Monday, January 31, 2011

Books That Should Be Read More Than They Are, and Books That Should Not

When I write about a book over on the obscure end of the spectrum, I try to place it in one of two categories.  The first is:  Should Be Read More Than It Is, or Books for Everyone.  For example:

John Galt, The Entail, a Scottish family saga, tragic and comic.
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Beach at Falesá, thoughtful adventure in the South Seas.
Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet, love and greed, greed and love.
Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman, so funny, so sad.
Victor Hugo, his poems, not at all forbidding, huge in spirit.
Theodor Storm, Immensee, a short delicate reverie about an old love affair.
Gérard de Nerval, Sylvie, a short delicate reverie about an old love affair.
Prosper Merimeé, Carmen, a short delicate reverie about an old love affair, while waiting to be hanged.
Herman Melville, Clarel, a jolly vacation lark.

One of these does not belong, but I’m not sure which one.  I’ll fix that later.  My guess is that many people would enjoy, even love, these books, far more than their reputation would suggest.  They are not particularly difficult, or weird.  Some of them, like Storm, are beloved in their own literature, not remotely obscure.  English-language readers should catch up.

Am I wrong that people like short delicate reveries etc?

The second category:  Should Not Be Read More Than It Is, or Not for Everyone, Oh No No No.  Such as:

Gérard de Nerval, Les Chimeras or Aurélia, esoteric poems and a descent into madness.
Bysshe Vanolis, The City of Dreadful Night, visionary pessimism.
George MacDonald, Lilith, a desperately peculiar dream novel.
S. Anski, The Destruction of Galicia, low-intensity genocide at firsthand.
Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, Kantian idealism in a handy pre- postmodern semi-novelistic form.
Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas – Bolaño is surely clear enough with that title: Stay Away!

Just trying to stick with things I’ve written about,* but I could add many example to both lists.  I could create more categories, too, like Famous Books That Are Perhaps Read Too Much, where I would include Wuthering Heights, Moby-Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, and so on, weird books that do not seem to have properly signaled their weirdness.

Most people do not want too much weirdness, do they?  Some readers, of course, jaded, ravaged by ennui, only alive out on the edgy edge of edginess, scoff at the exquisite domestic beauties of Theodor Storm or Victor Hugo (poems about his grandchildren! How bourgeois!) and demand the dangerous, the esoteric, the stark raving mad.  The City of Dreadful Night is just where they want to spend their time.  A descent into Hell, whether with Dante or Herman Melville, is their idea of good fun.  These readers are right - it is fun!

When I write about books, I try to communicate this difference.  I have no idea if I succeed.  I am in no way arguing here about the merit of the books in the two categories.  Both lists above contain books of extraordinary artistic value.  They all have their aesthetic purpose; they all succeed, or at least fail in fascinating ways.  Both groups include innovations, human insights, great writing.  I’d hate to have not read them, and hope to revisit every one.  But universalism has its own value.  I hope I make that clear.

All of this is just a throat-clearing preface to the rest of the week, which I will spend with a novelist who is much read and anything but obscure.  The book at issue, though, belongs in that second group.  Does it ever!  Not for Everyone, and then some!

Welcome, if that’s the right word, to Salammbô week.  There will be some interesting challenges.

* I could put in links, but that little search box in the upper left works well enough, I hope.

Friday, January 28, 2011

They stood watching, full of delighted curiosity - Maupassant as Maupassant

Maupassant’s working life was short.  “Boule de Suif” was published in 1880.  Illness overtook him in 1891 and ended his career; he died two years later.  Even this eleven year stretch misstates the case.  1880 saw the single long story, 1881 a half dozen more:

Between 1882 and 1887, inclusive, he had written almost two hundred and fifty [short stories]; in 1888, he wrote only six – almost as few as in 1881, the year of La Maison Tellier. (Steegmuller, 272)

Two hundred and fifty stories in six years!  And I’m still missing something.  That span includes the first three novels as well as a staggering mass of journalism:

It has been estimated that in 1884, the year of La Parure [“The Diamond Necklace”], Maupassant produced 1500 printed pages, about 1000 of them in short stories.  (Steegmuller, footnote on p. 208)

Yesterday I divided Maupassant’s short fiction into a Flaubert pile and a newspaper pile.  The Flaubert stories are among Maupassant’s earlier stories, but one only needs to read them to discover the difference.  The newspaper stories are shorter, have less descriptive writing, far more (and cheaper) dialogue, simpler characterization, and fewer thematic elements.  They often have a light frame – Maupassant is telling us about someone who told him a story.  This kind of story obviously takes much less time to write.

The polished anecdote with not necessarily a trick but a twist, an ironic punchline, is Maupassant’s legacy, the type of story that he invented, the representative Maupassant story.  At their worst, they’re repetitive and trivial; at their best, light and ingenious.  No wonder translators disagree so much about which are the really good examples of his work.  What ineffable qualities.

Not that Maupassant abandoned everything he learned from Flaubert.  Almost every story has a spot or two, a description of a place or character, that is touched up a bit more.  A favorite of mine is “A Duel” (1883), one of Maupassant’s many “revenge on the Prussians” fantasies.  A pot-bellied tradesman finds himself in a train car with a German officer and some fellows I last saw in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938):

In the same compartment were two Englishmen who had come to France as sightseers, and who looked at everything with calm, inquisitive eyes.  They were both very stout too, and chatted together in their own language, occasionally referring to their guidebook and reading out extracts aloud while trying to identify the places mentioned.  (tr. Colet, p. 194)

German soldiers “covered the earth like African locusts.”  The officer’s face “was cut in half” by his moustache.  The story is only six pages long, and all of this descriptive thickening is in the first three pages.  Then the Prussian officer bullies the Frenchman, the Frenchman resists, and the last three pages violently hurl forward:

The Englishmen had stood up and drawn nearer to get a better view. They stood watching, full of delighted curiosity, ready to lay a bet on one or other of the combatants. (197)

I am afraid those Englishmen are representatives of the jaded magazine reader, and of me. They make for good comedy, anyway.  The ethical meaning of the story is actually built into the headlong rush – the behavior of the French protagonist, the psychology of his idea of honor, are reflected not in the details of the story but in its structure, which was new, is still clever, and is pure Maupassant.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Strings of tiny sausages, grapeshot full in the face - Maupassant as Flaubert

What with more reading and helpful comments, I think I’m getting somewhere.  I want to put Maupassant’s stories into two piles: the Flaubert pile and the newspaper pile.  I’m tempted to call the newspaper stories the Maupassant stories, but that’s too confusing, since the same fellow did write both sets.  I greatly prefer the ones in the Flaubert pile, but that’s irrelevant.  The two types were written by different methods and with different goals.

Maupassant was the one and only graduate of the Gustave Flaubert Creative Writing Academy.  He submitted his stories and poems to Flaubert and pretended not to publish anything until Flaubert gave his permission, which took years.  The masterwork that ended Maupassant’s apprentice work was his 1880 debut, “Boule de Suif.”  Flaubert, in a letter, declared it a masterpiece, although he had a few “schoolmasterish comments.”  What did Flaubert like?  What did a story with the Official Flaubert Seal of Approval look like?  From the same letter:

How beautifully done your bourgeois are!  You haven’t gone wrong with one of them…  The nun scarred with smallpox, perfect!...  The poor prostitute crying while Cornudet sings the Marseillaise – sublime.*

That nun is about a fifth of the way into “Boule de Suif.”  The occupants of a large coach have assembled, two nuns among them:

One of them was an old woman whose skin was pitted with smallpox as if she had received a charge of grapeshot full in the face at point-blank range.  The other was a puny creature with a pretty, sickly-looking face and the narrow chest of a consumptive, eaten up by that devouring faith which makes martyrs and visionaries.  (tr. Roger Colet, Selected Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 1971, p. 28)

The nuns, although present through the rest of the story, barely qualify as characters, but function more as props and foils for the title character, the prostitute Suet Dumpling:

Short, completely round, fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints like strings of tiny sausages, taut shiny skin, and huge breasts swelling underneath her dress, her freshness was so attractive that she nonetheless remained desirable, and much sought after. (30)

Flaubert asked M. to “reduce her stomach a little at the beginning!”  Which, for all I know, Maupassant did.

The thematic richness of these three sentences alone amazes me.  Every part of them links to another part of the story.  The coach is fleeing the Prussian army – thus the violence of the smallpox metaphor.  The thin nun is immediately associated with eating.  Both nuns foreshadow some sort of sacrifice.  Boule de Suif – and please note that this is the reader’s introduction to her – is not simply associated with food.  The narrator turns her into food, right before her eyes.

These ideas, and many more, run through the rest of the long story.  I don’t want to exaggerate and say that every single sentence is “worked up” or enriched like these are.  Maupassant did not write like Vladimir Nabokov or James Joyce, but he wrote, slowly, meticulously, in “Boule de Suif” and a few other stories, very much like Gustave Flaubert.

Flaubert died soon after the publication of “Boule de Suif.”  He had urged Maupassant “to write a dozen like it, and you’ll be a man!” (Steegmuller, 116).  Maupassant wrote several more like it, not a dozen, mostly in 1881.  “Madame Tellier’s Excursion,” “En Famille,” “The Story of a Farm-Girl” – try those to see what I’m talking about.  Also, I guess, “Mademoiselle Fifi,” but I suspect that one of parody.

At the same time, though, he was also writing quite different stories – Maupassant stories.  I’ll think about those tomorrow.  And, unless I come to my senses, the Flaubert business continues next week.

* From Francis Steegmuller, Maupassant: A Lion in the Path, p. 110.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A gay frolic with Guy de Maupassant

The Story of a Farm Girl (1881) was, if I am counting correctly, Maupassant’s third story, or the third under his own name, the second after his brilliant debut with Boule de Suif.  Flaubert had died the year before, but Maupassant was still writing in what I see as his Flaubert mode.  Sun through a window “showed the defects of the glass,” smells of the farmyard and the dairy mingle, the hens “were lying on the smoking dung-hill.”

Just then, a colt, full of life and friskiness, galloped past her. Twice he jumped over the ditches, and then stopped suddenly, as if surprised at being alone.

In a sense, this is a pretty blatant symbolic representation of the restless servant, Rose, whose story this is, but it is only so obvious once I start tearing the story to bits.  It’s artful.  Smells, colors, a cart in the distance “driven by a man as tall as one’s finger.”

Lots of good writing in these early stories.  A chronological selected Maupassant might be useful, but no one wants to organize him that way.

I have been quoting from the translation in the 1945 Modern Library Best Stories of Guy de Maupassant, translator(s) unknown.  The editor has apparently selected the stories from older translations, which might explain this:

Then she seized him by the throat, threw him onto his back, so that he could not disengage himself from her, and half strangling him, she shouted into his face:  “I am enceinte, do you hear?  I am enceinte!”

What’s that, lady?  You’re a saint?  But didn’t you – oh, you’re speaking French.  Sorry, I don’t know French.  That’s why I’m reading a translation!  The funny thing is that the previous page has “she found that she was pregnant.”

The fact is that the older translations of Maupassant, at least of the naughtier stories, are a mess, and should probably be avoided, although who knows what problems the newer ones have.  Still, do you want this, if you can avoid it?:

For the first time in his life he was not bored at the theater, and spent the remainder of the night in a gay frolic. (“The False Gems,” Best Stories of, 1945, but presumably translated earlier)

For the first time in his life he was not bored at the theatre, and he spent the night with some prostitutes. (“The Jewels,” Selected Stories, 1972, tr. Roger Colet)

Actually, it’s nice to have the choice.  The prudish should go to Gutenberg, while libertines, and readers with any respect for the role of the author, can get newer versions.

Maupassant’s smuttiness damaged his reputation in England and the United States for decades, in two stages.  In stage one, most of his stories could not be published in English (M.’s stories “deal with matters that no decent man out of France would for a moment think worthy of his pains”).*  In stage two, liberated publishers start churning out trashy editions of “the frankest, most daring stories of their kind ever written!”  Francis Steegmuller plucked that false gem from a New York Times ad, which he includes in a horrifying supplement to his study of Maupassant:  “Sixty-five Fake ‘Maupassant’ Stories” (p. 353).  In 1902 a shady publisher assembled a “complete” Maupassant, tackily illustrated, crudely translated, and including sixty-five stories not by Maupassant, which were published again and again in numerous collections.  Steegmuller was the first person to discover the fraud.  He was able to track four of them to their original author, and then gave up the chase as a pointless waste of time.

This, then, is how Maupassant became, in English, the author of fancy smut, trick endings, and fancy smut with trick endings.  I can see how more recent scholars find this irritating.  Why they took out their anger on “The Diamond Necklace,” I still don’t get.  Perhaps the public domain Maupassant collections available on Gutenberg have been diligently cleansed of this trash. 

* Barrett Wendell, English Composition 1894, quoted in Francis Steegmuller, Maupassant: A Lion in the Path, 1949, p. 354.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The best stories of Guy de Maupassant, an anti-consensus

I’ve been reading Guy de Maupassant’s stories.  I’d never really read him before, just “The Diamond Necklace,” with its famous trick ending.  I was sure that I would enjoy Maupassant, a student of Flaubert, but just never got to him.  We all know how that works.  Now, having read him a bit, I am confused.

A list, that might help. I have read, or am reading:

Selected Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 1971, tr. Roger Colet, 30 stories
Fifteen by Maupassant, Doubleday, 1972, tr. Miriam Morton, 13 not in the above
The Best Stories of Guy de Maupassant, 1945, tr. – no, sorry, “Selected by” Saxe Commins, 45 stories, 35 or so not in the two above.  I'm still reading this one.

In all three books brilliantly written stories alternate with glib nonsense.  Only one story is in all three books.  Penguin Classics has a newer collection; Oxford also has an older and newer.  Glancing through their tables of contents, they do not overlap much, either.  I believe I was looking for some sort of consensus on Maupassant’s best work.  He wrote close to three hundred stories, and I had hoped that diligent readers and translators had sorted through them and picked out the best for me.  And I suppose they think they have.  But there is no consensus, almost none.

Witness the 1884 “The Diamond Necklace” (or “The Necklace”).  Francis Steegmuller, in Maupassant: A Lion in the Path (1949), devotes an entire chapter to the story, one as long as the story itself, discussing its reception, primarily.  Why is the story so famous, that’s the question?  Steegmuller moves from Henry James’s deep appreciation of “the little perfection” – James rewrote the story as “Paste” – to the counter-reaction, as English-language critics dismissed Maupassant as a writer of trivial trick stories, based on a just a sliver of Maupassant’s work.

The two translations from the 1970s not only omit “The Diamond Necklace,” but do so almost angrily, as a matter of principle, avoiding the distortion of that horrible trick story.  The idea that this story embedded amongst thirty others will be uniquely damaging seems idiotic, especially when, as in the Penguin edition, the dangerously trivial trick story is replaced (see the Translator’s Note) by a different trick-ending story about a diamond necklace called “The Jewels.”  Leafing through the introductory material of these books, I felt like I had wandered into someone else’s argument. Maybe the newer collections have sorted this all out.

After “The Diamond Necklace,” Maupassant’s best known story is the first published under his name, the 1880 “Boule de Suif,” which is flawless, a triumph, brilliant, ethically penetrating, please continue in this vein.  A great masterpiece that Maupassant certainly did not repeat three hundred times, although he did repeat it a few stories later with “La Maison Tellier” (1881).  Or perhaps “La Horla,” a later psychological horror story, is better known; please put it on the list of the best.  To add to the confusion, Maupassant published three quite distinct versions, so be sure to read the best one, whichever that is.  I could go on.  The rest of the week, I will.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Exploring Panama with Todd Balf

The principle I’m going by here is that, when reading tales of exploring gone disastrously wrong, one should read the desert and jungle stories in the winter, and read about the polar explorers in the summer.  But perhaps I have it backwards.  Explore the poles wrapped up in a blanket in front of a fire, and wander the jungle with a drink in a coconut or pineapple?  I’m consumed by doubt.  But not by parasites, like the hapless members of the 1854 United States Darién Exploring Expedition.

The book is The Darkest Jungle (2003) by magazine writer Todd Balf, about an attempt to explore an especially difficult piece of the Panama isthmus in hopes of finding an easy route for a canal.  I suppose it would be an exaggeration to say that everything goes wrong.  After all, most of the explorers survive.  But it’s rough going.

Balf does a fine job with the story.  His prose is clean and efficient.  He skillfully blends current knowledge with the perspective of the explorers:

In the morning when the men awoke, some found themselves weak and disoriented, their night clothing saturated with blood. The culprit, a vampire bat, excised such a tiny piece of flesh, and bit so surgically, a sleeping man almost never stirred. An anticoagulant in the bat’s saliva produced a steady trickle of blood that flowed freely all night long. (138)

What did the explorers experience, why was it not quite what they thought it would be, that’s the pattern.  There’s a nice bit in Chapter 7 where I kept trying, futilely, to compare Balf’s account to the map at the front of the book.  Something was wrong.  Did Balf botch this passage?  Is the map no good?  But it’s a trick:  Balf has been writing entirely from the point of view of the explorers, who were completely confused about their location; he ends the chapter by showing how far off they were from where they thought they were.  The map snapped back into place, and I was left in a fine state of suspense – now things were going to get really bad!

I give Balf great credit for not claiming that the story he is telling is particularly important.  Academic and popular historians both suffer from this terrible disease, insisting that their study of body-building in Chicago from 1892-1901 informs us about all sorts crucial points of historical importance, when in fact it is a tiny project of minimal import that might someday help a scholar working on a genuinely important project write a footnote (I am describing, in disguise, my own dissertation).  Balf makes it clear that his book is not about a turning point in history, or an essential stage in the building of the Panama Canal, but is merely a great story.  Merely.

Recommended to anyone who likes this sort of thing, and not to anyone who does not. Why do we read these horrible stories of catastrophe?  Where else do we see such human ingenuity, such fortitude, such stubbornness?  I hope to never see it in my own life.  Other people can explore for me.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot? - the faithful translation of Edward FitzGerald

The only task FitzGerald finished and published in his lifetime was his marvellous rendering of the Rubaiyat of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, with whom he felt a curiously close affinity across a distance of eight centuries.  FitzGerald described the endless hours he spent translating this poem of two hundred and twenty-four lines as a colloquy with the dead man and an attempt to bring us tidings of him.  (W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, Ch. 8)

W. S. Merwin became a translator so he could become a poet.  He was following Ezra Pound’s advice: “[Pound] spoke of the value of translation as a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of the possibilities of his own language.”  Merwin insists that he keeps his own poems and his translations “more and more sharply separate,” but his phrasing simply emphasizes the truth that when I read Merwin’s Apollonaire I am reading some blend of the two, and that the proportion of the blend can vary greatly from translation to translation.  See the introduction to Selected Translations 1948-1968 for this and more.

Some people, I know, are deeply – I want to say shallowly, but let’s stay with deeply – bothered by this lack of certainty.  These people seldom read much poetry at all.  The enthusiast embrace the conundrum, makes the puzzling magic of translation part of the fun.

The most magical puzzler in English must be Edward FitzGerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859 and on).  Or second most, after the King James Bible.  FitzGerald’s translation, whatever it’s qualities as such, is now an English poem, with its own descendants, it's own life.

Quatrain 36 (1859 version)

For in the Market-place, one Dusk of Day,
I watch'd the Potter thumping his wet Clay:
    And with its all obliterated Tongue
It murmur'd--"Gently, Brother, gently, pray!"

Fred’s Place has been examining The Rubáiyát quatrain by quatrain, including all of FitzGerald’s revisions.  I picked this stanza because that’s where Fred is right now, and because it features my favorite part of the poem.  The bowls, possibly the ones destined to contain all of the wine required by this oenophilic poem, begin to talk.  Bowls have lips, so they must have mouths, so they can talk (see quatrain 34).  Bowls are made of clay, men are made of clay, men can talk, so bowls can talk.  Poetry logic.

The bowls fall silent for a bit, but some come back to life in quatrain 59, the beginning of The Book of Pots.

And strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot,
Some could articulate, while others not:
    And suddenly one more impatient cried –
“Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”

I want to adapt this.  Who is the Poem, pray, and who the Poet?  Whenever I come across an ordinary reader wondering about the fidelity of a translation – sometimes I am that reader – I try to remember The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which is supremely faithful, faithful to the art of poetry.

Sebald’s claim, by the way, that FitzGerald only published a single “task” is untrue, a fiction.  FitzGerald’s loose translations of the plays of Pedro Calderón de la Barca, are excellent, alive and performable.  They were most recently available as Eight Dramas of Calderón, University of Illinois Press, 2000.  The Rings of Saturn is a work of fiction.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Oh the autumn the autumn has been the death of summer - an Apollinaire poem

Autumn, Guillaume Apollinaire, from Alcools (1913)

A bow-legged peasant and his ox receding
Through the mist slowly through the mists of autumn
Which hides the shabby and sordid villages

And out there as he goes the peasant is singing
A song of love and infidelity
About a ring and a heart which someone is breaking

Oh the autumn the autumn has been the death of summer
In the mist there are two gray shapes receding

Another W. S. Merwin translation, p. 130 of Selected Translations 1948-1968.  I also just finished Roger Shattuck’s book, Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire (1948), which does not include this poem but is full of other original and amazing things.

Does this Apollonaire poem seem particularly original?  Observed scene followed by small revelation about the poet – that’s an old form.  How many T’ang Dynasty poets wrote how many variations of this form?  The French poem looks even more conventional, by which I mean, it rhymes:

Dans le brouillard s'en vont un paysan cagneux
Et son bœuf lentement dans le brouillard d'automne
Qui cache les hameaux pauvres et vergogneux

Et s'en allant là-bas le paysan chantonne
Une chanson d'amour et d'infidélité
Qui parle d'une bague et d'un cœur que l'on brise

Oh ! l'automne l'automne a fait mourir l'été
Dans le brouillard s'en vont deux silhouettes grises

Merwin only hints (-ing, -ing, -ing) at the French rhyme scheme (ABA BCD CD).  The sounds of the rhymes are wonderful, and it’s a shame to lose them.  The switch from the dark, round (-eux, -onne) to the bright, sharp (-é, -ise) vowels is pleasing.

Shattuck helpfully informs me that Apollinaire’s rhymes violate all sorts of rules of classical French prosody, which is a nightmarish tangle that I don’t pretend to understand.  He also identifies Apollinaire’s expungement of punctuation marks, even at the occasional expense of sense.

Apollinaire repeats “Dans le brouillard” in the first and last lines.  Merwin repeats “receding.”  He can’t repeat “brouillard / mist” because, curiously, he has rearranged the first two lines to emphasize the repetition – “Through the mist slowly through the mist of autumn.”  Odd.  But he is then able to keep the ox and the peasant together in the first line, more closely resembling the two silhouettes grises at the end.

I’m fussing around, ignoring what I really like.  Two things, the obvious ones.  First, the peasant’s song, which the reader can never quite hear, but which now has a tune, almost, and all because of the single concrete object, the ring.  That one small addition turns a generic song into the suggestion of a specific one.

And second, of course:  “Oh the autumn the autumn” etc.  Poor mournful poet.  What happened last summer?  He’ll never tell.  Or, he has already told all he can.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A resplendent and blessed dream from Juan Ramón Jimenez - Wait, wait; do not run

Selected Translations 1948-1968 is the fifth book of W. S. Merwin’s translations that I have read.  Spanish, French, Latin, and then this book, which contains translations from, well, everything.  Russian, German, Chinese, Quechuan, Welsh, Eskimo, etc.  Merwin does not know those languages.  If it makes one more comfortable, retitle the book Selected Adaptations or something like that.

Merwin does know Spanish, and most of what I have read are translations from Spanish – the medieval Poem of El Cid, the fifteenth century picaresque Lazarillo de Tormes, miscellaneous old ballads and romances.  Much of this can be found in one essential book, From the Spanish Morning (1985).  Merwin includes some substantial scraps in Selected Translations, too, along with some 20th century poets: Neruda, Borges, Lorca, the startling Nicanor Parra.

This one is by Juan Ramón Jimenez.  Won a Nobel Prize, don’t you know.  The poet, not necessarily this poem.  Merwin’s version, p. 78, is untitled.

I shall run through the shadow,
sleeping, sleeping, to see
if I can come where you are
who died, and I did not know.

Ah, what problems I have, right from the start.  Is the poet sleeping, or the shadow, or, given the repetition, both?  The echo of Psalm 23 in the first line becomes a full-fledged reference in the last.  Yes, that shadow may be of the valley of death, but this fellow is going to run, not walk.  Perhaps he fears evil.  Perhaps the Lord is not with him.

Wait, wait; do not run;
wait for me in the dead water
by the lily that the moon
makes out of the light; with the water
that flows from the infinite
into your white hand!

What confusion – has the voice shifted?  Is the “you” of the first stanza telling the “I” to wait, to not run?  Or is it the same speaker, calling to the fleeing “you”?  I have no idea.  I love how the moonlight on the water forms a lily.

I have one foot already through the black
mouth of the first nothing,
of the resplendent and blessed dream,
the bud of death flowering!

That’s it, the entire poem.  We must be back to the original speaker, if we ever left him.  The black mouth pulls us pack to the first line’s shadow.  Does the explicit mention of a dream reassure me that the poem is about a dream, the poet dreaming about a dead or lost lover?  The Gottfried Keller poem I looked at yesterday could also be a dream poem.  Two dreams about women in the “dead water.”

I would hardly want to pin the Jimenez poem to a single meaning.  The blessed dream is also a metaphor, an inversion of the meaning of death.  Maybe this is a poem about suicide.  Or childbirth – the missing woman is the poet’s mother.  Or she’s the Virgin Mary (the lily is suspicious).  Or the “I” is a woman, and the “you” a man.  And so on.

Can this all really be in this one poem, fourteen lines, eighty-some words?  I guess so.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Gottfried Keller, failed poet - It rises in my mind without end, without end

Gottfried Keller is the great Swiss fiction writer of the 19th century.  Last year, I read his enormous portrait of the failed artist as a young man, Green Henry (1854), perhaps the most Goethe-suffused fiction not written by Goethe that I have ever read.  I think I am just repeating something I wrote last month, but who read it carefully enough to remember?  A new, late New Year’s Resolution: more repetition.  More repetition.  Where was I?

Keller was a poet before he was a novelist.  Here’s the beginning of an untitled* poem of his:

Every wing in the world had fallen.
The white snow lay still, glittering.
No cloud hung in the stars’ pavilion.
No wave hammered the hard lake.

This is just stillness, yes, the winter stillness after a heavy snow.  Is there a contrast between the softness of the first couple of lines and the hardness of the last one?

The lake’s tree came up out of the depths
Till its top froze in the ice.
The lake spirit climbed up the branches
And looked hard through the green ice, upwards.

The poem has taken a strange turn.  That first stanza was generically descriptive, of a mood more than a place.  This is something different.  The point of view has been thrown off, hasn’t it?  How does the observer of the still lake see the spirit in the branches?  Keller has thought of that.

I stood on the thin glass there
That divided the black depths from me;
I saw, limb by limb, her beauty
Pressed close under my feet.

Why, I wonder, is the poet out on the ice?  Was he actively seeking the lake spirit?  We’ve had one color per stanza: white, green, black.

Through muffled sobbing her hands
Played over the hard lid.
I have not forgotten that lightless face;
It rises in my mind without end, without end.

Keller switched to the prose for which he is primarily known after failing, so he thought, as a painter and as a poet.  This is the only poem of Keller’s that I have read.  The greenish spirit, entangled in the underwater branches, trying to escape through the ice, or draw the poet to her, or whatever she is doing, the face rising through the water, and then through the poet’s memory – what failure.

The translation is by W. S. Merwin, and is on page 148 of Selected Translations 1948-1968 (1975).

* Untitled by Merwin!  Keller's title is "Winternacht," "Winter Night."

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born - Ayi Kwei Armah's brilliantly disgusting novel

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, the 1968 novel by Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah, may be the most disgusting book I have ever read.  The book is crammed with garbage and waste.  The stream of filth and human effluence is unending.  Foul odors and sights are fundamental not just to the symbolic structure of the novel, but to the actual plot.  I cannot seem to escape metaphorical language that reinforces the ‘orrible things that can be found in this profound and brilliant novel.

My favorite, not particularly disgusting, example, is from early in the book, in Chapter 1.  The Ghanaian government, in an anti-trash campaign, has installed trash cans and run advertisements urging people to use them.  “Like others before it, this campaign had been extremely impressive, and admiring rumors indicated that it had cost a great lot of money.”  The citizens happily make use of the new trash cans.  They use them, and use them some more.  Soon, the city is dotted with huge mounds of trash, each with a brand new trash can at its heart.  And people continue to use them.

I hope that one does not have to be from West Africa to find this story of the worst laid plans hilarious.  The number of little ironies just in this one little episode astound me.

The story is about one man’s efforts to resist corruption, to stay clean.  The filth of the city, his apartment, and his own body are the physical manifestations of his country’s corruption.  Armah writes in the tradition of Swift and Rabelais.  We are all producers of filth.  We are all disgusting.  To Swift, this is an argument against mankind.  To Rabelais, it is part of the case for the defense, that we are, among other things, mechanisms for eating, drinking, and excreting.  Rabelais, a physician, finds this all quite jolly.

The symbolic connections Armah draws between personal and political corruption creates a paradox.  Consumption and waste are part of our existence as humans.  Perhaps the political corruption is also inherent.  Armah’s hero simply continues his internal struggle.

At the end of the novel, he is given a glimpse of an alternative, perhaps, in the title of the novel, which is painted on the back of a green bus – now there’s a deliberately symbolic choice of color:

Behind it, the green paint was brightened with an inscription carefully lettered to form an oval shape:

             ARE NOT YET BORN

In the center of the oval was a single flower, solitary, unexplainable, and very beautiful.

How I would love to visit Ghana.

Further reading: Evening All Afternoon wallows in literary disgust.

Ghanaian poet, economist and book blogger Nana Fredua-Agyeman provides a more review-like review of the novel.  Skip whatever I wrote, and read him instead.  Also, be sure to seek out his All Time Favorite Books by Africans, off on the right somewhere.  The Beautyful Ones is there, yes.

Kirjasto or Authors Calendar or whatever that site is called has a nice overview of Armah’s life and works. (edit, years later: late, lamented, dead link).

Friday, January 14, 2011

What novelist, what Fielding, what Scott, can impart an interest to the last chapter of his fictitious history?

Trollope can be a slack writer.  Repetitive.  What’s the fancy word for wordy – prolix.  I always laugh when I see someone describe a piece of writing as “wordy.”  Come on, that’s funny, right?  ‘Cause it’s made of words?  Hey, speaking of wordy.

The repetition is the literary sin that I take most seriously.  Such as.  The exotic Signora Neroni is an inspired creation of Trollope’s, essential for the plot of Barchester Towers, such as it is.  Idle and useless, she spends her time toying with men:

Such matters were her playthings, her billiard table, her hounds and hunters, her waltzes and polkas, her picnics and summer-day excursions.  She had little else to amuse her, and therefore played at love-making in all its forms.  (Ch. 38)

Nothing too serious, since this is a family novel.  We are, at this point, three-quarters of the way through the novel, and Trollope has told us these defining facts about the character at least four times.  The reader who does not have this association pretty well fixed is in trouble.  By chapter 38, it’s filler.

Nice filler, though, isn’t it?  The sentence with the list, I mean, truly elegant variation, and with just a bit of a sting in the first few items, which belong exclusively to men, and maybe another sting in the innocent picnics at the end.  Even the filler is clever and well-made.  But then what should I make of this:

But we must go back a little, and it shall be but a little, for a difficulty begins to make itself manifest in the necessity of disposing of all our friends in the small remainder of this one volume.  Oh, that Mr. Longman would allow me a fourth!  It should transcend the other three as the seventh heaven transcends all the lower stages of celestial bliss.  (Ch. 43)

Look, if that fourth volume was going to be so good, maybe you should have gotten out the shears a little earlier, yes?  But no, it’s the publisher’s fault for limiting Trollope to a three volume novel.

Not so much later, though, in Chapter 51, something has changed.  Trollope has too much room!

These leave-takings in novels are as disagreeable as they are in real life; not so sad, indeed, for they want the reality of sadness; but quite as perplexing, and generally less satisfactory.  What novelist, what Fielding, what Scott, what George Sand, or Sue, or Dumas, can impart an interest to the last chapter of is fictitious history?...  And who can apportion out and dovetail his incidents, dialogues, characters, and descriptive morsels so as to fit them all exactly into 439 pages, without either compressing them unnaturally, or extending them artificially at the end of his labour?  Do I not myself know that I am at this moment in want of a dozen pages, and that I am sick with cudgelling my brains to find them?

Those ellipses cover some real goodies.  Who is at fault now?  I am afraid I, the reader, am at fault: “When we become dull, we offend your intellect; and we must become dull or we should offend your taste.”  Poor, poor novelist!  His readers are so unforgiving.  Why won’t they just let those last dozen pages go?

Trollope invokes Fielding purposefully (Scott, too – see the end of Old Mortality).  Chapter 1 of Book XVIII of Tom Jones (1749) is “A Farewel [sic] to the Reader.”  Fielding apologizes for any offence and warns that in the remaining twelve chapters – his farewell is a bit early! – he will have to abandon “those ludicrous Observations which I have elsewhere made,” and “any Pleasantry for thy Entertainment,” because he “shall be obliged to cram into this Book” all of the tedious plotty stuff that still has to be covered.

Fielding is lying, since the last book of Tom Jones has the same character as the previous seventeen.  Trollope is lying, too, since the last dozen pages seem to be just the correct length for this remaining business.  Perhaps I should replace "lying" with "joking."  This is how novelists have their fun.  Trollope lets me watch him laugh at me.  Laughter is infectious, so I laugh, too.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

And now it is to be feared that every well-bred reader of these pages will lay down the book with disgust.

My last run through Anthony Trollope’s Barset novels was eighteen years ago, I think.  Please do not quiz me on the later ones.  I remember them in scraps.  A few characters, a few scenes.

Except for Trollope’s voice.  Of course I remember that; it’s the one thing all six novels share, the one thing I suspect all of his novels share.  Playful, mock-serious, really, careful with proprieties but occasionally willing to tweak the reader, incessantly referring to the fictionality of his own novels.  That last item drove as sophisticated a critic as Henry James straight up the wall.  To James, that was a true impropriety, a violation of the rules of good fiction.  See Rohan Maitzen's essay, near the end.

What I did not know was how close a relative Trollope's voice was to that of William Thackeray, or at least the Thackeray of Vanity Fair.  Thackeray is more outrageous more often, more willing to entangle the reader in the worst failings of his characters.  When the reader is most tempted to condemn a character’s behavior, there’s Thackeray, reminding us that, after all, isn’t this simply the way of the world, and aren’t you and I just as bad?  Trollope softens Thackeray.  He still implicates us in his characters’ actions, but they’re rarely all that outrageous in the first place.

The Barchester novels, at least, do not have villains, not really.  Barchester Towers has characters who fill the roles a melodramatic villain ought to fill, but Trollope apologizes for them:

It is ordained that all novels should have a male and a female angel and a male and a female devil. If it be considered that this rule is obeyed in these pages, the latter character must be supposed to have fallen to the lot of Mrs. Proudie. But she was not all devil. There was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice, though not, perhaps, of large dimensions, and certainly not easily accessible. (Ch. 26)

This is the sort of thing Henry James begs Trollope to stop doing, to stop talking about the novel itself.  But in this case, Trollope is deliberately extending sympathy to the unsympathizable, or, more precisely, he is undermining the reader’s typical, perhaps natural, desire to identify the angels and devils of the novel.  The devils, at the end of the novel, are actually rewarded.  As are the angels.

At the novel’s true climax, the female angel commits a serious social impropriety against the male devil.  Thus Trollope’s anticipation of the delicate reader’s shock:

And now it is to be feared that every well-bred reader of these pages will lay down the book with disgust, feeling that, after all, the heroine is unworthy of sympathy.  She is a hoyden, one will say.  At any rate she is not a lady, another will exclaim.  I have suspected her all through, a third will declare; she has no idea of the dignity of a matron, or of the peculiar propriety which her position demands. (Ch. 40)

Trollope fears that she “cannot altogether be defended,” before defending her at length in a peculiar string of incoherent, back-handed arguments that are in fact directed at no one, because any actual reader is delighted that the angel finally let the devil have it.  Trollope’s delighted, too:

And then Mr. Slope's face, tinted with a deeper dye than usual by the wine he had drunk, simpering and puckering itself with pseudo-pity and tender grimaces, seemed specially to call for such punishment.

That, by the way, is a primo slice of Trollope.  Now, to go back to the title, since no actual reader laid down the book with disgust, and yet every well bred reader would, is it not then true that no actual reader is well bred?  This is how Trollope mocks me.  Or one way.  Tomorrow, more mockery.  Henry James should look away.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"German professors!" groaned out the chancellor - Trollope the comedian

Rummaging around at the website of the Trollope Society, I see that someone has put all of Anthony Trollope’s novels into the following categories: Barset, Palliser, Irish, Overseas, Dramatic, Comic.  Keen-eyed readers might notice that some of those classifications overlap, and if The Way We Live Now is not a comic novel than I have completely misunderstood what it’s about.  I would prefer just two categories: Funny and Not Funny.  The Barset novels are also Comic, and also, to me, Funny.

Sometimes Trollope is as good as Evelyn Waugh:

"My dear Lady De Courcy, I am so delighted," said [Mrs. Proudie], looking as little grim as it was in her nature to do.  "I hardly expected to see you here.  It is such a distance, and then, you know, such a crowd."

"And such roads, Mrs. Proudie!  I really wonder how the people ever get about.  But I don't suppose they ever do." (Barchester Towers, Ch. 37)

Or do I mean, as good as Oscar Wilde?  If I were told that this dialogue came from a Wilde play, would I know the difference?  I would lose that little stab at Mrs. Proudie, though, which Wilde would have to leave to the actress.

Trollope has two comic modes, which he alternates.  He creates a cast of characters, types and more-than-types, two-and-a-half dimensional, not quite real people – I mean in the way that imaginary people like Elizabeth Bennet and Don Quixote and Huck Finn are real people – but really extraordinarily well-made marionettes.  Then he deftly bashes them against each other in ever-varying combinations.  See Chapters 10 and 11 of Barchester Towers, “Mrs. Proudie’s Reception,” for Trollope Mode 1 at its best:

"The German professors are men of learning," said Mr. Harding, "but ---"

"German professors!" groaned out the chancellor, as though his nervous system had received a shock which nothing but a week of Oxford air could cure. (Ch. 11)

That quotation has nothing to do with my point, come to think of it.  Still, I think we have all felt just that shock.

The other comic mode is the comment on the action, Trollope-the-narrator having his fun.  I'm back in Chapter 37:

A man must be an idiot or else an angel who, after the age of forty, shall attempt to be just to his neighbours.

Trollope was, at the time of the publication of Barchester Towers, forty-two.  He’s not an idiot.  Perhaps he is claiming to be an angel.  Perhaps something else.

My favorite joke, which might not look like much:

[Mr. Slope] had, however, at the present moment imbibed too much of Mr. Thorne's champagne to have any inward misgivings.  He was right in repeating the boast of Lady Macbeth: he was not drunk, but he was bold enough for anything.  It was a pity that in such a state he could not have encountered Mrs. Proudie. (Ch. 40)

Mr. Slope is a first-rate comic character; Mrs. Proudie, who we met above, surely among Trollope’s finest.  At this point in the novel, they are enemies.  Why does the narrator think it a pity that the bold and tipsy Slope does not meet the grim Mrs. Proudie?  Because the scene would be really funny.  Trollope would like to write it, has perhaps even imagined it.  But they cannot meet.  The plot calls.  Such a shame.  And what a classic comedian’s trick, the joke about the even funnier joke he's not allowed to tell.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It is astonishing how much difference the point of view makes in the aspect of all that we look at!

I want to be careful not to overgeneralize about Anthony Trollope.  Trollope did this; Trollope is that.  I’ve read nothing but the six Barchester novels, plus, for no literary reason, his travel book about the United States.  I am currently re-reading the second Barchester book, Barchester Towers (1857).

So, faced with the monumental bulk of Trollope, I feel decidedly un-authoritative, although I have written before about the absurdity of this, to have read seven books by a writer and not find that entirely sufficient. I have read seven books by so few writers.  In 1993, Penguin published an attractive edition of Trollope, little orange paperbacks with no introduction or notes, modestly priced ($4.95!), each one enclosing a bookmark inviting me to Join the Trollope Society for just £15, which I never did.  The chronological ordering of the books is printed on the spine.  Barchester Towers – this is a bit discouraging – is number 5 in the series.  Five of fifty-three!

The Victorian Geek has read half of the 47 novels, and plans to read the rest this year.  So far, she has read five of them.  "So far" means "in eleven days," a pretty slick pace, yes?  She has discovered, just as an example, that Trollope’s last novel, An Old Man’s Love (1884) is “one of his finest.”  If that is one of his finest, then I grossly underestimated when, in that post I linked above, I thought there were sixteen Trollopes worth a reader’s attention.

Trollope may be like Vladimir Nabokov in this way – novels are not good or bad, but major or minor.  He is very much not like Nabokov in a host of other ways, but the key Trollopian pleasures - his small insights into character, his thick description of little societies, his gentle wit that usually stops just short of sarcasm - may very well be available in most or all of his books.  Perhaps the Victorian Geek, upon completing her trek through Trollope, will kindly provide a Trollope Roundup for us.

Having said all this, is there a clearer single-sentence Trollopian statement of purpose than the quotation I put in the title of the post?  Let’s have the context:

Thus, while the outer world was accusing Mr. Quiverful of rapacity for promotion and of disregard to his honour, the inner world of his own household was falling foul of him, with equal vehemence, for his willingness to sacrifice their interests to a false feeling of sentimental pride.  It is astonishing how much difference the point of view makes in the aspect of all that we look at! (Ch. 24)

A lot of true Trollope is packed into this passage:  the Pythonesque love of silly names, the misunderstood fellow with a conscience who can’t simply explain himself, the very fact that the Quiverfuls are minor characters who could easily have been trimmed down to nothing for length, if Trollope were the sort of writer who trimmed his books for length.  And  then there's the final line, from Trollope himself, the author, I mean, who I suspect is feigning astonishment, or perhaps he really is continually astonished, since looking at a problem from as many points of view as he can imagine is exactly what he does in all of the paltry six novels of his I have read.

The rest of the week, more Barchester Towers, and many grandiose generalizations about Anthony Trollope.  Kindly, knowledgeable readers will, I hope, let me know when I have gone too far.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A couple of days off

Back Tuesday, after a mad dash to the Big City. Perhaps by then I will have remembered how to write about 19th century books again.

Have a good weekend. Thanks for all of the thoughtful comments this week. I value the gentle pressure on what I write.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

For them to read when they're in trouble \ And I am not - the authority of Harold Bloom

If I were to continue the theme of What I Want To Read That I Am Not Reading, what would I write about today?  Poems of the Spanish Golden Age?  Or anything from Renaissance Italy – Dante, Cellini, Machiavelli?  Machiavelli’s zippy comedy The Mandrake Root is a logical successor to all of that Aristophanes and Plautus.  Or maybe I should start a Whole New Thing – The Tale of Genji or something like that.

I’m acting like I’m dissatisfied with my actual reading, with the often thrilling Les Misérables, or the sly Barchester Towers, or the amusingly skeptical Maupassant.  No, no.  The mind wanders, that’s all.  If only I had the concentration, and the time.

Harold Bloom has a new book out – when is that not true – on exactly this theme.  Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, an anthology of English-language poems on the theme of loss, death, aging, and sorrow.  I assume that the original editorial idea was to create something for the Consolation Market.  Whether this book is exactly that, I don’t know.  What consoles Harold Bloom may not be universal.

Having said that, the quality of the poems in the book is so extraordinary that I sometimes felt a sense of injustice.  Take the greatest poets in the language, select a single poem – I could do this.  Who could not do this?  I could even publish it – The Amateur Reader’s Favorite Poems, ed. Amateur Reader, Wuthering Expectations Press, 2011.  Please see this extraordinary post by the Caustic Cover Critic – one can actually do such things now.

The fact is, though, that even if my book would have poems as good, which it would, since picking a good poem by Keats or Housman is not so hard, it would not have the weight of Bloom’s book.  Harold Bloom has authority.  Not authority of taste, heaven help us, but real expertise based on decades of reading poetry, writing about it, teaching it.  He knows more about English poetry than almost anyone.

Bloom’s rhetoric can be pompous, pure gasbaggery, or it can be subtly wise.  Each poem in the book has a little introduction, a page or two, with bits of biography, close reading, and judgments handed down from the throne.  The book is nicely organized so that readers driven starkers by Bloom’s tone can easily ignore every word he writes and simply read the poems.  I thought Bloom was pretty humble in this book, actually.  He’s writing, implicitly, about his own death.

What was I doing for the last two days – what am I doing on Wuthering Expectations – besides asserting my own authority, however small?  How can the amateur propound on the merits of Greek literature, or the complete works of Nabokov?  Well, I read them, that’s step one.  Most people have not.  If I read them well, carefully, attentively, with reflection, I move ahead again.  We could argue about whether I have actually done that.  The evidence will be in the next step, when I write about them in some sort of evaluative or critical way.  Now I have done something that almost no one has done.  A small number of true experts, Professionals, scholars have an expertise that dwarfs mine.  So do a few amateurs who have made a more serious study of Aeschylus, Nabokov, etc.  I respect their authority, and benefit from their expertise.  Then there's me and my peers, many of us merrily blogging away.

I have wandered into more of a Why We Blog post than I had intended.  This is actually a Successful Resolution post.  I have not read all of Bloom’s book, neither all of the poems nor all of the Bloom.  It’s going back to the library.  It's hardly the kind of book that one should read through, although I kinda want to.

The title is from “They Say My Verse Is Sad” by A. E. Housman, a great favorite of mine, perhaps even a consoling poet.  Bloom writes almost nothing about it.  You'll see why.  It perhaps defeats expertise:

They say my verse is sad: no wonder;
   Its narrow measure spans
Tears of eternity, and sorrow,
   Not mine, but man’s.

This is for all ill-treated fellows
   Unborn and unbegot,
For them to read when they’re in trouble
   And I am not.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Pnin in the meantime had yielded to the satisfaction of a special Pninian craving - Nabokov's temptations

My Pninian craving is to read Pnin.  That line is from page 15 of the Vintage Classics edition.  Just now, bibliographing nicole has begun a projected chronological reading of all of the books of Vladimir Nabokov.  I don’t know what “all” means, exactly.  Or, I do, precisely.

I myself have read “all” of Nabokov.  Seventeen novels, a memoir, a fat collected stories, a couple of hilarious plays that never seem to have had much of a reputation.  A screenplay, lectures, reviews, interviews, translations, poems.  I have not read his chess problems, or the scientific work on the taxonomy of butterflies, or anything extant only in Russian.

Nabokov is a key influence, as they say, on Wuthering Expectations, which is, covertly, my attempt to escape from VN’s Strong Opinions, to develop my own critical views.  It would be all too easy, and good fun, to simply indulge in the Writers Nabokov (Dis)Likes, primary among them, Vladimir Nabokov, who for some reason is not on obooki’s list.

There are no bad Nabokov novels, but only major and minor.  For the major, I’ll pick two in Russian, The Gift (1938/1952) and Invitation to a Beheading (1936 or so), and three in English, Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), Pale Fire (1962), plus the memoir Speak, Memory (1951 or so).  That decade from Speak, Memory to Pale Fire is one of the greatest sustained creative runs in American literature, rivaling the peak periods of Hawthorne and Faulkner.  I have no idea why the best Russian novels, among the century’s greats, and the autobiography are not better known.  No, I believe I do know.  Lolita casts a strange, distorting shadow.

As for the minor novels – but I see I have now put Bend Sinister (1947) and Ada, or Ardor (1969) and Despair (1934) into the “minor” category, which is not what I want.  I need a gradation.  James Wood calls Nabokov’s fifth novel, Glory (1932), “absolutely ravishing” but “one of the most idea-free novels of its genre in literature,” and he’s right on both counts.  That’s a minor novel.

Some of Nabokov’s fiction - The Eye (1930), Pale Fire, the story “The Vane Sisters” - has a puzzle-like element that I know drives some readers nuts, as if that’s not allowed in literature.  “The Vane Sisters” contains an actual puzzle, a word game, that really must be solved to understand the story.  Nabokov gives the reader clues to the solution, but still.  “Signs and Symbols,” his best story, strongly suggests that it has a solution, too, but does not.  Reader beware.

A different kind of puzzle: only Ada is genuinely long, that and the enormous Pushkin commentary.  Nabokov’s novels are short.  His short stories are even shorter.  Is this not an encouragement to readers?  It is to me.  I just re-read Nabokov’s 114 page first novel, Mary (1926), decidedly minor, an exercise in purging influences and ordering memories.  It is filled with extraordinary things:

Five hackney droshkies stood on the avenue alongside the huge drumlike shape of a street pissoir: five sleepy, warm, gray worlds in coachman’s livery; and five other worlds on aching hooves, asleep and dreaming of nothing but oats streaming out of a sack with a soft crackly sound. (Mary, Ch. 3, p. 27)

I’m wrong again.  Those horses dreaming of the exact sound of falling oats, that is just ordinary Nabokov.  He gets better, although he is recognizably himself from the first book.  Observe, for example, the way the author, in the first forty pages or so, continually avoids giving the protagonist, and the reader, essential information about the story.  Except the reader won’t be able to observe this at all, because he doesn’t know what the missing pieces are, does he now?  There is no reading; there is only re-reading.  If nicole does not mind, I will soon be re-reading “all” of Nabokov, in chronological order.

Pnin hurled the towel into a corner and, turning away, stood for a moment staring at the blackness beyond the threshold of the open back door.  A quiet, lacy-winged green insect circled in the glare of a strong naked lamp above Pnin’s glossy bald head.  He looked very old, with his toothless mouth half open and a film of tears dimming his blank, unblinking eyes.

Or maybe I should skip straight to Pnin.  Anyone who has read it knows where that's from, right?  Read too much Nabokov and it's most other writers who begin to look minor.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A stinging desire, like a poisoned fly, bites at you even to the mind's dark root - dramatic classical temptations

As the year begins, I have been beset on all sides by temptation.  See Emily All Afternoon’s delight with Anne Carson’s brilliantly conceived hybrid Oresteia.  Or the entire premise of the Lifetime Reader’s up-and-running Lifetime Reading Plan. Or obooki finding contemporary relevance in Aristophanes.  Hugo, Trollope, feh - I want to read Greek plays!

So I am, one a day.  Aeschylus, so far, the tricky ones.  Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus Bound, The Suppliants.  Tricky because they are fragments of trilogies, tricky because certain parts are so darn weird.  The great climax of Seven Against Thebes is the revelation of the embossment on a shield.  Undramatic, painfully so, unless the reader can work his way into the spirit of the thing, in which case the scene becomes a shocking protest against fate, or an embrace of doom.

Imagine the costumes, the music, the staging, the huge masks, the fishcake vendors.  Imagine Aeschylus himself standing behind the giant Prometheus puppet, daring Zeus to blast him to pieces and sic an eagle on his liver.  Imagine the entry of the dazzling chorus of Aristophanes’ birds on that spring night in 414 BC.  Wild.

Maybe I’ll shadow the Lifetime Reader and reread ‘em all.  I’ve always thought they would make a perfectly reasonable blog project.  Aeschylus: 7, Sophocles: 7, Euripides: 18, Aristophanes: 11, Menander: 1.  Total: 44 plays, many quite short.  One a week for 44 weeks.  Or one a year for 44 years.  Well worth doing, either way.

The plays can be read profitably in any order, but the chronology is meaningful.  Aeschylus is near the actual beginning of the dramatic tradition, a radical innovator in a new form.  Sophocles perfects his innovations, and makes new ones.  Euripides is the decadent end of the tradition, mocking and attacking his audience, his predecessors, Homer, Athens.  Sometimes, as in the derisively jolly Helen or the existentialist nightmare Orestes, he seems to be trying to destroy the form, to destroy tragedy.  Soon after, Aristophanes mocks them all again, even staging a debate between the deceased Aeschylus and Euripides.  Then the comic tradition shifts, too, into the flashy, shallow fun of the New Comedy.  And then, poof, it’s all gone.  Mummy dust.

Euripides was a younger contemporary of the long-lived Sophocles, so the path I laid out is fanciful, but boy, does it seem right.  I acknowledge the ritual power of Aeschylus and the undeniable perfection of Sophocles, of Oedipus the King, but it’s Euripides I really love, perhaps because he’s so cantankerous, so willfully odd, even, at times, self-destructive.  Not that Sophocles and Aeschylus, Oedipus at Colonus or Prometheus Bound are not plenty odd.  But it’s Euripides who somehow leads me to Samuel Beckett.

Which translations are good?  So many are good.  The old University of Chicago Press series is excellent, thirty-two tragedies in nine volumes, but so are the poet\classicist collaborations of the Oxford University Press line.  William Arrowsmith was particularly good with Aristophanes and Euripides.  I’ve read bits of the Ted Hughes’ Aeschylus, suitably stark and highly promising, as is the Euripides of Anne Carson.  Here’s an odd one – try to find the poet H.D.’s version of Ion, a psychologically intense, poetically Modernist Euripides.  She has a Hippolytus, too, that I haven’t read.  As Kenneth Rexroth advises about Chinese poetry in translation, one should read as many different translators as possible.  The plays are so rich, and so suggestive of possibilities.  So tempting.

Title quotation from Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes, tr. Anthony Hecht and Helen H. Bacon, Oxford University Press, 1973.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Wuthering Expectations resolutions for the new year

Since, on my vacation, I seem to have forgotten how to do whatever it is I normally do here, I will have to resort to something else.  It’s a new year, yes?  Happy 2011!

My resolutions:

1.  “I vow not to write bad prose this year.”  Thus swears Prof. Mayhew at ¡Bemsha Swing!  No one expects resolutions to actually be kept, right?  So I, too, vow etc.

2.  I’ll read Middlemarch.  It tops my mental Should-Have-Read list.  Eliot and Les Misérables alone would be a perfectly satisfying pair, come the end of 2011, to check off the list.  The whole idea of the list is absurd.  The actual, secret, point of this resolution is to murder the impulse to write an entire dull post about my Humiliation checklist.  Who cares?  Impulse: strangled.

3.  Finish fewer books.  Dr. Johnson, who read more than anyone, was pressed about a new book.  Had he read it through?  “No, Sir, do YOU read books through?”*  Johnson was correct.  You are perhaps thinking of all of the marvelous books that it would be a crying shame not to enjoy from beginning to end and then back to the beginning.  Yes, yes.  But what about all of the other books?  I’m currently reading a book I won’t finish.  Or that I will finish, without having read it through.  A start.

4.  Write about music more.  Nathaniel Hawthorne, in the trip recorded in the Italian Notebooks, makes use of a standard guidebook (“Murray”) that is packed with Byron’s poetry.  Every line of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage describing actual locations in Italy or elsewhere is, in the guidebook, evaluated against the real thing.  Poor Hawthorne, perfectly aware of the idiocy of the exercise, cannot help but do the same, except that he is comparing the view before his eyes not just to Byron, but also to Murray and to Byron-in-Murray.

More or less simultaneously, I was discovering all sorts of curious traces of Byron in Emily Dickinson’s poems.  All of this somehow led me to repeated spins of Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy (1834), and a projected post or posts about all of the fascinating connections between the music and the various texts.  I would love to read those posts, but I guess I did not want, or know how, to write them.

One three year old post about Robert Schumann; that’s Wuthering Expectations and music.  I suspect this is less a resolution to write more than a reverie about a road not traveled.  But who knows.  Maybe I’ll think of something.

5.  Write shorter posts.  I seem to have found a comfort level in the vicinity of 600 to 750 words, which is too long for a blog post.  No, sorry, not your blog posts.  Those are perfect as they are.  Can’t wait for the next one.  Mine are too long.  Time to put ‘em in the vise, give ‘em a good squeeze.  Time to end this one.

*  James Boswell, Life of Johnson, somewhere in April 1773.