Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Chernyshevsky invents the Bolshevik - he would always eat apples, but never apricots

“It's the scene for which, I believe, the entire novel was written to bring into the world, the reason Nikolai Chernyshevsky sat down in his cell at the Peter and Paul Fortress prison and began the book” writes Scott Bailey.  It’s Part 3, chapter xxix, “An Extraordinary Man.”  You always know something is up when Chernyshevky gives a chapter a title.  With minor changes, the chapter could be an independent short story.

The story is the biography of Rakhmetov, revolutionary superhero. 

The ideal of the disciplined, dedicated revolutionary, coldly Utilitarian and even cruel to himself and others, but warmed by a love for mankind that he sternly represses for rear of weakening  his resolution; the iron-willed leader who sacrifices his private life to the revolution, and who, since he looks on himself only as an instrument, feels free to use others in the same way – in short, the Bolshevik mentality, for which it is impossible to find any source in European Socialism, steps right out of the pages of What Is To Be Done?  (199)

That is Joseph Frank again, actually from the same page of Through the Russian Prism that I quoted yesterday.  Chernyshevsky invented the Bolshevik.  Or Chernyshevsky plus Vladimir Lenin.  This chapter did a lot of damage.  On the same page, still, down in the footnote about Emma Goldman’s sewing cooperative, I learn that the anarchist Alexander Berkman, when he planned to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, used “Rakhmetov” as his pseudonym.  Imitation Rakhmetov’s began to pop up all over, including in Dostoevksy’s Devils (1872).  Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov (1866) is a relative, too, an inversion or parody.

So what is Rakhmetov like?  He is amazing.  Some quotations:

… he needed to eat beef, a great deal of beef.  So he did.  He regretted every kopeck spent on any other kind of food…

Therefore, if fruit was served, he would always eat apples, but never apricots.  (281)

This is because he only eats the food not eaten by but potentially available to the common people.  Thus he will eat meat pies, “[b]ut he wouldn’t eat sardines.”

The things he used to say and do on such occasions are beyond comprehension.  (284)
Yes, however rude Rakhmetov’s manners, everyone remained convinced that he acted as he did because it was the most sensible and simplest way to act…  In spite of this phenomenal rudeness, he was basically a very tactful person.  (286)

As a teenager, Rakhmetov works to become super-strong.  He is a wealthy aristocrat, but he works as a Volga river bargeman to improve himself, and is eventually capable of legendary feats of strength (279).  Later he stops a runaway carriage by grabbing “the rear axle.  He brought the carriage to a halt and then fell down.”  Had Chernyshevsky been reading Les Misérables, published the previous year?  Rakhmetov is as strong as Jean Valjean.  I will try not to mention it again, but Chernyshevsky has an obsession with upper body strength that appears throughout the book, often in strange contexts, people lifting each other over their heads for fun, that sort of thing.

When he hears about revolutionary political ideas, Rakhmetov becomes an instant convert.

He asked, “What books should I read first?”…  He acquired what he needed and then read for more than three days and nights in a row, from 11 A.M. on Thursday to 9 P.M. on Sunday, a total of eighty-two hours.  (280)

“[E]ight glasses of strong coffee” keep him going for a while, but eventually he “collapsed on the floor and slept for about fifteen hours.”  You may wonder why I am not more sympathetic with Rakhmetov – that is my question; that is just how I read! 

About a year before he vanished from Petersburg for the second and probably the last time, Rakhmetov said to Kirsanov, “Give me a rather large amount of ointment for curing wounds inflicted by a sharp instrument.”  (288)

Rakhmetov is testing his strength by sleeping on a bed of nails, like an Orthodox martyr.  He is preparing himself for torture.  Or he is a lunatic.  “’Now I know I can do it.’”

Because of the censorship, anything about Rakhmetov’s revolutionary activities are hidden, thus that odd bit about vanishing, but obvious enough that the publication of the chapter is almost miraculous.

Forget what happened later, and forget the reality of the character, which is non-existent.  Rakhmetov, a blend of philosopher, Orthodox ascetic, folk hero, and Hugo is an extraordinary, rich imaginative creation.  That anyone wanted to be him, that seems crazy to me.  But of course writers, critics and revolutionaries wanted to do something with him.  For a cartoon character, he is strangely complex.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Except for the sorrows, it was all joy - Cherynshevsky's guide for the collectivist small businesswoman

Vera Pavlovna has spent the first third of What Is To Be Done? escaping, with the help of the self-sacrificing Lopukhov, from the unbearable mother who planned to sell her into a loveless marriage.  Now, married to this selfless egoist, she needs to “get down to work” (173).

Thus, the dressmaking collective, a part of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel that fascinates me. 

“Your business must stand on its own merits and everything should be based on commercial calculation.”

“Of course it must” [This is Vera, replying to her dull husband]

“So what else is there?  Why do you need my advice?”

“About the details, my dear.”

“Tell me about them…  Details are determined by the particular conditions of each situation.”  (3, ii, 173)

What a bore this guy is.

Vera hires or enlists three seamstresses of stellar personal character.  She fortunately has a friend from the earlier part of the novel who is a high-class French courtesan, who helps them get business.  She is named Julie, after Rousseau’s heroine, and apparently represents the decadence yet continuing vitality of French revolutionary ideas.

Vera Pavlovna’s dressmaking shop was quickly established.  The basic principles were simple, in fact so simple in the beginning that there really isn’t much to be said about them.  (3, iv, 188)

This is because Chernyshevsky knows nothing, really nothing at all, about running a business of any sort, much less sewing or dressmaking. 

Therefore, it was only natural that the work proceeded well.  The workshop didn’t lose a single customer who had ever entrusted an order to it…  In a year and a half almost twenty girls were employed, later even more.  (192)

No obstacles or complications of any sort ever arise.  The women first pool and divide the profits, but soon begin to pool their living expenses, forming a buying cooperative.  Soon enough, they are all living together in a dormitory, eating communal meals, and organizing adult education classes.  They have voluntarily formed a Fourierist phalanstery.  Chernyshevsky does concede that all of this is “very slow” and required a “whole series of efforts” (195).  Occasionally a seamstress becomes ill or is dumped by her boyfriend.  Otherwise: “Except for the sorrows, it was all joy” (198).

The workshop, once established, recedes from view for plot reasons, but it returns with a vengeance near the end of the novel in a chapter much too tedious to quote from much, in which Chernyshevsky, perhaps worried he did not provide enough supporting evidence, proves mathematically that the collective doubles the workers income and halves her expenses, effectively quadrupling her income.  Twenty-five seamstresses, living together, no longer need to own twenty-five cheap two-ruble umbrellas but can get by with five nice five-ruble umbrellas.  “You see, each one gets to use a fine umbrella, instead of a worthless one for only half the price” (5, xviii, 383).

No, I will not quote any more of that chapter.  I pity the poor saps who believed this stuff.  Were there any, really?  Joseph Frank says there were many:

Innumerable cooperatives were also established. in imitation of Vera Pavlovna’s dressmaking establishment, among student groups in universities and colonies of Russian exiles.  Alas, not always with the same happy results. (198)*

I hoped for more detail, or a source, but Frank swerves to a related topic, only pointing me to an article about the sewing cooperative “modelled directly on Vera Pavlovna’s enterprise” (Frank, 199, note 6) established by Emma Goldman in her New York apartment!

I have made the novel sound so dull at this point.  That accounting chapter is dull.  All right, tomorrow, the superhero.  That’s exciting.

*  Joseph Frank, “Chernyshevsky: A Russian Utopia” (orig. pub. 1967), in Through the Russian Prism: Essays on Literature and Culture (1990), pp. 187-200.

Monday, April 28, 2014

They related their histories to each other in a reasonable manner. - Nikolai Chernyshevsky's stories

To my surprise, two people wanted to read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s bad yet significant radical revolutionary wish fulfillment fantasy novel What Is To Be Done? (1863) along with me.  To my dismay, they have written most of what I had thought I might write.

Let me catalogue these.  Scott G. F. Bailey wrote four posts:

Halfway through: “It's preachy and digressive and the prose is not great, but the prose is not as bad as I'd heard it was.”

What is not being done: Character, setting, interesting language.  “[A] D.H. Lawrence novel as penned by a writer of encyclopedia articles.”  A truly damning post.

Three quarters in: “This is the scene that launched What is to be Done? into its place as the most influential Russian novel of the 19th century.”  I’m going to write about this chapter even if I just openly plagiarize what others wrote.

Last thoughts:  “The last quarter of the novel is a mess, is what I'm saying.”

And here is Jean of Howling Frog Books, with a description I will not be able to top: “Sometimes I think it was written by an alien or something.”

What Is To Be Done? was written by one strange human, that is for sure.

One story that is in the novel, the one Scott develops in his series, is about a famous journalist, a radical idealist, who, while unjustly imprisoned on nonsensical charges writes a utopian fantasy which is as much about his own anxieties, about, say, his conventional wife, or his inadequate upper-body strength, as it is about social change.  The novel is full of meta-fiction and direct, mostly mocking, addresses to the reader – Laurence Sterne stuff – so the narrator is a central character, the only one with an interesting psychology.  Really interesting, I thought, comic and sad.  In The Gift, Vladimir Nabokov creates a Nikolai Chernyshevsky character much like this narrator, a sympathetic fool, and under Nabokov’s influence I could not help constructing him out of the text.  Scott was doing the same thing, but without Nabokov’s assistance, which is impressive.

We’re reading the novel as if it were written by someone like Gogol or Nabokov, with a self-revealing unreliable narrator, yet written with such conceptual purity that the real author does not allow himself a single interesting image or unusually good sentence.

A second story takes place outside of the novel.  Ivan Turgenev updates the old Superfluous Man to create young Nihilists, doctors who believe in nothing, not even science, and whose non-beliefs crumble when they fall in love.  Young radicals thought Turgenev was attacking them.  Chernyshevsky’s central male characters (besides a bonus superhero) are two doctors who do very much believe in science, progress, and reason, to the point that they often sound like Ayn Rand characters.  When they fall in love, they remain sedate creatures of pure reason.  See, old man, that ‘s where the youth of today is really at!  This is the stuff that made Fyodor Dostoevsky so blindingly angry that he wrote Notes from the Underground (1864), an inside-out parody of Chernyshevsky.  I imagine Dostoevsky grinding his teeth, pulling on his beard, spitting “People – aren’t – like – that!”

The third story is the fictional one, in which virtuous, heroic Vera Pavlovna escapes from her horrible mother, establishes a successful dressmakers cooperative, practices rational free love, and dreams of an imminent socialist utopian future.  That first part, with the mother, is the most conventional part of the novel, and is not bad; the sewing cooperative I find fascinating for negative reasons; the free love business is tedious but, I have to say to Chernyshevsky’s credit, genuinely, recognizably feminist, and not creepy, not the usual male harem fantasy; and the dreams are a major part of why people read (past tense, mainly) this bizarre book.

I guess making sense of all that is something to write about.  The title quotation is part of the tedious free love business, from p. 337 of Michael Katz’s 1989 translation.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Gautier's poems about Spain - Ruins of vanished races sleep

I have most appreciated Norman Shapiro bringing a readable version of Gautier’s Enamels and Cameos into English, but his Selected Lyrics volume also includes many more Gautier poems dating as far back as 1830, when the poet was 19.  I found Gautier’s verse more conventional as he grew younger (the book is organized backwards ), but how could I resist “The Hippopotamus”?

Javanese jungle-denizen,
Big-bellied hippopotamus
Snuffles from deep within his den
Mid monsters, some undreamt by us.

And so on.  T. S. Eliot, the goof, published a knockoff of this poem in 1917.  There cannot be too many comical poems about the hippopotamus.

Still, more pleasurable, and all new to me, are the thirty poems selected from the 1845 España, covering Spanish landscapes, history, music, painting, and whatever else caught his imagination.  The poems are more conventional than the Enamels and Cameos in that they feature some of the usual Romantic Spanish exoticism.  I note that Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen was published he same year.  But Gautier’s powers of observation usually ground him.  This is from “L’Escurial,” in which the poet see the massive, abandoned Escorial palace complex from a distance and compares it to the pyramids:

Everything would seem dead but for the flights
Of swallows, from their niches’ cornice-heights –
Kings’ statue-hands – swarming on pediments,
With fluttering wings, chirping their ecstasy
To wake him from dreams of eternity:
This giant, slumbering now, and ages hence…  (ellipses in original)

I guess the poet has gotten closer as the poem went on if he can see the hands of the statues.  I don’t know what the translator excluded, but this poem feels like it is part of a sequence in which the poet clambers around the Spanish mountains:

Ruins of vanished races sleep.  The ground,
Swept by great waves – biblical world long drowned,
Behemoth and Leviathan of stones –
Reveals a graveyard vast, tomb upon tomb,
Monster concealed deep in its rockbound womb,
Whose blocks of granite are the Titans’ bones.  (from “Higher I Climbed…”)

Spain is portrayed as a ruin, or as a graveyard, which it is, in a sense, as is every country:

Passing by a Cemetery
What is the tomb?...  Soul’s costume studios
Where, as they leave the theater, roles now done,
Actors – men, women, children, every one! –
Stop to return their rented acting-clothes!  (ellipses in original)

But this is exactly the kind of attitude a Romantic poet brings with him rather than an aspect of Spain.  In the opening poem, “Leave-taking” – amusing title; the leave-taking is from civilization, meaning Paris – travels to combat ennui, but learns hard lessons:

[Travel] proves to us that in the hearts most sure,
Most dear, forgetfulness holds sway; it shows –
O sadness next to none!  O bitter throes
Of misery supreme! – that one day you
Will be the victim of oblivion too!
Poor atom!  Mere minuscule nothing, cast
Aside and lost, lonely speck in the vast
Expanse…  (ellipses mine)

One might suspect parody.  But the interest of these poems comes from the contrast between the character’s mopiness and his clear interest in what he sees.

Slopes in the sun, flowerless, cheerless; rock
Granite-cliff, deep ravines carved in the chalk;  (“On the Way to the Miraflores Charterhouse”)

Or maybe it is something else.  There is a poem, “The Oleander of Generalife,” in which the poet makes out with a flower:

My laurel love, that shrub.  Each night I would
Take my ease by it, reveling in my bliss,
Kissing a moist, red flower-mouth! – Oh, could
It be?...  I pressed my eager lips, and stood
Awed, as I felt the flower return my kiss!...  (ellipses in original)

Now I want to read a complete translation of España.

Friday, April 25, 2014

A Gautier translation worskhop - Salut, yeux bleus! bonsoir, flots verts!

I am going to look at the end of a Gautier poem from Enamels and Cameos titled “Sadness at Sea,” a combination of sea description and overwrought Romantic sentiment.  The poet, aboard a ship to England, thinks about hopping into the ocean as a cure for despair, but stops when he catches the attention of a potential sexual conquest.

These are the final two stanzas.  The last is actually an exact repetition of the beginning of the poem.

Dans ce regard, à ma détresse
La Sympathie aux bras ouverts
Parle et sourit, soeur ou maîtresse.
Salut, yeux bleus! bonsoir, flots verts!

Les mouettes volent et jouent;
Et les blancs coursiers de la mer,
Cabrés sur les vagues, secouent
Leurs crins échevelés dans l’air.


And in that glance, arms beckoning me,
A Kindred Soul speaks to my plight
And smiles…  Sister?  Or mistress, she?...
Blue eyes, good day!  Green waves, good night!

The seagulls, playing, fly about;
And the white stallions of the sea,
Backs arched over the waves, shake out
Their tousled, windswept manes, blown free.

I like this quite a bit, both in French and in English, but it is also a good passage to see what the translator, Norman Shapiro, is doing.

1.  Shapiro includes everything.  The 1903 translation omits and adds, which to me are great sins.  Shapiro moves the content over with some efficiency.   The entire package of the fine image of the waves is intact.

2.  “And the white stallions of the sea” is an exact translation.

3.  “The seagulls, playing, fly about” is not.  “The seagulls fly and play” is easy enough, and “play” is a promising word for later rhymes, but the line is two syllables short.

4.  Gautier rhymes two strong verbs, “jouent” and “secouent.”  Shapiro rhymes two weak prepositions, neither of which are strictly in the original.  They are there to add syllables and to supply a rhyme.

This is my only real criticism of Shapiro’s method.  He has chosen to rhyme when Gautier rhymes, but to forego slant rhymes, which means that in practice he too often uses conjunctions and prepositions as rhyme words, which Gautier does not do.  At its worst, the practice leads to distracting enjambments.  I will go to “Symphony in White Major” for an example:

Dove’s feathers, white down that appears
To snow on manor rooftops?  Or
The ice stalactite dripping tears
Of white on the dark cavern’s floor?

Gautier ends lines with nouns and verbs and vivid adjectives, so each line of the quatrain, or each pair, works as a unit, and there is never anything like that break in the middle after “Or.”

My preferred solution would be to allow slant rhymes, but Gautier does not use them, so my preference is really just to replace one violation with another.  If we are trying to judge what is truer to the tone of Gautier, it is important to remember that my French is terrible, while Shapiro’s is expert.

5.  Even an easy rhyme guarantees nothing.  I will bet Shapiro had “distress / mistress” (“détresse / maîtresse) in the first and many subsequent drafts before he felt he had to give it up to solve some other problem.

6.  No translation that keeps the sense will capture anything close to the music of “Salut, yeux bleus! bonsoir, flots verts!”  This is the kind of line that caught the attention of later poets like Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé.  Would it be possible to compose entire poems with this kind of music?  Yes, it is, but not without a lot more luck or work.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Where stifled art might breathe again - Gautier's Enamels and Cameos

Théophile Gautier’s Selected Lyrics in Norman R. Shapiro’s translation is a book from 2011 that I did not read until recently.  I was waiting for the hype to die down.

Well, there should have been some hype.  Among the lyrics Shapiro “selected” is the entirety of Gautier’s 1852 Enamels and Cameos, one of the great books of French poetry of the 19th century, and what a century for French poetry.  A previous translation, from 1903, existed, but it is so bad that when I wroteabout Gautier five years ago I resorted to my own translations.  What desperation!

Shapiro’s might as well be, then, the only translation.  I doubt there will be another in the next 108 years, so this is it.

Enamels and Cameos has a funny place in English literature.  In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Dorian picks the book up just after he has committed a murder.  He is disquieted by a poem about a murderer’s severed hand (“Study in Hands”), then comforted when he turns the page to “Variations on the Carnival of Venice”.  Some of the lines about Venice are included in Wilde’s novel, in French, of course, making Gautier perhaps the French poet most read by English-language readers, if I take “read” to mean “grumblingly skipped.”

As the title suggests, Gautier’s poems are little, hand-crafted objects with little portraits carved on them, deliberately small and even trivial, beautiful rather than sublime.  They are perhaps partly a response to Victor Hugo’s poems, small Romanticism set beside his big, ambitious stuff.  They are also a reaction to the chaos of 1848, as he suggests in the opening lines:

Goethe wrote West’s Divan as men
Waged war to cannons’ blare and boom:
A cool oasis in the gloom,
Where stifled art might breathe again.  (“Preface”)

You can see here what Shapiro does throughout the book.  He keeps the rhymes in their place, no matter what he has to break to do it; he keeps the quatrains; he mimics Gautier’s eight syllable lines with quadrameters.  This pretty well takes care of the whole book (although the above poem is actually a sonnet).

The subjects of the poems vary as in any collection of miniatures.  Seasons, sculptures, women, their breasts, Christmas, the sea, “The Little Dead Girl’s Toys”:

On carpet and on table, there
Lies childhood wealth to others left:
Poor puppet, with his doleful air,
Arms dangling, sprawling, strength bereft.

Or the inexplicable “Symphony in White Major”:

Was it the milk-white drops astride
The winter sky’s azure blue dome?
Silver-pulped lily? Or the tide
Rolling beneath a froth-white foam?

White marble?  Cold, pale flesh, wherein
Dwell the divinities of White?
Silver unburnished?  Opaline
Glimmers flecked with brief bursts of light?

I seem to have found the statues, or the women, or both.  I think of all of these poems as miniatures, but this one is 72 lines and impossible to excerpt in a way that makes any sense.  But you can hear the tone of the thing, which is the tone of most of Enamels and Cameos, and which is also, to my sorry ears, pretty close to the tone of the real thing, Émaux et Camées, which is an achievement.

A generous chunk of the book is available as a PDF for some reason.  I think I’ll spend a couple more days with Gautier’s poems.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

We should gloat over a book - De Quincey and Stevenson make criticism personal

Thomas De Quincey, insists Pykk.  All right, all right.  “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823), less than two thousand words.  Here are the first 6%:

From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth.  It was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account.  The effect was, that it reflected back upon the murder a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however obstinately I endeavored with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.

To crush De Quincey’s masterpiece, what he is doing is trying to pin down a particularly sublime moment at the end of Act II, Scene 3, sublime in the Burkean sense, the aestheticized fear caused by “Sound and Loudness” and “Suddenness,” the titles of Sections XVII and XVIII of A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), although De Quincey, by making a devious argument about readerly sympathy actually inverts Burke.

We are almost tricked by the immediacy of fiction into sympathy with the now-murderous Macbeths, aided by the difficulties they are having in being evil, and thus experience the sudden, inexplicable knocking at the gate as fearfully sublime with the “transfigured” Macbeths, while at the same time the knocking is a sublime relief to us in our more ordinary human capacity as non-murderers, a merciful restoration: “the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.”

Well, I don’t think my mangling of this little masterpiece was too severe.  But I have skipped the point, and the long paragraph about how De Quincey made the above argument.

… my understanding could furnish no reason why the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce any effect, direct or reflected.  In fact, my understanding said positively that it could not produce any effect.  But I knew better; I felt that it did; and I waited and clung to the problem until further knowledge should enable me to solve it.

“[I]t is a dream-mystery, and a dream needs someone to dream it,” writes Pykk.  Now that his essay exists as a text, I can treat it as an object composed of an argument and supporting evidence.  But the essay’s insight comes from somewhere else.

De Quincey’s essay is a little too visionary to be a good example for me.  I will close this little series, then with Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Gossip on Romance” (1882), which begins:

In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.  The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.  It was for this last pleasure that we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in the bright, troubled period of boyhood.

What could be more personal?  Reading, says Stevenson, is a continual attempt to recapture a childhood love.  Of course modern readers, amateur critics, and bloggers writing their personal reactions and nothing but, nosirree, want to share that love whenever they are lucky enough to find it again.  Of course they want to gloat.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Paper Garden: an 18th century artist, and a biographer who gets in the way

The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010) is a biography of the 18th century English artist Mary Delany by the American poet Molly Peacock.  Delany’s form was paper collages of flowers, portrayed with a botanist’s attention to detail.  Botanists would send exotic specimens to Delany to “sit” for a portrait.  It was almost a relief to learn that she would at times use a little bit of paint, but every shape and almost every shade of color is cut from paper.  The book is printed on thick, creamy paper designed to show off the numerous images, but nothing can duplicate the texture of the originals.  I would stare at the prints.  Just paper – impossible!

The collages, now owned by the British Museum, would be extraordinary objects under any circumstances.  The book’s subtitle tells the rest of the story.  Delany invented the form at the age of 72, and over the next decade, before her eyesight dimmed, she made 985 flower portraits, individual, innovative, and strangely personal.  Glue, scissors, black ink for the background, and a portfolio of colored paper, and of course a subject, say the winter cherry on the left, which to add to my amazement also incorporates, in the lower right, an actual seed pod skeleton.

Mary Delany’s biography would be of high interest even if she had never made the collages, but the sudden emergence of Delany as a fine and innovative artist puts a frame around her entire life.  How, I want to know, did she get there?

Just the question Molly Peacock asked when she discovered the flowers and conceived of this book.  The biography is organized chronologically, with one of the flowers made to imaginatively connect to the stage of Delany’s life.

Winter Cherry is an analogous name for Mrs. D.’s whole enterprise…  a self-portrait of the artist as a single stalk of a plant, showing her at four of life’s stages: the green lantern of childhood; the fully dressed, bright orange one with slight hip hoops – young womanhood; the lower lantern with part of the dress removed to show the interior of the plant – increasing maturity; and the last lantern, the heart of the aged woman.  The fine ribs of the plant material make the skeleton of the former lantern into something like a rib cage, with the cherry beating inside.  (318-9)

Note the clothing theme; it runs through the whole book.  Some, perhaps much of this is fanciful.  The author is a poet.  She takes some wild leaps.

The wildest is the inclusion at the end of each chapter of her own memoir.  Awkward teen, parents, divorce, first poetry (late, but nowhere as late as 72), happy second marriage.  Some of these episodes have a parallel with her subject’s 18th century life, but obviously not all of them.  Yet Peacock often creates links between her own life and the flower portrait that heads the chapter, sometimes different, even unrelated links.

But artworks let us leap centuries.  Artwork to artwork, hand to hand, time falls away in the presence of the marvelous.  (229)

Well, sometimes.  The metaphor elides the effort, or strain, required.  There is some strain.  The memoiristic parts are always at the end of the chapter, and have their own heading.  They could easily be skipped or skimmed.  Why does the biographer weave her own life in with that of her fascinating subject?

I found the answer in Chapter 11, which is not about Mary Delany but about her great-great-great-great-great-great niece Ruth Hayden, author of Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Flowers (1980), the book that brought Delany’s life and work back to public attention.  Hayden was 58 when she completed the book.  Her formal education had ended when she was twelve.  Here, then, is another woman finding her “life’s work” at a late age.  Her story is not as remarkable as that of her distant aunt’s, but whose is?

How we have three women who took up significant creative and intellectual work at an unusually late age.  By pursuing a poetical conceit, Peacock is making an argument about the nature of creativity.  Some kinds of creativity, at least; her own, Hayden’s, and Delany’s. 

Who doesn’t hold out the hope of starting a memorable project at a grand old age?  A life’s work is always unfinished and requires creativity till the day a person dies.  (5)

Peacock describes her book as “a narrative collage in response to her visual collages” and makes clear that she did not set out to make a particular argument but rather discovered it along the way – “unconsciously Mrs. Delany’s invention of collage would seep into my own writing process.”  I am quoting from a letter Peacock sent to the book blog Alison’s Book Marks.  Is that not cool?

The Paper Garden  is a terrific book.  If Peacock’s autobiography were absent, I would not miss it, but I likely would, then, miss some of the larger meaning that can be taken from Mary Delany’s story.

The book has a website, with lots of links, including to the British Museum collection.

Also, see Rohan Maitzen’s review of the book, the kind of personal response for which the book is made.  Maitzen used the winter cherry, too.  It is irresistible.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A whiff of the providential - Austen and Eliot, for example, changed my life

Today I look at two recent books that directly mix memoir and criticism, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014) and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter (2011).  Maybe I should omit the subtitle so as not to prejudice readers of Wuthering Expectations, who are mostly thinking “yuck.”  Not the target audience.

I have not read the entirety of either book, but have rather spot-checked them.  I do have them at hand, so you cannot just say “Well, the part you did not read is completely different.”  I can check.

Deresiewicz’s book is organized with a chapter per Austen novel, while Mead has a chapter per Middlemarch chapterMead loved her book from childhood and finds that the meaning of the novel deepens as life goes on, while Deresiewicz despised Austen until he had a graduate school epiphany, after which he became an Austen scholar and began learning various lessons from Austen.

Love, I saw, is a verb, not just a noun – an effort, not just another precious feeling.  (158)

Sorry, I did it again, as if I am trying to sabotage the book.  Let me get this out of the way.  Deresiewicz is writing a graduate school memoir, which in and of itself is a mistake.  Graduate students are the worst (the link is to a 30 Rock clip).  Then the structure of linking the events of his life to a particular novel, followed by a series of character-improving lessons, is bizarrely constricting, even if true – no, especially if true.  Deresiewicz presents himself as one strange bird.

If I just ignore the memoir, though, it turns out that his writing about the Austen novels is excellent.  His plot summaries are outstanding, his character portraits swift and vivid.  They are clear, efficient, and expert at deploying details and quotations from the text with enough elegance that I at first did not notice how many little slivers of the book he was really using.  The above “love” passage is preceded by a one-page run through the importance of the words “exertion,” “duty,” and especially “useful” in Mansfield Park (157-8).  If I had written that page as a blog post, I would have been pleased.

He does this first-rate close reading, and then writes about how he began to hang out with some wealthy Brooklynites, which made him appreciate Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and learn that rich people can be jerks.  I don’t get it.

Deresiewicz’s book is memoir plus close reading (with some biography) – Deresiewicz constantly links himself to Austen characters.  Rebecca Mead’s book is really a short Eliot biography with her autobiography and some criticism folded in, so she more often makes connections with Eliot herself.  In the old days, if a New Yorker writer wanted to write an Eliot book, all of the memoir would have been compressed into the foreword or afterword.

This is Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Chace Family Professor of English at Yale, reviewing Mead’s book in the April 24, 2014 New York Review of Books:

What is nonetheless a bit disheartening about My Life in Middlemarch is the apparent assumption that literary criticism and even biography will be most appealing to contemporary readers when packaged as memoir.  In George Eliot’s novel, few words carry a more consistently ironic charge than “Providence” or “providential”…  Though Mead is scarcely under such a delusion, there is still a whiff of the providential about some of the connections she traces between her own history and Eliot’s.  (59)

Or, less politely, the memoiristic passages should have been cut, some of the connections are inventions, and the fault is likely that of an agent or publisher (true for Deresiewicz, too, I’ll bet).  The review is otherwise pretty glowing, although it is mostly about how deeply interesting Eliot is.  And really, at this point, Eliot vs. Mead is not a contest, right?

I think I will just point towards Rohan Maitzen’s recent review for more, including lots of useful quotations that show Mead’s skill and some of her better and worse attempts to justify the exercise.

Neither of these books is a bad book, and I can imagine plenty of readers getting a lot out of them.  But I can also imagine the shadow books where the authors got out of the way, with all of the autobiography moved to the end, for example, so the artificial demand for connections is relaxed.  Those books seem like they would be better.

Next I want to look at Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010), which does much of what I am complaining about here, but I think with more success.  That will have to wait until Monday.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Personal criticism - two case studies - Then a chastened being, I began my new intellectual career.

Now, two examples of criticism that blend life and literature, that as Arnold says successfully “create a current of true and fresh ideas” by violating “disinterestedness.”  The authors get in the way of the reader first, then get out of the way.

They’re both essays that I had filed away as exceptions to my skepticism.  I might grumble about excessive memoirism in criticism, but then think “Yeah, but what about…”

Rohan Maitzen’s 2010 essay on racism in Gone with the Wind begins with a 740 word account of her history with the novel over a long period.  It was a favorite book; she had read the book many times;  her life had moved along.  Then what looks like a nostalgic description of her thirty year-old paperback takes a surprising turn:

This is the kind of metadata an e-book can never accumulate—but then, an e-book would also not leave me with quite the dilemma I now face, whether to keep the book on my shelf or to hide it away, to own or disown it.

My reading of Gone with the Wind this summer, my thirty-second, was my first really honest one, the first one during which I unequivocally named what I had always seen.  

The remaining 4,800 words develop a careful argument about the ethical and aesthetic content of the novel based on the usual range of critical tools: close reading, historical context, comparisons with other novels, some theoretical help from Wayne Booth.  The argument is specific yet easily detachable from this particular book in the sense that it provides a useful way of thinking about any ethically problematic text.

Thus the value of the memoir.  Maitzen models not just how to interpret the book but how to live with it.  Interestingly, the memoir also becomes a source of authority, a declaration of credentials, necessary for such a controversial argument.  Certain lines of attack are closed down, others left defiantly open, almost as traps (“You’re not from the South”).  What looks like a biographical preface becomes a support structure for the argument.

Another favorite of mine is Judith Pascoe’s “Before I Read Clarissa I Was Nobody: Aspirational Reading and Samuel Richardson’s Great Novel” from The Hudson Review, Summer 2003, 239-53.  The article used to be online in a PDF, but it is now hidden in JSTOR, sorry.  Clarissa was one of the smash hits of the 18th century, and also possibly the longest novel in English.  The book is a bizarre mix of tedium and tension, moral uplift and depravity, pure stasis and bursts of excitement, or horror, or sorrow.  It is a sad, sad book.

Pascoe loves the novel, has read and taught it frequently (at the University of Iowa), which is madness, and wants the well-read Hudson Review readers to set aside a couple dozen other, easier, faster, lighter books for this “book with the size and heft of a two-pound sack of flour” (239).

Some of the personal history passages (like Pascoe’s  “escape” from high school science teaching) do not do much.  There is some creative non-fiction filler.  “It is January in the Middle West an people are sliding across the iced campus walkways, their faces freezing into death grimaces whenever a stiff wind gusts off the river” (247), although “death grimaces” is funny.  Jokes soften me up for anything.  But Clarissa is such an unusual book.  Pascoe is not just delivering a blast of enthusiasm but also showing, through her own story and that of her students, how a problematic book like this can lead to such enthusiasm, how this unlovable book can be loved, and how you, too can “be initiated into the exclusive coterie of people who have read Clarissa in its entirety” (247).

In moments of honest personal inventory, I realize that I may never distinguish myself among readers of Clarissa, but, still, here we all are: Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Mary Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Henry James, Virginia Woolf – along with Dan from Council Bluffs, Jessica from Cedar Rapids, and me. (253)

Back in 2003, this kind of personal advocacy was not so common.  I remember discussing this article with Rohan Maitzen at some point.  She wondered just how many articles like this a person could write.  It is a good question.  It is not just ordinary reading that make Clarissa or Gone with the Wind so important.  Maitzen has , in fact, written a couple more pieces along these lines, like this one about Josephine Tey, but this well can’t be too deep.  My deeply felt essay about the 14th most important book in my life will likely lack oomph.

To be honest, I doubt I could write even one of these.  But essays like Maitzen’s and Pascoe’s give me an idea about how to use the personal writing to guide me into the book.

Tomorrow: can this work at book-length?

Title from Pascoe, p. 240.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The great art of criticism is to get oneself out of the way - Arnold's disinterestedness

I am going to bend Matthew Arnold a bit today, but I do not believe I will break him.

A long chunk of “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” is devoted to the critical principle of “disinterestedness,” or rather an accusation that English critics lack disinterestedness, that the critics and their magazines are too concerned with “the practical spirit,” which sounds like it might be an ancestor of today’s battle of STEM and the humanities, but in fact is a reference to political and religious controversy.  Catholic journals  review these books in this way, Whig journals review those books like that, and nobody reviews writes about the books especially well.  Nobody in England – French and German critics are more effectively disinterested.

I do not know the extent to which any of this is true.  Arnold, or his followers, are moving toward some notion of objective and scientific criticism.  As Arnoldian as I am, I am also enough of a creature of my own time to know better than to argue for objective literary criticism.  Much less, Lord help us, scientific, which is not really Arnold’s word.

In a narrower sense than our normal usage, though, I will defend Arnold’s objectivity.  He calls criticism “’the endeavor, in all branches of knowledge… to see the object as it really is’”  (“Function,” Arnold is quoting himself).  Emphasize “endeavor,” which can come from many directions, take decades or centuries, give little more than glimpses even after great effort, and often fail entirely, and we are not so far from the common usage of “subjectivity.”

To try and approach truth on one side after another, not to strive and cry, nor to persist in pressing forward, on any one side, with violence and self-will, – it is only thus, it seems to me, that mortals may hope to gain any vision of the mysterious Goddess, whom we shall never see except in outline, but only thus even in outline.  (“Preface” to Essays and Criticism)

Not one side or another, but one side after another.  Arnold uses words like “perfection” and “truth” and, snort, “mysterious Goddess,” in ways that would not be useful now, but passages like this one remind me that much of the difference between his idea of good criticism and mine are largely rhetorical.

To the extent that the varied pieces in Essays and Criticism are demonstrations of Arnold’s principles, they look a lot like the kind of thing published today in the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books, just longer and with more extensive quotations.  Arnold’s model won the fight for the center, at least for a time.  “[T]he great art of criticism is to get oneself out of the way,” he wrote in “Pagan and Mediaeval Religious Sentiment,” another of the pieces in Essays and Criticism.

Now I will bend Arnold.  It has become clear to me through book blogs that many thousands of intense, dedicated readers reject Arnold’s model as too impersonal.  They want the critic to get in the way sometimes, maybe all the time.  Criticism is part of the endeavor to see the subject – the self.  Literature becomes a means to reveal the self.  Disinterestedness?  You have got to be kidding.

Memoirs and personal writing are of course forms with their own value, but this hybrid of criticism and memoir seems to me like something new.  For a long time, I have been skeptical of its value.  I read or have read hundreds of blogs, but I have typically read around the memoiristic stuff in search of insights about literature, which I do often find.  My skepticism has weakened, though, and perhaps ironically reading objective Arnold finally did it in.  I should look for “the best that is known and thought in the world” wherever I can find it.  I should learn a new approach, maybe not learn to do it but at least to read it.

For the next couple of days, let’s try a few of these out.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

they may have it even in criticizing - Matthew Arnold flatters me

Matthew Arnold is among the greatest literary critic of the 19th century, and among the greatest in English.  A long series of subsequent critics – Pater, Wilde, T. S. Eliot, to pick the ones I am sure about – defined themselves against him in some important way.  Arnold did not particularly care about fiction, which has perhaps caused a bit of a devaluation compared to Henry James now that we live in, or recently lived in, the Age of the Novel.  But since a good part of Arnold’s importance comes from his arguments about criticism and the role of the critic his importance is to a large degree independent of the fact that he mostly wrote about poetry, a form that almost no one reads any more, just as John Dryden’s immense value as a critic remains even though he wrote almost exclusively about Restoration plays.

I recently read the book now usually called Essays in Criticism: First Series (1865).  The curious thing about the book is the randomness and even inconsequentiality of the subjects of Arnold’s essays, typical for a collection of magazine reviews, but not really commensurate with my idea of Arnold.  Spinoza, Marcus Aurelius, Joubert, Heine (random); the French poet Maurice de Guérin along with a separate essay on the journals of his sister Eugénie de Guérin (inconsequential, however good they sound).  This is the greatest critic of his time?  What is going on here?

Well, one thing is that Culture and Anarchy  comes later (1869), as does the “second series” of Essays in Criticism which is mostly about English poets, along with Tolstoy and (who?) Amiel, so I should not put too much wright on this early book, however good it might be.  And it does have “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” which by itself is almost enough to make a critic’s reputation.

The critic’s job, says Arnold is “simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas” (“simply,” very amusing), and “to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarizing, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things.”  Preposterous, but there is a satirical strain in Arnold that I have not yet learned to read.  “Perfection” and “absolute” may be squishier words than they first appear.  But maybe not.

More appealing to me are a couple of other instructions to the critic.  One is his emphasis  on “the world” – thus the Heine, Spinoza, and French poetry – and the effort to read widely.  He argues that English critics and literary magazines are narrow and parochial.  So it will ever be.

The other is his insistence that criticism is a creative act, not ranked as high as the making of original work, but nevertheless a source of “true happiness”: “They [we; I] may have it [happiness] in well doing [original art], they may have it in learning, they may have it even in criticizing.”  Learning includes reading, so reading is also a creative act, “the free play of the mind upon all subjects” which is “a pleasure in itself.”

Arnold is in many ways very flattering to book bloggers.  Our sense of what is “best” and “true” necessarily varies a lot, but amateur criticism is an Arnoldian enterprise, aside from one enormously important aspect of it that he would loathe.  Tomorrow: “disinterestedness.”

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What the earth has given back once it will not withhold again at the final call - the most wonderful story in the world

One of Hebel’s stories stands out because of the extravagant, almost unbelievable praise it has received from Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti, and friendly commenter humblehappiness.  “The most wonderful story in the world,” for example.  The two page (plus woodcut) story is titled ‘Unexpected Reunion” in my translation, although I think of it as “The Mines of Falun,” the title of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s much expanded 1819 version.  Hugo von Hofmannsthal tried to turn it into a very strange play, but he never finished it.  Richard Wagner apparently wrote a one page treatment for an opera based on the story.  W. G. Sebald more or less stole it for the last sentence of the first chapter of The Emigrants (1992).  These are just the descendants I know of.

At Falun in Sweden, a good fifty years ago, a young miner kissed his pretty young bride-to-be and said, “On the feast of Saint Lucia the parson will bless our love and we shall be man and wife and start a home of our own.”  (25)

But the miner dies in the mine.  Fifty years later, miners find his perfectly preserved corpse.  The bride-to-be, now an old woman, claims the body and has him buried, promising to join him soon.

“What the earth has given back once it will not withhold again at the final call,” she said as she went away and looked back over her shoulder once more.” (28)

The Sebald, where a man emerges not from a mine but a glacier, is:

And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.  At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.  (The Emigrants, 23, tr. Michael Hulse)

The story is obviously built for all kinds of symbolic meaning, religious and visionary, or could this be another parable of war somehow?  It could; I have skipped the most interesting of the story’s five paragraphs.  The miner vanishes and the woman mourns, all in the first paragraph.  Here is the second:

In the meantime the city if Lisbon in Portugal was destroyed by an earthquake, the Seven Years War came and went, the Emperor Francis I died, the Jesuits were dissolved, Poland was partitioned, the Empress Maria Theresa died, and Struensee was executed, and America became independent, and the combined French and Spanish forces failed to take Gibraltar.  [Another event-filled sentence takes us into the Napoleonic Wars.]  The millers ground the corn, the blacksmiths wielded their hammers, and the miners dug for seams of metal in their workplace under the ground.  (26)

The power – in context, the uncanniness – of this passage of plain summarized history is hard to understand.  I guess the reader can be pretty sure the miner will somehow return just by looking at the title, but the long gap expressed in this particular way seems to give the unchanging dead man something like cosmic significance.  He stays the same while kings and nations change, when war and nature destroy whatever they can.  But as the last sentence shows, it is not just the dead man who stays the same.  So do many live men.

It all seems so obvious when taken apart, but that is not how it seems in the story, much less mixed in with the other gentle and less gentle stories in The Treasure Chest.  Hoffmann is so scared of it that he adds a lot of weird fairy tale stuff.  Well, his version is good, too, just not the most wonderful story in the world.

Friday, April 11, 2014

things were pretty violent and bloody during the last war - Johann Peter Hebel's war stories

The other 19th century war fiction I recently read was Johann Peter Hebel’s Treasure Chest (1811, more or less), which I read, of course, because of the chapter in Sebald’s A Place in the Country.  Almost none of the Hebel used by Sebald is present in the English Treasure Chest (tr. John Hibberd, 1994), or in English anywhere outside of the translated Sebald essay, which is an irritation.  I read this book as a substitute for a book that does not exist.

Hebel’s main literary form was the almanac, which he wrote under the guise of Der Rheinländische Hausfreund, the Rhineland Family Friend, beginning in 1808 and continuing, off and on, through 1819.  I am surprised it is not a form still in use by some literary eccentric.  I am not sure how “real” the almanacs were – what the weather prediction and holiday calendar was – but the form was flexible, allowing for stories, jokes, real news, fakes news, crime, moral tales, songs, poems, and riddles.

The almanacs were popular, thus the 1811 “greatest hits” collection of The Treasure Chest, which leans towards the fully formed stories and away from the more topical writing.  The result is less personal, by which I mean there is less digressive fun – Hebel knows his Sterne – with the narrator, the Hausfreund as Sebald calls him.  And the translated book is itself just a selection of a selection.

I sound like I am complaining, but I am not.  I would just like to read more Hebel, that is all.  The strange thing about the English Treasure Chest is that something like a story begins to appear, even from the fragments.  The story is a war story.  What else, after all, made up the news of 1808 and on for several more years?

In the Tyrol things were pretty violent and bloody during the last war.  They had just murdered a Bavarian staff officer, and their swords and dung forks were wet with blood as they pushed into the room where his wife was, weeping with her child in her lap, telling God of her grief, and they were going to murder her too.  (120)

The story, just a page and a half long, is titled “An Officer’s Wife Is Saved,” so we know it turns out all right for her, if not the poor officer.  Horrors of war show up in more and more stories as the book goes along, and if not the war than something as bad, like “Terrible Disasters in Switzerland,” three and a half pages (plus a woodcut!) of anecdotes of those killed by or miraculously saved:

… in that one night, and almost within the space of the same hour, whole families were smothered by avalanches, whole herds and their byres were crushed, pastures, gardens and orchards were swept away, scooped out down to the bare rock, and whole forests were destroyed, flung down into the valley below or the trees tangled, crushed, bent and broken like blades of corn in the fields after a hailstorm.  (106)

I compare this to passages of Hebel quoted by Sebald, for example when Hebel “calculates matter-of-factly” some of the material costs of war, for example the materials used in one ship, “1,000 mighty oak trees, as one might say a whole forest; further 200,000 pounds of iron” (A Place in the Country, 29), plus the rope and canvas and tar and, incidentally, men, most of this soon to be destroyed.

The avalanches somehow become an aspect of war; war takes on a cosmic character; the author emerges from behind his gentle moral tales and riddles as a visionary writer.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Herman Bang's fragments and similes - like the stabs of a knife

Yesterday I emphasized interesting and rare subject of Herman Bang’s 1889 Tina; today I want to look at unusual prose.

Bang had been keeping up on his French writers.  Flaubert, Maupassant, the Goncourts.  That is clear enough.  “Realism” and “objectivity.”  The former meaning, if it means anything here, a focus on material surfaces, the latter, if it means anything here, a near-complete absence of narrator identifiable as a character.  Thus the metaphor of the camera, with the author as cameraman.  In a film we never see the camera even though we both know it is there and know that someone is operating it.  The personality of the operator is expressed through the choice of exactly what to film and the way the pieces are edited together.

But of course the author is not operating a camera.  If he were, we could in some sense see everything within the frame, no matter how trivial, while a fiction writer works with fragments.  Bang’s fragments are especially fragmented in a way that puts me in mind of certain 20th century authors, and no one at all from Bang’s time or earlier.  Short sentences, short paragraphs, short divisions within short chapters.

“Puff – Christmas is over,” he said proudly as he blew out each candle, as if he was grandly closing the door on Christmas; the others stood watching attentively while candle after candle was blown out.

“The last one,” cried Mrs Berg.  “The last one.”

The last candle was out, and the room was in darkness when Berg put Herluf down on the floor.  Mrs Berg took her husband’s arm, and they all left the room in silence.  (39)

I have quoted two other passages from Tina, the sudden beginning of the novel and a bit about refugees from the artillery bombardment, noisy and active scenes compared to Christmas winding down.  I did not mention that each one managed to slip in some metaphorical language.  A carriage, as it rolls away in the dark, is “likea great shadow,” and a man welcomes refugees into a house “like an officiousundertaker at a funeral,” which is excellent, if almost too portentous for those poor refugees.  Bang works in similes.  We cannot actually see what the imaginary camera sees, so we are given a little help seeing it.  It is like a shadow, he is like an undertaker, the boy’s movement is like – well that’s a funny one, isn’t it, because the simile does not appear to be visual at all, yet now I imaginatively give the boy some dramatic flourishes.

Through the storm and the pounding of the guns, which made the square tremble, came the screams of the wounded like the stabs of a knife, whenever the congestion on the road halted the strawless wagons into which they had been thrown, without compassion, by worn-out ambulance men at the end of their tether because of all the misery around them.  (118)

Now I am making Bang’s similes seem more common than they really are.  but I like the way he sneaks them in when he wants just a little bit more precision.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

It did get worse - Herman Bang's Tina, a Danish behind-the-lines war novel and vaguely Hardyish love story

I’ve got to stop reading these old Danish novels.  There is no end to the good ones.  There must be an end; the number of old Danish novels available in English must be small.  My revised assumption, after reading Herman Bang’s Tina (1889) is that they are all worth reading, by someone, not necessarily me.  I am glad I read this one. 

The fact remains, as this first translation in English makes clear, that Tina is one of the great nineteenth-century European novels, and the mystery is that the English-speaking world should have had to wait for only a few years short of a century for an opportunity of reading it.  (ix)

This is from the foreword, by Walter Allen, to the 1984 Paul Christophersen translation of Tina.  Do you like the optimism of “first”?  Using certain definitions of “great,” in terms of ambition or international significance or place in non-Danish literary history, that word is close to preposterous, although I note that a glance at German and French Amazon shows numerous translations in print, so I do not mean to take my own ignorance as the measure of greatness.

Regardless, Tina is certainly a finely made novel.

The novel’s subject is unusual and the book is deeply interesting for that reason alone.  It is a sad love story set just behind friendly lines during the 1864 Dano-Prussian War, a war that the Danes unfortunately lost badly, although the novel ends before the war does so the characters do not know that.  The front line parks itself just a short distance from the home of the young, large, generous, insufficiently appreciated and loved heroine, Tina.  Ordinary life is suddenly disrupted by bivouacking soldiers, mud, the incessant noise of artillery fire, and, soon enough, the wounded and the dead.

“And it’s for ever getting worse,” she said, shaking her head.

It did get worse.  Like the sound of rising waters at a spring tide, the thunder of the guns rolled over the house.

A new stream of refugees began knocking at their doors, and the Baron let them all in.  He stood at the drawing-room door like an officious undertaker at a funeral, and got an entrance ticket out of everyone in the form of an account of the horrors of the bombardment.  (111)

The emotional intensity and temporarily modified moral standards also lead to sex.  There is some amusing stuff with some of the servants who are more adaptable to the change (“’We’ve got to give the boys some fun this evening’”) in contrast with poor Tina.  She may not be everyone’s ideal of a Strong Female Character, since she is weak in some interesting and ultimately tragic ways.  Walter Allen notes a strong resemblance to Thomas Hardy, which I also felt, “but Hardy never had to show us the Valley of the Great Dairies under the onslaught of war.”  Are you like me, are you thinking “I want to read that variant of Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” maybe more than I want to read the real thing.

A novel about a young woman coping with the nearby war would have been interesting by itself, but the love affair leads to some artful emotional effects, and it certainly keeps the stakes high for Tina.

The style of the book is as original as the subject.  That sounds like a topic for tomorrow.

Monday, April 7, 2014

An incomparable day - the joys of Pelle the Conqueror

I do want to write a little bit about the joys of Pelle the Conqueror, not just the language but the liveliness of the book.  It has occurred to me that the movie, for all its virtues – it is superb – exaggerates the misery of the story by greatly compressing the timeframe.  Pelle is “eight or nine” (17) when the novel begins and a teen by the end, the toughest, smartest kid in town.  The film has to crowd all of horrible stuff – the infanticide, the brain damage, the, um, the castration – into a period commensurate with a lack of change in the actors, especially the boy who plays Pelle.  So in the book, these little tragedies occur over the course of years rather than months.

So how about some of the novel’s joy.

Christmas Eve came as a great disappointment.  (75)

Off to a bad start.  Pelle’s father Lasse is no longer young, so Lasse and Pelle are low ranked even among farmhands.  Farm animals do not have holidays, so someone has to stay home.

There was dried cod and rice pudding on Christmas Eve, and it tasted all right…  (76)

The normal diet is herring and porridge, so this is an improvement.  Still.

Lasse and Pelle went to bed.

“Why is there Christmas anyway?” asked Pelle.

Lasse scratched his hip reflectively.

“That’s just the way it is,” he answered hesitantly.  “Well, then it’s the time when the year turns around and goes upward, you see…  And of course it’s also the night when Baby Jesus was born!”  It took him quite a while to produce this last reason, but it also came with perfect assurance.  “One thing goes with another, you see.”  (76, ellipses in original)

One of my worries about the subsequent novels is that they presumably have much less Lasse, a loss.  Hey, look what the words did there, neato.

Let’s try another holiday.  Chapter 18, the longest in the book, covers a memorable Midsummer Eve.

There were jars of stewed gooseberries, huge piles of pancakes, one hard-boiled egg apiece, cold veal, and an endless supply of bread and butter…  In the front was placed a small cask of beer, covered with green oats to keep the sun off it; there was a whole keg of aquavit and three bottles of cold punch.  (181)

Now that’s more like it.  The farm workers visit all the local sites, like the old tower and the valley with an echo.

“What is Karl Johan’s greatest treat?”  And the echo answered right away: “Eat!”  It was extremely funny, and they all had to try it with their own names – even Pelle.  When that was exhausted, Mons made up a question that made the echo give a vulgar reply.
“You shouldn’t teach it stuff like that,” said Lasse.  “What if some fine ladies came up here, and he started calling that after them?”  They just about died laughing at the old man’s joke, and he was so delighted by the applause that he kept on repeating it to himself all the way back.  Ho, ho – he wasn’t quite ready to be thrown to the rats after all.  (189)

Yes, I will miss Lasse.

Maybe I should have just rambled in this chapter.  It is full of delights.

The music sounded so sweet in the ear  and in the mind;  memories and thoughts were purified of all that was ugly; let the day itself take its due as the holiday it was.  It had been an incomparable day for Lasse and for Pelle – making up for many years of neglect.  Too bad that it was over instead of just beginning.  (196)

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Another opening of another Danish novel - Herman Bang won't tell me anything

All right, I was wrong, I am not going to write about the characters in Pelle the Conqueror quite yet.  I want to write about the opening of another Danish novel.  Compare and contrast, as they say.

The novel is Herman Bang’s 1889 Tina.  I have just read the long first chapter, and have little idea about what the novel is about except for two things, 1) it is “about” or at least set during the 1864 Dano-Prussian War, which ought to be interesting, and 2) it does appear to be “about” the title character, who is female, a schoolmaster’s daughter heading towards old maid-dom.  The latter point is only of interest because after reading Niels Lyhne, Pelle the Conqueror, and reading about Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per through Scott Bailey’s many posts, I began to suspect that all classic Danish novels were Bildungsroman about young men.  Whatever Tina might be, is definitely not one of those.

But I just want to look at the beginning, since the beginning of Pelle the Conqueror is fresh in my mind.  Nexø begins with pure description, slowly introducing any people at all and only slowly moving to his main characters.  This is how Bang starts:


The first word is the novel’s title.

Tina, in tears, continued to run beside the carriage, while Mrs Berg shouted her last words into the darkness and the wind.

“You’ll make up the bed then – in the Blue Room – tonight – from tonight, don’t forget.”

“Yes – yes,” answered Tina, unable to speak for tears.

“And remember me – remember me to everybody,” sobbed Mrs Berg.  The wind carried her words away.  One last time Tina ran up and tried to grasp her outstretched hand, but she could no longer reach it.  She stopped, and the carriage, like a great shadow, vanished into the darkness.  Soon the sound of its wheel could be heard no more.

Splash, right into the middle.  This may not be so obvious to you folks who spend your time with new-fangled novels, but for a 19th century novel this opening is radical.  Who is Tina?  Who is Mrs. Berg?  Who knows?  What relationship do they have with each other – is Tina Mrs Berg’s servant, or daughter?  Why the tears?

Perhaps this will all be cleared up in the next paragraph, but it is not.  A new character is mentioned, Herluf.  He is absent, but he has toys, so he is a child, or else a pet.  Next paragraph: Lars, probably a servant, since he is in the “servants’ hall.”  Next: Maren, also a servant.  no, I was wrong, a crofter.  Then “Sophie the housemaid.”  Finally Bang violates the purity of his system a bit.  But the narrator never stops to explain.  He has moved close to the idea of narrator as movie camera.  He can read thoughts, so a telepathic movie camera.  I see what it sees and hear what it hears and have to piece the rest together as information gradually, naturally reveals itself.

No, not a camera, since it sees so selectively.  What does Tina look like, for example?  Madame Bovary begins with a description of Charles Bovary, his height and hair and boots and hat.  Tina refuses to simply tell me that, or anything.  I really have to pay attention and piece it all together as I go along.

How fun.  Bang is writing, in this sense, like William Faulkner, or like Eudora Welty in Delta Wedding (1946), which I think of a particularly artful examples of this kind of technique with its huge extended family and complicated history, although as I look at it I see that the first paragraph is close to what is now called an “infodump.”  Laura is nine years old, she is going to her cousin’s wedding, her mother is dead, etc.  In a few pages Laura will be plopped into the middle of her extended family where she and I are both disoriented by all of the uncles and aunts and cousins, although I will be able to piece the family tree together eventually if I pay attention.

Maybe I should dump everything else for Delta Wedding.  No, no, Bang and Pelle are good, too.

Paul Christophersen is Bang’s translator.

Friday, April 4, 2014

as if some great beast lay hidden out there in the fog - admiring the scenery of Pelle the Conqueror

Pelle the Conqueror begins:

It was the first of May, 1877, just at dawn.  From the sea the mist came sweeping in, a gray trail that lay heavily on the water.  There was movement in it here and there; it seemed about to lift, but closed in again, leaving only a strip of beach with two old boats lying keel uppermost upon it.  The prow of a third boat and a bit of breakwater showed dimly in the fog bank a few paces off.  At regular intervals a smooth gray wave would come gliding out of the mist up over the clattering pebbles of the beach, and then withdraw again; it was as if some great beast lay hidden out there in the fog, lapping at the land.

I think you can see here what I meant by “plain style” as applied to Martin Andersen Nexø, and which I mean relatively, relative to Zola or the more florid mode of Jans Peter Jacobsen.  He is not trying to impress anyone with unusual colors or vocabulary.  Yet he easily communicates not just the look but the movement of the shore, even before the curious metaphorical turn at the end.  The wave as the tongue of a hidden sea monster is not so plain.

Assuming the reader has not, like I had, seen the movie, there is little clue what the book will be about or who might be observing the scene.  Pelle and his father Lasse are out in the fog at this point, out with the beast, coming to Denmark.

I cannot resist the next paragraph.  Still just scenery.

A couple of hungry crows were busy with a puffy black object down there, probably the carcass of a dog.  Each time the licking wave glided in, the crows rose and hovered a few feet up in the air with their legs extended straight down toward their booty, as if invisibly attached.  When the water sighed back out again, they dropped down and buried their heads in the carrion, but kept their wings spread, ready to lift off before the next lick of the wave.  This was repeated with the regularity of clockwork.

Nexø is serious about the tongue metaphor – it licks its way through the paragraph.  The crows are perfect, right?  The scene, previously organic becomes mechanical.  The clockwork leads to the introduction of people in the next paragraph, or actually just the sounds of people in the fog  – shouts, bells, a horn, oars.  More sounds: “a quarryman’s iron cleats on the cobblestones,” “a loud morning yawn,” a scolding and a slap, a Mendelssohn hymn.  And finally, the sight of some people, a boat crew.

They were leaning forward, their hands clasped and hanging between their knees, and puffing on their pipes.  All three wore earrings to ward off colds and other evils, and all sat in exactly the same position, as if each were afraid of being the slightest bit different from the others.

I guess those are people.  The funny thing about all of this, however good it is, is that the great virtue of Pelle the Conqueror is its characters, mostly vibrant Pelle and his pitiful father, but also lots of secondary and even incidental characters who are unlike these sailors individually drawn.  Maybe a glance at some of the characters tomorrow.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

It looks pretty miserable - It was a glorious life - Pelle the Conqueror

The strange life of books.  I just finished the first volume of Pelle the Conqueror (1906) by Martin Andersen Nexø.  It’s a terrific novel.  Lots of people would enjoy it.  Young Pelle and old Lasse, his father, are Swedes working as laborers on a Danish farm that is almost feudal in its organization.  “’It looks pretty miserable,’ said Lasse” (183), and it is, yet “It was a glorious life, and Pelle was happy” (71).  Both are true.  Maybe that is part of why the book is so good.

Pelle is just a kid, running around with the cattle, happy when the sun is shining or school is out or adults are fair, unhappy when it is too cold or the schoolmaster makes him memorize hymns or when his father drinks too much.  The really miserable stuff goes on around Pelle in the adult world of violence, sex, and booze that he does not yet understand.  But he is a tough little kid.

Pelle’s childhood had been happy because of everything; mingled with weeping, it had been a song to life.  Weeping, as well as joy, is heard of music; heard from a distance it becomes a song.  And as Pelle gazed down upon the world of his childhood, only pleasant memories shimmered toward him through the bright air.  Nothing else existed, or ever had.  (239)

Now,  I think that in terms of prose that is the single worst piece of writing in the novel, but it says what I have been trying to say.  The style is normally not so blunt, but rather constrained by the limited point of view of either Pelle or his father.  Nexø had been reading some French novels, I would guess Zola, although Nexø ‘s style is plain where Zola’s is ornate.  Let me save this for tomorrow.

Pelle the Conqueror is a novel in four volumes, published from 1906 through 1910, and I have only read the first, Childhood.  How the later novels, 700 pages more, compare I do not know.  Childhood covers agriculture / the countryside; successive volumes move to apprenticeship / town and factory work / the big city, with Pelle eventually  becoming a labor organizer.  I accuse Nexø of schematism!  This sounds Marxist because it is – after World War II Nexø moved to East Germany! –  although I do not believe I would have figured it out on the evidence of Childhood alone. 

The 1987 Bille August film version of the book covers only the first volume of the whole thing.  The movie is actually more miserable than the novel, since it is so relentlessly focused on the world outside Pelle’s head, but is a joy to watch because of the acting and filmmaking, or so I remember it.  The movie inspired a revised translation of the first two volumes of the novel by Steven T. Murray, which, as far as I can tell are not in print.  An old translation is available online, but if you can get it you want the 1989 revision.  As the editor says in an afterword:

The 1913 translation of the present book, for example, omitted any references to sex (even barnyard procreation), bodily functions, body parts (the word “stomach” seemed to be particularly taboo), and anything else the translator deemed too immodest to put into print.  Needless to say, this resulted in mysterious gaps in the story, as well as wreaking havoc with the author’s style and intent.  (244)

Significant parts of the book would make no sense at all.  This novel is earthy.  That is a great part of its appeal, along with the characters, the interesting setting, the effective language, all of that.  Maybe a day or two more on all of that.  A lot of readers would like this book.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The weird condition we'll call tradition - Peter Cole's The Invention of Influence

My schematism is still acting up, so I remain too sick to write about Matthew Arnold.

I am hardly well enough to write about Peter Cole’s poems, either.  Cole has become a major translator of Hebrew poetry, medieval to contemporary, none of which I have read.  His own poems, as I found them in The Invention of Influence (2014) , are full of Hebrew references as I know from their titles (“The Reluctant Kabbalist’s Sonnet”), explanatory notes:

The words in capital letters are the ten Kabbalistic sefirot, in ascending order.  The sefirot are expressions or even translations of divine influence into existence, refracted attributes that reflect human qualities and processes as well.  (119)

and on rare occasions, my own paltry knowledge.

But I do not know how much it matters.  We all like flowers.

Summer Syntax

Saxifrage, arabis, phlox;
lobelia, euphorbia, nasturtium;
coreopsis, guara, flax;
brunnera, salvia, rubrum;
delphinium, snapdragon, alyssum;
bacopa, yarrow, thyme;
viola, cress, chrysanthemum,
convolvulus and clematis that climb
over the flowering fescue,
the prairie mallow, and sage,
with Lucerne sisyrinchium to the rescue
of spirit surveying the cage
of its inching calibrations –
luring us out to stare
into this constellation’s
efflorescence as        everywhere.

This poem is hardly typical of Cole except in its clever rhymes, fondness for Latinate words, and plunge, at the end, into the infinite.  The gap before “everywhere” is in the poem.

More typical are poems about angels, or poems about 13th century Jewish poets from Spain, or poems about poems, which also includes the first two categories (“Angels are letters, says Abulafia”):

Borges likens his Aleph to Ezekiel’s
four-faced cherubs facing at once
every direction – something conceivable
as well in the circuits of a quatrain’s hunch.  (from “Actual Angels”)

A poem titled “On Coupling” is only partly about sex; it is of course in rhyming couplets, and is in part about rhyming couplets:

So it is that a coupling’s rhyme
threads us, sometimes, through the sublime

The center of the book is a 52-page poem in varied meters about Victor Tausk, an actual person, a disciple of Sigmund Freud who comes to a bad end, unable to shake off or cope with Freud’s powerful father-figure.  Tausk is tormented by the idea of originality:

I cannot bear
    not to have been
the first to have uttered
    a certain thing.  (57)

Freud is describing the psychology of the plagiarist, but also describing Tausk.  Or is this Tausk describing himself?  “Weird is the word that suited him,” says Freud (56).  This is certainly Tausk:

Gaps are opened
    within the real,
which echoes like doubt –
    or debts we feel
and may have forgotten
    returning as
the weird condition
    we’ll call tradition.

“The Invention of Influence: An Agon,” it is called.  The story of Tausk and Freud are mixed in with Jewish wisdom from the Sayings of the Fathers and other sources.  The poem is ambitious.  A strong Austrian strain runs through the poems alongside the Hebrew theme (see “Six Cheers for von Hofmannsthal”), which is what attracted me to the book, but now I wonder about his big translations, The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition (2012) and The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492 (2007), how much work they would require to enjoy.

Have I given the slightest since of what Peter Cole’s poems are like?

Either the world is coming together
or else the world is falling apart –
    here – now – along these letters,
    against the walls of every heart.  (from “Song of the Shattering Vessels”)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

inconsequentiality, moderatism, and bourgeois tendencies - like an epistolary novel - Chernyshevsky chased with Nabokov

I am about halfway through What Is to Be Done? – I have just reached the establishment of the sewing collective – yes, you read that right, a cooperative sewing business with all profits shared equally, all described in great detail – how many readers are thinking “I was going to skip that Chernyshevsky novel, but I did not now it was about a sewing collective!” – my point is that I am on schedule to write about the Chernyshevsky novel and Notes from the Underground during the last week of April and beginning of May as I had originally planned, so to anyone curious enough to read along, there we go.

Chernyshevsky’s novel is certainly readable.  That is not the problem.

They attacked each other for inconsequentiality, moderatism, and bourgeois tendencies.  These were general charges.  But then each and every one in particular was accused of a special fault: for one it was romanticism, for Dmitry Sergeich, schematism, for another, rigorism.  (, p. 203 of Katz)

This is a game, being played by adults.  At a picnic.  All right, the novel is mostly readable; that’s mostly not the problem.  I was planning on writing something more substantive, but unfortunately my schematism has flared up, so nothing too serious until I recover.

I have Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift out because Chernyshevsky is the subject of one of its chapters, but it has also proved a helpful remedy for rigorism and schematism, by which I mean dull prose.  Just on the first couple of pages, a moving van has “a shamelessly exposed anatomy”; the name painted on its side “was shaded laterally with black paint; a dishonest attempt to climb into the next dimension.”  A man wears an overcoat “to which the wind imparted a ripple of life.”  The street “rose at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel.”

Ah, what relief, a writer who not only writes, but who put something interesting in every single sentence.  The Gift is about a young writer, a Russian émigré in Berlin.  His first book of poems has just been published, so he is in a heightened state of sensitivity to sensory impressions, which he funnels into the art-generating mechanism in his brain (“Someday, he thought, I must use such a scene to start a good, thick old-fashioned novel”).  Nabokov is not merely showing off.

A couple of pages later is this dull thing: “His landlady let him in and said that she had left his keys in his room.”  The sentence is secretly referring to the end of the novel, 350 pages later.  Its plainness is almost a tell.  Keep an eye on this one, there’s a trick somewhere.

All of this is extremely Proustian, perhaps the most purely Proustian stuff Nabokov ever wrote.  By chance I am just at the point in Time Regained where the narrator has achieved a heightened state of sensitivity to sensory impressions, allowing to him to solve the problem of his artistic vocation and begin writing a novel much like, but not the same as, the Proust novel he narrates, just as the writer in The Gift likely someday writes a novel much like The Gift, which will also contain

the tobacconist’s speckled vest with mother-of-pearl buttons and his pumpkin-colored bald spot.  Yes, all my life I shall be getting that extra little payment in kind to compensate my regular overpayment for merchandise foisted on me.

Nabokov, Dostoevsky, and others demonstrate that even the reading of What Is to Be Done? has some compensations.  People read it and then write masterpieces.