Monday, October 31, 2011

It was so dreadfully cold - the puzzling Little Match Girl Passion

This post is holiday-inappropriate.

It was so dreadfully cold.  It was snowing, and the evening was beginning to grow dark.  It was also the last evening of the year – New Year’s Eve.  In this cold and in this darkness a poor little girl was walking in the street, bareheaded and barefooted.

So begins Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” as translated by Reginald Spink in the attractive Everyman’s Library edition.  I have not been reading Andersen lately, but rather listening to a peculiar oratorio, The Little Match Girl Passion (2007) by David Lang.  The 35-minute piece, written for four voices and a smattering of percussion, intermingles the thousand-word text of the Andersen story with fragments of the text of Johannes Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion (1727).

The Andersen story carries a weight of Christian symbolism, although as soon as I try to be specific I become muddled.  The indifference of passersby, the cruelty of her father, and the transcendent promise of Heaven as personified by a hallucination of her Granny leads to the death by freezing of the little match girl.

Granny had never before been so beautiful and so big.  Lifting the little girl on to her arm, she flew with her in radiance and glory so high, so very, very high.  And there was no cold, no hunger, no fear: they were with God.

Come to think of it, this story is terrifying - forget what I said about its appropriateness for Halloween.  Still, the direct identification of the match girl with Christ puzzles me.  Lang’s most audacious stroke – the most audacious I could understand – is a little switch in Matthew 26:46 (King James version, which is not what Lang uses):

And about the ninth hour she cried with a loud voice, saying Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?  That is to say, My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?

“She” of course replaces “Jesus.”  If there is anything the little match girl does not do, it is loudly cry out.  So, I get it and I don’t.

Although the text of The Little Match Girl Passion is organized along the lines of the St. Matthew’s Passion, the music is another thing entirely.  It is minimalist and subdued, quiet yet bracing.  Short musical phrases repeat and shift.  The effect Lang achieves, as is often the case with contemporary composers of choral music, resembles “early music” – plainchant or madrigals – far more than Bach’s powerful masses of sound.  As is often the case with me, I understood none of the words without consulting the underlying texts, so I mostly listen to the oratorio to enjoy the singing.  Listeners with an allergy to minimalism will, I do not doubt, find The Little Match Girl to be exceedingly tedious.

I have been listening to the 2009 Harmonia Mundi recording of Paul Hillier, who commissioned the piece, conducting the Theatre of Voices.  I can point the curious to YouTube samples:  the Theatre of Voice perform the beginning here (skip the first minute and a half), and an excerpt from the middle, including the bit from Matthew, is here.  Finally, this is David Lang failing to answer my question.

Friday, October 28, 2011

bird or rose or sea - learning Portuguese the Eugénio de Andrade way

Who wants to help me learn Portuguese?  So kind, thank you.  My textbook is, as usual, Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry of Eugénio de Andrade (New Directions, 2003, tr. Alexis Levitin).

I picked an easy one (pp. 54-5).


É um pássaro, é uma rosa,
é o mar que me acorda?
Pássaro ou rosa ou mar,
tudo é ardor, tudo é amor.
Acordar é ser rosa na rosa,
canto na ave, água no mar.

A little Spanish goes a long way here – it may help to know that “é” = “it is \ is it?” and “na” and “no” = “of the”.  I am not joking when I claim to use Andrade as a study aid.  The title of the poem is a vocabulary word by itself, and the nouns are all good basic ones – rose, sea, water, love, desire, song, and two words for bird, some repeated two or three or four times.

Some of Andrade’s poems are genuine lyrics, the words to an imaginary song.  They perhaps create their own music, this one, for example, with all of its soft, rolling “r”s.

To Waken

Is it a bird, is it a rose,
is it the sea that wakens me?
Bird or rose or sea,
all is fire, all desire.
To awake is to be rose of the rose,
song of the bird, water of the sea.

The one little bend the translator has to make is in the sonorous fourth line.  “Ardor” and “amor” are related but distinct, while “desire” and “fire” are much the same thing, one just a metaphor of the other.  But Levitin is able to shadow  the rhythm, keep the internal rhyme, and even mimic the soft “r” sounds.  His melody is at least an audible variation of Andrade’s.

As for the content of the poem, I wish I woke up feeling like that.  Not before coffee; rarely after.  But I suppose the waking is metaphorical, the surprise of the bird or rose or sea (or, who knows, a poem) lifting us out of our sleepy ordinary life once in a while.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Philosophers, Hegelian and zombie, in the short fiction of Eça de Queirós

A couple more Eça de Queirós stories, then I will set him aside for a little while.  I mean, not write about him, since I am reading two of his novels simultaneously, each quite different, thank goodness.

The Mandarin and Other Stories, tr. Margaret Jull Costa.  Yesterday, The Mandarin; today, the other stories.

“The Idiosyncrasies of a Young Blonde Woman” is early (1873) and not as painstakingly written as Eça de Queirós’s best work, although the anti-Romantic plot of obsessive love is fine.  Costa tells me that it was the author’s “first largely realist story”; Portugal’s first “realist” novel, The Crime of Father Amaro, followed two years later.  But this is all Portuguese literary history.  A film version was released just two years ago; when the director, Manoel de Oliveira, made the film he was one hundred years old.

“The Hanged Man” (written 1895) is a largely unrealist(?) story, a medieval ghost story.  Or, wait, the haunt is a hanged corpse, so I guess that makes it a zombie story!  How of our moment!:

Don Ruy revealed neither terror nor disgust.  Casually sheathing his sword he asked:

‘Are you dead or alive?’

The man slowly shrugged his shoulders.

‘I don’t know, sir.  Who knows what life is?  Who knows what death is?’ (136)

The zombie appears to be a philosopher.  A Christian one, I should add (“it is from the Cross alone that I seek mercy”), animated by the Virgin Mary to – well, let me abandon the story right there.

“José Matias” (written 1897) is narrated by another philosopher, not a zombie but something worse, a Hegelian.  He is at the funeral of the title character, and tells the poor fellow’s story, how Matias devoted his life, energy, and fortune to a perfectly idealized love affair.  He falls in love with the married beauty next door, and she with him, but they conduct their affair in an entirely spiritual manner.  Matias lives as if he is married to Elisa, furnishing his house as if she lived in it, giving up smoking “even when out riding alone” because she dislikes the smoke.  The twists of the plot refine this perfect, or mad, affair; pure devotion is never pure enough.

Looking at the story now, I see a continual mix of the material and the spiritual.  It is a kind of anti-Romantic Romanticism, or a Romantic anti-Romanticism.  I do not know what either of those would be, but words like “naturalism” or “realism” are not helpful.

José Matias is buried; the story ends; the narrator, the philosopher who “proved beyond doubt the illusion of sensation,” ends the story with “Still, it is a lovely afternoon."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dear reader, creature improvised by God, a poor creation shaped out of poor clay, my fellow and my brother - satirical Eça de Queirós

More review-like recommendation-like Eça de Queirós writing today.

I direct the attention of the reader curious about Eça de Queirós but unwilling to commit to a thick novel, however juicy, to The Mandarin and Other Stories, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a mere 160 pages of fictional text.

The novella that leads the collection is a Voltaire-like fantasy, told with gleeful zest.  The premise is an old moral dilemma:  if you could murder a distant Chinese mandarin and inherit his fortune with no consequences, would you do it?  The clerk who narrates the story can and does  (the devil is brought in as a mechanical aid, although the narrator does not believe in the devil), but amidst his new wealth and decadent hedonism, he becomes tormented by visions of the mandarin, not just of the man himself but of his family, his position:

I felt doubly guilty for having deprived a whole society of an important personage, an experienced man of letters, a pillar of the Social Order, a mainstay of public institutions.  You can’t just remove a man worth one hundred and six thousand contos from a country without upsetting the balance.

This absurd imaginative specificity is what makes the novella work.  The clerk actually travels to China to try to right his wrong.  Eça de Queirós can indulge, like his characters in fantasies of China, presenting heights of elegance and horrors of poverty, beauty and disgust, wisdom and incompetence, all of which has about as much to do with the actual China as Voltaire’s Lisbon and Brazil related to the real ones.  The invented exoticism paradoxically makes the themes of the novel universal.  Everything the clerk wanted to escape or experience exists in China as well as Lisbon.  Perhaps we bring it with us, whatever it might be.

The wealthy man ends his account with a cry of despair: "And now the world seems to me a huge mound of ruins where my soul cries out ceaselessly, in exile among the fallen columns."  His only consolation is that “not one Mandarin would remain alive if you, dear reader, creature improvised by God, a poor creation shaped out of poor clay, my fellow and my brother, if you could snuff him out as easily as I did and thus inherit all his millions!”

What, no, not me.  Plus, this could never happen.

Anyway, 68 pages of amusing reading.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A vast sunshade bristling with toothpicks - the meaningful monkey knickknacks of Eça de Queirós

The only part of Cousin Bazilio that I must – must! – write about (we are in the home of a young, middle-class couple; some friends have come over; Juliana is the servant I mentioned yesterday):

The Councillor intervened gravely:

‘No,’ he said, ‘I cannot believe that our Jorge is serious.  He’s too educated to have ideas which are so…’

He hesitated, searching for the right adjective.  Juliana appeared in front of him bearing a tray on which a silver monkey was crouched in comical fashion beneath a vast sunshade bristling with toothpicks.  He took one, bowed and concluded:

‘… so uncivilized.’ (40)

As usual, Eça de Queirós is right about everything.  Jorge is only pretending to have such uncivilized ideas (I will omit the plot-relevant foreshadowing of the idea itself), and the silver monkey is comical!

Ha ha ha – well, slightly comical, but due to a critical failure of internet-based technology the only silver monkey with a toothpick parasol that I could find is mounted on an elephant, and I assume that the crouching of the unmounted monkey is much funnier, and that the sunshade is much vaster.  I politely borrowed the picture from, a place I bet you do not want to visit.

Anyway, that’s the sort of thing the novel’s heroine has in her house.  It stands out.  Eça de Queirós presumably had seen this delightful item somewhere, and perhaps even owned it himself.  Within the novel, the toothpick monkey tells us something about the bourgeois taste of its owners, and introduces a silly taste of colonial exoticism.

No novelist worthy of Flaubert will stop at that point – there is a second monkey connected to the first.  We move to a “domestic employment agency,” run by a working-class con-woman who will assist Juliana with her blackmail scheme:

Above the sofa [it pains me to omit the details of the repulsive sofa] hung a lithograph of Senhor Dom Pedro IV.  Between the two windows stood a tall dresser and, on it, flanked by a statue of St Anthony and a box made of shells, was a small stuffed monkey with glass eyes, balanced on the branch of a tree. (237)

I did not try to find an image of this hideous object.   We see why Eça de Queirós had Juliana handle the silver monkey in the first passage, since the monkeys are links between the servant’s two worlds.  Whatever was in marginal or even good taste is sordidly parodied at the crooked employment agency.  The crouching of this monkey, between Church and State, is also comical.

Whenever I go on about the method or technique of Flaubert, I usually mean devices like these matching monkeys.  They can be awfully hard to detect on a first reading of a novel, but the toothpick monkey happened to be odd enough that I was able to remember it.  I was not in the least surprised by its grotesque reprise - that's how this sort of book works.  I am sure there are more monkey-like goodies in Cousin Bazilio that I missed.

Somehow I forgot to mention yesterday that the translator of Cousin Bazilio is the unsurpassable Margaret Jull Costa.

Monday, October 24, 2011

This is like something out of Eugénie Grandet! - recommending Cousin Bazilio by Eça de Queirós

Cousin Bazilio, the 1878 second novel of José Maria Eça de Queirós, would make a good Portuguese Literature Challenge choice.  It is well-plotted, with a lot of forward motion; the central characters are excellent; the novel is enjoyably thick (435 pages in the Dedalus paperback I read) without becoming an unwieldy tome like The Maias (1888). If I think The Maias is the stronger book, larger in reach, more carefully constructed, the distinction is trivial, especially for a reader new to the author, as I am.

I have described the novel so baldly because I do not want to write too much about it, in part to encourage Challengists who have not otherwise committed to think about reading the book.  The books I typically read are so rich and complex that my usual five post, three thousand word  approach barely blows the dust off the cover, but I fear that it can sometimes seem like I am beating the stuffing out of the poor book.  Wuthering Expectations is far from exhaustive, but is often exhausting.  I would prefer that Cousin Bazilio, or the idea of reading it, remains fresh and lively for a while longer, so I will not do much more with it, although tomorrow I will have to write about the bric-a-brac monkeys.  I do not see how I have any choice.

‘This is like something out of Eugénie Grandet, Sebastião!  What you’re telling me is straight out of a Balzac novel.  It is, it’s Eugénie Grandet!’

Sebastião looked at him, horrified.

Balzac’s 1833 masterpiece shares a returning Brazilian relative with Cousin Bazilio – he’s the title character, this time.  Bazilio, a male of the species known as “a dog,” arrives in Lisbon just as his married cousin, also at one time his fiancée, is feeling bored, lonely, and listless, her husband off on a long business trip.  But the invocation of Balzac is misdirection:  as The Maias is a theme-and-variations on A Sentimental Education, this novel is a recasting of Madame Bovary.  A great difference, and the reason the novel is so easy to recommend, is that the author is not contemptuous of his characters, or even of their stupid mistakes.  Eça de Queirós  is more humane than Flaubert, or the Zola of Thérèse Raquin.  Readers  will be more likely to sympathize with his characters, as they say.  I did.

The other difference is that the Portuguese Emma Bovary is cursed with an enemy, an amazing character, her maid Juliana.  The war between the two women is the real story of the book, not Luiza’s adultery.  This is Juliana:

She envied everything in the house: the desserts that the master and mistress ate, and even their underwear.  Soirées and visits to the theatre infuriated her.  If it rained on a day when a walk had been planned, she was over-joyed.  The sight of the ladies all dressed up and with their hats on, staring miserably out of the windows, delighted her and made her almost loquacious:

‘Oh dear, madam!  What a downpour!  It’s absolutely pelting.  It looks set in for the day too.  What a shame!’  (72)

Luiza, the wife, is a first-rate creation, but her struggle with Juliana, the Old Prune makes the book.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Coming up: weird German playwrights for German Literature Month

German Literature Month, so designated by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat, approaches.  At either link, you will find an orderly, well-defined schedule for the month.  My understanding is that it is should be followed only in spirit, although the schedules for the readalongs of Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest and Heinrich Böll’s The Silent Angel might have more meaning.

I have written before, if I am not imagining it as the result of a wine and tobacco induced E. T. A. Hoffmann-style dream, about my bewilderment and irritation at the poor status in the English-reading world of pre-20th century German-language literature.  Goethe, a titan, the equivalent, in English terms, of Shakespeare, Johnson, and Wordsworth combined in a single person, shrivels down to the author of Faust (part I only) and the “autobiographical” Sorrows of Young Werther.  German poetry is hopeless, despite numerous fine translations; German fiction, the rich line of novellas, is too weird.  Theodor Fontane can be credited with bringing Flaubert into German, Frenchifying German fiction, so I hope many readers in the “too weird” crowd will enjoy Effi Briest a lot. The business with the crocodile and Chinese servant is still a little weird.

Weirdest of all, though, is the startling German dramatic tradition.  The strange and wonderful things one found on the German stage.  That stage might well be imaginary – I am thinking of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, “finished” (by his death) in 1837, published in 1879, performed in 1913.  Large parts of Faust seem unstageable, too, although they have all been staged.

My point here is actually to pin up my German Literature Month reading list, except that I have not really decided yet.  I will mess around with some of the late 19th century playwrights, that’s all I know, the three almost exact contemporaries – Gerhart Hauptmann, Arthur Schnitzler, and Frank Wedekind.  (Sorry – Wedekind’s first name must be Franz, not Frank.  Let me look that up.  Ah, his full name is Benjamin Franklin Wedekind.  Of course.)

Wedekind is most famous, I think, for Spring Awakening, which was recently bent into a Broadway musical, and the two Lulu plays.  Schnitzler’s best known play is Der Reigen / La Ronde.  Hauptmann won the Nobel Prize in 1912, but seems to now be the least known in English, meaning: the titles of his plays do not ring bells for me.

I am tempted, too, by some younger playwrights, like Hugo von Hofmannsthal, lively poet, librettist for the dreary Richard Strauss – someday I hope to be able to spell Hofmannsthal’s name correctly without looking it up.  Or I might try the Expressionist Georg Kaiser, author of Gas and also Gas II.  The titles alone attract my interest.  I’m not going to read all or even much of this in November, though.

This piece must be among the most ignorant I have ever written for Wuthering Expectations.  Speculative might be a kinder word.  Corrections, admonitions, and recommendations are most welcome.

Oh, there will also be some of this in November:

That’ll be fun, right?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Your manly body so brown - The rest is literature - the Songs of António Botto

António Botto was a Portuguese poet, his poems collected, Whitman-like, in a series of continually revised books titled Songs, the first published in 1920.  The 1932 version is available in English, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2010, but actually translated long ago by, I am amazed to say, Portugal’s greatest poet, Fernando Pessoa.

Botto is a fine example of the French-styled decadent aesthete:

The most important thing in life
Is to create – to create beauty. (“Curiosity” 1)

In your last letter
You called me decadent
How funny!
Your letter
Made me laugh.  (“Dandyism” 10)

I’m always glad to make people laugh.  Botto’s great distinction is a series of poems about a sexual relationship with another man.  They lead the collection:

No, let us kiss, only kiss
In this evening’s agony.
For some better moment
Your manly body so brown.  (“Boy” 1)

Who is it that clasps me to him
In the half-light of my bed?
Who is it that kisses me
And bit my breast till it bled?  (“Boy” 6)

And so on like that, the poet overwrought perhaps – or convincingly passionate – but straightforward in his desire, jealousy, and regret.  Other than a poem about Salomé the placement of which I did not understand, the clusters of openly homosexual poems – the sequences “Boy,” “Curiosity,” and “Olympiads” – do not strike me as decadent at all, actually, but earthily romantic, or even realistic.  The decadent pose is reserved for other parts of the poet’s life.

I am informed that the open homosexuality of the poems was scandalous, but that can mean anything.  Pessoa wrote an obfuscatory defense of them, emphasizing the artifice of Botto's persona, in other words transforming Botto into another heteronym of Pessoa's, another imaginary poet.

Because I am so often befuddled by the way people use the word “beauty,” I found this amusing:

Was always
Just a secondary thing
In the body that we love.
There is no beauty at all.
Anyhow, it can’t endure.
Is no more than the desire
That makes our weary heart move.
The rest is literature.  (“Boy” 10)

That’s just what I have been saying!  Or maybe not.  Now I am not sure.  The contradictions within the passage give it whatever interest it might have.

Botto’s poems, or Pessoa’s version of them, do occasionally rhyme or employ a more formal structure or bounce off of a more complex image, but the excerpts I have given here are typical – the stance of the poet, the intensity of the voice, is what Botto has to offer.  My favorite poem is told by an ostrich who endures being plucked for ladies’ hats:

They tear off my feathers
But no complaint of mine is heard.
I am a very
Well-bred bird.

“The Gray Ostrich” is not remotely typical of Botto.

I seem to have assembled a little Minor Portuguese Literature week.  Let’s do something else tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Everything Eça de Queirós wrote was enjoyable - The Yellow Sofa

We talked about Eça de Queirós; we said that we wished there were more of Eça's books; that everything he wrote was enjoyable…

I am again poaching from the enormous Borges diary of Adolfo Bioy Casares that Richard of Caravan de Recuerdos has been reading (the translation is his).  I have only begun Book #5 of Eça de Queirós, but that is enough to think that the claim of Borges and Bioy Casares is plausible.  Likely, even.

Consider The Yellow Sofa (1925), also translated, more accurately, as Alves & Co.  The publication date is twenty-five years after the death of Eça de Queirós; the date of composition is presumably sometime in the late 1870s or 1880s.

One might suspect – I suspected – that this 106 page novella is inferior for some reason, unfinished or inadequate.  But no, the story is complete, the characters fleshy, the action meaningful, the insights real.  And enjoyable, highly enjoyable.   By the end, my question was why Eça de Queirós had left the manuscript in his trunk.

The Yellow Sofa begins in tranquility.  Alves is in his office; business is good; his partner reliable; it is his fourth wedding anniversary.  He knocks off work early – always a terrible idea in a novel – only to discover, well, you can guess:

On the yellow damask sofa, fronting a little table on which there stood a bottle of port, Lulu, in a white negligee, was leaning in abandon on the shoulder of a man whose arm was around her waist, and smiled as she gazed languorously at him. (19)

Lulu is his wife; the man is of course Alves’s business partner.  The first 80 pages of the novel contain only two days of action – the discovery and aftermath, including the farcical arrangement of a duel.  For example, the friends Alves picks as seconds cannot stop talking – the subject is in the air, after all – about their own and others’ “conquests”:

Medeiros knew of a case much worse than that: a friend of his, Pinheiro, not the thin one but the other pock-marked one, had hidden in a pigsty for six hours.  He had nearly died!  And now, when he saw a pig, he turned as white as chalk.

Then, between Carvalho and Medeiros there was a whole string of anecdotes about infidelities.  Only Alves, a faithful married man, had none of these stories. (78)

The final twenty-five pages of the story accelerate.  Days and decades pass.  I wonder if this imbalanced structure is a clue to why Eça de Queirós abandoned the novel.  Perhaps he wrote a complete version of the story but never chose or figured out how to turn it into a novel.  Despite the presence, in the quotations above, of the pock-marked Pinheiro and the yellow damask sofa, the novel is less filled out, less thickly imagined, than the other Eça de Queirós novels I have read.  As a story, The Yellow Sofa is complete and satisfying, but it lacks the connective details that give a novel an extra level of artistic structure and meaning.

Still, however minor the book may be compared to The Maias, at the end, and also in the middle, and also near the beginning, I thought “This is the quality of stuff Eça de Queirós threw away!”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Some Brazilian Tales, useful and otherwise

A neat little discovery by mel u of The Reading Life: the 1921 Brazilian Tales, a pocket collection of six curious-to-good short stories.  The link goes to Google Books, where the PDF scan is available; mel has links to the Gutenberg version.  The book has three stories by the great Machado de Assis and three stories by writers new to me (these links go to mel's posts):

The Vengeance of Felix” by José de Medeiros e Albuquerque, a rough tale of rough folk and rough revenge.
The Pigeons” by Coelho Netto, terribly sad, a father’s angry response to the death of his child.
Aunt Zeze’s Tears” by Carmen Dolores, also sad, in which an old maid gets her hopes up.

Hey, look at that, a woman writer!  You won’t find any of them on the lists I made for the Portuguese Challenge, because I did not know of any.

Netto’s story is about indigenous laborers; the Medeiros e Albuquerque story is about urban working class characters.  The description of the title character has a lot of energy:

Old Felix had followed his trade of digger in all the quarries that Rio de Janeiro possessed.  He was a sort of Hercules with huge limbs, but otherwise stupid as a post.  His companions had nicknamed him Hardhead because of his obstinate character. (opening lines)

I rarely emphasize the point, but these good post-Maupassant short stories have another use for me:  they fill in some more of the background of turn of the century Brazil.  What was life like there, what were people like?  This is fiction, so watch your step, but maybe something like what these writers show me.  For this purpose they are more useful than the stories of the more original writer, Machado de Assis.

“The Attendant’s Confession” is by the Machado de Assis I recognize, a cynical, dodging and weaving first-person story.  A murderous act of anger is rewarded.  The narrator is confessing to the murder, but why – and when?  Similarly, “The Fortune-Teller” is as much concerned with its own structure as the world outside the story.  And then there is “Life,” a hallucinatory dialogue between the Wandering Jew and Prometheus about the value of life and mankind which I did not really get, at least not until the punchline.

None of these Machado de Assis stories are in The Psychiatrist and Other Stories, the one collection I have read, but they may well be in The Devil’s Church and Other Stories or A Chapter of Hats: Selected Stories.  I am amazed that there are three collections of Machado de Assis stories in English.

A good find by mel – thanks for that.

Monday, October 17, 2011


After all my jabber about John Ruskin’s griffins, it occurs to me that I should show them:

The plate is in Chapter VIII, “Grotesque,” of the third volume of Modern Painters (1856).  The left-hand griffin, medieval griffin, the “true” griffin, resides on the cathedral of Verona, while the “false” classical griffin on the right is from the Roman temple of Antoninus and Faustina.

Neither creature is true in the sense that it exists or existed.  Ruskin is arguing the case for imaginative truth:

The Lombard workman did really see a griffin in his imagination, and carved it from the life, meaning to declare to all ages that he had verily seen with his immortal eyes such a griffin as that; but the classical workman never saw a griffin at all, nor anything else; but put the whole thing together by line and rule.

“How do you know that?”

Very easily.  Look at the two, and think them over. (§12-13)

Taking “easily” ironically, and taking for granted that Ruskin’s arguments will be fanciful, the passage does turn out to be a masterpiece of the core of criticism – look and think.  Ruskin saves it (too easy), but I will start with the most bizarre flaw in the classical griffin, that the left foreleg is nearly twice as long as the right; Ruskin is amused by what the griffin is doing, gently touching a leaf or flower:

We may be pretty sure, if the carver had ever seen a griffin, he would have reported of him as doing something else than that with his feet. (§ 14)

The Gothic griffin is actually clutching a little dragon in its powerful claws, which is unfortunately a bit hard to see in the plate – that’s the dragon’s curled tail and wing running up the griffin’s throat.

I do not want to repeat Ruskin’s analysis.  The conclusion is that the classical griffin is a hodgepodge assembled from earlier models, with decorative elements added to hide the flaws, while the medieval beast is not a scrapbook but a wholly imagined original creation.  Just look at that beak full of lion teeth.

So that taking the truth first, the honest imagination gains everything; it has its griffinism, and grace, and usefulness, all at once; but the false composer, caring for nothing but himself and his rules, loses everything, -- griffinism, grace, and all. (§ 20)

I can hardly imagine arguing on Ruskin’s terms (“honest,” truth”), and he in fact begins the next chapter with “I am afraid the reader must be, by this time, almost tired of hearing about truth.”  But much of what I look for in art and literature, much of what I am trying to do at Wuthering Expectations, is in that passage.  I am looking for true imagination when I read, for a book’s griffinism.

Friday, October 14, 2011

I make no apologies for this extremely prosy paragraph. I have been ordered to write it. (How interesting this is!) - the Wilkie Collins griffins

The Woman in White has spurred or focused my puzzlement over the role of enjoyment in criticism because it is one of the most sheerly enjoyable Victorian novels.  Stretches of prose are functionally  ordinary (“Half an hour later I was speeding back to London by the express train,” that sort of thing), and the plot is, stepping back a bit, nonsense, but perfectly paced nonsense, thrilling nonsense.  Collins attributes the success of the story not to its ingenuity but to the characters who drive it, to “their existence as recognizable realities” (Preface, longer quotation here).  This sounds suspiciously like a version of Ruskin’s question: Is it so?  Some – I do not think all, but some – of the characters in The Woman in White are “so,” wonderfully “so.”

Richard at La Caravana de Recuerdos has been reading an amazing book, a thousand-page diary of Adolfo Bioy Casares entirely about his friendship and conversations with Jorge Luis Borges.  The book sounds as bookishly juicy as The Life of Johnson.  In a passage Richard just posted (translation his), Borges and Bioy Casares assemble a list of “lifelike characters”:

Pinkerton from The Wrecker; the father from Douglas' The House with the Green Shutters…  Cousin Basilio's heroine… Shylock; perhaps King Lear (not Macbeth)… Martín Fierro; Grandet and Eugénie… Jesus; Count Fosco and the paralytic uncle from The Lady in White [sic, English in original]; according to my father, Félicité from Flaubert's Un coeur simple and the woman that's in The Crime of Father Amaro.

I have heavily trimmed the list to emphasize my own recent and upcoming reading.  If there was any doubt about why Borges is one of my guiding figures, I can see here how my entirely arbitrary and random matrix of tastes lines up so well with his.  Not my point, though, which is more that several people are reading The Crime of Father Amaro soon and it is not too late to join in and meet “the woman.”  No, that’s not my point either.

Count Fosco and Mr. Fairlie, the paralytic uncle, are just the characters I pick as the ones with the most vivid “existence,” the ones who Collins was able to infuse with “real” imaginative truth.  Fosco is a villain who is observed and described in the heroine’s diary, and whose written confession is the imaginative climax of the novel; Fairlie is a peripheral plot device who only plumps up during his own firsthand testimony, which mostly consists of this sort of thing:

That is to say, I had the photographs of my pictures, and prints, and coins, and so forth, all about me, which I intend, one of these days, to present (the photographs, I mean, if the clumsy English language will let me mean anything) to present to the institution at Carlisle (horrid place!), with a view to improving the tastes of the members (Goths and Vandals to a man).

I was very unreasonable – I expected three days of quiet.  Of course I didn’t get them.

I make no apologies for this extremely prosy paragraph.  I have been ordered to write it.

He waved his horrid hand at me; he struck his infectious breast; he addressed me oratorically – as if I was laid up in the House of Commons.

That last “he” is Count Fosco, and much of Fairlie’s letter is his version of the encounter between the novel’s two best characters.  Readers of Samuel Beckett’s novels might detect something familiar here.  This is the Borgesian definition, and Ruskinian, and Amateur Readerian, of “lifelike.”  Not that the character resembles an actual living creature, but that his creator truly saw the imaginary beast.  Mr. Fairlie and Count Fosco are like Ruskin’s Lombardian griffin, imaginary but true.

I will leave Count Fosco’s extraordinary letter alone, except to give Collins more credit: the villain’s confession contains almost no information that a half-awake reader does not already know, so is functionally almost useless, except that it is the best thing in the book, all due to the character’s force of personality, to his language.  “(Pass me, here, one exclamation in parenthesis.  How interesting this is!)”

Most of the other characters are like Ruskin's Renaissance griffin.  I have seen reviewers of the novel single out the heroine, Marian Halcombe, as a great character, but I have had trouble seeing how she is not more than a high-quality adventure novel heroine, one of those Strong Female Characters we are trained to praise.  I ask her fans for a passage, or line, or action that pulled her out of the book, something that belongs just to her.  Something not relative to novels of her time (where I see no shortage of plucky heroines, honestly), but to the timeless.  Where does she feed the monkey, so to speak?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Their feelings pleasantly stirred and their fancy gayly occupied - Ruskin's suspicion of enjoyment - Is it so?

There is the certain test of goodness and badness, which I am always striving to get people to use.  As long as they are satisfied if they find their feelings pleasantly stirred and their fancy gayly occupied, so long there is for them no good, no bad.

I am still in Chapter X, “The Use of Pictures,” of the third volume of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters (1856), an idea-packed masterpiece of rhetorical prose.  Many of the ideas are wrong, or, provocative.  For example, it is clear enough that for many consumers of art a pleasantly stirred fancy is the exact definition of good, the more pleasure the better.

Anything may please, or anything displease, them; and their entire manner of thought and talking about art is mockery, and all their judgments are laborious injustices.

I am just continuing the quotation here.  The end, Ruskin’s “certain test,” will not be satisfying, I promise.  “Injustice” seems awfully strong, no?  I enormously enjoy seeing Ruskin work himself up to this high pitch.  Pleasure-based judgment of art has its narrow use, the equivalent of matching my tastes against a blogger’s star ratings.  I discover with experience that I enjoy any 4 or 5 star book rated by my favorite book blogger, BookGullet, while I consistently enjoy only the 5 star books chosen by BookGrump, and I never get along with even the 5 star books of BookGoon.  I am comparing my arbitrary matrix of tastes against everyone else’s and using the results of the algorithm to read bloggers and their recommended books.

So, not an injustice, or even a mockery, but for the reader who arbitrarily values knowledge as much or more than experience (myself, John Ruskin), frustrating.  I learn a lot about the taste of readers when I wander around book blogs, but not so much about the literature they read.

But let them, in the teeth of their pleasure or displeasure, simply put the calm question, -- Is it so?  Is that the way a stone is shaped, the way a cloud is wreathed, the way a leaf is veined? and they are safe.  They will do no more injustice to themselves nor to other men; they will learn to whose guidance they may trust their imagination, and from whom they must forever withhold its reins.

“Simply” – oh please!  In Chapter VIII of the same book, Ruskin compares two carved griffins, and preposterously, convincingly demonstrates how one is so, and one is not so – “the Lombard workman did really see a griffin in his imagination, and carved it from the life.”  So the “so,” the Truth of a work of art, even of a drawing of a leaf, is an imaginative truth.

The Woman in White is a mystery and a thriller, and Collins’ skill with pacing and tension must still be a model for suspense writers.  It is an easy book to enjoy, even if it is often a silly book.  Is it so?  Obviously not, except that, at its best, it is.  Collins really did see it, and wrote it from life.

There's a thread to follow tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Enjoyment - romances, science fiction, reading

I must ask permission, as I have sometimes done before, to begin apparently a long way from the point. (John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. III, Ch. X)

The problem with invoking Ruskin like this is that he knew the point at which he would end.  I intuit my point.

I have said, here and in comments elsewhere, that I am not so interested in the enjoyment of books, not just your enjoyment, but even my own.  Typical Wuthering Expectations contrarianism, except that I mean it, as I always do.  Pleasure, our reasons for enjoying anything, are so arbitrary.  Anyway, I enjoy literature, reading as an activity.  I even enjoy the books I do not enjoy.  Your enjoyment of a book is likely a much more interesting subject than mine.

The Argumentative Old Git does not enjoy science fiction, as he discusses here – since I am not going to mention it otherwise, his catalogue of the praise of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker is hilariously excellent.  Himadri has given the genre the old college try, and then some, and has concluded that whatever the merits of the best books, he is finished for now.  Some well-meaning commenters urge him to keep trying, but they fail to understand the statistics of the problem.  Himadri is engaging in sequential analysis, which was mathematically formalized during World War II as an efficient way to test explosive shells for duds.  Rather than fire off the entire lot of shells, the tester can stop once a statistically significant number of shells have misfired.  Himadri has read enough misfires, given his sample size, to call it quits.

Rohan Maitzen is engaging in the same exercise with romance novels.  So far, the results are more positive, although she understands that she has not yet fired enough shells to make a statistically sound judgment.  The criteria, again, is enjoyment – “amusing and entertaining.”  My own experience with romance novels is similar, although my pool is awfully narrow.

Or is it?  This fascinating post at Something More led me to the results of a methodologically sound romance readers’ poll, a list of the best or favorite or “top” 100 romance novels, as of 2007, as determined by a large and well-read group of voters.  I see that I have read and enjoyed three of them: Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Jane Eyre, the only 19th century novels on the list.  Three Georgette Heyer novels (1932-1965) follow, and then seven novels from the 1980s (Judith McNaught is the big name), meaning that 87 of the best 100 novels are from the last 20 years.  I wonder what other genres or audiences would give a similar result.  Romance seems to have an unstable canon.  New novels quickly replace old ones.  Would I enjoy any of those 87 as much as I enjoy Jane Eyre?

I have been thinking about writing up the case against the enjoyment of literature, but I have concluded that the point is too obvious.  To read well, we should cultivate patience, question our preferences, moderate our consumption of junk, and when writing about reading try to imagine ourselves in the place of others.  Consider sacrificing short-term for long-term enjoyment (study, cultivate tastes, read some quantity, however small, of dull but useful books), all within the inevitable constraints of time, energy, and concentration.  Everyone knows this, already, so enough of that.

I am still writing about The Woman in White, if I can figure out how to return to it.  Through Ruskin, somehow.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Woman in White, lookalikes, and the ol' switcheroo

The Woman in White contains a pair of lookalike characters.  The “ominous likeness” is introduced early in the novel, as it must be, because the reader needs to be on the alert for the only possible reason for using lookalikes.  At some point, there’s gonna be a switcheroo.  In the service, presumably, of some preposterous scheme.

The novel is told in first-person documents, mimicking firsthand testimony (the “documents” are assembled for a lawsuit that never happens), and much of the fun of the novel lies in seeing events from more than one angle, or, even more fun, discovering how the piece missing from one person’s observation is filled in by someone else.  But the lookalikes are conspicuously absent.  Their story is always told by someone else.

The documentary technique is perfect for the ol’ switcheroo because it leaves all sorts of gaps when the lookalikes are out of the narrator’s, and thus the reader’s, observation.  The savvy reader, trained by Alfred Hitchcock, will pounce at each gap, anytime both lookalikes are offstage.  Ah ha – they switched!  And I attend carefully to every gesture, every stray phrase, of the lookalike who has come back on stage.  No, I guess they have not switched yet, she seems to be the same character she was before.  But here comes another gap –  !

Collins is good at teasing me, allowing for the possibility of several false switches.  His novel branched as I read it.  Perhaps the story could include multiple switches, with the villains and heroes constantly shifting the lookalikes back and forth to confound each other.  Or perhaps – the most devilish possibility – perhaps there is no switch at all, just the looming possibility of a switch.  I ask the reader familiar with the story of The Woman in White to imagine what happens to the last quarter of the novel, and to the end, if the lookalikes never switch places, but the other characters believe that they do.  This is not the novel Collins wrote, but rather one he came very close to writing.  Just a few tweaks, and there it is.  In fact – well, never mind.

I am not particularly familiar with Hitchcock, but I am astounded by how much he has pilfered from The Woman in White, how many devices and clichés he has repurposed.  But I hardly needed Hitchcock to see what Collins was doing, to be on the alert for the lookalike switcheroo.  Contemporary readers must have been just as suspicious.

The Woman in White was serially published  in All the Year Round from November 26, 1859 through August 25, 1860.  All the Year Round was owned and edited by Charles Dickens, and was the home for one of his most popular novels, A Tale of Two Cities, which first appeared in the April 30, 1859 and ended in the November 26, 1859 issue.  That’s right, A Tale of Two Cities ends and is immediately followed by the first piece of The Woman in White (pdf).

Two novels in a row, both with lookalikes switching places.  I speculated a bit about the lookalikes in the Dickens novel.  I particularly appreciated how Dickens laid the foundation for a revelation about why or how the lookalikes look alike, but never bothered to fill in the details.  What difference does it make, after all?  The suggestions are at least as interesting as the answer.  Collins, for whatever reason, provides an answer, the exact same answer Dickens would have given.  I did not need it here either, but there it is.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness - the visibly deformed The Woman in White

Descriptions of people, of characters in novels, particularly thorough introductory top-to-bottom inventory descriptions, are typically useless, by which I mean artistically useless, because the details are so often unconnected and almost random, and useless to the reader who has no hope of remembering anything but a general impression.  All of that detail just disintegrates.

Here is an amusing exception, from early in The Woman in White (1860).  It is the narrator’s first view of a major character, Marian Halcombe, from a distance, with her back turned:

Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. (The First Epoch, VI)

Readers of Wilkie Collins know that the nature of the description changes when the woman turns around, but I am not so interested in that right now.  What caught my attention was, of course, the peculiarity of the description.  The “easy, pliant firmness” of the head,  for example, or that “natural circle.”  Who talks or writes like this?

In fact, the description is natural for the character, because he is a drawing master.  He is breaking his subject down into her component parts, as he might do if he were to draw her, or as he might instruct a student.  I would guess that a search through contemporary guides to drawing would unearth that “natural circle.”

It’s a nice touch.  Too bad Collins does not follow through with more passages like this, but I suspect he feared making his hero – the narrator is the novel’s action hero, so to speak – too eccentric.  His (the hero’s) later descriptions are more conventional.  The genuinely eccentric Mr. Fairlie has a face that is “thin, worn, and transparently pale, but not wrinkled,” eyes that are “rather red round the rims of the eyelids,” hair that is “soft to look at,” "little, womanish, bronze-leather slippers" and so on, lots of nice writing but much too much to remember, well-suited  to create a strong impression of Fairlie’s personality, if not his actual appearance.

Well, hair that is “soft to look at” is kind of strange.  My point is that the first look at Mr. Fairlie does a good job of creating the Mr. Fairlie who I carried through the rest of the novel, but does not tell us much of interest about the character who describes him, while the catalogue of Marian’s form a few pages earlier reveals the mentality of the narrator too.  That’s it; that’s my point.  Collins works on the idea throughout the book, unfortunately indulging himself more when the minor characters are narrating, "unfortunately" because the minor characters are weirder and funnier. The major characters are visibly deformed by stays, the conventional constraints of being the hero or heroine (of the strong or weak variety) of a Victorian novel.

Perhaps I will think of something else to say about The Woman in White later.

Friday, October 7, 2011

It’s bitter, and I daresay it won’t suit your taste, but how about a bite? - Chikamatsu's puppet plays

The puppet plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon are built on ethical and aesthetical values that are foreign and baffling to me.  I turn them this way and that, shake them, gnaw on them a bit, trying to figure out how they work.  They are a wonderful challenge.  I have come across readers who resent that an author includes history or names or anything else they do not understand.  I instead want to thank Chikamatsu, and Donald Keene, the translator and editor of Four Major Plays of Chikamatsu (Columbia UP, 1961).  How will I know what I do not know if no one tells me?

Two titles clarify the problem: The Love Suicides at Sonezaki (1703) and The Love Suicides at Amijima (1721).  Love suicides?  The heroines are prostitutes; the heroes are young men who have exhausted their wealth on their love affair.  The plays end with the bloody, detailed deaths of the protagonists; the scene preceding the deaths is an allegorical journey of Buddhist spiritual cleansing:

KOHARU:  If I can save living creatures at will when I mount a lotus calyx in Paradise and become a Buddha, I want to protect women of my profession, so that never again will there be love suicides.

NARRATOR: This unattainable prayer stems from worldly attachment, but it touchingly reveals her heart. (203)

The narrator is present in all of the plays, describing the action and setting and passage of time, inserting songs and poems and wisdom.  He is often the only actor, so he also does the voices of all of the puppets as well.  I have to imagine the painted scenes, the multi-jointed puppets and their movements, the puppeteers in their trench, and, hopelessly, the music.  I also have to imagine the weeping audience.

The Battles of Coxinga (1715) is a historical epic in which a Japanese general expels the Tartar invaders from China.  It features magic spirits, single warriors defeating armies, visions and dream sequences, utterly baffling honor suicides, endless weeping, and an allegory based on a game of go.  Also, a less allegorical use of go:

GO SANKEI:  This go board has been kneaded of taro root, and is harder than stone.  It’s bitter, and I daresay  it won’t suit your taste, but how about a bite?...

NARRATOR:  When Bairoku shows his head, Go Sankei smacks It squarely; when he shows his face, Go Sankei strikes it smartly.  He belabors Bairoku with repeated blows, till brains and skull are smashed to bits, and he perishes. (123)

I am not familiar enough with Japanese action movies to know how often villains are beaten to death with go boards.  Quite often, I assume.

Donald Keene, the translator of the edition of Chikamatsu I read, is unapologetically obscure, including every name, reference, and joke he can bring into English, explaining the inexplicable in abundant footnotes.  For some reason, though, he omits the opening scene (“virtually unrelated to the rest of the play”) of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki “consisting chiefly of an enumeration of the thirty-three temples of Kwannon in the Osaka area (with a pun on each name).”  Can you believe the outrageous liberties taken by translators?

I should go fill out the paperwork at Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Reading Challenge, shouldn’t I?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

We have to strike straight inland - visionary Martín Fierro

The Gaucho Martín Fierro is a political book, a protest book.  The gaucho narrator is an oppressed minority; his unique way of life is threatened, or already destroyed; his contribution to the nation ignored. 

All of this may feel a little distant to the non-Argentinean reader.  It may well be opposed by a skeptical reader.  In the introduction to the 1974 translation, I am told that the gauchos had “performed a major role in the country’s independence from Spain” (good for them, vivan los gauchos!) and “had cleared the pampas of marauding Indian bands that plagued the pastoral development of the region” (good for - hang on there - vivan los indios!).

The outlaw gaucho Martín Fierro, at the end of his verse novel, flees across the desert to live with the Indians.  If his vision of a life of indolence (“you live lying belly-up / watching the sun go round”) and happiness is a fantasy, he may be right that “We’ll find safety over there / since we can’t have it here.”

Except that his decision is also an acceptance of death.  The canto begins with a section that is the closest thing this earthy poem has to a visionary interlude.  God gave beauty to flowers and birds, and strength to beasts and the wind, but he gave more valuable gifts to men – speech, intelligence, courage – balanced by the hardships from which Martín Fierro now longs to escape:

We have to strike straight inland
towards where the sun goes down –
one day we’ll get there, we’ll
find out where afterwards (2205-2209)

Martín Fierro takes a drink, smashes his guitar, steals some horses, and disappears across the frontier.   Who knows what happened to him, the narrator tells us, but everything you have heard is true, “EVILS THAT EVERYONE KNOWS ABOUT / BUT NO ONE TOLD BEFORE” (2315-2316, the last lines of the poem, capitalization supplied by the poet).

I have switched here to the plainer, more accurate 1967 translation by C. E. Ward, revised by Frank Carrino and Alberto Carlos.  The latter two also did the “cowboy” version.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Gaucho Martín Fierro - classic 19th century knife fights

I need to slip across the border for a post or two, from Brazil to Argentina.  JenandthePen thought people should read some books from Argentina; I have made my opinions on that subject clear enough.

This time, rather than mess around with the howling lunatics and unassuming librarians of the 20th century, I went back to the root of Argentine literature, to The Gaucho Martín Fierro, the 1872 epic gaucho poem by José Hernández.

I will confess that I was expecting something – I don’t know – stiff, Longellowish.  Imitative Romantic twaddle.  What fun to discover that Martín Fierro is more of a Western. The English translators go so far as to turn it into a cousin of cowboy poetry.

When brandin’ time came
you got a warm feelin watchin’
all those gauchos ropin’
and throwin’ steers right and left.
ah, what times… there ain’t
ever been nothin’ to match it. (II.217-22)

The translators, I should say, are trying to match “substance and tone” and nothing else:

Cuando llegaban las yerras,
¡cosa que daba calor
tanto gaucho pialador
y tironiador sin yel!
¡Ah tiempos… pero si en él
Se ha visto tanto primor!

The poem is a lament for the lost life of the gaucho, destroyed by military conscription, war and settlement.  Martín Fierro narrates – actually sings – the poem to describe the loss of his home and family, his brutal treatment in the army, and his violent life as an outlaw.

When he rolled up his cuffs
I took off my spurs
since I suspected this guy
warn’t goin’ to be easy to handle.

There is nothin’ like danger
to sober up a drunk;
even your sight clears up,
no matter how much you’ve guzzled. (VII.1199-1206)

As any reader of Borges will guess, someone’s gonna get knifed.  I mean readers of Borges stories not about books, although the existence of Martín Fierro is a reminder that Borges’s stories about gauchos knifing each other are also about books.  Different books.  This book.

I have barely touched the Martín Fierro.  Maybe one more dusty, lonesome, bloody day.

SUNY Press published two editions of the poem.  The 1967 version has facing-page Spanish, extensive notes, and a longer sequel, The Return of Martín Fierro that I did not read.   The 1974 version, source of the English above, is smaller, lighter, and zippier.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

But I’m either mistaken or I’ve just written a useless blog post - Machado de Assis at his best

No, I need to compensate for the dud.  I am not exactly reading but thumbing through The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881), the first of Machado de Assis’s mature novels, the novel where the author severed himself from his earlier work and created something distinctively his own.  Something like this:



But I’m either mistaken or I’ve just written a useless chapter.

That is the entirety of chapter 136.  I will bet that for many readers, this chapter by itself is either a recommendation for the book, to see how this kind of writing works, or a clear warning to avoid Machado de Assis.

“Uselessness” is the only single sentence chapter in the novel, if I count this as more than one sentence:


How I Didn’t Get to Be Minister of States


The narrator of the novel, the author of the memoir, is recently deceased, dead at sixty-four of pneumonia, as he tells me in the first chapter.  In the hands of almost any other writer, the mechanics and curiosities of posthumous authorship would occupy some substantial part of the book, allowing the real author to demonstrate his imaginative chops, but Machado de Assis does nothing of the sort, provides no glimpses of the afterlife or gags about publishing in heaven.

The posthumous gimmick solves a couple of technical problems.  First, the memoirist can complete his story, all the way to his death.  Second, he is freed from worry about what anyone else might think of his life.  Machado de Assis wants a reliable narrator, one who may have trouble understanding himself, but otherwise has nothing to hide.

The narrator is also free to wander, double back, digress and regress, but I do not believe he needs to be dead to do that.  He cites the “free-form” of 18th century writers Laurence Sterne and Xavier de Maistre as models.  Chapter titles include “What Aristotle Left Out,” “The Author Hesitates,” and “The Defect of This Book,” yet a story is told, a surprisingly ordinary one.  Girl trouble, mostly.  The telling of the story is the extraordinary thing.

In the novel’s fictional preface, Brás Cubas calls his book “playful” and “melancholy” and suspects that it will have about five readers.  But he does not mean to be obscure or unfriendly:

The work itself is everything: if it pleases you, dear reader, I shall be well paid for the task; if it doesn’t please you, I’ll pay you with a snap of the finger and goodbye.

I had thought that I was just browsing the novel, but I seem to be reading it again.

I am using the Oxford University Press edition, translated by Gregory Rabassa.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Helena, a Machado de Assis dud - Do not blame me for anything romantic you may find in it

After my enthusiastic praise for Eça de Queirós I should, for justice or symmetry, devote some equally effusive time to his Brazilian contemporary Machado de Assis.  Unfortunately the last Machado de Assis novel I read is a – what is the technical term? – a dud.  An instructive dud, though.

No one will dropping by here will read Helena (1876) so I can summarize the plot with abandon.  A half-brother and half-sister, Helena, are reunited as young adults.  They are both attractive, so an attentive reader might guess the path of the story right here.  Even I, the Naïve Reader, noticed that an incest plot was on its way, that the siblings had fallen in love.

But no, in a twist we discover that noble Helena and her brother are not related at all!  They can marry and be happy, except that they are both engaged to other people by now, and Helena is just too good for the world, so in the final five pages she has to stay out too long in the rain, and catch a fever, and die (“her soul burst its delicate earthly sheath” 196).  I was a’feared of that.

That story is not so bad – no, not until the very end, at least.  It is the plainness of the writing, the lack of much out of the ordinary that makes the book dull.  Still, the treatment of the secondary characters has some life, a little sign of the more stinging novels to come, and a priest character is used in a peculiar manner that may be uniquely Brazilian.  The casual treatment of the subject of slavery is so different from what I know from U. S. literature and is interesting for that reason alone.  Subjects to keep in reserve.

I am amazed that the writer of Helena is also the author of The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, published only five years later.  The change in style, voice, and method is radical.  I don’t know another case like it, an example where a mature writer makes such an extreme change.  Machado de Assis added a foreword to the 1905 edition of his 1876 Helena to explain himself a bit:

Do not blame me for anything romantic you may find in it… Even now that I have long since gone on to other works, of a different style, I hear a faraway echo on rereading these pages, an echo of youth and ingenuous faith.

I do not blame him.  No, I understand, completely.  But if Portuguese Reading Challengers will stick with the books of the later astringent Machado de Assis and skip the early Romantic ones, that would be appreciated.  One was sufficient.

The translation of Helena is by the Machado de Assis scholar Helen Caldwell.