Friday, March 30, 2012

Dance and be merry, for Death’s a droll fellow - laughing with Thomas Lovell Beddoes

The case of Thomas Lovell Beddoes in entirely different than that of his fellow Norton Anthology refugee George Darley.  His masterpiece Death’s Jest-Book (1850) is in print in a nice edition, a Beddoes Society exists, and some scholars do some work on him.  Last Friday poet and translator George Szirtes spent some valuable Twitter resources broadcasting Beddoes poems (today was Matthew Prior), which was fun for me.  Beddoes is a strange poet and a bad fit for a survey course, but his poems are unique.

Or unique but derivative, since Death’s Jest-Book is an authentic five-act blank verse imitation Shakespearean play, although even more than Shakespeare filled with songs:

As sudden thunder
     Pierces night;
As magic wonder,
     Wild affright,
Rives asunder
     Men’s delight:
Our ghost, our corpse and we
           Rise to be.  (I. iv.)

Those last lines could form a motto for Beddoes.  He is the most death-obsessed poet I know.  Death’s Jest-Book could be the name of his collected works.  Although desperately weird, Beddoes is not particularly gloomy.  The emphasis should be on “jest” as much as “death”:

ISBRAND:  Then you shall have a ballad of my making.
SIEGFRIED:  How? do you rhyme too?
ISBRAND:  Sometimes, in leisure moments
And a romantic humour; this I made
One night a-strewing poison for the rats
In the kitchen corner.  ( III. iii.)

Then Isbrand sings his song, in which the ghost of an unborn child “Squats on a toadstool under a tree” and speculates on what sort of creature it should become; a crocodile, perhaps, with its own song (“Catch a mummy by the leg / And crunch him with an upper jaw”), or a worm or snake (“’Tis pleasant to need no shirt, breeches, or shoe”), but not a camel or duck “notwithstanding the music of quack / And the webby, mud-patting toes.”

Much of the pleasure of Beddoes is obviously just in the language, in the surprising things he does with it.  In this way he really is an heir of his Elizabethan and Jacobean models, of Shakespeare and Webster and Tourneur.  I am always in suspense: what crazy thing will Beddoes come up with next?

The play, the plot of which I barely remember, because things that make no sense are hard to remember, climaxes not just with the revenge tragedy’s usual pile of corpses, but with a literal Dance of Death, as painted skeletons descend from the wall of a tomb and sing:

Mummies and skeletons, out of your stones;
    Every age, every fashion, and figure of Death:
The death of the giant with petrified bones;
     The death of the infant who never drew breath.
Little and gristly, or bony and big,
     White and clattering, grassy and yellow;
The partners are waiting, so strike up a jig,
     Dance and be merry, for Death’s a droll fellow.  (V. iv.)

I can see how it would be pedagogically irresponsible to expose sensitive youngsters to this sort of thing.  To older folks like me, Beddoes is bracing, a classic in the canon of poetic weirdness.

My antique Beddoes post is back here.  It has nothing to recommend it but more Beddoes, including his stunning crocodile poem (“The brown habergeon of his limbs enameled / With sanguine almandines and rainy pearl”).

I am pulling my fragments of Beddoes from the 1999 Selected Poetry, eds. Judith Higgens and Michael Bradshaw, Carcanet Press.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Swept into ocean – fate of the Extravagator: the glassily tinkling George Darley

What a terrible discovery.  I was thinking, while writing my note on D. G. Myers’s use of the MLA International Bibliography to rank American authors, that someone else with access to the database should do the same thing for other authors and literatures.  My terrible discovery was that I in fact have access to the database.  What a time-waster!  After today, I am going cold-turkey.

Some sample results (anyone trying to use this tool for a serious purpose should think carefully about it limits).  The database goes back to 1947.  The ten most over-researched authors are:

Shakespeare (38,396 published papers or books, not even 600 per year!)
Dante (10,553)
Joyce (10,031)
Goethe (9,734)
Chaucer (9,040)
Milton (8,595)
Faulkner (6,555)*
Dickens (6,531)
James (6,491)
Cervantes (6,088)

Note that these are the ten highest ranked authors out of the ones I bothered to look up.  I coulda missed someone bigger (Kafka: 4,607).  Despite the bias caused by the historical accident of the prominence of academic research in English literatures (Wordsworth: 4,898), the central figures of German, Spanish, and Italian (Petrarch: 2,429) literature appear in reasonable spots, so I suspect the method would be similarly enjoyable for many non-English languages (Borges: 3,874).  French literature, as we all know, is unusual in that it lacks a Shakespeare-like figure, a single canonical giant (Proust: 4,165).

The next thing someone besides me should do is divvy up the data by time, like Myers did with Kate Chopin, allowing one to see that, for example, although Jane Austen’s count looks surprisingly low (3,724) fully a third of the catalogued Austen research has been published within the last ten years.  Newly minted graduate students hoping to work on Austen:  good luck (Woolf: 4,861).

I would like to suggest an alternative, a contemporary of Austen:  Anna Laetitia Barbauld.  She wrote at least one good poem, as I discovered yesterday, and her MLA count is only 131, with 15 published in the 40 years before 1987, 116 in the 25 years since.  Or, if you want to do in your career before it begins, specialize in George Darley: only 13 articles since 1947, and – oh no! – 3 since 1987.  Sorry, Darley.  Snipping him from the Norton Anthology was not a hard call.

Back in the Dark Ages of Wuthering Expectations, I wrote a few words about Darley, accompanied by many of his own, most of them involving mermaids:

In his green den the murmuring seal
Close by his sleek companion lies;
While singly we to bedward steal,
And close in fruitless sleep our eyes.

That is a euphonious sample of “The Mermaidens’ Vesper Hymn.” Darley’s poems are packed with nymphs, unicorns, a phoenix, all sorts of nonsense like that:

From “The Phoenix”

Half-buried to her flaming breast
In this bright tree, she makes her nest,
Hundred-sunned Phoenix! when she must
Crumble at length to hoary dust.

“The Phoenix” is itself just a small part of the book length Nepenthe (1935), a preposterous jumble of abstruse mythology, original imagery, and pure poetic music, in the service of what I do not remember:

The glittering fountains seemed to pour
Steep downward rills of molten ore,
Glassily tinkling smooth between
Broom-shaded banks of golden green, (Canto I, right at the start)

The water in the stream is glittering and molten because it is sunny: “heaven’s hot tyrant..  was turning all he touched to gold.”  The music of this eyewash is almost unmatched, although I would imagine readers of more astringent tastes have trouble finishing a single line.  Fair enough.

But!  I have been browsing in the only online version of Nepenthe that I could find, an 1897 edition, which I am disappointed to see is incomplete.  The book lacks Darley’s marginal notes, which run through and comment on the entire poem, mostly mocking it.  “Voluptuous emotions begin,” or, at the end, “Swept into ocean – fate of the Extravagator.”**  Suddenly Darley’s Romantic gush takes on a surprising complexity.  I begin to doubt that those 13 publications have said everything there is to say about poor George Darley.

*  I am getting slightly different numbers than Myers, a problem someone else can solve.  Close enough.

**  Examples of marginal notes taken from Michael Bradshaw’s chapter in The Cambridge History of English Poetry, 2010, p. 556.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Yes, injured woman! Rise, assert thy right! - poetry as long-lasting soap bubble

Professor Myers is investigating one of the canonical mechanisms I hid in the background yesterday:  who do researchers in English departments actually research?*  He popped names of U.S. writers into the MLA International Bibliography and counted up the results, comparing two periods, 1947 to the present and 1987 to the present.  Anti-canon radicals will be disappointed to see that much business is operating as usual:  Hank James, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Herman Melville – y’all aren’t tired of those fellas yet?

The "professional commitment" of scholars has grown most rapidly for Toni Morrison, but also for Vladimir Nabokov, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton.  By this measure, feminist critics are doing well, but rarefied aesthetes are still doing all right, too, thank goodness.

Are scholars – and teachers, since I have no doubt that this ranking would be reflected in the undergraduate classroom – creating the canon here, or maintaining it?  As I wrote yesterday, I typically assume the latter, but Myers also presents a book, Kate Chopin’s 1899 The Awakening, that was clearly taken up by scholars first, not artists.  I was assigned the novel twice as an undergraduate, in 1988 and 1991, which I now see was right at the beginning of the Chopin boom.  Chopin has proved useful to feminist critics, but for the book to survive, to be canonical, it will have to be taken up by writers.  My guess is that it has been or will be – the novel is narrow but aesthetically complex, and it has certainly been assigned to enough young writers.

Who is moving in the other direction, being pushed toward the canonical exit?  In front of me is my battered, even ravaged Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 2, Fifth Edition (1986), 2,578 pages, and a near-mint Seventh Edition (2000), 2,963 pages, and bigger pages, too.  Anthologists face the most basic canonical problem:  even with 3,000 pages, not everything fits.

I think of canon-building as a slow, slow process; 14 years is nothing.  The enormous Victorian section, for example, is barely touched.  The unsettled 20th century is rearranged a bit, as I would expect.  The novelties are in Romantic poetry.  The Fifth Edition began with 70 pages of William Blake, followed by Robert Burns and Mary Wollstonecraft.  Now Blake is preceded by Anna Letitia Barbauld and Charlotte Smith, and followed by Mary Robinson (all poets).  How did the editors find room for them (and also Joanna Baillie, Felicia Dorothea Hemans, and Letitia Elizabeth Landon)?

Three writers got the boot, all associated with Percy Shelley:  Thomas Love Peacock, George Darley and Thomas Lovell Beddoes.  As a result of my week-long exploration of the works of Peacock, he has surely been reinstated to the next edition, so that leaves Darley and Beddoes.  Beddoes is actually a favorite of mine, one of the weirdest weirdos of the 19th century, and Darley is a marvel, but I do wonder what professors ever did with them in a survey class.

Honestly, however good he is, George Darley was doomed.  Someone was going to replace him.  He is not of our moment.  Someday, someone else – no idea who – will replace some, but not all, of those women poets – no idea which ones.

My vote is to nix this terrible Anna Letitia Barbauld poem, written “ca. 1792-95,” which is as bad as John Greenleaf Whittier:

The Rights of Woman
Yes, injured woman! rise, assert thy right!
Woman! too long degraded, scorned, opprest;
O born to rule in partial Law’s despite,
Resume they native empire o’er the breast!

It gets worse after that.  But definitely keep her “Washing-Day” (1797), which is about a child’s view of chores, and ends on just the note I want for this post:

Sometime through hollow bowl
Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft
The floating bubbles; little dreaming then
To see, Montgolfier, thy silken ball
Ride buoyant through the clouds – so near approach
The sports of children and the toils of men.
Earth, air , and sky, and ocean, hath its bubbles,
And verse is one of them – this most of all.

*  Be sure to attribute Myers’s work to the MLA – he loves that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Modeling the canon

Anyone who reads a lot of old books should spend some time thinking about why these old books and not those.  Not too much time.  The same is true for the arts in general – understanding how the recording industry, publishing houses, and art galleries operate explains a lot.  But the old works have also gone through another process, whatever it was that extracted The Princess of Clèves from that mass of 17th century French novels and left everything else, at varying distances, behind.  How did that happen?  How does a book join the canon, whatever that is?

I do not know any particular story attached to Madame de Lafayette’s classic.  Sometimes there is a juicy story, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti picking Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat out of the remaindered book bin.  What? – very juicy story, for book collectors.  Salacious, almost.  My point is, I want to describe the canonization process if not all of the mechanisms.

How often do I make it obvious that my professional training is as a social scientist?  I think of the canon like a social scientist; I have a model of the canon.  The canon is the outcome of the actions of millions of autonomous individuals, analogous to an election or a market: readers, scholars, teachers, critics, librarians, publishers, and writers are the actors, mostly inconsequential on their own but powerful in the aggregate.

With an exception, though.  Who are the most important actors?  I almost agree with Denis Donoghue:

A canon is made not by critics or by common readers but by writers: no particular writers matter very much to common readers…  A canon is a list of books that writers have found inspiring. (The American Classics, 15-16).

Almost, since I do not see how that business about common readers is a) true or b) supports his claim; also, I do not so quickly rule out the possibility of books that last because they are so tightly clutched to the chests of devoted readers.  Children’s literature has a different transmission mechanism, I suspect, and I do not yet understand the effect of film and television.

The artists are the one working away at whatever tradition they are in, adding to it, playing with it, trying to destroy it.  They are the ones who are altering the past with their “new (really new)” works, to return to Eliot.  That amusing “really” is another limit, since most artists do not in the end alter much either, but merely join their tradition (merely!).  Critics, teachers, and readers mostly react to the artists.  Scholarship, syllabi, and reading lists reinforce the work of the artists.

Harold Bloom, in The Western Canon (1994) and everywhere else, throws around the word “strong” a lot, which sounds like it might have something to do with authority – “strong” writers “struggle” with earlier “strong” writers.  In fact Bloom means something more like Donoghue's "inspiring."  The existence of the later strong writers is the proof of the strength (persuasiveness) of the older ones, thus destroying the logic of the entire argument:  we only will know if today’s great (I am abandoning strong) writers are great when they inspire other great writers in the future, which means we do not really know that they are great, which means that we do not really know if the writers who inspired them are great, and then the entire chain collapses all the way back to  Homer.  Bloom is well aware of this problem (see WC, pp. 487-8).

He, and we, are all just reading along, creating our own personal canons, the list of books we have found inspiring, and then sharing those lists in all sorts of ways. Some of us are more persuasive than others. Vote by vote, recommendation by recommendation, causes the books of Jane Austen to advance and those of Walter Scott to recede.  Scott is fairly strong, but Austen is stronger.

Heaven knows there are other ways to think about the canon.  This is more of a description of a model than an argument.  Perhaps the key fact that any model needs to include is that “canon,” like ”classics,” is just a metaphor.  There is no equivalent of the Council of Trent deciding which books are in the canon and which are not.  No one has any but the most trivial authority (and we all have that), and the process is never static and never was, however slow the pace of change.

Monday, March 26, 2012

On reading and not reading 17th century French female novelists

In a discussion of the word “classics” at Caravana de Recuerdos, grisly details here, Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat championed the works of 17th century French novelist and playwright Catherine Bernard.*  Never having heard of Bernard, I decided to educate myself, by which I mean acquire facts that reinforce my prejudices.**

Grazing in A History of Women’s Writing in France, ed. Sonya Stephens, Cambridge University Press, 2000, I discovered, in the chapter on the 17th century, this surprising information:

Remarkably between  1687 and 1699, at least one third of all novels published in France were by women. (75, Faith E. Beasley wrote this chapter)

One might wonder what the figure might be for other arbitrarily determined 13 year periods, but the authors of survey articles can only cite research that has been done.

Who are these women writers, besides Bernard?  Anne Ferrand, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, the comtesse de Murat, and others of the “many successors” to Mme de Villedieu and Mme de Lafayette.***   The latter is the author of a widely acknowledged masterpiece, The Princess of Clèves (1678).  Much discussion is also given to one more writer I already knew about, Madeleine de Scudéry, author of Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus (1648-53), a strong  candidate for the longest novel ever written.

Who are the men who wrote that other two-thirds of the novels?  I have no idea.

I also do not know how much any of these books, aside from  The Princess of Clèves, which is a standard school text, are read by non-specialized French readers, readers not acquiring a graduate degree.  Only the Lafayette novel has any life in English, although I see that a tiny scrap of Artamène was newly translated in 2003 (for the first time since the 18th century!).

My assumption, when I read a list of names like this in a literary history, is not that they are the authors of bad and justly forgotten books but that they wrote interesting and even good books.  Specialists continue to sift through their heap of books, and for a while now specialists have been more interested in the women’s books they find in the heap.  The books stay the same; their readers change.  What they look for in a book changes.

Readers have lost some of the skills or knowledge needed to read  Scudéry or Lafayette.  Scholars teach themselves those forgotten skills and thus read the old, lost books in two ways – what did the book mean then, and what does it mean now?  The answer to the first question is likely to be the interesting one, unless the text is unusually rich, like The Princess of Clèves, which I can read successfully without training myself to be a 17th century French reader.  I only know how to read the book one way, the way I read other novels.  Strangely, Clèves  is rewarding read like this, a masterpiece on my terms as well as those of its own time.

How can this be true?  Another of the things I do not know.

*  I seem to be continuing on the “classics” track.  I was hoping to write about Fernando Pessoa and The Book of Disquiet this week, but I do believe I will take a little more time for reading and some simulation of thought.  Next week.

**  I have obviously been poisoned by reading Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary.

***  I hope, just because of her name, that scholars discover that Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force has written a neglected masterpiece.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tradition and Individual Blogging - the past is altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past

Ask a graduate student in the humanities – an A(ll)B(ut)D(issertation) is who I really have in mind – what he “does” and you will likely hear something along the lines of “I do 16th century Venetian painting” or “I do 17th century French opera” or “I do 18th century English curate’s diaries.”  If you hear that last one, escape as quickly as you can; you are at risk of being bored into a coma.

Period, language or location, form.  Sometimes the period is replaced by a movement (Romantic), or a sub-period of a century (Restoration, Victorian), or an expansion in time (medieval, early modern).  Once in a blue moon, a human is named (“I do Rembrandt’s landscape drawings”).  An emendation:  I assume, but do not actually know, that 20th centuryist humanities students always subdivide even more (“post-war Austrian post-serialist tone poems”).

I always start with these categories, too.  This is all bedrock information for classifying a work of art.  I place every work in its tradition.  There may be a kind of imaginative freedom in not worrying about any of this, allowing works to fortuitously collide with each other, but the study of an artistic tradition has its own pleasures.  When I wander into a reading project, like Yiddish or Portuguese literature, I am working not just on the texts but the tradition, discovering how writers play with and argue with other people’s texts.  A scholar of, say, the 19th century Portuguese novel has a responsibility to read everything I am reading and then several shelves of books that I cannot read (because not in English) and do not want to read (because not as good as Eça de Queirós*).

I am beginning to sound like T. S. Eliot:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.  His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.  You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.  (“Tradition and Individual Talent”)

Please set aside the words “cannot” and “must” (“Yeah, Stearns? Make me!”).  One of the pleasures of reading Eça de Queirós and Fernando Pessoa and Machado de Assis is that not only are the Portuguese and Brazilian literary traditions intertwined, but these writers were also directly responding to French and English literature.  Eça even made Portugal’s complex cultural relationship with French art one of his recurring themes.

A reader might reasonably wonder if knowledge of Flaubert or Tristram Shandy is then necessary before bothering with The Maias or The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, but the effect is bidirectional.  Reading Sentimental Education affects how I read The Maias, but the reverse will also be true.  The Maias (and Zola and Julian Barnes) changed Flaubert.  Eliot again:

… what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it.  The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them…  the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.

Something similar is true for the reader.  Anthony at Time’s Flow Stemmed is reading about re-reading: “Re-reading a once favourite book is potentially a perilous encounter…  we re-read through the filter of every other book we have part-remembered.”  But reading new books changes the old favorites, too.  I have no doubt that Sentimental Education will look different when I re-read it, but it has already changed enormously since I read it twenty years ago, now that I have read far more in Flaubert’s tradition, both the writers he was responding to and the writers who responded to him.

This is actually a continuation of my question about how to use the word “classic,” although I fear it is a bit oblique.

*  But what of the books that are not in English, but are as good?  Please, do not speak of those!  *sob*

Friday, March 23, 2012

Stared at rather than otherwise appreciated - Denis Donoghue's American Classics

Denis Donoghue’s The American Classics (2005) has a sad back story.  He was teaching a graduate course at New York University on what he considered the five greatest American classics: Moby-Dick, Walden, Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter, and Huckleberry Finn.  Because the books would be so familiar to graduate students in American literature, he thought the students could really dig in, that “I didn’t need to make the case for reading [these books]; they could be taken for granted” (1).

But he discovered that not only were his students not familiar with the books, but that they had barely read them at all.  “The students did not dispute that the five books are somehow privileged in American culture, but so are the heads on Mount Rushmore; stared at rather than otherwise appreciated” (2).  Grad students at NYU!  It may be worth noting that Donoghue, a distinguished scholar of American literature, is Irish.

Donoghue’s response was this book, six (the above plus Emerson) long essays that aside from an unusually personal tone are straightforward close readings and accounts of reception, just Donoghue working on the texts and on other good critics who did the same.  He does not seem to spend any time in these chapters arguing about whether they are “classics.”  He gets all of that out of the way in the introduction.

Donoghue wants the books to be classics.  He want “classics” to be meaningful.  He uses a T. S. Eliot lecture from 1944, “What Is a Classic?”, to pin down a starting point.  Eliot develops criteria so amusingly stringent that they “are fulfilled, so far as European literature is in question, only in Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy” (4).  Donoghue has to bend Eliot a bit to fit the American context, but he is interested in a similarly narrow definition, one that excludes any particular work of Emerson, for example, even though Emerson’s writing is central to all five of his “classics.” 

A classic book is not merely good but important, not merely long-lived but an “event” which “impels other events only less radical” (8).  Some of those lesser events are criticism; Donoghue is actually quite close to the agonistic definition by J. M. Coetzee that Rise kindly shared yesterday, “the interrogation of the classic, no matter how hostile, is part of the history of the classic, inevitable and even to be welcomed.”  He is also oddly close to Calvino (the classic “has never finished saying what it has to say”) if we understand that the text cannot speak but requires a mediator, a reader, a critic.

I am still not sure what good the word “classics” does for me, whether I prefer there to be many or few.  What do I use in its place?  My battered arsenal of designations of quality take care of one side:  good, great, masterpiece, minor.  I establish or intuit some set of aesthetic principles and knock the text against them.  If I am reading well I may be able to employ a number of different and even contradictory principles.

My point is that nothing, once I am reading, depends at all on the status of the book.  Status is important for books I have not read.  Several years ago I made my only real attempt at advocacy, a two week consideration of the novels of John Galt.  I had no interest in Galt’s importance, but rather argued that a number of his books were unusually good ranging up to genuinely great.  I think a number of good readers would get a lot out of him.  End of argument.

My other tool is literary history.  Divvy up the books by language, period; place the book in its tradition.  So that’s where I will go tomorrow.

A little irony:  the last time Denis Donoghue appeared on Wuthering Expectations was as a defender of literary beauty, as the author of a different book about a different tricky word I avoid.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why read the classics? Why not read them? Now there's a question! Answer that, smart guy!

Everyone is assembling their Classics Club reading list, pledging to read fifty classic books in five years.  Or 100 or what you like.  My plan is to read 500 classics in the next five years, mind and health willing, just as I have done for the last five, and the five before that, and so on.  My list of books will appear to the right at regular intervals, under the heading "Currently Reading."

Which classics?  Oh, you know, some of the – he hesitated and made a rippling gesture with his fingers as of an aroma being wafted away – some of the really good ones.

All right, I forced myself to use the word “classics” several times, but it does not feel natural.  The critics I admire use the word rarely, or never.  I can use it with qualifiers, as when I described  The Immoralist as “a great classic of something or another,” and then later as “a classic in the literature of homosexuality.”  But “the classics,” those can be anything.

That was not the case in the distant past, when the classics were the surviving texts of the even more distant past – Greek, Roman, Chinese, and Sanskrit texts not just hundreds but sometimes thousands of years old.  As vernacular literature grew in status, sometimes because of its use or imitation of the Classical classics, the notion of a classic became more pliable.  Given that the Aeneid is a high status classic, what about Dante’s Divine Comedy?  Given Dante, what about Paradise Lost?  And then people started taking seriously the really vulgar stuff like plays and, even worse, novels, and that was it for the classics.

I had to search, but I remembered or found a couple of good critics who are not afraid of “the classics.”  One, Denis Donoghue, I will save for tomorrow; the other is Italo Calvino who wrote a 1981 article titled “Why Read the Classics?”* which really does nothing more than play with the question.   One of Calvino’s definitions has circulated widely:

(6)  A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

Please note that number, though: this is definition #6 of fourteen.  Calvino has no qualms about contradicting himself, so while a classic is “a book that comes before other classics” (#12), a classic author is – no, not a classic but:

(11) Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.

So a classic is whatever other people say it is, and also whatever you say it is.  Speaking for myself, I can be sure a book is not a classic if I have never heard of it.  Calvino is more generous with his definitions.  I should note that elsewhere in The Uses of Literature aka Why Read the Classics?, Calvino almost never uses the term “classics.”  It is, of course, too vague.*

So what do I do, how do I organize these old books?  How do I read a hundred of them every year if I do not know what they are?  Good question.  I will think about that.

To all of the Classics Clubbists, by the way:  Best of luck!  You won’t need much, since those lists are full of great books, setting aside the small number of duds, which will only heighten the flavor of the good ones.  Not-actually-private note to Jillian:  there are way better Walter Scott books than Ivanhoe, although none more famous, and therefore classic.

*  A pointless aside:  Calvino’s three essays on Fourier are really great fun.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

It was a very cordial moment of warm sympathy - why I never wanted to slap the protagonist of this Eça de Queirós novel

One thing I love about book blogs, and about amateur readers, is that they sometimes want to slap fictional characters, or strangle them.  Often Jane Austen characters for some reason.  Fanny Price in particular, which is especially funny, because readers want to slap her because she is inoffensive.  “Why don’t you sass back at your mean aunt?” Smack!  That’ll teach Fanny.*

Ruth Franklin and John Banville never say they want to slap characters when they review books.  I wish they would.  It always makes me laugh, this readerly frustration at characters who are not behaving as they should, which I fear typically means not behaving as sensibly as I would.  As if the story would be better if it were about me and my well-considered, commonsensical actions.

The fun of To the Capital, which spends nearly three hundred pages in the company of an eminently stranglable nitwit, is that the young, idealistic, shallow, weak-willed, talentless dreamer of a protagonist makes the wrong decision almost every time he is offered a choice.  He wants everything, and he wants it in a hurry: literary fame, with the accompanying praise and money and women; access to aristocratic salons, but also a leading role in radical politics, including the overthrow of the monarchy; and all of this without much in the way of work.  Artur’s fantasy sequences, his reveries about his rise to fame, are among the novel’s comic highlights.   I suspect that Eça’s bedrock critique is that Artur wants to be an artist without working to be an artist.

Artur arrives in Lisbon with some money, a lot of money, actually, which makes him a mark for sharpers:

Artur leaned back in satisfaction, pleased to be one of the clique…  Then Meirinho remembered that he ought to ‘stand a round’ with a bottle of champagne, but he quickly added, slapping his leg, that he was joking, it was a humorous remark.  Artur, however, insisted – he wanted to stand a round – and Meirinho at once asked for a bottle of Cliquot.  It was a very cordial moment of warm sympathy.  (125)

The novel would, of course, be much improved if Artur saw through that sponge Meirinho, husbanded his money and got a job as a copyist rather than hanging around with these journalists and writers.

Artur self-publishes his derivative poems to no acclaim (“his book seemed to pass over the city like a drop of water over rubber,” 201), commits a number of absurd social faux pas, including the low comedy of letting a fat woman at a party sit on his top hat, and squanders his remaining money on a Spanish prostitute,  a romance that ends in the only way it could.  So naïve, so stupid.  Yet I never wanted to slap him; I never urged him to make the right choice.  I was enjoying his suffering too much, enjoying Eça’s tour of Lisbon in the company of this all-too-recognizable fool.

I have been using the John Vetch translation of To the Capital.

*  SlapStrangleShake, strangle, and hug.  Some of the violence is in the comments, not the body of the post.

Monday, March 19, 2012

His eyes were feasting greedily on the details. - another good Eça de Queirós novel

To the Capital, another posthumous Eça de Queirós novel, this one published in 1925, a quarter century after Eça’s death, that’s the book I want to write about.  It is a fine novel, comparable in style to Eça’s best books, although narrower in conception.  We always stay as close as possible to Artur, a young poet and dreamer, who has the good luck to escape the torpor of the Portuguese countryside for Lisbon, thrilling Lisbon, the capital of everything:  fame, literature, sex, politics, society, fashion, and everything else worth knowing about.  The fact that much of this is imitative of French society, fashion, etc. is part of Eça’s ongoing satire about Portuguese culture.

One piece of the satire is that To the Capital, like The Maias and Cousin Basilio, is partly a parody of a French novel, not of Flaubert this time but Balzac.  Artur arrives in Portugal with two manuscripts, his tickets to literary fame and its traditional perquisites (money, women), a book of poems (Enamels and Jewels, copying Gautier) and a play.  Lucien de Rubempré, the hero of Lost Illusions (1837-43) arrives in Paris from his French village with nothing but a book of his poems and part of a historical novel.  Artur, unlike Lucien, has some money, although it sure goes fast; Lucien has his enormous personal beauty which eventually leads Balzac in a direction the less Romantic Eça would never follow; please see A Harlot High and Low (1838-47) for the crazed details.

Artur agrees with me:

Lisbon! – he visualized the life that filled it, violent and grandiose, like the world of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine; it was from French novels that he reconstructed Lisbon society… he pictured himself sitting in the cafés, between the gilt mirrors, weighing up the buzz of literary discussions; at theatre entrances, he saw a multitude, crowding together, eager for art…  mingled with the mystery of the vast city, he imagined the existence of tormented personalities of romance or of the theatre – Rastignacs tortured by ambition, Vautrins fearlessly hunting lions… (53)

A couple more characters I had to look up because they are not from Balzac follow.  Rastignac and Vautrin actually appear in Lost Illusions, but Artur does not seem to have read it (he presumable knows them from Père Goriot), which makes for a fine joke, that he misses the one novel that could almost be about himself.

I am only going on about Balzac because it is amusing to see what Eça is doing.  Any reader who cares can just look up Rastignac and Artur’s first opera (Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, about Vasco da Gama!) and just get on with the story, or not with the story, exactly, but the scene, like the scene at the opera:

Intimidated by the murmur of voice rising in the auditorium, Artur did not stir.  His eyes were feasting greedily on the details.  And from the lofty position of the boxes, with their rich and shaded hues, from the chandelier with tits ornamental prisms projecting into shaded areas, its varnished contrasts of white and gold, the regal dignity of the tribunal, enclosing with a cherry-coloured velvet curtain between the herculean caryatids of the kings, the style of men’s coats, it all spread like evidence of the grandeur of the capital and the magnificence of the monarchy. (109-10)

And on and on and on like that, wonderfully thick.  Eça is suggesting, perhaps, that I must read his novel like Artur attacks Lisbon, with an appetite for the details.

Friday, March 16, 2012

This cost me fifteen francs. - Eça de Queirós in decadent Paris

Eça de Queirós often – always? – ends his novels with a coda, the ending after the ending.  In The City and the Mountains, someone needs to return to Paris.  The hero and fool of at the center of the novel has settled in the country, learned his lessons about living a useful life, and is now fixed in place, so Eça sends a different character, his narrator.  Come to think of it, given that the novel has a first-person narrator, who else could go?  The resulting chapter is a strange one.

The narrator discovers that Paris has gotten worse, that its pleasures have become bitter, that the city is not just decadent but corrupt.  In a foodie novel like this one, the food has to  be similarly ruined:

[A] fearful battle ensued between me and the flounder.  The wretch, which had clearly taken against me, would not allow me to detach from its spine so much as a tiny fragment of flesh,  It was as dry, burned, and impenetrable as shoe-leather, and my knife bent on it, impotent and tremulous.  I summoned the pallid waiter, who, equipped with a sturdier knife, and pressing down hard on the floor with the heels of his buckled shoes, finally managed to wrench from the stubborn creature two strips of flesh, as small and thin as toothpicks…  This cost me fifteen francs.  (264-5)

Later, the sauces all taste of hair oil.  Technically, I am bored by the conventional comparison with shoe leather, but am thrilled by the waiter and his shoes.  I imagine Buster Keaton in the role.  I included the last line, about the cost of the meal, to make sure that we all recognize the Paris of a century ago in the Paris of today, even if we have never had quite such bad luck with the food.  We have not, have we?  If you ate at Quick Burger or Flunch, that’s no one’s fault but your own.

The primary signs of the corruption of Paris are the usual, sex and money.  Virtually the first thing the narrator sees is “an enormous poster on which a naked woman, with bacchantic flowers in her hair, was disporting herself, holding in one hand a foaming bottle and brandishing in the other, as if to display it to the whole world, a brand-new type of corkscrew” (261).  The overwhelming irony is that the narrator quite openly visits the city for sexual adventures.  This time, though, the women, the buildings, the theater (“great streams of obscenities”), everything is spoiled.  The new-fangled bicycle craze makes the city uglier (“Old men with scarlet necks pedalled plumply by”).  Students openly jeer their professors just for kicks (this is a particularly odd episode).

Eça, and the narrator, lay it on awfully thick, much too thick for me to take the chapter too seriously as meaning much about Paris itself, or the city, or civilization, but instead as a comic twist:  the hero of the novel, in moving from urban decadence to rural idyll, has destroyed his friend’s pleasure in Paris.  The hero’s happiness has corrupted the narrator, spoiling him for sophistication.

Alternatively, the narrator is just a mouthpiece for Eça, the narrator’s rants are the author’s, and the last chapter of The City and the Mountains reveals a narrowing of Eça’s imaginative spirit near the end of his life.  I generously give the author credit for the former interpretation, but cannot dismiss the latter.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Then come and admire the sheer beauty of simplicity, you barbarian! - Eça de Queirós in the countryside

I am looking back at the St. Orberose overview of the novels of Eça de Queirós, where he describes The City and the Mountains as “a simplistic demonization of urban life and glorification of the countryside.”  The second half of his phrase is true.  Wealthy and jaded Jacinto, surrounded by gadgets and luxury, is unable to find anything meaningful in his life in Paris, but in the Portuguese mountains gradually discovers how to live a useful, fulfilled life.

Whether Jacinto’s restlessness has anything to do with Paris or his salvation with the Portuguese countryside is the question, though.   I am not convinced.  He is a spiritual seeker, who succumbs to every passing intellectual fashion:  Nietzscheism, Ruskinism, Ibsenism (“a real plague!”):

“Then Tolstoyism took over, and neo-cenobitic renunciation was all the rage.  I can still remember a dinner were a great monster of a Slav appeared, hair all dirty and disheveled, and when he wasn’t casting lewd glances at the poor Countess d’Arche’s décolletage, he was wagging his finger and growling: ‘We seek the light deep down, in the very dust of the earth!’”  (100)

Jacinto finally succumbs to Schopenhauer and Pessimism, allowing him to blame Life for his ills, rather than himself, and obsessively reading Ecclesiastes while unknowingly reinforcing its message.  Perhaps all is not vanity, but this is:

At other times, I would find him early in the morning lying on the sofa in a silk dressing gown and imbibing Schopenhauer, while the pedicurist knelt before him on the carpet, respectfully and expertly buffing his toenails.  Beside him lay a Saxe porcelain tea cup, full of that Mocha coffee sent by the emirs of the desert and which he never found strong enough or sufficiently aromatic.  (113)

So the move to the mountains in the center of the novel is just a device to separate Jacinto from all of his shiny stuff and his thirty thousand volume library and allow him to embrace a new enthusiasm, authentic country living.  It is Jacinto who glorifies the countryside more than the novel’s author, who takes it up as a new ideology (see p. 173, the home of my title).  He overflows with schemes of improvement, like a pointlessly elaborate English dairy.  He wants to plant trees, but:

“An oak tree takes thirty years before it reaches its full beauty!  It’s so discouraging!  It’s fine for God, who can afford to wait”…

He folded his hands on his knees and muttered again:

“Everything takes such a long time.”  (192-3)

Jacinto has another eighty pages in which to learn that he, too, can afford to wait.  Perhaps it is not so surprising that, in the end, a woman is involved, one who emerges from the most fairy tale-like chapter in this fairy take-like novel.  As wisdom goes, it is all pretty commonsensical.

I see that I have not gotten to the first part of Miguel’s description.  I would like to modify it – “an ambiguous demonization of urban life.”  “Demonization” is exactly right, and I know just which part of the book he means, a sour pickle of a chapter.  I believe I will save it for tomorrow, which means To the Capital gets bumped to next week.  Even these minor Eça novels are plump and rich.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

This is true Civilization! - Eça de Queirós on information technology and molecular gastronomy

The City and the Mountains (1901) and To the Capital (1925) are a pair of posthumous Eça de Queirós novels that I was fortunate enough to read one after the other.  They set each other off nicely.  The titles tell part of the story:  To the Capital moves from the dismal countryside to the lively city; The City and the Mountains retreats from the decadent city to the healthful countryside.  That both books are by the same writer, written around the same time, might suggest that neither view of the city or mountains is meant to be definitive.

I could go on and on with a compare-and-contrast.  Wouldn’t that be fun?  Roughly, shortly: To the Capital is written in the thick, rich style of The Maias and Cousin Basilio, of Flaubert and Zola.  The City and the Mountains is lighter and sparser, more of a literary cartoon.  It reminds me of an entirely different sort of French artist:  René Clair or Jacques Tati.

The countrified narrator is visiting his friend Jacinto who, for the purposes of comedy, is the richest man in Paris.  Jacinto is a devotee of Progress, and a recognizable figure:

From the foot of [Jacinto’s] desk, soft, fat cable snaked over the carpet, scurrying into the shadows like startled cobras.  On a bench, and reflected in its varnished surface as if in the water of a well, stood a Writing Machine, and further off a vast Adding Machine, with rows of holes from which protruded stiff, metal numbers, patiently waiting.  (21)

Those cables lead not just to Jacinto’s telephone and telegraph, but to his Theaterphone (with enough headsets for twenty-four listeners) and a Conferencephone which connects directly to university lectures (“It’s frightfully convenient”).  The conveniences continue in the kitchen, as with “another prodigious tool, all silver and glass, for frenetically tossing salads, but the first time I tried it, all the vinegar spurted out, temporarily blinding my Prince, who retreated howling” (75).  Jacinto is also a devotee of molecular gastronomy:

All I could make of the next dish was that it contained chicken and truffles.  Afterwards, his gentlemen guests would be savoring a venison fillet marinated in sherry and served with walnut jelly.  And for dessert, iced oranges in ether.

“Why in ether, Jacinto?”

My friend hesitated and made a rippling gesture with his fingers as of an aroma being wafted away.

“It’s a new thing.  Apparently the ether develops and brings out the soul of the fruit.”

I bowed my head and murmured to myself:

“This is true Civilization!”  (28-9)

It is easy enough to guess that once the characters make it to the Portuguese mountains the food will be of an entirely different character, unpretentious, authentic, healthful, and so on.  My own experience with Portuguese food suggests that Eça is cheating, that to make a point about the ideological superiority of country cooking one should not stack the deck so badly, but serve his characters the downhome food of rural England, or rural Minnesota, something less obviously delicious than Portuguese country cooking.  Might as well tell me that the food is good in Sicily or Normandy.  That proves nothing!  But perhaps Eça had some other point.

Miguel launched his outstanding St. Orberose book blog with a survey of Eça’s novels.  He calls The City and the Mountains his “least favourite” for reasons that are clear enough.  I will try to defend the book a bit tomorrow.  Cartoons can be valuable works of art.  I would not claim that The City and the Mountains is as culturally significant as “What’s Opera, Doc,” but still.

Margaret Jull Costa translated The City and the Mountains.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Only in looking for words do we find thoughts - if "thoughts" is the right word

APHORISM, n., Predigested wisdom.

In my thinking about aphoristic writing, I have barely moved beyond categorization.  For example, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), source of the above, is a century-old joke book.  That any of it is still funny is a literary miracle.  I find quite a lot of it funny, which is part of my problem with aphorisms:  I mostly read them for the laughs.

Aphorists are so often satirists.  If not exactly funny, their work belongs on the comic side of the ledger.  Le Duc de la Rochefoucauld begins his Maxims (1665+) with “Our virtues are usually only vices in disguise,” a motto for comic writers, even though, maxim by maxim, La Rochefoucauld is rarely comic.  His elegant, witty mind hovers over all of his writing, whether his topic is love or death, courage or vanity:

132  It is easier to be wise for others than for oneself.
135  At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others.
137  When vanity is not prompting us we have little to say.

The first I find highly amusing, the second more painfully insightful, while the third could be the motto of Wuthering Expectations.   La Rochefoucauld’s maxims are wisdom with the lightest touch.

La Rochefoucauld’s book is unusual in that it was meant to be a book, and has a beginning, end, and even something like an argument.  Why were so many of the greatest aphorists unpublished, just keepers of notebooks, like Lichtenberg, or Chamfort and Joseph Joubert, or Novalis?  Joubert’s book feels like a set of notes for some other book, although what that book might have been is a bit mysterious.  A random entry, dated 1799:

The evening meal is the joy of the day.
How it happens that only in looking for words do we find thoughts.
We have philosophized badly.  (p. 49)

What luck, I have found another personal motto!  The last one, not the first; lunch is also a daily joy, as is, on occasion, breakfast.

I believe the notes-towards-a-masterpiece story explains Novalis as well, although I find his scraps incomprehensible.  Or I thought I did, until I looked at him just now:

127  When one reads correctly, there unfolds then in our interior a real, visible world according to the words.
128  All novels where genuine love is presented are fairy-tales – magical events.
129  The lives of cultured people should alternate between music and non-music, as between sleep and waking.

The first one is close to banal, the second a profound act of literary criticism, the third a fine aspiration, but all are written with clarity.  I wonder what book would have tied them together.

When I read books of aphorisms, maxims, proverbs, fragments, sayings of the fathers, or jokes, I create my own book, just like I do when I read a novel.  I imagine a narrator, a persona, speaking or writing the words before me, and behind him a “real” author, who also wrote the text.  I trace themes, keep an eye out for repeated ideas and imagery, concoct a story.  Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet is a more novel-like written object than any text I have mentioned here, so who am I kidding, when I write about it a couple of weeks from now, I will write about a novel, even if it is one I patched together in my own head. Other readers may read it as something else.  I hope they do.

Let’s see.  The Maxims are as per Leonard Tancock, Penguin Classics.  The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert, the NYRB edition selected and translated by Paul Auster, check.  The Devil’s Dictionary is in the new, fascinating Library of America volume of Ambrose Bierce.  The Novalis comes from Pollen and Fragments, tr. Arthur Versluis, Phanes Press, 1989.  If I had used any Chamfort, it would of course have been from the W. S. Merwin-translated Products of the Perfected Civilization.

Monday, March 12, 2012

When a book and a head collide - reading aphorisms

Here  we have Friedrich Nietzsche describing the “difficulty” created by the “aphoristic form” of some of his work which:

arises from the fact that today this form is not taken sufficiently seriously.  An aphorism, properly stamped and molded, has not been “deciphered” when it has simply been read; one has then rather to begin its exegesis, for which is required an art of exegesis.*

Not this week nor the next, but perhaps in the week after I will begin to write the fragments of my notes of my ideas of the art of exegesis of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, a fragmented text that could be fruitfully read aphoristically.  Whatever that means.

There is my question.  What does that mean?  How do I read a book of aphorisms?  How do you do it?  I start at the upper left corner, reading all of the words as my eyes move right, moving down and left when I reach the end of the line, etc.  Yes, that is in fact how I read such books, but I do not believe that helps much with Nietzsche’s criticism.

I am rummaging through the “Maxims and Arrows” section of Twilight of the Idols (1888), not reading it straight through.**  Hey, there’s a famous one:

8. Out of life’s school of war:  What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.

I can posit a principle in my art of exegesis: do not take aphorisms literally.  Do not add “except for those things that do not destroy me but do weaken me.”  A difficulty with this one is that it is too famous, material for motivational posters, and hard to see straight.  Let’s see.  What’s next.

9.  Help yourself, then everyone will help you.  Principle of neighbor-love.

A cynical dig at Christian “slave morality”?  My temptation is to snort “Preposterous” and move on.  Perhaps Nietzsche is not the right test case for my current mood.  It has been twenty years since I have even glanced at Nietzsche and am obviously not reading him in a deciphering spirit.  Even here, where I am pulling  the thought from the text, typing it myself, and staring at it intently, I feel the urge to explain this idea not by thinking about it but by reading the next one.  The next one will provide the key, right?

As Georg Christoph Licthenberg wrote, "Much reading is harmful to thinking" (F51), and also "People who have read a great deal seldom make great discoveries" (E85).  Neither idea is quite true, but when I compare them to my own experience, I can only wince.  They are not mere provocations.  It may help to know that Lichtenberg was a physicist who made one discovery, and likely would have made more if he had not spent so much time reading.

Lichtenberg has so many pointed sayings or jokes about books and reading:

D66  When a book and a head collide and a hollow sound is heard, must it always have come from the book?

A common Lichtenberg theme is that readers are fools.  Also, that we all are fools, but readers particularly so, although writers are worse:

D36  May Heaven forfend that I should ever write a book about books.

What a relief that Wuthering Expectations is not a book.

I should be done with this subject, but I am not.

*  The quotation is from the prologue of On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), but I found it in R C. Hollingdale’s introduction to the NYRB edition of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books, p. xiii.  Subsequent Lichtenberg quotations are from the same source.

**  I’m in The Portable Nietzche, actually.

Friday, March 9, 2012

ink – ink – ink pots, yes, yes, yes - Henry James is everywhere.

If I have felt little urgency to read James, I blame his continual presence in my reading.  He rivals anyone but  Samuel Johnson as a subject of anecdotes, quips, and opinions.  He supplies examples of whatever literary subject is at hand somewhere in his fiction or criticism.  Henry James is everywhere.

No, but I do feel that I know a lot about him, given how little of him I have read.  I know about the first time he met Virginia Woolf:

Henry James fixed me with his staring blank eye – it is like a childs marble – and said “My dear Virginia, they tell me – they tell me – they tell me – that you – as indeed being your fathers daughter nay your grandfathers grandchild – the descendant I may say of a century – of a century – of quill pens and ink – ink – ink pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me – ahm m m – that you, that you, that you write in short.”  This went on in the public street, while we all waited, as farmers wait for the hen to lay an egg – do they? – nervous, polite, and now on this foot now on that.*

I will credit Woolf with some poetic license here, but not much.  “In short” is a bit too much like a punchline.

Levi Stahl describes, in a guest-star packed post (Wharton, Spender, Sei Shonagon), a 1948 book of nothing but James anecdotes.  “I – I have trifled with the exordia.”  It is worth knowing the context of that real-life Jamesian sentence, as good as it is by itself.**

When did I read about Henry James and his odd entanglement with Constance Fenimore Woolson?  I have no idea, but I was prepared when, while reading X. J. Kennedy’s The Lords of Misrule: Poems, 1992-2001, I came across “The Ballad of Fenimore Woolson and Henry James.”***  Fenimore may have fallen in love with James:

Now a diffident hat-tilt from Henry
Might fend off her loneliness,
But Henry was wedded already, it seemed,
To his ethical consciousness.

Poor Fenimore perishes by her own hand, but the story has a happy ending:

Henry went back to his writing desk,
Spread paper like an open chart
And he drew dear Fenimore into his arms
And transformed her to a work of art
Sill living,
Transformed her to a work of art.

In a note Kennedy admits that “a subtle history has been crudely simplified,” which is likely also a fine description of my own pieced together scraps of second- and third-hand knowledge of Henry James.

*  The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 1, 1888-1912, August 25, 1907.  The misuse of apostrophes is Woolf’s.  Other errors quite likely mine.

**  In the comments of Stahl’s post, I am accused of contributing to the decline of civilization, a rare pleasure.

***  The ballad is also included in In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

It was as if for his sake he could consent even to be bored. - some of those early Henry James stories

The other early Henry James stories I read recently (#s 2, 3, 4, and 7) are all, unlike the semi-noir of his first published story, more like what I thought early Henry James would look like.  “A Day of Days” (1866), for example, is about a couple who meet by chance for a single afternoon.  They are attracted to each other, they imagine the possibility of a life together, and even daringly broach the subject, but sensibly agree to pass.  The man is leaving, the very next day, for a long stay in Europe, an artificial source of tension.  So the story is really about the little shifts in conversation and thought that lead the characters to a surprising intimacy.

A problem I have run into before:  when I read the short fiction of a writer, particularly the less famous stuff, am I learning anything in particular about the writer himself, or am I learning about typical magazine fiction of the time?  In my ignorance, I attribute everything at all interesting to James.  Perhaps stories on this theme were common.  I have no idea.  It is a safe but irritating assumption that great writers are less original than I think them.  You likely have them placed better; I am not saying anything about you.

“The Story of a Year” (1865), James’s second story, follows a love affair between young Lizzie and a Union officer.  During his absence, Lizzie’s attention and affections wander, so when he is mortally wounded she is understandably guilty.  The officer dies and Lizzie renounces the handsome and charming Mr. Bruce, who had made her an offer of marriage, forever:

She went to him, took his listless hand, without looking into his wild, smitten face, shook it passionately, and then, wrenching her own from his grasp, opened the gate and let it swing behind her.

“No! no! no!” she almost shrieked, turning about in the path.  “I forbid you to follow me!”

But for all that, he went in.

And that is how the story ends, on that abrupt and ambiguous note.  Not all that ambiguous, I guess, but not entirely sandpapered, either.  The way the story ends on its highest pitch is the most interesting thing in it.  But for all I know most of the stories published in the Atlantic Monthly had similar endings.   Maybe that was the hot thing.

Should I blame James or the typical magazine writing of his time for his dull dialogue scenes?  Arch, mannered, but mostly dull.  Early James is least interesting when he shows, but comes to life when he tells.  The sparkling (and poor) Marian has become engaged to the rich stick in the mud Mr Lennox, early in “The Story of a Masterpiece” (1867):

[S]he was frequently reminded by acquaintances of a moralizing turn that she has reason to be very thankful for Mr Lennox’s choice.  To these assurances Marian listened with a look of patient humility, which was extremely becoming.  It was as if for his sake she could consent even to be bored.

I can imagine James introducing the moralizing acquaintance as a character and working up their dialogue, and am glad he did not.  The becoming look, the “as if” and “even” – this is the James to come, is it not?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Joseph Epstein teaches Henry James - I did at least grasp that Henry James was serious stuff

Joseph Epstein wrote an account of teaching a class on Henry James in 1990.*  Epstein was at Northwestern University, so his students were ace.  His reading list, in order:

1.  “The Art of Fiction”
2. “The Figure in the Carpet”
3. “The Aspern Papers”
4. Washington Square
5. “Daisy Miller”
6. “The Pupil”
7. The Europeans
8. “The Turn of the Screw”
9. The Princess Casamassima
10. The Ambassadors (to be read for the final exam)

I would like to pause for a moment to savor that parenthetical description.  The Ambassadors is in James’s thick late style, and is over 500 pages long in the Penguin Classics edition.  Now that, I say, that is a university education – “for the final exam!”

This would be as good a way to get to know James as any, except that most of us would want to take more than ten weeks to get through the list, and I also, for health reasons, will have to reschedule the final.  I claim, accurately, to not know James well, but I have read 40% of that list.  I was at 30% twenty years ago.

Epstein titled his essay “Selling Henry James,” and he meant it: “I wanted converts.”  Converts not to any particular view of James, but to the idea that reading James was still worth the time of a 20 year-old.  He thinks he succeeded by the way; the article is an account of a class that went well.

Epstein’s introduction to James was in a class at the University of Chicago, where he was assigned a “novel about furniture,” as the protagonist of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty calls it, The Spoils of Poynton:

How much of the novel I could be said to have comprehended I cannot say.  Yet I came away with respect for it, which was in part owing to the respect I had for the respect in which my teacher [Morton Dauwen Zabel] held it.  I did at least grasp that Henry James was serious stuff…

I read “Daisy Miller” in American Lit II – I think that was my first James – but did not learn the same lesson, not too strongly.  “Daisy Miller” is stiff but light and elegant.  I hate to press the word “serious” against it too forcefully.  I learned to respect James later by reading good readers of James, readers like Edmund Wilson and Joseph Epstein.

A few other lessons.  Be alert for James’s comedy.  Easy enough for me, since I think Dostoevsky and Wuthering Heights are hilarious, but valuable advice for others.  No, for me, too, since much of the comedy is created by minute shades of phrasing: “for Henry James not entirely but in good part life was a matter of phrasing.”  Actively look for the meaning in James.  He will not do the work for the reader: “He had a positive horror of generalization.”  Read James not in one particular way but in many ways.

I think I knew all of that.   Still, how pleasant to eavesdrop on Epstein’s class without having to take the final.

* Epstein’s article originally appeared in The New Criterion, 1990 (here 'tis).  I found it in the Epstein’s essay collection Pertinent Players (1993).

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The first published Henry James story - not what I was expecting

The concerns I expressed yesterday about reading Henry James neurotically were the direct result of reading James neurotically.  By discussing my neurosis, I hope to expel it, as with a Freudian talking cure.

My neurotic action was to read the first four stories James published, one from 1864, one from 1865, and two from 1866.  Simultaneously he began his career as a book reviewer for magazines.  At least I was not neurotic enough to read the book reviews.  I went to the library and looked them up in the two Library of America volumes of James’s criticism, but I did not actually read them.  So there is that.

I should read good James first, surely?  And there was no reason to think that these early works were particularly good.  They are not, but I was curious.  The problem builds, though, if I next read his fifth story, and then the sixth, and so on, ignoring Washington Square and “The Pupil” because of a meaningless chronology fetish.*

“A Tragedy of Error,” 1864, 25 pages in the old Complete Tales of Henry James Volume 1: 1864-1868, edited by Leon Edel, that is the first Henry James story.  James was 21 or 22 when it was published.

We are in “a French seaport town.”  A pretty woman receives a letter and faints.  The point of view hovers over the woman and a man who is clearly her lover, and in a clever touch shifts, when they return home, not to either of them but to one of the servants:

The cook looked up from her potato-peeling with a significant wink.

“What can it be,” said she, “but that monsieur returns?”

Part II, another shift, to the docks and to a sinister boatman.  He steals milk from a little boy!  His own nephew.  What a bad man.  The story spends the next fifteen pages in a conversation between the woman and the boatman as they negotiate the terms of a contract to kill her husband.  Then a twist!  The end.

To be clear:  60% of the first Henry James story is about an adulterous woman hiring a contract killer to knock off her hapless husband.  His first story is a noir, except without all of the shadow imagery.  I described the story to ma femme – “It’s Thérèse Raquin,” she exclaimed, and it is, except Zola’s novel was published three years later.  Were boat-related murders a common subject in French magazine fiction at the time?  Or American?  I say French because the story is clearly a French imitation, with Balzac and Mérimée the strongest flavors.

I do not want to claim too strongly that “A Tragedy of Error” is worth reading.  I am sure happy to know about it.

Here we have, thanks to Cornell University, the entire issue of Continental Monthly in which it appeared.  Let me know if you find anything good.

* Emma of Book Around the Corner, pitying me, has kindly suggested we read Washington Square together, which we will do.  Writing may commence in four or five weeks.  If anyone else wanted to read along, we have no legal means to stop them.  Washington Square is a short one.  Thanks, Emma!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Rambling towards Henry James

Henry James has moved into the top spot of my Humiliation list, I think, the writer who, from the point of view of his status, I should know better than I do.  I have read some of his Greatest Hits – “Daisy Miller” (1878), The Europeans (1878), “The Turn of the Screw” (1898), and a few other much-anthologized stories – and I have read so much about James, just through the ordinary process of reading magazines, that I do not feel so ignorant, although I likely am.

By status I mean – well, I mean the 16* volumes of Henry James published by the Library of America.  Six thick collections of novels, five of “tales” as James called his short fiction, two of criticism, and two volumes of travel writing.  For comparison, Mark Twain and Philip Roth are currently at seven books a piece.  No American writer of similar achievement can compete with the bulk of Henry James.  No writer of similar bulk can compete with his achievement. In retrospect, books by James and his opposite number Twain fill a lot of the imaginary shelf labeled “Late 19th Century American Books We Still Read.”  The 1870s and 1880s would look especially thin without them.  I leave proof of this statement as an exercise for the reader.

How does the neurotic reader deal with this vast mass of stuff, much of it likely mediocre?  By overcoming his neurosis, I hope, by not reading all five books of the short fiction, by not reading Watch and Ward or Confidence or the five volumes of Leon Edel’s biography of James, but instead restricting myself to the one-volume abridgement, and to only the best dozen or so of his novels, and only the most famous thousand or two pages of the tales.  A good plan until the twelfth-best novel turns out to be interesting enough to make me curious about the thirteenth.

Other writers have been leading me to James.  Eliot and Balzac and Hawthorne, for example.  As I  got to know these writers better, a natural question was “What came next?”  The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians are good answers to that question.  The un-Jamesian Robert Louis Stevenson led me to James by a different path, as the two writers debated the art of fiction.

I am not sure why I have not pursued James seriously.  One of the writers I admire most, Vladimir Nabokov, loathed James (“Perhaps there is some other Henry James and I am continuously hitting on the wrong one?”); another, Joseph Epstein, calls James “the most artistically intelligent, the most subtle, finally the greatest American writer.”** Both are likely correct, meaning that the artistic qualities most valued by Nabokov are not to be found in James, while the subtleties admired by Epstein are there if I can learn to see them.  This sounds like something that could be profitably written about in blogpost-sized fragments, if I were to read more James.

* If one were to tally up the LoA volumes I mention, one would find fifteen, not sixteen. Fifteen is correct.

**  “Selling Henry James,” Pertinent Players, 1993, p. 181.

Friday, March 2, 2012

I am not interested in art. I am interested in the obstacles to art. - Richard Howard's Robert Browning

A swerve:  Richard Howard’s poem “November 1889,” found in Findings (1971).  The Howard poem is an imagined monologue by an elderly Browning, speaking to his son in Venice about – oh, everything.  Browning died on December 12, 1889.  That should frame the poem.  Hey, look, Browning was born on May 7, 1812, so this is his bicentenary year, too, just like Dickens.

Browning, knowing death is near, is delivering to his son Pen the box of his and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s letters, “five-hundred letters, by my count” for posthumous publication:

      Some twenty years since I looked
          at what is in the box.
          Cowardice, call it that;
    I do not know the name.  Sufficient
for me, knowing they are there.

Browning has been thinking about his and Elizabeth’s reputation:  “I dread but one thing: biography.”  His typically optimistic solution is openness:

                                       It should be two volumes…
          Nothing but ourselves then,
          though that be too much now
      for me.  Put the box away,
      high and dry.  I am still here.

Those ellipses belong to Howard; the complete correspondence of the Brownings with each other and everyone else has now been published in eighteen volumes.  Browning was so rarely himself in his poems that I take Howard’s line as a curious inversion of death, a surrender not of but into Browning’s own self.

That is the plot, so to speak.  The rest of the poem is commentary:  Browning on Venice through the years (“the marble blacker / the patience of ruin deeper”), comments on Wilkie Collins, who had died in September (“Well, we are all stewing-pans, and can cook only what we can hold”).  Browning is having trouble writing because of “the torment of starch / in my new shirts,” and also because he fears he is wasting his time at idiotic parties, including one at which a woman “with queenly airs / and a snake, I vow, tattooed on her ankle” tries to seduce him.

I am not sure how much later Browning I really plan to read.  His critical reputation after The Ring and the Book is not so hot, but I can admire the man that Howard depicts.  What relationship this character has to the real Browning I cannot say, but I see what Howard, or Browning, or “Browning," means in this passage, a potential motto for Wuthering Expectations:

                      They seem
to care so deeply
for what they call art:
          I suppose it is like one
          of those indelicate subjects
                  which always sounds better
                   in a foreign language.
    I am not interested in art.
I am interested in the obstacles
    to art.


Richard Howard is a master of Browning-like dramatic monologues.  The book before Findings, the 1969 Untitled Subjects is full of nothing but – poems spoken by or about Richard Strauss , Walter Scott, John Ruskin, Thackeray (“probably Thackeray,” Howard notes).  Howard is probably best known as a translator from the French: Baudelaire and Stendhal and a shelf of Roland Barthes.  But anyone with sympathy for Browning and his century should try Howard’s poems.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Don’t it want trimming, turning, furbishing up and polishing over? - Robert Browning the Medium

I have been reading Robert Browning’s poems not in some Selected Poems of but in replicas of the original published volumes.  Ugly and unsatisfying replicas, such as The Complete Works of Robert Browning Volume VI, Ohio University Press, 1996, where I read Dramatis Personae and part II of Men and Women, simply ignoring the fifth or third of the page describing the manuscript variants.

I wish I could read Browning’s four great collections – Dramatic Lyrics (1841), Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845), Men and Women (1855), and Dramatis Personae (1864) – as four separate objects, as books.  I guess I could edit an electronic text, pick a cover, and send it to a print-on-demand joint.  If I ever need another hobby, I’ll do that.

Selected Poem volumes and anthologies pull almost all of their Robert Browning from these four books.  My Norton Anthology of English Literature gives Browning about 90 pages, a huge amount of space.  Three poems in two pages are from his later work.  The Penguin Classics Selected Poems is more generous to Late Browning, giving only 240 of 290 pages to his four major books.  In both cases, the enormous 1868-9 The Ring and the Book is omitted.  I have not read it, but I will, I hope.

Dramatis Personae was published after the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, although many of the poems were written earlier.  It is, and this is one good reason to read the collection as a book, suffused with EBB, even though only one poem, “Prospice,” a challenge to Death, is actually about her:

And the elements’ rage, the fiend-voices that rave,
                Shall dwindle, shall blend,
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
                Then a light, then thy breast,
O thou soul of my soul!  I shall clasp thee again,
                 And with God be the rest!  (23-28)

If I am mistaking the speaker, as is likely, then the poem is not about EBB, at least not directly.

About a third of Dramatis Personae is given to a single long monologue, “Mr. Sludge, ‘The Medium’.”  The medium’s name tells me what I need to know about Browning’s attitude towards spiritualism.  Elizabeth was a believer, Robert was not, although he apparently kept his frustration at what he saw as his wife’s gullibility to himself.  Or he directed it into this poem, which I doubt he would have published while Elizabeth lived.  Mr. Sludge is simply a fraud, a con man,  and the poem is his long, drunken confession.

At least that is how it begins.  The confession, including details about the magician’s tricks of floating tables and ghostly presences, somehow turns into a justification (“As for religion – why, I served it, sir! \ I’ll stick to that!”, 664-5), and the justification becomes a metaphysics (“I live by signs and omens,” 971), imposture as a system of belief:

Well, when you hear, you’ll answer them [genuine spiritual signs], start up
And stride into the presence, top of toe,
And there find Sludge beforehand, Sludge that sprang
At noise o’ the knuckle on the partition-wall!
I think myself the more religious man.  (1001-5)

Like all great con men, Sludge is able to bring himself to believe whatever nonsense he spouts, at least for the moment, so there is no stable position for the reader.  The audience, the “you,” is not merely a Browning-like skeptic, but a blackmailer, so that he is not much help either.  Sludge’s system inevitably (with the help of the booze) collapses into self-interest:

What need I care?  I cheat in self-defence,
And there’s my answer to a world of cheats!
Cheat?  To be sure, sir!  What’s the world worth else?
Who takes it as he finds, and thanks his stars?
Don’t it want trimming, turning, furbishing up
And polishing over?  (1346-51)

A line has been crossed here.  Is Sludge a spiritualist, or an artist, a poet?  Browning and the fraud converge.  Both are magicians.  One is rather more skilled than the other.

Such good books.