Friday, October 31, 2008

Hawthorne's annual short story productivity - converting what was earthly, to spiritual gold

My favorite Hawthorne story is "The Artist of the Beautiful" (1844), an allegory about Hawthorne's own creative life. An inventor tries to create some sort of device of perfect beauty. He fails, gives up, tries again, fails, gives up, tries again. In the end, he succeeds, but not before surrendering all ambition and desire for approval. His creativity becomes sufficient in itself.

My perception is that Hawthorne got better over time. Better at what? Descriptive passages, characterization, fleshing out his fictional world. Not necessarily better at handling ideas or concepts. His conceptual germs were still hit or miss. I think that in the first part of his career, Hawthorne mistook his talents. "The Artist of the Beautiful" is partly about his discovery of the nature of his own creativity. I don't want to get into this more now - see the latest Malcolm Gladwell piece in The New Yorker.

The artist in the story works in bursts and then stalls out for a while, just like Nathaniel Hawthorne. Look, I made a graph of the publication of Hawthorne's short stories over time:

Let's see, what's going on here. Hawthorne published a small mountain of stories from 1835 to 1838, including some famous ones like "Young Goodman Brown." From 1840 to 1841, he published some children's books and lived at Brook Farm for eight months. In 1842, Hawthorne got married and moved to the Old Manse (pictured) in Concord. Marriage, or Thoreau, or genteel poverty, got him writing stories again.

Next, he decides he needs to work for a living. He publishes nothing, writes almost nothing, for three years. Then he writes and publishes three novels in rapid succession (the first one, The Scarlet Letter (1850) is pictured), along with a few more stories and a couple more children's books. Then nothing, again, for five years. No more short stories, ever.

Since it's Halloween, I also put Hawthorne's very last short story, "Feathertop" (1852), on the graph, about a pumpkin-headed scarecrow who comes to life. It's one of his best, and is good Halloween reading.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hawthorne’s marvelous notebooks – it is found to be laughably vague

Hawthorne’s more or less allegorical stories are not populated by what I would call rounded or real characters. I don’t exactly mean psychologically rounded characters. I mean people like this:

“The skipper of the wrecked sloop had, apparently, just been taking a drop of comfort – but still seemed downcast... there was something that made me smile in his grim and gloomy mien, his rusty, jammed hat, his rough and grisly beard, and in his mode of chewing tobacco, with much action of the jaws, getting out the juice as largely as possible, as men always do when disturbed in mind.”

That’s the sort of thing I like – “with much action of the jaws.” The author of this admirable portrait is, of course, Nathaniel Hawthorne, in the American Notebooks, Sep. 15, 1852. Yes, there is an island off the coast of New Hampshire named “Smutty Nose.”

Many months ago I typed up some other examples – the high-spirited French roommate, or the engineer who was proud of his way with a scythe. The notebooks are full of these character skecthes; the stories are full of emblems, and would hardly work if they weren't.

For a real treat, don’t miss the longest sustained stretch of the American notebooks, Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa. Mama and the daughters are away, so it’s bachelor life in the Hawthorne house. There’s certainly a great character here – the old gentleman, the little man, 5 year-old Julian:

“The little man has been speculating about his mother’s age, and says she is twenty years old. ‘So very small,’ he exclaims, ‘and twenty years old!’” Aug. 4, 1851

Bunny (an actual rabbit) is not bad either:

“Bunny has a singular countenace – like somebody’s I have seen, but whose I forget. It is rather imposing and aristocratic, on a cursory glance, but examining it more closely, it is found to be laughably vague.” July 28, 1851

A lot of Twenty Days is taken up with Hawthorne curling his son’s hair, or taking walks, or being driven insane by Julian’s incessant yammering (“smashing every attempt at reflection into a thousand fragments”). Hawthorne reads Fourier, and Thackeray’s Pendennis. Herman Melville stops by now and again (“and if truth must be told, we smoked cigars even within the sacred precincts of the sitting-room”).

The American Notebooks are fragmented and sometimes obscure without annotation, but they contain some of Hawthorne’s best writing. Allegorical Hawthorne is brought right back down to earth. Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa is the best of the best.

NYRB has published a hardback of Twenty Days. I vaguely remember seeing it marketed as a Father’s Day gift. How they get the length up to 182 pages is beyond me. There are a number selections from the notebooks floating around.

Alternatively, stop by Hawthorne's Words, where each post is an excerpt from Hawthorne’s notebooks, including the extensive English and Italian notebooks, on the appropriate date.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Symbolism and Anti-Symbolism in Hawthorne – and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!

What to do with these allegories? Some of Hawthorne’s most famous stories seem extremely simple-minded, with banal morals. “Young Goodman Brown” shows us how a person destroys his own life by demanding perfection from others. “The Celestial Railroad” lets us know that there are no shortcuts to Heaven. “The Birthmark” warns us about the dangers of cosmetic surgery.

All of these stories are well-written, complete in themselves, crafted works of art. I’m willing to believe that there’s another layer of meaning, that, perhaps, the surface meaning subverts itself somehow. In other words, that they’re interesting. Maybe I’ll see that next time I read them. I read that “Rappacini’s Daughter” used to be interpreted as an allegory about religion and Transcendentalism, but now it's more often interpreted as about Hawthorne's own family. I thought it was about poisonous flowers, but it’s possible that I’m the simple one.

A curious subset of Hawthorne’s tales are his stories about meaning, about interpretation. In “The Minister’s Black Veil,” a pastor begins wearing a black veil everywhere he goes. He won’t tell anyone why. Presumably it penance for some terrible sin. On his death bed, not only does he refuse to remove the veil, but he sees a black veil on everyone.

Some of Hawthorne’s stories seem designed for a facile X=Y Symbolism. What I like about “The Minister’s Black Veil” is that the black veil is a symbol that demands interpretation not just by the reader but by the characters. It’s the minister who actually creates a symbolic item for others to interpret. So the story is less about symbols in literature than symbols in life, and what we do with them. Hawthorne returns to this idea again and again.

I find the latter a more interesting subject. But I also enjoy the way Hawthorne at the same time undermines the notion of a single interpretaion of any given symbol. I wish that he did that in more of his stories. Or maybe he does. Then I wish that I recognized it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The joys of completism – Hawthorne’s sketches

I mentioned yesterday that most selections of Hawthorne’s stories omit his dull “concept plus list” tales, a significant (in quantity, not quality) part of his work. They also omit what I thought were some of his best short pieces, his sketches. These are not really stories. They’re more like descriptive writing.

The subjects are often very simple. Hawthorne walks on the beach. Or he sits in front of his stove and misses his open fireplace. Or he looks out the window while it snows. “Snow-flakes,” that’s one of his prettiest sketches.

One of my favorites is “The Old Apple-Dealer” (1843):

“He looks anxiously at his plate of cakes or heaps of apples, and arranges them somewhat differently, as if a great deal depended on their being placed exactly so and so. Then he looked out of the window a moment; then shivers, quietly, and folds his arms, as if to draw himself closer within himself, and thus keep a little warmth in his heart. Then he turns round again to his display of cakes, apples, and candy (all this time keeping his seat; for he very seldom rises) and finds some new arrangement to make.” The American Notebooks, Centenary Edition, p. 223

I think there are a lot of nice touches here. There’s even a hint of drama – the Salem train station has a second apple dealer, a young dapper boy who hustles for business. This bothers Hawthorne, “and so I am a customer of the old man.” The sketch ends with Hawthorne thinking that he has failed to capture “the aspect and character of the old man.”

Actually, thats not how it ends. I cheated and took the passage from Hawthorne’s American Notebooks, January 23, 1842. Hawthorne later polished up his journal entry for a magazine piece. He adds a moralizing beginning and end, and smoothes down a few sentences. I prefer the journal version, but the sketch is really a fine thing, too, as are “Snow-Flakes” and “Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore” and a number of others, almost all borrowed from the notebooks.

In exchange for the tedious lists, I received the lovely sketches, a fair trade.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The perils of completism – Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales and Sketches - one of the lighter exercises of the imagination

I admire, obviously, the Library of America project. They publish such attractive books. But they are not ideally suited for the Neurotic Reader. Completism can be a curse, a time-waster. What I mean is, some of the tales and sketches in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales and Sketches are terrible, yet there they were, so I read them.

In the early days of Wuthering Expectations, I sent out a distress signal, asking for help with the Hawthorne’s stories. Since then, with more reading, I figured out my problem. Henry James, I ask you, what’s my problem?

“Hawthorne, in his metaphysical moods, is nothing if not allegorical, and allegory, to my sense, is quite one of the lighter exercises of the imagination. Many excellent judges, I know, have a great stomach for it; they delight in symbols and correspondences, in seeing a story told as if it were another and a very different story.” Henry James, Hawthorne, p. 50.

As one of the few fools who has read all six cantos of The Faerie Queene, who am I to argue against allegory? Yet at its best, it tries my patience. And often, Hawthorne’s allegories are nowhere near his best.

“A Virtuoso’s Collection” (1842) will serve as an example. The narrator visits a museum that has the skin of the wolf that reared Romulus and Remus; the bones of the horses of Alexander the Great, and Don Quixote; the raven of Barnaby Rudge (from a novel only a year old); Aladdin’s lamp; the crossbow shaft of the Ancient Mariner. On and on, mixing history and literature. The tale, such as it is, is just a long list of references.

This is an allegory of – who cares what. I count a dozen or so of these polished lists in Tales and Sketches. They’re pretty dull, mostly; I have noticed that most collections of Hawthorne’s stories omit them.

All right, forget the lists, Hawthorne at his worst. I want to spend the week with Hawthorne at his best.* There was plenty of that in the Library of America volume, once I figured out how to read it.

* I’ve never read a Hawthorne novel, nor the English or Italian notebooks. Caveat emptor.

Friday, October 24, 2008

George Sand's peasants - there is no language in which to express my conception of rustic simplicity

The peasants in The Devil's Pool do not sound much like peasants. They speak in long, flowing paragraphs, like they're in La Nouvelle Héloïse. George Sand apologized for this at the beginning of the marvellous appendix, and returned to the subject a few years later in another short novel, François le Champi / François the Waif (1850).

François begins with a long, curious dialogue between "George Sand" and a friend, which is mostly a dullish argument about the relationship bewteen nature and art. "Sand" says that she is constrained by French from depicting peasants in a truthful manner:

"'No,' I answered, ' for there is no form for me to adopt, and there is no language in which to express my conception of rustic simplicity. If I made the labourer of the fields speak as he does speak, it would be necessary to have a translation on the opposite page for the civilised reader; and if I made him speak as we do, I should create an impossible being, in whom it would be necessary to suppose an order of ideas which he does not possess.'" (Introduction, p. 138)

Sand's friend tells her that she did a pretty good job with the peasants in The Devil's Pool, but could do better. Sand agrees to try again; François le Champi is the result.

"'One moment.' said my severe auditor, 'I must object to your title. Champi is not French.'

'I beg your pardon,' I answered. 'The dictionary says it is obsolete, but Montaigne uses it, and I do not wish to be more French than the great writers who have created the language.'"

There are some things about French literature I will never understand.

Maybe I should say here that although I can recommend The Devil's/Haunted Pool/Pond without reservation, the same is not true of François the Waif, a story of an orphan and his foster mother that is by no means bad, but is pretty thin stuff.

Anybody want to champion other George Sand books? Here's Dorothy W., a couple of years ago, writing about Indiana; she convinces me that it's an interesting period piece, but not much more than that. Are the Consuelo novels good? It doesn't seem right that George Sand is now most famous for her romance with Chopin. But she wrote so many books that are so little read now, it's hard to know what to make of her.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

George Sand, party girl - an ancient ceremony held in mockery of theorists

The Devil's Pool is short, only 140 pages in the antique Everyman's Library edition I read. How strange, then to discover that the story ends after just over 90 pages. What's left? An appendix with four chapters: A Country Wedding, The Wedding Favours, The Wedding, and The Cabbage. Even stranger, the appendix is the best thing in the book.

Like Melville in Typee, Sand is using the novel for the purposes of cultural anthropology, capturing the peasant customs before they are gone. "In a year or two more, perhaps, the railroads will lay their level tracks across our deep valleys, and will carry away, with the swiftness of lightning, all our old traditions and wonderful legends."

The wedding guests - the whole village - divide into two parties. The groom's party is led by the grave-digger, the bride's by the hemp-dresser. The groom's party tries to enter the bride's house, first through persuasion, then by a singing contest, then by a mock combat. The couple can only marry once the groom's party place a goose on a spit on the bride's hearth. This is all pretty good - the singing contest is especially charming.

It's that last chapter, though, "The Cabbage," that is genuinely amazing. On the third day of the wedding, a pair of beggars appear, "the gardener and the gardener's wife, and they pretend it is their sacred duty to guard and care for the sacred cabbage." And so begins an hours-long, improvised performance involving the entire village. Some of the pieces are moral lessons - warnings against wife-beating, say, while others are pure comedy. It all concludes with the digging up of a symbolic cabbage. Another character appears, the know-it-all "geometrician," who

"walks up and down, constructs a plan, stares at the workmen through his glasses, plays the pedant, cries out that everything will be spoiled, has the work stopped and begun afresh as his fancy directs, and makes the whole performance as long and ridiculous as he can. This is in addition to the ancient formula of an ancient ceremony held in mockery of theorists in general, for peasants despise them royally..." (App. Ch. 4).

The cabbage is placed on the roof of a barn, and is "a symbol of the prosperity and fruitfulness" of the marriage.

Did George Eliot know the works of the French lady George? The parties in Adam Bede were some of my favorite scenes of that novel. Here we have George Sand with a book where the great party scene is actually the climax, maybe the point, of the novel.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Everything's great - a George Sand idyll

Everywhere I look, in everything I read, things are going great. Or they go great for a while, but then something bad happens. Or they're going great now, except that things are a little weird, because something bad happened a long time ago. For some reason, I have been reading a lot of idylls.*

Herman Melville, Adalbert Stifter, Theodor Storm, Longfellow in Evangeline, Eliot in Adam Bede - they all build their stories around some sort of idealized rural setting, always with some sort of threat (even in Arcadia, am I, says Death) hidden somewhere. In Evangeline and Adam Bede, a tragedy disturbs the idyll, while in Stifter and Storm the sorrows lie in the past.

George Sand's The Devil's Pool (1846)** is an especially idyllic idyll. A young farmer, a widower, is going to visit a nearby village to meet an eligible widow. By chance, he is accompanied by a poor, pretty shepherdess; his adorable seven year-old son comes along as well. They all get lost in the woods. The sheperdess is really pretty. And good with children. And she secretly gathers chestnuts while they walk, and has an exta bottle of wine, all of which turns out to be kind of handy when lost in the woods. That widow does not have a prayer.

Sand begins the short novel by invoking a Holbein print, from The Dance of Death. See left. That's Death striking the horses. She describes the image only to reject it:

"So it was that I had before my eyes a picture the reverse of Holbein, although the scene was similar. Instead of a wretched old man, a young and active one; instead of a team of weary and emaciated horses, four yoke of robust and fiery oxen; instead of death, a beautiful child; instead of despair and destruction, energy and the possibility of happiness." (Ch. I)

That young man's story is the one Sand chooses to write. "I might write his story, though that story were as simple, as straightforward, and unadorned as the furrow he was tracing." Curious that she feels she has to justify it like this. I don't understand French Romanticism.

More, the best part of The Devil's Pool, tomorrow.

* Well, not anymore, now that I'm reading Cousin Bette, a vulgar and chaotic anti-idyll.

** La Mare au Diable. I've also seen it translated as The Haunted Pool, and as The Devil's Pond.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Melville and Typee: sex, cannibalism, tattooing, taboo

Typee was Herman Melville’s first novel, and his first best-seller. It was all downhill from there for poor Melville. The editor of the New Riverside edition of Typee, Geoffrey Sanborn, helpfully tells me that:

“Its destabilization of white consciousness was probably not one of the things that made it a best-seller...” (p. 11)

No, probably not. I suspect the nekkid ladies had more to do with it. The internet informs me that Prof. Sanborn is or was at Bard, and that he has written a book called Sign of the Cannibal: Melville and the Creation of a Postcolonial Reader, and that this book “Extend[s] the work of Slavoj Zizek and Homi Bhabha...” Yikes. Run for it! Suddenly, compared to those terrors, Sanborn’s introduction seems extremely readable, almost conversational.

Sanborn does not really treat Typee like a novel, nor quite as non-fiction. To him, the book is more like an embodiment of attitudes or ideologies. The extra material in the back of this edition is split into four sections: sex, cannibalism, tattooing, taboo. There are some really useful illustrations of Polynesian tattooing, and some interesting old travellers’ accounts. This does some damage to the book, ignoring its fictiveness, but I can’t say the editor is wrong.

At some point or another during the past few years, reading around in Captain Cook’s Journals, or the chapters about Hawaii in John Kirk Townsend’s Across the Rockies to the Columbia, or the books about the U. S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 (William Reynolds’s Private Journals and Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory), I have picked up the notion that Polynesia had a larger influence on American and European ideas about race than I would ever have guessed.

To the Americans and Europeans, and to Melville, the Polynesians were the living examples of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Noble Savage, I think even moreso than Native Americans. There was some combination of elements that fit the ideology the Europeans had brought with them – the climate, the easy availability of food, the sexual habits and undress of the women, the cannibalism. It’s all very complicated. Add to this the sudden importance of the central Pacific in the global economy (whaling, the China trade).

I’ve reached the limit of my thinking, and competence, here. When I read the Philbrick book, I made a Polynesian history reading list. The humanist Typee, of its time but hardly typical, rightly topped the list.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Melville's Typee - a gesture expressive of deep commiseration

Moby-Dick was Herman Melville's sixth novel. Typee (1846) is his first. They are all sea novels, more or less. These are the only two I have read, the first and sixth. I can hardly tell that they were written by the same man. I can hardly believe that there is only five years between them.

In Typee, two whalers jump ship on an island in the Marquesas and hide out with the isolated Typee tribe, where they are both guests and prisoners. One of the sailors gets out quickly enough, but the Melville-ish narrator, "Tommo," has an injured leg so is stuck for a while. It's summertime every day, the livin' is easy, the breadfruit is abundant, the women are nearly nude. Only the fear that he may at some point be eaten by his hosts disturbs the idyll.

The models for Typee seem to be travel books rather than novels. Chapters discuss religious rituals, tattooing, sexual division of labor, warfare - anthropology. It's mostly pretty interesting.

It's the prose that really surprised me. It's so ordinary. I mean it's good, quite good, but nothing like what it would become only a few years later, in Moby-Dick, or even weirder books like Pierre. Where are the cadences of the King James Bible, or Sir Thomas Browne?

A few months ago I read the Penguin Classics selections from the Private Journals of William Reynolds, an officer on the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. I don't remember whether Reynolds visited the exact island of Typee, but he was at least nearby, and Melville was familiar with and made use of the offical accounts of the ExEx. One of the most pleasurable things about Reynolds's book is watching him become a much better writer over time, funnier, more adept at description, more judicious in his details. The Melville of Typee is about as good as William Reynolds. The Reynolds book has more variety of incident.

Here's an uncharacteristic example of weirdness, from near the end of the novel. Tommo should be napping, but is instead watching his odd "host father":

"All alone during the stillness of the tropical mid-day, he would pursue his quiet work, sitting in the shade and weaving together the leaflets of his cocoanut branches, or rolling upon his knee the twisted fibres of bark to form the cords with which he tied together the thatching of his tiny house. Frequently suspending his employment, and noticing my melancholy eye fixed upon him, he would raise his hand with a gesture expressive of deep commiseration, and then moving towards me slowly, would enter on tip-toes, fearful of disturbing the slumbering natives, and, taking the fan from my hand, would sit before me, swaying it gently to and fro, and gazing earnestly into my face." (Ch. 33)

Friday, October 17, 2008

The insular Theodor Storm

Theodor Storm wrote on a small scale - novellas and short tales, and lyric poems, mostly set in and around the country where he grew up. He was a regionalist, and a miniaturist. So were most of his German-language contemporaries, or at least the ones who are still read, or at least the ones I have heard of. Gottfried Keller and Jeremias Gotthelf in Switzerland, for example, or Adalbert Stifter in Austria, or Eduard Mörike in his corner of Germany, or Annette von Droste-Hülshoff in hers. I'm leaving out one or two key figures - give me a minute.

I don't think this is a coincidence. It's some sort of reaction to the earlier generation of German Romantics. The fairy tale weirdness of E. T. A. Hoffmann and many others is being domesticated; the visonary worlds of Novalis and Hölderlin are being cut down to a human scale; the incomprehensible achievements of Goethe are being sifted by more ordinary geniuses. Reduce the scale, make it small, look carefully at what is right around you - every one of these writers picked up that message somehow.

Thinking about Storm and his peers reminded me of the recent comments of Horace Engdahl, secretary of the Nobel Prize jury, to the effect that American readers, or writers, or literature, or all three, are "too isolated, too insular," and that they don't "participate in the big dialogue of literature." I can only guess what he might have meant. But Storm, Gotthelf, Mörike - these guys were insular. They did not write the big books (Keller's Green Henry may be a bit of an exception).

I'm not sure what the "big dialogue" of literature is, exactly, or why I should attach a special value to it. Immensee is not a big book, in scope, ideas, or ambition. It is merely perfect. Gotthelf's The Black Spider is imperfect and small, but it takes a wild leap into the unknown. It's a marvel. Insular has its good side. My position is strongly pro-insular.

The two mid-century German exceptions to the rule: The contemporary fame and current reputation of Heinrich Heine dwarfs that of every other writer I have mentioned here. Heine was the great cosmopolitan, the citizen of the world, politically engaged yet a lyric poet of the highest caliber, a master of multiple genres. He would have been a sure thing for the Nobel Prize if he had only lived another fifty years, to the age of 110 or so. My other position is strongly pro-non-insular.

The second exception: Theodor Storm's first published book was a poetry anthology that he shared with two brothers, friends at the University of Kiel, Theodor and Tycho Mommsen. Theodor Mommsen did live long enough to receive, at the age of 85, the second Nobel Prize in Literature, not for his youthful poetry but for his 1854 History of Rome. Mommsen is more or less the founder of the modern study of Roman history. I don't know if that counts as insular or not. I don't think it's what Engdahl meant.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

True devotion to Theodor Storm

My attempts to think about the achievement of Theodor Storm have been a failure. His art is too agile; it's slipped way from me. I am sure that many readers who wander by here would really love Immensee; others, not paying quite enough attention, or demanding something a bit more thrilling, might have trouble finding anything there at all.

His most famous novella after, or possibly before, Immensee is the 1888 The Rider on the White Horse, aka The Dykemaster. The Philosopher wrote about it recently. It has a supernatural element and for all I know is an exciting page-turner. Based on PRaymont's description, though, it also seems to have a lot of descriptions of tidal flats of Husum, which is more what I expect.

Husum? That's Storm's home town, on the North Sea, near the Danish border. The Theodor Storm Museum is there. Unfortunately it is not really on the way to anywhere, so I am unlikely to visit it soon, or ever. As an alternative, PRaymont points the curious reader to an amazing English Theodor Storm website, operated by Denis Jackson.

You want to see some love for a writer, check out that website. It has photos of dykes and farmhouses, 19th century maps and prints, and a fine bibliography of Storm-in-English that I am going to comb through. The proprietor has himself been translating Storm into English for over a decade; his fourth little collection was just published. They're all tiny books, containing no more than three stories each. I'll read them all and report back.

That's devotion to an author. I'll write about someone I like here, but I doubt I'll ever go to that length. It's shaming, just a little. Makes me feel selfish. Speaking of which, Denis Jackson, if you happen to stop by: a volume of Storm's poems, please? With facing-page German? Thanks.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Another Storm tale - A Quiet Musician - Instead of the keys, I was reaching for his ghostly hands

I guess the title of Theodor Storm's A Quiet Musician (1875) is not exactly a paradox. But a musician should not be too quiet. The center of this story is an episode of stage fright:

"My fingers felt paralyzed all of a sudden, but attempted to play a few more bars. Then a helpless sense of indifference overwhlemed me and I was at that moment transported to another time and place far in the past. All at once I felt that the piano stood in its old place in my parents' living-room, and that beside me stood my father. Instead of the keys, I was reaching for his ghostly hand." (p. 66)

The pianist finds himself ("without knowing why") seated on a rock by the stream; the stream lulls him towards sleep, but a fragment of a Schubert lieder, apparently entirely imaginary, returns him to the world. There must be some German Novellen that do not have at least one uncanny scene. This is very mild stuff compared to E. T. A. Hoffmann, but still, there it is.

Meine Frau has a couple of German collections of Storm, one quite thick, and neither contains this story. Is this minor Storm, not one of the good ones? The English translator likes it well enough, obviously, and so do I. It does seem slight relative to Immensee. But if lesser Storm is as good as A Quiet Musician, I'm going to read everything I can find by him.

Here's a funny thing. The narrator of this story becomes acquainted with the musician because they frequent the same bookstore. They share an enthusiasm for Hauff's Lichtenstein; the musician says "I find I can read it over and over again." Hauff's Lichtenstein, you don't say. It's the first historical novel in German, it turns out, published in 1826. You can visit the Lichtenstein Castle and see a bust of Hauff. There is also a collection of arms and armor, and a Fog Cave. The thing one learns.

The music of Immensee - they grow, they fall from the air

"'But who composed these lovely songs?" asked Elisabeth.

'Oh,' said Erich, 'you can hear it in the little ditties themselves - tailors, barbers, and all that kind of carefree common rabble!'

Reinhard said, 'They are not composed at all; they grow, they fall from the air, they fly over the land like gossamer, here, there, everywhere, and are sung in a thousand places at once. It is our innermost feelings and sufferings we find in these songs; it is as if we all had a hand in creating them.'" (p. 33)

Immensee is packed with poetry. The character Reinhard writes poems that sound like folk songs. So does the author, Theodor Storm. A page after this passage, Reinhard reads Elisabeth a poem, a folk song, that exactly fits the plot of Immensee and causes some trouble. The folk songs in Immensee are not really folk songs, but were written by Storm.

Writers, especially those doing unusual things, often leave clues to their readers, instructions on how to properly read their books. I'm quite sure this passage is one of them. Storm is describing his own stories, his own poems.

I would love to write about this passage more, but I feel I must stop. It contains a secret, the discovery of which is almost as pleasurable as finding the Crown Jewels in Pale Fire. I will just move on.

Reinhard, the melancholy fellow who wishes he had married Elisabeth, sees a white water lily in the titular See and decides to pluck it. His swim in the lake is the oddest thing in the book, the passage most resembling the older generation of German Romantics like Tieck and Hoffmann. Reinhard seems to have fallen into a folk song himself. Here's a bit of it:

"In the end he had come so close to the flower that he could distinguish the silvery leaves clearly in the moonlight. But in that moment he felt suddenly as if he were entangled in a net; the slippery tendrils of the plants reached up ad twined themselves around his naked limbs. The unfamiliar waters around him were so dark, and behind him he heard a fish jump. Everything was now suddenly so uncanny in this strange element; forcefully he freed himself from the mesh of the plants, and with breathless haste made for the shore. When he looked back at the lake the lily was, as before, far away and solitary out in the dark depths." (pp. 36-7)

A good way to analyze Immensee, if one wanted to do such a thing, would be to trace a series of themes through the story: plants and flowers, songs and poems, gypsies and beggars. Storm weaves these objects or motifs in and out of the story, creating resonances that an attentive reader should detect, even if it's unclear what any particular element means. I suppose one could call them symbols and say the strawberries mean this (Death, presumably) and the water lily means that (also Death), but that seems like a good way to smash poor Storm to pieces. One hardly needs any of that to hear the music of Immensee.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The delicate Theodor Storm - the expression of all that was lovely

Theodor Storm's Immensee (1850), aka The Lake of the Bees, is almost too delicate to write about. It's too beautiful, too sweet, too sad. Storm was already a lyric poet of distinction when he wrote Immensee, so perhaps it is no surprise that this tiny novella, only 41 little pages in the Hesperus Press edition, has some of the gossamer texture of a lyric poem.

"One afternoon in late autumn an elderly, well-dressed man was making his way slowly down the road." That's the beginning. He arrives home and sits alone in the dark. A moonbeam rests on a painting. "'Elisabeth!' said the old man softly. And as he spoke, time shifted and he found himself once more in the days of his youth." (p. 4)

Now, after this, what sort of surprise can be left for the story? Elisabeth either marries someone else or dies young (the former). Reinhard either loses her because he does something stupid or malicious (the former). A reader may get a litle jolt at the very beginning of the flashback, where one learns that Reinhard is ten years old and Elisabeth is only five. But after that - they should marry, but they don't, then they meet again. That's it.

But of course, Immensee is actually full of surprises, in the small things, in the details, in the scattering of poems:

"The forest stands so silent,
So wise that child appears
As round her soft brown hair
The sun her charm reveres.

The distant cuckoo laughs,
And now my heart has seen
The lovely golden eyes
Of my own forest queen!

And so she was not only his little charge; she was also the expression of all that was lovely, all that was wonderful at the opening of his life." (p. 14)

Let's see if I can write about this story without killing it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Poems as arrows and axes - It fell to earth, I knew not where - (plus, one arrow, found)

A Longfellow poem contemporary with Evangeline:

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong
That it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.

This poem-and-arrow business reminded me of the 10th/ 11th century Indian poem by Nannecoda I put up back here:

An arrow shot by an archer
or a poem made by a poet
should cut through your heart,
jolting the head.
If it doesn’t, it’s no arrow,
it’s no poem.

If Longfellow's poems are like arrows, they must have suction cup tips. I like Longfellow well enough, but I have yet to find one that jolted my head. The Nannecoda cut a little bit.

Meine Frau, upon reading the Nannecoda poem, was reminded of this statement of Franz Kafka's, from Max Brod's biography:

"I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? ... A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. "

A blow on the head? An arrow through the heart? And isn't Longfellow's bow safety appalling? He should take a class. Where was I? I was just sitting there reading Kafka, and the next thing I knew I was in the emergency room. Ow, my head!

I can see that one might miss the violence inherent in Longfellow's poem. The other examples sort of bring it to the front. Even setting that aside, these are incredibly strong demands to make of a book or poem. How many poems or stories have this effect on even one person? How many have this effect on me? Very few. A select, treasured few.

My first Clay Sanskrit Library post, linked above, turns out to have been an arrow that landed I knew not where. On Wednesday I received the CSL Autumn newsletter email and was delighted, and shocked, to see "Wuthering Expectations" right up there on top. Look, here I am on their press page, along with Library Journal and the Asian edition of Time.* The email also included a link to my Life of the Buddha post, which was only two days old - fast work.

* And a couple of interesting blogs. languagehat is a Professional Reader, a linguist, who writes about novels and poems as well as linguistics. The Proust posts are excellent. rpollack is a grad student in the East Asian program at St. Johns's. This post on how to pick a fight with a book is full of first-rate advice.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Hawthorne's ideas - a man to swallow a small snake

Hawthorne's Evangeline, not quite the same as Longfellow's:

"H. L. Conolly heard from a French Canadian a story of a young couple in Acadie. On their marriage day, all the men of the Province were summoned to assemble in the church to hear a proclamation. When assembled, they were all seized and shipped off to be distributed through New England, - among them the new bridegroom. His bride set out in search of him, - wandered about New England all her lifetime, and at last, when she was old, she found her bridegroom on his death-bed. The shock was so great that it killed her likewise."

This is from the American Notebooks, Centenary Edition, p. 182. Hawthorne apparently thought it was not quite his kind of story and passed it on to Longfellow, who got his first bestseller from it.

Hawthorne's notebooks are filled with pages of story ideas. Most of them sound terrible to me. How about this one:

"A very fanciful person, when dead, to have his burial in a cloud." p. 183

Ugh. Or this one:

"Meditations about the main gas-pipe of a great city, - if the supply were to be stopped, what would happen? How many different scenes it sheds light on? It might be made emblematical of something." p. 166

Or it might not. Let's try:

"A man to swallow a small snake - and it to be a symbol of a cherished sin." p. 228

Can this possibly be the way to write a good story, by starting with the symbol? All right, one more:

"The life of a woman, who, by the old colony law, was condemned always to wear the letter A, sewed on her garment, in token of her having committed adultery." p. 254

Yes, just another hopeless idea from Nathaniel Hawthorne's notebooks.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My favorite Dr. Johnson poem, and more dactylic hexameter

The Wikipedia entry for dactylic hexameter includes two English examples. One is from - hey, look at that - Evangeline, the (sort of) famous first line:

"This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks"

The encyclopedist actually breaks up the line into its six feet, which is very handy, since it has 17 syllables divided into six parts. But I don't care about that. What I really liked was the second, unsourced, example:

"Down in a deep dark hole sat an old pig munching a bean stalk"

Could the wikipedist have made this up herself? She has the nerve to say that the line has an "absurd meaning." I understood it perfectly. Also, I kind of like it.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Dr. Johnson poems, said to be an impromptu composition:

I put my hat upon my head,
And walked into the Strand,
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

Johnson meant this, can you believe it, as an example of bad poetry. It rhymes, it scans, yet it is bad. Johnson wanted to differentiate bewteen simple and simple-minded. I dunno. With a diet of Lear's nonsense, children's poems, and William Carlos Williams's delicious plums, I may have developed a taste for the simple-minded.

You can treat this is like a statement of disclosure. Don't take my opinions about poetry too seriously. I like "I put my hat upon my head."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Longfellow's Evangeline - is this poetry?

"Thatched were the roofs, with dormer-windows; and gables projecting
Over the basement below protected and shaded the doorway."

That there is some poetry, courtesy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie (1847), Part I, Canto 1. Some people say that you really have to read poetry aloud to appreciate it. Give that a shot. Any better? No?

The meter is the problem, I guess. Evangeline is in dactylic hexameter, an epic meter, used by Homer and Virgil. In English, it's just prose. Rhythmic prose, but still. Suggestions of exceptions are most welcome.

Longfellow could do a lot better than that dormer and gable stuff. Here's a blacksmith:

"There at the door they stood, with wondering eyes to behold him
Take in his leathern lap the hoof of the horse as a plaything,
Nailing the shoe in its place; while near him the tire of the cart-wheel
Lay like a fiery snake, coiled round in a circle of cinders." (I.1.)

The fiery snake is nice, as is the little flash of characterization of the blacksmith. I even hear a hint of poetry at the end. This is good rhythmic prose. Or how about this description of a Louisiana swamp:

"Lovely the moonlight was as it glanced and gleamed on the water,
Gleamed on the columns of cypress and cedar sustaining the arches,
Down through whose broken vaults it fell as through chinks in a ruin." (II.1.)

Actually, the whole section from which I took that passage is pretty good.

Evangeline ia a long (60 pages or so) narrative poem, based on a terrible event in Canadian history, when the British forcibly evicted the French settlers from part of Nova Scotia. Today, we call this ethnic cleansing. In Longfellow's poem a young woman is separated from her husband and devotes her life to searching for him. Late in the poem, her search takes on a mythic quality that effectively deepens the meaning of the story.

It's a good story. It's easy to see why it was so popular for so long. I have trouble seeing how it would have been much different in prose.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Ashvaghosha's Life of the Buddha - a shower of flowers fell fragrant and water-filled

I have followed my own advice and read a volume of the Clay Sanskrit Library. Ashvaghosha's Life of the Buddha (1st or 2nd century) was by no means my first choice, but the university library I relied on, a serious place, mostly, owned exactly two volumes, which is pathetic.

No regrets, though, since Life of the Buddha was a poetic work of high quality. It's a genuine epic poem on the subject, written several hundred years after the fact. A rough analogy would be a late Roman or Byzantine epic on the life of Christ, with non-scriptural sections borrowing from not just the Old Testament, but the Aeneid or the Odyssey. Or imagine that Milton had extended Paradise Regained to cover all of the Gospels. Oh boy, says any English major reading this, Paradise Regained at ten or twenty times the length. What a shame we don't have that.

There are some cantos of Life of the Buddha that include some theological heavy lifting, but there were also a lot of delightful things. Here are some women racing up to the roof to see the young Siddhartha pass by:

they gathered curious and unabashed,
hampered by the slipping of girdle strings,
eyes dazed by the sudden rousing from sleep,
ornaments slipped on at hearing the news;

frigtening away the bevies of house-birds
with the clatter of steps on the stairways,
with girdles jinging and anklets tinkling,
and rebuking each other for their haste; (Canto 3, p. 65)

That's vivid writing. There are a lot of great bits with women, actually. The king, Siddhartha's father, wants to keep the prince from becoming a holy man, so he swamps his son with women, each of whom has a different seduction strategy:

One of the girls feigned to stumble,
and with tendril-like arms,
hanging loosely from her drooping
shoulders, embraced him by force. (p. 95)

Another, pretending she was drunk,
repeatedly let her blue dress slip down.
Flashing her girdle, she gleamed,
like the night with lightning streaks. (p. 97)

Another parodied his bearing
by stretching the bow of her brows
upon her beautiful countenance,
mimicking his resolute mien. (p. 99)

I can hardly believe that last one did not work, but the prince has discovered sickness, old age, and death, so it's the ascetic life for him.

One odd aspect of the book is that the complete epic survives in Chinese and Tibetan translations, but only the first half is extant in Sanskrit. So the translation konks out halfway through; brief prose summaries of the last fourteen cantos finish the book. I would have been happy to read a second volume of the epic, but I was also content to move on to another book. With Life of the Buddha, I had reached inner peace.

As the flower-bannered one fled defeated
  along with his cohorts,
passion-free, the great seer stood victorious
  and dispelling darkness,
the sky sparkled with the moon,
  like a girl with a smile,
and a shower of flowers fell
  fragrant and water-filled. (Canto 13, p. 399)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Emily Brontë, Maria Edgeworth, and John Galt - a great curiosity

My glance at the scholarly literature suggested to me that a lot of work on Wuthering Heights has been spent on finding the predecessors of Heathcliff. What mix of Lord Byron, Gothic literature, vampires, and Melmoth the Wanderer went into Heathcliff? I understand this; Heathcliff is fascinating, weird, good fun. The stretches of Wuthering Heights that do not feature Heathcliff are less energetic.

Wuthering Heights kept reminding me of two other novels that I am pretty sure are genuine predecessors: Maria Edgewoth's Castle Rackrent (1800) and John Galt's The Entail (1822).

Castle Rackrent is deceptively titled. One might guess that it's a Gothic novel. It is actually "the Memoirs of the Rackrent Famliy" as told by "honest Thady," or "old Thady," or "poor Thady," a servant of the estate. In one hundred pages, Thady pushes us through at least four different owners of the estate, each one more ridiculous than the previous, who lose the estate through drink or gambling or lawsuits. The new owners come and go, but Thady is always there, always expressing his great respect for the masters, always making them appear ludicrous. He's a sly devil.

A short sample of Thady's voice:

"He is said also to be the inventor of raspberry whiskey, which is very likely, as nobody has ever appeared to dispute it with him, and as there still exists a broken punch-bowl in Castle-Stopgap, in the garret, with an inscription to that effect - a great curiosity." (Oxford, p. 10)

It's a very funny little book, unique for it's time. I don't think Nellie Dean is as underhanded in her narration as the continually ironic old Thady, but every once in a while she would quietly slips a knife into someone, and I would be reminded of the only earlier novel I know of where the servant tells the story.

The Entail is the earliest multi-generational family novel I know. A Glasgow merchant, obsessed with recovering some specific pieces of property, all in the name of his family, successively destroys his own heirs. Over time, though, his survivors are able to find ways to repair some of the damage.

I think this novel is a masterpiece, one of the great novels of the 19th century. That it's not better known is some sort of crime; that John Galt's name is now only seen with the words "Who is" in front of it makes me weep hot tears of anger. Be sure to answer the Randians as follows: "A brilliant Scottish novelist of the early 19th century."

Galt's novel covers four generations of the family, a great grandmother down through her great grandchildren, over the course of one hundred years. A family saga that takes one hundred years - why does that sound familiar? Anyway, two things linked The Entail to Wuthering Heights in my mind. The first is the basic structure - one generation causes harm, a second recovers, however imperfectly.

The second link is the importance of money and the acquisition of property. The passionate, insane relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine obscures the fact that the adult Heathcliff spends much of the book scheming about how to acquire the Wuthering Heights and Grange estates. His motive is revenge rather than profit, but his schemes always seem to be highly monetized. Claude, the merchant in the Galt novel, wants property that he thinks is rightfully his, while Heathcliff knows he's cheating the proper heirs. But the results are not that different. Heathcliff's son Linton has some similarities to Claude's son Watty, too.

I don't know that Emily Brontë read either of these books, although I would be surprised if she didn't. I should write more about Galt and Edgeworth some other time. I would have to reread them to do them justice. That would be a great pleasure.

So ends the Wuthering anniversary. Come back in a year for Expectations.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Brontë family creative writing workshop

I don't have any particularly interest in all of that Brontë stuff. Like being able to see the drawer full of Brontë socks at their house.* The whole terrible Brontë family saga.

But I am interested in how writers write, and the Brontës wrote most of their novels under unusual circumstances. Imagine, in that house on the moors in 1846, all three sisters are writing their first novel at the same time. They would read their work to each other, and criticize each other. It doesn't sound to me like it was a collaborative process, but they must have responded to each other in some way.

The strangest thing may have been that while Charlotte and Anne were writing ordinary first novels, Emily was producing a real masterpiece. Did they know the difference? Charlotte later wrote that she was aware, the first time she read Emily's poetry, that Emily was the only real poet in the family. Charlotte also said that both Emily and Anne had trouble accepting constructive criticism abut their writing, which is delightfully self-serving.

I should admit that I have not read and have no plans to read The Professor, Charlotte's first novel. Agnes Grey, Anne's first, I have read, and it's basically a dud. There's some cute stuff about badly behaving children, but otherwise, it's thin. It's hard to imagine that it was published in a set with Wuthering Heights. The reader who turned directly from Emily's madness on the moors to pale, sensible Agnes must have been startled. Or relieved.

Here's what I think is really great about the Brontë workshop. Whatever the source of her creativity, Emily wrote a truly original book while the other two sisters did not. Charlotte's response was to almost immediately write a masterpiece of her own. Reading the books so close to each other, it's easy to see how many aspects of Jane Eyre respond directly to Wuthering Heights.

Look, for example, at the fairy-and-ogre business in Jane Eyre, that I wrote about here. This now looks to me like a deliberate parody of Emily. Heathcliff and Catherine are monsters, a step removed from human experience. Rochester and Jane play with the idea, but don't really mean it. They're both human, all the way through.

Look at how Charlotte splits Heathcliff in two - Rochester's the wild man, while St. John is the bully, the real monster. Look at how each sister plays around in innovative ways with the first person narrator. I can think of a half dozen more items. It's all very impressive.

Then a little later, Anne produced her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a shocker with a Heathcliff-like alcoholic. I have not read this one yet, but I will. If only the sisters had been able to carry on the conversation. The things they might have dreamed up.

* You apparently have to be a serious researcher to be allowed to see the socks. Pity the non-scholarly Brontë fan.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Heathcliff is a monster

Wuthering Heights is a story about child abuse. It's a story about other things, too, but it's an abuse novel. I think academics prefer the term "trauma," which is a better fit here, since one can include the deaths of the various parents and so on. Heathcliff comes from a terrible background (I assume - that's actually one of the novel's dark mysteries). His foster brother Hindley resents him and abuses him. Heathcliff turns on Hindley as soon as he is powerful enough, and possibly murders him; he's also brutal to Hindley's son Hareton and even worse, much worse, to his own son.

Really brutal - remember pathetic Linton out on the moors, too terrified to stand up. What is he afraid of, what will his father do to him, or what has he done? Brontë doesn't exactly say, but by this point in the book she doesn't need to. Heathcliff is a violent monster.

Sounds hilarious, I know. Romantic, too. That's the shift in tone I was talking about before. For a while, Wuthering Heights is grown-up Lemony Snicket. All sorts of horrible things are threatened, but it's so outrageous it's hard (for me) to take seriously. Look at the scene where a drunken Hindley drops his son over a banister. Heathcliff catches the baby, but is then angry that he did so. This is a terrible scene, really, just awful, but it's also sort of comical. Heathcliff's petulance is outrageous, but not yet threatening enough to spoil the fun.

I'm not so heartless. It's all Nellie Dean's fault. Yes, I blame the narrator: "A miser who has parted with a lucky lottery ticket for five shillings, and finds next day he has lost in the bargain five thousand pounds, could not show a blanker countenance than [Heathcliff] did on beholding the figure of Mr. Earnshaw above." This is what you say when someone saves a baby? That miser upset about the lottery, that's comedy.

Almost all of the story is told to us by Nellie Dean*, who is rarely quite horrified enough by anyone's bad behavior. She always finds rationalizations. The view of Heathcliff as a romantic figure is partly her fault - she likes him well enough. As a narrator, she is an ancestress of Humbert Humbert, an obscurer of atrocities. Heathcliff has corrupted her, too, at least a little.

I don't think the "trauma" interpretation is sufficient. Heathcliff is rescued from a terrible situation by a nice family, right, so he should improve, like Hareton does when rescued from Heathcliff? Heathcliff seems to be an actual monster, a creature of a not-quite-human species, a relative of Frankenstein's creation, or the Icelandic saga heroes who are half troll and can't function in normal society. And how does one explain Catherine, who's a bit of a monster herself? Surely not as a victim of Heathcliff? Wuthering Heights always turns in on itself. It's such a rich novel, but perhaps it's not quite coherent, in the latter respect like this post.

* I'm assuming Lockwood is presenting Nellie's narration more or less accurately. This book is a tangle.