Monday, June 8, 2009

Back from Salem - now what?

I'm back from a short trip to Salem and Boston. Funny that zhiv was there a day or two ahead of me. Salem has two major Nathaniel Hawthorne landmarks, the Custom House, featured in the introduction to The Scarlet Letter, and an odd 17th century mansion the exterior of which Hawthorne borrowed for The House of the Seven Gables. Whoever owns the House of Seven Gables also owns Hawthorne's childhood home. Hawthorne's wife, Sophia Peabody, came from an important Salem family.

So I suppose I should have picked up a lot of important insights into Hawthorne's work. But I did not actually quite make it inside of any of those buildings. I walked by them. I saw the 1840 portrait of Hawthorne in the Peabody Essex Museum. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site, which owns the Custom House, was instructive. Salem was really very nice. Very pleasant. But ma femme et moi are not the most, let's say, aggressive tourists. We stroll, and sit in coffee shops, then see if there's time left for anything else before dinner.

I did learn a fair amount about The House of the Seven Gables through the method of reading it, although I don't have much to say about it here. It didn't seem to be quite the complete conception that I saw in The Scarlet Letter, although I'm reserving judgment on that. And it does have, among its many felicities, the unbelievable Chapter XVIII, "Governor Pyncheon," in which we and the narrator stand vigil beside a corpse for eighteen hours or so. It's a tour de force, even show-offy, a display of writerly facility that rivals anything in his earlier work. I kind of knew about the main set-pieces of The Scarlet Letter, but I had no idea "Governor Pyncheon" existed. What a treat.

I had planned to write about the mysterious Gérard de Nerval all this week, but I'm not sure I have the fortitude at the moment, between the draining travel, and that giant pile of steamed clams at The Barnacle in Marblehead, and the genuine Italian wedding that was the point of the whole trip. Nerval's work, some of it, is so difficult:

The Thirteenth comes back... is again the first,
And always the only one - or the only time:
Are you then queen, O you! the first or last?
You, the one or last lover, are you king?...

Yikes. That's the first stanza of the sonnet "Artemis," one of The Chimeras, as translated by Peter Jay. More of that next week, or never. The rest of this week: I have no idea.

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