Monday, March 31, 2008

Charles Dickens and The Old Curiosity Shop - a place to live and learn to die in

The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) was Dickens' fourth novel, and his fourth straight bestseller. It's reputation is not high now. Oscar Wilde's quip - "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing" - did its damage. This book is Exhibit A in the case against Dickens the sentimentalist.

Part I of the story: Little Nell, thirteen years old, lives in an antique shop with her elderly, senescent grandfather, who is, unfortunately, a gambling addict, in debt to a malignant, insane loan shark. The loan shark forecloses, and Nell and her grandfather wander off into the English countryside.

Then, in alternating sections, Part II A: Nell and her grandfather have a series of - not adventures, exactly - encounters in their search for an idyllic new home, which, with the help of kind strangers, they eventually find. The world, however, has been too much for poor Nell.

And Part II B: Sprightly young fellow Kit and lazy young idiot Dick Swiveller have a series of run-ins with the insane loan shark and his sycophantic attorney. All’s well that end’s well.

Kit was the errand boy of the grandfather. Swiveller was a friend of Nell’s older brother. The connection between II B and the rest of the book is tenuous, sometimes less than tenuous, although it’s stitched together in the end. In Dicken’s notes for the end of the book: “Keep the child in view”. He had to remind himself.

The structure is a mess. But so is that of The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. That's not the problem. This is:

This is, literally, the end of the book. Edgar Allan Poe in his review of the novel: "In conclusion, we must enter our solemn protest against the final page full of little angels in smock frocks, or dimity chemises." The Old Curiosity Shop is a purposeful novel, meant to provide comfort to people who have lost a child, meant to provoke tears.* Many readers have grown suspicious of this sort of thing; those who have not seek out the effect in more current books and movies.

My own heart, it turns out, is made of stone, since rather than laugh, I was moved by Nell's death and her grandfather's grieving, despite the fact that neither character is especially interesting and both are, of course, imaginary. But Dickens was affected by her death, or convinced me that he was. My sympathy was with him.

The Old Curiosity Shop is Minor Dickens. The rest of the week at Wuthering Expectations: the great pleasures of Minor Dickens.

* 'A peaceful place to live in, don't you think so?' said her friend.

'Oh yes,' rejoined the child, clasping her hands earnestly. 'A quiet, happy place--a place to live and learn to die in!' She would have said more, but that the energy of her thoughts caused her voice to falter, and come in trembling whispers from her lips. Ch. 52.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Cruel Spain, Romantic Spain

Dr. Johnson advised a young James Boswell to visit Spain and write a book about it. Johnson thought it would make his reputation – there were no books in England about Spain. This was in 1763. Boswell followed the core of Johnson’s advice, very successfully, but went to Corsica rather than Spain. So England maintained its ignorance.

An educated Englishman in the 17th or 18th century might have had a lot to say about Spain, actually. The Spanish were cruel, backwards, superstitious, enchained by a sort of primitive degeneration of Catholicism, ruled by sinister monks and Jesuits, who used murder and kidnapping to pursue power and wealth. And that’s just in Spain – in America, the Spanish were even worse, more brutal, more destructive. The Spanish were monsters, basically.

Later writers called this “The Black Legend”. It’s a complicated mix of genuine information and concern about what we now call human rights abuses in America and bizarre concoctions, often lurid, always anti-Catholic, about monasteries and Jesuits. See Matthew Lewis’s Gothic hackwork The Monk (1795) or Charles Maturin’s brilliant, insane, anti-Catholic nightmare Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1590 or so) is an early example. I happened to hear Beethoven’s Fidelio (1814?) last night, which is another one – a real story about a terrible French prison is in the opera transferred to Seville.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, it was actually Italy rather than Spain that played the same role – see John Webster, or Thomas Otway, or almost any poison and murder-fueled revenge tragedy, aside from Kyd. I don’t know when the shift away from Italy occurred. I assume it is related to the rise of The Grand Tour. As English people visited Italy in significant numbers, the portrayal of Italians as power-mad lunatics began to ring false. Englishmen didn’t go to Spain until 1808, as soldiers in a bloody, protracted war.

Did the exposure change the perception of Spain? I don’t know. But Romanticism, that did the trick. Romantics were attracted to the exoticism of Spain – the not-so-distant Moorish heritage and architecture, the bullfights, Spanish notions of honor. Byron, in Lara and the first book of Don Juan, for example, or Merimeé’s Carmen, or Washington Irving’s genial Tales from the Alhambra. For the Romantics, the bandits and gypsies and primitivism were wonderful, signs of an authentic culture, an alternative to all the modern problems of more advanced civilizations.

The Romantics may have been full of nonsense in their own way, although their attitude is a lot more pleasant. And at least these writers had been to Spain – Irving, at least, truly fell in love with it. They were the first writers of note that I know of to be interested in Spain as it actually existed.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The collapse of the Golden Age, or, Why there won't be much Spanish literature at Wuthering Expectations

The Spanish Golden Age was an amazing literary period, a strong rival to the contemporary literature of England (that's right, including Shakespeare). Say it started with the anonymous picaresque Lazarillo de Tormes in 1554 and lasted until Calderón de la Barca’s retirement into the priesthood in 1651. Almost a century, which included great poets (the mystic St. John of the Cross and Fray Luis de León, and the baroque Luis de Góngora), playwrights (the prolific Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, and the magnificent Calderón), and the beginning of the novel, including Don Quixote. And then, after this spectacular creative outburst, it all just dies. With the exception of the Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, there are no great works of Spanish literature for another 200 years.

What an outrageous statement – how does the Amateur Reader know that? He’s read it all? No, no; he’s just taking the word of the Professionals. I look in my copy of The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse, and see an almost exact 200 year gap, Sor Juana again excepted. After her, nothing until Gustavo Adolfo Becquer in 1860. Or glance at The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, and compare the entire chapters devoted to Cervantes or Calderón de la Barca to the handful of pages on the 18th century. You have to actually read the chapters to find the accompanying total lack of enthusiasm. For Scholars Only.

What happened? In its decline, Spain took a turn inward, cutting itself off from the European intellectual mainstream, ironically just as recast Spanish drama was invading the French and English stage. The Counter-Reformation was part of the story, channeling writing into religious subjects. Why wasn’t Italy affected the same way, though? Maybe it was, but at least the Italian theater was lively throughout the 18th century. French neoclassicism had a stifling effect on poetry and drama. During the decade when the Napoleonic Wars were fought on Spanish soil, literary production almost ceased entirely. I would not want to say that a culture capable of producing Goya was lacking in creative energy. But something was missing.

Perhaps what is missing is not the books, but translations. In the Columbia Encyclopedia entry on Spanish literature, in the 18th century we see – no, the encyclopedist agrees, the 18th century is hopeless. Let’s move into the early 19th century. Here are some authors – José de Espronceda, Ángel de Saavedra, José Morilla y Moral. Who? Are their books still worth reading? They’re not in English, so I can't find out for myself without an investment in Spanish that is unlikely to occur.

Later, after 1860 or so, a cosmopolitan intellectual spirit had returned to Spain. I have not read much of Becquer, or novelists like Benito Peréz Galdós or the mononymous Clarín. But their books are in English, and I’ve leafed through them, learning at least one thing – I ought to read them some day. They look good. Maybe that’s true of earlier writers as well, but I need the help of an enterprising translator.

I’ve elided the issue of Latin American literature, which looks to me like it follows the same pattern. I’d love to be proved wrong. Anyone know if José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi’s The Mangy Parrot (1816, “first Spanish American novel”) is for non-specialists? The title is promising.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz - es un vano artificio del cuidado

Sonnet 145 of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, "To Her Portrait":

Este que ves, engaño colorido,
que del arte ostentando los primores,
con falsos silogismos de colores
es cauteloso engaño del sentido

éste, en quien la lisonja ha pretendido
excusar de los años los horrores,
y venciendo del tiempo los rigores
triunfar de la vejez y del olvido,

es un vano artificio del cuidado,
es una flor al viento delicada,
es un resguardo inútil para el hado:

es una necia diligencia errada,
es un afán caduco y, bien mirado,
es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.

A reader doesn't need much Spanish to see a lot in this poem. It's all one sentence. Seven of fourteen lines start with "es", while three more start with "éste" and "excusar". And then "es" appears again and again in the last line.

Look at the rhyme words. Four lines end in "-ores", but the rest are "-ido", "-ado", and "-ada", similar sounds, slant rhymes.*

Does a good translation need to keep all of this? See yesterday's post for Edith Grossman's version. Here is Margaret Sayers Peden:

This that you gaze on, colorful deceit,
that so immodestly displays art's favors,
with its fallacious arguments of colors
is to the senses cunning counterfeit,

this on which kindness practiced to delete
from cruel years accumulated horrors,
constraining time to mitigate its rigors
and thus oblivion and age defeat,

is but artifice, a sop to vanity,
is but a flower by the breezes bowed,
is but a ploy to counter destiny,

is but a foolish labor ill-employed,
is but a fancy, and, as all may see,
is but cadaver, ashes, shadow, void.

A lot of this is pretty close to the text. Peden keeps the "is/ this" structure, although not in the last line. Grossman tries a parallel structure ("a corpse, some dust, a shadow, mere nothingness"). Peden keeps the rhyming cognates (horrors/ rigors/ colors). There's no "sop" to vanity in the original, nor are the horrors "accumulated". Still. Edith Grossman's horrors are "stark", which isn't Sor Juana either. What else can a poor translator do?

Peden does one thing more. Her essay "Building a Translation, the Reconstruction Business: Poem 145 of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz"** compares nine(!) translations of Sor Juana's sonnet, including one by Samuel Beckett. She provides the handy diagram on the right to help us see what each translator is really doing. Most of them, regardless of decisions about rhyme and language, stay right on top of this schematic. The ones that don't are terrible.

This is all I really want. Every translation of a poem in multiple versions with an accompanying essay, and diagrams. Is this so much too ask?

Bonus fun: compare the last line of Sor Juana's sonnet to that of the Luis de Góngora sonnets I posted two days ago. The Sor Juana poem is from sixty or seventy years later, I think.

* Does Spanish prosody have slant rhymes, or am I importing a foreign English concept?

** From John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte, eds., The Craft of Translation, The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz - this thing you see, a bright-colored deceit

Sonnet 145

In which she attempts to refute the praises of a portrait of the poet, signed by truth, which she calls passion

This thing you see, a bright-colored deceit,
displaying all the many charms of art,
with false syllogisms of tint and hue
is a cunning deception of the eye;

this thing in which sheer flattery has tried
to evade the stark horrors of the years
and, vanquishing the cruelties of time,
to triumph over age and oblivion,

is vanity, contrivance, artifice,
a delicate blossom stranded in the wind,
a failed defense against our common fate;

a fruitless enterprise, a great mistake,
a decepit frenzy, and rightly viewed,
a corpse, some dust, a shadow, mere nothingness.

translated by Edith Grossman

Monday, March 24, 2008

Poems of the Spanish Golden Age - earth, vapor, shadow, dust, nothing at all

Here's a hopeless task. Two, really. The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance (2005) is Edith Grossman's anthology of old Spanish poems, from the Coplas of Jorge Manrique in the 15th century to the sonnets of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz at the end of the 17th.* In between: Petrarchan innovator Garcilaso de la Vega, mystics Fray Luis de Léon and San Juan de la Cruz, ornamentalist Luis de Góngora, the prolific Lope de Vega, and the great satirist Francsico de Quevedo (pictured, left).

They're all lyric poets, so fundamentally untranslatable. That's the first hopeless part. The second is my attempt to evaluate the translations. I read, say, Grossman’s version of one of Luis de Góngora’s baroque bonbons, and think: that’s pretty good. Then I look at the Spanish and see that this word is omitted by Grossman, and that word appears out of nowhere, and although the rhythm is close, the music is completely gone. So I turn to the same sonnet in another collection, where I see that Grossman’s infelicities are corrected only at the cost of brand new problems, often worse.

This happened every time I checked one version against another, or any version against the Spanish. A Professional, a scholar or a translator, may know how to play this game, but I was stumped every time. I’ll try again tomorrow, with some scholarly assistance.

Grossman's new translation of Jorge Manrique is valuable. Longfellow's translation is a masterpiece, but anyone who finds him archaic or fussy should take a look at Grossman. The handful of poems of St. John of the Cross are some of the finest, strangest religious poems ever written, and should be read in their entirety (John Frederick Nims trumps Grossman here). Fray Luis de León and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz are almost as good. Luis de Góngora is a more difficult case, perhaps genuinely hopeless, although still worth the very real effort (my selected poems of Góngora includes his “Defense of Poetic Obscurity” - that should give you an idea of the problem). Grossman convinced me that Garcilaso de la Vega and Francisco de Quevedo's poems are also worth further attention.

This is really an admirable book. Each poet gets a pithy biography, and a portrait - there's a rather severe Luis de Góngora on the right. There's facing-page Spanish, as there should be in every translation of poetry. My only actual complaint is that the book is much too short - only 80 or so pages of poems, really. I want a sequel, preferably longer. And then a volume of 19th and 20th century poets - Becquer, Dario, Jimenez.

Here's Góngora, Sonnet CLXVI, per Grossman, on the transience of beauty, gather ye rosebuds while ye may, etc.:

As long as burnished gold gleams in the sun
in vain, attempting to vie with your hair;
and your brow, white as snow, views with mere scorn
the lily so fair growing in the plain
and each lip waiting to be gathered draws
more avid eyes than first carnation blooms;
and as long as your neck so full of charm
outshines brilliant crystal with proud disdain
revel in neck and hair, in lip and brow
before what was in this your golden age
gold, lily, carnation, and crystal bright
turn to silver, to violets crushed and sere,
and you and they together must become
earth, vapor, shadow, dust, nothing at all.

* I know, neither of these poets is actually from the Spanish Golden Age.

A profile of Edith Grossman, at Bookforum.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Friday at the 19th century movies

I'm too tired to write anything. I think I'll watch a movie instead (about 50 seconds, with music).

Did you see that? It's like the train was coming right at you!

One of the greats.

"L'Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat", Lumiére brothers, 1895

The Navy of the Republic of Texas

When John Lloyd Stephens and his party arrived in the Yucatan in 1840, the peninsula was not exactly in rebellion, but had declared itself the autonomous Republic of Yucatan. Negotiations with the central Mexican government were ongoing. As a defensive measure, the Republic of Yucatan had entered a military alliance with the Republic of Texas. Texas naval vessels were patrolling the Gulf of Mexico.

It all sounds like something from an alternate history novel. It's a glimpse of a dead end of history, a contingent path that went nowhere. Every American is taught about the Republic of Texas (the Alamo, remember?), but as a prelude to the 1846 Mexican War, and as part of the path to the Civil War. Not for it's own sake (not outside of Texas, at least). But it was, for a short time, an existing entity, a state with ambassadors and treaties and the like. As was the Republic of Yucatan. As were any number of vanished corners of history. It's an odd thing to read about.

One great value of old travel books is their firsthand encounters with these nooks and crannies of the world that were not in the middle of the action. John Kirk Townsend in the Sandwich Islands, Mungo Park on the banks of the Niger, Darwin in Argentina and Chile. Almost no one thinks to read The Voyage of 'The Beagle' for his description of Argentina and the gauchos in the 1830s. But it's there, and it's worth the time, and where else can you read about them?*

* I know, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo (1845). Is that a book for non-specialists? We shall see.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Incidents of Travel in Yucatan - the opportunity to have another attack of fever

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-52) was a professional travel writer, an early example of the breed, who wrote books about his trips to the Holy Land, Russia, and Central America. His fourth book is a classic of archaeology - Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843).

In 1841, Stephens and two companions, a doctor and an artist, followed various hints to the Yucatan peninsula to bring back the first serious descriptions of the ruins of Mayan civilization. Unlike later archaeologists of the century, whose main goal was to bring it home, no matter what it was (a colossal bull head, an entire Greek temple, whatever was lying around). Good thing, too since the few artifacts Stephens did manage to crowbar away were destroyed in a fire in the U.S. before Stephens had even finished his book. They were really in Mexico to see, and describe, and (see left) draw.

If Incidents were just about archeology, I wouldn’t have read it. But it’s also a fine travel book, with lots of incident and personality. The first night the party disembarks is a festival day. Stephens ends up in hall where a boy shouts mysterious combinations of numbers and letters, while people shove pebbles around on pieces of paper. It turns out he’s stumbled upon the lotería – Bingo night. A model piece of “make it strange” writing. Yucatan bullfighting involves a surprising amount of fireworks, generally tied to the bull – regular bullfighting not being cruel enough, I guess. There's lots of detail like this, life among the ruins.

Stephens describes occasional marvels – on the right we see an enormous ladder set against a cavern wall, the only path to underground wells serving a town of six thousand people. Unbelievable. Then the are the hazards of travel – the stinging ants, the mosquitoes, the malaria,* indigenous people failing to understand why anyone would want to hack through the forest to draw a pile of old rocks.

Stephens is funny, too - “The rain continued all the next day, and as no work could be done, Mr. Catherwood took advantage of the opportunity to have another attack of fever.” (Vol. 2, p. 91) Always understated, easy for skimmers to miss.

The main attractions, then as today, are the ruins – Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Labna. The Dover edition has dozens of engravings as good as one to the left, the House of the Dwarf at Uxmal, including a big foldout plate. The Smithsonian Press has published an abridgement, which has less of everything, good and bad, but includes a useful introduction and photographs of the ruins. But I didn’t want an abridgement – Stephens was a good enough writer, and Yucatan in 1840 was an interesting enough place.

Let me plug a useful site, while I'm on the subject. The key feature of is the ingenious linking of maps and photographs.

* The method for dealing with malaria was: 1. become infected, 2. occasionally lie down for a few days and try not to expire.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Carlyle the lecturer - That was not well done!

On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History is a collection of lectures Thomas Carlyle gave in 1840, on the theory and practice of Great Men – Napoleon, obviously, but also religious figures like Mohammed, Luther, and Odin(!?), and writers like Shakespeare and Rousseau. The lectures were enormously successful, greatly increasing Carlyle’s reputation and cash flow.

It is very hard for me to imagine what they were like. Based on the page count, they must have been at least an hour and a half long. And they were difficult. Complicated, sometimes obscure, always pure Carlyle. For example, in the lecture on Luther, Carlyle describes the efforts of Pope Leo X to suppress Luther’s teachings, which leads him to digress on the earlier religious reformer Jan Huss:

“He [Leo X] dooms the Monk’s writings to be burnt by the hangman, and his body to be sent bound to Rome,- probably for a similar purpose. It was the way they had ended with Huss, with Jerome the century before. A short argument, fire. Poor Huss: he came to that Constance Council, with all imaginable promises and safe-conducts; an earnest, not rebellious kind of man: they laid him instantly in a stone dungeon ‘three-feet wide, six-feet high, seven-feet long;’ burnt the true voice of him out of this world; choked it in smoke and fire. That was not well done!” (p. 363)

This gives an idea why Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution is still read – his history writing is vivid, opinionated, original. “A short argument, fire”. There’s a lot of information packed in that sentence. I think it’s a great passage. But hearing it an hour into a lecture, I might think “Wait, who burned Luther?”

And how about this one:

“In this point of view, I consider that, for the last hundred years, by far the notablest of all Literary Men is Fichte’s countryman, Goethe. To that man too, in a strange way, there was given what we may call a life in the Divine Idea of the World; vision of the inward divine mystery; and strangely, out of his Books, the world rises imaged once more as godlike, the workmanship and temple of a God. Illuminated all, not in fierce impure fire-splendour as of Mahomet, but in mild celestial radiance;” and on like that, unstoppably. (p. 386)

Sorry, that’s terrible. Call in a chemist to identify the exact composition of the gas. How many people were really able to follow this? I’ve wondered the same thing about Coleridge’s muddled lectures on Shakespeare, or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lectures on anything, or even William Hazlitt’s lectures, which have a much more straightforward style. What were these events really like? What did their audiences understand? What would I have understood? Carlyle’s lectures are not as high on my time-traveling list as seeing Dickens perform his seventy-minute reading of A Christmas Carol, but I’m curious.

Bonus book-related epigrams from On Heroes:

“The true University of these days is a Collection of Books.” (p. 390)

“All that Mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of Books. They are the chosen possessions of men.” (p. 388)

All references are to the old Everyman’s Library edition of On Heroes.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Jane Austen, Great Man of History

Thomas Carlyle, at the beginning of the lectures titled On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History (delivered 1840, published 1841):

“For, as I take it, Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” (p. 239, Everyman’s Library edition)

This is a strong statement. One odd thing about it is that I swear Carlyle says the exact opposite in his 1830 essay “On History”, arguing that what is really needed is a bottom-up history of ordinary people.*

I’m more sympathetic with the older Carlyle, the prophet of what we now call social history. But I’m no dogmatist. “Social forces” of all sorts are, intellectual, political, and economic, to me, sufficient causes of, for example, the Reformation or the French Revolution. But within those limits, the specific actions of Martin Luther and Napoleon were consequential. They explain why things happened when they did, instead of fifty years sooner or later, and they direct the “social forces” in specific directions. I sound like a Marxist. Superstructure, vanguard, etc.

Lovers of literature, readers of old books, at least, must all have at least some belief in the Great Man theory. For the reader, the specific work, the exact combination of words, is important. If Jane Austen had died a year earlier, Persuasion would be gone; if a little before that, Emma and Mansfield Park would never have existed. No combination of social forces, no changes in political or economic conditions, would have brought them into existence without her.

It’s easy, in fact, to imagine the social conditions that preclude any Jane Austen novels at all – social breakdown in England (just look at the sad state of literature in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France), or a society so rigidly patriarchal that Austen never received an education. This is the power, at least to me, of Woolf’s invocation of Shakespeare’s imaginary sister in A Room of One’s Own. I imagine all of the wonderful books that could have been.

* For example: "Social Life is the aggregate of all the individual men's Lives who constitute society; History is the essence of innumerable Biographies." ("On History", 5th paragraph). Although I remember a stronger statement somewhere else.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A reading list for a trip to Senegal

With any luck, I will be visiting Senegal this summer, as a tourist.

I would like advice and recommendations for reading - novels, poems, non-fiction. Advice about anything, really. It all has to be in English. I have to start working on my French. I don't want to think about that. Ein, zwei, drei. No, no. Un, deux, trois. Quatre-vingt-un. Je voudrais le yassa de poulet.

Any help is much appreciated. Here's a start. Some I've read, some I ain't:

Books by Senegalese authors

Ousmane Sembène: The Black Docker, God's Bits of Wood, The Money Order, White Genesis, Xala, The Last of the Empire, Niiwam & Taaw
Cheik Kane: The Ambiguous Adventure
Mariama Bâ: So Long a Letter, Scarlet Song
Aminata Sow Fall: The Beggars' Strike
Birago Diop: Tales of Amadou Koumba
Ken Bugul: The Abandoned Baobab
Fatou Diome: The Belly of the Atlantic
Myriam Warner Vieyra: As the Sorceror Said, Juletane
Leopold Senghor: Poems

Books about Senegal by non-Senegalese authors

Mungo Park: Travels in the Interior of Africa
Mark Hudson: The Music in My Head
Reginald McKnight: I Get on the Bus, Moustapha's Eclipse, He Sleeps
Michael Palin: Sahara
Peter Biddlecombe: French Lessons in Africa
Akahiro Yamamura: Senegal
Jean Baptiste Henri Savigny and Alexander Corréaud: Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816
Peter Matthiessen: African Silences
Susan Lowerre: Under the Neem Tree

That one's a little short (but growing - many thanks).

A complaint directed at publishers, who are complicating my work. A recent book by Peter Godwin, When a Crocodile Meets the Sun: A Memoir of Africa, looks pretty interesting. It's entirely about Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is not Africa. Anyone interested in reading African memoirs knows this. Sales will not suffer if you put the word "Zimbabwe" in the title.

I'll post this in some permanent spot and update as needed.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Cervantes and the notarized ending

Last year many readers gnashed their teeth when they got to the epilogue of the last HP book, which the author used as a way to constrain post-copyright abuse and writers of fan fiction. Why she cared, I don't understand, since she could so easily distract herself by buying an island or something. Maybe it was an act of self-discipline, to remove the temptation of writing more of the same thing.

Anyway, there is a canonical precedent. Part 2 of Don Quixote (1615) was published 10 years after Part 1 (1605). At first, Cervantes has great fun with the idea that everyone Quixote and Sancho Panza meets already knows them, having, of course, read Part 1, a smash bestseller. But then, while in the middle of writing the novel, Cervantes (the actual Cervantes) come across a continuation of Don Quixote, published in 1614, and the fun turns sour. Cervantes is furious.

In Chapter 59, Don Quixote (the character) comes across the faux Don Quixote (the book) in an inn. Don Quixote (the "real" character) is on his way to the tournament in Saragossa, but it turns out that the "fictional" Don Quixote goes to Saragossa. So:

"Don Juan informed him that this new history told how Don Quixote, whoever he might be, in that same tournament had participated in a tilting at the ring but that the description given had shown a sorry lack of inventiveness, especially with regard to the mottoes of the knights and their liveries, in which regard it was impoverished in the extreme though rich in foolishness.

'For that very reason,' said Don Quixote, 'I will not set foot in Saragossa but will let the world see how this new historian lies, by showing people that I am not the Don Quixote of whom he is speaking.'"

So they go to Barcelona instead. The false Don Quixote keeps turning up.* The "real" Don Quixote visits a notary, to get a sworn statement that he is the real Don Quixote. And then there's more notarizing at the end:

"Perceiving that their friend was no more, the curate asked the notary to be a witness to the fact that Alonso Quijano the Good, commonly known as Don Quixote, was truly dead, this being necessary in order that some author other than Cid Hamete Bengali might not have the opportunity of falsely resurrecting him and writing endless histories of his exploits." (Ch. 74)

This is why people talk about Don Quixote as the first postmodern novel, this and the "Cid Hamete Bengali" business.

Dickens fought a similar problem most of his life. His serialized novels took 18 months or so to publish. Theatrical versions, with their own endings, would appear before he was done. Nicholas Nickleby has an ill-judged chapter where Nicholas rants about this evil, targeting a specific hack writer. Dickens would write his own "official" theatrical versions which would be rushed into production a few days after the last installment of the serial appeared. Notarization did not help; enforcement of copyright law did.

* The false Don Quixote, but never, per Nabokov's suggestion, the false Don Quixote. Nabokov wanted the "real" and "false" Don Quixotes to joust.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A horrible misunderstanding of Ford Madox Ford

So the Campaign for the American Reader has a website called The Page 99 Test, which is headed by this quotation:

"Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." --Ford Madox Ford

No source is given, so I don't know the specific context. Elsewhere, somewhere in his eccentric literary history The March of Literature, I think, Ford describes his "page 90 test", which I paraphrase as follows:

Pick up a new book. Turn to page 90. Read the first full non-dialogue paragraph. Judge accordingly.

The point of the test is to get a sense of the writer's prose, just the prose. The reader doesn't know who any of the characters are, or what's going on, and page 90 (or 99) is far enough in that mediocre writers have let their guard down. "Non-dialogue", because decent dialogue comes cheap. Ford was a literary editor, and was swamped with books. This was his method, an aesthete's method, a writer's method, of culling.

Not every reader cares about the quality of prose. There's no shortage of evidence for this proposition. But good prose is what Ford means by "the quality of the whole". Is the book well written?

I was surprised, then, to discover that at each post on the Page 99 site, a single page of a book is discussed by its own author. They tell us how page 99 is "representative" of their wonderful book. Many of the authors don't include a single sentence of their own work. Many others should not have. Strangely, not a single writer says that their prose is so poor that their book isn't really worth reading.

So the whole thing is just puffery. Trivia, marketing, probably best ignored. Is the Campaign for the American Reader a publisher front organization? Ford's long dead, I know, but please, leave him out of it.

The Campaign's home website tells me that it wants "to encourage more readers to read more books." I want to encourage more readers to read better books.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Last Lines of the 19th Century

"Really, madam," said I, "you must be aware that every volume of a narrative turns less and less interesting as the author draws to a conclusion,--just like your tea, which, though excellent hyson, is necessarily weaker and more insipid in the last cup. Now, as I think the one is by no means improved by the luscious lump of half-dissolved sugar usually found at the bottom of it, so I am of opinion that a history, growing already vapid, is but dully crutched up by a detail of circumstances which every reader must have anticipated, even though the author exhaust on them every flowery epithet in the language."

This is from the last page, although not quite the last lines, of Sir Walter Scott's The Tale of Old Mortality (1816), his best novel that I've read, where Scott has tea with a woman who insists on asking what happens not only to the hero and heroine of the novel (do they marry?) but about everyone, down to the comic relief. The Incurable Logophile recently bemoaned the epilogue of Ann Patchett's opera fantasy Bel Canto, and wondered why authors still bother wrapping everything up at the risk of the energy and emotional impact of their actual ending.

The Scott quote shows that it's an old problem. This is only Scott's fourth novel, and he's already sick of it. Richardson set this terrible precedent, ending Clarissa with an epilogue worthy of the novel's bulk, punishing and rewarding almost every character mentioned in the entire 1500 pages.

In a fair fight, there aren't going to be as many great last lines in older novels as in more recent ones (just as the last lines of short stories are in general punchier than those of novels). The compressed attention to style isn't there, the attention to every detail. Instead, we get an account of a marriage, or a flowery farewell to the reader. The exceptions are too rare. This is the world of, as James said, "loose baggy monsters".

The list I discussed yesterday includes some first rate exceptions, whether poetic like Frankenstein ("He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.") or rhetorically magnificent like A Tale of Two Cities ("‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’"). But is even the end of Emma that special ("But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.")? Or the end of Middlemarch, too dreary to duplicate here, and certainly not the evidence to present to someone convinced that Eliot is an essayist disguised as a novelist.

Some first-rate 18th and 19th century last lines, missed by the list:

“I dwell the longer upon this subject from the desire I have to make the Society of an English Yahoo by any Means not insupportable; and therefore I here intreat those who have any Tincture of this absurd Vice, that they will not presume to appear in my Sight.” Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

“The old man and his sons followed the body to the grave; Albert was unable to. Lotte’s life was in danger. Workmen carried the coffin. No clergyman attended.” The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“When they tried to detach this skeleton from the one it embraced, it crumbled to dust.” Notre Dame of Paris, Victor Hugo. Really, what an ending!

“He has just received the Legion of Honor”. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

“While she was saying this, Rollo woke up and slowly wagged his head to and fro, while Briest said calmly: ‘Ah, Luise, don’t go on... that is too big a subject’.” Effi Briest, Theodor Fontane

Monday, March 10, 2008

Famous Last Lines

Nigel Bene has directed my attention to a list of the 100 Best Last Lines from Novels (pdf file) compiled by the American Book Review. It's a treat - I can only approve of any list with a sufficiently well-developed sense of the ridiculous to not only include Richard Brautigan, but to give him two slots (e.g., "P.S. Sorry I forgot to give you the mayonnaise", concluding Trout Fishing in America).

There's a richness here that surprised me. That Brautigan line tells you exactly what goes on in his books. Similarly, look at the ends of The Adventures of Augie March ("Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America") or White Noise, which concisely summarize the entire novel. Or how about the endless end of On the Road, or the finale of Cat's Cradle, which give us the core of not just those novels, but of Kerouac and Vonnegut.

I have mixed feelings abou Catch-22, but look at this last line:

"The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off."

As a first line, it's pretty good - starts things off with a bang. Somewhere in the middle of the book, it's nothing special. But at the end of the book! Pretty great, a spur to the imagination.

Some of the last lines are punch lines. As I Lay Dying, J R and The Recognitions, Tristram Shandy - great last lines if you know the setup, but not that special if you don't. The end of The Awakening ("There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.") looks like empty poeticizing on its own, but it's not, not at all.

Some are perfect on their own: Huckleberry Finn ("I been there before"), The Stranger, To the Lighthouse. Tastes will differ, but there has to be something here for any good reader. The tastes or purpose of the source make the list heavy on Americans, especially experimental sorts. But I'm not sure there would be a lot more older entries even in a fairer competition. Tomorrow I'll suggest why.

This idea seems original to me. Meine Frau remembers a German newspaper that uses to have a regular last line feature. Here are some favorites of mine that did not make the list:

“There will be a tremendous explosion, but no one will hear it and the earth will return to its nebulous state and go wandering through the sky, free at last from parasites and disease.” The Confessions of Zeno, Italo Svevo (1923)

“Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust.” The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1956)

“I take no notice. I go on revising, in the quiet of the days in the hotel at Androgué, a tentative translation into Spanish, in the style of Quevedo, which I do not intend to see published, of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial.” “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, Jorge Luis Borges (1941)

“And Sir Thomas Browne, who was the son of a silk merchant and may well have had an eye for these things, remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in the Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the field, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever.” The Rings of Saturn, W. G. Sebald (1995)

“As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.” The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald (1978)

“Outside the owls hunted maternal rodents and their furry broods.” Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Feel free to leave your own favorites in the comments here, or at Nota Beale, or wherever you like.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Stendhal - I ask for my food

The NYRB edition of The Life of Henry Brulard - the old Penguin edition as well - ends with a separate 1840 document called "The Privileges". It begins "May GOD grant me the following letters patent:", and continues with a list of what we would now call super-powers. Some samples:

"ARTICLE 4:... The privilege-holder having a ring on his finger and squeezing that ring when looking at a woman, she will become passionately in love with him as we believe Héloïse was with Abelard.

ARTICLE 5: Good hair, excellent teeth, good skin never grazed. Faint, pleasing smell.

ARTICLE 10: When out shooting, eight times a year, a small flag will indicate to the privilege-holder, at a distance on one league, the game that exists and its exact position.

ARTICLE 16: The privilege-holder, wherever he may be, having said: 'I ask for my food,' will find: two pounds of bread, a beefsteak well done, a leg of lamb idem, a bottle of Saint-Julien, a carafe of water, one item of fruit, an ice-cream and a demi-tasse of coffee. This request will be answered twice in twenty-four hours."

Etc. Small sums of money, minimal physical pain, prowess in combat, the ability to turn into an animal. This is a strange piece of writing. I should point out that Stendhal wrote this when he was fifty-seven years old.

Nota Bene, in a comment, reasonably suggested that one could use Stendhal's memoirs to illuminate some of the more (some of the many!) perplexing aspects of his fictional characters. There are no shortage of parallels between young Henri Beyle and the fictional Julien Sorel and Fabrizio. But I'm having enough trouble understanding Stendhal himself (or "Stendhal"). Henry Brulard is a slippery book. I'll have to refer Nigel to Erich Auerbach's chapter on Stendhal in Mimesis and puzzle on the subject some more.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Stendhal – for in reality, as we know, everything is always quite different

Here’s Stendhal writing about crossing the Alps behind Napoleon, and seeing Italy for the first time:

“It was the hospice! There we were given, as the whole army was, half a glass of wine which seemed to me ice-cold like a red decoction. I have a memory only of the wine, but no doubt they added a piece of bread and cheese. I fancy we went in, or else the accounts of the interior of the hospice I was given produced a mental picture, which for the past thirty-six years has taken the place of the reality.

Which is where the risk of falsehood lies that I’ve been noticing in the three months I’ve had my mind on this veracious journal.

For example, I can picture the descent to myself very clearly. But I don’t wish to conceal the fact that five or six years later, I saw an engraving that I thought a very good likeness, and my memory is now nothing more than the engraving.” (p. 468)

Can you see why modern writers have become interested in The Life of Henry Brulard? The whole point of the book, the obsessive drawing and redrawing, the reworked timelines, are all designed to pin down the reality of Stendhal’s past. But here at the end of the book, at one of his life’s turning points, he finds that what he thinks are memories of events are actually memories of a description, or an engraving. Despite all the detail, all the dates, the entire project is fundamentally unstable.*

W. G. Sebald refers to this passage in his novel Vertigo. In fact he almost directly quotes it. The first, short, chapter of this unconventional** novel, which in general is about writers’ (Casanova, Kafka, Sebald) journeys to Italy, recounts Stendhal’s life from his entry to Italy to his death forty-two years later. Here is Sebald on Stendhal at the Marengo battlefield, fifteen months after the battle:

“The decisive turn in the battle, brought about by Kellermann’s ferocious cavalry charge, which tore open the flank of the main Austrian force at a time when the sun was setting and all already seemed lost, was familiar to him from many and various tellings, and he had himself pictured it in numerous forms and hues. Now, however, he gazed upon the plain, noted the few stark trees, and saw, scattered over a vast area, the bones of perhaps 16,000 men and 4,000 horses that had lost their lives there, already bleached and shining with dew. The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place occasioned in him a vertiginous sense of confusion such as he had never previously experienced.” (Vertigo, p. 17)

Sebald interlarded all sorts of pictures into his novels - photographs, documents, drawings. There are 13 in the 28 pages of the chapter on Stendhal, seven drawn by Stendhal, one of him (just his eyes, actually), and five others more or less related to the story. Sebald’s use of illustrations is complicated, the pictures sometimes only tenuously connected to the text. When reading The Life of Henry Brulard, Stendhal must have seemed like a kindred spirit.

The quote I put in the header is a diversion. That’s Sebald (Vertigo, p. 7) writing about Henry Brulard, not Stendhal.

* Even aside from Stendhal’s fabrications and jokes. Am I supposed to take this seriously? “Around this time, I became friendly, I don’t know how, with François Bigillion (who later killed himself, I believe, out of boredom with his wife)” (p. 277). “I believe” is a comic touch of the highest caliber.

** And brilliant, essential, etc.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Stendhal - What patience you will require, oh my reader!

Today, the strange features of the memoir of the childhood of Henri Beyle, aka Stendhal. From one of the numerous title pages:

Life of Henry Brulard, written by himself. Novel of details, imitated from The Vicar of Wakefield. To Messieurs of the police. Nothing political in this novel. The scheme is a hothead of every kind who grows weary and slowly sees the light and ends by devoting himself to the cult of luxurious town-houses.” (p. xl)

Stendhal traveled a lot and worked in a French consular office in the Papal States, so the misdirection aimed at the police may have been in part utilitarian. Possibly. Mostly, it’s a gag. Not a true word in it. The cult of luxurious town-houses!

The drawings, Stendhal’s maps and diagrams and scrawls, are the memoir’s unique feature. The one above is typical, a luxurious town-house, the floorplan of one story of his grandfather’s house. Here’s part of the scribbling:

“Winding staircase – Large, cheerless courtyard – Magnificent inlaid chest-of-drawers surmounted by a clock: Mars offering France his arm; France wore a cloak decorated with fleur-des-lis, which later on caused great anxiety – Solitary window with panes of magnificent Bohemian glass. One of them, top left, was cracked and stayed that way for ten years.” (p. 113)

There's a drawing on, more or less, every third page. A lot of them are floorplans, sometimes repeated over and over with minor variations, often including a dot labeled "Moi". Sometimes Stendhal draws maps of Grenoble or the countryside, or gives us side views of a piece of terrain. There must be a dozen different versions of the city square in front of his grandfather's house, each with slightly different labels. There are almost no people, although the drawing of himself at the blackboard, a source of enormous trauma, from yesterday's post, is included four times. Once, Stendhal draws a tiny rat.

What are the drawings for? Stendahl insists that his memory is faulty, that he is remembering details of his past only as he writes them. He often admits that he is unsure of when an event took place, even his age at the time. He says he will look things up in the Genoble archives, like when he went to school(!). The drawings are stimulants to his memory, a way of trying to pin down the truth. This is why obsessively redraws parts of his grandfather's house - he wants not just the basic layout, which anyway he might have gotten wrong last time, but also where the furniture was, where people were sitting. Every scene is a little different.

The scene on the left is a unique one, a picnic with his relatives, an escape from his oppressive home. Here's what the handwriting says:
“From B to C slope of eight or ten feet on which all the ladies were sitting. They were laughing, drinking ratafia from Teisseire (Grenoble), there were no glasses, out of the lids of tortoiseshell snuff-boxes.” (p. 148)

And here's the narrative. Stendhal is "seven or eight":

“After my jealousy-inspired rebellion, I threw stones at these ladies from point A. The big Corbeau (an officer on six months’ leave) took me and set me in an apple or mulberry tree at M, at point O, between two branches from which I didn’t dare climb down. I jumped, I hurt myself, I ran off toward Z.” pp. 148-9

The detail about drinking out of snuff-box lids is worthy of Flaubert.

One more drawing, a famous one. The list of letters to the left are the initials of all Stendhal's lovers, in order. I think he slept with the numbered ones. "I pondered deeply on these names, and on the astonishing follies and stupidities they made me do (I say astonishing for me, not for the reader, and anyway, I don't repent of them)". The list is on p. 19 of the NYRB edition, but I've cheated here and reproduced p. 27 of W. G. Sebald's first novel, Vertigo. More on that later.

The quote in the title is from p. 23. Stendhal is right, his book requires patience. The Life of Henry Brulard has a number of tedious passages, and others that are barely comprehensible. Then some parts use a single detail or incident in a psychologically penetrating way, a little burst of insight. Much like his novels.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Stendhal – it’s cold, the pens are malfunctioning

On the back cover of the NYRB edition of The Life of Henry Brulard (written 1835-6, published 1883), which is, oddly, an autobiographical work by someone not named Henry Brulard, there is a small portrait of a young Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal. The portrait can be seen at the Musée Stendhal in Grenoble, Stendhal’s childhood home. If I ever find myself in Grenoble, I will be sure to go. Let’s see what Stendhal himself has to say about his hometown:

“Truth to tell, when I think hard about it, I haven’t been cured of my unreasonable revulsion for Grenoble: in the true sense of the word I have forgotten it. My magnificent memories of Italy, or Milan, have erased everything... If I may be permitted an image as distasteful as the sensation, it is like the smell of oysters to a man who has had a terrible indigestion from oysters.” (pp. 106-7)

Stendhal/ Beyle lost his mother when he was six years old. His family was devastated. Both his father and his grandfather essentially withdrew from society. Over and over, Stendhal laments that he never he spent his childhood without knowing children his own age. He was instead tutored at home for years, tyrannized by his cruel Séraphie and capricious father, his beloved grandfather supportive but passive. Beyle finally escaped, first to a different set of tyrants at school (but at least alongside other boys) and then to Paris, which, being the soul of perversity, he despised. The memoir climaxes with a 17 year old Beyle crossing the Alps to Italy with Napoleon’s army, Napoleon about to achieve his first great triumph at Marengo, Beyle about to fall in love with Italian mountains, Italian music, and Italian women.

Straightforward enough – a great writer’s childhood memoir, his miseries and escape into another life. But who, then, is Henry Brulard? And what is this, a marginal note on p. 247: “Rapidity. Bad handwriting (reason for). 1 Jan 1836. It’s only two o’clock, I have already written sixteen pages; it’s cold, the pens are malfunctioning. Instead of getting into a temper, I keep gong ahead, writing as best I can”? And what on earth is that thing to the right – one of the hundreds of drawings that are an integral part of the book?

The rest of the week, I’ll see if I can explain. No guarantees.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Historian Stephen Mihm teaches me the word “absquatulate”

American historian Stephen Mihm has done something strange. He has turned his NYU dissertation on the history of 19th century American banking and counterfeiting into a book (A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of America, 2007) that normal people can read. Or could read. Virtually no one without a specialized interest will bother. It’s about currency and banking. I mentioned that, right? Is anyone still reading this post?

Mihm’s book is a mix of narrative and social history. The criminal element allows him to tell some good stories. Who knew that the border area between Vermont and Canada, centered on Dunham, Quebec, was once a criminal refuge, full of counterfeiters and horse thieves? A counterfeiter named Stephen Burroughs lived there, and was for a time the most notorious criminal in America, having written a best-selling memoir about his exploits, a sort of inverted version of Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. Burroughs would send mocking letters to banks that failed, pointing out that his fake currency was now worth more than their real currency. Hilarious.

Another story, completely preposterous: “Several Counterfeiters – described by one chronicler as a ‘gang of desperadoes and ghouls’ – plotted to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body and hold it hostage in exchange for the release of Boyd.” The initial plan was to steal Lincoln’s body on July 4, 1876, the centennial. “That plan went awry, but was revived that fall, and almost succeeded: two men broke into the crypt, lifted the lid of the sarcophagus, and were in the process of lifting the coffin when Secret Service agents, who had gotten wind of the plot, broke up the proceedings.” (p. 366)

Mihm attributes the readability of his prose to his work as a journalist for The New York Times Magazine, which also allows him to namedrop Michael Pollan and Stephen Dubner in his acknowledgements. I believe him – his book has, for example, as clear an account as I’ve ever read of the struggle between Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle over the National Bank. Oh good, you’re thinking, I was looking for that. The description of the era of “wildcat banking” is also very good. Maybe I should confess here that with this book I am actually a Professional Reader. Although anyone else who enjoys historical non-fiction could read this book with pleasure, I doubt many normal readers will be interested enough to bother, even with the true crime angle. If Mihm’s next book is on a topic of more, let’s say, general interest, I predict it will be worth your time.

One kind of reader* who should take a look: If you are writing a historical novel set in the early to mid 19th century, there’s a lot of good untapped material to steal here. Shady banks, shady publishers, police raids, con men, threats against witnesses.** Some of the stories, suitably mangled, would also make a good screenplay. Get Daniel Day-Lewis to star. Make, depending upon one’s talent, heavy and obvious or witty and subtle satirical points about capitalism.

* A second kind: fans of or specialists in Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence Man need to add Chapter 5, at least, to their bibliographies.

** The source of the vocabulary word absquatulate, to remove oneself – “The thug advised the witness to absquatulate to another state before the trial began, or else.”