “that degenerate, selfish, unlucky offspring of society’s womb, a ghost caught in Individualism’s blind alley” (249).  The novel ends in despair, or in a political rallying cry, for readers who took it that way.

Novels that rely on lines like that are not what I think of as great works of art, and this one has plenty of lines like that, but it has other pleasures.  The depiction of Peking is always interesting.  “It was filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable; it was the great Peking of early summer” (240).  The social picture is interesting, too, not just of the protagonist but of other rickshaw drivers worse off them him.  A chapter about the inhabitants of an awful tenement, right in the middle of the novel, is instructively grim.

My favorite moments in the book are when Lao She mixes the elements into something almost visionary, as in Chapter 8, when he describes Lao She working during one of Peking / Beijing’s signature winter sandstorms:

The cold wind whistled up his sleeves, making his whole body shudder the way it did in a cold bath.  Sometimes a wild wind rose, making it hard for him to breathe, but he lowered his head, gritted his teeth, and charged onward like a big fish swimming against the current.  The greater the wind the stronger his resistance to it; it was as if he and the wild wind were in a battle to the death…  His entire frame fought back like a green insect surrounded by ants.  And what sweat!  When he put down the rickshaw, let out a long breath, and wiped the yellowish sand out of the corners of his mouth he knew that he was a man no one could match!  (74)

Lao She is rarely as inventive as his hero and inspiration Charles Dickens, but how many writers can say that.

Next up, a novel where the protagonist mostly just sits still, staring into the fire.

Monday, April 27, 2020

I. J. Singer's wandering Yoshe Kalb - “Name the cities you visited.” “They cannot be enumerated.”

I. J. Singer’s Yoshe Kalb (1932, tr. from the Yiddish by Maurice Samuel) is another novel about wandering, contemporary with Narcissus and Goldmund.  Goldmund’s wandering was personal, more about finding what is best in life, while poor Yoshe Kalb is expiating a crime, or so he thinks.  He begins as Nahum, a fourteen year-old rabbinical scholar who is married off to the fourteen year-old daughter of a powerful rabbi, and –

I want to interrupt myself.  The world of the novel is that of the Galician Hassidim, by no means representative of other Jewish communities – unrepresentative, even – what I am saying is never marry off fourteen year-olds, to each other or to anyone.  I suppose most of us knew this.

So even the brilliant, well-meaning, pious, but still only fourteen years-old Nahum gets into trouble when jerked out of his home and plunged into what is practically a different culture.  Stricken by his sin, his crime, his mistake, his completely understandable weakness, if it is even that, he wanders Galicia, stripping himself of his identity, becoming the fool Yoshe Kalb.  First half of the novel; second half.  Scholar versus fool, or is it saint, and what is the difference, really?

“Why did you abandon your wife?”

“I had to do that.”

“Where were you?”

“Out in the world.”

“Name the cities you visited.”

“They cannot be enumerated.” (Book 3, 241)

Yoshe Kalb is answering the questions.  Or Nahum is.  Who knows.  He is on trial here, again, near the end of the novel.

I thought the best part of the novel, easily, was the complex satirical depiction of Galician Hassidic life.  It is hopelessly corrupt, with powerful rabbis creating empires based on monetizing the superstitions of their followers, and the sons of the rabbis turned into Machiavellis in their attempt to take over the empire.

Hey, is there a plague in this novel?  There sure is, more or less in the middle, and poor Yoshe Kalb becomes the scapegoat for it.

I. J.’s kid brother wrote an amusing, loving, informative introduction to the 1965 edition of Yoshe Kalb, in which he says that New York’s Galician Jews were thrilled to see themselves depicted in the Forward, where the novel was first published, since the fiction had previously been about the Litvaks, the Lithuanian Jews.  I found this pretty funny, since the picture of Galician Jewish life is so horrible.  I can imagine a reader of the Forward saying to me “Exactly, why do you think I’m in New York now?”

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Hesse's proto-hippie Narcissus and Goldmund - that which was all-important to him, apart from the ecstasy of love: freedom

After the inventiveness of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and the first big chunk of The Man Without Qualities (1930), it was a surprise to read such an old-fashioned but contemporary book as Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund (1930, tr. Leila Vennewitz) that deliberately reached back to the 19th century German-language novella.  To Goethe and that crowd.  The first sentence describes a chestnut tree “brought back generations earlier by a pilgrim returning from Rome” (Ch. 1).  I had met that pilgrim, many times, in German literature.  Goldmund is another in that line, even if he never leaves German-speaking territory.

Goldmund is a student in a monastery who discovers that he is irresistible to women.  The secret is in his voice, apparently.  So that’s it for the monastery!  Goldmund becomes a wanderer, a tramp, really a kind of hippie.  A proto-hippie.  The reason for the Hesse boom in the 1960s was quickly obvious.  Of course dissatisfied young people wanted to read this book.

Digression – this is James Laughlin in The Way It Wasn’t (2006):

I went through it [Siddhartha] and thought it was very readable, but a little too Germanic and the message was just Buddhism with a sugar coating. I stalled but Henry [Miller] would write about every three months saying I had to publish that book.  Finally, to oblige Henry, I did.  The first year it sold only 400 copies, but sales kept growing and at the height of the Hesse boom we sold a quarter of a million copies in a year. (290)

This novel, like Siddhartha is more or less picaresque, and it was the a long episode about art that drove home Hesse’s hippie ethos.  Goldmund informally apprentices himself to a Tilman Riemenschneider-like limewood sculptor and becomes a real artist, but worries that artists are too bourgeois:

For more than three years Goldmund had sacrificed to art that which was all-important to him, apart from the ecstasy of love: freedom.  To be free, to roam wherever he pleased, to live the random life of the wayfarer, to stand on his own two feet and be independent: all this he had renounced … Art, that goddess who seemed so spiritual, required so many banalities!  It required a roof over one’s head, and tools, wood, clay, paint, gold; it demanded work and patience.  (Ch. 11, 140)

So he gives it up.

The novel is set during the 14th or 15th century.  Is there a pandemic in it?  There sure is.  The plague arrives in Chapter 13, and Goldmund lives, with some other refugees, in an isolated forest idyll.  “There being no bread, they adopted another goat, and they also discovered a small field of turnips” (Ch. 13, 169).  This lasts until the world intrudes.  Hesse is unsparing about the horrors of the plague, and the horrors of people during the plague.

Narcissus, up there in the title, is a monk, priest, teacher and friend of Goldmund’s who appears only in the opening and closing episodes.  Hesse apparently found the form of the novel insufficient for his ideas, because both of these sections include philosophical dialogues of dubious value.  They seemed artless, and the ideas expressed shallow.  Philosophy for twelve-year-olds.  Well, they need philosophy, too.  But the scenes, the action of the novel, and Goldmund’s responses to what he found out in the world, good and bad, expressed ideas, too, and with more art.

I borrowed the image of the Riemenschneider sculpture from the Museum für Franken in Würzburg.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The birds, the birds, sir! - visiting the Camargue and other marshes with Henri Bosco

A number of people are readalonging or have readalonged Henri Bosco’s 1948 novel Malicroix, newly translated by Joyce Zonana.  I’ve mentioned that French literature lacks nature writing, which is widely read in its English and American incarnations, but somehow not much produced by French writers.  Bosco is an exception, a novelist known not just for a strong sense of place but for writing seriously about nature.

Malicroix is set on an island in the Camargue, the delta of the Rhone River, my old friend from Lyon, although with a different character further south.  I hope the novel’s readers have been looking up the Camargue.  Much of It is a nature reserve now, known for its superb migratory birds, including France’s flamingos.  A character in the novel calls the marshy plain a harsh country, but concedes:

“When one goes to the shore of a pond, especially at dawn, when the water barely ripples, the coots, the flamingos and even the sacred ibises fish solemnly in the warm mud.  A little before winter a flight of cranes and ducks fly very high in the air in quest of clouds…  The birds, the birds, sir!...  ah! the birds…” (p. 67 of the 1948 French edition, translation mine, ellipses in the original)

The region is also famous for its herds of white horses, it herds of black bulls, and, logically, its cowboys, who ride the white horses to round up the black bulls for use in French bullfighting.  French cowboys!  French swamp cowboys!  There is a lot here that violates received ideas of France.  Part of the history, within the novel, part of the conflict, is an old feud between cattlemen and sheepherders, like in an American Western, except this one also involves a legendary white bull that almost – well, we know what crimes white bulls on Mediterranean shores commit.

I have stolen all of the photos from the Arles tourism site.  I have meant to go the Camargue, and in fact planned to go on three separate visits to France, but I have not yet made it.  Someday.

I’m about a quarter into Malicroix.  Another Bosco book, The Boy and the River (1945), was one of the first novels I read in French.  It is a juvenile novel, a real boy’s book, where one boy rescues another from a kidnapping, and they escape down a river to a hidden marshy area where they simply enjoy nature for a while.  The beginning is exciting enough, an adventure story with a bit of a Tom-and-Huck flavor, but the middle third of the novel is more like pure nature writing.  The boys fish, swim, mess about in a boat, hide from a wild boar, watch birds:

At dawn, nothing at first was visible but one great bird.  It stood, utterly motionless, upon the thing line of a mudbank, fifty yards or so from our boat.  Its pointed beak hung threateningly above the surface.  High-perched upon its legs, with pouter breast, the grey heron was fishing solemnly.  We looked at it with wonder, but in silence, for the slightest sound would be enough to startle it.  (p. 68, tr. Gerard Hopkins)

L'enfant et la rivière is a terrific book for language learning because it is full of bird, plant, boat, and river vocabulary.  Just the verbs describing the movement of the river, how useful.  I read an edition that had, in the back, labelled drawings of the novel’s plants and animals – now that was handy.

At some point, the nature idyll has to turn back into a novel, and the boys have to find families.  To my surprise, the novel moved from the real to the unreal, becoming an imitation of Alain-Fournier’s Goethean Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), including a several-page recounting of a symbolic puppet show.  I don’t know if Malicroix will follow the same path.  It seems likely.  Maybe no puppets.

Given the pace of my French reading, it will be, or at least feel like, approximately forever before I write more about Malicroix, and it’s not even especially difficult.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The pampas Utopia -there was always something more to unfold - via César Aira and the current Booker Prize - And pinot noir to boot

Argentinean Doom begins when Argentinean literature begins, with The Gaucho Martín Fierro, “the 1872 epic gaucho poem by José Hernández,” “the root of Argentine literature.”  I’m quoting myself, why not.  The title cowboy takes a beating from the world until, finally, he “Martín takes a drink, smashes his guitar, steals some horses, and disappears across the frontier.”  Quoting myself again.

One of the current Booker Prize nominees, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s The Adventures of China Iron (2017), spins its title character out of Martín Fierro.  China Iron is Fierro’s wife, barely mentioned, a commodity with a name that demands its own story.  Cabezón Cámara describes the germ of the book:

I was in Berkeley, California, loving the sun, the clear skies, the trees, having the ocean and the sierras close by. And pinot noir to boot…  And I started writing with an overwhelming feeling of happiness.

That sounds, I won’t kid myself, great.  Not necessarily the resulting novel, which I have not read, but the model for living.  Ain’t much doom there.  The novel sounds like it is, if anything, a direct counter to her literature’s Doom.  The author is going to rescue her character from Doom.

Claire at Word by Word calls the story “a heroine’s journey from dystopia to utopia,” moving from the pampas to a fort (the frontier), and ending among the Argentinean Indians “where even the air feels easier to breathe.” I am turning back to the interview with the author:

I wanted to write an elegy to the flora and fauna of Argentina, or whatever is left of it, an elegy to what used to be here before it all got transformed into one big grim factory poisoned with pesticides. I wanted to write a novel infused with light.

The weird thing, reading Claire’s review, was that I felt I had just read this book, except it was César Aira’s Ema, the Captive (1981, tr. Chris Andrews), his second novel, in which the prisoner Ema emerges from a brutal journey across the pampas (to a fort) to eventually be captured by or escape to the Indians who live in a utopia based on raising pheasants and printing fiat currency (that Arlt novel also has a money-printing theme, a deep concern for Argentineans).  Here is how western Argentina looks on a map:

Beautiful miniatures stood in for absent inscriptions: the capital with its palaces and bridges, villages in remote clearings, and even the fort in Pringles and the settlement, where Ema was able to recognize the hut in which she had lived.

One of the maps, her favorite, was devoted to the pheasants.  Meticulous drawings represented each of the breeds.  (164)

The novel is full of animals, many of them like the pheasants dubiously Argentinean, but what do I know:

Above all, there were the grotesque dragonflies with their bulging eyes, which could be popped out with a little squeeze to lie in the palm of the hand like two tiny red balls.  They also saw a curious insect, a kind of mantis, which the gauchos called a tata-dios.  It was as big as a dove, and had so many joints that its definitive form remained elusive: there was always something more to unfold. (35)

Ema is early Aira, from when, as he writes in his fiftieth-birthday essay (Birthday, 2001, tr. ditto), “I used to write with the sole aim of producing work of high quality: good novels, better than others, etc.” (57).  Its plot and characters have a kind of novelistic coherence that he would later abandon, but the Argentina represented, as history and landscape, becomes more fantastic as the novel progresses until it has wandered into a true Utopia, Nowhere.  I assume, given the date, that Aira is engaged in a parody of so-called magical realism, perhaps pushing it back to its origins in Surrealism as detailed in Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Lost Steps (1953).  He pushes pretty far.  Early in the book, a French officer imagines writing a novel on anti-Airan principles:

… a novel could be written about those changes of color in the sky and the transformations of the clouds between say, six and eight, so long as the author confined himself to the most rigorous realism.  The resulting novel, a report on atmospheric colors, shifts, and flows, would be the apotheosis of life’s futility.  Why not?  (17-8)

Ema, the Captive is not that book.  Nor, by the sound of it, is The Adventures of China Iron.  Are there more of these books in Argentinean literature?  They are so strangely close, like “jolly historical pampas travesty” is an established genre.  I hope it is.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Translation as amateurism - Roberto Arlt's The Flamethrowers - a cranny in his flesh where it could be safe from his horror

Caravana de Recuerdos is for some reason encouraging people to read some literature from Argentina this year – a “full year of “’the strain of doom’” that characterizes so much Argentinean literature from its beginnings.  What, now, who needs it, you might say, loudly.

Regardless, I took a run at doomy Roberto Arlt’s The Flamethrowers (1931), not really a novel on its own but rather part two of the perfectly titled Seven Madmen (1929).  A bunch of anarchists, nihilists, and lunatic gangsters jitterbug around Buenos Aires as part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government by means of poison gas, funded by and manufactured at a chain of brothels.  This plan somehow does not work, and the first part of the novel jerks to a halt with the shattering of the conspiracy.  Someone is murdered, maybe?  I find crazy stories hard to remember.

Seven Madmen is available in two good, professional translations, but for some reason no one published The Flamethrowers until 2017, when the tiny, deconstructionist River Boat Books released it.  The translator is either Larry Riley, who learned Spanish solely in order to read and then translate this book, or is possibly the oddball novelist Rick Harsch under a complexly-maintained pseudonym.  Please see Steve Holt on Twitter for the plausible evidence.  “Riley’s” translation is amateurish in both the better and worse ways.

The Astrologer’s hands remained in the pockets of his shirt.  He listened to Hipólita contemptuously scrutinizing her with a grimace that left his eyelids half closed, so as to filter through his eyes the possible intentions of his visitor. (22, the second page if you want to check the Spanish)

Some of the prose, especially in its more functional mode, has this kind of strain in the English, an awkwardness that a professional translator would relax.  Where exactly do the adverbs go in the sentence; “shirt pockets,” or just “pockets”; drop “so as”; do something with “filter through his eyes,” something.  The tone ought to be more informal.

Having said that, the entire novel, in conception, characters, incidents, meaning, and of course prose, is completely insane, written by the eighth madman.  The novel had better have some awkwardness, some pieces that just ain’t right, where there is no way to know who is to blame, the translator, the author, or the metaphysics.

Sometimes “Riley” gets the voice right, especially in sections that are more interior or extreme, like “The Death Agony of the Melancholy Ruffian” or “The Curtain of Anguish,” a piece of tormented late-night mad scientist existentialism:

The voice shrank and retracted.  Erdosain felt that it was searching for a cranny in his flesh where it could be safe from his horror.  It filled up his belly as if it wanted to make him explode.  And Erdosain’s body vibrated as if it had been placed upon a chassis supporting a supercharged motor.  (75)

Elegance and efficiency are beside the point in scenes like this.  And these are the best parts of the novel, easily, the important parts.

The good side of amateurism is that the translation is an act of love, and I am glad to have it.  I finally know how the dang story ends (in a bloodbath, as I could have guessed).  And parts of the translation are pretty good.  Someday someone will do a better one, but now I have this one.

I once thought that blogs and the like would lead to a lot more amateur translation.  On this very website there is a short piece by César Aira that as far as I know has still not been translated anywhere else.  My Spanish is a lot worse than “Larry Riley’s.”  Let’s get it all out there, then fix it up.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Makioka Sisters implies another novel - You can imagine how we suffered.

The Makioka Sisters begins in late 1936 and ends on April 26, 1941.  It was published in three parts from 1946 to 1948.  The beginning was serialized in 1943 and then censored, suppressed – I would love to know what happened there.  Imagining an original reader, the novel begins seven years in the past, and by chance ends seven years in the past.  Some of those intervening years were all-too-eventful.

Japan is at war during the entire length of the novel, in Manchuria at the beginning and then more broadly when Japan invades China in 1937.  All of this is at a great distance from the events of the novel.  I see why Tanizaki wanted a family of sisters.  Just the homefront here.  An unknowing reader might think that the “ordinary life” of the Makioka family in the beginning of the novel is just preparation for the extraordinary, almost unimaginable, except that every reader of 1946 had just survived it, life during the war with the United States.

But no.  The entire 530 page novel – in the original edition, 1,400 pages! (Keene, 109) – is just preparation.  The catastrophe is always coming but never comes.  Donald Keene notes that the novel’s “continuous movement of life is not interrupted by the ends of chapters” (108).  It is not even interrupted by the end of the novel!  This is the famous last line:

Yukiko’s diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo. (3.37, 530)

That is a perfect Makioka sentence, with the interesting event, the illness, and the date.  The only strange thing is that no sentence or chapter or page follows it.  The next five-hundred page novel, the one where there is no longer such a thing as ordinary life, the one containing the bombing of Osaka (March 13, 1945) and the American Occupation, is not written but entirely implied.

I could see that the implied novel existed.  Imagine those first Japanese readers.  What novel did they see?

Tanizaki builds towards the war.  Outside events are mentioned rarely, then occasionally, then frequently.  The 530 pages are justified.  Time has to pass; the outside world has to impinge in a way that feels natural.  By the end of the novel, Tanizaki even, finally, shifts his tone, allowing a more direct ironic effect.  A chapter about Sachiko’s vacation, a “second honeymoon,” is unique:

Perhaps she was too tired, however, for there had been an air-raid drill that day [first mention of this!] and she had found herself in a bucket brigade.  In any case, she would doze off and dream of the air-raid drill and wake up only to doze off and dream the same dream again…  Coffee cups and beer steins and wine glasses and wine and whisky bottles would be snapping and cracking in the dining room too.  This is just as bad – she would lead them upstairs, where they would find all the light bulbs exploding.  (3..25, 462)

The explicit symbolism (drinking vessels from around the world) and violence of the dream are clear enough.  A couple of pages later, when I read that the lake “had until recently been noisy with refugees from the heat” (464) the innocent metaphor takes on another meaning.  A few pages from the end of the novel, Tanizaki reprises the theme.  The Makiokas receive letters from their German friends, now back in Germany.  One is from Hamburg (“Here in the city we all live in caves,” 3.36, 522, remembering that this is merely 1941), the other from Berlin:

It has been very cold, but from now on it will be warmer, they say.  In January it went down to zero.  You can imagine how we suffered.  We have steam heat, however, and it is pleasant and warm indoors.  German houses have double windows and are far better built than Japanese houses.  We are not bothered by wind through the cracks!  (524)

This passage, to rub it in nominally written by a child, is excruciating.  Vladimir Nabokov ends his 1947 totalitarian fantasy Bend Sinister by looking away from his own pages as his story becomes too cruel to bear.  Tanizaki seems to be doing something similar, except more radical.  You know, he suggests, what happens next.

Dolce Bellezza hosted this readalong of The Makioka Sisters for her long-lived Japanese Literature Challenge, may it last forever.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Makioka Sisters flows - Would she be able to stand the ordeal of a permanent wave?

The Makioka Sisters (1946-8), Junichiro Tanizaki’s UNESCO-stamped novel, was a puzzler.  It has two conceptual levels.  One of them took me quite a while to figure out.  The other was clear early on.

The stuff of the novel is not the ordinary life of the bourgeois Osaka family in the title, but the events of ordinary life.  Holidays, restaurant meals, trips to Tokyo, the terrible Kobe Flood of 1938, illnesses, that sort of thing.  This novel has more variety of illness – beriberi, dysentery, gangrene, scarlet fever, and many more – than any novel I can remember, yet not implausibly so.  It is all perfectly plausible.

The narration is distant and the prose is fairly flat.  There is little description, little metaphor.  What struck me the most was the most was the evenness of the tone.  Every event is told with the same emphasis.  The flood, a natural disaster that killed hundreds, receives more pages but the same rhetorical weight as a meal at a favorite sushi restaurant.  The sushi chef gets two long paragraphs, and is never seen again:

She first gave them a description with gestures: he looked like the dwarf with the enormous, mallet-shaped head one sees in illustrations to horror stories; he turned customers off most haughtily, and he attacked a fish with his carving knife as though it had insulted him.  (2.30, p. 293, tr. Edward Seidensticker)

Hey, that has description and metaphor!  I know, it is not a typical sentence.  How about this:

He always used white Kobe vinegar, never yellow Tokyo vinegar, and always a thick soy sauce not seen in Tokyo.  He offered only fish taken before his very eyes, so to speak, here along the shores of the Inland Sea.  (293)

A list of fish follows.  The writing is precise and thick with stuff, counting etiquette and customary behavior as a kind of “stuff.”

Here, this passage is more typical:

To forget the sadness [of the younger sister moving out], they would go to Kobe every other day or so and search out old movies and new movies, and sometimes they even saw two movies a day.  Among the movies they had seen in the last month alone were Bagdad, Das Mädchen Irene, Hélène, Burgtheater, Boys’ Town, and Suez.  (3.12, 383)

As much as I enjoyed the list of films from around the world, the word “among” shows how this narrator works.

How about some interiority, while in line at the beauty shop:

Sachiko looked nervously at her sister, silent and dispirited.  Might Yukiko faint with hunger?  Would she be able to stand the ordeal of a permanent wave?  (3.30, 491)

Tanizaki has a powerful sense of anti-climax.  Here is the end of a chapter where something almost melodramatic has happened:

Then, as if she remembered something, she opened her cosmetic case – she tried not to let [her daughter] see – and poured the cap of the pocket flask a third full of brandy.  (2.18, 239)

One more:

Sachiko had been taking down [from a radio broadcast] recipes said to be good for the season.  Now someone was reciting a Nō play.

“Would you turn it off, please, Koi-san?”

“Wait.  Look at Bell.”  Taeko pointed her jaw at the cat, asleep by Sachiko’s feet.

Bell was drowsing happily in the warmth from the stove.  Taeko had noticed that its ears twitched at each drum beat.  Only the ears were affected, it seemed, by a reflex of no concern to the rest of the cat.

“What do you suppose does that?”

“Very strange.”

They watched, fascinated, as the ears twitched an accompaniment to the Nō, and when the Nō was finished Taeko turned off the radio.  (3.12, 385)

And the novel just moves on like this, for five hundred pages.  Donald Keene, in Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers (1953) wrote that “Here, then, is a true roman fleuve, a slow and turbid river of a book, which moves inevitably and meaninglessly to its close” (108).

Meaninglessly!  To a reader interested in Japanese culture, many episodes – the sushi restaurant, the cherry blossom festival, the firefly hunt, you name it – are deeply interesting.  Are they more interesting than the equivalent passage in, say, an oral history of 1930s Japan?  Does fiction of this type have any advantage over non-fiction?  I have some doubts.  But tomorrow I will try to undo “meaninglessly” by looking at the Big Irony.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Big Ironies with Musil, Roth, Mann, Tanizaki, and Gide - he says nothing but stupidities, speaking loudly, wrongly, and incessantly, all day long

Lately I have read a number of novels that depend on Big Historical Ironies.  The Big Irony is a big part of the point of the novel.  I mean “irony” in a simple sense – “I know, you know, the author knows, the characters do not know.”  As for “big,” I mean something like the line at the end of the last paragraph of The Man Without Qualities, the first volume published in 1930: “It was a fine day in August 1913” (tr. Sophie Wilkins).

The reader of September 1913, encountering that line in some other story, would not think much of it, but the reader of 1930, the Austrian reader, is immediately engulfed in a shadow that never lifts.  And Musil rubs it in, puffs it up.  Much of the action of the book takes place in a committee that is planning a jubilee celebration for the 75th year of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, in 1918.  The themes they pick are “Emperor of Peace” and the “Global Idea of Austria.”  Musil is not being subtle.  He wants Huge Irony.  The Biggest Irony.  He seems to want his reader to wince frequently.

Franz Joseph died in 1916, while the whole notion of an Emperor died in 1918.  There was also a major war.  The non-Austrian reader of 2020 may have to look up the former, but surely few readers pick up The Man Without Qualities who do not read “a fine day in August 1913” and think “Oh no.”

In The Radetzsky March (1932), Joseph Roth moves his cavalry officer protagonist to the frontier, right in the middle of the bloodlands, just in time for the war.  Occasionally, in a barracks scene, Roth notes that everyone in the room will be dead in a few months.  When war is declared, a bolt of lightning strikes the house where the officers are having a party.  Big, big, big irony, and no hiding it.

Thomas Mann began The Magic Mountain (1924) before the war.  The joke was on him, this time.  He did not know, and then he knew, and once he knew, there was really only one way for the novel to end.

I will save Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (1946-8) for the next couple of days, but I am pretty sure that the same kind of Big Irony is at the center of that novel.  Look at those publication dates, then guess when it is set.

André Gide creates the same kind of effect in what passes for real life, in his Journal for summer 1914.  For context, first, The Vatican Basements has just been published, and Gide’s journals often take an odd turn post-book publication; second, Gide is realizing that his recent trip to Turkey was mere tourism and thus not going to give him anything to publish; and third, it is June 1914 and he reads the newspapers.  However, in the Journal he utterly suppresses #3 and writes extensively about his attempt to turn a foundling starling into a pet.

I had tried to put him in a cage, but he would die there; letting him have the freedom of the room, he dirties everything; within ten minutes, he leaves it does not matter where little liquid and corrosive droppings.  I give him bread crumbled in milk mixed with the yolk of a hard-boiled egg to eat, or some little earthworms, of which he is fond.  He flies form the table to my shoulder as soon as he sees me return.  (June 22, tr. mine, is it ever)

The experiment of keeping the starling in the house only lasts a couple of days.  On July 3, Jean T. arrives for a long visit.  He is a little boy who is related to Gide somehow.  Journal entries now alternate between the sparrow and the boy, who drives Uncle André insane.

I believe him to be intelligent; very intelligent even; but he says nothing but stupidities, speaking loudly, wrongly, and incessantly, all day long… (July 5)

All of this culminates in the amazing sitcom-like episode where little Jean the Menace locks Gide in the little aviary (July 8, a comic highlight).  I don’t know when Jean goes home.  The poor starling is finally “torn apart by the cats” on July 19.  Austria and Serbia mobilize for war on July 26, and the Journal shifts to a wartime footing, relieving my tension.  What was Gide supposed to do about the imminent war?  So he writes about his tame bird.  The war comes soon enough.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police - “And what will happen if words disappear?”

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994, tr. Stephen Snyder 2019) is a conceit-heavy fantasy about a novelist who lives on an anonymous island where entire categories of objects occasionally “are disappeared,” after which the island’s citizens systematically destroy the things in the category, after which the memories of and word for the thing disappear.  Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp…” (Ch. 1, 5).

It is a multi-step conceit, which is part of its strangeness.  Sometimes, as with novels and photographs, the human destruction is central, with bonfires that evoke totalitarian horrors.  And sometimes:

The disappearance of the fruit was much simpler.  When we woke in the morning, fruit of every sort was falling from trees all over the island.  A pattering sound could be heard everywhere, and in the northern hills and the forest park, fruit came down like a hailstorm.  Some were big as baseballs, some small as beans, some covered in shells, some brightly colored – fruits of all kinds.  (Ch. 12, 95-6)

Part of the fun of the novel is trying to figure out the rules, but be warned that there are none, or anyways they are fluid.

“And what will happen if words disappear?” I whispered to myself, afraid that if I said it too loudly, it might come true.  (4, 26)

The Memory Police is a novel about semiotics, about the functioning of language, with strange constraints put on ordinary human capacities.  I mean, if the words disappear, we make more words.  If we all forget the word “emerald,” we start using “greenstone” or something.  But these poor people can’t do that for some reason, maybe genetic manipulation, the only hint of science fiction in the novel.  Ogawa wants to watch it all – everything – disappear, not eventually, but quickly.

The narrator is herself a surrealist novelist, and unfortunately Ogawa includes generous abstracts from the dull novel in progress, which features a mute typist imprisoned, by her sadistic typing teacher, in a clock tower filled with broken typewriters.  Her captor sews her clothes made from metal and fruit peels.  My impression is that contemporary Japanese literature features a fair amount of this kind of quirk.  The important thing, as far as I can tell, about the novel-within-the-novel is that the novelist keeps using words that she has supposedly forgotten.  Clues, but to what?

Early in the novel, birds are disappeared.  Later in the novel, the characters eat chicken.  Here we approach a novel I would have enjoyed, where characters successfully outwit the semiotic entropy by shifting signifiers.  A chicken is a bird, but chicken is meat.  The meat comes from – who cares, it is, linguistically, a separate issue.  The final disappearances take a hilarious Dada turn that move towards the novel I was imagining.

The conceit of The Memory Police created a curious Oulipo-like effect for me, where the most banal list of objects – “The rest of the tools of his trade were close at hand – files and cards, a bottle of correction fluid, a letter opener, a stapler” (13, 103-4) – becomes full of significance.  Unlike almost all other novels, I cannot assume anything about this history-free, disintegrating world.  I have to imaginatively populate it item by item.  Weird.  It is a little like the moment in Titus Alone (1959) when the “car” appears.

The prose is pretty flat.  There are many banal lists of objects.  But the conceptual justification is clear enough.  Maybe the novel had more interesting words that disappeared.

I liked Peter Gordon’s review of The Memory Police in the Asian Review of Books.  He thinks the whole thing is “an allegory on aging and mortality,” which is plausible.  I myself was strongly tempted to allegorize, but I resisted.