Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Wuthering Expectations Lifetime Writing Plan

Writing, blog writing, my own writing, is a difficult subject, almost a book blog taboo.  You tread lightly just to say you dislike a book I like; how much more difficult to politely suggest that my argument is trivial and my writing is bad, which it often is.  We cannot all be Anecdotal Evidence or Pykk.

So I continue the slow work of identifying and stripping out the fluff, filler, and gibberish that I see, retrospectively, everywhere in the writing at Wuthering Expectations, while at the same time pursuing ideas to something closer to an end point, rather than abandoning ideas as soon as I identify them.  Blog writing lends itself to – probably should be – loose, but a writer should still be able to follow a thought.

With a mix of planning and luck, last winter I pointed myself in a direction that felt like “forward.”  The key text was Flaubert’s blood-soaked Salammbô, not one of the year’s best books, perhaps even a bad book, but one that was enormously fun to write about.  I loathe the word “read” as a noun, the ill-defined “good read” cliché, but I assume that people who use the term are trying to get at some aspect of the experience of reading a book that is independent of the qualities of the book itself.  If I include writing about Salammbô as part of the experience of reading it, the book was a blast.  A good write.  Oh, ugh, ouch!

Flaubert was surrounded by a cluster of French books – Maupassant’s stories, Hugo’s Les Misérables and William Shakespeare, Gide’s Immoralist, Charles Péguy and Anatole France, culminating in the madness of Alfred Jarry.  A side trip led to A Tale of Two Cities and early British science fiction - H. G. Wells, Richard Jefferies and Samuel Butler.  Most of the books I mentioned are second tier, at best, but  they made satisfyingly impressive noises when smashed together.

However well written these pieces might have been, I had a good time writing them.   Les Misérables was an interesting case.  Because of its bulk, I had worried that it would be difficult to write about coherently, but in fact Hugo’s wealth of stuff made the writing all too easy.  I just planted some flags as I read, picking out especially rich spots to which I could return.  Sewers and barricades; short, punchy sentences; long, twisty sentences.  What more do I need from an author for a week of posts than one great sentence?  Hugo gave me thousands of them.  And then, generous soul that he was, he gave me thousands more not-so-great sentences, and to add to the piquancy of existence, a handful of stinkers.

What more am I trying to do but write one great sentence?  It is like a dang grail quest: perilous, endless, ridiculous.

My title is a parody of the post I wrote this time last year, like this post written just before my vacation.  I’ll be back on January 3, maybe.  Merry Christmas!  Thanks for all of the help this year.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Wuthering Expectations Best of 2011, if I remember correctly

I have an irritating mental block in which it feels like everything I read before I went to France this summer was read not this year but last year, as if years are now six months long.  A Wuthering Expectations Best of 2011 is thus helpful to me – oh yeah, Les Misérables, that was good!

1.  In early January, I re-read Aeschylus.  The best book I read all year was The Oresteia.  Why pretend otherwise.  I just barely wrote about Aeschylus.

2.  Occasional bookish collaborations are the way to go.  They focus my mind and define my audience.  It helps to know that at least one clearly identified person will be carefully reading my ravings about Alfred Jarry.  To my delight, many people joined in the Anything Ubu Readalong Opportunity, to the extent that the best excuse to root around in my Ubu posts is to find the links to other, better pieces, of which there were many.  The Ubu plays themselves represent, of course, the death of literature – after this, the Savage God, as Yeats put it.  And yet here they are on my Best of list.  Someday when I have recovered my strength I will read them again.

3.  The same collaborative principle applies to much of my reading in Portuguese literature, but this has been recent and I am hardly done, so I will just thank everyone who has joined in so far and remind potential readers that the novels of Eça de Queirós and Machado de Assis have been winning fans wherever they have been opened.   I rank The Maias most highly among the Eça de Queirós novels, and Dom Casmurro among the Machado, but in both cases on such narrow technical grounds that I am not sure there is any point in pursuing the issue.  They have both been outstanding authors to read in depth.

4.  Les Misérables, now that was a good novel.

5.  I cannot describe how much I have been getting from the John Ruskin I have been reading.  I mean that literally – I cannot, and I have not.  This year I read the second and third volumes of The Stones of Venice and the third volume of Modern Painters and feel that I am overwhelmed by Ruskin’s ideas, good and bad.  Perhaps these ideas are being skillfully and subtly woven into the very fabric of Wuthering Expectations.  Yes, that must be it.

6.  In January, I wrote a little piece about Vladimir Nabokov’s novels, and about bibliographing nicole’s chronological attempt on them.  I read the first five this year, but I do not believe I wrote a word about them here.  I would now single out Nabokov’s third novel, The Defense, about a mentally troubled chess genius, as his first masterpiece, a complex overlay of patterns that had no precedent.  Whether or not it is enormously meaningful, I am less sure, but it is an utterly extraordinary artistic object.

7.  While I am on the subject of books I did not write about here, Interpolations Kevin spurred me to read J. M. Coetzee’s Foe, his deconstruction of Daniel Defoe’s novels.  I wrote about it, but only at his place.  Why not.

8.  Those early, Flaubertish stories of Maupassant’s, those were really good.  Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Brand.  The third edition of Leaves of Grass.  That scene in Le Grand Meaulnes where the puppeteer knocks the stuffing out of a doll, fills it with porridge ("with doleful little cries"), and hurls it into the audience.  That bit of The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc where Joan becomes a saint through sheer force of will.  The artfully detailed disgust of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

Now I am just wandering.  Not so bad, not so bad.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Best Books of 1861 - Yet if ye will but stay, whom I accost, And listen to my words a little space

What an amazing run the Victorian novel had from 1859 to 1861, or, really, from 1847 ( the annus Brontëus) through the 1870s.  Amazing in the quantity and quality of books of books that are still read, and not that the French and Russian and even, finally, American literatures of the period are insufficiently bulky.

This is only partly due to the irritatingly productive Anthony Trollope, who finished Framley Parsonage in 1861 and began serializing Orley Farm.  I am not sure how often the latter is read, but the former has survived pretty well.  Charles Dickens finished Great Expectations.  George Eliot published Silas Marner.  Margaret Oliphant wrote her first Carlingford stories.  This is a good haul, I would say, without having to resort to – I am on Wikipedia, 1861 in Literature – Mrs. Henry Wood’s East Lynne or Thackeray’s Adventures of Philip.

One more wonderful piece of English, or semi-English, literature dates from 1861, the first version of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Early Italian Poets, a book of translations of 13th and 14th century poems.  The centerpiece of the book is a complete translation of La Vita Nuova, Dante’s – the other Dante, the Dante-Dante – peculiar blend of prose and poetry celebrating his love for and mourning his loss of Beatrice:

Yet if ye will but stay, whom I accost,
  And listen to my words a little space,
    At going ye shall mourn with a loud voice.
It is her Beatrice that she hath lost;
  Of whom the least word spoken holds such grace
    That men weep hearing it, and have no choice.

NYRB has kept Rossetti’s version of The New Life in print.  Much of it, I would guess, is unsurpassable.

Let’s see.  Emily Dickinson was writing energetically, to the knowledge of no one.  Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs, now one of the most-read slave narratives, is from this year.  Frankly, the Civil War seems to have done in American literature for a few years.

I have no idea what was good in the French literature of 1861.  That Wiki page includes George Sand’s wacky Consuelo, but that is wrong by almost 20 years.  Come back next year for 1862.  Good, good French stuff in 1862.

Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured in Russia (I have not read this one).  The symbolic patriotism of Gottfried Keller’s The Banner of the Upright Seven in Switzerland (I have read it, and recommend it to the most dedicated readers of Keller).  Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald’s Kalevipoeg, the Estonian national epic.  Sorry, the what?  Now I am itching, ridiculously, to read the thing.

I expect most of these books to still be on this list when I repeat this exercise 50 years from now.  In the face of books as strong as Great Expectations and Silas Marner, 50 years does not sound so long.

The 1861 painting up top is John Morgan’s “Gentlemen of the Jury,” borrowed from Wiki.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Best Books of the Year - 1811 - I shall not cease from Mental Fight

I love Best of the Year lists, and believe that they are valuable, even if they do not quite do what they think they are doing.  For example: let us look back 200 years and catalog the Best Books of 1811.

As usual for the first couple of decades of the 19th century, the bulk of the Top 10 action is in German literature, where three major, long-lasting books were produced:

1.  The second volume of Heinrich von Kleist’s short stories, which included his longest piece of fiction, the novella Michael Kohlhaas.  Kleist ended the year by shooting himself in the chest.

2.  The novella Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.  Aside from the difficulty of the author’s preposterous name, I do not know why this story, among the greatest fantasies of the century, is so little known in English.  Fantasy stories are still popular, I believe.  This one, about a water spirit who falls in love and becomes more or less human for a while, is light and fluid and not burdened with allegories of Kant or Masonic flimflam like some fairy stories I could mention.  George MacDonald called it the ideal fairy tale, which it is.

3.  The first volume of Goethe’s autobiography, Poetry and Truth.  I do not remember how far he gets in the first part.  The childhood section is a marvel, even delightful.  Much of the recent movie Young Goethe in Love is presumably drawn from this memoir.  Goethe was 62 or so when this book was published.

German “Top 10 of 1811” lists, if there had been such things, would have regularly included these three books.  Kleist would be more common on the lists of young firebrands, who might well omit Goethe to declare their independence from orthodoxy.  The omission of Undine by the avant or rear-garde would simply have been a failure of judgment.

What else was going on in 1811?  Napoleonic France was for some reason bad for literature, so I do not know of anything there.  American literature, by which I mean lasting literature, had not quite been born yet, although I am sure a number of highly praised poems about Niagara Falls were published.

I wonder what the English Top 10 lists would have looked like?  Novels were not quite respectable yet, and crackpot visionary poets much less so, so the two greatest works of the year would have been omitted.

The image atop the post is the title page of William Blake’s Milton: a Poem.  One might note the 1804 in the lower left and wonder why I place the poem here.  My understanding is that Blake had been working on the poem since 1804, and that complete versions of these extraordinary handmade objects did not exist until 1810 or 1811.  And then I am arbitrarily picking the latter.  This is as good a place as any to remind myself that although I do double-check dates and so on, these year-end wrap-ups likely include some pretty grim errors.

Milton: A Poem is among the less complex of Blake’s mythological poems, which does not mean that I remember it well , or that the summaries I have used to jog my memory have been much help.  The spirit of Milton enters Blake’s foot and is united with his Female Principle?  ???*  Even if the entire poem is rarely read, the preface is the source of a genuinely famous poem, “Jerusalem” (see left):

I shall not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

As famous now, more famous, is the only English novel of the year whose title or author mean a thing to me.  Sense and Sensibility, by “A Lady,” was published in 1811, and I amuse myself thinking of how baffled all but a few readers of the time would be at the book’s life, that it is not only read 200 years later, which is rare enough, but hugely popular, both beloved and esteemed, while so many books that got so much more attention have been forgotten.

Which 2011 Top 10 list includes our contemporary Sense and Sensibility?

The Blake images are borrowed from the Milton page of the William Blake Archive.

*  ?????

Friday, December 16, 2011

If we can just get through this, maybe everything will be all right - my Russell Hoban appreciation, featuring windup mice and Samuel Beckett

Russell Hoban passed away earlier this week.  He wrote some picture books about a badger, and the funny and dazzling Riddley Walker (1980), a post-apocalyptic novel written in an imaginary English dialect.  I want to say something about a different book, one of my favorite books.  This one:

The Mouse and His Child (1968) is a story about windup toys, rats, tramping, frogs, and infinity.  The title characters are a single windup toy (see map, lower right) who have a series of adventures on their way to enlightenment, by which they mean self-winding.  For example, they join a traveling theater company that is performing Samuel Beckett’s The Last Visible Dog:

The bottom of a pond,” squawked Euterpe: “mud, ooze, rubbish, and water plants. Two tin cans, standing upright, half buried in the mud at center stage.  At stage left, a rock.  A head rises from one of the tin cans.  It is the head of Furza.  The head of Wurza rises from the other tin can.  Gretch enters stage right and crosses to the rock.

“Some play,” said the rabbit, who was Gretch.  “I don’t get any lines until the third act.  All I do is stand on that rock.” (Ch. IV)

The Mouse and His Child is the only children’s book I know that features a Beckett parody.  The novel is in fact philosophical and allusive, although subtly so.  It is full of little gifts for children that they will perhaps not unwrap until decades later.

In Chapter VI, the mice find themselves underwater (see map, upper right corner), in the company of a dog food can, a snapping turtle, and a larva of some sort, Miss Mudd.  The turtle is a practitioner of Zen (“That’s it,” said Serpentina.  “Nothing is the ultimate truth.”), although he seems to have been corrupted by self-interest, or years in the muck, while Miss Mudd is a sort of practical Romantic who eventually moves to a higher stage of existence.

A great treat of this book about anthropomorphized animal characters is how much they behave like the animals they are.  I am still in the pond in Chapter VI, where Miss Mudd has eaten the last scrap of paper on the shiny tin:

“Ah,” [the child] said, “there’s nothing on the other side of nothing but us.”  Miss Mudd looked at herself in the tin, then covered her face and turned away.

The mouse child felt himself fanned by a current of water as a large-mouth bass swam past him and glowered at the tin can.  “Move along, buddy,” the fish said to his own reflection.  “I’m nesting here.”

“You’re talking to yourself,” said Miss Mudd, stepping aside as the bass struck at her.

Animals kill and are killed in the novel, so adults with weak nerves should be careful.  Children will be fine:

Two passing tadpoles swam between him and the BONZO can, where they encountered a water snake.  “This way, please,” said the snake, and swallowed them.

“It looks bad,” said one of the tadpoles as they disappeared down the snake’s throat.

“You never know,” said the other.  “If we can just get through this, maybe everything will be all right.”

A 2001 edition replaced Lillian Hoban’s illustrations, the ones I feature here, which should be a desecration, but in fact David Small’s new pictures are wonderful.  I failed to mention that The Mouse and His Child begins and ends at Christmas.  The newer edition, or a ragged old one, like mine, would be a nice gift for a readin’ kind of kid or grown-up.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The glassy glitter of the cheap metaphors I loved - how The Land at the End of the World is written and why

When I described Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World as a war novel yesterday, I was employing shorthand, just as when I called Cardoso Pires’s Ballad of Dogs’ Beach anti-mystery a mystery.  Both novels are about the thing they appear to be about, but also distance themselves from their subject by means of literary style.

The method of Lobo Antunes is particularly wild.  Not only does he create distance by putting the narrator in Lisbon in 1979 while describing Angola in 1971, an old tactic, but he smothers his stories, both the one about wartime boredom and horror and the other about the meaninglessness of the narrator’s post-war life, in what he calls “the glassy glitter of the cheap metaphors I loved” (68).

The fourth page of the novel, for example, about how the young chap used to live near the Lisbon zoo:

Ticket-takers have “blinking myopic owl eyes.”

When tigers roar wax hands “shudder in arthritic terror” and clay statuettes of priests rattle “as if they were struggling to digest one too many cookies.”

Camels’ “expression of profound boredom lacked only a managerial cigar to complete the look.”

“Seated on the toilet, where the final remnant of a river in its death agony uttered intestinal gurglings, you could hear the laments of the seals, whose excessive girth prevented them from swimming down the pipes and out through the taps, grunting like impatient math examiners.”

That last one shows the commitment Lobo Antunes has to his metaphors.  To the imaginative reader, the world of the novel now includes cigar-smoking camels and seals popping out of water faucets – seals who sound like math teachers!  Whatever grim grittiness I might expect from a war novel is hidden under all of this other stuff, of which there is a massively disorienting quantity – four out of five sentences.  Or nine out of ten.

… the bathroom is an aquarium of tiles… my arms wave spasmodically like the boneless farewells of octopuses…  my eyes resemble the sad, bulging eyes of the sea bream on the kitchen table…  I am dissolving [in the tub] as I imagine fish do when they die in rivers… (162)

The character is at this point sitting on his toilet looking at himself in the mirror.  The layered metaphor – the transformation of tentacles into “boneless farewells” – is again evidence that the narrator is really imagining the octopus, that the metaphor is not just thrown away.  He needs the second metaphor to properly describe the first metaphor, which he needs to tell us how his arms look in the mirror.

Why he needs any of it is another question.  The novel is the story of a terrible wartime experience, but it is also simultaneously the story of the invention and deployment of two hundred pages of original, often absurd, metaphors (“I feel like a horse with my snout in the nosebag of my vodka, munching the sour hay of my lemon slice,” 55), a dozen or two on every page.

It is unbelievable.  I can barely follow it.  Lobo Antunes slips from the “real” to the imagined and back so frequently and with such enthusiasm that I sometimes lost track of which plane I was on.  In fact I was on both, simultaneously, just as I was in Lisbon and Angola, and in the narrator’s thoughts and on his date.  The broken detective novel of Cardoso Pires circled around its central ideas without looking at them directly, creating a source of negative space for them, while the author of The Land at the End of the World seemingly spoke freely, while seeming to want to escape from his own story by creating an independent imaginary world.

Fascinating books, both of them.  A round of reading of post-Salazar Portuguese novels would be hugely rewarding, that is clear enough, although I suppose I will now retreat again to the jolly, comfortable 19th century.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

You'll be amazed how fat I've gotten - The Land at the End of the World by António Lobo Antunes, a Portuguese war novel

Bad critical practice here.  I am going to write about a book I have not finished.  I want to follow a thematic connection with Ballad of Dogs’ Beach.

The narrator of The Land at the End of the World by António Lobo Antunes (1979) spent two years in Angola as an army doctor at the tail end of the Angolan War of Independence (1961-1975).  The novel, the narrator’s monologue, is a blend of his war experiences, which range from stultifying to nightmarish, and his life in Lisbon, also dull and horrific, although horrible in a different, self-inflicted way:

Life lived against the current does, however, have its disadvantages: my friends gradually distanced themselves from me, annoyed by what they considered to be an emotional frivolity bordering on dissolute vagrancy.  My family recoiled from my kisses as if from a bad case of contagious acne.  My professional colleagues gleefully put out the word that I was a dangerous incompetent…   (143)

I need those ellipses as Lobo Antunes is one of many Modernist long sentence fiends.  His primary method is the abuse of commas.  See pp.117-23 for a particularly effective and dramatic example, where multiple planes of action (surgery on the victim of a mine; a cheery letter to his wife) are hammered into what pretends to be a single sentence (the reader is free to pencil in ordinary punctuation) in the most expertly Faulknerian manner, best to just plunge in:

… one day I’ll take a photograph of myself and you’ll be amazed how fat I’ve gotten, two Coramine tablets and three Sympatol in the hope that I won’t lose the pulse as rapid and tenuous beneath my fingers as a bird’s heart, Slow march and at ease panted the second lieutenant on the Ericeira Road, a line of exhausted cadets on either side of the tarmac beneath the icy March rain… (123)

And all of this is supposedly being directly spoken to a woman in a bar the narrator is trying to pick up!  And he succeeds, and takes her home, and sleeps with her, and sees her out, and never stops talking.  The unremitting and allusive flow of talk, combined with the narrator’s loathing for Portugal, or perhaps for everything, often reminded me of Thomas Bernhard, but I have a hard time imagining one of Bernhard’s characters using his ranting as a tool of seduction.

I find it ridiculous here, too, but I actually interpret the river of memory and images and bile as something going on in the narrator’s head.  Fragments of the bar and bedroom leak into his thoughts; fragments of his thought leak back into his drunken conversation with the woman.  No need to be too literal.

Perhaps in the part of the novel that remains for me, all of this will be undone, or the narrator will tell us about the super-horrible atrocity he witnessed, which would destroy part of the effectiveness of the novel, so I doubt it.  The narrator’s personality is shattered by a series of ordinary atrocities and military absurdities.  He now numbs himself with booze and anonymous women.  The author, who the narrator closely resembles in biographical detail, also began writing novels.  The Land at the End of the World, his second, made his reputation.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Portugal, Europe's Best Kept Secret - a first try at Ballad of Dogs' Beach by José Cardoso Pires

The books at hand is Ballad of Dogs’ Beach: Dossier of a Crime by José Cardoso Pires, published in Portugal in 1982 to acclaim and prizes, translated by Mary Fitton and published in English in 1986 to somewhat more muted acclaim.  I vaguely remember this book getting some attention long ago.  It is a good one, but a tough nut.

The novel begins with a body – it is, in some sense, a murder mystery.  We are reading a police document, apparently, “BODY OF UNKNOWN MAN \ found, Praia do Mastro, 3rd April, 1960,” followed by fifteen numbered descriptive details (“10 perforation of oesophagus”) and then a note on the surroundings: “Shreds of clothing at no great distance, torn by dogs.”

But then the document ends, followed by white space.  A distant third person narrator takes up the description, looking at the stray dogs and rubbish and an out-of-place travel poster “in English: PORTUGAL, EUROPE’S BEST-KEPT SECRET.”  Now there is an example of what we call foreshadowing.  The Portugal of Salazar’s rigid dictatorship is full of secrets, although many of them turn out to be badly-kept.

A detective novel needs a detective.  There he is, on page 5, Inspector Elias Santana, nicknamed Graveyard.  Pale, near-sighted, digestive troubles, and one weirdly long and polished pinky fingernail, which creeps out the main female suspect for the entire book.  He is who we spend the book with, when we are not leafing through the dossier:

‘Today’s the day we receive a kick in the pants from the corpse, my friend.  How’s that for a novelty?’

In the cage, listening, was a lizard.  Either listening or feigning sleep, you couldn’t tell.  He was a big lizard, the colour of sand, and Elias called him Reptile.  He lay as if permanently poised for flight, head motionless, neck extended, long black claws spread and gripping strongly.

‘And you, with your reptile thoughts,’ Elias told this one and only confidante, ‘you could not care less.’ (7)

The kick in the pants is that the corpse turns out to be an army officer who had been arrested for his part in an attempted military coup but had recently escaped.  The case is political, the secret police will take it over, and it is unclear why Graveyard should bother making an effort to solve the case.

He does solve it, though, almost immediately, because of the lucky capture of one of the conspirators, the victim’s stunning mistress.  Not that the reader learns the answer.  Every piece of information is delivered obliquely, in the wrong place, wrong in an ordinary detective novel, which, to my joy, Dogs’ Beach is not.   The mystery of this mystery is the motive of the detective.  His questions are his own.  He does not blow the lid off of a conspiracy or take down a corrupt general.  He explores his folder of documents, and the crime scene, and Lisbon (Dogs’ Beach is an outstanding Lisbon novel) looking for something only incidentally related to the case.

As a detective novel, the whole thing is likely a failure.  As a political novel, a novel about life under a stagnant and oppressive regime, it is a great success; I have never read a book quite like it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Animals were so clearly just themselves - wandering in the woods with Jim Harrison's Farmer

Kevin, at Interpolations, suggested folks read Jim Harrison’s Farmer (1976), so I did.  I’d never read him before.  The short novel makes a nice companion piece to Jean Thompson’s Iowa novel The Year We Left Home – Harrison’s Michigan novel could be re-titled The Year I Stayed Home.  Actually, in the first chapter, we see that our hero Joseph has, in fact, left home, or at least gone on vacation for the first time in his life, so never mind.  The Year I Left Home works for this novel, too.  Joseph just has to work out a few minor issues before he can leave home.  Death, love, vocation, that sort of thing.

Joseph spends a lot of time wandering in the woods, hunting and fishing and looking around.  I would have been happy if the novel had been nothing but, like a book-length version of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Fisted River.”  Just one of these after another:

One afternoon he had been lucky enough to see a Cooper’s hawk swoop down through the trees and kill a blue-winged teal.  The other ducks escaped in a wild flock circling the pond twice while the Cooper’s hawk stood shrouding its prey with its wings.  Joseph watched it feed on the teal’s breast then fly off to a large dead oak to preen.  It was far too spectacular to be disturbing.  (15)

A water snake swam passed the boat; the doctor poked at it with the tip of his flyrod and the startled snake turned and hissed.  Then it continued on its way, leaving an S-shaped miniature wake in the water.  (102)

Man in nature – the “man” part is what makes it literature.  Harrison’s novel is about Robert Louis Stevenson’s “ennobled lemurs,” a more humanistic investigation of human animalism than Zola’s Thérèse Raquin:

Animals were so clearly just themselves, much more so than humans.  He liked the idea that man was the only mammal that thought of himself as part of a species.  (42)

The best ideas in the novel are about Joseph, or Harrison, investigating the relationship between his animal self and his “ennobled” self, how a sexual affair with a student* relates to his love of Keats and Whitman, or why he will hunt grouse (“splendid dinners wandering around in the forest waiting to be gathered and eaten”) but not woodcock or deer.  What strange animals we are.

I guess Hemingway never wrote a story called “The Big Two-Fisted River,” but he should have.  Someone should.  I am thinking of the one he did write, with the similar name.  “Hearted,” not “Fisted.”

*  Poking around, I have of course come across comparisons of Farmer with Lolita, reminding me of how utterly, shamefully ignorant many people are about Nabokov’s novel.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The pure aesthetic sensation of cruelty - the humane and inhumane Machado de Assis

I want to look at one more Machado de Assis story before setting him aside for a while, another of his at least sixty masterpieces of world literature.  It is Machado’s clearest statement about human cruelty.  No one is in favor of cruelty – no, perhaps Céline and similar authors are in favor of cruelty – but many are indifferent.  The narrator of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881) is indifferent, and not just because he is deceased.  Machado can seem indifferent, or even cruel; “The Hidden Cause” is a cruel story.

A young doctor, Garcia, by chance encounters an older man, Fortunato, who has rescued the victim of a random stabbing.  Fortunato assists Garcia in treating the man’s serious wounds.  Garcia is impressed by Fortunato’s fortitude and dedication in the face of danger and pain.  He can tell, though, that something is odd about Fortunato, “that the human heart is a well of mysteries.”

The doctor and Fortunato eventually found a hospital, and the doctor falls in love with Fortunato’s young, beautiful wife – heaven forbid we do not have this plot in a Machado story.  The doctor again observes Fortunato’s unswerving dedication to his patients:

He flinched at nothing; there was no disease too painful or repellent; he was ready for anything, at any time of the day or night.  Everyone was amazed and delighted.  Fortunato studied and followed the operations, and no one else was allowed to apply the caustics.

The story has five pages left, so the title’s “hidden cause” had better appear soon.  It does, in a scene from which I will refrain from quoting.  Detailed, Saw-like torture of a mouse, that is what is in the scene.  I have moved past the ‘orrible bits to get to the point:

Garcia, facing him, managed to control his disgust at the spectacle and observe the man’s expression.  No anger, no hatred; just a vast pleasure, quiet and profound; what you might get from hearing beautiful sonata, or looking at a perfect piece of sculpture – something like a pure aesthetic sensation.

I had better stop, since one more ‘orrible bit follows.  Fortunato’s wife is tubercular, and the story ends with a final demonstration of the hidden cause, one equally horrible but not grisly:

The kiss burst into sobs, the eyes couldn’t hold back the tears, which flowed thick and fast; the tears of silent love and irremediable despair.  Fortunato, at the door, where he had stopped, quietly savoured this explosion of moral pain, which lasted a long, long, deliciously long time.

That last line is, I think, the only point in the story where the point of view fully meshes with that of the sadistic Fortunato.  “Deliciously” is his word.

Machado’s cruel story does not condemn the sadist or argue with him.  It simply exposes him.

I am looking at A Chapter of Hats: Selected Stories, translated by John Gledson.  The same story is translated elsewhere as "The Secret Heart."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What a gulf there is between the spirit and the heart! - Machado's pessimism

I would like to write something about the pessimism of Machado de Assis.  I fear I lack the necessary philosophical foundation.  It is easy enough to see that the philosopher in Quincas Borba, creator of the doctrine of Humanitas, is a kook – “To the victor, the potatoes!” is a summary of his beliefs.  It is only slightly harder to do the tiniest bit of research and discover that Machado is satirizing positivism and Auguste Comte, which is pretty much a dead end for me.

The introduction to the Oxford University Press edition (tr. Gregory Rabassa) tells me that Quincas Borba has been interpreted as an allegory of the 1831 to 1889 reign of Emperor Pedro II.  You do not say.  That would be about as fruitful a path for me to pursue as a critique of positivism.  What can I do here.

That line in the title is the first sentence of the single paragraph that is Chapter II.  In Chapter I we learn that Rubião has just inherited a fortune, and that he would not have done so if events had not gone his way:

“See how God writes straight with crooked lines,” he thinks.  “If my sister Piedade had married Quincas Borba it would have left me with only a collateral hope.  She didn’t marry him.  They both died, and here I am with everything, so what looked like misfortune…” (end of Ch. I)

The ellipses are where Rubião’s selfish feelings (“heart”) collides with his guilt (“spirit”) over enjoying the deaths of his sister and friend.   He tries to distract himself by concentrating on a canoe that is floating by – “What a fine canoe!”  But his heart “let itself go on beating with joy.”

Much of Machado’s pessimism or cynicism is little more than a clear-eyed view of human nature.  Rubião is hardly a bad person, at least not the sort of monster Machado would portray in Dom Casmurro, his next novel.  Quincas Borba, with all its variety of characters, may have no bad people, although each character is selfish in his own unique way.  One minor character even approaches selflessness:

In spite of her cousin’s resistance, Dona Fernanda stayed on for Maria Benedita’s convalescence, so cordial, so good, so merry that it was a delight to have her in the house.  The happiness of this place made her forget the unhappiness of the other, but when the new mother was fully recovered, Dona Fernanda turned her attention to the sick man.  (Ch. CXC)

That Dona Fernanda eventually remembers the unhappiness of another is, in Quincas Borba, a moral triumph.  That sick man is Rubião, who does achieve an escape from his egotism, although not in a way anyone would want to imitate.

In the last chapter, the narrator stands at a distance from his text:

Weep for the two recent deaths if you have tears.  If you have only laughter, laugh!  It’s the same thing.  The Southern Cross [invoked early in the novel]… is so high up that it can’t discern the laughter or the tears of men.

Bras Cubas is dead, Dom Casmurro is deluded or even insane, and the narrator of Quincas Borba chooses the point of view of the stars.  From far away, crooked lines look straight.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

That’s what you would have seen had you read slowly - Machado insults me

Quincas Borba, the mad Brazilian philosopher, is a secondary character in Machado’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881).  He appears in Machado’s next novel as well, Quincas Borba (1891), although the title may well refer to his dog, also named Quincas Borba (“I will survive in the name of my dog,” Ch. V).

Borba’s philosophy is some sort of extreme version of “everything happens for the best”: “His last words were that pain was an illusion and that Pangloss was not as dotty as Voltaire indicated” (Ch. XI).  What happens in the novel that bears his, or his dog’s, name is that he dies, bequeathing his enormous fortune and his dog to his nurse, a 41 year-old nebbish named Rubião. 

Newly rich, Rubião moves to Rio de Janeiro where he lives in luxury, is fleeced by opportunists, and begins to believe that the dog Quincas Borba actually is the deceased philosopher, or contains his spirit, or something like that, but anyway now talks to him.  He also falls in love with the first woman he meets, who is unfortunately for him married and faithful, more or less.

As with Machado’s other mature novels, Quincas Borba is fragmented: 201 chapters in 267 pages.  Unlike Bras Cubas or Dom Casmurro (1899), this novel is in the third person, with an intrusive narrator, which we all know is the worst of all possible narrators.  Actually, most of the novel is written in a typically Flaubert-like manner, with the point of view centered on a single character at any given point, but hopping around from chapter to chapter, e.g.:


“It’s clear to me," Dr. Falcão was thinking on the way out.  “That man was the lover of this fellow’s wife.”

That is an entire chapter, and close to our entire time spent in the thoughts of this character.  Where Machado’s first person novels crush minor characters under the egotism of the narrator, Quincas Borba breathes life into many characters, including, as one might guess, a dog.  The purpose of that interfering narrator, besides joking around, is to break up the ordinary novelistic narrative.  Just as I think the novel is about Rubião’s pathetic pursuit of a married woman, say, Machado shifts somewhere else, to other characters with other problems.

Machado is dismantling the ordinary novelistic story but not replacing it with some clever alternative.  I can read, with satisfaction, for the surprises along the way, but not for the pleasing resolution of all of the little plots.  The reader looking for that will be less pleased.

Chapter CVI is revealing.  Machado has distributed an elaborate set of clues about a couple having a secret love affair, but in these chapters he not only explains the mystery away but insults the reader who fell for it, calling him (me) a “wretch” and refusing to apologize for including the obfuscatory details: “There was no reason for me to cut the episode or interrupt the book.”  Anyway, the real story was perfectly clear: “That’s what you would have seen had you read slowly.”

I read slowly.  Machado is hectoring other readers.

I have gotten nowhere with this novel.  So more tomorrow.  What it all means, maybe.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Machado de Assis, slavery, and slave-catching - not all of them liked being beaten

In the novels of Machado de Assis, or at least the four I have read so far, Brazilian slavery is taken for granted.  I have been startled, at times, by the lack of criticism of slavery.  See the episode in the center of The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, for example, where the narrator comes across a man beating a slave in the street, and the violent master turns out to be a slave freed by the narrator!  There is an irony here, but more about human nature than slavery.  Is it relevant that Machado had grandparents who were slaves?

Machado is working on voice and psychology in the novels and his great subject is egotism, not so well suited to social crusading or even to Huckleberry Finn.  His short stories are different, and there is one, “Father versus Mother,” where the tone is a little more critical.  Just a little:

Slavery brought with it its own trades and tools, as happens no doubt with any social institution.  If I mention certain tools, it is only because they are linked to a certain trade.  One of them was the iron collar, another the leg iron.  There was also the mask of tin plate.

That’s the first paragraph of the story.  He sounds like no one so much as Victor Hugo.  Machado spends five more acidic paragraphs on these tools and their purpose:

A half-century ago, slaves ran away frequently.  There were many slaves, and not all of them liked slavery.  It happened sometimes that they were beaten, and not all of them liked being beaten.

The story is about a poor man who makes his living catching runaway slaves, “one of the trades of the time,” in Rio de Janeiro.  He marries when times are good, but his wife is pregnant when times are bad.  Perhaps the couple will have to “carry the child that was soon to be born to the Wheel of abandoned babies.”

Machado squeezes  as hard as he can.  The father, the slave catcher, gets a hot lead on a high-reward runaway while carrying his baby to the foundling hospital.  The runaway slave is, he finds, pregnant.  Thus, the cruel dilemma – which baby to save? – except that there is no dilemma, even as the story takes a worse turn.  The slave catcher saves his own baby; the slave catcher catches the slave.  That’s that.  What else did I expect?

Again, it would be strange, out of place, to hear the self-absorbed narrators of Machado's novels worry much about justice or abolitionism.  But those narrators are not Machado.

 “Father versus Mother” led Machado’s 1906 short story collection, but was presumably also published earlier.  Quotations are from the Helen Caldwell translation, available in The Psychiatrist and Other Stories and Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story.  Another version is in A Chapter of Hats and Other Stories.

Monday, December 5, 2011

We know absolutely nothing of the texts we gnaw - more gnawing on Dom Casmurro

More Machado de Assis and Dom Casmurro.

1.  What I would like to do, but cannot, is map out my Crazy Theory about Dom Casmurro, which would resolve the multiple layers of the novel into a single ingenious solution.  Having read the novel once and browsed through it, I do not have more than the barest beginning or first scraps of evidence for my idea.  It will have to wait for a re-read.

In brief:  Our unreliable narrator destroys his happy family life because of his unreasonable jealousy.  But if Dom Casmurro is a combination of Othello (an admitted association) and Iago (a hidden one), then things frankly go too well for everyone.  A common interpretation is that the novel parodies tragedy, but I wonder if it actually conceals tragedy. Next time through.

2.  The unreliable narrator game works only if the novelist imposes some sort of limits on the unreliability.  If everything is in doubt, the novel crumbles.  The fictional writer cannot simply lie, but must also provide some way for the canny reader to identify the lies.  Thus, the need for a narrator who lacks control over his narrative, who is insane or boastful  or weakly self-deluded.  My Crazy Theory really demands an insane narrator.

3.  Jenny, at Shelf Love, works on the problem, the most difficult question in the novel: who is the person at the center of the novel?  He is “a tight-lipped man who doesn’t tell stories” (his “Casmurro” nickname means something like “taciturn”), but here he is telling stories for 260 pages.  She points to a place where the narrator himself tells me that my job is to “fill in the missing middle” (Ch. 55).

4.  Jenny picks out another good example of Machado’s rule-making.  Casmurro and Capitú’s son Ezekiel looks suspiciously like Casmurro’s best friend, Capitú’s presumed lover.  Or does he?  Casmurro insists that he does, that this resemblance is the strongest justification for his jealousy and subsequent actions.  But chance resemblances are a recurring theme of the novel – does the narrator understand this himself?  Is it an unconscious suggestion of his doubts?  A perverse form of proof?  Does the resemblance between son of friend exist or not, and how can we decide if all we have is the narrator’s version of the story?  Another odd Nabokov correspondence here: see Despair (1936).

5.  What other puzzles do I need to solve, or play with, when I next read Dom Casmurro?  A friend of the narrator writes a Panegyric to Saint Monica that baffles me.  The symbolic role of a child who is killed by his leprosy sticks out too much for my comfort.  And what about the worms?

I went so far as to pick up old books, dead books, buried books, open them, compare them, in order to track down the text and the meaning…  I tracked down the very worms in the books that they might tell me what was in the texts they gnawed.

“My dear sir,” replied a long fat worm, “we know absolutely nothing of the texts we gnaw, nor do we choose what we gnaw, nor do we like or dislike what we gnaw: we gnaw.” (Ch. 17)

That’s what I will do next time: track down the worms and watch them gnaw, and maybe even gnaw on the book alongside the worms.

Friday, December 2, 2011

One was within the other, like the fruit within its rind - layers of Dom Casmurro

Two stories in Dom Casmurro, surface and subsurface.  Bento Santiago, a lawyer who lives in an exact duplicate of his childhood home, decides to write the story of his life with his teen sweetheart and later wife Capitú, the most important female of the Brazilian literature.  This story turns into two stories, at least.

1. Despite early love and promises of devotion, Capitú has an affair with Bento’s best friend Escobar, and Capitú’s son Ezekiel is from Escobar.  The memoir is actually the prosecutor’s case against Capitú, a presentation of the evidence of the affair.

I see that I have already violated my schema.  The novel has branched.  The memoir of Bento (story 1) is also the proof of Capitú’s guilt (story 2).  This branch is visible in the structure of the novel, which, after an introduction, consists of a relatively straightforward and even sweet 100 pages of thwarted true love, and then another 100 pages of Bento's escape from the priesthood into marriage, leaving only 60 pages for marriage, children, death, betrayal, and that sort of thing.  It is during this last section that it becomes clear that what started as one kind of story has turned into something else, even if Bento claims otherwise:

If you remember of Capitú the child, you will have to recognize that one was within the other, like the fruit within its rind. (Ch. 148)

This is from the last page of the novel.  The narrator recognizes the problem, it seems, and insists that there is no branch at all, or if there is it is “the result of some chance incident.”

3.  The evidence for Capitú’s guilt, is, it turns out, thin.  Perhaps she did not have an affair at all, and Ezekiel is, in fact, Bento’s child, and he ruins everyone’s lives solely because of his jealousy and paranoia.  Bento’s case against Capitú is actually the case for, or the case against himself.

References to Othello run through the novel – explicit ones, like Chapter 135, “Othello” – and Bento identifies himself with Shakespeare’s character, although he perversely recognizes that if he is right the role does not fit, since Desdemona is not guilty.  He misreads Othello just a bit:

“And she [Desdemona] was innocent!”  I kept saying to myself all the way down the street.  “What would the audience do if she were really guilty, as guilty as Capitú?  And what death would the Moor mete out to her then?  A bolster would not suffice; there would be need of blood and fire, a vast, intense fire to consume her wholly, and reduce her to dust, and the dust tossed to the wind, in eternal extinction…” (Ch. 135, ellipses in original)

Bento no longer sounds like Othello at all, but like his namesake Iago, barely mentioned in Dom Casmurro aside from Bento’s last name. Strictly speaking, the reader, entirely dependent of the enclosed world of a narrator who may well be insane, has no certain way to judge the behind-the-scenes events of the novel.  The contradictory stories coexist.  The one in fact implies the other.

4.  More branches.  Bento writes his memoir to convince whom of Capitú’s adultery (himself, maybe, to assuage his guilt)?  Or is Bento’s guilt entirely in his subconscious, repressed, leaking into his text without his knowledge?  Is the memoir a prosecution, or a confession?  I detect hints of another possibility, too.  What if Bento is concealing something worse?

Well, when Brazilians complain that the English-speaking world undervalues their greatest novel, this is why.  It is a deconstructionist masterpiece, a text which casts a shadow more real than the text itself; the shadow may in turn have its own shadow; the novel is the aggregation of the text and all of the implied shadow stories.  The book is packed with uncanny echoes of The Good Soldier (Ford did not know Machado), Pale Fire (Nabokov never read Machado), and Borges (who read Machado long after he, Borges, had written his central works).  (Or so I understand all of this).

You will see that I have borrowed and rewritten much of Jenny’s piece from yesterday.

I am also reading Helen Caldwell’s translation, by the way.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

I have never quite understood a conversation... - "Midnight Mass," the greatest story, or so I am told, of Machado de Assis

The Machado de Assis book I want to get to is his 1899 novel Dom Casmurro, which Jenny at Shelf Love describes here (brief response to Jenny: Yes!).  I am going to continue my Machado-like indirect approach, though, and puzzle over another short story, the 1894 “Midnight Mass.”  Jenny and other readers of Dom Casmurro will see the relevance.

The first paragraph:

I have never quite understood a conversation that I had with a lady many years ago, when I was seventeen and she was thirty.  It was Christmas Eve.  I had arranged to go to Mass with a neighbor and was to rouse him at midnight for this purpose.

The first phrase is itself classic Machado.  The entire seven page story is the narrator trying to understand that conversation.  Was his landlady, Conceição, in the couple of hours before midnight, trying to seduce him?  Or did the timid seventeen year old just wish that she were?  Was he perhaps just detecting signs of Conceição’s frustration with her husband, who is at a liaison with a married woman, or her longing for someone else with whom she is in love?  Is she knowing or innocent; are her desires active, or unconscious (“I didn’t understand her denial; perhaps she didn’t understand it either”)?

The narrator’s response to Conceição is convincingly adolescent; he is all too conscious of her physical presence:

From time to time she wet her lips with her tongue.

Although thin, she always walked with a certain rocking gait as if she carried her weight with difficulty.  I had never before felt this impression so strongly.

She took the ends of her belt and tapped them on her knees, or rather on her right knee, for she had crossed her legs.

The idyll or seduction is interrupted by the neighbor on his way to Mass.  Conceição’ final words are:

“Hurry, hurry, don’t make him wait.  It was my fault.  Goodbye until tomorrow.”

Her fault that she kept the narrator from his appointment?  Or her fault that she was too passive, that she did not make the first move?  Or is she even talking to the narrator at that moment?

The narrator, by the end of the story, has no idea, nor does the reader.  Machado’s strategy is to multiply possible interpretations.  Some of the possibilities I mentioned above do not become visible until the last sentence.

“Midnight Mass” is often picked as Machado’s greatest story.  Or so says the editor of the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story, although, amusingly, he omits it from his collection, perhaps because it was already included in The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories (1997).  I read “Midnight Mass” in The Psychiatrist and Other Stories; William Grossman translated.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Notes on Machado de Assis using his characteristic form

I. No more than 37 pages into Quincas Borba, the 1891 Machado de Assis novel, I have no idea what the story might be.  A schoolteacher inherits a fortunes and a dog from a mad philosopher, whose great saying is “TO THE VICTOR, THE POTATOES” (Ch. XVIII).  The teacher is the victor, and thus he gets the potatoes, although I wonder about the dog.  An earlier translation of the book is in fact titled Philosopher or Dog?  Both philosopher and dog are names Quincas Borba.  I guess this setup could go anywhere.

II.  The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881) could go anywhere, and does, while also going nowhere.  Thinking over the story, I am surprised to recall how little there is.  A man of leisure has a long-term affair with a married woman which eventually fizzles.  He has other ambitions which also fizzle.  Eventually, he dies, after which he composes his memoirs.  How is that a novel?

III.  The story of Dom Casmurro (1899) is more substantially novelistic.  A teenage boy, Bentinho, does not want to go to the seminary, and does not want to become a priest.  He is in love with the girl next door, the startling and original Capitú; she, for some reason, loves him, too.  They scheme to keep Bentinho at home.  Aside from some peculiar digressions by the narrator, the adult Bentinho, and the knowledge, from the early chapters, that something separates the lovers, the novel is almost a conventional love story.  That lasts for about a hundred pages.  Then the novel spins off into the void, but slowly, sneakily.

IV.  Although I would not guess it from the novels, Machado de Assis was full of stories.  He published over 200 of them among which – I have opened the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story (2006) to Machado’s biography on page 37 – he “exhibits a polished, concise, and masterful style in sixty-three stories.”  In fact, “at least sixty are masterpieces of world literature.”   I greatly admire the confidence and precision of the biographer’s judgment.

V.  It would be useful, certainly, if someone would translate and publish Machado’s final five volumes of short stories, home of the 63 world-class masterpieces, in their original format and order.  Maybe half of them have wandered into English elsewhere, in three short collections, in this anthology, and in the little 1921 volume I wrote about here.  That means I am missing out on at least thirty masterpieces!  Of world literature!

VI.  In 480 pages of stories, the Oxford Anthology gives 63 (10 stories) to Machado de Assis.  Next is the linguistic innovator João Guimarães Rosa (56 pages, 6 stories), then the mysteriously symbolic Clarice Lispector (37 and 9).  Érico Veríssimo, father of the author of Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, has three stories in 27 pages; no one else has more than two stories.  The anthologist admits that this distribution slights Jorge Amado “who never specialized in the story per se.”   So that’s Brazilian literature from one angle.

VII.  I guess I will spend the next week or two pawing through Machado de Assis, although not in this irritating format.  I believe one more reader will join me.  Outstanding.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An impression of excess passed only fleetingly through us - jolly sexual confusion with the decadent Sá-Carneiro

A wild-eyed loon today, Mario de Sá-Carneiro, Portuguese decadent, pal of Pessoa, self-poisoned at age 25, poor sap.  I have read his short novel Lucio’s Confession (1913),  and there is also a book of short stories, both translated by the overworked Margaret Jull Costa.

I am afraid that “Portuguese decadent” is almost sufficient to describe Sá-Carneiro’s novel.  Any real ideas are recycled from the French, some dating back 60 years to Baudelaire.  But what adult reads decadent literature for the ideas?  Decadence, sincere or fake, gives an artist freedom.  So gimme your best stuff, Mario, the weirdest nonsense you can imagine.

Lucio’s Confession is inventive.  The central conceit is convoluted, but amusingly absurd.  A handsome young poet materializes his repressed homosexual attraction for his friends in the form of a wife, Marta.  The wife, you understand, is a product of the poet’s imagination, yet real.  She can have affairs with the poet’s friends while he works on his book.

The novel is narrated by one of the writers, Lucio, who sleeps with Marta.  He is completely nuts – unreliable and then some – so another interpretation is that the narrator is the one repressing his homosexuality.  He either has an affair with the poet’s actual wife as a form of sublimation, or he imagines he has an affair with the actual woman, or he imagines he has an affair with an imaginary woman.  Or something like that – maybe he has an actual affair with an imaginary woman – and then everything ends in violence,  and thus Lucio confesses in the pages in front of me – “I wanted to write an honest account of my strange adventure, keeping it as simple as possible” (120).  Mm hmm.

Colors and light give the book its coherence:

Her face was truly lovely, it had a vigorous beauty, as if carved out of gold. (61)

His reddish-blond hair, parted in the middle, fell gracefully over his forehead and his golden-shadowed eyes never left Marta, or so I was to remember in retrospect. (62)

Until at last, mysteriously, the fire faded into gold and her dead body floated, heraldic, upon the gilded waters – now calm and dead as well.  (35)

Gold and red, fire and light.  “Heraldic” even – “the gold coat of arms danced wildly before my eyes” (114).

In the first chapter of the novel an aristocratic Lesbian demonstrates her theories of sexualized light in a decadent Parisian extravaganza, “an orgy of flesh distilled into gold!” (31).  It’s a wonderful crazy scene:

Her tunic was color gone mad. (30, italics courtesy of Sá-Carneiro)

A mysterious breeze blew through it, a grey breeze blotched with yellow (31, italics ditto)

Her legs, knotted with muscles, were hard, masculine and aroused in everyone present the violent urge to bite them. (33)

The line I put in the title is from the same scene.  I assume I am reading all of this in the right spirit.  I hate to think that poor Sá-Carneiro meant any of it too seriously, that it is much more than literary playfulness.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Some unsuspected secret life that included fun - Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home

I used to read a lot more contemporary American fiction.  Realistic stuff, regionalist.  Dirty realism, as it was amusingly called in an old issue of Granta.  Bobbie Ann Mason and Tobias Wolff are the two writers whose work has really stuck with me, although I have not made much effort to keep up with either of them.

Jean Thompson’s new novel The Year We Left Home (2011) is comparably good.  Over thirty years, four siblings and a cousin leave their home in rural Iowa, sometimes traveling far, sometimes just down the street.  Each chapter is focused, often self-contained:  we spend time with a single character in a single enlightening moment, ending in a dramatic Joycean epiphany, or perhaps a squelching anti-epiphany where nothing is learned.

For example, in the first chapter (January 1973) young Ryan is helping out at his sister’s wedding (“The whole import of the wedding embarrassed him powerfully, though he could not have said why”).  Ryan gets stoned with his cousin Chip and they philosophize about family, Vietnam, and hideous AM radio hits.  Ryan and Chip will be contrasted on a recurring basis as the novel goes on: restless sense versus free-ranging nonsense.  Sense has less fun but gets to keep his teeth.

Early in the chapter we are introduced to Uncle Norm and Aunt Martha, stereotypical Lutheran farmers, representatives of Restful Sense, as well as hard work, reticence, “privation, thrift, cleanliness, and joyless charity,” and enormous quantities of food (“potatoes topped with shredded orange cheese, beef in gravy, chicken and biscuits, corn pudding”), the home the kids will leave.

Now Thompson has set us up for Ryan’s epiphany.  The wedding band starts into a swing tune.  Uncle Norm has a can of Dance Wax:

Little powdery flakes, like snow falling inside.  Then Aunt Martha joined him, and the two of them clasped hands, Norm’s arms around her waist.  They stepped together, stepped and twirled and glided, up and down and round and round, some fast step they must have learned back when they were kids and had been practicing ever since in some unsuspected secret life that included fun, moving in perfect time with each other and the jazzy music. (19)

It may take Ryan thirty years to absorb the moment, but we have the whole novel ahead of us for that.

Thompson’s prose does not get much fancier, although she has her little flights, like a wintry Carl Sandburg parody (215) or a bit of simple Nabokovian plotting (“the god of coincidences couldn’t be expected to attend to everything ,” 287), or a hilarious ranting visiting artist:

“But you know something?  Those guys [Drake University art students] are never going to do squat, because they have all the creativity of one of the four basic food groups.  They might as well be dark green leafy vegetables or dairy products.” (306)

A lot to like here.  A lot of “Yes, it’s just like that!”  For whatever reason, the contemporary writers that attract my attention are the international Modernists, the Surrealists and innovators and wild-eyed loons.  I do not read so much of the kind of thing Jean Thompson writes, The Way We Live Now 2011.  But it’s not because the insights are not true or the writing is not good.  I assume there are plenty of recent American novels as good as The Year We Left Home.  Well, no; a few as good.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Both theory and practice - The Psychiatrist by Machado de Assis

Wuthering Expectations will be closed for the holiday on Thursday and Friday.  Next week, if all goes well, I will balance my Eça de Queirós obsession with some Machado de Assis.  Exact contemporaries, careful readers of each other’s work – Eça actually rewrote an entire novel because of Machado’s criticisms – they could hardly be more different.

A preview today, Machado’s novella The Psychiatrist (1881-2), a prescient satire of the new profession and of social science in general.  I read it in The Psychiatrist and Other Stories (1963); William L. Grossman translated.

A famous psychiatrist, “one of the greatest doctors in all Brazil, Portugal, and the Spains,” returns to his obscure home town to conduct his researches, marries, and opens a mental asylum, although to many citizens “[t]he idea of having madmen live together in the same house seemed itself to be a symptom of madness” (3).  Dr. Bacamarte’s reasons for choosing his wife (“neither beautiful nor charming”) tells us exactly who he is:

The doctor replied that Dona Evarista enjoyed perfect digestion, excellent eyesight, and normal blood pressure; she had had no serious illnesses and her urinalysis was negative.  It was likely she would give him healthy, robust children… he would not be tempted to sacrifice his scientific pursuits to the contemplation of his wife’s attractions.” (1)

After the first surprisingly large “torrent of madmen,” Dr. Bacamarte’s theories evolve, and the definition of insanity expands.  A revolutionary political plot develops, opposed to the coercive madhouse, at least until it takes power and the madhouse becomes a useful tool for enforcing the junta’s power.

Soon enough, eighty percent of the town’s population are in the asylum, which leads the psychiatrist to again revise his theories: because, statistically, insanity is the norm, the insane must therefore be sane, and the sane insane.  The eighty percent are released; members of the bizarrely “mentally well balanced” twenty percent are put in the madhouse.  Soon the asylum is full of the town’s most unusual inhabitants: the modest, the truthful, the wise.

Can you guess how the story ends?

“This is a matter of science, of a new doctrine,” he said, “and I am the first instance of its application.  I embody both theory and practice.”  (44)

Machado’s story zips through many of the next century’s critiques of psychiatry, from the shaky authority of the psychiatrist to the abuse of the field by totalitarians, all of this pre-Freud.  His novels, first person and digressive, are quite different.  The Psychiatrist is focused, fierce and purposeful.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It shakes accepted values–disperses former glory–dismays age-long courage - Georg Kaiser's The Burghers of Calais

One last German-language play.  Last for now.  Georg Kaiser’s The Burghers of Calais (pub. 1914, perf. 1917) is, I am told, the signature Expressionist drama.  I do not know what Expressionism is, exactly, or to the extent that I do know, I cannot see the relationship between Kaiser’s play and Expressionist artists like Franz Marc and George Grosz.  Let’s not make this post about my ignorance, though.

The Burghers of Calais is inspired by one of Rodin’s most famous sculpture groups (here’s the plaster version at the Musée Rodin), itself inspired by an episode in Froissart’s Chronicles.  During the Hundred Years War the English besieged the port city of Calais.  Rather than sack the town, they demanded that six leading citizens surrender themselves while dressed in sack cloth and a noose.  The humiliation and presumably execution of the six, in exchange for safety.  Six leaders, including the city’s wealthiest merchant, volunteered for the sacrifice.  Rodin’s sculpture enacts their most pathetic moment, as they leave the city to their deaths.  Presumed, as I said, since the men were spared by the intervention of the Queen of England.

Kaiser takes advantage of the men’s humiliation in the play’s final act, where the public removal of their ornate garments and donning of the sack cloth and noose gains, as it is repeated, a ritual power that a much worse playwright could hardly damage.  But Kaiser has a stranger, ahistorical purpose.  He adds a number of ludicrous complications to the story – mainly that seven men volunteer when only six are needed – in order to test the meaning of the sacrifice.  Ordinary concepts of glory, honor, or duty are somehow insufficient, not meaningful enough.  The volunteers go through a scourging or purging process before their sacrifice, overcoming their fear of death and attachment to the world.  I think.

Thick smoke swirls about your heads and feet and shrouds the way before you.  Are you worthy to tread it?  To proceed to the final goal?  To do this deed–which becomes a crime–unless its doers are transformed?  Are you prepared–for this your new deed? –It shakes accepted values–disperses former glory–dismays age-long courage–muffles that which rang clear–blackens that which shone brightly–rejects that which was valid! –Are you the new men? (114-5)

That passage is just a scrap of a characteristic two-page monologue.  I picked it because the Nietzschean or visionary overtones are unusually clear.  New men, huh?

I do not know if the odd use of the dashes in the translation is straight from Kaiser or if the translators are attempting to recreate one of the many peculiar features of Kaiser’s anti-naturalistic text.  The play begins in crisis, at a high rhetorical pitch, and maintains the tone almost to the end – once the men have reached their apotheosis, the tension is allowed to relax.  I was reminded of the unrelenting intensity of a contemporary drama, Charles Péguy’s The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, with which Kaiser's play shares the theme of transcendent sacrifice.

I read the translation of J. M. Ritchie and Rex Last found in Kaiser’s Plays Volume One, 1985, John Calder.  An admirably modest blurb on the back cover says “This book was worth publishing”; I agree.  Kind of a low standard.

Oh yes, thanks to the Caroline and Lizzy for the poke in the ribs that was German Literature Month.

Monday, November 21, 2011

I for one welcome our new insect overlords.

Why did I read a book about leafcutter ants?  It interferes with all of my important projects, the one’s where I – do – well – all of those important things I was thinking of.  I don’t remember what those things were.  Ants, why not ants?  The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct (2011), by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, that’s the book.

I read the book because: a) it was on the New Books shelf at my library, b) it is short, c) it is full of hideously detailed close-up photographs of leafcutter ants cutting leaves and doing all of the other strange things they do:

Please note how the one mandible becomes a serrated knife while the other guides the path of the cut.  Please note how the foreleg lifts the severed edge of the cut.  Please note how horribly spiky the ant is.

Millions of leafcutter ants, all over South and Central America, are as I write sawing up vegetation, which millions of other ants carry back to their enormous underground fungus farms, where millions more tiny, specialized ants carefully dismember the plant fragments and feed them to the symbiotic fungus, while other tiny ants harvest the fungus to feed the hive.  Other parasites and symbiotes wander through the system.  It is all so wonderfully strange.

A team of Brazilians researchers have become leafcutter nest archeologists, specialists in “the megalopolis architecture of Atta colonies” (115).  They pump a nest full of liquid cement (for one particular nest, over 6 tons of cement), and then excavate the ant city using standard archeological techniques:

One reason to read a book like this is to witness the creativity of scientists.  There are so many kinds of creativity.

The little leafcutter ant book is an expansion of a chapter of another recent Hölldobler and Wilson book, The Superorganism, which is presumably packed with forbidden knowledge beyond the ken of mortal man.  The leafcutter ants, though, are “the greatest superorganisms on Earth discovered to the present time” (127).  That last qualifier scares me.

This schematic of a leafcutter ant brain is just a bonus illustration for 50 Watts, who likes this kind of thing, as do I:

If you have a niece or weird uncle who is into zombies, get them this book for Christmas.  They will be furious at first, but they’ll enjoy it and will thank you, perhaps many years later.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The beautiful land of Portugal, so full of endearing charm - the party and the coda in Eça de Queiros

Two tools that Eça de Queiros loved.

Party scenes.  Not big ones, balls or weddings, but more intimate gatherings, friends gathering over dinner, drinking themselves senseless, arguing about profound nonsense.  Sometimes the party is a regular event, not really a party at all but just a routine social activity.  A little piano playing, some snacks, some cards.  The Crime of Father Amaro and Cousin Basilio both structure the entire book around this kind of scene.  Sometimes the party is a rarer bird, a chance to indulge.  The Maias has some superb scenes of this type.  Chapter 2 of The Illustrious House of Ramires has a good one, too.

The great advantage to the author is that the party almost forces the reader to plunge in to the world of the novel, just like in a real party where I only know the person I came with.  I am introduced to a bewildering array of names and descriptions, lucky if I tack a characteristic or two onto each name.  In Chapter 2 of Ramires, Gonçalo meets his friends for dinner.  Here comes Titó (“powerful limbs…  slow rumble of his powerful voice…  idleness”) , maybe a bit of a weary libertine, and Gouveia (“very dark and very dry…  a bowler-hat tilted over one ear”) who has an aversion to cucumbers.

Wait, do I need to remember that?  Right now, there is no way to know.  The dinner scenes are humorously exhausting.  Luckily, the food is good:

Gonçalo , who claimed he had been miraculously cured [of a kidney pain] after the walk to Bravais and the excitement of the card-game, at which he had won nineteen tostões from Manuel Duarte – began with a dish of eggs and smoked sausage, devoured half the mullet, consumed his ‘invalid’s chicken’, cleared the dish of cucumber salad and finished off with a pile of quince jelly cubes; and as he accomplished this noble work, he emptied (without any flushing of that pure white skin) a glazed mug of Alvaralhão wine, because after the first sip of the Abbot’s new wine, he had cursed it, to Titó’s annoyance.  (29)

What juicy, thick writing.  It’s just a way to show the characters in action, any kind of action.

Then there is the coda.  Every remotely longish Eça novel ends with a coda chapter, letting us look back (“Four years passed lightly and swiftly like a flight of birds over the ancient Tower” – that was swift!), often with a lot of irony, although I do not remember there ever being anything like a plot twist.  The plot is finished.

The last chapter of Ramires does have a formal twist.  We have spent the entire novel with Gonçalo, sometimes watching him, sometimes deep in his thoughts, but the limit of the limited third has been strict.  The coda is entirely about Gonçalo, but he never appears in it, although he is described in a letter.  Many of the characters are reunited – they are preparing for a party that we do not get to attend.

The gentle last line of the novel, in the voice of whom?:

Father Soeiro, his sunshade under his arm, made his way slowly back to the Tower, in the silence and softness of the evening, reciting his Hail Maries and praying for the peace of God for Gonçalo, for all men, for the fields and the sleeping farms, and for the beautiful land of Portugal, so full of endearing charm, that it might be for ever blessed among lands. (310)

Thanks, Scott, for the readalonging.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Where to start with Eça de Queirós, a non-answer

Where should a reader start with Eça de Queirós?  Or Charles Dickens, or Virginia Woolf, or William Shakespeare?  These are not my questions.  I assume the existence of a reader with a large appetite, and enough sense to not dismiss the judgments of previous good readers on the basis of a random encounter with Barnaby Rudge or Henry VIII.

As I get to know an author, the question I ask is: where should I stop?  Which books are just trivia, or impenetrable period pieces, or juvenilia, or scrapbooks? For a certain kind of critic – Edmund Wilson, Frank Kermode – who reviews new novels only after reading something close to everything the author had ever written, there is no stopping place.  How this was feasible, I do not know, except that I suppose these critics read a lot faster than I do, or magazine deadlines were more leisurely than I imagine.

Given enough time, almost anyone can read almost everything.  Major works are read in pursuit of the experience of great art, minor works in the pursuit of knowledge.  Knowledge about the major works, most likely.   I am getting close to “everything” – well past the halfway point – with Eça de Queirós.  Wilson and Kermode, unlike me, were not blockheaded enough to publish their notes, or to work for free.

But that’s not my point, which is, rather, that The Illustrious House of Ramires, although well-written, humorous, representative of Eça’s lifelong concerns, and on in this vein, may not be a great place to start, although Scott Bailey did darn wellRamires is the most deeply Portuguese of the Eça novels that I have seen so far.  It makes more demanding assumptions about the history and culture of the country.  I suspect that the demands would be similar for Portuguese readers who are not medieval history buffs, but still, the names, dates, and places come thick and fast in the first few pages:

One of the most valiant of the line, Lourenço, nicknamed the Butcher, foster-brother of Afonso Henriques (with whom, the same night in Zamora Cathedral, he kept vigil over his arms before receiving his knighthood) appears at once in the Battle of Ourique where Jesus Christ also appeared, on fine clouds of gold, nailed to a cross ten ells high. (6)

One of those names I admit I already knew.  Our hero Gonçalo, a coward, in fact a Portuguese nebbish, lives under the shadow of “a House ten centuries old, with more than thirty of its males killed in battle” (288).  Over the course of the novel, we see Gonçalo make peace with his past and overcome his nebbishness – Ramires is, in form, a classic Nebbishroman – partly through the means of the historical novel about his own ancestors, The Tower of Don Ramires, that he is writing or more accurately rewriting, stealing the whole thing from a poem written by his uncle:

The whole plot, with its passion of barbaric grandeur, the savage battles in which family feuds were settled by the dagger, heroic words uttered by steely lips – there it all was in dear Uncle’s verses, sonorous and nicely balanced:

[poem snipped]

Really, all that was needed was to superimpose the mellifluous tones of 1846 Romanticism upon its terse, virile prose…  Would this be plagiarism?  No!  To whom, more than to him, a Ramires, belonged the memory of these historic Ramires?  (16)

A summary of the historical novel is, as it is composed, part of Ramires – more names, more history, and at first with only the broadest thematic connection to the contemporary story.  It all works out in the end, though, in the third act, as Scott calls it – “you realize that you've been marvelously set up.”   Gonçalo grows out of his plagiarism.

So, a place to start, why not, right, Scott? Bad place to stop, though.

What else should I write about? That Nebbishroman thing was just a joke.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Yes, really, all of them were so little guilty before God - the surprisingly sweet Illustrious House of Ramires

I was reading an early novel of Eça de Queirós, The Crime of Father Amaro, alongside a much later one, The Illustrious House of Ramires (1900, published just after the author’s death).  Eça may well have mellowed with age.  Father Amaro is cruel; Ramires is almost sweet.

Young and aimless nobleman Gonçalo Ramires holds the oldest title in Portugal and lives in the shadow of a thousand year-old tower and a string of illustrious ancestors.  He dreams of imitating the medieval exploits of his heroic forebears, but times have changed a bit – leading one’s feudal retainers to ravage one’s neighboring enemies is frowned upon – and anyways Gonçalo is a coward.  He is also a terrible braggart, which is a kind way of calling him a congenital liar; he is also extraordinarily kind to children, the ill, and other weak people.  Weak people like himself.

After the chilly elegance of The Maias, the savageness of Father Amaro, and the hysterics of Cousin Basilio, I am almost shocked at how gentle Ramires is, how nice Gonçalo is.  Not that he’s not a fool – the last line in this passage (ellipses in original) could stand as a description of any number of  Eça’s characters:

He, Gonçalo, had stupidly and irresistibly succumbed to the fatal Law of Increase, which had led him, as it leads everyone in their desire for fame and fortune, to pass rashly through the first door that opened to him, without noticing the dung that cluttered up the doorway…  Yes, really, all of them were so little guilty before God, who had created man so variable, so weak, so dependent on forces that were less governable than the wind or sun! (218)

This is being thought by Gonçalo himself.  One of his most endearing, and frustrating, traits is his changeability.  He can be venal, but never for too long.  He can be skeptically thoughtful, but is too easily comforted.  He is ambitious, artistically and politically, but is too easily distracted.  An inevitable result is self-pity.  Another motto (ellipses again not mine):

“Why?” murmured Gonçalo, miserably removing his coat.  “So much deception in such a short life…  Why?  Poor me!”

He fell upon his vast bed as if into a tomb, and hid his face in the pillow with a sigh, a sigh full of pity for so frustrated and helpless a fate.  (235)

Gonçalo is an early edition of a popular Modernist character, the kind who through charm and good intentions quickly engages my sympathy, but then spends the rest of the novel making me wince.  Oh, Gonçalo, pull yourself together!

I want to spend a couple more days with the book.  Perhaps I will engage with the ideas of Scott Bailey, who write about the novel here and also here.

The Illustrious House of Ramires is translated by Anne Stevens.  The translation is so good that the novel has not been re-translated by Margaret Jull Costa!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A kind Brazilian wrote a mystery novel for me

The author is the Brazilian Luis Fernando Verissimo, the novel is Borges and the Eternal Orangutans (2000), the translator is the omnipresent Margaret Jull Costa, the page count is 129, the genre is ratiocinative mystery, the detective is Jorge Luis Borges, in the year before his death, and not Borges Luis Jorge or the poet Juan Carlos Borges, author of “botanical poems,” also characters in the novel.

That’s half of the title.  The orangutans invoke Edgar Allan Poe, and the novel is in fact a locked room mystery, like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” except this time a famous Poe specialist is murdered in his hotel room at an international Poe conference in Buenos Aires.  Our narrator, Vogelstein, is a Brazilian translator who has been keen to meet Borges.  Because of the murder, he gets his wish.

“Borges will like the fact that there were three knives,” I said.

“Yes, Borges will,” sighed Cuervo, as if that were a further reason for his probable migraine. (78)

Verissimo was unable to squeeze a reference to H. P. Lovecraft into the title, even though Lovecraft plays a role in the novel, along with the magician John Dee and the usual esoteric nonsense associated with Borges: cryptography and the Kabbala and mirrors and such.

For some time now, Cuervo had been squirming in his armchair.

“Really, Jorge!” he said at last.  “Gozatoth, Soga-Tog…  You don’t believe in all that!”

“Don’t confuse the author with the characters,” you replied.  “I don’t believe in anything.  The important thing is that they do.”  (105)

“You” is Borges – the narrator actually addresses the novel to Borges, all of which is explained in the end when the “I” switches to Borges himself as he presents his ingenious and original solution to the crime, the clues to which have been slyly distributed through the novel.  The one truly ingenious thing about the book, actually, is that the complex solution perfectly coexists with a simple solution that is never mentioned.  Borges is surely aware of the easier answer, but rejects it as insufficiently interesting.  He also faults the entire novel, in its last line, for lacking “a minimum of verisimilitude,” where we find the actual author's actual name.

I have no clue what the reader unschooled in Borges and Lovecraft and Poe, the sane and settled reader who has of course read “The Gold-Bug” and “The Purloined Letter” but has not neurotically read through the Library of America Poe all the way to “’X-ing the Paragrab’” – which is obscure enough that Verissimo explains the reference – what this reader will get out of Borges and the Eternal Orangutans.   I fear it is a tad specialized.

For specialists, though, what fun.  Thanks, V!

Verissimo does not count for the Portuguese Reading Provocação.