Thursday, February 25, 2021

Consciousness shuddering in the void - more 1935 fantasy: Joseph O'Neill's Land Under England and C. L. Moore's Northwest Smith

Two more fantasy books that are exact contemporaries with The Circus of Dr. Lao.  Real period specialists read a lot of third and fourth and fifth tier books, and even some real garbage.  It is educational; both of these third-tier books are instructive.  I just mean that they are not as good as The Circus of Dr. Lao, although I enjoyed them plenty.

In Joseph O’Neill’s Land Under England (1935) the Romans manning Hadrian’s Wall at some point escape into a network of underground caves, where they establish a new civilization.  The narrator discovers this lost world while searching for his father, who disappeared searching for the Romans.

Does this not sound like fun?  Modern technology and ideas knocked up against the Romans?  A Scotsman in Emperor Hadrian’s Court?  That is not this novel at all.  The underground Romans have adapted into a telepathy and mine control-based slave society.  Almost no aspect of Roman culture has survived.  The father has been “absorbed” into the collective; the narrator struggle to avoid the same fate.  The climax is a chase scene, the father pursuing the son:

I should have to make my choice soon between killing him or allowing him to seize me.  The man was mad, but he was my father.  The person who was following me had always been there, inside my father’s skin.  He had always been there, making him different from himself at times, even in the old days – a double personality, not like my mother.  (p. 266 of the Tusk edition).

A descent into the dark depths, dream-like landscapes, psychic struggle, a struggle with the father – it took me a while, but finally I saw it.  Land Under England is a genuine, no joke Freudian novel, the Oedipal conflict made literal.  I often think of fantasy as fiction that literalizes metaphors.  This is that.

C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith (1933-6) is a collection of pulpy stories, all published in Weird Tales alongside H. P. Lovecraft and Conan the Barbarian, about the Han Solo-like title character, an interplanetary smuggler who keeps running into weirdness, usually in female form, like Medusa or the Sirens, but as aliens, and then defeats them with his willpower and a shot or two from his ray gun.  The “Greek monster as space creature” idea only lasts for the first two stories, after which the inventions become more original.  “Black Thirst” features a vampire who feeds on the “beauty-force,” and creates women so beautiful that a glimpse of one nearly drives Northwest Smith mad.  The vampire feeds on these women, but lures in our hero because:

“I realized then how long it had been since I tasted the beauty of a man.  It is so rare, so different from female beauty, that I had all but forgotten it had existed.” (65, the 1981 Ace Books edition)

He plans to “nourish the roots of male beauty” before feeding.  This is pretty wild stuff for 1934 America, but the pulp magazines had different rules.  It is perhaps worth noting, what with the energy-sucking medusa and beauty-draining bisexual vampire and so on, that the “C.” in the author’s name stands for Catherine.

If I set Northwest Smith beside Land Under England, the constant scenes of mental struggle take on a different character.  The stories attempt to portray extreme states of consciousness, whether caused by sex, dreams, maybe drugs, maybe trauma.  The psychology – not of the character, but more abstractly -  becomes meaningful:

Smith’s consciousness shuddered in the void where it drifted, raged against its own helplessness, watched in horror-struck fascination the surges of billowing gray that rolled slowly into the room…  The prospect of the world’s destruction had made him sick with a hopeless dread, but the thought of his own body offered up as a sacrifice to the floating gray, leaving him to drift for eternity through voids, cracked like a whiplash against his consciousness in one flash of hot rebellion that jerked him all out of focus to the scene he watched.  (“The Cold Gray God,” 256)

I mean, if you can stand the prose, which is on the heavy side.  I found that reading one story immediately after another was a mistake.  They were published months or even years apart; that’s more like it.

Next week will be devoted 19th century French fantasy fiction.

"The world is my idea; as such I present it to you." - Charles Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao

To the left, we see the back cover of the 1964 Bantam edition of Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935), which I purchased for $1.50 at the Chicago Powell’s in, let’s say, 1993, and read immediately.  Messing around in the literature of the 1930s, I re-read it recently.  Fittingly, the book is something of a freak, its own creature, a hodgepodge fantasy in a lightly satirical mode.  Babbitt goes to the circus, but a circus full of mythological beasts.  Everything on the back cover is in the novel.  Strange things come to Abalone, Arizona, for just one day.  A couple dozen characters read an ad, watch a parade, and experience peculiar events.

What does this book sound like?  For a hundred page novel with dozens of characters and weird critters, it’s kind of leisurely.  This is how the circus magician resurrects a dead man, a laborer in overalls, a cowboy hat, and “old worn army shoes”:

The corpse looked as if it was sleeping in a very uncomfortable position.

Apollonius began to pray a low, thick prayer.  His eyeballs turned dead green; thin, hazy stuff floated out of his ears. He prayed and prayed and prayed.  To the subtle spirit of life he sent his terrible invocation.

Then all of a sudden, when everyone was most[!] expecting it, the dead man came to life, sat up, coughed, and rubbed his eyes.

“Where the devil am I?” he wanted to know.

“You’re at the circus,” said the doctor.

“Well, lemme outa here,” said the man.  “I got business to attend to.”

He got to his feet and started off with a slight limp.

Luther caught his arm as he made for the door.  “Listen, mister,” he asked, “was you really dead.”

“Deader than hell, brother,” said the man and hurried on out of the tent.  (39)

And that’s almost the last we see of him.  Finney was an Arizona newspaper editor, and if the characters are more or less types and caricatures, the vernacular touches, the talk, is from life.

It is curious to see the ideas of the times wander through the novel.  Miss Agnes Birdsong, high-school English teacher, has a memorable encounter with a satyr (“’I am a calm, intelligent girl, and I have not seen Pan on Main Street,’” 23); it is not even twenty years since Max Beerbohm mocked encounters with Pan on Main Street.  The climax of the novel is a spectacle with a cast of eleven thousand (“’Why, that’s a goddam lie!’ said Plumber Rogers. ‘There ain’t hardly that many people in Abalone,’” 6) depicting the sacrifice of a virgin to a pagan god.  It has some interesting resemblances to Francis Stevens’s The Citadel of Fear (1918) and D. H. Lawrence’s “The Woman Who Rode Away” (1925).  Perhaps it is a parody.

The novel as such ends on page 100 with the end of the spectacle and the collapse of the circus tent.  Then follows the most surprising thing in the novel, “The Catalogue,” nineteen pages of annotated lists.  Sometimes greatly annotated (from “The Male Characters”):

The Dead Man Apollonius Brought Back To Life: Arnold R. Todhunter.  A homesteader.  Later on, when a Tribune reporter interviewed him about the hours he spent in the arms of death, he testified that he was just on the point of being issued a harp and a gown when Apollonius reclaimed his clay.  He said Heaven reminded him more than anything else of an advertisement he had once read of Southern California.  (103)

Lists of animals, statues, and “The Foodstuffs.”  The next to last list is a series of plot holes and confusing points.

The Circus of Dr. Lao won the 1935 National Book Award for Most Dang Peculiar Book, a category they no longer award. It is a unique little monster.

There is no way Steven Millhauser does not know the novel.  Ray Bradbury loved it, but I have not read the obviously relevant Bradbury book.

Despite a reference to The Temptation of Saint Anthony on page 113 (“Chimera: Described by Rabelais, Flaubert, and Finney”) I think I will next poke at a couple more 1930s fantasies.

My title can be found on p. 94.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

a sub-department that sold full-sized Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and roller coasters - Steven Millhauser piles things up

Steven Millhauser won a Pulitzer for his novel Martin Dressler (1996) and somewhere around that time I read a review that must have impressed me, since I bought the novel and The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (1998), $5.95 at the Chicago Powell’s, regular price $22.00.  What a bargain!  I read neither, and moved them both at least three times.  Never again!  Or, really, one last time.

Now I’ve read The Knife Thrower.  It’s a collection of fantasy stories.  Some are in the American vein of Bernard Malamud and John Cheever, like “Flying Carpets,” where, bored with their bicycles, the suburban youth spend the summer flying around on the new craze.  Others are more like Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, but transported into an American setting (usually) and idiom (always).  Where Borges describes, in “The Library of Babel,” his fantasy (or nightmare) of an infinite library, Millhauser, in “The Dream of the Consortium,” writes about an endless, perpetually changing department store:

We passed among dinner plates with pictures of blue windmills on them, footed glass dessert dishes filled with wax apricots, brightly colored ten-cup coffeemakers with built-in digital clocks.  We wandered past glittering arrays of laser printers and laptops, past brightly painted circus wagons, rolls of brown canvas, and bales of hay… a sub-department that sold full-sized Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and roller coasters…  precise wooden and plaster models of Victorian London, Nuremberg in the age of Dürer, and Manhattan in 1925… imperfect mannequins… full-sized replicas of entire ancient cities.  (156-7, those ellipses of mine cover a lot more stuff)

For a reader who read I don’t know how many times the chapter of Robinson Crusoe where Crusoe unloads the wrecked ship, and the chapter of Huckleberry Finn where Huck loots his father’s cabin before faking his death, is this ever my kind of thing.

Can a story have no characters?  Millhauser, like Borges, comes as close as possible.  The narrator, that general “we,” whether it explores the department store,  watches the performance of a famous knife thrower, or lives in a town built over a series of mysterious tunnels, is the guiding sensibility, a character, maybe the only character, by default.

I know some people say that settings can become characters, but I do not know what they mean.  Millhauser’s settings are settings, lovingly invented and described.

Millhauser loves theatrical excess, American and European, things that are too big or too small, whatever surprises.  Thus, in the department store, the circus wagons, roller coasters, and miniature cities, and also the “gloomy department of caves and tunnels” (153).  The Knife Thrower has, effectively, a climax, the forty-page “Paradise Park,” where a classic Coney Island amusement park pulls together the major themes from all the other stories.  Rides, games, spectacles, but also hidden levels, anti-rides, abstraction, alienation as amusement.

These stories can be a little bit like the kind of computer game where you explore a landscape, often obsessively, not caring exactly what is around the corner as long as it is something.  Any invention will do.

But they are also often – maybe too often? – arguments or allegories about imagination and creativity.  “The New Automaton Theater” is especially bald.  The great maker of miniature automatons is the ultimate realist (“Every perfectly rendered gesture seems designed only to draw us more deeply inward; we feel an uncanny intimacy with this restless creature, whose mysterious life we seem to know more deeply than our own,” 117) but has a crisis and becomes an Expressionist, maybe?  Some kind of Modernist:

But Graum’s new automatons suffer and struggle; no less than the old automatons do they appear to have souls.  But they do not have the souls of human beings; they have the souls of clockwork creatures, grown conscious of themselves.  (124)

This is obviously about fiction, right?  Everything changing in 1910, as Virginia Woolf says.

Expect Martin Dressler to appear here at some point.  Going backwards, the next book I should write up is Gustave Flaubert’s folly The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but I think I will follow the theme and look at another circus book: The Circus of Dr. Lao

Monday, February 22, 2021

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” - some jolly bits of Richard II

I fear I need a system, a structure, to get writing again.  What if I work backwards?  Let’s see, what is the last book I finished.  Oh no, it’s Richard II (1595, let’s say).  Oh no, or good, I don’t know. 

Richard II is the first Shakespeare play I took seriously, and really worked through, as a college student. The professor insisted, again and again, that our papers had to have lots of evidence form the text, so I “wrote” a paper that was half quotations.  I must have included most of every monologue of the title character.  “Too much,” she said, correctly, usefully.  But those passages are so rich, so good.

It is a strange play, in that King Richard begins as some kind of villain, a hypocritical schemer, a “Machiavelli,” to use the term the Elizabethan playwrights loved, under the influence of a pack of parasites.  In short, one of the crowd of Shakespeare’s bad, weak kings, capricious, corrupt, and incompetent.  Threatened, then overthrown, he becomes sentimental and self-pitying.  He becomes a lot like Hamlet, or one side of Hamlet, obsessed with death and puns, for example “ay / I” in the abdication scene:


Are you contented to resign the crown?


Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be.

Therefore no “no,” for I resign to thee.  (Act IV, Scene 1)

“Ay, no; no, ay” is one of those poetic lines of Shakespeare's that verges on abstraction or anti-poetry, like King Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never!”

Somehow Richard becomes a sympathetic and tragic figure, a great Weak Male Character.  And it is all done through language.  His self-serving, self-pitying, ironic monologues are magnificent.  “King” is a role he played all his life, but he should have been a poet.  Richard, for example, imagines Death as the court fool, accompanying the him “within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king, “scoffing” and “grinning,”


Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life

Were brass impregnable; and humored thus,

Comes at the last and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and farewell, king!  (Act III, Scene 2)

Richard has a Gothic imagination.  “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” he says a bit earlier in the scene.  Or look at the beginning of his final speech, just before his murder:


I have been studying how I may compare

This prison where I live unto the world

And for because the world is populous

And here is not a creature but myself,

I cannot do it.  (Act V, Scene 5)

And then he does it anyways, because he loves to spin out conceits.

Di, at The little white attic, has been reading a lot of Shakespeare, most recently Richard II.  The excerpts she picks have all sorts of correspondences with the ones I used.  She also acknowledges that the play has other characters and context and ideas and so forth.  Those are interesting, too.

The idea of Richard not being king but playing the role of king I got from Harold Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1 (1951).  On the surface, the motivating idea of Richard II is a critique of the divine right of kings, and, honestly, who cares about that anymore; Goddard effectively modernizes the play.

All quotations are from the Folger Shakespeare Library text.

What’s next, looking back?  A collection of Steven Millhauser stories.



Friday, December 11, 2020

Émile Gaboriau's proto-mystery Corde au cou - "What would a policeman be who did not know how to disguise himself"

“The great Gaboriau said, didn’t he? – ‘always suspect that which seems probable, and begin by believing what seems incredible.’”

“If he said that, the great Gaboriau must have been a half-wit.  I’ve never heard such a cheap, fantastic paradox.”

Here we eavesdrop on the detective and his wife discussing a case in Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die (1938, Ch. 10 of the last section), and what strikes me is that “Blake” assumed that his Golden Age English detective novel readers could more or less identify Émile Gaboriau, one of the precursors of the detective novel.  Or maybe they could not; maybe this was an extremely private joke of “Blake’s.”

In the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887), Watson brings up Gaboriau, only to have Holmes dismiss his most famous detective, M. Lecoq, as a “’miserable bungler…  That book made me positively ill.’”

For some reason I recently read a Gaboriau novel, Corde au cou (Rope around the Throat, 1873), a 500-pager* that does not feature Lecoq (although he is mentioned), but another detective, M. Goudar, who does not appear until page 300 or so.  My first glimpse of him is on a ladder, where “he was covering his superb trellised chasselas grapes in horsehair sacks” (303, translations all mine).  The last line of the novel, after wrapping up everyone else’s story: “And Goudar, nursery gardener, sells the most beautiful peaches in Paris.”

Goudar is also a master of disguise: “’What would a policeman be who did not know how to disguise himself,’ he interrupted” (356).

I am just saying that some of this should look awfully familiar to readers of a certain era of English detective fiction.  Still, no detective until page 300; this is not itself exactly a detective novel (although come to think of it that Blake novel does not introduce the detective until the 50% mark).

What else is in Corde au cou?  How about some plot:

A count is shot, seriously injured, and his farm is burned.  Two men die fighting the fire.  A neighboring nobleman, Jacques de Boiscoran is implicated by a range of evidence, and he refuses to defend himself.  What is he hiding; who is he protecting?  Lawyers do the detecting for a while, first the prosecutor and then the defense attorney (I am substituting the equivalent American roles).  Corde au cou  is more like a “judicial novel,” with lots of lawyers and courtroom scenes.  The defense attorney discovers that his client, Boiscoran, has for many years had a love affair with his neighbor the countess, but has recently dumped her to marry someone else.  So now we have many motives, both for Boiscoran to attack her husband, and for the vengeful countess to frame her former lover.  All right, there’s a tangle.

The tension of the story, though, is not really in the crime but the dissonance between the archaic honor culture of the nobility and the more sordid realities of modern France.  Why does Boiscoran want to protect the countess’s “reputation”?  He is not, and never was, a courtly knight.

Jean-Bernard Pouy, in Une brève histoire du roman noir (A Brief History of the Crime Novel, 2009) writes that Gaboriau “moved away, little by little, from the ‘judicial novel,’ throwing Lecoq, his main character, into increasingly precise and vengeful adventures in the context of the corrupt society of the Second Empire,” and he singles out Corde au cou and Gaboriau’s next novel.  Pouy’s line does not exactly describe Corde au cou, which lacks Lecoq and overlaps the Second Empire and the Third Republic (the events of 1870 are a hinge in the story), but the point about corruption is right.  The strange thing is that the nobility, the leaders, are honorable and if anything too obsessed with integrity, while literally everyone else is corrupt, almost openly for sale.  The social critique is not what I would call democratic.  The critique, the tension, is built into the form of the novel, which alternates between a Romantic mode and a Realist mode, Chateaubriand characters and Balzac characters.  As is the case with many later detective novels, the social novel has more meaning than the crime novel.

I am not saying that Corde au cou is The Moonstone or something, not by any means.  There were long stretches where I was dying for an interesting sentence (the French was not too hard, though).  But there is an interesting story about the interaction between French and English detective fiction that I would like to understand better.  If only Gaboriau’s novels weren’t so long.

* Page references are to the 1874 edition, available from The Bibliothèque nationale de France.


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

What I read in November, all in one place for some reason

What I read in November, in list form, with light opinionation.  No idea what good this is to me, except psychologically, and I doubt that, much less to anyone else.  If I wrote something else, I include the link.


La Bête du Vaccarès (1926), Joseph d’Arbaud.  Tourism and other interesting things.

Poèmes : 1919-48, André Breton.  Really just 1932-48.  I would never guess from Breton’s 1930 poems that this is the Surrealism tyrant phase, or the Communist phase.  The poems look a lot like they did in the 1920s.  The “Ode to Charles Fourier” looks different, but that is from 1947.  Breton seems second-rate to me.  Louis Aragon is more linguistically playful, a better poet all around. Benjamin Péret is more pure, more committed to the concept.  Still, I found plenty of good lines, good images, even whole poems.  The little 1934 collection L'air de l'eau (The Air of the Water) seemed especially striking.

La Corde au cou (Rope to the Throat, maybe, 1873), Émile Gaboriau.  Most of my French reading energy was for some reason drained into a 500-page proto-mystery.  I want to write separately about this book.  I hereby commit to etc.  It ain’t The Moonstone, but it’s interesting.


The Complete Poems (1994), Basil Bunting.  A good Auden imitator in the 1930s, the war and a long break from poetry turned him into his own poet, most notably in the long “Briggflats” (1966), but I need to reread him to know what I mean by any of that.

Rescue (1945), Czeslaw Milosz.

North and South (1946), Elizabeth Bishop.

First Poems (1951), James Merrill.

What I really read here are the relevant parts of volumes of Collected Poems (or selected, for Merrill, From the First Nine), so I don’t know what tinkering and quiet omission has been done.  All three poets are firmly material, in contrast to so many Surrealists and Audenists of the previous decade.  If the poem is titled “The Fish,” it may be about many things, but at least one of them, no matter how lost I might get, is a fish.

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.  (Bishop)

Milosz’s material reality is the destruction of Warsaw and everything around him.  Merrill’s is rather different:

Friday.  Clear.  Cool.  This is your day.  Stendhal
At breakfast-time.  The metaphors of love.  (“Variations: The Air Is Sweetest that a Thistle Guards”)


Young Joseph (1934), Thomas Mann.

The Beast Must Die (1938), Nicholas Blake.  The flap said this is often called the greatest detective novel ever written, which is preposterous.  The 1990 Crime Writers’ Association poll put it at #81 which is plausible.  It is cleverly structured, with the detective not appearing until the exact halfway point.  It is quite funny, with some pathos at the beginning and end.  Since “Nicholas Blake” was a poet, I had hopes that his writing would be interesting, but he writes in the conventional commercial style that almost every English Golden Age mystery writer adopted.  It’s better than the Blake I read a couple of months ago, Thou Shell of Death (1936).

Murphy (1938), Samuel Beckett.

At Swim-Too-Birds (1939), Flann O’Brien.  Wild things going on in Irish fiction at the end of the 1930s!  So much fun.

The Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanael West.  Of West’s three little novels, this apocalyptic small-time Hollywood novel is the most conventional, although certain scenes are spectacular.  The chapter where the protagonist wanders through a wilderness of movie sets, for example – Surrealism perfectly harnessed for narrative fiction.  Still, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) feels like the one where the abyss is bottomless.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), Katherine Anne Porter.  Ah, these are great.  Three fifty-page “short novels” (Porter loathed the word “novella”), two of them about her greatest invention, her stand-in character Miranda.  She is a child in “Old Mortality,” working through her family history in East Texas and New Orleans, and a young theater critic in let’s call it Denver in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” where she is stricken, hard, with the Spanish flu.  Poor “Noon Wine,” a non-Miranda story, is almost lost between them, but it is good, too, a fine piece of American violence.  But it's "Old Mortality" that is like Texas Proust (the Proust of “Combray,” specifically, the best Proust).

Galileo (1947), Bertolt Brecht.


The Novel, an Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 (2010), Steven Moore.  A good way to demolish any simple notions of “firstness” – first novel, first English novel, first (any adjective) novel.  Also to demolish any notion of being well-read.  Moore is limited in his reading only by the energy of translators.  An exercise that would be useful simply as a list is also full of good criticism, with extended sections on The Arabian Nights, The Plum in the Golden Vase, The Tale of Genji, and many more books filled with the most extraordinary things.  Learning that some of these books exist at all is a pleasure, like the burst of Byzantine fiction in the 12th century, or Tibetan religious fiction in the 15th.  So much fun.  I said that up above, too.  I could have said it more.

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.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Felipe Alfau's Locos: A Comedy of Gestures - making the butterflies dance

When I was first learning to root around in literature, Vintage International was the publisher with the spines that caught my attention.  They were, at the time, the American home of Vladimir Nabokov, Günter Grass, Yukio Mishima, Eudora Welty, and Thomas Mann.  Also, for some reason, E. M. Forster and The Good Soldier, but in general they helped me get some sense of international Modernism.  Lots of interesting things going on out there. I guess they pulled in William Faulkner later, since I only have earlier editions of his books.

Felipe Alfau’s Locos: A Comedy of Gestures (Farrar & Rinehart 1936, Dalkey Archive 1988, Vintage 1990) is one of the books that caught my attention by its company in the line.  It is a perfect fit, a tricky, playful, meta-fiction, with stories about, for example, a man who wants to become a fictional character and enlists the help of Alfau, the author, and another about a woman who is so in love with Death that she not only spends her day going to funerals but occasionally dies, you know, once in a while.  It is not all fantasy of the supernatural sort, though, as in “The Wallet,” about the time the power went out in Madrid during a police convention, so that the criminals were bolder than ever and the police, spending “all their efforts and time upon discussing matters of regulation, discipline and now and then how to improve the methods of hunting criminals” that they had “neither the time nor energy” to stop crime (p. 78).

The stories occasionally have footnotes, always at points where either the author or the characters lose control of the narrative:

(The voice of Carmen was heard from the next room smothered in manly laughter.) 1


1  The reader may disregard this interruption of two characters whom I had not intended for this story, but who are endeavoring to complicate matters on the stage by making noise in the wings.

In this case the footnote is a clue to or intrusion by the other level of the book, where the collection of stories are in fact a novel, with characters recurring across the story, often with different names so it is not clear that they are almost all related.  All of the characters are introduced in the first story, patrons of Locos, the bar that supplies the book’s title.  One character is present only in the form of “a little Chinese figure made of porcelain” with a “butterfly on his shoulder” (8-9.  I can see that the story, looking at it now, is full of clues or hints or jokes about what happens later in the book.  Chinelato’s dance of the butterflies, that is a lovely episode.

For the reader who likes this sort of thing, this is great fun, and for the reader who does not I suppose great tedium.  Mary McCarthy reviewed the novel in 1936, and returned to it over fifty years later for its rediscovery.  “Alfau, or his book, was evidently my fatal type, which I would again meet in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and more than once in Italo Calvino” (“Afterword,” 201).

This Spanish novel by a Spanish writer was, surprisingly, written in English and first published in the United States, where Alfau was an immigrant who wrote for Spanish-language newspaper and did commercial translation.  The Vintage edition of Locos was successful enough that an unpublished novel by Alfau, Chromos, written in the 1940s, appeared in 1990.  I remember it as quite good, but it has been thirty years since I read it.  Locos has stood up well.  Maybe someone can re-discover Alfau again.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Frigyes Karinthy’s brain tumor memoir A Journey Round My Skull - “Who is he, anyhow?”

John Gunther’s memoir Death Be Not Proud (1949), the account of his teenage son’s illness and death from a brain tumor, was one of the small number of actual books assigned by my high school, long long ago, but not so long that a memoir from 1949 did not seem just a bit antique.  Not that I remember it well.  It was earnest, instructive, sad. 

Frigyes Karinthy’s brain tumor memoir A Journey Round My Skull (1937) is a different kind of critter.  Karinthy, in his late forties when he becomes ill, was a comic writer, famous enough in Hungary that his operation was covered in Budapest newspapers.  He has a sense of humor about his illness, a great help in writing a book about it, and presumably in living through it.  And he writes the book himself, so it has a happy ending, for a while, at least.

A true Austro-Hungarian, however the borders have changed, Karinthy spends the first three pages sitting in a café, goofing off, doing the crossword.

And at that very moment the trains started…  Three times I raised my head, and it was only when the fourth train stated that I realized I was suffering from an hallucination.  (“The Invisible Train,” 12-13, tr. Vernon Duckworth Barker)

The interesting thing, from a literary and philosophical perspective, about a brain disease is the change in sensory perception.  We have enough trouble understanding what is around us when our senses work the way we are used to, much less when the brain starts playing tricks.  The subjective / objective split becomes intense.

The climax of the book is Karinthy’s operation, when he is under (only!) local anesthetic, adding another layer of weirdness, and recovery.  Time shifts and is compressed, recurring dreams replace reality, particularly the one described in the titles of Chapter 24, “Half a Dog Running to Telleborg,” in which Karinthy is sure he is half of a dog that has been cut in half by one of the invisible trains first heard in Chapter 1.

This part of the book gets pretty weird.

The following pages came before my eyes like a sequence from a film.  Try as I may, I cannot say for certain whether I has this experience during the operation itself or during my feverish dreams of the next few days.  My excursion in Time (which I shall describe shortly) may have begun at that moment, and is perhaps causing me to place in this chapter a series of pictures which should belong to the next…  In that film, the following sequence appears next, and it is therefore here that I shall include it.  (241)

It is a little apologia for Modernist fiction.  It is the older writers who were wrong, just putting one event after another.

The disease memoir is a well-formed genre now, and the film that most of A Journey Round My Skull resembles, not the weirdness of the operation but the earlier part, the series of symptoms, doctors, and diagnoses, is the last third of Nanni Moretti’s Caro Diario (1993), the brilliant “Doctors” sequence, in which Moretti bravely recreates his own maddening journey through the Italian medical system.

In the middle of the operation, Karinthy interrupts himself with chapter titled “Addis Ababa.”  He checks in on people back in Budapest, his son (“who was now free to do as he liked, was probably enjoying himself,” 227), his friends, strangers reading about him in the newspaper:

At the morgue in the Szvetenay-ucca the corpses were lying peacefully in their zinc cases.  The only sound came from the dripping of ice as it melted under them.  Some of them wore an expression of indifference, and some one of surprise.  ON every face, there was an expression of some kind that had no meaning, as it had no cause.  An attendant had sat down on the doorstep to eat a hunch of bacon.  His companion was reading to him from a newspaper.  When he came to the title of my operation report the attendant cut himself another slice of bacon.

“Who is he, anyhow?” he asked, in a bored tone.  (236-7)

Meanwhile, the Italians conquer Ethiopia.  Disease memoirs are a form of wisdom literature.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

He’ll drink anything and you know it - some drinking in Appointment in Samarra, and some jazz - he was screaming with jazz

John O’Hara wrote Appointment in Samarra in 1934, but it is set in 1930.  The main character in 1930 is just about O’Hara’s age in 1934, close enough that they can share childhood details about “the various nights” in Pottsville / Gibbsville, PA, not just Halloween but “Gate Night, when you took people’s gates off the fences” (7, 137) and so on, or this great list of “the cigarettes to be smoked: Ziras, Sweet Caps, Piedmonts, Hassans” (139).

What does O’Hara get out of 1930?  A couple of things.  First, a Big Historical Irony: the Depression is not the Depression yet, as far as people know.  If Julian English knew that all of his high status pals, along with the bankers and brokers, were also going to declare bankruptcy right alongside him, soon enough, he might not be so driven to kill himself.  But he is still thinking the old way.

Second, 1930 is still Prohibition, and boy does O’Hara have fun with that.  “’He’ll drink anything and you know it’” (3.III, 55), and that’s meant positively. The book is full of the logistics of Prohibition, whether in the gangster subplot or in detail about exactly how to “make good gin,” which means you take the prescription “rye” from the pharmacist and

cut it with alcohol and colored water.  It was not poisonous, and it got you tight, which was all that was required of it and all that could be said for it.  (1.II, 11)

The last chapter of English’s life is a magnificent piece of drunkenness.  First, with ten pages left to live, English meets a marvelous new character, Alice Cartwright, the confident twenty-three year-old Gibbsville society columnist.  She allows O’Hara and English to take a last run with Eros before Thanatos takes over.  “He hated her more than anyone ever had hated anyone” (201).  That’s the spirit.

The drinks in the chapter are carefully noted until even English is beyond counting, on my favorite page of the novel, when he 1) “had a smart idea”:

He took the flowers out of a vase and poured the water out, and made himself the biggest highball he ever had seen.  It did not last very long.  (203)

Now he can use “the vase for resting-drinking, and the glass for moving-drinking” (204).  He needs to rest because he sometimes needs to sit still and listen.  Alone at home, abandoned by wife and world, he is playing with his record collection, first spreading them out on the floor “to have them near.”

He played Paul Whiteman’s record of Stairway to Paradise, and when the record came to the “patter” he was screaming with jazz.  The phonograph stopped itself but he was up and changing it to a much later record, Jean Goldkette’s band playing Sunny Disposish. (203, link is to Youtube)

Geez, man, Paul Whiteman, in 1930 you can do better.  Living as we do in the age of miracles, all of the songs O’Hara mentions are easy to find.  Perhaps you should skip the godawful lyrics and vocal of “Sunny Disposish” and jump to 2:00, where Bix Beiderbecke is playing lead and jazz occurs.  That recording is from 1927.  English has been keeping up to some extent.

A lesson of this cruel, tragic scene is to not put your records on the floor when drunk, or perhaps ever:

He wanted to cry but he could not.  He wanted to pick up the pieces.  He reached out to pick them up, and lost his balance and sat down on another record, crushing it unmusically.  He did not want to see what it was.  All he knew was that it was a Brunswick, which meant it was one of the oldest and best. (203-4)

This cruel, painful scene seemed like something new in literature.

Bill Vollmann wrote a good piece in The Baffler, January 2014, that contains a number of good lines, including one about O'Hara's cruelty:

In many respects he is a cruel writer; not only does he portray quotidian cruelty unblinkingly and intimately, but his portrayals themselves can be cruel.

I thought about spending a day on O’Hara’s cruelty.  He occasionally takes sudden, surprising jabs at even the most sympathetic characters.  “Like most cynics, O’Hara wishes things were different,” that’s another good Vollmann line, a line that is itself cruel.

Thanks to Dolce Bellezza for suggesting a readalong for Appointment in Samarra, and thanks to everyone who read along.  It is a good book club book.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

And then there were people. Terrible people - John O'Hara fills up Appointment in Samarra

Appointment in Samarra has the restless energy that a jumpy 28-year old pours into a first novel.  The three-day crash of a doomed protagonist would fill the 216-page novel of many writers.  Not this novel.

Three major overlapping techniques:

1.  Speech.  Not dialogue, exactly, but talk, chatter, words said aloud.

“Jeez,” he said.  “Jeezozz H. Kee-rist.  You hear about what just happened?”  (1.I, 15)

I would now like to read a book about the relationship between Hollywood writing and high-falutin’ fiction in the 1930s.  Who borrows from whom; which borrows what.  It is easy to insert your favorite pre-Code Hollywood actor into the book.  Try it here with James Cagney, who in 1930 was almost exactly the right age for the part (Caroline, Julian English’s wife, goes first – she’s Joan Blondell, let’s say – and they’re on the phone):

“It’s about time someone slapped your face.  Now I want you to understand this, old boy.  If you come home drunk this afternoon and start raising hell, I’ll simply call up every person we’ve invited and call off the party.”

“You’ll simply, huh?”

“Oh, shut up,” she said, and ended the call.

“She’ll simply,” he said to the telephone, and gently replaced the handpiece in the cradle.  “She’ll simply.” (8, 171)

It’s not just speech, but internal language, too:

It was a fine night.  (Fine had been a romantic word in his vocabulary ever since he read A Farewell to Arms, but this was one time when he felt justified using it.)  (4.II, 85)

That banality, the “fine night,” is directly assigned to the character, who thinks “fine snow” a couple of times, pounding the word dead before giving it up for a while.

2. People.  There are so many people in the novel.  How many named characters, I wonder?

And then there were people.  Terrible people, who didn’t have to do anything to make them terrible, but were just terrible people.  (4.II, 82)

In my edition there are thirteen named people, none of whom are really characters in the novel, just on that page.  Plenty of the names in this crowded novel are real characters, however briefly, which leads to

3. Digression.  The novel wanders, the narrator wanders.  He starts chapters from a distance – “Gibbsville moved up from the status of borough and became a third class city in 1911, but in 1930” etc., and this, part of the first sentence of Chapter 9, is how O’Hara begins the climax of the novel.  Chapter 3 begins with the history of bituminous versus anthracite coal regions in Pennsylvania, and the consequences to unionization.  The dissertation on zones in the middle of Chapter 8 is an odd one.  “Your home is the center of many zones” (176), then about a half page more on the theme.

Sometimes he simply wanders over to another character.  The most important is Caroline, who we heard on the phone earlier, Julian’s wife.  She stars in a shadow novel, one I can imagine many readers preferring, about a wife dealing with a husband who self-destructs.  Chapter 5 is devoted entirely to what we might call her early sex life, the negotiations of a young American woman in the marriage market of the mid-1920s.  It could be published as a separate story.  Chapter 7 is mostly Julian at work in the morning, but it suddenly hops to Caroline in bed, a two page stream of consciousness passage, like it’s a tribute to Molly Bloom in Ulysses.

The gangster subplot surprised me.  Al Grecco is the right-hand man of the local bootlegger.  O’Hara spends a lot of time with Grecco.  When the plot intersects with the main story, it provides another way for Julian to subconsciously kill himself – suicide by mobster.  Grecco is important enough that, while eating his Christmas turkey dinner, O’Hara spends nine pages on his early history, how a juvenile delinquent became a prizefighter and then a small-time mob enforcer.  And also why his alias is “Al Grecco,” part of a two-page digression within the digression about the reporter, Lydia Faunce Browne, who named him:

Lydia’s secret favorite adjective for herself was keen…  She felt sorry for prostitutes on all occasions; she thought milk for babies ought to be pure; she thought Germany was not altogether responsible for the World War; she did not believe in Prohibition (“It did not prohibit,” she often said).  She smoked cigarettes one right after the other, and did not care who knew it; and she never was more than five minutes out of the office before she was talking in newspaper argot, not all of it quite accurate.  (2.III, 39-40)

This is quite a lot to know about a character who will never be seen again.  Maybe this is the profligacy of a short story writer.

Reese at Typings found it a trial to spend too much time with Julian English.  “Self-destructive alcoholics are hard to take, in fiction as in life.”  O’Hara may well have agreed.  So he wanders off.

Monday, September 28, 2020

So far nothing terrible had occurred - John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra


Dolce Bellezza suggested a readalong of John O’Hara’s first novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934), and although I did not do much to promote it, I did get the book read, as did several other people, so here we go.

Julian English owns a Cadillac dealership in a small coal city in Pennsylvania.  He has a rough three days, December 24 through December 26, 1930.  December 1930 was a bad time to be in the business of selling Cadillacs, or much of anything except alcohol.  That “appointment” in the title, pinched from a Somerset Maugham parable, that’s with death.

When Bellezza and I were discussing the readalong, I noticed that all of the covers prominently featured an automobile.  I did not know much about the story, but I took all those cars as a clue.  “So far nothing terrible had occurred” (1.II, 10) but I’m afraid that’s only six pages into the novel.

In June 1930, English borrowed twenty thousand dollars from a jolly Irish raconteur.  In this novel, packed with money and prices, are we ever going to need the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator:

So, when I get a passage like this (it’s Christmas; the novel is full of parties), I am ready:

“They have a cover charge of a dollar and a half or two dollars, and there goes twenty bucks already, not including ginger ale and White Rock, and sandwiches!  You know what they charge for a plain ordinary chicken sandwich at the Stage Coach?  A buck.”  (2.ii, 32)

That’s thirty dollars to get in the door and sixteen dollars for the “plain ordinary” (a nice taste of O’Hara’s touch with speech, there).  Even in small-town Depression-era Pennsylvania, nightclub prices are a rip-off.

Converting, then, English has borrowed the current equivalent of $320,000 for his business, and six months later, that money is gone.  “The other ten thousand had gone for expenses, real ones, like payments on notes, payroll, and so on” (7, 159).  The phrase “real ones” tells you what you need to know about the first ten thousand, although there is a long paragraph with the details of English’s impulsive squandering.  Now it’s the end of the month and he won’t be able to make payroll.  A few pages later he locks himself in the bathroom and “put the barrel in his mouth,” but there are fifty pages left in the novel and anyways we know that it’s a car that will kill him, presumably a Cadillac, not a gun.

O’Hara, in Samarra, is an anatomist of social status, not exactly class but a complex combination of wealth, income, profession, marriage, residence, club membership, party-giving, ancestry, religion, education, wartime service, and public behavior.  English is about to suffer a severe loss of the first three, at least.  The story of the novel, or his story in it, is his succession of self-destructive public behavior, beginning with throwing a drink, unprovoked, in the face of the man who lent him all that money.  It is like he is getting ahead of the disaster.  Before society or the economy or whatever other outside forces destroy him, he will destroy himself.

The question, then, or the real story, is to what extent English’s self-destruction is conscious or subconscious, to what extent, moment by moment, he realizes what he is doing and where he is heading.  The form of the novel is good for this kind of story.  Outside forces versus inside; sociology versus, or mixed with, psychology. 

The psychology, and for that matter the sociology, might be a bit received.  English, especially at the end, seems to be literalizing Freud’s death-drive.  I wondered about this as I read, but I am always a skeptic about the depth of the thinking of novelists, against their perception and style, where they do such wonderful things sometimes.

I guess I’ll stop here and spend some time with O’Hara’s style tomorrow.

Page numbers are form the 2013 Penguin Deluxe edition.  Dee-luxe.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Kawabata's Snow Country - He spent his time watching insects in their death agonies

Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (1948, although mostly published 1935-7) is a short novel about the sad, hard life of a hot springs prostitute, filtered through the point of view of one of her wealthy, useless*, over-aestheticized clients.  Kawabata’s earlier novel, The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1930), is about the brutal, hard lives of big city nightlife prostitutes, mostly homeless teens.  There the filter is the Ulysses-inspired fragmentation and craziness of the literary technique.

These do not feel like social novels.  The literary techniques, fizzy and modern or calm and poetic, are up front, the thing I am reading page by page.  But I can see the social novel, the critique, hidden behind the style.  And thank goodness, because I would lose patience quickly if I thought I was supposed to sympathize with Shimamura, the tourist client.  “Some dude’s problems with a prostitute” may be my least favorite literary genre.  But here the coldness and solipsism of Shimamura, the telling of the story, is part of the critique, much like the energy and novelty and fun of Asakusa (the neighborhood and the novel) obscures its brutal side.

The novel begins with Shimamura on a night train, on his way to the hot spring.  In a long passage, he watches an attractive woman, not looking at her directly, in the train window:

In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other.  The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world.  Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.  (15)

Kawabata is giving the cinematographer a challenge.  He is himself acting as cinematographer, for several pages, overlapping the woman, the landscape, condensation, various light and color effects, and the character’s own face.  My understanding is that this scene is the germ of the novel, the first part that Kawabata published, a pure demonstration of the male gaze.  Di at The little white attic has also just read Snow Country, and she picks out some bits of this passage more beautiful than the one I chose.

She also picked something from my favorite part of the novel, one of several “passages about insect deaths.”   “He spent his time watching insects in their death agonies” (109).  The fluttering dying moths have obvious symbolic counterparts in the geishas, culminating in one who falls and possibly dies with the same gesture as a dying moth.  Or I mean she appears to fall with the same gesture – this is all Shimamura’s perceptions.  And then he falls, either because he has a profound experience of aesthetic sublimity or because he has a stroke, or both.  That’s my interpretation of the obscure ending right there.

Edward Seidensticker translated Snow Country.  He emphasizes the haiku-like qualities of the novel, which would include all of the details about seasons, colors, and those poor ephemeral moths.  I wonder how much actual haiku is in the novel, and then how much – well, look:

How large the crow is, staring up from the cedar in the evening breeze – so says the poet. (92)

Or (count the syllables):

How large the crow is,

staring up from the cedar

in the evening breeze.

I do not remember another signal, a clue, as strong as “so says the poet,” so maybe this is the only case, with the translator showing off alongside the author. Maybe I have invented all this, but now I wonder.

My page numbers are from the old Berkeley Medallion paperback, which likely match up with no other edition.

* When not on a spa sex tourism vacation, he spends his time “translating Paul Valéry and Alain, and French treatises on the dance from the golden age of Russian ballet” (108) even though he has never seen a ballet.  “The book would in all likelihood contribute nothing to the Japanese dancing world.”