Friday, September 28, 2012

If only you can be the fanatic of your subject

If I were to continue writing about No Name, this would be a post about the enjoyably surprising characters.  Feel free to imagine that post, or to compose your own parody of it.  I have become distracted:

We can easily come up to the average culture & performance; not easily go beyond it.  I often think of the poor caterpillar, who, when he gets to the end of a straw or a twig in his climbing, throws his head uneasily about in all directions; he is sure he has legs & muscle & head enough to go further indefinitely – but what to do? he is at the end of his twig.  (Journal of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jan. ?, 1861*)

I, too, often think of that caterpillar.  Why, it is like me!  In post after post, sentence after sentence, I feel I have reached the end of the twig.  Writing has been unusually laborious lately.  The strain shows, I assume, although I do what I can to hide it.

I am not sure if I am reading Emerson’s journals as a tonic or too precipitate a crisis.  The same thing happened the last time I was reading them, in that case in the form of a little book about Emerson and writing written by Robert D. Richardson.  That book put the fear in me, I tell ya.  "The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent."  That sounds like it could be hard on a fellow.

Amidst all the recent chatter about blogging and the death of literary criticism, I quietly, perhaps with some frustration, ignored the fifth anniversary of Wuthering Expectations.  I was busy writing.  It took some time for me to even acknowledge that Wuthering Expectations is writing, and nothing but.  Other people have their own purposes with their blogs; mine is to write.  Why books, why literature?  New writers are advised to write what they know.  Literature seems to be what I know.**  Emerson again (“we” is Emerson; “you” is also Emerson):

This is what we mean when we say your subject is absolutely indifferent.  You need not write the History of the World, nor the Fall of man, nor King Arthur, nor Iliad, nor Christianity; but write of hay, or of cattleshows, or trade sales, or of a ship, or of Ellen, or Alcott, or of a couple of school-boys, if only you can be the fanatic of your subject, & find a fibre reaching from it to the core of your heart, so that all your affection & all your thought can freely play.  (May? 1859)

Maybe I should start a hay-blog.  No, I simply do not care enough about hay.  I am a fanatic on the subject of literature.  I am writing all of this like I have a choice!

*  From Emerson in His Journals, ed. Joel Porte, p. 490.  The second quotation is on p. 485.

**  Or what I want to know.  The helpful patience with which people read what often amount to nothing more than introductory notes, and the useful guidance they provide in comments, often astounds me.  But they are fellow fanatics of their subjects.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"You forget how strong I am," she said. "Nothing hurts me." - No Name's artful ethics

"Thousands of women marry for money," she said. "Why shouldn't I?"  (Scene 4, Ch. 13; all quotations today are from this chapter)

We are about two-thirds of the way into No Name when Magdalen, whose scheme for revenge or perhaps justice involves marrying a rich idiot under false pretenses, asks this question.  I had already been asking it, off and on, for about a hundred pages.  To state the problem more narrowly, thousands (roughly) of characters in Victorian novels marry for money and nobody seems to give it a second thought.  Modern readers might, but in, let’s say, a Trollope novel the practice is perfectly acceptable, although not for the heroine, not ever, which suggests that there is some underlying doubt.  Still, no one calls marrying for money evil, do they?

Magdalen fears that her carefully planned, entirely justified fraudulent marriage will be an evil act, a violation of a sacrament:

That interval passed, they grew restless again, and pulled the two little drawers backward and forward in their grooves.  Among the objects laid in one of them was a Prayer-book which had belonged to her at Combe-Raven, and which she had saved with her other relics of the past, when she and her sister had taken their farewell of home.  She opened the Prayer-book, after a long hesitation, at the Marriage Service, shut it again before she had read a line, and put it back hurriedly in one of the drawers. After turning the key in the locks, she rose and walked to the window.

"The horrible sea!" she said, turning from it with a shudder of disgust – "the lonely, dreary, horrible sea!"

The key to that drawer ends up lost in the garden, tossed out the window.  Magdalen spends the single most remarkable chapter of No Name wrestling with her conscience, her debt to her family, and her religion.  The chapter lasts for four days and nights, each one with a new arc of despair.  Perhaps death is preferable to this marriage (which is, I remind myself, part of her own scheme).  If death is preferable, perhaps suicide is justified.

This central chapter is basically ten pages in which the nineteen year-old heroine of a Victorian comic novel struggles against the impulse to kill herself.  It is full of surprises:

"You forget how strong I am," she said. "Nothing hurts me."

Underlying everything is Magdalen’s sexual repugnance towards the groom, expressed symbolically, of course, likely as part of the sea-and-ship motif that runs through the chapter, as seen in Magdalen’s odd non sequitur above.  The sea is death, ships are life:

All the misery of her friendless position, all the wasted tenderness of her heart, poured from her in those words.

"Would you love me?" she repeated, hiding her face on the bosom of the child's frock.

"Yes," said the boy. "Look at my ship."

She looked at the ship through her gathering tears.

I am over-simplifying with the “sea = death” business, but not with the ships, one of which saves her life at the end of the chapter, and another of which wraps up the novel a couple hundred pages later.

The reason any of this works as fiction is that the symbolism, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, is Magdalen’s, just as the sense of good and evil is finally not that of the omniscient narrator or Victorian society but Magdalen’s own.  It is Magdalen’s struggle that is meaningful, that gives No Name its unusual ethical power.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The roused forces of Evil in herself - beginning an attempt at the ethics of No Name

First I spend two days gumming up the works with plot; now I am going to take a run at the ethics of No Name.  Not exactly my strengths.  Reading along with this is a kindness.

No Name is built on an ethical disconnect, one that has changed since the book was published.  The protagonist, Magdalen, suffers a great loss at the same time discovering that she is of illegitimate birth.  I have been calling her No Name, but she does, in fact, have a name, one that may have some extra-textual meaning, for the events of the beginning of the novel lead Magdalen to become a fallen woman of a sort.

Of what sort, though?  Few modern readers will put much weight on Magdalen’s illegitimacy.  We can imagine ourselves into the values of the time to some degree, but if the moral argument of the novel were about the exact timing of a marriage (strictly speaking the discovery is not that she is illegitimate but that she was) no one would care anymore.  In fact, the argument has more to do with her desire for vengeance than anything else.  Magdalen’s governess somehow detects her former ward’s new hardness and coldness (Norah is the elder sister):

Was the promise of the future shining with prophetic light through the surface-shadow of Norah's reserve, and darkening with prophetic gloom, under the surface-glitter of Magdalen's bright spirits?  If the life of the elder sister was destined henceforth to be the ripening ground of the undeveloped Good that was in her – was the life of the younger doomed to be the battle-field of mortal conflict with the roused forces of Evil in herself?  (Scene I, Ch. 14)

"Evil" seems awfully strong, and "ripening ground of the undeveloped Good" is ridiculous, although I too have been lazily accepting the governess’s ethics by describing Magdalen's motivation as "revenge."  What if, instead, she is righting an injustice?  In her mind, sometimes it's the one, sometimes the other, but still, Evil?

The thoughts in that passage are, however vaguely, the governess’s, but the narrator later baldly uses the same language (earlier, too, in the Preface):

That night no rest came to her.  That night the roused forces of Good and Evil fought their terrible fight for her soul – and left the strife between them still in suspense when morning came.  (Scene II, Ch. 3)

Collins later earns his language, but not until quite a bit later, in what may be the best scene in the book.  I want to save most of it for tomorrow.  He does not do it until he is two-thirds of the way into the novel, but Collins proves to be more ethically sophisticated than I had suspected.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

No Name's structure - two kinds of surprises

I have wondered, since the last time I read Bleak House, why no other author in, as far as I knew, literary history had adapted the ingenious structure of that novel.  Half of it is “written” by  one of the characters, telling us about her large but limited part in an unusual adventure, while the rest is told in the usual omniscient, omnivorous Dickens third person.  The innovation, again, is: first person plus omniscient third.  I see how this device cannot work for every story – most stories – hardly any stories, but it solved so many problems for Dickens.  He never used it again, either.

Wilkie Collins adapts the Bleak House method to No Name.  The novel is built out of eight scenes told by the surprisingly intrusive all-knowing narrator separated by first-person interludes – long exchanges of letters, or diary entries.  Each scene is placed in a narrow setting (a country home, or a couple of apartments on the same street) with a single line of action and a subset of the novel’s cast of characters.  The scenes can be fairly involved – one of them (“Aldborough, Suffolk”) occupies almost a quarter of the novel – but they stay put.  Curtain down, scene ends, and the characters scatter.  Then the documents cover all of the intervening time and movement.

 Action (3rd), letters (1st), new action (3rd), Captain Wragge’s journal (1st, “I open these pages again, to record a discovery which has taken me entirely by surprise”), new location (3rd), and on to the end.  The first person sections are more epistolary than memoiristic, so they are not in themselves as innovative as Esther Summerson’s narration in Bleak House, but still, No Name offers a gentle corrective to the tricksy first-person Modernists I enjoy so much: you don’t always need to be so dang pure.

The structure may sound formulaic, but Collins uses it for ingenious plotty purposes.  A third-person scene cooks along with plenty of internal twistiness and surprises.  Mr. Omniscient moves from character to character, expressing his own opinion, commenting, chiding.  The action within the scene typically has plenty of little twists – secrets, discoveries, schemes exposed by counter-schemes, the usual stuff.

The scene ends and then – this is where Collins outdoes himself – the letters present a new set of surprises.  Just as I think the story is pointed in a particular direction, something in the letters knocks it onto another track.  Collins gleefully kills off minor characters, or arranges chance meetings, or tosses in a new legal complication (the usual Victorian nonsense with wills) – whatever he needs to do.  A few of the surprises had me howling (mentally, quietly).  He even keeps a sort of shadow novel going in the letters, the novel behind the one I'm reading.  This is the fun of the tricky plot, yes, that the story never goes exactly where I think it is going to go?  At the end, the very end, it finally does, I guess.  All of the possibilities were finally closed off.  Until then, Collins kept me off-kilter.

All I am trying to say is:  telling the story one way allows certain kinds of surprises, telling the story another way allows other kinds.  Collins, like Dickens in Bleak House, figured out how to use both kinds in one story.

Geez, two days of writing to get to that.  Tomorrow I’m going to work on a single little scene.  Do some reading.  Nothing but quotations.

Monday, September 24, 2012

No Name - a Wilkie Collins headfake

The Woman in White was a smash hit for Wilkie Collins in 1860; No Name is the 1862 followup.  Those of you who have written a bestselling novel, or perhaps had a big hit record, or, like me, have read about people who have done so, will know that Collins faced all sorts of new anxieties, especially the problem of writing a book as good without merely repeating himself.  No Name is comparably good, and Collins repeats himself only in knowing, jokey ways.  Perhaps he experienced no anxiety at all.

The repetitions are, roughly:  two sisters are at the center of the story; one of the sisters behaves quite differently than I was first led to believe; characters who at first appear to be grotesques or caricatures move into central roles and achieve a pleasing degree of fictional reality; some of the story is told through documents.

Collins begins the novel with a clever expectations-defeating trick.  A happy couple lives in a jolly country house with their blissful daughters.  One of the daughters gets tangled up in a shocking affair – an amateur theatrical performance.  Romantic complications ensue.  Is Collins writing some sort of domestic novel – something like Trollope, who had just had his own first smash hit with Framley Parsonage.  Perhaps Collins has given up the Hitchcockian thriller game which he had more or less just invented.  I am pretending I am a contemporary reader, ignorant of The Moonstone (1868).

Suddenly – I will become increasingly vague about the details of the plot – there is a crash and the novel turns into a melodrama, perhaps designed to evoke tears of pathos or to reform a social wrong.  We learn the meaning of the title: a character has “No Name,” no rights, no property because she is of  illegitimate birth, a discovery caused by the melodramatic crash.

Collins is about ten percent of the way through the book, which perhaps does not seem like much, but this is a long book.  I remember wondering when the book was going to turn into a Wilkie Collins novel.  But here it comes:  No Name has been cheated.  No Name vows revenge!  And No Name is not exactly the Count of Monte Cristo, who is super-strong, unfathomably wealthy, and owns a steamboat, but is instead an eighteen year old girl without rights, property, etc.  Strangely, both the Count and No Name are Masters of Disguise.

What I am getting at is at this point the novel has, after some teasing, turned into a Wilkie Collins novel, with great promise for twisty craziness, and that Collins has set himself a fine challenge.  How can No Name avenge herself and reclaim her name.  It is impossible; there is no way.  What could possibly occupy the next five hundred pages?

Tomorrow I will try to write about how the plot works without writing anything about the plot, which will be a good challenge for me.  Collins employs an ingenious device.  The supporting characters, as in the other good Collins novels, are so much fun; I might write about that.  There is a particularly good chapter I might investigate.  At some point, I should quote at least one line from the book.

Friday, September 21, 2012

What sort of book? A good one? - plump, lifelike Candida

Characters in plays are brought to life by actors.  The most bizarre and mannered behavior and dialogue can become realistic in the right hands (and body, and voice).  See MAMET David for examples.

Borges and Bioy Casares were almost certainly talking about something else, about the verisimilitude of the characters in Shaw’s text, with the reader’s imagination filling in, however inadequately, for the actors.  Shaw is unusually aware of the issue.  He had great trouble getting his plays produced and instead made his breakthrough by publishing them in cleverly titled books – Three Plays for Puritans, Plays Unpleasant, and Plays Pleasant, the latter containing Candida.

So Candida is written to be read like a screwy novel.  It begins with the point of view hovering over London, and then moves into a specific neighborhood in the “north-east quarter,” no, not that slum, but the middle-class neighborhood next to it, “wide-streeted, myriad-populated; well served with ugly iron urinals, Radical clubs, and tram lines carrying a perpetual stream of yellow cars.”  One detail in that list was a surprising reminder that the Victorian times, they were a’changin’, and followed by that stream of – ya know, I’m just going to move on.

Now we’re on the street, then a park (“it is a pleasant place”), and on the other side is a parsonage.  Through the door, up the stairs, and into the room that serves as Reverend Morell’s office.  We are finally in the theater, looking at the set – books (William Morris, Henry George, Karl Marx and other “literary landmarks in Socialism”), chairs, a fireplace, a typewriter.  The whole point of this is to thicken the reality of the world of the play, and the same treatment is given to the characters and their gestures.  Let the theater director worry about what the stage would look like.

The nice, plump details of characterization are mostly those a novelist could use.  Little gestures, bits of speech that are a step left or right from where I expected them to be.  Act II begins with the office occupied only by the poet:

Marchbanks, alone and idle, is trying to find out how the typewriter works.  Hearing someone at the door, he steals guiltily away to the window and pretends to be absorbed in the view.

Of course that is what he would do when left alone, of course.  Let’s look at another, the father-in-law this time, who is disappointed to learn that it will be a couple of hours until dinner:

BURGESS:  (with plaintive resignation)  Gimme a nice book to read over the fire, will you, James: thur’s a good chap.
MORELL:  What sort of book?  A good one?
BURGESS:  (with almost a yell of remonstrance)  Nah-oo!  Summat pleasant, just to pass the time.

“Almost a yell,” that is very nice – I don’t trust that bookshelf either – but now I can also see how the actor playing Morell works backwards, perhaps making his questions a deliberate tease.  Polite but arch, put the emphasis on “sort” and “good.”  Morell is played by Kelsey Grammer, Burgess by John Mahoney.  Give ol’ pop a good scare.

The firm lifelikeness of the characters in Candida are easy to see.  This experiment was a success.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

It's only poetic horror, isn't it, Eugene? - Shaw's Candida

I have burdened George Bernard Shaw with part-accurate negative associations ever since I read the moralistic Mrs. Warren’s Profession almost twenty-five years ago, with what level of attention or understanding I would not want to guess.  Shaw is a writer of Big Ideas, Shaw is preachy, Shaw is if not humorless – he did write a number of comedies – then plodding.  His contemporary Wilde is light and meaningless; Shaw is heavy and meaningful.

All of this is, if true of this or that play, wrong overall, and I have known that it is wrong for a decade or more as what I have haphazardly read about Shaw finally penetrated (film and theater critic Stanley Kauffmann was especially helpful – see the relevant chapter in Conversations with Stanley Kauffmann, 2003, for an enthusiastic appreciation of Shaw).

Borges and Bioy Casares pointed me to the 1898 Candida as a source for a couple of lifelike characters, and I found them, plenty of them.  Michael Feingold, in a recent Village Voice review of the play, calls the two male leads “irresistible actor bait,” which may be a good theatrical substitute for Borges’s verisimilitude, but Feingold also calls the female lead, Candida, “the role of roles,” and a couple of minor roles must also be great fun to play.

“The Reverend James Mavor Morell is a Christian Socialist clergyman of the Church of England” - I will interrupt here to note my surprise at how unimportant the “Christian Socialist” business is, but this turns out to be an unimportant kind of play.  Reverend Morell is perfect in every way, in large part, perhaps entirely, because his wife Candida is perfect, a Strong Female Character blessed with casual grace and a sense of irony.  The young aristocratic Bohemian poet Eugene Marchbanks is a charitable project of Candida and her husband; he is either the representation of the nobility of art and true feeling or a nitwit.  Shaw leans towards the former, I toward the latter.  “Miserably irresolute” is how Shaw describes him.

The drama of the comedy is that Marchbanks, who is all of 18 years old, falls in love with Candida and declares himself not to her but to her husband the minister who is, to the surprise of everyone including himself, shaken in his convictions about his marriage.  In other words, a domestic comedy with minor consequences, but plenty of room for good jabber.  The element of shock that likely accompanied this scenario in 1898 has probably been lost.

What have I omitted that I need for this passage?  Burgess, Candida’s wealthy Cockney father, a representation of Capitalism and broad comedy.  The poet Marchbanks is horrified  that his goddess Candida does housework:

CANDIDA (with serious vexation).  My own particular pet scrubbing brush has been used for blackleading.  (A heart-breaking wail bursts from Marchbanks.  Burgess looks round, amazed.  Candida hurries to the sofa.) What's the matter? Are you ill, Eugene?

MARCHBANKS.  No, not ill.  Only horror, horror, horror!  (He bows his head on his hands.)

BURGESS (shocked).  What!  Got the 'orrors, Mr. Morchbanks!  Oh, that's bad, at your age. You must leave it off grajally.

CANDIDA (reassured).  Nonsense, papa.  It's only poetic horror, isn't it, Eugene?  (Petting him.)

BURGESS (abashed).  Oh, poetic 'orror, is it?  I beg your pordon, I'm shore.  (He turns to the fire again, deprecating his hasty conclusion.)

I should read more Shaw someday.  I should reread Mrs. Warren’s Profession.  I should say something about the characterization, which is why I bothered to read the play.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A mediocre Stevenson novel and a failed experiment - come and gone ere I could fix it, with a swallow's swiftness

A little experiment will fill out the rest of the week, one that goes back to a conversation between Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares that Sr. Caravana wrote about a year ago.  Borges and Bioy Casares made a list of fictional characters with unusual lifelikeness.  Count Fosco from The Woman in White, Eugénie Grandet and her father, Proust’s M. de Charlus – mostly I could see what they meant.  The experiment was to read a couple of examples I did not know and see if I could still see, so to speak.  I chose
"Pinkerton from The Wrecker;… Shaw’s characters (Candida’s poet and husband)."

Shaw is for later.  The Wrecker is the 1892 collaboration between Robert Louis Stevenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, their second novel together.  Their third, The Ebb-Tide surprised me by proving to be a second-rate novel verging on the first-rate.  The Wrecker is unfortunately a third-rate book with a second-rate novel visible within it, right in the middle.  The narrator and that Pinkerton fellow have purchased, for the equivalent of a million mostly borrowed dollars a ship run aground on Midway Island in the belief that it holds a secret cargo, most likely opium.  The race to the wreck is exciting, the detective work aboard the ship is compelling, the mystery is not bad.

I usually avoid what I think of as creative writing workshop criticisms, necessary for a work-in-progress but pointless for a hundred year old book.  In this case, though, the first third of the novel, or perhaps closer to the first half, should have been cut and the last third heavily rearranged.  If that wrecker plot sounds intriguing (and it is pretty good), I can save you some trouble: start no earlier than Chapter IX, lopping off that thin first third, and honestly Chapter XII would be better.  Read through Chapter XV, everything that takes place on board the wreck.  Now skip to the surprisingly violent final three chapters to resolve the mystery.

I am only guessing, but I believe the reader who follows this path will avoid every substantial section written by the merely competent Lloyd Osbourne.  Sorry, Lloyd, but competent fiction is too common.

Those middle chapters, obviously Stevenson’s, really do lift off.  Here the wreckers have just arrived at Midway Island.  Is the ship they gambled on even there?  Has someone else gotten to it first?

[Captain] Nares wiped his night glass on his sleeve and passed it to me, motioning, as he did so, with his hand.  An endless wilderness of raging billows came and went and danced in the circle of the glass; now and then a pale corner of sky, or the strong line of the horizon rugged with the heads of waves; and then of a sudden – come and gone ere I could fix it, with a swallow's swiftness – one glimpse of what we had come so far and paid so dear to see: the masts and rigging of a brig penciled on heaven, with an ensign streaming at the main, and the ragged ribbons of a topsail thrashing from the yard. (Ch. XII)

That long, winding second sentence is definitive Stevenson.  Ye shall know him by his complex-compound sentences.  The brig is “penciled on heaven” because the narrator is an artist.  I assume that answers the question you were about to ask.

Right, Pinkerton.  He’s okay.  He is the most accurate depiction of the entrepreneurial personality I have seen in 19th century fiction, plenty lifelike in that sense.  Captain Nares is as good, and a couple of other characters come close.  But that description of the use of a spyglass on a rugged sea seems as lifelike as anything.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Antonio Tabucchi's "The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa" - with bonus lobster recipe

How could I resist the Tabucchi book with Fernando Pessoa right there in the title?  The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa (1994) is really a short story, only about thirty little pages in the City Lights volume, where it accompanies Dreams of Dreams.  The Pessoa story is a good companion since it is really just another fictional dream (“A Delirium” is the story’s subtitle), another way for the author to play with his most beloved literary toys.

This delirium is the sanest, least delirious delirium I have encountered.  Pessoa is in the hospital and receives a series of visitors, poets, mostly, all great admirers of Pessoa.  The visitors are all imaginary, Pessoa’s heteronyms, the characters he created in a wild burst of creative activity circa 1914 that resulted in the ingenious and perplexing body of writing I have been reading and messing around with off and on over the past year:  the pastoral poet Alberto Caeiro, the energetic Álvaro de Campos, the skeptical neo-pagan Ricardo Reis, the prosaic Bernardo Soares, and the mad philosopher António Mora, who I have not really read.  I am not sure that he got much down on paper.

Each heteronym makes his farewell to his creator, poignantly, sometimes, as when Caeiro gives Pessoa a final poem, or more comically, as when Soares brings Pessoa a bowl of his favorite tripe soup, likely knowing that Pessoa had no appetite and he would be able to eat the soup himself.  Reis is given permission to write more poems:

But they will be apocryphal poems, Ricardo Reis replied.

It doesn’t matter, said Pessoa, the apocryphal does no harm to poetry, and my work is so vast that it accommodates even apocryphal poems.

Is this a nod to José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis?

Tabucchi, in each episode, is interpreting Pessoa.  The story is a covert form of literary criticism.  Caeiro, for example, the poet who inspired all of the others, is revealed to be Pessoa’s father who died when Pessoa was five.  Or, really, a self-generated psychological substitute for his absent father:

The fact is that I needed a guide and coagulant – I don’t know if I’m making myself clear – otherwise my life would have shattered into pieces.  Thanks to you I found cohesion, it’s really I who chose you to be my father and master.

Not that any of this is necessary to enjoy Pessoa’s work.  It is all play.

Soares brings not just soup but a recipe for lagosta suada, sweaty lobster.  How this does not by itself bring a dying man back to life is a mystery of existence:

You need butter, three onions, tomatoes, and a bit of garlic, oil, white wine, a little aged aguardente, which I know you like [a little joke about Pessoa’s alcoholism], two wine glasses of dry port, a dash of hot pepper, black pepper, and nutmeg.   First, you steam the lobster, just a little.  Then you add the ingredients I gave you and put it in the oven.  I don’t know why it’s called “sweaty,” probably because it produces a very tasty broth.

What any of this will mean to a reader unfamiliar with Pessoa and his creations is beyond me.

Many thanks to Caroline for declaring Antonio Tabucchi week!  Many more Tabucchi books should be appearing at her site and scattered around book blogdom.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Antonio Tabucchi Week! with a bonus roast goose recipe

Book bloggers just go ahead and declare their own celebrations, and why not?  If the National Jelly Doughnut Council can do it, why can’t we?  So:  it’s international Antonio Tabucchi Week! as proclaimed by Caroline.

I read a couple of tiny, pleasing Tabucchi booklets to celebrate, Dreams of Dreams (1992) and The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa (1994), packaged together by City Lights Books and translator Nancy Peters.  Translated from the Italian this time – the other Tabucchi novel I have read, Requiem: A Hallucination (1991), was originally written in Portuguese, a good trick reflecting the author’s most unusual side, his profound interest in and knowledge of Portuguese literature.   Reading Dreams of Dreams, though, I can see that his love of literature as such is similar.  A kindred spirit.

The book contains twenty dreams of two or three pages each.  The dreamers are mostly writers, but three painters, one composer, and one mythological figure slip in.  I am over-simplifying, since every figure is given two roles:  Chekhov is a “writer and doctor,” Caravaggio “a painter and irascible man.”  Many are visionaries of some sort, dream-artists like Coleridge and Goya and Rimbaud, or near cousins, advocates of their own version of Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses, writers like Rabelais and Villon and Pessoa.  Freud rounds out the list, giving himself something to interpret.

Rabelais, a friar, is fasting.  He dreams of food, of a feast with “His Majesty Sir Pantagruel”:

They served François Rabelais two geese, and nineteen to Sir Pantagruel.  Innkeeper, said his majesty the guest, you must teach me how these geese are cooked.  I want to tell my cook.  The innkeeper smoothed his imposing moustache, cleared his throat and said: first you take a fine choucroute and put it to the boil for four or five minutes.  Then you melt the goose fat and sauté the cabbage, lard, juniper berries, cloves, salt and pepper, sliced onion, and then cook it for three hours.  Then you add prosciutto, finely chopped goose liver, and you bind the mixture with bread crumbs.  The geese are filled with stuffing and put into the oven for about forty minutes.  You have to remember, when it’s half-cooked, to collect the sizzling fat and pour it over the stuffing, and the dish is ready.

This description only leads, obviously, to renewed appetite for Rabelais and Pantagruel until the latter belches so loudly he wakes the former, who gnaws on the “piece of dry bread” he allows himself during his fast.

I feature this long, delicious passage for two reasons: first, recipes are enormously popular and lead to all of the likes and thumbs and +1s and “you go, girl”s that are so important these days – I have no idea what any of that means – and anyway I need to have some material in place for my inevitable transition into a cooking blog, and second it suggests a limit to the delights of Tabucchi’s book. 

The reader unfamiliar with the life and work of Rabelais, or who does not know why it is amusing that Freud dreams he is his patient Dora, or why Debussy dreams of nymphs and priapic fauns, may be baffled, irritated, and bored, like he is reading the walkthrough of a video game he have never played.  Tabucchi and I, though, we had a lot of fun playing with our literary toys.

No room today to watch Fernando Pessoa expire.  Tomorrow.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A thousand leaves, since he hath stricken thee down, \ Speak of thee - Longfellow's Michelangelo

Longfellow translated eight Michelangelo Buonarroti poems – I do not know when – which are among my favorite Longfellow poems.  Longfellow’s achievement is not exactly unique since a number of poets have made good English poems out of Michelangelo.  Perhaps Michelangelo is easy to translate.  I doubt that.

This is what Longfellow’s Michelangelo sounds like.  Perhaps it is worth noting that the poems Longfellow worked on are (I think) all from late in the artist’s life, when he is in his sixties or older.


Lady, how can it chance – yet this we see
  In long experience – that will longer last
  A living image carved from quarries vast
  Than its own maker, who dies presently?

Cause yieldeth to effect if this so be,
  And even Nature is by Art surpassed;
  This know I, who to Art have given the past,
  But see that Time is breaking faith with me.

Perhaps on both of us long life can I
  Either in color or in stone bestow,
  By now portraying each in look and mien;
So that a thousand years after we die,
  How fair thou wast, and I how full of woe,
  And wherefore I so loved thee, may be seen.

Already by the sixteenth century the conceit that art can overcome mortality is an antique.  How much extra juice it gets when expressed by 1) an actual artist, who may at the moment of the poem’s composition be sculpting the woman’s form, and 2) an actual artist of the stature of Michelangelo who in fact can grant a sort of eternal fame to his subjects, I will leave to the individual reader.  The biggest jolts for me come in poems like the one about painting the Sistine Chapel (“I’ve already grown a goiter at this drudgery”*) and a few others that seem to refer to well-known sculptures.  Why deny the biographical pleasures of seeing the behind-the-scenes glimpses the artist chooses to represent?

More commonly Michelangelo uses his profession as a source of metaphors and images and themes.   Thus the old sculptor compares the fire he uses to “mould \ The iron of his preconceived design” to the “fortunate fire that burns \ Within me still” (“Fire”), or worries that art (“an idol and a king to me”) has lost its meaning (“Painting and sculpture satisfy no more”) as his death nears (“Old Age”).

That lament is universal, it seems.  Even Michelangelo feels that he has frittered away his life:

Ah me! ah me! when thinking of the years,
The vanished years, alas, I do not find
Among them all one day that was my own!  (“Canzone”)

I find this reassuring for some reason.

All right.  That’s Longfellow’s Michelangelo:

A thousand leaves, since he hath stricken thee down,
  Speak of thee, nor to thee could Heaven convey,
  Except through death, a refuge and a crown.  (“To Vittoria Colonna,” but a different poem than the one above)

*  Translation by James M. Saslow, The Poetry of Michelangelo (Yale UP, 1991), brilliant, essential.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Longfellow's translations - We shall have to pass through the dewy grass

Henry Longfellow was one of the greatest American translators of poetry.  I am browsing through a 1902 edition of his Complete Poems in order to see what I have missed, and the answer is a lot, obviously, but I have read enough to make a judgment.  He had a staggering gift with languages matched or exceeded his skill with versification, and the beauty of translation is that the poetic conceptions, the ideas, are mostly the other guy’s problem.

The great limit on Longfellow’s translations is that he did not do enough of the poets I wanted him to do.  He only seems to have translated two Goethe poems, for instance, the “Wanderer’s Night Song” and this one from 1780:

Night Song                                                   Ein Gleiches

O’er all the hill-tops                                      Über allen Gipfeln
    Is quiet now,                                               Ist Ruh,
In all the tree-tops                                        In allen Wipfeln
    Hearest thou                                               Spürest du
Hardly a breath;                                            Kaum einem Hauch;
    The birds are asleep in the trees:       Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde,
    Wait, soon like these                                Warte nur, balde
      Thou, too, shalt rest.                             Ruhest du auch.

Longfellow  finds a solution for every essential element, including the sentiment, the rhymes, and the rhythm, including the power of the short but variable line lengths.  I suppose he cannot completely  match the strange effect of the two syllable “Ist Ruh,” although he catches the way the stillness and pace are communicated to the reader.  Shhh, slow down.  Look at the way Goethe suggests his reader (the vocal reader) pause for breath on the word “breath.”  Showoff.

When I look at more of Longfellow’s German poems, I find Simon Dach and Gustav Ofizer and Johan Ludwig Uhland where I wish I could find Theodor Storm and Eduard Mörike, but unfortunately Longfellow had little interest in translating his contemporaries.  He was always drawn to medieval and early modern traditions, and to the side of the Romantic tradition that aped the Middle Ages, that wrote ballads to lyrics.  So his Dante is still, in a crowded field of Dante translations, still readable, and his version of the 15th century Las Coplas by Jorge Manrique, an elegy for his heroic father that is also a humanistic exploration of what makes a meaningful life, is an unsurpassed masterpiece.  I wrote about that one almost five years ago, and will just point the curious there for some samples.

And then there is Longfellow’s Michelangelo, but I want to save that for tomorrow.

The 1902 collection contains a single Portuguese poem, a good one by Gil Vicente, so from the late 16th or early 17th century.  I’ll end with it, eight lines that suggest a longer story.


If thou art sleeping, maiden,
    Awake, and open thy door.
‘T is the break of day, and we must away
    O’er meadow, and mount, and moor.

Wait not to find thy slippers
    But come with thy naked feet:
We shall have to pass through the dewy grass,
    And waters wide and fleet.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

There is a dark shape whispering in her ear - Henry Longfellow's fine Salem witch trial verse play

In 1868 Henry Longfellow published a pair of blank verse plays on Puritan subjects, “John Endicott” and “Giles Corey of the Salem Farms,” together The New England Tragedies, that may not be the best works of Longfellow I have encountered but come close.  Scholar Lawrence Buell has championed the plays, presenting them intact in the Penguin Classics Selected Poems, where they take up 40 percent of the pages.  Buell had to sacrifice a lot of other poems to keep them, but they are worth it.

“John Endicott” is about Puritan persecution of Quakers, while “Giles Corey” is of course about the Salem witch trials.  I think I will just write about the latter, since the story is more familiar and more shocking.  For example (Martha Corey is on trial for witchcraft, Hathorne is the prosecutor, Mary the crazed accuser):

Mary:  There is a dark shape whispering in her ear.
Hathorne:  What does it say to you?
Martha:                                                      I see no shape.
Hathorne:  Did you not hear it whisper?
Martha:                                                        I heard nothing.
Mary:  What torture!  Ah, what agony I suffer.  (Falls into swoon)  (IV.1)

The blanks are there to help see the blank verse lines.  You can see that this is not exactly Shakespeare, but the monosyllables and broken lines are certainly tense and dramatic enough.  “Giles Corey” is easily the most exciting Longfellow I have read, although the witch trial material is so sure-fire that it may be cheating.

Maybe I should mention that I have not read Arthur Miller’s Crucible, although I have seen the 1996 film adaptation which I assume was quite different.  Many of the elements of the film could have been lifted directly from Longfellow, although I doubt they were.  As drama, Longfellow’s conflicts were similarly interesting to those in the film; as language Longfellow takes the prize.

Because, after all, sometimes he does sidle up to Shakespeare:

Tituba:  Here's monk's-hood, that breeds fever in the blood;
And deadly nightshade, that makes men see ghosts;
And henbane, that will shake them with convulsions;
And meadow-saffron and black hellebore,
That rack the nerves, and puff the skin with dropsy;
And bitter-sweet, and briony, and eye-bright,
That cause eruptions, nosebleed, rheumatisms;
I know them, and the places where they hide
In field and meadow; and I know their secrets,
And gather them because they give me power
Over all men and women.  (I.1)

As much as I like this, though, re-reading it I can see the limits.  The rhythm is deft, the syllables juicy and fun to read aloud, but where is the surprise – where is the word that is out of place yet exactly right?  Something like “Witch's mummy, maw and gulf / Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark.”  Now I am whining that this expertly assembled and surprisingly entertaining Longfellow play is not Macbeth.  No, it is altogether plainer and saner, in both language and conception, and is merely Longfellow at his best, or close to it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Longfellow and the poetics of bird defense in America - the ceaseless fusillade of terror

It’s always the same story when I return to boring, stuffy, old-fashioned, simple-minded Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:  “This is a lot better than I expected.”  You think I would learn sometime, although some of the fault might lie with Longfellow.

In the plus column, Longfellow is among the deftest versifiers to ever write in English; the biggest minus is that he had no ideas of any originality so expended much of his talent on well-made versions of banalities.  But in the end it is the exceptions that survive.  So I will celebrate Book Blogger Appreciation Week by writing about some of Longfellow’s exceptions.  Since no one wants to read about Longfellow, the posts will be eminently skippable and skimmable, thus allowing my valued readers to get off the dang internet earlier than usual.  No, no, thank you!

In “The Birds of Killingworth,” a New England town decides it has had enough with their thievery and racket and votes to kill all the birds in town.  I see that two of the poems eight pages are devoted to a defense of the birds, not all that interesting.  No, it is the massacre that is interesting:

And so the dreadful massacre began;
    O’er fields and orchards, and o’er woodland crests,
The ceaseless fusillade of terror ran.
    Dead fell the birds, with blood-stains on their breasts,
Or wounded crept away from sight of man,
    While the young died of famine in their nests;
A slaughter to be told in groans, not words,
The very Saint Bartholomew of Birds!

As much as I enjoy singing along with Longfellow, he also spurs me to argue with him, and what is the point of that, so I will just say that the best lines are more in the middle of the stanza than at the beginning or end, the Fs and Ds and Ss (“ceaseless fusillade”), and the horrible image of the crawling wounded birds.

Anyway, the best part is what happens without the birds, a Dantean hell on earth, some of it ecologically plausible, some more fanciful:

The Summer came, and all the birds were dead;
    The days were like hot coals; the very ground
Was burned to ashes; in the orchards fed
    Myriads of caterpillars, and around
The cultivated fields and garden-beds
    Hosts of devouring insects crawled, and found
No foe to check their march, till they had made
The land a desert without leaf or shade.

Actually, this is the best part of the best part:

From the trees spun down
    The canker-worms upon the passers-by,
Upon each woman’s bonnet, shawl and gown,
    Who shook them off with just a little cry;

Longfellow does not have a satisfactory ending to the tale, so I will just spend a minute enjoying the Song of the Canker-worms.  As the narrator said in that Jacques Poulin novel, “we must embrace the author’s style.”  I assume that the current cohort of eco-critics have made great use of this surprising environmental parable in verse.

Actually, I could look that up in the MLA International Bibliography.  Hmm, one article, “The Poetics of Bird Defense in America, 1860-1918” (in Poetry After Cultural Studies, 2011), Angela Sorby.  One article since 1947.  Listen, eco-critics, you’re missing a sure thing here.  Sheesh.

Monday, September 10, 2012

We must embrace the author’s style - the infinite resources of language - Translation Is a Love Affair

We translators have a strange job.  Don’t think that all we have to do is find the words and phrases that best correspond with the source text.  We have to go further, pour ourselves into the other person’s writing  the way a cat curls up in a basket.  We must embrace the author’s style.  (40)

Who was recently asking for novels about translators?  Here is one from Quebec, Translation Is a Love Affair (2006) by Jacques Poulin, nimbly translated by Sheila Fischman.  A young translator, Marine, finds a stray cat which leads her and the crotchety author she is translating into a warm-hearted adventure.  Translation offers some metaphors for human connection.  I am just going to ignore all of that, the story and so on, although I appreciate the effort to correct the strange neglect of cats in fiction, to look at the short novel’s style.

The fictional author, in a fictional interview:

On what then should the contemporary novel be based? asked the interviewer [“the human soul” and “society” have been rejected as outmoded].  On the infinite resources of language! replied Monsieur Waterman in an impassioned voice…  he constructed a theory of the novel that I wasn’t sure I fully grasped.  He saw the novel as a house built with materials from the past (the dead ash) and from the future (fertile pollen).  To construct it, the most important tool was, of course, style.  (92-3)

How odd, then, or so it seemed at times, that Translation Is a Love Affair is an exemplar of the plain style:

The telephone was in the kitchen.  As soon as I set him down, the cat headed for Chaloupe’s bowls.  I gave him a big handful of dry food and a bowl of cold water, then I dialed the number on the collar.  (8)

Declarative sentences, little adornment, ordinary metaphors.  If the cat is “black as a stove” the narrator means it literally (“I am a translator, I love words”, 3).  Alternatively – this just came to me – Poulin deliberately throws the cliché right after that declaration of metaphorical principle in order to show that his narrator has trouble living up to her own standards.  Regardless, the novel is full of maddeningly plain-spoken passages.  “The grocer put our groceries in a plastic bag” (96)

Although her narration is mostly thin and compressed, Marine also plays with words in her ordinary life, testing out near synonyms, comparing French and English for shades of sound and meaning, looking up even common words in her Petit Robert. Marine is somehow matching her prose style to her life (see especially Chapter XIV, in which Marine temporarily abandons the plain style - the chapter's title is "A Night of Horror").  It is the fictional novelist’s style, too:

In the chapter I was translating, which was the last one, Monsieur Waterman had taken out every useless word, he’d punctuated carefully, and I was trying to be faithful to him.  Like Milena [Kafka’s Milena!], I wanted my words to hug the curves of his writing.”  (143, in the last chapter of Poulin’s novel, of course)

Marine also wants her words to hug the curves of her life.

Other readers may well enjoy the story of the stray cat and its consequences, one of those stories about how a family-substitute assembles, and wonder what all of this nonsense about style is doing in Poulin’s novel.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The phantoms had passed away - Giovanni Verga's metafictional love affair

It occurs to me that I can make up for my illness-evaporated post with a final Giovanni Verga piece written write now.  That it took me this long to come up with this idea suggests that I have not entirely recovered.   I can write about Verga’s metafiction.

Little Novels of Sicily does not tell a story, I would not say that.  I assume that the stories were, for the most part, originally published in magazines or newspapers, but I do not know that.  Whatever the reason, design or variety, the world Verga is reporting on or creating quickly fills out.  One story is about a priest, another about gentlemen; one about daily life, another about a festival.  In “So Much for the King,” a peasant cab-driver – except the cab is a litter carried between two mules – is hired to carry the Queen of the Two Sicilies.  In a number of places, Verga reminds me that the stories are all set before the unification of Italy, before the massive changes of revolution and emigration, although a coda sometimes carries the story past 1860.  That priest, for example, “had to hide in a hole like a rat, because the peasants… wanted to do him in.”

The revolution comes in the next to last story, “Liberty,” when the peasants turn on their oppressors, real and theoretical, and one kind of injustice is violently replaced with another.

Day broke: a Sunday with nobody in the square, and no mass ringing.  The sexton had burrowed into his hiding hole; there were no more priests.  The first-comers that began to gather on the sacred threshold looked one another in the face suspiciously; each one thinking of what his neighbor must have on his conscience.

If you get the comedy of Verga at all, that last line, “his neighbor,” is hilarious.  Maybe there is a sort of narrative, and this is how it ends, or begins again.

But there is one story left in the book, “Across the Sea.”  A man and a woman (“wrapped up in her furs”) are on a steamer approaching Sicily.  He is clearly in the middle of an attempt at seduction.  Although a “sad Sicilian folksong” can be heard nearby, we have clearly moved into a different kind of story.

As they near Sicily, the woman asks the man to point out the famous features, and he does, the mountains, the olive groves, and something more:

It was as if all those places were peopled with people out of a legend, as he pointed them out to her one by one.  Thereabouts the malaria; on that slope of Etna the village where Liberty burst out like a vendetta; below, beyond, the humble dramas of the Mystery Play, and the ironic injustice of Don Licciu Papa.

Earlier stories are titled “Malaria,” “Liberty,” “The Mystery Play,” and “Don Licciu Papa” – why, this fellow is our author!  Once in Sicily, he revisits the scenes of his tales, although almost everyone is gone – “[t]he phantoms had passed away.”  The love affair sputters along.  The story ends with a farewell to Verga’s lover and to his Sicilian characters, and with a metaphor that makes this out-of-place story clear:  the writing of the brutal, miserable Little Novels of Sicily was itself a kind of love affair.

Friday, September 7, 2012

They know how to read and write – that’s the trouble - comic Giovanni Verga

I do not remember if it is where I first heard of Giovanni Verga, but a 2003 James Wood article from The New Republic is what caught my attention.  This was back before Wood sold his freedom to The New Yorker, when he could write about Verga just because he wanted to, with no of-the-moment publishing hook, no new biographies or translations.  My favorite Wood piece, maybe.  He works through a couple of stories not in Little Novels of Sicily which I have not read, “Jeli the Shepherd” and “Rosso Malpelo.”

Wood argues that the comic effect of Verga comes directly from the pitilessness of the narrator, from the very fact that the narrator seems to be embedded within the world of the stories.  The less he questions this values of the world, the more the reader wants to question them.  “Thus Verga’s fiction is peculiar because his characters are not free – they are all i vinti [the defeated], and the narrator knows it – but his readers are free to resist such determinism, and are indeed slyly encouraged to do so by Verga’s very narration.”  The narrator is just tellin’ it like it is – I mean, just look at these people! – but I can say no.

I suppose I can resist resisting and just take Verga as a chronicler of injustice.  The priests are as bad as the peasants, who are as bad as the gentry, who are not that far from becoming peasants themselves:

They know how to read and write – that’s the trouble.  The white frost  of dark winter dawns and the burning dog days of harvesttime fall upon them as upon every other poor devil, since they’re made of flesh and blood like their fellow men, and since they’ve got to go out and watch to see that their fellow man doesn’t rob them of his time and of his day’s pay.  But if you have anything to do with them, they hook you by your name and surname, and the names of those that begot you and bore you, with the beak of that pen of theirs, and then you’ll never get yourself out of their ugly books anymore, nailed down by debt.

“The Gentry” begins with this paragraph.  The rich landowners, the people who are called Don So-and-so, they are the “they,” not the narrator, and not “you,” meaning me.  I guess I am one of the peasants, or should imagine that I am.  But the story is in this case about one of the Dons, Don Piddu, whose misfortunes (“failure of crops, mortality among his cattle, his wife sick, his daughters all marriageable, handsome, and ready”) are as bad as those of the peasants.  Maybe he can get rid of one of the daughters by “den[ying] himself the bread of his mouth to take his daughter to the party in a silk dress open in front as low as her heart,” but it is too late and he goes bust, “and when the peasants disputed with him, they left out the Don and called him plainly thou.”

Like “Malaria,” this nine-page story still has the tales of two more characters to cover.  It ends with a grim punchline on an advantage of knowing how to read and write.

The Wood article is now in The Irresponsible Self (2004); the quotation is from p. 128.  That “sold his freedom” thing was just a bitter joke!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The malaria doesn't finish everybody - a peculiar Verga masterpiece

And you feel you could touch it with your hand – as if it smoked up from the fat earth, there, everywhere, round about the mountains that shut it in, from Agnone to Mount Etna capped with snow – stagnating in the plain like the sultry heat of June.

"It" is the malaria.  I want to go back to “Malaria” – that’s the story’s first sentence – because it is unusual.  It shows off one of Verga’s tricks.  Plus, “smoked up from the fat earth,” that’s good stuff right there.  Verga is obviously working with a miasma theory of disease.

The story starts without a character, unless I (“you”) count.  I guess I do.  Verga wants to fill me in on this condition if Sicilian life.  A sick shepherd soon appears, and some sick villagers who “tremble with  fever under their brown cloaks, with all the bed blankets over their shoulders.”  Any writer could have come up with the cloaks, but the blankets suggest a good eye.  They are out of place in the heat of these first few pages, “roads wasted by the sun…  two heaps of smoking dung…  coruscations of sparks” – the latter from a train.  We’ve gone a couple of pages, and now a “donkey lets his head hang…  the dog rises suspiciously.”  A human should appear soon, since the story is only eight pages long.

Six to go.  Ah, I see, the people were waiting for the heat to dissipate.  At sundown “sunburned men appear in the doorways… and half-naked women, with blackened shoulders, suckling babes that are already pale and limp, so that you can’t imagine that they’ll ever get big and swarthy and romp on the grass when winter comes again, and the yard floor will be green once more, and the sky blue, and the country all around laughing in the sun.”  Perhaps this is more of a sketch about the oppressive effects of this disease than a narrative.

No, here is a name, Farmer Croce, who got caught by the malaria after thirty years of “swallowing sulfate and eucalyptus decoction.”  His story just takes a couple of paragraphs, then it is on to Neighbor Carmine who lost all five of his children.  The parents lived on, after a page or so of narrative – the loss of the last boy is especially sad, but “[t]he malaria doesn’t finish everybody.”

Which brings us to Cirino the simpleton, who is frequently stricken by a malarial attack, knocked right off his feet, but always recovers, even though – now I am interpreting the narrator’s tone – it hardly seems fair, since Cirino has nothing and nobody.  Why does he get to live?

A little transition now to an innkeeper who has lost four wives to malaria and is looking for a fifth.  The stories within the story lengthen as we near the end, so poor Killwife gets more than two pages, ending with a vision of “[a]ll the other people on the plain,” the ones who come from somewhere else on the train that has ruined his inn, the people who are healthy:

Then the train lost itself in the vast mist of the evening, and the poor fellow, taking off his shoes for a moment, and sitting on the bench, muttered, “Ah! For that lot there isn’t any malaria!”

I do not believe I have read another story quite like it, excepting some of the others in Little Novels of Sicily.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

This was an injustice on God’s part - introducing Giovanni Verga's Little Novels of Sicily

In an irritating but inevitable Wuthering Expectations first, I missed a post because, staggered by illness, I was too weak to write or even read.  Evidence suggests I am again capable of writing, although I suspect I am still too weak to think.

I have no complaints, though, since I was not afflicted with typhoid, or worse, the malaria, as are so many of the Sicilians Giovanni Verga writes about in his comic 1883 masterpiece Little Novels of Sicily:

And truly the malaria gets into you with the bread you eat, or if you open your mouth to speak as you walk, suffocating in the dust and sun of the roads, and you feel your knees give way beneath you, or you sink discouraged on the saddle as your mule ambles along, with its head down.  (“Malaria”)

They had it rough, those Sicilians back then, before the big wave of American emigration.  “During the ‘fifties and ‘sixties,” writes translator D. H. Lawrence in his introduction to the book, “Sicily is said to have been the poorest place in Europe: absolutely penniless.”  I might want a qualifier or two to remove that “is said,” but they would be reasonable qualifiers.

Verga, in a long career, wrote other books about other walks of life, sentimental romances and so on, but it is his cluster of books about Sicilian peasants that have lasted, both in Italy and abroad:  The House by the Medlar Tree (1881), Mastro Don Gesualdo (1889), and more short stories, including “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1880), the source of the opera (I have not read any of these, not yet).  The advocacy and skillful translations of Lawrence have surely helped keep Verga alive, up to a point, in English.  Stylistically, I do not see all that much in common with Lawrence, but all of the misery and brutality and hopelessness likely reminded him of home.  Zola is another connection that seems more theoretical than stylistic.

Now, Chekhov, that one I can hear, even though the two authors worked without knowledge of each other.  Facing similar problems, they developed similar tools: distant narrators, a sense of ironic comedy in the face of the most horrifying tragedy, and a sparse use of fancy language.  Verga has a touch of Sholem Aleichem in him too, when he gets close to his characters:

Only one thing grieved him, and that was that he was beginning to get old, and he had to leave the earth there behind him.  This was an injustice on God’s part, that after having slaved one’s life away getting property together, when you’ve got it, and you’d like some more, you have to leave it behind you.  And he remained for hours sitting on a small basket, with his chin in his hands, looking at his vineyards growing green beneath his eyes, and his fields of ripe wheat waving like a sea, and the olive groves veiling the mountains like a mist, and if a half-naked boy passed in front of him, bent under his load like a tired ass, he threw his stick at his legs, out of envy, and muttered: “Look at him with his length of days in front of him ; him who’s got nothing to bless himself with!”  (“Property”)

Verga has his own tricks, though, some good, good tricks, which if I am lucky I will write about later.  I used the word “comic” up above and will perhaps return to it if I ever get my thinking cap on straight again.