Friday, December 20, 2013

I wish you all an absence of those ill effects which sometimes attend upon the consumption of rich viands.

The oldest extended description of Christmas in fiction that I have read is in Washington Irving’s Sketch-Book (1819), which describes a classic English Christmas:

There was now a pause, as if something was expected; when suddenly the butler entered the hall with some degree of bustle: he was attended by a servant on each side with a large wax-light, and bore a silver dish, on which was an enormous pig’s head, decorated with rosemary, with a lemon in its mouth, which was placed with great formality at the head of the table.  The moment this pageant made its appearance, the harper struck up a flourish…  (“The Christmas Dinner”)

The running joke, despite all of those servants and the harper, is that the country squire laments that he is overseeing the decline of the great English tradition – that the pig should be a boar, that the pheasant pie should be a (vile, inedible) peacock pie.  How sad for him; how lucky for Irving.

One clever serial number of Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm (1861-2) contains four Christmas chapters that sweep up all of the novel’s plotlines and characters.  “Christmas at Noningsby,” full of jolly games (see the Millais illustration to the left), or “Christmas in Great St. Helens,” where is uttered that great line about a roast turkey tasting “[l]ike melted diamonds.”  An all-time champion 19th century fictional food scene.

The characters in the previous chapter, “Christmas at Groby Park,” are not so lucky, since the lady of the house is a cheapskate and a hoarder, keeping food in her own room that she denies to her family and guests:

And over and beyond the beef there was a plum-pudding and three mince-pies.  Four mince-pies had originally graced the dish, but before dinner one had been conveyed away to some up stairs receptacle  for such spoils.  The pudding also was small, nor was it black and rich, and laden with good things as a Christmas pudding should be laden.  Let us hope that what the guests so lost was made up to them on the following day, by an absence of those ill effects which sometimes attend upon the consumption of rich viands.

"And now, my dear, we'll have a bit of bread and cheese and a glass of beer," Mr. Green said when he arrived at his own cottage.  And so it was that Christmas-day was passed at Groby Park.

That’s the spirit, Mr. Green.

The Moomins, who are Finnish and apparently pagan, prepare “juice and yogurt and blueberry pie and eggnog” the one time they are accidentally awakened at Christmastime from their usual winter hibernation.

“At least I am not afraid of Christmas anymore,” Moomintroll said.

From “The Fir Tree,” Tales of Moominvalley (1962) by Tove Jansson.  Well said, Moomintroll.

Wuthering Expectations is about to enter its own Christmas hibernation.  It will awaken on January 2nd if I have recovered from those ill effects alluded to above.

Merry Christmas; happy New Year!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Wuthering Expectations Best Books of 2013 - or, another year of sideways reading

How I love the end of the year book lists.  I read, or at least look at, dozens of them.  I would read all of the books on those lists if I were not already reading other books from other lists.

The Wuthering Expectations Best Books of 2013 are probably as follows.

1.  There is always a ringer.  This year it is Genesis, and the narrative parts of Exodus and Deuteronomy.  I did not write about it.  The Norton Critical Edition of  the King James Bible, edited by Herbert Marks, is a masterpiece of the form (the form of the critical edition).

2.  The Selected Poems of Catullus, tr. Horace Gregory and the Selections from the Canzoniere of Petrarch, tr. Mark Musa, were also especially good and went unmentioned.

3.  As did the so-called adult novels of Tove Jansson, the three published by NYRB:  The Summer Book (1972), The True Deceiver (1982), and Fair Play (1989).  The first one, about a grandmother and granddaughter and how they spend their summer, plays a dirty trick.  The child’s mother has recently died.  This fact is mentioned just once, early in the novel.  Jansson can be not just subtle but almost sly.

Every one of the novels has something interesting to say about creativity, aside from whatever else the book might be about.  Jansson was an artist, and a child of artists, so she explores artists.

2014 is the Jansson centennial, so I have jumped the gun.  More on Tove Jansson next year.  Here, I will just say that I thought all of these novels were excellent.  The Moomin books are good, too.

4.  While on the subject of unmentioned NYRB books, The Hall of Uselessness (2013), an essay collection by Australo-Belgian classical Chinese specialist Simon Leys, was superb.  And collection that begins with a section on “Quixotism” is likely to appeal to a book blogger.  Maybe I will write more about this one, too, after the holiday.

5.  I did not write about Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, either, although I did manage a note about “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

6.  I reread some Theodor Storm novellas for my trip to his home in HusumImmensee, Paul the Puppeteer, “Journey to a Hallig” – they were even deeper than I remembered.  Sebaldists, Krasznahorkaians, seriously, track down “Journey to a Hallig.”

7.  For many novels, especially long ones, I want to break them apart, so I can include Part I of Oblomov, Part I of The Idiot, the best parts of Buddenbrooks – I mean the sister’s story, and then Hans’s part at the end – and anything in Zola’s Belly of Paris that had to do with food.  The symphony of cheeses, passages like that.

8.  Georg Trakl’s poems, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s two volumes of New Poems, fresh discoveries for me, even though I had read the Rilke before.

9.  Book blogging is always better with company.  Karl Kraus and Louisa May Alcott, somewhat different writers, were improved by being read with Caravana de Recuerdos and Dolce Bellezza.

10.  Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer is the trickiest book to put on a list like this.  In many ways it is a bad book – flat, dull, plotless, characterless, neurotic – yet so rich.  I had to learn how to read it, and I think I did.  Rohan Maitzen recently wrote that “[t]here’s always a slightly sideways quality to Tom’s readings.”  For this novel, sideways is the only way in.  What looks like an entrance is a fake, just painted to look like a door.

What I am really doing here is listing books that have at least some portion that I learned how to read.  Maybe later I can learn to read more parts of them.

I seem to have forgotten The Hunting of the Snark, Fathers and Sons, Kim, at the very least.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Best Books of 1913 - Loons with trumpets blowed a blare, blare, blare / On, on upward thro' the golden air!

This was a strange year for anniversaries.  It is usually the births and deaths of writers that are commemorated, but this year I noticed a lot of attention to books – two books, I mean, Pride and Prejudice and Swann’s Way (for that matter, the Gettysburg Address fits the pattern).  Perhaps this tells us something about what these books have become, how their meaning has expanded beyond their texts.  Austen and Proust both have industries around them.

Proust, or Swann’s Way, or at least the “Combray” section of Swann’s Way, deserves the honor of Best Book of 1913, I think, so I have no complaint about the attention it receives.  It is one of the great novels of the century.  Yet there is something arbitrary to its celebrity.  At least one more of the century’s greats was published in the same year, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, a novel that is innovative like Proust’s book but has a tense thriller plot, including terrorists and a ticking time bomb.  Yet it is a cult novel in English.  I have no idea why.  It is not like English readers have been averse to Russian novels.

If you polled readers or critics fifty years ago, asking them which novel would get the most attention at its centennial, Swann’s Way or D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, I wonder if Lawrence would not top the poll.  How he has fallen.  Or how Proust has risen.  Some of both.  Sons and Lovers is doing all right for itself.

Perhaps a French reader can let me know if Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes has gotten much centennial celebration in France, where it is as well-known as, I don’t know, its titular cousin The Great Gatsby.  In English, another cult book.

I am never sure if I should do a Best of 191X post.  For the 19th century, I have read more of the books I am mentioning, so I know what the books are, not just how they are known.  In 1913, I see Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, which I have not read (nor have I read the Lawrence novel).  I just started the Cather, out of a sense of shame.

1913 was a deeply interesting year for poetry.  It produced a crop of first or second books by major poets, a number of which may well not be major books themselves – see above, haven’t read them – but remind me how quickly poetry was changing.  Maybe not as quickly as painting, but close.  D. H. Lawrence, again, Georg Trakl, Osip Mandelstam, Robert Frost’s A Boy’s Will, Guilliame Apollinaire’s Alcool, William Carlos Williams.

Subscribers to the hot new magazine Poetry would read Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” alongside (more or less) Ezra Pound’s  “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition     of these faces     in the crowd   :
Petals     on a wet, black     bough    .

(for those who do not know it, that’s the entire poem) and Vachel Lindsay’s rather different “General William Booth Enters into Heaven”:

Hallelujah! It was queer to see
Bull-necked convicts with that land make free.
Loons with trumpets blowed a blare, blare, blare
On, on upward thro' the golden air!
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

You’re supposed to sing this, accompanied by bass drum and banjos.  Pound and Lindsay support Kilmer’s argument, since neither poem is as lovely as a tree, although they have other virtues.  There is another line from the Lindsay poem that I was tempted to use as my title: “But their noise played havoc with the angel-choir.”  That was the poetry of 1913.  And the music.  And the painting.  And some of the novels, too.

Giorgio de Chirico’s The Transformed Dream, picked almost at random from a superb year of paintings, can be seen free of charge at the Saint Louis Art Museum.  How interesting, André Breton owned it for a long time.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Best Books of 1863 - how very few of these / Poor little busy poet bees / Can we expect again to hum

Ow, my eyes.  You can see the 1863 “Birth of Venus” by Alexandre Cabanel in the flesh – or in the marzipan (see the Zola quotation at the following link) –  at the Musée d’Orsay, although I do not know why you would, since that museum has so many good paintings.

The Best Books of 1863 were better than this painting.  But it was the year of the second-rate.

I would pick The Cossacks, Leo Tolstoy’s clear-eyed look at the desire to romanticize other cultures, as the best book of the year, but it is not quite first-rate Tolstoy.  Now that is an absurd standard, but the fact is that The Cossacks is dragged along behind Tolstoy’s great masterpieces.  It is read as much as it is, and will continue to be read, because of other books.

My list of surviving English novels for 1863 looks like this:

Romola, George Eliot
The Water-Babies, Charles Kingsley
Salem Chapel, Margaret Oliphant
Rachel Ray, Anthony Trollope
The Small House at Allington, Trollope, in the middle of its serialization.

Boy, there is always plenty of Trollope in the 1860s.  I have only read two of the five.  We see  some of the same phenomenon here, I think, certainly with Romola, possibly with the Trollope novels.  The exercise is to imagine that Romola were the only George Eliot novel.  Would anyone still read it?  The exercise is preposterous, so I will move on.  The English class of 1863 seems a little weak, is all I am saying.  Go to those links, though, the ones not to Wuthering Expectations.  A good case is made for every one of those books.

No idea what was going on in French literature this year (or Spanish, or Italian, or German).  American literature was almost put on hold by the Civil War.  Without a doubt, the great American work of the year is a speech, the Gettysburg Address, elegant, forceful, rhetorically brilliant, and now, in its way, one of the key  texts  of the United States.

Louisa May Alcott’s charming Hospital Sketches and Henry Longfellow’s Tales from a Wayside Inn can hardly stand that kind of competition, although both are enjoyable books.  The Longfellow book contains “The Birds of Killingworth,” a bizarre and superb poem of ecological apocalypse.

One more novel was not even second-rate artistically, but was all too significant, Nikolai Chernyshevksy’s What Is to Be Done?, a radical Utopia, written in prison, smuggled out, published illegally, eventually becoming a founding text of the Russian Revolution.  So if not such a great year for novels, 1863 was unusually well equipped with important political literature.

I wrote a bit about the Chernyshevsky novel while discussing Fathers and Sons, where I was startled to see a number of people declare that they wanted to read What Is to Be Done?  Are you all nuts?  But I will suffer along with the rest of you.  I should organize a readalong – it would be the least popular book blog event since the readalong of Herman Melville’s Clarel a few years ago.  And if it turned out a fifth  as well, that would be something.

I wonder what I am missing?  I never mean these posts to be completely comprehensive, and how could they be, but I do hope that any additional suggestions sound a bit desperate and little-read  – Walter Savage Landor’s last book of poems, how about that one?

Come to think of it, I have read that book.  Landor, eighty-eight years old in 1863, was a fine poet; it is a fine book.  But that is hardly my point here, as Landor knows:

The Poet Bees
There are a hundred now alive
Who buz about the summer hive,
Alas! how very few of these
Poor little busy poet bees
Can we expect again to hum
When the next summer shall have come.

One hundred and fifty years is a long lifespan for a book.  Seven novels, the Alcott book, the Longfellow poems, one of the greatest funeral orations, not bad, really.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Best Books of 1813 - who am I kidding, the Best Book - I cannot prate in puling strain

“Frosty Morning” by J. M. W. Turner, courtesy of Tate Britain.  Turner liked it so much he never sold it, for which I do not blame him.  It was completed in 1813, a sparse year for surviving literature.

Only one lasting novel, for example, but what an example.  Pride and Prejudice has become an inescapable book, even a best-selling book.  I wish I could remember where I read that – you have to add all of the different editions together to get it onto the bestseller list, but then Jane Austen would be side by side with James Patterson.

It was not always so.  Pride and Prejudice was never anything like a forgotten book, but it was not so gigantic until recently, surprisingly recently.  I turn to my favorite problematic but simple tool for quantifying status, the MLA International Bibliography, a database of articles, monographs, etc. reaching back to 1947, where I count 505 articles, etc. with a Pride and Prejudice tag.  The distribution by decade, roughly:

1947-1973: 13
1974-1983: 32
1984-1993: 112
1994-2003: 116
2004-2013: 232

In other words, a full 45% of the academic articles, etc. about Pride and Prejudice have been published within the last ten years!  That is amazing.  Austen was not always so ubiquitous.

My guess would have been that the 1980s Austen revival was owed to feminist criticism, and perhaps that was the first spark, but a glance through the article titles from the 1980s suggests that all kinds of approaches were making good use of Pride and Prejudice.  It is such a rich text.

1813 was an important year for English poetry.  Percy Shelley’s first major work, the allegorical radical fairy poem “Queen Mab,” was published to no interest; a decade later it had become a central text for English laboring-class reformers and revolutionaries, a story almost as surprising as the long, slow rise of Pride and Prejudice.  I am afraid, or perhaps happy to say, the contents of the poem itself have slipped from my memory.

Lord Byron had hit the jackpot in 1812 with the first parts of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which he followed in 1813 with two long Orientalist romances mostly in rhyming couplets, The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale and The Bride of Abydos: A Turkish Tale, both immensely popular, both pretty silly, and both quite a lot of fun for readers who enjoy the poetry (if not, they are unreadable).  It is all just an excuse for Byron to show off his gift:

‘The cold in clime are cold in blood,
    Their love can scarce deserve the name;
But mine was like the lava flood
    That boils in Ætna’s breast of flame.
I cannot prate in puling strain
Of ladye-love, and beauty’s chain:
If changing cheek, and scorching vein,
Lips taught to writhe, but not complain,
If bursting heart, and madd’ning brain,
And daring deed, and vengeful steel,
And all that I have felt, and feel,
Betoken love –  that love was mine,
And shown by many a bitter sign.’  (“The Giaour,” 1099-1111)

In some sense I have still only come up with a single book for 1813.  What was going on in literature outside of England?  I do not know.  A number of European countries were understandably preoccupied.  Spain was being destroyed in the Peninsular War, yet Francisco Goya was creating the etchings that make up The Disasters of War and paintings like The Madhouse (none of these have firm dates).

It seems I often turn to Goya in these Best of 181X posts.  Well, of course.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

You are nothing but underground vileness - Dostoevsky's Dostoevskyness

I enjoyed The Eternal Husband, Dostoevsky’s little 1870 novel, so much not because it is uncharacteristic of Dostoevsky but because it deliberately creates some distance from the intense Dostoevskyan qualities associated with his most famous books.  Meaning that the central character, Velchaninov, is not going to murder his landlady and her daughter with an axe, but his old friend Pavel Petrovich might well murder Velchaninov.  The main character does what so many Dostoevsky readers do to this day – accuse other Dostoevsky characters of being lunatics.

One promising track would be to follow Velchaninov’s transformation into a Dostoevsky character, into a man who could say all of this:

“Go to hell!” Velchaninov yelled suddenly, in a voice not his own, as though something had exploded in him.  “Go to hell with your underground vileness; you are nothing but underground vileness.  You thought you’d scare me – you base man, torturing a child; you scoundrel, you scoundrel, you scoundrel!” he shouted, beside himself, gasping for breath at every word.  (Ch. 9)

The character introduced in the first chapter would have been incapable of this outburst, but his entanglement with the drunk, earnest, potentially homicidal Pavel Petrovich slowly sucks him into histrionic Dostoevsky World – “in a voice not his own,” how curious.

The story is fundamentally comic, which means Valchaninov is lucky enough to escape his tormentor and a continuing bout of Dostoevskyness.  The next to last chapter begins:

A feeling of immense, extraordinary relief took possession of him; something was over, was settled; an awful weight of depression had vanished and was dissipated forever.  So it seemed to him.  It had lasted for five weeks.  He raised his hand, looked at the towel soaked with blood and muttered to himself: “Yes, now everything is absolutely at an end!”  (Ch. 16)

You can see that it was a close-run thing.  This chapter is titled “Analysis,” and much of it amounts to the character summarizing his own story, as if he were Hercule Poirot solving a murder mystery.  In this case an attempted murder, his own: “He recognized clearly that he had escaped a terrible danger.”  Velchaninov is able to return to the meaningless, selfish existence described in the first chapter.

I would have to reread the book to see how true any of this is.  It sounds like a good idea for a novel, but that does not mean it is actually to be found in this novel as anything but a hint.

The Eternal Husband was good, clean fun, but I think for my next Dostoevsky I will dive straight into the underground vileness and revisit Notes from the Underground, which is a different kind of fun.

The translation is by Constance Garnett.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Eternal Husband, Dostoevsky from a distance

Literary history abounds with heartbreaking episodes of utter destitution.  Dostoevsky, for instance, finding himself stranded abroad, penniless and starving, write The Eternal Husband in a last attempt to obtain emergency relief from his publishers.  But as he was about to dispatch the manuscript on which his last hope rested, he discovered that he did not even have the money for the postage.

This is the story as Simon Leys tells it.*  I have read it elsewhere.  Perhaps it is even true.  It is all too plausible.  I would never have guessed Dostoevsky’s desperation or anything like it from the little novel itself.

Velchaninov is in St. Petersburg attending to a lawsuit when he runs into his old friend Pavel Pavlovitch Trusotsky, whose wife has recently died.  Velchaninov had had an affair with the wife nine years ago.  Does Pavel Pavlovitch know about the affair?  He is accompanied by a nine year-old daughter – is she really the child of Velchaninov?

It sounds a little soapy, doesn’t it?  Yet that is not at all how it feels.  Two main reasons:

1.  The plot keeps bending.  Every chapter has a kind of kink in it that pushes the story off of whatever course it was on, like it is aiming for a point due north but keeps bending away from the goal, like Dostoevsky’s compass is faulty.  The existence of the daughter, for example, is the surprise of Chapter 5.  Velchaninov takes her away from her abusive father – ah, this is the story, about the biological father and his daughter – but her death is the surprise of Chapter 10.  The novel is only half done.  No, the book is about something else.

Maybe this is still kind of soapy.  But the plot has bends, not twists.  It kept me on my toes.  My guess is that Dostoevsky knew where he wanted the story to end, but allowed himself a lot of freedom along the way.  The short, episodic chapters support this guess.  It is easy enough to imagine him pacing around, dictating a coherent little unit of story, then knocking it off kilter when he begins the next chunk.

2.  The Eternal Husband is 140 pages in The Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, and like many of his Great Short Works it has a stable point of view.  No room for the rich cacophony of the long novels.  The Underground Man, the Gambler, and now Velchaninov are who we’re stuck with, although Velchaninov does not narrate the story himself.

What is interesting here is that unlike the first two I mentioned, Velchaninov is not a typical Dostoevsky character.  He is venal, lecherous, and selfish; he is not any sort of spiritual seeker and no one would mistake him for a lunatic.  The lunatic is Pavel Pavlovitch, the eternal husband, who is a real, pure Dostoevsky character.  So the fun of the book, the unusual thing, is that we get some distance from the bizarre intensity that is so common throughout his fiction.  It is Dostoevsky with distance.

I enjoyed the book a lot, but I am not a Dostoevskian, meaning the readers who ponder the meaning of “The Grand Inquisitor” rather than its art.  They likely find The Eternal Husband  trivial.

Not a single quotation from the book itself.  Let’s fix that tomorrow.

* From the essay “Writers and Money” in The Hall of Uselessness (2013), p. 266.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Now I'm going to return to my dogs - Bazarov's mysterious death

Turgenev may not have known what to do with the hero of Fathers and Sons once he created him, fleshed him out, and showed him from all sides.  So he killed him off, by disease.  Discerning critics have found this end unsatisfying in that it is arbitrary, too easy.  In a sense, yes.  But the next to last chapter, Bazarov’s death is so good that I do not care.

Vladimir Nabokov, judging by his notes in Lectures of Russian Literature, apparently taught this chapter simply by reading large parts of it aloud to his class.

The funny thing is that there is hardly a sentence in it that I would pull out as particularly good.  The quality is a question of urgency, of small movement, of the right amount of attention given to a scene before a quick cut to the next.  And of course the stakes are high.

I can pull out the beginning:

Bazarov’s old parents were all the more delighted with their son’s sudden arrival since it was so unexpected.  Arina Vlasevna [his mother] was so flustered and scurried around the house so much that Vasily Ivanovich [the father] compared her to a “partridge”: the cropped tail of her short jacket actually did make her look a bit like a bird.  Meanwhile he himself mumbled and chewed the amber mouthpiece of his pipe; clutching his neck with his fingers, he twisted his head as if checking to see that it was attached properly and suddenly opened his broad mouth and laughed without ever emitting a sound.  (Ch. 27)

Bazarov can be rude, cold, and arrogant, but his parents, his poor mother, love him with all the energy they have – that silent laugh! – so then the pathos of the son’s death is hard to bear.

Bazarov himself is more stoic.

“I never expected to dies so soon; to tell you the truth, it’s a most unpleasant circumstance.  You and Mother must now make the most of your strong faith; here’s a chance to put it to the test.”  He drank down a little more water.  “I want to ask you one thing… while my head’s still working.  You know tomorrow or the day after my brain will tender tits resignation.  Even now I’m not too sure I’m expressing myself clearly.  When I was lying there before, I seemed to see red dogs running all around me and you pointing at me as if I were a woodcock.  Just like I was drunk.  Can you understand me well?”  (ellipses in original)

The rationalist has become a visionary.  It is those surprising dogs that convince the father that his son is really dying.

“Now I’m going to return to my dogs.  It’s odd!  I want to focus on death, but nothing comes of it.  I see some sort of spot…  and nothing else.”  (ellipses in original)

The parents are given the last paragraph of the novel, where we see them approaching Bazarov’s grave: “they  exchange a few words, move a branch of the pine tree, and pray once again; they can’t forsake this place where they seem to feel closer to their son, to their memories of him” (Ch. 28).  The earlier part of that last chapter wrapped up the stories of all of the other characters – marriage, travel abroad, ordinary life,  with the great nihilist Bazarov only a memory to everyone but his parents, for whom he is a grief that will end only with their own deaths.

And this is the great politically controversial novel of its time.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

‘My God, how nice it all is!’ - ok, this is the beautiful Turgenev

All right, when I said that yesterday’s post was about Turgenev’s  beautiful writing, and then singled out the line “You’re a big pig,” which I think is great, but is not beautiful, I was joking.  But the joke is that there in fact are beautiful passages in Father and Sons, by which I mean examples of the original and well-balanced picturesque.  These passages are likely to have poetic qualities that make them even more beautiful in Russian, but the imagery is itself good. 

The morning was lovely, the air, fresh; small, dappled clouds stood like fleecy lambs in clear, pale blue sky; light dew scattered on leaves and grass glistened like silver on spider webs; the damp, dark earth seemed to retain traces of the rosy dawn; the sky was filled with the song of larks.  (Ch. 24)

No, I am joking again, and so is Turgenev.  This is the atmosphere before a duel.  Turgenev is piling it on for the ironic contrast.  To Bazarov, who might pointlessly die in a few minutes, everything is too perfectly beautiful.  But on its own, I don’t know, “fleecy lambs.”

Here is a real example:

He looked around, as if wishing to understand how it was possible to have no feeling for nature.  It was almost evening; the sun was hidden behind a small grove of aspens that stood about half a verst from the garden: its shadow stretched endlessly across motionless fields.  A little peasant on a white nag was trotting along a dark, narrow path next to the grove; he was clearly visible, all of him, including the patch on his shoulder, even though he was in the shadows; the horse’s hooves could be seen plainly rising and falling in a pleasant fashion. (Ch. 11)

The description continues with more light effects (“their leaves looked almost dark blue”) and some bees and swallows are sketched in.  “‘My God, how nice it all is!’ thought Nikolai Petrovich,” who like Bazarov later is in a receptive mood.

Such passages are not common in Fathers and Sons – the novel is in fact mostly dialogue – but they are identifiable by Turgenev doing something tricky with the light.  They always serve a purpose.

Turgenev has a better trick, beautiful in its own way.  Fiction writers are just learning, in the nineteenth century, how to move the point of view, independently from the characters.  Turgenev has a couple of outstanding examples in Fathers and Sons.  Early in the book, Arkady (along with his friend Bazarov) has just arrived home after an extended absence.  His father has taken up with  a maid his son’s age, and even moved her into the house.  Arkady, a young man of advanced principles, is understanding.  But there is something his father has not yet mentioned.  This is how the reader learns the secret, in a single paragraph at the end of Chapter 4:

Both he and Bazarov soon fell fast asleep, but other people in the house were unable to sleep for some time.  His son’s return had excited Nikolai Petrovich [the father].  He lay down in bed, but didn’t blow the candle out and, resting his head on his arm, thought long and hard.  His brother sat up in his study long past midnight in a broad Hambs armchair before the fireplace in which some embers were glowing dimly.  [snip some of the description of the uncle]  And in the little back room sitting on a large trunk, wearing a light blue sleeveless jacket, a white kerchief thrown over her dark hair, was a young woman, Fenechka [the maid]; she was either listening or dozing or looking through the open door, behind which a child’s cot could be seen and the even breathing of a sleeping child could be heard.

The narrator is in some sense omniscient – he can hop around – but mostly limited, a disembodied camera filming people sleeping or thinking or mothering, scenes that can be edited together with nothing more than periods and an attentive reader’s imagination. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Turgenev's beautiful writing - “You’re a big pig”

Let me step away from Bazarov for a bit.  Fathers and Sons is an unusually well-written book.  Unusual even for Turgenev.  I think – this is hardly an unusual opinion – that it is his best writing, alongside the best stories from A Sportsman’s Notebooks (1852).   This is what I mean, from just a couple pages into the first chapter, where a father awaits the return of his son who has been absent at university for several years:

The servant, out of a sense of propriety, or perhaps because he didn’t want to remain under his master’s eye, had gone to the gate and lit his pipe.  Nikolai Petrovich [the master] bent his head and began staring at the decrepit porch steps; nearby, a large mottled young chicken strutted with a stately gait, treading firmly with its yellow legs; a scruffy cat, curled up in a most affected manner against the railing, observed the chicken with hostility.  The sun was scorching; a smell of warm rye bread wafted from the dark passage of the carriage inn.  (Ch. 1)

Turgenev is introducing the first of the three estates that will be the main settings of the novel.  The passage gives a lot of information about the estate and its master – it is worn down, the servants and chickens do their own thing in the face of the incompetent masters and lazy cats.  But it is homey and pleasant, smelling of fresh bread, even if the Superfluous Man who owns it cannot even manage a farm properly.

Now, this is the introduction to the third, much poorer, estate, Bazarov’s home:

But then, on the slope of a gently rising hill at long last there appeared a small village where Bazarov’s parents lived.  next to it, in a grove of young birch trees, they could see a small manor house with a thatched roof.  Two peasants wearing caps stood in front of the first hut and traded insults.  “You’re a big pig,” one said to the other, “worse than a piglet.”  “And your wife’s a witch,” the other retorted.  (Ch. 19)

Those peasants could be borrowed from a Nikolai Gogol story.  Turgenev signals:  this setting is different.  He even includes a pipe to link the two scenes, but this time it is smoked not by the servant, but by the father (“the pipe was bobbing up and down in his fingers,” Ch. 20) who unlike the previous father is too poor to have servants to smoke his pipe for him.

The other estate, encountered in between these two – I am just finishing the thought – is well-kept and orderly, even sterile, so it is introduced by its architecture before any people show up, and when they do they are “tall footmen in livery” and a portly butler in “a black frockcoat.  “[E]verything was clean and sweet-smelling, just like in a minister’s reception room” (Ch. 16) – no pipe-smoking allowed here.

I was honestly planning to just point out some of the most pleasing sentences and images of Fathers and Sons, of which there are plenty, but I seem to have moved into structural matters as well.  The two work together, the prose and the construction.  Like I said, it is an unusually well-written book.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

One thing I ask of you: no fine talk - Turgenev's next generation

“Oh Arkady Nikolaich, my friend!” cried Bazarov.  “One thing I ask of you: no fine talk.” (Ch. 21)

The ideas in Fathers and Sons that got Russia so worked up are embodied in and expressed by a single character, Bazarov, and a single word, “nihilism.” 

“We act on the basis of what we recognize as useful,” Bazarov replied.  “Nowadays the most useful thing of all is rejection – we reject.”



“What?  Not only art and poetry… but even… it’s two awful to say…”

“Everything,” Bazarov repeated with indescribable composure.”  (Ch. 10, ellipses in original)

Bazarov is young, charismatic, intelligent, and has really impressive side-whiskers.  Although radical in opinion (“’First, the ground must be cleared’”) he has withdrawn from action, apparently choosing the career of country doctor as a way of rejecting ambition or perhaps for some other reason.  I believe Chekhov returns to this idea in Uncle Vanya (1897), although I fear I have overlaid Chekhov’s doctor (who is actually  a failed idealist) on Bazarov.

Turgenev had spent a decade, in works like Rudin (1856) and Home of the Gentry (1859) and “The Diary of a Superfluous Man” (1850), working on the idea of the Superfluous Man, educated beyond any available use, a common type in developing countries, in the 19th century Russian case usually found puttering around his estate where he introduces mismanaged and useless agricultural reforms while his serfs rob him blind.  Fathers and Sons features two kinds of Superfluous Men, the father and uncle of Bazarov’s disciple and friend Arkady.  Turgenev has shifted the generations a notch, now, so the new generation is no longer superfluous but something else – nihilists, whatever that means.

Thus the debate.  Is this really what young people believe?  A few or many?  Are they active or passive?  Bazarov is a lifelike, well-made character, but much of the controversy needed little more than the kinds of conversation recorded above.  What is “everything,” for example?  No  need for “fine talk” to hash this out.  Coarse talk will do.

Whatever argument Turgenev was trying to make is ambiguous.  As Isaiah Berlin writes in Russian Thinkers, “[i]n a country in which readers, and especially the young, to this day look to writers for moral direction, he refused to preach” (272).  Bazarov fails in some important ways, but he seems to be at odds not with society but with Nemesis, as if he is in a Sophocles play.  He rejects romantic love and is surprised to find himself in love with a worthy but distant woman.  He rejects medicine and is killed by an infection.  His weak-willed disciple finds real love with a less interesting woman, makes peace with his family, and lives happily on his estate where he makes modest but real improvements.

The arbitrariness of the endings defeats any attempt to prove a thesis.  Turgenev had a stronger sense of the limits of fiction than many of his peers and readers.  Both Napoleon and evil landladies are safe from Turgenev characters, even strong, active, thoughtful ones like Bazarov.

This is all from the Michael R. Katz translation, in the Norton Critical Edition.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The unusual case of Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons (1862) is so rich, so important, and so well-written that I assumed I would have a lot to write about it.  Well.  But when did that ever stop me?

The strangest side of the novel is its importance, its place in the intellectual history of Russia.  It was a surprise to its author, certainly.  Ivan Turgenev spent much of the rest of his writing life returning to the ideas of the novel and responding to his critics.  Even more amazingly, so did other writers including Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I do not know of another chain of novels like this one.  What Is to Be Done?, a novel by the radical journalist Nikolai Chernyshevksy appeared in 1863, in direct response to Turgenev.  Then in 1864 Dostoevsky published Notes from the Underground, an attack on Chernyshevsky.  Dostoevsky, like Turgenev, pursued his ideas into later novels, particularly Demons (1872) and one wild scene in The Idiot (1869).  Tolstoy responded, although I think rather more indirectly.  One of Vladimir Nabokov’s finest pieces of writing, Chapter 4 of The Gift (1938), piles onto Chernyskevsky.  I have no doubt there are dozens of other branches that I have not even heard of.  Soviet critics continued the debate decades into the twentieth century.

Still, it is that first, compact chain, 1862 – Fathers and Sons, 1863 – What Is to Be Done?, 1864 – Notes from the Underground, that I marvel at.  The central issues of the day engaged at the highest intensity in fiction.  As art, the episode did well, too, with two masterpieces, one of them a rare case of a genuine philosophical novel.  The Chernyshevsky book is pretty bad, and likely the most influential of the lot, a book that did real damage.

What most amazes of course is the place fiction had in Russian intellectual life at the time.

The intellectual history and the art of Fathers and Sons are cleanly separable.  I have seen this demonstrated:  Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Fathers and Children,” found in Russian Thinkers (1978), is all about the debate, while Nabokov’s notes in Lectures on Russian Literature (1981) are entirely about the art.  Both perspectives are valuable, but they are only barely related.  The book was unnecessarily well-written for the debate it sparked.  And if it had been politely ignored we would still read it as the finest Turgenev novel.

I have avoided mentioning – hinting at – what any of the ideas of the novel are or why they caused such a turmoil, or anything else about what the novel might actually be like.  Good, that gives me something to write about.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dickens at the races - the quick dropping of all the pins out of their places

“The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices” ends with a report on the annual horse races of Doncaster.  It is less a narrative about or even employing the characters than a Sketch by Boz twenty years later.  Dickens reporting live from the scene.  The pure stuff.

I want to do nothing but quote from it:

Reaction also apparent at the Guildhall opposite, whence certain pickpockets come out handcuffed together, with that peculiar walk which is never seen under any other circumstances – a walk expressive of going to jail, game, but still of jails being in bad taste and arbitrary, and how would YOU like it if it was you instead of me, as it ought to be!

The pickpockets raise a good point.  I wouldn’t like it at all.

One of the apprentices finally makes it to the racetrack:

Francis much delights to be, not in the Grand Stand, but where he can see it, rising against the sky with its vast tiers of little white dots of faces, and its last high rows and corners of people, looking like pins stuck into an enormous pincushion – not quite so symmetrically as his orderly eye could wish, when people change or go away.  When the race is nearly run out, it is as good as the race to him to see the flutter among the pins, and the change in them from dark to light, as hats are taken off and waved.  Not less full of interest, the loud anticipation of the winner's name, the swelling, and the final, roar; then, the quick dropping of all the pins out of their places, the revelation of the shape of the bare pincushion, and the closing-in of the whole host of Lunatics and Keepers, in the rear of the three horses with bright-coloured riders, who have not yet quite subdued their gallop though the contest is over.

Most of the greatest prose writers of human history would have been satisfied with coming up with the “grandstand as pincushion.”  Very few would think to start moving the pins around.  Dickens keep the metaphor going as the days of the races pass:

The course as pretty as ever; the great pincushion as like a pincushion, but not nearly so full of pins; whole rows of pins wanting.

The ordinary activities of the town are replaced with drinking, gambling, talk of “’t’harses and Joon Scott,’” the consumption of “modest daily meal[s] of turtle, venison, and wine.”  But eventually the races end (“No turtle and venison ordinary this evening; that is all over”), the crowds wander off, the citizens of Doncaster return to their own homes, which they had let to gamblers for exorbitant sums, and Doncaster sweeps up.

[The Course] is quite deserted; heaps of broken crockery and bottles are raised to its memory; and correct cards and other fragments of paper are blowing about it, as the regulation little paper-books, carried by the French soldiers in their breasts, were seen, soon after the battle was fought, blowing idly about the plains of Waterloo.

The chapter is I suppose of some historical cultural interest, but really is just good writing for its own sake.  It ends Christmas Stories because it had to go somewhere.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Dickens and Collins trade ghost stories

The Dickens-Collins team gave us a well-made, amusing little murder story in the 1867 “No Thoroughfare.”  In an earlier collaboration, the 1857* “The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices,” they abandoned any attempt at structure or sense and just let each author do his thing.  What things they do.

Following familiar types, Francis Goodchild thinks idleness means mountain climbing, scuba diving, and other vigorous non-productive activities, while Thomas Idle just wants to sit on the beach all day, or even better to sit by the hotel pool, since the beach is so far away, or best of all, why leave your room at all?  These two wander around northwest England.  That is more or less the frame.

Goodchild is sort of Dickens and Idle is kind of Collins.  They really did go on a tour of that region.  The division of labor is that Dickens writes the Goodchild parts and Collins writes the Idle parts.  Dickens writes about the characters climbing a mountain, much against Idle’s desires, while Collins writes about them coming down the mountain, giving Idle a terrible strain, his punishment for doing anything active, or else his gift since now he no longer has to climb any more mountains.

Dickens writes a ghost story, a good silly one, in which a hanged man tells of his crimes.  Here he is, just before Goodchild figures out he is a ghost (the reader will likely be way ahead of him):

His cravat appeared to trouble him.   He put his hand to his throat, and moved his neck from side to side.   He was an old man of a swollen character of face, and his nose was immovably hitched up on one side, as if by a little hook inserted in that nostril.   Mr. Goodchild felt exceedingly uncomfortable, and began to think the night was hot, and not cold.  (Ch. IV)

Collins has his own ghost story, although, following his Sensational method, there is in the end no ghost.  A man spends the night in a hotel room with a corpse.  I wonder if at some point it will seem to move:

When he looked at the bed, now, he saw, hanging over the side of it, a long white hand.
It lay perfectly motionless, midway on the side of the bed, where the curtain at the head and the curtain at the foot met.  Nothing more was visible.  The clinging curtains hid everything but the long white hand.

And so on.  Not bad.

My favorite Collins bit is midway through Chapter III, when we learn why Idle is so idle.  He reflects on three “disasters” in his life, three times when he made “the mistake of having attempted to be industrious” and was met with nothing but suffering.  “He had forfeited the comfortable reputation of being the one lazy member of the youthful community whom it was quite hopeless to punish.”  Poor fellow.  The few pages could be made into an Idler’s Manifesto if that did not take so much effort.

One last thing tomorrow, a bit of prime Dickens.

*  Yesterday I for some unknown reason put the story in 1868.  It comes last in the Oxford Christmas Stories book.  Maybe that confused me.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Christmas murder from Dickens and Collins - All the lesser London churches strain their metallic throats

The year-end magazine stories of Charles Dickens were collected in 1871, just after his death, under the comical title Christmas Stories.  At first I was reading them for the sake of completeness and curiosity, but as the years passed (Dickens's years, not mine) they become more interesting.  The last one, “No Thoroughfare” (1867) (along with the 1857 “The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices”), is co-written with Wilkie Collins.  The "Lazy Tour" is a picaresque ragbag, "No Thoroughfare" a short novel.  Both are good.  This was a period not just of Peak Dickens, but of Peak Collins – The Moonstone was published in 1868.

The title of “No Thoroughfare” is not so good.  I will stick with that one today.

“No Thoroughfare” is a kind of murder mystery.  Part of it is set in an orphanage.  A little bit of sensation, a little bit of tear-jerking.  It hits a lot of Dickens and\or Collins buttons.  They are recycling, but Dickens always recycled, that is how he moved forward.  A dangerous trip across a snow-filled Alpine pass is something new to Dickens.

The editor of the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition has identified who wrote what, although I could mostly tell.  I want to save that for “The Lazy Tour,” though, where she does not say but I could always tell.

The mystery as such is not bad.  It is centered on a love triangle, and what else, I ask, given that the murder (attempted) in Our Mutual Friend (1864) and murder (completed, probably) in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) are caused by love triangles, with the man who cannot possibly win the woman becoming twisted and evil from frustration and jealousy – likely more from the latter.  Dickens had become occupied with the idea of evil, and this is how he explored it.  If the exploration is not so profound in “No Thoroughfare” it is still surprisingly interesting as a bridge between the two novels.

I would like to quote from the eventful and even exciting murder scene, but I am not sure the keenest touches make much sense without the context.  How about the very beginning, then:

Day of the month and year, November the thirtieth, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-five.  London Time by the great clock of Saint Paul’s, ten at night.  All the lesser London churches strain their metallic throats.  Some, flippantly begin before the heavy bell of the great cathedral; some, tardily begin three, four, half-a-dozen, strokes behind it; all are in sufficiently near accord, to leave a resonance in the air, as if the winged father who devours his children, had made a sounding sweep with his gigantic scythe in flying over the city.

It may not be the muddy megalosaurus that introduces Bleak House, but it is pure, clear Dickens.  It is another bit of recycling, too, evoking his little 1844 Christmas book The Chimes.  Those excessive commas are a guide to whoever is reading the passage aloud.  There is one more chime lagging, “lower than most of the rest,” that belongs to the orphanage and pulls me down from the steeples to the ground where a veiled lady “flutters to and fro,” about to launch the mystery.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

he had to endure the knowledge that he wasn’t finding out the clue to the strangeness. - a critical agenda for Seiobo There Below - Bernhard, Pynchon, and the Italian crossword puzzle

The first big joke, and it’s a good one, in László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below comes at the very beginning of Chapter 2, pp. 17-19, where the dismayed reader is presented with an entire crossword puzzle.  In Italian.  The humor comes from imagining the scowls and obscenities of prospective Krasznahorkai specialists, especially those without Italian.  If they are lucky the puzzle will turn out to be a red herring, for example a parodic gesture at the idea of a puzzle novel.

The translator Ottilie Mulzet, in interviews, and many reviewers have overgeneralized when describing Seiobo.  They perhaps have to.  Is Krasznahorkai writing about the presence or absence of the sacred in the world, whatever “the sacred” is, or the way the sense of the sacred affects a small and particular sort of person – prophets, visionaries, and martyrs?  Is he describing the way art works, or the way it works on a few sensitive seekers?  I have observed a temptation with Krasznahorkai criticism to move to metaphysics too quickly, when the argument is more at the level of psychology.  Krasznahorkai himself may believe otherwise, but that is not relevant.

Take the architect and amateur expert on Baroque music who stars in the novel’s funniest chapter (377, “Private Passion”).  He is giving a lecture on Bach to eight innocent souls in a small town Hungarian library.  He is incoherent and threatening, his audience finds him incomprehensible, and he is a grotesque, obese and absurd (“because everyone sensed how these trousers were continuously, ceaselessly sliding downward across those three thick folds of fat, down toward the thighs,” etc., with these long sentences, always etc., 345), all of which is humorous in one way or the other.  Then there is this:

… it must be in that very moment when the Baroque resounds in music, because we should have ended there, at the pinnacle, and not have allowed everything to happen just as it might, and then to lie, to blurt out these morbid lies and learn how to enthuse over such music as this Mozart or that Beethoven or over whatever it was all those ever more modest talents, those ever more commonplace figures, were able to conjure up out of our hats…  not even to mention the most repulsive of all, this imperial criminal named Wagner and his zealous supporters, let’s not even mention it, because if I even just think about it – the lecturer shook his head, giving expression to his disbelief – it is not shame that overcomes me, nor the consciousness of degradation, but rather a dark desire for murder, because…  (355)

Well, we get the idea, and in fact at this point Krasznahorkai wanders over to the stunned audience (“completely drained, not daring to escape, their hopes that at one point there might be a normal end to this lecture long since extinguished”), none of whom realize that they are being treated to a perfect chapter-long parody of Thomas Bernhard.  Which is too bad for them, because it is hilarious.

The speaker is totally consumed by Baroque music to the point of derangement.  He finally leaves in tears, not singing but shouting the music of Bach.  The chapter is a comic triumph.

It comes fairly late in the book, where it left me with the terrible realization that if this chapter was a parody of another author, than any – or all – of the other chapters might also be parodies, perhaps of Hungarian authors I have never even heard of, or worse, of authors I know well but failed to recognize.  Which chapter is the Sebald parody?  The last chapter begins with a parody of the first sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow – is the whole chapter a Pynchon parody?  Pynchon appears in the epigraph, too, which mangles the Thelonious Monk quotation Pynchon used as the epigraph to his 2006 Against the Day.  The jokes gets tangled.

This is worse than the Italian crossword puzzle.  What really makes me suspicious is that in this novel that is about nothing but the power and intricacy of all sorts of art, there is no example of prose fiction.  What if Krasznahorkai somehow wove his argument about fiction into his own fiction?

Good luck to everyone toiling in the Krasznahorkai mine.  I am eager to see what you dig up.

The post’s title is on p. 116.  It is not especially out of context here.

Now, a holiday, when I need my skillet green bean casserole recipe.  Back to usual business – Dickens, Turgenev – starting Monday.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

who can say what is essential and what isn’t - Seiobo There Below - Krasznahorkai's defense of the picturesque

If it took me so long to read the latest László Krasznahorkai book, Seiobo There Below (2008), it was because the novel has, based on the numbering, 2,584 chapters.  Only seventeen of them are actually printed in the book, but I felt I should give the implied chapters their due.  I am actually still reading the novel, in theory, and feel that I am almost to chapter 4,181, which would be the next printed chapter if the book had one more.  The numbers are part of a Fibonacci sequence.  This is so important that every reviewer mentions it, as I have, although none of them do anything with it, like I did.

Seventeen chapters, each about a work of art, its creation or presence.  Five paintings, five sculptures, four structures, plus Noh acting, Baroque music, and, just once, writing, a memoir. Almost all religious art.  Probably all religious, actually.  As I have said so often, whenever writers want to deal with art in general they go to visual art fourteen times out of seventeen.  Another count: six stories about Japanese art, three about Italian Renaissance painting, two Classical works, etc.  Japan, Venice, Barcelona, Athens, Hungary, etc.  People trying to figure out this book will make lots of grids, or maybe diagrams with arrows pointing from chapter to chapter.

The basic idea of the book is that art in its sublime aspect is destructive.  It is an encounter with the gods.  Mere mortals will not emerge intact.  Creators come off better than viewers, since they apparently learn to channel most of the destructive forces away from themselves.

I have been browsing reviews.  There have been a lot of good ones, like the one in The American Reader by Jonathan Kyle Sturgeon which follows references to Hell into the Schopenhauer-like idea that these little glimpses through art of the sublime, however annihilating, are precious chances of an escape from the Hell that is my ordinary life.  Krasznahorkai makes the point subtly:  “HELL REALLY EXISTS” (Ch. 5, “Christo Morto,” p. 96).  Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Sturgeon notes, in a point I somehow feel he stole from me, also prominently features a Christo Morto painting.

… for there is a domain, that of death, the dreadful weight of the earth pressing in from all sides which has entombed them, and which in time shall  devour us as well, to close it in upon itself, to bury, to consume even our memories, beyond all that is eternal.  (last line, p. 451)

The three previous Krasznahorkai novels that have made it into English have all been nightmare novels, with rural Hungary or New York City turned into Hell, so it is no surprise that the nightmare exists wherever Krasznahorkai’s fiction wanders, in the Louvre or the Acropolis or anywhere.  Take water with when you visit the Acropolis in the summer.  And don’t go at noon.  In fact, maybe pick another season for Athens.  That is a good Krasznahorkai travel tip.  See Chapter 8, “Up on the Acropolis.”

Seiobo There Below can be taken as a strong defense of the picturesque and of aesthetic distance.  Art is dangerous.  Stay behind the yellow line.

There are important ways in which everything I said above is wrong, by which I mean that at least one story presents an exception to every point.  That will require another diagram.

Seiobo There Below is a significant work of art in its own right, and if I have seemed to be mocking it, my excuse is that I have had trouble finding a reviewer who has noticed its ridiculous side, the inevitable partner of the sublime.  Krasznahorkai can be funny.  I am going to write about that tomorrow, in a post that will likely be of great aid to future Krasznahorkai scholars.

The translator, doing heroic work, is Ottilie Mulzet.  The post’s title is from Chapter 3, p. 86.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Alphonse Allais and his pal Captain Cap, touring the bars of Montmartre - with a bonus mint julep recipe, sort of

Captain Cap: His Adventures, His Ideas, His Drinks is a 1902 collection of the French humorist Alphonse Allais.  I had assumed that the humor had lost its flavor and that the book was useful as a period piece.  I was right about the latter but wrong about the former.

Allais, like any good humorist, needed a shtick – he needed a bundle of them – and Captain Cap has a great one.  Most pieces are encounters on the streets and bars of Montmartre with Captain Cap himself, who always has a new scheme, a new gadget, a new lie, and a new drink.

Early on, for example, over mint juleps, Cap describes his discovery of a cold cut mine in Quebec:  Meat-Land.  An explanation is given for the creation of such a mine that is almost plausible to those familiar with the principles of French cooking.

The cold cut mine has to be the finest creation in the book, from the Surrealist point of view, but it has lots of rivals, from the Kangacycle to the scheme to fill the French Catacombs with Arctic foxes to the Grandiose Billiards Club:

It looked as if the rain had not decided not to fall, so I proposed to Captain Cap that we play a game of billiards, simply, I added, to kill time.

“Alas!” Cap replied, “it is not we who kill time, but time that kills us!”

“Just to make it pass, then.”

“Alas!” Cap repeated, “it is not we who make time pass, but time that makes us pass.”

We could have continued quite a while with this system, so I thought it best not to insist.  (165)

In a bit of scene-setting later on the same page, Allais says he “should inform the reader, of there is still time, that the scene took place in the little white café on Blue Street – far preferable, in my opinion, to the little blue café on White Street).”

Allais has more than one arrow-through-the-head in his shtick quiver, is what I am trying to demonstrate here.

I need to get to the drinks.  The translator has helpfully catalogued all of them in an appendix.  Some of the drinks have dated where the jokes have not, like the various flips – try to find a bartender to serve you a drink with a raw egg in it.  And other drinks were once more, hmm, flexible:

The mint julep is excellent, when you can get fresh mint: crush four sprigs of the plant with a teaspoon of sugar, add a glass of cognac, fill with crushed ice, add a jigger of yellow Chartreuse, top off with water, and stir well.  Soak a spring of mint in lemon juice, and put it in the center of the glass.  Add seasonal fruits, and pour over it, without stirring, a dash of rum.  Sprinkle with sugar.  Drink with a straw. (333)

Seasonal fruits?  Yellow Chartreuse, are you insane?  And this is if anything less bizarre to me than the cocktails involving port.  Captain Cap adds port to lemonade.  How tastes change, in literature, jokes, and booze.

So this is an educational book, is what I am saying.  A period piece in the best sense.

Doug Skinner, who fortunately comments at Wuthering Expectations on occasion, is the translator.  He has enhanced the original with his own illustrations.  “Nobody said translation was easy,” Skinner notes (p. 245).

Congratulations and many thanks, Mr. Skinner!  Captain Cap is a fine contribution to English letters and Franco-American drinking. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Some people might lose their faith by looking at that painting! - Dostoevsky looks at paintings

The Idiot is a murder story, a mystery story investigating a homicide, the death of this man:

Image from Wikipedia. The Hans Holbein painting is in Basel, where Dostoevsky saw it many times.  A copy of it hangs in a house where, in the novel, a murder will take place.

‘That painting!’ the prince exclaimed suddenly, under the impact of a sudden thought.  ‘That painting! Some people might lose their faith by looking at that painting!’  (II, 4)

Or gain their faith, depending on what they make of Christ shown so clearly as human.  The image is foreshadowing, although given Dostoevsky’s improvisation, at the point the painting first appears, a third of the way through the novel, it is fair to ask:  foreshadowing of what?  The author will figure that out by the end of the novel.

This Holbein painting pulls us back into Part I of the novel, the single day in two hundred pages in which the holy fool Prince Myshkin is reintroduced to Russia after a long stay in Switzerland, where he too got to know the Holbein.  He mentions another Holbein, a Madonna in Dresden, but this is merely a hint of the motif.  The strongest connection is to another Basel painting, not specified by Myshkin, that portrays the moment before an execution.  Myshkin then describes, in a two page paragraph, a painting he imagines on that subject, “’exactly a minute before death,’” although his description includes the prison, the awakening and transport of the condemned man and his thoughts along the way before he gets to the scaffold, the guillotine, and the priest.

“Paint the scaffold so that only the last stair can be seen clearly and closely; the condemned man has stepped on it: his head, white as paper, the priest holding out the cross, the man extending his blue lips and staring – and knowing everything.  The cross and the head – that is the painting, the face of the priest, of the executioner, of his two assistants and a few heads and eyes from below – all that may be painted on a tertiary level, as it were, in a mist, as a background…  That’s what the painting should be like.”  (I, 6, ellipses in original)

This is told to a trio of beautiful young women Myshkin has just met.  He is a little awkward as a conversationalist.  You should see the story he tells next, in Part I, Chapter 6, in a single uninterrupted twelve page paragraph.

Strangely, eighty pages into the novel, this is the second time Myshkin has described the moment before an execution.  He first does so in the second chapter, again, using a long single paragraph.

“When you put your head right under the guillotine and hear it sliding above your head, it’s that quarter of a second that’s most terrible of all.  This isn’t my imagination, you know, many people have said the same thing…  Take a soldier and put him right in front of a cannon in a battle and fire it at him, and he’ll go on hoping, but read out a certain death sentence to that same soldier, and he’ll go mad, or start to weep.  Who can say that human nature is able to endure such a thing without going mad?  Why such mockery – ugly, superfluous, futile?  Perhaps the man exists to whom this sentence has been read out, has been allowed to suffer, and then has been told: ‘Off you go, you’ve been pardoned.’  A man like that could tell us, perhaps.  Such suffering and terror were what Christ spoke of.  (I,2, ellipses mine)

I quoted that passage at some length because it is so clearly related to Dostoevsky’s own experience in 1849, when his own execution by firing squad was commuted moments before the guns went off.

And what comes up just a few pages later?  A painting, of course – the painting of a character who will, by the end of the novel seven hundred pages later, be murdered.

I am in a sense constructing a better novel out of pieces of the book Dostoevsky actually wrote, but the pieces all are right there, put in place by the author for anyone to use.
Special unpaid, heartfelt advertising:  If you are in Munich, you can (and should) eat at Prinz Myshkin, a first-rate vegetarian restaurant.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"We have all stewed to mush, all, all of us!" - The Idiot's six murders

Prince Myshkin is alone in one of the finest scenes in The Idiot, Part II, Chapter 5, in which he wanders around St. Petersburg, thinking.  Just walking and thinking.  “He was in a tormented state of tension and anxiety, and at the same time he felt an extraordinary need for solitude.”  His author gives it to him.

The scene is written as a stream of consciousness, a technique Dostoevksy was inventing from scratch:  Myshkin looks at shop windows, wonders if someone is following him (yes), thinks deep thoughts, worries about his epilepsy, reviews recent events, which must have been useful for those who read the novel as a serial – it was useful for me, too – all in the apparently random but psychologically plausible order that characterizes good stream of consciousness writing.

Now he wanted to ascertain without fail whether he had really stood, only five minutes ago, perhaps, in front of the window of this shop, or whether he had imagined it, got something mixed up.  Did this shop and these things in its window really exist?  For he did feel in a particularly ill state of mind today, almost the same state of mind that had affected him before at the beginning of the fits that had accompanied his earlier illness?

And in fact an epileptic fit is approaching.  It ends the chapter:

Then suddenly something seemed to open before him: an extraordinary inner light illumined his soul.  This moment lasted for half a second, perhaps; but he clearly and consciously remembered the beginning, the very first sound of his terrible howl, that tore from his breast of its own accord and which he could not stop by any effort.

Also, at this exact moment, someone is trying to stab the prince.  He had been thinking about murder during his wandering fugue:

Though really, what am I saying? (the prince continued to muse).  He didn’t murder those creatures, those six people, did he?  I seem to be getting things mixed up… how strange this is!  My head seems to be spinning…  (ellipses in original)

It is in this passage that Dostoevsky introduces one of the curiosities of the novel, which is actually one of its unifying devices, that murders occur in sets of six.  The reference, a footnote tells me, is to a genuine 1868 case where a student murdered a family of six, which helps to a certain extent to give a reasonable explanation to some of the associations of murder and the number six – the characters have all been reading about the crime in the newspaper, so it is on their mind, just as it is on Dostoevsky’s.

It does not explain why murder is discussed so often, and in such inappropriate settings.  And some of the allusions are distinct.  Here Lebedev, the same fellow who giggled and sneezed rather than answering a direct question, begins to tell (at Myshkin’s birthday party!) a bizarre parable about medieval cannibalism:

One such cannibal, approaching old age, announced of his own accord and without any compulsion that throughout his long and poverty-stricken life he had killed and eaten personally and in the deepest secret sixty monks and several lay infants – about six of them, but no more, that is, very few compared to the number of clerics he had eaten.  (III, 4)

This is part of an elaborate drunken nonsensical argument about the spread of railroads – “We have all stewed to mush, all, all of us!”  Which makes us easier to eat, I presume.

Forty pages later, but still at the same party, another character fantasizes about murdering ten people, which is perhaps a mistake of Dostoevsky’s but I think instead a deliberate escalation of the body count.  With all of this talk, murdering six is no longer a sufficient example of evil.

The murder theme is an example of the artfulness of Dostoevsky.  I will follow it in one last post tomorrow.

Friday, November 22, 2013

We’re eccentrics… we ought all to be displayed under glass - The Idiot's characters - I've never been able to stand poetry

“Exceedingly strange people!” thought Prince Shch., for perhaps the hundredth time since he had begun to associate with them, but… he liked these strange people.  (III, 2, ellipses in original)

Dostoevsky’s characters often seem to comment on the novel they are in.  A little past the halfway point, “hundredth time” was about right for me, too.

Dostoevsky, in his late novels, under constraints I would not wish on any artist, abandons or never attempts much of what makes fiction artful.  What does he keep?

Speech.  Dostoevsky the playwright.  The bulk of The Idiot is speech.  Dialogue, arguments, harangues, manifestos, cacophonies.  The famous Dostoevskian polyphony exists in a more primitive form in The Idiot than in The Brothers Karamazov, but there is plenty of room for views that are clearly not Dostoevsky’s own, wrong ideas presented with as much conviction and rhetorical sophistication as right.  This, if anything, accounts for the proliferation of Dostoevsky’s ideas and aesthetic.  Dostoevsky practically begs you to disagree with his ideas about Russian nationalism and the primacy of the Orthodox Church, even to ignore them.

But more practically, Dostoevsky seems to believe that character is mostly revealed through speech.  That is where he spends his time.

“Lord, what nonsense I’m talking!  Pah!  We’re eccentrics… we ought all to be displayed under glass, me first for an entrance fee of ten copecks.”  (III, 1, ellipses in original)

This is Lizaveta Prokofyevna, mother of one of Prince Myshkin’s possible wives, and one of the novel’s best minor characters.  She is nothing but talk, often bewildered and ridiculous talk.  She is another of the novel’s idiots (the novel is on the side of the idiots):

“What poem is it?  Recite it, I’m sure you know it!  I absolutely insist on knowing this poem.  I’ve never been able to stand poetry, it’s as though I’d had a premonition.  For God’s sake – Prince, have patience, it seems that you and I will have to endure this together,” she addressed Prince Lev Nikolayevich [Myshkin].  (II, 6)

The Christ-like Myshkin and the novel’s other fools are secretly in solidarity against earthly suffering.  Not so secret in this passage, I guess, since she openly says it.

As good as so many of the minor characters are, it is Prince Myshkin who really matters.  Meant to be a saint, he could become an ikon, not a character but an image, perfectly meek, perfectly forgiving.  Dostoevsky humanizes him, though, with a number of small touches, most effectively his sense of humor.  Midway through the novel there is a rare moment of action, during which Myshkin tangles with an officer.  A minor character offers to be Myshkin’s second:

“So you’re talking about a duel, too!” the prince suddenly began to laugh, to Keller’s extreme surprise.  He laughed mightily.  Keller, who had really almost been on tenterhooks until he had obtained satisfaction, offering himself as a second, almost took offence as he beheld the prince’s merry laughter.  (III, 3)

I was also laughing mightily, enjoying Myshkin’s genuinely Christ-like response.  Risking death for pride – how ridiculous, how funny.  Myshkin’s laughter is always meaningful.

One more example, from another minor character, one who plays a big role in the first quarter of the novel but gets lost later, a victim of Dostoevsky’s muddle.  He is given this moment, though:

When Varya was out of the way, Ganya took the note from the table, kissed it, clicked his tongue and performed an entrechat.  (IV, 2)

One wonders what little marvels Dostoevsky might have imagined if he had let his characters be alone more often, if they were not constantly talking.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I promise myself that I won’t correct a single line of this manuscript - in which I allow myself a post of complaining about Dostoevsky

A ratio of one post of complaints  to three or four of appreciation seems allowable for any book, much less a big Dostoevsky novel.  By any sane aesthetic standard, Dostoevsky’s books are such messes.  The Idiot is the messiest I know.  So this will be my single post of whining, after which I will restrain myself to backhanded compliments.

Dostoevsky’s method is the key here, the method I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, where he makes elaborate notes for the novel which he ignores while pacing back and forth, dictating the novel.  Up against a brutal deadline, the results are sent off to the magazine with almost no revision.

The Idiot is the first long novel written this way, and it shows.  Dostoevsky botches some basic  novelistic components.  Characters and storylines are introduced, pumped up, and then forgotten for hundreds of pages.  New characters and plotlines crush the momentum of old ones.   

He  is especially bad with transitions between scenes.  The first of the novel's four parts takes place in a single day, so in a sense has no transitions.  It is light, rapid, energetic, logical in its own crazy way, a wild ride for the first two hundred pages in the Penguin edition, composed, I read somewhere, in a single twenty-two day burst.  But Dostoevsky founders when he switches to Part II and has to shuffle the characters around and let six months pass.  After this point whenever he switches sections or subjects he has to spend some pages clearing his throat before moving on to something better.  Readers of Wuthering Expectations should recognize the phenomenon.

Sometimes it is best for the narrator to confine himself to a simple exposition of events.  This is how we shall proceed with the rest of our account of the present catastrophe with the general; for no matter how hard we may try, we are confronted by the decided necessity of allotting to this secondary character in our story rather more attention and space than we had hitherto proposed.  (IV, 3)


A simple way to say this is that The Idiot is a heck of a first draft.  If only we had the second draft.  If only Dostoevsky had had time to say to his assistant “I was just thinking aloud there – you can cut that bit.”  By The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has learned a lot about working within his crazy method.

Dostoevsky has a minimal visual imagination.  A huge part of the aesthetic power of fiction is unavailable to him.  He cannot even imitate his idol Nikolai Gogol.  Dostoevsky does not see the scene he is writing.  Or he sees a bare stage and a set of actors.  His strength is animating those actors.  Dostoevsky was a great actor.  But I am not writing about his strengths now.

 “’It seems to me that I have just written something terribly stupid; but I don’t have the time to correct it, as I said; what is more, I promise myself that I won’t correct a single line of this manuscript, even if I notice that I contradict myself every five lines’” – this is not the narrator but a character speaking, in Part III, Chapter 5.  But Dostoevsky does, in fact, correct and revise.  He does it in the next novel.  And the next and the next, until he really does run out of time.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

That is impossible, that’s all nonsense! - a look at Dostoevsky's The Idiot - "Did you receive my hedgehog?"

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, serialized from 1868 to 1869.  I want to start with two scenes, so mostly just some quotes today.  David McDuff’s 2004 Penguin translation is doing the hard work.

The plot:  Prince Myshkin, young, saint-like, even Christ-like, returns to Russia after a long illness, where he accidentally falls into someone else’s preposterous soap opera.  Myshkin’s superhuman insight into character and limitless capacity for forgiveness affect some of the soap operatives positively and drives others to madness.  Much of the story somehow becomes a contest between two women who want to marry the prince, or do not want to marry him, depending on where each woman is in her wild mood swing.

The Idiot is a novel of great scenes, but the plot is not so good.  Crime and Punishment is a much better thriller.

Aglaya is one of the women, the saner of the two, who sometimes wants to marry the prince  In this scene we are nearing the end of the novel:

It was at this very moment that Aglaya entered calmly and grandly, made a ceremonious bow to the prince, and solemnly took the most conspicuous place at the circular table.  She gave the prince a questioning look.  Everyone realized that the resolution of all their bewilderment had begun.

‘Did you receive my hedgehog?’ she asked firmly and almost angrily.

‘Yes, I did,’ replied the prince, blushing and with sinking heart.  (IV, 5)

I love that “bewilderment” line.  Dostoevsky’s fiction is full of lines that sound like self-commentary.  Be honest, after that line, what were you expecting?  “Did you receive my hedgehog?”  Oh, you were?  Well, I was not, even though the hedgehog had been delivered only four pages earlier.  A boy, Kolya, had bought a hedgehog and an axe from someone on the street who happened to have those two items in his possession.  Aglaya buys the hedgehog in order to send it to the prince.  No idea where the axe goes.  

Kolya agreed with delight, and promised that he would deliver it, but at once began to ply her with questions in return:  ‘What does a present of a hedgehog mean?’

Good question.  I will someday answer it, in what will become my best-known essay on Russian literature, "The Hedgehog and the Axe."

Now this is from hundreds of pages earlier.  Prince Myshkin is interrogating Lebedev, a toady, about some plotty stuff:

Lebedev began to cringe and grovel.

‘I’ve waited all day to ask you one question; just answer with the truth for once in your life, right from the first word: did you play any part in that carriage business yesterday?’

Lebedev again began to cringe, giggled, rubbed his hands, and even, at last sneezed several times, but was still unable to bring himself to say anything.

‘I see that you did.’  (Pt. II, Ch. 11)

And Lebedev is one of the novel’s sane characters!  Cunning, thoroughly selfish, and capricious, but rational.  The argument ends thusly (it is important to remember that the prince is almost inhumanly meek and forgiving):

‘Be quiet, be quiet!’ the prince shouted violently, red all over with indignation, and perhaps also with shame.  ‘That is impossible, that’s all nonsense!  You’ve thought it all up yourself, or madmen like you have.’

This is why I was reading and writing about nonsense – to prepare me for a week or so of writing about Dostoevsky.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Conventional signs and the absolute blank - some nonsense aesthetics (guest starring Swinburne and Morgenstern)

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
    Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
    A map they could all understand.
“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
    Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
    “They are merely conventional signs!
“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
    But we’ve got out brave captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “That he’s bought us the best –
    A perfect and absolute blank!”   (Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark,” Fit the Second)

The nonsense poems I have been reading are not so far, looked at kind of cockeyed, from the early modern descendants of Petrarch I was writing about last week.  Elizabethan sonneteers were working under narrow constraints, rewarded for ingenuity as much as, or more than, meaning.  It was at times hard to see the difference between dozens of tiny variations on an entirely conventional idea and the absence of any idea at all.  “They are merely conventional signs!”

The two orders of poetry also share a common ancestor in the classical pastoral poetry tradition.  Thus ends today’s sermon in literary history.

It is not that nonsense and its cousins are not meaningful.  The Alice novels are as deep as I want them to be, rare examples of fiction with something to say about metaphysics.  But there is a side of nonsense that directly addresses the possibility of meaning, that tries to see how close it can get to the blank map.

I have been paging through The Faber Book of Nonsense Verse (1979), ed. Geoffrey Grigson, where I came upon a cluster of Christian Morgenstern poems including “The Great Lalulā,” of which I present the final stanza:

Simarar kos malzpempu
silzuzanlunkrei (;)!
Marjomar dos: Quempu Lempu
Siri Suri Sei [ ]!
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!

Well said.  All punctuation in the original.  Morgenstern is often described as untranslatable for some reason.

The poem is selective in its chaos, keeping rhyme, meter, sound and, what else, alphabetical characters, although I bet it was originally published in Gothic script.

Algernon Swinburne achieves a similar effect with English words and grammar in “Nephelidia”:

From the depth of the dreamy decline of the dawn
        through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine,
    Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower that
        flickers with fear of the flies as they float,

A page and a half of this, frankly very hard to read for more than a few lines at a time.  It constantly seems to approach meaning, but that is hardly the point.  Wonderful stuff, and just a smidge over from the way Swinburne often sounds in his serious – I hate to call them serious – poems.

Little children seem to figure all of this out without any help, the fun of turning everything, including language, upside down.  In a comment to yesterday’s Carroll post, Jenny from Reading the End praised the sheer joyfulness of Carroll’s nonsense.  He shares that sense of play with all of the nonsense and light verse writers, the delight created by the discovery that an unrelated jumble of words, placed together in a particular order, have turned into something marvelous even without meaning a thing, which is itself meaningful.  And thus I have invented aesthetics.  A little late.