Thursday, May 31, 2012

There was plenty of mustard - a Robert Walser story found by chance

Yesterday in a comment Caravanas Ricardo joked that he could count the Robert Walser short stories he had read on one finger.  Me too, before I read Selected Stories.  Although Richard has also read a Walser novel, so he is way ahead of me.

The Tom Friedman show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago was twelve years ago.  Friedman is a highly conceptual sculptor whose signature is the creation of objects that should not exist.  A pencil shaving made from a single pencil, or a large sheet of paper on which he wrote every word from a dictionary, or a self-portrait carved from an aspirin.  That sort of thing.  I eventually bought a book about Friedman, the 2001 Phaidon Tom Friedman, just to have something to show people.  No, really, “Two identically wrinkled sheets of paper,” they're right here.

The book also included favorite prose selected by the artist, and one of Friedman's choices was Robert Walser’s “The Dinner Party,” 1919, tr. Susan Bernofsky.  So that was my one finger.

It was a delightful dinner party.  There was plenty of mustard, and the whole works was accompanied by the finest wine.  The soup was admittedly a bit thick, and the fish contributed nothing to the entertainment, but no one took it amiss.

That is the first one-eighth of the four paragraph story.  It gets odd fast.  The emphasis on mustard is bizarre, but the out-of-place rhetoric is also immediately visible:  the banal opening, calling a fancy dinner “the whole works,” the fussiness about the fish.

Duck follows (“[a]mong other things”), and cheese and coffee.  The narrator becomes poetical (“The liqueur made us swim in a more beautiful age”) perhaps because a poet recites some verses.  Or else it is the booze.  I have now summarized the story through paragraph two.  On to number three, which begins:

One of the guests was frozen.  All attempts to being him to life were in vain.  The ladies’ dresses were magnificent, they revealed quite a lot, thus leaving nothing to be desired.

At this point, I see for the first time in this sketch the similarity to his great admirer Kafka.  Coming from the wrong direction, I begin to see Walser as Kafkaesque, although the reverse is more accurate.  The frozen man at the dinner party could be the subject of his own parable.

The last paragraph:

In parting I slipped the butler a hundred-franc tip.  He returned it with the remark that he was accustomed to better wages.  I asked him to be content with less just this once.  Outside a car awaited me, which then whisked me away, and so off I drove, and no doubt am still doing so to this day.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Everything always reminds one of its opposite - not writing about Robert Walser

What an idea I had, to spend a few days writing about Robert Walser.  Some other few days, I hope.

I read through the 1982 Selected Stories, tr. Christopher Middleton and others, in part because, directed here by Fernando Pessoa, I was looking for literary clerks.  A cold trail is what I got for my trouble, although “Kienast” (1917) features “a man who wanted nothing to do with anything,” a fine Bartleby-like sentiment, except he is openly mean, greedy, and selfish, which is quite a ways from Melville’s transcendent character or the complex interior life of Pessoa’s Bernardo Soares.  Perhaps I should have tried the Walser novel with the promising title of The Assistant.

But it is Selected Stories I read, so it is Selected Stories that I will write about, despite the fact that I have so little to say about it.  Walser’s main tool is dissociation – the story is told through its gaps and breaks.  “Everything always reminds one of its opposite” Walser, a proto-deconstructionist, writes in “Snowdrops.”  Even in a little sketch, just a page or two, the little leaps and kinks make Walser’s writing not simply hard to interpret, but even worse hard to remember.  “The She-Owl” (1921):

A she-owl in a ruined wall said to herself:  What a horrifying existence.  Anyone else would be dismayed, but me, I am patient.  I lower my eyes, huddle.  Everything in me and on me hangs down like gray veils, but above me, too, the stars glitter; this knowledge fortifies me.

Hmm, perhaps I have found a clerk, disguised by metaphor.  But with the next paragraph, the voice shifts.  The “I” has clothes.  Yes, a metaphor.  The narrator is a woman, growing or grown old, wearing large glasses, reading a poet “whose finesse makes him fit to be digested by owls.”  This is pretty much the story, the page-long piece.

I have made Walser sound so gloomy when in fact he is so much fun. Mookse Gripes, reading Walser’s recent Berlin Stories collection, wonders where the exuberance comes from:  “one cannot help but notice the vibrancy, the wonder at life.”  Walser’s writing is actively imaginative and goofy.  He writes about a man with a pumpkin head, or a balloon trip to the sun, or an essay on trousers:

A skirt is noble, awe-inspiring, and has a mysterious character.  Trousers are also incomparably more indelicate and they suffuse the masculine soul, to some extent, with a shudder.  Again, on the other hand, why should horror not grip us modern people, slightly?

Much of the fun in Walser is right there:  the overly formal register that is not quite right for the subject, and the swerve towards “horror,” which is immediately followed by the hope that women will someday wear extremely tight trousers that would “nestle” against “the soft, rounded flesh of the leg”:  “I would die of delight, or at least hit the floor in a swoon.”

So it seems I could write about Walser all day just by leafing through this book.  What do poets like?  “Every true poet likes dust.”  Someday I will spend more time sifting through Walser’s dust.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A timely entrance in a society that was rotting - Zola's strange narrator

I have divided The Kill into Balzac pieces and Flaubert pieces.  One more piece.  Not sure what to call it.  The Hugo piece, maybe.  Hugo gone mad.

A sample of how Zola’s narrator sounds while discussing the affair between the stepson and stepmother:

They had given themselves to each other for years; the animal act was simply the culmination of this unconscious malady of passion.  In the maddened world in which they lived, their sin had sprouted as on a dunghill oozing with strange juices; it had developed with strange refinements amid special conditions of perversion.  (IV, 154)

If you are thinking “This could make a dang good audiobook,” I agree.  It would give the actor a lot to do.

These two sentences are enough to show what happens to Zola’s scientism whenever he chooses to employ it.  The “animal acts” and “unconscious malady” sound sort of scientific, or objective, if that word means anything.  But what about the “maddened world” and the “sin” and the vivid simile that I have a hard time reading as dispassionate description.

Victor Hugo’s persona in his fiction – in real life, I suspect – is a sage, a dispenser of knowledge and wisdom.  Bombast is one of his many rhetorical devices, and one could find a few similarly condemnatory flourishes in Les Misérables.  Zola’s narrator writes like this all the time, whenever he is not grounded by 1) a scene (Flaubert), or 2) an explanation (Balzac).

Admittedly, that covers most of the book.  The novel has only seven chapters.  Chapters I and VI, the big parties, are single continuous scenes.  The narrator is too busy describing the tropical flowers and costumes to pass judgment on anyone.  Those two chapters are almost a third of the book.  Now remove the restaurant scene, the fireplace scene, the construction site scene, and a couple of interesting scenes at Renée’s childhood home.  Next, all of the financial dealings.  I do not think there is much left.  What there is, though, look out:

In [Maxime] the Rougons had become refined, had grown delicate and corrupt…  he was a defective offspring in whom the parental shortcomings were combined and exacerbated.  The family lived too fast; it was dying out already in this frail creature, whose sex remained uncertain, and who represented, not greed for money and pleasure like Saccard, but a mean nature devouring ready-made fortunes, a strange hermaphrodite making a timely entrance in a society that was rotting.  (III, 103)

This whole paragraph is something else.  How about this part:

But his special characteristic was his eyes, two clear blue apertures, coquettes’ mirrors behind which one could see the emptiness of his brain.  These whorish eyes were never lowered…

Flaubert’s goal was to conceal the narrator even in passages not tied down to specific scenes.  His narrator would never simply say that society was rotting or condemn a character’s greed or sexual behavior.  Zola’s narrator is highly visible and gleefully tells his reader in the strongest terms he can just that.  Modern readers are likely to find themselves much less bothered by Renée’s supposed incest than the narrator is.

I have no idea to what extent the narrator’s pronouncements are meant to be taken seriously.  Since I did not take them, or The Kill, seriously I thought they were often hilarious.  I mean, just as an example, you cannot see what is behind a mirror, right?  That’s a joke, comic hyperbole.

I guess I should read another Zola novel and see what other modes he has.  Or someone can just tell me in a comment.

My vacation!  Zola has me so worked up I almost forgot.  I’ll be back Wednesday.  Maybe I will try to write about Robert Walser next week.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

She derived profound enjoyment from the suggestive furniture around her - Zola scene by scene

I’ll knock Zola against Henry James again.  James makes surprisingly little use of scenes.  The kind of anatomizing of emotion in which he specializes can take place anywhere.  Even conversations are often vague and floating – the characters are in the study or walking in the garden.  What more do we need to know?

Zola’s answer to the question, in The Kill at least, is sometime the same as James’s.  In particular, most of the financial details, all of Saccard’s schemes to flip Paris real estate, is delivered in a sort of summary, often full of metaphors (cash boxes pouring out a rain of gold, for example), but covering months of time and touching down in a dozen locations.  Many of these passages seemed highly derivative of Balzac, whose novels are full of bankers and speculators cheating each other for impossibly large and ridiculously precise sums.

Zola’s other answer, though is “everything.”  The reader needs to know everything.  So the first forty page chapter is one long enormous scene, a ride in the park followed by a party, and Chapter VI, the climax, is another forty page party scene, including a three scene tableau of Echo and Narcissus with an inventory of every costume and what seems like a step-by-step description of a cotillion dance.  The heroine has to continually dodge the dancers in order for the story to reach its semi-tragic end.

If the finance is from Balzac, the parties are from Flaubert, dazzling and original variations on scenes from A Sentimental Education.  Eça de Queirós plays the same tricks in The Maias with his big choreographed chapter-long parties, although Eça is a purer Flaubertist.  The parties let the writer show off.

Zola is at least as impressive on a smaller scale.  The main plot pivot is smack in the center of the novel, just where it should be.  The heroine makes her stepson take her to a courtesan’s party and then to a restaurant, all of which is vaguely indecent.  How can the restaurant be indecent?  This is the private room:

Besides the table and chairs, there was a sort of low slab that served as a sideboard, and a wide divan, as large as a bed, that stood between the fireplace and the window…  But the curiosity of the room was the huge, handsome mirror, which had been scrawled on by the ladies’ diamonds with names, dates, doggerel verses, high-blown sentiments, and amazing declarations.  Renée thought she saw something filthy, but lacked the courage to satisfy her curiosity…  she derived profound enjoyment from the suggestive furniture around her…  (Ch. IV, 125)

Maxime, the stepson, thoughtlessly orders “Wednesday’s supper,” whatever it was he had eaten the last time he had brought a prostitute to this room.

The mechanics of the dinner and the now inevitable seduction seven pages later should give a novelist plenty to do, but Zola sees the scene more fully.  The activity in the room is constantly merged with the noise and life of the boulevard below:  a crowd waiting for an omnibus, the posters on a kiosk, the party in the restaurant across the street (we know, and Renée does not, that her husband is there), the prostitutes waiting for customers, one in particular:  “When her eyes had grown used to the dark, she saw the woman in the blue dress trimmed with lace standing in the same place, alone in the shadows, waiting and offering herself to the empty night” (133).  This is just after the sex, and just before the waiter hands Renée the blue ribbon she had lost.

Well, sometimes the sculptor needs to get out the hammer and pound away for a while, right?

I am not convinced that The Kill adds up to much more than the sum of its parts, but the parts, the parts!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The eager, sensual mouths of women, the red lips, soft and moist - Zola describes things

When I complained about the vagueness of the scenes and the lack of furniture in James’s The Spoils of Poynton, I was actually complaining about the unbelievable, even ludicrous, excess of furniture in Zola’s The Kill.  This was all very subtle; undetectable, in fact.

The Kill practically begins with an auto expo.  Barouche, chariot, “smart victoria and pair,” “an enchanting light-brown cab,” brougham, landau.  Perhaps Zola is simply looking at the Wikipedia page for “Types of horse-drawn carriages” like I am.  But no, I suspect he means something by this precision.

The novel actually begins with a high society traffic jam in the newly hip and refurbished Bois de Boulogne.  Much of the cast of the novel is paraded past us – or I guess I am moving, since they are stuck – placed in the appropriate conveyance that perfectly signals their status and wealth.  None of it is at all memorable on the first pass through the book, even though as I look back I can clearly see how much of it reappears later.

The heroine’s clothes might be memorable:  a mauve silk gown, a white coat with mauve lapels, “a man’s double eyeglass with a tortoiseshell frame, and, on a “warm October day,” a giant bearskin.  A polar bear, apparently, since it “filled the inside of the carriage as with a sheet of silky snow.”  A different bearskin appears 150 pages later, but a black (“inky”) one, now the setting for literally steamy hothouse sex (“The hothouse was heated to such a point that he fainted on the bearskin,”  Ch. IV, 157).  That “he” was driving the bearskin-filled barouche back on page 3.  I am not convinced that The Kill is written with the care of Madame Bovary, but it is not simply slapped together.

The hothouse is given an elaborate description at the end of Chapter I, when the narrator abandons his heroine (she is busy eavesdropping on that driver and future lover) for a two page botanical tour.  Cyclanthus, dwarf fern, a banana tree, Abyssinian euphorbias.  Precision threatens to turn into a mere list, but each plant is also given an identifying detail or metaphor so that alsophilas look like “large pieces of porcelain made specially for the fruit of some gigantic dessert” and “deformed prickly cactuses” are “covered with hideous excrescences, oozing with poison.”  As you can see, the omniscient narrator often describes things in ways that make me fear for his sanity.  The flowers of a hibiscus:

resembled, it might have been imagined, the eager, sensual mouths of women, the red lips, soft and moist, of some colossal Messalina, bruised by kisses, and constantly renewed, with their hungry, bleeding smiles.  (38)

The passive voice is amusing – “might have been.”  This may be the smuttiest passage in the history of Wuthering Expectations, and thus it leads the narrator’s attention back to Renée who, surrounded by tropical plants, suggestive statuary, strange lighting effects (“glaucous masses with monstrous outlines”), and especially “[a]n indescribable perfume, potent, exciting…  coarse and pestilential, laden with poison” has some sort of sensual epiphany which remains unfocused until she overhears her venal husband forcing the money plot into the sex plot (“’But in my share you valued each metre of frontage at two hundred and fifty francs.’”):

Renée, her mind wandering, her mouth dry and parched, took between her lips a sprig of the [venomous] tanghin tree that was level with her mouth, and sunk her teeth into one of its bitter leaves.  (40)

And, cut.  End of chapter.  But we’ll return to the poisonous hothouse.

I became distracted by the carriages and plants.  The Kill is also full of furniture.  And dresses, unbelievable dresses.  You should see the “Tahitian” number Renée wears near the end.  But I have to move on.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Zola's metaphors - the hunt, fire, gold and flesh

The title, The Kill, La Curée, is the first metaphor.  I understand that the term has more precise associations in French than in English.  Emma calls  la curée “the moment when dogs kill the animal they are hunting,” while translator Brian Nelson defines it as “the part of an animal fed to the hounds that have run it to ground” (Oxford Worlds’ Classics ed., x), and I assume they are both right.  Although English loses the association with dogs, the term can mean either the act or the animal, so in literature it means both.

Paris, for example, is one of the novel’s “kills,” torn to scraps by the scavengers following Haussmann, but the Second Empire and the construction of the boulevards is also the moment of the killing.  Renée, the novel’s heroine, is another “kill,” or actually two, her property one, her body another, and of course the climax of her story is the “moment.”  Emma runs through a few more.  It is a rich metaphor.

Odd, then how little use Zola makes of it.  He only has so much room.  Here he is completely explicit, but see where he goes:

Meanwhile the Saccards’ fortune seemed to be at its height.  It blazed in the heart of Paris like a huge bonfire.  This was the time when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches.  The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months.  The city had become an orgy of gold and women.  (Ch. III, 112)

And the paragraph continues, piling on more metaphors, new ones, and repeating old ones (“the voluptuous nightmare of a city obsessed with gold and flesh”).  Imagery of the hunt must share space with other thematic strains, with fire, especially, and with “gold and flesh.”  The entire novel is done up in gold and pink.  The décor is, frankly, in questionable taste.  Let me save that for another post.

In an earlier scene, Saccard is dining on top of Montmartre, surveying the city, just like you can do today, except that you will see the actual boulevards, while Saccard sees the future ones.  He chops up the city with his hands, showing his wife (his first wife) what will be.

His dry, feverish hand kept cutting through the air.  Angèle shivered slightly as she watched this living knife, those iron fingers mercilessly slicing up the boundless mass of dark roofs.  (Ch. II, 69)

He slices the city into four parts and feeds it to his hounds, “’Paris slashed with sabre cuts, its veins opened.’”  But the hunt is again, just one metaphor.  The setting sun on the city is “a shower of gold dust,” and the houses “catch fire and melt like an ingot of gold in a crucible.”  Saccard exults that “’whole neighbourhoods will be melted down, and gold will stick to the fingers of those who heat and stir the mortar’” (68).

Saccard spends a later scene skillfully extracting money from Renée, all the while messing in finely described detail with the fire in her room:  “Renée felt uneasy as she watched him making a large hole in the cinders to bury the end of a log” (136).  As far as I can see, the language of the hunt is not used at all in this scene, but Zola has already established the association.  The “huge bonfire” in the heart of Paris that is already linked to the hounds is moved into Renée’s bedroom.  Saccard’s “living knife” goes to work on his wife’s fortune, which he melts down right in front of her.

This is pretty much how The Kill is written, beginning to end, or one way it is written.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Its literary and scientific aspects seemed to be so poorly understood - Zola's The Kill

Let’s say I spend the week wandering around in an obscure Émile Zola novel, The Kill or La Curée (1871-2)?  This book, early Zola, the second in what would become the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series, is obscure in the sense that the coincidental appearance of two new English translations in 2004 were the first since 1895.*  I would not want to guess about the novel’s life in French.

The novel is not so obscure to readers of Guy Savage, who read and wrote about all twenty books and has moved on to Balzac (here is his early piece about La Curée), or Emma at Book around the Corner, who read it recently.  They are both highly enthusiastic about the novel, more than I am, to be honest, so logically they each should have written two weeks of posts.  I am not sure how they restrained themselves, because Zola packed The Kill with so much stuff.  Maybe a little too much.  But he gives a fellow plenty to write about.

Zola describes the novel as “the natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire” and attributes to it “the note of gold and flesh” (Preface), which characterize the parallel plots.  Saccard is a real estate speculator, getting rich via a form of what we would now call insider trading, staying a step ahead of Baron Haussmann's construction of the great Paris boulevards.  This is the money plot, the gold plot.  Saccard stars in a later Zola novel that is simply titled Money.

His young wife Renée is bored out of her mind and, following the usual behavior of her social set, embarks on a series of sexual adventures, culminating in an affair with her effete, beautiful, useless stepson, Maxime.  This is the flesh plot.  Zola describes this strand as “the nervous breakdown of a woman whose circle of luxury and shame increase tenfold native appetites.”

The flesh plot needs money to operate, and the money plot needs sex, so the two lines eventually intersect with a smash, or more of a collapse, “the premature exhaustion of a race which has lived too quickly.”  The characters, “three social monstrosities,” are simply specimens in Zola’s “work of art and science”:

If I feel that I must explain The Kill, this true portrait of social collapse, it is because its literary and scientific aspects seemed to be so poorly understood in the newspaper in which the novel was being serialized that I was obliged to stop its publication and suspend the experiment.

I have not yet left the Preface.  I know that I should be reluctant to generalize, having read only Thérèse Raquin and this one, but two examples are enough to see that Zola packs a great deal of meaningful nonsense into his prefaces.  Be on guard, especially, whenever he uses the word “scientific.”  The Kill has no scientific aspects whatsoever, only literary, which is lucky for me, because that is exactly the sort of thing I may well understand with a little effort.

Emma, Guy, anyone – I will take requests.  What should I write about?

*  I am using the Brian Nelson translation, Oxford World’s Classics, which features a dry but clear social science-ish introduction and excessive endnotes, e.g.  “the members of the City Council… were appointed by the Emperor for five years.”  Who cares?  Relevant to the story how?  (No one; not).

Friday, May 18, 2012

James tells, James shows - some scene that the newspapers would have characterized as lively

Should I write about what Henry James does especially well rather than what is missing from The Spoils of Poynton?  Ignore the missing furniture and instead trace the twisting of Fleda Vetch’s conscience while under emotional stress?  The latter is the purpose of the novel, not the crafting of original metaphors or the polishing of mellifluous phrases.

Well, it is all a work in progress, so I am going to continue to complain.  Complaining is a way to learn, yes?  No?  Today’s complaint is contradictory:  James does not have enough scenes in The Spoils of Poynton, and James should have fewer scenes in the novel.

I am just inverting the old “show, don’t tell” advice, following a recent post by Rohan Maitzen.  Henry James seems to be at his best when he tells, when he frees himself from the constraints of scene.  Sometimes he is telling background, summarizing a character’s past or something like that, but often he is following the thoughts of a character – in Spoils, the thoughts of young Fleda as she thinks through her romantic and ethical problems.  James abandons anything but the vaguest sense of location or action or detail, nor does he pretend to give us much in the way of Fleda’s exact thoughts.

He is not writing a Virginia Woolf novel.  Think of the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway, when we go shopping with Clarissa.  We are always in her head but at the same time are constantly reminded of her surroundings, of her physical location – she has just gone down her front steps, she is looking in a particular shop window, she has stepped off the curb, but is all the while thinking of her past and the people she used to know.  The technique makes it difficult to tell a story where any amount of time passes.  Readers of To the Lighthouse know how Woolf handles that problem.

James can instead use a few pages to cover days or even weeks of mental progression.  In Chapter XIII, for example, Fleda has moved in with her father in London.  A passage covers her activity (summary: none, “[h]er only plan was to be as quiet as a mouse”) and another passage describes her father and his activities, including his “objects, shabby and battered…  old brandy-flasks and match-boxes, old calendars and hand-books” – it turns out he is a collector, too, but a collector of junk.  And then two solid pages of Fleda’s thinking about her relations with the other characters in the novel. 

“This continued a fortnight, at the end of which the feeling was suddenly dissipated” by a visitor, which moves us to Chapter XIV, a single scene, which in James seems to mean a minimal amount of establishing detail – “She poured herself a cup, but not to take it; after which, without wanting it, she began to eat a small stale biscuit” – and then talk talk talk filled out with “Owen looked conscious,” “Fleda cried out with a long wail,” “Owen honestly exclaimed,” and more semi-elegant variation.  Competent enough, but James’s showing is rarely up to his telling.

That biscuit is the only concrete object in the chapter, and it returns at the beginning of the next.  Fleda and Owen are interrupted; the biscuit falls on the floor because of “some precipitate movement” by Fleda.

For Mrs. Brigstock there was apparently more in it than met the eye. Owen at any rate picked it up, and Fleda felt as if he were removing the traces of some scene that the newspapers would have characterized as lively.  (Ch. XV)

In a novel that is really about exceedingly, excruciatingly small matters of decorum and conscience, a nibbled biscuit making a scene “lively” is perfect.  I wish James had summarized more of the chatter, but not at the expense of the biscuit.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Things were of course the sum of the world - James novel without furniture

The last time I read a novel about furniture, the book was, not surprisingly, full of descriptions of furniture.  I shared some of the best “showroom scenes.”  The novel was The Maias, greatest Portuguese novel, etc., etc.  You remember.

The Spoils of Poynton is a different kind of novel about furniture.  Even though an extraordinary collection of furniture and art (but, James emphasize, mostly furniture) supplies the title of the book, the novel includes almost no descriptions of furniture.  Descriptions, heck – almost nothing is even named.

Fleda Vetch, the appreciative heroine, first sees the collection at the beginning of Chapter III.  Or, as only Henry James would say, “the palpitating girl had the full revelation.”  Fleda is ecstatic – she “dropped on a seat with a soft gasp and a roll of dilated eyes.”  The collection is “an exquisite work…  all France and Italy.”  Yes, but an example?  “[B]rasses that Louis Quinze might have thumbed,”  “Venetian velvets,” "cases of enamels.”

“Things” were of course the sum of the world; only, for Mrs. Gereth, the sum of the world was rare French furniture and oriental china.

One object, a Maltese cross, is singled out later in the novel and made use of for various plotty purposes, but even it gets nothing more description than “a small but marvelous crucifix of ivory, a masterpiece of delicacy, of expression, and of the great Spanish period” (Ch. VII).  Knowing that the collection has things of a period is more important than knowing what those things are.

Although James deliberately refuses to inventory the spoils, he is unafraid to employ concrete objects, as long as they are vulgar.  A “lady’s magazine,…  a horrible thing with patterns for antimacassars” is the source of some physical comedy in Chapter VI.  Mrs. Gereth’s knot-headed son has no taste for nice things, as shown by his own room, “the one monstrosity of Poynton: all tobacco-pots and bootjacks,” including “such an array of arms of aggression and castigation that he himself had confessed to eighteen rifles and forty whips” (also Chapter VI).  Still, the attitude towards poor things is more important than the things themselves:

The house was bad in all conscience, but it might have passed if they had only let it alone.  This saving mercy was beyond them; they had smothered it with trumpery ornament and scrapbook art, with strange excrescences and bunchy draperies, with gimcracks that might have been keepsakes for maid-servants and nondescript conveniences that might have been prizes for the blind.  They had gone wildly astray over carpets and curtains; they had an infallible instinct for disaster, and were so cruelly doom-ridden that it rendered them almost tragic. (Ch. I)

If you skim the quotations, as one does, please return and let your eyes linger on “prizes for the blind” and “almost tragic.”  The paragraph as it continues remains this good.  Two snobby aesthetes, Fleda and Mrs. Gereth, are letting loose on their host, making this a nice example of free indirect writing attached to multiple characters.  It does not matter which bits belong to one character and which to the other:  they are in perfect concord and will be friends for life.

The aesthetics of Henry James in essence, isn’t it?  Non-visual, non-sensual.  Just mental, minds on their own, minds engaged with other minds.  The thought of Mrs. Gereth that I put in the title is obviously not meant to flatter her, but James perhaps means it as a more severe indictment of her than I first realized.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Henry James's novel about furniture - He blinked with the exalted humility of the devotee.

Penny said, “Was it Henry James you’re working on?”

“Er… yes,” said Nick.

She seemed to settle comfortably on that, but only said, “My father’s got tons of Henry James.  I think he calls him the Master.”

“Some of us do,” said Nick.  He blinked with the exalted humility of the devotee and sawed off a square of brown meat.  (123, ellipses in original)

Nick is the aesthete and hedonist who stars in Alan Hollinghurst’s finely worked The Line of Beauty (2004).  I fuss and fume about reading more Henry James, and then when I do read more I write nothing about it.  So how about a run at The Spoils of Poynton (1897), published seventeen years after Washington Square.

Since it was all he had, he said, “Actually, I’ve always rather wanted to make a film of The Spoils of Poynton…”  Monique settled back with an appreciative nod at this, and Nick felt encouraged to go on, “I think it could be rather marvelous, don’t you.  You know Ezra Pound said it was just a novel about furniture, meaning to dismiss it of course, but that was really what made me like the sound of it!”  (187, ellipses in original).

Me, too!  Mrs. Gereth and her late husband were tenacious collectors, assembling the perfectly furnished house, but Mrs. Gereth is likely to lose the collection if her nitwit son marries the wrong wife (a wife with bad taste – “It would be her fate, her discipline, her cross, to have a frump brought hideously home to her,” Ch. I).  But what if the son marries poor but discriminating Fleda?  Fleda would like that, too, unless, the path to marriage violates any number of agonizing but small qualms of conscience, the latter making this a James and not a Trollope or Zola story.  All of that is surely enough story for a short novel.

Where Washington Square shuffled four characters, Poynton makes do with only three, with the young woman again the center of the novel’s universe.  Scott Bailey comments on how funny and rapid Washington Square is; Poynton is the same, with 22 chapters in 180 pages (in the Library of America edition) and the sharp, obsessive Mrs. Gereth getting most of the laugh lines.  See the frump above – that sentence is very much in Mrs. Gereth’s voice, as is this:

To get away from [the ugly house] and out into the air, into the presence of sky and trees, flowers and birds, was a necessity of every nerve.  The flowers at Waterbath would probably go wrong in color and the nightingales sing out of tune; but she remembered to have heard the place described as possessing those advantages that are usually spoken of as natural.  (Ch. I)

I suppose I have to hear Mrs. Gereth’s voice correctly, just as I do to laugh with Hollinghurst up above, to get the joke of “usually spoken of as natural,” but the flowers and nightingales that have “probably” gone wrong should be all the clue I need that Mrs. Gereth is adept with comic hyperbole.

Washington Square is, I am informed, one of the last products of James’s early period, while Spoils is from his middle period.  What all of this means I cannot say.  Some thickening of the Jamesian prose is evident, but as I see in this passage the convoluted voice is at the service of a convoluted character, one who performs the voice.  Mrs. Gereth is a step on the path to the snappish aunts found in P. G. Wodehouse novels.  Come to think of it, her confident, ill-educated, weak-willed son Owen is not all that far from Bertie Wooster.

I am not quite ready to enroll with Nick in the ranks of readers who call James “the Master,” but I can spend another day or two at Poynton.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

It is only the truth for you, not for us - Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre

Another short novel today, Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941).  Lewis’s historical novel is written on entirely different principles than Saramago or Sebald use.  The story is based on a famous 16th century court case, and Lewis constrains herself with the details contained in the legal record.  The fictiveness of the novel exists between the legal facts, within the head, really, of Bertrande de Rols, the wife.

The Wife of Martin Guerre is probably closer to what most people think of as a historical novel than Baltasar and Blimunda.  Still, does this sound so different:

“Little sister,” [Bertrande] answered in despair, “how can I deny the truth?”

“It is only the truth for you, not for us,” returned the weeping girl.

Put a writer as good as Lewis on the trail, and these kinds of questions are inevitable.

The story – the real story – is that Bertrande’s husband runs off and only reappears eight years later.  Bertrande welcomes him back, but becomes convinced that he is an impostor, mostly because he is so much nicer, such a better husband, than he used to be.  Eventually her conscience torments her so much that she takes her husband to court, where surprising events occur.  Regardless of the outcome, the core of the novel is Lewis’s step by step construction of Bertrande’s character and state of mind.  And of course none of that is recorded in the medieval court archives of Toulouse.  That’s all fiction.

The setting is the 16th century French Pyrenees.  The characters are mostly well to do peasants.  The first half of the novel is not exactly plotless but is concerned with establishing the ordinary life of the family.  The first few pages, for example, describe Martin and Bertrande’s wedding.  They are both eleven years old.

Everyone was intensely jubilant, but the small bride received very little attention…  Bertrande, immune from observation in the midst of all this commotion which was ostensibly in her honor, looked about the room at her ease, and fed pieces of hard bread dipped in grease to the woolly Pyrenean sheep dog with the long curly tail who nosed his head into her lap from his place beneath the table.

We need to get to know Bertrande, and to see how she lives with her new family, before anything really extraordinary happens to her, before she or we know that she will be part of such a strange story.

I saw the 1982 film version of this story, The Return of Martin Guerre (dir. Daniel Vigne), a long time ago, so I knew what would happen, more or less.  The film, with the assistance of historian Natalie Zemon Davis, operated under the same constraints, drawing dialogue, when possible straight from the court testimony.  I wonder if the film and Davis’s 1983 non-fiction book have overshadowed Lewis’s novel to some extent.  The story is so strong, especially the question that Lewis works on – what was going on in the head of the wife of Martin Guerre  – that it can support multiple tellings, factual or fictional.

Update: I forgot to link to D. G. Myers's enthusiastic review of The Wife of Martin Guerre.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Catch her!... Catch her! She’s done us a murder! - The Murderess, a modern Greek feminist crime novel from 1903

The Murderess, Alexandros Papadiamantis, 1903, translated by Peter Levi, published nowadays by NYRB Classics.  That’s the book I planned to write about – review, even – but why bother.  Other people have done it pretty well.  See Steve Donoghue, where a commenter calls the book a “ten best” novel.  Or see Orthofer at The Complete Review.  His summary is “B+: Stark.”  I call that an accurate summary.

I have no good answer to the “why bother” question.

Old Hadoula, “scarcely sixty,” “with a masculine air,” is a no-so-kindly granny who lives on an Aegean island just off the east coast of Greece.  As a result of the oppression of women, particularly the terrible burden of selling off daughters in marriage, she becomes a psychopathic serial killer.  Honestly, a lot of horrible things happen in this novel.  It is only about 120 pages, so the horrible thing per page ratio is quite high.

It was a sweet May dawn.  The blue and rose clarity of heaven shed a golden colouring on plants and bushes.  The twitter of nightingales could be heard in the woods, and the innumerable small birds uttered their indescribable concert, passionately, insatiably.

When [Hadoula] had got some way, she heard a harsh scream behind her.  It was the old grandmother; out of her mind, tearing her hair, she had run out of the cabin and shouted:

‘Catch her!... Catch her!  She’s done us a murder!’  (114)

Yes, the title of the novel provides some warning to the faint-hearted.  Still, I was not expecting to find a hard-boiled feminist crime novel.  This passage catches two of the three modes of the novel (sweetly descriptive, chillingly brutal), omitting only all of the time we spend in Hadoula’s head as she keeps herself alive and justifies every crime, minor and major.*

To rub in the irony, the killer granny is also a healer, a collector of medicinal herbs and maker of poultices, but also a con artist, perfectly aware that most of what she sells is worthless.  When the novel begins, she is already pretty bad, but it is still pleasingly shocking to see her crack and shatter.  Or perhaps an ethical reader should not find the novel so pleasing.

Skiathos, the island, sounds like a nice place to spend a week.   Hadoula spends about half of the novel on the lam, hiding out in the island wilderness.  Papadiamantis grew up on Skiathos, so much of the novel’s terrain, the caves and cliffs and hideouts, is likely described accurately.  I am imagining tourists carrying the novel up the mountain, retracing Hadoula’s steps.  Perhaps there is a tour.

* See the review at Mookse & Gripes for a fine example: "So are all those scourges that seem so ugly, that mow down ungrown infants, the smallpox and scarlet fever and diphtheria and the rest of the diseases, are they not really happiness?"

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Portuguese Literature Challenge signoff with many thank-yous

Cruges, after a silence, shrugged and muttered:

“Even if I wrote a good opera, who would put it on?”

“And if Ega wrote a fine book, who would read it?”

The maestro concluded:  “This country is simply impossible.  I think I’ll have a coffee too.”  (The Maias, Ch. VIII, 192)

Now just hang on a minute, pal!  What have I been doing since August if not reading the finest Portuguese books?

When I launched the Portuguese Literature Challenge, I guessed that I would be sick of it all by the end of April.  Pretty close.  Know thyself.  So this is a wrap-up.  I do not have any original insights into Portugal or Brazil or their literatures but I did read a lot of good books in good company.

Although I wandered around plenty, three authors took up most of my time, as they should have.  I have written so much about them that I will limit myself to notes and thank yous.

Machado de Assis.  Shelf Love Jenny joined me for The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas.  The last five novels of Machado (I only got to four of them) are uniquely odd and inventive.  My greatest surprise, though, was discovering Machado’s accomplishment as a short story writer.  I came across a critic who credited Machado with “at least sixty world-class masterpieces” of short fiction, which is absurd, but a couple dozen, now that is not absurd at all.  And how often does Machado show up in short story anthologies?  So I understand the special pleading.  I had no idea.  Rise and mel u wrote about Machado’s short stories, and mel’s post has links to posts about some other Brazilian short stories.

Eça de Queirós.  “[E]verything he wrote was enjoyable” says Borges, and with nine of his books behind me I will agree.  His character work is especially good.  Please see Richard and litlove, who both have interesting things to say about The Crime of Father Amaro, and Scott Bailey on The Illustrious House of Ramires.

As good as Eça typically is, though, his best book is clearly The Maias.  Also his longest, by far, sorry, but the length is part of what makes it the best.  The Maias has no more story or plot or characters than Amaro or Cousin Basilio, for example.  Very similar, actually, which likely frustrates some readers.  So the novel is not "epic Eça."  For whatever reason, Eça chose this particular book as his masterpiece and worked on it more.  It has a more complex, multi-layered pattern than the other books.  I am not sure that it is more meaningful than his other novels, but it is more intricate.  It has a higher thread count than his other tapestries.  Not everyone, I know, thinks this means "best."

Fernando Pessoa.  An original, an endless source of puzzles and ideas.  You do not even have to read his work for him to generate ideas, but just read about him and his system of heteronyms.   Please see seraillon for a recent post on The Book of Disquiet and a piece about Antonio Tabucchi and Pessoa.

I also want to thank Miguel of St. Orberose, whose blog and comments here pointed me in all sorts of useful directions.

What should I do next?  Austria, Italy?  19th century plays?  The 1890s?  Maybe too big, that one.  The late 1890s?  19th century literary criticism – but who would want to read along with that?  Mountaineering books?  Old timey kiddie lit?  Ideas welcome.

And thanks again for everyone’s assistance, participation, spurs to thought, and generally enthusiastic attitude.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Take careful note. No one can narrate everything. - Saramago provides information

This information is being provided, first because it is true and the truth is always worthwhile, and, second, to assist those who enjoy deciphering crisscross patterns of words and events.  (13)

Hey, that’s me!

Dolce Bellezza, a fan of a later Saramago novel, also took a crack at Baltasar and Blimunda recently.  If I am characterizing her post correctly, she found herself crushed under the weight of Saramago’s details.  The novel was much like the enormous stone, “the mother of all stone,” that lies in the portico of the church at the Mafra Palace:

To complete this description, once it has been carved and polished in Mafra, it will be only fractionally smaller, thirty-two by fourteen by three in the same order of dimensions, and one day, when measurements will no longer be taken in spans but in meters, others will describe the stone as being seven meters long, three meters wide, and sixty-four centimeters deep.  Take careful note.  (223)

There is that narratorial slippage again.  The narrator actually transforms into a modern tour guide:

Now let us pass to the next room, for we still have some way to go.

But the reader of Baltasar and Blimunda returns to the 18th century, where Saramago, along with the title character Baltasar, four hundred oxen, and “hordes of men,” spends an entire chapter moving the stone from the quarry to the construction site.  It is a dazzling showoff chapter in a novel that is not characterized by Saramago holding back.  Every stage of the movement of the stone is presented, along with lists of equipment and names.  Some minor characters have to be developed in order to crush at least one of them.

One of the workers improvises a story each night, a sort of fragmented fairy tale.  It does not have a satisfying ending:

José Pequeno protested:  One’s never heard such a tale narrated bit by bit.  Manuel Milho reminded him: Each day is a little bit of history, and no one can narrate everything.  (239)

Saramago gives it a shot, though.  I have no idea how much of the information about the stone and its transport is true and how much or what Saramago invented.  I would guess that, as I found with Sebald, the scene is lightly researched, that most of the historical detail can be found in one or two books.  It is easy enough to imagine Saramago, on a tour of Mafra, perhaps even as a child, being told about the giant stone and thinking “Now that could make a good story.”

A number of other chapters are similar, and just as good.  For example, the description of the logistics of a royal wedding, really an exchange of princesses between Portugal and Spain, which requires an enormous chain of carriages, horses, and servants.  The movement of the princess, of one person, is as difficult, is as great a folly, as the movement of a 31 metric ton stone.

“One day, the errors on which history is based will finally be clarified,” the narrator says in that chapter, a bit cryptically (277).  Saramago’s project is perhaps not so different than Sebald’s.  New, purposeful, fictional errors are set against old, accidental, factual errors.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Portugal will provide nothing other than the stone - Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda

My other recent tour guide to Portugal has been José Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda (1982).  Where Antonio Tabucchi is an appreciative outsider, Saramago is a skeptical native.  Portuguese history and Portuguese culture are memorials of folly, universal human folly but also some particularly Portuguese folly.

The novel’s Portuguese title is Memorial do Convento, and much of the story of the novel is about the construction in the early 18th century of a convent of sorts, the gargantuan Baroque Mafra National Palace, a peculiar combination of Franciscan Monastery and royal residence.  The Wikipedia page has many photographs.  How I would like to visit it, however ridiculous the place is.  It may have been foolish to pour that much Brazilian gold and human labor into this monstrosity, but now Portugal is stuck with it.

Roughly speaking the argument is that just as Europe begins work on the Enlightenment, Portugal remains obstinately superstitious, brutal, wasteful, unscientific, venal, and backwards.

As the King João V thinks or says:

And if from this impoverished land of illiterates, rustics, and unskilled craftsmen one cannot expect refined arts and crafts, let them be brought from Europe for my convent at Mafra, and let all the other necessary adornments and embellishments be bought with the gold from my mines and revenues from my estates, whereby, as one friar will record for posterity, artisans abroad will get rich while we shall be admired for the splendors of our realm.  Portugal will provide nothing other than the stone, tile, and wood for burning, and men of brute force and empty hands.  (206)

Then follows a characteristically sinuous Saramago sentence that is much too long for me to type out.  The little slip in voice in that passage – “as one friar will record for posterity” – is part of my favorite aspect of the novel, Saramago’s brilliantly inventive use of omniscient narration.  He really can be anywhere and really does know everything, and as a result says some of the strangest things.

Saramago freely interrupts his free indirect passages.  Sometimes he adopts the “I” but the first person is always abandoned, or he gives the views of supernatural creatures (“Looking down on this activity, the devil marvels at his own innocence and compassion, for he could never have conceived such punishment to crown all those other punishments he metes out in hell,” 236).  The narrator’s attitude shifts, so that he often sounds like a man of the time of the story, but then argues with or mocks the beliefs of the characters.  He hops around in time, utterly unafraid of anachronism in his historical novel:

There is nothing worse than the life of a novice, save perhaps that of a shop assistant in years to come.  We were about to say that the novice is the shop assistant of God, as a certain Frei João de Nossa Senhora can testify, a former novice of this very same Franciscan Order, who will go [hmm, this sentence is also an awfully long one]…  A life of sacrifice always comes to the same thing, whether it be that of a novice, a shop assistant, or a recruit.  (301)

Much of the pleasure of the novel was seeing what odd claims the all-powerful narrator would make next, and then to see how, laid side by side, they were not so odd.  So more of that tomorrow, I guess.

This is the only Saramago book I have read.  I know what some of his other books are about, but I do not know what they are like, if this narrator, for example, is unique or typical.

Page numbers from the 1987 American first edition, translated by Giovanni Pontiero.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

That’s precisely what literature should do, be disquieting I mean - Antonio Tabucchi's Requiem

Antonio Tabucchi’s Requiem: A Hallucination (1991) is a love letter to Portuguese culture.  Tabucchi is an Italian writer who became, through diligence and enthusiasm, a Portuguese adoptee.  Fitting its subject, Requiem is written in Portuguese.  The subtitle, the hallucination, is an addition to the English version,* but a useful one.

A Tabucchi-like narrator spends a hot July day – noon to midnight, actually – wandering in a dream Lisbon, revisiting its cultural treasures and sites from his past, encountering ordinary Portuguese and dead friends.  The climax of the novel is a dinner with Fernando Pessoa:

I know, he said, with me it always finishes that way, but don’t you think that’s precisely what literature should do, be disquieting I mean?, personally I don’t trust literature that soothes people’s consciences.  Neither do I, I agreed, but you see, I’m already full of disquiet, your disquiet just adds to mine and becomes anxiety.  I prefer anxiety to utter peace, he said, given the choice.  (99)

Requiem is honestly not an anxious or even disquieted novel.

Portuguese cuisine is one of the featured cultural treasures.  Oh yes yes:

I’ll tell you the ingredients for a real sarrabulho, I never measure anything, I do everything by eye, anyway, you need loin of pork, fat, lard, pig’s liver, tripe, a bowl of cooked blood, a whole bulb of garlic, a glass of white wine, an onion, salt, pepper and cumin.  (37-8)

No need to give the whole recipe here, I guess.  The result “looked revolting,” “drenched in a brown sauce that was probably made from wine or cooked blood [the latter!],” but has “the subtlest of flavors” (36).

Perhaps I overemphasize close attention to food in fiction.  I am only reflecting the attention I give it.

Close attention is also paid to a painting in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Hieronymus Bosch’s Temptation of St. Anthony.  Who says your culture’s treasures have to be from your own culture?  We study the details, the skate in the lower center, the  - well what is that in the upper right?

I know this painting like the back of my hand, he said, for example, you see what I’m painting now?. Well, all the critics have always said that this fish is a sea bass, but it isn’t at all, its’ a tench.  A tench, I said, that’s a freshwater fish, isn’t it?  It is indeed, he said, it lives in swamps and ditches, it loves mud, it’s the greasiest fish I’ve eaten in my life, where I come from they cook a rice dish made with tench which is just swimming in grease, it’s a bit like eels and rice only greasier, it takes a whole day to digest.  The Copyist paused briefly.  (65)

You see, it is not just me who gets distracted by the food.

A sort of story is carried along in Requiem, a plot about an old, tragic love affair, but that as the novel progresses that story recedes to the background, its incidents taking place not in but between chapters.  The Portuguese background moves to the front.  What a fine novel to round off my little Portuguese project.

I read the translation of my hero Margaret Jull Costa.  The seraillon blog is suffused with Antonio Tabucchi.

* No it's not! Please see Miguel's comment.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Nanni Moretti's We Have a Pope - Pope Bartleby in a Chekhov play

A movie for a change, one that was, unknown to me, full of 19th century literature.

In Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope (2011), a newly chosen Pope (the flawless Michel Piccoli) has a crisis of conscience, or a psychological breakdown, or an existential attack.  The other cardinals are no help, an outside psychiatrist (played by Moretti) is no help, nothing is any help.  The film splits:  in one strand, Piccoli escapes the Vatican and wanders Rome, in a plot reminiscent of fairy tales where the king becomes a commoner, while the B plot is spent with the College of Cardinals in the sealed Vatican.  They do not know the Pope has fled.  The psychiatrist organizes a round robin volleyball tournament.

Two directions to go with We Have a Pope (2011).  One would be to pair Moretti with W. G. Sebald, not in thematically but as another creator of essayistic fiction.  Please see the 1993 Caro Diario and the 1998 Aprile for evidence.  Maybe avoid the one about the Communism and water polo.  I do not want to pursue this – not with this movie – but I will say that Moretti is a more interesting artist than any single film reveals.  This was my fifth Moretti movie so some of my pleasure was seeing how he reworked many of his early ideas and images.

The other direction, the literature.  The new Pope, before his election, is Cardinal Melville.  I assumed, and Moretti says, that the name came from director Jean-Pierre Melville, whose work I do not know well.  So as I was wondering aloud what the connection was ma femme said “Bartleby, you nitwit, the Pope is Bartleby!”  I am paraphrasing; she was much meaner than that.  But she was right, Cardinal Melville would prefer not to be Pope.  By the end of the movie he learns to say something besides “I would prefer not to,” but it takes him a while.

It is, of course, highly unrealistic that someone who has risen to the rank of Cardinal would suffer from a Bartleby-like anxiety, but Moretti is not a Realist.  “But I saw The Son’s Room (2001) and it is entirely realistic!”  I know, that one is different.  In this one, the College plays volleyball and the climax of the movie takes place at a mad performance of The Seagull, lines of which we have been hearing through much of the movie.

Anton Chekhov is the explicitly invoked literary figure in the movie.  Melville, before he joined the priesthood, wanted to be an actor.  He stumbles upon a theater company performing Chekhov.  The great Chekhovian themes of reduced energy, lost purpose, and failed endeavors are emphasized almost too strongly.  But Chekhov and the art of acting are forces of vitality in the movie, whatever the content of the play.  Bartleby prefers to watch Chekhov plays.

Stanley Kauffman, in his review of the film, argues that “Moretti and co-writers [Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli] came upon a good premise – the retreating pope – but have not used it to a really large enough conclusion.”  Meaning that a pope is probably not an ideal Chekhov character.  Probably not.  I suspect, though, that with the expectation of the Big Surprise removed, the film will grow a bit with repeated viewings.  Moretti’s movies are always filled with rewarding small surprises.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A passage that I can no longer find - Borgesian Brownian Sebaldian Sebald

The photographs in Sebald’s novels undermine the facts of his fiction by seeming to guarantee them.  A man in a dark coat stands on an empty winter beach.  The text says “this picture” was taken by Uncle Casimir and is of the narrator of The Emigrants, who is also more or less the author.  Sebald possesses the picture because his uncle sent him a copy “two years later, probably when he had finally shot the whole film, together with his gold pocket watch” (89).

I mention this photo not because it is particularly interesting – in fact it is particularly dull – but because I was amused to find a second reference to it in the new book of poems – confirmation! – although  of what I cannot say.  But this is one of Sebald’s recurring jokes, the inclusion of fragments of evidence of some vague something that actually prove nothing.  The reproduction of a pizza lunch receipt in Vertigo is a highlight of the technique.  The story must be true – here is the receipt!  I am always tricked for a moment, too.

I wonder what the ratio of fact to fiction is in Sebald’s books.  High, I assume.  In The Rings of Saturn Sebald spends a couple of pages summarizing the Borges story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which begins with the discovery of an encyclopedia  “which contains four pages that are not in any other copy of the edition in question,” pages that are fictional in the sense that Borges made the whole thing up, but have an indeterminate status within the story itself.  Four fictional pages are enough to reshape the world, at least within a text.  The chapter ends with the Borges story colonizing the Sebald novel. 

And then see how the novel ends (the chapter has been about silk and silkworms):

And Sir Thomas Browne, who was the son of a silk merchant and may well have had an eye for these things, remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in the Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons all over mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the field, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever.

In the Borges story, Uqbar is in some sense discovered in a mirror, and the story (and Sebald’s chapter that employs it), both end with a mention of Browne, so Sebald deliberately linked these endings.  But the key of course is the lost remarks.  I assume that enterprising Sebaldians have either identified the passage or proven that it does not exist.  I am not sure which outcome I prefer. 

Someday all of this work will have been done, indexed and catalogued, the relevant parts of every book Sebald identified in footnote, or, who knows, linked directly to the text.  I must admit that part of the fun of reading Sebald is that my own little discoveries still feel fresh.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A volume of fish twenty times the size of the earth - Sebald's fictional facts

Boy did I not plan to spend so much time with Sebald.  Some of what I have been writing is as closely related to other books I have been reading as to Sebald.  José Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda (1982), for instance, which in its own way depends as heavily on knowledge as Sebald does.  Both authors follow a common postmodern path, fiction buttressed by massive quantities of facts, or fiction as an interrogation of fact.

The third chapter of The Rings of Saturn is mostly about herring (the part not about herring is mostly about Borges):

I have read elsewhere, in a volume on the natural history of the North Sea published in Vienna in 1857, that untold millions of herring rise from the lightless depths in the spring and summer months, to spawn in coastal waters and shallows, where they lie one on top of another in layers.  And a statement ending with an exclamation mark informs us that each female herring lays seventy thousand eggs, which, according to Buffon’s calculation, would shortly produce a volume of fish twenty times the size of the earth, if they were all to develop unhindered. (55)

So much in this seemingly prosaic passage.  The exclamation mark, noted, but of course not employed by Sebald, even in quotation.  This is what I was getting at yesterday – everything is paraphrased, even down to the punctuation.  The antique Viennese natural history is the best joke, though.  Why on earth was Sebald reading that?  To help write an eight page history of herring, presumably.  What the nets are made of, how long the herring lives without water, or without its fins – “This process, inspired by our thirst for knowledge, might be described as the most extreme sufferings undergone by a species always threatened by disaster” (57).

Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah and other documentary films, mostly about the Holocaust, asks:

What is knowledge?  What can information about a horror, a literally unheard-of one, mean to the human brain, which is unprepared to receive it because it concerns a crime that is without precedent in the history of humanity?*

The Emigrants is a kind of Holocaust novel, but The Rings of Saturn broadens the range of horrors.  The natural history of the destruction of the herring is also without precedent:  “It was not without reason that the herring was always a popular didactic model in primary school, the principal emblem, as it were, of the indestructibility of Nature” (53).  The Holocaust may well be uniquely unimaginable, so Lanzmann responds with an attempt to eliminate fiction.  Sebald suggests that human fallibility is deeper, though, more pervasive.  The novel’s title is a reference to the destruction of a planet.  Sebald responds with fiction.

The East Anglian train that was once destined for service in China that I mentioned yesterday is likely a fiction – Rise pointed me to a Guardian article that says so.  I will not guess which of the “facts” about herring are from Sebald’s imagination.  Says the Guardian writer “perhaps it doesn't matter that he made the train thing up.”  Perhaps it matters a lot – perhaps that is exactly what matters.

*  Claude Lanzmann interviewed in Kultura (tr. Richard Brody), quoted by Adam Thirlwell in a review of Lanzmann’s memoir The Patagonian Hare: “Genocide and the Fine Arts,” The New Republic, May 10, 2012, pp. 28-9.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The most palpable proof of his failure - reading along with Sebald

Although I once looked up every person, place, and painting mentioned in The Emigrants (1992), I can hardly imagine doing the same thing with The Rings of Saturn (1995).  It is too full of stuff, of facts, of knowledge.  In the guise of documenting a walking tour along the East Anglia coast, Sebald wanders wherever he wants.

A bridge over the river Blyth, real enough, leads him to the fact, from “local historians,” that its tracks used to carry a train “built for the Emperor of China.”  Chinese dragons make a cameo – as Nabokov is the presiding spirit of The Emigrants, Borges inhabits The Rings of Saturn – and then we are plunged into nineteenth century Chinese history, particularly into the life of the Dowager Empress Cixi.  Then we are pulled back onto the seashore, to visit the sunken city of Dunwich, followed by six pages on the life of poet Algernon Swinburne.  How this is a novel - eh, you have to see it for yourself.

I was once in a book group that stumbled upon - crashed against - Pearl Buck’s Imperial Woman (1956), a historical novel about the Empress Dowager, a fascinating subject embedded in tedious prose.  Searching for a better book on the subject, I tried Marina Warner’s biography The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz'u-hsi 1835-1908 Empress Dowager of China (1972), yes, much better, but with odd moments, passages I had read before, and not in Buck.  Passages like:

On the morning of the 15th of November, still in reasonably good health, she presided over the grand council’s deliberations upon the new situation, but after her midday meal, which in defiance of her personal doctors’ warnings she had concluded with a double helping of her favourite pudding – crab apples with clotted cream – she was stricken with an attack resembling dysentery, from which she did not recover.  (153)

To be clear, I am quoting Sebald, not Warner.  Sebald is paraphrasing Warner, pilfering all of the good bits.  I do not have Warner’s book here, so I cannot compare passages (I need the last few pages of the biography), but the apples in cream, which Sebald moved directly from one book to the other, are memorable enough.  Sebald certainly read more on the subject than this one book, but based on the evidence he did not necessarily read a lot more.

Another “Sebald book” I found more deliberately.  Max Ferber, the painter in the last chapter of The Emigrants, is a composite character but is based in part on Frank Auerbach.  I must have read that somewhere.  So I read Robert Hughes’s monograph Frank Auerbach (1990) and was amused to discover that Sebald had obviously read this very book.  Ferber’s studio is Auerbach’s:

Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava.  This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure.  (161)

But Sebald is writing fiction, so he can have his painter insist that nothing in the studio ever changes, nothing but the paint and dust, while the real Auerbach can remodel:

‘I changed the lino three times,’ Auerbach says.  ‘The last time quite recently, less than ten years ago.  If I didn’t, the paint would be up to here.’  He gestures at thigh-height.  (Frank Auerbach, 13)

Sebald borrows Auerbach’s studio, biography, and techniques, but turns him into a Sebald character.  The line about failure above, that’s Sebald, as is:

And indeed, when I watched Ferber working on one of his portrait studies over a number of weeks, I often though that his prime concern was to increase the dust.

I had experienced an obvious but still useful demystification with these non-fiction books.  How did Sebald do what he did?  One important step:  he read widely.  That part I can do!  There are also other parts, yes.

See here for a painting of Auerbach's studio and other samples of his work.  It would take an imagination more powerful than mine, now that I know Auerbach’s work, to separate the fictional painter from the real paintings.  Terry, at Vertigo, has a fascinating article on another part of the connection between the real and imagined painters.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Trying to see further and further - Sebald and knowledge

If my little conversation with W. G. Sebald went well, and I flatter myself that it did, it could not have hurt that I flattered the author by recognizing one of the cleverest parts of The Emigrants, his use of Vladimir Nabokov.  A different fan might have singled out a particularly beautiful scene, but that does not sound like me.  Praised for his cleverness, Sebald was willing to expand on it.

In the passage I used yesterday, Nabokov is never mentioned.  The speaker does not know, no one in the chapter knows, who the man with the butterfly net is, and Sebald never actually says.  Nabokov had been mentioned twice in earlier chapters about different characters, though, and a photograph of Nabokov with his net is on page 16, so Sebald had put me on notice, but I knew the butterfly man in that passage was also Nabokov because I knew his biography and knew that Nabokov was living in Ithaca, New York at the time Sebald's character was in Ithaca.  Sebald’s fiction rewards, and perhaps demands, knowledge.

At one point – several years after I met him – I read The Emigrants with the goal of looking up every reference I did not know, and finding every location on a map.  Please, no quizzes, but I did it.  I had already made my great discovery, if I can call it that, the first or second time I read the novel:

Afterwards we were in the great hall of the palace, and I stood beside Uncle, craning up at Tiepolo’s glorious ceiling fresco above the stairwell, which at that time meant nothing to me; beneath the loftiest skies, the creatures and people of the four realms of the world are assembled on it in fantastic array.  (185)

The internet was a bit primitive in those days, so I had to resort to a library book about the Residenz in Würzburg, a baroque masterpiece for which Tiepolo’s giant allegorical fresco is only a highlight.  Actually, Würzburg itself was so charming, at least at Christmas-time, that I can say the Residenz is only a highlight.  Yes, I was so interested I went to see it:

Strangely enough, said Ferber, I only thought of that afternoon in  Würzburg with Uncle Leo a few months ago, when I was looking through a new book on Tiepolo.  For a long time I couldn’t tear myself away from the reproduction of the great  Würzburg fresco, its light-skinned and dark-skinned beauties, the kneeling Moor with the sunshade and the magnificent Amazon with the feathered headdress.  For a whole evening, said Ferber, I sat looking at those pictures with a magnifying glass, trying to see further and further into them.  (185)

The speaker here is not Sebald, but of course the author is also describing his own encounter with Tiepolo and the Residenz, and likely his way of looking at the world.  Whether he is rewriting Stendhal’s autobiography (in Vertigo) or working through the natural history of the herring (The Rings of Saturn) or inventorying the contents of a shop window (Austerlitz), he is trying to see further, to know more, and inviting his readers to do the same.