Friday, January 31, 2014

how strange it was - the Dickens sleight of hand

An English merchant living and working in Egypt, likely in the mummy export business, although he never specifies,  writes the strange story of how he was subject as a child to not just one but three conspiracies.  This is substance of Great Expectations.  We are all victimized by one conspiracy, the one where so-called grown-ups manipulate our lives – force us to go to school, prevent us from doing whatever we want whenever we want – for secret reasons of their own.  But Pip, the narrator, was by bad luck the target of two additional conspiracies that almost ruined him.

As a result of the conspiracies Pip is elevated in social class and has romantic troubles.  He also becomes monstrously self-absorbed, but that is perhaps an ordinary result of adolescence.  Eventually the conspiracies, all three, collapse in on themselves.  The usual childhood conspiracy is escaped by becoming an adult; the others end in rather more exciting ways.  A thrilling boat chase!  What is it with Victorian novelists and boat chases.

The narration of the central mysteries of the novels involves some of the most skillful sleight-of-hand moves I have ever read, invisible upon the first reading, obvious on the second.  Pip never cheats.  But of course he is writing from the distance of many years and knows how the story goes.  He knows the solutions to the mysteries.

See, for example, the penultimate paragraph to Chapter 32.  Young Pip has just visited fragrant Newgate Prison and is about to meet cold, beautiful Estella, the source of his romantic troubles.  At this point, Pip believes that there is only one unusual conspiracy at work.  Yet this is what the older Pip writes:

I consumed the whole time in thinking how strange it was that I should be encompassed by all this taint of prison and crime; that, in my childhood out on our lonely marshes on a winter evening, I should have first encountered it; that, it should have reappeared on two occasions, starting out like a stain that was faded but not gone; that, it should in this new way pervade my fortune and advancement.

Here Pip, and I suppose Dickens, is, a little past the halfway point, directly declaring the solution to the mystery plot but in a way that the first-time reader likely just nods along with Pip – “Yes, that is strange.”  Now, Great Expectations is not actually a mystery novel, meaning that the solution to the mystery will be handed over to the first-time reader two-thirds of the way into the novel, just seven chapters later, since the mystery itself is not all that important.

Still, here we have just one reason that a reread of Great Expectations is so much fun.  The magician is so skilled.

The last paragraph of that chapter is just one line.  It remains mysterious, even on rereading:

What was the nameless shadow which again in that one instant had passed?

It is a mystery to the fictional author.  It is the reason he is writing the book.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

soaped, and kneaded, and towelled, and thumped, and harrowed, and rasped - the hygiene theme in Great Expectations

I will go one more day pretending everyone knows what happens in Great Expectations, perhaps because they read an extended summary of it in 10th grade.  An orphan, a convict, Miss Havisham, the Aged Personage, etc.  And the defense attorney Jaggers, who “smelt of scented soap” (Ch. 11).

Dolce Bellezza put a bar of soap atop her Great Expectations post, accompanied by a description of Jaggers washing himself: “he would wash his hands, and wipe them and dry them all over this towel, whenever he came in from a police court or dismissed a client from his room” (Ch. 26).   The narrator Pip identifies Jaggers with “the halo of scented soap which encircled his presence,” mentioning it the first two times Pip meets Jaggers, in Chapters 11 and 18, long before he actually sees him wash.  Dickens is planning his book in advance, finally.

Jaggers’s compulsive washing is very close to psychology, the only evidence that his life in a world of thieves, murderers and liars has any effect on him.  I have been told that Dickens characters are flat, are caricatures.

Pip, as a young boy, gets a taste of soap himself, when he is first cleaned up to visit Miss Havisham – “I was soaped, and kneaded, and towelled, and thumped, and harrowed, and rasped, until I really was quite beside myself” (Ch. 7).  His sister attempts to wash Pip’s life at the blacksmith’s forge, like Jaggers’s among the criminals, right off of him.  She is just about as effective.

Dickens ingeniously includes a scene with the same action but the opposite meaning.  Joe is Pip’s salt o’ the earth brother-in-law, the idealized Biddy a childhood confidante.  Pip, elevated to gentility, is being a snob about Joe:

“O, his manners! won't his manners do then?” asked Biddy, plucking a black-currant leaf.

“My dear Biddy, they do very well here – “

“O! they do very well here?” interrupted Biddy, looking closely at the leaf in her hand.

[skipping some leaf-free lines]

Biddy, having rubbed the leaf to pieces between her hands, – and the smell of a black-currant bush has ever since recalled to me that evening in the little garden by the side of the lane, – said, “Have you never considered that he may be proud?”  (Ch. 19)

Pip is sensitive to odors.  From “the quantity of people standing about smelling strongly of spirits and beer, I inferred that the trials were on” (Ch. 20).  Inside, some prisoners “went out chewing the fragments of herb they had taken from the sweet herbs lying about” (Ch. 56), herbs brought in by onlookers to cover the horrible stench.  Pip has described the odors earlier, “that curious flavor of bread-poultice, baize, rope-yarn, and hearthstone, which attends the convict presence” (Ch. 26), and again when he visits Newgate Prison in Ch. 32 (“I beat the prison dust off my feet…  I exhaled its air from my lungs”).  Simple association with criminals, or prison, is contaminating.  Pip can always smell it.

A lot of the odors in Great Expectations are not so tied to the thematic center of the novel, or I do not see how they are.  Just a page after that last quote, Pip takes his dreamgirl Estella out for a hideous tea in an inn room where “the air of this chamber, in its strong combination of stable with soup-stock, might have led one to infer that the coaching department was not doing well, and that the enterprising proprietor was boiling down the horses for the refreshment department” (Ch. 33).

I believe that is embellishment rather than melody, but perhaps there is a running soup or horse or gelatin theme I missed.  I have been told that Dickens is wordy.  What abridgment would improve that description?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

a carpenter, who had once eaten two geese for a wager - or butchering Great Expectations

The problem I have with Great Expectations is that it was the first Dickens novel I read and yet it was not.  A mangled carcass identified as Great Expectations was mummified inside the 10th grade reader used in my high school.  What unthinkable horrors the editing vivisectionist committed against the innocent text, which must have been amputated fore and aft and middle for length and also, even worse, much worse, for reading level.  Fortunately, I have repressed most of my memories of my encounter with this freak, aside from a cartoonish illustration of an old lady burning to death, but I now – I still – read Great Expectations with the sense that I am brushing against the ghosts of murdered passages.

The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together.  An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.  (Ch. 11)

This cannot possibly have survived the censors – epergne! – and I fear that everything interesting was whacked, everything but the spiders.  They must have kept the spiders.

Maybe it was not as bad as I fail to remember.  I do remember discovering, when I read the real book, that everything resembling a joke had been killed off as inessential to the plot.  No way that last bit about the spider community survived.  So we poor, helpless, little ignoramuses were given a Dickens who was not funny, as if the design were to poison any further interest in Dickens, or literature, or printed texts of any sort.

So much of the pleasure and art of Dickens is in the unnecessary aside, the spider community, Wemmick discarding his white gloves in the church font (Ch.  55), the Gogolian funeral attendant “(a carpenter, who had once eaten two geese for a wager)” (Ch. 35), that last fellow only mentioned that once, as far as I can tell a marvelous example of pure play by Dickens.  Someone should write a 500 page neo-Victorian novel about that fellow.  And someone else should create a children’s picture book about the spiders and beetles who live in Miss Havisham’s old fruitcake.

I have been meaning to reread Great Expectations ever since I named the book blog, but instead read thousands of other pages of Dickens.  Dolce Bellezza gave me the shove I needed.  She decided to write about the cleanlinessand soap theme.  So that is what I will write about tomorrow.   Or maybe dirt and bad smells, because why else would Dickens need soap?

Monday, January 27, 2014

one verse led on to another verse,\ one poem led on to the other poem - the Poetic Edda

I have been working backwards here.  The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Icelandic poems written – likely, at some point, spoken – by various anonymous poets in the 9th, 10th, and later centuries.  The poems are the source material for most of the mythic and legendary material in Snorri’s Prose Edda and in the more fantastic sagas like Hrolf Kraki and Volsungs.

The Poetic Edda is not the source for the “historical” sagas, so no Burnt Njal or Erik the Red discovering America here.  Just Thor and Siegfried and the like.  I guess this is obvious from the dates.

Compared to Old Icelandic prose, the Poetic Edda is difficult: fragmented, corrupt, cryptic, and the province of linguists.  Any decent edition will be footnote-heavy.  The poems take a little bit of work, although no more than their Old English contemporaries, and Beowulf aside, I think they are more rewarding.

There is the mythological stuff – see Thor go fishing for the Midgard Serpent:

Doughtily drew        undaunted Thór
onboard the boat        the baneful worm;
his hammer hit        the high hair-fell
of greedy Garms’s        grisly brother.  (“The Lay of Hymir,” 87)

That stanza only needed two footnotes.

But often the effect is completely different, a moment isolated from a familiar story for a particular emotional effect, as in “The First Lay of Guthrún,” the title character’s lament for her slain husband Sigurth:

Erst Gjúki’s daughter        unto death was nigh,
as o’er Sigurth she sate    sorrowfully;
she whimpered not,        nor her hands she wring,
nor wept, either,        as do women else.

Went to the widow        wise earls kindly,
the heavy heart        of her to ease;
nor yet Guthrún        her grief could weep,
in her bosom though        her heart would burst.  (247)

Because of the Niebelungenlied I most strongly associate this character with Guthrún’s (Kriemhild’s) revenge for her husband’s death, so it is moving to focus even for the length of a poem on the depth of her grief.  Tennyson wrote a fine short poem, “Home They Brought Her Warrior Dead,” that was inspired by this lay.

Book bloggers will be inspired by this verse, from “The Sayings of Hár”:

Know’st how to write,        know’st how to read,
know’st how to stain,        how to understand,
know’st how to ask,        know’st how to offer,
know’st how to supplicate,        know’st how to sacrifice?  (37)

Do I ever!  As an earlier stanza says, “one verse led on       to another verse,\ one poem led on     to the other poem” (36).  Story of my life.

Penguin has a version of the Poetic Edda with a new, pretty cover, tied into the Hobbit movie somehow, but I read Lee Hollander’s great 1962 translation.  I have noticed that a number of reviewers on Amazon ding it for archaicisms, which adds to the effort.  They are right.  Hollander uses the full resources of the English language to remarkable effect.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The friend of men gives the wolf a very great deal of corpse-beer. - Snorri Sturulson's Edda

Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, written early in the 13th century, should not be a book anyone reads any more, anyone who is not a linguist specializing in Norse languages.  It is a textbook, for pity’s sake.  Why would I read an eight hundred year old textbook.

The prose Edda is a textbook in Viking poetics.  The last third of the book, for example, is a praise song to the Norwegian king written in every available stanzaic form (“Here the first and third lines have two extra syllables at the beginning which characterize the form, and if they are subtracted then what remains is as dróttkvætt, and from the second and fourth lines…” 202-3).  In one sense a tour de force, in another pure tedium.

So that is not why I read the Edda.

The first two-thirds contain the bulk of Norse mythology.  Creation myths, the pantheon of gods and their adventures, early heroes.  Yggdrasil the world-tree and its adorable squirrel Ratatosk.  The creation of man by a cow:

Then spoke Gangleri: ‘What did the cow feed on?’

High said: ‘It licked the rime-stones, which were salty.  And the first day as it licked stones there came from the stones in the evening a man’s hair, the second day a man’s head, the third day a complete man was there.  (11)

Thor’s journey to the castle of Utgard-Loki is here, easily one of the greatest fantasy stories of all time, an old gnarled root of the current genre.  Thor in the giant’s glove, Thor drinking the sea, all of that good stuff.  I wonder how many young fans of the comic book hero have made their way back to this stuff.  The story of how the trickster god Loki had sex with a horse and gave birth to the eight-legged Sleipnir, greatest horse of all time, is also here.

The long middle section of the Edda turns to poetics, explicating the unique feature of Viking prosody, the kennings, the elaborate metaphorical substitutions that turn Icelandic poems into puzzles, as:

The bow-shaker generous with wealth knows how to prepare the wolves a feast.  The battle-keen lord lets the wolf’s kin rejoice in prey.  The friend of men gives the wolf a very great deal of corpse-beer.  (174)

All three lines say the same thing: “The king won the battle.”  But the Viking skalds say it better.  “Corpse-beer,” that’s great.  Snorri catalogues all of these poetic substitutions, for ships, the sea, gods, men (trees stand in for men), gold, everything.  The metaphors often require stories, so this section may need to be skimmed – it is awfully repetitive – but should not be skipped.

“What is the reason for gold being called otter-payment?” (99)  The answer to this question turns out to be the story of Siegfried and the Rhine-gold, the story of The Saga of the Volsungs, the Niebelungenlied, and Richard Wagner’s Ring operas, told by Snorri in a crisp six pages.  A couple pages later we learn “Why is gold called Kraki’s seed,” a story I also read in The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki.  The author  of the later saga got his story from the Edda.

Nancy Marie Brown has written a book about Snorri, Song of the Vikings, that I perhaps should read.  I have been enjoying her blog, God of Wednesday, quite a lot.  It perhaps nudged me towards this Scandinavian run.  This post on the murder of Snorri was a good one.

I read the Anthony Faulkes translation of Snorri’s Edda, the 1987 Everyman paperback.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Time passed and nothing noteworthy took place - The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, written in the 14th century, author Icelandic but otherwise unknown.  Although not of the quality of the finest Icelandic sagas, it is great fun and might well make an ideal Starter Saga for anyone curious but not that curious.  It is, for example, only 78 pages long in the Penguin Classics edition (tr. Jesse L. Byock).  And part of it stars Beowulf, here known as Bodvar Bjarki, the bear-warrior.

The line I put in the title can be found on page 36, and is not typical.  This one, from two pages later, is:  “The queen is a great troll.”  In this saga that is meant more or less literally.  Or how about this:

A little while later she fell ill and gave birth to a boy, though of an extraordinary kind.  He was a man above the navel, but an elk below that.  He was named Elk-Frodi.  She bore another son, who was named Thorir.  He had dog’s feet from his insteps down.  Because of this he was called Thorir Hound’s Foot; otherwise he was the most handsome of men.  A third boy was born, and this one was the most promising.  He was named Bodvar and there was no blemish on him.  Bera loved Bodvar the most.  (40)

I do not think it is an aspersion on the Old English Beowulf to say that it would be even better is its hero had an older brother who was half elk.  The father is a werebear, and then the mother – well, see for yourself.  What I mean is, there is a logical explanation for those trollish children.

Some sagas have almost no supernatural material at all, and one of the best, Grettir’s Saga, has a lot but is fascinatingly ambivalent about its ghosts and monsters.  King Hrolf Kraki is closer to a pure fantasy adventure, even if many of the kings and heroes have some connection to historic figures.  Distant history, though, when witches and trolls were out and about more.

A scene you have to read to believe is Bodvar’s introduction to King Hrolf at his great hall, before the fight with Grendel that I know from Beowulf:

he heard a noise coming from somewhere in the corner.  Bodvar looked in that direction and saw a man’s hand emerging from a huge pile of bones lying there.  The hand was very black.  (48)

This fellow has been living in a pile of bones that the king’s warriors throw at him during banquets.  He has been busy trying to turn them into a fort to protect him from the hurled bones.  Bodvar rescues the target.  The first thing Bodvar does is throw him in the lake (see above, “very black”).

This  sounds like invention, but a footnote says: “Throwing bones was apparently one of the rowdier games played at feasts, and killing by bone-throwing is specifically listed as an offence in a number of medieval Scandinavian law codes,”  (83).   So it is merely insane.

Jean of Howling Frog Books read this saga recently and made it sound fun, which it is.  The Penguin Classics edition includes diagrams of archaeological digs of Viking great halls, giving a hint about how the book is now taught.  Me, I read it for the werebears and the bone-throwing.

Anyone with a taste for a longer saga should read Njal’s Saga along with me and Alison of The Congeries.  I am aiming for the last week of February.  A little over 300 pages in 159 chapters.  Often called the best of the bunch.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The sepia saga business - De Waal borrows Sebald's voice

What Sebald did for me was to say that a particular voice was allowed.  That voice was very internal, very quiet and credible across a whole piece of writing.  I think I learnt that entirely from reading Sebald.

Edmund de Waal did a little interview with a “pick five books” theme.  W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz was one of them; see above for why.

It is possible that I could write another post about de Waal and Walter Benjamin, another of his five picks, if only I had read Benjamin.

From the quotations I used yesterday, I would not guess that de Waal was especially Sebaldian, but he has more than one rhetorical mode, and at least one of them is the one he describes in the interview, Sebald played on a less complex instrument.  This is aside from common interests in modern European history, or the meaning of objects, or the meaning of loss.  De Waal has separated himself from Sebald enough to put captions on the images he uses, although he is writing non-fiction, which has different standards.

Some odd coincidences pop out.  De Waal’s great uncle, the one from whom he inherits the netsuke, was homosexual (a word never used by de Waal).  He finds a home, a career, and a companion, a husband, in Japan after World War II.  Part Four of The Hare with Amber Eyes is a portrait of the marriage of Iggie and Jiro, “my Japanese uncle.”

They explored Japan together, travelling to an inn that specialized in river trout one weekend; to a town on the coast for an autumn matsuri, a jostling parade of red-and-gold floats…  But music was closest to the heart of their life together…

And this is the fourth resting-place of the netsuke.  It is a vitrine in a sitting-room in post-war Tokyo looking out across a bed of clipped camellias, where the netsuke are washed late at night by waves of Gounod’s Faust, played loud.  (310-11)

This text is above a photo of the two smiling men, the young Jiro’s hand on the balding Iggie’s shoulder.  You can see it at de Waal’s website, along with a shot of Iggie and his vitrine.

Readers familiar with The Emigrants will likely find it hard to escape an overlay of the section of that books about Sebald’s great uncle, Ambros Adelwarth, and its narrative about his gay marriage before the fact, including this weird intersection:

Once, at Mamaroneck, said Aunt Fini, Uncle Adelwarth spent all of one afternoon telling me about his time in Japan.  But I no longer remember what he told me.  Something about paper walls, I think, about archery, and a good deal about evergreen laurel, myrtle and wild camellia.  (79)

The next page has a photo of a pagoda built over a lake, perhaps that “floating and well-nigh empty house” where Adelwarth lived for a time with his Japanese lover.

Why does de Waal need Sebald’s help?  Because he is not a writer. 

I know that my family were Jewish, of course, and I know they were staggeringly rich, but I really don’t want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss.  And I certainly don’t want to turn Iggie into an old great-uncle in his study, a figure like Bruce Chatwin’s Utz, handing over the family story, telling me: Go, be careful.

It could write itself, I think, this kind of story.  A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin.  (15)

This is early.  De Waal has not even started researching the book.  He is expressing his fear about how to tell the story he wants to tell, how to avoid all of the clichés and received ideas of the genre.  He needs to do a lot more work – the book is in part a chronicle of his work – and he needs a model for the voice.  He finds it in Sebald.

Perhaps a new set of clichés will form around Sebald as his style hardens and dims in the hands of his imitators.  Not yet, though, not in The Hare with Amber Eyes.  Of course de Waal does write a narrative of loss.  But it is not nostalgic, not thin.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

De Waal looks at art - a long-lasting, covert way of staking a claim for who you are

Edmund de Waal is a potter, so sensitive to the fell of objects, to their place in a room, to their use.  The little Japanese sculptures that give The Hare with Amber Eyes are purchased by a one of the great French collectors of Impressionist paintings.  The netsuke sit in a glass case along with

Two fans by Pissarro, solidly constructed of painstaking small strokes.  The Sisleys, the Seine and the telegraph wires and the sky in springtime,  The barge near Paris, with that loafer in the lanes.  And Monet’s flowering apple trees scaling a hill.  And Renoir’s dishevelled little savage…*  (67)

And a Morisot, and “another Morisot,” and “the other Renoirs,” and Cassatt, Degas, and later more of everything, including a Monet and, surprisingly, a pair of Gustave Moreaus, mythological scenes – Jason and Medea – done in gold and gauze, perhaps out of place among the Sisleys:

I realise that I am trying to police Charles’s taste.  I am worried by gold and by Moreau.

The Moreaus actually made me warm to Ephrussi, and they eventually work on de Waal, too. 

Charles buys what he likes.  He is not buying art for the sake of coherence, or to fill gaps in his collection.  (87)

So, also, somewhere among these paintings in Ephrussi’s study is a first-rate collection of Japanese lacquer boxes, a yellow armchair, and the netsuke in their vitrine, the case an object almost as interesting to the potter as the sculptures:

This is what I realize now I failed to understand about vitrines.  I spent the first twenty years of my life as a potter earnestly trying to get objects out of the glass cases in which my pots were often placed in galleries and museums.  They die, I’d say, behind glass, held in that airlock…

But the vitrine – as opposed to the museum’s case – is for opening.  And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric.  (66)

Incidentally, de Waal’s book must set some sort of record for the use of the word “vitrine.”

De Waal is foreshadowing the netsukes’ eventual move to Vienna as a wedding gift, where they find themselves in, if possible, more rarefied surroundings, making them a problem to be solved (brilliantly, it turns out, by the new bride).  The objects are no longer handled by Charles’s artist friends but by the Ephrussi children who are allowed to play with them and arrange them while mama dresses.  This kind of handling is also foreshadowing.  It turns out actual life uses foreshadowing and other literary devices.

Charles Ephrussi’s Paris mansion is gone, but in Vienna, de Waal is able to tour the palace, to figure out the layout and distribute the furniture and art. Then the people – how do they use it? 

All I can see is marble: there is lots of marble.  This doesn’t say enough.  Everything is marble…  Everything in this place, I realise, is very shiny…  This is aggressively golden, aggressively lacking in purchase.  What was Ignace trying to do?  Smother his critics?  (124-5)

But then de Waal discovers, in the ballroom, ceiling paintings from the Book of Esther, “the only Jewish painting on the whole of the Ringstrasse,” “a long-lasting, covert way of staking a claim for who you are,” and he finds his way into this house and this family, his family.

*  This passage is not written by de Waal but is from a letter by Jules Laforgue, who for a time worked as Ephrussi’s enthusiastic assistant.  Jules Laforgue, one of the great French poets, inventor of vers libre, that Laforgue, yes.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

There must be a trace of their hands somewhere - on Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes

Edmund de Waal is a high-end ceramicist and a descendant of the Ephrussi family, Jewish merchants and financiers who were never as rich as the Rothchilds, but were rich enough to marry Rothschilds.  De Waal wanted to trace the origin of a collection of netsuke he inherited, and the story led him to write an unusual memoir of his unusual family, The Hare with the Amber Eyes (2010).

I know that these netsuke were bought in Paris in the 1870s by a cousin of my great-grandfather called Charles Ephrussi.  I know that he gave them as a wedding-present to my great-grandfather Viktor von Ephrussi in Vienna at the turn of the century.  I know the story of Anna, my great-grandmother’s maid, very well.  And I know that they came with Iggie to Tokyo, of course, and were part of his life with Jiro.

Paris, Vienna, Tokyo, London.

At times, it seemed as if it were written for me.  The Paris of de Waal’s book, of Charles Ephrussi, is that of Marcel Proust, who borrowed some fragments of Ephrussi for Charles Swann (“Charles has become so real to me that I fear losing him into Proust studies,” 105).  Proust makes regular guest appearances, along with more writers (Huysmans, Goncourt, Zola) and every major Impressionist painter.  I had come across references to Charles Ephrussi many times while reading about Impressionist art.  How pleasant to be able to assemble the pieces.

Charles Ephrussi’s name appears not just in art journals and society pages, but in anti-Semitic writing:

The Ephrussi family comes up again and again.  It is as if a vitrine is opened and each of them is taken out and held up for abuse.  I knew in a very general way about French anti-Semitism, but it is this particularity that makes me feel nauseated.  (92)

And when the story moves to Vienna, well, we know and de Waal know what is coming.  De Waal never quite takes to Vienna, never can fathom the scale of his family’s life, their wealth or the size of the palace in which they live, or the catastrophes that crash into them, first a world war and then worse, much worse.  De Waal has a variety of rhetorical strategies at hand – social history, archival digging, personal story-telling.  For World War I, and again for the Nazi annexation of Austria, de Waal almost turns the book into a chronicle.  What would commentary add?

On 9th April Adolf Hitler returns to Vienna…

On 23rd April a boycott of Jewish shops is announced.  That same day the Gestapo arrive at Palais Ephrussi.  (247)

We know the netsuke escape the Nazis.  They return, by coincidence to Japan.  Civilization returns to the world, art returns.  The memoir is an artist’s firm defense of the value of art.

Christopher Benfey’s A Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003), a history of artistic and intellectual exchanges between Boston and Japan, would make an outstanding companion to de Waal’s book.  It is possible that I am the only book blogger who has written about it.

Side note to Jenny at Shelf Love: the answer to your “why” questions is “W. G. Sebald.”  Search for “quiet.”

Title quotation from p. 47.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Opening his wound at him and cursing him inwardly - Trollope and evil

Trollope’s Barchester novels have no villains.  They have some especially foolish fools, like Mrs. Proudie and Mr. Slope, but even these characters are presented with a certain amount of sympathy – start from their position, and take into account their pride, and maybe you would not behave so differently.   Certainly nobody is evil.  The same can be said for Orley Farm.

So Can You Forgive Her? is the first place I have encountered a Trollope villain, evil as Trollope sees it.  I mean something specific.  The novel has a character from whom Trollope withdraws his sympathy.

The bad man is George Vavasor, the cousin of the novel’s heroine, and one of the suitors in her love triangle, the fun and lively one.  The novel begins with her having jilted him once already, not because he is evil but because he is “George Vavasor, the Wild Man,” as the title of Chapter 4 tell me.

Incidentally, George is handsome but has a huge gash on his face, “a dark indented line down from his left eye to his lower jaw,” more dramatic than a mere scar.

On some occasions, when he was angry or disappointed, it was very hideous; for he would so contort his face that the scar would, as it were, stretch itself out, revealing all its horrors, and his countenance would become all scar.  “He looked at me like the devil himself--making the hole in his face gape at me,” the old squire had said…  (Ch. 4)

Somebody has been enjoying sensation novels.  “Vavasor looked at him angrily, opening his wound at him and cursing him inwardly,” (Ch. 60), ha ha, yuck!  Trollope is a half-hearted sensationalist, as he proved with the earlier Orley Farm, but he stole what he found useful.  One result is something almost as rare in Trollope as an unsympathetic character, a scene set in the past.  It is just a paragraph explaining how George received his scar as a boy, but it jolts:

when, in the dark, dressed only in his nightshirt, wholly unarmed, George Vavasor flew at the fellow's throat.  Two hours elapsed before the horror-stricken women of the house could bring men to the place.  George's face had then been ripped open from the eye downwards, with some chisel, or house-breaking instrument.  But the man was dead.  (Ch. 4)

The most ‘orrible thing I have found in Trollope, that is.

If George were merely evil, stained by that original killing, perhaps, it would ruin the heroine’s story.  Her choice between George and the stodgy fellow needs to be a legitimate problem, which is destroyed if George is simply a monster.  So Trollope has to show George’s devolution, which is interesting to watch.  The most curious feature is that George, who spends a good part of the novel attempting to be elected to Parliament, becomes morally worse the more successful he is.  This is psychologically acute.

It does mean that Trollope now has a Member of Parliament running around thinking about murdering people.  Here Trollope smooths away the difficulty:

The reader is not to suppose that the Member for the Chelsea Districts had, in truth, resolved to gratify his revenge by murder,--by murdering any of those persons whom he hated so vigorously.  He did not, himself, think it probable that he would become a murderer.  But he received some secret satisfaction in allowing his mind to dwell upon the subject, and in making those calculations.  (Ch. 60)

Yes, “probable.”  I suspect sarcasm.  And after George completely falls apart, Trollope does not treat him like a Dickens villain, the fairy tale creatures that are hit by a train or drown in the Thames, but rather like an ordinary bad man who does what many bad men did.  Trollope still has a little bit of sympathy to offer.

Friday, January 17, 2014

I'll be the late turnips! - Trollope's ebullition of gravy

Reviewing a later Trollope novel, The American Senator (1877), Tony of Reading List fame mentioned its fox-hunting scenes – its many fox-hunting scenes, I think – and was kind enough to describe a bit how Trollope uses them.  I was curious because Orley Farm (1862) had a long, complicated fox-hunting section that is close to the best thing in that book, and because Can You Forgive Her? has a fox-hunting chapter that is also one of the best things in that novel.

In his 1883 Trollope appreciation, James writes that “one may perhaps characterize him best… by saying that he was a novelist who hunted the fox” (LOA 1,348).  Poking at the topic, I concluded that I should not mess with the fox hunting until I read The Eustace Diamonds (1873), at the very least.  Those scenes do a lot of work.

How about, instead a picnic, all from the comic subplot that is best skipped.  Kate, a poor cousin (not actually poor, but with an independent income insufficient to live on) of the heroine has to live with her Aunt Greenow, who is wealthy due to a kind but mercenary marriage to an elderly gentleman.  The aunt is now genteel on her own:

“Jeannette, get me a fly.”  These were the first words Mrs. Greenow spoke as she put her foot upon the platform at the Yarmouth station.  Her maid's name was Jenny; but Kate had already found, somewhat to her dismay, that orders had been issued before they left London that the girl was henceforth to be called Jeannette.

Mrs. Greenow first act after putting on her mourning clothes is to rename her maid to make her more classy.  This is what I am advised to skip.  Jeannette is useful as a means  of filling in the reader about the plot, the competition of two men, a rich farmer and a penniless dandy, for Mrs. Greenow’s hand; the aunt, meanwhile, pretends that she is looking for a husband for poor cousin Kate.  The first opportunity to do so is at a seaside picnic, which features passages like this:

She had in her hand an outspread clean napkin, and she wore fastened round her dress a huge coarse apron, that she might thus be protected from some possible ebullition of gravy, or escape of salad mixture, or cream; but in other respects she was clothed in the fullest honours of widowhood.  She had not mitigated her weeds by half an inch.  She had scorned to make any compromise between the world of pleasure and the world of woe.  There she was, a widow, declared by herself to be of four months' standing, with a buried heart, making ready a dainty banquet with skill and liberality.  She was ready on the instant to sit down upon the baskets in which the grouse pie had been just carefully inhumed, and talked about her sainted lamb with a deluge of tears.  If anybody didn't like it, that person--might do the other thing.

Perhaps I should trim that, but it contains the essence of Trollope the humorist.  Is “possible ebullition of gravy” a pleasing phrase?  Does the repetition heighten the joke, or kill it?  Note that the second, third, and much of the fourth sentences say exactly the same thing.  The play is in the rhetorical variation.  The mention of the time since her husband’s death is a running joke.  If Mrs. Greenow says she has been a widow for four months, the true figure is likely two months.  The sooner the period of mourning is over , the sooner she can remarry.

The late husband is a lamb here, but soon enough  he is turned into animal feed by the farmer in pursuit of the widow:

“I never knew what was the good of being unhappy.  If I find early mangels don't do on a bit of land, then I sow late turnips; and never cry after spilt milk.  Greenow was the early mangels; I'll be the late turnips.  Come then, say the word.  There ain't a bedroom in my house,--not one of the front ones,--that isn't mahogany furnished!”  (Ch. 8)

I believe this is the first proposal scene, the first of many in the novel, and we are only in Chapter 8, much too early for Farmer Cheesacre’s appealing offer to be accepted.

I find all of this and much more awfully funny.  So I keep reading Trollope.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

I suppose I should summarize Can You Forgive Her? - three love triangles, that's the summary - She was a jilt!

Can You Forgive Her? is built from three love triangles, each featuring one fellow who is a solid citizen, wealthy and dullish, and the other indigent, dangerous, but perhaps more fun, at least for a time.  In the main story, the A plot, sensible Alice Vavasor does not just waver between the two types, but gets engaged to them, or keeps becoming engaged and then breaking the engagement.  The entire interest of the story comes from the fact that Alice is not flighty or careless, but rather the reverse, yet she still makes a series of serious errors in the way she deals with her two suitors.

This plot shows Trollope at his best as a psychological novelist.  I might wince as Alice makes a mistake, but I have spent enough time in her thoughts to understand her decision.  The reader who finds her choices false will likely find much of the novel a failure, and even a snooze.  Why spend so much time hashing through Alice’s thoughts and emotions if none of it makes any sense?  But I thought the story of a rational woman wrestling with her pride made sense.

I doubt too many readers today feel the social weight of her dilemma too much anymore.  Here Alice is with her grandfather:

“And that's the meaning of your jilting Mr. Grey, is it?”

Poor Alice!  It is hard to explain how heavy a blow fell upon her from the open utterance of that word!  Of all words in the language it was the one which she now most dreaded.  She had called herself a jilt, with that inaudible voice which one uses in making self-accusations; – but hitherto no lips had pronounced the odious word to her ears.  Poor Alice!  She was a jilt; and perhaps it may have been well that the old man should tell her so.  (Ch. 32)

“Jilt” is obviously not a dirty word, since Trollope can use it in a Victorian novel, but it had no weight for me.  Jilt a half dozen more men, what do I care.  The conflict that is still meaningful is the internal one.

The B plot is not introduced until a quarter of the way into the novel.  A quarter is 200 pages, so it took its time.  Young, beautiful, emotional Lady Glencora is not only regretting her marriage to a perfect gentleman, but is even tempted to run off with her dissolute first love, Burgo Fitzgerald (apparently not meant to be a silly name), even if he gambles her money away, runs around with other women, and in the end breaks her heart.

I think this is the first time in Trollope that I have encountered a mercenary marriage from the inside.  Minor characters were previously allowed to marry for money, but not anyone I was supposed to care about.  Lady Glencora is easily the most lively character in the novel, and the one most likely to say something interesting.  So I will abandon her here.  She will reappear in later Trollope novels.

The final triangle, the C plot, is comic relief, the romance of a newly widowed woman, now rich, trailing a pair of ridiculous men behind her.  I read an old Oxford University Press edition of the novel which has a 1948 introduction by Sir Edward Marsh, who I think might himself be a Trollope character.  He calls the battle between Captain Bellfield and farmer Cheesacre for the hand and bank account of Mrs. Greenow

a blot on the novel – farce at its lowest, and even if it were amusing, quite out of keeping with the other two; but luckily it is easily detachable, and I strongly advise anyone reading the book for the first time to skip it ruthlessly.  (bold mine, first page of Preface)

Anyone with a sense of laughter will say nuts to that.  Marsh hates the silly names, too.  Why would you have someone with no sense of humor write the introduction to a Trollope novel? 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"I was thinking of getting Blowehard to come. That other man, Flutey, wouldn't do at all." - Trollope betrays his sacred office

This new novel of Mr. Trollope’s has nothing to teach us either about Mr. Trollope himself as a novelist, about English society as a theme for the novelist, or, failing information on these points, about the complex human heart.  Take any one of his former tales, change the names of half the characters, leave the others standing, and transpose the incidents, and you will have “Can You Forgive Her?”

Henry James reviewing Trollope in the Nation, September 26, 1865 (Library of America, p. 1,317).

In his reviews of Trollope, James is often wildly, bafflingly wrong – in an 1883 overview he seems to have figured Trollope out more, and  maybe I should point out that James quite young in 1865 – but he is funny, is he ever funny.  The part about changing the names, or not, that’s a good one.

With each Trollope novel, I have mentioned its degree of metafictiveness.  I should invent a five point scale.  Can You Forgive Her? is on the low end.  The Trollope narrator by itself obliterates any sense that the novel is something other than a novel.  It is not just his eavesdropping, his telepathy, or his nosiness but his frequent commentary on the action, on motives, and issues of the day.  On the one side, Trollope is scrupulous about staying within the bounds of probability (so-called “realism”), on the other he makes no attempt to hide the fictiveness of his fiction, even if he is not, in this novel, pointing to it like he did in Barchester Towers.

Fairly scrupulous, I should say.

“And, Mr. Cheesacre,” continued Mrs. Greenow.  “I did mean to send the music; I did, indeed.”

“I couldn't hear of it, Mrs. Greenow.”

“But I mention it now, because I was thinking of getting Blowehard to come.  That other man, Flutey, wouldn't do at all out in the open air.”

“It shall be Blowehard,” said Mr. Cheesacre; and it was Blowehard.  (Ch. 8)

The East Anglian musicians for hire Flutey and Blowehard are never mentioned by name again.  The prosperous Norfolk farmer Cheesacre is a fairly important character, the sweaty romantic foil of the handsome sponge Captain Bellfield.

To me the great joke is not that a farmer is named Cheesacre or a physician named Dr. Fillgrave, but that none of the other characters seem to notice that this is funny.  Of course in real life we find ecologists named Dr. Green and ornithologists named Dr. Hawk and phlebotomists named Dr. Blood, but we enjoy the joke.

How Henry James hates this sort of thing.

… there are certain precautions in the way of producing that illusion dear to the intending novelist which Trollope not only habitually scorned to take, but really, as we may say, asking pardon for the heat of the thing, delighted wantonly to violate.  He took a suicidal [!] satisfaction  in reminding the reader that the story he was telling was only, after all, a make-believe.  (1,342-3)

Now I am in the 1883 posthumous appreciation; James is still at it in “The Art of Fiction” in 1884, where he calls Trollope’s games “a betrayal of a sacred office…  a terrible crime” (46) and a derogation of the search for truth.

Trollope would have had a good laugh at this language, although he was not one for theoretical arguments about fiction.  I do not understand why James was so little interested in Trollope’s purpose.  Perhaps Trollope meant something.

I do not actually plan to spend the entire week using Trollope to ask questions I do not know how to answer.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

All that comfort and all that strength had left her now. - the uncomfortable Can You Forgive Her?

The title is from Chapter 36 of Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? (1864-5), the first of the six Palliser novels, and just the eighth Trollope novel I have read.

Curiously, in the last few days I have seen Trollope described as a “comfort” by two separate book bloggers, at Tony’s Reading List in a review of The American Senator and at The Age of Uncertainty in a squib about the very novel I was reading.  The word struck me because although at first Can You Forgive Her? seemed like more of the same solidly built Trollope stuff, enjoyable, maybe material for a little overview kind of post, as I read more I became increasingly uncomfortable.

Mahogany-furnitured bedrooms assist one's comfort in this life; and heaps of manure, though they are not brilliant in romance, are very efficacious in farming.  (Ch. 47)

The manure theme is, of course, one of Trollope’s fictional specialties.

As the novel progressed, the good-natured even temper of the omniscient narrator remained intact, often begging his readers not to judge a character too harshly for his, or her, obstinacy or idiocy or corruption.  The narrator’s very protests, though, suggested that I should be disgusted or angry with what was going on the book.  They suggested that the narrator was perhaps a bit angry, too.

“Perhaps it may be a comfort to you in your troubles to know that I am, at any rate, as badly off as you are?”  (Ch. 71)

It has taken me a while, but I am beginning to think of Trollope as a great satirist, mild compared to Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh, but at times as fierce as his mentor William Thackeray.  Or Jane Austen, another writer with fangs and claws who is most frequently read for comfort, available by means of ignoring substantial portions of her writing.

He was a man who required to have such comfort backed by patés and curaçoa to a very large extent, and now it might be doubted whether the amount of patés and curaçoa at his command would last him much longer.  (Ch. 47)

The satirist writes about fools.  The ranks of fools include everyone.  They include himself.  Like Austen, Trollope holds out the possibility that a select, fortunate few are only fools part of their life, and can with luck and effort recover from their idiotic mistakes.  The heroines of Can You Forgive Her?, as you might guess from the title, make some doozies.

Mr. Palliser, who may be regarded as the fox who had lost his tail, – the tail being, in this instance, the comfort of domestic privacy, – was eager in recommending his new friend to cut off his tail also.  (Ch. 77)

Compared to Swift, Trollope is an optimist.  He will forgive almost anyone.  But he does so through a strong sympathy for folly, human and inevitable.

The word “comfort” comes up a lot in this novel.

“It is such a comfort that it is over,” said the mother.

“You are the most ungrateful of women.”  (final chapter)

All week, Can You Forgive Her?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A review of Francine Prose's review of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch - "Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?"

Today I review a review of a book I have not read.  So many good ideas in one place.

The book is current sensation The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, an author I have never read; the review is by novelist Francine Prose in the New York Review of Books, January 9, 2014, pp. 10-12 (unfortunately subscriber-only).  The review is entirely negative.  Prose is dismayed by Tartt’s novel.

Because I have an ideally equable critical temperament, if I were to read The Goldfinch, which given its 2013 publication date and 771 pages is unlikely, I would surely enjoy its pleasures and wince at its faults.  Prose’s review is 100% wincing.

Come to think of it, I have never read any of Prose’s books either.  I would probably like them, too.  What is easier than liking a book?  All sorts of people do it every day.

Prose’s review is useful for the way it pins down an approach to literature.  I share a lot of her assumptions.  Prose begins her piece with an overview of the word “Dickensian,” misapplied to this novel she thinks (this part is available at the link).  Does the word mean “long” or “lots of characters” or “orphans” – and Tartt is Dickensian in this sense – or does it mean “the depth and breadth of his powers of observation, his cadenced, graceful language”  and a long list of other attributes which can be packed into one word, “style.”  All of us, Prose and I who are thinking of style, and others who are referring to content, mean “in the manner of Dickens.”

The Goldfinch is about an orphan who falls in with a bad crowd, a bit like Oliver Twist, including a version of the Artful Dodger.  He is not actually an orphan, but has a father who is utterly useless – if this is not in the manner of Dickens, nothing is.  Unlike Oliver Twist, the entire big book is in the first person, so a grown-up Oliver is telling his own story, making the book a lot more like Great Expectations.  A painting and a lot of stuff about fine art is in the novel, too, about as un-Dickensian a subject as there is.

I am picking this up from reviews, that of Prose and others.  But as I paw through the book (a library copy), I come across bits like “The night was a dreamlike mangle of past and present: a childhood world miraculously intact in some respects, grievously altered in others, as if the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come had joined to host the evening” (468) and

The other section of Honors English was reading Great Expectations.  Mine was reading Walden; and I hid myself in the coolness and silence of the book, a refuge from the sheet-metal glare of the desert.  (234)

Cute, right, the presence of the absence of Dickens.  But I have not read the novel, so perhaps there are as many parallels with and references to Henry David Thoreau.

Neither of those fragments sounds the least bit like Dickens.  Prose goes after Tartt for “sections that seem like the sort of passages a novelist employs as placeholders, hastily sketched-in paragraphs to which the writer intends to go back,” generic descriptive lists, and the frequency of clichés, although Prose is wrong about this point, since the character should actually be using far more clichés.  This is, after all, his first book, and he is writing a memoir, not a novel.  I assume this problem is explained away early in the novel.  Perhaps Theo Decker murdered someone.  “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”  The narrator’s name is, yes, Theodicy.

Near the end of the review Prose invokes Great Expectations herself, the paragraph describing Mrs. Havisham’s bridal banquet, which is cheating – of course The Goldfinch has no sentences that good – and a bit of Edward St. Aubyn’s druggy Bad News in order to highlight Tartt’s “careless and pedestrian language” and demonstrate “why I found it difficult to respond when strangers assumed I was ‘loving’ Tartt’s novel as much as they were…  Reading The Goldfinch, I found myself wondering, ‘Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?’”

A cry from the heart after my own heart, since I care about little else, but why should everyone else care about what Francine Prose and I care about?  I hope a book blogger who loves The Goldfinch is working on a five-part rebuttal to Prose right now – The Goldfinch in fact is well-written and ingeniously constructed, full of traps for unsuspectingly narrow readers like Francine Prose, and here is how Tartt did it.  I would love to read that.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The story of what had happened was written plainly - some Willa Cather mythology

O Pioneers! is pretty good as novelistic sociology – the mix of immigrant groups in late 19th century Nebraska, their speech patterns, their habits.  But Cather is also up to something else.  She is myth-making.

The protagonist is a kind of earth goddess, for example, in tune with the land, prophetic about the weather.  She is visited in recurring dreams by some sort of male corn god (“he was yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him”).  After the dreams, “angry with herself,” she gives her “gleaming white body” a good scrub with “cold well-water” (III, 2 for all of this).  Hmm.  Maybe this is why I was not assigned the novel in high school – too much sex.

The minor character Crazy Ivar speaks only Norwegian, goes barefoot, knows the language of the birds, and, to top it off, lives in a hole in the ground (“Ivar had lived for three years in the clay bank”) in a part of the country where the “wild flowers disappeared,” (I, 3)  Yesterday I called him a symbolic link to the Old Country, but he also appears to be a genuine troll, one of many who will appear at Wuthering Expectations this year.

Long ago I took a course in Greek and Roman mythology.  The professor at one point described his admiration for Willa Cather, based in part on her deep love of myth.  For example, he said, in one of her novels she borrows the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid (Book IV of Metamorphoses), in which two nitwit lovers kill themselves for no good reason, in the process staining a mulberry bush with their blood:

With that, his body on his sword he threw:
Which, from the reaking wound, he dying drew.
Now, on his back, vp-spun the blood in smoke:
As when a Spring-conducting pipe is broke,
The waters at a little breach breake out,
And hissing, through the aëry Region spout.
The Mulberryes their former white forsake;
And from his sprinkling blood their crimson take.  (from the great George Sandys translation, 1632)

The great Ovidian touch here is the ridiculous and sublime comparison of the jet of blood to the broken pipe.  And here it was, in O Pioneers!.

Cather borrows not the story, exactly, or only does so with a lot of distance, but the mulberries, and the blood:

While Ivar was hurrying across the fields, the first long rays of the sun were reaching down between the orchard boughs to those two dew-drenched figures.  The story of what had happened was written plainly on the orchard grass, and on the white mulberries that had fallen in the night and were covered with dark stain.  (IV, 8) 

In the next paragraph, the stained berries are mentioned again.  The slain lovers have been transformed:

two white butterflies from Frank's alfalfa-field were fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadows; diving and soaring, now close together, now far apart; and in the long grass by the fence the last wild roses of the year opened their pink hearts to die.

Those roses may go a bit too far.  This is what I meant by the foregrounding of symbolism.  How can you miss the interlaced shadows and pink hearts?  You are not meant to miss them.

Yet Cather merely brushes against Ovid’s mulberries.  No arrow points at them – “classical reference here.”  There is no need at all for the reader to recognize the story, and no hint that it is there.  None of the characters have any idea of it.  It is not worked in to the novel but just there, in a few lines.

What else did Cather hide?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature - the surface of O Pioneers!

Novels about Scandinavian immigrants to the United States are common enough to form their own little genre.  Karl Moberg’s Emigrants series (1951-61), for example, or Ole Rølvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1924-5).  I have almost run out of examples, aside from the one I read recently, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913), in which some Norwegian immigrants have trouble making a go of it as farmers in south central Nebraska, then do pretty well but have other troubles.

I do not know Cather well, having read nothing but her 1905 short story collection The Troll Garden.  I thought O Pioneers! was a bit on the simple side, told in plain language, plainer than most of The Troll Garden, perhaps meant to fit the plain people, or the Great Plains, with motives and behavior clearly explained and any symbolic material clearly foregrounded so that no one can miss it.  Cather famously opposed the use of her novels as school texts, and now I see why – O Pioneers! is perfect for the job.  Maybe a little too perfect.

It puzzles me why it was not used in my Great Plains school, not so far from Cather’s home town of Red Cloud, Nebraska.  We were only assigned boy’s books, and O Pioneers! is certainly not one of those.  Its heroine, Alexandra Bergson, is the strongest of strong female characters who knows her own mind, follows her own heart, saves the farm, respects difference, and is in tune with the earth:

Alexandra drew her shawl closer about her and stood leaning against the frame of the mill, looking at the stars which glittered so keenly through the frosty autumn air.  She always loved to watch them, to think of their vastness and distance, and of their ordered march.  It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security.  That night she had a new consciousness of the country, felt almost a new relation to it…  She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun.  Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.  (I, 5)

I hope it is evident enough what I mean by plainness, here mixed with some vague gesturing at meaning.

When I say the symbolism is foregrounded, I mean something like the use of this wild duck:

In this little bay a single wild duck was swimming and diving and preening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade.  They sat for a long time, watching the solitary bird take its pleasure.  No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that wild duck.  Emil must have felt about it as she did, for afterward, when they were at home, he used sometimes to say, "Sister, you know our duck down there--"  Alexandra remembered that day as one of the happiest in her life. Years afterward she thought of the duck as still there, swimming and diving all by herself in the sunlight, a kind of enchanted bird that did not know age or change.  (III, 2)

More earth mothery, but ducks are also used to pull a couple more characters together , linking Alexandra to the bird-loving Crazy Ivar, symbolic representation of the Old Country and its Authentic Ways, and linking brother Emil to the restless, all too tempting Marie.  “He snatched the ducks out of her apron” and so on, in Part II, Chapter 5, just after Ivar is mentioned making a pleasing, artful referential loop with the  duck theme.

The novel is certainly worth reading and easy to enjoy – for adults, I mean, not poor bored high school students.  But I am not convinced that there is that much more to it.  Well, there is at least one more thing.  I will save the Greek myths for tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Nikolai Chernyshevsky What Is to Be Done? readalong - if I hadn’t warned you, you might have thought that this tale was being told artistically

Literature can’t be all fun and Moomins, can it?  So in the tradition of the 2010 readalong of Herman Melville’s Clarel and the 2011 Anything Ubu Readalong Opportunity I am announcing the Wuthering Expectations What Is to Be Done? reading event.  Some of you said you wanted it.  I hold no one to any rashly made promise.

No, I am kidding, this will be fun.  And educational.  Mostly educational.

Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is to Be Done? is a radical socialist Utopian novel written while in prison, waiting to be tried for a bunch of trumped up nonsense for which he was eventually convicted and sent to Siberia.  Given that Chernyshevsky was in prison because as an editor and essayist he was seen as a threat to the state, the fact that he was allowed to write and publish What Is to Be Done? is almost inexplicable.  This was the novel that prepared the ground for revolution.  Its importance in Russian intellectual history is immense.

The novel is full of idealized people doing idealized things.  The novels of Jean-Jacques Rousseau served as Chernyshevsky’s models.   Another inspiration was Hard Times, but Chernyshevsky thought Dickens wasted too much time on trivialities like love and happiness.  Another great influence was Georges Sand, and the novel is openly feminist in the usual fashion of 19th century Utopians – if society is to reform, marriage and family must reform, too.

What Is to Be Done? was a direct response to the nihilist protagonist of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862); it in turn inspired Fyodor Dostoevsky to write Notes from the Underground (1864).  Dozens of other novels spun off of this remarkable chain of books.  Here is the problem:

I possess not one bit of artistic talent.  I even lack full command of the language.  But that doesn’t mean a thing; read on, dearest public, it will be well worth your while.  Truth is a good thing; it compensates for the inadequacies of any writer who serves its cause.  Therefore, I shall inform you of the following: if I hadn’t warned you, you might have thought that this tale was being told artistically and that its author possessed great poetic talent.  But now that I’ve warned you that I possess no talent whatever, you know that any merit to be found in my tale is due entirely to its truthfulness.  (Preface, p. 48)

I do not believe much of this is meant ironically.  What Is to Be Done? is, by most aesthetic measures, a bad novel.  Wooden, ridiculous, dull, ethically dubious, linguistically flat.  Yet it is not actually incompetent like these horrors recorded by Adam Roberts, books by authors who seem to have trouble with the elementary use of language.  Chernyshevsky is rhetorically sophisticated, at least.  Structurally, too.  The book can be read; I have read it.

Still, Chernyshevsky’s literary importance depends as much on Dostoevsky as on his own book.  He makes Notes from the Underground even more interesting.

Maybe I should have called this the Notes from the Underground readalong.  It is that book’s 150th anniversary, after all, and I will read it along with Chernyshevsky.  Maybe I should – no, no – take your vitamins.

No, read what you want!  Say that you are interested in the intellectual history but put off by the 400 didactic pages of the novel itself.  That is fine.  I recommend, besides Fathers and Sons and Notes from the Underground, something from the following list:

The “Russian Populism” chapter in Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers (1978).

The relevant chapter of Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982).

Chapter 4 of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift (1938) – the entire novel, really, one of the great novels of the 20th century, but that chapter, a fictional biography of Chernyshevsky, is detachable.  It is so detachable that it was in fact censored by its original publisher.  It is a strange story.  Nabokov’s critique is aesthetic yet also ethical – ethics by means of aesthetics.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Devils (1872) – he keeps returning to the subject.

Leo Tolstoy’s book What Is to Be Done? (or What Then Must We Do? or something similar, 1886).

Vladimir Lenin’s essay “What Is to Be Done?” (1902).

Erik McDonald of XIX Bek is actually translating a NikolaiLeskov novel that is another response to Turgenev and I think to Chernyshevsky.  Perhaps Erik will have more suggestions.

The quotation is translated by Michael Katz, in the 1989 Cornell University Press edition, which was brand new when I first read it.  Strangely, the first two English translations both date from 1886, and there is a later Soviet translation, too, but you are nuts if you read anything but the Katz translation.  The others are bowdlerized, for one thing, with some of the sexual material removed, and it would be ironic to the point of pathos to read this novel in a censored form.

How does April sound?  End of April?  This is a novel for the spring.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Preparing for the Tove Jansson centennial - just a colossal delight at being alone

2014 is the centennial of the birth of Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson.

Jansson wrote the Moomin books, which are in some important sense for children, and after retiring from them wrote novels and short stories for adults.  As a child I read The Exploits of Moominpapa (1950) many times, but never any of the other books, presumably because I never came across them.  Last year, preparing for the centennial, I read several more Moomin books as well as the three later novels published in the U.S. as NYRB Classics, The Summer Book (1972), The True Deceiver (1982), and Fair Play (1989), the latter all translated from the original Swedish by Thomas Teal.

I thought they were all terrific, Moomin and non-Moomin, in their own ways.  What caught my attention – what fit in with some of my other reading – was Jansson’s attention to art and creativity, a central subject The True Deceiver and Fair Play, a running theme of The Summer Book, and a surprisingly important part of several of the Moomin books, as when Moominsummer Madness (1954) ends with an impromptu amateur theatrical performance strangely resembling A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or when the free spirit Snufkin has trouble capturing a song in his head because of his irritating fans (“The Spring Tune” in Tales from Moominvalley, 1962).  But of course everything works out all right:

He stretched out on his back and looked up into the spring sky.  It was a clear dark blue straight above him and sea green over the treetops.  Somewhere under his hat the tune began to move, one part expectation, and two parts spring sadness, and for the rest just a colossal delight at being alone.  (16)

The end of this story returns at the end of the adult novel The True Deceiver, which features an artist who creates highly specialized books for children.  It is again spring, early this time:

Anna sat and waited for the morning mist to draw off through the woods.  The silence she needed was complete.  And when every bothersome element had departed, the forest floor emerged, moist and dark and ready to burst with all the things waiting to grow.  Cluttering the ground with flowery rabbits would have been unthinkable.  (181)

Rabbits covered with flowers here rather than big-snouted Moomintrolls.  Fair Play is about a mature lesbian couple, one a writer, one a painter.  Given the emphasis on silence, it is hardly surprising that the women keep separate, adjacent apartments, or that the book ends with this:

Mari was hardly listening.  A daring thought was taking shape in her mind.  She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility.  She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love.  (100)

The Summer Book does not end with an artist treasuring silence, so Jansson does not always end this way.

A number of other books, mostly collections of short stories, are available in England.  A lot of them are also about art and artists.  Jansson was the daughter of two artists; her brothers both became artists.  One of them helped her create a Moomin comic strip (which is, no surprise, pretty good).

Someone should do a proper book blog event for Jansson this year, perhaps in August around her birthday, with graphics and giveaways of books supplied by her publisher and whatever else it is people like, all of the things that I refuse to do under any circumstances.  The event would be popular and widely celebrated.

I do plan to host an event, possibly the least popular event in the history of book blogs.  Tomorrow for that.

The wonderful photo is borrowed from the Moomin wiki.  That is Moominpapa in the top hat.  Jansson is the one with a watch.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Denmark, Sweden, Norway - more Scandinavian books - I can't read all this

More Scandinavian literature, this time from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.  I won’t read it all, I am no kind of expert, I am stuck with English, etc.  But it is easy to get me excited about literature, so suggestions are most welcome.  And if anything looks appealing, perhaps we can read it together.


At the forefront are Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard.  The former I read in some quantity just before I started Wuthering Expectations, which was a while ago, I admit, but close enough that I doubt I will revisit him now.  The latter is, I fear, a philosopher, and thus spinach.  In real life, I like spinach, so that is just a metaphor.

More to the point are two short books by Jens Peter Jacobsen, the 1880 novel Niels Lyhne and the 1882 collection Mogens and Other Stories.  Jacobsen has had a strange career in English, kept alive by the glowing testimony of Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet, where Rilke seems to rank Jacobsen with the Bible.  I should see for myself.

Another novel, Pelle the Conqueror (1910) by Martin Andersen Nexø, I have meant to read for twenty-five years since I saw the magnificent 1987 Bille August film adaptation.  The novel will unfortunately not feature Max von Sydow, but it likely has other virtues.  It is long – the film only covered a fraction of the book – and grim.  I have no idea how it is written.

Isak Dinesen’s work is from the 1930s and later, but so many of her stories are set in Denmark’s past that she would fit well with the older writers.   I am thinking of Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and Winter’s Tales (1942) in particular.

By chance, unconnected to this project, I began reading the contemporary conceptual poet Inger Christensen, and I would like to continue my study of her work.  And I mean study – anyone want to help me work on her cosmic long 1969 poem it?  It (it) features elaborate mathematical patterns – tempting, yes?


Even poking around, I still know nothing about Swedish literature.  August Strindberg obviously tops the list, and I hope to read a number of his plays, ranging from the 1888 Miss Julie to the strange 1907 Ghost Sonata.  But there are also novels, stories, essays, some freshly translated.  Please, I beg you, recommendations, guidance.

The Queen’s Diadem (1834) by Carl Jonas Love Almqvist is a novel I encountered a year ago in this post by seraillon.  It is either deeply original, or a knockoff of E. T. A. Hoffmann, or something in between.  The Hoffmann connection by itself would give me something to write about.

Hjalmar Söderberg is another novelist I met through book blogs.  I have read a number of convincing posts about his short, intense 1905 novel Doctor Glas.  If I like it, there are a couple of other Söderberg books in English.


Henrik Ibsen, of course.  I have read six Ibsen plays, I realize, yet I still feel at sea.  I want to read or re-read a good chunk of them, although I will likely follow conventional opinion and ignore his early phase.  Critics are always dividing Ibsen’s work into phases.  Expect lots of Ibsen.

Knut Hamsun had a long, complicated career, but I know him from his early novels Hunger (1890) and Pan (1894).  Talk about intense.  I would like to revisit those and also read another from the same run, Mysteries (1892).  Then – then I don’t know.  Hunger would likely make my Top 50 Novels of the 19th Century list, if I were to make such a thing.

Off the track – far, far off – is Farthest North (1897) by Fridtjof Nansen, a favorite of min kone, the account of his insane attempt to reach the North Pole by freezing his ship in the winter ice.  Eventually, he just decided to walk.  Utterly nuts.  Sounds wonderful.

Now, some trouble.  Henrik Pontoppidan, Karl Gjellerup, Selma Lagerlöf, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Verner von Heidenstam, Frans Eemil Sillanpää – the early Scandinavian Nobelists, the ones who, unlike Hamsun or Sigrid Undset lost their place in English, or never had one.  I gaze upon these names in ignorant awe.

I have often thought that it would be a great book blog project to sort through these and other old prize winners.  I do not believe it is my project.  Yet already comments in the previous post have me warily eying a long, recently translated Pontoppidan novel, the 1904 Lucky Per, which sounds either like a standard attempt to move Naturalism into Danish, or else something much stranger.  Hmm hmm hmm.

Please feel free to correct my errors and recommend more books. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Reading Scandinavian literature - Iceland and Finland - Gapes the grisly earth-girdling serpent / when strides forth Thor to slay the worm.

While concentrating on Austrian literature last year, I concluded that I needed to know the work of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg better.  Then I started to think of other Norwegian and Swedish books I would like to read, then on to Denmark, and on like that, until I concluded that this would be the year of Scandinavian literature.

My Austrian project was a bit more thesis-driven, while this time I am more of a blank slate.  Just reading some books.

As usual, anyone who for some reason would like to read along on a particular book should speak up.  It can probably be done.  Scandinavian books are short.  I still want to stay close to my nineteenth century home, so nothing after World War I, please, although I have some arbitrary exceptions in mind and always make an exception for good poetry.

What has caught my eye?  I will tell you.  This will be in no way comprehensive, or even comprehensive-in-translation.  How could it be?  Please peruse the offerings of Norvik Press, publishers of Runar Schildt (1888-1925), “one of Finland's finest short-story writers” and “an observer of decadence in Helsinki,” or Elin Wägner, author of the “disrespectful and witty” Penwoman (1910), “the classic novel about the Swedish women's suffrage movement,” or Arne Garborg (1851-1924), “a writer who was left rootless and in conflict with himself, always searching.”  Who on earth are these people, and what is in their books?  Some interesting things, I suspect.  Maybe some of you already know.

I will proceed geographically.


Medieval Icelandic literature is like nothing else.  The sagas are a mix of history and fiction, public and domestic life, violent yet often quite subtle, that is unique, or that was once unique, since they have had so many popular offshoots, most prominently The Lord of the Rings.  I am surprised I do not come across book bloggers reading them more often, but I am sure the Tolkien fans have good excuses and will get to them soon.

I have not read Njál’s Saga (late 13th century), so that one is most tempting, but I urge anyone curious to try Egil’s Saga, the life of a sociopathic poet, or Grettir’s Saga (c. 1320), the sad tale of the last of the monster-killers.  What strange books.  Or of course the Saga of the Völsungs, the source for Richard Wagner’s Ring operas.

The collection of ballads known as the Poetic Edda (12th century) and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda (13th) are the primary sources for the Norse myths (Snorri may well have written Egil’s Saga too).  Fans of the recent movies featuring Thor will certainly want to read these (see post subtitle).

I have always loved mythological tales and have been reading versions of these stories since I was a child.  The Norse myths do not form as rich a literature as does Greek and Roman mythology – there is nothing as sophisticated as Homer or Ovid – but I have always found the stories to be as imaginatively rich.  Their use over the last 150 years or so tells me I am not alone.


The great Finnish mythological collection is a difficult case.  The Kalevala (1849) is the result of the efforts of  Elias Lönnrot, a country doctor who like the Grimm brothers collected folk songs and stories.  Rather than publish an anthology, though, he edited his collection into a coherent poetic epic, meaning that he wrote quite a bit of it and that the book is a hybrid of original and folk material.

Then again, so is The Prose Edda; so is The Odyssey; so is Genesis.  The difference is that The Kalevala is a recent hybrid.  I read a version of it many years ago, and would probably enjoy it a lot now.  My understanding is that the old public domain translations stink.

The one old Finnish novel I have in mind is Aleksis Kivi’s Seven Brothers (1870), about irresponsible agricultural practices, or something like that.  Again, the newer translation sounds necessary.

I have been enjoying Tove Jansson’s books a lot, but I want to save comment on her.  I guess I should save Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish literature, too, until tomorrow.  I hardly got anywhere today.  What did I miss or forget?  What obscure sagas should I read?  Runar Schildt, yes or no?