Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I abhor the implication that Mark Twain stories are a haven for cannibalism

In what passes for an idea at Wuthering Expectations, I browsed through a book titled The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, Doubleday, 1957, 676 pp., ed. Charles Neider.  Complete­­ – that’ll answer my question about Twain and short stories, won't it?  Since I have decided that 1869 would be a good, entirely non-arbitrary, completely justifiable place to stop reading Twain in the first Library of America Tales and Sketches volume, I am covering about 30% of Twain’s amazingly long career, and about a sixth (17%) of the total Library of America pages.  That earlier editor had to decide exactly what was a “short story” and what was not.  He picked six “short stories” from 1869 or earlier, filling about eight percent of his pages.

To recap: in the first 30% of Twain’s career, he produced 17% of his important \ best \ whatever short pieces, and 8% of his total short story page count.  So almost all of the short stories as such come later, maybe much later in Twain’s life.

As I argued yesterday, even the stories that look like stories are not so story-like.  Take “Cannibalism in the Cars” (1868), part of that 8%.  At a train station in Terre Haute, Indiana, Twain meets a “mild, benevolent-looking gentleman” who eventually reveals “a secret chapter of my life.”  He was once on a train car that was trapped by a blizzard for so many days that the men resolve to justify the title of the story.  This takes about three pages of nine:  the frame, the blizzard, the starvation.  I do not believe these pages contain a single joke or other humorous element, and that is before we get to the grim matter of the cannibalism, which is introduced like this:

"Gentlemen: It cannot be delayed longer!  The time is at hand!  We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!”

MR. JOHN J. WILLIAMS of Illinois rose and said: “Gentlemen – I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee.”

MR. Wm. R. ADAMS of Indiana said: “I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York.”

MR. CHARLES J. LANGDON: “I nominate Mr. Samuel A.  Bowen of St. Louis.”

Suddenly the story, which is supposedly being spoken, is in the form of minutes.  As this sort of thing continues:

The motion was carried, and further debate shut off, of course.  The motion to elect officers was passed, and under it Mr. Gaston was chosen chairman, Mr. Blake, secretary, Messrs.  Holcomb, Dyer, and Baldwin a committee on nominations, and Mr. R. M. Howland, purveyor, to assist the committee in making selections.

I say, as this continued I began to suspect that this billet doux of Twain’s had about as much relation to Anton Chekhov and Alice Munro as does a Monty Python skit (“As a naval officer I abhor the implication that the Royal Navy is a haven for cannibalism”).  It’s funny, though:

MR. MORGAN (excitedly): “Mr.  Chairman – I do most strenuously object to this amendment.  The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore is bulky only in bone – not in flesh.  I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance?"

Twain loses his nerve at the end, making a vague and cowardly gesture towards meaning, just in case any of his weak-livered readers found that the horror of cannibalism outweighed the laughs of an unlikely use of Robert’s Rules of Order.

You may be thinking, is that not more or less what I wrote about yesterday?  No, no, I have just made a very subtle transition.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

As long and tedious as it should be useless to me - Mark Twain's anti-fiction

So what was the youthful, vigorous Mark Twain doing with his time?

In San Francisco the men of ‘The Call’ told me many legends of Mark’s apprenticeship in their paper five-and-twenty years ago; how he was a reporter delightfully  incapable of reporting according to the needs of the day.  He preferred, so they said, to coil himself into a heap and meditate until the last minute.  Then he would produce copy bearing no sort of relationship to his legitimate work – copy that made his editor swear horribly, and the readers of ‘The Call’ ask for more.

With a few modifications, this is a passable description of the composition of Wuthering Expectations – “coil himself into a heap” is uncannily accurate.  This comes from the end of Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 “An Interview with Mark Twain” which can be found in The Portable Kipling (1982).  I did not know this interview existed when I wrote yesterday’s piece.  Such are the vicissitudes of amateur criticism.

Despite the plain fact that everything Twain wrote was pure invention, he was not really writing fiction for the first couple of decades of his career.  I had wondered why his first novel or half-novel (he co-wrote it), The Gilded Age (1873) was so mediocre (I am being charitable), given how much he had written (he was 38 when it came out), but now I see the problem.  By 1869, at least – that is as far as I have gotten, and I am relying entirely on the mercy of the editor of the Library of America collection – he had hardly written any ordinarily coherent short fiction as such, but rather a mess of parodies, squibs, jokes, nonsense and anti-stories.  The editor gives by far the most space to 1870 – I suppose that year is full of fiction with characters and plots and insights and the usual stuff.

By anti-stories, I mean something like Twain’s single most famous story, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” (1865), which in many ways walks and quacks like a short story, a “tale,” with a narrator reporting a story about a frontier prank and chastened hubris he heard from a fellow named Simon Wheeler.  Except the narrator, Twain, actually begins the story with a letter to his editor.  He accuses the editor of playing a prank on him, sending Twain to Wheeler just to cause aggravation:

I have a lurking suspicion that your Leonidas W. Smiley is a myth – that you never knew such a personage, and that you only conjectured that if I asked old Wheeler about him it would remind him of his infamous Jim Smiley, and he would go to work and bore me nearly to death with some infernal reminiscence of him as long and tedious as it should be useless to me.

Twain is even careful to tell me exactly how to imagine I am hearing the story:  “He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the quiet, gently-flowing key to which he turned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm…”  In other words, Twain tells me how to ruin the story; he takes a number of steps to destroy his own story before it begins.

And soon the tale is reprinted all over the country and Twain is at least slightly famous and it remains his best known short piece, which only improves the joke.

All right.  I have uncoiled from my heap.  Let me post this thing.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Kipling, Twain, and a meermaid vot hadn't got nodings on - in other words, a rambler

At times I could hear Mark Twain behind Rudyard Kipling.  Pawing through a volume of Twain (the first volume of Library of America Collected Tales, Sketches, etc.) it occurred to me that Kipling might have benefitted not just from Twain’s stance or rhetoric but even from his subject, that Twain’s strange world of the Nevada territory and early San Francisco had some curious correspondences to Kipling’s world of the Himalayan frontier.  Mostly differences, yes, but both India and California were examples of a civilization re-creating itself helter skelter in a land far from wherever the settlers and fortune-seekers call home.  The order is scrambled, seams become visible, odd features are emphasized.

Did Kipling even read Twain?  Angus Wilson (The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling, 1977) says yes, since he was a schoolboy in England:

They consumed Ruskin, Carlyle, Emerson, and later (subject to a fierce argument between Kipling and his English master) Whitman.  Here Kipling formed his taste for the American humorists, Breitmann (a long-lasting and, I think, harmful love of Kipling’s), Twain and the new craze – Harris’s Uncle Remus. (44)

An obstacle has appeared:  who is Breitmann?  Hans Breitmann, Künstlername of Charles Godfrey Leland.  A sample of Hans Breitmann’s Ballads (1871):

Der noble Ritter Hugo
    Von Schwillensaufenstein,
Rode out mit shper and helmet,
    Und he coom to de panks of de Rhine.

Und oop dere rose a meermaid,
    Vot hadn't got nodings on,
Und she say, "Oh, Ritter Hugo,
    Vhere you goes mit yourself alone?"

And he says, "I rides in de creenwood,
    Mit helmet und mit shpeer,
Til I coomes into em Gasthaus,
    Und dere I trinks some beer."  (and so on)

I see, a dialect act.  This sort of thing is pretty funny when Danny Kaye does it, right?  Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads (1892) are a little bit like this stuff.  I can see how it would wear.  Kipling’s early books of  poems, written about and in the voice of the soldiers in India, Cockney or Irish or what have you, have the great virtue of being short.

Twain, though, I still wondered exactly what Twain Kipling had read.  Kipling must have read Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper  before he returned to India.  The travel books would be more relevant – I think the tone I was picking up was like that of Innocents Abroad (1869), and Roughing It (1872) is about Twain’s adventures in the American West.

I have no idea how much of the Twain articles and squibs and miscellanea I am reading now could have been read by Kipling.  Some of it was gathered into Sketches Old and New (1875), but any number of pieces could have been republished in newspapers, especially once “Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog” made Twain more or less famous in 1865.  Wilson accidentally answers my question while describing a hospital visit by the teenage Kipling:

He had told his sister that he wanted to be a doctor but that a post-mortem had put him off.  “Oh! In fact, Mark Twain had a word for it.  I believe I threw up my immortal soul.”  (55-6)

That vivid phrase is lifted directly from Twain’s “How to Cure a Cold” (1863, included in Sketches Old and New), where “a quart of salt water, taken warm” is the specific purgative.

I’ve read the Twain selections up into his early thirties.  Twain was as young as Kipling when he started writing professionally, but by the standards of Kipling, who had created a unique and outstanding body of short stories by the time he was twenty-three, Twain's achievement is minimal.  Kipling really was unusual.  And Twain had, it turns out, created the one thing he needed, though, his instrument, his voice.  His shtick.

Friday, October 26, 2012

I've blandandhered thim through the night somehow - the great Private Mulvaney

By 1888 Rudyard Kipling had created one great character, an Irish soldier in the colonial service, Private Terence Mulvaney.  A private at the time of the stories, at least – “I was rejuced aftherwards, but, no matther, I was a Corp'ril wanst” (“The God from the Machine”).  Mulvaney is always accompanied by his friends Privates Learoyd and Ortheris, but the force of Mulvaney’s personality is such that they become appurtenances of his larger character.  He is Falstaff, so to speak, and they are Pistol and Bardolph.

Mulvaney’s demotion hints at his vices, mostly drink and anger, but he also, aside from the usual soldiering virtues of courage and loyalty to his companions, has a couple of characteristics that a lesser writer would find hard to pull off.  He is smart, convincingly smarter than the “Kipling” who narrates the stories, and also a better story-teller.  Not a better story-teller than the actual Kipling, obviously, I hope.

Not that I was disappointed when I turned to a new Kipling story that featured one of his other recurring characters, like the queenly adulteress Mrs. Hauksbee, or no recurring characters at all, but soon enough I was enjoying a little thrill whenever Private Mulvaney appeared.  Kipling’s stories were fine, but Mulvaney’s as told to Kipling were better.

Mulvaney tells stories about pranks, battles, deeds good and bad.  In “With the Main Guard” Mulvaney and his pals and for some reason the Kipling-narrator are keeping the night shift in a guard house on the hottest night of the summer (“What I was doing there at that hour is a question which only concerns McGrath, the Sergeant of the Guard, and the men on the gate”).  Mulvaney tells a long, complex, first-rate battle story.  The shift ends, the watch is relieved, and Kipling complicates the tale (this is the very end of the story):

'Oh, Terence!' I said, dropping into Mulvaney's speech, when we were alone, 'it's you that have the tongue!'

He looked at me wearily; his eyes were sunk in his head, and his face was drawn and white.  'Eyah!' said he; 'I've blandandhered thim through the night somehow, but can thim that helps others help themselves?  Answer me that, Sorr!'

And over the bastions of Fort Amara broke the pitiless day.

Story-telling as a compassionate but costly act.  Mulvaney always turns out to be a twist or two deeper than he first seems.  At least three more Mulvaney stories were published post-1888.  Lucky me!

I am amazed to discover that I am not at all sated with reading Kipling, although I am all done writing about him.  He has been a surprising discovery, as odd a thing as that is to say about such a famous writer.  He has attracted a fog, though; only one way to dispel it.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

And here comes the unpleasant part of the story. - Zolaesque Kipling

That line in the title would not be out of place in any number of Kipling stories, but I read it in “The Other Man,” one of the Plain Tales from the Hills.  Miss Gaurey is forced to marry the blunt, well off, and essentially abusive Colonel Schreiderling instead of the penniless – “I have forgotten his name, but we will call him the Other Man.”  The story is only four pages and the unpleasant part does not occur until have way through.  Kipling was efficient.  The former Miss Gaurey and the Other Man accidentally meet one last time.  Kipling, who claims to have witnessed the meeting and its aftermath, is right: that part is unpleasant.

“The Other Man” is a grotesque domestic story in an unusual setting.  I could imagine Walter Scott coming up with the same conceit, but he would have had to put it in his own unusual setting, 1688 Scotland.  I was at first surprised to see all of the stories about adulterous officer’s wives and the romantic pursuits of young civil servants; I mean, really, about how English society bends and fits itself to India.  The whole picture ends up looking like a satire on England as much as on the English in India.

In “A Wayside Comedy” from Under the Deodars, for example, Kipling isolates two couples and an extra officer in a hill station (“Fate and the Government of India have turned the Station of Kashima into a prison”).  These five are “the English population of Kashima.”  Bored out of their minds, they immediately begin pursuing each other’s wives and husbands and making each other miserable.  The Victorian proprieties and notions of honor disintegrate.  Actually, one of the husbands is not miserable.  He is either an oblivious idiot or a Machiavelli.  It’s an odd story, but one that is unimaginable in England.

Angus Wilson, in The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling (1977) tells me that English critics routinely compared Kipling to Zola for his immorality.  How different things look with the passage of time.  But Kipling’s exotic foreignness does seem to allow him some earthy freedom.  I remind myself that he was writing for the Indian English audience, not the English English one.

In “The Bronckhorst Divorce-Case,” a Plain Tale, a devoted wife is accused of adultery by her brutal husband:

Dinner at the Bronckhorst's was an infliction few men cared to undergo.  Bronckhorst took a pleasure in saying things that made his wife wince.  When their little boy came in at dessert, Bronckhorst used to give him half a glass of wine, and naturally enough, the poor little mite got first riotous, next miserable, and was removed screaming. Bronckhorst asked if that was the way Teddy usually behaved, and whether Mrs. Bronckhorst could not spare some of her time to teach the "little beggar decency."

None of that supports any argument of mine.  I just like the passage a lot.  Poor drunk kid!  In other Kipling stories, Mrs. Bronckhurst likely would have taken up with a younger man, but in this story she happens to be falsely accused.  Her marriage is saved by bribes, threats, and the subversion of the courts.  It is possible that a satirical point or two is being made.

An important recurring them in these early Kipling stories is the mistreatment of women, Indian women and English women alike.  Another theme is determined, intelligent women carving out power for themselves.  Some readers might find this interesting.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Am I a fool? - sarcastic Kipling

Rudyard Kipling’s imaginative territory is large.  “The Man Who Would Be King” and “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes” would be logical places to visit, since they are masterpieces, the latter a proto-weird tale, the former among the greatest short stories ever written, technically brilliant, deeply perplexing, leaving me vaguely embarrassed I had not read it before.

These two stories are, narrowly, parables of English imperialism, and, broadly, satirical allegories on the folly of human striving, the first nominally realistic although literally outlandish, the second intensely bizarre, full of people living in holes and eating crows they have trapped (the bait for crows turns out to be crows), and following self-contradictory maps through quicksand.  Kipling wrote that one when he was 19.  Odd kid, Kipling.

How anyone can read these stories and attribute to Kipling a simple, uncritical view of the imperial enterprise in India is beyond me.  Working through the Plain Tales story “Lispeth,” obooki emphasizes not merely Kipling’s ambiguity but his open and continual sarcasm:

Perhaps, in this last quotation, you can spot some sarcasm creeping in.  Well, we’ll find plenty more examples before we’re through.

Kipling is not the most sarcastic writer I have ever come across since he is not Mark Twain.

“On the City Wall” is found in In Black and White, which contains only stories about Indians.  It is prefaced by a letter from his servant:

Nabi Baksh, clerk, says that it is a book about the black men – common people.  This is a manifest lie, for by what road can my sahib have acquired knowledge of the common people?  Have I not, for several years, been perpetually with the sahib; and throughout that time have I not stood between him and the other servants who would persecute him with complaints or vex him with idle tales about my work?...  Without me he does not know where are his rupees or his clean collars…  Have I ever told the sahib about the customs of servants of black men?  Am I a fool?

Sarcasm is the correct word, although a little ambiguity does creep in (“about my work”).

Let me try another example from the same book, the beginning of “On the City Wall”:

Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world…  In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that morality may be preserved.  In the East, where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice, and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.

I guess I have met people who would read this as if Kipling meant it all.  Those readers exist.  In this story, the Kipling-narrator is tricked – very easily tricked – by the courtesan into helping a political prisoner, a veteran of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, escape from an English military prison.  "Am I a fool?"

I had meant to ignore the guff about Kipling the roast-beef jingo, but it is an easy target and perhaps good to get it out of the way – plus I can just parrot obooki (see above), who has already gone over this ground.  I have no idea what objectionable things the later Kipling might have written, but the 1888 Kipling is a slippery trickster.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Here begins the story where every right-minded story should begin, that is to say at Simla - Kipling's world in 1888

None the less, here begins the story where every right-minded story should begin, that is to say at Simla, where all things begin and many come to an evil end.

Although this line is near the beginning of a story of minor interest (“The Education of Otis Yeere,” from Under the Deodars) it hits smack in the center of Rudyard Kipling’s amazing early achievement.  A journalist in the Punjab in far northern India and what is now Pakistan from the age of 17, and a genius of some sort, he turned his surroundings, especially the colonial station of Simla into a fictional world that rivals the London of Dickens or the Paris of Balzac in roundedness and lifelikeness.  Kipling works on a smaller scale, so he never matches the size of those two titanic writers, and he has nothing like their proliferation of characters.  He has maybe one character as good.

World-building, they call it in fantasy literature.  Kipling’s feat of world-building is what is impressing me so much as I read through the seven (7!) books he published in India in 1888, almost all short stories, mostly stuff he had written for newspapers.  His first collection of short pieces – really short, four or five pages, mostly – was Plain Tales from the Hills, and it was such a hit – a hit among the very people he was writing about, the civil servants and soldiers and officers and their wives about whom Kipling was writing – that in the same year his Indian publisher knocked out a set of six more little books assembled from Kipling’s accumulated archive of writing.  Kipling was 23 years old at this point.

So let’s see:

Plain Tales from the Hills – a wide variety of colonial life in the hills, occasionally featuring recurring characters, occasionally wandering into a city or the countryside.

Then the short books; note the clever conceptual arrangement:

Soldiers Three – Private Mulvaney is that one great character, a story-teller who rivals Kipling, a man of deep humor and surprisingly deep feeling.  He and his two pals Ortheris and Learoyd star in several of the best pieces in Plain Tales, and Kipling writes that he meant to add these stories to that volume, but “Mulvaney himself says that he prefers to have his fame ‘dishpersed most notoriously in several volumes’” (Preface).

In Black and White – stories told from the Indian point of view.

The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and Other Tales – the source of yesterday’s ghost stories and also the home of “The Man Who Would Be King” and “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes,” in other words, the one to buy if you can only buy one.  Not you, specifically, but the bureaucrat browsing the bookshop in Lahore in 1888.

Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories – not stories for children but stories about them.  Kipling is unusually insightful about children and at the same time writes about them using some cutesy-poo devices that most readers will now find cloying.

Under the Deodars and Other Tales – more tales from the hills, somewhat less plain this time, or at least longer.

The Story of the Gadsbys – this one is a short novel about the courtship, marriage, and early hardships of a young officer and a cute, insipid woman, all written in the form of a play.  It is close to a dud, conventional in all but its form, which is sometimes clever, especially in its phony stage directions and asides, and its setting.

The latter book is dead; Plain Tales from the Hills is alive and in print; the other five books have been dismembered and the parts dishpersed among dozens of collections, which is as it should be.  I am reading them in a three volume set published in 1900, which I do not recommend.  It is just that while grazing on Plain Tales I began to feel what obooki described:

[A]s soon as I picked up the Kipling, I was absorbed by the writing, enthralled, though what the story was actually about might be the most trivial matter in the world.

So I just kept going, and this is how far I have gotten.  I am still stuck in 1888.

Monday, October 22, 2012

I could have made anything out of it - Kipling's ghost stories

Two more ghost stories, both by Rudyard Kipling:  “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw” and “My Own True Ghost Story.”  Both stories are circa 1888.  This is my elegant transition to a week of Kipling in 1888.

Also, neither of these ghost stories are actual ghost stories, at least according to the editors (Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert) of The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (1986):

The ghostly protagonists must act with a deliberate intent; their actions – or the consequences of their actions – rather than those of the living must be the central theme; and most important of all, each ghost, whether human or animal phantom or reanimated corpse, must unquestionably be dead.  From this it follows that there can be no rationalization of the ghost, no explanation of events by natural causes.  (ix)

By this standard, The Turn of the Screw is not a ghost story nor are any of those I read last week.  Are editors of Oxford anthologies really this unsophisticated about fiction?  No need to answer that.

In “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw” an Englishman in India is haunted by the ghost of a married woman he loved then spurned for the insipid but single Kitty, and not just be her but by her rickshaw (I will abandon Kipling’s extra apostrophe) and the four native men who pull and push it.  Obviously the ghost is just a projection of the narrator’s guilt, and everyone treats it as such, including, up to a point, the man who sees it:

I had originally some wild notion of confiding it all to Kitty; of begging her to marry me at once; and in her arms defying the ghostly occupant of the 'rickshaw.  "After all," I argued, "the presence of the 'rickshaw is in itself enough to prove the existence of a spectral illusion.  One may see ghosts of men and women, but surely never of coolies and carriages. The whole thing is absurd."

This I enjoy a lot.  The ghost of a lover – plausible; the ghost of a cart – preposterous.  But then it turns out that the rickshaw died I mean was destroyed under mysterious circumstances.  So this is among the least frightening ghost stories ever written, but is instead an almost moving story about a man punishing himself for a crime only he knows about.

Kipling is the “me” in “My Own True Ghost Story,” or anyway the supple version of himself he had developed in his early career as a writer in India.  After a prelude defending the seriousness of Indian ghosts (“The older Provinces simply bristle with haunted houses, and march phantom armies along their main thoroughfares”), he tells of the time he came across a ghost or two in an isolated government way-station.  As is typical in ghost stories, the narrator tells me how scared he was:

Do you know what fear is?  Not ordinary fear of insult, injury or death, but abject, quivering dread of something that you cannot see – fear that dries the inside of the mouth and half of the throat – fear that makes you sweat on the palms of the hands, and gulp in order to keep the uvula at work?  This is a fine Fear – a great cowardice, and must be felt to be appreciated.  The very improbability of billiards in a dâk-bungalow proved the reality of the thing.  No man – drunk or sober – could imagine a game at billiards, or invent the spitting crack of a "screw-cannon."

Yes, Kipling’s ghosts are playing billiards in the next room, a room with no billiards table.  Ghost billiards.  Perhaps he is not taking ghosts as seriously as he claims.  Perhaps he is the first great writer to be strongly influenced by Mark Twain.  Perhaps.

The story ends in tragedy:

Then the wind ran out and the billiards stopped, and I felt that I had ruined my one genuine, hall-marked ghost story.

Had I only stopped at the proper time, I could have made anything out of it.

That was the bitterest thought of all!

A tragedy for a world-class storyteller, at least.

The rest of the week, more of Kipling’s stories of India, all published, strangely, in 1888.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Then I connected up the battery - ghostbusting with Carnacki and William Hope Hodgson

The final ghost story of the week is William Hope Hodgson’s “The Gateway of the Monster,” the first story in the 1910 collection Carnacki, the Ghost Finder.

First, though, I want to thank everyone for their suggestions.  The recommendation-packed comments on that first post are now a treasure trove of terror.  Do you dare risk the Curse of the Comments?  Etc.

Second, some criticism of M. R. James specifically but ghost stories more generally from S. T. Joshi, weird tale expert, ghost story skeptic, drawn from his 1990 book The Weird Tale (University of Texas Press); the title of his chapter on James is “The Limitations of the Ghost Story,” so he makes his view clear enough:

They are simply stories; they never add up to a world view.  The tales are all technique, a coldly intellectual exercise in which James purposefully avoids drawing broader implications.  (140)

I discuss him here because he is clearly the perfecter of one popular and representative form of the weird tale; but in his very perfection of that form he showed its severe limitations in scope.  (142)

My initial hypothesis was that the ghost story is a flexible form capable of the usual range of purposes of fiction.  I will admit that the idea has been shaken a bit by the fact that 75% of the ghost stories I read this week were about haunted bedrooms and the mysterious movements of bedclothes.  Ghosts also haunt ruins and alleys and, I don’t know, glaciers and so on, yes, not just beds?  I will admit that I am making an inference from a very small sample.  Still, it’s sorta weird – spooky, even.

Hodgson’s Carnacki is a prototype of a character I recognize from comic books like Hellblazer and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Doctor Strange.  Carnacki is not merely a ghost finder but a ghost slayer.  His world is full of magic and strange doings that are if not quite rationally understandable at least manageable. 

He spends the first part of “The Gateway of the Monster” proving that the mysterious phenomena in a haunted room are in fact supernatural – like the character’s in “The Upper Berth” he removes the furniture, searches for trap doors, and so on – and once he is satisfied that the ghostly effects are not produced by smugglers trying to scare off nosey kids he gets down to the business of dispelling the dangerous spirit, which he does in a similarly methodical manner.  Carnacki is not exactly a supernatural scientist, but is more like a technician.  Let him tinker with the ectoplasmic engine and he will figure out how it runs.

Thus, the greatest moment in the story,  the deployment of:

“the Electric Pentacle, setting it so that each of its 'points' and 'vales' coincided exactly with the 'points' and 'vales' of the drawn pentagram upon the floor.  Then I connected up the battery, and the next instant the pale blue glare from the intertwining vacuum tubes shone out.”

The Electric Pentacle, besides sounding like the name of an English folk-rock band, is an outstanding bit of pulpy inventiveness.  Good Lord, someone gave it a Wikipedia page.

Again, the narrator tells me how frightened he is:

“I shall never be able to let you know how disgustingly horrible it was sitting in that vile, cold wind!  And then, flick! flick! flick! all the candles 'round the outer barrier went out; and there was I, locked and sealed in that room, and with no light beyond the weakish blue glare of the Electric Pentacle.”

That “flick! flick! flick!” gives a good idea of Hodgson’s vibrant, resourceful narrator.  I would enjoy reading more of him.  I would enjoy more of everything I read this week, actually, with the exception of a generic Arthur Machen story (“The Happy Children”) that I tried, based on no one’s recommendation; it at least had the benefit of taking place outdoors and not featuring a single sheet, blanket, or quilt.

I had meant to end with Kipling, but I will postpone him until next week.  All next week:  Kipling in 1888.  Don't miss it.

And thanks again for all of the help with the ghosts!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

It will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me - ghost stories by H. G. Wells and F. Marion Crawford

“The Upper Berth” (1886) by F. Marion Crawford and “The Red Room” (1896) by H. G. Wells.  The titles link the stories – both are in the “spend the night in a haunted house” ghost story sub-genre, sub-sub-genre “haunted room.”  If you are thinking that I’m slicing things a little thin, you are correct.  But I’m not the one who wrote the stories.

Crawford sets his ghost story on a passenger liner, and the haunted room is actually a haunted cabin.  A surprising amount of space is given to the mechanics of a cabin porthole which refuses to stay closed:

My eyes were riveted upon the porthole.  It seemed to me that the brass loop-nut was beginning to turn slowly upon the screw – so slowly, however, that I was not sure it turned at all.

One of the great benefits of the ghost story is that it forces writers to pay such close attention to objects and spaces and movement – a brass loop-nut, you don’t say.  Ghost stories are often so pleasingly material, much like good mysteries.

“The Upper Berth” is written like a mystery, and is a cousin of the “locked room” mystery sub-genre.  The narrator and his assistants dismantle the cabin’s furniture and test the walls to make sure there are no secret passages.  I have been wondering how some of these stories would seem if a reader did not suspect that they were ghost stories.  If I had not encountered Crawford in The English Book of Ghost Stories I might have read it looking for clues to the puzzle rather than signs of the supernatural.  I might have been disappointed by the ending, since an immaterial ghost is not really such an ingenious solution to a locked-room mystery.

Now, to read “The Upper Berth” this way I also would have had to skip the two-page frame in which I am directly told that this is a story about how the narrator saw a ghost.

H. G. Wells is even more direct in “The Red Room,” beginning the story with this:

"I can assure you," said I, "that it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me."  And I stood up before the fire with a glass in my hand.

"It is your own choosing," said the man with the withered arm, and glanced at me askance.

The first line is pure irony.  The idea that a tangible ghost is more frightening than an intangible one is just the kind of youthful hubris a ghost story is meant to deflate.  This particular narrator, though, unlike Crawford’s, seems to overestimate his steadiness and rationality.  He is practically reduced to hysterics by the shadows in the corridor outside of the haunted room:

A bronze group stood upon the landing hidden from me by a corner of the wall; but its shadow fell with marvelous distinctness upon the white paneling, and gave me the impression of some one crouching to waylay me.  The thing jumped upon my attention suddenly.  I stood rigid for half a moment, perhaps.  Then, with my hand in the pocket that held the revolver, I advanced, only to discover a Ganymede and Eagle, glistening in the moonlight.  That incident for a time restored my nerve, and a dim porcelain Chinaman on a buhl table, whose head rocked as I passed, scarcely startled me.

And we still have another paragraph before he sets foot in the room.  “Scarcely startled” – it’s gonna be a long night, kid.

Wells does something curious and irritating at the very end of the story.  Questioned about his bad night, which had already been described in detail to the story’s reader, the narrator turns to allegory.  What was in the room? 

"The worst of all the things that haunt poor mortal men," said I; "and that is, in all its nakedness --Fear!"

Crawford’s narrator, late in his story, specifically tells us he was frightened.  M. R. James did the same thing; so did Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.  I wonder why this is necessary.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

And a-heaving and a-heaving with what? - two M. R. James stories

Today’s ghost stories are both by M. R. James, “’Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” (1904) and “Rats” (1929) (the latter is likely not public domain in the United States, so do not click if you fear the copyright haunts).

“’Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” begins as a comedy in voice, tone, and subject (a Professor of Ontography goes on a golf holiday).  A character on the first page gets a line but no description otherwise “since he merely appears in this prologue.”  His golfing partner has a bad day and “assumed a colouring so lurid that even Parkins jibbed at the thought of walking home with him from the links.”  Ah, here is my favorite joke:

“But it's your drive” (or whatever it might have been: the golfing reader will have to imagine appropriate digressions at the proper intervals).

More writers should have the confidence to adopt this device.  Why should they do all the heavy lifting?

No, I am wrong, that is only my favorite joke-as-such, but the great conceptual joke of the story is that the ghost of the story turns out to be – I suppose sensitive readers should not read further – in fact, they should disconnect from the internet – you know, just go ahead and turn off your computer for a few hours – the ghost turns out to be evil ambulatory bedclothes (italics mine):

Parkins, who very much dislikes being questioned about it, did once describe something of it in my hearing, and I gathered that what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen.  What expression he read upon it he could not or would not tell, but that the fear of it went nigh to maddening him is certain.

Italics his.  In other words, the supernatural creature is wearing a sheet as his ghost costume.  Is the form already decadent by 1904, succumbing to the rarefied pleasures of meta-fiction and parody?  From me, this is not a complaint.

The first sentence of “Rats” features the link to “Oh Whistle”:

'And if you was to walk through the bedrooms now, you'd see the ragged, mouldy bedclothes a-heaving and a-heaving like seas.  And a-heaving and a-heaving with what?' he says.  ‘Why, with the rats under 'em.'

This marvelous and insane bit of dialogue supplies the title and inspires the narrator to tell an entirely different story that, he specifies, has no rats in it at all, but does involve heaving bedclothes.  Neither the rats nor the coot who delights in them are ever explained or even mentioned again.

Instead, there is an old inn and a locked room and a lodger too curious for his own good.  “Rats” is short and punchy, so there is hardly room for the ghost, but when it appears it is efficient enough.  James’s descriptions of its movement are especially nice.  The matter of factness of the innkeeper at the end of the story is amusing: he leaves the ghost alone, it leaves him alone.  A sensible man.

I have come up with a new way to categorize ghost stories.  There are the characters who deny the ghost, who resist it, and those who accept its rules or existence.  Gaskell’s nurse is not even superstitious: she simply observes the spirits, learns their rules, and does her duty.  The nitwit in “Rats” and the skeptic in “Oh Whistle” nearly gets themselves killed because they do not believe their own senses.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Look! there is my poor little girl out in the snow! - ghosts by Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

The first two ghost stories of the week are “The Nurse’s Story” (1852) by Elizabeth Gaskell and “The Southwest Chamber” (1903 or so) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.  I am reading more or less randomly, which makes the similarities between these two stories almost uncanny.

The southwest chamber is where the old aunt died, the one who was “pitiless” towards her sister who married a poor man, and to her nieces, too, but they end up with the house.  They take in lodgers, but the aunt’s room turns out to be trouble.

“Well!” said Sophia, “of all the silly notions! If you are going to pick out rooms in this house where nobody has died, for the boarders, you'll have your hands full… I don't believe there's a room nor a bed in this house that somebody hasn't passed away in.”

But apparently none of those other people were so mean.

The amusing thing is that the aunt’s hauntings are entirely domestic.  She messes around with dresses and nightcaps and mirrors and, my favorite, her bed hangings, which she occasionally switches from a “peacocks on blue” pattern to “roses on yellow.”

This apparent contradiction of the reasonable as manifested in such a commonplace thing as chintz of a bed-hanging affected this ordinarily unimaginative woman as no ghostly appearance could have done. Those red roses on the yellow ground were to her much more ghostly than any strange figure clad in the white robes of the grave entering the room.

Next week, kids, Count Floyd will get a scary movie, he promises.

No, I joke, this is good.  The skeptical, tough niece learns that no matter how strong and sensible she is she cannot correct the sins of someone else’s past, even in her own family.  Just get away from it; move on.  A therapeutic ghost story.

Elizabeth Gaskell also conjures some ghosts from a sister’s old act of cruelty.  The nurse and her little ward end up in a house with the usual accoutrements – a sealed-off wing, a bitter old lady.  Gaskell employs James’s two turns of the screw (“what do you say to two children”), in this case one living and one  lost:

[B]y-and-by, without our noticing it, it grew dusk indoors, though it was still light in the open air, and I was thinking of taking her back into the nursery, when, all of sudden, she cried out, -

'Look, Hester! look! there is my poor little girl out in the snow!'

I turned towards the long, narrow windows, and there, sure enough, I saw a little girl, less than my Miss Rosamond dressed all unfit to be out-of-doors such a bitter night - crying, and beating against the window-panes, as if she wanted to be let in.

This is the pleasingly uncanny point where the reader interested in being frightened will enjoy himself.

The story’s end is a bit more thumping, with the story’s ghosts assembling before the living to re-enact the moment that created them many decades ago.

As soon as I saw the date of the story, I should have known what Gaskell was after.  “The Nurse’s Story” is another of her tales of female solidarity, with the nurse doing everything necessary to protect the little girl in her care, taking the ghosts in their own terms, figuring out their rules.  The evil act in the past is the opposite, one woman destroying another.  The only act of violence comes from a man, but a woman endorsing the violence against her own sister and niece is as worthy of a lifetime of guilt and ghosts.

So, two ghost stories that are feminist explorations of good and bad deeds within the family.

I doubt whatever else I read will pair up so nicely.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Give me thy foggy lips divine - please suggest some ghost stories

Here’s something I have never done before, a sort of invitation-only event where everyone is invited.  It is the season for ghost stories; I rarely read and know little about ghost stories.  Please suggest some ghost stories.  I’ll read a few and write ‘em up.  I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I do know I’ll end up with Rudyard Kipling.  So no need to suggest him.

More rules: to be read, the suggested story must be 1) short, 2) available, and 3) old.

It was not the season that got me thinking about ghost stories but a post at Book Around the Corner on The Turn of the Screw.  Emma had a number of objections to James’s ghost-or-not-a-ghost riddle, but the one that struck me was the suggestion that her Cartesian rationalism, a French cultural inheritance,  is immune to the charms of the ghost story:  “skepticism won the battle and I didn’t manage to accept the concept of ghost as a prerequisite to the story.”

Meanwhile the Argumentative Old Git writes about “The Turn of the Screw” from what looks to me like an opposed viewpoint.  The story is “frightening,” evoking a “powerful… sense of supernatural terror,” and “there is an immense evil lurking in these pages.”

Now, I am as skeptical as they come on the subject of ghosts, and I wonder just exactly what sort of ghost story could actually cause me the slightest sense of anxiety, much less frighten me.  No, never mind, I know the answer to that:  the ghost of Ralph Waldo Emerson haunts the author of a book blog, giving him terrifying advice about writing (“Good for that and good for nothing else”).  Why did I even bring that up.  Now I’ve got the sweats, I’ve got the chills, your basic waking nightmare.

I mean, I follow Nabokov in calling so-called “realism” like Madame Bovary a “fairy tale.”  It’s all made up; even the parts that are not made up are made up once they pass into the text.  I am a cold-blooded reader, I know.  A jolly literary lizard.

At the same time, I am a great admirer of the free exercise of the artist’s imagination.  I practically cheered when I discovered that Émile Zola, eminently French, not merely rational but scientific, slipped a ghost story into Thérèse Raquin!  No, I admit, I did not cheer, but rather laughed loudly:  “They could still feel pieces of him squashed revoltingly between them, freezing their skin in some places while the rest of them was burning hot.”  Ha ha ha ha ha!  Ghosts are wonderful!

If no one has any suggestion – “The Turn of the Screw” is much, much, much too long – I will browse around in an anthology, Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, ed. Marvin Kaye, 1993, with its marvelous Edward Gorey cover.  The flap insists that “this collection intends to terrify the reader.”  Sensitive readers may want to avert their gaze as I give a sample of the contents:

Come, essence, of a slumb’ring soul.
Throw off thy maidenly control
    Un-shroud thy ghastly face!
Give me thy foggy lips divine.
And let me press my mist to thine.
And fold thy nothingness in mine,
    In one long damp embrace.

That is the conclusion of “The Ghost to His Ladye Love” (1869) by W. S. Gilbert.  The lady ghost is also lovingly described as “Thou cloudy, clammy thing!” and being “rich in calico and bone.”  How can she resist these ectoplasmic endearments?  Of course she cannot.

So if anyone knows a (short, available, old) ghost story better than Gilbert’s, which I know sounds unlikely, please, let me know, and I will give it a try.

Friday, October 12, 2012

I gotta million ideas about The Cossacks

A friendly anonymous commenter asked if The Cossacks has any relation to Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, published over twenty years earlier.  It’s a good question.  By the time Tolstoy was writing, Russian literature was already thick with Cossack literature:  Lermontov in the novel and some poems, Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter and a number of shorter works, Gogol’s Taras Bulba.  In other words, all of the major writers of the generation before Tolstoy had written about Cossacks in one way or another.   What was Tolstoy adding to the tradition?

I am not sure.  For one thing, there was surely a shelf of non-canonical Cossack novels that I know nothing about.  Any element of parody or imitation I see in Tolstoy is as likely to be about some book I have never heard of.  Oh well.

Tolstoy does give some clues.  Olenin, the naïve young Russian nobleman, enters military service as part of a search for a meaningful life and an escape from his tailor (he is ashamed to face his Moscow tailor):

The farther Olenin travelled from Central Russia the farther he left his memories behind, and the nearer he drew to the Caucasus the lighter his heart became.  "I'll stay away for good and never return to show myself in society," was a thought that sometimes occurred to him.  "These people whom I see here are not people.”  (III)

Olenin will be our point-of-view character for a tour of the exotic Caucasus where he will learn his Important Life Lessons.

But Tolstoy pulls off a nice surprise by abandoning Olenin.  Rather than approach the village with him, Tolstoy switches to the kind of God’s-eye description I described yesterday, then to an old Cossack woman, and then to the young Cossack soldier Lukashka.   Olenin vanishes for twenty eventful pages.  These “not people” are people, Tolstoy insists, and he is not going to wait for Olenin to figure that out.  They are going to be people immediately.

Completely convincing people, too, not exotic, but different.  Their culture is taken seriously, meaningfully.  Tolstoy’s capacity for imaginative sympathy is astounding.

Another touch that may or may not be a parodic response to his predecessors is that Tolstoy’s Russian protagonist, while indulging in some classic Romantic self-pity, is in no way Byronic.  He’s a bit of a wet noodle, even.  His Cossack double, Lukashka, is the Byronic hero, although his story takes an ironic anti-Byronic turn or too as well.

Yet another amusing irony is that with two exceptions all of the combat in this novel of soldiering on the frontier is kept offstage.  The exceptions are admittedly pretty important.  But mostly I kept expecting War but kept getting Peace.

There’s also a dangling, unresolved plot line that has a surprisingly modern feel.  Now I’m rambling.  Just enjoying an evening stroll with Tolstoy.

Here’s an idea: read some of the Cossack classics, Tolstoy and Pushkin and so on, and then read Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926), a quite different anti-Romantic take on the subject narrated by an outsider, and then write a series of penetrating and original blog posts.  This is my gift to you.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Clusters of them, crushed by the wheels, lay in the dirt - invisible, distant Tolstoy

A fair amount of The Cossacks sounds like this:

It was August.  For days the sky had been cloudless, the sun scorched unbearably and from early morning the warm wind raised a whirl of hot sand from the sand-drifts and from the road, and bore it in the air through the reeds, the trees, and the village.  The grass and the leaves on the trees were covered with dust, the roads and dried-up salt marshes were baked so hard that they rang when trodden on.  (XXIX)

A new section begins with some establishing shots, some landscape.  Kinda plain.  Two sentences later some people enter the scene, generic ones, though, “the shouting of girls and boys bathing,” along with cattle and wild boars.  Mountains, air, sun.  Then activity, the grape harvest, and the sentence turn into close-ups:

Along the dusty road from the vineyards the creaking carts moved slowly, heaped up with black grapes.  Clusters of them, crushed by the wheels, lay in the dirt.  Boys and girls in smocks stained with grape-juice, with grapes in their hands and mouths, ran after their mothers.

The shot of the crushed grapes in the road is perhaps the first detail in the long paragraph that seems especially artful, that the more attentive writer thinks to include.  Now these little bursts of sensory detail proliferate with descriptions of clothing or movement or odors (“the smell of the emptied skins filled the air” or animals, all circling around the grapes.

This is not really all that cinematic but has something in common with a montage.  Or perhaps it is like watching a painter at work, putting down a base, working in some shapes, filling them in, adding lines, and finally getting out the finer brushes.  Thank goodness we do not have to enjoy paintings in this fashion.  Tolstoy’s page about the grape harvest is not that tedious, thankfully, although the method does require some patience.  Well, it is only a page – a minute and a half of patience – what am I complaining about – and then the characters and story wander back in.

This is the distant narrator, the Flaubert-like invisible narrator.  Objective is not a bad word, either, but of course the author is not really a camera or even a painter but is choosing every image from whatever possibilities his imagination can produce.  He likely observed most of this himself during his own time in the Caucasus, but he observed a million things he did not put in the book.  He makes himself visible as he goes along, just as he makes his setting and characters take shape by adding this piece, and now this one, and now this one.

The other mode of the novel is a clean limited third person, the other Flaubert-like narrator, but I am sure we are all tired of hearing about that.  To my knowledge, Tolstoy owes no debt at all to Flaubert but was working out similar aesthetic ideas on his own.  His powers of observation were so strong that they may not have seemed like ideas at all, just the obvious way to turn what he experienced and thought into fiction.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Had he been drunk one might understand it! - Tolstoy and The Cossacks

Have I played the What If He Had Died game before at Wuthering Expectations?  Not once, in all these years, I believe.  It is just another way of thinking about the reputation of an artist.  Maybe I should make it less morbid – if the artist had given up his art, if he had entered a monastery before writing whichever gigantic masterpiece casts shade on his other works.

I am rambling towards The Cossacks (1863), the short novel that would have been Leo Tolstoy’s best book if it had been his last.  After its publication he spent the next six years writing War and Peace (1865/1869); Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilych and many more significant works would follow.  Tolstoy would be seen as an innovative writer about war and the life of Russian officers, a theme he pursued from his first published short story (“The Raid,” 1853) through the rest of his career, on to the end of his life, actually, and the sublime Hadji Murad (written 1904 or so).  The emphasis on war would have been even more pronounced, though, if The Cossacks were the end of the bibliography – a mix of stories, The Sevastopol Sketches, and this.  Hemingway still could have picked up his strong Tolstoy influence, assuming Constance Garnett still translated The Cossacks for him.*

So now The Cossacks looks like a dry run for the later books.  Here is the combination of cold description and hot interiority that marks his later war writing; there is a young man tormented by a search for meaning and happiness, Anna Karenina’s Levin in embryo (or, really, in a late adolescence).

The book is a little hard to read on its own, now, is what I am saying.  I have been corrupted by knowledge.

Young Olenin, at risk of gambling away his estate in decadent Moscow, joins the cavalry in search of adventure and purpose.  He is stationed in the Caucasus, living amongst the Cossacks; he spends his time hunting, going on punitive raids against the Chechens, and mooning after his landlady’s spectacular daughter, Maryanka.  She has been promised, more or less, to the dashing, heroic Lukashka, which gives us a love triangle and a story; I have made the book sound a bit soapy, is a violation of its tone which is ironic rather than melodramatic:

'But what desires can always be satisfied despite external circumstances?  What are they?  Love, self-sacrifice.'  He was so glad and excited when he had discovered this, as it seemed to him, new truth, that he jumped up and began impatiently seeking some one to sacrifice himself for, to do good to and to love.  'Since one wants nothing for oneself,' he kept thinking, 'why not live for others?'.  (XX)

Olenin has this revelation of selfless purposefulness while lost in the woods, alone, so his impatience to do good is amusingly pointless.  And when he finally does make a sacrifice a bit later, giving a horse to Lukashka , the results are misunderstood (“Had he been drunk one might understand it!” Lukashka thinks) and eventually destructive.

Another day or two with The Cossacks, I guess.  The translation is by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

*  Or perhaps Tolstoy’s first book, the pseudo-memoir Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1852-7) would be best known.  It is awfully good, too.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What I have to say about field herbage - some notes on Ruskin's The Queen of the Air

The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884) is about air pollution, likely as vivid a screed against air pollution as exists (“And yet observe: that thin, scraggy, filthy, mangy, miserable cloud, for all the depth of it, can’t turn the sun red, as a good, business-like fog does with a hundred feet of itself”).  Part VII of Book V of Modern Painters (1860), “Of Cloud Beauty,” appears to be about clouds, how they form, how to draw them, what they mean.  You never know with John Ruskin.  Anything can lead anywhere.

The Queen of the Air (1869) is also about clouds.  It is about Athena, more specifically, and the interpretation of Greek myth and art, the dual roots of myth, in religion and in physical phenomena, like clouds and dew and birds:

We will take the bird first.  It is little more than a drift of the air in all its quills, it breathes through its whole frame and flesh and glows with air in its flying, like blown flames; it rests upon the air, subdues it, surpasses it, outraces it, -- is the air, conscious of itself, conquering itself, ruling itself.  (para. 65)

Birds share the colors of clouds, “woven by Athena herself into films and threads of plume… infinite as the dividing of the foam and the sifting of the sea-sand” (66).  Each color and form picks up a symbolic religious meaning along the way.  Art is the human attempt to capture the Truth of the relationship, both the physical reality and the human meaning.  The more reality and the more meaning, the better the art.  The Muses preside over beauty, Athena over truth:

She does not make men learned, but prudent and subtle; she does not teach them to make their work beautiful, but to make it right.  (101)

I remind myself that Ruskin’s concept of truth and reality is flexible enough to distinguish true griffins from false.  Everything he writes is like the myths he interprets in The Queen of the Air, simultaneously literal and metaphorical.

Much of the above is meant to serve as a prod to my memory when, a week or two from now, I discover that I have forgotten the most basic aspects of the book.  Ruskin is complex, but also bizarre, and hilariously digressive to the point that sense is impeded:

I have no time now to trace for you the hundredth part of the different ways in which it bears both upon natural beauty, and on the best order and happiness of men's lives.  I hope to follow out some of these trains of thought in gathering together what I have to say about field herbage…  (38)

I love nonsense, but it can be awfully hard to retain.  At his best, Ruskin writes as well as anyone of his time – criticism, like biography, is literature.  Who cares about mid-19th century anthropological theories about Greek myths?  All of that stuff has been replaced by books that are more up to date, accurate, and heaven knows better organized, but none of them are written like Ruskin.

Monday, October 8, 2012

His biography is simply, “He did this, nor will ever another do its like again.” - on literary biography

Perhaps, writing about “The Aspern Papers,” I downplayed its attack against that malicious species known as the literary biographer.  If so, I had two good reasons: first, upon paying attention to the text of the story rather than my received idea of it, I quickly saw that James’s target was more complex and more interesting; second, James himself was a literary biographer.  He had written and published Hawthorne (1879) only nine years earlier.

Granted, James did not attempt to steal, or at least avoids the inference that he had stolen, any love letters from Hawthorne’s early paramours or illegitimate daughters, and in the book’s first sentence he claims “to give this short sketch the form rather of a critical essay than of a biography” (Ch I), in part because Hawthorne’s life was unutterably tedious (“almost strikingly deficient in incident, in what may be called the dramatic quality”), but largely because James’s concerns are more with the art than the man, none of which prevents him from writing several chapters of what appears to be ordinary biography, mostly a summary and commentary on the more conventional 1876 Hawthorne biography written by George Parsons Lathrop, or from delivering aggravating judgments like “[t]his sketch of the Custom-house is, as simple writing, one of the most perfect of Hawthorne's compositions, and one of the most gracefully and humorously autobiographic,” even though the “Custom-house” section is a blatant fiction as a critic as sophisticated as the author of "The Art of Fiction" surely knows.

I’m abandoning James now, so I thought I would treat myself to a nice, twisty sentence.

On the one hand, I am not much of a reader of literary biography.  On the other hand, I love it and read it all the time, mostly in the form of magazine reviews of gigantic definitive biographies that I would never think of reading, the big bruisers that go into so much detail about what the writer has for breakfast.

Actually I do not remember any of the big biographies I have read (Nicolas Boyle on Goethe, Brian Boyd on Nabokov, Richard Holmes on Shelley) having a word to say about breakfast (Boswell’s Life of Johnson may well contain a morsel of breakfast).  When Jane Austen in Mansfield Park tells me “that the remaining cold pork bones and mustard in William's plate might but divide her feelings with the broken egg-shells in Mr. Crawford's” I take that as an example of exquisite artistry.  I wonder where the anti-breakfast cliché came from.  More biographical breakfast, I say!

By chance I came across John Ruskin expressing my true feelings, or what I would like them to be, in his peculiar book The Queen of the Air (1869).  Artistic biographies are in no obvious way the subject of the book, but that never stops Ruskin:

Of Turner’s life, and of its good and evil, both great, but the good immeasurably the greater, his work is in all things a perfect and transparent evidence.  His biography is simply, “He did this, nor will ever another do its like again.”  (III.113)

Give me a list of works and their chronology and I will understand the artist’s biography.  The rest – the breakfasts, the love letters – is just literature.  Meaning: a biography is well-written, or not; clever or dull; meaningful or trite; a good book or a dud.  Literature, or not.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The life of happy and distinguished people was fashioned in their image - Henry James, against aestheticism

Henry James was an aesthete, or so I think of him.  How interesting to read his stories that attack aestheticism.  “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” (1884), “The Aspern Papers,” and even The Spoils of Poynton (1897), the novel about furniture, are humanist critiques of the tendency to turn art into a belief system.  This is not a welcome message at Wuthering Expectations, but a critic must take the texts as they are, and these texts are warnings against the dangers of what the narrator of “Beltraffio” calls “the gospel of art.”

The clue in “Beltraffio” is that the narrator aestheticizes everything he encounters, going far beyond the author he is visiting.  The Ambients live in an entirely ordinary suburban cottage, but the narrator distorts it into something else:

There was genius in his house too I thought when we got there; there was imagination in the carpets and curtains, in the pictures and books, in the garden behind it, where certain old brown walls were muffled in creepers that appeared to me to have been copied from a masterpiece of one of the pre-Raphaelites.   That was the way many things struck me at that time, in England – as reproductions of something that existed primarily in art or literature.   It was not the picture, the poem, the fictive page, that seemed to me a copy; these things were the originals, and the life of happy and distinguished people was fashioned in their image.

The curious transformation I mentioned yesterday of the sister-in-law into a serpentine Sibyl also has a suspiciously pre-Raphaelite sound to it.  Reality is just a reproduction of art.

The best trick of “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” is that the radically anti-aesthetic position held by Mrs. Ambient turns out to be so destructive that the narrator can imperfectly conceal the damage done by his equally radical ideas.

The narrator of “The Aspern Papers,” the biographer, is a narrower, colder, older fellow, less obviously drowned in Paterian ideology.  Even amidst the obvious temptations of Venice he does not reduce everything to art, perhaps because he has become obsessive about one specific category, the poetry and life of Jeffrey Aspern.  He merely contorts everything touching his poet, especially the old woman who he once loved:

They come back to me now almost with the palpitation they caused, the successive states marking my consciousness that as the door of the room closed behind me I was really face to face with the Juliana of some of Aspern's most exquisite and most renowned lyrics…  Her presence seemed somehow to contain his own, and I felt nearer to him at that first moment of seeing her than I ever had been before or ever have been since.  (Ch. II)

Aspern becomes more real, Juliana less, and Juliana’s unworldly niece Tina* barely qualifies as a person, untouched as she is by the great Aspern.** The great trick of “The Aspern Papers” is that Juliana has her own ideas and schemes, and so, possibly, does Tina, who may be a quite different kind of idealist.  Rub the clashing interests and beliefs together and a story pops out.

James has a whole series of stories about writers stretching over most of his career: “The Figure in the Carpet,” which I read long ago, “The Coxon Fund, “The Lesson of the Master,” too name a few.  Perhaps this would be a good Jamesian theme to pursue as I continue my exploration of James while avoiding his greatest masterpieces.

*  Or Tita.  I read James’s 1908 revised version, so Tina.

**  Unless she is Aspern’s daughter, a wonderful bit of irony with no support in the text, something I found discussed in the footnotes (p. 225) of The Tales of Henry James by Edward Wagenknecht (1984).

Thursday, October 4, 2012

It's a thing so hollow, so dishonest, so lying - more James, "The Author of 'Beltraffio'"

Lemme just slip over to another Henry James story.  That last post will be kinda left dangling.  I’ll wrap ‘er up later.

“The Aspern Papers” led me to a similar story written four years earlier, “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” (1884), not so much fun although more intricately written.  A young worshipper has a letter of introduction to meet and spend a few days with his favorite English novelist, Mark Ambient, author of Beltraffio, “the most complete presentation that had yet been made of the gospel of art…  a kind of aesthetic war-cry.”  At the writer’s house, the mooncalf narrator observes the growing enmity between Ambient and his wife over the upbringing of their “languid and angelic” son Dolcino.

So the poor kid’s name is Dolcino Ambient.  It’s like reading Thomas Pynchon.

The conflict between the parents is centered on the art of the novel.  This is the husband speaking to his guest about his wife:

“She's a very nice woman, extraordinarily well-behaved, upright and clever and with a tremendous lot of good sense about a good many matters.  Yet her conception of a novel – she has explained it to me once or twice, and she doesn't do it badly as exposition – is a thing so false that it makes me blush.  It's a thing so hollow, so dishonest, so lying, in which life is so blinked and blinded, so dodged and disfigured, that it makes my ears burn.”

Mrs. Ambient’s position: she “thought his writings immoral and his influence pernicious.”  The narrator of course venerates Ambient, and there is some good comedy in his utter inability not to talk about her husband’s novels in her presence, even though she “probably thought me an odious chattering person.”  This narrator, unlike the one in “The Aspern Papers,” is not a con man.  He is merely rude.  He may or may not provoke a crisis that moves the story to a tragic end, but the events are so unlikely that I have trouble blaming a character who is a fool, not a monster.

I’ll try to tie the literary fool and the biographical grifter together a little more tomorrow.

“The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” features some nice, if curious, metaphorical language.  This struck me (and has a bonus example of the narrator’s cluelessness – “she” is Mrs. Ambient):

"I assure you that for me this is a red-letter day," I added.

She didn't take this up, but after a pause, looking round her, said abruptly and a trifle dryly:  "We're very much afraid about the fruit this year."

My eyes wandered to the mossy mottled garden-walls, where plum-trees and pears, flattened and fastened upon the rusty bricks, looked like crucified figures with many arms.

“Crucified” is a strong image, isn’t it?  Maybe too strong.  Most of the religious or mythological imagery is attached to a character I have not mentioned, the novelist’s gossipy sister, whose “robe arranged itself in serpentine folds at her feet,” and who “had some of the qualities of the sibyl and had therefore perhaps a right to the sibylline contortions” – these slithery descriptions are separated by 16 pages in the Library of America volume I read – so this character becomes a sort of magical figure, the prophetess of the evils afflicting the house. 

I am not sure how to pull this and other images into a coherent whole, but James gives me plenty to look at in this story.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

They had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing? - fun with Henry James and "The Aspern Papers"

I have continued my sporadic wandering around Henry James.  I tried “The Aspern Papers” (1888), which everyone seems to like.  It is easy enough to see why.  It’s funny, clear, and clever:  the humor is not especially rarefied,  even verging on the broad; the prose never tangles itself into classic Jamesian knots; and James plays a little game with his unreliable narrator without turning the novella (or “tale” as James calls it) into a Modernist puzzle.

And the story is fun for bookish folks.  The narrator is a literary biographer, working on a book about a famous Romantic poet, Jeffrey Aspern, based on no one in particular as far as I could see.  He wants to acquire, or at least see, the papers owned by an old woman in Venice.  She was once the subject of some of the poet’s famous love poems, and the biographer hopes that the papers include love letters.  For some reason the woman is uninterested in assisting with this violation of her own privacy and early love life, so the biographer takes, under a false name, rooms in her Venetian mansion and tries to worm his way into her affection, mostly by pretending to court the woman’s only companion, her naïve spinster niece:

“I can arrive at the papers only by putting her off her guard, and I can put her off her guard only by ingratiating diplomatic practices.  Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance.  I am sorry for it, but for Jeffrey Aspern's sake I would do worse still.  First I must take tea with her; then tackle the main job." (Ch. I)

In other words, the biographer behaves at every turn like a con man and a scoundrel.  Most of the comedy comes from his belief that everything is justified by the importance of the poet.  While telling – or, I guess, writing, although neither entirely fits the text – his own story he occasionally realizes that he may have gone a step or two or three too far in the pursuit of knowledge and art but can never admit that he really did anything wrong, no matter how much damage me might have done.  His love of the long-dead Aspern, his love of poetry, crushes all objections:

My eccentric private errand became a part of the general romance and the general glory – I felt even a mystic companionship, a moral fraternity with all those who in the past had been in the service of art.  They had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing?  That element was in everything that Jeffrey Aspern had written, and I was only bringing it to the light. (Ch. IV)

It is as if his lies and schemes are themselves beautiful poems, or at least their moral (moral!) equals.  A doubt begins to form:  I thought “The Aspern Papers” was a satire against biographers, but perhaps James was after something else.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How do you think it’s going? In Chile! And on foot! - Sarmiento's anatomy of the gaucho

I am leafing through Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1972, Twayne Publishers) by Frances G. Crowley, looking for curiosities and insights.  How about this one, in the chapter specifically about Facundo:

The work itself ran several installments in El Progreso from May 2 to July 28, 1945.  The purpose was not literary, but political.  For this reason, Manuel Gálvez has chosen to consider Facundo an historical novel.  (61)

To repeat: it is not literary, and therefore a novel.  He goes farther, “consider[ing] it comparable to Balzac’s Human Comedy” (75), which is superbly crackpot.  Gálvez seems to deserve an entry in the real-life version of Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas (his “hero worship of Rosas led him to pen a series of five novels set during his rule” says Sr. Wikipedia – talk about the literature of doom!), so I should be wary of his opinion.

If Facundo is a novel, it is a mess, but it has other literary virtues.  Sarmiento has a knack for types.  If I am skeptical of his insistence that the types define the Argentinean national character, I still admire his eye for detail and anecdote.

The Rastreador is the tracker extraordinaire; the Cantor is the wandering troubadour, “singing of his heroes of the Pampas pursued by the law” (70); the Baqueano knows every inch of his section of the Pampas:

[I]f he finds himself in the Pampas and the darkness is impenetrable, then he pulls up grass from different spots, smells the roots and the soil, chews them, and after repeating this procedure various times confirms the proximity of some lake, or fresh or saltwater stream, and goes to look for it so as to firmly orient himself.  General Rosas, they say, knows by its taste the grass of every estancia [ranch, roughly] in southern Buenos Aires province.  (67)

Perhaps.  Possibly.  At the bottom, or at the top, is the bad gaucho, “this epithet not totally disfavoring him…  He dwells in the Pampas, fields of thistle for his lodging, living on partridges and armadillos” (68).  He is an expert with the horse and the knife, both in constant use.  Although every gaucho depends on his horsemanship:

In 1841, El Chacho, a caudillo of the plains, emigrated to Chile.  “How’s it going, friend?” someone asked him.  “How do you think it’s going?” he answered, with a pained melancholy tone.  “In Chile! And on foot!”  (73)

The central story of the book, the history of the strongman Facundo, is the story of the bad gaucho who makes it big, who is better with his knife, stronger, meaner, who is the perfect Argentinean barbarian.

Any serious reader of Latin American fiction should vaguely considering someday reading, or at borrowing from the library with the intent to read it, Sarmiento’s Facundo.  It dispels some shadows from Argentinean literature.  Even less serious readers should take a look at the first two or three chapters.  I think all of the stuff César Aira steals from Facundo in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000) is in the first chapter.

More Facundo is forthcoming soon at La Caravana de Recuerdos.

Monday, October 1, 2012

If the reader is bored by these thoughts, I will tell him about some frightful crimes - some early Argentinean literary doom

Roberto Bolaño called the Argentinean literary tradition “the literature of doom,” and he was of course joking, but it is true, it is so strangely true.  I have never seen anything like it.  Bolaño was writing about twentieth century books, but in fact the founding texts are doom-laden, too:  Esteban Echeverría’s short story “The Slaughter House” (1838, pub. 1871) is a violent, nightmarish allegorical protest against the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas; José Hernández’s epic poem The Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) is a violent, nightmarish protest against the destruction of gauchos and gaucho culture; Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845) is a violent, angry sociological treatise and political biography of the gaucho strongman Rosas (another gaucho strongman) defeated to become dictator.

Just to get the irony out of the way:  Sarmiento was later elected President of Argentina (1868-1874.  A democratic reformer and champion of public education, he was as responsible as any single person for the destruction of the gaucho way of life that he defined in Facundo, and is thus in the great enemy of Hernández and his outlawed gaucho Martín Fierro.  Argentinean literature is bloody but coherent.

Sarmiento, in exile in Chile, planned to write an Argentinean version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Tocqueville’s book was so packed with insights and ideas that it has become one of the fundamental texts of political science.  Sarmiento in this sense got nowhere near Tocqueville.  The author is too angry; the fate of his country is too personal; his ideas too simple and are easy to summarize:

Argentina is divided between civilization (Buenos Aires and a few outlying cities) and barbarism (the Pampas).  The owners of the gigantic ranches and their workers, the gauchos, are barbarians.  The barbarians, headed by Rosas, have sacked the country and are looting and destroying it.  Once civilization returns, a number of boring reforms will need to be made.

A confusing innovation of Sarmiento’s is that although the dictator Rosas is the current enemy, his book is mostly the biography of another charismatic gaucho leader, Juan Facundo Quiroga, who conquered a large chunk of western Argentina before his violent death.  Facundo is emblematic because he was the perfect gaucho, expert with horse and knife and rope, but more importantly it is Facundo who was the great innovator of terror, murder, and gangsterism.  It is Facundo who invents the modern dictator, who unlike the bad king rules without tradition but just by personality and force.  Rosas merely copies (and adapts and improves upon) Facundo’s innovations.  This, to me, was Facundo’s exemplary sentence:

If the reader is bored by these thoughts, I will tell him about some frightful crimes. (Ch. XI, 170)

And does he ever, over and over again.

I have little clue how Facundo functions as history but it is imaginatively rich – it is the foundation of the Latin American dictator novel, and of the related genre of the civil war novel – I do not know what these are actually called, but I am thinking of books like Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (1915) or the non-fiction Rebellion in the Backlands (1900) by Euclides de Cunha.  I suppose certain sections of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1968) are now the most famous examples, although by that point we are a long ways into the tradition.

I read the recent translation by Roberto González Echevarría, University of California Press, 2003.

All of this is a kickoff for the Caravanas de Recuerdos Argentinean Literature of Doom readalong adventure!  I figured I would start at the beginning, more or less.  But there are many other, perhaps better, places to join in the fun.