Friday, December 17, 2010

The Wuthering Expectations Lifetime Reading Plan

Wuthering Expectations will be on Christmas vacation for a while.  All of next week, and then a little more.  Before I forget, Merry Christmas!

A vacation shoulld allow me to salt away some reading for the long winter, to store some books for future blogging.  I’m not sure it ever works that way.  Last Christmas, and on the plane to and from Morocco, I checked off some solid Humiliations – The Mayor of Casterbridge, a handful of Ibsen plays, The Saga of the Volsungs – and revisited The Warden.  I never wrote about any of them.  So why did I bother?  No, no - thank goodness – I’m not always reading for the dang blog.

I recently started in on Les Misérables, not, with its ludicrous bulk, the most bloggable of books, although please see how C. B. James wisely breaks it into pieces, which is presumably also how one reads it, a word or line at a time, not all at once.  I’m less than a tenth of the way in, and there’s this scene – no, never mind.  Into the freezer.  It’ll still be good when I thaw it out in May.

Joseph Epstein, in “Joseph Epstein’s Lifetime Reading Plan” (from Once around the Block, 1987), advises a worried student to “have some time-tested and officially great book going at all times – Gibbon, perhaps, or Cervantes – alongside which you can read less thumpingly significant books.”  Victor Hugo will fill that slot for the next four or six or eight months, unless I put it aside at some point, which would be wise, if unlikely.  It’s amazing how the Big Books fall into place over time.  Read one or two or three a year, and eventually one feels almost educated, or would, if it were not for all of the other books one has learned about along the way.

Here is Epstein's actual advice to the anxious young reader, nervous about the holes in his education: “to read no junky books, to haunt used-book stores, and to let one book lead him to another… there is no systematic way to go about it, no list, key to the kingdom of the educated.”  The reader will have to decide for herself what “junky” means.  I would add, whatever one is reading, try to read it well.

I read more systematically than Epstein.  I have my lists, list after list, and sometimes follow them.  The Scottish Reading Challenge was meant, in part, to free me from the lists – you decide what I’m reading – although it began with three lists!  Try this, try that.  Read widely, even when reading narrowly.

I’m reading a book right now that was suggested to me a day or two ago by someone about to launch her own Lifetime Reading Plan.  Best of luck!  The book, by the way, is Dear Darkness (2008) by youthful poet Kevin Young, and is sprinkled with poems about food – “Ode to Pork,” “Ode to Grits,” “Ode to Boudin”:

You are the chewing gum
of God. You are the reason
I know that skin
is only that, holds
more than it meets.

Is that “meat” pun excellent or execrable?  A thing I like about this guy is he, like Joseph Epstein, is not afraid to go for the joke.  Private to Lifetime Reader: why did you single out two poets who teach at Emory?

I am not reading Kevin Young to be well read, or to check him off of a list.  Nor – what else am I reading – Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden (more fiction about artists) or John Crowley’s The Translator (fiction about Why Translation Matters).  Hugo, yes, and Dickens’ puzzling Christmas Stories, yes, although they are fascinating in their oddity.  Main entries or supplements to my ongoing Lifetime Reading Plan.  Epstein again:

There is also a danger: once begun, there is no end.  I myself would rather be well-read than dead, but I have a strong hunch about which will come first.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Wuthering Expectations Best of 2010, I guess

The best book I read all year was, easily, incontestably, Moby-Dick.  The closest competitors, in audacity, scope, intensity, were the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and the first edition of Leaves of Grass. A different kind of reader would include The Brothers Karamazov.  I don’t want to write about any of these – I wrote plenty about Melville and Whitman, did justice to Dostoevsky, and have just barely begun to pretend to comprehend that enormous bolus of Dickinson.

Makes her sound pretty appealing, yes?  One of things I had to say about Whitman was that he had dropped a Brooklyn city directory on his foot.  I forgot I wrote that.  Not bad, huh?  If you can’t make yourself laugh – where was I?

So I don’t really want to write about the Best Books of the Year.  How about the Biggest Surprises?

1.  There’s this Argentine surrealist, César Aira, who writes weird little novel-like thingaroos.  I read three of them this year.  An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000) has a scene where a painter, and his horse, are struck by lightning, and then struck by lightning again, that is an unbelievable piece of writing.  Just crazy, stunning.  Nuts.

2.  I could single out every other episode of Gottfried Keller’s enormous Green Henry (1854).  In Part 3, Chapter 1, young Henry encounters the collected works of Goethe.  “From that hour I did not leave the couch, and I read for forty days on end, during which time the winter returned, and the Spring came back, but the white snow, whose shining I saw but heeded not, passed me by like a dream” (tr. A. M. Holt).  Green Henry is absolutely suffused with Goethe, dripping with Goethe.

3.  The City of Dreadful Night (1874), Bysshe Vanolis!  An amazing piece of poetic crankery, a brilliant pastiche of English and European poetry, a serious attempt to bring Baudelaire and Nerval into English.  The universe as a clock with no hands, the sinners who have so little hope that they cannot even go to hell, the Childe Roland-like wasteland of despair.  Fantastic, in all senses.

4.  Speaking of wastelands of despair, my weirdest experience of the year was reading one of my own recurring dreams in George MacDonald’s Lilith (1895).  Please read that dream-stuffed book; maybe you’ll find one of your own.  That reminds me one of the year’s true highlights, a guest post on MacDonald by my mother.  Thanks, Mom!

5.  All those French poets – Verlaine, Rimbaud, Hugo, Corbière, Laforgue, Mallarmé.  But I guess they were not surprises.  Like I didn’t know they were going to be good.  Please.

6.  Still, they were full of lots of individual little surprises.  As there were in, to switch to a novel I knew I would love, Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford.  The Armistice scene at the end of the third book, A Man Could Stand Up- (1926), it just builds and builds, and then, a joyous pow!  I looked for a quotation, but out of context, none will make sense.

That’s plenty, I guess.  No room for Moishe Leib Halpern, or Clarel, or The Ebb-Tide, or Skylark. No James Hogg or Tolstoy or Kalidasa.  Peter Pan floats away on a bird's nest.  The mayor of Casterbridge witnesses his own drowned body.  The time traveler witnesses the senescence of the earth.  This is now.

Next year, I guess: more books.  Or maybe I should just read these again.  They sound pretty good.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Wuthering Expectation Worst of the Year - eternal discomfiture from Philip Roth, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Gottfried Keller

The worst things I read in 2010:

The delusion – as he now thought of it – had lost its power over him, and so the books only magnified his sense of the hopelessly laughable amateur he was and of the hollowness of the pursuit to which he had dedicated his retirement. (Everyman, Philip Roth, 2006, p. 128)

That’s just – that’s just terrifying.  I wish I hadn’t read it.  Breathe slowly.  Calm.  Calm.

The books in that passage are art books.  The character is an amateur painter.  And I’m not even retired.  Never mind.  Everything’s fine.  That’s not about me.  Onward.

Few amateurs are endowed with a tender susceptibility to the sentiment of a picture; they are not won from an evil life, nor anywise morally improved by it. (The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1860, Ch. 37, “The Emptiness of Picture-Galleries”)

More pictures, so that’s not so bad.  Still, I can’t help but wonder if there is some distant analogy that I might apply to myself.  The passage is accurate.  I do not have a tender susceptibility to sentiment.  I’m not morally improved by my reading.  As a reader, I have a heart of stone, although passages like this introduce doubt.   But maybe there is no analogy.

On the other hand, I read continually, from morning till evening, and far into the night.  I always read German books, and in the queerest way.  Every evening, I intended on the following morning, and every morning, the following noon, to throw aside the books and get to my work; I even fixed the time from hour to hour, but while I turned the pages of the books, utterly oblivious of time, the hours slipped away, days, weeks and months vanished, as lightly and slyly as if, gently thronging forward, they were stealing away and vanishing with laughter, to my eternal discomfiture.  (Green Henry, Gottfried Keller, 1854, III.8, 368, tr. A. M. Holt)

Oh no.  That’s just – I have to look away.  Too horrifying.  The “work” Green Henry is avoiding is, again, painting.  The reading interferes with what he thinks is his vocation.  It is so much easier to consume art than it is to produce it.  Those hours, those months – those years!  Green Henry is, at this point, a lot younger than I am.  Try not to think about it.

I suppose the title of this post may be a little misleading.  These were all good books.  It’s their content that is unnerving.  Their meaning.

I don’t really read so many bad books.  What were the worst in quality this year?  The first half of Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters (2010), the last half of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1890), and the last four-fifths of Susan Ferrier’s Marriage (1818) – the first fifth is high-larious.  These books, or parts of them, may have been pretty poor, but they did not do any harm.  The Grossman book may have done a great deal of good, of the thought-provoking variety.  But those terrifying Roth, Hawthorne, and Keller passages, those I will carry around with me, trying, futilely, to suppress them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Best Books of the Year - 1860 - the mysterious tracts that separate waking from sleep

When I imagine the Top 10 lists of two centuries ago, long before, it seems, the invention of the Top 10 list, I rarely come up with anything like ten books.  Not ten books that have survived.  Maybe I could find ten good books, but that distinction is insufficient.  The process of canon formation or whatever you want to call it is a means of discarding good books.

The Top 10 list of 1860, for novels, at least, is an unusual one, then.  It’s long, and matches surprisingly well with our judgment.  I’m not sure which novel would actually win if we polled the English-language critics of 1860, but I have no doubt that Great Expectations and The Mill on the Floss would occupy the first two slots.  It’s the twelfth full-length novel of Charles Dickens, and only the second of George Eliot, but I somehow think the newcomer would win.  My speculation is based on some of the reading in Victorian criticism I have been doing this year, in Rohan Maitzen’s anthology The Victorian Art of Fiction (2009) and Richard Stang’s The Theory of the Novel in England: 1850-1870 (1959).  Dickens was a giant, but that Eliot novel made a heck of a splash.

The Marble Faun would have been on a lot of lists, too.  I’m less sure about The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.  He was much read but not quite reputable.  Still, that makes four novels, in English, that we still read – that are even well-known.  An unusual year.  An amazing year.

If I spread my reach, I find more books, more and more.  Ivan Turgenev published two outstanding novellas, On the Eve and First Love.  The mysterious Multatuli published Max Havelaar, the most important Dutch novel of the century, apparently (I ain’t read it).  Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson gave Norway, and us, A Happy Boy, a peasant novel.  Now I’m joking, but the joke is on my own ignorance.  Bjørnson won the Nobel Prize in 1903.  I'll bet he’s good.  I should find out some day.

John Ruskin had two books out, the outrageous Unto This Last and the fifth, final, volume of Modern Painters.  Waldo Emerson’s last important books of essays, The Conduct of Life, is from 1860, as is Jacob Burckhardt’s vivid The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.  These books would have been on various Top 10 lists, too, famous and impirtant then, still read now.  I could squeeze the bibliographies and find a few more, but I want to switch back to my usual dismal story, and look at poetry.

Some landmark works of poetry were published, or at least written, in 1860.  But I doubt they would have made many year-end lists.  The crucial third edition of Leaves of Grass is from 1860 – who was reading it?  Who knew it existed?  Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s single book, Poems, is from this year, too, but his best poems were not published until 1931, or, in the case of “the greatest poem in English of the century,” 1950.

The image of an arbutus plant at the top of the post is an 1860 painting by Martin Johnson Heade, a reminder of another shadowy poet.  Emily Dickinson, identified with the arbutus, or so Christopher Benfey tells me in A Summer of Hummingbirds (2008), and was, in 1860, in the middle of her most extraordinary burst of creativity.

The Murmur of a Bee
A Witchcraft – yieldeth me –
If any ask me why –
‘Twere easier to die –
Than tell –                 (from #155)

And I have one more example.  Spanish literature, torpid for two centuries (with one major exception), was jolted back into life by an enormously influential little book, Rimas,** by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer:

I did not sleep, but wandered in that limbo
in which objects change shape,
the mysterious tracts that separate
waking from sleep.*

I love Top 10 lists, and think they’re enormously useful.  The Top 10 lists of 2010 may very well include our own Great Expectations or The Woman in White or A Happy Boy.  But give a thought to the contemporary Whitman, Dickinson, and Bécquer.  Are they on anyone’s list?

* Plain prose translation from The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse, 1988, ed. J. M. Cohen, p. 388.

** Or am I simply wrong - was there an actual book in 1860? Or is that simply around the time Bécquer began publishing individual poems? I now think it was the latter.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Best Books of the Year - 1810 - Horrors that Demons might be proud to raise

I have to start my year end roundup a bit earlier than I would like this year. Calendar, vacation, etc.

1810 was a thin year for great literature, quantitatively.  I count two books and a play that I know are worth reading, and scrounged up a couple more possibilities.

The star of the year is Heinrich von Kleist.  The play Prince Friedrich von Homburg, and his book of stories – “The Earthquake in Chile,” “The Marquise of O-,“ and “Michael Kohlhaas” – that’s the year’s bounty.  The play is the one where the characters, including the title’s prince, are constantly fainting.  Is that meant to be funny?  I think so.  Hard to tell, sometimes, with slippery Kleist.  In the stories, it’s the reader who is constantly fainting at the sight of blood, horror, and general moral outrage.  Fantastic stuff.

What else is going on in the world of literature?  Very little that has survived.  In English poetry, you can read Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake or the very young Shelley’s self-published juvenilia and tell me how they are.  I’ll read the one book I know is outstanding, The Borough by George Crabbe, a poetic tour of a country district, surprisingly weird and powerful.  Crabbe seems to have lost his audience.  I have theories, but who wants to hear them.  The Borough has survived because of the “Peter Grimes” canto, the source of the Britten opera:

    Cold nervous Tremblings shook his sturdy Frame,
And strange Disease - he couldn't say the name;
Wild were his Dreams, and oft he rose in fright,
Waked by his view of Horrors in the Night, -
Horrors that would the sternest Minds amaze,
Horrors that Demons might be proud to raise:
And though he felt forsaken, grieved at heart,
To think he lived from all Mankind apart;
Yet, if a Man approach'd, in terrors he would start.

Let’s see.  Madame de Staël’s On Germany, which I have not read.  Goethe’s short play Pandora, which I have read, although I remember nothing about it.  There must be more.  One source for these year-end posts is the handy year-in-literature Wikipedia pages.  Here is 1810 (and a separate page for poetry). What have I missed?  The Mysteries of Ferney Castle by Robert Huish?  Please note the usual Wikipedia limitations – no hint of Kleist, easily the Writer of the Year, on that page.*

There’s one more candidate for Book of the Year, although it’s not quite literature, and it was not actually published until 1863.  Francisco Goya began his Disasters of War etchings, a response to the horrors of the Peninsular War, in 1810.  A relevant example, “Against the Common Good,” is above.  I’ve said this before, but I’m amazed anyone was able to create anything during this period of destruction.  The work of Kleist, Crabbe, Goya – what extraordinary things to come from such a terrible time.

* My Kleist dates comes from the chronological tables in Robertson, J. G., A History of German Literature, Sixth Edition, ed. Dorothy Reich (1970), William Blackwood: Edinburgh, p. 693.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Zen of aestheticism. Perfection is everywhere.

When I paw through The Book of Tea to rummage around its ideas about art, I’m following an old path.  I am dissatisfied with my culture’s answers to a vexing question – the permanence of great art, say – and am happy to discover that another culture has come up with different answers, allowing me to be differently dissatisfied.  What, actually satisfied?  Are you kidding?

Christopher Benfey did a great job of writing about this path, from both directions, Japan to Boston and Boston to Japan, in The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003), which features Herman Melville, Henry Adams, Lafcadio Hearn, Isabella Gardner, and, again and again, the crucial mediating figure, Kakuzo Okakura.  This is an easy book to recommend.  I guess the last part, guest starring Heidegger, gets a little heavy.

When I was in Japan a while ago, I read Okakura’s earlier book explaining Eastern literature and art to the Boston socialites, The Ideals of the East (1904).  I found it fascinating, and worrying, and enormously useful, but it is hardly as artfully written as The Book of Tea, which, amidst its miniature histories of flower arranging and tea consumption and the spread of Taoism, contains a number of sparkling passages, and a surprising amount of humor.

In Western houses we are often confronted with what appears to us useless reiteration.  We find it trying to talk to a man while his full-length portrait stares at us from behind his back.  We wonder which is real, he of the picture or he who talks, and feel a curious conviction that one of them must be fraud. (“The Tea-Room”)

This joke is worthy of Howards End or Henry James.  Maybe it’s in Henry James somewhere.  And the aesthetic idea is serious.  Okakura’s aesthetics do not advocate simplicity, but oppose needless complexity, artistic clutter.

The tea-master’s art is, in fact, enormously complex:

The cut and color of the dress, the poise of the body, and the manner of walking could all be made expressions of artistic personality.  These were matters not to be lightly ignored, for until one has made himself beautiful he has no right to approach beauty.  Thus the tea-master strove to be something more than the artist, - art itself.  It was the Zen of aestheticism.  Perfection is everywhere if we only choose to recognise it. (“Tea-Masters”)

If the teapot is round, the teacups should be square.  A flower and a picture of a flower do not belong in the same ceremony.  Minute distinctions of odor, shape, color, and taste are weighted with meaning.  Thus, the necessity of a book explaining it all.  Another nice one, by the way, is Yasunari Kawabata’s short novel Thousand Cranes (1952), partly about the hobbyists, or caretakers, who continue to enact the tea ceremony.

The Book of Tea ends with a description of the final tea ceremony of Rikiu, the greatest tea master:

Rikiu places the various articles before them, with the kakemono [an ancient text].  After all have expressed admiration of their beauty, Rikiu presents one of them to each of the assembled company as a souvenir.  The bowl alone he keeps.  "Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by man."  He speaks, and breaks the vessel into fragments.

I will let the interested reader discover the reason this is the last ceremony, the reason for the breaking of the bowl.  There is an aesthetics of creation, and an aesthetics of destruction, perfecion everywhere.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A diet of salt, vinegar, alum, and sometimes, vitriol - the impermanent beauty of the tea ceremony

If only Nathaniel Hawthorne had been familiar with Japanese aesthetics.  I suspect he would have been pleased with the Japanese understanding, the cultivation, of the impermanence of beauty.  He would have had to live another forty years to read Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea (1906), a Japanese scholar's delicate exposition, for a select group of Boston connoisseurs, of Zen Buddhism and Japanese aesthetics, centered around the tea ceremony.

The tea ceremony is a performance, and by its nature impermanent.  The beauty of the tea ceremony remains in memory only, itself hardly permanent.  The ceramics remain, and the tea-room, to be rearranged and reused, up to a point:

Zennism, with the Buddhist theory of evanescence and its demands for the mastery of spirit over matter, recognized the house only as a temporary refuge for the body.  The body itself was but as a hut in the wilderness, a flimsy shelter made by tying together the grasses that grew around, - when these ceased to be bound together they again became resolved into the original waste.  In the tea-room fugitiveness is suggested in the thatched roof, frailty in the slender pillars, lightness in the bamboo support, apparent carelessness in the use of commonplace materials. (“The Tea-Room”)

The tea-room can be abandoned, the cup sacrificed.  The tea ceremony is an act of beauty, and a preparation for death.  Every action is meaningful in itself, and more meaningful in conjunction with some other element of the ceremony – the pot, the tea-master’s robe, the picture, the flower.

Okakura devotes a chapter to the history and art of flower-arranging:

[The flower] rests there like an enthroned prince, and the guests or disciples on entering the room will salute it with a profound bow before making their addresses to the host.  Drawings from masterpieces are made and published for the edification of amateurs. The amount of literature on the subject is quite voluminous.  When the flower fades, the master tenderly consigns it to the river or carefully buries it in the ground.  Monuments are sometimes erected to their memory. (“Flowers”)

What a wonderful, perplexing, mix of the fixed and the ephemeral.  Drawings, literature, monuments.  Monuments to a single flower!  That last detail sounds like something from a Ronald Firbank novel.  The flower arranger’s very function is to stave off the inevitable, but minutely:

He would diet you with salt, vinegar, alum, and sometimes, vitriol.  Boiling water would be poured on your feet when you seemed ready to faint.  It would be his boast that he could keep life within you for two or more weeks longer than would have been possible without his treatment.  Would you not have preferred to have been killed at once when you were first captured?  What were the crimes you must have committed during your past incarnation to warrant such punishment in this? (“Flowers”)

The “you” is the poor flower, tormented in the name of fleeting beauty.  Okakura is surprisingly funny in The Book of Tea.  More of that tomorrow.  Every culture, every aesthetic, finds some way to balance the permanent and impermanent – monumental architecture and modern dance, the play as text and the play on stage.  As a reader, I sometimes gasp at the thought of the lost plays of Sophocles or poems of Sappho, but in fact the vast bulk of books are effectively lost after a generation or two.  The technology allows the possibility of resurrection, which is reassuring.  Okakura suggests, wisely, that I instead embrace that loss.

The Book of Tea was written in English, but I should still register it at Dolce Belleza's admirable Japanese Literature Challenge, shouldn't I?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Reducing Hawthorne - a guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Marble Faun marks the end of a Nathaniel Hawthorne project that began more or less when I started Wuthering Expectations.  I am now officially done with Nathaniel Hawthorne.  “Done.”

Two Library of America volumes, Tales and Sketches (1,463 pages of reading text) and Collected Novels (1,242 pages), and The American Notebooks, The English Notebooks, and The French and Italian Notebooks, which add up to maybe 2,000 pages more in the Centenary collected works.  Holy moley, that’s almost 5,000 pages.  Done!

I’m predicting that I will never read Hawthorne’s unfinished manuscripts, or any more of his books for children (two is plenty), or his campaign biography of General Franklin Pierce, so there are some good, solid limits to my completism.  I wish there had been stronger limits.  Although my opinions are almost entirely conventional, perhaps I can help future Hawthorne readers avoid some of my mistakes.

My one unconventional recommendation, first: the recently published selection from Hawthorne’s notebooks, The Business of Reflection, combined with the NYRB Twenty Days with Julian and Bunny by Papa, are simply outstanding reading, and will confound and delight readers with youthful memories of hating The Scarlet Letter. Other readers, too.  With a stroke, 2,000 pages turn into less than 300.

Now, I’m glad I read the whole bulk of the notebooks, but who are we kidding?  The one book of Hawthorne’s I truly wish I had skipped was his apprentice novel, Fanshawe (1828).  Dull, trite, clumsy, clichéd.  Alumni of Bowdoin College might find some of the details of the setting interesting.  He kept it a secret - Hawthorne’s wife did not even know the novel existed until after his death.  The distance in quality between this poor thing and Hawthorne’s first published story, “The Hollow of the Three Hills,” cannot be explained by the passage of two years.  Hawthorne had discovered an essential part of his imagination.  Fanshawe is not recognizable as Hawthorne; that first story is.

What to do about those stories?  The 1,100+ Library of America pages are rewarding, but much too much.  Some pleasantly fat selection is necessary.  Signet Classics has one, The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories, 270 pages, which omits “The Artist of the Beautiful” and “Feathertop.”  And “Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore.”  Hmm.  Perhaps supplement it with The Selected Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Alfred Kazin, or the Norton Critical Edition, or something like that.  I don’t know.  Don’t be neurotic, like I was, that’s all, unless you’re trying to graph Hawthorne.

My ranking of the four good novels: The Scarlet Letter (1850), The Marble Faun (1860), The House of Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852).  I’m ranking by quality, but quality may mean little more than how much I want to reread them.  The latter two, especially, have all sorts of serious structural and conceptual problems and dud chapters.  They also contain some extraordinary scenes, some of Hawthorne’s best.  Try Chapter 3 of Seven Gables, “The First Customer,” in which an old woman and a plump boy negotiate the sale of a gingerbread cookie, and then another. Marvelous, charming scene, even cute.  How it relates to the building dread of the Ecclesiastian “Governor Pyncheon” chapter, one of Hawthorne’s four or five best pieces, escapes me.

It would be nuts for the reader at all sympathetic to Hawthorne to miss it.  I’ve done a good job slimming down the notebooks and the stories, not so well with the novels.  Still, four novels, three of them quite short, is not exactly a hardship for vigorous book blog readers.  Add in a couple more short books, stories and notebooks, and you're "done," too, except now there will be all sorts of wonderful tales and scenes to revisit.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Whether carved marble is anything but limestone, after all - Hawthorne and impermanence

For some reason, I have been reading a lot of fiction about painters.  The Marble Faun, Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry (1854), a true “portrait of the artist” novel, Philip Roth’s Everyman (2006), Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl (1941-2).  Just coincidence – I didn’t even know any but the Keller novel featured painters.  I should have guessed, though, about The Marble Faun, given the self-taught syllabus in art appreciation I was reading in Hawthorne’s notebooks.

Hawthorne had written about artists before.  In my favorite Hawthorne story, “The Artist of the Beautiful” (1844), he makes as clear a statement of his own aesthetic principles as possible for a non-theoretical writer.  The artist in the story spends his life creating an artificial butterfly, which is almost immediately destroyed.  Yet the effort has culminated in something perfectly beautiful, and is therefore deeply meaningful.  I find it hard to think of the Library of America edition of Hawthorne’s Collected Novels, the one I have been reading, as a filmy butterfly.  It’s a substantial object, and it will be in print for, as far as I am concerned, forever.

Hawthorne is less sure about that.  In Rome, surrounded by examples of the creative work of the past three thousand years or so, he could not help thinking about what lasts and what does not; what stays beautiful and what does not.  He is merciless about worn frescoes:

But now, unless one happens to be a painter, these famous works make us miserably desperate.  They are poor, dim ghosts of what, when Giotto or Cimabue first created them, threw a splendor along the stately aisles; so far gone towards nothingness, in our day, that scarcely a hint of design or expression can glimmer through the dusk…  But now that the colors are so wretchedly bedimmed - now that blotches of plastered wall dot the frescos all over, like a mean reality thrusting itself through life's brightest illusions - the next best artist to Cimabue, or Giotto, or Ghirlandaio, or Pinturicchio, will be he that shall reverently cover their ruined masterpieces with white-wash! (The Marble Faun, Ch. 33, 1104)

I want to go on record here to cast my vote against Hawthorne – please do not whitewash Giotto frescoes.  Hawthorne contrasts the frescoes with sculpture, themselves indestructible, their beauty much less so:

In the chill of his [a sculptor’s] disappointment, he suspected that it was a very cold art to which he had devoted himself.  He questioned, at that moment, whether sculpture really ever softens and warms the material which it handles; whether carved marble is anything but limestone, after all; and whether the Apollo Belvedere itself possesses any merit above its physical beauty, or is beyond criticism even in that generally acknowledged excellence.  In flitting glances, heretofore, he had seemed to behold this statue, as something ethereal and godlike, but not now. (Ch. 43, 1178-9)

The jeweler in Hawthorne’s story is not a fiction writer, and his butterflies are not fiction.  Hawthorne’s own ephemeral butterflies are something else, little bursts of beauty or feeling or startlement that he tried to create out of packages of words.  In fiction – poetry, like painting, might be different – these small, powerful effects require a great deal of preparation, this enormous apparatus of plot and character and imagery, all of which risk concealing or even crushing the delicacy of the book.  Hawthorne would have recognized the purpose of many of the great abstract painters, of Kandinsky and Rothko, their desperate attempt to remove everything extraneous from the painting, everything that distracts from the essential meaning. 

Hawthorne reduced to the extent he could – his ghostly, “unrealistic” characters are one way he did it.  I wonder how far he could have gone.  I wonder how far any fiction writer can go.  A bunch of them have spent the past century trying to answer that question, haven’t they?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Artfully and airily removed from our mundane sphere - Hawthorne's last fantasy novel

The Marble Faun (1860) is a book about Rome.  It’s a novel in the sense that some fictional characters, pale as ghosts, slip through the actual Rome in something resembling a story.  The reader demanding realistic depictions of actual people, not abstractions roughly shaped into human form, may not find the book to be a novel at all.  The setting is more real than the people.

Writing about The Marble Faun, I am going to use words like “real” and “actual” as if I mean something by them.  The "real" Rome of the novel is in fact a creation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s imagination, a place he observed, and then put into the prose of his notebooks, and then filtered through his imagination (and through the notebooks) a second time.  When Sophia Hawthorne edited Hawthorne’s notebooks for publication, she omitted a number of scenes, replacing them with some version of “See Chapter X of The Marble Faun.”  A number of scenes are lifted, with minor changes, from the notebooks, and, writing the novel in Rome, Hawthorne could simply go for a stroll if he wanted to double-check his memory.  Still – it’s all a made up version of something real, and the “making up” began as soon as Hawthorne tried to write down what he experienced, long before he used it in his fiction.

I guess I mean something relative.  The fictional Rome, the fictional-but-real buildings and statuary and market stands, are meant to survive some sort of test against reality.  The Rome of1858 is gone, but the descriptions of artworks can still meet (or fail) those tests.  The reader can look for himself and see if Hawthorne got it right.  As he says in the notebooks, repeatedly, frustratedly, he is trying to get it right.

The four or five characters who circle around the plot of the novel are not meant to meet that sort of standard.  They are pointedly unreal.  One may or may not be a faun, another briefly turns into a nymph.  We’re in the imaginative world of The Scarlet Letter, with its elf and vampire and witch.  The difference is the reality of the physical world, of Hawthorne’s Rome.  It’s an inversion of much fiction, where the author convinces us, or lets us convince ourselves, that the characters are genuine people, while all but a few patches of the surrounding world are left as unfinished canvas, for the reader to fill in.  Thus, odd chapters titled “The Emptiness of Picture Galleries” (Ch. 37), in which Hawthorne and the reader and one of the characters spend eight pages appreciating, or failing to appreciate, art.

The disorienting contrast between the spirit characters and the real Rome is intentional, “the effect at which he aimed.”  The Marble Faun is a fantasy novel, an ancestor of John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981) and other fantasies of the not-quite-real.  I am in the “Postscript,” added, soon after publication, to soothe readers who whined about the novel’s lack of a conventionally antiseptic ending:

He [the Author] designed the story and the characters to bear, of course, a certain relation to human nature and human life, but still to be so artfully and airily removed from our mundane sphere, that some laws and proprieties of their own should be implicitly and insensibly acknowledged.

The idea of the modern Faun, for example, loses all the poetry and beauty which the Author fancied in it, and becomes nothing better than a grotesque absurdity, if we bring it into the actual light of day…  As respects all who ask such questions [whether the Faun-like character has furry ears], the book is, to that extent, a failure.

So the book was hardly a failure for me, although it kinda spoils my fun to so directly state, at the very end of the book, what I had been planning to write in my blog post.  I guess I wrote it anyway.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hawthorne learns to appreciate the cherubs and angels - his Italian notebooks

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Italian notebooks are a conscious act of art appreciation.  Hawthorne, prodded by his wife, spent much of his year and a half in Italy, the part he wrote about in his journal, at least, studying art.  He was not a natural connoisseur.  Appreciation is hard work.

One puzzle to me, reading earlier travelers to Italy, and earlier art critics, was the amount of attention paid to the Vatican’s Belvidere Apollo.  Why did this statue become the summit of ancient artistry?  Once that fact was established, by whatever means, it could only be repeated and reinforced by later writers.  Hawthorne knew those earlier writers, too, but he sometimes fought free of them.  He did the one thing that is so hard to do – he really looked at whatever he was looking at.

I saw the Apollo Belvidere as something ethereal and godlike; only for a flitting moment, however, and as if he had alighted from heaven, or shone suddenly out of the sunlight, and then had withdrawn himself again. (Mar, 10, 1858)

That glimpse is valuable, but Hawthorne has no illusions that it is endlessly repeatable, or that it does not require specific conditions.  His teenage son, during the same trip to the Vatican, reacts like this:

Julian was very hungry, and seeing a vast porphyry vase, forty-four feet in circumference, he wished that he had it full of soup.

That is also a fine piece of art criticism.

I sympathize, perhaps too much, with Hawthorne’s tastes.  Like me, he finds renewed vigor whenever he moves from a museum’s Italians to the painters of the Dutch room.  In the Uffizi:

These petty miracles [Gerard Dou’s flowers, feathers, and eggs] have their use in assuring us that painters really can do something that takes hold of us in our most matter of fact moods; whereas, the merits of the grander style of art may be beyond our ordinary appreciation, and leave us in doubt (nine times out of ten that we look at them) whether we have not befooled ourselves with a false admiration.  Until we learn to appreciate the cherubs and angels that Raphael scatters through the blessed air, in a picture of the Nativity, it is not amiss to look at a Dutch fly settling on a peach, or a humble-bee burying himself in a flower. (Jun. 15, 1858)

What a useful warning for my own reading.  A matter-of-fact mood is my most common mood, and I prefer the Dutch flies in literature to the cherubs.  A good part of the reason I write here is to put some pressure on my tastes, to make sure I don’t always rush past the Raphaels and Titians in order to see my beloved Boschs and Breughels.  And that business about not befooling myself with false admiration – I don’t even want to get into that.

On an unrelated note, the Hawthorne’s spend a lot of time visiting the Roman and Florentine studios of American artists.  One of the sculptures they see I actually know well.  It is Harriet Hosmer’s Beatrice Cenci (1856), which is now a prominent feature of the Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  A Wuthering Expectations blog post or two may have been written in close proximity to this piece.  Hawthorne’s only comment is that it “did not very greatly impress me” (April 3, 1858, not in the abridged notebooks).  I like it all right!  But I looked at it, and then looked some more.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hawthorne's notebooks for everyone

I asked, and with a bit of research, I received.  I have now read the entirety of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notebooks, maybe 2,000 pages in the Ohio State University Centenary Edition.  Those Centenary volumes are enormous beasts, about half Hawthorne and half apparatus.  Literally unhandy, hard to hold.  And as good as the notebooks are, as good as the writing is, they are disjointed and repetitive and too much of a good thing.  So I had hoped for a selection, a nice 800 page Library of America edition, for example, which I bet will someday exist.  Not that so many more readers will be tempted by that.

In fact, there is a selection of the notebooks available, a 210 page culling of the Centenary Edition that I can recommend to anyone:  The Business of Reflection: Hawthorne in His Notebooks, eds. Robert Milder and Randall Fuller, Ohio State University Press, 2009.

Do you see the problem?  First, I began reading the notebooks in 2007, so the shorter book didn’t exist.  Second, does that title make the book sound like a selection from Hawthorne’s notebook, or a collection of scholarly essays about the notebooks?  That's what I thought it was.  Third, the cover is ugly.

What’s in it?  It has almost everything I want it to have.  Early vacations in Maine and the Berkshires that contain some brilliant character sketches, something I rarely find in Hawthorne’s own fiction.  A sampling of the Brook Farm entries.  The entry (Jan, 23, 1842) that is smoothed out, moralized, and, I think, worsened when it is published as “The Old Apple Dealer.”

For many people, the honeymoon year beginning in the summer of 1842 will be a favorite.  Nathaniel and Sophia set up house in Concord.  Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller and an eccentric handyman , Mr. Thorow, “ugly as sin, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners” (Sep. 1, 1842) drop by now and then.  Hawthorne buys Thoreau’s boat!  Everyone is so happy, genuinely happy.  Literary depictions of happiness, good ones, are not all that common.

The Twenty Days with Julian & Bunny by Papa section, the summer of 1851, is only excerpted, so be sure to track down the separate NYRB edition of that one.

The sections from the Hawthorne family's residence in England and Italy are almost all vacation snaps.  Stratford-upon-Avon, Walter Scott’s mansion, the Lake District.  The slimming down is enormously helpful here.  Herman Melville’s visit is intact, as is the amusing July 30, 1857 entry, in which Hawthorne sees Tennyson at an art exhibit, and resists, barely, the temptation to follow him around, gawking.

I’ll write a bit more about the Italian trip tomorrow.

I still think that there should be an 800 page edition.  And a 400 page edition.  If I were a publisher, I would go broke.  But this is a valuable book, easy to recommend.  Readers who have had not-so-good experiences with Hawthorne’s fiction will be shocked, I predict, at how engaging he is here.  Funny and gloomy, warm and sarcastic, frustrated and inspired, a fine husband and father and a mediocre friend.  Ask your library to buy a copy.  Share the wealth.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"And I shall be deservedly hanged," say you, wishing to put an end to this prosing. - clever Thackeray

Perhaps I should mention that, whatever yesterday’s post might have suggested, I’m not so sure that Henry Esmond is William Thackeray’s best book.  For one thing, I’ve only read two of them, and he wrote a heap.  For another, I prefer Vanity Fair.  Henry Esmond is more technically accomplished.  How that translates into better and best, I’ll leave to others.

Perhaps I should not have mentioned any of this.  I leave all sorts of things unmentioned, and jokes unexplained.  Why else did I adopt Lil’ Thackeray as a mascot, as soon as I discovered him, forlorn and alone, at the end of Chapter IX of Vanity Fair.  Or not forlorn – he could be perfectly content.  Without the mask, it is hard to read his expression.

Henry Esmond begins with a mask.  Or almost begins.  This is the beginning of the novel’s second preface:

The actors in the old tragedies, as we read, piped their iambics to a tune, speaking from under a mask, and wearing stilts and a great head-dress.  'Twas thought the dignity of the Tragic Muse required these appurtenances, and that she was not to move except to a measure and cadence.

Esmond invokes Greek tragedy, and John Dryden, before turning to the Muse of History:

She too wears the mask and the cothurnus, and speaks to measure.  She too, in our age, busies herself with the affairs only of kings; waiting on them obsequiously and stately, as if she were but a mistress of court ceremonies, and had nothing to do with the registering of the affairs of the common people.  [A brilliant bit about “little wrinkled” Louis XIV is snipped]  I wonder shall History ever pull off her periwig and cease to be court-ridden?  Shall we see something of France and England besides Versailles and Windsor?

Esmond, writing long after the events of his memoir, sounds like a mid-twentieth century social historian, not that he writes about the common people himself.  Or, rather, he radically denies that the kings and heroes are any better or worse than anyone else.  No man is a hero to his valet, that’s the theme, although, in his own memoir, Henry Esmond is in fact a hero to his valet, which is a fine, fine joke.  Esmond continues: Queen Anne as a “hot, red-faced woman.  Cato, the Stoic Roman, is imagined “fuddling himself at a tavern with a wench on each knee.”  He ends this three page introduction with a vision of his own hanging:

"And I shall be deservedly hanged," say you, wishing to put an end to this prosing.  I don't say No.  I can't but accept the world as I find it, including a rope's end, as long as it is in fashion.

Thackeray’s novel is a sustained attack on the idea of heroism, a swing at Thomas Carlyle and others.  The Great Men are not so great, except perhaps for the unappreciated Henry Esmond, and the reader has some reason for doubt there, too.

The novel actually begins with another preface, by Esmond’s daughter.  She has apparently prepared her father’s memoir for publication in 1778.  Looking back, I’m amazed how much of the novel’s thematic material is packed into these first pages, the two prefaces, how much of even the plot is actually covered.  But the first-time reader has no idea who any of the characters are, or why Esmond is sneering at kings and queens, so it’s all just so much fog. 

We’re given a long paragraph, for example, on the history of Mrs. Thomas Tusher, a character who is never in the novel, not under that name, so even the attentive reader is unlikely to remember that we’ve already been told the end of her story.  This is exactly – exactly – the trick Nabokov uses in the John Ray, Jr. preface to Lolita (1955).  Thackeray, like Nabokov, is a supremely clever novelist.  Others can judge the value of cleverness in novels, the value of looking behind the mask to find the face, itself another mask.