Monday, April 30, 2012

He replied been good to meet you Max - I remember W. G. Sebald

That first sentence in the title is broken into the last three lines of a W. G. Sebald poem, one written in English, titled “I remember” (Across the Land and the Water, 139-41).  “He” is a “lorry driver \ from Wolverhampton.”  Sebald’s friends knew him as Max, not as W. G.  I see more and more people calling him Max, actually.  I always call him Sebald, even though I met him once.

This is not much of a story, but it is better than the story of my encounter with Saul Bellow.

It must have been in the spring of 1997.  Sebald’s only book in English was The Emigrants;  I owned the paperback, which must have just been published.  The Emigrants was Sebald’s second novel of, at the time, three.  It was clear enough that Sebald was up to something exciting, clear enough just from the first twenty pages of The Emigrants.

Sebald had been invited to the University of Chicago to do a reading.  Probably, more, too – visiting classes or something – I don’t know.  This was a reading not at a bookstore, but at the university itself, in a stuffy little neo-Gothic room.  Sebald read, in a quiet, careful voice, with a heavy Bavarian accent, a passage from early in the “Paul Bereyter” chapter and then a long piece of “Ambros Adelwarth,” from when the character is in the Ithaca mental hospital:

The air was coming in from outside and we were looking over the almost motionless trees towards a meadow that reminded me of the Altach marsh when a middle-aged man appeared, holding a white net on a pole in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps.  Uncle Adelwarth stared straight ahead, but he registered my bewilderment all the same, and said:  It’s the butterfly man, you know.  He comes round here quite often.

I wonder if Sebald actually read this passage.  It is what I remember him reading, what else can I say?

Over at the faculty club, at the reception, I harvested my crackers and cubes of cheese – a lush life we led there at the U. of C. – and studied for a moment the author, who was standing by himself in the middle of the room with his drink.  I had not really planned to say anything to Sebald, but here we had a breach in hospitality.  My theory is that Sebald’s host had been trapped in a corner by a crank.  We had more than our share of cranks.  So I went over and said hello.

The odd thing is that Sebald and I chatted for about twenty minutes by ourselves, right in the middle of the room, before anyone else joined us.  That crank must have had some powerful Theories.  My role was intellectual straight man, meaning I suggested a topic and Sebald spoke about it.  The three topics were:

1. The Emigrants.  In particular, we talked for a while about Sebald’s use of Vladimir Nabokov in the novel, his five appearances in the book.  There he is up above with his butterfly net.  The Nabokov intrusions are absolutely central to my understanding of the novel, but at this point I have no idea what I came up with on my own and what Sebald told me.

2. Campus novels.  How did we move to this subject?  I do not remember.  What I do remember was Sebald laughing that he wished he had written a campus novel, because one of his friends had just published a bestseller in the genre.  Der Campus by Dietrich Schwanitz, that’s the book, still available at  We (he) must have talked about David Lodge, too, but I have forgotten.  I just remember Sebald laughing about his friend’s book, or  perhaps just at the concept of having a bestseller.

3. German cinema.  Shaky terrain for me.  I was doing all right as long as we stuck with Expressionist films, but Sebald suddenly hopped to post-War East German cinema and I was about to be reduced to the role of vigorous nodder.  But the subject – this seems strange, but it was not Sebald himself but the subject of German film – attracted a couple of grad students who were able to enthusiastically take up the conversation, so soon enough I thanked Sebald and slipped away.  Where in the devil was his host?  Who was supposed to take him to Giordano’s for pizza casserole stuffed pizza?  Maybe I should have stuck around a little longer.

Well, that’s the story of my half hour talking to Max Sebald, a treasured if imperfect memory.  I do not have any more stories like it.

Friday, April 27, 2012

haunted by millions and millions of breakfast eggs - searching for clues in Sebald's poetry

To the book itself, to the new collection of W. G. Sebald poetry, Across the Land and Water.  Few of the poems in the book had been previously published before the 2008 German version.  The footnotes for most of the poems refer the interested graduate student to the appropriate folder in the Sebald archives in Marbach-am-Neckar.  So most of the poems are more interesting as process, as evidence of the creative functioning of a great artist.

Many of them, for a reader who knows Sebald’s work, are quite intensely interesting.  “Remembered Triptych of a Journey from Brussels,” published in 1965, includes a visit to the Waterloo battlefield.  The Sebaldish narrator of Austerlitz will revisit it thirty-five years later.  The poet notes

a stately home, sheltered by ivy, transformed
into the Belgian Royal Ornithological
Research and Observation Unit
of the University of Brussels.

Sebald’s novels, the first of which is twenty-five years in the future, contain dozens of similarly unlikely metamorphoses.

“New Jersey Journey” (from Folder 2) corresponds directly to a specific passage in the “Ambrose Adelworth” chapter of The Emigrants (1992), the narrator’s drive through New Jersey to visit his uncle:

a Siberian countryside
colonized then run to seed
with moribund supermarkets
abandoned poultry farms
haunted by millions and millions
of breakfast eggs

At the end of the poem, the uncle photographs Sebald; the actual photograph appears in the novel.

What is really fascinating to me is how important the writing of these poems obviously was to the writing of the novels.  Perhaps this is not as unusual as I think.

Point 1, I will call that.  Point 2 is that the poems in the last third of the book begin to look more interesting on their own.  I am still not convinced that they are separable from Sebald’s corpus, and they sometimes feel like pieces that might have been drawn into Sebald’s next novel, whatever that might have been.  “On 9 June 1904” describes Chekhov’s decline:

but the spelt porridge
and creamy cocoa
brought no improvement.

And then his death and the transport of his corpse:

in a green, refrigerated
freight car marked
in big letters.

“Marienbad Elegy” includes an incident from Goethe’s biography, a late, hopeless love affair, “In the Summer of 1836” a similar episode of Chopin’s life while he suffers from tuberculosis.  It is easy enough to imagine all three stories combined into a Rings of Saturn-like chapter.  Or perhaps they were meant to be left as they are now.

The poems are all about traveling.  Even Goethe, Chopin, and Chekhov are on the road.  Sebald is in his hotel room (e.g. “Hotel Schweizer \ hof, in Hinüber \ Straβe Hannover,” “Room 645”) or in an airport (“among globetrotters \ from Seoul & Saõ Paulo \  Singapore & Seattle,” “On the Eve of”) or waiting for a train at a small station where I myself have waited for a train (“One Sunday in Autumn 94” – but I was there six years later).

What I am likely doing, of course, is searching the poems for clues to the next Sebald novel, now imaginary, an activity entirely in keeping with Sebald’s fiction.  Everything is a clue to something else.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

If I told Mr. Deutsch about these things he shook his head and said: “Strange, very strange.” - Sebald's poetry

I have been so "with it" lately, writing about so many new books, even if they are only new collections or translations of old texts.  One more before I return to the archives:  Across the Land and the Water, the selected poems of W. G. Sebald, translated by Iain Galbraith.

The Sebaldian Teju Cole, reviewing the book at the New Yorker website, pretends that the book represents a coherent, meaningful selection, like the “selected poems” of most poets.  It is a useful conceit.  Terry Vertigo’s detailed piece about the differences between the English and German has the truth, though, that this is a book of leftovers, student work, and scraps, as well as the core of a collection Sebald was preparing for publication.  So, really, it is a book for Sebald completists.  A Sebald completist is a fine thing to be.

Across the Land is actually my fourth book of Sebald poetry.  His two little books of little poems, For Years Now (2001) and Unrecounted (2003) are collaborations with artists, each micropoem accompanied by Tess Jaray’s abstract patterns or Jan Peter Tripp’s monochrome lithographs of famous eyes.  An example of this brand of Sebald poem:

In deepest sleep

a Polish mechanic
came and for a
thousand silver dollars made me
a new perfectly
functioning head

This is from Unrecounted; For Years Now has a slightly different version.  These poems have baffled me for years now.  I essentially use them as I use the LED lights on a battlefield diorama – push the button to see where the troops were lining up for the charge, then push the next button to see where they ended up. I use the poetry to better understand the novels.  The little poems set off one aspect of Sebald’s fiction.

His long poem, After Nature (1988), heightens another element of Sebald’s art.  The three sections are biographical, about the painter Matthias Grünewald, the naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, and the critic and poet W. G. Sebald.  Factual matter pulled directly from Sebald’s reading is shaped into a narrative (this is Steller on his way to what will be known as the Bering Strait):

Unending flights
of screeching birds, which skimmed
low over the water, from afar resembled
drifting islands.  Whales
rotated around the ship, emitting
water-spouts high into the air
in all directions of the compass. (61, tr. Michael Hamburger)

I could be wrong, but from my previous experience with Sebald I would bet as many as three dollars that the most consciously literary part of that passage, the metaphor of the birds resembling islands, is from Steller’s own journal.  Sebald’s art is mosaic-like, but I had to learn to see the edges of the tiles.

The line breaks slow my pace.  I assume that is their aesthetic purpose, along with the visual place of the words on the page.  Sebald’s poetic collaborations with artists have led me to wonder if his sense of the difference between poetry and prose is as much visual as it is verbal or musical:

If I told Mr. Deutsch
about these things
he shook his head
and said: “Strange, very
strange.”  Mr. Deutsch,
born in Kufstein, had come
to England as a child
in nineteen thirty-eight. (102)

The line breaks slow my reading, perhaps even inhibit it a bit, by making me look at the words more carefully.  Honestly, though, I read Sebald’s prose with just as much attention.  The prose rewards the attention.  So do the poems, even if I treat them as appendices to Sebald’s great novels.

I seem to have said nothing whatsoever about the new book, and have likely made Sebald's work sound more randomly organized than it really is.   Terry covers the book well.  I might say a bit more tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The best thing is to just sit still - Pessoan Nescio

Nescio is slotted with his contemporaries Robert Walser and Franz Kafka as an example of “clerk literature” by Joseph O’Neill.  That’s my term; O’Neill goes on for a while longer.  Stories in which the main characters are bureaucrats, whether private or government.  Clerk characters are ubiquitous in 19th century Russian literature, but strangely rare elsewhere, with the glorious exception of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” a story that could not possibly have been known to Nescio, even though Melville feels like a direct influence.  The profession of clerk is literarily rich exactly because it is so dull:  what meaning can be found in a life spent as a poorly paid, over-educated human photocopier?

“And it goes on for years.  Then your old man sticks you in an office.  And you realize that the reason you learned all those things was so that you could wet slips of paper with a little brush.”  (“The Freeloader,” 23)

Working conditions and pay have improved, but the existential problem remains.

O’Neill missed a crucial example:  Fernando Pessoa, who made his living as a clerk in a shipping company, much like the “author” of The Book of Disquiet.  Pessoa displace his search for meaning onto his heteronyms, particularly the shepherd poet Alberto Caeiro who writes as if he has found a solution:

I believe in the world as in a daisy,
Because I see it.  But I don’t think about it,
Because to think s to not understand.
The world wasn’t made for us to think about it
(To think is to have eyes that aren’t well)
But to look at it and to be in agreement.  (tr. Richard Zenith, from Fernando Pessoa & Co, 48)

The title character of “The Freeloader, Japi, is a pest and a sponger, but in his strongest moments he possesses a Caeiro-like clarity:

“No,” Japi said, “I am nothing and I do nothing.  Actually I do much too much.  I’m busy overcoming the body.  The best thing is to just sit still; going places and thinking are only for stupid people.  I don’t think either.  It’s too bad I have to eat and sleep.  I’d rather spend all day and all night just sitting.”  (5)

There is a painter in “The Freeloader” who struggles and strains for his art, but does produce paintings (Caeiro: “And there are poets who are artists \ And work on their poems \ Like a carpenter on his planks!”).  He befriends Japi who produces nothing, even less than Caeiro, but is adept at seeing, or sensing,  or perhaps I mean existing, “[s]omeone who thought it was fine just to let the wind blow through his hair, let the cold, wet wind soak his clothes and his body, who ran his tongue over his lips because the taste of the ocean was so ‘goddamn delicious,’ who sniffed his hands at night to smell the sea” (10).

As adept as Japi is at mooching food and cigars from his bohemian friends, he cannot live this way forever – he is the one speaking up above about his father’s office.  Japi becomes a clerk after all, just like Bernado Soares, but if he has his own Book of Disquiet, he burns it.

The World War II story, “Insula Dei” (“Island of God”), touches on the same themes, but with a horrible new context:  how can one find meaning in a world where everything has been ruined?  What happens to a Caeiro- or Japi-like life of the senses when everything you see has been corrupted?  Is it ethical to be an island in the face of evil?  Or is any other choice ethical?  I think I will not pursue this idea.  Someone else might.  Perhaps I will pick up the trail somewhere else.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A sedate and sensible man - Nescio's Amsterdam Stories

I want to jot down some notes on Nescio, now author of a slender NYRB book titled Amsterdam Stories.  Damion Searls is the translator.  The book is new in English, but most of it is close to a century old in Dutch.

Some or all of Joseph O’Neill’s introduction to the book has been archived at  Slate, so no need to repeat all that.  Just a summary:  important Dutch writer; deft touch with the prose; Nescio not his given name (Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh).  He wrote three short stories in the 1910s, and then, to his own surprise, another in 1942 as an oblique response to the Nazi occupation of Holland.  And that is almost everything, almost the complete Nescio.  Four stories.  Nescio is an odd case.

Two stories and a few little sketches are about a group of Amsterdam Bohemians, painters and writers and the like, always told in retrospect:

And when, in that short, balmy night, the darkness turned pale above our heads, Bavink sat with his head in his hands and spoke of the sun, almost sentimentally.  And we thought it was a shame to have to go to bed, people should be able to stay up forever.  That was one of the things we’d change.  Kees was asleep.  (“Young Titans,” 36)

I suppose most readers have run across these fellows in other settings.  The narrator, Koekebakker, like the author, Nescio, is looking back on a world he has left behind:

I remember one day when we, Bavink and I, went to the seaside and half the sun lay big and cold and red on the horizon.  Bavink hit his forehead with his fist and said, “God, God, I’ll never paint that.  I’ll never be able to paint that.”  Now he’s in a mental hospital.  (36-7)

The artists mostly work in offices, resenting their jobs, yearning for something meaningful, a few of them working to create meaning (“No, we didn’t actually do anything”).  The narrator writes, and even publishes, but it does not amount to much:

And old Koekebakker has turned into a sedate and sensible man.  He just writes, receives his humble wages, and doesn’t cause trouble. (62)

Kinda sad.  And this is before the Nazis invade!  The 1942 story is on the same theme, a tussle with the meaningfulness of the past, but now in a world that has become worse in every way.  Nescio sets the story in midwinter (“A gray, icy day”) to rub it in.  All that is important is “ration cards, food, fuel.  And: ‘How much longer”’ (131).  The narrator meets an old friend who is trying to keep hold of, or perhaps re-create, the meaning of his youth, of ideas, literature, and beauty.  It is not clear that he succeeds.  The Nazis are not mentioned until the last line, almost the last words:

When I’m back outside I see, across the street, next to the fence, here in this slum, in the grimy slush, two German naval officers.  (154)

I need to return to this character tomorrow, and to Nescio’s most famous creation, and to the genre of clerk literature, and to Fernando Pessoa.

For real reviews of Amsterdam Stories, please see Trevor Mookse Gripes and The Complete Review.  I believe Nescio was also covered recently in The New York Times Book Review, which is almost shocking.  Good for them.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Do you have a magazine?

No need to actually answer the question.  It is just something I have been wondering about.  I assume that anyone interested in culture – anyone writing a book blog, for example – has a magazine or two, a literary magazine, in the background, but in fact almost no one writes about what they are reading or have read in magazines, suggesting that my assumption is wrong.

By “has a magazine” I mean “regularly reads a magazine,” one that or some ill-defined reason feels like home.  I have read The New Republic, basically cover to cover, for almost twenty-five years (ack, cough – is that true?  Yes, it seems to be true), and The Hudson Review for fifteen, and I poke around in lots of others.

Joseph Epstein, in “New & Previously Owned Books & Other Cream Puffs,” found in Once More Around the Block (1987):

Around the age of twenty I discovered the intellectual and literary magazines – Partisan Review, Commentary, Encounter, The Hudson Review, The Kenyon Review, The American Scholar, The New Republic, The New Yorker, the British weeklies – and I have read them ever since.  They were especially helpful to me as a young man who himself one day wanted to write.  This was during a time when second-rate books were not taught at universities.  Reading great authors is the best method of education; but for someone who wishes to write, they can be discouraging.

The essay is actually a fine ode to the intellectual value of bookstores, used and new, the top-ranked of “the four main agencies of education in my life” – but magazines come in at #2 (“3. libraries, 4. schools”).

If I had more time or energy to read I would read not more books but more magazines.  For anyone not blessed with a rare and particular upbringing, it is magazines that make a person “cultured” – a word that should really be pronounced as if by Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain: KUL-chud.  Anxiety about being unkulchud is a fine motivator, and I have no argument against it.

Magazines are the quickest path to kulcha, although they are not all that fast.  The stuff of culture accumulates with time and repetition.  My new Hudson Review (Spring 2012) has, besides the Ambrose Bierce article I used last week, pieces on Eugenio Montale, Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch, the Neue Gallerie, Philip Glass, Gregor von Rezzori, William Carlos Williams, acting Hamlet, topped by a typically expert and thoughtful William Pritchard essay on Ben Jonson’s poetry.  What a hodgepodge, with no organizing principle except that a writer thought the subject would be interesting.  But now I know, at least temporarily, more about all of those things than I did.

I read an enormous amount of literary biography, but almost exclusively in magazines.  Mark Ford’s review , in the May 10 New York Review of Books, of a recent biography of Alfred Jarry is itself a fine piece of biographical writing and a useful overview of Jarry’s work.  The chance that I am going to read the 405 page Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life by Alistair Brotchie is zero, are you kidding?  Or a 528 page Freudian biography of William Carlos Williams?  Or a 700 page account of the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War?  But reading about them in considered, edited pieces is enormously valuable.

As a writer of hasty, unedited essays, I have come to put more value on literary magazines, not less.  It is the magazine writers who have taught me how to write about books, how to make arguments and use evidence, how to try to do something complex while paying attention to style.  

Please see Michael Dirda’s piece on Ambrose Bierce in the new NYRB, which arrived at my house too late for me to use it, and which is thorough, knowledgeable and friendly (when bloggers complain about the formal or “academic” writing of professional reviewers I always wonder what on earth they have been reading).  Dirda’s review is a lot better than mine!  Skip mine and read his, if it is not too late.  But: his review is an example of the target I am aiming at.

I wish book bloggers wrote more about their magazines.  Maybe I should, too.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Do you know that this is a serious matter? - Bierce's favorite character, Death

The eagle-eyed reader of my Ambrose Bierce pieces may have noted the recurring appearance of death, or Death.

In any case, it is certainly true, not only that, as has been said by Clifton Fadiman, Death itself is Bierce’s favorite character, but that… Death may perhaps be said to be Ambrose Bierce’s only real character. (622)

This is from Edmund Wilson’s chapter on Bierce in Patriotic Gore (1962).  Bierce is not Henry James, it is easy to grant that point.  Wilson would like Bierce’s obsession with death to have been caused by Bierce’s wartime experiences, but he acknowledges that “he seems to have been haunted by the idea of death before he had even enlisted” (621).  The temperament led to the subject, I would guess, and for that matter led to the kind of coolness under fire that Bierce often gives to his soldier characters.

The title character of “Parker Adderson, Philosopher” is a captured spy who, under interrogation, is, to drop into the vernacular, a total smart aleck.  The general has just read some notes about the spy’s morning execution:

“I hope, General, the spectacle will be intelligently arranged, for I shall attend it myself.”

“Have you any arrangements of your own that you wish to make?  Do you wish to see a chaplain, for example?”

“I could hardly secure a longer rest for myself by depriving him of some of his.”

“Good God, man!  do you mean to go to your death with nothing but jokes upon your lips?  Do you know that this is a serious matter?”

In the few pages left in the story, the irritated general tests the limits of Adderson’s philosophy such as it is, with surprising results.  Bierce’s answer to the general’s question is that death is the only serious matter, and thus the necessity of the jokes, and the sicko humor of “My Favorite Murder” (“Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years” and “Oil of Dog” (“I was born of honest parents in one of the humbler walks of life, my father being a manufacturer of dog-oil and my mother having a small studio in the shadow of the village church, where she disposed of unwanted babes”).*  But the courage that comes from indifference is not false; Adderson’s Stoicism gets him a long way.

Wilson again:

Ambrose Bierce lacks the tragic dimension; he was unable to surmount his frustration, his contempt for himself and mankind, through work of the stature of Swift’s.  (632)

I did not identify in Bierce a moment as sublime – as tragic, per Wilson – as Gulliver’s abandonment of humanity for horses at the end of Gulliver’s Travels.  I think that is what Wilson has in mind, the point where Gulliver’s misanthropy destroys him, perhaps necessarily.  I am not so sure that the absence of tragedy is so important, though.  David Mason, in The Hudson Review, identifies the depiction of “the horror and poetry of death” as Bierce’s central achievement.  The horror, that is the easy part.  The poetry, that is something rare.

*  I thought about writing something showing the path from Poe’s under-read comic stories to Bierce’s.  Poe can be awfully funny, but Bierce is funnier, or more often funny; there’s my conclusion.  “Oil of Dog,” if you can stand it, is hilarious.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What He Saw at Shiloh - the best piece Bierce ever wrote

Some scholars think that “What I Saw of Shiloh” is the single best piece Bierce ever wrote, and I am inclined to agree. The final paragraph brings tears to my eyes.

So says S. T. Joshi (PDF), editor of the Library of America Ambrose Bierce collection.  What is he talking about?

Bierce fought in the Battle of Shiloh on its second day, April 7, 1862.  He was an officer but lowly enough to have no idea of the purpose or logistics of the battle, no hint of why his regiment was crossing this river at night, marching through this swamp, stopping at the edge of this forest, except that the enemy was up ahead somewhere.

In the morning Bierce and his platoon found them:

Then – I can’t describe it – the forest seemed all at once to flame up and disappear with a crash like that of a great wave upon a beach – a crash that expired in hot hissing, and the sickening “spat” of lead against flesh.  A dozen of my brave fellows tumbled over like ten-pins.  Some struggled to their feet, only to go down again, and yet again.

An artillery duel followed; “there was a very pretty line of dead continually growing in our rear, and doubtless the enemy had at his back a similar encouragement.”  Much of the art of Bierce’s memoir, aside from the care with which he observes, and remembers, lies in the detached and amused tone of his narration.  Bierce is writing in 1874 (and 1881, and 1909, as he published several versions of “What I Saw at Shiloh”), a decade (or two or four) after the war ended.  How detached or amused he was at the time I will not guess.

The subject demands some detachment.  How else to write about – well, I will skip the sentence about the mortally wounded but living soldier’s injuries – this:

One of my men, whom I knew to be a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him.  Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal, I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.

What is in the last paragraph?  Writing his account, Bierce claims, brings back the sensory experiences of the battlefield, and he shudders.  He knows that the quiet field is “the visible prelude” of some “monstrous inharmony of death.”  Yet those were the days “when all the world was beautiful and strange.”  Bierce “recall[s] with difficulty the danger and death and horrors of the time, and without effort all that was gracious and picturesque.”  He yearns for the return of his youth or, oddly, a personified Youth who might add beauty to “the drear and somber scenes of to-day.”

This does not bring tears to my eyes but I am a cold-hearted reader.  Bierce’s lament for his lost youth is ferociously ironic.  He says he would “willingly surrender an other life” for such a moment but he knows that the offer will not be accepted.  His lament, and the editor’s tears, are for the innocence before the fall.  What Bierce saw at Shiloh cannot be unseen but only transmuted into art and shown to others.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bierce comes up with cool stuff - flying men and killer chess robots

Ambrose Bierce’s stories are the traditional link between the weird tales of Edgar Allan Poe and the Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft and his successors and imitators.  Bierce is a better prose writer than either Lovecraft or Poe, but I doubt many readers carry away from Bierce any images or scenes as striking as the collapse of the House of Usher or the climax of the masque of the Red Death.  I would give Poe the prize for imaginative power, meaning Poe came up with more cool stuff.  Lovecraft survives almost entirely as a creator of cool stuff.

Not that Bierce lacked imaginative power.  Today I will not worry about Bierce’s best writing so much as linger over some of his cool stuff.  Like flying men:

He passed above [the branch], and from my point of view was sharply outlined against the blue.  At this distance of many years I can distinctly recall that image of a man in the sky, its head erect, its feet close together, its hands – I do not see its hands.  All at once, with astonishing suddenness and rapidity, it turns clear over and pitches downward.  (“George Thurston”)

The description of the Union officer who has launched himself into the air is much longer than this, as is the explanation of how he ended up where he did, and the story as a whole has a good psychological answer to why.  But I suspect Bierce was most interested in the image itself, the strange imaginative power of this impossible event and impossible death (“Death has taken an unfair advantage; he has struck with an unfamiliar weapon; he has executed a new and disquieting stratagem”).

George Thurston is the second flying man to be found in the war stories of In the Midst of Life.  The other is the title character in the first story in the book, “A Horseman in the Sky”:

Straight upright sat the rider, in military fashion, with a firm seat in the saddle, a strong clutch upon the rein to hold his charger from too impetuous a plunge.  From his bare head his long hair streamed upward, waving like a plume.  His hands were concealed in the cloud of the horse's lifted mane.  The animal's body was as level as if every hoof-stroke encountered the resistant earth.

The horse and rider have gone off a cliff; the view is from below.  In both stories, the reactions of the observers are as interesting as the apparition.  True for many of Bierce’s ghost stories, too, come to think of it.  The image is so strange that Bierce gives the reader company, someone else who can confirm that you really saw what you think you saw.

Another example, one that requires some background.  Poe’s 1836 “Maelzel’s Chess Player” is a brilliantly observed and argued debunking and dismantling of a supposed chess-playing automaton.  Bierce’s “Moxon’s Master” is a Poe parody that begins with several pages of argument about thinking plants and thinking crystals.  The important thing is that the inventor Moxon has built a genuine chess-playing robot.  Watch the inventor and robot play chess:

I observed a shrug of the thing's great shoulders, as if it were irritated:  and so natural was this – so entirely human – that in my new view of the matter it startled me.   Nor was that all, for a moment later it struck the table sharply with its clenched hand.   At that gesture Moxon seemed even more startled than I:  he pushed his chair a little backward, as in alarm.

The robot, defeated at chess, grinds itself into a killing rage.  Bierce in this story created a murderous chess-playing robot whose grievance against his creator and the world is that it is bad at chess.  This concept is not, on its own, a significant contribution to civilization, but it is hilarious, and imaginative, and something I had not seen before. Pretty cool.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

“Good God!” he said - Bierce's tricks and twists

How about I start with the bad news about Ambrose Bierce, or at least describe an odd aspect of his fiction.  Then the rest of the week will be the usual “ain’t this neat” kind of writing.  This post contains, as they say, spoilers, but any spoiling is done not by me but by Ambrose Bierce.

Bierce’s most famous story is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which is known for, as much as anything else, its trick ending, the kind of trick a writer gets to use just once.  Most writers do not get to use it at all, actually, because Bierce has ruined it for them.  Sentence by sentence, “Owl Creek Bridge” is – no, I should just parrot David Mason: “I don’t even really know how to talk about [the story’s] perfections, the  descriptive set pieces or the cinematic cross-cutting or the spellbinding dread and realization of what is happening in the mind of the reader as well as that of the protagonist.”  And then there’s the almost too memorable ending.

“Chickamauga” is well-known, too.  It depicts a famous battle from a child’s point of view, and has some amazing “make it strange” writing:

He moved among [the soldiers] freely, going from one to another and peering into their faces with childish curiosity.  All their faces were singularly white and many were streaked and gouted with red.  Something in this – something too, perhaps, in their grotesque attitudes and movements – reminded him of the painted clown whom he had seen last summer in the circus, and he laughed as he watched them.

And then at the end there is a twist – no, a trick, it is also a trick.

These two stories occupy positions # 2 and 3 in In the Midst of Life.  Story #1, “A Horseman in the Sky,” is a lesser affair, except for one astounding image (see title).  It’s last paragraph:

The sergeant rose to his feet and walked away.  “Good God!” he said.

The sergeant is responding exactly like I did to the story’s trick ending.  No, this one is a twist, not a trick.

Reading the stories in a sequence, Bierce quickly trains me to expect a twist ending, and in fact there almost always is one.  The strangest things happen in war, granted, but the strangest things always happen on Bierce’s fictional battlefields.

The stories from the final edition of In the Midst of Life were published in newspapers over the course of almost forty years (1871-1909), so the first-time readers were likely more prone to surprise, unless a lot of newspaper fiction was of the trick-ending variety, which it likely was.

The ghost stories, for example, Bierce’s masterly ghost stories.  The twist is inherent in the genre, isn’t it?  Once you have heard your first ghost story, the pleasure of the next one depends on the cleverness of the variation.  The house is haunted because a terrible murder took place there!  Yes, and?  I have heard that one before.

The Argumentative Old Git argues that “the point of a ghost story is to evoke fear,” and in that sense Bierce’s ghost stories – I suspect, for me, all ghost stories ever written – are failures.  Fear?  Amusement, yes; laughter, sometimes. I read them in anticipation of a display of cleverness.   Spending the night in a haunted house – what is Bierce going to do with this trite setup?  How will he escape the little trap he has built for himself?  And he always escapes.  He was very clever.

Monday, April 16, 2012

I set my wisdom at work upon a book - preparatory work for the Ambrose Bierce Library of America volume

REVIEW, v. t.

To set your wisdom (holding not a doubt of it,
    Although in truth there’s neither bone nor skin to it)
At work upon a book, and so read out of it
    The qualities that you have first read into it.

What great luck – just as I plan to spend a week or some fraction of it writing about Ambrose Bierce, the Spring 2012 issue of The Hudson Review arrives at my home, containing, among other delights, “The Dark Delight of Ambrose Bierce” by David Mason.  Now I can set his wisdom to work, and just nod along:

But this book certainly demonstrates Bierce’s literary stature.  He was magnificent.

Actually, I would not have kept that last line.  It has all the signs of struggling in search of a strong close.  I am intimately familiar with the symptoms.  But I do share Mason’s pleased surprise – hey, Bierce is really good!

The book Mason mentions, the occasion for his piece, is the same one I am reading, the 2011 Library of America collection The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, ed. St. T. Joshi – I strongly recommend that you ask your library to buy a copy (that is what I did).  The contents are:

In the Midst of Life aka Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1892+).  The latter title is accurate, the former pointlessly vague.  The book contains fifteen Civil War stories, including the famous “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Chickamauga,” and eleven miscellaneous ghost stories and weird tales.

Can Such Things Be? (1893), more ghost stories, weirdness, and proto-science fiction.  Bierce’s status as the link joining Poe and Lovecraft is most evident here.  Bierce was a better prose writer than either.

The Devil’s Dictionary (1906/1911), aphorisms, satirical poems, jokes of the one-liner and multi-liner varieties.  The definition of “Review” can be found therein.  Bierce is the American La Rochefoucauld.  What he lacks in elegance he makes up in laughs.

Bits of Autobiography (1909).  “Yet I, for one, had no idea that some of Bierce’s best writing would be in memoirs,” writes Mason.  Me neither.  It is easy enough to find copies of The Devil’s Dictionary and Bierce’s stories, so the Library of America collection’s greatest contribution to the welfare of readers is the resurrection of these ninety pages of memoir.  The memoir is mostly about Bierce’s war experiences, although in the last few pieces he wanders west.  “Joshi thinks ‘What I Saw of Shiloh’ contains Bierce’s best writing” – how invigorating to find both Mason and the editor agreeing with me.

Curious side note:  Bierce was a rare creature for his time, an American literary writer who was also a genuine soldier.  He enlisted in 1861 and served through the entire Civil War, seeing action at a number of famous battles and a larger number of obscure ones.  Samuel Clemens skedaddled from the Confederate army as fast as his legs could carry him.  Henry James volunteered but was sidelined by a vague, but apparently real, medical complaint, perhaps a back problem.   William Dean Howells spent the war in diplomatic service Europe.  Walt Whitman served as a nurse.  Who have I forgotten?  I should read Patriotic Gore, maybe.

Some miscellaneous stories fill out the collection, mostly humorous pieces, mostly pretty weird.  I also read the University of Nebraska Press Poems of Ambrose Bierce, so I may find occasion to mention that book, too.

All of the above - every book Bierce published - are collections of Bierce's newspaper writing.  Even the memoir is composed of heavily revised articles dating from 1881 to 1906.

I am writing this as if readers will refer back to it as I write more.  Well, I’ll refer to it.  Reason enough to write it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Washington Square's paraphernalia

Henry James told William Dean Howells that Washington Square suffered because, living in Europe, he “[felt] acutely the want of the ‘paraphernalia’” he needed for a story set in New York.  Thus the Slopers house is located near – or perhaps even is – one of James’s childhood homes.  Not that it matters much, since James hardly tells us anything about the house.

He tells us a lot, though, about another house that appears only once in Washington Square.  Dr. Sloper is investigating his daughter’s lover, interviewing his sister at her

neat little house of red brick, which had been freshly painted, with the edges of the bricks very sharply marked out in white…  There were green shutters upon the windows, without slats, but pierced with little holes, arranged in groups; and before the house was a diminutive yard, ornamented with a bush of mysterious character, and surrounded by a low wooden paling, painted in the same green as the shutters. (Ch. XIV)

This, by the way, is my favorite little detail, showing that Mrs. Montgomery is not frivolous with paint, although that vague bush has its charm, too.  Two sentences later James says directly that Dr. Sloper concludes that Mrs. Montgomery is thrifty – yes, I saw that for myself, thanks.

James writes up a long description of the parlour, too, which has “clusters of glass drops,” a stove that “emit[s] a dry blue flame” and “smell[s] strongly of varnish.”  Honestly, I am unsure why this particular house and room get so much attention.  Little else in the novel does. See the clever Chapter XIII for a reduction of the novel - two pages, almost entirely in dialogue, with no other sensory details of any sort.

An outstanding exception is Catherine’s “red satin gown trimmed with gold fringe… which, for many years, she had coveted in secret.”  It appears twice, at two parties, and may have been instrumental in attracting the attention of Morris Townsend at the first party in Chapter IV, but it was only when it reappeared in Ch. VII that I grasped its significance.  Catherine only owns one dress commensurate with her wealth, one enormously expensive gown.  Clothes are another passion stifled by Catherine’s sense, and by her father’s sarcasm.

I have already spent a couple of days on another cluster of detail, all of the fuss about income and inheritance.  As important as these details are, they are not actually mentioned very often – I have already used most of their occurences.  Trollope’s novels  have far more money talk.  Balzac’s novels – Balzac can pass the point of absurdity.  Search the Gutenberg text of Cousin Bette for “francs.”  One thing you will find, somewhere in the middle, is what may be my favorite Balzac line:

“[S]he costs me a hundred and ninety-two thousand francs a year!" cried Hulot.

“She” is a kept woman with a syphilitic husband and a Brazilian boyfriend.  The art, or absurdity, of the sentence is of course in the precision of the amount.

Henry James learned a lot from his master Balzac but he clearly also failed to learn even more.  Does he ever in his fiction include a Brazilian boyfriend?  I seem to have begun to queer the novel, which is easy enough to do – just read it as if Morris actually wants to “marry” Dr. Sloper, with Catherine as a surrogate.  Pay particular attention to Ch. XXIII ("he used to smoke cigars in the Doctor's study, where he often spent an hour in turning over the curious collections of its absent proprietor").  What nonsense!

And what fun, Emma!  Thanks for the suggestion.  My next readalong event looms – Dolce Bellezza invited me to read José Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda, as it is known in English.  We’re aiming at the end of April.  The first chapter features a pleasingly odd omniscient narrator and bedbugs feasting on Portuguese royalty - promising.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

You think too much about money! - getting the sums right in Washington Square

"I am not magnificent," she said mildly, wishing that she had put on another dress.

"You are sumptuous, opulent, expensive," her father rejoined.  "You look as if you had eighty thousand a year."

"Well, so long as I haven't--" said Catherine illogically.  Her conception of her prospective wealth was as yet very indefinite.

We are only in Chapter IV of Washington Square, and Catherine Sloper has not even met Morris Townsend, her suitor, but her father gives us a preview of the central conflict of the novel.  His conception of her wealth, her inherited income of ten thousand dollars a year, is quite clear.  Catherine, much like the modern reader, could use a benchmark.

The problem of the novel, again:  Catherine wants to marry Morris; her father thinks Morris wants her only for her money; her father is mostly right about Morris, but wrong about his own daughter in all sorts of lasting ways.  The monetary details are that Catherine has $10,000 a year of her own (which today would be perhaps $200,000 a year), an enormous investment income, but her father, a self-made doctor will leave her an additional $20,000 a year at his death, or in other words the potential prize is an astounding  $600,000 a year.

Two examples of how pinning down Catherine’s rank in the wealth distribution changes how I read Washington Square.

First, the narrator up above is right.  Catherine really does not know how wealthy she is, or how wealthy her father.  She misinterprets her income.  Many people do, which is why we are all middle class.  Readers collecting evidence for an indictment of her father should add this to the list, since it is his fault.  “[T]he amount of money at her disposal was not greater than the allowance made to many poorer girls” (Ch. III).  The narrator, and the doctor know this, not Catherine.

In a late scene, Catherine and Morris argue about money.  Morris, who seems to have acquired a position as a commodities trader, tells Catherine that he needs to go to New Orleans for business, “to make six thousand dollars” (i.e., $120,000, Ch. XXIX).  Morris has no money; if Morris had money Dr. Sloper would bless his marriage to his daughter.  Catherine demands that Morris forego the trip:

"We have no need of six thousand dollars.  You think too much about money!"

The scene is pivotal, psychologically complex, and each character has hidden motives, so this little piece is hardly the only thing going on, but the size of the sum raises questions.  Is Catherine really this naïve about money?  Or does she have some sense of what she is demanding?  She is right: with her own large income they do not need $120,000 more.  At this point in the novel, she may, unconsciously, actually want to be alienated from her father.

Catherine is the heart of the novel, but my idea of the charming, restless Morris also changes with the size of the pot.  Morris often seems to be not simply after money, but after big money.  Say the proper multiplier is not twenty but two; that he is after, in today’s money, $20,000 per year with a chance of $60,000.  The difference would be between working (but with a nice cushion) and not working (if your tastes are ordinary).  Small change for Morris, though, who, at certain points in the novel seems willing to risk an unearned income of $200,000 (“Leisured for life,” as Henry James, Sr. perhaps called it) for the chance at $600,000.  See the lovers’ conversation in Chapter XX, where Morris constantly circles back to the subject of money – not to Catherine’s money, which is in hand, so to speak, but to her father’s money:

"But don't you think," he went on presently, "that if you were to try to be very clever, and to set rightly about it, you might in the end conjure it away?  Don't you think," he continued further, in a tone of sympathetic speculation, "that a really clever woman, in your place, might bring him round at last?  Don't you think?"

Morris is a more serious gambler than I had realized.  James is vague about the fate of Morris’s own inherited money (“I spent my own; it was because it was my own that I spent it.  And I made no debts; when it was gone I stopped.” Ch. XII).  Now I have a guess where it went, and I understand his decisions differently, which part of the chase really thrills him.

A third example, a minor one:  browsing the book, I am now amused to see the number of times the narrator, or another character, refers to “poor Catherine” or “the poor girl.”  An easy irony, I guess, but I had completely missed it until I really focused on how rich the poor girl is.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Your daughter will be immensely rich - How rich is Catherine Sloper in Washington Square?

"She has an income of ten thousand dollars in her own right, left her by her mother; if she marries a husband I approve, she will come into almost twice as much more at my death."

Mrs. Montgomery listened in great earnestness to this splendid financial statement; she had never heard thousands of dollars so familiarly talked about.  She flushed a little with excitement.  "Your daughter will be immensely rich," she said softly.

"Precisely--that's the bother of it."  (Ch. 14)

Catherine Sloper is plain but rich.  Flashy Morris has pursued her – for her money alone, or for her money and person?  It is clear enough early on that “her person alone” is not an option.  Catherine’s father, speaking above, thinks Morris is a gold digger and nothing but.  Catherine disagrees.  Here is a novel’s worth of material.

The above passage, not quite halfway through the book, is the first time that Catherine’s inheritance of $10,000 a year turns, however ephemerally, into $30,000 a year.  Doubts that niggled began to pinch and even bite.  What is “immensely rich”?  What does ten thousand dollars a year mean?

To the inflation calculator!  Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculator only goes back to 1913 when the CPI became a well-defined object.  A dollar in 1913 is equivalent to $23 today.  Fortunately, during the 19th century inflationary periods were balanced by deflationary episodes, so the 1913 figure is not a bad proxy as long as you are not interested in the last years of the Civil War or another similarly unusual time.  For more precision, please inspect the various price series in Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (1976). A multiplier between 20 and 24 is a likely result.  I will use 20 to make the math easier.

So, back to Catherine Sloper, circa 1840 (“the first half of the present century, and more particularly during the latter part of it,” Ch. 1)* and her inheritance from her mother.  Ten thousand dollars a year is then something like $200,000 a year today.  “[A]lmost twice as much more,” thirty thousand, is then $600,000 a year.  Of income, not wealth.  Mrs. Montgomery is right.

Thinking the problem through, then, I had to adjust view of the novel’s central problem.  The poor but dashing Morris is not simply pursuing an heiress.  His prize is more like the granddaughter of a Rockefeller or a Carnegie.  Or, to revert to the correct time, an Astor.  Or a James.

I turn to The Jameses: A Family Narrative by R. W. B. Lewis, 1991, p. 30:

At least one Albany newspaper, offering figures that William James [grandfather of Henry] had been “prosperous almost without parallel,” ascribed to James a fortune of $3 million, and this is the value usually indicated.  There is no way to translate such a figure with any kind of precision into terms meaningful in the late twentieth century.  One could multiply, say, by twenty[!], and speak of an estate today of $60 million; but this does not begin to convey the image of one of the two or three richest men in the young country.

At William’s death, the estate was divided twelve ways.  A saga in itself, the end result is that Henry James, Sr.  ended up with an income “conventionally calculated at $10,000 a year,” which sounds familiar, although Lewis argues that it was closer to $12,500 a year, “an income that would be in excess of $300,000 a year before taxes” (31).  Lewis appears to be using a multiplier of 24.

When Henry [Sr.] was informed of his legacy, he is said to have murmured: “Leisured for life.”  And so he was. (30)

This is all background.  Tomorrow:  my doubts and my certainties.  Correctly placing Catherine and her ten thousand dollars affects, and perhaps even changes, my interpretation of Washington Square.

*  The prose in Washington Square is relatively straightforward.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A poorish story in three numbers - looking over Washington Square

Back thisaway, while I was idly speculating that I might someday read a word or two more of the writing of Henry James, Emma of Book Around the Corner suggested that I read Washington Square (1880).  Son article fait ici.

Her suggestion was a kind one.  First, Washington Square turns out to lightly borrow some of its plot and structural features from the greatest Balzac novel, Eugénie Grandet (1833), which was a treat.  Second, the novel is so easy to read.  Where are the heavy, twisty, foggy James sentences of legend?  In other books, I know – heavy James is a strange beast, but a real one.  Washington Square is friendly by design:  only four major characters, paired off in every variation, plus a witty narrator with a light touch; chapters just a few pages long, 35 of them in a 196 page book; huge quantities of springy dialogue; almost no descriptive passages.

A reader over-familiar with Wuthering Expectations might wonder if the last two items on that list are included in an entirely friendly spirit.  They do make the book a breeze to read.

Dr. Sloper, quick and clever, perhaps poisoned by his ironic view of the world; his adult daughter Catherine, plain and dull; her suitor Morris, who is interested in Catherine’s money, yes, but how interested, or exactly why, there is a mystery for a novelist to explore; a pushy aunt who lives vicariously through her niece.  Every pair of characters is interesting – the open enmity between the protective doctor and the sly suitor, for example, or the aunt’s open pursuit of Morris in the name of her niece.

Catherine is the center, though, Catherine struggling with everyone else.  The true characters of the doctor and Morris and Aunt Lavinia are revealed to the reader when they knock up against each other, even as they conceal themselves from each other.  Catherine’s character is revealed and changes.  One of the changes is that, like the reader, she learns to read the other characters correctly.  Catherine turns out to be more complex than she first seemed; everyone else turns out to be as narrow, or narrower.

The “pure essence of great literature,” Emma calls the novel.  I believe this is what she means – correct me, please!  A few characters and a minimal plot are all that a perceptive writer needs to make original and exciting discoveries.

One strong dissenter from Emma’s judgment was Henry James.  He is writing to William Dean Howells:

What is your Cornhill novel about?  I am to precede it with a poorish story in three numbers – a tale purely American, the writing of which made me feel acutely the want of the “paraphernalia.”

From Letters: Vol. II 1875-1883 (1975), ed. Leon Edel, Jan. 31, 1880, p. 268.  I want to return to the “paraphernalia” later.  It was clear, poking around in the letters, that James had quickly moved on, in his imagination, to his next book, The Portrait of a Lady, a big and ambitious book, a reputation-maker.  Still, “poorish” is pretty funny.  Emma is a lot closer to the truth than James.

Emma – anyone, I guess – what else should I write about?  The money, definitely.  There is something funny going on with the money.  I want to revisit James’s detail work.  And that leaves an open day.  Should I Queer the novel?  Does anyone still talk about that?  This book turns out to be an easy one.  Suggestions welcome, although I promise nothing.  great choice, Emma!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Plunging into the Australian desert with Burke and Wills - despite the fact that he had painted his body like a skeleton

My last disastrous exploring expedition was to the Panamanian jungle, about a year ago.  This time I crossed Australia from Melbourne to the northern coast and back with the 1860-61 Burke and Wills expedition, courtesy of Alan Moorehead’s Cooper’s Creek (1963).  Wikipedia has a simple, useful map of the route.

Nineteen men were part of the expedition at some point of other; a third of them died, including the leaders Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills; only one, John King, actually made it across Australia and back.

Cooper’s Creek is the site of the story’s tragic end.  The expedition established an outpost at the creek.  The leaders and a couple of other men pushed on to the coast through unexplored country.  Those remaining at the outpost waited for four months, suffering from malnutrition and scurvy, for the return of the exploring party, abandoning the post exactly one day before the starving Burke and Wills and King staggered into the camp.  Sympathetic aborigines kept the exploreres alive for a time, but only King lived long enough to be saved by a rescue party.

As I have asked before, why are these terrible stories of hardship and struggle so satisfying to read in comfort?  I suppose I find the story of survival most appealing, of Burke and Wills hanging on and King actually making it, but the body count, and the bureaucratic bungling, and the wrong turns, and the truly bad luck, certainly heighten the tension.

Alan Moorehead is a clear and efficient writer.  He freely mixes documents, second-hand history, and his own observations – the book, as is typical of the genre, ends with an account of Moorehead’s own tracing of the expedition’s path.  Moorehead has a good sense of the explorers’ point of view and a good eye for strangeness:

He [an indigenous Australian] was very friendly, despite the fact that he had painted his body like a skeleton, but when they tried to find out from him if he had seen any white men with camels he could not understand. (Ch. 12, 141)

The poor camels are an element of strangeness brought by the expedition to Australia from India at enormous expense.  Moorehead writes that “by the end of the century there were 6,000 of them” in Australia, but they were rare by the time of his visit in the 1960s (Ch. 15, 203).

The spectacle of human folly; I suppose that is the attraction of adventure books, catastrophic or heroic.  Without heroic fools like Burke and Wills, nothing would happen.

Page numbers are from the 2010 Skyhorse Publishing edition.

Tomorrow, Emma joins me for Henry James and Washington Square.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

I play with everything I could have said - writing against disquiet

Friday is a holiday, so this will be the end of my wrassling with The Book of Disquiet.  I do not write anything for Wuthering Expectations when I have a day off.  Why I let my arbitrary work schedule determine my writing schedule is a mystery, but why I write anything at all is the greater mystery, the one to solve first.

Bernardo Soares and Fernando Pessoa take on the question in The Book of Disquiet.  As I read more of the novel, the central puzzle of the book moves from “Why do I exist?” to “Why does this book exist?”  The questions answer each other.  Soares exists to write his journal.  The journal exists so that Soares may exist.  Soares deflects his anxiety about meaninglessness by writing, by creating his own meaning.  His writing is – Jenny reminds me that Soares anticipates Albert Camus – Soares’s unending Sisyphean task, intensely purposeful even if otherwise empty.

I cure it [the “sinister absurdity” of the fear of “ceasing to exist”] by writing it down.  Yes, there is no desolation – if it is really profound and not just pure emotion – without the intelligence having some part in it, for which there exists the ironic remedy of saying it doesn’t exist.  If literature had no other purpose, it would have this one, if only for a few people …  I write the way others sleep…  (168, p. 151)

Writing is thus not creation but negation, or negation of negation:  “sometimes I write because I have nothing to say” (223, p. 209).  The word “because” is the Pessoan signature.  Writing leads not to anything of lasting value, or even to feeling, but to a “dream in prose.”  Soares, rereads “everything I have written” only to “find that all of it is worthless, that it would have been better off if I hadn’t done it” (241, p. 229).  Yet he continues, ending this passage with a grim metaphor:  “rereading, I see my dolls burst, the straw stuffing pouring through their torn sides, emptying without having existed.”  The metaphor in the earlier passage is even more nightmarish:

I write lingering over the words, as if they were shopwindows I can’t see through and which stand as half-meanings, quasi-expressions, like the colors of a cloth I never saw, harmonies made of I don’t know what objects.  I write lulling myself, like an insane mother lulling a dead child.  (223, p. 209)

Hmmm.  I will say that this is not exactly how I feel about Wuthering Expectations, although there have been times – well.

The end of the novel returns to writing.  “If I man only writes well when drunk, I would tell him: Get drunk” (274, p. 268), even at the price of liver disease – “the poems you write live forever.”  The Pickwick Papers and jolly, amiable Mr. Pickwick are suggested as models.  Literature is “the goal to which every human effort ought to strive” – every human effort!   “The novelist is all of us.”  In the last line, Soares writes like a cat – “I play with everything I could have said” (276, p. 270)

Now that in fact does exactly describe Wuthering Expectations.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

I’m almost convinced that I’m never awake. - dreaming, screaming, nausea, and other signs of disquiet

What I would like to do is work through an interpretation of The Book of Disquiet.  What I am likely to do is string together a bunch of curious and odd quotations from the book and sprinkle them with light commentary.

Bernardo Soares is assistant bookkeeper at a shipping company and has been for a long time, almost timelessly.  His desk is a “bulwark against life” (58, p. 52).  For Soares, “against” is a good thing:  “Life disgusts me, like a useless medicine”  962, p. 55).  Soares eats every dinner at the same café, lives in the same apartment, and wanders the same Lisbon streets.  Although he contributes poems or other writings to avant garde magazines, he has no friends (or: Because he contributes etc.).  He has no family.  His father committed suicide when Bernardo was three (citation, please! – where is this passage?).

One direction – I am interrupting myself –  that might be fruitful would be to piece together the scattered reference Soares makes to his family and childhood and see how they relate to his existential crisis.  Say Soares is erecting a defense against the attraction of his father’s suicide.

Soares’s basic crisis is one of meaning and identity.  He not only assumes that his life is meaningless, but he is not entirely clear that he is living at all:

I’m almost convinced that I’m never awake.  I don’t know if I’m not dreaming when I live, if I don’t live when I dream, or if my dreaming and living aren’t mixed, intersected things, out of which my conscious being is formed by interpenetration.  (160, p. 146)

He is not sure he exists, everything may be a dream, and what if he is a character in a novel.  Soares returns to the difference between sleeping and waking repeatedly.  Other repeated metaphors of his condition:  illness, nausea, ennui.  Human contact is destructive:  “I feel physical nausea toward the common man, which is, in any case, the only kind there is” (60, p. 53).

I am omitting all of the amusing and inventive metaphors that accompany all of Soares’s simpler declaration.  If I paid closer attention to them they would like complicate – perhaps upend – everything I have said.

The Modernist mentalité is often characterized as fragmented, alienated, and neurotic, conditions caused by, say, the increasing separation between home and work or the isolation of urban life or sexual repression.  I am usually not sure how these ideas fit any particular Modernist text, so it is amusing to see them all concentrated in this one character, both effects and causes.  Soares may be a mess, but he is a representative mess, even if I, an ordinary fellow, only catch glimpses of myself in his life:

An enormous disquiet made me tremble making even the slightest gestures,  I was afraid of going mad, not of madness itself, but going mad.  My body was a latent scream.  My heart beat as if it were sobbing.  (114, p. 102)

I will remind myself that this kind of description of an extreme state or crisis is typically surrounded by passages describing shops and storms and so on (roof tiles in the moonlight are "liquid with a blackened whiteness," 113, p. 101).

The odd thing is that Soares has created a meaning for himself, has found a mechanism to prop himself up.  Perhaps this is obvious from the concept of the plotless fictional journal.  Soares works, eats, sleeps, dreams – and writes.  He writes this book.

So that will be Part IV of Disquiet week, tomorrow.  Friday is a holiday for me.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My implicit empire is going to be invaded by barbarians - cataloging The Book of Disquiet

The Book of Disquiet could use – I could use – an index.  If I were to do something more thoughtful with the book, my first step would be to make my own, to create a typology for the entries.

There are, for example, the thunderstorm passages:

New light of a rapid yellow shrouds the mute blackness, but now there was a possible breath before the fist of tremulous sound quickly echoed from the other point; like an angry farewell, the thunder began not to be here…   A sudden amazing light splinters. […]  Everything froze where it stood.  Hearts stopped for a moment.  They are all very sensitive.  The silence is frightening, as if death itself were present.  The sound of the rain growing stronger is a relief, like the tears of the everything.  It’s like lead.  (33, pp. 29-30)

The storms recur, and are also used metaphorically.  I detect the hand of the poet in this passage.  Soares, and Pessoa, are especially good with colors, with light.  That is another category:  descriptions of Lisbon, of people, streets, sunsets, the river.  Sometimes descriptive passages lead Soares in philosophical directions, and other times the passages stand on their own.

The assistant bookkeeper writes well about office life, bosses, co-workers, so that’s another category:

I don’t know why – I suddenly realize it – I’m alone in the office.  Just now I sensed it vaguely.  There was in some aspect of my awareness of myself an expansion of relief, a deeper breathing with other lungs.  (137, p. 123)

Soares riffs on the pleasures of being the only person at work, but soon enough footsteps approach and Soares’s “implicit empire is going to be invaded by barbarians.”

Sleep and dreams.  Childhood and memory.  Reading, writing.  A long section about love comes towards the end.  Whether the love is directed at an actual or imaginary person is a matter of interpretation*, but “I” switches to “we” for long stretches (The Book of Disquiet uses the word “I” more than any text I have read recently aside from The Collected Wuthering Expectations).

Some passages are directly philosophical, working on fundamental questions of existence and knowledge.  Why do I exist, how am I different than other people, how do they see the world – big questions.  Some are metaphorical, moving from prose to prose poem, like 248, the “Funeral March for King Ludwig II of Bavaria,” which begins “Today, more slowly than ever, Death came to my doorstep to sell things” and ends “Flowers of the abyss, black roses, moonlight-colored carnations, poppies of a red that has light” (pp. 237 & 241)

Many passages contain aphoristic ideas that are ready, or nearly so, to be pulled from context.  I am terrible at remembering or even identifying these lines.  Levi Stahl has done better, featuring a couple of good paradoxes of perfection:

We worship perfection because we can't have it; if we had it, we would reject it.  Perfection is inhuman, because humanity is imperfect.

I should have used this one last week:

Reading the classics, which do not talk about sunsets, has made many sunsets, in all their colors, intelligible to me.  (6, p. 8)

One could read The Book of Disquiet just for its well-phrased wisdom or anti-wisdom, for its wry understanding of human nature, without ever worrying so much about the puzzling fellow who is supposedly writing the whole thing.  That line about classics and sunsets makes Soares sound quite a bit sweeter than he really is.  I guess I am more interested in him than in his wisdom, so that is where I will go next.

* "My horror of real women endowed with a sex is the road that led me to find you" (199, p. 186). I have my guess.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Everything around me is evaporating - beginning the rambling, disconnected Book of Disquiet

The Book of Disquiet begins with instructions:  how to organize The Book of Disquiet.  Instructions to an editor, presumably, not the reader:

The final organization of The Book of Disquiet should be based on a most rigid selection of the passages that exist in various forms, adapting the oldest, which do not contain Bernardo Soares’s psychology, as that true psychology is now pouring out.  Aside from that, a general revision of the style will have to be made, taking care that it not lose, in its intimacy, the rambling manner and the disconnected logic that characterizes it. (Entry 1, p. 3)

A strange way to begin any book, since the bound text I have been reading has already been organized, in this case into 276 numbered entries or passages, some just a line or two, some several pages long.   An Appendix keys the numbers to a different text, the 1982 Portuguese edition of the book which has at least 520 entries, and is thus less rigidly selected.

Your version of The Book of Disquiet, if it is not the 1991 Alfred Mac Adam translation (or, actually, the 1998 Exact Change edition), likely begins differently, its contents selected by differently rigid principles.

Who is supposed to adapt older passages?  Who is supposed to revise the style?  This note is actually from Pessoa to himself.  At the end of his life, he was preparing – or planning to prepare – a number of books for publication, including this one.  Who knows what decisions he might have made.

Or I could assume that even the first paragraph is part of the fiction of The Book of Disquiet, that despite the mention of Bernardo Soares it is in fact (in fictional fact) written by Soares, that it is a note from Soares to himself about how to organize his “real” journal, which then doubles as a real note by the real Pessoa about this novel he wrote, a novel in the form of a fictional journal.

For the next few days, I believe I will simply call this book a novel and its narrator a character.  The novel is a character study, without ordinary plot or story, arranged just as that first paragraph describes, not without logic but with disconnected logic.  The character, Soares, is “an assistant bookkeeper in the city of Lisbon” who does little but work, eat in the same café, wander the city, sleep, and write this journal. – “[t]hese pages are the scribbles of my intellectual unawareness of myself” (177, p. 158).  He is suffering from some sort of crisis of identity, but if the crisis is permanent is it still a crisis or rather a condition of existence?

A question of interpretation:  is Soares an extreme case who highlights some important psychological feature of the modern personality, or is he an ordinary or representative man who expresses himself with unusual force:

Everything around me is evaporating.  My whole life, my memories, my imagination and its contents, my personality – it’s all evaporating.  I continuously feel that I was someone else, that I felt something else, that I thought something else.  What I’m attending here is a show with another set.  And the show I’m attending is myself.  (12, p. 15)

Or Soares is nuts and it’s all a bunch of hooey.  I do not plan to follow that path, although it has the advantage of clear and accurate signage.  Instead, I will spend a few days making notes on Pessoa’s oddly organized, oddly argued, oddly compelling Book of Disquiet.