Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Ming Dynasty magic fox cautionary tale - don't steal books from foxes

“Divine Foxes Lose a Book at Small Water Bay” by Feng Menglong, a story published in Constant Words to Awaken the World in 1627, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang in Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Volume 3 (University of Washington Press, 2009).  Constant Words to Awaken the World is not much of a title, so I can see why it was changed.  “Divine Foxes Lose a Book at Small Water Bay” is an unsurpassable title.  Its only problem is that it overpromises.

Ricardo de la Caravana de Recuerdos was asking forfavorite short stories several months ago.  Amid the usual suspects, commenters supplied many curiosities, none more curious than “Divine Foxes,” suggested by humblehappiness aka Cleanthess, who I am pleased to say also visits Wuthering Expectations on occasion.

The narrator begins with an old story about a man who saves an injured bird and is rewarded by the bird with good fortune.  Everyone knows this story in some form.

Why even bother to tell it?  Well, dear audience, I did so because I plan to move on to a story about a young man who also hit nonhuman beings with slingshot pellets.  But, unlike the one who repented after having hurt the bird, this young man ruined his family’s considerable fortune as a consequence of his action and became an object of ridicule.  (117)

The young man who errs, Wang Chen, “had only a slight acquaintance with the classics and histories and barely knew the rudiments of writing,” which is what makes his sin especially serious when he comes upon “two wild foxes talking and laughing” who “were discussing the book that one of them was holding in its hand” and injures them both with his slingshot just to get a look at the book.  What does he care about books?  And then it turns out that it is “printed in ancient tadpole-like characters completely unknown to him” (119).

For the rest of the story, the foxes, who have magic powers mostly related to disguise, try to get their book back.  Wang Chen keeps it from them out of nothing but peevishness.  Eventually, the foxes succeed through a scheme that seems unnecessarily complex, in the process not exactly ruining Wang Chen, but causing his family to lose half of its wealth.

The narrator occasionally inserts poems and italicized commentary, such as this one at the end (Wang Zai is Wang Chen’s brother:

(What did Wang Zai do to deserve such punishment?  The foxes were wicked enough.  That’s why they don’t get reincarnated as humans, after all.)

A glimpse into another ethical world appears there, almost as strange as the central mystery of the story, the book that the foxes were discussing so intensely.  What could be in it?  The true catalog to Borges’s Library of Babel; the key to all mythologies.  Something like that.  Or perhaps just the Tang Dynasty fairy fox equivalent of George R. R. Martin, stolen before either fox had reached the end.

Book bloggers will sympathize with the foxes.

I guess this counts as a kind of Halloween story.  Magic Chinese foxes instead of ghosts.

Of the 2,800 pages of Feng Menglong that has been translated, I have only read “Divine Foxes.”  Cleanthess – what’s the wise thing to do next?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A scary ghost story from Thackeray - HE, I promise you, won't stand any nonsense

I almost forgot to do my Halloween reading, but then I remembered, so tonight’s text is “The Notch on the Ax” by William Makepeace Thackeray, published in 1863 the Cornhill Magazine.  In two parts, I guess, since this is in the dead center of the story:

At this moment the clock (after its previous convulsions) sounded TWELVE.  And as the new Editor of the Cornhill Magazine--and HE, I promise you, won't stand any nonsense--will only allow seven pages, I am obliged to leave off at THE VERY MOST INTERESTING POINT OF THE STORY.

Can you imagine the suspense of the original readers?  I have not said anything about the story, so I suppose not.

This story has everything:  ghosts, Freemasons, mesmerism, Bluebeard, table-rapping, Mary Queen of Scots, artificial limbs, silly accents, a guillotine, a woman named Blanche de Bechamel.  On second thought, there is a lot it does not have.  Thackeray meets an ancient man who tells him a ghost story.  That is the action, more or less.  I read the story in a collection archived at which had a prefatory note telling me that “the style of each principal sensational novelist of the day is delightfully imitated.”  The sensation novel had been invented only three years earlier by Wilkie Collins, so this sounded like fun, although I wondered if Collins had a strong enough style for me to recognize a parody, much less that of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, much much less that of some voguish bestseller whose name I do not know.

Who is the writer, for example, who always disguises the names of the “real” characters with dashes – “(of course I don't mention family names)”?  As in

'Captain Brown,' I said 'who could see Miss Sm-th without loving her?'


As he said "Ha!" there came three quiet little taps on the table--it is the middle table in the "Gray's-Inn  Coffee House," under the bust of the late Duke of W-ll-ngt-n. 

Even going so far as to disguise the exact relationship between people:

As I live, he here mentioned dear gr-nny's MAIDEN name.  Her maiden name was ----.  Her honored married name was ----.

"She married your great-gr-ndf-th-r the year Poseidon won the Newmarket Plate," Mr. Pinto dryly remarked.

Maybe this is not meant to be anyone in particular and is just a good gag.

Later, as the part of the story related to the title finally got moving (i.e., why does the little guillotine have a notch in its blade, why does the headless ghost seem so upset with the old man), to my surprise I did recognize the parody.  A fugitive is hiding in a convent in Paris – a clue right there – and is forced (by hypnotism) to leave it.  Lists begin to appear, and paragraphs composed of single sentences, short ones.  Some puzzling precision intrudes.

"And he came to No. 29 in the Rue Picpus--a house which then stood  between a court and garden--

"That is, there was a building of one story, with a great coach door.

"Then there was a court, around which were stables, coach-houses, offices.

"Then there was a house--a two-storied house, with a perron in front.

"Behind the house was a garden--a garden of two hundred and fifty French feet in length.

"And as one hundred feet of France equal one hundred and six feet of England, this garden, my friend, equaled exactly two hundred and sixty-five feet of British measure.

"In the center of the garden was a fountain and a statue--or, to speak more correctly, two statues.  One was recumbent,--a man.  Over him, saber in hand, stood a Woman.

"The man was Olofernes.  The woman was Judith.  From the head, from the trunk, the water gushed.  It was the taste of the doctor:--was it not a droll of taste?

I stop here because this is where I finally figured it out – this is V-ct-r H-g-!  Thackeray is having fun with Les Misérables, which had been both published and heroically translated into English only the year before.  I had not thought of Les Misérables as a sensation novel, but in the English context of course it is.  “If the fashion for sensation novels goes on, I tell you I will write one in fifty volumes” Thackeray promises at the end of the story, but sadly he died later that year.

For somewhat scarier public domain stories, see the Little Professor’s Halloween Horde of Horrible Happenings.  She has been blogging as the Little Professor for ten years now, longer than I have been alive.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

These impressions will remain for my whole life - Dostoevsky the magazine writer

I found “The Crocodile” in a volume of short stories first published in 1919, the results of Constance Garnett grinding her way through Dostoevsky.  What, I thought, paging through the book, is this stuff?

“The Heavenly Christmas Tree”?  “A Novel in Nine Letters”?  An entire novella, 150 pages, titled “Uncle’s Dream”?  I’d heard of “Bobok,” and even read “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” but this other stuff.  Not that whether I have heard of something means much.  Still – what is this stuff?

I know how to find out.  I read the two shortest ones, both cheery holiday stories.  In “The Heavenly Christmas Tree,” a hungry little boy’s mother dies on page two, then he freezes to death on page five, all of this on Christmas Eve.  In between, he enjoys the dolls in a Christmas display at some kind of store.

And at first the boy thought they were alive, and when he grasped that they were dolls he laughed.  He had never seen such dolls before, and had no idea there were such dolls!  And he wanted to cry, but he felt amused, amused by the dolls.

But soon enough he is admiring Christ’s Christmas tree along with the other frozen orphans and famine victims.

Here we have another neglected side of Dostoevsky – Fyodor the sentimentalist, the tear-jerker.  The story is nothing but pathos.  I would never have guessed this was Dostoevsky.  Change a few details and I would not have guessed it was Russian.

One more thing.  The mother has dragged her son to St. Petersburg for some unknown reason, so he contrasts its lively, well-lit Christmas it with home, where “there was no one to be seen in the street after dusk, all the people shut themselves up in their houses, and there was nothing but the howling of packs of dogs, hundreds and thousands of them barking and howling all night.”

This is the one really bizarre detail in the story, those thousands of dogs.  The child’s exaggeration?  Garnett’s error?  The recollection of an actual nightmarish town where Dostoevsky spent one miserable, sleepless night?

No idea when “The Heavenly Christmas Tree” was written.  By internal evidence, “The Peasant Marey” is from 1877 or so.

“It was the second day in Easter week.”  The prisoners have been given a holiday, which they spend drinking, gambling, and beating on each other – “knives had already been drawn several times.”  Dostoevsky is describing his time in prison, explicitly remembering it:

Perhaps it will be noticed that even to this day I have scarcely spoken in print of my life in prison.  The House of the Dead I wrote fifteen years ago in the character of an imaginary person, a criminal who had killed his wife.  I may add by the way that since then, very many persons have supposed, and even now maintain, that I was sent to penal servitude for the murder of my wife.

Trying to evade the brutality of the prison, Dostoevsky for some reason comes upon a memory from when he was nine years old.  He is in the woods.

And there is nothing in the world that I loved so much as the wood with its mushrooms and wild berries, with its beetles and its birds, its hedgehogs and squirrels, with its damp smell of dead leaves which I loved so much, and even as I write I smell the fragrance of our birch wood: these impressions will remain for my whole life.  Suddenly in the midst of the profound stillness I heard a clear and distinct shout, “Wolf”!  I shrieked, beside myself with terror, calling out at the top of my voice, ran out into the clearing and straight to the peasant who was ploughing.

This is the title character, the peasant Marey.  He comforts the little boy, convincing him that he imagined the what he heard.  It is just an ordinary act of kindness, but the later Dostoevsky, the prisoner remembers it as something more – “he could not have looked at me with eyes shining with greater love.”  The prisoner finds himself forgiving and pitying his drunken fellows.  The author finds himself turning the experience into a piece for a magazine.

Now this is Dostoevsky, even if the return to childhood and the countryside is surprising.

Dostoevsky the magazine writer, that is who I have been reading the last couple of days.  I feel that I have successfully and significantly increased my ignorance of Dostoevsky.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"The Crocodile" - Dostoevsky as Woody Allen

Mr. Mel U of The Reading Life reminded me that I have been meaning to read Dostoevsky’s story “The Crocodile” (1865) so I did.  In the story, a man is swallowed by a crocodile.  The creature is a bit more like a boa constrictor than a crocodile, a minor detail.   The swallowed man is not harmed in any important way, although he does lose his glasses.

This appearance and disappearance of a still living human head was so horrible, but at the same – either from its rapidity and unexpectedness or from the dropping of the spectacles – there was something so comic about it that I suddenly quite unexpectedly exploded with laughter.  (Ch. 1, tr. Constance Garnett)

Here we have, whatever the specifics of the situation, a self-description of the grotesque, Gogolian side of Dostoevsky, the comic Dostoevsky I have been encountering recently.  The essential Dostoevsky, I will claim, is comic, although a hundred and fifty years of earnest social reformers, existentialists and mystics have tried to prove otherwise.  But then the novel is an essentially comic form, both from its reliance on incongruity and from the dropping of the spectacles.  Comic, but not necessarily funny; that is something else altogether.

Some of the humor of “The Crocodile” is, I fear, satirical, even allegorical.  The crocodile, owned by Germans who thankfully are not obviously Jewish, represents Western investment in Russia, which will swallow any Russian who gets near it.

“Here we are, anxious to bring foreign capital into the country – and only consider: as soon as the capital of a foreigner, who has been attracted to Petersburg, has been doubled through Ivan Matveitch, instead of protecting the foreign capitalist, we are proposing to rip open the belly of his original capital – the crocodile.  Is it consistent?  To my mind, Ivan Matveitch, as the true son of his fatherland, ought to rejoice and to be proud that through him the value of a foreign crocodile has been doubled and possibly even trebled.”  (Ch. 2)

The value of the crocodile has doubled because it is now famous.  The victim turns out to be happy to be swallowed, because he too is famous:

I have long thirsted for an opportunity for being talked about, but could not attain it, fettered by my humble position and low grade in the service.  And now all this has been attained by a simple gulp on the part of the crocodile.  Every word of mine will be listened to, every utterance will be thought over, repeated, printed.  And I'll teach them what I am worth!  They shall understand at last what abilities they have allowed to vanish in the entrails of a monster.  (Ch. 3)

You want relevance, there it is.

There is more, too, more gags, more absurdities.  The swallowed man has a beautiful wife who immediately becomes the (willing) target of every lecher in St. Petersburg.  Dostoevsky mocks newspapers, Westernizers, economists, Germans, etymologists:

“Crocodile – crocodillo – is evidently an Italian word, dating perhaps from the Egyptian Pharaohs, and evidently derived from the French verb croquer, which means to eat, to devour, in general to absorb nourishment.  All these remarks I intend to deliver as my first lecture in Elena Ivanovna's salon when they take me there in the tank.  (Ch.3)

The speaker is the fellow inside the crocodile.  Is this Fyodor Dostoevsky or Woody Allen in The New Yorker?  “All night long I could dream of nothing but monkeys,” as the narrator says.

I wonder what reformers, existentialists, and mystics do with “The Crocodile”?  Pretend it does not exist, is my guess.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

I tried to be as irrational as possible on purpose. - bursts of Dostoevsky

The things Dostoevsky characters say.  They reinforce my stereotypes sometimes.  My stereotypes about Dostoevsky characters, I mean.  The narrator of The Gambler is a close relative of the Underground Man, of Raskolnikov, of Prince Myshkin.  His gambling, and the ecstatic state it brings on, replaces Myshkin’s epilepsy or Raskolnikov’s – how does Raskolnikov work himself into a frenzy?  I have forgotten.  Regardless, that out-of-context line I put in the title, from Chapter 7, is perfect.

The problem with The Gambler is twofold; first, that the governing conceit of gambling, although interesting for its own sake, is a poor substitute for ax murder, and second, the soap opera that I am plunged into in that remarkable first paragraph is not all that interesting for its own sake.  Will the General marry the demi-mondaine; will the virtuous step-daughter marry the neurotic narrator, the decadent Frenchman, or the steadfast Englishman?  The narrator plans to win his bride at the roulette table, while everyone is waiting for the wealthy Granny, back in Russia, to die.  Then they can divvy up the estate and make whichever matrimonial mistakes they please.

Honestly, who cares?  I am not convinced Dostoevsky cared too much.  A little over a third of the way in, he jerks the novel sideways.  I suppose this counts as a surprise in the plot, but I tell you, it is the best reason to read the book.  A new guest appears at the hotel, waving for the narrator, a “woman sitting in a big armchair”:

who had arrived with her own servants and with so many trunks and boxes, and had been carried up the steps in an invalid-chair, was seated – Granny!  Yes, it was she herself, the terrible old Moscow lady and wealthy landowner…  the Granny about whom telegrams had been sent and received, who had been dying and was not dead, and who had suddenly dropped upon us in person, like snow on our heads.  (Ch. 9)

Granny is an invalid, so she must be carried all over the spa in her armchair.  She communicates by “shouting in a loud, peremptory voice and scolding every one.”

The narrator takes her to see her heir, the General, “immensely delighted at the thunderbolt we were launching at [him].”  The soap opera has turned into a farce. 

If Granny had remained silent for a few seconds longer, he would, perhaps, have had a stroke.

“How on earth what?  I got on the train and came.  What’s the railway for?  You all thought that I had been laid out, and had left you a fortune?  You see, I know how you sent telegrams from here.  What a lot of money you must have wasted on them!  They cost a good bit from here.  I simply threw my legs over my shoulder and came off here.”

Granny is a great invention.  She allows Dostoevsky to pour comic energy into the book, even before she takes to roulette and becomes a gambler herself. She completely takes over the middle third of the novel.  It is worth reading the book just for this section.

Then as a bonus, after more melodrama the next to last chapter is a hilarious Balzac parody (“What shall I say about Paris?  It was madness, of course, and foolery”).  I won’t go into it.  No, one line:

Bored and dispirited, I used to go nightly to the Château de Fleurs, where regularly every evening I got drunk and practised the cancan (which they dance so disgustingly there), and acquired in the end a kind of celebrity.  (Ch. 16)

Now that is a line I never would have guessed to be Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky’s method lends itself to episodes, bursts that allow the restless author to focus, to create units that make sense on their own however strangely they fit in the novel.  The Gambler features two great ones.

Maybe I will return to some of this when I finish The Idiot.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

They were expecting Mezentsov - The Gambler begins

Copious notes, soon abandoned; writing in a rush; the result sent off as soon as finished – no wonder I am so interested in Dostoevsky’s method of composition.  It is mine.  I cannot pace about like he did, but I would if I could.

Dostoevsky is in a hurry.  If he does not deliver his new novel in time, he loses the publishing rights to all of his work, decades of writing.  No time to waste.  Get writing. Opening paragraph:

At last I have come back from my fortnight’s absence.  Our friends have already been two days in Roulettenburg.  I imagined that they were expecting me with the greatest eagerness; I was mistaken, however.  The General had an extremely independent air, he talked to me condescendingly and sent me away to his sister.  I even fancied that the General was a little ashamed to look at me.  Marya Filippovna was tremendously busy and scarcely spoke to me; she took the money, however, counted it, and listened to my whole report.  They were expecting Mezentsov, the little Frenchman, and some Englishman; as usual, as soon as there was money there was a dinner-party; in the Moscow style.  Polina Alexandrovna, seeing me, asked why I had been away so long, and without waiting for an answer went off somewhere.  Of course, she did that on purpose.  We must have an explanation, though.  Things have accumulated.

Talk about starting in the middle.  Who are these people?  Seven characters, including the narrator and the Englishman and the little Frenchman, with no hint of any relationship.  Polina turns out to be the General’s step-daughter, and the narrator, along with most of the other men, turn out to be in competition for her hand.

The narrator is just the family tutor.  How will he ever be able to marry her?  By winning money at the roulette table.  Thus the title, thus “Roulettenburg,” a German spa town with a casino.  The one thing I knew about the book before reading it was that it contained a plausible and recognizable depiction of gambling addiction.  Everyone plans to solve their money troubles by gambling.

At that point I ought to have gone away, but a strange sensation rose up in me, a sort of defiance of fate, a desire to challenge it, to put out my tongue at it.  I laid down the largest stake allowed – four thousand gulden – and lost it.  Then, getting hot, I pulled out all I had left, staked it one the same number, and lost again, after which I walked away from the table as though I were stunned.  I could not even tell what had happened to me…  (Ch. 4)

So gambling takes the place of the mysticism or manias of so many other Dostoevsky works.  Perhaps infected by my own clinical age, I find the idea passable as fiction but thin, although plumper than the absurd soap opera into which Dostoevsky plunges the tutor and through his narration the reader.

I will glance back at the opening paragraph.  The narrator’s absence is never really explained.   The sister, Marya Filippovna, departs the novel after doing nothing at about the one-fifth mark.  The money of course fits the gambling theme.  And then there is Mezentsov, the great Mezentsov, who not only never arrives but is never mentioned again.  Never hinted at.  Dostoevsky’s Godot.

Sloppiness?  Haste?  A joke?  A mistake?  Whoever he is, he has achieved immortality as the strangest part of the strange opening of The Gambler.

I read The Gambler in Constance Garnett’s translation, as found in Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dostoevsky's creative method

Fyodor Dostoevksy has surprised me again.  I find myself enjoying two of his books in a row, actively enjoying them, and not just for their eccentricities.  Perhaps, after much effort, I have become a better reader of Dostoevsky, more sympathetic to his purpose.

No, I fear that my effort has gone for nothing, and that by chance Dostoevsky has become more sympathetic to my purposes.  Thus he wrote The Gambler (1866) and Part I of The Idiot (1868-9) as comedies, or they are, compared to some of his other works, more obviously comedies.  After the intense and profound labors of Notes from the Underground (1864) and Crime and Punishment (1866) Dostoevsky needed a light-hearted laugh.

That is not at all what happened.  Dostoevsky was writing The Gambler and Crime and Punishment simultaneously, racing against an impossible deadline in a thumbscrew contract.  Amazingly, with the help of “one of Russia’s first stenographers, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina,” Dostoevsky beat the clock and found his signature method of composition.  He soon married Snitkina, one of the behind the scenes heroines of literature.

The quotation is from the introduction, written by William Mills Todd III, to the Penguin Classics edition of The Idiot, tr. David McDuff, p. xix.  Dostoevsky’s method, as described by Todd explains so much about the author’s art, such as it is.  Dostoevsky

would work late into the might over his notebooks, jotting down ideas.  Then he would dictate passages to [Snitkina], and she would transcribe them and promptly return them neatly copied for editing.

He dictated while pacing, always pacing.  “From this time on, the rhythm of the Dostoevskian sentence may be defined as a walking movement, where the breath of the spoken word is marked in the written style.”  This is Todd quoting Jacques Catteau, from his 1989 study Dostoevsky and the Process of Literary Creation.  I have doubts that much of the sentence-level rhythm can make it into English, but some larger structural features are visibly the result of the method.

Two things amaze me.  First, after spending late hours making notes, Dostoevksy would scrap it all while dictating.  In other words, Dostoevsky’s fiction is mostly improvised.  This is as close to a typical jazz method as I can remember.  Dostoevsky was like the musician who practices for eight hours during the day than plays completely different music at the club for two sets.  The performance was recorded, by heroic Anna Grigoryevna, but still ephemeral in the sense that it was almost immediately dispatched to the publisher for serialization.  Mistakes were permanent.  So the writer created works where they did not matter.

So the second stunner is that Dostoevsky was capable of improvising eight hundred page novels of the complexity of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.  No wonder large chunks of his novels are clumsy, fragmented, repetitive, or incoherent, that core ideas and characters are so unstable.  Would I want John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins to play the same way every night?  Dostoevsky, what a showman.

How few writers, even of the highest caliber, could do such a thing.  How few would want to, they would say, and at heart I agree, but here we have one measure of Dostoevsky’s genius.  I guess in this way I have become more sympathetic to Dostoevsky – blow, Fyodor, blow!  And if he has an off night, eh, Bird* had off nights.

I will turn to The Gambler tomorrow and transcribe a solo or two.

*  I am such a fan of jazz that I refer to Charlie Parker by his nickname, as if I knew him, but I did not. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Marías doing his thing - “I’ve seen one glaring error already.”

No, I was wrong when I wrote that I that I did not know how The Infatuations was a Javier Marías novel until one of the characters started talking about Balzac on page 131.  I mean, aside from the words “Javier Marías“ on the cover.  This is just a metaphor.

No, it was on page 76, when the narrator first meets her future lover Javier, who is accompanied by, who else, Professor Francisco Rico.  “I knew Professor Rico’s face well, he often appears on television and in the press, with his wide, expressive mouth, immaculate bald head, which he carries off with great aplomb, his rather large glasses,” and so on.  Later she says he “Was wearing a charming Nazi-green jacket” with a “melon-green” tie.  The Professor is pompous, vulgar, and loud; he takes over the next twenty pages of the book.

“Who else,” I say, because I have read the chapter about Professor Rico, Cervantes expert, “laboriously disdainful, insolent in his vanity and congenial in spite of himself,” that runs from pages 47 to 62 in the Marías novel – for the sake of argument – Dark Back of Time (1998), which chapter is entirely about the appearance of Professor Rico in various Marías novels, in disguise or, as he actually wants, as himself:

“I’ve decided I don’t want to appear in this little novel of yours as Professor del Diestro or what-have-you or anything else.  If I’m in it, I want to be in it as myself.”

At first I didn’t understand.  “Yourself?  What do you mean?”

The professor grew impatient.  “Myself, Francisco Rico, under my own name.  I want Francisco Rico to appear, not a fictional entity who acts like him or parodies him.”  (DBoT, 57, tr. Esther Allen)

Marías argues that a fictional Rico is not actually Rico, but the professor is not dissuaded.  Marías uses “real places and institutions,” no?

“Yes, there’s the United Nations and the Prado, and…”

“Well, there you have it,” he said.

“Have what?”

“There you have it: I want to be like the Prado.”

Rico ultimately buys his fictional appearance with an unspecified favor.  And here he is again, fourteen years later, like the Prado.  After this one scene, Rico never appears again.

His last words worry me. He sees an edition of Don Quixote on the shelf, not his edition (“How can anyone possibly own this edition when they could have mine?”).  Taking it down,

[h]e opened the book at random, cast a quick, disdainful eye over the page and stabbed at one particular line with his index finger.  “I’ve seen one glaring error already.”  Then he closed the book as if there were no point in looking any further.  “I’ll write an article about it.” (99)

If this were a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, I know what this would mean.  Somewhere in the novel there is a deliberate error that if discovered and corrected by the reader will upend the meaning of the text.  At least one clue is provided right here – “glaring,” or maybe “article.”

Nabokov never did this as far as I know.  Has anyone?  This would be a great trick.  I do not know what Marías means by it.  The incident itself is so intrusive – glaring – that is what worries me.  Someone should write an article about it.

As a little bonus, the protagonist of the Marías novella Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico appears later in The Infatuations.  I have not read that one.  Someone else will have to explain the joke.

If I were to write more about The Infatuations, I would work on the Balzac business.  And Dumas, too, Marías also pulls in the most horrific parts of The Three Musketeers.  And I would write about the narrator and her deep hatred of the publishing industry in which she works (“back to the idiotic world of publishing” she says at the novel’s close, p. 336).

But I think I will move to something else.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Infatuations by Javier Marías - a musical instrument that does not transmit meanings

A couple of days of notes on the newest Javier Marías novel, The Infatuations (2011), translated with panache by Margaret Jull Costa.  Marías has his narrator, a woman who works in publishing, describe his own novel:

He had a marked tendency to discourse and expound and digress, as I have noticed to be the case with many of the writers I meet at the publishing house, as if it weren’t enough for them to fill pages and pages with their thoughts and stories, which, with few exceptions, are either absurd, pretentious, gruesome or pathetic.  (131)

So Marías is still working in the style he adopted* for the Your Face Tomorrow novel or novels back in 2002.  I would not mind if he knocked it off.  Excess is cheaper than restraint.

He, and she, then says how he (just he) would like me to take the novel:

… I didn’t mind his digressions…  I couldn’t take my eyes off him and delighted in his grave, somehow inward-turned voice and the often arbitrary syntactic leaps he made, the whole effect seeming sometimes not to emanate from a human being, but from a musical instrument that does not transmit meanings, perhaps a piano played with great agility.

Now this is actually the narrator describing the way her boyfriend talks, but anyone who talks or speaks or writes this way when telling a story – “arbitrary syntactic leaps” – is awfully inward-turned herself.  I enjoy the voice Marías uses here quite a bit, his piano attack, to extend his metaphor – why else would I read his book – but I share his doubts about meaning.

The boyfriend rephrases the concern further on in the book:

But Díaz-Varela was in no mood to discuss Balzac, he wanted to continue his story to the end.  “What happened is the least of it,” he had said when he spoke to me about Colonel Chabert.  “It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten.”  (276)

Truer words was never spoke.  Marías here justifies my usual practice of ignoring the plot of the novel in favor of the memorable parts, like the discussion of Balzac.  No mood to discuss Balzac!

About a third of the way in, Marías begins a long** summary and exegesis of Balzac’s 1832 novella Colonel Chabert, one of his best works, I think.  The boyfriend, Javier, is doing the exegeting while the girlfriend, María, the narrator, asks questions.  I know, Javier and María, very funny.

Mookse Trevor says that at this point he “had a devil of a time getting through about thirty pages of it,” so fair warning, although it was exactly at this point (p. 131, after the quotation up above) that I began to find the novel interesting.  A man María knows by sight is murdered by a madman; she meets the wife; through the wife she meets and begins an affair with Javier.  So little in 130 pages, but see above: discourse, expound, digress. 

The matter includes the narrator’s insight on, for example, the strange ways people are connected or the process of mourning, as on page 74, where the narrator imagines the debris, once meaningless and now poignant, left behind by the murdered man, “the novel with the page turned down, which will remain unread, but also the medicines that suddenly have become utterly superfluous and that will soon have to be thrown away,” in other words the kind of thing that has appeared in a thousand novels and that I have read a dozen times myself.  The legitimate stuff of fiction, certainly, but when, I wondered, is The Infatuations going to turn into a Javier Marías novel?

Then: thirty pages on Balzac.  Finally.

That will give me something to write about tomorrow.  Or I will just catalogue some of the novel’s best jokes.

*  I am guessing.  The novel previous, Dark Back of Time (1998), is not written this way, nor is All Souls (1989), nor, for that matter are the newspaper pieces in Written Lives (1992).  I originally found Marías attractive for his lightly Nabokovian precision.  He seems to have come to distrust the idea of precision in language.

**  Long is relative.  In Your Face Tomorrow, the Balzac discussion would have lasted a hundred pages.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Salem Chapel this & that, with jokes, light effects, un-anxious influence - whatever I could think of

Since I do not want to write about Salem Chapel all week, I will resort to unconnected numbered points.

1.  Yesterday I suggested that Salem Chapel should have written from the bewildered, teary point of view of the “pink and plump” Phoebe Tozer, the butterman’s daughter.  In a comment, followed by a chain of post reading, Desperate Reader reminded me that thirteen years later Oliphant would publish Phoebe Junior, in which the title character is Phoebe Tozer’s daughter.  I have not read this one, but based on the Desperate description, I can see that Oliphant’s own thoughts were not so far off from mine. (Also, see Desperate Reader on Salem Chapel here).

2.  Oliphant was a sponge.  The Carlingford novels and their clergymen are openly derivative of Trollope’s Barchester series, which still had two novels to go when Salem Chapel was published.  Then there is her use of the sensation plot, a genre only three years old, although melodrama is as old as the hills.

Maybe even more interesting is the clear evidence that Oliphant had been carefully reading the hot new novelist of 1859, George Eliot, author at this point of Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner, so not our Eliot but a smaller one, the author of tragicomedies about rural carpenters and mill owners, creator of scenes in which a small town’s tradesmen argue about the breed of a cow or who gets the family chinaSalem Chapel’s comedic plot features the same class of people in a somewhat more urban setting.

The Perpetual Curate moves up a notch or two in social class, so I had not made the connection, but the Tozers and Tullivers could comfortably exist in each other’s novels.

Penelope Fitzgerald claims, in her fine introduction to the Virago Salem Chapel, that the anonymously serialized novel was sometimes thought to actually be by George Eliot,  which “caused Oliphant an indescribable mixture of pleasure and annoyance.”

3.  One example of Oliphant’s humor.  The congregation has just heard a guest pastor:

… they were wedded to one [Vincent]; but the bond of union between themselves and their pastor was far from being indissoluble, and they contemplated this new aspirant to their favour with feelings stimulated and piquant, as a not inconsolable husband, likely to become a widower, might contemplate the general female public, out of which candidates for the problematically vacant place might arise.  (Ch. 21)

4.  And an example of Oliphant’s descriptive powers:

… it was to look at a female figure which came slowly up, dimming out the reflection on the wet stones as it crossed one streak of lamplight after another.  (Ch. 9)

Maybe she had been reading Dickens, too.

5.  I have complained about the dull plottiness of part of the novel.  Near the end of the novel, Oliphant recognizes my complaint.  Adelaide Tufton is a superb minor character, the invalid daughter of the previous minister who spends her life sitting next to a giant geranium knitting and collecting gossip.  She is enjoyably free from social constraint.  Vincent almost accidentally visits her in Chapter 41, within a few pages of the end of the novel, where he is horrified to hear her reduce everything he is suffering, every trial he has encountered throughout the novel, including an entirely separate Persuasion-like underplot I have not even mentioned, to small town chatter. 

The poor minister thrust back his chair from the table, and came roughly against the stand of the great geranium, which had to be adjusted and covered his retreat…  she did not show any pleasurable consciousness of her triumph; she kept knitting on, looking at him with her pale blue eyes.

Well, I got a lot of pleasure from it.  Well done, Miss Tufton.  Well done, Mrs. Oliphant.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The nebbish and his mother - Perfect victory attended the gentle widow in this passage of arms - this is still Salem Chapel

Margaret Oliphant moved in increments.  The 1863 novella The Rector is about an Anglican priest who moves to Carlingford and discovers that he is inadequate to the vocation.  He is, to his sorrow, a bad priest.  In Salem Chapel (1863), young Vincent is a Dissenter, not an Anglican, and has a real gift for preaching and argument, but he too learns that he is a bad priest.  The next novel, The Perpetual Curate (1864), stars a good priest, an ideal priest, as if Oliphant is still turning over the idea.

Mr. Vincent, whatever his talents, is too immature for his position.  He is in his early twenties but typically behaves like a fifteen year old.  He is self-absorbed, rude to his elders, dismissive of their advice, and baffled by and often even afraid of women.  The most frightening is Phoebe Tozer, “plump and pink, and full of dimples” (Ch. 1), who openly offers sex – at one point she brings the minister a leftover jelly!  “Mr. Vincent turned very red, and looked at the basket as if he would like nothing better than to pitch it into the street.”  When I say she offers sex, I mean through marriage, that she is available for marriage.  Vincent responds, mental fifteen year old that he is, by falling in love with the most unattainable woman in a fifty mile radius.

I remember wondering, early in the novel, what Oliphant was going to do with this plotline.  I thought, there is no way this nebbish is going to end up with this woman.  Oliphant was ahead of me.  There is no way.  This is the minister’s state of mind at the end of the novel:

Vincent had arrived at such a climax of personal existence that Susan [his ill sister] had but a dim and secondary place in his thoughts.  He was absorbed in his own troubles and plans and miseries.  (Ch. 39)

Much of this is just borrowed from Colleen’s recent post.  Vincent is a good character, well-drawn, credible, but surprising in plausible ways. A little hard to take sometimes. Why is he the way he is?  The novel’s next most important character explains it all.  He is a mama’s boy, or so we learn when we meet mama.

She has one tremendous chapter in the middle of the book.  Her son is away, ineffectively pursuing the sensation plot, leaving her to hold the fort in Carlingford.  The sensation stuff takes place outside of Carlingford, the comedy inside, so the mother is now part of the comedy.  She spends the day visiting the parishioners, defending her son, throwing cold water on pink Phoebe Tozer (“To think of that pink creature having designs upon her boy”), crushing all dissent, and destroying his enemies.  “Holding the fort” Was the wrong metaphor.  Mrs. Vincent is on offense:

Perfect victory attended the gentle widow in this passage of arms.  Her assailant fell back, repeating in a subdued tone, “Well, I’m sure!”  (Ch. 21)

I wish more of the thriller plot had been not only out of town but offstage.  Oliphant could let the reader hear about it second-hand, or read about it in the newspaper, like most of the characters in the novel do.  Maybe it should have been told from the point of view of poor pink Phoebe Tozer.  Then I could have had more scenes of combat over tea.  But that is saved for the next novel, for The Perpetual Curate.  Oliphant takes small steps.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Some ways in which Margaret Oliphant's Salem Chapel is interesting - his heart might have rejected every secondary matter.

Salem Chapel by Margaret Oliphant, 1863, the first long novel of the Carlingford Chronicles.  That is the text of the moment.  Strangely, Colleen at Jam & Idleness was reading it at the same time, by coincidence, and just wrote about it, which is handy for me.

Oliphant takes two big risks with Salem Chapel which make the novel both interesting and frustrating.  They are:

1.  The hero is a nebbish, and sometimes something worse.  Sometimes a “bit of a jackass,” says Colleen.  The kind of character violent readers want to slap and strangle.

2.  The plot and structure of the novel are hybrid.  A social comedy suddenly transforms, about a quarter through, into the hot thing of the early 1860s, a Sensation Novel, with (or with suggestions of) kidnappings, murder, brain fever, and the like.  But no, and this is what is interesting – a sensation novel is laid on top of the social comedy, which sort of flows along underneath the thriller story.  Or maybe the comedy is on top.  The two types of story interact in some curious ways, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes cleverly.

The story:

Vincent is a newly-minted, ambitious minister, eager to change the world, just hired by Salem Chapel in Carlingford.  He quickly discovers that his parishioners do not really need changing.  The shopkeepers are prosperous and the laborers well-behaved, their sins venial rather than mortal.  Carlingford is wasted on a reformer.  Here we have the basis for a comic novel like a reversed Cold Comfort Farm.  The new minister will, in the climax, flee the town because everyone is  too good.  There could be scenes where he tries to corrupt his flock in order to be able to reform it.  I have started making up my own story, one Oliphant did not write.

Before my imagined story gets going, Vincent’s mother appears and the thriller gets moving.  Vincent’s sister is planning to marry a man of, it now seems, dubious character.  Matters escalate as detailed above – kidnapping, vengeance, shooting, police inspectors, etc.

Vincent races around England trying to straighten things out, but since he is a nebbish he is completely ineffective.  Perhaps the point of the dual plots is to plunge the naïve young minister into a world of depravity and evil, where he is tested by a trial of courage which allows him to truly find his calling as a man of God.  That is not bad, either, as another story that Oliphant did not write, although Salem Chapel is a kind of Bildungsroman, even if it has as little Bildung as possible.  Vincent is, if anything, even worse once the sensation plot calms down.  Oliphant says so directly, in Chapter 38, almost at the end of the book:

His own affairs were urgent in his mind.  He could not keep his thoughts from dwelling upon Salem and what had occurred there [the social comedy plot], though no one else thought of it.  Had he known the danger in which his sister lay, his heart might have rejected every secondary matter.

I am as bad as callow Vincent, in that I thought the secondary matter, the comedy was excellent while the sensation plot was weaker, by which I mean more ordinary stuff, more contrived.   Side by side, though, some there is some artistic movement.  So I will write a little more about that.

The sensation plot has its own interest as a case study in how to adapt modern values – I mean mine – to the Victorian values on which much of the action depends.  That could be fun to write about.  The secondary story trains me in how to read the primary story.

I could explore the nebbishness of Vincent.  One other major character, Vincent’s mother, is also quite good.  In the sensation novel, she is a cliché, while in the comedy, she is original, forceful, and funny.  The mother’s personality perhaps explains some of the son’s milquetoastishness.

The agenda could be extended.  I do not want to write about Salem Chapel all week, but I could.  I still might.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Reading Ruskin candidly - none of these things very glorious

Ruskin is arguing that “Letters are always ugly things,” meaning in paintings, not in a book.  Maybe also in a book.  This is in Volume 5, Chapter 7, “Of Vulgarity.”  In a long footnote attached to this point, Ruskin finally answers a question of mine:

I do not wonder at people sometimes thinking I contradict myself when  they come suddenly on any of the scattered passages, in which I am forced to insist on the opposite practical applications of subtle principles of this kind.

Ruskin traces his ideas about the ugliness of letters through a number of texts, or actually insists that I do the same, after which “you… will be brought, I hope, into a wholesome state of not knowing what to think.”  Suitably confused, I am prepared to read a few more passages in The Stones of Venice and thus to a resolution, maybe:

If truths of apparent contrary character are candidly and rightly received, they will fit themselves together in the mind without any trouble.  But no truth maliciously received will nourish you, or fit with others.

Oh, so it’s my fault, is it?  But perhaps it is.  How should I read Ruskin (or anyone) if not candidly?

Ruskin ends Modern Painters with a chapter titled “Peace,” his openly religious call for social change (“When the time comes for us to wake out of the world’s sleep, why should it be otherwise than out of the dreams of the night?”).  A few chapters earlier, though, is an alternative, non-Utopian argument, Chapter 9, “The Two Boyhoods.”

One boy is Giorgione, the other Turner.  Giorgione grows up in 15th century Venice, surrounded by beauty, constantly confronted with beauty, natural and man-made.  “All ruins were removed, and its place filled as quickly as in our London; but filled always by architecture loftier and more wonderful than that whose place it took, the boy himself happy to work upon the walls of it,” for example.  Thus the Venetian kid becomes the painter Giorgione.

Now, Turner.

Ruskin directs me to his childhood home in Covent Garden – “a square brick pit,” “a few rays of light,” “an iron gate,” “a narrow door,” a window “filled in this year (1860), with a row of bottles.”  “No knights to be seen there, nor, I imagine, many beautiful ladies”:

of things beautiful, besides men and women, dusty sunbeams up or down the street on summer mornings; deep furrowed cabbage leaves at the greengrocer’s; magnificence of oranges in wheelbarrows round the corner; and Thames’ shore within three minutes’ race.

None of these things very glorious; the best, however, that England, it seems, was then able to provide for a boy of gift…

Here Ruskin sees Turner’s attraction to ugliness, like “anything fishy or muddy… black barges, patched sails, and every possible condition of fog.”  One might think that the words “beauty” and “ugliness” are being overstretched.  “No Venetian ever draws anything foul; but Turner devoted picture after picture to the illustration of effects of dinginess, smoke, soot, dust, and dusty texture;  old sides of boats, weedy roadside vegetation, dung-hills, straw yards, and all the soilings and stains of every common labor.”

That Turner also develops an unusual sympathy for the poor, and for seafaring stuff (sailors, masts – “better for the boy than wood of pine, or grove of myrtle”) is more conventional biography.  Turner becomes not vulgar but “very tolerant of vulgarity,” this because of “the original make and frame of [his] mind… as nearly as possible a combination of the minds of Keats and Dante.”

Yet after all of this Turner becomes Ruskin’s Turner only after a chance summer in the Yorkshire hills, where he discovers “Loveliness at last…  Beauty, and freedom, and peace…”; in other words, landscape.

So taught, and prepared for his life’s labor, sate the boy at last alone among his fair English hills; and began to paint, with cautious toil, the rocks, and fields, and trickling brooks, and soft, white clouds of heaven.

It is all a mystery, then, although partly visible in retrospect.  The artist of genius creates with whatever is at hand.  Sometimes the result is beautiful.  The critic of genius studies the artist and – what does he do?  He writes a great chapter in a great book, I am sure of that.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Every perfect and lovely spot which they can touch, they defile. - Ruskin asks, what is the use of beauty?

Modern Painters was seventeen years in the writing, and John Ruskin was only twenty-three years old when he began the book.  Of course he changed in the meantime.

Still, it is a surprise to read, almost at the end of the final volume, this reflection on the purpose of the book:

I have written it to show that Turner was the greatest landscape painter who ever lived; and this it has sufficiently accomplished.  What the final use may be to men, of landscape painting, or of any painting, or of natural beauty, I do not yet know.  (Vol. 5, Ch. 11, “The Hesperid Æglé”)

The sense, or possibility, of despair is perhaps more evident on the previous page:

Once I could speak joyfully about beautiful things, thinking to be understood;- now I cannot any more; for it seems to me that no one regards them.  Wherever I look or travel in England or abroad, I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty.  They seem to have no other desire or hope but to have large houses and to be able to move fast.  Every perfect and lovely spot which they can touch, they defile.

One reason to spend time with Ruskin – not at all my reason – is his relevance.  Among the concluding passages of Modern Painters are a number of social reforms.  Some of the rhetorically brilliant and argumentatively exasperating essays that would make up Unto This Last: Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy (1862) were published in 1860, almost alongside Modern Painters V, and in the book of what is nominally art criticism the transition is evident.  From now on, Ruskin would be a social critic as much or more than an art critic.

I say, first, that due economy of labor will assign to each man the share which is right.  Let no technical labor be wasted on things useless or unpleasurable; and let all physical exertion, so far as possible, be utilized, and it will be found no man need ever work more than is good for him.  I believe an immense gain in the bodily health and happiness of the upper classes would follow on their steadily endeavoring, however clumsily, to make the physical exertion they now necessarily take in amusements, definitely serviceable.  It would be far better, for instance, that a gentleman should mow his own fields, than ride over other people’s.  (still in Vol. 5, Ch. 11)

This is just as an example, although I picked it first for its clarity, second for its distance from any argument about landscape painting, and third because it ends with Thomas Carlyle’s old hobbyhorse, scattered throughout The French Revolution and elsewhere, about the worthlessness of an upper class that devotes all its energy to hunting.  Any arguments with the vagueness of the terms is best taken up with the shorter, punchier Unto This Last.

Modern Painters is a defense not simply of Turner but of beauty.  By 1860, Ruskin had begun to fear that a defense of beauty through art was no defense at all.  In Volume 4, Ch. 8, Ruskin argues that rocks and more generally “the natural ordinances seem intended to teach us the great truths which are the basis of all political science,” but a few  years later he had concluded that the message of the rocks was not getting through.  Social and economic reform had to precede aesthetic reform.

I, by contrast, say aesthetic reform first.  One more post on Ruskin.  His defense of beauty is not so bad.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Modern Painters as Pale Fire - with a bonus: the rhapsody on moss

A reader unfamiliar with John Ruskin’s methods might think that a gigantic book titled Modern Painters would be about modern painters.  Today, thanks to Charles Baudelaire, the term evokes Manet and Monet; they are too late for this book, but neither Corot nor Courbet nor Delacroix are mentioned either.  Besides Turner, the primary subject of the book, almost no painter contemporary with Ruskin is ever mentioned, aside from occasional complimentary nods to the Pre-Raphaelites.

The final volume of the book includes an index (three, actually) so I can see who is mentioned the most, aside from Turner.  By eye, the leaders are Claude Lorrain, Titian, “Tintoret,” and Salvator Rosa, all painters of the 16th and 17th century.  The Venetians are taken as the greatest landscape painters before Turner, while the first and last are primarily used as punching bags.  Claude, for example:

absurdities of conception, iii, 401; deficiency in foreground, i. 284, ii. 182 [I will hereafter omit volume and page numbers and rearrange entries capriciously]; absence of imagination in; narrowness of, contrasted with vastness of nature

But I see that my memory fails, since Lorrain is often praised, as well:

sincerity of purpose of; tenderness of perception in; true painting of afternoon sunshine

Salvator Rosa gets some good ones: “perpetual seeking for horror and ugliness; vicious execution of; vulgarity of.”  That last entry is attached to Rembrandt, too.  Many artists (Durer, Raphael, Perugino, Fra Angelico) have a page reference for their “hatred of fog.”

The Topical Index* is at least as much fun.

Age, the present, mechanical impulse of; spirit of; our greatest men nearly all unbelievers; levity of.  See Modern.

Yes, sir.

Modern age, characteristics of; costumes, ugliness of; romance of the past; criticism; landscape; mind, pathetic fallacy characteristic of.

I begin to wonder if I should just read the index.  It begins to look like a precursor of Pale Fire.  “Grief, a noble emotion, ii. 372, 373, iii. 30”; “Keats, description of waves by; no real sympathy with, but a dreamy love of nature”; “Moss, beauty and endurance of.”  Volume 5, pp. 138-9 that last one a great passage, a rhapsody on lichens.

Meek creatures! the first mercy of the earth, veiling with hushed softness its dintless rocks; creatures full of pity, covering with strange and tender honor the scarred disgrace of ruin, - laying quiet finger on the trembling stones, to teach them rest.  No words, that I know of, will say what these mosses are.  None are delicate enough, none perfect enough, none rich enough.

So Ruskin will just try out all of the words

How is one to tell of the rounded bosses of furred and beaming green,- the starred divisions of rubied bloom, fine-filmed, as if the Rock Spirits [!] could spin porphyry as we do glass,- the traceries of intricate silver, and fringes of amber, lustrous, arborescent, burnished through every fibre into fitful brightness…

That goes on for a while.  The Rock Spirits aside, this sounds gassy but is actually quite precise.  It is in the service of a simpler point, that a good mountain painter ought to know if the patch of color he is seeing from a distance is rock or moss.

*  I do not know for a fact that Ruskin compiled the indices to Modern Painters.  I have only been able to trace them back as far as 1863 (see here), but come on, who else.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ruskin's fantasia on a grain of sand - poor, helpless, mica flake!

Mountain beauty, cloud beauty, leaf beauty – what is all of this doing in John Ruskin’s Modern Painters?  Why all of the diagrams of striated cliffs and parts of trees (Chapter 4: “The Bud,” Ch. 5: “The Leaf,” Ch. 6: “The Branch”)?

To judge a painting of a peak or tree, the critics must understand peaks and trees.  He must see them as they are and understand what he is seeing, not see them as they are conventionally represented.  For most people, including Ruskin, this requires a scientific understanding of natural phenomena.  A few geniuses, like J. M. W. Turner or Titian, see everything intuitively, or through their own eye training.  Ruskin and I have to work harder.  Most landscape painters, including some of the supposed greats, do not understand what they are seeing.  That is Ruskin’s argument.

A piece of Modern Painters like Volume 4 (“Mountain Beauty”), Chapter 16 (“Resulting Forms: Thirdly, Precipices”) is really about what the title claims, precipices, those of the Swiss Alps, and how they are formed by erosion and the movement of tectonic plates.  Ruskin does not know of the existence of the plates, but he does a good job of identifying the gaps in his own knowledge, allowing me to fill some of them in a little.

Sometimes Ruskin’s writing – I will stay with the precipices – is cleanly precise, as with this glacier: “Higher up, the ice opens into broad white fields and furrows, hard and dry, scarcely fissured at all.”  But then the glacier becomes something else as Ruskin invokes an empty street “of tombs in a buried city,”

the whole scene so changeless and soundless; so removed, not merely from the presence of men, but even from their thoughts; so destitute of all life of tree or herb, and so immeasurable in its lonely brightness of majestic death, that it looks like a world from which not only the human, but the spiritual, presences had perished, and the last of its archangels, building the great mountains for their monuments, had laid themselves down in the sunlight to an eternal rest, each in his white shroud.

Ruskin has interwoven some kind of fantasy novel with his precipices.  Soon he is hiking up the Matterhorn, pausing to listen to the Alps, “these wrinkled hills in their snowy, cold, grey-haired old age, at first so silent, then, as we keep quiet at their feet, muttering and whispering to us garrulously, in broken and dreaming fits, as it were, about their childhood” before imagining them as their components, “little flakes of mica-sand…  almost too small for sight.”  If one of these flakes “could have a mind given to it” (yes, if!) as it passed through the ages, “laid, (would it not have thought?) for a hopeless eternity, in the dark ooze, the most despised, forgotten, and feeble of all atoms” – Ruskin is, remember, following a sentient grain of sand:

what would it have thought, had it been told that one day, knitted into a strength as of imperishable iron, rustless by the air, infusible by the flame, out of the substance of it, with its fellows, the axe of God should hew that Alpine tower; that against I – poor, helpless, mica flake! – the wild north winds should rage in vain; beneath it – low-fallen mica flake! – the snowy hills should lie bowed like flocks of sheep, and the kingdoms of the earth fade away in unregarded blue; and around it – weak, wave-drifted mica flake! – the great war of the firmament should burst in thunder, and yet stir it not; and the fiery arrows and angry meteors of the night fall blunted back from it into the air; and all the stars in the clear heaven should light, one by one as they rose, new cressets upon the points of snow that fringed its abiding-place on the imperishable spire?

The grain of sand ends up on the tip of the Matterhorn is what happened there, for those who lost the thread.  This is not exactly how geology is taught now (or then), but it is effective in its own way.

One of the great pleasures of reading Ruskin, is what this sort of thing is.  Unpaintable, the author declares in the next paragraph, “beyond [the landscape painter’s] power – even beyond Turner’s.”  I believe Ruskin is right about that.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

But I find nobody ever reads things which it takes any trouble to understand, so that it is of no use to write them. - John Ruskin

On the one hand, preach it, Brother Ruskin!  So true, so true.  On the other, this sentiment is buried by John Ruskin in a footnote on page 93 of the fifth volume of Modern Painters (1860), meaning somewhere around the 1,850th page of the entire monumental work, about 2,300 pages in the 19th century edition I read.

The first volume of Modern Painters was supposed to be the only one.  The 24 year-old Oxford punk meant the book to be a defense of the reputation and artistry of J. M. W. Turner, 68 at the time, but he soon discovered that it was impossible to understand Turner’s paintings  - really, really understand them – without exploring taste, truth, beauty, perception, geology, botany, atmospheric science, and to a limited degree art history, among many other topics.  The subtitle of the third volume (1856) is “Of Many Things,” a title both accurate and useless, but perhaps more inviting than that of the fourth volume (also 1856), “Of Mountain Beauty,” 497 pages on just what it says.

So I detect irony, that is what I am trying to say.  “No use to write them.”  I will come back to this idea.

During the seventeen years it took to write Modern Painters, Ruskin also wrote the three volumes of The Stones of Venice (1851-3), masterful 1,500 page sequel or supplement or appendix to Modern Painters (or vice versa) and several other works that I have not read.  His final delay came from a request by the National Gallery to organize and catalogue the huge mass of Turner drawings the artist had bequeathed to the nation.

In seven tin boxes in the lower room of the National Gallery I found upwards of nineteen thousand pieces of paper, drawn upon by Turner in one way or another.  Many on both sides; some with four, five, or six subjects on each side (the pencil point digging spiritedly through from the foregrounds of the front into the tender pieces of sky on the back); some in chalk, which the touch of the finger would sweep away; others in ink, rotted into holes; others (some splendid colored drawings among them) long eaten away by damp and mildew, and falling into dust at the edges, in capes and bays of fragile decay…   (Vol. 5, Preface)

How I would love to continue that quotation.  Ruskin should have been offered a baronetcy for his efforts.

Over the last six years, I read Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, and a couple of shorter Ruskin books, which would feel like an accomplishment if moving one’s eyes across a page of text and flipping pages were in and of itself so difficult.  I have written about Ruskin in fragments over that time, as needed, as useful, but never in a concentrated burst, which is what I will do this week, without argument or goal, but simply as a pleasant rummage through the book in front of me, the fourth and fifth volumes of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters.

I’ll get this out of the way here:  reading all of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice is Much Too Much, certainly, but the abridgements I looked at were Not Nearly Enough.  Much great writing is omitted.  I do not have an answer.  The Stones of Venice is the more interesting of the two books.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Unnatural? My dear, these things are life - a look at "Modern Love"

George Meredith has been propped up a bit by his biography.  After nine years of marriage, his wife ran off with a painter.  Whatever might be the usual response by a Victorian of his class, Meredith chose to write a novel (The Ordeal of Richard Feverel) and a fifty poem sonnet sequence, “Modern Love.”

Unusually, in both works Meredith makes the character in his own position, the wronged husband, look as bad as (in the poem) or worse than (in the novel) the straying wife.  I thought writers were supposed to use their books for revenge, not self-mortification and compassionate understanding.

Colleen of Jam and Idleness read the new critical edition of “Modern Love.”  She is skeptical of the edition, asking good “Who is this for?” questions, but enthusiastic about the poetry.  She points out the irony of how Meredith takes “a poetic form traditionally devoted almost exclusively to romantic love, and uses it to present and dissect the recriminations, miscommunications, small pettiness and large jealousies that contribute to the slow cracking of two once loving hearts.”

The story of “Modern Love”: the wife has an affair, then the husband, who mostly narrates, has an affair of his own.  The couple attempts to reconcile, but it is too late.  The wife kills herself, perhaps to allow the husband to remarry, or so the husband thinks, although I have doubts.

At its best, I think, the story is told through scenes that have some novelistic qualities:

'Tis Christmas weather, and a country house
Receives us:  rooms are full:  we can but get
An attic-crib.  Such lovers will not fret
At that, it is half-said.  The great carouse
Knocks hard upon the midnight's hollow door,
But when I knock at hers, I see the pit.
Why did I come here in that dullard fit?
I enter, and lie couched upon the floor.  (XXIII)

This could be a scene from a much later American novel, from Revolutionary Road, at a point in the story where the friends do not know how bad things have become for the couple.

Here the husband and wife discuss a novel:

You like not that French novel?  Tell me why.
You think it quite unnatural.  Let us see.
The actors are, it seems, the usual three:
Husband, and wife, and lover.  She--but fie!
In England we'll not hear of it.  Edmond,
The lover, her devout chagrin doth share;
Blanc-mange and absinthe are his penitent fare,
Till his pale aspect makes her over-fond:
So, to preclude fresh sin, he tries rosbif.
Meantime the husband is no more abused:
Auguste forgives her ere the tear is used.
Then hangeth all on one tremendous IF:-
IF she will choose between them.  She does choose;
And takes her husband, like a proper wife.
Unnatural?  My dear, these things are life:
And life, some think, is worthy of the Muse.  (XXV)

I should try to summarize plots with sonnets.  That could be good for a laugh. 

I have read this sonnet enough times that I am no longer sure how obscure it is.  The husband is always speaking,  The wife’s side of the conversation is implied.  The novel is described in a mocking way that is a passive-aggressive bullying of the wife at a point in the story when, ironically, the husband has begun to realize that he is no more committed to the marriage than she is.

What us really interesting to me is that, if you noted the sonnet numbers, you saw that there is only a single sonnet between the Christmas party scene and the novel-reading scene.  There is no transition in between.  Meredith changes settings with a snap.  Sometimes the chronology is scrambled.  “Modern Love” does what I take for granted in modern novels, presenting the events of the story in an order that is psychologically meaningful and assuming their readers can leap over the gaps.  Another way Meredith was ahead of his time.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Good George Meredith lines - autumn, a curvy owl, the long noon coo

George Meredith’s selected poems are in some danger of shrinking to two pieces, the anthology standard “Lucifer in Starlight” and the sonnet sequence “Modern Love,” a little novel in fifty sonnets.  I have read more Meredith than that, but not a lot more.  My edition of Meredith’s Selected Poems (Carcanet, 2001) only has seventy pages of poetry, with “Modern Love” filling twenty of them.  All of this from eight books published over the course of fifty years.

I would read more.  Maybe not too many more.  Let’s hunt for good lines.

“Lucifer in Starlight” (1883) is a Miltonic sonnet that works a lot like “Dirge in Woods” from yesterday – nature capped with Reflections, except it is more mysterious and ambiguous.  Lucifer is the morning star, and also Milton’s anti-hero, and also whatever the panicky Brit Lit II student can come up with.  It famously ends:

Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.

Although I prefer the description of the stars as “the brain of heaven.”

“The Old Chartist” (1862) is a Browning-like dramatic monologue, not at all typical for Meredith, about an old political radical who has finally returned to England after being transported to Australia.  He still has his beliefs, and pride, and can still enjoy a walk in the field, where he comes across a kindred soul, a muskrat:

His seat is on a mud-bank, and his trade
    Is dirt:- he’s quite contemptible; and yet
The fellow’s all as anxious as a maid
    To show  a decent dress, and dry the wet.
       Now it’s his whisker.
    And now his nose, and ear: he seem to get
        Each moment at the motion brisker!

A humane poem about an old man watching a muskrat wash himself.

But Meredith is usually more abstract in his nature writing (from “Ode to the Spirit of Earth in Autumn,” 1862):

Behold, in yon stripped Autumn, shivering grey,
    Earth knows no desolation.
    She smells regeneration
    In the moist breath of decay.

If I were a different, better reader of poetry, I would memorize these lines and trot them out every October to the gradually increasing annoyance of meine Frau.

“Love in the Valley” (1883), now this is an interesting poem, a love poem where the valley is as interesting as, somehow mingled with, the young woman:

Lovely are the curves of the white owl sweeping
   Wavy in the dusk lit by one large star.

The woman, the love object is mentioned in the previous line, so the loveliness, and the curves, are meant to be associated with her, too.  As Victorian poems go, this is one of the sexy ones.  “This I may know: her dressing and undressing,” referring, of course, to “Earth” at harvest-time, of course, what else.

This bit is pure sound and vowels, a ripoff of the Greatest Poem of the 19th Century:

Doves of the fir-wood walling high our red roof
    Through the long noon coo, crooning through the coo.
Loose droop the leaves, and down the sleeping roadway
    Sometimes pipes a chaffinch; loose droops the blue.

A footnote suggests that “the blue” is the sky.  Perhaps Meredith goes too far, bringing the doves back at the end there.  Perhaps he already went far too far with the second line.  I love that line.  Hoo can you noot loove it?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Doglike, hoglike, horselike now he raced - describing George Meredith's poetry

Wasn’t that fun, writing about those amusing Dickens stories that once were and could still be read and enjoyed by ordinary, non-obsessive readers?  Let’s make sure we never do that again.  Now: the poetry of George Meredith.

“Dirge in Woods” (1870) is a good one.  It will give both the right and wrong idea about Meredith.

A wind sways the pines,
                       And below
Not a breath of wild air;
Still as the mosses that glow
On the flooring and over the lines
Of the roots here and there.
The pine tree drops its dead;
They are quiet, as under the sea.
Overhead, overhead
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase;
                        And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
                        Even we,
                        Even so.

The first lines are banal but the moss is good and the pine needles excellent.  The move underwater is surprising.  The meaning of the end is a commonplace, but here musically expressed.

The right idea about Meredith: this is one of his great subjects, and this is his kind of thinking.  Nature as some sort of commentary on human meaning.  Thomas Hardy greatly valued Meredith, and I believe this poem shows the affinity well.  The inventiveness with form shown here is also typical, just as it is with his peers Swinburne and the Rossettis.

The wrong idea: the poem is short and clear.  A Meredith poem is usually long or cryptic or both.  Where Swinburne is characterized by a baroque too-muchness, Meredith’s signature is compression.  The ballad “King Harald’s Trance” (1887) is a good example:

Sword in length a reaping hook amain
Harald sheared his field, blood up to shank:
       ‘Mid the swathes of slain,
       First at moonrise drank.

Thereof hunger, as for meats the knife,
Pricked his ribs, in one sharp spur to reach
        Home and his young wife,
        Nigh the sea-ford beach.

I feel like words are missing, but it seems they are not.  King Harald, after a successful battle, becomes hungry and wants to go home.  Once he is home (I am moving forward), he eats so much that he falls into a trance (“Mountain on his trunk \ Ocean on his head”).  He can still hear, however, so he discovers that his subjects mock him and his wife has a lover.  The story will obviously end badly for several of the characters.  This is the mockery:

Burial to fit their lord of war,
They decreed him: hailed the kingling: ha!
        Hateful! but this Thor
        Failed a weak lamb’s baa.

And this is the king in the trance, a description of his internal state:

Doglike, hoglike, horselike now he raced,
Riderless, in ghost across a ground
        Flint of breast, blank-faced,
        Past the fleshly bound.

The king is animal and human, still yet in motion, flesh and spirit.  Pretty strange and possibly, at least in that dog-hog line, ridiculous, but interesting, in this sense exactly like Meredith’s novels.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"Mugby Junction" - shrieks and groans and grinds invading the ear - a Dickens railroad Christmas

“Mugby Junction” is the 1866 Charles Dickens Christmas story, or actually three stories, or in some sense seven.  The “extra Christmas number of All the Year Round” included four otherstories by other authors all in the same railroad junction setting.  One of the contributors was a popular writer of children’s books calling herself Hesba Stretton.  I am just noting the name “Hesba.”

I didn’t read those, just the Dickens, more good ones:  a decent ghost story featuring a haunted signalman, a hilarious sort of boast from “the boy at what is called The Refreshment Room at Mugby Junction…  what’s proudest boast is, that it never yet refreshed a mortal being”; and a longer story about a sad man adrift in the world but who finds meaning through the usual Dickensian stuff.

It would be easy to become distracted by the Refreshment boy (“It’s only in the Isle of the Brave and Land of the Free (by which of course I mean to say Britannia) that Refreshmenting is so effective, so ’olesome, so constitutional a check upon the public”), clearly the author’s carefully nursed revenge upon a life of railway station indignities.  But the long story, that is the interesting one.

The sad man is Barbox Brothers, the label on his luggage, his only souvenir from his business, “some offshoot or public branch of the Public Notary and bill-broking tree,” successful enough but meaningless.  We meet him soon after he has given it up.  Earlier in his life, “the only woman he had ever loved” deceived him with “the only friend he had ever made.”  Purposeless, he takes a random train, exits at a random station, and finds renewed meaning by encountering random people. including the young daughter of the woman who dumped him.

Now, what is interesting about this business is that it is an exploration of one of the greatest weaknesses of Dickens, the temptation to have a wealthy, benevolent bachelor solve the problems of his plots.  The device goes back to the beginning, to The Pickwick Papers, or at least to Nicholas Nickleby.  In “Mugby Junction” Dickens creates a plausible psychology for the bachelor’s benevolence based on a life of personal trauma.  Dickens had worked on the problem before, in A Christmas Carol and Bleak House and Little Dorrit – with a great deal of irony in the latter two – but never in such a low key, or on such a small canvas, or some other metaphor borrowed from some other art.

The other interesting thing about the story is of course the prose.  Much of the best stuff is about the railroad:

Mysterious goods trains, covered with palls and gliding on like vast weird funerals, conveying themselves guiltily away from the presence of the few lighted lamps, as if their freight had come to a secret and unlawful end.  Half miles of coal pursuing in a Detective manner, following when they lead, stopping when they stop, backing when they back.  Red hot embers showering out upon the ground, down this dark avenue, and down the other, as if torturing fires were being raked clear; concurrently, shrieks and groans and grinds invading the ear, as if the tortured were at the height of their suffering.

Etc.  Plenty more of this.  And when it is over, there is that monstrous boy in the Refreshment Room.