Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Strawberry wine and tarry bears - Sergei Aksakov's autobiography

With obscure writers, I have to resist the temptation to write, or, really, paraphrase, an encyclopedia entry.  Mostly I resist.  If you can read this, you have access to the internet, and can look things up.  Unless someone printed it out for you to read.  Or you saved it to a file so you could read it on the airplane, or at the laundromat, although those probably have wifi now.  Or perhaps – I seem to have lost my train of thought.

Encyclopedias.  Sergei Aksakov is not an obscure Russian writer, in Russian, but he’s an obscure writer in English, so maybe some encyclopedizing is in order.

He is now read for his three short volumes of semi-fictionalized memoirs.  They are available in Oxford World’s Classics editions, all translated by J. D. Duff, a great champion of Aksakov.  Duff’s English titles are:

A Russian Gentleman (1856)
Years of Childhood (1858)
A Russian Schoolboy (1856)

I’ve read the first, which is about Aksakov’s grandfather and parents, and ends with Aksakov’s birth, and I am in the middle of the second, which is a detailed account of his life from ages five to nine.  Then the poor fellow is sent off to school; that’s the third book, which I didn’t get to.  I doubt the order of reading matters much – note the odd order of publication.

Aksakov was sixty-five when the first book was published, which means his memoirs are about 18th century Russia.  He died in 1859, but for a few years was considered Russia’s greatest living writer.  Leo Tolstoy had recently published the first two volumes of his own childhood memoirs; he was twenty-eight in 1856.  Fyodor Dostoevsky was in exile in Siberia, or perhaps Kazakhstan.

Aksakov's memoirs are masterpieces, surprising masterpieces.  I wanted to read them for, I guess, background, as useful accounts of Russian life, to fill in my picture of the country life depicted in Fathers and Sons and Anna Karenina.  Aksakov’s books certainly serve that purpose, but they are far more richly written than I had expected.  I had planned to have all three books read by this point, but I had to slow down.  I wanted to slow down.

As the hosts had not thought of procuring sparkling wine from Ufa, the health of the bride and bridegroom was drunk in strawberry wine, three years old and as thick as oil, which diffused about the room the delicious perfume of the wild strawberry.  Mazan, with long boots smelling of tar on his feet, and wearing a long coat which made him look like a bear dressed up in sacking, handed round the loving-cup; it was ornamented with a white pattern and had a dark-blue spiral inside its glass stalk.  When the young pair had to return thanks, [the bride] was not much pleased to drink from the cup which had just left Karataev’s greasy lips, but she made no wry faces.  (A Russian Gentleman, 122)

Sergei Aksakov is writing about an event seventy or more years in the past, before his own birth.  He likely saw the cup himself, and heard the stories of the bride, his mother - maybe the tarry bear is his mother’s recollection, but I doubt it.  This is a powerfully imagined scene.  It is characteristic of Aksakov.

The rest of the week, more of this.  Please see His Futile Preoccupations for more Aksakov encyclopedism.  Welcome to visitors from the Classics Circuit!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A parsonage with roses, and church bells, and nice old women bobbing in the lanes - who wrote that? Who wrote The Ebb-Tide?

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Ebb-Tide with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne.  Stevenson was forty-four, and would soon die; Osbourne was twenty-six.  The Ebb-Tide was the pair’s third novel, and Stevenson’s last completed book

I was poking around in a university library, curious about what scholars were doing with Stevenson.  What was hot, if anything.  Stevenson’s Polynesian books are hot, it seems, or at least lukewarm, as part of the strong current interest in colonial literature.  That’s how I was led to The Ebb-Tide, a novel with minimal previous reputation.  Didn’t hurt that the book is only 130 pages in the Edinburgh edition.

The Ebb-Tide turned out to be so good, comparable to Stevenson’s Scottish novels, that I wonder why it is not better known.  Does the co-authorship hurt it?  Co-writing is a sign of hackwork, right?  A violation of the Romantic principle of the autonomy of the artist or some such thing?  Stevenson was a great writer, however narrowly, while Osbourne was a non-entity.  The other Stevenson and Osbourne novels, The Wrong Box (1889) and The Wrecker (1892), seem to have retained their low stature, for now, as has the book Stevenson co-wrote with his wife, Fanny.

The co-authorship may introduce all sorts of complications to the usual tools of analysis.  Students of early modern literature, though, have to be used to this by now.  The Age of Shakespeare features the only “name” team in the English canon, Beaumont and Fletcher, and the detailed linguistic analysis of every scrap of Elizabethan dramatic writing suggests that co-writing was as common as not.  Who knows what hefty chunk of the lines in my fat volume of Shakespeare are by someone else. 

Still, confronted with this:

He aspired after the realisation of these dreams, like a horse nickering for water; the lust of them burned in his inside. (119)

or this:

Upon the Sunday each brought forth his separate Bible - for they were all men of alien speech even to each other, and Sally Day communicated with his mates in English only, each read or made believe to read his chapter, Uncle Ned with spectacles on his nose; and they would all join together in the singing of missionary hymns. (48)

I have a pretty good idea who wrote those, and ‘tweren’t  no one named Lloyd.  That last one especially, that’s pure Stevenson, not just in the clear but unfussy details, or the keen wit of “made believe,” but the flow of ideas in the clauses in the complex sentence.  By the end of his short life, Stevenson’s instrument was supple.

How about a sample of Kurtz, I mean, Attwater:

'What brought you here to the South Seas?' he asked presently.

'Many things,' said Attwater.  'Youth, curiosity, romance, the love of the sea, and (it will surprise you to hear) an interest in missions.  That has a good deal declined, which will surprise you less.  They go the wrong way to work; they are too parsonish, too much of the old wife, and even the old apple wife.  Clothes, clothes, are their idea; but clothes are not Christianity, any more than they are the sun in heaven, or could take the place of it!  They think a parsonage with roses, and church bells, and nice old women bobbing in the lanes, are part and parcel of religion.  But religion is a savage thing, like the universe it illuminates; savage, cold, and bare, but infinitely strong.'

And say these are somehow from the pen of Lloyd Osbourne.  What do I care?  I can still read the book in front of me.

Oddly, the New York Times Book Review just featured another Stevenson and Osbourne collaboration, The Wrecker, on the grounds that it was the favorite Stevenson novel of Jorge Luis Borges.  Note that Rivka Galchen does not even mention Lloyd Osbourne’s name, which is one way to deal with the problem.  Also note the hilarious, preposterous goo of the last paragraph, which Borges seems to bring out in a lot of people; I’ve been guilty of it myself.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Throughout the island world of the Pacific, scattered men of many European races and from almost every grade of society carry activity and disseminate disease - reading too much R. L. Stevenson

Why read sixteen books by Robert Louis Stevenson?  I ask this, because I have done so, more or less in the last six months.  Are there sixteen books worth reading?

No, not really.  I have read too much.  Later this year I’ll do a Stevenson omnibus and sort him out a bit.  Preview: the second-best thing he ever wrote is buried in one of those books that is not (otherwise) worth reading.

If I had not read too many Stevenson books, I would never have gotten near The Ebb-Tide (1894), a short novel about Englishmen on the bum (or “on the beach”) in colonial Polynesia that turns out to be intelligent, exciting, complex, intense, and on like that.  It’s excellent, even aside from its most shocking feature.

The three layabouts luck into a ship.  The cargo turns out to be a little complicated.  They stumble upon an unknown atoll, full of pearls, that is ruled by Kurtz.  You know, Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, which was published five years later.

Attwater is not exactly Kurtz, obviously.  He is openly religious (“a fatalist”), a missionary turned pearl-fisher.  He is not dying, although his employees or slaves are, from smallpox.  His empire is a lot smaller than Kurtz’s swath of the Congo jungle.  But the similarities are obvious – the larger than life tyrant who governs through some combination of magnetism and violence.  As with “The Beach at Falesá,” The Ebb-Tide shares some similarities of voice with Conrad, even if Stevenson’s purpose is not so close to Conrad.

I don’t want to put too much on the Conrad connection, although I have no doubt that Conrad knew Stevenson’s Polynesian stories, including this one (and please compare Stevenson’s anarchist bomber in The Dynamiter (1885) with The Secret Agent (1907)), it hardly matters.  Petty tyrants like Kurtz and Attwater and “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888) presumably established their little fiefs all over the colonial world, and the symbolic and narrative benefits of exaggerating their power would have been obvious to any decent writer.  While reading, I had to actively ignore the parallels, because The Ebb-Tide, although hardly as powerful or thematically rich as Heart of Darkness, is excellent in its own right.  A sample, a first glimpse of Attwater’s eerie, uninhabited empire:

The place had the indescribable but unmistakable appearance of being in commission; yet there breathed from it a sense of desertion that was almost poignant, no human figure was to be observed going to and fro about the houses, and there was no sound of human industry or enjoyment. Only, on the top of the beach and hard by the flagstaff, a woman of exorbitant stature and as white as snow was to be seen beckoning with uplifted arm. The second glance identified her as a piece of naval sculpture, the figure-head of a ship that had long hovered and plunged into so many running billows, and was now brought ashore to be the ensign and presiding genius of that empty town. (70)

Besides some clear symbolic functioning, that figure-head is also a nod by Stevenson to his difficulty creating women characters.  The Ebb-Tide is another example of his specialty, the novel without women.

I’ve been cheating a bit.  The Ebb-Tide was not written by Robert Louis Stevenson, but by “Robert Louis Stevenson & Lloyd Osbourne,” a complication I want to touch on tomorrow.

I read the Edinburgh University Press edition of the novel, eds. Peter Hinchcliffe and Catherine Kerrigan, 1995.  The title of this post is the first sentence of the novel.

Friday, June 25, 2010

My absurd Margaret Oliphant reading list

Let's say that I, newly converted to the pleasures of Margaret Oliphant, wanted to put together an Oliphant reading list.  What do the People Who Have Read Oliphant think I should read?

The Doctor's Family and Other Stories (1861), so that’s one down
Salem Chapel (1863)
The Perpetual Curate (1864)
Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
Phoebe Junior (1876)  - these are all Carlingford novels.
Hester (1883)
The Beleaguered City and Other Stories (1880) – ghost stories
The Autobiography (1899), posthumous.

Only Miss Marjoribanks (Penguin), Hester (Oxford), and Phoebe Junior and The Autobiography (both Broadview) seem to be in print now. So that’s one snapshot of the Oliphant canon.  Time to get reading.

Hang on a minute.  I’ve gone from not really being sure I should read Oliphant at all to eight books, five of which are fat three-volume novels.  Can this possibly be right?

My copy of Treasure Island, an Oxford World’s Classics edition from the early 1990s, has a page in the back listing Oxford’s then-current offering of Anthony Trollope books.  They had thirty (30) Trollopes in print.  This is distinct from those attractive orange paperbacks Penguin was publishing at the same time, a set of fifty-three (53!) Trollope books.  Can there possibly be thirty good Trollope books, thirty still worth reading?

The standard Trollope list includes the six Barsetshire novels, the six Palliser novels, He Knew He Was Right, The Way We Live Now, maybe Orley Farm, and possibly An Autobiography.  So the pared-down Trollope is sixteen books.  I’ve read the Barsetshire set, and an abridgement of the travel book North America (historical interest: high, literary interest: low), which means if I read them all, and I’d like to, I’m up to seventeen books by Anthony Trollope.  And still out there: Cousin Henry and Is He Popenjoy? and Mr. Scarborough's Family ("A masterpiece of legal fiction," the undiscriminating back of the Oxford paperback informs me).

I have read seventeen books by how many writers?  Almost none.  Two, I think: William Faulkner and Vladimir Nabokov.  Close: Richardson (Clarissa counts as nine books, right?), Goethe, Balzac, Dickens, Calvino, John Banville, and I should say that for some of these writers, I have read too much, books that are at best marginal, and occasionally pretty bad.  My new addition to the list is Robert Louis Stevenson, sixteen or so books in the last six months, which in terms of page count probably amounts to a third of those seventeen Trollope books.

Even my ”eight book” list, which might someday include Margaret Oliphant, is quite short, and puzzling.  Why on earth have I read eight books by A. N. Wilson?  Why have I read only eight books by Penelope Fitzgerald?  I am probably forgetting some childhood writers – I seem to have read eight novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, and I would not mind rereading some of them.  The Antiquary was my seventh Walter Scott novel.  Seven by Jane Austen, John Galt, Herman Melville, Thomas Pynchon.  What should my highest priority be: my eighth Trollope book, my second Oliphant, my thirty-second Balzac nouvelle?  Or Middlemarch (Eliot #4) and The Portrait of a Lady (James # 2 or 3) and The Magic Mountain (Mann #2), genuinely important books, and, very likely, better books, that I haven’t read? 

I don’t normally think about books quite in this ludicrous way.  Making the Oliphant reading list emphasized the issue.  The horrifying truth is, those eight Oliphant books, at least, are probably all worth reading.  They are, I presume, well written, contain genuine insights about human behavior, have funny moments, and are instructive about their time and place.  Same with those thirty Trollope books.  I don’t expect to find the equivalent of Anna Karenina or Bleak House (both of which, to add another priority, I should read for the third time) among them.  But, give me enough years, and I bet I’ll read 'em.  Not the thirty Trollopes – I mean the sixteen.  And not – well, that’s enough of this.

Next week, a reason or two to keep reading, let’s say, too much Robert Louis Stevenson.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Nothing in the least like her had ever yet appeared before Dr Rider’s eyes - The Doctor's Family and Oliphant's Carlingford

Margaret Oliphant’s first three Carlingford stories – The Executor, The Rector, and The Doctor’s Family, all published in 1861 – are more interesting as a group than separately.  I am surprised how few characters she needed to fill the town.  Compare Carlingford to the Hungarian town in Dezső Kosztolányi’s Skylark, crammed with folks.  Carlingford in more like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, in which the town without men turns out to not have more than a half dozen women, either, as long as we’re talking about a narrow class.

Who does Oliphant need to tell three stories about Carlingford?  The prosperous Dr. Marjoribanks and his still barely marriageable daughter Miss Marjoribanks, who will return in Miss Marjoribanks (1866).  The Wodehouse family, who we met in The Rector, with two daughters.  One of them may or may not marry the perpetual curate:

Ah me! And if he was to be perpetual curate, and none of his great friends thought upon him, or had preferment to bestow, how do you suppose he could ever, ever marry Lucy Wodehouse, if they were to wait a hundred years? (“The Rector,” p. 38)

All of which is presumably resolved in The Perpetual Curate (1864).  In these first stories, Oliphant was apparently preparing for a shelf of novels.

The Doctor’s Family stars a doctor with whom Oliphant spent a few pages in The Executor.  In that story, he botched a chance at a good marriage, so here he gets to try again.  Since we last saw him, his useless brother Fred has moved in with him.  The brother, also, nominally, a doctor, smokes, and sits, and smokes some more.  A story about the conflict between the two brothers, one having given up on life, the other not exactly a ray of sunshine but still active, would be good enough, yes?  But then the doctor comes home to find two young women in his house:

She was not only slender, but thin, dark, eager, impetuous, with blazing black eyes and red lips, and nothing else notable about her.  So he thought, gazing fascinated, yet not altogether attracted - scarcely sure that he was not repelled – unable, however, to withdraw his eyes from that hurried, eager little figure.  Nothing in the least like her had ever yet appeared before Dr Rider’s eyes. (75)

Who are these women?

There was a momentary pause; the two women exchanged looks.  "I told you so," cried the eager little spokeswoman.  "He never has let his friends know; he was afraid of that.  I told you how it was.  This," she continued, with a little tragic air, stretching out her arm to her sister, and facing the doctor -- "this is Mrs Frederick Rider, or rather Mrs Rider, I should say, as he is the eldest of the family!  Now will you please to tell us where he is?"

The doctor made no immediate answer.  He gazed past the speaker to the faded woman behind, and exclaimed, with a kind of groan, "Fred's wife!" (76)

Throw in three children, about whom the doctor knew nothing.  Now, this is the doctor’s family, and plenty of activity for a 140 page domestic novel.  Oliphant’s best insights come from two sources: the perverse psychology of useless people, and the even more perverse psychology of useful people.

I’m not sure that The Doctor’s Family has a single scene as good as the Rector’s crisis with the dying woman, although there’s another death scene that comes close.  Still, this short novel is my favorite of the Oliphant I’ve read.  She has a chance to stretch out her use of the town, but without needing any of the senseless plot mechanics Penelope Fitzgerald found in the longer Carlingford novels.

Recommended, easily, to anyone who enjoys Trollope or Gaskell or perhaps Jane Austen.  The more I read bloggers on Austen, the less sure I am of what they’re getting from her.  But that’s a topic for another day, or never.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Something mounted to her head like the fumes of wine - Margaret Oliphant, anti-feminist

I’ll slip away from Carlingford today.  Fay of Historical / Present has been filling me in on the hostility of some early feminist critics towards Margaret Oliphant.  It’s all sort of hilarious.  Oliphant’s feminist credentials were not in order.  She did not support women’s suffrage consistently and was shocked by Jude the Obscure and wore silk.*

This sort of thing is highly useful, because it gives later scholars something to do.  By using the advanced critical technique of Actually Reading Oliphant’s Work, or AROW, scholars have discovered that Oliphant might have had something interesting to say about women, and might havedone so in aesthetically interesting ways.  Although I am not a scholar, and risk misapplying the AROW technique, I discovered much the same thing.

Rohan Maitzen recommended I read the Oliphant short story “A Story of a Wedding Tour”**.  A pretty orphan, “young , and shy, and strange,” trained to be a governess, is lucky enough to attract a wealthy husband.  Or maybe, she discovers on her French honeymoon, not all that lucky.  Accidentally separated from her husband due to confusion over a train schedule, she is surprised at her sense of relief, or happiness, or even bliss. And then:

She spread them all out, and counted them from right to left, and again from left to right.  Nine ten-pound notes, twelve and a-half French napoleons – or louis, as people call them nowadays – making a hundred pounds.  A hundred pounds is a big sum in the eyes of a girl.  It may not be much to you and me, who knows that it means only ten time ten pounds, and that ten pounds goes like the wind as soon as you begin to spend it.  But to Janey!  Why, she could live upon a hundred pounds for – certainly for two years; for two long delightful years, with nobody to trouble her, nobody to scold, nobody to interfere.  Something mounted to her head like the fumes of wine. (431)

I’ve omitted, so far, how explicit the story is about sex, about the husband’s lust and Janey’s repulsion, and the consequences of sex.  Janey runs off, finds a hiding place in a Mediterranean French town, bears and raises her son, and lives.  Anything here a feminist critic might find interesting?

How about an Amateur Reader?  To return to the passage about the money:  the doubled counting is a sharp touch, just how a sensible woman like Janey would confirm this unbelievable change.  The “fumes of wine” invoke the honeymoon, even if most of the wine was imbibed by her husband.  The mock world-weariness of the authorial intrusion is funny, the "you and me" especially.

With the help of AROW, the pleasures and insights of Margaret Oliphant seem considerable.

I read “A Story of a Wedding Tour” in Nineteenth-century Short Stories by Women: A Routledge Anthology, ed. Harriet Devine Jump, Routledge, 1998.

* See the suitably irritated Elizabeth Langland, “Women’s writing and the domestic sphere,” in Women and Literature in Britain 1800-1900, ed. Joanne Shattock, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 137.

** I’m not sure of the date of publication. Late 19th century, I think, long after the Carlingford books.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

If there is anything I can do, if I can be of any use? - Margaret Oliphant and The Rector

Margaret Oliphant’s The Executor was published in Blackwood’s Magazine in May 1861.  I don’t know if it was her plan, but the story became the first of the Chronicles of Carlingford.  Did the glimpses of so many characters suggest that she continue with their stories, or was she already setting up her future work?  Regardless, the concept of a series of stories set in the same town, with recurring characters, perhaps borrowed from Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles (three novels and part of the fourth had appeared by this point), seems to have pushed Oliphant in some way.  How would I know, since I ain’t read ‘em, but Oliphant enthusiasts don’t seem to put much value on anything she wrote before the Carlingford stories.  And she improved in some ways even in 1861, as she proceeded to The Rector and the longer The Doctor’s Family.

Penelope Fitzgerald, in the essay that accompanies the Virago edition of The Rector, spends her time on the best scene in the story, although she makes a few errors or emendations, all of which are improvements, or at least make Oliphant’s story more like a Penelope Fitzgerald story.  Still.  Here it is.

The old Rector was a popular evangelical minister.  The new Rector is High Church, nervous and cold, a refugee from Oxford, known for “[h]is treatise on the Greek verb, and his new edition of Sophocles.”  He discovers that he is a bad minister, unable to fulfill his ordinary duties.  The crisis comes when he almost accidentally finds himself in the room of a dying woman who is desperate for spiritual comfort.  The Rector "had not his prayer book – he was not prepared."  He suggests the woman call a doctor; he counsels patience.  "You are very ill, but not so ill – I suppose."

The sick woman had turned to the wall, and closed her eyes in dismay and disappointment – evidently she had ceased to expect anything from him.

‘If there is anything I can do,’ said poor Mr Proctor, ‘I am afraid I have spoken hastily. I meant to try to calm her mind a little; if I can be of any use?’

‘Ah, maybe I’m hasty,’ said the dying woman, turning round again with a sudden effort – ‘but, oh, to speak to me of having time when I’ve one foot in the grave already!’

‘Not so bad as that – not so bad as that,’ said the Rector, soothingly.

‘But I tell you it is as bad as that,’ she cried, with the brief blaze of anger common to great weakness. (55-6)

And it is.  The perpetual curate, a true minister, and future protagonist of The Perpetual Curate (1864), arrives and does what a priest ought to do.  The Rector is, he discovers, a worse man than he had ever known.  Oliphant cleans up the mess and sends him back to Oxford, accompanied by his disappointment in himself, his “secret of discontent.”

It’s like Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff or something. Pretty sharp.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Margaret Oliphant wins a convert

All right, all right.  My resistance is broken.  Penelope Fitzgerald was right.  Margaret Oliphant was a good writer.  Exactly how good is the question I can’t quite escape, but I’m going to set that aside, since I’ve now read merely one (plus two stories) of her “nearly a hundred” novels.  The short novel, The Doctor’s Family, and the stories, The Executor and The Rector, all published in 1861, are good.

Maybe I have read three novels.  The Executor and The Rector are each around thirty pages long, with four chapters.  They feel more like tiny novels than short stories.  What do I mean?  Chapter I begins

‘The woman was certainly mad,’ said John Brown.

We find ourselves in a parlor full of mourners, apparently at the reading of a will.  An older woman in “new mourning, poor soul,” is devastated, since, as her daughter says “we thought we were to have it.”  The deceased’s servant, “a tall woman, thin and dry,” is blamed.  And so on.

What impresses me here is the parsimony of information, the way Oliphant gives us nothing more than what is necessary.  We have inferred that John Brown is an attorney before the fact is mentioned on page 3, and that the document is a will before it is identified as such on page 4.  Oliphant is willing to leave the reader just a little off balance.  At the end of the chapter, pages 8 and 9, she finally tells us exactly what is in the will, but not until then.  It’s all very clever, skillful.  At this point, the editor of the 1986 Oxford World’s Classics edition (The Doctor's Family and Other Stories) tells me, Oliphant "had already written over twenty [!] novels, none of them especially good" (ix). She had clearly learned something along the way.

The second chapter is even more interesting.  We spend a few pages with the poor relatives, then a bit with the old servant, then we move to the house of a gloomy young doctor (protagonist, a few months later, of The Doctor’s Family), and finally spend three pages with the attorney.  When I said The Executor feels like a miniature novel, this is what I meant, time spent in the heads of a number of characters, major or minor, and a slice of the town of Carlingford made visible, however briefly.

The story reminds me of Anthony Trollope, of The Warden (1855), in that the real action lies in a professional crisis of conscience that is invisible to outsiders and poorly understood by the central figure (Trollope’s warden, Oliphant’s attorney) himself, but is no less real for that.  Oliphant’s art, like Trollope’s, seems to lie in these small insights teased out from small incidents, some of which turn out to be not so small.  Her prose resembles Trollope’s as well – it’s always good enough, but rarely too much better.  The spine seldom shivers.  Let’s try a passage:

Nancy [the servant] had locked the house-door, which, like an innocent almost rural door as it was, opened from without.  She was upstairs, very busy in a most congenial occupation – turning out the old lady’s wardrobe, and investigating the old stores of lace and fur and jewellery.  She knew them pretty well by heart before; but now that according to her idea, they were her own, everything naturally acquired a new value.  She had laid them out in little heaps, each by itself, on the dressing-table; a faintly-glimmering row of old rings and brooches, most of them entirely valueless, though Nancy was not aware of that…  With these delightful accumulations all round her, Nancy was happy.  She had entered, as she supposed, upon an easier and more important life. (18)

The innocent door; the pointless sorting – rings in one pile, lace in another; sly, well-chosen words like “congenial” and “important” and, my favorite, “naturally” – there’s a lot to like here.  It’s well-written, smart, good. How good?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Goulash soup, veal and beef stew - I never dared ask for things like that - Dezső Kosztolányi's Skylark

Oh, I could go on about Walter Scott and The Antiquary all week.  But it seems almost unfriendly to spend so much time with a book I don’t actually recommend, however interesting as literary history.  For example, Robert Louis Stevenson, in his essay “A Gossip on Romance” – no, no, no more Scott.*

How about a novel that I can recommend to everyone, literally everyone who stops by Wuthering Expectations?  It’s Skylark (1924) by Hungarian novelist Dezső Kosztolányi.  Skylark, the adult daughter of a “retired county archivist” and his wife, visits relatives for a week.  What will the parents do?

They stared dumbly into space like the speechless victims of some sudden loss, their eyes still hankering after the spot where they had last seen her.  They couldn’t bring themselves to walk away. (17)

That’s worrying.  But it turns out the daughter may have been an oppressive presence, a bit of a tyrant.  The restaurant, it turns out, is not “awful,” but delicious.  Shopping for handbags is fun.  Playing cards and drinking schnapps is even more fun.  All the things they couldn’t do with their daughter turn out to be fun.  The novel is as marvelous a defense of hedonism as I’ve ever seen, excesses and all.

Goulash, that’s what it was.  Delicious, to be sure: rich, blood-red goulash soup with hot paprika from Szeged, the liquid dripping from his steaming potatoes.  How I adored that in my younger days, when poor Mama was still alive.  Goulash soup, veal and beef stew – God only knows when I had them last.  I never dared ask for things like that.  Out of consideration for her, I suppose. (63)

That whole section, Chapter V, should be better known as a foodie classic.

Topics for future posts, purely theoretical:  How does Kosztolányi pack so many characters into this short (220 page) novel?  How does he make them so distinct?

In the reading room – as of old – sat the solitary figure of Sárcsevits, a rich, laconic bachelor of independent means, who now, as ever, was reading Le Figaro. He always read Le Figaro, and thus was generally held to be a cultivated European. (128)

That’s almost all we get of Sárcsevits, and what more do we need?  More than a touch of Nikolai Gogol in this novel.

How about the metaphorical language?

A Czech tuba player with an apoplectic red face and a miniscule nose, who was known to perform at funeral processions, was just raising his serpentine instrument to his neck as if struggling in a fit of suffocation with a golden octopus. (81)

The metaphors are A-OK.

Would it be helpful for me to invoke Cold Comfort FarmSkylark has a hint of that novel, although I do not believe that it is a parody of anything but life.  I found it hilarious, but the humor is gentle, and the underlying sadness is real.  The blogger at Sasha & the Silverfish overemphasizes the sadness in her recent review, I think, but I probably am overplaying the humor.

Quietly funny and quietly sad.  Welcome to Hungarian literature.

This is my last post for the week.  I’ll be away until Monday.

Translation by Richard Aczel; page numbers from the NYRB edition.

* Thanks to Rohan for reading along!  I urge readers curious about Scott to try the novels Old Mortality or The Heart of Midlothian or the story “The Two Drovers."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How should there be wine in my son's house? - Walter Scott, antiquary

Walter Scott was, early on, a relentlessly experimental novelist.  He had discovered a new kind of novel with new, unknown rules.  Many of the flaws in Scott’s novels are the result of his experimentation.  Scott’s response to serious weaknesses in characterization or storytelling was not so much to tinker with the novel at hand, but to write another novel.

The Antiquary (1816) was Scott’s third novel.  Set in 1794, it is, unlike the first two books, not exactly a historical novel (Scott was 23 years old in 1794).  It is, instead, about history, about Scottish history.  It is a self-critique, sometimes even a self-parody.  The Antiquary of the title is obsessed with every detail of Scottish history.  His obsession turns him into a fool.  How is Walter Scott any different?

The best scene in the novel, the funeral of the young fisherman Steenie Meiklebackit, suggests an answer.  We are at the beginning of Volume III, two-thirds through the novel.  Chapter One begins with Oldbuck, the Antiquary, asking his valet if “it is expected I should attend the funeral?”  It is, within some narrow prescriptions:

Ye ken in this country ilka gentleman is wussed to be sae civil as to see the corpse aff his grounds – Ye needna gang higher than the loan-head – it’s no expected your honour suld leave the land – it’s just a Kelso convoy, a step and a half ower the door-stane. (III.1.237-8)

That “Kelso convoy” gets Oldbuck’s attention, something new for him to research.  The rest of this chapter is deliberately packed with antiquarian nonsense.  An old vase is broken by a dog, an Egyptian cameo is described in detail, and, most importantly, Oldbuck argues with his nephew, at length, about the authenticity of the poems of Ossian.  The last paragraph sneaks in a reference to the 17th century poet William Drummond.  Now, some of the Ossian stuff is quite funny, and, for Scott, even a bit smutty, but the reader wanting Scott to just get on with it may be pulling hair out by the fistful.

This chapter of trivialities is purposeful, though.  It highlights the moral seriousness of the fisherman’s wake, and it works.  Scott emphasizes the various traditional mourning customs, but in a way that makes them deeply meaningful.  This might be my favorite part of the novel – long, but that’s Scott (Elspeth is the dead man’s ancient grandmother):

When Oldbuck entered this house of mourning, he was received by a general and silent inclination of the head, and, according to the fashion of Scotland on such occasions, wine and spirits and bread were offered round to the guests. Elspeth, as these refreshments were presented, surprised and startled the whole company by motioning to the person who bore them to stop; then, taking a glass in her hand, she rose up, and, as the smile of dotage played upon her shrivelled features, she pronounced, with a hollow and tremulous voice, "Wishing a' your healths, sirs, and often may we hae such merry meetings!"

All shrunk from the ominous pledge, and set down the untasted liquor with a degree of shuddering horror, which will not surprise those who know how many superstitions are still common on such occasions among the Scottish vulgar. But as the old woman tasted the liquor, she suddenly exclaimed with a sort of shriek, "What's this?—this is wine—how should there be wine in my son's house?—Ay," she continued with a suppressed groan, "I mind the sorrowful cause now," and, dropping the glass from her hand, she stood a moment gazing fixedly on the bed in which the coffin of her grandson was deposited, and then sinking gradually into her seat, she covered her eyes and forehead with her withered and pallid hand. (III.2.249)

Although the grandmother’s grief is especially dramatic, the mother and father are given their own, personal, responses to the death of their son.  At the end of the chapter, the father is incapable of carrying the head of the coffin.  Oldbuck, “landlord and master to the deceased,” takes his place - as I mentioned yesterday, he is not a fool about truly important matters.  The old ways, in this scene, have real meaning.  Most of Oldbuck’s antiquarianism is nonsense, but in the fisherman’s cottage, we find something worth preserving.  What is Scott doing, if not preserving it?

I was happy to see Virginia Woolf – I’m back to her essay on The Antiquary – single out the same scene as especially fine.  But she also uses it to club Scott about the shoulders, too, because “it is true that his scene breaks into ruin without his caring.”  Another character arrives at the fisherman’s’ hut, “[f]alsity breaks in,” and the plot, long in abeyance, creaks forward again.  We’re told of a secret marriage, an infant smuggled away, a sinister French nursemaid, that sort of thing.  I didn’t care much before Steenie’s funeral; after, it’s hopeless.

Something for Scott to work on in the next novel.

Page numbers from the Edinburgh Edition of The Antiquary, 1995.

Monday, June 14, 2010

His literary merits are almost undiscoverable - the highly recommended The Antiquary

Two views of Walter Scott, of his third novel, The Antiquary (1816). Virginia Woolf, first, picking out her favorite Scott:

I can’t read the Bride [of Lammermoor], because I know it almost by heart: also the Antiquary (I think those two, as a whole, are my favorites). (Sep. 12, 1932, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5, p. 104)

By heart!  Her favorites!  A strong recommendation.  Woolf, throughout decades of letters, is effusive about Scott, sometimes casting herself as his only remaining reader (see Aug. 12, 1928).

Now, Ford Madox Ford, from his eccentric literary history, The March of Literature (1938):

The Antiquary is a more serious attempt at novel writing [than Ivanhoe or Rob Roy], but its longwindedness is unbelievable and its insistence on assuring the reader that Scotland is a historically important and gentlemanly kingdom, not to be born...

His literary merits are almost undiscoverable… [The Antiquary] takes exactly forty pages of the closely printed pages of the 1837 edition of the “Waverley Novels” before anything like an adventure is so much as adumbrated.  This is a damning defect.* (711)

But when Ford includes only two Scott novels in his “essential reading” list at the end of his history, they are Ivanhoe and The Antiquary!

Someone, here, is wrong (preview: both are wrong).  Since I have been paying attention, I have noticed as many references to The Antiquary by Victorian writers as to any Walter Scott novel.  For readers who took Scott as the center of great literature – George Eliot, for example, or Robert Louis Stevenson, The Antiquary was at the center of the center.  They can make off-handed references to The Antiquary because of course everyone has read it.

Now I’ve read it, too, as has Rohan Maitzen of Novel Readings.  I’ll just speak for myself in saying that Ford’s description of the novel is accurate, but if I replace “adventure” (a rescue from a fast-rising tide) with “story,” I then have to replace “forty pages” with “a third of the book.”  And even then, I wish Scott had taken more time to get to the plot as such, since it is terrible – “a fearsomely predictable long-lost-heir plot,” Rohan calls it.

No one seems to like the plot.  When Virginia Woolf wrote about the novel at length, in “The Antiquary” (1924, collected in The Moment and Other Essays, 1948), she was interested in characters and episodes only.  The Antiquary has one great character who elevates every scene he’s in, and it has one great scene that justifies the concept of the novel.  The character is Edie Ochiltree, the wise beggar.  Please read Rohan on him.  She gets right at the power of a character who could easily have been an unbearable stereotype (and in the process demolishes Ford’s criticism of The Antiquary’s gentlemanly Scottishness).  The fine scene I’ll save until tomorrow, when I’ll return to Woolf as well – she liked it, too.

I haven’t said anything about what happens in the novel, because it doesn’t matter, or give an idea of what the writing is like, because it’s like Walter Scott.  The story barely makes sense, the romantic couple are cardboard of the usual grade, and the scenes are held together by nothing stronger than clothespins.  Ford is utterly wrong - Scott's merits are, with a bit of effort, discoverable.  The enthusiastic Woolf is wrong, too.  I would have trouble recommending the novel to any ordinary reader, anyone who is not a student of 19th century English literature, which is, of course, a nice thing to be.

* Readers of Parade’s End may discover some amusing hypocrisy here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

We're discoverers who have only a vague idea of the direction we're heading in - Restless writers

Of which I am one, sitting in a library, dithering, restlessly thinking about restlessness, not an activity that leads to repose or, I fear, clear thinking.

That title is from the very end of Roberto Arlt’s Seven Madmen (1929), a novel that is as jittery as they come.  No one in the novel can sit still, although they can be drugged or stunned or clubbed on the head.  Everyone is full of schemes – inventions, secret societies, plans to conquer Argentina with brothels and poison gas (the brothels will finance the poison gas), the usual.  Everyone is more or less nuts, as the title warns, but insanity is insufficient.  Everyone is restless, including, most importantly, the author, who flits about, unwilling to stitch all of his pieces together.

So many of the early proto- or pre-Modernists are preternaturally restless.  I mean something other than energetic.  Honoré de Balzac or Anthony Trollope obviously had reserves of energy that stagger me, but they could plant themselves at their desks and write.  Charles Baudelaire wrote plenty, really, but his restlessness is part of his art.  He must have sat still often enough, but the rest of the time, he’s out in Paris, wandering about, with no purpose other than being there.

The protagonist of Arlt’s Mad Toy (1926) names two personal heroes, the men he wants to be when he grows up: Charles Baudelaire and Rocambole, a fictional bandit and adventurer.  Isidore Ducasse emulated Baudelaire, and in Maldoror (1869) also invokes Rocambole, as a sort of heroic evil-doer.  Arlt can’t have known Ducasse, can he?  Ah, who cares.

I suspect that part of what we find modern in characters like Don Quixote, or Hamlet, or Moll Flanders, is their restlessness, their dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and their psychological need for change.  I wonder how to link the idea to Modernism, though.  It was Dante, after all, in the 14th century, who sent Odysseus off on one final adventure.  Perhaps the difference in the 19th century is the pace of change, the certainty that the world is shifting out from under our feet. 

Arlt is a real Buenos Aires writer, just as Baudelaire and Ducasse were Paris writers. Not that urbanism explains everything.  Who was more of a city writer than Charles Dickens, and who was more energetic?  But his novels generally end with the promise of rest, a new steady state.

All I have done here is wander into Pascal’s insight that “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”*  Pascal got that right.  And now, somehow, I was quiet enough, and still enough, to have written something, and will restlessly move on.  For the next few weeks, healthful and pure books, exclusively.

* p. 48, Modern Library edition, 1941, trans. W. F. Trotter.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

We do not have the right to question the Creator on anything whatsoever - the contradictory Isidore Ducasse

Reviewing what I wrote yesterday, a mistake at the best of times, I see I left something out.

A young man writes a book in which he argues with God, accusing him of cruelty.  He includes all sorts of outrageous and shocking things, demonstrating his courage and independence.  Now, this had happened before, and has happened since.  Why, then, do I wonder about what Isidore Ducasse actually means in Les Chants de Maldoror?  Why not: "he means what he says"?

Well, Ducasse says many things:

If one recalls the truth whence all the others flow, God’s absolute goodness and his absolute ignorance of evil, sophisms will collapse of their own accord.  At the same time there shall collapse the rather unpoetic literature which relied upon them.  All literature which debates the eternal axioms is condemned to live only off itself.  It is unjust.  It devours its liver.  The novissima Verba make the snotty third-formers smile haughtily.  We do not have the right to question the Creator on anything whatsoever. (49)

This is from Canto I of Poésies (1870), Ducasse’s second and final book.  Poésies, whatever one might gather from the title, is a collection of aphorisms, many of them plagiarized, and often subtly modified, from Blaise Pascal or one of the other great French aphorists.  (“Plagiarism is necessary.  Progress implies it.” (67))

So we now have the Ducasse of Poésies directly contradicting, and perhaps even condemning, the Ducasse of Maldoror, which, I remind myself, was supposedly authored by the Comte de Lautréamont.  Perhaps in the months between the two books, Ducasse had some sort of conversion experience, but I doubt it.  The real ideas of Ducasse are, I suspect, conceptual rather than philosophical.  The truth lies in combining the two books, perhaps with another book or two that is now, with the early death of Ducasse, purely imaginary.

Penguin Classics helpfully publishes both Ducasse books in one volume, but I am using the admirable translations of Alexis Lykiard, this time from his little edition of Poésies.  The book also includes the letters of Ducasse, some reminiscences by school chums, and, amusingly, Lykiard’s corrections to his translation of Maldoror! Here’s my favorite:

Page 174, line 32: delete crusty

No, this is my favorite:

Page 209, line 1: For fulgorous glow read lantern

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The whole grind and saponification of ordinary metaphors.

I wish I knew what that means.  “Saponification” is related to the process of making soap.  Please see page 185 of Alexis Lykiard’s translation of the Maldoror of Isidore Ducasse for the full context.  No, I’ll tell you.

The commodore is reading a travel book to Mervyn, a student.  He, the commodore, wants his children to “learn to perfect the pattern of your style and to be alive to an author’s least intentions.”  But Mervyn is beyond learning, “finding it no longer possible to follow the reasoned development of sentences going through the whole grind and saponification of obligatory metaphors.”

What were this author’s least intentions?  So far this week, I have been calling the author the Comte de Lautréamont, but that was a pseudonym, apparently a character from a Eugéne Sue novel.  Isidore Ducasse was not a count but a punk kid, twenty-two or twenty-three while writing the self-published Les Chants de Maldoror.  He wrote one more pamphlet, Poésies (1870), also self-published, which I’ll to say something about tomorrow.  Then, poor fellow, he died during the Siege of Paris, of some combination, presumably, of malnutrition and disease.  Careful record-keeping was not the highest priority during the Siege.  His works were mentioned exactly once in a newspaper and then vanishd before their freakish rediscovery by a Surrealist.

So I don’t know what he intended.  Canto 3 contains an extended section in which the narrator, visiting a brothel, peeks into a room to see a giant ambulatory hair.  The hair tells its story.  Ducasse uses a refrain again, making the “poem” in the prose poem explicit:

And I wondered who his master might be! And I glued my eye to the grating still more eagerly!

The hair is disgusted by his owner.  He describes (tamely, for this book) his master’s coupling with a prostitute, all pain and degradation and membranes and armpits.  His master takes flight “with the wings which he had hitherto hidden under his emerald robe” (105).  I, the reader, had already expected something like this, so I was not too surprised when God himself returns to recover his lost hair.

This scene is about eleven pages long, so substantial, and varied, and plenty crazy.  I was eager enough, early on, to dismiss Ducasse as crazy, but the scene – most of Maldoror – is simply too written, too packed with unsaponified, non-obligatory metaphor.  There was a writer at work here.  What he would have given us without Baudelaire’s hard-fought innovations, I cannot guess, but Ducasse was truly receptive and conceptually pure, ready to move forward, whether or not he had a single reader.  Forward to – where?  I know, I know.  Meaning, I don’t know.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Children drive the crone off with volleys of stones as if she were a crow

Le Comte de Lautréamont’s literary Satanism was old hat by 1868, when the first canto of Les Chants de Maldoror was published as a pamphlet.  The fifteenth century poet and thief François Villon comes first, followed by a marvelous parade of hedonists and heathens, many of them absolutely central to French literature, like Rabelais and Voltaire, and some, like the Marquis de Sade and Nicholas Restif de la Bretonne writing in the margins.

I mentioned in the comments yesterday that I found only one piece of Maldoror genuinely horrible, the long scene in Canto Three in which a mother tells us about the murder of her eight year old daughter.  The story also involves bestiality and vivisection.  It’s pretty rough.  Warning to those who want to be warned (about the book, no this post, where the worst is behind us).  Sensibilities will vary.

My understanding, which I do not want to confirm firsthand, is that Sade’s books are filled with shocking (or “shocking”) business of this sort, and here I suspect that Lautréamont is indulging in a Sadean scene.  Arthur Machen wanted to vaguely suggest evil.  Lautréamont goes ahead and shows it, convincingly, within the limits of prose fiction.  Meaning, it’s a terrible scene, and not necessarily much of a piece of writing, but it has a function in the book – Maldoror is not simply decadent, but evil – and is, after all, made up.

And even in this scene, Lautréamont builds in a lot of distance.  It begins rather differently:

Here comes the madwoman, dancing, while she dimly remembers something. Children drive the crone off with volleys of stones as if she were a crow. She brandishes a stick and looks like chasing them, then sets off again on her way. She has left a shoe behind and of this she remains unaware. (90-1)

The line about the children is soon repeated, word for word.  She drops a scroll.  An “unknown person” reads it later, locked in his room.  That’s where the murderous story appears, a story within a story in this text made of texts.  The reader, who may be the murderer, or may have dreamed or imagined the crime, burns the scroll.  And then, for the third time, “Children drive the crone off with volleys of stones as if she were a crow” (95).

The refrain is a reminder that Maldoror is in part a prose poem.  I doubt any of this would exist without the example of Charles Baudelaire, whose Paris Spleen had appeared by 1862, more or less.  “Let’s Beat Up the Poor!” Baudelaire cries, clubbing a beggar with a tree branch.  How seriously is one meant to take this? Lautréamont is working the same vein, whatever it is.  And, as I leaf through Paris Spleen, I am reminded that nothing Lautréamont wrote is as disturbing as the Baudelaire “poem” “The Rope.”  Not to me.

Yesterday, I was bibliographically negligent.  All quotations from Maldoror, translated by Alexis Lykiard, Allison & Busby, 1970.  In a footnote, Lykiard tells me that the crow up above should really be a blackbird (merle), “my one and only liberty with the text” (208).

Monday, June 7, 2010

How astonished he was to see Maldoror, changed into an octopus - the startling Comte de Lautréamont

I received life like a wound, and I have forbidden suicide to heal the scar.  I want the Creator – every hour of his eternity – to contemplate its gaping crevasse.  This is the punishment I inflict on him. (90)

I’m continuing last week’s Satanic theme, where the reader encountered the devil in person in James Hogg’s slippery novel, and heard rumors of the devil in Arthur Machen’s silly story.  I do not believe that the devil gets more than a nod in Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) by Le Comte de Lautréamont, but the novel or prose poem is genuinely Satanic, a sustained, brilliant, insane attack on God.  Not God as a concept, which is taken for granted, but God as an existing being, or perhaps a character.

I am pretty sure that the intellectual content of Maldoror is standard reverse theodicy, or whatever the right term is.  Rather than justify the existence of evil in the face of God’s omnipotence, Lautréamont and his stand-in Maldoror blame God for all evil, and thereby embrace evil as the proper means of worshipping God.  Or of attacking God, which, by Satanic logic, might be the same thing.  By the time he was writing, this was a long French literary tradition.

So the malodorous Maldoror spends his time, just as example, mocking the victims of shipwrecks as they try to reach shore, a form of evil stolen directly from Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).  Since mocking is insufficiently evil, Maldoror begins shooting the swimmers.  “From this murder I did not receive as much pleasure as one might think” (75), so something more is necessary.  And thus, Maldoror leaps into the sea in order to copulate with a giant female shark:

A pair of sinewy thighs clung to the monster’s viscous skin, close as leeches; and arms and fins entwined about the loved one’s body, surrounded it with love, while throats and breasts soon fused into a glaucous mass reeking of sea-wrack.  In the midst of the tempest that continued raging.  By lightning’s light…  At last I had found someone who resembled me! (77-8)

The book is governed by images of sea creatures (and birds) which culminates in Maldoror transforming into a giant octopus and attempting to consume God himself:

How astonished he was to see Maldoror, changed into an octopus, clamp eight monstrous tentacles about his body: any one of these strong thongs could easily have spanned the circumference of a planet.  Caught off guard, he struggled for several moments against this viscous embrace which was contracting more and more… (82, ellipses in original)

Almost halfway through Les Chants de Maldoror, I should have been prepared, but I, too, was astonished and caught off guard.  Every five or ten pages, I was caught off guard, like the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella, which is, of course, why I was reading the book in the first place.

Richard of Caravanas de Recuerdos suggested that I spent a month on Lautréamont, but in fear for my soul, health, and sanity, I doubt I’ll write about him for even a week.  I could, though.  Holding a head whose skull I gnawed, I could.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Help, help, it's the Great God Pan! - a glance at Arthur Machen

I’ve been spending too much time reading about the devil.  I was right there with him in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Paradise Lost.  He’s not exactly present in Les Chants du Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont, but still – well, that one’s complicated.  Next week.

Then there’s the longish short story “The Great God Pan” (1895) by Arthur Machen.  Experimental brain surgery summons Pan, or the devil, or primal forces, or something.  Pan takes the form of an English woman, albeit an English woman from Argentina, who drives men to despair and suicide by, I guess, unveiling her primal forces.

It [the Great God Pan] was, indeed, an exquisite symbol beneath which men long ago veiled their knowledge of the most awful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things; forces before which the souls of men must wither and die and blacken, as their bodies blacken under the electric current.  Such forces cannot be names, cannot be spoken, cannot be imagined except under a veil and symbol, a symbol to the most of us appearing a quaint, poetic fancy, to some a foolish tale. (107)

Now, and this is perhaps because I’ve been reading Lautréamont and Milton and so on, but this seemed pretty thin.  What I mean is, I have been reading stories in which the writers do imagine or describe the secret forces and sickening evils and so on, and describe them plausibly.  A bit earlier in this story, a character tracking the evil devil woman says that his informant “shuddered and grew sick in telling me of the nameless infamies which were laid to her charge.”  I could only, think, try me.  I can handle it.  I bet I’ve heard worse.  I bet I just read worse in Les Chants de Maldoror.  I know I did.

So this is a typical horror story trick, not actually telling us what’s so horrifying but just letting us sort of see the shadow of the horror.  H. P. Lovecraft perfected the technique, perhaps through the repetition of weird names and books of forgotten lore and such.  Or perhaps he was just a better writer than Machen.  As an example, Machen has this strange tic of insisting that his characters say goodbye or good night to each other at the end of scenes.  Dead words; drove me nuts.  Still, this story is a must for readers in search of Lovecraft Before Lovecraft, and it was a curious sexist variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

I read “The Great God Pan” in Arthur Machen, Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, The Richards Press, 1949.  If you tell me there are better stories in this book, I’ll believe you, and if you say there aren’t, I’ll believe that, too.

I read this story for the Welsh Reading Challenge, so that’s that.  Thanks to The Kool-Aid Mom for sparking my curiosity.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gracious Heaven! - the Brocken Specter and common sense in James Hogg

Is the Gothic novel the right place to defend common sense?  I’d hardly think so – a parody like Northanger Abbey, sure, that might work, but not the real thing.  But James Hogg does it, somehow.

Nicole wrote, today, about the various peasant characters. The rule of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is:  if the character speaks in Scotch dialect, she’s not a complete fool.  Peasants and servants are not skeptics – they’re almost all superstitious, for example – but they don’t waste their time trying to game their own religion, and, whatever their doctrine might say, they believe in the efficacy of good works.  Come to think of it, in a novel where the devil is guiding the protagonist to multiple murders, superstition is purely rational.

The pinnacle of this idea is the joke I mentioned yesterday, in which James Hogg refuses to assist with his own novel because he’s too busy selling sheep.  Nicole points out some of the other Scottish common sense highlights.

I want to glance at something else, though, a great scene in the first part of the novel, the vision of the devil on top of Arthur’s Seat.  George Colwan has been stalked through Edinburgh by his sinister, devilish brother.  Early one morning, George climbs Edinburgh’s peak.  He becomes closely attuned to natural phenomena – “a fairy web, composed of little spheres” on his hat, and a rainbow and “a bright halo in the cloud of haze” caused by the dawning sun hitting the fog a certain way.  George admires these rare natural phenomena, but, but, but:

“Here,” thought he, “I can converse with nature without disturbance, and without being intruded on by any appalling or obnoxious visitor.”  The idea of his brother’s dark and malevolent looks coming at that moment across his mind, he turned his eyes instinctively to the right, to the point where that unwelcome guest was wont to make his appearance.  Gracious Heaven!  What an apparition was there presented to his view!  He saw delineated in the cloud, the shoulders, arms and features of a human being of the most dreadful aspect.  The face was the face of his brother, but dilated to twenty times the natural size.  Its dark eyes gleamed on him through the mist, while every furrow of its hideous brow frowned deep as the ravines on the brow of the hill. (42)

To the rationalist observer, George has seen a Scottish version of the Brocken Specter, a huge reflection of – of who?  Well, it turns out that it might be a reflection of his brother, who has followed George up the mountain, possibly under the guidance of the devil, in hopes of murdering him.  So what’s a reasonable explanation here?  Is the natural explanation sufficient, even if true?

I wonder if this is the first literary appearance of the Brocken Specter.  The Brocken, in the Harz Mountains, is the traditional setting of the Witches’ Sabbath, so Faust and Mephistopheles visit it during both parts of Faust (1808/1832).  I don’t remember if the Specter is mentioned, but it seems rather unnecessary during Walpurgisnacht, when the real demons come out to dance.

Thomas De Quincey, in his opium-fueled Suspiria de Profundis (1845), includes a short chapter on “The Apparition of the Brocken,” for the purpose, I think, of introducing a vision that is not the result of opium and that clearly exists outside of the hallucinating mind.  I guess.  Dang strange book.  Maybe Dorothy W. can explain it to me.

Speaking of which, Tyrone Slothrop sees the Brocken Specter on page 330 of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) which leads, almost logically, in that book, to Brocken Specter sex.  I understand that David Foster Wallace, nodding to Pynchon, drops the Specter into Infinite Jest somewhere.  I’ll have to let someone else tell me what any of this means.  Neither De Quincey or Pynchon were writing in defense of common sense.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Some mystery that mankind disna ken naething about yet - a crackpot reading of James Hogg - why, this novel is fictional!

Well, here’s what I was looking for.  Nicole is reading The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and I’m reading it, and between us we’ve come up with an idea which is either preposterous (in which case, feel free to blame me), or promising. The problem is that I would need to reread the novel, again, now, to really follow the idea.  Oh well.  Nicole can tell me if I’m nuts.

If I think of The Private Memoirs as merely a Gothic novel, I get an anonymous editor’s account of a hundred year old murder story, followed by the firsthand confessions of the murderer, which generally confirm but on some key points contradict the editor.  The murderer claims to have acted under the direction of a figure who he thinks is an incognito Czar Peter but who we recognize as the devil.  We’ll never know exactly what happened.  This is enough for a good novel.  If Hogg has stopped here, The Private Memoirs would still be a classic Gothic novel, easily worth reading.

The editor, though, is not quite done.  Once the memoir ends, the editor returns.  He suggests that the memoir might be fiction, an allegory or parable (which the memoir’s author has claimed himself).  Or not.  He tells us how he acquired the memoir, and proceeds to demolish the stability of the novel in the process.

The editor says that he read an 1823 article in Blackwood’s Magazine describing the recent discovery of a body that is associated with a number of odd legends.  The author of the letter is James Hogg.  This is an actual letter that was published in an actual magazine in the actual world by the actual James Hogg.  The letter is liberally excerpted by the editor, who says it “bears the stamp of authenticity in every line” yet may be a hoax (which, in our world, it is).  He “half form[s] the resolution of investigating these wonderful remains personally, if any such existed” (228).

He tries to attain the assistance of James Hogg, author of the article, but Hogg says he is too busy:

I hae ither matters to mind. I hae a’ thae paulies to sell, an’ a’ yon Highland stotts down on the green every ane; an’ then I hae ten scores o’ yowes to buy after, an’ if I canna first sell my ain stock, I canna buy nae ither body’s. (230)

Hogg was known as the Ettrick Shepherd so I assume all this gibberish is somehow related to sheep.

The editor finds another guide who contradicts every important claim of Hogg's.  The century-old corpse does, however, exist and when exhumed is discovered to possess a “leathern case” containing “a printed pamphlet” and some handwritten pages, one of which is visible just inside the front cover of the novel.  An assistant says:

I’ll tell you what it is, sir: I hae often wondered how it was that this man’s corpse has been miraculously preserved frae decay, a hunder times langer than ony other body’s, or than even a tanner’s.  But now I could wager a guinea, it has been for the preservation o’ that little book.  And Lord kens what may be in’t!  It will maybe reveal some mystery that mankind disna ken naething about yet. (235)

We learn in the memoir how the pamphlet was printed, and why the story has to continue in manuscript.  But aside from the oddity of the manuscript pages, there is no reason to think that the body is that of the justified sinner.  Maybe the poor fellow, just as an example, picked up the pamphlet somewhere, was driven crazy by it, and added his own ending.  Maybe the story really is fictional – I mean, fictional within the novel – but based on true events.  Like it’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) or Moll Flanders (1722).  The timing is right.  So the editor’s reconstruction is imperfect but “true,” and the supposedly authentic memoir is written by a compatriot of Daniel Defoe, except for the manuscript pages, which are written by someone else.

The next step would be to figure out if this idea means anything.  Who knows.  What’s clear to me, though, is that the reader is deliberately encourage to read the embedded memoir as both fiction and non-fiction, while simultaneously, of course, understanding that the whole thing is “really” fiction.  I did not do that – I assumed that the fiction was non-fiction, so to speak.  So now, I wonder.  Next time.

* All page references are to the 2002 NYRB edition of the novel.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The private memoirs and confessions of a justified blogger - also, James Hogg's novel of a related title

So I distinctly remember asking the same question in two different college classes, and getting the same answer.  In one class we were discussing the settlement of New England, and in the other Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Puritans and related groups, I was told, believed in predestination.  Salvation and damnation were unrelated to worldly acts, good or evil.  God had already decided who was going where after death.

Clear enough, I thought.  But then why not sin, sin, and sin some more?  I acknowledged some possible reasons – doubt, for example, fear that the rules are not as clear as they look.  But let’s say a person knew, just knew, that he was saved, or knew that he was damned?  Was there any constraint on his behavior?

The same answer, twice:  The Puritans just didn’t think that way.  A little glib, I thought, and especially ridiculous in the context of Weber.  Calvinists respond more forcefully to economic incentives than anyone else, but do not respond at all to clear incentives embedded in their own beliefs.  Anyway, my question wasn’t about “the Puritans,” but about some Puritans.  Even one.  I didn’t know it, but I was asking about Robert Wringhim, the sinner in the title of James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824).

Bibliographing Nicole is writing about Hogg’s wild, odd novel as her Scotch Challenge book, so I recommend that the interested reader start here.

Summary version:  Robert knows that he is saved, and goes on a rampage.  He sins to the extent he does because he is under the influence of the devil, or a psychopath, or both.  He still has a conscience, though, and still has doubts, which is why he decides to write up, and even publish, this story.  “Justified” means elect, but Robert is also justifying his sins in the more usual way, deflecting blame.  The devil made him do it, even if he is that devil.  Hogg never lets the reader settle on a solution.

The truth of the novel is actually more unstable than it seems, a topic for the future, perhaps.  One of us should write about that.  And the Brocken Spectre, who’s going to write about the Brocken Spectre?

The most important point to make about the novel, and I’ve taken care of that here, is that I was right and those two professors were wrong.