Friday, September 30, 2011

One could hear only the [Amateur Reader's] voice, like the high-pitched gobble of a turkey, saying of everything: c'est charmant, c'est trés beau - a Maias miscellaney

The Maias is about many things.

* The novel is organized in eighteen long chapters, each with its own narrative arc, each complete in its own way.  I could imagine a couple of them, with minor adjustments, standing on their own in the sense that “The Dead” stands on its own.  Or, because so many of the chapters include party scenes, I can compare Eça de Queirós to Proust.  Most of the chapter, the party, is not concerned with advancing the plot.  It may not be clear until the next chapter that the plot has advanced at all.

Chapter X, the horse race chapter in the center of the novel, is a standout.  The long, complex scene, an expansion, I think, of a short horse race scene from A Sentimental Education, ranks near the horse race in Anna Karenina (1877) as one of the century’s greats.  I worry that I have been overrating the novel as a whole; I do not worry about overrating this chapter.

Eça de Queirós uses the horse race to do – everything, just everything.  Carlos, our hero, pursues one woman and is pursued by another, so that takes care of the story.  Nearly every character in the novel intrudes on the scene, including all sorts of new ones, some never to be seen again, such as “Little Sá Videira, the daughter of a wealthy shoe merchant, entered on her brother’s arm, looking like a small petulant doll, rather irritated with everything and talking very loudly in English” (277, this post's title, slightly modified, is on the same page).  I feel like Eça de Queirós could have followed her off into another novel if he had not been preoccupied with this one.

The great accomplishment of this chapter is that it shows the protagonist at his most elegant.  Surrounded by chaos and nonsense – the Portuguese cannot even operate a horse race correctly – Carlos is effortlessly graceful: “They had all lost; he had swept the board, won all the bets, got away with everything.  What luck!”  But I had been with Carlos for a long time at this point, so I could tell the difference between luck and grace.

* The Maias is a male novel.  Eça de Queirós never, that I can remember, wanders into the thoughts of a woman, and there are really only two female characters of consequence.  One of them, the Grand Passion, has an especially dangerous role, since she has to embody a lot of Romantic clichés while still having some personality.  Little touches have to counter or complicate the protagonist’s view of her as an Ideal Object.

I think both characters are successful, but I did wonder where the rest of the women were in the world of Eça de Queirós.  It turns out that they are in Cousin Basilio (1878).  One of the central women there is a maid – servants stay in the background in The Maias – and she is a terror.  I was just a bit worried, having read The Mandarin and a chunk of The Maias, that Eça de Queirós might be like Robert Louis Stevenson: not so great with female characters.  Never mind.  No worries now.

*  With The Maias (long) and The Mandarin (short) and a substantial piece of Cousin Basilio behind me, my enthusiasm for Eça de Queirós has not yet flagged.  Challengists:  The Crime of Padre Amaro is coming up sometime, no need to be too specific, I think?  And The Illustrious House of Ramires sooner than that.  I’m never sure what I am accomplishing, but I hope anyone who skimmed through this first set of pieces on Eça de Queirós is clear enough on what will likely be found in his novels:  a less bitter-tasting Flaubert, a less icky Zola, Anna Karenina without the soul-searching.  Something like that.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A work of art lives only through its form - Eça de Queirós and originality

The Maias is about originality.  Eça de Queirós  wrote near the beginning of the great turn-of-the-century change in tastes across the arts, the shift towards innovation as the central measure of artistic value.   Let us not argue the existence of this change, but rather pause for a moment and be thankful that the effect was not as pronounced in fiction as it was in poetry, painting, or music.

Eça de Queirós was really responding to something particularly Portuguese, the dominance of Portuguese culture – elite culture, artistic culture – by France.  France was the source of the “isms” to which the restless young Portuguese intellectuals reacted:

there were noisy passionate debates, in which Democracy, Art, Positivism, Realism, the Papacy, Bismarck, Love, Hugo, and Evolution each had its turn to flame and flicker in the cigarette smoke, as light and vague as the smoke itself.  These metaphysical discussions and even revolutionary certainties tasted more exquisite still in the presence of the liveried valet uncorking the beer or serving croquettes. (75-6)

An aside: note that Victor Hugo is a one-man literary movement.  His name recurs with some frequency in The Maias, as often as that of Zola, who is the New Thing, the creator of “lavatorial” literature, as a bitter Romantic poet calls it (139).

Is originality possible in Portugal?  Eça de Queirós argues the case by writing a massive imitation of Flaubert, the great innovator.  Some readers may have thought the carriage scene I mentioned yesterday sounded awfully familiar, since it is stolen from Madame Bovary; the great source, though, is A Sentimental Education (1869), which is obliquely invoked repeatedly.  It has been too long since I read that novel for me to be sure, but I suspect that The Maias is often a direct parody or imitation of A Sentimental Education.  A project for some other day, figuring that out.

The curious phenomenon is that Portuguese literature is often imitative.  The greatest 19th century Portuguese poem is an imitation of Baudelaire; The Lusiads is an imitation of Virgil.  Living after the Modernist turn to innovation, I am likely to reflexively associate “imitation” and “imitative” with more negative words (“derivative,” “unoriginal”), but  If I were an early modern Humanist, imitation, imitatio, would be a virtue.  Virgil's works are, after all, imitations of Theocritus, Hesiod, and Homer.  Perhaps “adaptive” would be a friendlier word.  Eça de Queirós brilliantly adapts French models and techniques to Portugal.  The great Renaissance writer imitates the great classical form, the epic; Eça de Queirós imitates the great form of his time, the “realistic” novel:

Caught between two fires, Ega thundered forth: the trouble with realism was precisely  that it wasn’t scientific enough, so that it ended up having to invent plots, create dramas, and lose itself in literary fantasy!  The pure form of naturalist art should be the monograph, the clear-eyed study of one character, one vice, one passion, just as if it were a pathological case, stripped of all picturesque detail and all style.

“That’s absurd,” said Carlos, “characters can only be described through their actions.”

“And a work of art,” added Craft, “lives only through its form.”  (141)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Do you, a family man, really think love an indelicate matter? - the frank Eça de Queirós

The Maias is a novel about sex.  I could argue that the men in the novel have so much trouble accomplishing anything of value, writing books or reforming politics or whatnot, because they expend all of their time and imaginative energy chasing women.  Thus the attention paid to possessing the proper bed.

Unmarried women are hidden away, and in fact barely exist in The Maias, leaving prostitutes and married women, and because elegant gentlemen like Carlos da Maia are too refined for prostitutes – brothels are strongly associated with vulgarity in The Maias – the married women are the only possible partners.  And then the marriages of older men to younger women arranged for the sake of status or money maintain a steady supply of bored, sexually adventurous married women, so the system maintains a decadent, ineffective equilibrium.

Eça de Queirós is direct about all of this, quite frank about the sexual behavior of his characters, startlingly so for a novel from 1888:

Ega protested vehemently.  A woman with accomplishments, especially of the literary variety, with opinions on Thiers and Zola, was a monster, a freak, and would be better off joining the a circus and jumping through hoops astride a horse.  A woman should have only two accomplishments: she should be good in the kitchen and good in bed.  (343)

Startling for an English or American novel from 1888, I should say.  Maupassant and Zola and Flaubert are  hardly much different.  I should mention that Ega is, I am afraid, not merely a devil’s advocate but at times an actual devil; he means none of what he says in that passage but is tweaking the moustaches of some pompous idiots.

Some readers, not me, certainly, with my mind always on loftier things, may have wondered about the specific mechanics of affairs back when people, women especially, wore such enormous quantities of cloth.  The observant Eça de Queirós has some answers.  A tryst in a carriage, a “verbena-scented bower of love,” has just ended:

The Countess had got out in Largo das Amoreiras, and Carlos had taken advantage of the quiet Rua da Patriarcal in order to dismiss the decrepit old carriage with its hard seats, in which, for the last hour, legs numb, he had been suffocating in the heat, not daring to lower the windows, and feeling wearied and irritated by the yards of crumpled silk and by the interminable kisses which the Countess kept planting on his beard.  (260)

And in fact, the Countess is always associated with the weight and sound of her clothes.  During their first embrace “[h]er silk dress brushed against him, rustling gently in his arms… [t]he silk train of her dress became tangled about his feet… a long sigh died on the air amid the murmur of crumpling silk” (257-8).  To Carlos, his affair with the Countess is like her clothes, beautiful and even daring (see her outfit on p. 283, “cream cashmere” with “black musketeer’s gloves”), but unnecessarily heavy.

Michael Wood, in an LRB review of Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of The Maias, includes another scene from the affair – another bed! – which is one of the best single paragraphs in the novel (“her hard bed was left as turbulent and disorderly as a battlefield”).  Wood uses the passage to compare Costa to an earlier translation; the entire piece is easily recommended to anyone who would like another 4,200 words, and better ones, on The Maias.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Furniture should be in harmony with the ideas and feelings of the man using it, damn it! – The Maias as furniture showroom

The Maias is a novel about furniture.*  Eça de Queirós is a master of the “showroom scene.”

And the first thing he wanted to show Carlos was his bedroom, decorated in red cretonne sprigged with white, and entirely filled and dominated by the bed.  The bed appeared to be the raison d’etre, the very centre of Villa Balzac, and into it Ega had poured all his artistic imagination.  It was made of wood, and set low, like a divan, with a high headboard, a lace valance, and, on either side, a luxuriance of scarlet plush rugs; it was draped about with voluminous, red, Indian silk hangings, which gave it the air of a holy tabernacle; and inside, on the headboard, hung a mirror, as if it were a bed in a brothel.

Carlos, very gravely, advised him to remove the mirror. (Ch. VI, 126)

The novel contains at least five or six house tours, room by room inventories.  To the theoretical reader considering the tedium of these passages, fare thee well!  The dry humor of the last  line is typical of the book, as is the irony that “Ega had poured all his artistic imagination” into a bed.  Villa Balzac (“his patron saint”), meant to provide a work space, “a literary cloister,” for Ega to finish his long avant garde poem, Memoirs of an Atom, turns out to be a love nest and party house, a fine setting for the proper enjoyment of champagne.

Later in the novel Carlos builds, or buys ready-made, really, his own love nest, and the tour of that house parodies that of Villa Balzac two hundred and fifty pages earlier: “the bedroom glowed like the inside of a profaned temple, transformed into the lascivious inner sanctum of a seraglio” and the bed is “built for the large, voluptuous pleasures of some tragic passion from the days of Lucretia or Romeo” (Ch. XIII, 373-4). A joke again follows, puncturing this overwrought sexualized rhetoric: “And it was there that Craft, peaceful and alone, a silk scarf tied about his head, snored away his seven hours of rest each night.”

Craft is the house’s previous owner, an English connoisseur and collector of antique furniture, and both the narratorial and thematic device by which Carlos and his mistress are connected to the house.  Carlos and Craft – I have leapt back to Chapter VI again – are discussing furniture collecting.  Craft mentions the house where he stores his collection, its first appearance in the book, which summons, by a flick of the magician-novelist’s wand, its future occupant, “a very tall fair woman, wearing a thick dark half-veil,” along with her carriage and her servant and her silver terrier.  This is also her first appearance in the novel.

Reading the novel for the first time, I did not know who this woman was or who she would become, nor did I guess that the offhandedly mentioned house would become so important – how could I?  But now I can start to decipher the mysterious formulas of the novel, how old furniture leads to intriguing women and over-aestheticized bedrooms led to the decline of Portugal.

*  “a novel about furniture” is Nick’s description of The Spoils of Poynton in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, if I remember correctly.

Monday, September 26, 2011

He's one of the best things in Lisbon. You'll love him! - introducing The Maias, Eça de Queirós' elegant masterpiece

The Maias: Episodes from Romantic Life (1888) is the enormous Eça de Queirós masterpiece, a standard candidate for Greatest Portuguese Novel, and a credible longshot candidate for Greatest 19th Century Novel, as long as one discounts Importance and Influence and just takes the text on its own terms.  What I will not do is spend a week justifying these claims.

The novel is easy to misdescribe.  I have seen it called a multi-generational family saga – the Maias are the family – but nearly ninety percent of the novel centers on a single character, the handsome, talented, wealthy, and elegant young doctor Carlos da Maia, during two years or so, autumn 1875 to 1877 (or 1878? - high on my re-read priority list: pin down the timetable).

Carlos arrives in Lisbon, fresh from college and his Grand Tour, full of energy and ideas.  He will start a medical practice, write a history of medicine, reinvigorate arts and letters, and on like that.  He in fact manages to furnish an office, nap, and fall into an affair with a married countess.  His friends – poets, composers, patrons of the arts, wealthy nitwits – have similar troubles accomplishing anything.  Portugal, I fear, is in decline.  The slow-building plot of the novel is about a second affair, one that turns into a grand passion but has melodramatic complications.  The Maias is a conceptual demonstration of the use of a Romantic plot in a Naturalistic context.  Doesn’t that make the novel sound exciting?  Let us never mention this again.

The Maias is written on exact Flaubertian principles.  The author is well-hidden, the third person is tightly limited, imagery and metaphors are generated from within the setting, and sensual details are abundant.   The details and imagery are artfully repeated and modified to form a complex structure that reinforces, foreshadows, and ironically comments on the surface story. The novel required eight years to complete, and I can see why.

Browsing through the book now, I see that I am only beginning to notice the sophistication of the structure, of the deployment of the elements of the novel.  The use of the bewildered Finnish ambassador, for example, who was dropped in when needed for color and comedy, I had assumed, wrongly.  This novel almost requires maps – actual maps, of Portugal, and Lisbon, and a couple of the houses, as well as diagrams of the thematic elements and imagery.

One huge and enormously appealing difference from the gleefully vulgar Flaubert:  The Maias must be one of the most elegant novels ever written.

What he loved about Craft was his imperturbable air of the perfect gentleman, for with the same air he would play a game of billiards, ride into battle, lay siege to a woman, or set sail to Patagonia.

“He’s one of the best things in Lisbon.  You’ll love him.  And you should see his house in Olivais, he has the most wonderful collection of antiques!” (131) 

In a typical deflection, this description of a minor character also fits the protagonist, to whom it is directed.  Carlos is Fred Astaire or Clark Gable.  The style of the novel is perfectly matched to this character.  Everything is managed with the lightest of touches.  Tres chic, as an irritating minor character cannot stop saying, and as I will say all week.

Margaret Jull Costa’s translation was typically expert.  The modest amounts of French dialogue are untranslated, even in footnotes, which I know annoys some readers.  Her comments on the novel appear in an afterword, not an introduction, which I know delights some readers.

Friday, September 23, 2011

This fog where the light of Lisbon begins - trying to learn Portuguese

A logistical note:  During the Scotch Challenge, I hit my mark like a pro, posting right along with my co-readers.  My library access is not as good as it was then, and for some reason I have picked a language where my library is particularly weak, although it is strangely well-supplied with Machado de Assis.  I may need a little extra warning if we want to preserve simultaneity.  If we do not, that is fine; I can catch up.  Maybe I will just order a big pile of books and salt them away.

The Portuguese Reading Challenge has a second piece, a much greater challenge for me:  I am going to learn some Portuguese.  Note my strained confidence.  No, I will.  In the past, I have had two great successes with teaching myself the rudiments of a language (German and Turkish), and one complete wipeout (French).  I acknowledged my failure and took a couple of years of classes at the Alliance Française, covering the equivalent of first semester college French, and as a result my French, however appalling, is alive, while I remember only a few words of German and Turkish.  I claim to have “some Spanish” as well, acquired in the classroom, cemented, however roughly, by a couple of months of immersion.

For Portuguese, Spanish is an asset but also a trap, a path to disastrously bad pronunciation.  I have been following, weakly, Prof. Mayhew’s advice for learning a language, just listening to some Portuguese every day.  The podcasts at Escriba Café have been especially enjoyable.  It is too bad that I cannot tell you what that site is, since I do not understand Portuguese.

I do not plan to learn Portuguese, not really, but I have discovered that knowing the most elementary elements of a language – pronunciation, numbers, the most basic words – allows the tourist, or reader, to leap ahead.  I just want to be able to compare a translation of a translated poem to the original.

For example: a poem from Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry of Eugénio de Andrade, tr. Alexis Levitin, 1974, pp. 116-7.


Esta névoa sobre a cidade, o rio,
as gaivotas doutros dias, barcos, gente
apressada ou com o tempo todo para perder,
esta névoa onde começa a luz de Lisboa,
rosa e limão sobre o Tejo, esta luz de água,
nada mais quero de degrau em degrau.


This fog upon the city, the river,
seagulls of another day, boats, people
in a rush, or with all the time in the world,
this fog where the light of Lisbon begins,
rose and lemon upon the Tagus, the light of water,
I wish for nothing else as I climb from street to street.

The translation is nearly literal.  I need almost nothing to see this.  No rhymes to worry about, although the vowel sounds of the last three lines are abandoned.  The repetition of “Esta névoa / This fog” is the most artificial or poetic device, and it is intact. I presume that “o tempo todo para perder” is an idiom, something “like “all the time to lose,” fair game for the substitution of an English equivalent.  The cognate, perhaps false, in the phrase “gente apressada” has a nice feel – “pressed people” – but that’s not really English.

I have spent so little time with the language, but I know that “o” and “a” and “as” are “the,” that “e” is “and,” that I need to pronounce all of the vowels.  The vocabulary in the poem is so simple, isn’t it?  Those gavotting seagulls stand out, allowing me to pick up a new word.  Only “de degrau em degrau” remains a total stumper.

Perhaps I should abandon Teach Yourself Brazilian Portuguese and just study the poems of Eugénio de Andrade.  I am not sure that I would learn any less Portuguese.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A reading list for Brazil - To the victor, the potatoes!

Brazil today, a shorter list, thank goodness.  To patriotic anonymous Brazilian visitors, be patient, read carefully, and be constructive – thanks in advance!

José de Alencar’s 1865 Iracema is a good place to start.  It is true post-colonial literature, a conscious early attempt to separate  Brazilian literature from Portugal.  Closer to a prose poem than a novel, I think it is more than a curiosity but a long ways from a masterpiece, as I said way back here, in the process offending a touchy, hasty visitor.

A few years later Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis succeeded in creating world-class Brazilian literature by a different path entirely, by adapting European literature to his own genius and locale, which happened to be Brazil.  All I am saying is that he does not rely on local color or artificial exoticism. An amazing proportion of what he wrote has migrated into English.

The Hand and the Glove (1874)
Helena (1876)
Iaiá Garcia (1878)

These books represent the first period in Machado de Assis’s career, when he wrote what I will call “plain ol’ novels.”  I am reading Helena now.  It is – what is the appropriate technical literary term? – it is OK.  I will finish it for research purposes, but then will avoid this phase unless there is special pleading.

In 1880 or so, Machado de Assis experienced some sort of health crisis and became an entirely different writer.  I do not know what happened, but his future fiction would be funnier, stranger, audacious, penetratingly ironic.  Everything changed, or almost everything.  This is the core set:

The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881, also translated for some reason as Epitaph for a Small Winner)
The Psychiatrist  (1882, a satirical novella)
Quincas Borbas (1891,  also translated, because it describes the book well, as Philosopher or Dog)
Dom Casmurro (1899)
Esau and Jacob (1904)
Counselor Ayres’ Memorial (1908)

I have read the first two, as well as some excellent short stories, and am eager to read some or all of the last four.  They are all fairly short.  I have Quincas Borbas in front of me – I stole that thing about potatoes from it, Ch. 18.  This novel has 267 pages and 201 (!) chapters, some – I am reverting to The Posthumous Memoirs – digressive or otherwise perplexing, including, and I am again thinking of Bras Cubas, a famous one line chapter.  A short line, I mean.  Machado de Assis works on opposite principles from our great Modernist long sentence wonder workers.  He wants to smash his scenes to pieces, not stretch them out.  His narrators, as you might guess, are less than reliable, his literary allusions many, his approach to the world skeptical.

The Posthumous Memoirs seem to have become the representative Machado de Assis work among English readers, but I have read that this puzzles Brazilians; Dom Casmurro is the one they stuff down the throats of squirming schoolkids. Or perhaps Brazilian students are less neurotic about school reading than Americans.

I do not know if anyone is particularly interested in this, but Machado de Assis is, in the terms we use in the United States, black, a descendant of slaves.  In Brazilian terms, I have no idea, because I do not understand their complex racial classifications.

Some Brazilian non-fiction has been translated.  I doubt I will read Manuel Antonio de Almeida’s 1852 Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant or João Capistrano de Abreu’s 1907 Chapters of Brazil’s Colonial History 1500-1800 on my own, but I would be happy to read them with company.  Both are part of the Oxford University Press Library of Latin America series, which also publishes the late Machado de Assis novels as well as Aluísio Azevedo’s 1890 The Slum, an angry, possibly gritty, novel.

The one piece of Brazilian journalistic or historical writing that has caught my eye is Euclides da Cunha’s 1902 Rebellion in the Backlands or Backlands: The Canudo Campaign.  An account of the suppression of a provincial rebellion is turned by Euclides into something more complex, much of the complexity coming from the elaborate language of the book.  The style of the book has become as important as the subject.  Please begin here at Caravanas de Recuerdos for a description and samples.

I was poking around the internet, trying to figure out if Euclides da Cunha should be referred to as “Cunha” or “da Cunha,” only to discover that everyone just calls him Euclides!  All right then.

A final reminder:  any Brazilian poetry is fair game for a shared read, as is Portuguese poetry from Angola or Mozambique or Newark, New Jersey.  I have no list, though; my ignorance is total.

Corrections and additions are, as always, encouraged.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A reading list for Portugal - The shape of those books explained everything about contemporary Portugal.

A reading list for Portugal.  I remind Portuguese literary patriots of my easily correctable ignorance.

The Lusiads of Luis de Camões (or Camoens) is the Portuguese national poem, the foundation stone of Portuguese literature.  A world traveler himself, Camões turns Vasco de Gama’s voyage of discovery around Africa to India into a ten canto Virgilian epic.  The poem is highly learned, allusive, and complex, a monument to early modern scholarship, imagination, and imitatio.  It is amazing; it requires real effort.  I wonder how it is taught in Portugal.

Early modern Portuguese poetry is similarly interesting but similarly demanding.  Books with titles like 113 Galician Portuguese Troubador Poems perhaps hint at the problem.  A number of early modern chronicles have also made at least a partial entry into English.  The 15th and 16th century playwright Gil Vicente sounds good, and a surprising number of his plays have been translated, but I know little about him.

If Camões stands at the beginning of Portuguese literature, he also marks the end for almost three centuries.  A Canonical Gap appears, which I will blithely blame on the Counter-Reformation.

Portugal served as a battlefield during the Napoleonic Peninsular War, and was left under the dominance of English commerce and French ideas – the latter are most relevant for my purposes.  One might try the single Romantic Portuguese novel that I know  has been Englished, Almeida Garrett’s 1846 Travels in My Homeland, or one of the many Romantic and otherwise Frenchified poets about whom I am fruitlessly curious.  Please see Cesario Verde’s “The Feeling of the Westerner,” the consensus Greatest 19th Century Portuguese Poem.  Please translate a volume of his poems for me.

No, the Portuguese literature of the 19th century is available in English in scraps, with one extraordinary exception, the novels of José Maria Eça de Queirós (1845-1900). The stout-hearted Margaret Jull Costa has been pulling his entire shelf of books into English – a new one is coming out in November (this time by Gregory Rabassa)!  Having read a long one and a short one, I can see why.  Eça de Queirós published five novels:

The Crime of Father Amaro (1875)
Cousin Basilio (1878)
The Mandarin (1880 – this is the short one, a sharp Voltaire-like satirical novella)
The Relic (1887, and please see Dwight)
The Maias (1888, please see Dwight again)

The confidence and imaginativeness completeness of The Maias astounded me.  The novel is often described as Flaubert-like, which is true if I think of A Sentimental Education rather than Madame Bovary.  Eça de Queirós called himself a Naturalist, like Zola, but I have yet to see how that label is anything but a nuisance.  I will write about The Maias next week, I think.  It is a poor Challenge book because it is enormous.  I am excited about reading the remaining three, more ordinarily thick novels.

The oddest thing about  Eça de Queirós is that a new shelf of books began to appear with his death.  He had stopped publishing, but not writing: The Illustrious House of Ramires, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes (this is the one coming in November), The City and the Mountains, The Yellow Sofa, The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers.  These have all been translated – there may be more.  I know one thing* about them – they are significantly shorter than the novels published during the author’s lifetime, so easy to take a chance on.

Finally, Fernando Pessoa, the primary reason I wanted to run the Portuguese Challenge.  The quantity and variety of Pessoa’s work that has been translated into English is daunting.  The pseudo-novel The Book of Disquiet (1980, written much earlier) has had at least four translations.  Numerous collections of the poems and miscellaneous prose are extant.  I want to explore.

I actually spent four days secretly writing about Pessoa’s poems earlier this year.  The hidden challenge of that week was to avoid the P-word, to discuss Alberto Caeiro ("the most influential Portuguese poet of the 20th century," I called him) and Ricardo Reis and Pessoa’s other heteronyms as if they were real authors.  Pessoa’s solution to all sorts of technical and aesthetic problems was to simply invent new poets, sometimes with detailed biographies and personalities, to write different kinds of poems.  Pessoa himself was just one poet in the stable.  These poets would interpret and criticize each other – all except Caeiro, who unfortunately died young, soon after writing the poems in The Keeper of Sheep.

See, I have fallen right back into the game.  However this all worked on the page, it may be the most original literary performance of the 20th century.  I hope to spend a lot of time with Pessoa and his imaginary peers.

As tempting as Pessoa’s poems are, I will remind readers of poetry that I will be reading later poets as well.

Tomorrow, Brazil.

Nymeth of Things Mean a Lot is Portuguese and has written her own list.

My subtitle is from the last chapter of The Maias, except I substituted "books" for "boots."

* Update: Sort of. Mostly. In a manner of speaking. See comments.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Portuguese Literature Challenge - Those matchless chiefs who from the shore of Western Lusitania began

To the left we see the poet Fernando Pessoa in his favorite spot in front of his favorite café (image purloined from Wiki) helping me launch the Wuthering Expectations Portuguese Literature Challenge.  A picture of Henry the Navigator might be more appropriate, as I think of it, but I do not plan to read anything by him.  Unless you decide otherwise.

The rules are essentially those of the litblogworld-famous Scottish Reading Challenge:

1.  You pick a book written in Portuguese before 1920 and available in English.

2.  You and I both read said book.

3.  Written discussion ensues.

4.  One change:  for poetry, forget the 1920 cutoff.  All Portuguese-language poetry available in English is fair game.

5.  One more:  Should there be a group readalong, separate from any one-on-one commitments?  I believe there should.  How about, sometime this winter, The Book of Disquiet by Pessoa.  I am again bending the 1920 rule here.

All other trivial logistic matters can be banged out later.  Leave a comment somewhere, email me at or, heaven help me, quack at me on Twitter, @AmateurReader.

Now, to an even greater degree than with the Scottish Challenge, curious readers might well wonder who or what, exactly, falls into the category of pre-1920 Portuguese etc.  Fair point.  The constraints are severe, excluding Saramago, Guimarães Rosa, and a surprising number of writers named Andrade.  If no one participates at all, I will likely limit my attention to three or four writers.  Machado de Assis, Eça de Queirós, Pessoa, Cunha – exciting, yes?  Yes?  Over the next two days, I will write up a list of possibilities for Portugal and another for Brazil.  Who knows what will look juicy.  These writers – I have been reading ahead – are plenty juicy.

I believe I will set a deadline of April 30, 2012, which is my guess about when I will be sated and sick of Portuguese literature.  Right now I am anything but.

The “why” question, a good one.  First, limited exposure to those writers has been promising; second, the scope of the challenge is manageable; third, literatures on the fringe of the Big International Canon are likely to have some unusual features; fourth, I want to go to Lisbon and Oporto.  I have been to Portugal, actually, but only to the paradisiacal Algarve region in the south.  The things we ate there.  What this has to do with books, I defer to Amateur Psychiatrists.

My title is a bit of the first line of The Lusiads of Luis de Camões, the national epic of Portugal, as translated by Leonard Bacon.

Update: A Portuguese book list. A Brazilian book list.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The guilty occupation of a life - or, Wuthering Expectations is four years old

An abuse of imagination lies “in turning what was intended for the mere refreshment of the heart into its daily food, and changing the innocent pastimes of an hour into the guilty occupation of a life.”  So argues John Ruskin in the third volume of Modern Painters (1856), Chapter IV, paragraph 6.

Tomorrow I will have been writing Wuthering Expectations for four years!  Quite something, ain’t it?

Two years ago I assembled a guide for readers chancing upon Wuthering Expectations for the first time.  It is time for an update.  This is what I do, part two.

I write, and think, in series.  For example: Laura Ingalls Wilder week, where I covered Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie. How I remembered the books; Wilder, Edmund Burke, and the Prairie Sublime; no seriously the Sublime; Wilderian irony; young Laura discovers the Augustinian conception of time.

Although I have more than one trick, Wuthering Expectations is generally highly aestheticized.  I read Little House on the Prairie not as a naïve autobiography or as nostalgic kitsch, but as a work of literary art, which is what it is.

For another sample of my approach, see (Anti-)Sympathetic Character Week.  I am against sympathetic characters; the unsympathetic character is a useful device; writers are tricky devils; the sympathetic character is a useful device; I am in favor of sympathetic characters.

I do not write so many book reviews as such, nor do I think of myself as an advocate for particular books or authors.  An exception was the great John Galt; I spent two weeks working through his books.  Try The Provost and The Entail.  The Galt reading somehow led to the first reading challenge in book blog history that was actually challenging, the Scottish Literature Challenge.  No one will bother to sort through this, but it’s all right here.

Victor Hugo takes his grandchildren to the zoo.  Arthur Rimbaud and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote similar poemsKaramazov in California.  Collaborative James Hogg.  Nick Carraway is a great writer.  Russian books are short.  Annie Dillard reads like I do.  The Wuthering Expectations Lifetime Reading Plan.

Moby-Dick week was great fun (spoiler alert: the whale dies in the end).  Anything Ubu was a sight to see.  My single most complex week went:  Sartor Resartus, then more Carlyle, then Melville’s Clarel, then Clarel again, and then Melville plus William Carlos Williams.  Every one of those posts was a collaboration with another book blogger.  They led me on quite a dance, even if I was the only one who could see the pirouettes and paradiddles.

Should I even bring up the mummified cats?  I spent a week investigating the subject of mummified cats.

What do you think the most visited post, by far, in the history of Wuthering Expectations might be?  Did you guess the recipe for skillet green bean casserole?   That should tell us all something.

Some of these links go to what I think are the best posts of the last two years; others go to writing and subjects that are more representative.  By “best,” I mean the same thing I always do – best written.  Wuthering Expectations is writing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Image Blogger Appreciation Day

Welcome to Image Blog Appreciation Day!  My favorites:

Will Schofield’s 50 Watts is the reconfiguration of the legendary Journey Round My Skull, a repository for the most penetrating, surprising, and perplexing images he can find, and he has a good eye.  I could look  - or, really, stare - at those 19th century Danish puppet theaters all day.  The site has become an archive of book covers, textbook illustrations, children’s books, and miscellaneous weirdness that I now find overwhelming.  He does have a Greatest Hits page.  I want to emphasize, though, the literariness of the site, the sense that the images featured on 50 Watts are collaborating with the texts I wrestle with, that Victor Hugo’s paintings or Pataphysical artifacts or French sequels to Pinocchio are part of whatever story I am trying to tell, too, if I only understood them better.

50 Watts is my most frequent source for the images I steal for my internet avatar, including my current head of wheat.  Although 50 Watts is significantly less bloggish than Journey Round My Skull, I still designate it the Greatest Blog Ever.

Jane Librizzi, proprietor of The Blue Lantern, is also a storyteller – all of these bloggers are.  Librizzi is a master of pairing text and image, whether the text is a famous poem or her own essay.  This piece on Mariana Griswold von Rensselaer is a good example.  She also understands how literature and images interpenetrate – see this expert review of Theodor Fontane  and this little biography of Djuna Barnes.

Neil Philips, of Adventures in the Print Trade, has contributed valuable comments to Wuthering Expectations now and then.  His own blog would be dangerous if I lived in England, because it is part of his shop, and if he cannot sell you the image he features, I bet he can find something just as nice.

I have borrowed an amazing linocut by Norbertine Bresslern-Roth to showcase Neil, but I want to feature a recent post titled “Keeping Impressionism at bay” in which Neil uses an illustrated book of poems to deftly summarize and challenge the standard art history narrative.  Now that is too big a subject, the useful and frustrating contrasts between literary history, art history, music history, and so on, the way the field’s tell their own stories.  Some other time.  Neil’s post is a sort of primer on the subject.

Philip Wilkinson’s English Buildings is not exactly an image blog, but in the end it functions similarly.  He helps his readers see buildings carefully, to really look at them.  Then, after looking, to learn something about the period and history of the building.  Then to look again.  Wilkinson is a widely published specialist on English architecture, and he uses the blog to explore some areas that the standard architectural histories do not emphasize.

Every blog I have listed has this in common:  they know their field, and the story people in the field tell, how this movement led to that one, and this artist influenced the other, but they understand how inadequate and limiting that story is, and they push back against it in all sorts of fascinating ways.

I would feel bad if I omitted Steerforth and The Age of Uncertainty, another great scrounger of old images.  Steerforth is opening a bookstore – best wishes!

I would feel worse if I did not mention that all of these bloggers are unusually good writers – clear in their arguments, thoughtful in their choices.  When I visit their sites, what I mostly do is look, which is right.  But I also read with real pleasure.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopened! - not writing about Walt Whitman and Gottfried Keller

Anton Chekhov was not on the week’s schedule.  I was planning to write about Walt Whitman and Gottfried Keller.  The niggling, unresolved problem was that I had nothing to say.  There’s always something, sure.  But given that, nothing.  Let me just get these out of the way.

Gottfried Keller is the great German-language Swiss writer of the 19th century.  Do I need those qualifiers – greatest Swiss writer, maybe?  Greatest Swiss writer within Switzerland, perhaps, and within Germany.   I am afraid he has not traveled so well into English.

Keller is a master of the German-language novella tradition, which really is something different than “not short not long.”  The German novellas of Theodor Storm, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Eduard Mörike, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Adelbert Stifter, and many others are constructed around principles of plotting and characterization that are genuinely different than those of England, France, or Russia.  This is, roughly speaking, the fault of, or to the credit of, Goethe.  Late in the 19th century, the great Theodor Fontane successfully Frenchifies the German-language novella, so why he is not more read is a mystery.  But Keller, like Stifter and Storm, breaks some of our fictional conventions.  He’s weird.

Tony at Tony’s Reading List recently read (in German) Keller’s 1856 collection The People of Seldwyla.  Trapped in English, I read some of the same pieces in the 1982 German Library collection Stories, with various translators.  Tony’s relative judgments are also mine, so please see his post for guidance.  Or, to simplify:  try the slapstick “The Three Righteous Combmakers” – the word “righteous” is ironic – and the sweetly tragic “A Village Romeo and Juliet.”  Or, for a dose of crazy, sample the talking cat, wizard, and witch of “Mirror, the Cat.”

Then assume that some later novellas, such as the 1861 “The Banner of the Upright Seven” and the 1877 “Ursula” will require a little more patience – they are so peculiarly Swiss.  We gab on about how great literature should be universal, but Keller is often brilliantly parochial.  Assume that the enormous 1854 Green Henry, the childhood-boyhood-youth of a failed painter, is a patchy and implausible masterpiece, arguably the greatest German-language novel of the century, although my Frenchified tastes prefer Fontane’s Effi Briest.

Now, Walt Whitman.  I just finished the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860), staggeringly brilliant, staggeringly dull – not, generally, in the same passages.  My great mistake, I see, has been to try to comprehend Leaves of Grass as a system or a single poem – although it is those things – rather than as Whitman’s continual updating of his Selected Poems.  Why should I expect every poem to be good?  Every poem in the revolutionary first edition in fact is good, but why should that continue to be true?

The third edition dismantles the head-scratching Preface of the first edition and poetifies it into “Chants Democratic,” Whitmanian list-making at its most tedious, in the service of a concept (a “democratic poem”) that I suspect is twaddle.  The big sex poems, “Enfans d’Adam” and the homosocial “Calamus” are introduced, to my indifference; I am not convinced that they add much that is not clear from the sexual passages of “Song of Myself.”  The great seashore poem eventually titled “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is introduced to my ecstatic joy, joining “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to form my Whitman, the one who has to stand and look, who has to see and record the “four light-green eggs, spotted with brown” and “my scallop-edged waves of flood-tide” before he leaps into the empyrean or dissolves into the World-Soul or propounds the new American religion.

I may well be doing nothing but differentiating the poems I read well and the poems I read poorly.

The 2009 University of Iowa paperback facsimile of the 1860 Leaves of Grass, ed. Jason Stacy, is a beauty.  I felt almost bad reading a library copy.  This would be a good book to scribble on and mark up and read to pieces.  See p. 328, the end of "Poem of the Road," for my title.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship - Chekhov introduces ideas to his fiction

“The Bet,” a Chekhov story from 1889, was suggested to me by mel u of The Reading Life.  I had not read it; that was easy to change.   Mel is right that the story is a good one, but it is also an unusual Chekhov story, one that encapsulates the evolution of Chekhov’s art.

A rough recap:  In 1886 and 1887 Chekhov published a story a week in newspapers.  I have been wandering through these stories recently.  They are typically short single episodes, often character studies or anecdotes or sketches or jokes.  Read in handfuls, they create an interestingly varied and large Chekhovian Russia, and are valuable for that reason alone, aside for the occasional fine images, sentences, and scenes.

At some point in 1887, these stories had become popular enough that Chekhov could up his fee substantially.  He began to write fewer but longer stories, so 1889 features only three stories:  “The Princess,” about which I remember nothing, the much-translated and anthologized “A Dreary Story,” the title could be attached to most Chekhov stories, and “The Bet.”  Chekhov was likely paid more for these three stories than for the 55 or more from 1886.  Literary biographers should include appendices detailing the income of their subject, broken down by year and source, adjusted for inflation, if necessary.

“The Bet,” although “realistic” in a strict sense – no supernatural business – is a moral fable.  An overheated argument about capital punishment leads to a bizarre bet:  two million rubles on the side that lifetime imprisonment is worse than death up against fifteen years of voluntary solitary confinement to prove that life is always preferable to death.

Chekhov works the plot so that both men succeed and both men are destroyed.  One could argue the point, though, because the most surprising feature of the story is the introduction of ideas.  The prisoner is forbidden human contact, but allowed books.  He spends a year with light novels, the moves on to classics, and then to languages and philosophy, then to the Gospels and theology, then to everything:

At one time he was busy with the natural sciences, then he would ask for Byron or Shakespeare, .  There were notes in which he demanded at the same time books on chemistry, and a manual of medicine, and a novel, and some treatise on philosophy or theology.  His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship, and trying to save his life by greedily clutching at one spar and then at another.

Now that hits a little too close to home.  All of the prisoner’s study and reading have led him to conclude that all is meaningless in the face of death and entropy.  “I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world…  death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor…”  He renounces all earthly and all unearthly things.

The banker, the man who put up the two millions, is the recognizably Chekhovian character, the true subject of the story.  How he reacts or changes in the face of his prisoner’s newfound wisdom, how the story really ends, is the return to the Chekhov I recognize.  The prisoner is an intruder from Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, a parody of the Underground Man and Anna Karenina’s Levin.  I see more clearly some of my attraction to Chekhov – we are both skeptical of the place of ideas as such in fiction.

Good stuff, mel, thanks!  I am, by the way, using Constance Garnett’s translation.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Attractive weak unhappy useless people - Chekhov's pathetic "Vanka"

No author has created with less emphasis such pathetic characters as Chekhov has, characters who can often be summed up by the quotation from his story “In the Cart”: “How strange, she reflected, why does God give sweetness of nature, sad, nice, kind eyes, to weak, unhappy useless people – and why are they so attractive?” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, 1981, p. 250)

Yesterday I called Anton Chekhov’s “Vanka” (1886) the “most pathetic story ever written,” which is likely wrong, but it must be a strong contender.  Vanka is nine years old, and has recently been apprenticed to a Moscow shoemaker.  His new life is “miserable, worse than a dog’s” – brutal, cold, pinched.  When we meet him he is writing a secret letter to his grandfather in the village, begging to be allowed to return to his old life.  Chekhov might tell the tragic story of how the boy is discovered, how he is unable to deliver his letter, and then the soft-hearted reader could enjoy feeling sorry for the poor fellow.  But no – Vanka succeeds in writing and sending the letter, making the reader – me – feel even worse.  Oh, it is so sad.  The ending:

An hour later, lulled by sweet hopes, he was fast asleep.  In his dreams he saw the stove.  On the stove sat his grandfather, his bare legs hanging down, and read the letter to the cooks.  Near the stove was Wriggles, wagging his tail.  (tr. Avrahm Yarmolinsky, The Portable Chekhov).

Well, that doesn’t sound so bad.  What am I talking about?  Everything’s going to work out great.

Another five pager for the newspapers, “Vanka” has an ingenious structure, mixing the boy’s letter with his memories of the village.  These early Chekhov stories have so little room that one setting  is usually all he has room for, but he is able to interleave two in this case.  Wriggles has “a black coat and a long body like a weasel’s”; the shoemaker’s wife “jabbed me in the mug” with a herring; the Moscow shops have “fishing-hooks for sale all fitted up with a line, for every kind of fish” (the nine year old letter writer sometimes has trouble staying focused); please reserve a gilt walnut from the master’s Christmas tree and “put it away in the little green chest.”

Did I mention that Vanka is writing his clandestine letter on Christmas Eve?  Laying it on a little thick, don’t you think, Anton?

Chekhov’s books are sad books for humorous people; that is, only  a reader with a sense of humor can really appreciate their sadness…  Things for him were funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, for both were linked up.  (VN, 252)

“Vanka” is a funny story, yes it is.  The kid’s situation truly is bad, and the little twist at the end really is a heartbreaker?  But the plot is also a kind of cosmic joke, one with a setup and punchline, the saddest funniest joke, and that’s aside from Vanka insisting in his letter that his grandfather not “give my harmonica to anyone.”  Why are these creatures so attractive?

Monday, September 12, 2011

They are eaten alive - early Chekhov stories are like oysters

Minor to the point of trivial, but also short, punchy, and well-stocked with images and sentences that send the shiver up the spine – now that I have begun, I cannot stop reading early Chekhov.  I mentioned short.  Short is key.  Three, four five page stories, easy to fit into the day’s gaps.

In “Oysters,” a little boy is out in the cold with his father who, I fear, is begging.  The sign on a restaurant says “Oysters” which are what exactly?

“They are eaten alive…” said my father.  “They are in shells like tortoises, but… in two halves.”

The delicious smell instantly left off affecting me, and the illusion vanished…  Now I understood it all!

“How nasty,” I whispered, “how nasty!”

So that’s what “oysters” meant!  I imagined to myself a creature like a frog.  A frog sitting in a shell, peeping out from it with big, glittering eyes, and moving its revolting jaws…… The children would all hide while the cook, frowning with an air of disgust, would take the creature by its claw, put it on a plate, and carry it into the dining-room.  The grown-ups would take it and eat it, eat it alive with its eyes and its teeth, its legs!  While it squeaked and tried to bite their lips.  (The Cook’s Wedding & Other Stories, 60-1, tr. Garnett – the extra-long ellipses are mine, the rest hers, or perhaps Chekhov’s).

And this gets better – soon, the boy becomes so hungry that he has an oyster-eating hallucination.  He “shudders,” they are “loathsome,” but he cannot stop crunching on them.  In the climatic remaining page of the story, the boy is fed actual oysters, with ambiguous results.

I do not want to vouch for the world-classness of this story, but I hope the greatness of that little scene, of Chekhov’s, and the boy’s, imagination, is evident enough.  Given how much text Chekhov was producing, and how quickly, it is shocking how good so many - any! - of these early stories are.  Peter Constantine, in the introduction to The Undiscovered Chekhov, writes that Chekhov in 1886 “was twenty-six, and had already published over four hundred short stories and vignettes in popular magazines” – plus a novel and eight plays, six of which are lost.  What a shame; The Clean-shaven Secretary with the Pistol sounds so promising.

Four hundred!  If I am counting correctly, Constance Garnett’s 13 volume edition of Chekhov’s stories includes a mere 96 of them, 41 from 1882 through 1885, 55 from 1886 alone.   I have been reading the early stories chronologically, kind of, but 1886 may do in that plan.  What does 1887 look like?  I’ll have to stop typing – I’ll need all of my fingers for this one.

49, yikes!  Although 1887 gives me “The Kiss,” which seems to be the first Chekhov story that I think of as a truly great one, excepting perhaps the 1886 “Vanka,” the most pathetic story ever written.  Then, to run through an entirely conventional “best of Chekhov” list:

1889 – “A Dreary Story”
1890 – “Gusev
1891 – “The Duel”
1892 – “Ward No. 6”
1894 – “The Black Monk”
1896 – “My Life”
1897 – “Peasants”
1898 – “Gooseberries”
1899 – “The Lady with the Lap Dog”
1900 – “In the Ravine”
1902 – “The Bishop”

The four great plays are all late, too.  Late being relative, since Chekhov was 44 when he died in 1904.  Beginning in 1888, Chekhov begins to write fewer (9 titles in 1888, 3 in 1890) but longer, more complex stories.  The sketches expand into novellas.  I am having a fine time with the early stories, but Chekhov gets so much better.  Readers new to Chekhov should not do what I am doing.  Nor should less new readers, but I am having trouble stopping.  I eat them like good fresh oysters, a dozen at a time.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Smelling of sherry and ham - rummaging around in early Chekhov

Those late stories of Nikolai Leskov led me to paw through my thirteen volumes of Constance Garnett’s translations of Anton Chekhov, aided by the chronology at the end of Volume 13.  What was the young newcomer Chekhov doing, more or less, while the veteran Leskov was publishing “The Pearl Necklace”?  I was not looking for genius or sublimity, just high-end Russian magazine fiction, Chekhov in 1883.

“Joy” is the second-earliest story Garnett includes.  A young man bursts in on his parents at midnight, thrilled at his new fame – “now all Russia knows of me!”  His parents are skeptical, but here’s the proof, the newspaper article:  “an intoxicated condition… slipped and fell… taken to the police station.”  Now he has to show the  article to more people.  “Mitya put on his cap with its cockade and, joyful and triumphant, ran into the street.”  The End.

Well that wasn’t much.  Just a joke, I guess, a wry observation.  Three pages, and these Garnett books have pleasingly generous margins and type.  It took me longer to write three sentences about it than to read it.  Let’s try another, something with a little more heft.

“A Daughter of Albion,” published six months after “Joy” – this one features a man and woman fishing together, “a large stout man, with a very big head,” and “a tall thin Englishwoman, with prominent eyes like a crab’s, and a big bird-like nose more like a hook than a nose.”  I feel we are already getting somewhere with those unlikely crab eyes, and in fact this six pager has a number of juicy tidbits, slant adjectives, odd bits of dialogue.  Somehow, the stout man ends up completely nude.  “The Englishwoman twitched her brows and blinked…  A haughty disdainful smile passed over her yellow face.”  Those ellipses are Chekhov’s, or at least Garnett’s.  This is not exactly “Ward No. 6,” but it’s progress.

Everyone knows “Ward No. 6,” yes?  Heartbreaking, just crushing.  But that’s later, 1892, and more like 80 pages long.  Back to 1883.

Let’s see, how about “Fat and Thin.”  Old friends, one fat and one thin, accidentally meet at a train station.  The fat man “smelt of sherry and fleur d’orange,” the thin man of “ham and coffee grounds.”  This is again only three pages, but Chekhov can spend his time telling me how his characters smell.  Good.  The thin man is jolly and natural until he learns that his portly friend outranks him.  Then he “wore an expression of such reverence, sugariness, and mawkishness respectfulness that the privy councilor was sickened.”  So this story is like “Joy,” one incident, one tiny insight not into the depths of the human soul but into its smaller, shallower crevices.

I have actually read a short book of Chekhov duds, a collection of his earliest publications, The Undiscovered Chekhov (1998), translated by Peter Constantine.  Now those pieces, some barely a page long, are slight.  But even those I read with some interest, as Chekhov emerges, sentence by sentence, from the ordinary writing of his time.

These are fun.  Why don’t I write about Chekhov more?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The story is worth telling - new Leskov translations in The Hudson Review

A couple of Nikolai Leskov stories are featured in the Summer 2011 issue of The Hudson Review, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  The stories are early signs of a fat Leskov collection that P&V are assembling, due who knows when.  It will, of course, include redundant versions of “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” and The Enchanted Wanderer and the bizarre faux folk tale “The Steel Flea,” but it should also have new, or at least rare, stories.  Once the book is available, we can also expect to enjoy more of Richard Pevear’s usual misplaced contempt for other translators.

The two stories in The Hudson Review are of a different character than the standard Leskov classics I looked at yesterday.  They are anecdotes, really, stretched and decorated and adapted to the standards of magazine fiction.  They are cousins of the stories of contemporaries like Maupassant and the young Chekhov, compact, light, set in a recognizable, nominally “realistic” world.

“The Pearl Necklace” (1885) does have a curious introduction, in which Leskov and his friends briefly discuss the “perceived impoverishment of literature” caused by “the multiplication of railroads,” which leads them to the praise of Dickens, and to a criticism of the monotonous, formulaic nature of his Christmas stories.  A Christmas story follows, presented as a perfect example of the form, a twist-ending piece about a father who is skeptical of his daughters’ choices of husbands.  The necklace in the title is his questionable wedding and New Year’s gift to his youngest daughter:

He deserved to be reprimanded for the gift of pearls, because pearls signify and foretell tears.  And therefore pearls are never used as New Year’s gifts.
However, Nikolai Ivanovich deftly laughed it off.  (227)

That’s the loving husband; his reaction is the moral of the story, embedded in the middle.  Marry for love, don’t worry too much about money, tread lightly in the world, laugh off worry.  “The Pearl Necklace” presents a light and active model for his great theme of humility and resignation to the cares of the world.

“A Flaming Patriot” (1881) is surprising for its setting (Vienna) and its guest star:

Franz Joseph took the mug in his hand but didn’t drink from it; while the dance lasted, he went on holding it in his hand, but when the czardas was finished, the emperor silently held out his mug to his neighbor.  The man understood at once what he must do: he clinked with his sovereign and, immediately turning to his other neighbor, exchanged clinks with him.  Thereupon, as many people as were there, they all stood up, all clinked with each other, and breathed out over the whole lawn a concerted unanimous “Hoch!”  This “hoch” is not shouted loudly and boomingly there, but like a good, heartfelt sigh.

The emperor drained his mug in one breath, bowed, and left. (237)

I typed this out because I like it, and because the story is actually about a group of Russians who witness the scene and disagree about its meaning.  It’s not a big story, but “[t]he story is worth telling,” Leskov declares.  Worth reading, too.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

After that things began to move fast, just as in a fairy tale. - Leskov doesn't tell his stories right

The most famous story of Nikolai Leskov, thanks, I suppose, to the Shostakovich opera, is the 1865 “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” a tale that readers with less of a cold-fish temperament than me might actually find harrowing.  The bored rural Russian Lady Macbeth falls in love with her husband’s clerk; anyone who gets in the way of their love is murdered, at least until their crimes are discovered and the murderers are sent to Siberia.

A reader with a keener eye than me might notice that this story does not sound much like Macbeth at all.  The woman inveigling her husband into crime is from Macbeth, except here the husband ends up buried in the basement, and the motive is love, not ambition.  I was on the alert for parallel scenes – Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, or the Three Witches – and with some stretching I can find some, but the exercise is basically futile.  The sad part is that Leskov had warned me not to bother, that the name was “first invented for her on the spur of the moment by someone or other.”  This is from the first page of the story.

The invocation of Shakespeare in the title, as strong a sign of “literariness” as Leskov could find, is a distraction but also a nod to his method, his blend of the literary and folk traditions.  The novella-like The Enchanted Wanderer (1872), for example, is a picaresque in the style of Lazarillo de Tormes, with the simple but tough hero touring Russia, moving from profession to profession and place to place, from the stable to a nomadic camp to a monastery, all with no discernible effect on his personality.  What a charming way to take a tour of 19th century Russia.  Bizarre elements intrude into the hero’s narration, though, dreams and prophecies and hallucinations:

For, as I swam, I saw Grusha flying above me and she was now a girl in her teens, just about sixteen, I should say, and she had large wings already, bright wings, spanning the whole river, and she protected me with them. . . (Ch. 19, 195)

Curious ellipses in the original.  The wanderer is in the army here, and under fire; he is forced out of the military because of his insistence that he was protected from harm by a ghost fairy.  By the end of the novella, The Enchanted Wanderer has become enjoyably scrambled, with no way to sort the true from the false, even in the story’s own terms.

David Auerbach emphasizes the surprises in the structures of Leskov’s stories – Leskov’s “narrative strangeness.”  What at first looks like an epilogue to “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” the punishment of Lady Macbeth and her lover, their journey to Siberia, turns out to fill a quarter of the text, and the events of the episode deepened, or perhaps upended, my understanding of Lady Macbeth’s character.  The Enchanted Wanderer has a slightly different device.  The wanderer repeatedly insists that his adventures will end in a monastery, but the monastery turns out to be only the latest episode in the bizarre string.

The central story of “Lady Macbeth,” and a number of the episodes of The Enchanted Wanderer, would be worth reading if told in a more straightforward way.  That’s part of the fun of Leskov, that his stories are strong.  The other part, though, is that he doesn’t tell them correctly.

Translations by David Magarshack.  My context-damaged title is from The Enchanted Wanderer, Ch. 16, 181.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The great Nikolai Leskov

I want to spend a few days writing about Nikolai Leskov, a contemporary of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and a second-rater compared to those two, which is hardly a wounding criticism.  Leskov’s best work, anecdotes and tales and longish stories, is excellent, an effective blend of Gogol and Pushkin with some unique contributions from his own voice.  His voice is not a strong one, which might well be a relief to readers who find the voices of T. and D. to be strong in the manner of anchovies and beef liver.    Leskov’s authorial personality is mild and amiable.  He was raised by an aunt who was English, and a Quaker.  I’m just throwing that out there.

Leskov became a genuinely popular writer.  He is a tale-teller, writing stories with strong beginnings and endings.  I am comparing him here with Chekhov, with Chekhov’s ordinary people and quivering, ambiguous endings.  Leskov tells a complete story about something extraordinary.  I always enjoy pointing out how this or that unlikely 19th century writer prefigures this or that key aspect of Modernism.  Nikolai Leskov does not.

Am I belittling Leskov?  I am in good company.  V. S. Pritchett, in the introduction to David Magarshack’s translation (Selected Tales, 1961, in print now as The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories) writes:

He is not, in the least, a literary writer.  He appears to burst upon the reader without art in a rambling, wily, diffuse, old-fashioned way.  He shambles into his tales without embarrassment, indifferent to technique.  (ix)

Pritchett then proceeds, in the rest of his essay, to contradict most of this.  Shambles!  Indifferent to technique – nonsense!  There are better and worse, duller and more lively ways to tell tales.  Leskov is better, more lively, and best of all, weirder, full of surprises.  But I know what Pritchett is getting at.  First, delicate reader of 1961, do not expect the penetrating soul-plumbing  anguish of T. and D.; second, the tales as such, the stories, really are quite good.

A wiser book blogger than I would have skipped most – all – of the above and simply pointed curious readers to David Waggish Auerbach’s fine overview at The Quarterly Conversation, excellent except for the inaccurate title, which I note Waggish tactfully corrects at his own site.  I will, or at least should, refer to Auerbach’s piece again over the next day or two; I may well have nothing to add to what he has already written.  Such is life on the internet.

Friday, September 2, 2011

O, speak not of her! then I die with grief. - Marlowe, Rilke, and the quotable Your Face Tomorrow

Yesterday’s ragbag on Javier Marías’s gigantic so-called spy novel Your Face Tomorrow may well have been the most reader-unfriendly post I have ever inscribed on Wuthering Expectations.  It did not assume that you, dear kind gentle reader, had read the novel, but rather that you had read and retained my little series on the novel’s first volume written back in June, had followed the path to Caravanas de Recuerdos and bibliographing and that insightful piece at In lieu if a field guide, and then returned to me.

An alternative view: it was among my clearest, friendliest posts.  It signaled, quickly and clearly: do not just skim, but skip.  A real time saver.  You’re welcome!  My pleasure.  Today, more of the same.  You’re welcome!  Monday is a holiday, so I’ll see you on Tuesday.  Have a nice weekend.

A digression on Nabokov.  When I read Nabokov, I know that he is using images, adjectives, jokes, all of his tools, to create a complex system of correspondences that reach across the novel, connections that belong not to the first-person narrator, if there is one, but to the novelist, and the attentive reader.  The butterfly that appears near the end of the book should send us back to the butterfly in Chapter 2. The butterfly may not have any particular meaning of its own, but the scenes in which they appear will correspond in surprising and delightful ways.  That is how Nabokov works.

The Nabokovian Javier Marías is doing something similar in Your Face Tomorrow with his use of quotations.  I was hardly able to follow them all, the incessant stream of Shakespeare in particular.  I wonder what Marías is doing with Christopher Marlowe’s single greatest line, for example (Barabbas, the Jew of Malta, is being interrogated by a pair of monks, “two religious caterpillars”:

FRIAR BARNARDINE.  Thy daughter--
FRIAR JACOMO.  Ay, thy daughter--
BARABAS.  O, speak not of her! then I die with grief.
FRIAR BARNARDINE.  Remember that--
FRIAR JACOMO.  Ay, remember that--
BARABAS.  I must needs say that I have been a great usurer.
FRIAR BARNARDINE.  Thou hast committed--
BARABAS.  Fornication:  but that was in another country;
      And besides, the wench is dead.   (The Jew of Malta, Act IV)

Deza, the narrator, an expatriate, repeatedly uses the phrase “but that was in another country,” usually just that snippet.  It would be productive to follow that phrase around the novel.  But I cannot; I would have to  re-read.

I was quick enough to catch another one, Deza’s repetition of a fragment of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies.  Here is the relevant passage, two-thirds through the First Elegy, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation:

Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
to give up customs one has barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things
in terms of a human future; no longer to be
what one was in infinitely anxious hands; to leave
even one’s own first name behind, forgetting it
as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one’s desires.  Strange
to see meanings that clung together once, floating away
 in every direction.  And being dead is hard work…*

Deza never quotes all of this, but rather a fragment, just three times, I think, one of the strange ways that the three volumes of the seven part single novel has some meaning.  The Rilke lines first appear, unattributed, on page 346 of the first volume, near the end of the enormous Monologue on Silence.  The elderly Peter Wheeler, the novel’s secret hero, is describing or lamenting the silence of death – “the only people who have no language and never speak or tell or say anything are the dead.”  When the lines return in volume 3, p. 518, we are hearing about the personal grief behind Wheeler’s earlier speech.  This last scene, the novel’s ethical climax, includes, or, really, is interrupted by, quotations from across the novel, some literary, some lines from within Your Face Tomorrow.  Some I recognized, not all.

The use of the Rilke line in volume 2 is more elliptical.  Deza’s father is telling a story about an atrocity from the Spanish Civil War that took place near the Andalucian city of Ronda.  Rilke “had stayed in Ronda for a couple of months twenty-four years before… there is a statue of him, of the poet, a very black, life-size one, in the garden of a hotel.”  The whole passage is unusually Sebaldian, a refugee from The Rings of Saturn.  I have visited Ronda, but did not know about the Rilke statue.  Deza’s fragment of the Duino Elegies is part of the story – “[i]t may have been there that he began to conceive these lines.”  Peter Wheeler is in fact mentioned, but I could not, initially, connect his story to the scene – I did not know his story. 

The details about Rilke, like the mention of Wheeler, seem like a non sequitur, but they tie Wheeler's tragedy into a different one and develop the parallel between Wheeler and Deza’s father and do who knows what else assuming I pursued the idea, which I had better not, because look how far my rambling has already taken me, and I have not even written anything about the hilarious Godfather joke on III.424.  I could just keep going.  But I won’t.

*  P. 155 of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Vintage International.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Strange to see meanings that clung together once, floating away in every direction – notes on Your Face Tomorrow, Javier Marías’s great folly

“Folly,” as the voluble and persnickety narrator of Marias’s enormous, complex Your Face Tomorrow would surely tell me, is a word with multiple meanings.  I have the architectural definition in mind, primarily, but the metaphor of the folly house always suggests the other meanings, doesn’t it?  I love folly houses.  Who doesn't?

For a couple of days, notes, just notes.  Other readers can tell me if they are promising.  Please see the remarkable In lieu of a field guide for something rather more substantial, especially the section on the meaning of translation - that gets right to the heart of this book.  Thanks to the Memory Caravan for hosting the readalong.

*  A basic question – how is the narrator, Deza, narrating, and who is his audience?  Is he writing, speaking – surely not – or are we overhearing his thoughts, hearing his self-justifications, his own attempts to work through the events or ideas of the book.  I assume the latter, but wonder about the former.  I have pretty strong evidence that someone has written a book.

Finishing the entire novel answers a related question.  Deza’s story is entirely retrospective.  He knows all of the events of the story before he begins telling it.  Any oddities in the ways he tells the story or gaps are his choice.  Although: what does he learn while telling the story, even if he is only telling it to himself?

*  I suspect Your Face Tomorrow of containing puzzles and secrets, that it is akin to Pale Fire and The Good Soldier.  I also suspect that it is not like those books at all, but let me assume that it is.  I wonder if it is possible, for example, to fill in the narrator’s most significant gap.

Why is Deza’s wife unable to live with him?  The couple spends almost all of the book formally separated, with Deza in London and his wife and children in Madrid.  We learn that, after the events of the plot, with Deza back in Madrid, the couple has reconciled but live in separate apartments.  “’Promise me that we’ll always be like this, the way we are now, that we’ll never again live together,’” she tells him during one of their “best or most passionate or happiest moments.” (III.535)

Perhaps the answer is an accumulation of domestic banalities that are not worth the trouble of enumerating.  Or perhaps the problem is Deza’s unbearable, repetitive, pedantic, and unending flow of speech.  I am partly joking about that one.  The marriage and spy plot intersect in one significant long scene, and I detect hints, quite possibly false, of another answer.  I likely missed or forgot something more straightforward.

*  All of this is part of a larger question about the mental health of the narrator.  The novel’s events have been a shock to his system.  What are the lasting effects?  Deza uses the metaphor of poison, or, amusingly, of a Botox treatment.  His endless flow of thought or words is often broken by a strange list:

Why all that conflict and struggle, why did they fight instead of just looking and staying still, why were they unable to meet or to go on seeing each other, and why so much sleep, so many dreams, and why that scratch, my pain, my word, your fever, the dance, and all those doubts, all that torment? (II.278)

The sense of the sentence collapses.  It is like a mental short-circuit, that lapse into the (sleep, dreams, fever, etc.) list, a list which contains some but not all of the titles of the sections of the novel (Fever, Spear, Dance, Dream, Poison, Shadow, Farewell) and has other elements that could have been titles, although the items and order do vary.  Deza's questions become too difficult, or he gets too close to an ugly truth, and – buzz zap – these words pop out.  “Your fever” – who is “you”?

Look how long I have gone on.  I am as bad as Deza, except that I hit the carriage return button more often.  My title is from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s first Duino Elegy – more of that tomorrow.