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.


  1. It's true. Each time I see another Chekhov post, I become a little more dispirited. When are you going to get on to Eca de Queiroz?

    *jumps up and down*

  2. From now, on the appearance of Chekhov on the blog means something else fizzled.

    The Portuguese kickoff is on Tuesday. It is exciting!

  3. I'm planning to get on withe the second half of the Seldwyla stories at some point...

    ... but 'Effi Briest' is calling me much more loudly at the moment. As always, too many books..

  4. "Kleider machen Leute" was certainly as good as the other good Keller stories, so there's one sure thing in the second half of Seldwyla.

    obooki is more of an Effi Briest skeptic than I am. He might prefer the more demonstrative "Schach von Wuthenow."

  5. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Effi Briest is the most boring book I've managed to get to the end of in the last 2 years. (Though I've only ever managed to get about 50 pages into Madame Bovary).

    Talking of Bovary-clones, Eca de Queiroz wrote a marvellous one called Cousin Bazilio. Unlike EB, marvellously entertaining. When Zola claimed he was "better than Flaubert", I don't think he was trying to damn him with faint praise.

  6. Oh yeah, Zola idolized Flaubert in his own kill-your-father way. That was real praise. The Maias is an extraordinary response to or descendant of Flaubert. More like A Sentimental Education than Bovary.

    I think Cousin Basilio will be next. I am beginning to wonder where to stop - I mean, what's the 2nd tier? With all of those posthumous works, Eça de Queirós is a challenge to map out.

    I actually think you would like "Schach von Wuthenow" \ "The man of Honor" way more than Effi Briest. It's much more like Eça de Queirós than like Flaubert!