Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hey! Have you heard? Throngs of dwarfs and trolls swarm on the hills.

Anybody else out there carrying around the idea that Henrik Ibsen introduced something called “realism” to the stage?  Plays were, for a long time, not realistic, and then Ibsen produced – I’m not sure which ones – A Doll’s House and The Wild Duck, let’s say, and then Shaw and Chekhov and other playwrights of a similar temperament took notice and thus was melodrama and nonsense banished from the legitimate theater, replaced by somber realism.

I think there is some truth to what I just wrote.  Shaw and company really were inspired, partly, by Ibsen to do whatever it was they did.  I do not know Ibsen well, and had not read any of his plays before last year; when I did, I could see the path the realists followed.  The puzzle was: how did the realists escape all of the trolls hiding along the path?  Ibsen’s plays, it turns out, are full of trolls.

Hey! Have you heard?
The priest’s flown away.
And now the throngs
of dwarfs and trolls,
all swart and spry
swarm on the hills.
The spiteful things,
they scratched my eyes,
look!  with their claws. (near the end of Act 3)

The speaker here is Gerd, herself half-troll, the visionary madwoman of Ibsen’s Brand (1866).  The title character is the priest, a uncompromising hellfire preacher who destroys all who come near him as part of his service to, or his mortal struggle with, God.  I believe there is room for interpretation here.  The novel – I mean play, or poem - ends with Gerd discovering that Brand, purged of all earthly remnants, is in fact Jesus Christ, with the unsettling consequences one might expect.  Brand is some sort of anti-troll, all too attuned to the world’s trollishness.

I’m not sure what a troll is.  I have not even read D’Aulaires’ Book of Trolls.  They are easy to recognize, though.  They are the characters who appear to be human but are not – Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, for example, or Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, destructive and chaotic, creatures whose presence in in the human world appears to be some sort of error.  They make good villains, even if they are somehow too primitive to be genuinely evil (evil is a human quality).  Quilp, from The Old Curiosity Shop, is a troll.

I am actually reading Brand and Peer Gynt (1867) because of Jarry, because of Ubu.  Alfred Jarry translated Peer Gynt and actively tried to get it performed.  Père Ubu, Jarry’s great creation, is himself something of a troll, as is the protagonist of his Rabelaisian anti-philosophical novel, The Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician.  Not that any of this matters much, except that there seem to be other paths leading away from Ibsen that have nothing whatsoever to do with “realism.”

The Geoffrey Hill adaptation of Brand that I am reading is, as an aside, spectacularly good.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Anything Ubu Readalong Opportunity

1.  bibliographing nicole, host of last year’s historic, blog-shattering Clarel readalong has thrown down a metaphorical gauntlet, demanding a Challenge!

2.  Roberto Bolaño obsessives have circulated lists of his favorite books, for example this list, where Bolaño expresses his affection for “Anything Ubu by Jarry,” which may well have been a translator’s misunderstanding.  Bolaño might be referring to an actual book, Tout Ubu, a French omnibus of Ubu.

3.  This step is extremely important, but I have forgotten what it is.  I will consult my notes, which are unfortunately poorly organized, and insert the missing information later.

4. The result:

All are invited to consult their consciences and read Anything Ubu, or carried away by their newly awakened and insatiable appetite, Everything Ubu.

What is Ubu?  The first great character of the 20th century.  The destruction of literature.  The beginning of Modernism.  A travesty.  A nightmare.  A moderately amusing jape.  Two authentic portraits of Papa Ubu have been ensconced at the head of Wuthering Expectations.  A sample, Act 4, Scene 5 of Ubu Cocu, complete:

The same, MEMNON showing his head.

MEMNON’S HEAD:  It’s not functioning at all, it’s broken down.  What a dirty business, like your braining machine.  I’m not afraid of that.  It all proves my point – there’s nothing like a sewage barrel.  In falling in and popping out again you’ve done more than half the work for me.

PA UBU:  By my green candle, I’ll gouge your eyes out – barrel, pumpkin, refuse of humanity! (He shove him back, then shuts himself in the lavatory recess with The Palcontents.)

“It all proves my point” – that is my new motto.  Expect me to deploy it in your comments soon.  Cyril Connolly is the “translator” here.  Many translations and adaptation of the Ubu plays exist.  The plays are:

Ubu Roi, or King Ubu, or whatever you want to call it.  Written and performed, actually performed in an actual Paris theater, by human actors, in 1896.

Ubu Cocu, or Ubu Cuckolded.  Published in 1943.  Jarry was long dead.

Ubu Enchaîné, or Ubu Enslaved, published in 1900, I think.  Who cares.

In some sense, this is the proper order of the plays, and a proper reader would want to start with Ubu Roi.  The proper reader would also end with Ubu Roi, probably before he gets to the bottom of the first page, and “sense” is really the wrong word to use in the context of Ubu, so forget all of that.

These three plays make up The Ubu Cycle but are not the end of Ubu.  I have only alluded to the fact that these plays have an author, Alfred Jarry, who is visible, in Picasso’s portrait, peeping over the Challenged! button up above.  Jarry’s writings outside of the plays are suffused with Ubu, soaked in Ubu, dripping with Ubu.  Jarry, in what for the sake of argument I will call “real life,” actually became Ubu.  For legal and ethical reasons, I urge participants in the Anything Ubu Readalong Opportunity not to actually become Ubu.

Nicole and I invite one and all to defile their blogs by sampling Anything Ubu.  We think we will begin the disembraining (or, to use an antiquated technical term, “discussion”) in the last week of June.  Bolañistos and Bolañistas are nuts not to join in.  Other readers – see you in July!  Or August – the Ubu stink may be gone by then.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

John Muir reads nature - the pro-Transcendentalist Butcher's Crossing

But I was only leaving one University for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness. (John Muir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, 1913, last sentence)

Something about Butcher’s Crossing was nagging at me.  Something about the young man heading into the mountains under Emersonian principles; something about the date, the early 1870s.  A glance at the Chronology section of the Library of America edition of John Muir’s Nature Writings (1997) confirmed my hunch.

Muir’s historic first trip to the Yosemite Valley, recounted in My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), took place in 1869.   Muir actually met Emerson in Yosemite in 1871 – Emerson was there as a tourist – and acted as his guide to the area.  So I began to read My First Summer in the Sierra.

John Williams had certainly read it.  Muir is in Yosemite as a transhumant shepherd, leading the “hoofed locusts” up to their summer pastures; Andrews, in Butcher’s Crossing, is after buffalo hides, not wool; wild wool, not domestic.  Andrews begins the book knowing nothing about nature, and ends the same way; Muir is extraordinarily knowledgeable from the beginning, yet learns more.  Andrews hopes that his encounter with wildness will erase his personality; Muir is overspilling with personality.  Yet they are both up in the mountains because Emerson wrote “Nature” and Thoreau wrote Walden.  One disappears into the emptiness of the West; the other becomes the greatest American naturalist.

The young John Muir was as committed to the authentic experience of nature as his fictional counterpart.  Muir, though was extraordinarily, almost superhumanly knowledgeable.  An intense experience of the natural world was not incompatible with learning, but instead required it.  A key lesson for Muir is his lack of knowledge (he is surveying the view from eleven thousand feet, atop Mount Hoffman):

What questions I asked, and how little I know of all the vast show, and how eagerly, tremulously hopeful of some day knowing more, learning the meaning of these divine symbols crowded together on this wondrous page. (LOA, 240)

The metaphor occurs repeatedly.  Nature is a book, or a manuscript.  Nature is something to read.  Muir was a capacious reader – see the hilarious Chapter VII of My Boyhood and Youth – and an energetic, prolific writer.  Andrews has deliberately rejected reading and writing.

I don’t know that John Williams had Muir in mind at all while composing Butcher’s Crossing.  But Muir provides an alternative to the facile ideas, such as they are, of Andrews.  Butcher’s Crossing is not an attack on the Transcendentalists and their ideas about nature, but a warning about the dangers of a narrow and hasty attraction to them.  John Muir’s experience of nature, which includes sketching, scientific names, technical descriptions of plants and minerals, and not-so-technical descriptions of animals (“A Douglas squirrel, peppery, pungent autocrat of the woods”), is also authentic and powerful.  To Muir, it is explicitly a religious experience, his direct contact with the works of God.  But it requires time: observation and study, writing and reading.

Perhaps I am returning to the ideas of this post.

Today is, the Library of America blog Reader’s Almanac informs me, the centennial of the publication of My Summer in the Sierra.  What a pleasant coincidence.

I may return to Muir soon, but I have other things to do tomorrow.  Tune in for the announcement of what I believe to be the greatest readalong opportunity in book blog history.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Experiencing nature with Peter the Wild Boy - John Williams argues with Emerson and Thoreau

Butcher’s Crossing begins with a pair of epigrams that, if properly understood, could replace the novel, although I had to read the novel to understand them, so what good do they do?  The first is a long slab of Emerson’s “Nature” which can be compressed thusly: “satisfaction… tranquil… halcyons… Indian summer… knapsack of custom… sanctity which shames our religions… judges like a god.”  Strange, gassy stuff.  The second epigram is a little different.  Poets, Emerson, perhaps, prescribe nature as “the grand cure” for “sick spirits”:

But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie?  And who made an idiot of Peter the Wild Boy?

This is so odd that it can only come from Herman Melville, stripped out of who knows what context from The Confidence Man (1857).  Will Andrews, the center of Butcher’s Crossing, abandons the knapsack of custom for the wilderness, for its Emersonian judgment, and his sick spirit is, in fact, cured, but the medicine has some powerful side effects.

In Butcher’s Crossing, the authentic experience of Nature destroys the self.  Personality is effaced by wildness.  All of the characters, not just Andrews, regress in the wild.  Or perhaps they do move forward, stepping out of their humanity, beyond personality, beyond thought.  Thoreau develops an idea like this in the “Higher Laws” chapter of Walden, the chapter I found hardest to understand.

Thoreau, however, also associated experience of nature with knowledge of nature:

Fishermen, hunters, woodchoppers, and others, spending their lives in the fields and woods, in a peculiar sense a part of Nature themselves, are often in a more favorable mood for observing her, in the intervals of their pursuits, than philosophers or poets even, who approach her with expectation.  She is not afraid to exhibit herself to them. (“Higher Laws,” first paragraph)

This comes just after Thoreau resists the temptation to devour alive a woodchuck, but I think he means this.  Thoreau became an expert naturalist.  Andrews approaches nature with expectations, but knows nothing, absolutely nothing, and he learns nothing about nature along the way.  Everything he learns in the novel – how to ride a horse, how to skin a buffalo – only leads to further mental numbness.  Perhaps that is what he was seeking.

Andrews' ignorance extends far past nature:

Soon, almost to his surprise, it occurred to Andrews that he did not know the Bible well enough to talk about it even in Charley Hoge’s terms – had not, in fact, ever read it with any degree of thoroughness.   His father had encouraged his reading of Mr. Emerson, but had not, to his recollection, insisted that he read the Bible. (45)

Andrews’ father is a Unitarian minister!  I even wonder how well Andrews read Emerson.*  Further down on the same page, Andrews remembers his attempts to “become a transparent eyeball” (a “phrase from a lecture by Mr. Emerson that he had attended”, emphasis mine) in “the fields and woods” near Cambridge.**  Andrews never reads anything, or writes anything.  At Harvard he feels nothing but “meanness and constriction.”  Buried in his buffalo hide sleeping bag, waiting out a Rocky Mountain blizzard (182-3), Andrews is entirely constrained, but there is no meanness, nothing outside himself.

I believe Williams is critiquing the fecklessness of one side of Emerson and Thoreau’s response to nature.  He wants to bring the danger and wildness back into the picture.  Thoreau seems to have learned a similar lesson after he wrote Walden, but I have only read passages of the “Ktaadn” chapter of The Maine Woods, which contains Thoreau’s shattering encounter with real wilderness, so I cannot be sure.  Williams carefully outlines the negative space of an alternative path.  Tomorrow, I will glance at another disciple of Emerson and Thoreau, another authentic encounter with Nature, but one that is brimming with personality.

*  Or how well anyone reads anything.  See p. 199, when Andrews asks Charley to read something from his Bible.

**  A later, almost literal exercise in transparent eyeballing results in a three-day snow blindness (202).   Who made an idiot of Peter the Wild Boy?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The dark rich dampness, the Wildness - a start at Butcher's Crossing

C. B. James is running a challenge, encouraging people to read historical novels set in the American West.  There’s another name for this kind of book,  something more compact.  I read Butcher’s Crossing (1960) by John Williams.

A young knucklehead, Will Andrews, under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” (1836), drops out of Harvard and heads West, seeking a profound and authentic communion with Nature, or something like that:

But whatever he spoke he knew would be but another name for the wildness that he sought.  It was a freedom and a goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life, which were not free or good or hopeful or vigorous.  What he sought was the source and preserver of his world, a world which seemed to turn ever in fear away from its source, rather than search it out, as the prairie grass around him sent down its fibered roots into the dark rich dampness, the Wildness, and thereby renewed itself, year after year. (21)

With 250 pages to go, it is already clear that Andrews will find that Wildness and then some.  The question is, will this inexperienced idealist escape from it alive, and who or what will he take down with him.

Andrews’ search for true nature sends him into the Colorado Rockies as a member of a four-man buffalo hunting expedition.  A long stretch in the center of the novel describes the slaughter of the buffalo.  One sliver of that section:

Andrews opened the keg of water and got the tufted end of the cleaning rod wet.  When he inserted the rod into the breech of the barrel the hot metal hissed, and the drops of water that got on the outside of the barrel danced for a moment on the blued metal and disappeared.  He waited for a few moments, and reinserted the patch.  Drops of smoke-blackened water dripped from the end of the barrel. (134)

A keen-eyed reader might observe that this passage sounds very much unlike the first one I provided.   Yes, thank goodness!  An entire novel written in that first style would be hard to finish.  Most of Butcher’s Crossing is as meticulously detailed and carefully imagined, as material, as Little House on the Prairie.  Readers impatient with details about how to drive a team of oxen or build a canvas water barrel or skin a buffalo may well find this novel hard to finish.  Not me – I was impressed.

To be specific, a sentence like the last one, with the smoke-blackened drops, moves Williams’ writing out of the category of the instructional manual.  I may not follow every step, but Williams always includes something that I can focus in on, something he imagines and sees (or smells, or hears) clearly that he can give to me.

C. B. James argues that Butcher’s Crossing “does [not] offer an ironic, modern take on the events it describes.”  This puzzled me a bit, but I think he means that Williams is not messing with the conventions of his genre.  Butcher’s Crossing is not a hipster Western; its author does not wink at his reader, signaling that he and I are of course too sophisticated to read Westerns – you know, those other Westerns.  Williams uses the Western as a useful platform to tell this particular story.

The story itself, though, is profoundly ironic.  The novel might actually be a parody, but not a parody of Westerns.  I’ll see if I can develop this idea.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Guy Deutscher's pop linguistics - a review-like post

Ignorant of linguistics, I followed the recommendation of Language Hat, and the prodding of a couple of my commenters, and read Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (2010) by Guy Deutscher.   The subtitle is not accurate, or is mostly inaccurate.  The book is primarily about how the world does not look different in other languages in any significant way, except when it occasionally does.

Deutscher’s method is to trace the intellectual history of a particular linguistic theory.  An example:

1.  Homer makes strange use of colors, or so observes William Gladstone in 1858.  Honey is green; sheep are violet.  Nothing is blue.  Therefore Homer saw honey as green, and could not see the color blue.  His eyes, and those of the Ancient Greeks, were different than ours.

2.  Primitive languages generally lack the color blue, and perhaps also, green, yellow, etc.  The primitive people who speak those languages cannot see those colors.  They are at an earlier evolutionary stage.

3.  Hey, there, 19th century anthropologists, I’m not so comfortable with that word “primitive,” plus it turns out everyone can tell blue from other colors whether they have a word for it or not.  Linguistic differences in color words are therefore cultural artifacts, curious but entirely without meaning.

4.  Well, perhaps not entirely without meaning.  The color vocabulary of our language does seem to have some minor effect on our perception of the world around us.

Substitute, for color, grammar or spatial language or gendered nouns and repeat.  Discovery, reaction, wild overreaction in the opposite direction, small retreat from the overreaction, which is where we are today.  Deutscher did not convince me that today’s frontier linguistics research has uncovered any mighty discoveries, but he provides a number of cautionary tales about sealing off a research path for political or cultural reasons, so I should consider myself cautioned, as well.

The best part of a pop social science book like this one is the range of strange facts that provide evidence for one or another theory.  The Australian speakers of Guugu Yimithirr do not distinguish between right and left or other directions that relate to their own position (like “egocentric” English), but use compass directions.  The television is not in front of me, but to the north; the character on screen is not walking toward me, but walking south.

Speakers of the Peruvian Amazon language Matses distinguish between not just the past and the present, but the recent past, distant past, and remote past, and also require the speaker to specify how he knows what he is saying, and most amazingly, when he learned it.    Wild pigs passed by (long ago,  which I found out recently by direct observation).  Everything in the parentheses is contained in the verb conjugation.  As Deutscher points out, the difference is not what speakers of English and Matses can say, but rather what they have to say.

Absolutely fascinating stuff, written by Deutscher with vigor and humor, even, perhaps too often, sarcasm.  I now consider myself slightly less ignorant.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Peacock's joyful elegy for literature, Gryll Grange

Thomas Love Peacock has a few champions, readers of exquisite taste and refined sensibility blahbity blah blah.  Michael Dirda, of The Washington Post, is one of them, as Jenny of Shelf Love tells me.  He pointed me to another, the “minor prose stylist” Guy Davenport, who, Dirda says, “spent his last days rereading Peacock” – too good to check, that bit.

Why would Davenport do such a peculiar thing?  I found the answer in Peacock's final novel, Gryll Grange (1860), published when the author was seventy-five years old.  The world of Romanticism, Byronism, and Gothic foofaraw depicted in Nightmare Abbey, forty-two years earlier, must have looked so distant.

Gryll Grange is an elegy for culture and learning, for literature, but also a celebration of the renewal of literature.  Peacock had me worried, for a while, that his curmudgeonliness, a necessary trait in a decent satirist, had swallowed him whole, that the novel would be nothing but a complaint, that Peacock’s critique of progress had become desiccated.  The old, though, continues in the new in Peacock’s fantasy.  Gryll Grange is a variation of The Tempest.  Peacock breaks his staff with the knowledge that life will go on without him.

A young aesthete has established a shrine to Beauty, devoted to music, art, literature, elegance, and chastity.  He has chosen to live in an allegory.  A wise, happy clergyman, sharing his love of Greek learning and English elegance, introduces him to an elegant, beautiful, learned etc. etc. woman.  Another couple is dropped in to create a love rectangle, which works out the way it must.  Should the aesthete preserve his arid but beautiful fantasy world or live in the complex and imperfect real world?  This also works out the way it must.  Peacock is actually arguing against himself, against his own narrowness, and mine.

The keystones of the novel are literary.  The climax is the performance of an Aristophanic play.  Chapter headings are packed with Greek, Italian, and French quotations, translated by Peacock, and there are plenty more in the text of the novel.  Rabelais is a presiding spirit, as is the Shakespeare of forest fantasies like As You Like It.  Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato plays a central role in the romantic plot – shy lovers communicate by leaving Boiardo open to meaningful passages.  The choice of Boiardo is doubly meaningful – it does not matter that Boiardo was not able to finish his epic of Orlando.  Someone else, someone better, even, will take care of it later.

What is valuable will survive.  The novel ends with songs, and ghost stories (Gryll Grange is actually a Christmas novel), and weddings, and champagne.  Peacock, an old man, looks backs, but also forward.

I fear I have made a hash of this one.  Gryll Grange looks a lot like Peacock’s earlier novels, and passage by passage sounds like them.  Its mood is different, though, and its argument has shifted.  When I reread it during my last days, or perhaps before, I will try again.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

You may as well dine first, and be miserable afterwards.

The last fifteen pages or so of Nightmare Abbey – that title is from Chapter XIV (Peacock’s chapters, like his books, are short) – move away from the dinner table and wine cellar to turn into something rare in the Peacock I have read, a meaningful story, complete with complications and plot twists and a genuine resolution, a comic one, of course, a parody of Gothic and Romantic nonsense.  Much of it involves an argument about an overheard noise (the father believes his son is concealing a woman, while his son is, in fact, concealing a woman) that would not be out of place in Young Frankenstein or an episode of Frasier (“But, sir,” said Scythrop, “a key-hole may be so constructed as to act like an acoustic tube, and an acoustic tube, sir, will modify sound in a very remarkable manner” etc. etc.).

Otherwise, novelistic conventions of plot and story are playthings for Peacock.  In Crotchet Castle, the conventional romantic leads are simply abandoned for an entirely different story.  The characters are all sufficiently unreal that I doubt many readers ever cared – why would I prefer to watch the courtship of these puppets rather than those?  Peacock is not exactly Jane Austen.  Crotchet Castle ends with dancing and the singing of ballads and “[a]n immense bowl of spiced wine, with roasted apples hissing on its surface,…  borne into the hall by four men, followed by an empty bowl of the same dimensions, with all the materials of arrack punch” (Ch. XVIII)  The party, and the novel, too, only ends when the punch bowl is empty.

A true satirist, Peacock has his prejudices and hatreds, but his novels are in the end jolly, friendly places.  He is suspicious of progress, but defends knowledge.  He laughs at manias, but respects ideas.  He prefers over-indulged pleasure to healthy but dry abstention.  He is a happy satirist.  The plashy fens and furry broods of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1937) are spiritual children of the Peacock spirit.

Nightmare Abbey is actually an argument against unhappiness of the Gothic and Romantic variety, against the pose of unhappiness, whether it is found in Wetherism, Byronism, or transcendentalism.  “Let us all be unhappy together,” declares a character, just before he and his companions roar through a drunken rendition of Seamen Three: “And our ballast is old wine; \ And your ballast is old wine.”  I begin to doubt that the misery of these characters is genuine.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Peacock's unusual collocation of words and the vulgar error of the reading public

It might be easier, I suppose, to write about Peacock’s novels if I had some sort of point, but I am just aimlessly Appreciating.  I have not really described his books.  That might be useful.

The titles provide a clue.  Headlong Hall (1816), Nightmare Abbey (1818), Crotchet Castle (1831), Gryll Grange (1860).  Peacock uses another title when he wants it, but these tell the tale.  To create a novel, Peacock needs to construct not a story, but a dining room. There he can assemble his cast of humours and crotchets and monomaniacs, ply them with Madeira, and transcribe their pleasant “pseudo-philosophical dialogues about nothing much in particular,” to quote obooki.  Peacock even dispenses, wisely, with the usual novelistic apparatti for speech:

MR. MAC QUEDY.  Metaphysics, sir; metaphysics.  Logic and moral philosophy.  There we are at home.  The Athenians only sought the way, and we have found it; and to all this we have added political economy, the science of sciences.

REV. DR. FOLLIOTT.  A hyperbarbarous technology, that no Athenian ear could have borne.  Premises assumed without evidence, or in spite of it; and conclusions drawn from them so logically, that they must necessarily be erroneous.

MR. SKIONAR.  I cannot agree with you, Mr. Mac Quedy, that you have found the true road of metaphysics, which the Athenians only sought.  The Germans have found it, sir:  the sublime Kant and his disciples.

MR. MAC QUEDY.  I have read the sublime Kant, sir, with an anxious desire to understand him, and I confess I have not succeeded.

REV. DR. FOLLIOTT.  He wants the two great requisites of head and tail. (Crotchet Castle, II)

Different editions use different orthography; I have just pasted in the Gutenberg text.  This is hardly a serious attempt understand or explain Kant or political economy (thus, pseudo-philosophical), but Peacock can set up his jokes and score his points.  As a practitioner of political economy, for example, I refuse to grant the truth of more than 90% of the Reverend Doctor Folliott’s jibes.  No, not more than 95%.

All of the novels I have read contain an equivalent of Rev. Dr. Folliott, the epicurean clergyman, a common-sense classicist.  Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle share Mr. Skionar (aka Mr. Flosky), the transcendental philosopher, poet, and utter fool, a great source of fun.  In Nightmare Abbey he is dragged, much against his will, into the romantic plot:

MR FLOSKY.  Subtleties, my dear Miss O'Carroll!  I am sorry to find you participating in the vulgar error of the reading public, to whom an unusual collocation of words, involving a juxtaposition of antiperistatical ideas, immediately suggests the notion of hyperoxysophistical paradoxology.

MARIONETTA.  Indeed, Mr Flosky, it suggests no such notion to me.  I have sought you for the purpose of obtaining information.

MR FLOSKY.  (shaking his head).  No one ever sought me for such a purpose before.

[more nonsense]

MR FLOSKY.  My dear Miss O'Carroll, it would have given me great pleasure to have said any thing that would have given you pleasure; but if any person living could make report of having obtained any information on any subject from Ferdinando Flosky, my transcendental reputation would be ruined for ever. (Nightmare Abbey, VIII)

Everything will work out fine for Marionetta, and for Flosky \ Skionar, too.  She will marry a wealthy, pliable idiot and he will never be understood by a soul.

What have I done here?  I have hardly written a thing, but just mortared in some of Peacock’s gibberish.  Ah, well, I enjoyed reading it again.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

He was cured of the love of reading in all its shapes - Peacock's cogibundity of cogitation

Thomas Love Peacock’s novels are, I am told, packed with satirical versions of the celebrities of his day.  If Gryll Grange  has any at all, I failed to recognize them, but Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle have a number that are obvious enough.  My challenge this week, then, is to completely ignore Peacock’s caricatures, which have nothing to do with the quality of his writing.  It would be a shame if Peacock’s reputation were reduced to gossip.  He is one of the great English humorists:

When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head: having finished his education to the high satisfaction of the master and fellows of his college, who had, in testimony of their approbation, presented him with a silver fish-slice, on which his name figured at the head of a laudatory inscription in some semi-barbarous dialect of Anglo-Saxonised Latin. (Nightmare Abbey, Ch. I)

The reader who detects a hint or two of Bertie Wooster is reading well.  Much of Peacock’s humor is Wodehousian, or perhaps the order should be reversed.  Since Peacock brought up beating, perhaps I could beat the joke to death?  The word that makes the joke work, the first joke, I mean, must be “carefully,” unexpected, exactly wrong, after “beaten.”   Then the ludicrous simile evokes not just the ear of corn but an entire process of threshing, from the beating to the hand-picking, all with an entirely pointless result.  Comparing Scythrop's graduation award to a fish-slice has perhaps lost its savor – the fish-slice seems to have receded from American cutlery, at least  - but the mockery of Oxford Latin has a sting.

The first joke, the education joke, must be pretty well universal.  The Latin joke requires more investment by the reader in Peacock’s ethos, or so I suspect.  But would it look so out of place in Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett?  Or would this, continuing the theme of Scythrop’s education (he is now recovering from a broken heart):

He wandered about the ample pile, or along the garden-terrace, with 'his cogitative faculties immersed in cogibundity of cogitation.'  The terrace terminated at the south-western tower, which, as we have said, was ruinous and full of owls.  Here would Scythrop take his evening seat, on a fallen fragment of mossy stone, with his back resting against the ruined wall, a thick canopy of ivy, with an owl in it, over his head, and the Sorrows of Werther in his hand.  He had some taste for romance reading before he went to the university, where, we must confess, in justice to his college, he was cured of the love of reading in all its shapes; and the cure would have been radical, if disappointment in love, and total solitude, had not conspired to bring on a relapse. (Ch. II)

Now, “in justice to his college” – that’s good stuff.  Owls are inherently humorous; it is almost lazy of Peacock to employ them here.  As for the piece in quotation marks, your guess is as good as mine.  I don’t see how this would be any funnier knowing who this character “is.”  He is an invention, and a type, a type I have met myself in what I sometimes call "real" life, although they have replaced Werther with - with - what do the emo kids read?

Monday, May 16, 2011

A semi-barbarian in a civilized community - Thomas Love Peacock mocks what he loves

Another bad to terrible idea* from Wuthering Expectations:  a week or so writing about Thomas Love Peacock, friend of Percy Shelley, author of satirical novels, poems, and whatsits.  Not a forgotten author – I have evidence to the contrary – but one who is sliding in that direction.  I read three of his novels recently, Nightmare Abbey (1818), Crotchet Castle (1831), and Gryll Grange (1860) and enjoyed them all quite a lot, but I have some doubts about the, what shall I call it, universality of their appeal.

Fortunately, I can point to a brief exception, a well-prepared, clove-encrusted taste of Peacock, his 1829 poem “The War Song of Dinas Vawr”:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it.

“The War Song” continues for four more stanzas; Peacock wisely wrote short.  In some sense, the poem is topically satirical, parodying the crude but sanitized blood-thirstiness of the flood of fake Border ballads and “historical” poems inspired by the success of Walter Scott and Thomas Moore and so on.  Peacock’s satire has outlived the poems it mocks, and I hope the reason is clear enough.  Contemporary writers and readers have switched to prose, but we have plenty of equivalents.

Anna Saikin, a PhD student specializing in British Romanticism, has kindly posted her Comprehensive Exam reading list.  Among a long list of books and I have read and books I hope I never read, Peacock is present, not under Fiction or Poetry, but rather as the author of “The Four Ages of Poetry” (1820), another sly piece of mockery, this time hitting the Romantic poets right where they live, which is not in the Golden or Silver or even the Bronze Age of poetry, but in the Age of Brass, a time of cheap knockoffs, tinny sentiments, and muddled thinking:

A poet in our time is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community.  He lives in the days that are past.  His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions.  The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.

Peacock, I should point out, loved Romantic poetry and was a Romantic poet himself.  Mockery can be an expression of love.

Why, I wonder, is Nightmare Abbey not on Anna’s list?  It is a short little thing, just ninety pages.  Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge are actually characters in the novel, not even thinly disguised.  It features Shelley communing with owls and drinking Madeira from a human skull.  My doubt about much of Peacock’s work is that its virtues might be too obscure for a reader not immersed in Peacock’s time.  For the reader who is immersed, the reader who has prowled around that British Romanticism reading list, Peacock is a relief, and a reward.

The entirety of “The War Song of Dinas Vawr” and “The Four Ages of Poetry,” as well as a fine little introduction to Peacock can be found here (PDF).  That’s Peacock’s section of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 2; I will bet you eight dollars that the intro is written by the great Robert M. Adams.

*  In the sense that obscure writer = skimmed and skipped posts.  Maybe I am wrong about that.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Spanish poetry and the translations thereof in The Hudson Review

The warm and engaging hosting service of Wuthering Expectations took an unexpected but well-deserved personal day yesterday.  Some pool time in the afternoon, a mani-pedi, a hot stone massage, and then some solid TV watching, catching up with the first season of Treme.  Now, relaxed, energized, Blogger has returned to work refreshed  and alert.

A few comments from yesterday seem to have been temporarily misplaced.  I will be recreate them from my email soon if they do not turn up on their own.  There were some good ‘uns.  Yesterday’s post about Bolaño, Aira, and Argentine literature was pretty good, too.  Actually, that sounds a mite strong.  Let me look back for a minute – yesterday’s post was on a highly interesting subject, and might be worth reading for that reason.

I had planned to spend a few minutes writing about the poetry in the Spanish Issue of The Hudson Review, a magazine that has become, for better or worse, my primary source of contemporary poetry.  For better, I think; I gave Poetry magazine an honest effort a few years ago, but abandoned them just before being bored almost to death, although I do owe them my introduction to Kay Ryan.  My point, my point – the poetry in The Hudson Review is typically excellent, but not so typically by the all-star cast of the Spanish Issue:  Luis de Góngora, Ruben Darío, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Silvino Ocampo.

The Neruda poem, “Ode to my Socks,” is a curious one.  Its translator is William Carlos Williams, who is careful to turn Neruda into WCW, mostly with the line breaks:

I stretched out
my feet
and pulled over them
then my shoes.

Once properly shod, Williams proceeds to eat Neruda’s plums because they are so sweet and so cold and chop down his house because the beams are so inviting.

The lead feature is given to fragments of a 16th century masterpiece, Soledades (The Solitudes) of Luis de Góngora, expertly translated by Edith Grossman, more fruit of her turn to the Spanish Golden Age.  I read the poem several years ago in a different, vaguely remembered translation; even vaguer is a memory of reading part of it in Spanish, which must be wrong.  The long poem, an imitatio of Virgil’s Georgics, is enormously complex, not merely in its syntax so much as its extraordinary range of classical allusions and intricate and obscure metaphors.  Here a traveler has stumbled upon the preparations for a rustic wedding:

        You, oh singular bird,
arrogant splendor – for it is not comely –
        of the remote Occident:
hang the wrinkled nacre of your forehead
down over the kinked sapphire of your neck,
for Hymeneus wants you on his tables.

The exotic, ugly bird now on its way to the wedding (“Hymeneus”) feast is the American turkey.  The nacreous forehead foreshadows the piscatorial second book of the poem, which is about fishermen.   Góngora  demands patience and concentration:

A rebellious nymph, now a humble reed,
obscures  the margins of a small lagoon,
        where a kingbird inspects
even the smallest flake of its flying snow.

The snow is the foamy surf; the nymph is Syrinx; etc., etc.  How wonderful that Góngora’s poem will be available again, soon,  from Penguin Classics.  Who on earth is the audience?

But I suppose I could ask that about many of my favorite parts of The Hudson Review – one of my all-time favorites was an essay about the great pleasures of reading Clarissa!  Any reader widely curious about literature will find a lot to enjoy.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Bolaño, Aira, and the Argentinean Literature of Doom

Roberto Bolaño’s contribution to the Spanish issue of The Hudson Review is flattering.  It’s a post I wrote last year, on the extraordinary riches of Argentine literature.  His essay is maybe just a little different than mine, superior in terms of knowledge, skill, breadth, depth, humor, and every other virtue associated with good writing and good criticism, but is otherwise much like what I wrote.

Post-Borges Argentine literature has become, Bolaño claims, “the literature of doom,” a “literary nightmare, literary suicide, a literary dead end.”  That sounds worse than he means – better literary nightmares than real ones.  Bolaño thinks of Roberto Arlt, for example, as a great writer, but here’s his metaphor for Arlt’s anti-novels:

Seen as a closet or a basement Arlt’s work is fine. Seen as the main room of the house, it’s a macabre joke.  Seen as the kitchen, it promises food poisoning.  Seen as the bathroom, it’ll end up giving us scabies.  Seen as the library, it’s the guarantee of the death of literature.

An aside – I would not want to argue that this is the way all literary criticism has to be written.  No, not all of it.

The strain of doom that has only recently wandered into English is that of the mysterious Osvaldo Lamborghini and his disciple César Aira.  Bolaño describes Lamborghini’s novels as “excruciating,” readable only two or three pages at a time, smelling of “blood, spilled guts, bodily fluids, unpardonable acts.”  If someone could report back on this, I would appreciate it.

That is not at all how I, or Bolaño, would describe the compulsively readable Surrealist César Aira, author of dozens of little novel-like objects.  Five have appeared in English, with another coming in June.  I am surprised to discover that I have read four of them, all but The Hare.  Tess Lewis, in The Hudson Review, has put together a fine and useful, if perhaps insufficiently skeptical* overview of Aira-in-English.

I have written elsewhere, briefly, about a single amazing scene from An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, easily the best Aira novellino I have read (Bolaño prefers the fluid How I Became a Nun), and also the most conventionally novel-like novel, suggesting that I am an aesthetic reactionary.  I read someone – not Tess Lewis – who claimed that Landscape Painter was Aira’s deliberate parody of the well-crafted Modernist novel.  Could be.

The Literary Conference (2006), Englished last year, is about a mad scientist – “the typical Mad Scientist of the comic books” (18) – who plans to conquer the world with an army of clones led by a clone of Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes.  The mad scientist is the narrator, and author, César Aira.  Of course he is.  Who else would he be?

Aira writes his fiction under a regime of self-imposed daily serialization.  My understanding is that he can polish and refine his day’s writing, but can never revise an earlier day’s work.  He deliberately inserts impossible, unsolvable situations to stymie his future self, who is stuck with whatever nonsense he had previously written.  His novels are one-man exquisite corpses.  A close canonical equivalent I can think of is The Old Curiosity Shop, a brilliant improvisatory flight, which often descends into Dadaist lunacy.  As Aira (“Aira”) thinks, watching one of his old plays at the literary conference:

What was this all about?  I didn’t recognize it, it was too Dadaist.  Nevertheless, I had written it. (55)

Now I see my attraction to Aira.  It is as if he is me, reading one of my old posts at Wuthering Expectations.

Another aside – if someone would hurry up and translate Aira’s only short story, “Cecil Taylor,” that would be great.  Thanks.**

* Aira, like Bolaño, is a straight-faced prankster; their own claims about their biographies and methods should be taken as artistic creations.

** According to Bola
ño, one of the five greatest stories he had ever read.  No idea what the other four were.  According to Aira, “No es un cuento” (“It is not a story,” translation by me).  “Cecil Taylor,” accompanied by a perplexing allegorical introduction, can be found in an anthology titled Buenos Aires (1999, ed. Juan Forn).  Someone should translate the whole book.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Borges teaching Anglo-Saxon literature

I have subscribed to The Hudson Review since 1999, I think, when I stumbled upon it in the library while determinedly avoiding my dissertation.  In it, I discovered Joseph Epstein and William Pritchard and a number of other critics who, for whatever reason, had decided to spend part of their time writing about literature for a non-professional audience.  Depth, clarity, seriousness of purpose, lightness of touch – these are the virtues of The Hudson Review.

The magazine always includes a number of poems and a piece of fiction, but I value it most for its literary essays – surveys, histories, interpretations.  I suppose this is unsurprising, given what one finds at Wuthering Expectations.  The new issue, “The Spanish Issue,” has three especially good ones.  I want to save Roberto Bolaño and César Aira for tomorrow and spend today with Jorge Luis Borges, with “A Course in English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires: The Seventh Class,” translated by Esther Allen.

The piece is a transcription of one of Borges’s classroom lectures, stitched together by his students, from the fall of 1966.  It seems that a book is forthcoming next year, Professor Borges, that will contain twenty-five lectures, the complete course.  Excuse me, I need to make a little note: Read. That. Book.

In the seventh class, Borges has reached, more or less, the Norman Conquest.  The texts at issue are Old English: the Physiologus, an Anglo-Saxon bestiary (readers of The Book of Imaginary Beings will find this section most interesting); Anglo-Saxon poems; the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson; that sort of thing.  A long, casually and amusingly told history of the Battle of Hastings fills a good part of the lecture.  Beowulf seems to have been covered in the sixth class.  Perhaps Chaucer will be found in the eighth.

In this case, the class is as much linguistic as literary.  The perspective, for an English reader, is unusual and refreshing, since Borges compares Old English grammar and vocabulary not to contemporary English, but to his students’ own Spanish.  Borges is discussing the fading of grammatical gender in Anglo-Saxon English:

And this must have been a very sad thing for educated Saxons.  Imagine, all of you, if we were suddenly to notice people saying “el cuchara,” “lo mesa,” “lo casa,” “la tenedor,” etc.  We’d think: “Caramba, the language is degenerating, we’re all going the way of cocoliche.”  But the Saxons, who must have thought the same way, could not foresee that this is going to make English an easier language.

I needed the footnote informing me that cocoliche is an Italian-Spanish creole once spoken by Italian immigrants in Buenos Aires.  What a jolly and enthusiastic literary history.  What fun that class must have been.  I don’t know how Borges graded, though – perhaps he was a tyrant.

I would love to refer interested readers to this Borges lecture or to some of my favorite essays from The Hudson Review but the magazine’s editors have decided to minimize their web presence, a decision this long-time subscriber suggests they revisit.  What they have online begins here - be sure to click on the tiny "next" button.  “The Spanish Issue” is not even mentioned on the website yet!  The curious will have to poke around in their libraries and newsstands, assuming one or the other is unusually well stocked.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Freedom and writing, those two thrilling gifts - reading and the death of Franco

Another enthusiastic reading list:

I read Proust, and I read about Proust; I read Faulkner, I read Mario Vargas Llosa, Borges, Onetti; I read Raymond Chandler, Julio Cortázar, Flaubert, Stendhal.  Long after midnight, I turned off the light, so excited by my reading that sleep would not come. (34)

Antonio Muñoz Molina, in his essay “A Double Education,” is writing about his life as a student in Granada in 1975.  He is supposed to be, so he believes, doing what he can to fight Franco, dying but somehow never quite dead, smash the state, attend illegal demonstrations, and further revolutionary consciousness.  He is also supposed to go to his classes.  All he wants to do, though, and pretty much all he does, is read fiction, and just the good stuff.  A fellow revolutionary catches Muñoz Molina reading Swann’s Way and calls him a “revisionist,” which is a wounding insult in Marxist fantasy land.

Freedom and writing, those two thrilling gifts, had something in common:  both had to be learned, and they had to be learned the hard way by us Spaniards, because there were no teachers on hand. (37)

The first legal public rally Molina attends is a commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the murder of Federico García Lorca in the little town where he was born, surrounded by police, just sixty minutes long, all images and slogans “other than Lorca’s portrait and name” forbidden.  This is how Molina learns to be free, and perhaps also part of how he learns to write.

That time, he realizes, made him the writer he is now.  The books, of course, purchased with his scholarship money, and the political activity, but also “two decades of banned international films” that suddenly appeared in the Granada theaters, and recreational drugs, and pornography, and contraceptives, and gay rights’ parades, all of which seemed to simply appear in his world within a year or two of Franco’s death:

You had to learn, and you had to learn fast.  Your hands were full, and your mind had to work at a maddening speed.  But what an opportunity to learn for an aspiring writer: what a need to make some sense of what keeps rushing around you and at the same time to take stock of the long suppressed past and to try to peek into the fast approaching future.  (39)

What a luxury to live in a place and time when no writer’s name is likely to bear as much extra-literary power as Lorca’s.  Muñoz Molina, at the end of the essay, is clear enough that he prefers to recall 1975 rather than to live through it.

Who, by the by, is Antonio Muñoz Molina?  Let’s see.  I have to find the right part of the magazine. He

is the author of over a dozen novels, most recently La noche de los tiempos.  He twice received the Premio Nacional de Literatura in Spain.  He lives in Madrid and New York.

Now you know as much as I do, or perhaps more, since Molina has several novels in English, which you might have read.  Where did I read this memoir?  In the new issue of The Hudson Review, Spring 2011, a special treasure trove titled “The Spanish Issue.”  The rest of the week, more of The Hudson Review, more of “The Spanish Issue.”

Monday, May 9, 2011

Annie Dillard discombobulates my equilibrium

Strangest thing.  I was reading Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction (1982), a short, pithy, witty work of literary criticism, and was constantly, what do I want to say, thrown off.  Perhaps this was the first place it happened, on page 13, which is really the third page of the text:

Like many people, I have for years been reading fiction by various United States and South American writers like Vladimir Nabokov, John Barth, Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez, and by European writers like Samuel Beckett, the dull Alain Robbe-Grillet, the wonderful Italo Calvino.  I have asked myself how their work’s goals differ from those of the Modernists before them – Faulkner, Joyce, Mann, Kafka, say – or from the goals of Hardy or Eliot, or of Saul Bellow or Salinger or Mailer.

Why did this list have such a strong effect on me?  Because it is my list, or pretty close to it.  "Like many people" - yes, like me.  This was the literary world I spent most of my time in until, oh, a decade or so ago, when I was distracted by the sorts of books that led to Wuthering Expectations.  I never got to Cortázar – he would have been “next,” so to speak – or Fuentes, and I’ve barely sampled Coover, but I’ve read a substantial proportion of the Collected Works of the rest.  Same with three out of the four of that second cluster.  The big books of Thomas Mann are a dispiriting Subject for Future Research.  I greatly admire the story he wrote about his dog, but I suspect it is atypical.

Dillard kept knocking me off balance like this.  She leads off Chapter 1 with Pale Fire and Ficciones, which she, like me, simply assumes are essential and inescapable Tower of Babel-sized landmarks of 20th century literature, terrain-defining books.  She invokes them repeatedly.  One might expect her to describe them, to summarize them, to explain what they do.  Not at all.  Nothing like it.  She assumes that her readers have either read them or read enough about them to follow her argument.  This is the closest thing to a discussion of the contents of Pale Fire that Dillard essays:

[I]n Nabokov’s Pale Fire, fictional objects revolve about each other and only each other, and shed on each other and only each other a lovely and intellectual light. (47)

And now that we’re all clear on what Pale Fire is about – ha ha ha ha!  I can imagine a set of standards which would label Living by Fiction bad criticism.  To the reader who knows what Dillard is talking about, though, the insights, the digressive gestures, and the jokes come thick and fast.  That reader is me.  Dillard even spends the last third of the book investigating whether literature has meaning (actually, “Does the World Have Meaning?”) which she assumes (as do I) is an extraordinarily difficult question.  She appears to have some doubts about literary beauty, as well.

I have no plan to justify or defend or explicate any of the above.  I am a little too pleased and dazzled, and tomorrow will move on to something else.  I used a library copy of Living by Fiction, and rarely write in books anyways, but I think I should buy a copy and mark it up.  Find the weak points.   Fight with it.  This first time through, I did nothing but nod.  Yep, yep, yep.  What kind of critical reading is that?  Pathetic.

One point, which suggests how I made this lucky find.  Dillard discusses the turn by these late Modernist writers to the investigation of surfaces, to the fictiveness of fiction.  They can, Heaven knows, overdo things.  But they are not just writing for themselves, or for our time.  The innovations we attribute to Nabokov and Borges and so on are often not genuinely new contributions to the art of fiction, but a sort of highlighting of features of fiction that were there all along, that are perhaps even inherent to fiction.

All fictions have surfaces; many authors have worked pleasing and curious effects upon their surfaces.  Pynchon helps me understand Hugo.  Nabokov helps me disarm Charlotte Brontë’s traps.  César Aira enhances my appreciation of Charles Dickens, and even Elizabeth Gaskell.  Borges explains everyone.  The tradition runs both ways.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Elizabeth Gaskell's German Idyll

Given the constraints, North and South is a stunning artistic achievement.  The constraint is that authorial nightmare, weekly serialization.  Charles Dickens wrote, I think, four of them – The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Hard Times, and A Tale of Two Cities, and I would pick the middle two as his two weakest novels, and as fond as I am of The Old Curiosity Shop, it’s not so far from the bottom, either.  I mean, weak Dickens is pretty dang strong!

How difficult it must be to maintain any coherent sense of anything but the main thread, and how impossible it must be to set the delightful little traps that will only be sprung a hundred pages later, to develop the harmonies when you are scrambling to keep the melody intact.  Gaskell actually suffered from an additional constraint, perhaps as bad, continual interference from her annoying know-it-all editor.*  Given all this, I am surprised the novel is as good as it is, but not at all surprised that my favorite chapter is one Gaskell added later, when North and South was published as a book.**

In Book II, Chapter 21, “Once and Now,” our heroine Margaret returns to the childhood home, the village of Helstone, that she was forced to abandon three hundred pages earlier.  If it does nothing else, the chapter reinforces the “South” half of the title’s division, but it does much more, and is finely written, or about half of it is.  The second half is used to tinker with some plotty stuff that Gaskell must have thought was insufficiently explained in the serial.  She knew that train station recognition-manslaughter scene I complained about was a mistake and kept fussing with it, trying to fix it.***

The Helstone chapter is filled with flowers.  Roses, myrtle, lavender, honeysuckle.  It reminded me of German Idylls.  Margaret, too: “[The scenery] reminded Margaret of German Idylls – of Hermann and Dorothea – of Evangeline.”  Evangeline is not German, but it also once reminded me of a German idyll, so I see why it is here.  Hermann and Dorothea is Goethe’s 1797 domestic epic.  Gaskell, moving her characters to a different scene, has also gently slipped them into a German novella, with continual echoes of Goethe.  This is the “renunciation” chapter, the Bildungsroman chapter, where Margaret, having suffered any number of setbacks, begins to accept the loss of her past.  Margaret even includes a truly German uncanny element – sensitive readers, avert thy gaze! – the roast cat, which Margaret actually tries, unsuccessfully, to expel from the novel through reason.

Characters multiply, characters who obviously cannot be used again.  An entire vicar’s family, a crowded schoolroom, the staff of an inn.  Who are these people:   “a spectator or two stood lounging at nearly every station, with his hands in his pockets, so absorbed in the simple act of watching, that it made the travelers wonder what he could find to do when the train whirled away” – we know that once the train is gone, these marionettes are wrapped in paper and returned to their imaginary boxes.

Another anonymous gentleman, though, does return later.  Gaskell is able to set a retrospective trap, which she springs on the last page of the novel, a page she had already published.  Please note the association of the gentleman with roses, a “real” connection on the last page, a novelistic one in this chapter.  The innkeeper, speaking of roses, is for some reason reminded of the gentleman.  Only on the last page do we discover why.

One character is inanimate: “a straw-hat forced down upon a rose-tree as on a peg, to the destruction of a long beautiful tender branch laden with flowers, which in former days would have been trained up tenderly, as if beloved.”  I suspect Gaskell of employing symbolism, and look, there are the roses again.

The things a great novelist can do under maddening constraints!  The greater things a great novelist can do with time and reflection!

* Although Dickens had the same editor.

** See Dorothy W. Collin, “The Composition of Mrs. Gaskell’s North and South” in the Norton Critical Edition.

***  Actually, hang on.  So the hapless dead man is named Leonards, and Margaret and her godfather hash over his death in the dining room of the Lennard Arms, a name and place Gaskell invented in this new section, a little tribute to the martyr to her plot.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The taste that loves ornament, however bad - interior decoration in North and South, with a digression on the Indian shawl

In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. (Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Lectures on Literature)

I’m going to collect one of North and South’s trifles.  It is a particularly pleasant one to fondle, made of real Indian silk, with a “soft feel” and “brilliant colors,” or so I am told in the first chapter, when the Indian shawl is introduced.  In a mildly comic scene, our heroine Margaret is buried in shawls, “laden with shawls, and snuffing up their spicy Eastern smell.”  She seems to be doing a bit of fondling herself.  Anyone who has one is “a lucky girl.”  They are “very perfect things of their kind.”

At this point, the shawls serve two purposes:  this one detail, this excess of shawls, conveys the scope of the wealth of Margaret’s London relatives, and its source in Indian ventures; and Margaret’s modeling of the shawls gives Gaskell her first excuse to describe her protagonist to the reader.  A few pages later, the shawls are briefly mentioned again.  Margaret’s suitor, Henry Lennox, vulgarly admires their monetary value.

Difficult circumstances force Margaret to an industrial city, where her own Indian shawl, apparently a gift  from her aunt’s heap, takes on a personal meaning.  It is one of her few luxuries.  She is now the poor gentlewoman with the unusually nice shawl, something the poor children like to touch.

If the shawl is so important, it must be involved in the romantic plot.  Let’s see, when does Margaret meet Thornton?  Chapter 7:

Her dress was very plain: a close straw bonnet of the best material and shape, trimmed with white ribbon; a dark silk gown, without any trimming or flounce; a large Indian shawl, which hung about her in long heavy folds, and which she wore as an empress wears her drapery.

We’re seeing Margaret through Thornton’s eyes.  He is the no-nonsense self-made man of business, but his response to the shawl is poetic, entirely different than that of Henry Lennox.

I could continue with the shawl, but at this exact point in the novel, the shawl theme intersects with the interior decoration theme.  Margaret has just discovered that, in the industrial town, apartments are not only expensive but decorated in the worst possible taste.

She had never come fairly in contact with the taste that loves ornament, however bad, more than the plainness and simplicity which are of themselves the framework of elegance.

Hey, is that a dig at me?  I love ornament in fiction, although I like to pretend that I only like good ornament.

Every dwelling in the novel is at some point described in terms of the taste of its décor.  Taste is a signifier of – well, it depends on who is looking.  Henry Lennox, suitor #1, seeing the tasteful but faded carpets and curtains of Margaret and her family in Chapter 3 interprets them economically (the family is poorer than he had thought), just as he did the shawl, two chapters earlier.  Thornton, in the same situation (Ch. 10), notices all sorts of specific objects and intuitively understands them as an extension of Margaret herself, even though he barely knows her.  He also contrasts them with the sterile, uncomfortable (and, although he does not know it, tasteless) decoration of his own home.

Again, I could keep going, but will not.  The only point I really want to make is, this is skilled, controlled writing, yes?  Dang good.  North and South is rarely written along these principles.  It could have been.  Gaskell knew how to do it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Gaskell grumbling - North and South, complaints first

Should I spend a few days writing about Elizabeth Gaskell’s mature industrial novel, North and South (1855)?  I fear I did not read it well.  Perhaps a kind-hearted reader will help me out.

I read Gaskell after and amidst some especially writerly writers.  After the exquisitely crafted patternings of Vladimir Nabokov, or the rhetorical cloud-castles of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, the plain ol’ novel writing of Elizabeth Gaskell looked pretty thin at the sentence level.  Competent, but the prose of Cranford, finished two years earlier, was a lot better than competent.

Since I was reading the Norton Critical Edition, I could at least turn to the selection of supporting materials for assistance with understanding the art of Gaskell.  Let’s see:  “Mrs. Gaskell and Christian Interventionism in North and South” -  well, that is not quite what I have in mind.  “Political Economy in North and South” – yes, there is quite a lot of that.*  “Factory Work for Women” – oh, now, come on.  All right, I see where this is going.  No one is too interested in fondling the details or unpacking the surprises of North and South.**   Critics and readers must bow their heads to the difficult task of improving the Condition of England.

Rohan Maitzen describes North and South as “both artistically and intellectually a better book” than Mary Barton (1848), and I agree completely, although Mary Barton is not such a high standard, nothing like the ingenious, richly imagined CranfordJenny of Shelf Love declares Cranford “minor” and North and South “as complex and substantial as nearly any 19th-century novel I’ve ever read.”  If I were ranking 19th century novels by complexity and heft, North and South would be well down the list.  But my list would likely be topped by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, which should encapsulate the aesthetic differences between Jenny and me.

I did think the novel improved as it moved along.  Gaskell is excellent in individual scenes and passages, and there were more good ones in the second half – she has a deft hand with a death scene, and the back half of North and South has plenty of those.  The worst piece of plotting is in the back as well, though, but the less said about that, the better.  I can imagine a radical sequel in which Leonards’s brother comes to Manchester to stubbornly, passionately fight for justice; after many obstacles and the sacrifice of his health and true love, he sees both the murderer of his brother, and the corrupt magistrate who covered up the crime, imprisoned, bankrupted, and disgraced.  Neither the Critical Edition essays nor the blog posts I have surveyed have much interest in poor Leonards.***

Please read Jenny and Teresa’s discussion for the pro-North and South case.  Please visit Rohan’s post, which contains a long excerpt from one of the best (best written!) scenes in the novel.  Please point me to other well-written blog posts on the novel.  My survey of the terrain was disheartening.  For the next two days, my own pro-Gaskell case, or parts of it.

* See Book I, Chapter 15, in which the hero and heroine debate the question, with the hero representing the views of Thomas Carlyle, and the heroine also representing the views of Thomas Carlyle.  He is the “hard” side of Carlyle; she is the “soft.”  By the end of the novel, the characters work together to create the ideal Carlyle.

** Why, for example, does the novel begin and end in the same room, the “back drawing-room in Harley Street”?  Here is evidence of a novelist writing a novel.

*** I realize that this passage makes no sense to anyone who has not read North and South.  To those who have:  ???.  Also: did Gaskell invent the “I see her with another man oh she will never love me but the other man is actually her brother!” nonsense, or was it already a cliché in 1855?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Great minds are importunate; it is judicious to restrain them a little

Victor Hugo, writing William Shakespeare, fails to follow his own advice, which is only offered in jest.  He is another importunate genius, like

Dante, Rabelais, Shakespeare, - excessive.  They bring with them a style of art wild, howling, flaming, disheveled like the lion and the comet.  Oh, shocking!  (II.3.V.)

Who would want Hugo to restrain himself?  A literary diet of nothing but howling comets and flaming lions would be exhausting, unhealthy, even ruinous.  Hugo is to be imbibed in modest doses of no more  than 400 pages at a time.

Do I read Hugo simply to marvel at his vast range of extraordinary grimaces and poses?  No, no, he is, in fact, a substantive, if diffuse and discursive, writer.  I mean, his arguments take some wild, howling leaps of their own.  The ideas are intuitive, rhetorical, emotional.  Bullying, sometimes.

The heart of the book comes near the end, in a section titled “The Mind and the Masses” (II.5.) which I understand has been published separately (although surely not as this three page version?).  Hugo argues that art should be the foundation of civilization, and great artists the guides.  He pushes Shelley another step – poets should be the acknowledged legislators of the world, although not the actual legislators, or at least not that I can tell, although Hugo was himself an actual legislator before and after his exile.  He grazes against the idea that art could replace religion as a source of transcendent meaning, but looks away.  Hugo’s artists are concerned with earthly things:

Literature secretes civilization, poetry secretes the ideal [yuck!].  That is why literature is one of the wants of societies; that is why poetry is a hunger of the soul.

That is why poets are the first instructors of the people.

That is why Shakespeare must be translated in France…

That is why there must be a vast public literary domain.

That is why all the poets, all the philosophers, all the thinkers, all the producers of nobility of soul must be translated, commented on, published, printed, reprinted, stereotyped, distributed, hawked about, explained, recited, spread abroad, given to all, given cheaply, given at cost price, given for nothing. (II.5.ii.)

Hugo’s confusion becomes evident.  He follows this passage with an invocation of Ezekiel eating a book, which tastes like honey (Ezekiel 3:1-3), reinforcing Hugo’s “hunger” metaphor, presumably, but then leaps to a discussion of literacy and crime rates, of democracy and socialism and capital punishment.  Poets help with these problems by “permeating civilization with light” (II.5.iv.), which is just a little bit nebulous.

I see that Hugo’s problem is that he is fighting on too many fronts.  Or, his achievement is that he is able to take on so many opponents.  Napoleon Bonaparte, Robespierre, “art for art’s sake” (a phrase Hugo claims he coined), Thomas Carlyle, copyright laws  - Hugo is Porthos, fencing with five opponents at once.  Small wonder that his swordsmanship is sometimes inelegant.

The fact that his book titled William Shakespeare is entirely useless on the subject of William Shakespeare is a first-rate irony that is reinforced, in the edition I read, by the translator’s footnotes, reminding the English reader that Hugo always quotes from memory, and therefore misquotes, and that his French is often a little peculiar.  We are about two turns of the conceptual screw from Pale Fire, except Hugo, for better or worse, is sincere.

Monday, May 2, 2011

I shall gaze at the ocean. - Victor Hugo's William Shakespeare

Jean Cocteau’s line was “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.”  André Gide had another good one.  Asked to identify the greatest French poet, he replied “Victor Hugo, alas!”   This is all hearsay, by the way, quite possibly apocryphal.  But these jibes give a good sense of Hugo’s stature, even after his death.   They suggest that Hugo was not simply a writer, or an influence, but a problem for other writers.

If I got the gist of the joke, I had never read a book that quite justified it, not even the massively discursive Les Misérables.   Now, I have. Victor Hugo’s William Shakespeare (1864) begins:

A dozen years ago, on an island near the coast of France, a house, at every season of forbidding aspect, was growing especially gloomy by reason of the approach of winter.  The west wind, which has full sweep there, was piling thick upon this dwelling those enveloping fogs November interposes between sun and earth.  In autumn, night falls early; the narrow windows made the days still briefer within, and deepened the sombre twilight of the house.

The description of this house, and its environs, and the French exiles who reside within, goes on like this for four pages.  The island is Jersey; the exiles are Victor Hugo and his family, washed ashore in Great Britain, although as close to France as they can physically be.  One might wonder what this has to do with William Shakespeare.

Let’s advance to the end of that first chapter, where we find the father and son, “silent, like shipwrecked persons who meditate.”

Without, it rained, the wind blew the house was as if deafened by the outer roaring.  Both went on thinking, absorbed, perhaps, by thoughts of this coincidence between the beginning of winter and the beginning of exile.

Suddenly the son raised his voice and asked the father, -

“What think you of this exile?”

“That it will be long.”

“How do you intend to employ it?”

The father answered, “I shall gaze at the ocean.”

There was a silence. The father was the first to speak: -

“And you?”

“I,” said the son, “I shall translate Shakespeare.”

Hugo’s exile would last nineteen years.  During that time he finished Les Misérables as well as two more novels, published some of the greatest French poetry of the century, and wrote an introduction for his son’s Shakespeare translations, a piece which somehow expanded into a 400 page essay on creativity and genius that is hardly about Shakespeare at all, but is very much about its author, Victor Hugo.

I want to be absolutely clear:  William Shakespeare is only rarely written like the above passages.  A long Shakespeare book written like that, what an accomplishment!  The book is rambling, wild, windy, crackpot, brilliant, boisterous, by turns, or all at once, 400 pages of uninterrupted Hugolian outpouring.   It is hilariously inaccurate, as the outstanding, exasperated 1887 translator, Melville B. Anderson, points out again and again.   It is the purest concentration of the essence of Victor Hugo I have ever encountered, or hope to.  Great book.  Bad book.  Beyond categories.

Maybe just one more day on William Shakespeare’s Victor Hugo.  Oops, I mean Victor Hugo’s Victor Hugo.   No, hang on -