Sunday, September 16, 2018

Some German books I read recently - Rilke, Kafka, Brecht - In the dark times / Will there also be singing?

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Stephen Mitchell.

Let’s just assume that I did not understand this novel.  There are fragmented pieces about a young man in Paris.  He walks around and goes to museums and so on.  Paris is endlessly interesting.  Then there are other fragments about the narrator’s odd childhood in a castle in Denmark, raised among a group of eccentrics.  These pieces are also interesting.

How the two kinds of pieces fit together, I missed that completely.  Something to look forward to when I read the novel again someday.

The novel has quite a bit of French in it, translated by Mitchell in the notes.  Now that I am reading French, I can just grind through in the text, saving time and energy.  That is a joke; reading the note is easier and faster.  But I don’t read it, no, I must practice my French.

Diaries, 1910-1913, Franz Kafka, tr. Joseph Kresh, ed. Max Brod

I just finished “The Metamorphosis,” (1915), minutes ago, which I have read several times.  It is for me among the perfect fictions, with a central idea that is an outstanding fantasy taken literally but expands endlessly as symbol, metaphor, or allegory, with prose that is precise and elegant, and most surprisingly with at least one character as psychologically complex and “real” as in any other fiction I know.  My memory is that Kafka did not pull off the latter trick so often.

His little 1912 book Meditation (many possible alternative titles) is made up of little observations, or prose poems, or micro-fictions.  I am not sure what they mean, mostly, but reading the diaries I at least see what they are.  Much of Kafka’s writing in his diary, at least in these years, consists of the beginnings of let’s call them stories.  Story starters, except often the story does not start.  One line, a paragraph, then nothing.  And then, inspiration strikes, and Kafka spends all night writing “The Judgment” (1913).  He keeps searching for that magic.  Endlessly frustrating from his point of view.  Meanwhile, Max Brod says “Hey, c’mon, some of these are good – publish them!”

One year, 1911, takes up a third of Kafka’s diary writing, much of which is about Kafka’s love of a Yiddish theater company that set up in Prague.  Kafka not only went to performances but became friends with the actors, hung out with them, had crushes on one in particular.  This whole chunk of the book is of high interest.  Whether it helps me understand anything else Kafka wrote, I will see.  I continue my exploration.

Poems 1913-1956, Bertolt Brecht, tr. many people, ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim

Reading this book was a lot like reading a diary, or, given the 150 pages of notes, a biography of Brecht.  Each poem, published or unpublished, is placed in its period.  The early song-writer becomes distracted by unexpected success in the theater and becomes fascinated by cities, by Berlin.  But in the 1930s events intrude, as strongly as possible, and Brecht becomes a writer in exile, in multiple exiles.

Some poems are public, some are private, unpublished.  Some are blatant propaganda, negligible as poetry, sometimes dismaying, but sometimes not.  But mostly the poems are poems, from the beginning through the worst.


In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Friday, September 14, 2018

More American literature I read recently - Michael Farris Smith and Sergio de la Pava

I forgot a couple.  Perversely, pathetically, since one of them is The Fighter (2018) by Michael Farris Smith, and I am a quarter way into another of his books, Desperation Road (2017), right now.

Smith is the source of the great line, which I heard him say about one of his own sentences, at a translation joust in Lyon in April, “maybe it’s not perfect but maybe it’s great,” which is useful.  These two novels are about down-and-outers in Mississippi – ex-cons, recovering addicts, aging boxers – who get tangled up in violent disasters but survive them.  What are these called in English?  The French term polar is helpful, since it includes not just mysteries but all kinds of violent crime novels.

What is interesting to me – maybe less so to Smith – is how he is trying to adapt the style of William Faulkner, and Faulkner’s many, endless, descendants, to his stories and characters.  Run-on sentences, sentence fragments, jumps in time, and surprising eruptions of the sublime, that is what I mean.  Smith will write a page or two of gritty plain prose, but once he gets into someone’s head he starts moving around.  Smith points to Larry Brown and Barry Hannah as more directs sources.  Here is how he introduces one of the protagonists:

In the southern Mississippi swamp you can watch the world awaken as the pale yellow sun edges itself between the trees and moss and widewinged cranes.  [Sentence about dragonflies]. [Now some turtles] with murderous patience and skill.  Limbs too old to hold themselves up any longer bend and break like old men accepting their marshy graves.  Reptiles slither and blackbirds cry as the early light slashes and relieves the deep and quiet night.  (Desperation Road, p. 29)

Now that is, I believe, an example of  the genuine Southern Gothic.  The guy thinking about this got out of prison about a week earlier.

Smith is good with plots, and I assume that there is some hope that he will write a book that will turn into a movie that will make some real money.  But meanwhile there are these characters who think plain thoughts in plain prose, but then sometimes think something quite different, maybe something great.

Sergio de la Pava is known for self-publishing his way to prestige with A Naked Singularity (2008), so his new novel, Lost Empress (2018) is on a division of Random House, and I suspect that the commercial interest comes from the possibility that he may someday write a real thriller, which will lead to a movie, and thus real money, since both of these novels contain within them good thrillers.  Unfortunately, in a sense, they are more like William Gaddis than Elmore Leonard, full of digressions, politics, and rhetorical flourishes.  I have stumbled across reviewers suggesting that de la Pava could use an editor.  The evidence suggest to me that he in fact has an editor, a good one, who is sympathetic to what he is doing.

De la Pava is a public defender, a thankless occupation, in New York City; where A Naked Singularity was about the court system, Lost Empress is about prisons.  Both novels are righteously angry, in places.  But then this novel is also about American football, and thus a good counter-argument to the idea that everyone is writing to some generic international audience.  A four page dialogue about the role of the cornerback was the one place I wished de la Pava would have cut, cut, cut.  Otherwise, football, why not.  Football, prison, and Joni Mitchell.  A truly surprising amount of writing about Joni Mitchell.  Please see pp. 421-2, two pages devoted to a track by track appreciation of For the Roses (1972).

Some characters are “real,” rounded and grounded, while others are more like movie characters, fantasy creatures, sometimes even speaking in screenplay form.  This split-level novel is the riskiest thing de la Pava does.  A science fiction conceit explains it, in a way that will make as many readers angry as happy.

What a pleasure it was to sink into a novel that surprised me so often.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Some American literature I read recently - Edith Wharton, Thornton Wilder, George Saunders

The Custom of the Country (1913), Edith Wharton

Wharton’s divorce novel.  She had gone through it herself, but here she uses it as a comic tool in the ruthless social climb, rung by painful rung, of Undine Spragg, a worthy cousin of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and Trollope’s Lizzie Eustace.  An American cousin.  Her ruthlessness mixed with her genuine American innocence, or ignorance, or both, is a great source of comic energy.

Plenty more comedy.  As a language student, I enjoyed the American traveler “in command of but a few verbs, all of which, on her lips, became irregular” (Ch. 12).  Wharton also occasionally finds some fine descriptive language, this hot August day in New York City, for example: “Swirls of dust lay on the mosaic floor, and a stale smell of decayed fruit and salt air and steaming asphalt filled the place like a fog” (Ch. 22).

But it is Undine who keeps this novel moving.  The final chapter is magnificent, turning the book into some kind of dystopian novel.  A triumph; a plunge into the abyss.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Thornton Wilder

Here I find an early use of the Winesburg, Ohio device, with stories connected by place and time.  A bridge collapses, inspiring a priest to learn about the victims.  He hopes to learn something about the problem of God and the existence of evil.  The stories that follow have a lot to say about how to live well, but of course almost nothing about theodicy, nothing the reader did not already know.  Maybe I am wrong about this.  Good for book discussion groups, I guess.  Still good.  See – do not read, but see – the last chapter of The Goldfinch (2013) for a current example.

The bridge is near Lima, and collapses in 1714.  Wilder reconstructs his Peru entirely from books and his imagination, which lets him think big.  I especially liked the third story, about an actress and her manager, or maybe a manager and his actress, the greatest actress in the Spanish-speaking world.

They went to Mexico…  They slept on beaches, they were whipped at Panama and shipwrecked on some tiny Pacific islands plastered with the droppings of birds.  They tramped through jungles delicately picking their way among snakes and beetles.  They sold themselves out as harvesters in a hard season.  Nothing in the world was very surprising to them.  (“Uncle Pio”)

It is almost fantasy, or at least grand opera.

Tenth of December (2013), George Saunders

I have not read any other Saunders, not a word.  In this collection, he is a lot like Kurt Vonnegut except not as funny.  Or to be precise, this book is not as funny as four of the five Vonnegut novels I have read.  Bluebeard (1987) was a dud.  The book is not as funny as that of his student Kathleen Founds.  But funny is not everything.

Several stories have light science fiction conceits, like memory-altering chemicals or the odd business in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” in which young immigrant women from difficult circumstances are used by faddish Americans as yard decorations, voluntarily, for pay.  I guess this one is also good for discussion, although I could not work out the allegory in any direction that was interesting.

The critic Robert Scholes wrote that Vonnegut put bitter coatings on sugar pills, and boy does Saunders ever do the same.  Nothing here seemed very hard to deal with, ethically or linguistically.

I thought the title story, the last one, was unusually good.  The conceit, or gimmick, is only linguistic.  A man with brain cancer wants to commit suicide before he becomes incapacitated.  He is losing his language.  As his consciousness streams along it has trouble:

With every step he was fleeing father and father.  Farther from father.  Stepfarther.  What a victory he was wresting.  From the jaws of the feet.  (230)

Punning as psychology, with the man’s despair a response not just to his own illness but to the frightening illness and death of his beloved stepfather.  A human-scaled story, with little comedy beyond the tone, the voice.  If it sounds dark, well, just let the pill dissolve a little.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Reading Winesburg, Ohio through a screen - "He was a sensitive man"

The strange thing about reading Winesburg, Ohio (1919) was seeing a literary tradition suddenly gel, the one that is Hemingway and Faulkner and any number of writers publishing fiction today.  Maybe I should have seen the same thing earlier, reading Gertrude Stein, for example, but I had not read Winesburg, Ohio then.  I was missing a step.

Sherwood Anderson was an intuitive writer, an experimental writer in the sense that he had to write his story to know what he was writing.  I have read that his method of revising stories was to literally rewrite them, to start at the beginning and redo it all from scratch.  Winesburg, Ohio appears to be highly conceptual.  Stories about characters who live in the same small town intersect and by the end perhaps even form a story connected enough to be called a novel.

The “novel” stars George Willard, Boy Reporter, so a writer and a blatant stand-in for a younger Anderson, not that Anderson had been a boy reporter.  His background was a notch or two down the social scale from George’s.  Still, his story ends the way it pretty much has to.  The last story is titled “Departure.”  It was a surprise, though, to read that Anderson had not planned any of this out, had not intended to include “himself,” but just wrote one story, then another, all set in a vaguely described but concretely named place, until the fourth story, about a troubled mother and son, gives him a character who can cross paths with everyone else.

That’s the conceptual innovation, the interconnected stories, even if it was not exactly new.  Stephen Crane’s Whilomville Stories (1900) has something in common, but has the disadvantage of not being especially good.  Spoon River Anthology (1915) is an immediate, direct, and acknowledged predecessor.  Was it really that important that someone do up a town in prose rather than verse?  I guess so.

For Hemingway and Faulkner, the prose was just as important.  The changes must be modest, but the Edith Wharton I have been reading feels like a logical, artful extension of 19th century prose style, while Anderson feels like he’s tossed out some of the old luggage.  He feels more like what I read in magazines today.

“The Untold Lie” is about a pair of farmhands.  The younger one, a wild man, gets a girl pregnant, and tells the older one, Ray, about it.  Ray is jolted.  “He was a sensitive man and there were tears in his eyes.”  He thinks through his own life, his own marriage.  He has a sublime encounter with the beauty of the Ohio countryside.  “The whole world seemed to Ray Pearson to have become alive with something just as he and Hal had suddenly become alive when they stood in the corn field staring into each other’s eyes.”  Ray gropes towards something like a moral, a lesson about the functioning of the universe, but the meaning recedes and the story ends.

Perhaps that is what I am seeing.  Characters in short stories will, once this device diffuses among other writers, no longer learn lessons but will have experiences which seem like they ought to be full of meaning, and maybe they are, who knows.  But anyways, something happened.

There is no real reason to read Winesburg, Ohio with any of this in mind.  I am just describing what I saw.  It was like a haunted book, with shades from the future passing through the stories.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

reading some best sellers (from a hundred years ago) - "I want to get a general view of the whole problem"

Strange sensations reading American fiction lately.  Positive and negative.  The negative is that I am having a bit of an allergic reaction to The Custom of the Country (1913), both to its subject and style.  First, some impatience with the problems of shallow rich people, and second some with the best-sellerishness of the novel, although I do not know how much of a best seller it really was.  It was not a smash like The House of Mirth (1905).

The list of the best sellers of 1913 is a glimpse of an unknown world.  I have heard of maybe six of the books from the decade's best sellers, and read none.  What am I talking about?

I mean scenes like the one that begins Chapter XV, where two minor characters discuss the Problem of Divorce for four pages, in dialogue worthy of the future Hollywood films that presumably use quality authors like Wharton as their models:

“Are there sides already?  If so, I want to look down on them impartially from the heights of pure speculation.  I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages.”

Or see an earlier scene, in Chapter X, in which two (other) minor characters discuss some financial scandal that presumably affects the plot later – I’m only halfway through the book – I hope everything works out well for everyone.  Wharton is vague about the financial details, understanding them about as well as I do.  The dialogue is pretty much screenplay-ready.

None of this has much to do with most of the novel, the good part, Undine Spragg’s rung by rung climb up the society ladder, at whatever the cost (to others).  All of this is terrific, and fiction is often at its best discovering the inner lives of shallow people, but I am enjoying it from a distance.

The Custom of the Country is the eighth Wharton book I have read within the last year or so.  Most of them have been short story collections.  Perfect commercial American magazine fiction of the first decade of the 20th century.  I enjoy it quite a lot, but I should probably take a break from it once I finish this novel.  Although the next thing Wharton does, chronologically, is to become a great French war hero.  Here I am whining about books about shallow people.

The commercial ideal, come to think of it, was also visible in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first collection of stories, Flappers and Philosophers (1920), where it was immediately obvious why he scored such a hit (This Side of Paradise, his first book, is from the same year).  These stories pop with energy.  They are zingy.  Specifically, the young women, the flappers, are enormous sparkly fun even if the story is fundamentally idiotic.  “The Offshore Pirate,” as an example, in which the flapper is captured by a pirate, ready for an actress to be dropped into the role.    Some kind of parable about Scott wooing Zelda probably.  Anyways, nonsense.  But I can see how readers of the Saturday Evening Post would be pleased to see that the new issue had a Fitzgerald story, just like the Scribner’s readers would feel when they say a Wharton story in the table of contents.  Yes, here’s the good stuff.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights by Paulo Lemos Horta - as interesting as it sounds

Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1967) was pretty much what I hoped it would be – hard, really difficult.  Readers less interested in medieval conceptions of time might want to skip to Lecture IV, or V, except that one is mostly about Sartre, or VI.  I plan to look it over again and write something in early October.

Meanwhile, here’s an entirely different kind of literary criticism, Paulo Lemos Horta’s Marvellous Thieves: Secret Author of the Arabian Nights (2017), about the translation of The Arabian Nights into French, in the 18th century, and English, in the 19th.  Literary history.  Good stuff.

A chapter by chapter summary makes it clear what is in the book.

First, two chapters on Antoine Galland and Hanna Diyab, mostly about the latter.  Galland was the first translator of The Arabian Nights (1704-17) into French.  This was a landmark translation.  For a hundred years – more – Europe read The Arabian Nights in translations of French translations.  There was a puzzle about the so-called “orphan stories,” like “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” famous stories, that had no Arabic texts.  Galland acquired these stories from the Syrian traveller Diyab.  Arabic stories told in French by Diyab and then rewritten in French by Galland.  Complicated.

Diyab is interesting enough on his own to fill the chapters.  The discovery, only a decade ago, of his memoirs make the early chapters uniquely valuable.

Chapter 3 is about the first translation of The Arabian Nights into English from an Arabian manuscript.  It was done in India by Henry Torrens, a colonial administrator in India, in collaboration with an unknown number of now-anonymous Indian scholars.  Events in India made sure that this translation was never completed.  Too bad.  It was a real translation.

The ridiculous Egyptologist Edward Lane gets the next two chapters.  An odd bird, he translated The Arabian Nights in order to fill it with his insights about Egypt.  The book is as much notes as stories, notes about contemporary Egypt.  Large parts of the original are summarized, rearranged, pushed into the commentary.  Really strange.

The final two chapters cover the minor pre-Raphaelite poet John Payne and Victorian superstar Richard Burton, the authors of the next two English translations of The Arabian Nights, using the terms loosely.  Payne barely knew Arabic but at least his book was a real translation – from French and German versions!  Burton then openly plagiarized Torrens, Lane, and Payne, rewriting their texts in his own distinctive and bizarre style.  The style is his own, that is true.  “Stealing with Style,” that’s one of Horta’s chapter titles.  It is always great fun to read about Burton, but I do it with my jaw dropped.  He is an outrageous character.

Horta’s book, full of original material from the archives, has almost nothing to say about translation itself, nothing linguistic, for example, except in the way it demonstrates how the translations were inherently collaborative, often in complex and confusing ways.  Sometimes the translations were not translations at all.

He also take the value of The Arabian Nights for granted, as do I.  The greatest insights into the texts themselves are in the first two chapters, as Horta finds sources for pieces of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba” and so on.  If a description of a palace feels more like Versailles than something in Persia, well, that’s right, Diyab was presented to Louis XIV.  This is true “world literature,” whatever that might be.

Horta’s books is as interesting as it sounds.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Lawrence's Birds, Beasts and Flowers, where he shovels out the slush - But I must confess how I liked him

I’ve been making notes on each book of D. H. Lawrence poetry as I have gone along.  I suppose I enjoy his poetry as much or more than anything he wrote.  It takes a certain approach, though, reading books of poems.  I am looking for the great poems, the great images, maybe just the great lines.  Well, that is how I read everything, so never mind.

Here is Ezra Pound on Lawrence’s first book of poems, Love Poems and Others (1913), from a review in the July 1913 issue of Poetry, pp. 149-51:

The Love Poems are “a sort of pre-raphaelitish slush, disgusting or very nearly so” but the Others, the “low-life narrative[s],” are something else.  “[W]hen Mr. Lawrence ceases to discuss his own disagreeable sensations…  there is no English poet under forty who can get within shot of him.”  Pound singles out “Violets” and “Whether or Not” as “great art.”  Looking at my notes, linked for reference, I thought some of the other dialect poems were just as good, and wish I had a phrase in that post as good as “pre-raphaelitish slush.”

To be clear, Pound thinks Lawrence’s book is the best English poetry book of the year, and should win a big prize, even though much of it is junk.

Well, my survey of Lawrence, book by book, is easy enough to find.  By Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1922) – this is where I am going – he had shoveled out the slush but also dropped the dialect poems and wrote an entire book of purely Lawrentian free verse poems about the title subjects.  In matter, the poems resemble Rilke’s “Thing poems,” in that a poem called “Bat” or “Snake” or “Peach” is about that thing.  Also about Lawrence’s response to the thing – the poems have a lot of personality – but he is really looking around him, like a natural scientist, only a little more obsessed with the sex life of the tortoises he observes than a herpetologist would be.  Lawrence’s tortoises and kangaroos and bats are first going to be tortoises etc. before they become symbols of something else.

I suppose the most famous poem in the book is “Snake,” in which Lawrence encounters and fails to kill, or even want to kill, a poisonous Sicilian snake.

But I must confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink
         at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of the earth?

The last line foreshadows Lawrence’s desire to mythologize the snake, as an underworld god.

A few pages earlier, in my favorite sequence, Lawrence finds his Romantic limit.  Snakes he can handle, but bats, no.

Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags
And grinning in their sleep.

Not for me!  (“Bats”)

Thus when, in “Man and Bat,” Lawrence finds a bat in his Florence hotel room, the result is seven pages of repetitive action.

And round and round and round!
Blundering more insane, and leaping, in throbs, to clutch at
      a corner,
At a wire, at a bell-rope:
On and on, watched relentless by me, round and round in
     my room,
Round and round and dithering with tiredness and haste and
      increasing delirium
Flicker-splashing round my room.

“Man versus Bat,” but it works out all right.  The bat wins.  The man has a moment of imaginative sympathy with his enemy.

With a little work, I could have found less prosy examples of Lawrence’s poetry, but his free verse is pretty prosy.  Scrolling through the book, I see that I remember the animal poems fairly well but have forgotten everything about the plant poems.  The book ends with a series of New Mexican poems, Taos poems, which preview the crazier American Lawrence to come, except for the long one about his dog, which is some kind of classic.  “Bibbles.”  Lawrence named his dog Bibbles.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

D. H. Lawrence's English short stories - It was horrible.

I find it easy to imagine a slightly different D. H. Lawrence, healthier, less weird, maybe a little less ambitious, who is happy to be the novelist of the northern English coal pits.  Maybe he still pushes the sexual boundaries of English fiction, maybe not as far as the real Lawrence did.  This Lawrence would have been a great writer, too, an important writer.  A smaller writer than the real Lawrence.

My imaginary Lawrence overlaps with the real one most clearly in earlier novels like Sons and Lovers (1913) and the short story collections The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (1914) and England, My England (1922), especially the short stories which while distinctively Lawrence’s do not seem so far off from what James Joyce or Katherine Mansfield are doing with the short story around the same time.  Incremental innovation.

Although I am mentally contrasting these stories to the truly weird American stories Lawrence wrote in the mid-1920s, I know it is hard to “periodize” Lawrence.  The Rainbow is from 1915, and it is much weirder at the sentence level and in its reach for mythic meaning.  I mean, the prose – I last read this novel thirty years ago, but I can open it randomly and find my idea of pure Lawrence:

So eager was her breast, so glad her feet, to travel towards the beloved.  Ah, Miss Inger, how straight and fine was her back, how strong her loins, how calm and free her limbs!  (Ch. 12, “Shame”)

Maybe the formal control, even perfection, of the stories, is a commercial compromise, a concession to the magazine market.  The Prussian Officer includes a novella, “Daughters of the Vicar,” that is like a dry run of The Rainbow, with two coal-country sisters who love in different ways, written in more conventional language.  I am inspecting the most intense scene:

Then suddenly a sharp pang, like lightning, seared her from head to foot, and she was beyond herself…

And as if turned to stone, she looked back into his eyes.  Their souls were exposed bare for a few moments.  It was agony.  They could not bear it.  He dropped his head, whilst his body jerked with little sharp twitchings.  (Ch. 13)

But this is not the normal language of the novella.

The “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” in England, My England, one of Lawrence’s most famous stories, felt like it could be in Dubliners – at first.  A family – siblings – have finally run their father’s business into the ground.  They discuss their plans.  There is no indication, title aside, that the sister’s story is the real story.  For a while, Lawrence and I just watch and listen to the knucklehead brothers discuss their plans, and get angry because the sister will not discuss hers.  Those turn out to be a surprise, including a surprising shift in point of view.  The last third of the story is the classic Lawrence love scene, intense and deliberately unpleasant.

It was horrible to have her there embracing his knees.  It was horrible.  He revolted from it, violently.  And yet – and yet – he had not the power to break away.

It’s the gradual move towards the emotional moment, from a starting point at a great distance, that I find artful, less than the conclusion itself.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Some nightmarish D. H. Lawrence stories - a hatred of man's onward struggle towards further creation

The Citadel of Fear was the second Aztec “lost world” fiction I read in the last year.  D. H. Lawrence wrote one, “The Woman Who Rode Away” (1925).  She, the woman, is riding away from her unsatisfying husband, looking for – and finding – a Mexican to assault and murder her.  In this case, in the form of a hidden civilization making a ritual sacrifice to the sun, to Quetzalcoatl.  “And all the eyes of the priests were fixed and glittering on the sinking orb, in the reddening, icy silence of the winter afternoon.”

I say “in this case” because around the same time Lawrence wrote at least two more stories in which American women, white women, are sexually assaulted by Mexican men.  “The Princess” is more realistic, like a crime story, where “The Woman Who Rode Away” is explicitly fantastic.  I don’t know what “None of That” is supposed to be.  An American woman falls for a famous, brutish toreador, and is punished for it.  This one seems as much of a revenge fantasy than anything else, Lawrence punishing someone in his life, or in his imagination.

The novella St. Mawr, also from 1925, almost fits the theme.  An English woman falls deeply in love with a dangerous stallion, the title character.  Her husband is pretty masculine – quite masculine –  but not masculine enough, not an untamable stallion.  Near the end of the book, the woman, the horse, and a few other characters move to New Mexico to live a more authentic life.  She buys a little isolated mountain ranch.  The novella ends with a long history of the ranch, and the people who tried to make it work.  The protagonist of this section is an entirely different woman, one of the previous owners.  The stallion, all of the other characters, they vanish.

This section was outstanding, I thought.  I’m not sure what it is doing in the book.

And her love for her ranch turned sometimes into a certain repulsion. The underlying rat-dirt, the everlasting bristling tussle of the wild life, with the tangle and the bones strewing: Bones of horses struck by lightning, bones of dead cattle, skulls of goats with little horns: bleached, unburied bones. Then the cruel electricity of the mountains. And then, most mysterious but worst of all, the animosity of the spirit of place: the crude, half-created spirit of place, like some serpent-bird for ever attacking man, in a hatred of man's onward struggle towards further creation.

Look, there’s Quetzalcoatl sneaking in again.

What was Lawrence doing with these misogynistic, racist themes?  He seems trapped by them.  He would die a few years later.  Maybe he would have escaped if he had lived longer.  Or maybe he had been permanently poisoned.  He was always tempted to turn his stories about men and women into stories about Man and Woman, but his push for something mythic here takes him to some ugly places.

I read what seems to me like a lot of Lawrence over the last year, maybe eight books, a lot for a writer I don’t particularly like.  I used to be more concerned about whether or not a book was good, but over time it has become more important that a book be interesting.  I am not sure if this is a maturation or an abandoning of taste.

And man, Lawrence’s books are almost always interesting.

I want to poke at Lawrence for a couple more days.  At better stories and books.  I read these stories several months ago; who knows what I misremember.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The pulpy pre-Lovecraftian The Citadel of Fear - the grin of it was in no sense funny

Along with Jules Verne, I read another pulpy fantasy recently, a real pulp novel, Citadel of Fear by Francis Stevens (1918), pen name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, a young Minnesotan widow who started writing for money and proved to be one of the great innovators in her weird field.

The Citadel of Fear is for its first third a “lost world” novel, with a couple of tough guys stumbling into a hidden city of the Aztecs, full of either magic or advanced technology.  One of the Aztec gods is a classic Lovecraftian horror, and it follows the hero back to New England where it causes trouble for a while, partly by generating more Lovecraftian horrors along the lines of The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), except with Aztec iconography.

By “Lovecraftian,” I guess I should say “Stevensian” because in 1918 there was no Lovecraftian.  Bennett is one of the inventors of the eldritch horror that lurks in remote corners and drives men mad when encountered.  Let’s look at one – will we retain our sanity?

Then came the worst, for up from beneath his left shoulder a head rose and stretched itself on a thin, flat, tapering neck.  It was a head that seemed mostly mouth, a great triangular aperture, gaping, tongueless, with soft drooping lips, and behind it on either side a fleck of red that might have been eyes or their remnants.  (Ch. 20)

One difference from Lovecraft is that at this point, two-thirds into the novel, Stevens gives me a good look at her weird critters.  Another difference – a big one – is that her horrors can be fought, even defeated.  There are better – more humanistic – gods balancing the worst.  Lovecraft’s greatest imaginative feat, his metaphysics, his gnostic nihilism, his cosmic anti-epistemology, has no counterpart in Stevens.

Her monsters are good, though.

It was not a good face.  No evil, indeed, could have been too vile for its ugliness to grin at.  A toad’s mouth is wide, ugly – and rather funny.  The mouth of this face was toadlike in its width and narrowness of lip, but the grin of it was in no sense funny.  (Ch. 6)

I was a little surprised by how closely the plot followed what I would now call a standard Hollywood model, again, before there is such a thing.  The big fight at the end was handled much like in a contemporary action movie.  There is a bad guy, a super-villain.  Every character is given a role in the fight, some minor or major act of heroism.  Everything explodes.

I am pretty sure that I learned about The Citadel of Fear long ago in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books (1988) by James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock.  Their choices begin with Gulliver’s Travels and take their time getting to The Lord of the Rings.  Their list can be seen here; it is an outstanding list, a wonderfully weird list, within its almost entirely English-language limits.  Wuthering Heights and Moby-Dick; Dickens and James and Kafka; but also Edgar Rice Burroughs and Fritz Leiber and The Circus of Dr. Lao, a great mix of the most freely imaginative ends of the prestigious and the pulpy.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

From the Earth to the Moon, with sandwiches - "Hurray for Edgar Poe!"

A culture, a literary tradition, emphasizes its own writers more than anyone else does.  It’s normal and natural.  Exceptions are of the highest interest, yes.  And I am thinking of French readers, who like more of everything.

So Jules Verne is read more in France than in the United States, is where I am going today.  Looking at Amazon, judging the number of editions and the numbers of reviews, it looks like four Verne novels are still widely read in the United States.  In France it is at least eight novels, maybe as many as a dozen, and recently there was a beeyootiful reissue of everything, in cheap paperbacks with attractive embossed red covers and vintage illustrations, so that bookstores had plenty of random “now what is this” titles.  The School of the Robinsons?  The Sphinx of the Ice?  Maybe someday I will find out what they are.

This is not to say that the French take Verne particularly seriously.  A junior high-level collection of travel writing that I read called him a “popularizer of genius,” which gets the attitude.  He really is popular, still popular, with Verne-derived images all over, most charmingly on carousels.  And he is taken more seriously – more critically – than he was when he was alive.

I just finished De la Terre à la Lune, trajet direct en 97 heures 20 minutes (From the Earth to the Moon, on a Direct Path in 97 Hours, 20 Minutes, 1865), which I tried for a couple of reasons: it is fairly short, fairly easy, and inspired much of the imagery of a much greater work of art, George Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.  I occasionally had to force myself to really read the French text, since it was easier to just substitute an image from the film.  Close enough!  Sometimes quite close.

The title pretty well summarizes the novel.  The means of transportation is a big bullet shot out of a giant cannon.  To the extent that the book has characters, they are a couple of American artillery-makers who, lacking purpose with the end of the Civil War, come up with this crazy scheme.

To the extent that the novel has a plot – eh, it barely has a plot.  Based on this book alone, I would doubt the ability of Verne to plot.  From the Earth to the Moon is mostly engineering – a great moment of tension is the pouring of molten metal into a Florida pit to found the huge cannon (which is entirely underground) – but the parts that are not are satire.  This novel is packed with jokes.

The bomb-makers who belong to the Gun-Club have all been blown to bits, and now have wooden legs and rubber jaws and so on.  “[T]here was not quite one arm per four persons, and only two legs per six” (Ch. I).

I took this as a bit of a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and his story “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839).  The Gun-Club is in Baltimore, maybe another nod.  The President of the Club gives an inspirational speech in which he covers a pretty thorough history of fictional journeys to the moon, so Poe is there again:

“Hurray for Edgar Poe!” cried the assembly, electrified by the words of its president. (Ch. II)

That’s the spirit.

Several chapters are nothing but meetings.  The meetings feature sandwiches.  Easily my favorite sentence in the novel:

“We are ready,” replied the members of the Committee while each absorbing a half-dozen sandwiches.

– Nous sommes prêts, répondirent les membres du Comité en absorbant chacun une demi-douzaine de sandwiches.  (Ch. VII, “The Hymn of the Bullet”)

Three chapters straight of meetings.  Not satire, really, but gritty realism.

Gags, statistics, nonsense, engineering, and at the end, kaboom!  A strange novel.

All translations mine, so don’t trust them.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Auerbach, Kermode, Benjamin, Frye - an invitation to read some classic literary criticism with me

That was useful.

I have settled on a hybrid plan.  More logical.  More German.

A few shorter books to see how things go, then Mimesis.

End of September: The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (1967), Frank Kermode.  Time and apocalypse.  The word “fiction” in the title does not mean “novels.”  Under 200 pages.

End of November: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (essays from the 1920s and 1930s), Walter Benjamin.  A wide range of topics.  I know that there are other ways to read Benjamin in English now, which was not so true in 1968.

End of January: Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (1963), Northrop Frye.  His “practical” companion to the more theoretical (and longer) Anatomy of Criticism.  More essays, really.

Then we can spend the winter in front of the fireplace with a goblet of claret studying Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), Erich Auerbach.  Mimesis has twenty chapters, and I can imagine a madman, or genius, simply reading through them, but I will want months.  Not sure how many.  Open-ended.

Each of these books embraces a range of traditions and languages.  Their scope is a good part of their appeal to me.  It is the fantasy of knowing everything.  Here are some writers, readers, who got close to that.  Their subject is literature, but also history, language – civilization.

As far as “participating” in a “readalong” goes, do whatever you want, whenever you want.  These books, even Kermode’s, are well suited to rummaging.  I mean, don’t miss the first chapter of Mimesis, but otherwise do whatever is useful and pleasant.  I hope you will find it useful and pleasant to report back on what you have discovered.  Feel free to do so at Wuthering Expectations.

For some reason Arthur Krystal wrote a 2013 New Yorker profile of Auerbach and Mimesis.  This is a book with its own story, worth knowing.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Would anyone be interested in a readalong of classic, or at least good, or at least one hopes so, literary criticism?

My fifth idea is to read some literary criticism.  Classics of.  Books that are great in their own way, perhaps even works of art of some kind.  I have two impulses.

First, to steal ideas, or let’s say to find some new ways of looking at what I read. Spur some thought, if possible.

Second, it is clear that some of the best parts of the blog have been readalongs, and some of my worst ideas for readalongs have actually been my best (e.g., What Is To Be Done?), so why not invite interested people to join in.

The number of participants is of little importance.  A readalong of Melville’s Clarel had only one other reader, and she made an original contribution to Melville scholarship!  And anyway the important thing is that I learn a lot.

Two ideas.  One is to schedule a series of relatively short books, one every two or three months.  A variety of subjects, approaches, countries, forms.  Nothing too Theoretical.  For example, in ten months or a year, with readers joining as they like (all books I have not read):

Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations
William Empson’s Milton’s God
Barbara Hardy’s The Novels of George Eliot: A Study in Form
Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism
Paul Valéry’s The Art of Poetry

Except I feel obligated, for competing educational purposes, to read the latter in French, which seems unlikely, really, so let’s say a collection of essays by Eugenio Montale or Umberto Eco or something like that.

Maybe I am wrong about what is in these books.  My understanding is that they are good books.  But there are many other possibilities.

The other tack would be to tackle a monster.  E. R. Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Mikhail Bahktin’s Rabelais and His World, Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore.  Books that might take months to work through.

I am thinking of this project as work, maybe more like a study group than a readalong, but the kind of work that can be intensely pleasurable.
A good readalong ought to give the readers a lot to do, right?

Maybe this is a bad bad idea, rather than a good bad idea.  Please let me know what you think.  Feel free to contribute suggestions – favorite books, logistics, anything – even if you have no interest at all in participating.

We all have plenty to read.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Books I might read

Why would anyone care, but I have to remind myself how to write, so here we have this bit of self-indulgence.  What do I want to read in the next whenever?

1.  French, books in French.  No principle of organization besides reading level.  Hard enough so I learn, not so hard that I give up.

The most tempting project-like reading is a good wallow in French Romantic poetry – Lamartine, Vigny, Musset, Desbordes-Valmore, Hugo, more Hugo, and yet more Hugo – followed by a plunge into Baudelaire, Verlaine, etc., etc., stopping with – perhaps never stopping.  It’s the great glory of French literature, modern poetry, and much of it is graspable at my reading level.  Or almost graspable.  A little more patience; a little more work.

2.  Post-Victorian British literature.  The Lyon public library had an outstanding but maybe old-fashioned collection of British literature.  They absorbed an English library in – I don’t know when – and thus had plenty of Aldous Huxley, Richard Hughes, D. H. Lawrence, that sort of thing.  Cold Comfort Farm and Rogue Male and Malice Aforethought and Elizabeth Bowen and Rudyard Kipling short story collections in their original formats.  Whatever expats might have wanted to read circa 1965, I guess.  If I had refused to learn French, there would still have been plenty to read.

I thought I would be tired of this stuff, but back home I found myself picking up old favorites like Zuleika Dobson and Howards End, more of the same like The Moon and Sixpence, and even New Grub Street, which now looked like an immediate Victorian precursor of this post-Victorian tradition or attitude.

Maybe I should write some of this out, so that it makes some sense.  Anyway, more second-tier, sarcastic British literature.

3.  Not French, not British.  What I thought I would want to read immediately was the thing I was deprived of in France, like great Russian and German literature.  The Magic Mountain, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Red Cavalry, The Foundation Pit.  I want to revisit Kafka, who I haven’t really read for a long time.  Same for Bely’s Petersburg.

4.  The 1910s.  The 1920s.  Otherwise I will likely resume my chronological drift, floating through the 1910s into the 1920s.

5.  I have one more idea I would like to pursue –  literary criticism – but I would like advice on that, so I will write it up tomorrow.

What will you be reading in the next six months?  Something good, I hope?

Friday, July 27, 2018

What I really enjoyed about France

I am going to make some comments here that are likely wrong.  They are based on my observations at the moment, that is all.  Please sprinkle liberally with the phrase “to me.”

What is so appealing about France?  Culture – the arts, history, even philosophy – is a normal part of public and private life.  Quotations of poetry, references to painters, discussions of wine or food or you name it that includes the history of the subject.  The humanities historicize everything.

Why are the humanities so prominent in normal life?  Because French humanities education is so good.

Why is the education good?  I suppose this goes in a circle. Because the culture values the humanities.  I don’t know.  But French school children are taught directly how to think about – no, let’s be careful, how to talk about, how to write about, but there begins thinking – art, novels, film, and so on.

I would routinely go to films where large blocks of seats were reserved for school groups.  Wong Kar-wai, King Kong, Charlie Chaplin.  High school kids at the former, grade school in the middle, quite little children at the Chaplin.  I began to expect it.  Similarly, I learned to expect large numbers of children at the opera, or certain music and dance and theatrical performances, and most of all at art museums.

At a different level, the French president can, in public speeches, say things like “Who understood Baudelaire better than Walter Benjamin?” and no one bats an eye.  This is normal.  Sorry, I could only find the speech, from the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair, in German.

The French criticize their own music education.  I suspect they are comparing themselves to their neighbors, to Germany and Austria – hardly fair.  They criticize their language education.  Why can’t they accomplish what the Dutch do?  An American hardly has any place to comment.

French culture is more top-down and elite-driven than in the U.S., yet the split between high and low culture is less important – maybe unimportant.  Everyone reads Asterix.  The resentments I see in the U.S., in both directions, are minor in France.  Liking poetry or jazz or theater is all right; having no interest is all right, too.  The arts do not work so well as class signifiers.

It must be hard to be a genuine cultural protester in France, to try to reject French culture, which has a literature full of weirdos and literal criminals.  Everything is embraced so easily.  Maybe too easily.  Maybe that is a criticism of the French arts, that the appreciation is too enthusiastic.  I am not the one to make that criticism.  I loved it.

In the United States, literature, reading, feels like a hobby, one of many.  In France, it feels like participation in civilization.  This is appealing, for many reasons.  Perhaps it just pumps up the importance of my hobby.  I don’t think so.


I remind myself that although I am writing at the blog again, I have no fixed schedule, no quota of pieces, no godly purpose.  The easy ways to see if I have written something are an RSS reader – how I keep up with all of you – and the email subscription off to the right somewhere.

Thanks for the immediate comments on my adventure with French.  Encouraging!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Even more French books, mostly appropriate for children

Since I could read, I read.  I studied French in the winter and spring mostly by reading French, lots of it, in many forms, constrained only by the sense that I should stay near my collège reading level, which was barely a constraint.  Don’t get stupid and jump to Rabelais or Proust.  Plenty to read right here.

I could assemble, for example, a little Theater of the Absurd unit: Jean Anouilh, Jean Cocteau, Jean Tardieu, and Eugène Ionesco, ending with a trip back to Alfred Jarry.  Ubu Roi is strictly speaking assigned at the lycée, the secondary school, level, but once in a while I would push the boundary.

Or in preparation for the Quais du Polar, I could read crime novels, mysteries – books that were on the collège reading lists since, as part of what ought to be a basic literary education, the French teach literary history, including the histories of specific genres.  Thus my annotated edition of Thierry Jonquet’s La Vie de ma mère! (The life of my mother!, 1994) included essays on the history of the mystery from Poe onwards, with an emphasis on the French contribution, which is heavy on the anti-hero, like  the gentleman burglar who stars in Arsène Lupin gentleman cambrioleur gentleman (1907).  There is a student edition of this collection of crime stories, as well as one for Gaston Leroux’s locked room mystery La mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907).  The editions exist, but how often are these books actually assigned?  A mystery of its own, how the potential curriculum relates to the actual one.

I was on a guided tour of the chateau of the Duke de Uzès, the tourists being the middle-aged French people one might expect.  The guide at one point said (I translate) “I now propose to you a visit to” (arches eyebrows) “the Yellow Room,” and everyone laughed.  Everyone got and enjoyed, more than I did, the reference to the century-old Leroux mystery, or perhaps one of it film adaptations.

A curious feature of both the Leroux novel and Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin stories is that they are both explicitly competing with Sherlock Holmes.  The thief or detective cannot just be ingenious, but has to defeat his English competition.  They both have explicit Holmes characters.  Leblanc’s is named Herlock Sholmès, which is a great gag, but Leroux’s use of Holmes is even more outrageous.

Speaking of outrageous, it is outrageous that that Thierry Jonquet novel is not available in English.  It is of high ethical interest.  A Parisian schoolkid, a Serbian immigrant, is torn between his criminal friends and a more normal French life.  But he does not know that he is torn.  How would he know, he is twelve.  It is a battle between innocence and experience.  Experience, at the end of this bleak novel, is destructive, at least for someone that young.

This book was a productive mistake for me, and not the only one I made.  The language was extremely difficult, with a lot of slang including the subset where the protagonist takes the “tromé” to the mall and then listens to some “zicmu.”  It’s like a word game.  Between the language, the violence, and the sexual content (things the character observes), I thought, this is for junior high kids?  But collège extends to 9th or 10th grade, which is a long ways from 6th or 7th.  I made this mistake several times, trying a book that was not too hard for me but was very hard.  The mistake was so valuable that now I do it deliberately.

I could keep going.  I have not written about J. M. G. Le Clézio, or Marguerite Yourcenar, or Joseph Kessel, all collège level, or Annie Ernaux or Raymond Queneau, successful lycée-level experiments.  At some point, I do want to read Proust and Montaigne in French, that seems achievable, but I am patient.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Some books I read in French

What did I read when I was, in French terms, 9 years-old?  Just some examples, aside from Le Petit Prince and Petit Nicolas and Asterix and Tintin.

My first great discovery was a series of poetry collections for children of poems not written for children.  Please see them here.  I read the collections of Victor Hugo, Max Jacob, and Louis Aragon.  Other writers in the series include warhorses like Baudelaire and Rimbaud through difficult avant-gardists like Jean Cocteau and Henri Michaux.  Michaux for children!  In English, Michaux was difficult enough.  These are, again, not collections of poems written for children, but poems appropriate for children, which presumably means, in part, subject matter but as far as I could tell mostly meant reading level, which is just what I needed.

At some point I “graduated” to complete books by French poets, but these were great.  Yes, in France Baudelaire and Rimbaud are poets suitable for tiny little children.  If you poke around at that link, you might find Dadaïstes et surréalistes for children.

Is it true – an aside – that there is not even a selected poems of Louis Aragon in English?  What is wrong with us?

Once I discovered that I was reading at the junior high level, and that French junior high students read good, good, good books, I just read what they read.  Or might read.  The days of the universal French curriculum are long gone, but aside from some conversation with Book Around the Corner, I do not really know what goes on in the French classroom.  This Gallimard website suggests, at least, what might be read.

I loved the Folioplus classiques editions.  They were like Norton Critical Editions for junior high students operating at the university level.  Or is all of that supplementary material for the teacher?  Every edition includes, for example, a ten page essay about the cover art!  The fundamental basis of analysis was historical, literature as literary history, art as art history.  But again, I don’t know what is actually taught.

I could observe, occasionally.  Standing in line at a bookstore to buy an annotated edition of Charles Perrault’s Contes – Bluebeard and Cinderella and so on – I saw that the girl behind me was buying Michel Tournier’s Vendredi ou la vie sauvage (Friday, or the Savage Life, 1971), which I was reading, and carrying with me, at the time.  Evidence!

Tournier’s first novel was a Robinson Crusoe rewrite, Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique (Friday, or the Limbs of the Pacific, 1967), available in English as Friday.  For some reason he wrote a shorter, simpler version – not a children’s version, he insisted – and the result is that the simple one is assigned in junior high and the more complex one in high school.  It is like a literary pedagogical experiment.  The simple one is quite good.

Molière is assigned incessantly, beginning with the short prose farce Les Fourberies de Scapin (1670) and advancing year after year to the complex verse masterpieces like Tartuffe.  I just read the simple stuff, like The Flying Doctor and The Doctor against Himself, culminating, to my surprise, in George Dandin or Le Mari confondu (George Dandin, or the Confused Husband, 1668), which inverted the standard jokes of the farces by the writerly magic trick of making the central characters real.  What was funny when they were cardboard becomes pathetic, perhaps even tragic, when they are real people. Even though I know full well that they are not real real people – what a trick, what a genius.  A local theater put on the play in March – what luck – and Emma wrote about it.

I could just keep going.  I will, tomorrow.

Endless thanks to the Lyon public library, my home away from home away from home, for all of these books.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

How I read some French

What do I do, I read, right, so I was reading French from the beginning.  French books and French bookstores identify reading level clearly, so the only question was how old I was.  At first I was maybe 9, maybe 10, but with effort I aged quickly.

Another barrier adult language-learners face is a reluctance to read children’s literature.  Overcome that neurosis, is my advice, although with French I would add first that a number of important authors have written for children, so read those; second, a number of French children’s books are of such high cultural significance that you ought to read them anyways, Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (1943) being the most famous example although René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé’s Petit Nicolas (1959?), a kind of French Peanuts in prose, was even more instructive.  Goscinny is the creator of Asterix, also essential.

The latest Asterix volume, the 37th, now written by someone else, was released in October, and I saw it almost literally everywhere, read by almost literally everyone; it was easily the best-selling book in France in 2017.  When was the last time we had a book like that in the U.S.?

And third, the important thing here is forward motion, to read anything readable, anything not so difficult and frustrating that I stop reading.  My breakthrough came in November, after less than three months of intensive French, when, trying a Maupassant collection, I discovered that I had turned let’s say 12 and that I had entered the collège as a 6ème, or in U.S. terms that I was in junior high.  I have no idea what is read in American junior highs now, but in France, they read literature.  I love literature.  Balzac and Hugo, Molière and Maupassant, Michel Tournier and Marguerite Yourcenar.  I could – I did –  read Molière in French.  Kinda dumb Molière, one-act prose imitations of Italian farces, but still, real Molière, in real French.

This felt like some kind of accomplishment.

More breakthroughs: the first time I decided I did not need a book in English over lunch – my French book would do.  Reading without a dictionary, an exercise I still regularly use.  Each increment of pages: twenty French pages in a day, thirty, sixty.  My first book longer than two hundred pages.  I have yet to read one over three hundred.  Five hundred – that hardly seems possible.

As a matter of energy expenditure, I could feel my improvement.  At first, ten pages in an hour, of a book written for 10 year-olds, exhausted me.  But soon enough it was twenty pages an hour, and of something harder.  Now, twenty pages of struggle an hour is for Flaubert.  Something simpler, like the Jules Verne novel I am now reading, I merely read, although slowly.

So now I can read in French, more slowly and less accurately than I could read in English translation.  There are more books that I can read, but I was hardly running out of books.  What good does that do me?  Why did I bother?  Let’s not pursue this idea.

I fear that my new skill could easily rust with neglect.  It is necessary that I read French every day.  Almost every day.  If you see, in my Currently Reading box to the upper right, that there is nothing French, please, give me a poke with a sharp stick.  “Get reading!”

Tomorrow: what I read.

Monday, July 23, 2018

How I learned some French

Is language learning interesting?  I mean, other people’s language learning?  I mean, mine.  I am not sure.  Maybe someone will find this useful.

I spent the last year working on my French.  Here’s what that meant.

Where I Started

I had taken French for a couple of years at the Alliance Française in Chicago, a slow once-a-week course, and I vacationed in France frequently.  A year ago in May, I took a week of French at CAVILAM in Vichy.  CAVILAM is an endless rolling French course.  Take a test Monday morning; start class at the appropriate level a couple of hours later.  Whee!  Just plunge in.

To my surprise – those Alliance Française classes, those were several years ago – I tested at level A2, “Basic / Elementary” in the framework commonly used in Europe, and a big step above A1, “Basic / Beginner,” what I had expected.  In American terms, I had made my way through the first semester of college French, however raggedly, and was ready for the second semester.

That test was amusing.  The first piece was five true-or-false questions.  Listen to a sentence, read another sentence about the first.  True or false?  My responses were:

Q1.  Hey, I understood that!
Q2.  Hey, I think I understood that.
Q3.  Well, I can make a guess.
Q4.  No idea.
Q5.  Hey, trick question – that wasn’t even French!

So, A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 in a few minutes.  I guess the rest of the test was to identify lucky guessers.

Class in Lyon

In August, I took another placement exam, this time for the Alliance Française in Lyon.  Again, A2.  I spent September studying French for about six hours a day, half in class and half in the library.  To many people, this would sound miserable, although I will bet that many people who read Wuthering Expectations would like it pretty well.  Throughout the fall, I kept pushing hard on French study, sometimes in class, sometimes on my own, until I had completed what was effectively second-semester French.

I spent the winter and fall studying French by means of reading in French.  I’ll write about that tomorrow.

To skip to the end, my level is still A2.  My reading level is higher.

I had accumulated a number of ideas about the obstacles adult learners face, or create for themselves, in language classrooms.  It is possible that knowledge is a form of inoculation.

I cannot say, for example, that I was bothered by being among the older students in the class, thirty years older than the youngest, who seemed to be accomplishing more with less effort.  Eh, good for them.

Adults in the Language Classroom

I knew that adults often have, compared to children, more anxiety about making mistakes, about looking like fools.  Perhaps I had imagined my way through this fear already, or perhaps my temperament is otherwise – it is clearly otherwise, see Wuthering Expectations for no end of evidence – but I jumped in, volunteered, babbled until silenced, whatever I needed to do.  I had one great teacher in Lyon, who tailored her corrections to each student’s specific weaknesses.  “Anglicism,” she would tell me over and over, “anglicism, anglicism.”  I was ambitious.  “Let’s see if this word works – it might!”  But the important thing is I wasn’t shy.

Is the brain of the adult learner, the actual capacity to learn, different?  I don’t know.  Win some, lose some, I think.  The adult’s capacity for imitation is probably lower.  And my hearing is worse than it used to be, that was clear enough.  But I had learned a lot of ways to compensate – to study, to organize, to theorize.

I would do this again.  I would do it with a language new to me.  Spend the first week of a vacation in Italy in a language class, for example.

Next: I slowly shift back to literature.

Monday, April 23, 2018

My final presentation in France - book blogs are good

If you find yourself in France for an extended period, a couple of months, even, you are crazy not to track down and join the local branch of the Acceuil des Villes Françaises, the AVF.  The organization is for people new to the city, the members a fascinating mix of French and non-French.  Many of the French members are themselves new not just to the city but to France, having lived abroad for many years.

The benefits: meeting people, parties, practicing French, food, French, wine, French, parties.  The members are self-selected to be the friendliest people in France, and the most welcoming to outsiders.  They are also saintly in their patience, as I will demonstrate here.

Last week I gave a half-hour presentation on book blogs to an AVF audience, about a dozen people.  In French, a language I do not really know.  My French is a lot better than it was in September.  This was not a final presentation in a French course, but it sure felt like it.

An AVF member had organized a series of talks on “Passions,” meaning true amateurism, hobbies taken seriously.  Material for a blog, right?  Using myself as a case study, I showed what a blog is, how it works, and why it is useful, without putting much emphasis on literature as such.  The blog is an all-purpose form.

With no internet connection, I could not play around with the blog but had to screenshot every relevant item in advance.

So: screenshots, half-hour, general interest, and French-in-progress.  Those were the constraints.  That suggests the level of the talk.  I doubt I said anything that would surprise anybody.

I defined some terms.  I deployed the Samuel Johnson quote about how only blockheads write for free.  If I were writing for the blog, I would just drop in the word “blockhead” and assume every possible reader knew the Johnson quote already.  I used Wuthering Expectations to show some bloggy features, especially the comments and commenters.

I emphasized two things, really, first, the community or interactive side of blogs, the mysterious process by which actual humans who know a lot wander by and help me, and second, the remarkable international diversity of bloggers and blog readers.  I showed some examples, maybe even your blog!  Who can say.  Whatever arguments I might have against social media, the global connections among people with shared passions have worked as advertised.

I ended the talk with a bit of French-flattering English-bashing, all true, I am afraid, arguing that book blogs have had a special role in countering Anglophone insularity and connecting the small number of English-reading people interested in non-English literature, in so-called “literature in translation,” and have had a real, expansive influence on publishers, translators, and readers.  And how we need those books.

Before the talk, I asked for advice on Twitter – many thanks to everyone who contributed.  Some hint of every suggestion was somewhere in the talk.  Ma femme gave a short, illustrated talk on beautiful libraries before my section, which surely helped put the audience on a good mood.  And there was, as always, wine, and snacks, and pastry.  I guess there were worse things than enduring my talk.  Still, what kindness.  Endless thanks to the Lyon AVF, international branch.