Friday, February 26, 2010

Why, it's as good as one of Scott's novels - the audacious Charles Chesnutt

Chesnutt had been publishing short stories for over a decade when The Conjure Woman was published in 1899, so he was able to hurry together another collection for publication in the same year.  The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line is, as one might guess, of variable quality.  A number of stories are about mixed-race African-Americans in Cleveland ("Groveland," ha ha) so have siginificant historical interest, at least, while a couple seem more like standard sentimental magazine fiction (you don't want to know how the little black girl in "The Bouquet" gets those flowers onto her white teachers grave).

Once in awhile, though, Chesnutt pushes harder.  I want to look at "The Passing of Grandison," Chesnutt at his most audacious (although book collectors must read "Baxter's Procrustes" (1904)).  This story is nuts, and is actually about audacity.

A young, rich knucklehead from Kentucky wants to marry an idealistic woman, who in turn wants to marry a hero, a man who has done something.  Such as?  Such as stealing and freeing a slave.  I'll do it! says the knucklehead.

So he travels to the North, supposedly for his health, accompanied by a valet, Grandison, one of his father's slaves, chosen, by the father, because he is "abolitionist-proof":  "Deed, suh I would n' low none er dem cussed, lowdown abolitioners ter come nigh me, suh."  The young idiot then has to figure out how to convince the loyal slave to run off.  In the comic high point, he writes anonymous letters to "several well-known abolitionists," inviting them to spirit off his slave:


A wicked slaveholder from Kentucky, stopping at the Revere House, has dared to insult the liberty-loving people of Boston by bringing his slave into their midst.  Shall this be tolerated?  Or shall steps be taken in the name of liberty to rescue a fellow-man from bondage?  For obvious reasons I can only sign myself,

A Friend of Humanity.

But with no results:  "'Mars Dick,' he said, 'dese yer abolitioners is jes' pesterin' de life out er me tryin' ter git me ter run away.'"  The young dimwit finally takes his slave to Canada and has him detained by force.  And then he gets the girl, luckily marrying her before Grandison makes his way back to Kentucky from Canada, braving every hardship.  As the colonel, Grandison's owner says, "Why, it 's as good as one of Scott's novels!"  And we still have one plot twist left.

In the outrageous "The Passing of Grandison," Chesnutt reminded me strongly of Ralph Ellison, an audacious writer if there ever was one.

For another look at The Wife of His Youth, please visit BookNAround, also part of this month's Classics Circuit.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

I don't think it very likely that you could make us believe it - why Chesnutt repeats himself

Yesterday I provided evidence, as I do now and again, that I should not review books.*  I described the stories in The Conjure Woman as "formulaic," following a formula.  I wanted the word to be descriptive, neutral, but in the context of a book review, it is always negative, isn't it?  Mindlessly formulaic.  Not creative.

As if most books most people (and I) read are not following formulas!  Not you - you only read the most far out of the avant-gardists, of course.  But for most of us, much of the pleasure of a book lies in the variation within the formula.  Charles Chesnutt's conjure stories make the formula explicit, seven stories in a row, the same dang thing over and over again.  Except not.  By fixing certain elements of the stories, Chesnutt highlights the parts that do change, which then actually changes, deepens, the meaning of some of the unchanging parts.

A white couple moves to North Carolina to operate a vineyard.  Uncle Julius tells them stories about slave life, always involving a conjure woman's magic spell.  The wife responds sentimentally, while the husband looks for Julius's selfish economic motives.  So when Julius warns, in "The Gophered Grapevine," that the vines on a particular piece of ground are enchanted, it is to protect his own supply of scuppernongs.  When he says he doesn't like to work with mules, because they might be people ("The Conjurer's Revenge"), it's because he is trying to get his employer to buy a horse from someone he knows.  If he says a patch of woods is haunted ("The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt"), it's because Julius is concealing a source of honey.

The narrator, the employer, is the one telling us all this.  He's the clever fellow who always figures out what Julius is really up to.  He's the loving husband who describes how his wife responds incorrectly, irrationally, to Julius's stories, but let's her do what she want "as I did not wish the servants to think there was any conflict of authority in the household" ("Mars Jeems's Nightmare").

In other words, in each story the narrator is condescending to Julius and to his wife.  What is a minor part of any given story becomes more interesting as it repeats.  My favorite touch is that the narrator's "real motives" become more fanciful as the stories progress.  Maybe Chesnutt is just following his own formula, providing a punchline, and fails to come up with such good ones.  Or maybe the narrator is a fool.

The title of the post is from "The Conjurer's Revenge."  The narrator knows that Julius is trying to trick him, so he tries to draw Julius out into the open, encouraging him to tell his stories, so that he can indulge his superiority over Julius (and over his sweet but weak wife).  Then he can tell us, and the readers of The Atlantic Monthly, all about it, and we can patronize the sly (but not too sly) Negro.

Now I'm the one assuming that I'm more sophisticated, seeing through the narrator, thinking that Julius is not sly but merely intelligent, that he tells his stories for a purpose that is his own, but not necessarily material.   I'm afraid that question - why does Julius tell his stories - may be too complicated for this pass through The Comjure Woman.  Meaning, I don't know.  I'm still thinking about it.

*  Whether I should do whatever it is I normally do is a separate topic.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

He kep' on wukkin' de roots - Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman

Today's post is part of the Harlem Renaissance branch of the Classics Circuit, ably organized by Rebecca Reid and others. 

The Conjure Woman (1899) is a slender book of seven formulaic stories.  That sounds so negative.  True, though.  Each story works like this:

Our narrator, a white Northerner who has relocated to North Carolina, relates a story told to him by his employee and former slave Uncle Julius.  In each story, told in dialect, a slave gets assistance from the magic powers of a conjure woman.  Usually, some sort of strange transformation occurs - a slave is turned into a tree or a mule, or a master is turned into a slave.  The clever narrator discovers Julius's ulterior motive, but is thwarted by his kind-hearted wife, who always does what Julius wants.  Frame, story, frame.

Three reasons to read The Conjure Woman:

1.  The varied and accurate (aside, I suppose, from the magic spells) portrait of slave life. The advantage of reading Chesnutt over a historian like Eugene Genovese (see Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974)) escapes me.

2. The voice of Uncle Julius.  In "The Goophered Grapevine" a slave becomes one with nature:

All dis time de goopher wuz a-wukkin'. When de vimes sta'ted ter wither, Henry 'mence' ter complain er his rheumatiz; en when de leaves begin ter dry up, his ha'r 'mence' ter drap out. When de vimes fresh' up a bit, Henry 'd git peart ag'in, en when de vimes wither' ag'in, Henry 'd git ole ag'in, en des kep' gittin' mo' en mo' fitten fer nuffin; he des pined away, en pined away, en fine'ly tuk ter his cabin; en when de big vime whar he got de sap ter 'n'int his head withered en turned yaller en died, Henry died too,--des went out sorter like a cannel.

Despisers of dialect writing will despise this.  I have to say, I love the conceit of this story, the man who turns into a human grapevine and changes with the seasons.  It feels like the eruption of an old pagan story.  In each tale, Julius, and Chesnutt, are good storytellers.  For some reason, Chesnutt wrote one Uncle Julius story (in the Library of America Stories, Novels, an Essays (2002), but not in The Conjure Woman) without the dialect, but as a sort of summary, and it could not have been duller.

And speaking of dull, the narrator's voice is pompous, Latinate, tedious, paternalistic.  I suspect parody.

3.  Because the other reason to read The Conjure Woman, the reason that the formula is useful for Chesnutt, is that the sophisticated reader is allowed to enjoy the big joke played on the narrator and his wife.  In "Po' Sandy," the narrator tells us, and the readers of The Atlantic Monthly, that Julius's stories are "quaintly humorous," an reveal "the Oriental cast of the negro's imagination," but also "disclose many a tragic incident of the darker side of slavery."  So the well-intentioned reader can feel both condescending and virtuous.  He can, like the narrator, enjoy his chuckle when he discovers that Julius tells us that the grapevines are haunted because he wants to protect his own grape supply.  Julius is crafty, but we see through him, and indulge him.

The joke, though, is that Julius is joking himself.  He does not believe that his haunted grapevine story will prevent the sale of the vineyard.  The ex-slave is creating an ironic history of the vineyard, and of slavery.

I don't think I have explained this at all.  Let's try again tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Then I play from inspiration - Franz Grillparzer's poor musician

Despite my mockery of its terrible title, German Novellas of Realism I is a first-rate anthology.  Besides two good Stifter stories, it contains The Jews' Beech Tree by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf, and the sparkling gem, Mozart's Journey to Prague by Eduard Mörike.  There was one story, besides Stifter's Granite, that I had not read before, The Poor Musician (1848) by the Austrian playwright (and friend of Beethoven) Franz Grillparzer. 

The Poor Musician is the least of the stories in German Novellas of Realism I, and not exactly recommended, not too strongly.  The narrator, at the St. Bridget's Day festival in Vienna, is intrigued by a puzzling street musician, and extracts his life story.  It involves a girl who sings a beautiful song and a stolen inheritance and who cares what else.

The aesthetics of the musician caught my attention.  He spends the morning practicing, the day performing on the street, and the evening:

"In the evening I remain at home, and" - at this his voice dropped lower and lower, a flush came over his face and his gaze became fixed upon the ground - "then I play from inspiration, without any score and for myself alone. Improvisation, I believe, is the term given to it in books of music." (219-20)

Like the narrator, I wanted to hear his improvisations.  Is the poor musician, not quite competent on the street, a Chopin or Paganini on his own?

A soft sound which certainly came from a violin grew very loud, sank, and died out, immediately rising gain to the shrillest of shrieks: in fact, it was always the same note repeated with a kind of joyful insistence.  At last there came an interval - a fourth.  (222)

And so on, "repeated again and again with a rapid whirl, with the same intervals every time and the same notes."  What kind of avant gardist, exactly, is this violinist?  A Steve Reich-like minimalist?  A precursor of Ornette Coleman? 

The musician plays scored music, too, the classics, but in his own way:

Rather than emphasize a piece of music according to sense and rhythm, he stressed and prolonged the notes and intervals that were pleasing to the ear, not hesitating to repeat them capriciously, while his face would often take on a look of ecstasy  He rid himself of the dissonances in a short a time as possible, whereas, out of conscientiousness, he did not miss a note of the passages that were too dificult for him, but rendered them in a time far too slow when set against the entire piece... (224)

So Coleman, no, since the violinist prefers euphony over cacophony.  Minimalism, yes: see Norwegian minimalist Leif Inge's 9 Beet Stretch, which pulls and prods Beethoven's 9th Symphony until it is twenty-four hours long.  Grillparzer's "poor" musician, like Balzac's painter Frenhofer, is simply too far ahead of his time, ahead, even, of the author who created him.

Monday, February 22, 2010

This tongue tells us almost with intelligible words how good and how happy and how peaceful everything is - I found another Adalbert Stifter story

How exciting.  I came across an Adalbert Stifter story that I had not known was available in English.  It's "Granite" also known as "The Pitch-Burner" (1849/ 1852).  A translation by Jeffrey L. Sammons can be found in The German Library, Volume 37, German Novellas of Realism I (1989).

I can hear your clucks of dismay.  "You had not read German Novellas of Realism I?  Were you born in a hayloft?  Just look at that title - German Novellas of Realism I!"  I know, I know.

The story itself is perfectly typical Stifter, perhaps ur-Stifter.  A Stifter-like boy tells us about the day he got in trouble for smearing pitch all over the house, and how his kindly grandfather helped him out.  Sweet, sentimental Stifter.  One way the grandfather helps tiny Adelbert is by telling him an old story about their region, a story about the plague, and children who lose their parents and wander through the woods, eating nuts and committing saintly acts.  Weird, weird Stifter.

The grandfather links the old story, horrific as it is, to specific features in the landscape.  He in fact begins by having the grandson name each feature:

"That is the lake forest, where there are dark and deep lake waters."

And still to the right of the Lake Forest?"

"That is the Boulder Stone and the Chair Forest."

"And farther right?"

"That is Tusset Forest."  (p. 15)

I don't mean to suggest this is any special prose - a lot of Stifter's writing is pretty ordinary - but to highlight a Stifterian method, here performed more systematically than I have ever seen.  The exact details of the landscape, real or imagined, must be precisely identified.  Then humans are set within the landscape.  The grandfather tells his grandson about the hay-gleaners in the forest meadows, and the fungi collectors, and the pitch-burners:  "You see, these columns of smoke all come from men who do their jobs in the forest" (15).  If Stifter is a nature writer, he's an odd one.  It's the connections between people and nature that he writes about again and again.

I don't expect to make any converts to Stifter, so I will leave "Granite" behind here.  I was converted to him by W. G. Sebald, who really taught me to read Stifter.  Sebald directed me to Stifter's landscapes, and his quiet uncanniness.  Stifter's sweetness and placidity then seem less like flaws or outdated modes than veils of his real aesthetic purpose.

I wish someone would translate some more Adalbert Stifter stories for me.  "Granite" was as good, or at least as Stifterian, as any I have found.

The title quotation (p. 18) is torn from its context, a bit.  That tongue is of a bell, not a storyteller.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Stevenson is second-rate. I don't know why you admire him so much.

Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov had been discussing, by letter, which English novels to include in VN's Cornell literature courses, with the results found in Nabokov's Lectures on Literature (1980).

Edmund Wilson:  Stevenson is second-rate.  I don't know why you admire him so much - though he has done some rather fine short stories.  I tried reading to Henry and Reuel a couple of summers ago one of the only books of Stevenson I had ever liked, The New Arabian Nights, but completely failed to interest them in it.  It surprised me to find that these stories were the thinnest kind of verbalizing and that the characters had not even a fairy-tale existence.  Sherlock Holmes, which we had just been reading and which was partly derived from The New Arabian Nights, seems a solid creation beside them.  I didn't like Treasure Island even as a child.

Vladimir Nabokov:  You approach Stevenson from the wrong side.  Of course Treasure Island is poor stuff.  The one masterpiece he wrote is the first-rate and permanent Jekyll and Hyde.*

I had read these letters long ago, and remembered VN's reply more clearly than EW's side.  Prof. Myers spurred me to revisit the exchange, and I find that I am vindicated, yes, vindicated.  "[S]ome rather fine short stories" - exactly, exactly.  With emphasis on rather and some.

And look, my judgment of the characters in "The Suicide Club" and "The Rajah Diamond" is just like Wilson's, although I find the "verbalizing" less thin, and, in fact, the point of the exercise.  Characterization is a lifelong struggle for Stevenson.

I'll defer on Treasure Island, at least for now.  I enjoyed it well enough, but I approach Stevenson from the wrong side.  Nabokov is searching for the best of the best, drawing a line that excludes all but the greatest masterpieces.  That is not where he really spent all of his reading time, nor do any of us.  By Nabokov's standards, I don't think I've read a first-rate piece of fiction for six weeks.**  Readers of Nabokov-the-critic should be careful with his (brilliant, infectious) rhetoric.  Wilson, to extend the metaphor, draws many lines, but thinner ones.

In the little Nikolai Gogol, Nabokov diagrams "The Overcoat" as "mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all had derived" (borrowed from the anxious bibliographing nicole).  To be clear, to Nabokov this is literary art at its highest level.  The crucial calculation, then, in judging a story, or book, or paragraph, is the precise ratio of lyrical waves to mumbling, weighted perhaps by exactly how fantastic the climax is.

Glancing at my Currently Reading pile, I note that every book in it - by George MacDonald, Adalbert Stifter, Charles Chesnutt, and a young Leo Tolstoy - is second rate, at best.  These books mumble plenty.  I've read enough of each one to know that they are worth reading, and probably re-reading, although I can't speak to the climaxes yet.

I am not at all sure that I have done justice to Stevenson's short fiction this week.  Yeah, most of what he wrote is second-rate, some worse, some better.  I should be so lucky as to be second-rate.  And I'm not tired of Stevenson, yet, not hardly.

*  These are from letters 209 and 210 of Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, ed. Simon Karlinsky, 2001. 

**  That piece of fiction was The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

He could nowhere discover what to do with a stolen diamond - the adventurous Robert Louis Stevenson

I want to emphasize that Robert Louis Stevenson was a professional writer, a hack, although he lived at some distance from New Grub Street.  A problem this creates for me is that he often wrote with co-authors, including his wife and stepson.  Every collection of Stevenson's stories that I have found omits everything tainted by other hands.  Are RLS's collaborations with Fanny Osborne Stevenson really of less value than his juvenilia?  I have doubts.  Anyway, when I claim to have read "all" of Stevenson's short fiction, there's a caveat.

A true professional, Stevenson matched the stories he wanted to tell with the stories people wanted to read.  His heroes were Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo.*  Stevenson wanted to be a popular writer as well as a good one.

As a result, he wrote what we, or some of us, now for some reason call genre fiction.  Ghost stories, murder stories, sentimental Christmas tales (see left, heh heh),** and adventure stories, lots of adventure stories. 

Funny, then, that some of his earliest stories are parodies of adventure fiction and detective fiction.  The seven linked stories of "The Suicide Club" and "The Rajah Diamond" (1878, also found in New Arabian Nights, 1882) hop from character to character and story to story, with plots propelled by wild coincidences and eavesdropping.  Behind everything is the Sherlock Holmes like Prince Florizel of Bohemia, assisted by Dr. Watson, make that Colonel Geraldine.  This Holmes has a Moriarty, too.

All of this is nine years before the first Sherlock Holmes novel, and as Doyle was an avowed fan of Stevenson, it is obvious that the New Arabian Nights stories were among the many progenitors of Holmes and Watson.  Yet it was hard for me to overcome the feeling that Stevenson was parodying Doyle, rather than Émile Gaboriau and his detective M. Lecoq:

On his way home Mr. Rolles purchased a work on precious stones and several of Gaboriau's novels. These last he eagerly skimmed until an advanced hour in the morning; but although they introduced him to many new ideas, he could nowhere discover what to do with a stolen diamond. He was annoyed, moreover, to find the information scattered amongst romantic story-telling, instead of soberly set forth after the manner of a manual; and he concluded that, even if the writer had thought much upon these subjects, he was totally lacking in educational method. For the character and attainments of Lecoq, however, he was unable to contain his admiration.

Well, it's all a little silly, but good fun.  My favorite little trick is the way each story, serialized, as one might guess, fails to end properly:

(At this point, contrary to all the canons of his art, our Arabian author breaks off the STORY OF THE YOUNG MAN IN HOLY ORDERS. I regret and condemn such practices; but I must follow my original, and refer the reader for the conclusion of Mr. Rolles' adventures to the next number of the cycle, the STORY OF THE HOUSE WITH THE GREEN BLINDS.)

And the next story, despite moving to a new, seemingly unrelated, character, does somehow clear up the loose ends.  Very clever.  Not terribly deep, and I'm afraid Florizel and Geraldine won't hook anyone like Holmes and Watson can, but an enjoyable way to watch a young writer mocking conventions while simultaneously learning to use them.

*  And George Meredith, a connection I do not yet understand.  Look at the construction of those sentences in that first quotation, though, those complex-compound sentences.  Is that it?

**  The cover of "The Body Snatcher" (1884) is borrowed from the valuable Robert Louis Stevenson Project.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

There are few people more given to repentance than poor Francis - Stevenson's story of François Villon

Thirteen years before "The Beach of Falesá," with no hint of the South Seas in the forecast, Robert Louis Stevenson was spending every minute he could in France, for which I cannot blame him.  His first two books are French travel books, and a number of his early stories have French settings.  If not for his health, or finances, he might have become England's greatest French writer.

My favorite French story, out of a number of good ones, is "A Lodging for the Night" (1877), which can be found in New Arabian Nights (1882).  It's an imagined episode from the life of François Villon, "student, poet, and housebreaker," as Stevenson calls him in the title of an essay on Villon's biography, published just a few months before the story.  Stevenson had Villon on the brain for a while.

The Villon of the story is twenty-five or so, not yet the author of The Testament.*  He does work on a "Ballade of Roast Fish" early in the story, just before he witnesses a pointless murder, is robbed, and finds himself freezing to death in a Paris blizzard.  This is not romantic Paris, but rather a Paris where people are attacked by wolves in winter.  Or, it is Romantic Paris, Hugo's Paris.  Here's Notre Dame:

If there were any belated birds in heaven, they saw the island like a large white patch, and the bridges like slim white spars, on the black ground of the river. High up overhead the snow settled among the tracery of the cathedral towers. Many a niche was drifted full; many a statue wore a long white bonnet on its grotesque or sainted head. The gargoyles had been transformed into great false noses, drooping towards the point. The crockets were like upright pillows swollen on one side.

The style is very typical of Stevenson.  The frame of the story is visible, and then it is all worked up, filled out, decorated, but imaginatively, thematically.  Villon is not out in the snow yet, with his own white bonnet, looking for a pillow.

"A Lodging for the Night" has three pieces, quite different: Villon pals around with his no good thieving buddies; Villon wanders frozen Paris, haunted by death, by cold or hanging; Villon finds shelter with a charitable old knight.  They debate the meaning of life.  Stevenson gives us Villon's philosophy of life, the poetry of thievery, which is not very poetic:

"You may still repent and change."

"I repent daily," said the poet. "There are few people more given to repentance than poor Francis. As for change, let somebody change my circumstances. A man must continue to eat, if it were only that he may continue to repent."

I'm not sure that Stevenson does not agree with the knight, not Villon.  He, and Villon, let the knight make his case:

You are attending to the little wants, and you have totally forgotten the great and only real ones, like a man who should be doctoring a toothache on the Judgment Day. For such things as honour and love and faith are not only nobler than food and drink, but indeed I think that we desire them more, and suffer more sharply for their absence.

Both men are stubborn; neither understands the other.  The reader, and Stevenson, have a chance of understanding both.

*  Is there a better translation than Galway Kinnell's, in The Poems of François Villon (1965/ 1977)?  I ask because it seems impossible.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

It would have sickened an honest horse to eat of - Stevenson's "The Beach of Falesá"

I think I'll start at the end.  Robert Louis Stevenson's last collection of stories was Island Night's Entertainments (1893).  It contains just three stories, all set in the South Seas.  "The Bottle Imp," a clever blend of Aladdin's lamp and a deal with the devil, might be Stevenson's most famous short piece.  "The Isle of Voices" is similar, with a sorcerer replacing the genie.  Both stories are nicely worked up, and follow their supernatural setups to logical conclusions.  Honestly, they don't seem that special to me.  Smart, imaginative, and professional - aren't those words of praise?  They're good stories.

I thought "The Beach of Falesá" was a lot more interesting, and something new for Stevenson.  In this long story (fifty pages or so), an experienced trader arrives at a new post in Polynesia and enters a duel to the death with a competing merchant.  The rules in Polynesia are not those at home, and the white outsiders can change some of the rules.  The Polynesians are both the objects of competition and self-interested players in their own right.  Stevenson is satirizing English economic imperialism, but only up to a point.  One of the traders is the hero of the story.  He's telling it.

The narrator, Wiltshire, his voice - that's the core of "The Beach of Falesá."  He speaks plainly, but with some first-rate metaphorical language, just enough to notice, but not so much as to render the voice false.  He's a cynic and a realist, a cold manipulator, yet just a bit of a sap.  He tells his story in an order that is logical for him, that is psychologically right - in order, but with digressions where they belong.

Wiltshire has just arrived on the island:

I had a glass or two on board, I was just off a long cruise, and the ground heaved under me like a ship’s deck.  The world was like all new painted; my foot went along to music; Falesá might have been Fiddler’s Green, if there is such a place, and more’s the pity if there isn’t!  It was good to foot the grass, to look aloft at the green mountains, to see the men with their green wreaths and the women in their bright dresses, red and blue.  On we went, in the strong sun and the cool shadow, liking both; and all the children in the town came trotting after with their shaven heads and their brown bodies, and raising a thin kind of a cheer in our wake, like crowing poultry.

“By the by,” says Case, “we must get you a wife.”

“That’s so,” said I, “I had forgotten.”  (Ch. I - even fairly short Stevenson stories frequently have chapters).

I think this covers a lot of what I see here.  We have an ordinary simile in the first line, and an original one at the end, the poultry-like children.  Wiltshire isn't afraid to look like a man of the world, and he does not apologize for the world that he finds himself in, however ugly.  He might resist a bit - "I had forgotten."

If I have any doubts about Wiltshire's voice, it's in those metaphors.  Sometimes, he's a bit too good.  Mostly, though, he sounds like this:

She was the worst cook I suppose God made; the things she set her hand to, it would have sickened an honest horse to eat of; yet I made my meal that day on Uma’s cookery, and can never call to mind to have been better pleased. (Ch. II)

Stevenson has Wiltshire skirt right up to a cliché without quite using it, and then improve it just enough - the "honest" horse.  The phrasing is conversational, too, which helps, such as making "the things she set her hand to" a separate clause, mimicking speech.

Stevenson's "own" voice, in his essays and travel books, sounds nothing like Wiltshire.  The stuffy bachelor doctors in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde sound nothing like this.  It's impressive.

I'm missing plenty, but I can't quite think of an earlier character quite like Stevenson's trader.  He reminds me, strongly, of later narrators in Kipling or Conrad, characters who live in worlds that are strange and dangerous, characters who are not literary men but are still going to tell their stories.  I don't think it's a matter of influence, since Kipling and Conrad were both writing their earliest fiction at almost exactly this time.  I suspect that all three writers were learning how to adapt English fiction to a new kind of character, a new kind of story, to strip away some of the rhetoric that just seemed too false out in the colonies.

I have not emphasized that "The Beach of Falesá" is an adventure story, a good one.  It ends with knives, guns, and explosions.  You know that movie cliché where someone is shot and you think they're killed, but it turns out they were just hit in the shoulder, which is apparently a minor gunshot wound?  That's here, so the device is at least 130 years old.  Maybe Stevenson invented it.  I doubt it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

His mind was thronged with answerable ideas and images - the short fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson

I want to spend the week looking at the short stories of Robert Louis Stevenson.  The best of them are, within some limits, as good as anyone's, as long as anyone is not named Chekhov, and we do not exaggerate how many are among the best. 

At times, reading through The Complete Short Stories,* I felt I was learning more about late 19th century English magazine writing than about Stevenson.  He was a professional, a craftsman working at a high level.  He disdained words like "genius," and I'm not sure that he was wrong.  At his level, though, professionalism, curiosity, and attention to detail gets a writer a long ways, perhaps even to genius.  

Stevenson's short fiction can be usefully divided by geography.  French, Scottish, South Seas - that covers almost everything, good or bad.  There are exceptions, such as the last story he wrote, "The Waif Woman" (1892), which is a mock Icelandic saga.  One might imagine Stevenson under a palm tree in Samoa, reading Grettir's Saga or what have you, thinking about Iceland.

"Markheim" (1885) is another exception, set in an antique shop in London.  Markheim murders the shop owner and is then tormented by the devil, perhaps real, perhaps simply his guilty conscience.  This is, by the way, a Christmas story, and not even Stevenson's least appropriate Christmas story.  I'm not sure the conception, the basic story, is anything too special.  These are special:

The dealer struggled like a hen, striking his temple on the shelf, and then tumbled on the floor in a heap.

The candle stood on the counter, its flame solemnly wagging in a draught; and by that inconsiderable movement, the whole room was filled with noiseless bustle and kept heaving like a sea: the tall shadows nodding, the gross blots of darkness swelling and dwindling as with respiration, the faces of the portraits and the china gods changing and wavering like images in water.

Or here, where the murderer, rummaging about for money, hears music next door:

Markheim gave ear to it smilingly, as he sorted out the keys; and his mind was thronged with answerable ideas and images; church-going children and the pealing of the high organ; children afield, bathers by the brookside, ramblers on the brambly common, kite-flyers in the windy and cloud-navigated sky; and then, at another cadence of the hymn, back again to church, and the somnolence of summer Sundays, and the high, genteel voice of the parson (which he smiled a little to recall), and the painted Jacobean tombs, and the dim lettering of the Ten Commandments in the chancel.

The second one ingeniously projects the murderers physical reaction onto the outside world. That last long sentence, with thoughts that actually invoke the devil, is an example of a barrier Stevenson hits repeatedly in his short fiction, especially in the later stories.  He comes right up to the edge of stream-of-consciousness.  He would use it if he had it, but he doesn't.  I don't think Stevenson was a formal innovator.  He did wonders with the tools of others.

*  I happen to have read and will refer to the two volume The Complete Short Stories: The Centenary Edition, ed. Ian Bell, Henry Holt, 1993.  But I don't see any special advantage over other editions, like this Modern Library collection.  A generous Selected Stories would be ideal, although only a few stories - some juvenilia, some fragments, and one irritating humor piece** - were not worth reading.

**  "Diogenes" (c. 1882), which features a surprising appearance by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  "I'm nothing if not local-coloury - the furniture in each of my books alone is worth the money."  I haven't read Lady Audley's Secret.  Is the furniture really that good?

Friday, February 12, 2010

The incomprehensible Paul Verlaine

Paul Verlaine's clarity has surprised me.  Compared to the esotericism of Gérard de Nerval or the wild lingusitic play of Tristan Corbière - I hope to write about him soon, if I can figure him out - Verlaine is straightforward.  I thought the French Symbolists were going to be sweat-on-the-brow difficult.  Some are, but some are not.  Verlaine is not.  Overall.  Let's be careful here.  This is what I mean:


Saint-Denis's a dirty stupid stretch of land.
Still, that's where one day I took my lady friend.
We were out of sorts, and bickering.
A flat sun plastered butter-rays
On a plain as dry as toast.
It wasn't long after the Siege.
Some flattened 'country houses'
Hadn't been rebuilt. Others looked like stage sets.
Scrawled on unexploded shells embedded in pilasters
Ran these words: 'Souvenir of the Disasters'.  (1884, tr. Martin Sorrell)

I'll remind myself that Verlaine's poem has a regular meter and rhymes .  But otherwise, this is pretty much the poem.  The flat sun buttering the toast-like plain is wonderful.  The engagement with history, with the 1870 Siege of Paris, is easy to grasp.  The explicit link between the lovers' quarrel and the destruction of Paris is unmysterious.  The poem itself becomes another souvenir of the disasters.  There is no shortage of meaning in the poem, in its substance and imagery, but it is not cryptic. 

Perhaps my two translators are protecting me from the obscure Verlaine.  I doubt it, but it's a Subject For Future Research.

I have been enjoying the incomprehensible Paul Verlaine in another format entirely, a group of song settings by Claude Debussy, as performed by Dawn Upshaw on a 1997 recording called Forgotten Songs: Dawn Upshaw Sings Debussy.  My understanding of spoken French is quite bad, but I can hardly understand a word of Verlaine in these songs, even while trying to read along.  I can comprehend the first line of "Fantoches" - the name "Scaramouche" stands out in French - but that's about it.  And then at the end of that song, she begins squawking like the nightingale in the poem, which is amusing.  So it does help to know what the song is about.

Ma femme suggests that I blame Debussy, not Upshaw or Verlaine.  She says that she can't understand the words either.  With the French poem in front of me, it becomes clear how Debussy breaks apart and twists individual words, and how little interest he has in Verlaine's meter.  His own idiosyncratic melodic and rhythmic concerns have priority. 

The songs, and Upshaw's singing, are beautiful, and I can recommend the recording - try to hear someone's version of "Mandoline," at least.  Debussy didn't help me much with Paul Verlaine.  Luckily, I don't think I needed too much help.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Here beneath the secret of these trees - Verlaine and Rimbaud in Belgium

Paul Verlaine is hard to grasp or pin down, I find, because of the variety of his work.  He made wild swerves from book to book.  Fêtes Galantes was preceded by a volume of pornographic poems and followed by a book of poems celebrating the joys of his upcoming marriage.  That marriage turned out to be, let's see, complicated.  So the book after that, Romances sans Paroles (1874) contains, among many other curiosities and wonders, a number of poems about how Verlaines would like to reconcile with his wife.  Some of the other poems are about his adventures in London and Belgium with his lover Arthur Rimbaud.  Thus the unlikelihood of a reconciliation.

Did I mention that Romances sans Paroles was published while Verlaine was in a Belgian prison, for having shot Rimbaud?  Verlaine is hard to pin down.

Having indulged in Belgium-bashing with Baudelaire and Brontë, I thought I would share a pro-Belgium poem of Verlaine's, a Belgian idyll from Romances sans Paroles:


Simple Frescos II

The path goes on and on
Beneath the sky, sacred
Because pallid.
You know, we'd feel so good
Here beneath the secret
Of these trees.

Some well-groomed gentlemen
Friends surely
Of the Royers-Collards,
Head towards the chateau.
I'd find it good
To be these old men.

On the white chateau
Ending sun declines.
Down one elevation;
Fields on every side.
Why can't our love hide
In there somewhere?

The literal translation is by Martin Sorrell.  The original has a regular five syllable line, and rhymes AABCCB.  Shapiro slips a CC in at the end there.

Verlaine has some fine anti-Belgian poems as well.  I mean, the guy spent eighteen months in Belgian prisons!  But the above poem is more typical, as is this one:

from Walcourt

Bricks, tiles... How sweet
Such cozy cover,
Charming retreat
For man and lover!

That's the poetical Norman Shapiro.  The French is, unfortunately for him, perfect, barely there:

Briques et tuiles,
Ô les charmants
Petits asiles
Pour les amants!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Two translators, two Paul Verlaines.

I have been reading two different translations of Paul Verlaine's poems.  They're oddly similar, and quite different.  Selected Poems, tr. Martin Sorrell, Oxford World's Classics, and One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine, tr. Norman Shapiro, University of Chicago Press.

Both books provide an overview of Verlaine's poems.  Verlaine published something like twenty books of poetry in thirty years.  No complete Verlaine exists in English, and neither translator thinks that such an edition is a high priority.  Plenty of bad Verlaine poems, it seems.  Neither editor includes a single example of Verlaine's forthrightly pornographic poems, although they both include some fairly smutty stuff, like the 1893 "And now, buttocks!":  "They're oval, almost, \ Almost round. Opal, \ Amber and pink tints" and so on.  That was Sorrell.

But both translators argue that previous collections are too hard on Verlaine's late poems, even if they only rescue one or two from any given book.  Shapiro includes handy little descriptions of each volume, along with increasingly dissolute portraits or drawings of Verlaine.  The biography is tied right up against the poetry.

Both books were, oddly, published in 1999.  Were the two men rivals?  Do they secretly hate each other?   I'll bet the simultaneity helped them get reviewed - both books could be covered in a single piece, like this one.

The translators operate on different principles, which is why I read both books.  Sorrell is more literal and more likely to abandon poetic form.  As a result his versions sound more Modernist.  Shapiro keeps the rhyme, always, and the form, as much as possible, but bends the sense of the poem any which way.  Neither, though, is dogmatic.  They're following guidelines, not rules, and both include facing-page French.  I liked both books, a lot.

I'm still in Fêtes Galantes (1869).  The last stanza of "Les Ingénus":

Evening would fall, the autumn day would draw
To its uncertain close: our belles would cling
Dreamingly to us, cooing, whispering
Lies that still set our souls trembling with awe.  (Shapiro)

Evening fell, autumnal, indeterminate.
The lovely girls in a dream on our arms
Murmured such empty words so low
That ever since we've trembled with delight.  (Sorrell)

One can reassemble the pieces.  Both translators have most of the pieces, although literal Sorrell somehow loses "our soul" ("notre âme") - the "we" seem to have a single soul.  That soul "tremble et s'étonne" - "trembles and is surprised,"  which is not quite English.  So Sorrell swerves one way, with a more playful, sexy choice ("delight"), while Shapiro tries a different, perhaps more spiritual tone ("awe").  Neither is exactly Verlaine; both are part of Verlaine.

So that's why I read both books.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

This one hour, now spun and gone - a lawn ornament saddens the Italian clowns

A bit more of Fêtes Galantes, the shortest poem from the two translations I read.

The Faun

An ancient terra cotta faun
Laughs on the green: sign, probably,
That something will rain woe upon
These moments of serenity

That led us here, and led us on,
You, me - nostalgic pilgrims, we -
To this one hour, now spun and gone
Midst tambourines' cacophony.

This is Norman Shapiro's version.  Martin Sorrell's version is a bit more literal but abandons rhyme and sound.  Shapiro not only rhymes but successfully mimics some of the internal assonances (although "Qui m'ont conduit et t'ont conduite" is an unmatchably lovely bit of French).  Plus, his version is a better English poem.

Without the surrounding poems in Fêtes Galantes, the reader would not know that Verlaine's poem is in the same Harlequin world as yesterday's "Fantoches."  Only the "turning flight of the sound of the tambourines" reminds us of the commedia dell'arte characters.  But the context lets us put the you and me, the melancholy pilgrims, in carnival costumes.  In the line of French up above, the adjective endings tell us that the "me" is male and the "you" female (that's right, yes?), a distinction lost in English.  So the French has a little more sex in it.

The laughing statue takes us back to Rome, or Greece, back to the pastoral poetry of Theocritus, perhaps.  Why is his laughter out of place, why does it sadden the poor shepherds after their hour of dancing and music and so on?  He reminds them of the passage of all things, I suppose.

One word in the French is a curiosity to me.  Shapiro has "Laughs on the green" for "Rit au centre des boulingrins."  My little dictionary does not contain "boulingrins," but a moment of puzzling revealed its meaning and gave me a little laugh.  At least, unlike "parking" and "week-end," the French adopted their own spelling for "bowling green."

Monday, February 8, 2010

Scaramouche and Pulchinella making evil plans together - Paul Verlaine's Fêtes Galantes

The poems in Paul Verlaine's Fêtes Galantes (1869) are about commedia dell'arte characters prancing in the forest, chasing each other, playing music, frolicking.  It's inspired by Watteau, I am told.  Sounds great, I know.  By "sounds great," I mean, "who cares."

I was trying to describe the book to ma femme, who knew all about it already.  Finally, she said:  "Yes, a great book can be about anything."  Even prancing Italian clowns.

Weird as Puppets

Scaramouche and Pulchinella
Making evil plans together
Wave their arms, moon-silhouettes.

But the excellent Bolognese
Doctor's picking some of these
Special herbs among the grass.

His daughter with the pretty eyes,
In the arbour, on the sly's
Looking - semi-naked - for

Her handsome Spanish buccaneer
Whose sad affliction she can hear
Well noted by a nightingale.

That's translated by Martin Sorrell in the Oxford World's Classics Selected Poems (1999).  In One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine (also 1999), Norman Shapiro has:


Polichinelle and his colleague
Sly Scaramouche, in some intrigue,
Dark-silhouetted, rave and rant.

Where did the moon go?  I have so many problems with both translations, and also like them both.  Verlaine himself begins:

Scaramouche et Pulcinella
Qu'un mauvais dessein rassembla
Gesticulent, noirs sur la lune.

Verlaine always rhymes - "lune" goes with "l'herbe brune," brown (or perhaps dry) grass, a short and simple word which both translators omit from their English.  Sorrell's nightingale is right, but it should not be "well not[ing]" the sailor's distress, but rather screaming its head off - "Clame la détresse à tue-tête."  Shapiro replaces the nightingale with a squakwing parrot.

These must be brutally hard to translate.  Reading the books together was immensely helpful, or so I hope.  I'm spending the week with Verlaine.  It's not all clowns and Spanish buccaneers.

The painting is Antoine Watteau's The Italian Comedians (c. 1720), owned by the National Gallery, but not on display.  So you can't go see it even if you trudge through the snow.

Friday, February 5, 2010

I see it, I deduce it - in which I am more complimentary to Doyle and Holmes

With "The Scandal in Bohemia" (1891), the first Sherlock Holmes short story, Arthur Conan Doyle instantly eliminates the worst parts of the two early Holmes novels, while retaining the best parts.

The version I have with me, in the 3rd edition of The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, is eighteen pages long.  Watson visits Holmes, and they do their little Holmes-Watson minuet (W: "Then, how do you know?"  H: "I see it, I deduce it.").  A client appears, and the mystery is established.  This is all fine, the usual stuff, but fine.  It fills about eight pages.

That's the solution, right there.  An eight page setup, nine pages of action, a one page denouement, with a juicy reward for the Holmesians, and we're done.  Doyle's not enough of a polisher for me to call the story elegant, exactly, but it is pretty efficient.  No, even better - it is efficient in the right places (the action, the minimal, trivial, mystery), but also lingers in the right places (the Watson-Holmes interactions).  This problem is not solved at all, but we can't have everything, except in all of the great books where we can.

All of this is well-known and obvious to anyone who has read any of these stories.  It was not well-known to me, in part because the diehard Holmesians are more interested in the various tics and props associated with Holmes than in the literary quality of Doyle's writing.  Many of them play an odd game in which Doyle does no writing at all. 

After finishing, barely, The Sign of Four, I was completely sick of Doyle and Holmes.  There was just too much bad writing.  I have been reading a lot of Robert Louis Stevenson, perhaps too much, and worrying that I have been wasting too much time with second-rate books.  And this is with a real craftsman!  To turn from Stevenson to those early Doyle novels was no help.  From the point of view of the Scottish Reading Challenge, if I'm all done with Holmes for now, I won't complain, although a fellow reader would be just the thing to jumpstart my enthusiasm.

I knew, though, that I was not being fair to Doyle or Holmes.  The stories, the better ones, had to be superior, and I assume that the much later Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) is good, too.  Thus, a rereading, after many years, of "A Scandal in Bohemia," and this more complimentary post.

Advice to new readers of Doyle:  Go for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes first, or a short story best-of (not a Complete collection).  Then Hound.  The more stories.  If you discover that you really like the Whole Holmes Thing, that you are or may be a Holmesian, go back to the beginning, see how Holmes and Watson met, witness the introduction of the Holmes props (the violin, the cocaine).  Skip the Utah chapters of A Study in Scarlet.  Don't do what I did.

Reading "A Scandal in Bohemia" in a big anthology created new problems.  The story immediately following is Ralph Ellison's "King of the Bingo Game."  Now that, I tell ya what, is a piece of writing.  And look, there's "The Dead."  There's Alice Munro, and Eudora Welty, and Chekhov.  More advice: do not read any of these writers immediately before or after Arthur Conan Doyle.  Ramp down, then ramp back up.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

There is nothing at all new to me in the latter part of your narrative - in which I complain about a Sherlock Holmes novel

Well, I found something in the Scottish Literature Challenge that really challenged me.  It was the last chapter of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four (1890), the worst chapter of a mediocre book.  I would pick up the book, read a page, and a great weariness would descend upon me, at least until I picked up a better book.  It's only sixteen (then fourteen, then twelve) small pages, I would tell myself.  Just finish it. 

The Sign of Four is the second appearance of Sherlock Holmes, who was introduced in the similarly bad A Study in Scarlet three years earlier.  Doyle still had only the barest idea of what he had created.  Both short novels are mishmashes of detective fiction (Poe, Wilkie Collins, Émile Gaboriau,* I'll bet), and adventure fiction in the vein of the H. Rider Haggard, a worse writer than Doyle, and Robert Louis Stevenson, a far better.  Both novels have enjoyable setups and bad payoffs.  Both end, more or less, with non-Holmesian backstory about the killers, terrible sections, dull and clichéd, dull because they're nothing but rearranged clichés.

The Sign of Four contains one really appalling character, "the unhallowed dwarf with his hideous face,"  his features "so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty," a "savage and distorted creature."  I have met this character before, in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," where he was an actual beast.  Doyle's novel is basically pilfered from The Moonstone and Poe, and I wish he had gone ahead and kept the orangutan.  Making the character a human, a native of the Andaman Islands, is much worse.

Nymeth, over at Things Mean a Lot, recently wrote a bit about the problems with The Sign of Four.   She points out that however sophisticated we might be, however well we understand that we're dealing with the received ideas and prejudices of a hundred years ago, Doyle's beast-man is an unavoidable part of the plot.  The reader can't - this reader couldn't - simply brush aside the ugliness.**  Although if this had been the only thing wrong with the novel, who knows, I might have been more forgiving.  This had nothing to do, for example, with how dull that last chapter was.

There's one good Holmesian joke there, actually.  After the villain goes on and on and on with his life story - "To begin, the earth cooled" - Holmes says "There is nothing at all new to me in the latter part of your narrative, except that you brought your own rope."  Hey, that's how I felt! 

Now, the first two novels do contain the not-so-minor achievement of inventing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  This is a long way from nothing, and the interaction between the characters is often pretty good.  And I am well aware that the first two novels are not representative Holmes.  Tomorrow, some better Holmes, and better Doyle.

I should note, for Challenge bookkeeping purposes, that I am reading The Sign of Four, in some sense, along with A. K. Palmer.  So that's, along with Boswell, two for the Challenge.  All right!

*  Anyone read Gaboriau?  How are those? 

** Note that here I am dragging people into the Scottish Reading Challenge whether they want to participate or not.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

It was wonderful how well time passed in a remote castle, and in dreary weather.

I've neglected the Scottishness of Boswell and Johnson's visit to Scotland.  The point of the trip was, after all, to see Scotland, romantic Scotland - clans and storms and two-handed swords and the like.

They visited at an interesting time, when parts of the Highlands were emptying out because of mass emigration to America, and when the English laws meant to prevent a repeat of the 1745 Jacobite uprising* had really done their job.  The political and military power of the Highlander chiefs had been destroyed, the modern world of laws and trade had penetrated the farthest Scottish outposts, and the old way of life was dying.  Johnson wanted to see feudal Scotland, but he only got a glimpse.  It was nearly gone.

But they did stay in Dunvegan Castle (see the post's title, from Boswell, 17th September), and met Flora MacDonald, one of the rescuers of Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Johnson in fact slept in the same bed as the Young Pretender.  They listened to Gaelic poetry, heard traditional songs, and watched traditional dances.  Actually, the corpulent Johnson watched - Boswell danced.

Johnson was famous for his endless curiosity.  He asked about everything - how shoes were manufactured, whether islands had rats or rabbits, why Scotland had so few trees (sort of a running joke with Johnson), how oat cakes were made.  This is just before his praise of Scottish breakfasts, which "must be confessed to excel us."  Unfortunately, "[t]hey pollute the tea-table by plates piled with large slices of cheshire cheese, which mingles its less graceful odours with the fragrance of the tea."

Plus, the travelers visited caves and ruined churches and Celtic stone circles and all of the stuff that any of us would visit.  They were tourists.  I've never been to Scotland, except in books.  Johnson's and Boswell's books are good ways - the only ways - to visit a part of Scotland that has vanished.

*  See Waverley (1814) for the details.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My mind was filled with many ideas of London, which relieved me from care.

The Life of Johnson (1791) is such a big brick of a book.  Unless the reader is lucky enough to find the postern unlocked, long books, really long books, require strategies and schedules and siege tools and, sometimes, explosives.  I say this as someone who has read Clarissa and Gibbon and Vasari and War and Peace, and who has been eying The Tale of Genji.  It's not just a matter of time.  I understand that.

One reason Boswell's The Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides (1885) is so useful is that it is a secret passage into The Life of Johnson.  Actually, as it stands now, it is a section of The Life.  Biographer Boswell takes Johnson's life up to August 1773 and then refers readers to the earlier book, which they all would have read anyways.  After a testimonial or two about how very, very good that book is, we find Johnson back in London, "ready to begin a new journey" (letter of Nov. 27, 1773).

So we see why I so strongly urge readers new to Boswell, or to Johnson, to read the Hebrides journal first.  It is not an annex to the bigger book, but an essential piece.  Technically, it is written very much in the manner of The Life.  Boswell requires several hundred pages to bring Johnson's life up to the crucial date of May 16, 1763, when Boswell met Johnson:  "I shall mark what I remember of the conversation."  He continues the practice, every chance he gets, for the next twenty years.  The Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides is the most concentrated period, ninety-four days in a row.  The reader who finds Johnson too platitudinous or Boswell too toadying - well, I don't know what to tell him.  No, I do - stay away from The Life of Johnson.  For the reader who finds Boswell and Johnson genial, there are thousands of pages more.

Many thousands.  mel u has called his reading of the complete set of Bowell's journals one of the great reading experiences of his life.  I know what he means.  I sometimes struggled, after finishing a volume, to not immediately start the next one.  The whole thing now reads like an impossible modern novel.  The central character, so to speak, is a brilliant creation, so to speak.  Boswell is a high-spirited depressive, a vain man who is not afraid to look ridiculous, alternately ambitious and lazy, a genuinely loving bad husband.  Wanting celebrity himself, he spends his life collecting celebrities.  Bizarrely, completely improbably, this results in one of the monuments of English literature, and, in the journals, an additional shelf of worthwhile books. 

The first journal, the London Journal, is fortunately the best one.  It's a young-man-in-the-city classic (the post's title is from Dec. 1, 1762).  Free from his father, free from his studies, Boswell goes to the theater, dines, chases celebrities, chases a job, and chases women.  The Sex Scene (what? Jan. 12, 1763) is hilarious.  "The description is faint [not that faint!]; but I surely may be styled a Man of Pleasure."

It was here, in the London Journal, that I first met Boswell.- Johnson I already knew.  It seems odd, but since then I have read maybe three times as many pages of Boswell than of Johnson, many of them admittedly about Johnson.  But still. 

Monday, February 1, 2010

Boswell and Johnson for the non-Boswellian and non-Johnsonian

I could not have asked for a better first entry to the Scottish Literature Challenge than this post on James Boswell's The Journal of the Tour to the Hebrides (1785) by mel u at The Readling Life.  His post fills in a lot of the background of Boswell and Samuel Johnson's travels through Scotland and the Hebrides.  It reminded me that my recent reading of the book, like his, was a little different than that of many readers.

Mel and I both read the books as longtime friends of Boswell, and I do not simply mean that we were both rereading.  I'll start speaking just for myself here.  When I first read Johnson's book, I had already made my way through hundreds of pages of Johnson (the Oxford Major Works), plus a half dozen volumes of Boswell's journals, which include many detailed recollections of Johnson.  Johnson's voice and personality and quirks were well known to me.  Boswell's, too.

A reader approaching Boswell without this background - for which there is no need! - may be surprised at what he finds.  In this book about travelling in the Hebrides, why, exactly, is there so much discussion of London stage-acting, or the quoibles of Oliver Goldsmith, or Dr. Johnson's opinions about a book of sermons?

Johnson's account of the trip, Journey to the Western Islands (1775), is a more typical 18th century travel book.  He intersperses the chronological journey with historical and moral observations.  Although I think the book is a first-rate way to encounter Johnson's writing, the book is not really about him.  He is contributing to our knowledge of the world and our understanding of the way we live through the details of the lives of the Hebrideans, the materials from which their spoons are made and the price they get for the kelp they gather. 

A younger Boswell had written a travel book of his own, the Account of Corsica; The Journal of a Tour of that Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli (1768), which made him mildly famous.  I have read part of this book - the good part, I am tempted to say, the part after the semi-colon in that odd title, the modern part, the part that is not about Corsica at all, but about Boswell.  Dr. Johnson thought so, too:  "Your History is like other histories, but your Journal is in a very high degree curious and delightful."*

By 1773, the time of the Hebrides trip, Boswell better understood his true gifts.  "Sir, you have but two topicks, yourself and me.  I am sick of both,"**  Johnson once groused.  The Hebrides journals has three topics, but the Hebrides are perhaps the least important.  The book is Boswell's first publication of what he called "Johnsoniana."

Marieke at The Lady Fern has said that she would like to read Boswell soon.  I hope she does.  She has been to many of the islands in the books.  She may or may not be so interested in the Johnsoniana.  But that makes me all the more interested in what she, or other readers, think of the travel portions of these old travel books.

A commenter at The Reading Life pointed out these barely believable National Geographic photos of the Hebrides, by photographer Jim Richardson.  I should mention that many of the photos are of the Outer Hebrides, so are not in Johnson's or Boswell's books.

Life of Johnson, September 9, 1769.

**  Life of Johnson, May 1776.