Monday, December 24, 2007

on vacation

I'll be in Munich and environs until January 11, setting aside 19th century literature for a while. Maybe I'll put up some travel snaps when I get back. Thanks for visiting.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball

Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house, and a pastry cook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered: flushed, but smiling proudly: with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

A Christmas Carol, Chapter 3

Have a good holiday.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

My year in books

Number of books read: 85 or so. This is right in line with other people who write book blogs. Sociologists take note.

Longest book: Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon

Most time with one author: Balzac. Before ths year, I had read 2 of the 91 works in the Comédie Humaine. Now I've read 27. After Balzac, Thomas Carlyle, God help me.

Most pleasant surprise: Eugénie Grandet. I expected Balzac to be a clumsy first-drafter. Often, too often, I was right (see, or don't, The Chouans). Eugénie Grandet is a lovely exception, the greatest Balzac novel I've encountered, by which I mean the best written. See the first description of the Grandet parlor for an example. But also, the most complete story, rich characters, a ending that reaches for the sublime and may achieve it.

Most pleasant non-surprises: The grisly, magnificent, and insane Death's Jest-Book, by Thomas Lovell-Beddoes. The grisly, magnificent, and somewhat less insane Notre Dame de Paris, by Victor Hugo. Both examples of 19th century writers wrestling with the ideas and styles of earlier times, and achieving something new.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Best of the Year, 1807

It's the season for best-of-the-year lists. In 200 years, almost everything on them will be forgotten, except by a few scholars, perhaps.

What were the great works of 1807? Heinrich von Kleist's wonderful retelling of Amphitryon is from this year. So is Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality", I think, and George Crabbe's The Parish Register - sad how Crabbe is neglected now. And best of all (all but Kleist), Ugo Foscolo's melancholy long poem On Sepulchres. Mme de Staël's Corinne still has some readers, although I'm not one of them, as does Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare.

This does not seem like much to me. But say I am forgetting one good book or poem for every one I remember. After 200 years, the winnowing process is severe, unforgiving. Heartless. I'm not cheating too much by going back 200 years. Neither 1817, a good year for young English Romantic poets, nor 1827, with Manzoni's fantastic The Betrothed, are exactly brimming with great books. 1837 thickens up considerably (Dickens, Balzac, Hawthorne, de Musset, Carlyle, Emerson, Büchner). Spread the canon out over years, and you generally get a couple of great books a year, a handful of more marginal books, and, presumably, a shelf of good books with no more readers.

The painting is Turner's "Sun Rising in Vapour", exhibited at the 1807 salon, now in the London National Gallery.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Popup books and puppets - Redmoon Theater's Hunchback

Ma femme and I were lucky enough to see Hunchback in Chicago on Saturday, the Redmoon Theater production of Notre Dame de Paris. Redmoon is known for creating spectacles, often wordless or nearly so, with lots of odd homemade devices and off-kilter scaffoldings. The company creates amazing images, but I have found that their storytelling does not always amount to much.

The adaptation of Hugo took care of that problem. The story could hardly be stronger, and the acrobatics, the puppets, the masks, and the pop-up books were all used to tell the story, not replace it. I was most impressed when, after a half hour or so of nearly wordless action, the Author shows up on stage to deliver a lecture on medieval Paris architecture. This is actually right out of the book!*

Whoever had the first had the idea to put a giant pop-up book on stage, and then use it as a mini-stage for marionettes, was some sort of genius. A charming, intimate effect. After the performance, the audience is invited onstage, and can play around with the puppets themselves.

If you find yourself in Chicago before January 20, try to see this show.

* Anyone bogged down in Tolstoy's historical lectures in War and Peace can shift some of the blame to the architecture chapter of Notre Dame de Paris.

Friday, December 14, 2007

John Clare - I am

In his 40s, Clare began to suffer from delusions. He spent the last 25 or so years of his life in an insane asylum.* During that period, he wrote about 900 poems.

'I Am'

I feel I am; - I only know I am,
And plod upon the earth, as dull and void:
Earth's prison chilled my body with its dram
Of dullness, and my soaring thoughts destroyed,
I fled to solitudes from passions dream,
But strife persued - I only know, I am,
I was a being created in the race
Of men disdaining bounds of place and time:-
A spirit that could travel o'er the space
Of earth and heaven, - like a thought sublime,
Tracing creation, like my maker, free, -
A soul unshackled - like eternity,
Spurning earth's vain and soul debasing thrall
But now I only know I am, - that's all.

There's a more famous "I Am" poem on a similar theme, available from this useful book review of a recent Clare biography. It's inevitably tempting to read these poems with pity, as a symptom of Clare's illness. But the condition described seems universal to me, and the result, the fundamental sense of identity, profound.

Clare the rustic nature poet has seemed like a minor poet to many critics, although not to me. But the "I Am" poems, and a number of others from his long life in the asylum, seem to me to obviously be the work of a major writer, ranking with Keats and Shelley.

I've been using the thick Oxford Major Works, because I own a copy, but the recent "I Am": The Selected Poetry of John Clare might be a better choice for most readers who want to spend some time with Clare.

* What is the connection between English poets of the 18th and 19th century and mental illness? The casualty list is horrifying - Cowper, Collins, Smart. Less severely, Swift, Johnson, Blake. A strange phenomenon.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

John Clare - what sweet descriptions bards disdain to sing

Another mode of John Clare - "Rural Morning", "Sunday Walks", "Hay Making", "Angling". Affectionate, detailed poetic descriptions of ordinary activities in rural England. Here's an example:

from Rustic Fishing

On sunday mornings freed from hard employ
How oft I mark the young mischevous boy
With anxious haste his poles and lines provide
For make shifts oft crookd pins to threadings ty'd
And delve his knife with wishes ever warm
In rotten dunghills for the grub and worm
The harmless treachery of his hooks to bait

[a decription of the brook, inlcuding a morehen's nest]

There bent in hopfull musings on the brink
They watch their floating corks that seldom sink
Save when a warey roach or silver bream
Nibbles the worm as passing up the stream
Just urging expectations hopes astray
To view the dodging cork then slip away

[the weather changes, girls walk by, the boys play round in the stream, night falls]

Who then like school boys that at truant play
In sloomy fear lounge on their homward way
And inly trembling as they gain the town
To meet chastisement from a parents frown
Where hazel twigs in readiness prepard
For their long abscence brings a mete reward

These poems of rural life can be sentimental, or trivial. Maybe this one is. I like the specificity of the fishhooks improvised from pins, the "sloomy fear", the "treachery" of the hooks. The joy of the wasted day.

The header quotation is from "The Harvest Morning", Major Works, p. 13

Sunday, December 9, 2007

John Clare - not so nice to look at such

from My Mary

Who lives where beggars rarley speed?
And leads a humdrum life indeed
As none beside herself would lead?
My Mary.

Who lives where noises never cease
And what wi' hogs and ducks and geese
Can never have a minutes peace?
My Mary.


Who when the baby's all besh-t
To please its mamma kisses it?
And vows no Rose on earth's so sweet?
My Mary.

But when her mistress is'n't nigh
Who swears and wishes it would die
And pinches it to make it cry?
My Mary.


For tho in stature mighty small
And near as thick as thou art tall
That hand made thee that made us all,
My Mary.

And tho thy nose hooks down too much
And prophesies thy chin to touch
I'm not so nice to look at such,
My Mary.

No no about thy nose and chin
Its hooking out or bending in
I never heed nor care a pin,
My Mary.

And tho thy skin is brown and ruff
And form'd by nature hard and tuff
All suiteth me! So that's enough,
My Mary.

Major Works, pp. 59-62.

Lest I overstate the idea that Clare was just a nature poet, here's something else entirely. This poem is actually a parody of William Cowper's * sweet, gentle "To Mary" - same stanza form, very different Mary. Same true love.

Clare's spelling is often eccentric and his punctuation often missing entirely. I've been editing as I see fit, although I think I left this one alone.

* Cowper's neglect is outrageous. I don't think there's been a collection in print for years. A week of Cowper poems is in order.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

John Clare - A pleasant song of varied melody repeated often

Birds Nests

How fresh the air, the birds how busy now.
In every walk if I but peep I find
Nests newly made or finished all and lined
With hair and thistle down, and in the bough
Of little awthorn huddled up in green,
The leaves still thickening as the spring gets age,
The Pinks quite round and snug and closely laid,
And linnets of materials loose and rough,
And still hedge sparrow moping in the shade,
Near the hedge bottom leaves of homely stuff,
Dead grass and mosses green, an hermitage
For secresy and shelter rightly made,
And beautiful it is to walk beside
The lanes and hedges where their homes abide.

Oxford Major Works, pp. 207-8

John Clare wrote dozens of poems about bird nests. "The Ravens Nest", "The Moorehens Nest", "The Sky Lark Leaving Her Nest", "The Yellowhammers Nest". The one I include here is unusual for covering multiple types of nests. But the details about nesting materials and the plants that house the nests are typical - this is the sort of thing Clare always includes.

Clare knew what nests were for. Most of his nest poems include descriptions of the eggs, too:

from The Woodlarks Nest

As safe as secresy her six eggs lie
Mottled with dusky spots unseen by passers by


from Hedge Sparrow

Its eggs in number five of greenish blue
Bright beautiful and glossy shining shells

Then there are "Hares at Play", "The Badger", "The Tame Badger", on and on. They are all little natural histories, by a perceptive and experienced observer.

These poems generally do have some sort of point - as in the last lines of "Birds Nests" above, about man's coexistence with the natural world, and the poet's pleasure in knowing the birds and nests are around him. The knowledgable detail, though, is what always amazes me, more than the moral. Some twentieth century poets would try to recapture this real attention to nature - A. R. Ammons book Uplands is an example. I don't know of anyone who was more successful than Clare.

My understanding is that Clare scholars have teamed up with English naturalists to comb through these poems, and that Clare's knowledge is first rate. He only knew his little corner of Northamptonshire, but he knew it all, birds, animals, insects, and eels.

The header is also from The Woodlarks Nest, pp. 235-6

John Clare - what endless new lessons may we learn from nature

John Clare (1793-1864) was genuinely poor, an agricultural laborer. A peasant. He received enough of an education, just enough, to allow him to become a poet. He had enough talent to become a great one.

A while ago I posted this poem. I don't exactly remember why, except that it's excellent. It's untitled, but often referred to as "The Mouse's Nest":

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And proged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied somthing stirred
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheats
With all her young ones hanging at her teats.
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood.
Then the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water oer the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

The narrator sees something curious. He investigates. Then he looks away. That's the poem.

Clare was a real naturalist ("the knapweed bunches"), interested in really observing nature and describing it accurately. Romantic Poets get too much credit for being poets of nature. Wordsworth was, to some degree, and William Cullen Bryant, but they are both much more interested in grander effects - the sublime, the spirit in nature, that sort of thing. Man in nature. Coleridge, Byron, Shelley - were they really interested in nature at all?

Clare worked on a much smaller scale: the ordinary life of people around him, the behavior of birds and animals, plants and seasons. This particular poem, especially the last couplet, has gotten a lot of attention because its objectivity is so stark. The poet tells you a lot about what he sees, and just a little bit about what he thinks - the mother and babies look "so odd and so grotesque." But then what? Is there some moral lesson?

If so, he keeps it to himself. What is the poet thinking in the last two lines, when his attention seems to turn from the mouse to the landscape, to the nearly dry stream and the glittering cesspools? What is the reader thinking? A very modern effect.

The quote in the header is from the end of a letter, p. 477 of the Oxford Major Works.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Stendahl at Waterloo - Ah, now we're being attacked!

Beginning any sort of discussion of Stendhal, as I did yesterday, with a question of style is probably a good way to confuse people. For this, I blame Stendhal. He's a really strange writer. A strange person.

The Charterhouse of Parma is probably most famous for its scenes set at Waterloo. They served as an important example for later battlefield novelists, especially Tolstoy.

What a surprise then, that Waterloo takes place in Chapters 3 and 4, at the very beginning of the novel, and that Fabrizio, the protagonist, is not even a soldier, but a 17-year old Italian with a purchased hussar uniform. This was a brilliant move by Stendhal. Because Fabrizio knows nothing, and barely speaks French, the battle can be depicted in a fresh and unusual way. We never leave Fabrizio's point of view, confused as it is. He's even drunk part of the time, after buying a bottle of brandy because he wants the other soldiers to like him.

We're back to style. Scott gets close to this sort of "objective" style in some of his battle scenes, but he is never this pure. He also wants us to know the terrain, the positions of the armies, all of the usual stuff. Stendhal throws all of that away. We just get drunk Fabrizio, who doesn't know how to load a rifle, hoping for a glimpse of Napoleon.

Any readers of War and Peace will find these two chapters interesting.

Any current readers of W&P who are reading this are thinking: Oh sure. I'll get right on that. Anything else I should read? Buddenbrooks? The Oxford English Dictionary? Thanks for the helpful suggestion.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Stendhal and his jokes

"This Minister, despite his frivolous manner and his brilliant remarks, did not possess a soul à la française; he was not able to forget his griefs and grievances. When his pillow revealed a thorn, he was compelled to snap it off, and blunt its point against his own throbbing limbs. (I apologize for this paragraph, translated from the Italian)."

The Charterhouse of Parma, Modern Library, p. 96.

This is an entire paragraph. The first sentence is the sort of French character versus Italian character stuff Stendhal likes. The second sentence is bizarre and barely comprehensible. The third sentence is a classic Stendhalian joke.

A classic Stendhalian joke is one no one else gets. His entire book On Love is in this genre.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

My list of books for the Russian Reading Challenge

Dead Souls and The Overcoat, Nikolai Gogol

A Hero for Our Time, Lermontov

Poor Folk and The Double, Fyodor Dostoevsky

The challenge is to read 4 Russian-related works within a year. Most people are using it as a goad to read War and Peace and Karamazov and other tomes. I'm providing an alternative example.

The challenges are a curious part of book blog subculture. Another way for people to organize their reading. Book bloggers are not the sorts of people who pick up whatever book is around. They're list-makers.

Also posted at the Russian Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Don't blink - the duel in Tom Jones

A kindly anonymous reader reminds me of the duel in Tom Jones. Here it is, in its entirety:

"Jones was a little staggered by the blow which came somewhat unexpectedly; but presently recovering himself he also drew, and though he understood nothing of Fencing, prest on so boldly upon Fitzpatrick, that he beat down his Guard, and sheathed one half of his Sword in the Body of the said Gentleman, who had no sooner recevied it, than he stept backwards, dropt the Point of his Sword, and leaning upon it, cried, 'I have Satisfaction enough: I am a dead Man.'"

A single complex-compound sentence. If everything moved along at this rate, Tom Jones would not be a 700 page book.

Mr. Pickwick on the way to prison

Yesterday’s post on the duel in Nicholas Nickleby reminds me of two things.

First, that there is a sort of dueling scene in Chapter 2 of The Pickwick Papers, which is derailed just before the shooting begins. Just an adventure for Mr. Winkle, nothing serious.

Second, a scene of transportation to prison is much like the journey to a duel or execution. Here is Mr. Pickwick, in Chapter 50, being taken to debtors’ prison for failing to pay a dishonorable bill:

“The hackney coach jolted along Fleet Street, as hackney coaches usually do. The horses ‘went better,’ the driver said, when they had anything before them, (they must have gone at a most extraordinary pace when there was nothing,) and so the vehicle kept behind a cart; when the cart stopped, it stopped; and when the cart went on again, it did the same. Mr. Pickwick sat opposite the tipstaff; and the tipstaff sat with his hat between his knees, whistling a tune, and looking out of the coach window.”

Pickwick might be at his lowest point in the entire novel. What is he thinking? Dickens doesn’t tell us, but instead creates a new character who we will never see again after this page.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The duel in Nicholas Nickleby

I was surprised to find a duel, between two minor characters, in Chapter 50 of Nicholas Nickleby. It's a first-rate scene. It seems to me that duels are not commonly represented in English literature. Is that true? There's an important one in Clarissa. What else?

Dueling scenes bring out the best in many writers, for understandable reasons. The stark contrast between perfect health and imminent (voluntary, generally pointless) death leads most writers to heighten the perceptiveness of the chracters and the precision of the prose. Execution scenes often work the same way.

Pierre's duel in War and Peace is probably the peak of the genre, but the Russian tradition is rich. Eugene Onegin, A Hero for Our Time (and both Pushkin and Lermontov were themselves killed in really stupid duels), Chekhov's A Duel. Probaby many more.

A certain form of dueling persisted in Germany longer than almost anywhere. Fontane's Effi Briest includes a brilliant dueling scene, the tragedy in that case being that the duelist fully understands that the duel is a horrible mistake, a failure of character.

French writers travesty duels. The hero of Balzac's The Wild Ass's Skin has, or thinks he has, a magic talisman, so he fires not only without aiming but without even looking in the direction of his opponent. The duels in Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin are simply ridiculous, perfectly in keeping with the character of that novel.

The most famous duelists in America are politicians - Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson. I feel like I must be forgetting some crucial literary example. Please remind me.

Anyway, here's Dickens. The duelist is on his way to the duel:

"Now the noise of the wheels resolved itself into some wild tune in which he could recognize scraps of airs he knew, and now there was nothing in his ears but a stunning and bewildering sound like rushing water. But his companion rallied him on being so silent, and they talked and laughed boisterously. When they stopped he was a little surprised to find himself in the act of smoking, but on reflection he remembered when and where he had taken the cigar."

This is all good, but imagine that Dickens had left out the final phrase, had just stopped at the last comma. The story would carry on in the exact same way, and nothing important would be lost, except the most poignant detail in the passage.