Saturday, June 1, 2013

Castles on inaccessible crags - the view from The Country of the Pointed Firs with Buddenbrooks thrown in as a regionalist bonus

I am going to move on to curtains, but for more on pies, please visit Jam & Idleness, where I am interviewed, in a manner of speaking, while revealing as little about myself as possible.  The highlights of the interview are: 1) a legendary Dickens quotation about pie, 2) a fine joke from meine Frau, and 3) a fine joke stolen from John Malkovich’s Proust questionnaire. 

Now, curtains.  We are visiting the home of the herbalist’s mother, “one of the most adorable little old women I’ve ever encountered in any sort of book” as bibliographing wrote.  The antique but spry mother lives alone on an island with her oddball son,  while the daughter has chosen to live in town, on shore (“’I was married in this room,’ said Mrs. Todd unexpectedly”).

The narrator describes the little island house’s décor:

… the little old-fashioned best room, with its few pieces of good furniture and pictures of national interest.  The green paper curtains were stamped with conventional landscapes of a foreign order,--castles on inaccessible crags, and lovely lakes with steep wooded shores; under-foot the treasured carpet was covered thick with home-made rugs.  There were empty glass lamps and crystallized bouquets of grass and some fine shells on the narrow mantelpiece.  (Ch. VIII)

The word “crystallized” is an interesting puzzle, although the way it magically makes grass the bridge between glass and shells is clear.  But it was the curtains that caught my attention.  The narrator often describes the view of the islands, likely one of the reasons she is living in this particular town.  And of course she describes this island as part of her visit.  Later, the characters go herb gathering, which also gives them an excuse to enjoy the view, which is described using some typical indicators of the sublime:

… above the circle of pointed firs we could look down over all the island, and could see the ocean that circled this and a hundred other bits of island ground, the mainland shore and all the far horizons.  It gave a sudden sense of space, for nothing stopped the eye or hedged one in,--that sense of liberty in space and time which great prospects always give.

"There ain't no such view in the world, I expect," said William proudly, and I hastened to speak my heartfelt tribute of praise; it was impossible not to feel as if an untraveled boy had spoken, and yet one loved to have him value his native heath.

The “boy” is actually “elderly” and “gray-headed.”  I return to the other view that he sees every day, on the green curtains, the one taken from some Walter Scott novel.  Conventional taste side by side with the real Maine landscape.

By chance I ran into something similar in a novel contemporary with The Country of the Pointed Firs, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901).  The Buddenbrooks family have, in 1835, just bought and furnished a large home, including this showpiece:

They were sitting in the “landscape room,” on the second floor of the spacious old house on Meng Strasse…  The thick, supple wall coverings, which had been hung so that there was a gap between them and the wall, depicted extensive landscapes in the same pastel colors as the thin carpet on the floor – idyllic scenes in the style of the eighteenth century, with merry vinedressers, diligent farmers, prettily ribboned shepherdesses, who sat beside reflecting pools, holding spotless lambs in their laps or exchanging kisses with tender shepherds.  Most of these scenes were suffused with yellowish sunsets that matched the yellow upholstery of the white enameled furniture and the yellow silk of the curtains at both windows.  (I.1., tr.  John E. Woods)

I love visiting rooms like this in palaces and restored homes in Europe, since they make me happy I do not live in them.  Many of the most important scenes in the novel take place in this room, allowing Mann to insert lines like this, 250 pages later, during the reading of a will:

The painted gods atop their pedestals stood out white and proud against the sky-blue background. (V.1.)

Mannian irony, is what that is.

Both Buddenbrooks and The Country of the Pointed Firs are regionalist novels.  It is a curious pleasure to see them working some of the same ground with some of the same tools, as different as they are.


  1. For several years now, The Country of the Pointed Firs has been on my TBR list, but I've always thought it was a book about WW II. I don't know why I thought that, but I did. I'm much more likely to read it now that I know it's got all the stuff about pies and landscapes. What's the food in Buddenbrooks like?

  2. Regarding crystallized bouquets of grass, apparently that's not just an interesting adjectival choice:

    crystallized bouquets of grass, if the html worked.

  3. Yes, that's it, perfect. Canny, then - the man-made object turned into a decoration, then the natural object transformed into a decoration, then the slug-made decorative object. A symbolic thesis in a sentence.

    The food in Buddenbrooks is delicious but heavy. Someone had been reading Flaubert and Tolstoy.