Monday, November 30, 2020

Brecht's great cowards, Mother Courage and Galileo - For war satisfies all needs, even those of peace

One last gesture towards German Literature Month: Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1941) and Galileo (1947), both read in those great Grove Press editions Eric Bentley edited.  Mother Courage is in his translation, while Galileo is by “Charles Laughton,” which in this case means a composite figure including the actor, the author, and apparently several more people.

Both plays have great central characters who are cowards.  Both plays were written in the 1930s but rewritten to make the characters less sympathetic.  The poor audiences, they so badly want to sympathize, and in this sense Brecht still fails.  They are great parts, big parts – Mother Courage is especially Falstaffian – and actors love them.

Mother Courage and Her Children wander through half of the Thirty Years’ War, dragging a supply wagon around central Europe, buying and selling, following the armies that will one way or another kill half the population of the region.  The characters in the play do not do any better, statistically.

The massive cart, which always dominates the stage, is a literal symbol of capitalism, a long-term investment, a capital good that is both a source of income and a curse.  Mother Courage, scene by scene, struggles to choose between human values (the lives of her children) and maximizing the return on her investment.  She would have been better off if the cart had been burned up early in the war.  Or, she and her family would have starved to death.  Who knows.  At least trade is honest work, unlike what everyone else is doing.

MOTHER COURAGE: Thanks be to God they’re corruptible.  They’re not wolves, they’re human and after money.  God is merciful, and men are bribable, that’s how His will is done on earth as it is in Heaven.  Corruption is our only hope.  As long as there’s corruption, there’ll be merciful judges and even the innocent may get off.  (Scene 3, p. 61)

Mother Courage is full of outstanding satire:

CHAPLAIN: Well, I’d say there’s peace even in war, war has its islands of peace.  For war satisfies all needs, even those of peace, yes, they’re provided form or the war couldn’t keep going…  War is like love, it always finds a way.  Why should it end?  (Scene 6, 76)

That chaplain gets a surprising number of the best lines.

The strange thing is, despite the obvious Marxist and satirical purpose, the effect of the play, the feeling, is humanist, or so I found both when I saw a Steppenwolf production years ago and when I read the play recently.  Mother Courage’s story is tragic and full of pathos.  It is all so sad.

Brecht first wrote Galileo as a defense of reason against the Nazis, and but he rewrote it to be more skeptical – more skeptical of science and reason – in response to the atomic bomb.  Maybe Galileo was write to give in to the Inquisition, maybe.  Robert Musil, in the first volume of The Man Without Qualities (1930), argues that the Church should have gone ahead and murdered Galileo, thus halting science and progress right there.  Was it the narrator in Musil, or a character?  I don’t have the book handy.  Musil was known to employ irony at times.  See p. 325, maybe, or the Burton-Pike translation.  I have a note, but not the book. 

Anyways, Brecht does not go that far.  I have trouble imaging a viewer or reader who is not cheering, quietly, when near the end of the play we find that Galileo has been doing his research, secretly and illegally, all along and gives his completed Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences to a former student, to be smuggled to and published in Holland in 1638.

GALILEO: Somebody who knows me sent me a goose.  I still enjoy eating.

ANDREA:  And your opinion is now that the “new age” was an illusion?

GALILEO:  Well.  This age of ours turned out to be a whore, spattered with blood.  Maybe new ages look like blood-spattered whores.  Take care of yourself.  (Scene 13, 124)

The author, the audience, any readers, we all live in one of those new ages.  So Galileo was not much of a hero; who is?  I’d love to see a performance of Galileo someday.

Thanks, as usual, to Caroline and Lizzy for all of the German Literature.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Thomas Mann's Young Joseph - "How well this clod of earth understands me!"

Young Joseph (1934) is the second novel of four in Thomas Mann’s biblical YA fantasy series Joseph and His Brothers.  It is the cute little one, just 270 pages in the German paperback, while the next book, Joseph in Egypt (1936) is more like 600 pages.  The fourth and final volume is also a monster.  It is going to require a little willpower to start those..

Compared to the source, Young Joseph is the least efficient volume, though, covering only Genesis 37.  Joseph dreams that the sheaves bow down to him; Jacob gives him the Coat of Many Colors; Joseph’s brothers toss him in a well, fake his death, and sell him into Egyptian slavery.

I am of the age where I learned the story of Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors at the exact same time that Dolly Parton’s 1971 song of the same name was frequently played on the radio – on country radio – so I have great difficulty not imagining Joseph’s coat as made of patchwork scraps.  But it is, in Mann’s telling, a complex and expensive veil covered with embroidered stories, more like Homer’s Shield of Achilles:

As the old man held it between restless arms, flashes of silver and gold merged at times with the quieter colors – with the purple, the white, olive, pink, and black of symbols and images of stars, doves, trees, gods, angels, human beings, and animals set in the bluish haze of the fabric.  (390, tr. John Woods)

Jacob was a fool to give this treasure to Joseph, and Joseph was a fool, the embodiment of arrogance, to wear it in front of his brothers.  Mann is superb with narcissistic teenage psychology.  Joseph is the world’s most annoying teenager, and many readers will I do not want to say approve of the later action of the brothers – the well, the slavery – but many readers will understand.  Mann had six children, the youngest two of whom were teenagers at the time this novel was written, so he had plenty of firsthand experience.  Mann’s children were all, like Joseph, amazingly accomplished people.  Any or all may well have been insufferable for some part of their teenage years, and thus good models for Joseph.

I am still a little puzzled by what Mann wanted with these books, what he was trying to do.  Sometimes, there is the conversion of myth to realism, the psychology of Joseph, or lines like:

The wind set up a light clatter in the wooden rings by which the ropes were attached to the tent roof.  (383)

The “realistic” novelistic method at work.

But other times, Mann is investigating myth, storytelling:

“Beg pardon,” the old man said, taking his hand from his robe to halt this flow of speech, “beg pardon, my friend and good shepherd, but allow your elder servant a remark concerning your words.  When I listen and attend to what you tell of your race and its stories, it seems to me that wells have played in them a role equally as remarkable and prominent as has the experience of journeying and wandering.” (492)

Yes, no kidding, I had also noticed all of the wells (but of course I did, since I knew Joseph’s story already).  Here, though, Mann explicitly turns the “well” theme into metafiction.

A couple of chapters are in an in-between mode (if I were a person who used the word “liminal,” it would fit here), novelistic scenes with fantastic or mythic elements.  Mann begins a section “We read that Joseph was wandering in the field” (435).  We read where?  In Genesis 37:19, where Joseph asks directions from, in the King James language, “a certain man,” a vague figure who Mann takes for an angel, possibly the one who wrestled Jacob, possibly Satan, the Satan of Job (a later chapter about the grief of Jacob for the presumed death of Joseph is an explicit rewrite of Job).  Nothing, strictly speaking, violates realism, but that “certain man” sure seems to know some things he shouldn’t.  The angel appears again a few chapters later, when a repentant Reuben goes to the well to free Joseph, a clever emendation of Genesis 37:29.

Mann employs more than one mode, is what I am trying to say.  What is he doing?  He is doing many things, and I am still trying to understand many of the many.

God, however, had kissed His fingertips and – much to the secret vexation of the angels – cried out: “Unbelievable, how well this clod of earth understands Me!” (352)

Well, no, not yet.

Young Joseph is just about the least German example of German literature I could have read, but it still counts for German Literature Month – in its tenth year! – so I had better go register.

Friday, November 13, 2020

“It’s like the bulls, reading, it’s a passion.” - various interesting bits of Joseph d'Arbaud's The Beast of Vaccares

Some interesting things in or about Joseph d’Arbaud’s The Beast of Vaccares (1926).

The framing narrator, a young Camargue cowboy, is given a 15th century manuscript by an old cowhand, who hands over the family treasure because the young fellow reads, even keeping a “little library” in his hut.  The old guy prefers experience to book learnin’:

“Books, though! And you say that, all of this on the paper, you can make it pass into your head.  Me, I don’t get it.  It’s good, learning, I don’t say different, but it ain’t natural.”  (43)

Any translations are mine.  I kinda added some extra cowboy to that one.  I have no idea what is in the Occitan version of the story, but d’Arbaud’s French is entirely standard except for some exotic italicized regional words scattered around.  He keeps his books in his estanié, for example, a little Provençal kitchen cabinet.

The page or so of discussion about the value of reading, that struck me as very French.

“It’s like the bulls, reading, it’s a passion.”  (45)

I’m still in the frame.  Most of the story is that 15th century manuscript, in which a cowboy writes about that time he met, in the swamp, Pan, the Greek god, old, in hiding, and perhaps dying.  The Beast of Vaccares is in the “old gods walk the earth” genre, like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001) and John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981).  Here is Pan, or maybe he is just a close relative, I don’t know, telling his story to the cowboy:

“Here, in this salty mud, cut by ponds and sandy beaches, listening to the mooing of the cattle and the cries of the wild stallions, watching, hidden, the day, all the way to the horizon, shiver the veils of the mirage over the warn earth, and watching, at night, the dance of the bare, sparkling moon on the waters of the sea, I knew for some time what, for me, was like happiness.”  (85)

Old Pan is a Romantic poet.

Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (1948) was about the survivals of the old religion in the Camargue, more Gnostic and intellectual, while d’Arbaud’s book is more about the superstitions and folk religion.  Both are challenges to the Christian church, which triumphed but not as thoroughly as one might think.

The one part of the story that I thought was especially good was the great Dance of the Herds, led by Pan.  The scene was a fine mix of the sublime and the ridiculous.  Cows are not, generally, such graceful dancers.

Joyce Zonana, the book’s real translator, does not use the word “cowboy” for gardian, like I have been doing.  She uses “bull herder,” I think?*  “Cowboy” has so many associations, although I want them.  The setting is utterly unique, but the work of the gardian is familiar.  A fairly long scene, for example, describes in detail the narrator’s work breaking a horse.  It could be inserted into any number of American Western stories with minimal change.  La Bête du Vaccarès was good for my French horsey vocabulary.  Bits and spurs and lassos and so on.

Zonana is not the first translator of d’Arbaud’s story, but rather the first to translate it from Occitan, with reference to the French version, which is apparently quite different in places.  In this regard, she is following the example of the frame narrator, who has to fix up the illegible, mite-eaten manuscript.  “I have often had to adapt it, almost to translate it, to make intelligible the most incredible mix of French, Provençal and bad church Latin” (47).  So neither the French nor the Occitan are the “authentic” version of the story, and the new blended English translation is as real as either.

What have I forgotten.  French swamp cowboys carry tridents, for fishing.**  They didn’t do that in Montana or Texas.  Nor did Texas cowboys often ride out carrying a lunch of “a bite of cold rabbit… some walnuts and dried figs” washed down with a swallow of “that aromatic liqueur made by the monks at the abbey” (109).  Barn owls, in Provence, are called “oil drinkers,” because they sneak into churches and drink the lamp oil.  All right, that’s everything.

* No, the publicity material uses "bull herder," but Zonana keeps gardian.

** Looking again, obviously not for fishing. See comments below for a link to a photo of d'Arbaud with his trident.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

A return to the Camargue with Joseph d'Arbaud

We all enjoyed our trip, several months ago, to the Rhone River delta, the Camargue, when we poked around in in Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (1948).  The narrator of that novel, though, barely set foot in the Camargue itself.  Joyce Zonana, Malicroix’s translator, published a second Camargue book recently, one that makes for much better tourism, Joseph d’Arbaud’s novella La Bête du Vaccarès (The Beast of Vaccares, 1926).  This time we get to really see the landscape, the rills and reeds and ponds (Vaccarès is a pond – maybe more of a lake), and also the famous black bulls and white horses and French swamp cowboys.

As with Malicroix, I read d’Arbaud’s novella in French, the 1969 Grasset edition, not having seen Zonana’s translation.

La Bête du Vaccarès is also La Bèstio dóu Vacarès; d’Arbaud wrote versions both in French and Occitan, and the book I read contains both.  I was able to occasionally look at the Occitan text and see that I could not read it.  I do not know how useful that was.  D’Arbaud was one of the writers active in the early 20th century Provençal revival, alongside, most famously, Frédéric Mistral (Nobel 1904), which mostly involved poetry.  D’Arbaud took two unusual steps: first, he returned to the Camargue and worked as a cowboy, and second, he wrote prose fiction.

French literature had had a longstanding debate over – prejudice against – the merits of “regionalist” literature that looks a lot, to me, like similar arguments about American literature, even given the enormous difference that French regionalist literature is not even in French. But I may be deceiving myself.  What do I know about this.  Faulkner demolished the argument in both countries.  What I want to say is that the tourist to the Camargue ought to read this book.  It is micro-regionalist, not about Provence in the sense that the books of Marcel Pagnol or Jean Giono are about Provence – the hill country, basically – but a more specific place.

I am digressing about tourism, obsessed by not being able to travel, but I want to point to the second story in the book, “Le Regret de Pierre Guilhem” (“Pierre Guilhem’s Regret”), which takes place behind the scenes at a bullfight in Arles, which means, although d’Arbaud takes this for granted, that the setting is a two thousand year-old Roman arena, one of the most famous tourist attractions in the region.  This is what I mean by micro-regionalist.  I have not been to the exact spot where the character stood, but I have been quite close, as have millions of visitors.


Pierre Guilhem is a cowboy who has gone to work for the rodeo – bullfight – and tries to rescue a horse that he knew and loved back when he worked in the Camargue.  I urge interested readers to investigate the Arles Arena website, from which I stole the images above and below.  Those parasols are in the story.

Boy am I ever ready to go back to France.  I have not written anything for a while; thus the babble.  I will get to The Beast of Vaccares tomorrow, I guess.  There are reasons to read it aside from tourism, although tourism is a good reason.