Thursday, April 30, 2009

With great sadness, with longing - the Berlin stories of David Bergelson

The Shadows of Berlin: The Berlin Stories of Dovid Bergelson (2005) is an attractive little City Lights collection of eight stories. The indefatigable Joachim Neugroschel is the translator and anthologizer. It's a tiny book - 116 petite pages - and a fine collection of Bergelson, with a bit more variety of mood then some of the other sources of Bergelson stories.

"The Boarding House of the Three Sisters" is, for example, a wry comedy. Three young women run a Berlin boarding house. Two have husbands who are, um, elsewhere. All three are, frankly, hotties. Dang fool men pay excessive rent because, because, you know, what if -. One boarder even confides to another that it's all a trick, that the husbands are here in Berlin.

"By now it is late. The two boarders separate and go to bed very sadly, but with latent hopes that perhaps... yes... perhaps... perhaps they are wrong. The two men draw up their accounts of how much the boarding house can cost them so far, and both of them muse about who will do something either now or later on..."

Mostly, I criticize writers for vagueness, but here it is psychologically acute. Those poor fools.

"For 12,000 Bucks He Fasts Forty Days: Scenes of Berlin" is a response or recasting, or, really, a Judaizing, of Kafka's "The Hunger Artist" (1922). It's all in good humor, too, except for the part about the destruction of Europe. Weird thing, this is the second Yiddish relative of "The Hunger Artist" I've read recently. I'll save the other for tomorrow.

The catastrophe of World War I and the Russian Revolution is in the background of every story in the collection. That's why Bergelson's characters (and Bergelson) are in Berlin. They're mostly refugees. These stories are the Jewish cousins of Nabokov's Berlin stories, set amongst the exiled Russians, except that Bergelson is not such a happy fellow.

"Two Murderers," for example. One murderer is a landlady's dog, one is a Cossack leader. They have both done horrible things. At the end of the story, they reach an understanding:

"Now the two of them were alone in the kitchen - Zarembo and Tell. One sat on a chair at the table, the other lay on the small throw rug, resting his head on his extended front paws. There was silence all around them. Both of them were peering into each other's eyes with great sadness, with longing."

Maybe that doesn't seem like much on its own. Knowing what the murderers have done, though - it's chilling.

The longest, and perhaps best, story is "Among Refugees." A young man discovers that the Russian officer who killed his grandfather, and many others, is living in the same boarding house, across the hall from him. He appeals to other Berlin Jews to help him acquire a gun, so he can assassinate the officer. They refuse, but because they lack will, not out of principle. This is a common problem in Bergelson stories - even when people do the right thing, it's for the wrong reason. So this story goes in the "bleak" pile.

The Shadows of Berlin is, I think, the best place to get to know this difficult, rewarding writer.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

That's the story of the doctor's violin - the indirect art of David Bergelson

Some David Bergelson stories:

"Remnants": An ugly woman is finally married, to a self-conscious weirdo who won't talk to her. One day, she makes him a stewed pumpkin, which, it turns out, is his favorite dish. "A delicious dish, a wonderful pumpkin," he says. Then he dies.

"A Deaf Man": A deaf man is injured in a mill accident. Something terrible also happens to his daughter. He tries to avenge her, and fails.

"The Hole Through Which Life Slips": A writer's wife leaves him, and he gets writer's block, or vice versa. The Bolsheviks take Kiev. The writer either concludes, or doubts, that his life was wasted.

Bergelson works in small touches. I've seen critics call him "impressionistic," which can mean anything, but I think I know what is meant here. Bergelson does not try to fill in the whole picture. He'll give us an outline and a detail or two, enough to recognize what we're seeing. Sometimes, perhaps, not enough. So there are always ambiguities.

The novella Departing (1920) is, at 130 pages, the longest piece of Bergelson's that I've read. It's a good place to see how he works. A young man in a small town, a pharmacist, has died, possibly a suicide. His friend comes to town to settle his estate. Bergelson wafts from one character to another, all involved in some way with the dead man.

Bergelson takes his time revealing which characters are central and which are peripheral. He introduces new characters just when I thought the cast was complete. He gives two women similar names (Channeke Loyber amd Chava Poyzner). The point of view darts around, from one person's thoughts to another, then back to an outside observer. As a result, we visit a lot of people and see a lot of the town. Departing sometimes reminded me a bit of Delta Wedding, or To the Lighthouse. It can be a little confusing. I read slowly, and occasionally backtracked. Modernism!

Here's an example of the drifting point of view, where a doctor and student are discussing politics:

"Doctor Grabay is happy to be drinking lemonade in the shade near Azriel Poyzner's department store and is in no hurry to leave. [A bit about his sick daughter, who plays with his old violin] When he first came to Rakitne he used to play long passages from Mendelssohn's violin concerto so beautifully that passersby would stand under the window to listen. They said that it sounded professional. Now all that is left on the violin is a single limp string that hardly makes a sound when it is plucked. That's the story of the doctor's violin.

Anshl Zudik feels uncomfortable with the doctor's arm around his shoulder and smiles awkwardly. What a quiet worm, he thinks - this courteous doctor who's always talking about charitable foundations is really only interested in making money. They say that he has thirty thousand stacked away in a bank in another town." (Ch. XIV)

These two would be surprised to know what the other is thinking; we get to eavesdrop. They are both minor characters - this is how Bergelson fills out the world of his story.

I read the Golda Werman translation of Departing in The Stories of David Bergelson (1996, Syracuse University Press), but it has also been published on its own, but titled Descent. It's easily worth reading, and, in David Bergelson terms, not even particularly bleak.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

He would never again experience any joy in life - the not exactly cheery world of David Bergelson

When I was first compiling my list of the early, modern Yiddish writers, I missed at least one pretty big one, David (or Dovid) Bergelson. A lot of his best work is from the 1920s, so that's my excuse.

Bergelson was a little younger than the generation of Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz. I can't detect a drop of Sholem Aleichem in Bergelson, and only traces of Peretz. Bergelson was a real Modernist - his touchstones were Knut Hamsun and Anton Chekhov. He's sounds quite Russian to me. For example, from the 1913 story "In a Backwoods Town":

"She would read to Burman some new book, paper-bound and extremely boring. She read very badly, in a quavering voice, and kept thinking, even as she read in her bashful and dull way, that Burman had at one time been her tutor and might now marry her. Her voice quavered as he listened and corrected her mistakes; her voice quavered when Burman, letting his head drop on his chest, dozed off with a hazy awareness that the autumn which prevailed in his rabbinical soul was now coming into being out of doors, and that somewhere beyond the godforsaken little border town there must surely be great bustling cities where men were active and alive. But now it was all the same to him: he would never again experience any joy in life. He dozed on."

Burman is all of thirty years old, so that ending is hilarious. Note the little shift from the perspective of the fiancée to that of Rabbi Superfluous Man. "Never again experience any joy" - ha ha ha! We're right in the mainstream of Russian fiction here, right, going back from Chekhov to Turgenev to Pushkin and Lermontov.

Bergelson's world is, frankly, depressing. He's writing after the 1905 pogroms, and then after the World War I pogroms and the Russian Revolution, and his stories are often set against a background of atrocity. But I don't want to explain Bergelson this way. It's not his times, but his temperament, the way he sees things. A number of his characters are depressives. One seems to actually have some sort of seasonal affective disorder ("Impoverished," 1910?). The sort of reader bothered by this should stay far, far away. Bergelson is a real artist, though. His world is bleak, but complete, real.

Did I mention that Bergelson, in 1934, idealistically returned to the Soviet Union, where he wrote propaganda for eighteen years before being murdered by Stalin in 1952 for, in Golda Werman's words, "the crime of writing in Yiddish"?

Wow, that is depressing. More David Bergelson tomorrow, at least. I'll try to write about the artist, not the martyr.

The Bergelson bibliography is a little complicated. "In a Backwoods Town" can be found in the Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg Treasury of Yiddish Literature. These two editors put three more Bergelson stories in Ashes Out of Hope: Fiction by Soviet-Yiddish Writers. I've read two little collections as well: The Stories of David Bergelson, tr. Golda Werman (three stories) and The Shadows of Berlin, tr. Joachim Neugroschel (eight stories). So I've read fifteen David Bergelson stories, a couple of novella length. There's a little more in English, but not much - one novel (When All Is Said and Done) and one story ("At the Depot"), as far as I can tell.

I pinched the picture from a more formal review of a book about Bergelson at Three Percent.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Yes, you are a Jewish King Lear!

"Reb Dovidl, I do not know if you have heard of the world-famous writer Shakespeare. Among his works is a drama with the title King Lear. The old king, like you, divided his kingdom and also like you sent away the loving daughter who told him the truth. Oh! How dearly he paid for that! Yes, you are a Jewish King Lear! May God protect you from such an end as that to which King Lear came." (Act I)

That's from The Jewish King Lear, a Yiddish play by Jacob Gordin, written and first performed in New York City in 1892. As a repertory vehicle for the legendary actor Jacob Adler (see left), it was performed, off and on, for over thirty years.

The Yale University Press translation (2007) is actually called The Jewish King Lear: A Comedy in America, but the play is, Fool aside, really a melodrama. Cordelia marries Edgar and is reconciled with Lear. Goneril and Regan are more weak and pitiful than evil. The Gloucester plot is merged with Lear's story - it's Lear who goes blind, from glaucoma, which is cured by his surgeon daughter!

I'm keeping Shakespeare's names, since they fit, but the characters' names, the settings, the Purim play, are all Jewish. When a rich merchant divides his property among his three daughters, and rejects the beloved daughter who refuses to thank him for his gift, it is the educated, secularized Edgar who recognizes that the situation is exactly like Shakespeare and says the lines I started with. The climax of the play comes when the battered, pathetic, blind Lear acknowledges the literary analogy:

"What was it [Cordelia's] teacher once said to me? I am the Jewish King Lear... well! I will stretch out my trembling hand and will say: 'Give a little kopeck to the Jewish King Lear!'" (Act III)

Then Lear and his loyal Fool, I mean servant, go into the world to beg. A great scene; easy to imagine how effective it was. Unlike the blunt ending, post-glaucoma:

"I was against Science! But look what a wonder science has performed. I thought a woman had to be dependent on her husband. But look at what a useful person my [Cordelia] is," etc. (Act IV)

I wrote about a later Jacob Gordin play last month, God, Man, and Devil. That one is a Jewish Faust. Perhaps it is possible to detect a pattern already. Among Gordin's eighty plays are adaptations of Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, and Tennyson's poem Enoch Arden. There's also a Jewish Queen Lear, and why not. Gordin was an improver - educate and uplift. Some other titles: The Pogrom in Russia; Siberia; Hasia the Orphan. You can see where he got his nickname, "Big Barrel of Laughs" Gordin.*

Actually, The Jewish King Lear is not quite humorless, because of one character, the servant, the Fool, who just flew in from the Catskills:

ALBANY: Do you think that we only think of eating?
FOOL: I have heard it said: study like a Jew and eat like a Gentile. And that is after all the law in the Torah.
ALBANY: With your peasant's head, what do you know of what is written in the Gemara?
FOOL: Even if it's not written in the Gemara, it's still a very fine law.

The Jewish King Lear is a step or two away from a masterpiece - I think God, Man, and Devil was better, anyway - but I would love to read more of these fascinating Jacob Gordin plays.

* Nickname made up by me.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A strong hand had written, 'I hate Poe' - Daniel Hoffman's Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe

At some point in the middle of my two week Poe festival, I felt an anxious spasm - I really should have read Daniel Hoffman's Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (1971) first. I think that's it - seven Poes. Well, now I've read it. It's kind of a great book.

Poe x 7 is an attempt to interpret Poe as a whole, meaning that Hoffman is going to pull every aspect of Poe into one interpretation. So we have Poe the horror writer, Poe the scientician, Poe the hoaxer, Poe the ratiocinator, and so on. In other words, Hoffman did exactly what I did, at least to begin. He breaks Poe into pieces before he recombines him. Reading Poe Poe... Poe was good for my self-esteem - I was on the right track.

Hoffman's book does have the advantage over what I wrote of being immeasurably more considered, comprehensive, intelligent, and complete. He doesn't have a graph, though!

This is a book of Poe criticism, primarily, so it's a little hard to recommend it to anyone not in the market for such a thing. It's excellent as such - I found the chapters on "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," for example, to be highly instructive, well written, and completely convincing. But it has such an odd organization and tone that I could imagination any number of people with only a passing familiarity with Poe being won over by the book.

Hoffman mixes Poe's biography into the criticism, to the extent that his book functions well as a strange attempt at a Poe biography. But he also inserts himself into the book in some curious ways. For example.

Poe has a story, which I may have mentioned, that the Library of America calls "How to Write a Blackwood Article," the second half of which has its own title, "A Predicament." The gag is that a woman is writing an account of her own grisly death - she is slowly beheaded by the minute hand of a steeple clock. It's one of Poe's comedies.

Hoffman says that he read the story when he was in high school, and soon began having recurring nightmares which ended with his own beheading, by the minute hand of a clock, in a tower atop his own high school. These were real cold-sweat nightmares, not remotely comic. Hoffman knew that the dream had its origin in Poe, but he somehow could not remember which story. It took him a decade to re-discover "A Predicament." After rereading it, the nightmare never returned. Twenty years later, he publishes the greatest single work of Poe criticism.

Is this hilarious, or creepy, or just bizarre? It's pure Poe, Poe brought to life. The first couple of lines of Chapter 1:

"Across the flyleaf of my old Commemorative Edition of the Works of Edgar Allan Poe in Ten Volumes, Volume I (the only one I owned), a strong hand had written, 'I hate Poe,' and signed my name. That hand was mine."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Melville's evolving style - an experiment - I studied it every morning, like the multiplication table

Typee (1846), first sentence of Chapter 25:

"Although I had been unable during the late festival to obtain information on many interesting subjects which had much excited my curiosity, still that important event had not passed by without adding materially to my general knowledge of the islanders."

Omoo (1847), first sentence of Chapter 25:

"During the morning of the day which dawned upon the events just recounted, we remained a little to leeward of the harbour, waiting the appearance of the consul, who had promised the mate to come off in a shore boat for the purpose of seeing him."

Mardi (1849), ditto:

"A few days passed: the brigantine drifting hither and thither, and nothing in sight but the sea, when forth again on its stillness rung Annatoo's domestic alarum."

Redburn (1849), you get the idea:

"Though, for reasons hinted at above, they would not let me steer, I contented myself with learning the compass, a graphic facsimile of which I drew on a blank leaf of the "Wealth of Nations," and studied it every morning, like the multiplication table."

White Jacket, or the World on a Man-of-War (1850), first two sentences this time:

"Colder and colder; we are drawing nigh to the Cape. Now gregoes, pea jackets, monkey jackets reefing jackets, storm jackets, oiljackets, paint jackets, round jackets, short jackets, long jackets, and all manner of jackets, are the order of the day, not excepting the immortal white jacket, which begins to be sturdily buttoned up to the throat, and pulled down vigorously at the skirts, to bring them well over the loins."

Moby-Dick (1851), two sentences again, Chapter 25:

"In behalf of the dignity of whaling, I would fain advance naught but substantiated facts. But after embattling his facts, an advocate who should wholly suppress a not unreasonable surmise, which might tell eloquently upon his cause--such an advocate, would he not be blame-worthy?"

That's enough, and possibly too much. Note the publication dates - can't say Melville wasn't working hard, and there would be four more books in the next six years.

I have no doubt that picking a different chapter would give different results, but I think this choice (not quite random, but I didn't check them all ahead of time, and have never read Redburn or White Jacket) shows what I'm talking about.

The Typee and Omoo passages are relatively plain and dry (the Typee one too much so, much duller than most of the book). In Mardi, something has changed, even in a straightforward sentence like this one, free of Hecatic Spherula - "forth again on its stillness rung," the rhythm of the line has changed.

The line from Redburn is simply fantastic, and has me newly excited to read that book.

White Jacket features a list, a key tool for Melville and his descendents, the Pynchons and their kin. The lines from Moby-Dick don't seem that special, but they aren't plain, and they sound like Melville to me. The style, the voice, of Typee and Omoo sound much more generic.

Becca suggested in a comment that Virginia Woolf's voice followed a similar path, from not-Woolf to Woolf in a short period of time, and she has already convincingly explored the idea. Other nominees are welcome. Since one has to know a fair chunk of an author's work to play this game, it's a little tricky. I've come up with a few candidates only to think "How do you know?"

I feel that I have justified Mardi to myself more than I had expected. Whatever its problems, reading Mardi is a way to spend some time with an enormously creative and original artist while he thinks through some problems and plays with some ideas, even if his solutions are unworkable and his ideas are preposterous.

By coincidence, Anecdotal Kurp put up a post on Sir Thomas Browne this morning. If you want a taste of what Melville was reaching for, I recommend it. I recommend it, regardless.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How little they ween of the Rudimental Quincunxes, and the Hecatic Spherula - such is Melville, such is Mardi

My invaluable commenters have made me feel not guilty - I feel guilty for inflicting more Mardi on everyone - but irresponsible. So a bit more on Mardi, and then a bit more tomorrow. The Jewish King Lear will have to wait.

Mardi (1849) is Herman Melville's third book, but first work of fiction. It's long - 654 Library of America pages. That's just slightly deceptive, because of the unusual amount of white space, the result of the book's 195 (!) chapters. Whenever I bogged down in Mardi, I sure did appreciate the short chapters.

For the first 159 pages and 51 chapters, Mardi is a seafaring tale (subgenre: boat), with a clear plot and an odd voice. Two sailors steal a ship's boat and desert a whaler on the open sea. The boat trip on the Pacific is completely unlike those of Captain Bligh or the Essex crew; it's almost an idyll. Since little happens, we get to know the narrator, an odd bird who gives us excurses like Chapter 13, "Of the Chondropterygii, and Other Uncouth Hordes Infesting the South Seas":

"It's famous botanizing, they say, in Arkansas' boundless prairies; I commend the student of Ichthyology to an open boat, and the ocean moors of the Pacific. As your craft glides along, what strange monsters float by. Elsewhere, was never seem their like. And nowhere are they found in the books of the naturalists."

The narrator proceeds, in this chapter, to mention Sir Thomas Browne, Buffon, Faust, the Essex, "the German naturalists Müller and Henle," Hagar and Ishmael, Samuel Johnson, Timon of Athens, and the cavalry painter Wouvermans. The descriptive writing is imaginative: the tiger shark is "a round, portly gourmand;" the white shark "steal[s] along like a spirit in the water, with horrific serenity of aspect." The chapter is four pages long.

Actually, any reader who can be bothered to pick up a Melville novel will be happy enough in the boat. There are even some events - a deserted ship, and the rescue of a blond-haired, blue-eyed sacrificial victim. And I think we're OK for another 36 pages, through Chapter 64 - we've reached the island chain of Mardi ("The World"), and have to spend some time getting acquainted with the locals. Then the fairy princess mysteriously vanishes, and Mardi takes a terrible turn.

The narrator begins a journey to find the missing woman, accompanied by the king of the island he's on, and three others - a poet, a historian, and a philosopher. All earlier characters are jettisoned, including, oddly, the narrator, who assumes a new identity and barely says a word for the rest of the book. It's kind of avant garde, actually. The tour, in which the narrator and the three new characters wander from island to island and debate a miscellany of abstruse issues, lasts 445 pages, leaving only 14 pages to return to and finish off whatever scrap of a story is still floating around. So that trip, really, is the book.

What do they visit? An island of gluttons, an island of thieves, an island of the Established Church, an island of True Religion. A miser; a book collector. There's an island of fossils, so Melville can bring us up to date on scientific matters. Between islands, the travelers debate life, death, free will, politics, poetry. If this sounds familiar, you may have read the equally tedious books 4 and 5 of Gargantua and Pantagruel.*

I had had plenty of this when, to my horror, I realized that the island they were visiting in Chapter 145, Dominora, was actually England. And then there's Zandinavia, Muzkovi, "the priest-king of Vatikanna." I think I might have audibly said "Oh no." The more general satire, thin enough, is replaced by topical satire. Absolutely deadly.

There's a revolution in "Franko." There are gold seekers in whatever Melville calls California - see, he's right up to date. Southern "Vivenza" has plantation slavery, and the overseer is Senator John C. Calhoun. Looking back now, it seems that the circumnavigation of the globe only took about 90 pages, but it felt like 200.

I'll end with a sample of the discussions or debates or whatever they are, just a taste, more than enough:

"'I mistrust thee, minstrel! that thou hast not yet been impregnated by the arcane mysteries; that thou dost not sufficiently ponder on the Adyta, the Monads, and the Hyparxes; the Dianoias, the Unical Hypostases, the Gnostic powers of the Psychical Essence, and the Supermindane and Plermoatic Triads; to say nothing of the Abstract Noumenons... Ah!' signed Babbalanja, turning; 'how little they ween of the Rudimental Quincunxes, and the Hecatic Spherula!'" (Ch. 170, p. 1218)

Yes, this is the worst of it, so in that sense I am cheating. But, man, is this ever Melville; unassimilated, unpalatable, but Melville. More of that tomorrow.

* Now I do feel guilty. Books 1 and 2 of Gargantua and Pantagruel are among the very greatest books ever written.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Herman Melville's Mardi was written by Herman Melville

Herman Melville's Mardi (1849) is sort of a catastrophe. I'm glad I read it, more or less; I doubt I'll ever return to it. But it has one interesting feature: although it's the third book by Melville, it's the first appearance of Melville, the author of Moby-Dick and "Bartleby the Scrivener" and whatever else we think of when we think of Melville. For the first time, I mean, Melville's book sounds like Melville. He had found his voice.

Typee, Melville's first book, is an excellent South Seas travel narrative, romanticized (a lot, I assume), well worth reading, easily recommended. The sequel, Omoo, is also pretty good, but does not have such a strong central story. This is a disadvantage of writing non-fiction - the one really strange thing that happened to Melville is covered in Typee. The style of these books is charming, humorous, and straightforward, and sounds only barely, in stray moments, like Herman Melville.

I recognized Melville from the first page of Mardi. One thing he had been doing while writing his first two books and perambulating about Manhattan was reading, just reading an enormous quantity of books, including all of those great 17th century prose stylists like Sir Thomas Browne who so strongly influenced his style. Ruined it, perhaps, in Mardi, a book stuffed with undigested fantasies and experiments and ravings. He's still charming, in small doses, and definitely humorous, but he is no longer straightforward. Sentences and thoughts are extended, and then extended again. The second half of the book, a journey from one nominally satirical setpiece to another, was a trial.

All of this reminded me of William Faulkner. Faulkner's first two novels, Soldiers' Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927), sound nothing like him. They're not bad, not at all, they just don't have the distinctive Faulkner voice. Then in his third novel, Sartoris aka Flags in the Dust (1929), there it is, fully developed, just like that. Sartoris is not any better than the earlier novels - it might be worse - but it's instantly recognizable as Faulkner.

Faulkner did not wait for the publication of Sartoris to start his next novel, The Sound and the Fury. Poor Melville took the other path, and waited, so he felt the full brunt of the uncomprehending response to Mardi. He seems to have retreated to more conventional seafaring novels for his next two books. I don't know what they sound like, how Melvillean they are.

After the exhausting Mardi, I'm not exactly excited to find out. Mardi has made me less eager to pursue middlin' Melville, but, oddly, more eager to reread Moby-Dick, where the biblical voice, the seventeenth century cadences, the arcane facts, and the technical realism of the earlier books are finally pulled together into a great work of art.

If you're planning to plagiarize some of this post for an assignment in your Novels of Melville and Faulkner course, you need to work in a lot of specific examples from the various books or you won't do very well. But for my purpose, I think this'll do.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Monday literay links - true taste is laying its hand upon its mouth because it is astonished

It's time for a roundup of literary links. Most people seem to use posts like this to link to other websites. Consider them all linked, in spirit.


What a shock it was to come across this passage in Dombey and Son:

"[T]he Doctor, leaning back in his chair, with his hand in his breast as usual, held a book from him at arm's length, and read. There was something very awful in this manner of reading. It was such a determined, unimpassioned, inflexible, cold-blooded way of going to work. It left the Doctor's countenance exposed to view; and when the Doctor smiled suspiciously at his author, or knit his brows, or shook his head and made wry faces at him, as much as to say, 'Don't tell me, Sir; I know better,' it was terrific." (Ch. XI)

Honestly, it was like looking in a mirror, the kind of mirror that turns reflections into descriptive passages in the style of Dickens. That is exactly how I read. If I am reading your blog, that is exactly how I am reading it.

Note how the meaning of a word changes. When Dickens calls the Doctor's way of reading "terrific," he means it inspires terror. But when I read that way, it's also "terrific," meaning "really good." Don't tell me, Sir; I know better.


I was recently, for one reason or another, looking at this famous passage from The German Ideology, about the division of labor as is and under communism:

"He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic."

Meine Frau pointed out to me that, assuming the hunter uses gunpowder, Marx and Engels have covered fire, water, earth, and air. The "critical critic" produces, mostly, air.

I've enjoyed this imaginative passage since I first read it, but only now does it strike me that "The After-Dinner Critic" would be a good name for a litblog. The phrase only gets two hits (until this post gets added in), both from Google books! A golden opportunity. "The Critical Critic," also not a bad name, gets 686.


If I were collecting quotations for an Appreciationist Manifesto, I would include this one by John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Part III, Section I, Chapter 3, "Of Accuracy and Inaccuracy in Impressions of Sense":

“The second, that, in order to the discovery of that which is best of two things, it is necessary that both should be equally submitted to the attention; and therefore that we should have so much faith in authority as shall make us repeatedly observe and attend to that which is said to be right, even though at present we may not feel it so. And in the right mingling of this faith with the openness of heart, which proves all things, lies the great difficulty of the cultivation of the taste, as far as the spirit of the scholar is concerned, though even when he has this spirit, he may be long retarded by having evil examples submitted to him by ignorant masters.” (pp. 246-7 of the 1851 edition).

Those ignorant masters! This does get at the heart of what I call appreciationism - that the people that came before me are not all fools or frauds, and should be given some attention. My worry is that I am too respectful, with too much faith and insufficient "openness of heart." Well, I'm not done yet:

“But true taste is forever growing, learning, reading, worshipping, laying its hand upon its mouth because it is astonished, casting its shoes from off its feet because it finds all ground holy, lamenting over itself and testing itself by the way that it finds things.” (248)

“I have seen a man of true taste pause for a quarter of an hour to look at the channellings that recent rain had traced in a heap of cinders.” (249)

I wonder if that man of true taste is J. M. W. Turner.

The phrase "Appreciationist Manifesto" gets one Google hit, to me, here, in another post about Modern Painters. Seem to be repeating myself.

Friday, April 17, 2009

I've run out of reviews, which is fine with me

Now I really have run out of reviewable books. I had some ideas, but none of them quite worked.

For example, I thought I might review Matthew Arnold's first book, The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems (1849), and really trash it; that was the joke, just dismiss Matthew Arnold as junk. These lines, from the title poem, would be central, somehow:

With large-leav'd, low-creeping melon-plants,
And the dark cucumber.

That still seems terrible. Read that second line aloud - is there any saving it? Maybe I'll do this later.

Or how about a review of Melville's Mardi (1849)? Since almost no one has read this, which is just how it should be, I really could review it. Meaning, describe its contents, put it in some context, make a recommendation, which is, unless you are particularly interested in Melville, stay away. Maybe you should be particularly interested in Melville, but that's a separate issue. The book is a disaster, although an instructive one that may also pop up again next week.

My best idea was to review either The Jewish Cowboy (1942) by Yitsik Rabon, or The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas (1910) by Alberto Gerchunoff. I haven’t read either of those books, and almost doubt that they exist. But the Argentinean setting of the latter led me to think of Borges, who wondered why someone would actually write a book, when he could just assume the book existed and proceed accordingly. Same goes for reviews, surely. I could just review the book that The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas should be. A wonderful, wonderful book.

Let me just check something. Huh. University of New Mexico Press, 1998. So it turns out that a person - say, me - could actually read The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, which does, in fact, exist. Says it's recommended for Jews and non-Jews alike. Hey, that’s me! Let me just - excuse me for a moment - just make a note here. OK. Review forthcoming. No promises about The Jewish Cowboy.

It never really occurred to me that I would want to review books, rather than just write about them in whatever way struck me as interesting. An image, a metaphor, a connection to another book, a quotation. All of this aside from the ludicrous aspect of a floor-to-ceiling review of, say, Wuthering Heights. Not that, per the evidence collected by the indefatigable Brontëblog, anyone cares much about that. Very few of the people I read on a regular basis do much reviewing as such. They just write about books.

When I first started poking around on litblogs, I was genuinely surprised that I found so much really high quality amateur book reviewing, as good or better than most newspaper reviewing. I'm thinking of blogs I don't even regularly look at, specialists in so-called Young Adult novels, or mysteries or what have you, mostly writing about books I'll never read. There's so much that's useful.

On the other hand, nobody in litblogland writes reviews of the quality of those that I regularly read in The New Republic or The New York Review of Books or The Hudson Review. But those folks are top experts paid the big bucks, right, $50 and a one year subscription or whatever the going rate is now. I'm looking at poet Alexander Nemser's review of Nabokov's Verses and Versions in The New Republic, March 4, 2009. It's a lot better than my review! Longer, more complete, more knowledgeable. More context, which is crucial - he recommends that I try the Alan Myers translations of 19th century Russian poetry, An Age Ago. Will do, sir. He digs into the Nabokov-Wilson feud. He compares a piece of Nabokov's Eugene Onegin to a Yahoo Babel Fish translation. Now that, I did not understand. Whaddayaknow, Nabokov ain't poetry, but the computerized translation is unreadable.

Do I still have a point? This week was an amusing experiment for me, an experiment that failed. I don't think I'm doing these reviews right. Frankly, though, this always happens. Every time I put up a post of any sort, it's not that I've finished it, but that I've given up - I think, try again next time, and hit Publish. I'm about to do it again ---

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A disturbing crablike agility - the short stories of Ben Fountain

I thought I had run out of recent books to review. Didn't plan this week of genuwine book reviews very well! But I remembered another, and even have some notes. But it's fair to assume that I've misremembered everything but the title and author. I could look those up.

The book is Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (2006) by Ben Fountain, eight short stories most obviously distinguished by their settings. Burma, Sierra Leone, Colombia, and four with some connection to Haiti. Hellholes, in other words.

Most of the stories are strongly plotted, and should be turned into feature films, assuring the financial independence of the author. "Asian Tiger," for example, about a washed up professional golfer who takes a job as the country club pro for the the Burmese junta. It has CIA agents, helicopters, explosions, moral compromise, and a big part for an up-and-coming actor. The ending maybe needs a little more punch to work as a Hollywood movie. As a short story, it's just fine as is.

"Bouki and the Cocaine" needs no help of any sort. A couple of Haitian fishermen find a big bag of cocaine. They hand it over to the police; pretty soon the police all have fancy new SUVs. The fishermen find more cocaine (they're on a Caribbean smuggling route) and turn it over to the mayor, since they can't trust the police. Pretty soon the mayor and his staff all have fancy new SUVs. And then a third bag of cocaine washes up. Now what? The only problem with this story, from Hollywood's point of view, is that every character is Haitian.

In the title story, an ornithologist is kidnapped by FARC and held captive in the Colombian jungle (hey, look, here it is). In another, a woman discovers that her Special Forces husband, home from a mission in Haiti, has converted to voodoo. Perhaps I'm making Fountain sound like a thriller writer. He'd probably be a good one, but that's not his purpose. He's interested in stories that demand a strong moral point of view, where doing the right thing is extremely difficult. Fountain reminds me a bit of Tobias Wolff in this way. A consequence is that he tells stories where something happens, where the changes in a character are not entirely internal.

Hey, zhiv, you're in showbiz, right? These are a sure thing, man. I should have been an agent. Or a d-girl.

Fountain's eighth story is a whole 'nother thing. "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers" is set in late 19th century Vienna, and is written as if it's non-fiction, like maybe it's a New Yorker profile:

"The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary states that Visser had the hands of a natural pianist: broad, elastic palms, spatulate fingers, and exceptionally long little fingers. He could stretch a twelfth and play left-hand chords such as A flat, E flat, A flat, and C, but it was the hypnotically abnormal right hand that ultimately set him apart. ‘The two ring fingers of his right hand,’ the critic Blundren wrote, ‘are perfect twins, each so exact a mirror image of the other as to give the effect of an optical illusion, and in action possessed of a disturbing crablike agility. Difficult it is, indeed, to repress a shudder when presented with Visser’s singular hand.’” (p. 205)

Visser and Blundren are made up, while Grove’s Dictionary and Brahms and Freud, to mention some other names pulled in to the story, are, I am fairly certain, real, but it’s all seamless, except that Blundren sounds like he escaped from an E. T. A. Hoffmann story.

I discovered Ben Fountain through this Malcolm Gladwell piece, in which Fountain serves as a case study for a certain type of creativity (Che Guevara is Fountain's first book; he was forty-eight when it was published). The Vienna story, just as much as the ones set in Haiti or Colombia, demonstrates his craft, every detail in the right place, everything aimed in one direction.

I think a lot of people who don't normally read short stories would enjoy Fountain's book.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The musical-dramatic-national-patriotic tragic-comedy Wandering Stars by Sholem Aleichem

Sholem Aleichem's Wandering Stars, originally published in 1909 and newly re-Englished by the expert Aliza Shevrin, is a Yiddish theater novel. Some luck that the same "star" metaphor is used in Yiddish and English. Two shtetl kids, a fourteen year old boy and a fifteen year old girl, fall in love and run off with a theater troupe. They wander around Europe and America - Budapest, Vienna, London, New York - and become stars, one an actor and the other a singer.

The novel begins with the discovery that the youngsters have disappeared, on the same night that the theater troupe skipped town. Could there be a connection? Then Sholem Aleichem takes us back to the arrival of the theater company, to give us the details of what happened, to let us get to know Leibel and Rosa. On the one hand, there's not a lot of tension here, since we know what's going to happen. On the other hand, we actually don't, since there's a pretty good twist that finishes the episode and pushes the story forward, that keeps the stars wandering. A couple more twists follow. This isn't a thriller, but the story is more than an afterthought.

Wandering Stars is not short - it's a little over 400 pages - and is padded. It takes Sholem Aleichem about a quarter of the novel, for example, to get Leibel and Rosa out of town. He's in no hurry. The novel was serialized in a newspaper* on a daily basis. Yes, daily. So each chapter is two or three pages long. Many are separate skits or essays or character sketches. All to the good, since these are among the best, the funniest, things in the book.

The main story, in general, is not the most interesting part of the book. But as the novel progresses, a huge case of actors, moneymen, and other hangers-on accumulates. The momentum increases, and the gags get funnier. Like this newspaper review:

"'Among all the pieces in all the Jewish theaters, this holiday Menorah shines so brightly that it has cast into the shadows every other piece,' modestly wrote another manager of his own production. The Menorah, he added with rare reserve, 'stands out among the others like a giant among dwarfs. At no other production will you witness so many tears shed on the stage over the plight of desolate widows and miserable orphans, over lost children and butchered babies, over Jewish daughters murdered and Jewish wives dishonored in bestial pogroms. And the rib-tickling humor, laughter, and Jewish wit heard on our stage cannot be beat. At no other production will you hear such sweet melodies sung by famous leading ladies and see such exciting dances by the loveliest dancers in the world." (p. 280)

Wow, The Menorah has everything. And then there's The Alrightniks; Four Sticks Make a Canopy; Dora, the Rich Beggar, by Shakespeare, Improved and Staged by the only Albert Schupak; and of course the musical-dramatic-national-patriotic tragic-comedy Moishe, featuring the smash hit song "Moishe."

How I long to see The Alrightniks.

Adam Kirsch seems sort of irritated that Wandering Stars is - what? Not crisp and efficient? Not as good as Tevye the Dairyman? He's right, it isn't. I have read enough Sholem Aleichem now that I am beginning to think of him as a literary giant, comparable to Mark Twain, say. His writing covers a lot of ground, and his inventiveness seems unbounded. But Tevye the Dairyman is a world-class masterpiece, hugely likable, and also complex, deep. I'm not disappointed that Sholem Aleichem didn't produce too many of those. Wandering Stars is, as is, a treat.

I still don't think I'm really writing book reviews. For a more review-like review, see the enthusiatic Reb Jew Wishes.

* What newspaper, published where? No idea. No one wants to tell me. Certainly not Tony Kushner, in his gushy, useless introduction. It's all just so wonderful! Thanks, Tony. I only know (or have guessed) that the original publication was in 1909 because of references to the novel's centennial.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Profanation of the dead & a virescent rainbow edged with mauve - a review of Vladimir Nabokov's Verses and Versions

I'll start this review on the right foot. The beginning of Vladimir Nabokov's 1954 poem "On Translating 'Eugene Onegin'":

What is translation? On a platter
A poet's pale and glaring head,
A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter,
And profanation of the dead.

I'm afraid this applies more than a bit to Verses and Versions (2008), a recent, complete, collection of Nabokov's translations. The book is a malformed hybrid.

The problem is not with Nabokov's translations as such, many of which are marvels. It's the completeness of the book that works against it. Here's what I mean. Alexander Pushkin receives over 140 pages, about a third of the book, commensurate with his status, right? But it turns out that a substantial chunk of the Pushkin poems - maybe half - are actually culled from Nabokov's extensive notes to his translation of Eugene Onegin. Many of the poems are not complete, but simply a few lines, because they were translated only in order to elucidate a point about a line or two in a completely different poem. Editors Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin are actually re-publishing footnotes from another book, the poem in the body of the book, and the footnote itself in the footnotes of this book!

I was curious about the older Russian poets, whose works I didn't know, or thought I didn't know - Mihail Lomonosov, Nikolay Karamzin, and so on. It turns out I had read all of this before, yes, in the notes to Eugene Onegin. And then there are the program notes to an album of Russian songs recorded by Nabokov's son. All a little ridiculous, all for scholars. It deserves to have been collected and available, but in an overpriced scholarly edition perhaps titled Scraps and Scroungings.

Fortunately, Verses and Versions is salvageable for the ordinary, common, and amateur reader. For each poem, we have the Russian on the left, with the year of publication, and the English on the right, with its year of publication. What the reader can do is skip past anything dated 1951-57 - those are all from the notes to Eugene Onegin. The poems from 1941-43 are from Nabokov's Three Russian Poets, and those from 1944-47 are from an expanded edition. The three poets are Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Fyodor Tyutchev. I put up one of the Lermontov poems last Thanksgiving.

In general, if its from the 1940s, read it. If it's later, skip it. Then you'll also get a few really interesting Vladislav Hodasevich poems and three nice ones by Afanasiy Fet, and Pushkin's amazing "Mozart and Salieri," one of my favorites. I prefer Nabokov's version to Charles Johnston's. The popular audience edition really should have been a beefed up Three Russian Poets.

How about one of those Tyutchev poems:


The storm withdrew, but Thor had found his oak,
and there it lay magnificently slain,
and from its limbs a remnant of blue smoke
spread to bright trees repainted by the rain -

- while thrush and oriole made haste to mend
their broken melodies throughout the grove,
upon the crests of which was propped the end
of a virescent rainbow edged with mauve.

I don't know enough of Tyutchev to know if this sounds like him. It sure sounds like Nabokov.

The reason for the decadal split, by the way, is Nabokov's famous conversion to literal, rather than poetic, translation. Personally, I think we should have both, the literal translations for the scholars, and the poetic ones for me.

Monday, April 13, 2009

There is nothing absurd, nothing obscure, nothing impious in this book, except to mules and asses - Ingrid Rowland's Giordano Bruno

In response to Bibliographing Nicole's cruel mockery, this week it's nothing but proper book reviews. Today, Giordano Bruno (2008) by Ingrid Rowland.

OK. How to start one of these things? Joan Acocella, in a New Yorker review, begins with juicy details of Bruno's death, burned at the stake as a heretic on Ash Wednesday, 1600. He rode a mule from the Inquisition prison; he wore a leather gag. Then a bit on the book, then three pages summarizing it, then back to the book itself for a few paragraphs. She has a lot of room and can sprawl a bit. Anthony Gottlieb, in a more compressed New York Times piece, also has to tell us who Bruno was before he can get to the book.

I don't want to do all that. If you're reading this and don't know who Giordano Bruno was, ya got the internet, right? Unless someone printed this out for you, I guess. Or maybe it's being read to you over the phone. Doesn't seem very likely. But that's not my point.

Acocella's summary of Bruno's life is excellent. If it's only worth ten minutes to you, read that, and not Ingrid Rowland's book. The book is first-rate, though. There cannot be many other scholars who have such a comprehensive view of the artistic and intellectual times. Her imaginative conception of Naples and Venice is thorough, completely convincing, but I think she's just as good crossing the Alps with Bruno to Geneva, Paris, London and all over Germany. She never pushes the evidence, and acknowledges the huge gaps in what we know of Bruno's life and travels. Both reviewers seem to find this irritating.

They also both criticize Rowland for "too little examination of [Bruno's] ideas." Can they be serious? They want more space devoted to neo-Platonist conceptions of the celestial spheres, or the influence of the Kabbalah and scholasticism on Bruno's idea of the infinite? Really? Isn't that what the bibliography is for? Rowland's greatest conceptual success is treating Bruno more like an imaginative writer than as a philosopher or proto-scientist. For example, when Rowland discusses, extensively, the metaphor of the forest in neo-Platonist writings, she is talking about ideas. The metaphor is itself an idea.

I can attest that Giordano Bruno is readable. Quite good, actually. I read The Expulsion of the Triumphal Beast (1584) several years ago. It's plenty difficult, but also funny, in the spirit of Lucian. Rowland has convinced me to read The Heroic Frenzies, at least, forthcoming, translated by Ingrid Rowland. Just a taste of Triumphal Beast, also translated by Rowland (although the old Imerti translation I read seems just as good), a bit of earthy satire of omnipotence:

"MERCURY: [Jove has] ordered that today at noon two of the melons in Father Franzino's melon patch will be perfectly ripe, but that they won't be picked until three days from now, when they will no longer be considered good to eat... That from the dung of her ox fifty-two dung beetles shall be born, of which fourteen shall be trampled and killed by Albenzio's foot, twenty-six shall die upside down, twenty-two shall live in a hole, eighty shall make a pilgrim's progress around the yard, forty-two shall retire to live under the stone, sixteen shall roll their ball of dung whenever they please, and the rest shall scurry around at random." (Dialogue I, Part 3)

And it continues on, with Jove deciding on the number of hairs singed by a curling iron, when a woman loses a tooth, which food will be converted into the semen that impregnates Ambrogio's wife (leeks in millet and wine sauce). In the title of the post, I put a quotation by a student of Bruno's which Rowland found in the margins of a copy of Paracelsus, now in the amazing Herzog August Bibliothek at Wolfenbüttel. Well, when it comes to Paracelsus, I'm a mule and/or an ass, but for at least a few of Bruno's books, he's closer to correct. A few. Closer - still lot's that's absurd and obscure. I think I'll skip On the Scrutiny of Species and the Combinatory Lamp of Ramon Llull, and One Hundred and Twenty Articles Against Mathematicians and Philosophers, and, let's see, much, much more. If you read them, come on back and let me know all about it.

One criticism of my own: the publisher should have sprung for illustrations. I am sure Rowland wanted them, and I blame the publisher. On the other hand, whoever insisted on the extra-short chapters was correct; Rowland uses them with artist's sense of momentum, building up to the single long chapter, when Bruno finds himself in an Inquisition prison. He spent ten years, the rest of his life, in one prison or another.

I have actually, full disclosure, seen Rowland once, from a distance, walking across the University of Pittsburgh campus. This was several years ago.

I'm not so sure that this was really a book review. Tomorrow, a real one.

By the way, a medieval and/or early modern literature blog along the lines of Wuthering Expectations - call it Gargantua Furioso, maybe, or how about Orlando Quixote - would be something I would very much enjoy reading.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Dybbuk as Greatest Yiddish Play

Somewhere or another I called The Dybbuk the Greatest Yiddish Play. That's not really my judgment - what do I know, I've read a few and seen none. It seems like a first-rate modernist play, psychologically complex, culturally rich, with an original subject. I enjoyed reading it; I'd love to see it performed.

The Dybbuk has acquired a symbolic status that I wouldn't wish on any single work of art. Because of its history, and setting, and use of folklore, it has become The Representative Yiddish Play.

Ansky never saw it performed. It's 1920 debut, in fact, was as a memorial to Ansky himself, performed thirty days after he died. The superb poster is from that Warsaw production. So from the beginning, it had extra-aesthetic weight. The play became a stand-in for the lost world of Eastern European Judaism, destroyed by emigration, destroyed by World War I. And this was all before the Holocaust.

Habimah, a Moscow Yiddish theater company, now the National Theatre of Israel, put The Dybbuk at the heart of its repertoire. They still own, and often use, the original sets. How can a performance of the play not also be a memorial service? How does one judge such a thing?

There's another irony, come to think of it. The curators of The Dybbuk perform it, mostly, in Hebrew, in H. Bialik's 1918 translation. It's surely now performed more often in English and German than in Yiddish. One more irony: the Yiddish Dybbuk is a translation from the Hebrew! Ansky lost his Yiddish version when he fled the Bolsheviks, and created a new Yiddish text from Bialik's Hebrew.

Well, it's still a great play. But what complications. Typical, though, of the life and works of S. Ansky.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

There are also souls who belong nowhere - Ansky's The Dybbuk

"The souls of the dead do return to the world, but not as disembodied spirits. There are souls which must go through several incarnations before they are finally purified. Sinful souls return to earth in animals, in birds, in fish, and even at times in plants... There are also souls who belong nowhere, who find no peace anywhere; they take possession of another person's body in the form of a dybbuk, and in this way they achieve their purification." (The Messenger, Act II)

An arranged marriage is announced. A young man, a mystic, a student of the Kabbalah, is in love with the bride; hearing the news, he dies (he was not what you would call healthy). The bride, on the day of her wedding, becomes possessed by a dybbuk, the unhappy spirit of her lover, the student. A famous rabbi tries to exorcise the dybbuk. That's most of the story of S. Ansky's The Dybbuk, I guess. Not too complicated.

That's not how it seems on the page, though. In the first act, set in a synagogue, a dozen or so characters wander in and out, most with at least a line or two. Modernist, definitely. Leah, the star of the show, only appears briefly. The students debate and tell stories. It's unclear what the story might be. The short second act is a spectacle of its own, mostly a pre-wedding dance.

The play is based on folklore about dybbuks that Ansky had collected during the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition. It weaves in the old tale of the couple killed on their wedding day that I mentioned yesterday. But, ingeniously, almost everything in the play can be interpreted psychologically. For example, the quotation up above is spoken by the mysterious Messenger. He is telling Leah the legend of the dybbuk. Soon after, she claims to be possessed by one. Is Leah actually possessed by the spirit of her lover, or is she resisting the forced marriage?

That must be a great part for the actress. Must be great fun to watch, too. This is Hanna Rovina, in the 1922 Moscow production.

I read The Dybbuk in the Golda Werman translation in The Dybbuk and Other Writings. Joachim Neugroschel's version, in The Dybbuk and the Yiddish Imagination (2000), seems good, too, a bit more slangy, perhaps. The latter is an ingenious idea, an anthology of nothing but dybbuk-related writings, from 1602 to 1956. One thing I learned from it is that I don't care about dybbuks, in and of themselves, enough to read the whole book. Neugroschel has also edited an anthology about golems, which awaits me at the library as I write.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Pushkin Street, Gogol Street, Lermontov Street - The Destruction of Galicia and literature

S. Ansky's tone in The Destruction of Galicia reminds me more than a bit of Chekhov. I suspect a direct connection to Chekhov's Sakhalin Island book, a report on a Siberian prison, but I haven't read it, so who knows. I am sure Ansky had I. L. Peretz's Impressions of a Journey through the Tomaszow Region in the Year 1890 (1891) on his mind. That one is nominally the report on a statistical survey of the countryside; it is extremely Chekhovian, even derivative, one could say. Peretz himself is actually a character in Ansky's book, in the earlier parts set in and near Warsaw.

What do I mean by tone? That Ansky's voice is professional, subdued, sometimes even a bit detached. His job is to stay calm, so that's what he does. He may express his frustration, anger, or sorrow, but he is writing with some distance. Of course, the most important part of the story is not his own. Ansky is bearing witness to a catastrophe. We're all too familiar with that genre, now.

Literature infiltrates the book:

"We walked around in the ruins for quite a while and I noticed something odd: In every corner of the burnt street, on the walls and on the destroyed houses, there were newly affixed signs on which street names were written in Russian letters. The Russians had given all the streets new, highly literary names: Pushkin Street, Gogol Street, Lermontov Street, I think there was a Turgenev Street, too. Apparently the victors didn't understand how cynical it was to call the horribly disfigured, fire-gutted streets after the greatest representatives of Russian culture, nor did they think it insulting to the memory of the great writers. The street signs left me with the same feeling as did the icons which the Christians put in their windows during the pogroms." (The Dybbuk and Other Writings, p. 180)

Since Ansky had recently been collecting folktales, he was always on the lookout for new ones, what we for some reason have taken to calling "urban myths." In Galicia and Poland, there were two sets of stories. One set was anti-Semitic, used to justify Russian depredations. For example, the Cossacks were riding through town, and everything was peaceful, until a Jewish girl fired at them from a second-story window. So the pogrom was merely retaliation. Ansky heard this story again and again, always with the girl in a second-story window. A lot of the stories involved Jewish spies, and telephones. All the Jews are spies for the Germans, or all the Poles, or both, and they all have telephones hidden away somewhere, with direct lines to the enemy.

The second set of stories are the Jewish ones, responses to the anti-Semitic stories:

"One version simply told how a number of Jews were hanged as a result of the telephone libel; other Jews would have been hanged too, were it not for a priest, carrying a cross, who appeared before the judge and testified that it was the Poles who were guilty. The priest's evidence proved to be correct; all the Jews were immediately freed and the Poles were hanged instead - sixteen in all." (p. 174)

Or the Jews caught in the cellar, on the telephone with the Austrians, turn out to be Poles in disguise. These stories are always from one or two or three towns over, absolutely true, none of us saw it, but we all heard about it.

The Beatrice Weinrich edition of Yiddish Folktales includes a few stories about Czar Nicholas I (enemy of the Jews), Emperor Franz Josef (friend of the Jews), Napoleon (complicated), or one of the Rothschild bankers, all typical, old-timey folktales, but updated with new heroes and villains. In the old story, the beggar who rewards the generous and punishes the stingy turns out to be the prophet Elijah in disguise; in the up to date ones he's Franz Josef. Some of the stories Ansky collects are about Austrian or Russian generals, ones who were known to be particularly anti- or philo-Semitic, inserted into the old stories.

"The most popular folktale among Jews was about two soldiers who confronted each other on the battlefield. As one stabbed the other, he was shocked to hear the dying soldier cry out, 'Shma Yisroel, Hear, O Israel.'... I heard many different variants of this folktale in at least eight or ten different localities - St. Petersburg, Moscow, Minsk, Kiev, Warsaw, in short, every place where there were homeless Jews or soldiers. Most people thought that this was a factual account about real people, not a folktale. (pp. 175-6)

In the ellipses, Ansky mentions the story about the bride and groom who were murdered under the bridal canopy during the 1648 massacres, and buried together where they died - "in at least fifteen or sixteen shtetls I was taken to a grave near the synagogue where the bride and groom were supposed to have been buried." (175) This is Ansky's one hint in The Destruction of Galicia of what he was doing when he wasn't hauling money and medicine across a war zone.

He was writing a play, now the consensus choice for Greatest Yiddish Play. Tomorrow, I'll look at The Dybbuk.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

War is a different matter - S. Ansky's The Destruction of Galicia

S. Ansky spent 1912 to 1914 travelling through the Jewish countryside in and near the Pale of Settlement, collecting Jewish stories, songs, traditions, and artifacts. The outbreak of war ended the expedition, but the next year he found himself back in the same area for a more basic reason: to bring relief aid to the Jews caught between the Russian and Austrian armies.

At the beginning of World War I, the Russians immediately overran Galicia, now part of Ukraine and Poland, at the time under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some elements of the Russian army, especially the Cossacks, deliberately destroyed every Jewish community they encountered. And this was before the fighting began, before the artillery shells began to fall. The Jewish towns in the region were unusually poor to begin with. After one of these pogroms, the survivors were left with nothing.

Later in the war, the army clamped down on these abuses in response to international pressure, and the Russians were eventually driven out of the area, although, in retreat, they were not much kinder to Russian Jews. The estimates of Jewish civilian deaths in the region range from 100,000 to 200,000, with half a million or more displaced people and refugees.

S. Ansky inserted himself right into the middle of this. Much of The Destruction of Galicia (1925), his memoir of the relief effort, involves trying to get transportation, racing from place to place with food and medical supplies. He also spends a lot of time arguing with officials, and attending meetings. This is modern, bureaucratized humanitarianism.

Ansky travelled in uniform (the cover of the paperback of The Dybbuk and Other Writings features a photo of Ansky in a Red Cross hat) and was, how to say this, highly assimilated, so he often "passed" as a Russian officer. That was one of the ways he got things done in the war zone. Another result is that Russians would confide in him. Here's an excerpt of The Destruction of Galicia, which I hope shows the literary quality of the book, something I want to write more about tomorrow:

“Our boxcars of medical supplies were hooked to a train carrying high-explosive shells, and off we chugged. In my heated freight car I found a young officer with an intelligent face, and we got to talking. There was something a bit odd about his rigid, dreamy stare and his habit of slowly weighing each word before he spoke. I wondered whether he was quite all right.

‘You know,’ he said as we got better acquainted, ‘you know when I was young I led a shameful life. I drank, I debauched, I beat the young soldiers, and I did other wicked things. Then I came across Leo Tolstoy’s What Do I Believe In. I read it and I was reborn. I became a completely different person. I even stopped eating meat.’

‘And yet you go to war, and you kill people,’ I said.

He sat awhile with a downcast head. At last he murmured with deep conviction: ‘War is a different matter. This war will renew the world; it will cleanse mankind of its dirt. For such a goal one can make the supreme sacrifice.’

Our train stopped three or four miles short of Tarnow because the approach to the station was being shelled. The station itself and the surrounding buildings had long since burned down. I had to reach town on foot. My belongings and the medical supplies would be driven in by automobile.” (p. 85, The Enemy at His Pleasure)

Johann Neugroschel for some reason titles his translation The Enemy at His Pleasure, a line from an Anna Akhmatova poem. I don't know why. I can guess.

I should also note that Ansky personally witnesses a fair number of horrible events, and documents many others. I think The Destruction of Galicia is a great book, a classic of humanitarianism, but I know it's not for everyone.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The accomplishments of S. Ansky

The writer who called himself S. Ansky did three lasting things in his life. He “conceived and directed” the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition of 1912 to 1914, which was cut short by World War I; he organized a pioneering humanitarian relief effort for Galician and Russian Jews caught in the path of the Russian, German, and Austrian armies, and wrote a book about it; and he wrote a play, first produced as a posthumous memorial. Ansky was born in 1863, so when the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition began, he was 49 years old; he died eight years later.

His life before that is fascinating, actually, not because of Ansky’s accomplishments, but because he is a sort of perfect type of the Jewish radical of his time. His early activities include: running a commune for boys who had fled religious schools (Ansky did this at the age of 17!); infiltrating a Hasidic shtetl; doing “educational work” with Russian miners. He drifts (or flees) from St. Petersburg to Warsaw, to Geneva and Paris, along with every other Russian radical and bohemian revolutionary. He writes some short fiction in Yiddish and Russian. He wasn’t S. Ansky yet. He was Solomon Rappaport, and Semyon Akimovich, and Z. Sinanni, and Pseudonym.

Ansky said that it was an encounter in 1901 with a volume of I. L. Peretz’s collected writings that caused him to finally pin down his identity, to suddenly – he was that kind of personality, everything happened suddenly - become passionately interested in Yiddish again. This led to an interest in Jewish folklore, as an authentic expression of the proletariat, which led to the Ethnographic Expedition, which led to the Galician relief effort, and his single play, which turned out to be the greatest play in Yiddish literature.

He died in Warsaw in 1920, having fled the Bolsheviks (Ansky, good for him, supported Kerensky). The play, The Dybbuk, was first performed posthumously, in Ansky’s honor. His magnificent account of his humanitarian work, The Destruction of Galicia, was also published just after his death.

All of this is basically from the introduction of The Dybbuk and Other Writings (1992), edited by David Roskies. The introduction, the account of Ansky’s life, is almost as interesting as Ansky’s works. The rest of the book contains The Dybbuk, seven stories from throughout his life, the early ones translated from Yiddish that was itself translated from Russian, and then a well-chosen forty-page excerpt from The Destruction of Galicia. All in around 250 pages. The idea of “summing up” a writer in a book is, mostly, ridiculous, but this book kind of does it.

More S. Ansky all week – maybe two days on The Destruction of Galicia and two days on The Dybbuk.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Caffè-latte! I call to the waiter, - and Non c’ è latte, this is the answer he makes me - Arthur Hugh Clough's Rome

“Rome disappoints me still; but I shrink and adapt myself to it.

Ye gods! What do I want with this rubbish of ages departed,
Things that Nature abhors, the experiments that she failed in?
What do I find in the Forum? An archway and two or three pillars.
Well, but St. Peter’s? Alas, Bernini has filled it with sculpture!” (I, 35 & 41-44)

Alas! Claude, hero of Clough’s Amour de Voyages (1849), is a restless youngster. He’s a tourist in Rome, and not happy about it, but the passage above, nominally a letter to his friend Eustace, suggests that the problem might just possibly not be the fault of Rome, exactly.

Fortunately, for Claude and the reader, two things soon happen that interest even him. First, Claude is forced to spend time, much against his well, with other English tourists, and is surprised to find himself falling in love, although he thinks it can’t possibly be serious. He’s a bit like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, the distant man who cannot quite believe that he has met a woman who is actually interesting. One wonders what kind of company these fellers had been keeping before, but that’s beside the point.

Second, this is 1849, so Claude and the other tourists wake one morning to discover that the city, under the control of Garibaldi’s Republic, is besieged by the French army (Murray is Claude’s Lonely Planet):

“Yes, we are fighting at last, it appears. This morning as usual,
Murray, as usual, in hand, I enter the Caffè Nuovo;
Seating myself with a sense as it were of a change in the weather,
Not understanding, however, but thinking mostly of Murray,
And, for today is their day, of the Campidoglio Marbles,
Caffè-latte! I call to the waiter, - and Non c’ è latte,
This is the answer he makes me, and this the sign of a battle.” (II. 95-100)

I detect a hint of a future generation of useless men abroad, those of Henry James and Ford Madox Ford, or Turgenev's fretful young intellectuals. Claude begins to find things – the Roman Republic, Mary– interesting, but he has great trouble doing anything, which eventually leads where one would expect. As goes the Roman Republic, so goes the romance of Claude and Mary.

I don’t want to overemphasize the romance, although that’s quite good, and would have made a fine plot in the hands of Jane Austen or E. M. Forster. Amours de Voyage consists mostly of Claude philosophizing and ironizing, and whining and moping, and wandering around Rome, all in his overbaked Oxford style. What he has to say, what he thinks, is interesting. What he does, that's Claude's problem.

Wonderful poet, Arthur Hugh Clough. Not quite like anyone else.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Rubbishy seems the word that would exactly suit it - Arthur Hugh Clough's hexameters

A while back I was reading Longfellow's Evangeline, and it left me wondering about the point of writing English poetry in dactylic hexameter. Longfellow's hexameter was basically a sort of rhythmic prose. The long, six foot lines and the irregular lengths of the feet seemed to violate some essential feature of English prosody, although I wasn't sure what.

It turns out that a while further back, a young Arthur Hugh Clough was reading Evangeline and wondered the same thing. He decided to do something about it, and wrote two long, narrative hexameter poems, The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich (1848), and Amours de Voyage (1849). Both are about young men on vacation, and their troubles with women. Both are excellent, especially Amours de Voyage, which I think I will return to tomorrow. Now I just want to look at the verse. Clough cracked the hexameter nut, so to speak, and he solved the problem in more than one way.

Not that he doesn't still end up with prose a lot. How's this:

"It was four of the clock, and the sports were coming to the ending,
Therefore the Oxford party went off to adorn for dinner." (I.10-11)

Maybe you get a hint here of one of Clough's tools, the mock heroic. The hexameter is the meter of Homer, so let's have some Homer, but a bit silly:

"Here were clansmen many in kilt and bonnet assembled,
Keepers a dozen at least; the Marquis's targeted gillies;
Pipers five or six, among them the young one, the drunkard...
But with snuff-boxes all, and all of them using the boxes." (I.51-53, 56)

This fits the setting and theme of the poem. A passel of Oxford undergraduates are spending the summer in Scotland. They prepare for exams with their tutor, mostly, so their heads are full of the original hexameter, the Greek and Roman classics. On this evening, they attend a dinner and dance hosted by local Highlanders. The Highlanders still have some connection with the traditions of actual men of action; the undergrads split their time bewteen books and sports.

Some of the poem is still pretty tangled, and some of it is pretty flat, but a touch less seriousness turns out to help a lot.

Clough tried again, and found a complete solution with Amours de Voyage. It is an epistolary poem, so in a sort of first person, which leads straight to the answer: create a character who naturally speaks or writes in dactylic hexameter. Name him Claude. And so:

"Rome disappoints me much; I hardly as yet understand, but
Rubbishy seems the word that most exactly would suit it.
All the foolish destructions, and all the siller savings,
All the incongruous things of past incompatible ages,
Seem to be treasured up here to make fools of present and future.
Would to Heaven the old Goths had made a cleaner sweep of it!" (I.19-24)

We have a young graduate now, not an undergraduate, at worst a pretentious, serious man, but with a sense of humor and an ability to see the ridiculous side of his own character. Claude's writing is not natural, really, but it's his voice, what a person like him would actually write. He's over-educated and restless; it's too late to be natural (or is it - that's a theme of this poem).

What a surprise, then, after twelve letters or fragments of letters from "Claude to Eustace," to see that the heading of I.XIII is "Georgina Trevellyn to Louisa."* Who? Here's how she writes:

"Dearest Louisa, -Inquire, if you please, about Mr. Claude -.
He has been once at R., and remembers meeting the H.'s.
Harriet L., perhaps, may be able to tell you about him.
It is an awkward youth, but still with very good manners;
Not without prospects, we hear; and, George says, highly connected." (I.252-6)

This is also dactylic hexameter, but sounds so different than Claude (more monosyllabic, less Latinate) and entirely natural, as long as we're in or near a Jane Austen novel.

So now I don't know how Clough did it. Right, the voice of the characters has to be suited to the meter. I'll note that Amours de Voyage is probably 90% Claude. Georgina's letters must have been devillishly hard to write.

Tomorrow, a bit of what Amours de Voyage is actually about.

* Update: Oops, Georgina first shows up in Letter I.III, not I.XIII. And the important character turns out to be her sister Mary, whose letters appear later. As a half-hearted defense, Clough does make this deliberately confusing.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

In which I marvel at the perfectly egg-shaped head of Arthur Hugh Clough - guest starring a blear-eyed pimp

Look at Arthur Hugh Clough there, on the cover of the Penguin Classics edition of his poems. His head, it is so perfectly egg-shaped. I cannot stop staring at it. I may have been called an egghead myself, possibly, but I don't think it was meant literally.

It is so, so round.

I want to talk about -

So smooth and round. Must. Look. Away. So shiny.

All right. The portrait is by "an unknown artist." Do you think Mr. A. U. Artist was trained to first draw an egg and then fill in the facial features? I do.

What did Clough write about? Skepticism, mostly. Skepticism about religion, skepticism about sex, especially the male sex drive, skepticism about his purpose in the world. Love presented some sort of imperfect solution to these problems, as did poetry.

I quoted a bit of "Epi-Strauss-ism" back here ("Matthew and Mark and Luke and holy John \ Evanished all and gone!"), a poem of doubt caused by up-to-date German Biblical criticism. In that poem, Clough doubts his doubting. "Easter Day: Naples, 1849" is more strongly worded:

"Through the great sinful streets of Naples as I past,
With fiercer heat than flamed above my head
My heart was hot within me; till at last
My brain was lightened, when my tongue had said

     Christ is not risen!

   Christ is not risen, no,
   He lies and moulders low;
     Christ is not risen." (ll. 1-8)

This is a long poem, so I'll include just a bit more, an inversion of Christ's own words:

"Ye men of Galilee!
Why stand ye looking up to heaven, where Him ye ne’er may see,
Neither ascending hence, nor hither returning again?
Ye ignorant and idle fishermen!
Hence to your huts and boats and inland native shore,
And catch not men, but fish;
Whate’er things ye might wish,
Him neither here nor there ye e’er shall meet with more.
Ye poor deluded youths, go home,
Mend the old net ye left to roam,
Tie the split oar, patch the torn sail;
It was indeed 'an idle tale',
     He was not risen." (ll. 113-125)

I find this quite powerful; I also find Christ's command to be "fishers of men" quite powerful. I have little idea what Clough actually believes. In this poem, the declaration of disbelief relieves some kind (what kind?) of torment. But then I turn to a companion poem, "Easter Day II":

"So while the blear-eyed pimp beside me walked,
And talked,
For instance, of the beautiful danseuse
And 'Eccellenza sure must see, if he would choose'
Or of the lady in the green silk there,
Who passes by and bows with minx's air,
Or of the little thing not quite fifteen,
Sicilian-born who surely should be seen -
So while the blear-eyed pimp beside me walked
And talked, and I too with fit answer talked,
So in the sinful streets, abstracted and alone,
I with my secret self held communing of mine own." (ll. 1-12)

The "blear-eyed pimp"! "not quite fifteen"! Perhaps a clue to the source of the earlier poem's "fierce heat" can be found here. The poem ends:

"Sit if ye will, sit down upon the ground,
Yet not to weep and wail, but calmly look around.
  Whate'er befell,
  Earth is not hell;
  Now too as when it first began,
  Life yet is Life and Man is Man.
For all that breathes beneath the heavens' high cope,
Joy with grief mixes, with despondence hope.
Hope conquers cowardice, joy grief,
Or at the least, faith unbelief.
  Though dead not dead;
  Though gone not fled;
  Though lost not vanished.
  In the great Gospel and true Creed
  He is yet risen indeed,
    Christ is yet risen." (ll. 34-51)

There seems to be some actual wisdom here. And what poetry! I love the whole "blear-eyed pimp" stanza - the imitations of his speech, the repetitons, the fractured meter. In the line "So in the sinful streets, abstracted and alone," the sequence of sounds ("So in" to "sin," "streets" to "abstracted") can hardly be bettered. All this from a supposedly minor poet, apparently best known for being a friend of Matthew Arnold.

Something I should have mentioned earlier: Clough is pronounced Cluff. Doesn't seem right. Hyu Cluff.

Tomorrow: Arthur Hugh Clough's use of the hexameter. See you next week! Ha ha!