Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Nothing, for here nothing was being heralded - Adalbert Stifter's Rock Crystal

OK, here's a real Christmas story.

Two children are trapped on a mountainside during a blizzard on Christmas Eve. They are saved by a miracle, or by chance, or perhaps the series of coincidences that allow them to survive are themselves the miracle.

This is Adalbert Stifter's sweet, mysterious Rock Crystal (1853). It's a real Stifter story - the landscape of two imaginary but perfectly credible mountain valleys and the pass between them is described in possibly tedious detail. Much of the story is really about the landscape, and the childrens' direct experience with it as they wander off the path and somehow make their way up the mountain. The story is a genuine example of the sublime - unmediated nature is beautiful and thrilling but also threatening, deadly. A truly Burkean sample, where the human bells are the Beautiful and Nature's silence is the Sublime:

"At this very moment all the bells were ringing, the bells in Millsdorf, the bells in Gschaid, and on the farther side of the mountain there was still another little church whose three clear-chiming bells were ringing out. In remote places beyond the valley there were innumerable churches with bells all ringing at this very hour; from village to village, the waves of sound were floating, and in one village you could at times hear through the leafless branches the chiming of the bells in another. Away up by the ice, however, not a sound reached the children; nothing, for here nothing was being heralded. Along the winding paths of the mountainslopes lantern lights were moving; and on many a farmstead the great bell was rousing the farm-hands,- unseen here, and unheard. Only the stars twinkled and shone steadily down."

Many of Stifter's stories seem to occur in a great hush. This passage is strangely both silent and noisy, with the web of sound connecting the villages below the children. Those final bells, the ones rousing the farm-hands, are, like the lantern-lights, part of the miracle, the search parties already on the childrens' path.

And something, it turns out, is being heralded, even in the void. Something happens immediately afterward, in the stillness of the ice, that I will leave to the reader. Rock Crystal is definitely a Christian Christmas story.

I read the original 1945 edition of the translation NYRB has republished, so I didn't benefit from the wisdom of W. H. Auden's introduction, although I get to see a dozen primitive, useless illustrations that I pray NYRB omitted.

Have a good holiday. Wuthering Expectations will be on vacation for a while.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Work - work - work! - a Carlylean Christmas poem from Thomas Hood

In case readers of The Chimes were hankering for more Thomas Carlyle in their Christmas, here's the beginning, and then some more, of Thomas Hood's The Song of the Shirt:

With fingers weary and worn,
  With eyelids heavy and red,
A Woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
  Plying her needle and thread -
    Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the 'Song of the Shirt!'


"Work — work — work!
  My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
  A crust of bread — and rags.
That shattered roof — this naked floor —
  A table — a broken chair —
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
  For sometimes falling there!

And there's more, though not a lot more. This was a Christmas poem, in a December 1843 issue of the comic magazine Punch. My understanding is that it was genuinely popular, reprinted many times. The part that really links it to Thomas Carlyle (Past and Present dates from just a few months earlier) is that "Work -- work -- work!" line, echoing Carlyle's emphasis on labor.

The most reductive message of A Christmas Carol (published at the same time as this poem) or The Chimes is "Remember the Poor at Christmas." Punch published something similar every Christmas, by many different poets. I'm going to get out my credit card now and remember the poor.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Wuthering Expectations Year in Prospect

I'm not going to plan a year of books. I'm not, I'm not.

Still, I can make some predictions for Wuthering Expectations 2009.

The novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the novels of Herman Melville, almost all new to me. More Dickens, always more Dickens, including, following up on my Carlyle reading, Hard Times. And Elizabeth Gaskell, who I have not read. And more George Eliot.

A single comment by The Little Professor - nay, a single word - inspired a keen desire to read John Galt (who?)*, so I see a Galt roundup in the future.

Lots more mid-century Germans: Heinrich Heine, Eduard Mörike, Jeremias Gotthelf, Gottfried Keller, Theodor Storm, maybe even more Adalbert Stifter.

I can imagine a reader saying "The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick? More Stifter? So wadda ya got for 2010? A root canal?"

For some variety, I want to spend some time with 19th century Yiddish writers, something like this project of obooki's. Maybe this will be along the lines of what I did for Senegal.

There are some clever book challenges out there in bookblog world, but I don't need any help organizing my reading. I need help disorganzing it.

Next week: Christmas.

* I will never get tired of this joke.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Wuthering Expectations Year in Review

The most important statistic first, Number of Books Read: 107, assuming I finish Vanity Fair soon. 107! Awesome! What's that? Is one of these books basically two pages long? Yes, what's your point? No, no, no, it totally counts.

So one thing that happened this year was that I read shorter books than usual. Really short, hundred pagers, or poetry collections that, if stripped of white space, might be fifty pages. One reason was the trip to Senegal. For a variety of reasons, including some constraints of West African publishing, many of the most famous Senegalese books are very short.

Another reason was the sudden, surprise trip to Tokyo. In that case, I deliberately selected short books.

A final reason was that it's simply a myth that the 19th century is particularly characterized by long books.

I hope that was the final reason. Another possibility is that I read short books in order to have something to write about. I hope not. I just started The Count of Monte Cristo for balance.

What does length mean, anyway? The Hardest Book of the Year was a very short one, Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, recommended by some well-meaning, I assume, commenters. My poor head, my poor head, it trembles yet.

Best Book of the Year: Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, the Greatest Novel of the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. I state that opinion with great confidence - not confidence that anyone will agree with me, but that I am unlikely to change my mind. Vanity Fair, which I love, probably won't quite make it that far. This is a bet a fellow wants to lose, so I hope that Dombey and Son or Mary Barton or The Count of Monte Cristo really knock me out. But I have my doubts.

De-Humiliations: Meaning, famous books that I read for the first time. Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and Theodor Storm's Immensee. I should point out that although I enjoy this game, I do not actually find it humiliating that I have not read whatever books I haven't read, even if those books are Middlemarch, Walden, or Les Miserables. I mean, I want to read them, but the Amateur Reader does not, and should not, actually feel bad that he hasn't. Maybe I should also count Adam Bede as a de-Humiliation, since I had never read George Eliot before.

More Favorites: Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights; Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet; Jeremias Gotthelf, The Black Spider; Prosper Mérimée, Colomba; Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas; Aminata Sow Fall, The Beggars' Strike; Ousmane Sèmbene, God's Bits of Wood; Nikolai Gogol, "The Overcoat"; Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Artist of the Beautiful". Theodor Storm's stories were generally very impressive.

Robert Browning, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics; One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, translated by Kenneth Rexroth; a 17th century obscurity called Hamlet (thanks, Nigel!)

Christpher Benfey, The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan ; Jonathan Spence, The Death of Woman Wang; Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol.

The mention of Machado de Assis reminds me of a special category, Worst Editing I Saw All Year: Oxford University Press, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. I read the 1996 first edition, the flagship title in their Library of Latin American Literature.

There was a major editing error every three pages or so. Some were like "now\know", some were like "hedl\held". They were spread through the entire novel. My favorite howler was in the introduction, where the novel is compared to Erasmus's In Praise of Polly, twice on the same page. Now, I would love to read that book, presumably an ode to Erasmus's favorite parrot, but it unfortunately does not exist. Late in the novel, the narrator mentions In Prasie of Folly, suggesting that the editor of the introduction did not read the actual novel too carefully.

Well, it was only a major English edition of the greatest Brazilian novel. Why knock yourself out.

Anyway, what a lot of good books.

Next: next.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Best Books of the Year - 1808

1808 was an unusual year for literature. I have not been able to find many enduring books from this year, but one of them happens to be among the greatest masterpieces ever written.

Goethe had been working on his version of the Faust story for thirty years before he published Faust, Part I, in 1808. Goethe was 59. He would finish Part II in 1832, 24 years later. Unbelievable.

Faust was immediately considered, in the German-speaking world, a masterpiece. It would have topped the Top 10 lists in Germany, if there had been such things. I don't know much about it's reception elsewhere. My impression is that German-readers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge were just as enthusiastic. It would still be a consensus candidate for greatest German work of all time, like Hamlet in English.

That should be enough for one year. What else was there? A lot of Heinrich von Kleist, the plays Penthesilea and The Broken Jug, as well as the ethically disturbing novella The Marquise of O. I remember nothing about Penthesilea, but The Broken Jug is a favorite, still quite funny.

The big literary news in England seems to have been Walter Scott's Marmion, a big drop from Kleist, much less Faust. A lot of major Wordsworth poems date from the previous year, which doesn't mean there was nothing this year. Coleridge, Crabbe, Landor, a young Byron - maybe there was something. The Penguin Book of English Verse covers the year with a single Thomas Moore poem.

The polyglot, pan-European literateur of 1808, making bets about what would survive, would probably have picked Marmion as a more significant work than The Marquise of O. Well, he would have gotten Faust, Part I right. That was an easy one.

In a way, I'm amazed anything was published in 1808. Not anything of value, anything at all. I put my favorite portrait of Napoleon, the only one I really like, up at the top, the 1808 Antoine-Jean Gros painting "Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau", now in the Louvre. That's what was going on in 1808.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Best Books of the Year - 1818

1818 was one of the greatest literary years of the 19th century. It saw the publication of two Jane Austen novels, Persuasion and, sadly, Northanger Abbey (sad, of course, because it was only published as a result of Austen's death). Walter Scott published The Heart of Midlothian, one of his best books. Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, a novel so rich in ideas that I forgive its infelicities. Finally, Thomas Love Peacock wrote Nightmare Abbey, which is not what it sounds like.

Meanwhile, Byron, Keats, and P. Shelley were all in peak form. Byron published the Venetian adultery comedy Beppo, not a favorite of mine but enjoyable for its light touch. Keats published the long, mythical Endymion, very far from a favorite. For P. Shelley, it was a highly productive year, but for most of us only one poem will really matter: "Ozymandias."

It's funny how central Percy Shelley is here. Besides his wife's book, Byron and Keats and Peacock were close friends, and Shelley is even the central character of Nightmare Abbey, a tiny little novel-like thing that should be read more:

"When Scythrop [that's Shelley] grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head: having finished his education to the high satisfaction of the master and fellows of his college, who had, in testimony of their approbation, presented him with a silver fish-slice, on which his name figured at the head of a laudatory inscription in some semi-barbarous dialect of Anglo-Saxonized Latin." (Ch. 1)

So that's five novels with some life today. Two (Persuasion and Frankenstein) are among the best of the century. Two, by coincidence, are Gothic parodies with "Abbey" in the title; one of these is sadly neglected. And major work by three great poets. This did not happen most years. Note that if magazines back then published "Best Books of the Year" lists, the only one I'm sure would make the lists is Walter Scott's.

This has all been awfully British. What else was going on? In America and pre-Romantic France I will go ahead and say, confidently, nothing. In the German principalities, there was quite a lot, although Goethe and E. T. A. Hoffmann seem to be between books this year. Either one may have been, and probably was, publishing in journals. Giacomo Leopardi was writing his Cantos and essays at this time, I am sure, but I have never sorted out his confusing chronology.

Still, there aren't that many years in the 19th century which contain five still-read novels from all of Europe, so I don't fell too bad about ending my researches here.

Nevertheless, I put an engraving of Francisco Goya's 1818 The Giant up top, just to make the year a little less British.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Best Books of the Year - 1828

1828 was one of the worst years for literature in the entire 19th century. I think I have read one novel from this year, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Fanshawe, a disgrace, although possibly of interest to alumni of Bowdoin College. Hawthorne himself agreed with me - his wife did not learn of the novel's existence until after Hawthorne's death in 1864.

I've scrounged around, trying to look up more novels. How about Edward Bulwer-Lytton's first novel, Pelham? Or Benjamin Disraeli's Popanilla? Walter Scott, poor, sick Scott, must have published something - let's see, yes, The Fair Maid of Perth. I suspect that I will remain ignorant of the contents of these books.

A number of poets were just beginning their careers at this time - Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Thomas Hood, Edgar Allan Poe - and Heinrich Heine, Alexander Pushkin, and John Clare were established. None of them seems to have published any books in 1828. There must, at least, be some good poems scattered around. The chronological Penguin Book of English Verse picks out Hood's "Death in the Kitchen",* and a surprisingly late Samuel Taylor Coleridge sonnet ("Duty Surviving Self-Love").

What else? Plays, essays? Charles Lamb was writing; William Hazlitt was alive. Surely there's something there. Goethe was 79 years old, working on part two of Faust, but I doubt he was publishing much. The first volume of Audubon's Birds of America, does that count (to the left, the Kentucky Warbler)?

The entire last half of the 1820s was a sort of literary disaster, actually. Take out Heine and Pushkin, and there's not much left. Two very different prose masterpieces, Manzoni's epic The Betrothed, and Eichendorff's anti-epic Life of a Good-for-Nothing, the poets mentioned before, Hazlitt and Lamb and Thomas de Quincey, and not much else. Feel free to claim otherwise.

But of course, a small mountain of books were published. For this single year, 180 years of erosion have left a nearly flat plain; the scree has been pulverized and washed into the Rare Book collections. The December year-end lists always remind me of this. I don't mean to say that nothing but bad books were published in 1828. Obviously not. No, it's just that time and history are relentless.

Tomorrow, I'll attack my own point with a rather different year.

* Hood's "On the Death of a Giraffe" is also from 1828.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The value of A Christmas Carol

I have a semi-crazy quote from Carlyle's Sartor Resartus permanently stuck at the bottom of Wuthering Expectations:

"Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God's name!"

I love the hysterical tone, and accept the goading, though I'll never Produce! Produce! like some of the great 19th century phenomena. Balzac and Dumas and Hugo; James and Twain; Trollope and Dickens. Unbelievable shelves of books. But of course any number of nearly forgotten writers have written just as much to less purpose. Some of those fractions of a Product really are infinitesimal.

I have been thinking about the example of A Christmas Carol in these utilitarian terms. It must be among the most economically valuable stories written in modern times. It did well enough for Dickens, especially when he began performing a 70 minute version of it. Since his time, think of the plays, the movies, the lazy television parodies. Scrooge McDuck and Mr. Burns. I myself, in the 9th grade, played Young Scrooge, a formative role. Actually, all I remember about it was my utter failure to learn to waltz decently, even for 30 seconds.

What other writers have created something so economically enduring? The Austen Industry is worth a lot now, although I think that's recent phenomenon. Meine Frau reminds me that performances of The Nutcracker are the means of survival for many ballet companies, so E. T. A. Hoffmann should get some credit for that. I'm amazed how little-read "The Nutcracker Prince and the Mouse King" actually is. It's as good as A Christmas Carol, which I unfortunately can't quite say about Dickens's other Christmas books.

Which reminds me to encourage reading of The Chimes. Commentary at The Valve begins Deember 19 or so. Only 100 pages! Be sure to get a copy with the illustrations.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cease to be a hollow sounding-shell of hearsays, egoisms, purblind dilettantisms - Carlyle in The Chimes

One reason I haven't mentioned for reading Carlyle's Past and Present is that it is about Hard Times, and since we are in the middle of some Hard Times now, I thought the perspective would be interesting.

Our Hard Times are certainly nothing like those of mid-19th century England - massive unemployment with a minimal safety net, riots, and then, in 1845, the beginning of a true disaster, the Irish Famine. Remember that Carlyle was writing in 1843. Things got worse, and in some respects, he must have seemed prophetic.

What I really wanted to know, being a practical, utilitarian sort of fellow, was, what does Carlyle want people to do, what's his solution to it all. Well, how about this (the Morrison's Pill is a cure-all, of which, says Carlyle, with wisdom, there is none):

"If thou ask again, therefore, on the Morrison's-Pill hypothesis, What is to be done? allow me to reply: By thee, for the present, almost nothing. Thou there, the thing for thee to do is, if possible, to cease to be a hollow sounding-shell of hearsays, egoisms, purblind dilettantisms; and become, were it on the infinitely small scale, a faithful discerning soul. Thou shalt descend into thy inner man, and see if there be any traces of a soul there; till then there can be nothing done! O brother, we must if possible resuscitate some soul and conscience in us, exchange our dilettantisms for sincerities, our dead hearts of stone for living hearts of flesh." (Ch. 4)

This is probably wise advice whether Times are Hard or Soft. I'm not sure it would have the salutary effects Carlyle expected, though.

Not just Carlyle. If I understand this correctly, and if I understand The Chimes correctly, this is exactly the lesson Dickens has poor Trotty learn after his ghostly vision of the future. I was puzzled by what Trotty was supposed to learn. Scrooge, after all, is rich and powerful. When he reforms, he can actually do something, like buy a big turkey for his clerk. Trotty is powerless. Well, Trotty ceases to be a hollow-sounding shell and resuscitates his soul and conscience. No small thing.

The Chimes is in some ways a direct response to Carlyle. The red-faced gentleman who was nostalgic for the Middle Ages was actually my first clue, since the first half of Past and Present is an examination of life in a medieval abbey. By the end of The Chimes, though, there seems to be some direct connection to Carlyle's ideas.

I'll have to pay more attention to this in the future. I have been detecting a Carlylean strain in some of Dickens' writing, but since Dickens employed such a wide range of rhetorical moods and was a gifted mimic, I had thought it was parody. Which it may well be, but there is more contact with at least a certain strain of Carlyle than I had imagined.

I clearly need to read Hard Times. And Elizbeth Gaskell. And William Morris. And...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why, the four-footed worker has already got all that this two-handed one is clamouring for! - Carlyle's terrible ideas

I had this idea that I was going to make some sort of argument about Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present. It's too late; I'm too tired. So instead I'll just describe Carlyle's arguments, as I understand them.

The aristocracy should be our rulers. But the current aristocracy is completely useless. What people do, what they produce, is central to Carlyle's vision of the world. The aristocracy produces fox tails, which they nail to their stable doors. Carlyle does not see this as useful.

Maybe the new Captains of Industry will be able to fill the role of the aristocracy. Get moving, says Carlyle.

The rule of the people, democracy as such, is a joke, a phase England will pass through before the return of true heroic leadership.

Heroic leadership = Oliver Cromwell. Or the Norse chief who was eventually deified as Odin. Or the poet Robert Burns. Ha ha! No, Carlyle is kind of serious about that.

Everyone adores Gurth, the lovable serf in Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, who has a brass collar affixed around his neck as a symbol of his servitude. Doesn't his life basically seem pretty nice? Most people would be better off as serfs. Or, if they're Africans, slaves.

Enough of this. I've made Carlyle sound sufficiently horrible. If I'm unfair, it's because I have some idea of how Carlyle's ideas evolve, and I may be reading his later authoritarianism into Past and Present. Or knowing his later ideas may help me see how they were already present. Let's look at Scott's Gurth again:

"Gurth, a mere swineherd, born thrall of Cedric the Saxon, tended pigs in the wood, and did get some parings of the pork. Why, the four-footed worker has already got all that this two-handed one is clamouring for! How often must I remind you? There is not a horse in England, able and willing to work, but has due food and lodging; and goes about sleek-coated, satisfied in heart." (Ch. 3)

Here's a more humanist idea side by side with a rather different kind. People ought to be treated at least as well as pigs and horses. Possibly better.

Carlyle is very hard to place in his politics. Past and Present was influential with radicals - Marx and Engels, for example - and with more mainstream reformers. Some of his ideas seem fascistic, while others are more classically liberal.

I think he's a greater artist - writer, rhetorician - than a thinker, but I read him for both reasons. His prose is fascinating; his ideas are challenging. Tomorrow, let's see if I can bring Dickens back into this.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Thousand crowned, coroneted, shovel-hatted quackheads - or, the Condition-of-England is not good.

In the 1840s, the condition of England was pretty terrible for a lot of people. England was going through the same sort of transition that we see in China, for example, today – agricultural workers were moving in massive numbers out of the countryside to work in manufacturing and mining. Combine this with the growth in railroads, steamships, and related industries, and the beginnings of a poorly understood population explosion. Massive changes everywhere.

The change must have been bewildering to many people, and the costs incredibly high. The working class, on average, lost ground during the 1830s and 1840s. The average height of working class adults born at this time, for example, declined substantially, meaning that they had received fewer calories as children or expended more in work, or both (the answer turns out to be: both). The same thing happened in the northern United States around the same time. I don’t know what was going on in Germany or France, but the events of 1848 make me suspect things can’t have been any better.

This is all from memory, I’m afraid. It would be fun (fun for me!) to include graphs of coal and iron production, for example, or railroad miles over time, and a lot less fun, but instructive, to see the trends in height or pauperization. But I’ll restrain myself.

Thomas Carlyle, at this point a genuinely popular writer due to the success of this 1837 history of the French Revolution, called the question of working class poverty “the condition-of-England question,” which seems unwieldy to me, but the name is still used by scholars today. I think he introduced the phrase in Chartism (1839), Ch. 1, “Condition-of-England Question.” I would include a quotation, except that I find Chartism nearly incomprehensible.

I can hardly believe that Carlyle was allowed by other journalists and reformers to take the lead on this issue. He is such a strange writer. His rhetoric is exhausting, and his continual irony makes him difficult to interpret.

Here are the first two sentences of his 1843 Past and Present, which are pretty clear for Carlyle:

“The condition of England, on which many pamphlets are now in the course of publication, and many thoughts unpublished are going on in every reflective head, is justly regarded as one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest, ever seen in this world. England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want in every kind; yet England is dying of inanition.”

We’re so rich; why are so many so poor? Fair enough. What, then, to make of this, from Chapter 3:

“Fair day's-wages for fair-day's-work! exclaims a sarcastic man; alas, in what corner of this Planet, since Adam first awoke on it, was that ever realised? The day's-wages of John Milton's day's-work, named Paradise Lost and Milton's Works, were Ten Pounds paid by instalments, and a rather close escape from death on the gallows.”

Complaining that Milton was underpaid 150 years earlier seems like a strange issue to bring up at all in the context of today’s impoverished factory workers. The passage continues:

“Consider that: it is no rhetorical flourish; it is an authentic, altogether quiet fact,--emblematic, quietly documentary of a whole world of such, ever since human history began. Oliver Cromwell quitted his farming; undertook a Hercules' Labour and lifelong wrestle with that Lernean Hydracoil, wide as England, hissing heaven-high through its thousand crowned, coroneted, shovel-hatted quackheads; and he did wrestle with it, the truest and terriblest wrestle I have heard of; and he wrestled it, and mowed and cut it down a good many stages, so that its hissing is ever since pitiful in comparison, and one can walk abroad in comparative peace from it;--and his wages, as I understand, were burial under the gallows-tree near Tyburn Turnpike, with his head on the gable of Westminster Hall, and two centuries now of mixed cursing and ridicule from all manner of men.” (Ch. 3)

Did anyone actually read all of that? Well, it’s actually part of why I read Carlyle – that’s some prose , all right. The point, a point, is that people are not properly rewarded for their work, not in the 17th century, and not now. Carlyle is going to spend the rest of the book arguing for a sort of religion of work. Boy, his book is full of bad ideas. Tomorrow, I’ll try to see what some of them are.

I was inspired to read Past and Present, by the way by So Many Books’ notes on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notes on the book.

Monday, December 8, 2008

I can prove it, by tables - in which I discover that The Chimes is about something other than what I thought it would be about

In The Chimes (1844), an old porter, Trotty Veck, has an eventful New Year's Eve. As a result of either supernatural forces or a combination of stress and indigestion, he is shown a horrible vision of the future which leads him to reform his selfish ways.

This sounds a bit, just a bit, like A Christmas Carol, published the Christmas before, with two minor changes. First, Trotty, unlike Scrooge, is poor, and second, he's a fine fellow with no selfish ways whatsoever. Maybe these are not such minor differences. They sure do muddle the story, although not to the extent of the last Dickens Christmas novella, The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848), which approaches incomprehensibility. I suspect that running a poor man through Scrooge's trials was a challenge Dickens set for himself in The Chimes. Anyway, it allowed him to get at something else, something obscured in A Christmas Carol.

Early in the story, Trotty meets the three fellows to the left; Trotty's the one with the rumpled hat. The three gentlemen are investigating Trotty's supper of tripe.

"'But who eats tripe?' said Mr. Filer, looking round. 'Tripe is without exception the least economical, and the most wasteful article of consumption that the markets of this country can by possibility produce... I find that the waste on that amount of tripe , if boiled, would victual a garrison of five hundred men for five months of thirty-one days each, and a February over. The Waste, the Waste!'" (Ch. 1 aka "First Quarter")

Ah ha, Mr. Filer seems to be some sort of Utilitarian. The second fellow is another kind of reformer - a magistrate who is determined, whatever the problem, starvation, young mothers, suicide, to Put It Down. And the third is perhaps a nostalgist, or perhaps something else:

"'The good old times, the good old times,' repeated the gentleman.' What times they were! They were the only times. It's of no use talking about any other times, or discussing what the people are in these times. You don't call these, times, do you? I don't. Look into Strutt's Costumes, and see what a Porter used to be, in any of the good old English reigns.'

'He hadn't, in his very best circumstances, a shirt to his back, or a stocking to his foot; and there was scarcely a vegetable in all England for him to put into his mouth,' said Mr. Filer. 'I can prove it, by tables.'"

You tell him, Filer! I was actually planning to save my tables for later in the week. This talk of how things were better in the olden days by the unnamed gentleman with the red face and blue coat* sounds suspiciously like it was drawn from another book from the previous year, Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present. Which means - and there's more evidence than just this - that The Chimes is not just about charity or compassion or combatting one's selfishness.

No, this is a topical novel. A novel about social issues. A Condition-of-England novel! That's what Carlyle called England's Hard Times, the Condition-of-England question. For some reason, it stuck, and scholars still use it. I felt perfectly happy floundering around in the swamp - no, mire - no, no, cesspool - strike all that, crystalline fountain - of Victorian religion last week, and since many countries seem to be facing a new round of Hard Times, why not test my ignorance about the Condition-of-England question. Tomorrow: what exactly is Thomas Carlyle going on and on and on about?

* A little mystery with this fellow. He's never named, and later in the book only mentioned once more. My first question for The Valve: who is he?

I hope I'm attracting people to the Chimes event at The Valve, rather than scaring them away. I think those passages up there are hilarious.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Are the Christmas books of Charles Dickens Christian? How about Vanity Fair?

What got me thinking about all this was, among other things, Charles Dickens’s second Christmas book, The Chimes (1844), his follow-up to the huge success of A Christmas Carol. I came up with a simple-minded question – are the Christmas books Christian? I mean, I know that’s the background, but how far back? What ethical message do they contain that is not shared by non-Christians, secular or religious? Does Scrooge become a churchgoer? Does it matter?

I’ll just assume that everyone knows how A Christmas Carol goes, and save The Chimes for later. See below on that topic. Anyway, what does Scrooge learn? Be less selfish, more attentive, more charitable, less concerned with money. Who disagrees? Objectivists, please go away.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol right in the middle of the serialization of Martin Chuzzlewit, which is itself a dissertation on and classification of human selfishness. The novel contains a couple of proto-Scrooges. One of the selfless characters likes to play the organ during church, but otherwise the novel seems virtually religion-free.

I don’t know anything about Dickens’s own religious views, and don’t much care to lean more, but the ethics of his books are humanist. That seems pretty clear. Little Nell, in The Old Curiosity Shop, dies in a church. If I remember correctly, it’s an antique Catholic church that's been converted into a dwelling. That may be symbolical of something. This is in a novel that invokes The Pilgrim's Progress, my benchmark for at least one type of truly Christian fiction, by name. The ethics of Charles Dickens, whatever their source, are a long way from those of John Bunyan.

Two of Balzac’s finest stories, neither of which made it into the Big Balzac Blowout, unfortunately, are about the symbolic power of the Catholic Mass. “An Incident in the Reign of Terror” is about persecuted Catholics who secretly perform Mass during the French Revolution; “The Atheist’s Mass” is about just what is says in the title, a dedicated, public atheist who secretly attends mass once a year. Yet in some Balzac novels, there is hardly a reminder that the Catholic Church exists. Balzac seems like a humanist, as well.

I should stick with English or American examples. The Church in France is a tarpit for the outsider. I mean, the basis for Chateaubriand's great post-Revolutionary apology for Christianity is that he likes the sound of the bells. Let me turn to a remarkable letter from William Thackeray to Mrs. Carmichael-Smyth. Mrs. C-S has apparently been complaining that one of the characters in Vanity Fair is selfish, which is beyond hilarious, but anyway, here's part of his reply:

"What I want is to make a set of people living without God in the world (only that is a cant phrase) greedy pompous mean perfectly self-satisfied for the most part and at ease about their superior virtue... [The selfish character] has at present a quality above most people whizz: LOVE - by wh she shall be saved. Save me, save me too O my God and Father, cleanse my heart and teach me my duty." (Vanity Fair, Norton Critical Edition, p. 699)

I am wary about taking this letter entirely at its face value; nevertheless it was a great surprise to me. This is what I was getting at yesterday, I think, but I fear I have dived into a deep pool. I may have to spend next week splashing about in it.

Rohan Maitzen is going to host a discussion of The Chimes over at The Valve. When she's involved, the Zizek and Derrida stuff seems to stay away, so it should be a friendly and useful discussion. The Chimes has nothing like the perfection of A Christmas Carol, but it is most interesting. 100 pages, including illustrations, in the edition I read. Please join in. Note that this "Christmas" story is set on New Year's Eve, which I guess does put it somewhere in the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

In which I fail to comprehend the religious ideas in Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice

So I have a problem understanding the religious ethics of 17th century Japanese fiction and 8th century Chinese poetry. I am ignorant of traditions, and I don’t know how to read all sorts of signals that would have guided contemporary readers. I’ll bet that some aspects of 8th century Chinese poetry looked pretty foreign to the 17th century Japanese reader, but I’m too distant from it all to guess which ones.

Adalbert Stifter’s novella Limestone stars a strange, saintly priest. Re-reading the story recently, I realized that part of the strangeness of the character was that he did not seem quite Catholic. There were oddities of dress and habit that made me think he belonged in a Bergman film. What a delight to later read that when the story was first published, the priest was actually a Lutheran minister. Stifter changed some of the details about the character, but not all of them. Perhaps it was an oversight, perhaps he valued the strange effect.

With Chinese or Japanese literature, I don’t recognize those signals. If Ihara Saikaku dressed his 17th century monk like an 8th century Chinese hermit, how would I know?

But I have the same problem, actually, with European and American literature. It’s worse in a way, more insidious, because it’s easier to assume that then is basically like now. In classical Japanese literature (or medieval European or Classical Greek) the foreignness, the strangeness, is hard to ignore. I can’t be as glib about what I don’t understand. When I read, I fill in the background with what I know, and in the 19th century, I am less likely to see when the background and foreground clash.

Even in European literature, religious content presents the greatest challenge to me. I want to denature religion too much. I don’t want to punish Clarissa Harlowe for the sin of disobeying her parents, or Jane Eyre for the sin of idolatry. And I don't have to. These books have plenty of strengths – they’re complex masterpieces, packed with meaning. But I know that I am missing a piece if I look away from ethical aspects with which I am uncomfortable.

Jane Austen puts a mortal sin right there in the title of Pride and Prejudice. Today, pride is as often thought of as a virtue as a sin, and it’s hardly appealing to think of Elizabeth Bennet as a sinner. She’s so wonderful. But maybe the clergyman’s daughter put some of this into her novel. It's worked into the ethics of the novel, I can see that much.

This would be a good place to link to The Little Professor, who makes her living with this sort of thing, and to My Life in Book’s headfirst dive into the religion of Jane Eyre.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I find empty rivers and mountains - in which I fail to comprehend the religious ideas in Ihara Saikaku and Wang Wei

Here are the endings - last sentences - of three of the stories in Ihara Saikaku's Five Women Who Loved Love:

1. "About this time the story of Onatsu was made into a play in the Kyoto-Osaka region, and from there it spread to even the most remote provinces, winding through each town and hamlet as an endless stream of love, on which men and women might embark with all their cares and float as light as bubbles through the Fleeting World."

2. "Their names, known in countless ballads and songs, spread to distant provinces with the warning: This is a stern world and sin never goes unpunished."

3. "And so this tale is told, with all its love and sadness, to show how unreal and uncertain life is, how much like a wild, fantastic dream."

All three tales end tragically, basically, and I suspect that any of these morals could be attached to any of the stories. Only the final story ends differently, with the gay husband examining his wife's teacups and salted mermaids and planning his sexual dissipation, which is much like a wild, fantastic dream, and not much like a stern world where sin never goes unpunished.

Saikaku's stories are built, in one way or another, on Buddhist religious ethics. This, to the reader new to Japanese literature, ignorant of Buddhist tenets (I mean me), is an obstacle to understanding. Saikaku's ironic use of these religious ideas is a futher complication. I have no idea when or if Saikaku is serious. How did a contemporary Japanese reader reconcile those endings? Or was that the, or a, point, a way that the five stories turn into one book?

Well, that's one reason we read fiction, right, to learn about the world. No reason I have to understand it all right away, or ever.

I'm making progress, though, with a lot of help. Here is a poem by the 8th century Chinese "hermit" poet Wang Wei, translated by David Hinton:

Mourning Meng Hao-Jan

My dear friend nowhere in sight,
this Han River keeps flowing east.

Now, if I look for old masters here,
I find empty rivers and mountains.

Let's see. The friend, "the first of the great T'ang Dynasty poets," is absent, yet the world (the river) continues on its way. The landscape is empty of the friend, thus the poet's sadness. But the last line has a second meaning, that the "empty rivers and mountains" are themselves old masters. There's the Buddhism, the transcendent idea, the landscape imbued with meaning.

Have I crushed the poem to powder yet? Well, simplicity first, complexity later. I'm at least beginning to get an idea of what I should be looking for, even if I don't know what to do with it once I've found it. Small steps.

Here's a link to David Hinton's book of Wang Wei poems, with a few additional examples.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fine teacups, a rice pounder, some salted Mermaids - Ihara Saikaku's Five Women Who Loved Love

The Anthology of Japanese Literature inspired me to take up Ihara Saikaku's Five Women Who Loved Love (1686), a collection of five tales of young women caught up in all-consuming love affairs that end, mostly, in suicide, execution, or a nunnery. They are all based on more or less contemporary events, and several of them are also the subject of puppet plays by Chikamitsu.

Five Women Who Loved Love is interesting enough for its own sake, but I inevitably found myself comparing it to more familiar Western literary traditions. Sometimes it felt quite modern, especially in the odd, indirect structuring of some of the stories. The frankness about sexual and digestive matters sometimes seemed modern and sometimes harked back to Petronius or Boccaccio or some of Saikaku's Western contemporaries like Swift. In Victorian terms, this is a dirty book, but it's hardly smuttier than William Wycherley's The Country Wife.

Actually, the open treatment of homosexuality was genuinely surprising to me. The final tale is about a girl who falls in love with, seduces (disguised as a boy), and marries a hedonistic homosexual monk. It's as much his story than hers. It ends with the ex-monk inspecting his new wife's wealth, "so happy that he wept," thinking of all the sexual pleasure (actors and prostitutes) he can buy with it. The first four stories end tragically in one way or another, but this is where Saikaku actually leaves us, ironically complicating any lessons a reader might have wanted to draw.

I don't quite trust the translator, Wm. Theodore de Bary. First, what's with that abbreviation? Second, he brags in the introduction that he owns an original edition of the book, which is admittedly pretty cool, since it was first published as five separate little books, with woodcuts, but still, kinda rude. Third, look at the display of wealth that the monk is admiring:

"There were one thousand two hundred and thirty-five flawless coral beads, weighing from one and a half to one hundred and thirty momme each; sharkskin for sword handles; celadon procelain in unlimited quantities; fine teacups from the Asuka River region, piled about carelessly because it made no difference how many got broken; some salted Mermaids; a small bucket made of agate; a rice pounder from the Taoist paradise of Han-tan in China", etc., etc., wait a minute!

The translator's footnote informed me that a salted Mermaid is "A kind of salamander," which I was willing to accept until I turned the page and found this, one of the original illustrations:

A kind of salamander? I don't think so, pal.

Maybe this is a good place to point the curious to the Bookphile's recent post on this book, which takes a rather different point of view.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The meaning of a volume / Reputed most difficult - Donald Keene's Anthology of Japanese Literature

It is a pleasure
When, without receiving help,
I can understand
The meaning of a volume
Reputed most difficult.

from “Solitary Pleasures,” Tachibana Akemi (1812-1868), tr. by Donald Keene in his Anthology of Japanese Literature.

Donald Keene's Anthology of Japanese Literature was published in 1955 and is still in print. No one seems to have been able to replace it. The book covers the beginnings to 1868. There's another anthology for the modern stuff.

One reads an anthology to learn the lay of the land, and to guide future reading, and the Keene anthology worked for me in that sense. What did I learn?

First, most importantly, I could spend a lot of time enjoying the riches of the Heian Period (roughly 8th-12th centuries). Any reader of The Book of Genji has little choice but to spend a lot of time, since it's so enormously long. But it's not just Genji. The poetry, The Pillow Book, the range of the women’s diaries. What a time. And the clear fact that nearly all of the major writers were women still amazes me.

Some version of The Tale of Heike (13th century), the chronicle of the civil war between two noble families that led to the creation of the Shogunate, is essential. It's a foundational work for later playwrights, poets and story-tellers, a bit like The Iliad and The Odyssey were to the ancient Greeks, or for that matter to 19th century English poets. It is not so obvious that I need to read the original – my impression is that most Japanese readers stick with one of the many modern retellings.

The monk Kenko's Essays on Idleness (14th century) will have to wait, although I love the title.

Similarly, my appetite for No plays is pretty much sated by the four included by Keene.

The 17th century is a high point. There are at least three major writers: the novels of Ihara Saikaku, the haiku and travel journals of Basho, and the puppet plays (!) of Chikamatsu seem like they must be highlights of the language. I really was not expecting those puppet plays. Nor that one of Saikaku’s books is a collection of tales of homosexual love affairs between samurai.

This is what I mean: with a good anthology, I learn a lot, quickly. It's as close as I get to speed-reading or skimming. Oh, there’s such a thing as that? I had no idea.

The 18th and 19th century, at least to 1868, are thin. There's not nothing – there’s rarely nothing – but the prose is imitative, the poetry formalized into sterility. The Japanese poetry, to be specific, which seems to have become so mannered and rule-bound that if a poet wanted to write about anything remotely modern – attacks on the Dutch traders for example – he had to do it in Chinese.

I wonder if there's an anthology of Chinese literature that gets as much done in 450 pages?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lydia Maria Child's Thanksgiving - The children are here, Bring a pie for every one.

The end of "The New-England Boy's Song About Thanksgiving Day" (1844)

by Lydia Maria Child

Over the river, and through the wood -
When grandmother sees us come,
She will say, Oh dear,
The children are here,
Bring a pie for every one.

Over the river, and through the wood -
Now grandmother's cap I spy!
Hurra for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hurra for the pumpkin pie!

Well, I don't really think this is much of a poem, but, like our new President, I am strongly pro-pie. I am scheduling this post in advance, so at this exact moment it is likely that I am either making or eating pie.

Actually, I like the way grandma sounds vaguely worried that the hellions have arrived, and plans to keep them torpid by giving each one an entire pie.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving from Mikhail Lermontov


For everything, for everything, O Lord,
I thank Thee -
for the secret pangs of passion,
the poisoned fangs of kisses,
the bitter taste
of tears;
for the revenge of foes
and for the calumny of friends,
and for the waste
of a soul's fervor burning in a desert,
and for all things that have deceived me here.
But please, O Lord,
henceforth let matters be arranged
in such a way
that I need not keep thanking Thee
much longer.

Mikhail Lermontov, 1840, tr. Vladimir Nabokov in Verses and Versions, p. 289

I don't think that's exactly the right spirit of the holiday. I'll try something more traditional tomorrow.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Balzac recap - where to start?

So what would be a good starting point for a reader new to Balzac? It depends.

Eugénie Grandet is flawless and short. I really think it's an achievement of a higher level than any other Balzac novel. But it's not exactly typical. It's not a Paris novel, it's has almost nothing about high society, it just barely brushes against the Comedie Humaine system of recurring characters.

For that, Père Goriot is the place to go. This is the one that launches characters who reappear again and again, and this is the one that stands as Balzac's greatest Paris novel, by which I mean, among other things, that this is the one I would read before a trip to Paris. Next time I'm there, I'm going to Balzac's house. (Both Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet have the virtue of being quite short).

Père Goriot, which stands perfectly well on its own, also serves as a sort of vestibule to Lost Illusions and its sequel A Harlot High and Low. These three works together form a grand epic of 1,500 pages or more, and show Balzac at his operatic wildest. Throw in the short story "The Firm of Nucingen", while you're at it.

Cousin Bette or Cousin Pons would work just as well as starting points as Père Goriot, I think, and are both pretty typical. Cousin Bette is longer and crazier. Cousin Pons is sweeter. For art collectors, Cousin Pons is a must, actually; similarly, people who work in journalism or publishing should have a go at Lost Illusions sometime.

Ursule Mirouet is nice, too. Haven't mentioned that one at all.

In a way, I would urge any reader new to Balzac to forego all of the above books (well, not Eugénie Grandet) and start with a good selection of short stories. The Penguin Classics editon is almost perfect, except for the bizarre exclusion of "A Passion in the Desert" (come on, ten more pages!). The variety of Balzac is here - the religious mystery of "An Incident in the Reign of Terror", tales of murder in "The Red Inn" and "A Tragedy by the Sea", the genuinely funny "Pierre Grassou" (also a must for painters and art collectors) "El Verdugo"'s harsh story of honor during wartime. Read this, and in a mere 272 pages you will have read 12 of the 91 "novels" in Balzac's Human Comedy.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I want to read more Balzac, but what?

Well, not necessarily right now. But let's say that, at some point, I decide that 30 Balzac storives out of 91 are not enough. What should #31 be?

Over the last couple of years, I've seen a lot of sentences that start "Among Balzac's novels are..." followed by four or five or six titles. I have never seen the same list twice, never. They almost all include Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet. Most include Cousin Bette; otherwise, anything goes.

Penguin Classics publishes, or used to publish, a bunch of Balzac novels I haven't read: The Black Sheep, The Country Doctor, A Murky Business, Cesar Birotteau. What are these like?

A few years ago, Modern Library published a new translation of Balzac's last novel, The Wrong Side of Paris. Someone must think it's good, although it's hard to tell from this A. S. Byatt "review." Hey, look at what she says: "he seems unapproachable and vast - the Comedie Humaine contains 81 novels." See, there it is again! If a 10 page story counts as a novel, then Balzac may have written 81 novels. Otherwise, not even close.

Sorry, I got distracted. Oh right, here's a strange example. Roland Barthes's S/Z is a book of semiotics, and something I have no business reading, but it is apparently based somehow on a Balzac story called Sarrasine, about a castrati singer; the book even includes the text of the story. Did Barthes use it because it's a really good story, or because it serves some other analytical purpose?

Anyway, recommendations are much appreciated. What Balzac have you read, what was it like? Was it good? Was it - dare I hope - Eugénie Grandet good? If you can direct me to some Eugénie Grandet-grade Balzac, I would be in your debt.

One more note on Balzac on Monday, a roundup of the roundup: advice on where to start.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The springtime of love for Eugénie - some notes on Eugénie Grandet

So I think Eugénie Grandet (1833) is Balzac's best book, by a length. But I don't want to argue with anyone who prefers the wide-eyed cynicism of Père Goriot, or the grand opera of A Harlot High and Low, or the hysterical comedy of Cousin Bette, or the sweetness of Ursule Mirouet. Well, I want to argue a little bit, but I won't. I'll just look at some of the best things in Eugénie Grandet.

I mentioned yesterday that the basic story of Eugénie Grandet is uncommonly interesting. The story is ingeniously structured. This gives me an excuse to count things.

The Penguin Classics edition I read this time is 216 pages long. The first 23 pages give us background on the town of Saumur, the Grandet house and garden, and the life of Papa Grandet. Then, starting with the evening of Eugénie's twenty-third birthday, the next three days fill 113 pages, more than half the novel. That first evening alone takes up 37.

Then it's "the springtime of love for Eugénie," which lasts 10 pages. "Since that kiss in the passage, the hours had slipped away for Eugénie with terrifying swiftness." That's it, that's what's going on here. The structure of the novel exactly mirrors Eugénie's love for her cousin. Nothing happens in her life until that fateful birthday, when the cousin arrives. Then, for three days, every detail about every aspect of life becomes inordinately interesting. Once the love is mutual, time simply vanishes. The last fifty pages cover twelve or thirteen years. They're quite eventful, to the reader, but nothing in Eugénie's life will ever match those three days.

Eugénie and her father share the book in some ways, and both are wonderful characters. The art with which Papa Grandet's miserliness and deviousness are woven into the story, and the surprising directions from which his conscience occasionally intrudes (he's not quite a monster, he falls just short), are marvels. But it's Eugénie's name in the title; it's Eugénie's story that controls the entire structure of the novel.

When I talk about Balzac's, or any novel's, perfections, this is part of what I mean. Eugénie Grandet has some of Balzac's best descriptive passages, and three or four really fine characters, and a snappy story. But it's the combination of the characters, and the structure, and the details of the house and town that amaze me. It's all perfectly logical, inexorable, as if there were no other way to tell the story. There are some transitions, for example, from paragraph to paragraph, that were startling but exactly right. Maybe I'll save that for the next reread.

If Balzac's other novels are this good, then I have failed to understand them. Which, come to think of it, is likely. Good, that gives me something to look forward to. Perhaps someday I will write about my discovery that Père Goriot is, it turns out, Balzac's best novel, obviously.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Eugénie Grandet - my favorite Balzac novel

I won't be able to do Eugénie Grandet justice. I think it's Balzac's best novel, easily, by which I mean his most artful, the one that's perfect. Other readers may not be interested in my ideal of perfection. Balzac certainly wasn't. Henry James seems to agree with me, if I understand his speech "The Lessons of Balzac," which I certainly don't, except for that part.

Eugénie Grandet is the daughter of the richest man in a country town. Her father is a real peasant miser, so miserly that his wife and daughter don't understand how rich they actually are. Everyone else has a pretty good idea, though, so Eugénie is much in demand, although she only leaves her house to go to church.

This would seem like enough of a plot for a good novel - two families battle for an innocent girl's money, while her father squeezes them all. Good stuff. Balzac lets you think that's what the story will be for the first 30 pages or so. Then Eugénie's dandified Paris cousin suddenly crashes her twenty-third birthday party, and Eugénie's certainly never met anyone like him, and then the novel really gets going, oh yes it does. The last forty or fifty pages have some twists, or at least bends, that, for the reader who has really entered the spirit of the thing, are real shockers.

Anyway, the story in and of itself is very strong. The stage is small - the Grandet's house and garden, mostly - but the characters, the clashes, are big.

I suspect that I like this novel a bit too much to write about to effectively right now, but tomorrow I'll try, or try again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Passion in the Desert - At last he grew passionately fond of the panther

"A Passion in the Desert" (1832) is the story, over the course of ten pages or so, of a love affair between a soldier and a panther. The soldier accompanies Napoleon to Egypt, and is captured by nomads. We join him just as he escapes to a Saharan oasis, where he wakes up next to the second important character:

"It was a female. The fur on the belly and flanks were glistening white; many small marks like velvet formed beautiful bracelets round her feet; her sinuous tail was also white, ending with black rings; the overpart of her dress, yellow like burnished gold, very lissome and soft, had the characteristic blotches in the form of rosettes, which distinguish the panther from every other feline species."

Yes, bracelets, rings, "her dress" - the story is a fable about the relationship between men and women. What I really like, though, is that the panther never turns into an abstracted woman. She's always a panther. The pretense of realism is never dropped. We learn all there is to know about life at the oasis, for the soldier and the cat, and it's almost credible. How does it end? Well, we're hearing the story, not from the soldier, actually, but from someone who heard it from him so the soldier must get out of the desert.

"A Passion in the Desert" is the first thing I ever read by Balzac, twenty years ago. I developed certain prejudices against Balzac based on this and that scrap of information - he was a sloppy writer, a first-drafter, not concerned with aesthetics, all basically wrong, or wrong enough. But I actually always knew this had to be wrong, because, if nothing else, he had written the amazing story of the soldier and the panther.

There's a 1997 film of "A Passion in the Desert" about which I am very curious. I can see how it would work.

Monday, November 17, 2008

My least favorite Balzac - the angel will slowly perish by the materialization of both natures

The Big Balzac Blog Blowout continues this week with my Balzac Top Two list. But first, as a palate cleanser, I'll briefly look at some Balzac works that I don't like.

Balzac's first novel under his own name was The Chouans (1829), a novel that is directly derivative of Walter Scott. It's set in southeast Brittany under the Revolutionary government, and deals with Monarchist guerillas, backed by England, fighting the Revolutionary army. The subject could hardly be more interesting, but I'm afraid it's just a botch, with a lot of implausible nonsense and a ludicrous romance that turns out to be the point of the thing. A shame. There is one chapter, where the guerillas execute a collaborator, which is intense and excellent, a harbinger of the better Balzac to come. Heck, a harbinger of Tolstoy.

I have almost no interests in Balzac's Big Ideas, his philosophy, and am irritated whenever he inserts them into his novels at greater length than a sentence or two. It all has something to do with Swedenborg and "essences." If you think you might be interested, the place to start is the novella Louis Lambert, in which the young, mad genius of the title is a vehicle for pure philosophizing:

"According to Swedenborg, the angel is an individual in whom the inner being conquers the external being. If a man desires to earn his call to be an angel, as soon as his mind reveals to him his twofold existence, he must strive to foster the delicate angelic essence that exists within him. If, for lack of a lucid appreciation of his destiny, he allows bodily action to predominate, instead of confirming his intellectual being, all his powers will be absorbed in the use of his external senses, and the angel will slowly perish by the materialization of both natures. In the contrary case, if he nourishes his inner being with the aliment needful to it, the soul triumphs over matter and strives to get free."

Hope ya didn't actually read all of that - yuck!

Louis Lambert is the earliest example I know of the "boys at boarding school" genre. Those parts are pretty interesting.

The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1834), one of three stories in The History of the Thirteen, is the only Balzac I have read that I dislike with intensity. I think it's supposed to be a sort of Marquis de Sade-like Romantic shocker, a deliberately decadent, immoral story. It's finely written in places, but also quite cruel and sickening. I don't even like thinking about it. Thank goodness it was just an experiment.

There are two points to this. First, although I don't like any of these three stories, and actually despise The Girl with the Golden Eyes, they are worth reading for various reasons, The Chouans, for example, as history, or Louis Lambert for, if you like that sort of thing, Balzac's ideas. And they all have portions, at least, that are well written.

Second, this should give some idea about the variety in Balzac's works. He's the great writer of Paris, or of society, or of money - yes, all of those things, sometimes. But he really was a writer of large scope, of subject and form.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece - confused masses of color and a multitude of fantastical lines

A curious thing has happened to Balzac's story The Unknown Masterpiece (1831). The meaning of the story has been completely transformed, hijacked, by later writers and artists. It now does something that Balzac could hardly have guessed.

The story is set in 17th century Paris, and the protagonist is the young Nicolas Poussin, just beginning his career. It's the only Balzac story I know of set at that time, and the only one starring an actual person. The (non-actual) painter Frenhofer, a great master, has been working on a single painting for ten years; no one has ever seen it. There's some plotty stuff about whether Poussin will allow his girlfriend to pose nude for Frenhofer, and whether the girlfriend will do it. Finally, she does, and Frenhofer finishes his painting, and Poussin and his friend Porbus get to see it. Frankly, nothing interesting has happened so far. Then:

"The two painters left the old man to his ecstasy, and tried to ascertain whether the light that fell full upon the canvas had in some way neutralized all the effect for them. They moved to the right and left of the picture; they they came in front, bending down and standing upright by turns...

'The old lansquenet is laughing at us,' said Poussin, coming once more toward the supposed picture. 'I can see nothing there but confused masses of color and a multitude of fantastical lines that go to make a dead wall of paint.'

'We are mistaken, look!' said Porbus.

In a corner of the canvas as they came nearer, they distinguished a bare foot emerging from the chaos of color, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog. Its living beauty held them spellbound. This fragment that had escaped an incomprehensible, slow, and gradual destruction seemed to them like the Parian marble torso of some Venus emerging from the ashes of a ruined town."

Confused masses of color, half-tints and vague shadows, with a form somehow underneath - who does this sound like to you? Willem de Kooning? Kandinsky? Toulouse-Lautrec? If it reminds you somehow of Cézanne, at least one great artist agrees with you - Paul Cézanne. "Frenhofer, c'est moi!" he supposedly declared, between sobs, when his art dealer mentioned Balzac's story. Picasso, weirdly, also claimed to identify with Frenhofer.

We now read Balzac's story with a frame of reference that he could not have had. In 1831, there was no such thing as abstract art, no such thing as Impressionism. I have to struggle a little to try to get back to whatever meaning Balzac was going for. Balzac saw Frenhofer's labors as a complete failure, I'm pretty sure, a pointless and destructive obsession over perfection. Watching the other painters look at his canvas, Frenhofer suddenly sees what they see:

"Frenhofer looked for a moment at his picture, and staggered back.

'Nothing! nothing! After ten years of work...'

He sat down and wept."

The Unknown Masterpiece is not much of a story, really. But there's an idea in it, an idea that I'm pretty sure was not Balzac's, that is rich enough to have kept this story alive and inspired later artists and writers. Henry James either parodied this story in "The Madonna of the Future," or pushed it to its logical conclusion. It's been so long since I read it that I don't remember which. Maybe both. I understand that there's a Zola novel that also makes use of The Unknown Masterpiece. And then there's the Jacques Rivette modernization, La Belle Noiseuse, a four (!) hour movie that mostly consists of alternating shots of a nude Emmanuele Béart, and closeups of the hand of the artist who draws her.

Maybe this is a good place to mention another Balzac story about a painter, Pierre Grassou (1840). This one is about a hack painter who becomes wildly successful. It's mean, and funny, almost a joke with a punchline. Balzac doesn't like the agonized Frenhofers, but he doesn't like the hack Grassous either. The proper way to be an artist is to be like Honoré de Balzac.

My quotes are from an Volume 22 of an antique collected Balzac, no translator specified. If possible, try to get the NYRB edition, or at least take a look at Arthur Danto's introduction (pdf).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Loose, baggy Balzac - Cousin Pons - literatures so unprofessable as those of the North

Balzac wrote a lot, quickly. If he had lived long enough to hear about the way Flaubert agonized over each sentence, he would have laughed, and then written a jolly story about a writer who ruins his life by agonizing over each sentence (no, not a writer, a painter - come back tomorrow).

Balzac's books sprawled as he aged. Henry James called Tolstoy's novels "loose, baggy monsters," which I have never understood, but that phrase is a good fit for A Harlot High and Low (1839-47) or Cousin Bette (1846). I find this frustrating sometimes, but Balzac was not interested in perfection. In the 1840s, in his 40s, Balzac seems to me to be completely confident in his methods and manners. He has loosened the stays of his corset, so to speak - see left, Rodin's portrait of Balzac, to get a sense of the work that corset would have had to do. He's comfortable, hopped up on strong coffee, and having a great time.

For example, look at this description, from Cousin Pons (1847), of a seedy attorney's office:

"The drain into which the household slops were discharged added its quota of nauseous odours to the stairway, whose ceiling was everywhere decorated with arabesques - such weird ones! - traced in candle-smoke... She [the servant] was unhealthily corpulent and wore an appalling dress of cheap printed cotton, with a Madras scarf tied round her head; her hair was still in curl-papers made of printed forms which her master received gratis; from her ears hung something resembling gold carriage-wheels... Monsieur Fraisier, a shrivelled and sickly looking little man with a red face covered with spots which spoke of impurities in the blood, and who moreover was constantly sratching his right arm, and whose wig, pushed far back on his head, incompletely concealed a sinister-looking, brick-coloured cranium..." Ch. 18

Why does Balzac, more than halfway through the novel, spend three or four pages describing the hideous M. Fraisier and his greasy office? Because it's so much fun.

Cousin Pons circles around a hack musician who has devoted his life to two things: collecting art and antiques, and sponging dinners off his relatives (one of the great pleasures in his life is the moment the lid is lifted from a covered dish). When he becomes ill, everyone he knows turns into a vulture, circling the art collection. Almost everyone - not his roommate and one true friend, the pathetic Schmucke. The scheming for the inheritance is one plot strand; the sorrows of Schmucke are the other. Both are quite good, one funny, one sad.

It's a bit of a surprise when, a third of the way into the fairly long Cousin Bette, Balzac declares that he has finally set the stage and can now begin the real story. It's even more surprising to read the same announcement ("And here begins the drama...") at the end of chapter 17 of Cousin Pons, about 60% of the way through the book. There's some evidence that Balzac started with just the art collection plot and came up with the friendship plot along the way. This is a relaxed approach to novel writing that would not work for a writer with a less abundant imagination than Balzac's.

Here's a bonus quotation from Pons, just for literature, and possibly anthropology, professors. One of the schemers has visited a fortune teller, allowing Balzac the opportunity to insert a long, long digression on the "occult sciences":

"Just now, when so many professorial chairs are being set up in Paris - chairs in Slavonic, in Manchurian studies, and in literatures so unprofessable as those of the North; chairs which, instead of offering instruction, stand in need of it themselves; chairs whose titular holders eternally grind out articles on Shakespeare or the sixteenth century - is it not a matter of surprise that, under the name of anthropology, the teaching of occult philosophy, one of the glories of the old-time university, has not been restored?" Ch. 13.

Translations by Herbert Hunt, Penguin Classics edition.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cousin Bette - he thus was making himself desirable and charming

There was some point I wanted to make yesterday that slipped by me because I was too sleepy. What was it? Right, the whole Human Comedy business, the characters that show up in multiple stories.

I think the whole thing is a bit overrated. In some ways, it's just shtick. If Balzac needed a doctor in his story, he pulled in Bianchon. Rastignac is a dandy, Nucingen is a banker, Derville is a lawyer; employ as necessary. Mostly, they're just cameo appearances. The same names keep reappearing, but rarely are they much more than names.

At its best, though, the reader who knows the character from another story is rewarded somehow, with a joke or an irony. Rastignac,the hero of Père Goriot, appears again and again, even though there is never, to my knowledge, another story that is actually about him. But the reader who is keeping up with Balzac over the decade from Père Goriot (1835) to, say, Cousin Bette (1846), is constantly informed about Rastignac's rise in society.

Cousin Bette provides a good example of another problem with the Human Comedy concept - Balzac leans on it to solve plotting problems. The story of Cousin Bette is excellent - Balzac is pretty much an ace with plots - and mostly proceeds with its own internal logic. Bette is a plain and sour peasant woman whose pretty and lively cousin married well. Over the years, Cousin Bette's resentments have turned into hatred; the novel is the story of her revenge on her family, turning their weaknesses against them, all behind a facade of perfect service.

The problem is that, near the end of the novel, Balzac decides to tie up a big chunk of the plot by dragging in a bunch of previously unmentioned characters from his other novels. What a tiresome episode. It's all mixed up with the Brazilian Baron, another part of the novel I wish had been snipped. It's ridiculous stuff. Fortunately, the last chapter, the end of the part of the story that really matters, is one of Balzac's best.

Let's have some real human comedy. The rich, ludicrous ex-perfumer Crevel and his "attitude":

"The ex-perfumer got up with considerable difficulty. This circumstance made him so angry that he struck his attitude again. Nearly all men affect some posture that they believe brings out all the advantages with which nature has blessed them. For Crevel, this attitude consisted in crossing his arms like Napoleon, turning three-quarters face, and looking in the direction that the painter had made him look for his portrait - that is, toward the horizon." Ch. II

And that painter, it turns out, is Pierre Grassou, star of the earlier story Pierre Grassou! Crevel is a buffoon, so it's always a good laugh when he strikes his pose, and even funnier when other idiots begin to imitate him. The joke reaches its culmination when, several years later, Crevel's mistress convinces him to "improve" his pose, just to make him look ridiculous:

"He put his thumbs in his armholes and beat his chest with both his hands, for all the world like a flapping pair of wings, thinking that he thus was making himself desirable and charming." Ch. XXIX

I guess I can tolerate a Brazilian Baron or two for this.

Translations by Kathleen Raine, Modern Library edition.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Père Goriot - the center of Paris, the center of Balzac - Perhaps this may amuse me

I briefly considered writing up my Balzac Top 10, and then counting down the hits for two weeks. Père Goriot (1835) would have had to wait until the beginning of next week, coming in at #4, perhaps, but for many readers it would be his obvious #1 greatest hit, for understandable reasons. Père Goriot is the purest Balzac, the most Balzackish Balzac. It's the center of Balzac's works, it's his greatest portrait, or really vision, of Paris, and it's the root of the Human Comedy.

The novel begins with a hilariously mean attack on its readers. This is funny stuff:

"And you, too, will do the like; you who with this book in your white hand will sink back among the cushions of your armchair, and say to yourself, 'Perhaps this may amuse me.' You will read the story of Father Goriot's secret woes, and, dining thereafter with an unspoiled appetite, will lay the blame of your insensibility upon the writer, and accuse him of exaggeration, of writing romances. Ah! once for all, this drama is neither a fiction nor a romance! All is true,--so true, that everyone can discern the elements of the tragedy in his own house, perhaps in his own heart."

Then we get one of Balzac's best passages, the description of the rundown Latin Quarter boarding house where most of the novel's characters reside:

"Here you see that indestructible furniture never met with elsewhere, which finds its way into lodging-houses much as the wrecks of our civilization drift into hospitals for incurables. You expect in such places as these to find the weather-house whence a Capuchin issues on wet days; you look to find the execrable engravings which spoil your appetite, framed every one in a black varnished frame, with a gilt beading round it; you know the sort of tortoise-shell clock-case, inlaid with brass; the green stove, the Argand lamps, covered with oil and dust, have met your eyes before."

The engravings which actually spoil your appetite! Note the attention to the frames, one of Balzac's career-long obsessions. One of my little knocks against Père Goriot is that the descriptive writing is not as good anywhere else in the book as it is in this opening passage.

One of the boarders is the law student Rastignac. He gets a taste of the good life, and that's it for him. He wants it - money, women, Paris - now, rather than later. A common theme in Balzac - not just ambition, but haste. Another boarder, Goriot, has impoverished himself, continues to impoverish himself, for the sake of his two heartless daughters. Rastignac becomes tangled up with the daughters. These are the two plots of the book.

This is a novel where knowing the ending may pique a readers interest more than knowing the story - how does Rastignac get from that boarding house to here:

"He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river. His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendome and the cupola of the Invalides; there lay the shining world that he had wished to reach. He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently:

'Henceforth there is war between us.'

And by way of throwing down the glove to Society, Rastignac went to dine with Mme. de Nucingen."

Rastignac standing in Pere-Lachaise cemetery, overlooking Paris, vowing to conquer it - now that is Balzac.

Translations are again from the old-timey Gutenberg.org version, by Ellen Marriage. But try to get the Norton Critical Edition, which has, among other curious items, a map of Paris that I found extremely useful.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Big Balzac Blowout - no one has any personal interest in a scene of mere routine

A couple of years ago I had read two of the 91 or 93 or 97 components of Honoré de Balzac's Human Comedy. Now I've read 30. So it's time for an extra special Wuthering Expectations Big Balzac Blog Blowout. This is so big it's going to last two weeks.

I've noticed some confusion about the exact size of Balzac's shelf of books. Everyone who writes an introduction to a Balzac book is obliged to mention his "91 novels and stories", or even just "91 novels". Granted, he wrote a tall pile of books, but do those sound like the same thing to you? One novel and ninety short stories is a lot less writing than ninety novels and one short story. Is this some confusion over the word nouvelles?

Of the 30 works I have read, only 8 are novels (over 200 pages). I don't know what the ratio is for the entire 91, but I would be surprised if it's too different. My actual point is that there's as much good writing in Balzac's shorter works as in his novels.

Look at Colonel Chabert (1832), which is maybe 100 pages. Here, near the beginning, is the first meeting between the Colonel and the lawyer Derville:

"Monsieur," said Derville, "to whom have I the honor of speaking?"
"To Colonel Chabert."
"He who was killed at Eylau," replied the old man.

That's a good start. At his best, Balzac knows to set up a plot. Colonel Chabert, a Napoleonic-era hero, was thought killed at the Battle of Eylau; he actually received a severe head injury. He returns to Paris, years later, to find his wife remarried, his pension gone, any hint of his old life destroyed. He is meeting the lawyer to sue his wife, but for what purpose, exactly? That's the story - what does the old soldier really want, what does he regard as justice.

This is early Balzac - he had only been publishing under his own name for three years. There are two descriptive set pieces that are real Balzac classics. One is the description of the lawyer Derville's office, where we start the story:

"The stove-pipe crossed the room diagonally to the chimney of a bricked-up fireplace; on the marble chimney-piece were several chunks of bread, triangles of Brie cheese, pork cutlets, glasses, bottles, and the head clerk's cup of chocolate. The smell of these dainties blended so completely with that of the immoderately overheated stove and the odor peculiar to offices and old papers, that the trail of a fox would not have been perceptible...

The dirty window-panes admitted but little daylight. Indeed, there are very few offices in Paris where it is possible to write without lamplight before ten in the morning in the month of February, for they are all left to very natural neglect; every one comes and no one stays; no one has any personal interest in a scene of mere routine..."

That's just where Balzac disagrees, that's just what he is interested in. This passage suggests a central tension of Balzac's method. He wants to generalize, to tell us what everything is like, but he can only do it by telling us what this specific thing is like.

Chabert finds himself living with one of his soldiers in a disgusting dairy farm. We get to see it when the lawyer visits:

"Though recently built, this house seemed ready to fall into ruins. None of its materials had found a legitimate use; they had been collected from the various demolitions which are going on every day in Paris. On a shutter made of the boards of a shop-sign Derville read the words, 'Fancy Goods'...

The house had been left in charge of three little boys. One, who had climbed to the top of the cart loaded with hay, was pitching stones into the chimney of a neighboring house, in the hope that they might fall into a saucepan; another was trying to get a pig into a cart, to hoist it by making the whole thing tilt. When Derville asked them if M. Chabert lived there, neither of them replied, but all three looked at him with a sort of bright stupidity, if I may combine those two words."

Maybe the joke of the "Fancy Goods" sign in this repulsive place is too obvious? I think it's pretty great, although the boys may be even better. I don't know. Colonel Chabert has a lot to like, anyway.

There is an excellent French movie of Colonel Chabert from 1994. The great fun of the movie is watching Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant go after each other. But the dairy, the Battle of Eylau, the lawyer's office - they're all there, too, right in front of you.

Old collected editions of Balzac typically top 30 volumes, and that usually omits his early hack work. So I don't mean to say that the man didn't drink enough black coffee and write enough pages. For many readers, this abundance becomes a problem. I hope my guide this week is useful to someone other than me.

All quotations are from the Clara Bell and Ellen Marriage version, available at Gutenberg.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Wilhelm Hauff - everything that he said or did was held to be excellent

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that Theodor Storm referred to a novel and writer I'd never heard of, Wilhelm Hauff. Poor Hauff, dead at the age of 25, author of Lichtenstein, the first Scott-style historical novel in German (unEnglished since 1839, apparently).

Hauff also wrote children's stories and fairy tales (he was employed as tutor for a Baron's children). That's why, when on a whim I typed Hauff's name into the library computer, I found myself directed to the Juvenile section. Honestly, I was expecting to find nothing. Instead, I found Little Long-Nose:

What's the story? A youngster is kidnapped by a witch and turned into a squirrel When the witch lets him go, she lets him be human but, unfortunately, gives him a bizarrely squat frame, big head, and long nose; fortunately, she has trained him to be a gourmet chef. Adventures ensue. A number of the illustrations are food or kitchen related:

The illustrations in this little Candlewick Press edition are by Laura Stoddart. They're fantastic. I love that overhead view of the park. There's an earlier translation called Dwarf Long-Nose with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, but I don't see how it could be better than this. Strongly recommended to Lemony Snicketers, or kids who have become obsessed with cooking shows.

What else did I find? A genuinely funny story called The Young Foreigner, in which an orangutan is trained to speak, and dance, and go to parties. He becomes very popular. The lesson is, don't act like an ape just because someone else is, because the someone else might, in fact, be an ape, and then you would feel stupid:

"He had read nothing, studied nothing, and the priest would often shake his head over the young man's extradordinary ignorance. And yet everything that he said or did was held to be excellent, for he was brazen enough always to insist that he was right, and the end of all his remarks was, 'I know better.'" (p. 79)

I found this story in a 1924 translation by Christopher Morley, accompanied by a not quite as good Alfred de Musset fable, and surrounded by this distracting "German" (note the steins) border on every page:

There was a third tale, The Adventures of Little Mouk. It was pretty good, too, a playful Arabian Nights variation. The mysterious ways that books persist; the mysterious things one finds in libraries.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Storm's Little Hobbin - he rubbed his eyes with the fur cuff of his sleeves in disbelief

I found a translation of Theodor Storm's Der kleine Häwelmann at the library. Not just any library - Bigshot Research Unversity Library. So it must be an important work, of interest to researchers:

Anthea Bell's name caught my attention. She's a big-deal translator - Freud, Stefan Zweig, Sebald's Austerlitz. This story probably took her about 20 minutes to translate, including a hot tea break. In terms of ordinary text, it might be two pages long.

Little Hobbin is a genuine bedtime story. The kid won't go to sleep; he just wants to ride around in his wheeled crib. I've forgotten how many children Storm had - seven, maybe? So it's easy enough to imagine the inspiration for this cautionary tale about the consequences of spending the night joy-riding. The story has its curious points, like the cat who wants to shine like the stars, or the trouble the moon has walking in the woods, on account of her horns.

The illustrations of Lisbeth Zwerger are very nice. I particularly like the sun, costumed as Goethe:

Think of how many books I could read if I read nothing but children's books. Like, 2,000 books a year or something.