Thursday, September 30, 2010

The so-called hydraulic excavator - Jenny Erpenbeck combats beauty

We commonly link art and beauty, but some fiction has no interest whatsoever in beauty, unless beauty is just a synonym for well-made.*  I know that some of my aversion to “beauty” has come from the example of any number of Modernists, experts at dodging, mangling, and mocking beauty.

“Make life beautiful! Make life beautiful!” Charles Baudelaire exhorts in “The Bad Glazier,” Paris Spleen (1869, sort of). The poet makes life beautiful by throwing a flower pot at an itinerant glazier, smashing his glass samples, just to hear the marvelous noise.  The actual beauty of this gratuitous act seems highly questionable.  Irony destroys beauty.  How much literature of consequence is not ironic?  Therefore.

Literary beauty can cause ethical problems.  Rohan Maitzen writes about the issue here, where the subject is contemporary Afghanistan.  Jenny Erpenbeck’s recent novel, Visitation (2008, tr. Susan Bernofsky), is, among other things, a Holocaust novel.  The ethical stakes are high.  Any treatment of the subject aestheticizes it, fiction especially so.  Erpenbeck needs to portray horrible things in an artful manner, but not necessarily in a beautiful manner.  It’s a curious effect – Erpenbeck creates real sympathy for her characters, but also employs a range of distancing techniques.  Visitation is a brilliantly cold novel.

Erpenbeck uses repetiton to create distance.  Lists.  Technical language.   Find the beauty here:

Their most important tool is the so-called hydraulic excavator, a piece of equipment weighing between 20 and 25 tons with maximum 9 meters extension using an arm driven by a hydraulic cylinder. (149)

Entitlement of counterclaimant on the basis of action under law of unjust enrichment may exist in the amount of the difference… (136)

To supplement the pines, the young oak saplings and the little hazelnut shrubs that grow naturally on the slope leading down to the lake, additional bushes will be planted close together to make it more stable. (17)

Visitation is a conceptual novel centered on a piece of lakefront property north of Berlin, and a house built on it in the 1930s.  History, horror, passes back and forth over the spot.  Erpenbeck begins twenty-four thousand years ago, with glaciers and the filling of the lake, but the story begins in the late 19th century.  The parcel is split in pieces in a first chapter that deliberately resembles Theodor Storm or Adalbert Stifter, earlier masters of stories about the interaction of people and landscape.  Meine Frau tells me that the title of the novel invokes Goethe, and I suspect that other chapters nod at later German fiction.

The house, a wonderful house, with murals and carvings and secret closets, is built by an architect who colludes with the Nazis and later flees the Stasi.  Some of the landowners are Jewish.  One can guess how their stories go.  A chapter about a girl hiding from the Nazis is paralleled by another where a German woman hides from the Russian Army.  Life in the GDR is better than life under Hitler, but has its own miseries.  Life in reunited Germany is better than life in the GDR, but ditto.

I quickly picked up a sense of Erpenbeck’s project.  Knowing Storm helped; knowing Sebald, too.  People-in-landscape, people-in-history.  Old subjects, but rich.  The focus on the specific lake and house are key.  In the twenty-four thousand year scheme of things, neither the house nor the Holocaust may mean much.  But that beginning is itself a dodge, a source of distance – within each chapter, the land or house or the people in or on it, however impermanent, mean everything.  I found the novel moving, some parts deeply so.  But hardly beautiful.

*  Not just fiction, or not just literature.  Is Duck Soup (Marx Brothers, 1933) beautiful?  Or “Heebie Jeebies” (Louis Armstrong, 1926)?  Would either be improved by more beauty?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

And when I came back, and when I came back, there was nothing there - beautiful Theodor Storm

Meine Frau does not share my unhealthy suspicion about beauty in literature.  When I asked her who she thought of as especially beautiful, she replied with exactly the writer I was thinking about, Theodor Storm.  Two things about Storm, I think.  First, he was a lyric poet of the highest quality, and lyric poems are close to music, close to a more direct idea of beauty.  See the first one here, for example, at least pretty even in English.  Lyric poems can be quite pure, almost free of meaning, and still be effective, beautiful.  Storm often worked these poems directly into his fiction.  Immensee (1850) depends on them.

Second, Storm’s fiction is, temperamentally:  gentle, sweet, calm, pleasant, quiet, wistful, and so on.  Picturesque qualities, signifiers of “beautiful.”  Like Adalbert Stifter, he often ties his stories directly into landscape, into nature, but he’s rarely as weird as Stifter.  Stifter undercuts beauty with uncanniness.  Storm seems more likely to let the beautiful be, at least until he destroys it in a hurricane.  And Storm has a sublimely uncanny side, too.

One can see my difficulty, my groping for terminology.  Now I need two kinds of uncanniness, and distinctions of sublimity.

Storm begins The Swallows of St. George’s (1868)* with “It is just a small ordinary town, my birthplace, set on a flat treeless coastal plain, and its houses are old and grey” (97).  He does not claim that it is beautiful – he is ironically downplaying its beauty – but merely “pleasing.”  The story is one of many Storm renunciation-of-love pieces, not especially beautiful in its substance but rather in its surroundings – storks and swallows, crocuses and red hepatica.  Storm is never really interested in nature on its own, but rather man in nature, so the title’s swallows are intimately tied to a church tower.

The story ends with a flock of sparrows:

The sight held me transfixed.  I could readily see they were preparing to migrate; their homeland sun was no longer warm enough for them.  The old man next to me tore the hat from his head and waved it to and fro.  “Be off with you!” he babbled. “You sinners!”  But the display up there on the gable continued a little while longer.  Then suddenly, as if blown upwards, the swallows rose as one almost vertically into the air, and at the same moment disappeared without trace into the blue sky. (131)

All of this is tangled up with a death, a lost love.  I balk at simply labeling it beautiful.  The word seems insufficient.

A gust of wind blew against the window. I seemed to hear from outside, from the highest air currents in which migrating swallows fly, the last words of their old song:

      And when I came back, and when I came back,
      There was nothing there. (132)

*  All quotations from the typically outstanding Denis Jackson translations, this time from Carsten the Trustee and Other Short Fiction (2009), Angel Books.  The Swallows of St. George’s is also available (as In St. Jürgen) in James Wright’s translation in the NYRB collection The Rider on the White Horse.  Jackson’s title novella, Carsten the Trustee (1878), is a bittersweet father-son story that ends with the same freakish storm as The Rider on the White Horse (1888).  The other two stories are lesser, but show the variety of Storm’s writing.  The little meta-fiction about ghost stories, By the Fireside, is especially clever.  Many, many readers would like this book.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In literature there are no such things as beautiful subjects - Or, The expression of man’s delight in God’s work

Gustave Flaubert, in a letter, posited two “axiomatic” “truths”:

(1) that poetry is purely subjective, that in literature there are no such things as beautiful subjects, and that therefore Yvetot is the equal of Constantinople; and  (2) that consequently one can write about any one thing equally well as about any other.*

Yvetot is a small town in Normandy; in other words, nothing, or Hell, or both.  How unwise to follow Flaubert too far in any direction, and here he clearly goes too far.  How unfortunate that I agree with him.   What is beauty in literature?  What is beautiful writing?  In dark moments, I suspect that there is no such thing.  Flaubert may be claiming that he can write beautifully about ugly subjects, any subject.  I'm not even sure about that.

I never use the word,”beauty,” not about writing.  I don’t know what it means, so I don’t use it.  Startling, original, invigorating, sublime, good, but not beautiful.  I would like to reclaim the concept.  Oh, that would be so much work.  I have in front of me a Modern Library collection titled Philosophies of Art and Beauty.  The compilers have thoughtfully selected 63 pages of Kant, 63 pages of Hegel, and 47 (only?) pages of Schopenhauer for me.  Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin.

Actually, I use the word all the time, about scenery, and art, and music.  Direct sensory stimuli.  Sir Thomas Browne “cannot tell by what Logick we call a Toad, a Beare, or an Elephant, ugly, they being created in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes” (Religio Medici, 1642, paragraph 16).  Browne goes too far the other way, doesn’t he?  If I call all of God’s creation beautiful, I’ve emptied out the word again.  But he’s right – if I want to say that the garden toad is ugly and the iridescent poisonous frog is beautiful, I should think about why.

John Ruskin tried to find that Logick.  One reason I read him is that his aesthetics underpin a lot of received ideas about beauty.  Like Browne, he needs God for his argument, or Nature.  Beauty in art, any art, is “the expression of man’s delight in God’s work” (The Stones of Venice, Vol. I, 1851, XX.iii).  Note that the human creator is necessarily present here.  In Plate VII, above, Ruskin looks for beautiful forms in nature and finds them everywhere – in mountains, branches, shells, and leaves.  The top curve is a view of a Swiss glacier.  My favorite, for some reason, is the bottom middle one, a direct tracing of half of a bay leaf.  Beautiful man-made form imitates beautiful natural form.  Readers of Alan Hollinghurst will observe that Ruskin is updating Hogarth’s Line of Beauty here.

Too bad Ruskin wrote so exclusively about visual art.  I want to argue by analogy, borrowing from the visual arts, but the fit is so poor.  Can any writer describe (beautifully!) the curve of that bay leaf?  Fundamentally: open a book with your favorite page of beautiful writing (calligrammes excepted) and set it next to your most reviled page of ugly writing.  Print out something from Wuthering Expectations, perhaps.  Step back several feet.  The additional mediation required by literature changes too much.  Ruskin provides just a clue.

I would hate to see “beautiful” go the way of “lyrical,” which now, as a description of prose, means little more than “uses adjectives.”  I don’t know how to use the word.  I should learn.

Advice and guidance much appreciated.  Anything:  aesthetic manifestos, critical dissections, single sentences as piercingly lovely as the last umber ray of the autumn sun reflected from a still turquoise pool into, um, the crystalline eyes of a, hmm, a tourmaline, let’s see, fritillary.

* Letter to Louise Colet, 1853, as found in Jonathan Raban’s recent New York Review of Books piece (p. 27) on Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary.  Raban does not otherwise specify the date of the letter, and I can’t find the passage in the Penguin Classics Selected Letters of Flaubert (1997).

Monday, September 27, 2010

A skilled and unexpected use of the tools of fiction

The Professor was bad enough that a chapter or two pretty much did me in for the day.  I was all too easily distracted by better books – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Great Gatsby, John Ruskin, for pity’s sake.  The most distracting of the distractions was In Hazard (1939) by Richard Hughes, a novel about a cargo ship caught in a hurricane.  Genuinely exciting, but at some point each evening, all too early, I would will myself to close it so I did not miss my day’s Bad Brontë quota.

I would like to direct interested parties to bibliographing’s review of In Hazard, as I proceed to ignore it.  Something in John Crowley’s introduction to the novel caught my eye.  He’s writing about the term “writer’s writer”:

But what writers would mean if they used the phrase (in my own experience they don’t) is a writer who, whether in plain prose or fancy, effusive or restrained, accomplishes things in fiction that writers know to be difficult to do, whether readers perceive this or not.  Writers of fiction often do care less about the characters and story in the fiction they read – they find it harder to suspend disbelief and be touched by made-up troubles and triumphs – but they notice a skilled and unexpected use of the tools of fiction.  (xi, NYRB edition)

Does this help explain what goes on at Wuthering Expectations?  It sounds right to me.  Writing about The Great Gatsby, for example, I barely acknowledged that the novel had either characters or a story.  Do I believe that the specific mechanism Fitzgerald assigns to his narrator is what’s really important about the book?  Heavens, no.  I was dismantling the engine and trying to figure out what a specific part did, a tricky one.  Maybe it was merely decorative.  Maybe it didn’t do anything, a mistake left over from an earlier prototype.  Or maybe the engine is devilishly complex.

I’ve met a very few people who seem to be able to comprehend certain complex objects as a whole.  Seem to – what I assume they are doing is breaking the pieces apart very rapidly, and then rebuilding as quickly.  I’m not so fast, and not so interested in reassembling the clock.  An intellectual flaw, I’m afraid, one I hope to overcome.  Unlike a clock, the book is intact after I have smashed its casing and shaken out the pieces.  No harm done.

An Appreciationist, I want writers to succeed, and I want to discover how they do it.  As a result, I typically root for one character, the same one every time, the writer, the imagined writer.  In fairness, I can read at both levels at once.  I do care about the characters and story, but, just as Crowley says, less; I do want David Copperfield to do well, but not as much as I want David Copperfield to do well.  I’m a writer’s reader.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A rag eaten through and through with disease, wrung together with pain - why I read The Professor, and why I read The Great Gatsby

So this all began with Villette (1853), a book I read last summer.  I absolutely loved it’s “astounding insular audacity.”  I read it as part of a readalong at The Valve (thanks, Rohan!) and found myself responding to it quite differently than anyone else, and I began to identify the difference in my understanding of the narrator.  I was reading the narrator, Lucy Snowe, as a writer, an imaginative, tricky, skillful, and intelligent one.  Most readers – subsequent research suggests, most critics – read her as a case study.  After a little digging and a little thought, I am convinced that this approach misses a lot of what is in the novel.

But – making the case would be a lot of work.  It would require a significant amount of secondary literature spadework, rereading Jane Eyre and Villette, carefully (purely a pleasure), and, here was the worst part, reading Charlotte Brontë’s other novels, Shirley (1849) and The Professor (1857, but written much earlier).  The Professor, especially, what a drag.  Essential reading*, because it was Brontë's first pass at some of the Villette material, but, I assumed, a terrible novel.

I was right!  Dull, badly written, undramatic.  Actively, aggressively bad in places, unlike her sister Anne’s contemporary Agnes Grey (1847), which was pleasant, even-tempered, and entirely mediocre.  Took me forever to drag myself through The Professor.  I began to work on the theory that the narrator was actually a mental patient, and that the other characters were actually inmates, nurses, and doctors at the asylum.  This idea greatly improves passages like this one, nominally a teacher’s description of a young student:

She was an unnatural-looking being – so young, fresh, blooming, yet so Gorgon-like. Suspicion, sullen ill-temper were on her forehead , vicious propensities in her eyes, envy and panther-like deceit about her mouth. (Ch. 12)

No such luck.  The Professor is just a hodgepodge.  I’m sure it’s no worse than most unpublished first novels.  No, I’m sure it’s better.  Sometimes the sound of the later Brontë is audible.  I particularly like this:

Novelists should never allow themselves to weary of the study of real life… life must be all suffering – too feeble to conceive faith – death must be darkness – God, spirits, religion can have no place in our collapsed minds, where linger only hideous and polluting recollections of vice, and time brings us on to the brink of the grave, and dissolution flings us in – a rag eaten through and through with disease, wrung together with pain, stamped into the churchyard sod by the inexorable heel of despair. (Ch. 19)

Yikes!  I have no idea why this passage is in the book, why the character is worried about what novelists do.  He’s writing a non-fiction memoir, for ”the public at large” (Ch. 1).  Don’t worry about that “must” and “us” – the narrator simply means people who have “plunged like beasts into sensual indulgence,” people nothing like him, or anyone else in the novel, but then why does he bring it up (answer, I hoped: he’s a raving lunatic)?  Biographers probably read this and think “Ah ha, Branwell!”  I read it and am impressed by how quickly Brontë learned to control this wild rhetoric – Jane Eyre was written immediately afterward, and published in 1847.

The Professor pretends to be a memoir.  So does Jane Eyre.  So does Villette.  Don’t know about Shirley.  If critics have spent much time – any time – investigating what that means, I missed them.  There is an enormous volume of material on Jane and Lucy as narrators, and a small amount of work on Jane, especially, as a story-teller, which looks very useful to me, but where is the work on these fictional women as writers?  Now that I have broken through The Professor, maybe I’ll get somewhere myself.  Shirley’s not that bad, is it?

I was wondering about other fictional memoirs, which led me to double-check The Great Gatsby, which after about three sentences led me to reread it (‘cause it’s awesome).  I went to the Fitzgerald secondary literature thinking someone would explain the book-writing device to me.  Instead, I discovered that almost no one had even noticed it.  Weird.

Maybe this should be on top of the post:  Any ideas about or references to how fictional writers of non-fiction do their work would be greatly appreciated.

* Essential for this project!  Otherwise, The Professor is only for Brontë cultists and completists.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"See!" he cried triumphantly. "It's a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me." - an original idea about The Great Gatsby. Plus: Nick Carraway's second book

Would you believe I at first thought I could pack all of this Gatsby business into one post?  Idiocy. 

The problem is that I’m trying to make what might actually be an original point about The Great Gatsby, which does not happen every day.*  The standards of evidence are different.

A summary, for those who have, wisely, not been following too closely:

Nick Carraway begins to write a book called The Great Gatsby, about an unusually interesting fellow he met one summer.  We know this from page 2.  On page 55, Nick, “[r]eading over what he has written so far,” decides he has not given the right impression.  We’re one third through the book.  The idea that Nick is writing a book, is writing anything, is never mentioned again.

Now, I think we’ve learned something already.  One response to finding problems in what I have written is to revise.  Nick instead writes an addendum, a curious one.  The problem he finds in his first three chapters of his book about Jay Gatsby, in which Gatsby is only barely introduced, is that they do not have enough Nick Carraway in them.  So he tells us about his work, what he eats for lunch, his imaginary stalking (p. 56), and his romance with a golf pro.  The chapter ends with:

Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known. (59)

In a typical novel with an unreliable narrator, if there is such a thing (The Tin Drum, Lolita, The Good Soldier), an avowal of honesty is a signal that the narrator has just been or is about to be outrageously dishonest.  I’m not sure that’s true here.  I’ll set that aside, and just keep the new piece of information that I need, that the text we’re reading is Nick Carraway’s draft of the story.  He is not revising.

One more clue: back on page 2, again, Nick tells us that he “came back from the East last autumn,” and later we learn that he means the autumn when Gatsby ends, in 1922.**  So “now” (page 2 “now”) is sometime in 1923.  Chapter IX (p. 163) begins “After two years I remember the rest of that day, and that night and the next day…” meaning that Nick is "now" writing in 1924.  In another novel, I might dismiss this as the author’s sloppiness, but not here.  We’ve learned that it has taken Nick a year or more to (almost) finish his – not his book – but his unrevised manuscript.

Adding up:  Nick began writing what he had hoped to be a book.  He even had a title picked out.  At some point (when?) in the long process of composition, he abandons the book, but not the writing.  He has some other purpose, a private one.  Looking over the critical work, the main interpretive problem of Gatsby has been to work out Nick’s role in the book, or to properly weight the places of Nick and Jay Gatsby.  If my idea is right, Fitzgerald, using no more than four pieces of information, is telling us that Nick is in fact working on the same problem, and that the mechanism is his writing.  I’m making Gatsby sound more than a bit like The Good Soldier (1915).  Yes.  There’s a reason Carraway’s non-fiction “book” doesn’t look like other non-fiction books.  At some point, it is no longer meant to be a book.

To pursue the idea, I should look for changes in Nick’s ideas, tone, or attitude that are somehow signaled in the writing itself, signals that he hears or understands only by writing them.  That’s for my next time through the novel.  I am deeply suspicious of this passage, from the man with “enormous owl-eyed spectacles,” surely a client of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg:

“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.

“About what?”

He waved his hand towards the book-shelves.

“About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”

“The books?”

He nodded.

“Absolutely real – have pages and everything… See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me.” (45)

And in fact, books – non-fiction books, in particular – are treated as objects of suspicion throughout the novel.

I have come up with another novel I would like to read.  It’s a sequel to The Great Gatsby called Nick’s Next Book.  Nick in fact has published his manuscript, but in such a revised form (with all of the libel and slander scrubbed out) that he barely recognizes it as his own.  It is recognized as the great piece of writing it is and makes some money, so Nick wants to write another book.  But about what?  So the novel is a picaresque, Nick’s comic adventures as he searches for his next subject.

Or:  the draft we read is actually published.  It’s a huge smash, but almost all of the money goes to settle the lawsuits brought by Tom and Daisy Buchanan.  Nick is crushed, so he needs to write another book, etc.  In the beginning, set in the 1960s, Nick has just retired (or has died?) from a position in a creative writing program, an acknowledged pioneer of creative non-fiction.

Please write this novel for me.  The Great Gatsby is still under American copyright, I believe, so you may have to wait a few years to publish it.  That’s fine; I’m patient.  Thanks.

* If someone who studies or teaches Gatsby were to stop in and say, “Original? You know, pal, one out of seven undergraduate papers is on exactly this subject,” he would be doing me a favor.

** The chronology of the novel seems well-established.  See the chronology appendix in the 1991 Cambridge University Press edition of The Great Gatsby, p. 215.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The man who gives his name to this book - Nick Carraway's The Great Gatsby

Excuse me – I have a little note here I need to review.  “Spell Nick Carraway’s dang name right.”  Got it.

Readers, I said yesterday, have to buy into the conceits of a writer.  The writer may occasionally put a potted plant over a stain in the book’s carpet.  Is it rude for the reader to lift the pot and point out the stain?  Probably.  How about the critic?  His responsibilities may be a bit different, and what good reader is not also a good critic?

Nick Carraway is writing a book.  How many readers of The Great Gatsby remember, or ever notice, that he’s writing a book?  He says he is, on page 2 (I’m going to need the first sentence later):

When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.  Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction – Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn.

And then there is exactly one more reference to the idea:  “Reading over what I have written so far, I see I have given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me” (55).  That’s it.  Nothing else all the way through the end on p. 180.  Question 1: Is this an idea Fitzgerald tacked on and then forgot to develop?  Seems odd to just drop it.

Question 2:  What kind of book is this book?  Nick Carraway’s The Great Gatsby is a memoir, subjective but still non-fiction.  Is it like other non-fiction of its time, other memoirs about spending a summer hanging out with a – anybody here not read Gatsby? – with a gentleman as interesting as Jay Gatsby?  It certainly does not look much like, to pick some well-known contemporaries, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910) or Eminent Victorians (1918).  But what do I know about the memoirs of 1925?  Nothing, nothing.  Maybe Nick is writing a novel.  That would destroy the book for me, so let’s please forget that option.

How do I know what fiction or non-fiction looks like, anyways?   I recently read Elif Batuman’s The Possessed (2010), ostensibly a collection of essays, ostensibly non-fiction.  Except that it was obviously fiction, obviously!   What a relief when, on page 94, she baldly describes her own book as a novel.  Also, keep an eye on the apples – there are three of them, just like in real life a novel.  So how do I know?  I recognize conventions, style, voice.  Who knows.  The Great Gatsby has too much dialogue, too much immediate precision, and way too much Nick Carraway.  Also, Nick directly accuses a (fictional, but not to him) living person of vehicular manslaughter and other assorted crimes, so too much libel and slander.

I wanted to see if Fitzgerald scholars had looked at contemporary memoirs.  I quickly chewed through ten volumes of Gatsby criticism (criterion for selection: on the library shelf), many of them collections of essays.  No help.  Lots of comparisons, good ones, to fiction, like Heart of Darkness (1899).  No answer to Question 2, though.  How about Question 1?

I found only two critics who even seem to notice that Nick is writing.  Mary J. Tate, author of the Critical Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Facts on File, 2007, who, in fairness, has a lot to do in her book, has nothing but this:  “Fitzgerald strengthens Nick’s role as narrator by giving the impression that Nick is the author” (91).  I don’t see how.  If the two references, to the book and the writing, were excised, the narrator’s “role” would be just as “strong,” whatever that means.

George Garret takes the issue more seriously.*  He sees a useful tension between written and spoken language, and identifies a number of particularly deft places where Carraway slips from one to the other – Nick’s a great writer!  The “poetry of intense perception” (written) is mixed in with “a hard-edged, implaccable [sic] vulgarity” (spoken, all of this on p. 111).  This is a real insight into the crackliness of Gatsby’s prose, and it tells us why we need the conceit that Carraway is writing, and not, for example, that we are eavesdropping on his thoughts.  Doesn’t really explain the book, though.

I know why it’s a book.  Tomorrow - this has already gone on too long - I’ll explain the book.  I lifted the plant to discover not a stain, but an intricate pattern.

* George Garret, “Fire and Freshness: A Matter of Style in The Great Gatsby.”  In New Essays on The Great Gatsby, ed. Matthew Bruccoli, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Yellow cocktail music - Nick Carraway is a great writer

This post is about Charlotte Brontë.  Try to guess how.

For fiction to work, the reader has to willingly buy into its conceits.  We mostly do so reflexively, which is part of the power of fiction.  Kevin, at Interpolations, recently chose to step back while reading Ethan Frome (1911), where he noticed that the electrical engineer telling (by writing?) the story sounded surprisingly like Edith Wharton.*  Anyway, he was certainly unusually talented.

Humbert Humbert (Lolita, 1955), Charles Kinbote (Pale Fire, 1962), and the narrator of Despair (1936) do not resemble each other so much as they all resemble, and write like, Vladimir Nabokov.  They are better writers, actually, since their unrevised first drafts are as well-written as Nabokov’s agonizingly polished novels, and they were all writing under difficult conditions – prison, mental breakdown, police pursuit.  Amazing.

And then there’s Nick Carraway, a bond trader, admittedly “rather literary in college” (4),** whose first book, The Great Gatsby (1925?),*** is a masterpiece.  It’s extraordinary, as good as F. Scott Fitzgerald.  No, better.  I haven’t read The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), but the author of the college lark This Side of Paradise (1920) was hardly in Carraway’s league.  I don’t even know why I thought to make the comparison.  And The Great Gatsby is also a first draft (this requires evidence – tomorrow).

On the one hand, this fine writing from unlikely sources is implausible.  On the other hand, the proof is right there on the page.  Carraway says he’s writing the sentences we’re reading, and there they are.  Should I doubt my own eyes?  I think this is the strongest special effect available in fiction.  I know that Superman does not exist, and that people cannot fly, but I have seen Superman with my own eyes, flying all over the place.  That’s how movies work.  But Nick Carraway is somehow, without having seen him, even more real.  I’ve read his prose:

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light. (40-1, at Gatsby’s party)

What addle-pated reader, in the name of empty verisimilitude would want to dispose of the word “yellow” here?****  So we readers, if we’re not fools, swallow it all, collaborate with the writer to make the fiction work.  The writer has his responsibilities, but so does the reader.

At the same time, though, I can try to tear apart what the writer is doing – I can read both ways at once.  Is that voice doing what it’s supposed to be doing?  How far did the author really think through his decisions?  For example, doesn’t that wonderful passage sound a little odd in a memoir?  Not impossible, on its own, but as the book goes on like this, a little odd.  Maybe a little more like something one would find in a novel?  What, exactly, is this book Carraway is writing (he says it’s a book – p. 2)?  Fitzgerald is writing a novel, but Carraway is writing non-fiction, isn’t he?  Aren’t the two things different, shouldn’t they look different?  Tomorrow: Nick Carraway’s strange first book.  A preview: Fitzgerald is playing a marvelous little trick here.

Page numbers from the Scribner paperback, 2004 of Fitzgerald's novel, not Carraway's book.

* An ensuing argument with D. G. Myers pushed me in useful directions.  As usual, the argument began because one of us (me) was actually arguing about something else.

** What did he write?  “[A] series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News” (4).  But he is certainly a great reader, yes?  “And I had the high intention of reading many other books besides.”  Besides “a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities”!  Someone, Nick or Scott, is having some fun here.

*** F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the same title was definitely published in 1925.  I’m not so sure about Nick Carraway’s memoir.

**** The word actually tells us something, that Carraway might be, like Nabokov, synesthetic.

Monday, September 20, 2010

'Tis little I - could care for Pearls - Who own the ample sea - Wuthering Expectations is 3 years old

The title is from, and trivializes, Emily Dickinson, #466.  With 700 posts averaging (at a guess) 500 words each, aside from whatever goes on in the comments, anyone with sense should occasionally ask whether this level of effort should be directed elsewhere.  And that’s not counting the reading, a separate but similar question.  Note that the useful question is not “Why read?” but “Why read so much?”  Do you have a good answer?

Wuthering Expectations has served one purpose I set for it.  Can I write with a certain level of discipline, a post every weekday (holidays and vacations excluded)?  Yes.  Can I write well with that discipline?.  Ongoing.  But see below.

Last year at this time, I quoted the critic William Pritchard, who says that he is attempting to do the same thing that I at least like to think I’m doing:

Under the confines of a thousand-word limit - or in more spacious situations double or treble that length - [the reviewer] can embrace limits as a provocation to speak out, sometimes doubtless recklessly, in order to elicit something essential about his subject.

Perhaps pricked by Pritchard, I’ve been reckless.  How else to explain four straight days writing about mummified cats?  Or two weeks on the great John Galt (seriously, The Entail is one of the great novels of the 19th century)?  Or the thankfully temporary transformation of the site into Weeding Expectations?  That last one was not so much recklessness as tomfoolery. 

None of these ideas were exactly calculated to get hits or followers or whatever the relevant statistic is.  No one is going to be paying me in pearls for any of that - hardly the path to being a Professional Reader.  But a blog gives a writer a radical freedom.  I try to use it.

A week on Rohan Maitzen’s anthology of Victorian criticism.  Sympathetic Character Week.  The Moby-Dick Fantasia.  Where else would I be allowed to do any of that?  Whether it was worth doing –

The thing is, here’s the thing.  Typically, almost always, invariably, I would hit the Publish button with a sense of defeat.  Whatever I was trying to do was only barely there.  So, the next day, I would sharpen my spoon and once again begin tunneling through the prison wall.  Recently, though, and not just once, I have put up pieces that were, I thought, well made.  They were written the way I wanted them to be written, and made the argument I wanted to make.  Maybe I’ve learned something.  Or maybe I’ve lost my judgment.  Dang worrisome.  What does it mean?  I had better write some more - maybe I'll figure it out.

I also recently wrote the single best joke in the history of Wuthering Expectations, “best” meaning, resembling a professional joke.  It is unfortunately buried in a post about Thomas Carlyle that, I would guess, almost no one read.  The perils of recklessness.

Last week, a number of other book blogs or commenters singled out my multiple posts – a week (or three days) on a single book (or mummified cats).  So I want to mention some other people who are also embracing the limits of blogging: Five Branch Tree, bibliographing, Interpolations, IveBeenReadingLately, Fred’s Place, the exhaustive A Common Reader, Anecdotal Evidence (the best written book blog, easily).  They write on a book or idea however they want, for however long they want.  They’re all quite different than Wuthering Expectations, and each other.  But they’re all free.  See, for example, what Brian did with nothing but a bit of an interview with Javier Marías and a Chardin still life.  Please remind me of other blogs that belong in this company.

A little while ago, I suggested that a few good readers was all that some writers should really ask for.  I meant some great writers, but, somehow, I, too, have a few good readers, people who look at my notes on a draft of a notion and then respond in ways that sharpen my thoughts and push me to new places.  Thanks!  Thanks a lot.  I own the ample sea.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The bird returns and sits on the hat - imaginative Peter Pan

Another bad assumption: that the hodgepodge of elements in Peter Pan – fairies and mermaids, Caribbean Pirates and vaguely Iroquois Indians, all on a South Seas island – were just kitsch, more larkiness.  Now, I see that Barrie is parodying boy’s adventure books.  Treasure Island, by the time of the first performance a twenty year old classic, is referenced a couple of times, and I have no doubt that there are many other nods to books and plays unknown to me.

The key is, the hodgepodge is Peter’s, his private amusement park.  If he had preferred The Arabian Nights to James Fennimore Cooper, the island would contain genies and flying carpets rather than Indians.  Perhaps it once did, or someday will.  Wendy first comes to Peter’s attention as a source of the one thing he can’t seem to create himself – stories.  Peter’s imagination is somehow ideally suited for creating scenes within stories, but he needs help with the frame and the plot.  Thus, like most boys his age, he borrows.

The imagination is borrowed, too, of course, borrowed from J. M. Barrie.  I’ll say farewell to Peter Pan with an example of Barrie’s proto-Surrealism, a bit I had to read twice just to make sure it was really on the page.  The scene (end of Act 3):  Peter has been battling the pirates in a lagoon.  He is stranded on a rock.  The tide is rising.  Peter can fly, yes?  No, because he is pretending to be wounded.  A bit earlier, the Never Bird has drifted by on its floating nest (?).

(Peter is afraid at last, and a tremor runs through him, like a shudder passing over the lagoon; but on the lagoon one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them, and he feels just the one)

PETER  (with a drum beating in his breast as if he were a real boy at last)  To die will be an awfully big adventure.

( [time passes] The nest is borne nearer, and the bird, after cooing a message to him, leaves it and wings her way upwards.  Peter, who knows the bird language, slips into the nest, first removing the two eggs and placing them in [a pirate’s] hat, which has been left on the stave.  The hat drifts away from the rock, but he uses the stave as a mast.  The wind is driving him toward the open sea.  He takes off his shirt, which he had forgotten to remove while bathing, and unfurls it as a sail.  His vessel tacks, and he passes from sight, naked and victorious.  The bird returns and sits on the hat)

And curtain.  That one line of dialogue supplies the title of the 1989 Beryl Bainbridge novel which is partly about a performance of the play.  A footnote in the Oxford edition informs me that Peter originally had to fight the bird for the nest, but “[t]his upset the reviewers” (318).  Theater reviewers are so delicate and sensitive, poor little orchids.

Anyone who has acted in the play, or seen it performed – did the bird return and sit on the hat?  I’d love to see it myself.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

No children love me - frightening Peter Pan, pathetic Captain Hook

I’ve never seen Peter Pan on stage.  Not sure if I’ve ever seen the Disney movie, either.  I’ve picked up bits and pieces – Peter and Wendy fly around on wires, and I knew that the audience had to clap its hands to save the poisoned Tinker Bell.  I guess I had assumed that the scene was cutesy, or insipid.  Maybe most of the time it is.  Not in the play I read, though.  Not so much.  Nana, by the way, is the Darling children’s nanny, and also, in a bit of Surrealism, a dog:

PETER  She says – she says she thinks she could get well again if children believed in fairies!  (He rises and throws out his arms he knows not to whom, perhaps to the boys and girls of whom he is not one)  Do you believe in fairies?  Say quick that you believe!  If you believe, clap your hands! (4.275-81)

So far, so insipid, although, as usual, there is something odd in that stage direction.  What happens?

(Many clap, some don’t, a few hiss.  Then perhaps there is a rush of Nanas to the nurseries to see what on earth is happening.  But Tink is saved)  Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!  And now to rescue Wendy!

(Tink is already as merry and impudent as a grig [grasshopper], with not a thought for those who have saved her.  Peter ascends his tree as if he were shot up it.  What he is feeling is ‘Hook or me this time!’  He is frightfully happy) (4.281-7)

A few hiss!  Tinker Bell is heartless, but is a fairy, so perhaps we excuse her.  What Barrie deftly avoids saying here, is that it is not just the inhuman fairy who has not a thought for her saviors, but Peter Pan, too.  He is not one of the boys and girls.  He’s not human, either.

The Peter Pan of the play is cruel – a bully, frankly.  His interest in other people can be intense but is fleeting.  He plays a game until he tires of it, and then drops it for the next one.  You still wanted to play the other one?  Too bad.  And for Peter Pan, everything is a game.  The story of the play, taken this way, is actually the chronicle of the specific moment when Peter tires of the game of “Pirates.”  “Hook or me this time!”  The next visitors will get to see Peter fight Fu Manchu or Darth Vader or whatever has taken his fancy.  He’s tired of pirates.

Poor Captain Hook.  Hook is an amusing blend of boy’s book cliché and anxious Everyman, “[a] man of indomitable courage, the only thing at which he flinches is the sight of his own blood, which is thick and of unusual color.”  If Wendy reminds us of one side of growing up, sex and motherhood, Hook is the walking memento mori.  To grow up is to die.  Is Hook a tragic figure, or a heroic one?  Well, mock-tragic, mock-heroic, just as he begins Act 5 with a mock-Shakespearean soliloquy (“No little children love me” and so on).  His end, mock-sublime:

Lifting a blunderbuss he strikes forlornly not at the boy but at the barrel, which is hurled across the deck.  Peter remains sitting in the air still playing upon his pipes.  At this sight the great heart of Hook breaks.  That not wholly unheroic figure climbs the bulwarks murmuring ‘Floreat Etona,’ and prostrates himself into the water, where the crocodile is waiting for him open-mouthed.  Hook knows the purpose of this yawning cavity, but after what he has gone through he enters it like one greeting a friend. (end of 5.1)

Oh, yes, Hook was an Eton lad.  And Peter, larky Peter?

The curtain rises to show Peter a very Napoleon on his ship.  It must not rise again lest we see him on the poop in Hook’s hat and cigars, and with a small iron claw.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

She is probably wasting valuable time - surprised by Peter Pan

Launching the Scottish Literature Reading Challenge, I predicted that I would be sick of the whole thing in August, which was pretty much spot on.  I’ve kept on, though, with Margaret Oliphant and Thomas Carlyle and, now, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  Please don’t let my waning enthusiasm stop anyone – my commitment to read along is good until the end of the year, three and a half month from now.  Three and a half long, long months.

I’m a little surprised no one has jumped on Peter Pan yet.  It’s popular, isn’t it?  Maybe everyone thought they basically knew what was in it, so why bother.  I’ll admit I read it partly out of a sense of – not duty, exactly – but completeness.  Well, I was wrong.  I mean, I knew a lot of what was in the play.  But I've never seen a play like this:

WENDY  He is chaining Nana up.

    (This unfortunately is what he is doing, though we cannot see him.  Let us hope that he then retires to his study, looks up the word ‘temper’ in his Thesaurus, and under the influence of those benign pages becomes a better man.  In the meantime the children have been put to bed in unwonted silence, and Mrs Darling lights the night-lights over the beds) (I.300)

Now, I see how some of that can be made visible on the stage, but I have doubts about other parts.

Here, Peter Pan and Wendy are trying to catch a mermaid:

WENDY  (preserving her scales as carefully as if they were rare postage stamps)  I did so want to catch a mermaid.

PETER  (getting rid of his)  It is awfully difficult to catch a mermaid.

    (The mermaids at times find it just as difficult to catch him, though he sometimes joins them in their one game, which consists in lazily blowing bubbles into the air and seeing who can catch them.  The number of bubbles Peter has flown away with!  When the weather grows cold mermaids migrate to the other side of the world, and he once went with a great shoal of them half the way)

They are such cruel creatures, Wendy, that they try to pull boys and girls like you into the water and drown them.

WENDY  (too guarded by this time to ask what he means precisely by ‘like you,’ though she is very desirous of knowing)  How hateful! (III.20-5)

Barrie certainly packs a lot of whatever he is doing into those stage notes.  Whatever influence that last one has on the actor playing Wendy, it must be pretty subtle.

One more, just because they’re so much fun.  Tinker Bell, who is just a light, is in her little home, where:

She is probably wasting valuable time just now wondering whether to put on the smoky blue or the apple-blossom. (IV.30-2)

“Probably” is one of Barrie’s favorite words in Peter Pan, despite, or because of, the utter improbability of the whole thing.

Peter Pan has a baffling textual history.  The first performance was in 1904, but Barrie was a tinkerer, so the versions proliferated.  I’m using the 1928 edition, as published in Peter Pan and Other Plays, Oxford World’s Classics, 1995.  The book cover is from Barrie's novelization of his own play.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

#33 and #34 - Le Message et La Grenadière - trivial Balzac

To my knowledge, the only English translation of Gobseck is in an antique complete set, edited by George Saintsbury, published in 1897 or so.  Gutenberg translations all come from this set.  So that’s what I have been reading, Volume 22 of The Novels of Balzac, number 481 of a limited edition of 1,200, a 113 year old book.  I had to cut some of the pages - no one has ever read the stories I'm writing about today, not in this copy of  the book.

I tried a couple of other stories in the collection. Mediocre.  Not bad, but thin.  Typical magazine fiction from 180 years ago.  The Message (1832) was especially trivial, an indulgence in the Balzacian fantasy world where every young man is having an affair with a married countess.  It has a cute ironic punchline.

La Grenadière (1833) was better, if only because of the object in the title, which is “a little house on the right bank of the Loire.”  Balzac begins the story with a long (five page) description of the house.  It’s up on a cliff, above a wide part of the Loire which is “covered with scattered green islands.”  A little town is over that way, and a vineyard over there.  The stone wall is covered with “moss and ivy, wallflowers and pellitory,” the little summer-house with “jessamine and honeysuckle, vines and clematis.”

Pomegranate trees (ah, those are the grenadiers), yellow paint, green shutters, a modern kitchen, trees with limes, figs, peaches, and pears.  The house could “be the home of a poet’s desire, and the sweetest of retreats for two young lovers.”

This has all of the artistry of a real estate advertisement, but it worked on me.  I want, quite badly, now, to rent a little house on a cliff above the Loire.  Hmm, “a thousand francs for six months, the produce of the vineyard not included.”  That might be a bit steep, but I won’t need it for six months.

A story follows, about a woman’s successful attempt to protect her children from a sexual indiscretion.  The story is sentimental twaddle.  The house is all that's interesting, especially because for the first time I realized that Balzac uses the same device in many of his best books.  Père Goriot begins with a lengthy description of a boarding house; Colonel Chabert wanders around a law office for several pages before the Colonel finally appears and starts the story; and the stroll through town and around the Grandet house in Eugénie Grandet is a standalone masterpiece. So’s the beginning of Goriot, come to think of it.  Rather dim of me, but I never noticed, until reading La Grenadière, how often Balzac uses this trick, and I now wonder how many more there are.

In the titles of my posts, I have been numbering the Balzac stories.  #31 is back here.  So I am now up to 34 of Balzac’s 91 nouvelles.  Reading these subpar stories, neither of them really worth the trouble, has allowed me to neurotically mark them off of my Balzac checklist.  I have no interest, none at all, in reading all of Balzac.  I’m sure that most of the remaining 57 stories are more like The Message than Eugénie Grandet.  But who knows, right?  Sometimes we have to see for ourselves.

Monday, September 13, 2010

#32 - Gobseck - putrid pies, mouldy fish, nay, even shell-fish, the stench almost choked me.

Some people out on the internet have been saying some nice things about me as a part of Book Blogger Appreciation Week.  Warm thanks and returned appreciation to Jenny and Teresa at Shelf Love and Rebecca Reads.*

To any new visitor not particularly interested in Honoré de Balzac, this post is a poor introduction to Wuthering Expectations.  Last week’s Moby Dick Fantasia may be more typical, but I’m not sure it’s 100% readable.  I would like to direct newcomers, and perhaps everyone else, here (This is what I do) and here (Balzac 101, part 1 – of, maybe 20? I’ve written a lot about Balzac).

Today, I look at the euphonious Gobseck (1830), one of the earliest parts of the elaborate interlocking Human Comedy, written, in fact, when there was no Human Comedy, but later reworked into it.  Retconned, as the comic book kids say.  The long (70 page) story is by no mean top-drawer Balzac, but is of great interest to readers exploring the entire big system.

Or, hang on, maybe it is top-drawer?  Don’t I want to put things in the top-drawer that I don’t use very often, because I have to get the step ladder?  No, that’s top-shelf.  Gobseck is top-shelf Balzac.  This cannot possibly have been my point.

Yes, my point – Gobseck, the story of a Paris usurer and his entanglements with a young lawyer and a Countess, intersects directly with two of Balzac’s greatest books.  The Countess is, in fact, Anastasie Goriot, the older of the two cruel sisters in Père Goriot (1835).  And the usurer, the blood-sucking Gobseck, is in fact – well, never mind who he is, but he is the source of a surprising turn of events in A Harlot High and Low (1839 and later).  Also, the young lawyer shows up in many Balzac stories, including Colonel Chabert (1832), a favorite of mine, and we learn a lot about him here.

The episode from Père Goriot, some nonsense involving the retrieval of some diamonds, makes, as I remember it, no sense at all in the novel.  In fact, I recall a long footnote in the edition I read that tried to explain the scene, which must be how I learned that I needed to look at Gobseck.  I’m not sure how much it matters, since there’s plenty else going on in the book, but I see this as a flaw in Balzac’s scheme.  His interconnections are not always seamless.

Père Goriot is a short novel.  Someone should publish Père Goriot Plus, which would include the full novel followed by the stories Gobseck, The Red Inn (1832), and the essential The House of Nucingen (1838).  They’re all pretty good – Gobseck is the weakest – and would quickly demonstrate how the Human Comedy actually works.

The title of the post is from my favorite scene in Gobseck.  The usurer has died, and is discovered to be the first of Balzac’s chain of marvelous misers (see Eugénie Grandet or the first part of Lost Illusions).  He’s becomes so grasping that, by the end of his life, he even hoards food.  Without refrigeration.  Yuck!

Translation by Ellen Marriage, from the 1897 complete Comédie Humaine.

* And E. L. Fay joins in. Fella could get a swelled head. Thanks!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Great God! But for one single instant show thyself! - or, the Sub-Sub-Librarian's path to Heaven

Herman Melville was a deep reader of Sir Thomas Browne,* author of Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus (both 1658).  In the former, what first appears to be little more than a catalogue of historical burial customs slowly rotates into an ironic Ecclesiastean meditation on the meaning of death and the purpose of life.  The longer, more mysterious, The Garden of Cyrus gathers together every scrap of knowledge related to the number five that Browne’s disorientingly vast learning can provide.  What can it all mean?  Browne, playfully, or frustratingly, refuses to say.  It means many things to many people.  It means everything.  Nothing.

Browne’s prose is a magnificently supple instrument, an artistic achievement independent of subject, and Melville’s own prose owes a debt to Browne and many other 17th century writers.  But Melville learned something else from Browne.  Take any subject – any subject at all – and the imaginative writer can pull and twist and embellish it into something meaningful, or something that appears to be meaningful.  Whales, or the sea, or whiteness.  Any one is enough to get somewhere.  Now, combine them, intertwine them.  Make the whale white.  Anything you want to find can be found therein.

It’s all a trick, a writerly trick (sorry, technique).  Most literary art does something similar – a symbolic structure is created in the hope that some new meaning arises.  Few books are as explicit about the technique as Moby-Dick, where an entire alternate symbolic system, “a complete theory of the heavens and earth,” is directly tattooed on one of the characters.  Queequeg’s tattoos are “a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them” (Chapter 110).  Little wonder, then, if I have trouble reading Melville’s own mysteries, and I suspect that “himself” is not just Queequeg but Melville.

“Great God! But for one single instant show thyself!” Starbuck cries near the end of the book, echoing any number of characters in Clarel.  But He does not, or, worse, He does and is unrecognized.  Melville’s own search for God included a massive amount of reading, an accumulation of masses of information.  The right book, the right combination of books – could they somehow reveal something?  What?  Some people seem to read books, and even write about them, as some form of time-killing, an alternative to television or crossword puzzles.  Not me.  But then, why?  What am I looking for?

At the end of Moby-Dick, in one of the craziest of crazy moments, the sinking whale ship snags the “sky-hawk” that has been harassing Ahab and drags it into the sea:

And so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it. (Ch. 135)

Moby-Dick is surprisingly well-stocked with archangels, but this one, on the next-to-last page, reminds me of those on back on page 3, the ones who were going to be driven from heaven against the coming of the saintly Sub-Sub-Librarian.  So that’s one down, it seems.  You’re almost there, you grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub.  Almost there.

* Please see here for an entire blog centered on Sir Thomas Browne.   Please allow that blog to lead you to W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (1995):

And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness.  What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world.  (p. 19)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Death of Moby Dick

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put a hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears? (Job 41, 1:2 and 7)

God has here appeared “out of the whirlwind” to bully the long-suffering Job with his overheated bluster.  The sheer illogic of God’s response to Job makes for a moment of great sublimity.  I, like Herman Melville, am using the King James Version.

My understanding is that many Biblical scholars hear, in this part of Job, traces of an ancient mythology, in which Yahweh is some sort of storm god, and leviathan is – what?  A monster to be slain?  A water god to be tamed?

That storm god appears in Moby-Dick, in “The Candles,” where he grants magic powers to Captain Ahab’s handmade harpoon.  Ahab identifies the lightning god with Mithra, the sun.  The mate Starbuck, a Christian, fears that the blasphemous hubris of their captain has brought the wrath of Yahweh down upon the whalers.

Maybe they’re both right.  Just a few pages from the novel’s end, challenged by Starbuck, Ahab responds:

Ahab is forever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. (Ch. 134)

On the one hand, Ahab is starkers.  On the other, what if he is also correct?  Meaning, that he is the agent of the pre-Old Testament sun and storm god, engaged in a war with the leviathan \ water god.  Yahweh can put a hook into leviathan’s nose and fill his head with barbed irons, but he never says exactly how.  In that same chapter, Ahab does, in fact bore his magic thorn right through Moby Dick’s jaw.  His crew fills the whale's head with more fish spears.  Ahab strikes Moby Dick again in the last chapter.  None of this works out so well for Ahab or the crew, but who said being a divine agent is easy?

The question is, how does it work out for Moby Dick?  I’m not sure.  I didn’t come up with this crackpot idea until the last quarter of the book, so I wasn’t looking for signs of the white whale’s post-Ahab adventures.  “The Town-Ho’s Story,” Chapter 54, looked promising, since parts of it are clearly set after the events of the rest of the novel.  I just found one ambiguous clue, though, where Ishmael calls Moby Dick “immortal.”

The battle between the sun god and the water god is presumably recurrent and endless, so in that sense Moby Dick really is immortal.  And the actual demise of the white whale may be cosmically irrelevant.  Who knows the rules of this game?

Brief Googling suggests that no one has yet written The Death of Moby Dick.  It’s so promising – maybe an even better idea than Karamazov in California.  In the novel, he will survive Ahab’s harpoon, but barely.  Weakened, blasted in spirit, abandoned by Dagon, he wanders the seas searching for meaning.  He needs to survive at least until the invention of the explosive harpoon.  The book is a most heart-wrenching tragedy.  I’m eager to read it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Oh! Thou clear spirit of clear fire - the alchemical allegory of Moby-Dick; or, Melville has driven me mad

I have a Modern Library edition of Moby-Dick, an old one, with no scholarly apparatus, and no notes that aren’t Melville’s.  No flipping to the back this time through the book.  I just read it.  Great book; great book.  Cows shod in cod, the ship “garnished like one continuous jaw” with the teeth of the sperm whale, the massacre of the sharks, wonderful, wonderful.  Somewhere heading towards the end, though, something started to, I don’t know, shift.  Right about here, from Chapter 96, “The Try-Works”:

As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooners wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.

First, man, that’s good.  How is that not good?  It’s laid on pretty thick, I guess, this transformation of a whale ship into Hell, devils and all.  The harpooners are boiling a whale, that’s all that’s actually happening, but Ishmael, at the helm, has a visionary experience that is revelatory, “[a] stark, bewildered feeling, as of death” – this Hell has been on the ship all along, in its captain, Ahab.  The vision nearly causes Ishmael to capsize the ship, which made sense to me as the pattern came clear.  “Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!” says Ishmael, the novel’s water spirit.  The captain, Ahab, is of course the representative of fire.

I seem to be reducing Moby-Dick to some sort of allegory based on the four elements, which is crazy.  Whatever you do, do not search through the very first chapter for water references, starting with the second sentence.  I want to stay with Ahab, the sun worshipper.  I wonder when the idea is introduced.  I sure wasn’t looking for it, even though Melville could hardly be clearer, since King Ahab worshipped a sun god.  Please refer to I Kings 18.  Everyone reading with notes got this right away.  And the secret passengers, Ahab’s handpicked boat crew, are Parsees, Zoroastrians, fire worshippers.

Ahab’s Mithraism* is only gradually revealed (I think – gotta reread this book).  After “The Try-Works,” though, nothing is hidden.  Ahab destroys his quadrant so he can steer by the sun, begins to directly address the sun, and forges himself a magic harpoon.  The culmination is Chapter 119, “The Candles,” the lightning storm, when the whole ship is crackling with electricity.**  Ahab grasps a lightning rod and “put his foot upon the Parsee” and shrieks:

“Oh! Thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance.”

And on like that for a couple of pages, culminating in the lightning \ storm god either blessing or cursing the harpoon that will later be used to kill Moby Dick.  As the harpoon barb “burned there like a serpent’s tongue, Starbuck grasped Ahab by the arm – ‘God, God is against thee, old man; forbear!’”  Starbuck might be right, but he might be wrong.

Tomorrow, the case for Ahab.  Yesterday, I said the novel was about knowledge.  Yes.  It’s all connected.  Ha ha ha ha!  All connected!  I need to lie down for a minute.

*I know this word because of William Gaddis.  The sun worship subplot of The Recognitions (1955) is, I now see, plucked from Moby-Dick.

** If the good influence of Hawthorne can be seen in any single chapter, it’s right here.  “The Candles” parallels, although is even crazier than, “The Minister’s Vigil” in The Scarlet Letter.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On the beginning of Moby-Dick

By which I mean:


(Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)

The pale Usher--threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.  He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world.  He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.

There seems to have been some confusion over how Moby-Dick actually begins.  Do not call this poor fellow Ishmael.

I cannot say I am too happy with this opening.  It hits a little too close to home.  I love to dust my old grammars, too.  My handkerchiefs are rather plainer, though.

For some reason, this passage occupies an entire page.  One must turn the leaf to find the etymologies themselves, where I find Hackluyt telling me that the letter H is (“almost”) the only important letter in the word “whale,” and that whale, in both the Fegee and Erromangoan languages, is PEKEE-NUEE-NUEE.

Then we turn to the cetological extracts, as supplied by the “hopeless, sallow” Sub-Sub-Librarian, a meek man who will not inherit the earth, but rather heaven, taking the place of the archangels.  Look, that’s what it says.  I couldn’t make that up.

I wonder if many readers, or many potential readers, of Moby-Dick, forget the beginning of the book, or ignore it, or even skip it.  What a terrible error.  Understandable, though.  The consumptive Usher and the poor devil of a Sub-Sub-Librarian never reappear (they don’t, do they – how could they?).  A flag appears at the very end of the book, a queer and mocking flag.  It is unembellished and of no known nation, and it reminds me of my own mortality in a decidedly unmild way.

If the chronology were not against me, I would assume that Melville had begun Moby-Dick with a deliberate invocation of Jorge Luis Borges, patron saint of Sub-Sub-Librarians and dusty old lexicons.  Moby-Dick is a novel about knowledge, about knowability.  Epistemology, is that the word I want?  And theosophy, to harpoon another word I don’t really understand.  There came a point, near the end of the novel – I can be specific, actually, in Chapter 96, “The Try-Works” – where I actually began to feel, in whatever vague and formless way, that I was getting Moby-Dick, that I was looking right down its charnel of maw.  What I saw was terrifying, and probably addled my brain.  I’ll see if I can recover any of the feeling tomorrow.  Seriously, though – mildly reminded of his mortality!  Mildly!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Produce! Produce!

Eh, not today.

Happy Labor Day!

Friday, September 3, 2010

The possibility of lifelong happiness - Turgenev calculates the keen and quivering ratio

Now that I have finished Ivan Turgenev’s second novel, Home of the Gentry (1859), along with a (small) shelf of other early Turgenev works, I can say with confidence that he was one miserable cuss.  Or his view of the world, at least, is one of fundamental unhappiness, punctuated by moments of bliss.  Those moments may last as long as, I don’t know, a week.

Or maybe this is not Turgenev’s view of the world.  He sure writes as if it is:

I saw within reach, almost held in my hands, the possibility of lifelong happiness – and then it suddenly vanished; just as in roulette, the wheel has only to turn a fraction more and the beggar perhaps becomes a rich man. But if it’s not to be, it’s not to be – and that’s the end of it. I will do what I have to do with clenched teeth, and tell myself to keep quiet… (Ch. 41)

Lavretsky, a Superfluous Man, returns to Russia, fleeing a bad marriage.  He allows himself to fall in love with a distant relative.  There are some fine scenes of Lavretsky In Love – see Chapters 33 and 34, full of nightingales and trees whispering softly and music that breathes of immortal sadness.  Maybe a little goopy, actually.  But then a soap opera plot twist pulls everything apart.  Lavretsky renounces worldly happiness (see above) and in the process becomes a No-Longer-Superfluous Man.

Renunciation – this is the word I use when I pretend that I understand Goethe.  Turgenev is a keen student of Goethe, keener than I am, and has filtered a lot of Goethe through his own sensibility, most blatantly in the story “Faust” (1856), in which the hero somehow destroys the woman he loves by reading Goethe’s Faust to her.*  This is why I kept hearing echoes of Turgenev’s contemporary Theodor Storm, another Goethe disciple, another author of numerous stories of lost chances at love and happiness.  I just read an Emily Dickinson poem (#125) Turgenev might have liked:

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittance of years –
Bitter contested farthings –
And Coffers heaped with Tears!

The reader who agrees wholeheartedly might be more enthusiastically responsive to Turgenev than I am.  Home of the Gentry was a treat, comparable to First Love and On the Eve – in fact, these three books make a nice little thematically consistent trilogy.  All three are finely written.  Try Chapter 19 of Home of the Gentry, Lavretsky’s return, after many years, to his childhood home:

A pinch of tea was sought out, wrapped in a twist of red paper; a small but exceedingly fiery and noisy samovar was unearthed, along with sugar in very small lumps which looked as if they had been melted.  Lavretsky drank his tea from a big cup; he remembered this cup from his childhood: it had playing cards painted on it – and he drank out of it now as if he were a guest.

The book is full of little pleasures like this.  Turgenev does offer some hope in the end, too, some happiness, but it belongs to the next generation, not his own.  Fathers and Sons will greatly complicate this idea, and many others.

* Amusing that this story is exactly contemporary with Madame Bovary, the greatest reading-will-ruin-your-life novel.  Or second greatest, depending on how you interpret Don Quixote.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

We would go forward together towards a beautiful ideal - the Superfluous Man has worn me out

But I . . . there’s nothing else one can say about me – I’m superfluous, in a word.  (“The Diary of a Superfluous Man”, 1850)

Here’s a subject of which, reading, early Turgenev, I became heartily sick.  Early nineteenth century Russia, in a pattern common in many developing countries today, had made significant improvements in education without quite knowing what its newly educated citizens would do.  The now over-educated, Westernized gentry found itself restless, bored, Byronized, and spiritually enervated.  Except for all the ones who went to work, reforming the government, increasing agricultural productivity, and so on, through gradual changes.

It takes Turgenev a while to bring those people back into his writing.  This is, instead, typical:

[S]he would not distract me from my studies; she would herself inspire me to honest, disciplined labour, and we would go forward together towards a beautiful ideal. (The Home of the Gentry, Ch. 31)

Ha ha ha ha!  The Superfluous Man also turns out to be virtually useless around women.  My greatest revelation about the Turgenevian Superfluous Man, now that I’ve read so many stories about him, is that his problems are always romantic (also, Romantic, but I knew that).  There is always a woman involved.

Often, the woman is herself superfluous.  “If he were a hero, he’d inspire her, he’d teach her to sacrifice herself – and every sacrifice would be easy for her!” (“A Correspondence”).  The women, like this one, are trapped on their estates, with no possible role available besides wife and mother, unless a heroic non-Superfluous Man comes along to rescue them.  But, unfortunately, the men are not only not heroic, but Superfluous.

Turgenev’s women are, honestly, the saving grace of his early stories.  Their frustrations are palpable, they’re the ones kicking against their restraints, while the men mope about.  Turgenev surpasses himself in the short novel On the Eve (1860), where the heroine, through her own strength of character and force of will, not only finds her hero (who, of course, is not Russian) but then, inspired by his example, outdoes him.

On the Eve is an especially subtle treatment of the Superfluous Man theme, and I recommend it easily, not for that reason, but because it is artistically superior to its predecessors.  I was particularly disappointed in Turgenev’s first novel, Rudin (1856), in part because it is actually a play in disguise.  Scenery, description of character 1, description of character 2, then talk talk talk.  Enter: new character, describe him, then talk talk talk.  Rudin, the central Superfluous character has his interest, and the heroine has her surprises, but the artistry of the novel, along with many of the early stories, is just middlin’.

If I’d skipped them, though, I would have missed this:

When the first inviting notes of the mazurka sounded, I looked around calmly and coolly, casually approached a long-faced young lady who had a red, shiny nose, a mouth that hung open awkwardly, as though it had become unhinged, and a sinewy neck reminiscent of the handle of a double bass…  She was wearing a pink dress, which looked as though it had been sick recently and hadn’t fully recovered; a striped, dismal insect of some sort attached to a thick bronze pin quivered atop her head. (“The Diary of a Superfluous Man”)

Turgenev is always good with clothes.  As though it had become unhinged!  As though it had been sick recently!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I put pomade on my hair, lay down, and slept like a top all night - the gentle, bittersweet First Love

First Love (1860) is the Turgenev story, among his early works, that I would recommend to almost anyone.  No politics, no philosophy.  No subplots, which is what makes it more of a long story rather than a short novel.

The title almost tells the story.  A sixteen year old boy falls in love with a twenty-one year old woman, the sort who fascinates all of the men around her.  Since this is his first love, one can guess where we end up.

Turgenev’s tasks: First, get the details of adolescent love right.  Our poor sap falls in love at first sight; here he is that night:

As I was going to bed, without quite knowing why, I spun round two or three times on one foot; then I put pomade on my hair, lay down, and slept like a top all night. (Ch. 2)

The story is being written by the protagonist, twenty years later, as some sort of confession or purgative.  I like that he does not mind looking ridiculous.  I don’t know which is better, the spinning or the pomade.  His love destroys his studies, ruins his habits, makes him dress ridiculously.  “Like a beetle tied by the leg, I circled constantly round the adored lodge.”  All just right.  In some sense, the entire story is a mood piece, alternately ecstatic and despondent.

At the midpoint of the story, the boy learns that his beloved is in love with someone, but who?  Which leads us through Task #2, breaking the boy’s heart in an instructive manner.  I’ll let that be, and just mention that the lesson ends with a scene so sexually frank that I was genuinely startled.  It’s cloaked by the (adult) narrator’s presentation of the (adolescent) boy’s lack of understanding.  Maybe I'm the one who didn’t understand it.

References to horses weave the story together, beginning to end.  To me, this lifts First Love above what might at first look like a straightforward treatment of the subject.  Or a simple treatment – this write-up of First Love keeps insisting on its simple simplicity.  Yuck!  But there’s a difference between seeming and being, and between a simple story and complex artistry.

This bit is good, right?

…and then my attention was absorbed by the appearance of a large, brightly coloured woodpecker, busily climbing up the slender stem of a birch tree, and peering nervously behind it, alternately to the right and to the left, like a double bass player from behind the neck of his instrument. (Ch. 14)

Turgenev, early Turgenev, at least, spends a great deal of energy on finely-polished nature writing.  The Sportsman’s Notebook actually ends with several pages of pure description, of a dozen or so different scenes (meadow in spring, steppe in autumn, and so on).  I’m not convinced that this is all to the good, that the descriptive material is always so well integrated with the story.  The balance in First Love is nice, though, nature pathetically filtered through the palpitating heart of our hopeless young lovebird.

I used the Isaiah Berlin translation (1950) which, with attractively large type and pointless illustrations, stretches the length to 120 pages.  I’ll bet Oxford and Penguin get it down to sixty.  Making up for yesterday: A Common Reader on First Love.