Friday, August 30, 2013

Speeds the dædal boat as a dream - looking for clues in The Confidence-Man

I suppose this will fall into the category of Subjects for Future Research.  Almost all of this is from the last chapter.  It is especially good.

The confidence man enters a stateroom where he finds an old man reading the boat’s Bible, an early Gideon, “a present from a society.”  The light comes from a single highly symbolic lamp – it may well represent Christianity.  Men are sleeping in berths along the walls, off in the shadows.  The setting is one of the few in the book that takes advantage of the actual geography and practice of a riverboat, and in consequence Melville expands on the usual collocation between two characters, although that is the bulk of the scene.

So this is something new (the confidence man, the cosmopolitan, is punning on the Bible – I will mark the innovation in boldface):

"And so you have  good news there, sir – the very best of good news."

"Too good to be true," here came from one of the curtained berths. "Hark!" said the cosmopolitan. "Some one talks in his sleep."

"Yes," said the old man, "and you – you seem to be talking in a dream. "

Offstage ironic commentary on the conversation.  From whom?  Soon the sleeping man speaks again.  The cosmopolitan is reading the Bible, quoting lines from Ecclesiasticus:

"'If thou be for his profit he will use thee; he will make thee bear, and will not be sorry for it. Observe and take good heed.  When thou hearest these things, awake in thy sleep.'"

"Who's that describing the confidence-man?" here came from the berth again.

"Awake in his sleep, sure enough, ain't he?" said the cosmopolitan, again looking off in surprise. "Same voice as before, ain't it? Strange sort of dreamy man, that. Which is his berth, pray?"

The sleeper appears to be presenting a genuine challenge to the devil at the center of the novel.  He speaks one more time, with another ironic challenge, so three times total, the magic number, before awaking.  I remember the strange line from Chapter 16, “Speeds the dædal boat as a dream,” and chase down related lines (“’Now, dreams are wonderful things, as everybody knows – so wonderful, indeed, that some people stop not short of ascribing them directly to heaven,’” Ch. 40), and begin to wonder who is dreaming and who is dreamed.

Perhaps no one.  Perhaps this is a dead end,  If the novel were written on the principles of Pale Fire, the identity of the man in the berth would be ascertainable through clues from a hundred pages back.  Who am I kidding, the sleeper is Herman Melville, dreaming his own novel, who else could it be?

Strangely (strange for most novels), the awakening of the man in the berth summons a boy demon, flames and all:

All pointed and fluttering, the rags of the little fellow's red-flannel shirt, mixed with those of his yellow coat, flamed about him like the painted flames in the robes of a victim in auto-da-fe. His face, too, wore such a polish of seasoned grime, that his sloe-eyes sparkled from out it like lustrous sparks in fresh coal.

The boy is a peddler of objects related to distrust (locks, money belts).  His constant winking at and asides  to the confidence man are among the best jokes of the book.  Maybe the confidence man is not meant to be the devil throughout the book, but he sure is here.  Or at least the little demon thinks he is.

The book ends with a return to earthier matters, a scatological metaphor that I was surprised to find in an American novel., the novel’s last surprise among many.

Or last until I read it again.

Monday is a holiday, thank goodness. Back Tuesday with something. There is always something.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"What do you talk your hog-latin to me for?" - Melville's characters argue

What I was wondering, when I asked if there is anything in The Confidence-Man except argument, is what to do with all of the argument, all of the disputation and rhetorical slipperiness.  Melville had abandoned the mode that in Moby-Dick was his most original achievement, when he seized on a single object, a single aspect of an object, and riffed on it as long as he could, the trick he learned from reading Sir Thomas Browne.  The meaning of “whiteness,” that sort of thing, the parts a certain kind of reader brags about skipping.

A typical line of The Confidence-Man is not like the descriptions I enjoyed yesterday but more like this:

“To shift the subject, since we cannot agree. Pray, what is your opinion, respected sir, of St. Augustine?”

Then heck if they don't talk about St. Augustine for a while.  Or maybe this is more typical:

“Pun away; but even accepting your analogical pun, what does it amount to?”

Does anyone want to know what the analogical pun is?  It involves caterpillars and butterflies.  I do not see how it is a pun.  Never mind.  Both examples are from Chapter 19, as is the post’s title, the confidence man versus the Missouri bachelor.

The fact is that I do not care much about Herman Melville’s spiritual problems.  I stand off to the side with Nathaniel Hawthorne, as seen in The English Notebooks.  Melville is in England, traveling to Jerusalem (and securing his English copyright to his new novel).  He visits his friend Hawthorne; while walking on the beach they have a long talk:

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief.  It is strange how he persists - and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before - in wandering to-and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting.  He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.

Melville’s distress cannot be attributed to the commercial failure of The Confidence-Man, since it had not yet failed.

I do care a lot about what artistic use Melville makes of his spiritual problems.  The Confidence-Man is such an inside-out book that I find myself reading around the exchanges more than worrying about the specifics of the argument.  Why this subject, why now, why with these characters?

In the 1979 article “Melville’s Quarrel with Fiction,” Nina Baym argues – you can tell what kind of critic she is – the kind I like – that the debates are purposefully obscure and irresolute, since they really serve a larger argument:

Apparently bristling with significance, the work plants clues that lead nowhere.  Ultimately we find that we have no questions answered, that we cannot even say what questions have been put.  As the subtitle states, the work is a masquerade.  In The Confidence Man Melville bitterly expresses the sort of truth that can be asserted in a mendacious medium and illustrates the convulsed ways in which it can be expressed. But the truths he speaks are only about fiction and language.

Tomorrow I will follow a clue or two.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

a certain hardness and bakedness, a style of beauty rather peculiar and cactus-like - Melville's prose

What I was wondering, when I asked if there is anything in The Confidence-Man except argument, is how to treat a novel like this as a work of art.  Maybe I should not.  But now I will just look at some prose.

The sky slides into blue, the bluffs into bloom; the rapid Mississippi expands; runs sparkling and gurgling, all over in eddies; one magnified wake of a seventy-four.  The sun comes out, a golden hussar, from his tent, flashing his helm on the world.  All things, warmed in the landscape, leap.  Speeds the dædal boat as a dream.  (Ch. 16)

Hershel Parker’s footnote to this passage is hilarious:  “Despite the drinking already described, this is still the morning of the first of April.”  Pre-dawn boozing on a river boat is simply realism.

This is one of the few passages that makes a pretence that the novel has a non-abstract setting.  I have climbed one of those bluffs myself.  Even today’s tamed Mississippi expands and gurgles and so on.  But the epic simile applied to the sun moves us into another kind of literature, perhaps by the strange last line, one that could be applied to several Melville fictions.

Let me try another.  This is just a description of a character, an old miser,

whose flesh seemed salted cod-fish, dry as combustibles; head, like one whittled by an idiot out of a knot; flat, bony mouth, nipped between buzzard nose and chin; expression, flitting between hunks and imbecile--now one, now the other--he made no response.  His eyes were closed, his cheek lay upon an old white moleskin coat, rolled under his head like a wizened apple upon a grimy snow-bank.  (Ch. 16)

I always perked up when a new character entered, since something like this would likely follow.  This, to the reader with any patience for it, is good good stuff.  The miser is fish, wood, bird (a bit earlier his hand is described as a “penguin-flipper”), apple.  Not human.

Bibliographing nicole picked put a good one when she wrote about the novel.  This time the art is in the rhetoric, even though it is also part of a description of a barber’s sign.

An inscription which, though in a sense not less intrusive than the contrasted ones of the stranger, did not, as it seemed, provoke any corresponding derision or surprise, much less indignation; and still less, to all appearances, did it gain for the inscriber the repute of being a simpleton. Ch. 1)

Nicole points out how the equivocations in the sentence (“seemed,” “to all appearances”) come close to destroying its sense.  They certainly make it hard to read.

A last one, that Parker singles out in an essay, which combines the vague rhetoric of the last example with the vivid description of the miser:

Goneril was young, in person lithe and straight, too straight, indeed, for a woman, a complexion naturally rosy, and which would have been charmingly so, but for a certain hardness and bakedness, like that of the glazed colors on stone-ware.   (Ch. 12)

Then on like this, with every positive quality undermined, until she is finally summarized as beautiful, “though of a style of beauty rather peculiar and cactus-like,”  also an apt self-description of Melville’s prose.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ah, you are a talking man--what I call a wordy man. You talk, talk. - describing The Confidence-Man

I find it helpful to think about the layers of The Confidence-Man.  Not that the layers are so different than in many other novels.  But: when in doubt, break it into pieces.

The surface, the story.  One day on a riverboat descending the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans.  I do not know how far a riverboat moved in a day.  The boat has made it to Cape Girardeau, Missouri near the middle (Ch. 21).

Passengers board and debark along the way.  “As among Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, or those oriental ones crossing the Red Sea towards Mecca in the festival month, there was no lack of variety” (Ch. 2).  A couple of characters are pulled from the crowd to chat or debate or joke around.  They separate; one vanishes, to be mentioned but never seen again, and is replaced with a new sparring partner.  A dances with B, B with C, C with D, and so on in a round dance, until the middle of the novel when Melville settles on a single person, the Cosmopolitan, who stays on the scene while waltzing with the previously unknown X, Y, and Z until the sun rises on the last page.

The bulk of the book is talk – dialogue, argument, story-telling, palaver.  The proportion of the words enclosed in quotation marks is high.  Many chapters might as well be written as plays, as in some famous chapters of Moby-Dick.  "Ah, you are a talking man--what I call a wordy man.  You talk, talk."  (Ch. 22)  That is the novel’s self-description.

The first great trick of the novel takes place at this level.  It turns out that A, C, E, H, and so on, including the Cosmopolitan, are (probably) the same character, a confidence man who is a master of disguise.  The novel has a puzzle aspect, in that I have to figure out who is an avatar of the confidence man and who is not.  Mostly this is not too hard of a puzzle, although there are a couple of ambiguous cases.

The first and second obstacles are visible at this level: no novelistic characters (meaning, no interiority), and no novelistic plot.

If there is little plot, what is the substitute?  Layer two: satire.  The one day of the novel is April Fool’s Day, and the riverboat is a Ship of Fools, the characters a succession of American and universal types.  Misers, capitalists, snake oil doctors, stock brokers, that sort of thing, along with a few real people – Ralph Waldo Emerson, definitely, as well as a disappointingly bland Henry David Thoreau and a cameo by Edgar Allan Poe.  The satire of characters leads to satire of ideas: transcendentalism, prejudices, Christian hypocrisy.  Men are fools and make for good comedy.

Another obstacle, then: some of this stuff is pretty specific to the period.  Researchers have dug up a lot, bless them.

Layer three is allegorical.  The novel is an expression of Melville’s religious doubts, which are not so much atheism as an anguished protest against God.  The confidence man in all his aspects is the Devil, or perhaps Christ.  The sympathies of the book seem to be, especially by the end, on the Devil’s side, even though he is a fraud.  I remind myself that in Moby-Dick it is mad Ahab who is the agent of Yahweh, while the whale and likely Ishmael are in the service of God’s watery enemy, and who sympathizes with Ahab?  Some of the allegorizing is murky.  Scholars argue about exactly how much of its complexity was meant to be visible to a reader other than, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The fourth layer is artistic.  What is there to the novel besides argument?  This is the hardest one of all.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A first post on Melville's Confidence-Man Which Will Be Sure of Receiving More or Less Attention from Those Readers Who Do Not Skip It

Kim was original, and full of ideas and words I did not instantly understand, and significant parts of the book slipped from my grasp to the extent that I questioned the wisdom of writing about it after a single pass.  Now I will compound my doubts, and sins, by seeing what I can do with Herman Melville’s Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857), Melville’s final novel.

It is such a strange and difficult book, an easy candidate for my old category of Books Few People Should Read.  How Melville thought anyone but a handful of friends would understand it, or pay money for it, is beyond me.  Writing the book seemed to break his spirits, leading his family to wonder if he was going mad.  When it was finished, he took a long vacation to the Holy Land and then switched to poetry, permanently, or almost permanently, until his death thirty-four years later.

Fortunately, I have the 1971 Norton Critical Edition of the novel, ed. Hershel Parker, at hand to assist me:

… the scrupulous reader of The Confidence-Man is rewarded by an intensity of intellectual and aesthetic exhilaration comparable to almost nothing else in our literature except some early Swift (such as A Tale of a Tub) and some late Nabokov (such as Pale Fire).  To share that exhilaration is the purpose of Wuthering Expectations this Norton Critical Edition.  (xi)

Pale Fire has long been a touchstone book for me, and as for the Swift, I refer the interested reader to Sect. VII of A Tale of a Tub, “A Digression in Praise of Digressions,” which will illuminate one of Melville’s methods.  Or perhaps Sect. IX, “A Digression Concerning Madness,” is more directly relevant.

What I am saying is this is high praise from Parker.  And I think am going to try to make something out of a book like this, like those, after reading it once!  Nonsense.  Worse, after this I have convinced myself that it would be a good idea to write about a George Meredith novel (repeated throughout the Penguin Classics endnotes: “one of Meredith’s more baffling sentences,” “a baffling phrase,” and so on).  Perhaps I should stick with books for children, like another one I just finished, Tove Jansson’s Comet in Moominland (1946), written for, I don’t know, six year-olds, which should be simple enough.  It turns out to be an allegorical novel.  Has anyone read it?  Can you guess the allegorical subject?  The date is a clue.

That was “A Digression Concerning My Recent Reading.”  “As the last chapter was begun with a reminder looking forwards, so the present must consist of one glancing backwards,” as the narrator of The Confidence-Man says in one of the two – I think only two – purely digressive chapters in the novel (Chapter 14 in this case), when the narrator interrupts the characters for some metafictional chatter.  This time he is worried his reader will find his characters inconsistent, so he pauses for a defense.  The other digressive chapter is entitled “In Which the Last Three Words of the Last Chapter Are Made the Text of Discourse, Which Will Be Sure of Receiving More or Less Attention from Those Readers Who Do Not Skip It” (Ch. 44).  That last part could almost be the motto of the week; the motto of Wuthering Expectations.  The motto of all literature.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Mutton stewed with butter and cabbages - notes on Kim, for next time

I cannot escape the feeling that writing too much about Kim after reading it once, or making too strong of a claim about it, is a mistake.  The novel has escaped in me in some interesting ways.  This is not a complaint.  So some notes.

1.  How much difference does it makes that Kim is a boy’s book?  Or how much of a boy’s book is it?  I don’t know.  It was curious to see, in what essentially a Victorian novel – I guess it is Edwardian by a few months – Kim’s mentors openly worry about the boy’s adolescent sexual adventures.  Maybe there aren’t any.  Kipling is suggestive but ambiguous on this point.  The mentors only care not out of any feeling for Victorian morality but because they are afraid that too much entanglement with women will ruin Kim’s effectiveness as a secret agent.

2.  I am amazed that this book has become part of an indictment of Kipling’s imperialism.  The book ends with a debate over the sleeping Kim between another spy (although Muslim, not English) arguing for the things of the world and the Buddhist lama arguing for the spirit.  Which does Kim choose, or does he find a balance?  “’Who is Kim – Kim – Kim?’” (Ch. 11) asks the hero, in one way or another, several times.  No answer.  Another of the novel’s deep ambivalences.  Kipling ends the novel before answering the question.

The issue is unfortunately close to impossible for an amateur reader to pursue.  The post-colonial literary theorists who have accused Kim and Kipling of various sins generally write in a jargon that requires not just effort but training to penetrate.  Ever try anything by Homi Bhabba?  I am too ignorant to call it gibberish.  It is a specialized form of discourse from which conclusions emerge based on arguments that I have no way to evaluate.

3.  At one point, long ago, Kipling was likely the most popular English-language writer on earth, and Kim one of the most popular novels.  For how many readers did it become the novel about India, and Kipling the Indian writer?  I can see how this would drive Indian writers and other people with real knowledge of India crazy.  Some push-back was probably necessary.

One example, one that I have finally figured out, is that Kipling’s India is really northwest India: the Punjab, Delhi, and some nearby areas.  Large parts of Kipling’s India are now in Pakistan.  Saying Kipling writes about “India” is just a bad shorthand.

4.  The world is good, so Kim is in a minor way a food novel:

Kim yearned for the caress of soft mud squishing up between the toes, as his mouth watered for mutton stewed with butter and cabbages, for rice speckled with strong scented cardamoms, for the saffron-tinted rice, garlic and onions, and the forbidden greasy sweetmeats of the bazars.  They would feed him raw beef on a platter at the barrack-school, and he must smoke by stealth.  (Ch. 7)

I can hardly believe I did not spend a day on the food.  Next time.

Friday, August 23, 2013

I think it good - the variety of Kim

Kipling packs in the characters, the rush of life, all kinds of sensory detail, place names.  And languages, too.  He enjoys scenes where characters are speaking different languages, or flipping among languages.  Kipling is happy to specify who is speaking what, although he sometimes leaves it to me to figure out why, why that language in this situation.

He blundered out almost into the Englishman's arms, and was bad-worded in clumsy Urdu.

Tum mut?  You drunk?  You mustn't bang about as though Delhi station belonged to you, my friend.”

E.23, not moving a muscle of his countenance, answered with a stream of the filthiest abuse, at which Kim naturally rejoiced.  (Ch. 12)

If nothing else, Kim is plausibly a boy.  In this scene, the use of Urdu and even the cursing are actually meaningful to the plot, since they are a means to communicate secret information in a public place.  E.23 is so named, or code-named, because he is a spy.  He uses his Urdu curses to convey secret information to another spy.  Every character in the excerpt is a spy, Kim, E.23, the English policeman.

While I’m on here – “bad-worded.”  A writer can easily overdo this kind of thing, but in this case the neologism complements the meaning of the scene.

Kipling has one more linguistic way to rapidly expand his fictional world, by keeping as many non-English words as he thinks I can manage, whether he translates them immediately as above or lets me figure them out by use.

Note that if the dialogue is spoken in Urdu or Punjabi or what have you, then the narrator is presenting it in translation.  In a sense, most of Kim is a work of translation, even if the original existed only in Kipling’s imagination.  Or perhaps it is better to call it a simulation of translation.  The dialogue that is not in English is not meant to sound like British English.

There is religion, too.  Hindu, Islam, Buddhism, Queen Victorianism, all treated with respect, all taken as legitimate.  Kim and his accompanying narrator are not dogmatists.  Quite the opposite.

I have been describing Kim as a holy man’s assistant or beggar.  The word Kipling and the characters use is chela, disciple.  The Buddhist lama speaks first here, in what is close to a summary of the ethical stance of the novel:

Chela, this is a great and a terrible world.”

“I think it good,” Kim yawned.  “What is there to eat?  I have not eaten since yesterday even.”  (Ch. 11)

Kim and Kipling love their part of India, its food, landscapes, languages, and people.  It is easy to imagine an alternative critical history in which Kim is not held in suspicion but is openly celebrated as the great Victorian novel of what we now call multiculturalism.  The world is good.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

'What is your caste? Where is your house? Have you come far?' - sprawling Kim

The Grand Trunk Road scenes in Kim are spectacular.  They are so full of variety, of life, that they seem to sprawl outside the bounds of the page.  In my imagination, I mean, since the words do not go anywhere.  Kipling seems like a spendthrift with his words, but is in fact usually parsimonious.  A few words, as in the passage from Chapter IV I quoted yesterday, creates birds and policemen and oxen out of nothing, and then they wander around while the next paragraph generates more men, beasts, noises, and smells.

It is the list technique at a  high level of craft, but fundamentally still a list.  I have gone to look for details that I remembered as effusively described only to find policemen made of nothing but “important coughings and reiterated orders.”

Then there are the proper names.

'What is your caste?  Where is your house?  Have you come far?'  Kim asked.

'I came by Kulu – from beyond the Kailas – but what know you?  From the Hills where' – he sighed – 'the air and water are fresh and cool.'

'Aha!  Khitai (a Chinaman),' said Abdullah proudly.  Fook Shing had once chased him out of his shop for spitting at the joss above the boots.

'Pahari (a hillman),' said little Chota Lal.  (Ch. I)

This is early, page five or so, the important scene in which Kim meets the holy man who he will guide (and who will guide him) through the rest of the novel.  Kim is immersive.  Three places, one at least in English; two ethnicities (annotated); three people.  None of these names, not one, need to be remembered.  Fook Shing “the Chinese bootmaker” was introduced a page earlier, as part of a description of the lama.  They have similarly “yellow and wrinkled faces,” our first hint of the lama’s non-Indian origin.  So Fook Shing never appears in a scene yet is mentioned twice (and never again) as if he is commonly known to exist.  Kim’s world is full.

The edition I used has footnotes for much of this stuff.  I imagine the original readers, just tossed onto the streets of Lahore.  I remember that Kim is commonly considered a boy’s book (and rightly so in some ways, but who are these boys)?  War and Peace has a similarly thick world, as do novels set in Balzac’s Paris, or the London of Bleak House.  But I do not know a predecessor that puffs out such a big world in so few pages, and this in a novel with just a handful of major characters.  I can see why previous readers found the book so thrilling, even before discovering that it is also a spy novel.

Strangely, or cleverly, the two parts of that passage that should be not remembered but seized upon when re-reading are transparent.  The last major episode of the novel is a return to those fresh, cool hills.  And then there are those questions that Kim asks.  He is just a boy here.  They are the questions he asks himself several times in the novel, although he simplifies them to three words: “Who is Kim?” 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Important coughings - I chop up a paragraph of Kipling's Kim

Having nothing to say about a book makes the writing kind of hard.  I will pick a passage and see what happens.  The book at hand in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901).

The setting is the Grand Trunk Road that runs across Northern India.  I will rudely interrupt Kipling’s paragraph.

By this time the sun was driving broad golden spokes through the lower branches of the mango-trees; the parakeets and doves were coming home in their hundreds; the chattering, grey-backed Seven Sisters, talking over the day's adventures, walked back and forth in twos and threes almost under the feet of the travellers; and shufflings and scufflings in the branches showed that the bats were ready to go out on the night-picket.   

My Oxford paperback has a footnote on Seven Sisters, but I do not need it – chattering, “almost under the feet.”  They are some kind of bird.  The anthropomorphization is excellent.  Kim in a streetsmart orphan who has left the big city for the first time, traveling as the assistant and beggar-boy for a Tibetan lama.  If he were Mowgli and this were The Jungle Book he, too, would be talking over the day’s adventures with the birds, but this is a different Kipling novel starring a multilingual boy superhero.*  It is all adventure on the Grand Trunk Road.

Swiftly the light gathered itself together, painted for an instant the faces and the cartwheels and the bullocks' horns as red as blood. 

Kim likes sunsets.  His affinity runs through the book.  A lot of action during times of slanting light, as if Kipling is thinking about the cinematography.

Then the night fell, changing the touch of the air, drawing a low, even haze, like a gossamer veil of blue, across the face of the country, and bringing out, keen and distinct, the smell of wood-smoke and cattle and the good scent of wheaten cakes cooked on ashes.   

The veil is a cliché, but the light effect is plausible.  I can more or less see it, and I can imagine two of the three pungent scents.  Those cakes, who knows how they really smelled.  I have to imagine that I can imagine that I can smell them.  Close enough.

The evening patrol hurried out of the police-station with important coughings and reiterated orders; and a live charcoal ball in the cup of a wayside carter's hookah glowed red while Kim's eye mechanically watched the last flicker of the sun on the brass tweezers.

That’s good, funny, “important coughings.”  I have shattered the effect with my babble, but looking back I can see the progression of the paragraph.  The bats go out on patrol as do the police, and their “coughings,” an odd word, and perhaps even the “orders,” echo the bats’ “shufflings and scufflings.”  The sun’s  “spokes” suggest the cartwheels.  The oxen pulling the carts are mentioned twice, but with different words, a simple variation.  The sun comes in at the beginning and the end, where we also find a new sun.

If only all of Kim were written like this.  I would have no end of fun with it.

*  Hindi, Urdu, English – I wonder if I missed a couple of Kim’s languages (Edit: Punjabi).  Others appear – Persian, Tibetan, Russian, French.  It is a cacophonic novel.  An original English novel written in translation.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Walking one's gaze through the shades of averted signification - enjoying John Hollander

American poet John Hollander just passed away.   I was tempted to say “Yale poet” John Hollander.  He was an institution of American poetry.  Please see the ingenious Rhyme’s Reason (1981) for evidence of that, his book about poetic forms written in the forms he is describing.  E.g.,

The ballad stanza’s four short lines
    Are very often heard;
The second and the fourth lines rhyme
    But not the first and third.

A sestina about sestinas, a pantoum about pantoums.  Brilliant, educational, nuts.

For some reason his single poem that has stuck with me is “Effet de Neige” from Harp Lake (1988), which is about the meaning of a single fleck of white paint at the vanishing point of a Monet painting, “ the still dab of white that oscillates \ From point to point of meaning – open? closed?”

Of course my favorite Hollander book – anyone who know his books and reads Wuthering Expectations knew this was coming – is the 1974 Reflections on Espionage: The Question of Cupcake, a puzzle poem of the highest merit.


Cupcake here.  Hardly anything to report
Today: the weather will be suitable
Only for what can be done in the morning
And on the outlying islands.  I have paid
Thumbtack and Maisie and The Foot.

What nonsense, but no, this is a poem about spies written by a spy, each poem a message radioed to his handler Lyrebird, or occasionally to someone else.  Nothing happens, or occasionally something happens.  Cupcake muses about codes and encryptions, which I suspect are standing in for something else:


And after, say, six working nights of
Fashioning cryptograms one would want to be
Able to look upon his literal world
Half-forgetting what it enciphered; one would
Want to walk one’s gaze among the cool columns
Of letter groups, through the shades of averted

A literal puzzle, of the jigsaw type, appears near the end (“The puzzle is not worth completing, and lies \ In pieces, mostly”).  Cupcake’s mental health seems to deteriorate.  Perhaps the operation is collapsing (“Image, your reply to my last transmission \ Sounded unlike you”).  The poem ends with a encrypted message that can be deciphered by means of clues within the poems.  This is the last line: “XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.”  Did I get all sixteen Xs?  It is crucial that there are sixteen.

What nonsense, the sober reader of poetry declares.  It is even worse, actually – be sure to read the 1999 edition, in which Hollander describes the process of composition, annotates the most obscure bits, and reveals which famous American poet belongs to each code name.  The whole thing is autobiographical.  A lot of it is probably about grading student papers.

I heard about Hollander’s death at John Crowley’s blog.  “He was the most learned man -- and the most filled with recondite knowledge of every kind in every realm -- I've ever known.”

Sunday, August 18, 2013

So utterly absurd as to be frightening - Gregor von Rezzori's childhood memoir

I thought I was going to write a bit about Gregor von Rezzori’s The Snows of Yesteryear (1989) a couple of days ago.  Luckily for me, time is an illusion.  Just is the Wheel of Life, as the holy man keeps saying in Kipling’s Kim.   Rezzori’s memoir has some curious and coincidental similarities with Kipling’s novel.

Rezzori was a child of empire.  Home was Czernowitz in Bukovina, successively Austro-Hungarian, Romanian, Soviet, and now Ukrainian.  But Rezzori’s family was Austrian, his father a colonial administrator with an aesthetic job (cataloguing and maintaining artistic and architectural treasures in remote Orthodox monasteries – how Austrian), his mother a high-strung neurotic (also very Austrian).  The parents are a terrible mismatch, the family a disaster, but it is the only one Rezzori had.

Rezzori’s memoir superficially resemble Elias Canetti’s childhood memoir, The Tongue Set Free (1977), another story of a boy from the Austrian imperial provinces, with two crucial differences.  First, young Rezzori had no intellectual aptitude at all, unlike the reading-obsessed future Nobel Prize-winner.  The next to last chapter in the memoir is about the governess (“Bunchy”) who finally succeeded in cramming some Austrian Bildung an Kultur into the young nitwit, but for most of the book it is a mystery how he turns into the man writing the sentences on the page.

Second, Rezzori was born in 1914, nine years after Canetti, so the only Austria he ever knew was the one that was in crisis, or shattered, part of his family’s history but not his own.  “We did not live our own lives,” Rezzori writes about his teenage years.  “Our lives were being lived by our period” (222).

None of this is a reason to read Rezzori’s book.  I am just – still – sorting through my little heap of Austrian discoveries.

No, the reason is to meet Rezzori’s family.  Each chapter is devoted to a family member, ending with that governess and beginning with his beloved nurse Cassandra, a native of Bukovina:

When she joined the household, it was said, she was hardly more than a beast.  They had peeled her out of her peasant garb and had instantly consigned the shirt, the wrap skirt, , the sleeveless sheepskin jacket and the leather buskins to the flames.  But clad in city clothes, she looked so utterly absurd as to be frightening. (5)

She spoke no German but rather “expressed herself in snatches of Romanian, Ruthenian, Polish, and Hungarian, as well as Turkish and Yiddish, assisted by a grotesque, grimacing mimicry and a primitive, graphic body language that made everyone laugh and that everyone understood (8).”  Rezzori wrote in German, but his nurse’s strange Creole was his first language.  How unlikely it all is.

The book was translated by H. F. Broch de Rotherman.  The original title is Blumen im Schee, “Flowers in the Snow,” a reference to the most poignant scene and image in the book (it is at the end of the “Cassandra” chapter), much better than the Villon cliché.  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Joseph Roth's Job - the most perfect representation of the night’s happiness and of golden health

Six to eight months, that is how long it takes for a reading project to wear me down.  I do not know why my course of Austrian reading has taken me to the periphery of the empire.  A signal that I am winding it up, I guess.

So two books from semi-Austrians.  Colonial writers, like Rudyard Kipling.  Gregor von Rezzori tomorrow; Joseph Roth today, with Job (1930).

Job is about a teacher and his family, Galician Jews.  The novel begins circa 1905, and as readers of S. Ansky’s 1925 The Destruction of Galicia, or perhaps some other book, know, the region will become the front line between Austria and Russia during World War I, leading to horror and atrocity.  The title tells us what else the book is about.  The teacher, Mendel Singer, will have his faith tested when he loses everything he values, perhaps because of the war, although something will be restored in the end.  At some point after the loss friends will stop by to offer cold, fallacious comfort.

Roth surprised me by using the first half of the short novel to move the family through ordinary Jewish life.  A few Modernist touches aside (like a sudden shift in perspective), I could have believed that the novel had been written in Yiddish by a disciple of Sholem Aleichem.  An even greater surprise: halfway through, most of the family emigrate to New York City.  Roth’s New York is more abstract than his Galician village, more the product of books or film; nevertheless it can look like this:

Then he saw for the first time the American night from up close, the reddened sky, the flaming, sparkling, dripping, glowing, red, blue, green, silver, golden letters, pictures and signs.  He heard the noisy song of America, the honking, the tooting, the roaring, the ringing, the screeching, the creaking, the whistling and the howling.  Opposite the window on which Mendel was leaning appeared every five seconds the broad laughing face of a girl, composed entirely of sprayed sparks and points…  It was an advertisement for a new soda.  Mendel admired it as the most perfect representation of the night’s happiness and of golden health.  (198-9)

Given that the book is only 204 pages  long, this Whitmanian celebration of a neon billboard must come after the miracle.

One more sample, in the category of good metaphorical writing:

Soon a window was opened here and there, the busts of the neighbor women became visible, they hung red and white bedding and naked, yellowish, skinned pillows from the windows.  (141)

I do not want to say anything about the story except that it is so sad, the saddest book I have read in a long time, even with the return of God’s favor at the end.  The profound subtheme that runs through Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman stories is Tevye’s lifelong argument with his God.  In Job, Roth continues and updates the argument.

Ross Benjamin translated the book.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Nobody has muddy boots in The Scarlet Letter - Lawrence's Hawthorne - My father hated books

How about one more rummage through D. H. Lawrence’s little book.

A couple of years ago I puzzled over a strange book by William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (1925), an obscurely written historical counterpart to D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (1923).  Although Williams and Lawrence only directly overlap with chapters on Franklin and Poe, and despite Horace Gregory insisting that Williams’ book does not resemble Lawrence’s (p. xiv), I now see that the Williams book is highly derivative of Lawrence.

WCW briefly turns to Hawthorne, to attack him,  in his Poe chapter, for his realism (“his willing closeness to the life of his locality in its vague humors; his lifelike copying of the New England melancholy,” 228) and his traditionalism (“by doing what everyone else in France, England, Germany was doing for his own milieu, is no more than copying their method with another setting,” 229), meaning that Williams chooses to badly misread Hawthorne (and to give the highly original Poe too much credit for originality).  His misreading was, and perhaps still is, a common one, taking The Scarlet Letter as a treatise on Puritan thought and The Blithedale Romance as an investigation of the Brook Farm utopia and so on – heaven knows what the realist crowd thinks is going on in The Marble Faun – when he is really – I will turn to Lawrence:

Nathaniel Hawthorne writes romance.

And what’s romance?  Usually, a nice little tale where you have everything As You Like It, where rain never wets your jacket and gnats never bite your nose, and it’s always daisy-time.  As You Like It and Forest Lovers, etc.  Morte D’Arthur.
Hawthorne obviously isn’t that kind of romanticist: though nobody has muddy boots in The Scarlet Letter, either.  (Ch. 7, 88)

What on earth is Forest Lovers?  A bestselling 1898 historical novel by Maurice Hewlett, a writer with a style distinctive enough to earn him a parody in Max Beerbohm’s Christmas Garland, a great honor.

Romance, Hawthorne, Morte D’Arthur – this sounds familiar for some reason.  Perhaps because Lawrence stole it from a post I wrote three years ago!  Reading Studies in American Literature has been a disheartening experience.

Lawrence takes The Scarlet Letter as a parable of sin, primal Adam and Eve stuff.  “Hester Prynne was a devil” (100), but the men are worse, and the elf child Pearl will likely be worse than the men.

And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe.

And then from hour to hour we rot and rot.  (103)

“[O]ne of the greatest allegories in all of literature” (106), Lawrence judges.  That sounds about right.

Listen to this bit.  It is in the Scarlet Letter chapter.  It is a surprising digression. What is it doing here?:

My father hated books, hated the sight of anyone reading or writing.

My mother hated the thought that any of her sons should be condemned to manual labour.  Her sons must have something higher than that.

She won.  But she died first.  (92)

I almost forgot to mention that Jessica at so very very recently read a later (earlier?) version of Lawrence’s book, which inspired me to read it for myself.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses" by D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence pulls out the strangeness in the writers he covers in Studies in Classic American Literature, even in writers not commonly considered to be strange, like James Fenimore Cooper.

Five years – can that be right? – five years ago I spent a week writing* about The Deerslayer, launching off of Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” into a treatment of Deerslayer as a heroic fantasy novel, albeit one which ends in genocide.  At one point, just as an example, a lady in the lake gives the hero a magic rifle.  The novel is fascinating, although Cooper’s actual literary flaws, not the amusing ones invented by Twain, are real enough that I have not quite been inspired to try another Cooper novel.

Lawrence does what I did, but at greater length and depth.  He read all of Cooper as a child, so he goes as far as devoting a tangled chapter to “Fenimore Cooper’s White Novels” (The Spy and Eve Effingham and so on), before turning to the Leatherstocking novels, Cooper's attempt to use the new-fangled novel to create myth, a big new American myth.

How often in his own novels is Lawrence working on a similar problem?  He was doing it in The Rainbow (1915), with his earth mothers and archetypes and so on, I can see that now even at the distance of 25 years.  I sure did not see it then.

Lawrence sees Cooper groping towards this idea, with the five novels moving in “a decrescendo of reality, and a crescendo of beauty” (55), although he still calls the first one, The Pioneers, “[a] very lovely book.”  “The most fascinating Leatherstocking book is the last, Deerslayer” (65).  I just wrote that up above.  Lawrence is always ahead of me.

It is a gem of a book.  Or a bit of perfect paste.  And myself, I like a bit of perfect paste in a perfect setting, so long as I am not fooled by pretence of reality.  And the setting of Deerslayer could not be more exquisite.  Lake Champlain again.  (66)

Lawrence is way off there.  Lake Otsego.

Of course it never rains: it is never cold and muddy and dreary: no one has wet feet or toothache: no one feels filthy, when they can’t wash for a week.  God knows what the women would have really looked like, for they fled through the wilds without soap, comb, or towel  They breakfasted off a chunk of meat, or nothing, lunched the same and supped the same.

Yet at every moment they are elegant, perfect ladies, in correct toilet.

Which isn’t quite fair.  You need only go camping for a week, and you’ll see.

But it is a myth, not a realistic tale.  Read it as a lovely myth.  Lake Glimmerglass.  (66)

*  The link is included as a reference, and is not really meant to be followed.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Lawrence searches for the strange - The great Americans I mention just were it.

Why do I read?  To remind myself that any good idea I might have is not original to me, as when D. H. Lawrence begins Studies in Classic American Literature:

We like to think of the old-fashioned American classics as children’s books.  Just childishness, on our part.  The old American art-speech contains an alien quality, which belongs to the American continent and nowhere else.  But, of course. so long as we insist on reading the books as children’s tales, we miss all that.  (Ch. 1, 7)

Well, he actually begins with a kind of rhapsody on America, in which Americans reject their own literature as unreal, by which they mean “tinned meat, Charlie Chaplin, water-taps, and World-Salvation, presumably” (3), even though the best American writers “seem to me to have reached a verge, as the more voluminous Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Artzibashev reached a limit on the other side” (4).  I love lists like that.  Nobody reads Nabokov or Fulmerford anymore.  Where was I?

The European moderns are all trying to be extreme.  The great Americans I mention just were it.  Which is why the world has funked them, and funks them to-day.  (4)

Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman.  The fact is, and I knew this from the act of reading them, not reading about them, that the first great generation or two of American writers form as odd a crew as can be found anywhere in world literature, even in France.  I am also including Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, perhaps Emerson at his most peculiar, and the truly insane Jones Very, a weird bunch of weirdos if I ever saw one.  Lawrence never mentions Thoreau, which is strange, and perhaps telling, or Dickinson, probably less strange.  The post-Civil War generation – James, Twain, Alcott, Howells, Jewett, and Chopin – seem to be, whatever else, they might be, sane.  That earlier crowd can make you wonder.

Hawthorne – I am digressing – is the odd man out.  In life, he was thoroughly normal and sane, but what a strange imagination he possessed.  So he goes in with the oddballs.

What Lawrence is doing is discovering the strangeness of these writers.  He is doing what Modernist writers and critics were doing all over the world with all sorts of older literature.  Thus, for example, the Melville Revival, the return of the strangest of the strange.  Lawrence anticipates Viktor Shlovksy and his dictum to “make it strange” – that was in 1925, I think.  Lawrence is looking for strangeness.  Everyone is looking for strangeness.

I hardly know Lawrence’s work.  At the time of the publication of Studies, he had written nine novels, if I am counting correctly, along with many other books – short stories, poetry, travel, essays, translations.  I feel like I am misreading his bibliography.  How on earth did Lawrence write so much?  My actual point is that Lawrence likely is making an argument about his own work’s strangeness, too, but  someone else will have to fill me in.

Lawrence spends a couple of early chapters on Benjamin Franklin and Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, eighteenth century writers.  He does not find them to be strange.  How Lawrence hates them (“And now I, at least, know why I can’t stand Benjamin,” 24).  He loathes the Enlightenment.  That sounds like the Lawrence I know, even if I admit I do not know him well. 

He wanted his ideal state.  At the same time he wanted to know the other state, the dark, savage mind.  He wanted both.

Can’t be done, Hector.  The one is the death of the other.  (36)

There he is, there’s Lawrence.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

He isn't quite a land animal - D. H. Lawrence's Melville

Guess who this is?  D. H. Lawrence launching into Herman Melville in Chapter 10 of his 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature:

Melville has the strange, uncanny magic of sea-creatures, and some of their repulsiveness.  He isn’t quite a land animal.  There is something slithery about him.  Something always half-seas-over.  In his life they said he was mad – or crazy.  He was neither mad nor crazy.  But he was over the border.  He was half a water-animal, like those terrible yellow-bearded Vikings who broke out of the waves in beaked ships.  (139, 1977 Penguin edition)

So this is one highly distinctive writer on another, one eccentric stylist enjoying another.  The book is uncompromisingly Lawrentian, I will say that.  Did Lawrence have any insights into Herman Melville, or any other American writers, or were they just subjects for his riffs?  Yes, lots of insights, some of which are now so commonplace as to be almost invisible.  But, yes.

This is the end of the same chapter.  You can see why I raised some doubts:

Melville was, at the core, a mystic and an idealist.

Perhaps, so am I.

And he stuck to his ideal guns.

I abandon mine.

He was a mystic who raved because the old ideal guns shot havoc.  The guns of the ‘noble spirit’. Of ‘ideal love’.

I say, let the old guns rot.

Get new ones, and shoot straight.  (152)

Literary criticism by means of metaphor, with Lawrence himself right up front.

Lawrence gives Melville two of his twelve little chapters, a favor he also grants to Cooper and Hawthorne (so, yes, Cooper, Hawthorne and Melville are, by weight, half of the American literature that interests Lawrence).  The first chapter covers Typee and Omoo, Melville’s first two books, fictionalized accounts of his adventures in the South Seas, and he really did have one crazy adventure.  The second chapter in on Moby-Dick.  No “Bartleby,” no poetry, no Billy Budd, which would not be published for another year.  Melville’s name had survived, to the extent that it had, as a kind of travel writer, so those first two titles were the ones that were still read.  Only a few connoisseurs knew about Moby-Dick.  Lawrence was one of them.

His chapter on Moby-Dick is largely an extended, oddly inflected plot summary, with long quotations from the novel.  Lawrence cannot assume that any of his readers have read the novel or have any real idea of what is in it.  So that fills his space.  Lawrence was writing at the very beginning of the Melville Revival, so  Studies in Classic American Literature is part of the revival, part of the reason Moby-Dick is now a famous book.  Thus, the obviousness of many of the insights – yes, everyone knows that now.

The strangest thing is that Lawrence had not read the entire novel.  The English edition was originally published without the last page, which is also the short last chapter.  That last bit does explain a thing or two.  Lawrence seems to have known only this mangled version.  The ship sinks, dragging an eagle-angel down into the sea with it, and:

So ends one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world, closing up its mystery and its tortured symbolism.  It is an epic of the sea such as no man has equalled; and it is a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of considerable tiresomeness.

But it is a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written.  It moves awe in the soul.  (168)

I hope that, after Classic Studies was published, one of Lawrence’s American friends was able to supply him with that last page.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Melville's ghost tortoises

Tortoises, I was going to write something about the tortoises in “The Encantadas.”  I suppose television has made Galápagos tortoises less exotic and bizarre than they would have been in 1854 when Herman Melville published this little whatever it is.

Melville makes the tortoises strange.  He is doing what he always does, mixing a naturalist’s accuracy with a metaphorical fantasia.  The tortoises are like the whales in Moby-Dick.  They are meant to mean everything, or as much as Melville is able to pack into them.  He is riffing on the Galápagos tortoise.

So the tortoise is food for the hungry sailor: “a merry repast from tortoise steaks, and tortoise stews”.  The tortoise is erotic: “remember the sudden glimpses of dusky shells, and long languid necks protruded from the leafless thickets”.  It is a text, a record of history:

lantern in hand, I scraped among the moss and beheld the ancient scars of bruises received in many a sullen fall among the marly mountains of the isle – scars strangely widened, swollen, half obliterate, and yet distorted like those sometimes found in the bark of very hoary trees, I seemed an antiquary of a geologist, studying the bird-tracks and ciphers upon the exhumed slates trod by incredible creatures whose very ghosts are now defunct.

They are the turtles that carry the earth on their backs.  They are the ruins of the Roman Coliseum.  They are

the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps a downright diabolical enchanter, seems in nothing more likely than in that strange infatuation of hopeless toil which so often possesses them.  I have known them in their journeyings ram themselves heroically against rocks, and long abide there, nudging, wriggling, wedging, in order to displace them, and so hold on their inflexible path.  Their crowning curse is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world.

Not all of the metaphors are easily extendable to humans, but I suspect that this one is a self-portrait, Melville as tortoise, ramming each new book against the indifferent rocks.  The writer has been cursed.

In the strangest turn, the writer suspects he has been cursed by the Galápagos, the enchanted nightmare islands.  Even today, he is haunted by ghost tortoises. 

For, often in scenes of social merriment, and especially at revels held by candle-light in old-fashioned mansions, so that shadows are thrown into the further recesses of an angular and spacious room, making them put on a look of haunted undergrowth of lonely woods, I have drawn the attention of my comrades by my fixed gaze and sudden change of air, as I have seemed to see, slowly emerging from those imagined solitudes, and heavily crawling along the floor, the ghost of a gigantic tortoise, with "Memento * * * * *" burning in live letters upon his back.

I never get invited to revels  held by candle-light in old-fashioned mansions.  Maybe they are out of fashion.  Regardless, those asterisks are a wonderful mystery.  “Memento mori”?  A strange message from the long-lived tortoise (“What other bodily being possesses such a citadel wherein to resist the assaults of Time?”), and anyway there are too many asterisks.

No wonder everyone thought Melville was crazy.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Salamanders, unknown; Devils, ditto - Melville's Enchanted Islands

“The Encantadas” (1954) is a strange hybrid of fiction and travel writing, or strange for writers besides Herman Melville, who had been writing fictionalized memoiristic allegories for almost ten years at this point.

The Encantadas are better known as  the Galápagos Islands.  The symbolic attraction of the Spanish name is obvious.  Melville reinforces the enchantment by giving each chapter an epigram from The Fairie Queene, such as:

Most ugly shapes and horrible aspects,
Such as Dame Nature selfe mote feare to see,

and so on before “Sketch Second,” which is all about giant tortoises.

“The Encantadas” has chapters, ten of them in fifty pages, telling multiple stories.  It really feels more like a tiny little book.  I don’t know what it is.

Melville’s fairy-land sounds suspiciously like hell (“A group of rather extinct volcanoes rather than of isles; looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration,” or “Like split Syrian gourds left withering in the sun, they are cracked by an everlasting drought beneath a torrid sky”), or an abandoned cemetery, or a city in ruins,  or the Dead Sea.

Now that is curious.  Everything has been from “Sketch First,” by the way.  Melville’s massive 1876 poem Clarel is about a trip to the Holy Land, include a long visionary descent to the Dead Sea that is perhaps the highlight of the book.  Yet, here several years before Melville’s trip, we have:

Nothing can better suggest the aspect of once living things malignly crumbled from ruddiness into ashes.  Apples of Sodom, after touching, seem these isles.

So much of Melville’s writing comes from his own experience that it can be surprising how much comes from his reading, with his imagination stirring it all together.  Thus he describes a strange place he has actually visited with a strange place he has only read about, but will, in fact, someday visit.  I suppose this is no more strange than the way he constantly compares the Holy Land to the sea.

As “The Encantadas” progresses, Melville adds inhabitants, first tortoises, then birds, then, surprisingly, given his insistence on uninhabitability, people.  This point is borrowed from bibliographing nicole.   Also strange given this census, from “Sketch Fourth”:

Men,                         none
Ant-eaters,            unknown
Man-haters,          unknown
Lizards,                   500,000
Snakes,                    500,000
Spiders,                   10,000,000
Salamanders,        unknown
Devils,                      do.

Making a clean total of 11,000,000,

exclusive of an incomputable host of fiends, ant-eaters, man-haters, and salamanders.

But this is just one island.  The men live elsewhere.  I have no idea what the joke about the ant-eaters is supposed to be.  I assume it is a joke.

The strangest thing of all is that “The Encantadas” is Melville’s second text that explores an archipelago.  The first was his massive, mad 1849 novel Mardi, Melville’s first attempt at an omnibook, where a group of travelers debate the meaning of everything while exploring an island chain representing the world and including everything – countries, religions, book collectors.  “The Encantadas” is the tame version of Mardi, with a “real” setting, “real” reptiles, and stories based on “real” events.  The result is another surprise, a small, clear, readable Melville masterpiece.  Just look at the tortoises.  Maybe tomorrow I will look at the wonderful tortoises.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The most inept Melville - organizing The Piazza Tales

I wonder if I have anything else to say about The Piazza Tales (1856)?

Herman Melville followed the failure of Moby-Dick (1851) and cry for help of Pierre (1852) – act of revenge – whatever it was – with the first of his dramatic career shifts – or second, since the move from seafaring to author was the first – by abandoning the novel for the short story.  “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853) was actually his first short story.  A strong start.

Melville published in prestigious magazines like Putnam’s and Harper’s, but looking at the table of contents of Great Short Works of Herman Melville, which contains his complete short works, the problem is evident.  Compared to earlier magazine writers like Poe and Hawthorne, or later ones like James and Twain, Melville could not write enough material to make much of a living.  So it was one more flop novel and then silence and a job in a customs house.  After that, poetry of high originality and ambition; eventually, a return to fiction with the great and sadly posthumous Billy Budd.

In the meantime, though, Melville had collected five of his stories – his favorites? his best reviewed? – as The Piazza Tales, adding a preface that explained the title.  “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “Benito Cereno,” “The Encantadas” – which is not at all a short story, but some kind of blend of fiction and travel writing, which of course describes plenty of Melville – these are the famous ones, much studied, analyzed to the bare bones.

Then there are three short allegories of creativity, I guess, “The Piazza,” which introduces the volume, “The Lightning-Rod Man,” and “The Bell Tower.”

That last one is the only dud.  Look, bibliographing nicole agrees with me, good.  Melville “putting on some other writer’s clothes,” as she describes it, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” passed through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Italian tales.  The editor of Great Short Works, Warner Berthoff, calls it “the most inept” of the bunch, and the writing “arthritically clumsy.”  He “wish[es] it might be proved that somebody else was the real author” (223).  This from a fan!  Not that I have a defense.  “The Bell Tower” does feature a clockwork robot, making it a kind of proto-science fiction.  Hoffmann, Poe, Melville, Ambrose Bierce – I do enjoy an old timey murderous clockwork robot story.

Of course the robot is murderous.  Why bother otherwise?  I was going to at least give a quotation describing the robot, but as I page around, eh, “most inept.”

“Benito Cereno” has no shortage of good lines (I am referring to bibliographing again) – unusual descriptions, creepy atmosphere.  It is about a slave ship that has run into trouble.  The story uses some thriller devices, “don’t go in the basement” kind of stuff that likely seems less original now than it once did.  Critical interest lies in two areas, one social, Melville’s most direct look at black slavery, one conceptual, since significant parts of the story are taken directly from real documents.  Both of these really depend on references outside the text to be interesting – the second one is, of course, invisible.

Maybe I will try to write about “The Encantadas.”  It is hardly as iconic as “Bartleby,” but to me it is the most Melvillean part of The Piazza Tales.  Worth a try.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Bartleby's dead-wall revery

I saw something new in “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853).  New to me, of course; old news to previous re-readers.  Maybe not even new to me.  Maybe I had read about it somewhere.  Who knows.

With a story like “Bartleby” – with a reader like me – I am unsure of the point of seeing new things.  In theory, I need as complete a picture of a work as possible to develop an interpretation, and thus any new observation should lead to a new interpretation.

But I have already concluded that “Bartleby the Scrivener” is a radically ambiguous work that supports multiple interpretations, not all of them exclusive.  In a more puzzle-like text, I can use clues to limit interpretation.  Everything in “Bartleby” just leads to more.  Bartleby, the clerk who would prefer not to work, is an example of white collar Marxist alienation.  Bartleby, the man who would prefer not to eat, move, or, eventually, live, symbolizes a crisis of purpose or meaning.  Or perhaps his fate is positive, if, say, he is abandoning material things and embracing the Schopenhauerian Will.  Or perhaps I am supposed to be wondering about Bartleby’s employer, the lawyer who narrates the story, more than Bartleby.  His sympathy for his clerk may be more mysterious than Bartleby’s refusals.

All of the above, I guess.

What did I see?  The wall.  It was right there in the title, which, in full, is “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street.”  Before introducing Bartleby, the narrator describes his office, including the view from a particular window:

In that direction my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade; which wall required no spy-glass to bring out its lurking beauties, but for the benefit of all near-sighted spectators, was pushed up to within ten feet of my window panes.  Owing to the great height of the surrounding buildings, and my chambers being on the second floor, the interval between this wall and mine not a little resembled a huge square cistern.

The jokey tone deflects any meaning from the wall at this point.  It’s just part of a cramped Manhattan office.

When Bartleby joins the form as a clerk – he is strange but not completely passive from the beginning – he is put in a cubicle by this window.  Or is it the same window?  No, “[w]ithin three feet of the panes was a wall,” so worse, but not in everlasting shade – “the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome.”  When not working Bartleby “would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall.”

Eventually the narrator decides he “must get rid of a demented man,” but he is stymied by his sympathy combined with an error:

The next day I noticed that Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall revery.   Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing.

"Why, how now? what next?" exclaimed I, "do no more writing?"

"No more."

"And what is the reason?"

"Do you not see the reason for yourself," he indifferently replied.

I looked steadfastly at him, and perceived that his eyes looked dull and glazed.

The error is that the lawyer concludes that Bartleby’s vision has been harmed by his work.  But the visionary Bartleby is not referring to his eyes, but to the wall.  The reason is in the wall.  He can see it, whatever it is, even if the lawyer cannot.

I won’t take trace the idea all the way through, except to note that at the end of the story we see Bartleby with his “his face towards a high wall,” and he dies “[s]trangely huddled at the base of the wall.”  The narrator is the one telling me all of this, but he does not seem to grasp the significance, which is fair enough, since neither do I.  I am turning “Bartleby” into a puzzle despite my certainty that it is no such thing, with no solution, just clues.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Why conceptual art? - against "a kind of inhuman hyperprofessionalism"

How did we get here?  Meaning, in this week’s context, how did we get to a point where Alvin Lucier’s recording of a mechanically distorted bit of speech can be credibly placed among the most important pieces of music of the 20th century.  Why does anyone worry about, while writing a novel, the alphabeticization of the words, like Walter Abish did?   How on earth did we get to – to – to – this:

If that image does not immediately appear at the website of Jeff Koons, click on “Inflatables” – or better yet, do not.  That place is a chamber of horrors.

More to the point, why are these works so prestigious and important.  No, that is easy.  They are pres. & imp. because certain other people believe they are p. & i., but I have just moved the target of the Why? and added a Who?

I don’t know the answers.  I am always looking for evidence.  Part of my pursuit of Austrian literature was a search for clues.  I found plenty.  A lot changed around 1900 – or 1910, Virginia Woolf says everything changed in 1910.  Maybe so.

I am so glad Rise pointed me to César Aira’s essay on conceptual art.  It is worth revisiting.  Aira has a good one-word explanation: professionalization.  This is what he means:

Once a professional novelist is established, he has two equally melancholy alternatives: to keep writing the ‘old’ novels in updated settings; or to heroically attempt to take one or two more steps forward.  This last possibility turned out to be a dead end within a few years: while Balzac wrote fifty novels, and still had time to live, Flaubert wrote five, shedding blood in the process.  Joyce wrote two, and Proust a single novel, and it was a work that took over his life, absorbing it, a kind of inhuman hyperprofessionalism. The fact is that being able to make a living from literature was a momentary and precarious state which could only happen at a determined moment in history.

The avant garde, a focus on concept and process rather than content, is Aira’s way to break the impasse, “an attempt to recuperate the amateur gesture” rather than trying to outdo Proust.  Note Aira’s strong sense of progress in the arts.  One could quibble with some of Aira’s evidence.

Now, lots of people write and far more read lightly updated versions of the old novels, Flaubert and Proust for our time (or Austen and Dickens), and they can find readers, and receive awards and critical praise.  This is the big difference between literature and classical music or fine art.  The audience for new work in fiction is much larger, and the avant gardists have not captured whatever mechanism is it that distributes prestige.  Sometimes I think they have captured poetry, other times I am not so sure.  But fiction is too big. Too – no, I don’t know what.

I thought about writing this post as a series of questions.  What is innovation in fiction?  How does originality differ from innovation?  Is there a taste for innovation?  And once I answer these questions, if I can, I have to historicize them – would the answers be the same in Shakespeare’s time, or Johnson’s, or even Dickens’s?  No – so what changed, and why?  I don’t know, I don’t know.

To return to my first paragraph, since I feel bad about lumping them together for illustrative purposes – Lucier is narrow and brilliant, Abish is narrow and interesting, Koons is a con man.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

I attempt to celebrate, or spoil, Herman Melville's birthday by describing him as a conceptual innovator

Happy birthday, Herman Melville.  I honestly thought I was going to spend most of this week writing about Melville, about The Piazza Tales (1856).

Melville was a kind of conceptual writer.  He was not concerned with the process of creativity like Alvin Lucier or Andy Warhol or César Aira (“nowadays, art that does not use a procedure is not truly art”).  Who at the time would have understood that kind of gibberish?  But he was a self-conscious innovator in fiction and verse.

The forms of the novel that were standard in the late 1840s were not a good fit for Melville, so he struggled to find a form for himself.  By his third book, the crazy Mardi (1849) he had assembled the pieces of his style:  short chapters (Mardi has 195!), a wild mix of realism and metaphor verging on allegory, a literally poetic diction, and a de-emphasis on novelistic character.  The latter especially was completely contrary to the contemporary emphasis of English (and French and Russian) fiction, where authors were creating amazingly lifelike, sympathetic characters.  This still drives unsuspecting readers of Moby-Dick crazy, doesn’t it?  Where are the people?

The Melville “novel” I am reading now, The Confidence Man (1857), is even more extreme, with all of the characters replaced by allegorical figures moving in a kind of a procession in a pointedly artificial setting.  It is like The Fairie Queen.  It is slow going.  Perhaps it is no longer a novel, but some other still unnamed form of prose fiction.

I think this wild allegorizing is fairly new, although it is partly borrowed from Nathaniel Hawthorne.  I believe the prose as poetry is new, too, something no one had done to the same extent.  I should keep an eye out for more examples of that.

Curiously, since I am knocking his characterization, two of Melville’s most significant creations are characters.  Even more curiously, they both can be thought of as conceptual innovations.  What I mean here is that some fundamental part of Captain Ahab and Bartleby the Scrivener can be understood without reading the original text.  Heck, without knowing that there is a text.  Ahab is the crazy guy who obsesses over a pointless goal; Bartleby is the office drone who prefers not to do anything.

Whether or not these descriptions match what is in the text is incidental.  They have turned out to be valuable concepts.  Useful shorthand descriptions.  They join Don Quixote, Don Juan, Ebenezer Scrooge, Faust, Sherlock Holmes, and that poor sap who turns into a bug as characters who have escaped their novels, however narrowly, as ideas more than as people.

I feel that movies have muddled this entire line of argument in some way I do not yet understand.

I also have this idea that the ingenious ways novelists have found to plump up the seeming reality of their characters prevents them from becoming free-floating concepts.  So we could call a well-meaning busybody Emma Woodhouse, but Jane Austen’s Emma is too complex or ambiguous, or just too much a part of her own novel to escape it.  I don’t know.  Please substitute your own example.  Imagine Maggie Tulliver independently of The Mill on the Floss, Anna Karenina outside of her book, Charles Kinbote at large.  It seems pointless, almost impossible, but who knows.  Reincarnations of Don Quixote and Captain Ahab show up all over the place.  I know, I know, Captain Ahab is himself a version of Don Quixote.

I wonder what I am going to ramble about tomorrow.