Monday, September 29, 2014

On a Book Blog Entitled A Commonplace Blog – remembering D. G. Myers

D. G. Myers believed that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) was “the greatest novel written in English of all time.”  Nabokov himself, in the essay that is now permanently attached to the novel, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” described his own ideal of literature.

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.  There are not many such books.  (Vintage International edition, 314-5)

Myers was not the insipid aesthete that I am, but rather more of an ethical critic, a seeker after wisdom, yet this is close to how I think of Myers: endlessly curious and generous.  He perhaps kept some of his ecstasy to himself, except when getting excited about a book on Twitter.  He advocated reading literary criticism “with hate in the heart,” but he read fiction with tenderness, not because he feared he might bruise a delicate novel or writer but rather because of his openness to whatever art a book might have.

Actually, Myers was also being kind to the critics, hating them for their own good.  “A true disagreement obliges a literary critic to rethink his conclusions, to reexamine his premises, to doublecheck his logic, to scour for further evidence, to remain open to correction or even the possibility of being proved wrong.”  Myers wanted

book bloggers who are committed to argument—who are sworn to defend the books they cherish from those who would make a hash of them, who understand that the literary heritage can be lost…  when it ceases to be valued.

Nabokov is right – there are not many books worth defending, although in another important sense there are too many to defend.  Either way, Myers wanted to keep good books alive.  He assembled a lot of lists – see the left sidebar of A Commonplace Blog.  An anonymous commenter once asked Myers if there was a database he used to find books for the lists.  “Yeah, my memory,” he said.  He was a model humanist.  In the humanities, you can never quite trust someone else’s description.  You have to read the book for yourself.  And that is what Myers did, even in the face of death.  One of the books worth defending was serially published in an electronic format as A Commonplace Blog, or The Moral Obligation To Write Well, as Matt Hunte calls the collected edition.

I have mentioned that Golem Week was maybe the best idea I have ever had.  I am not joking, since it caught the attention of Myers and thus led me to his work.  He understood what I was doing here immediately.  For some reason that is not always the case.

Myers's passing over the weekend has deprived me of not just a colleague whose name and ideas can be found all over my own blog, but an ally.  Wuthering Expectations will be poorer without his presence.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Going for a swim with Thomas Hardy - some social realism

I have avoided, up to now, A. S. Byatt’s stories pulled from the Thomas Hardy-like pile, stories that might be called “social realism” even when, like the selected Hardy story, “A Mere Interlude” (1885), they are unrealistic.  Besides Hardy, there is Arthur Morrison’s “Behind the Shade” and Mary Mann’s “Little Brother,” publication dates unknown to me.  I think it is fair to call them a couple of neglected authors.

Morrison’s story is an argument against basing class hatred on assumptions.  The poor neighbors assume that a spinster and her mother are well to do because they have a nice ornament, “a cone of waxen grapes and apples under a nice cover” (105), in their window.  But they ain’t.  The art of this story is in the fluid “social” point of view, which is most often a vague observation by a random passerby, or gossip, making a series of misinterpretations that Morrison and his reader gently form into the true, sad story.

Mann, the Hardy of Norfolk, is more brutal.  A mother has delivered her thirteenth child, stillborn.  Her husband and oldest son, both literally “attired for the most part in a sack,” are outside slicing turnips in some kind of machine.  The poor baby – hey, where is the baby?

‘Ain’t he theer?’ the woman asked, her eyes upon the chair.

‘Nothing’s there, Mrs Hodd.’  (93)

Thank goodness there is only a page left.  The poor dead baby does not end up in the turnip slicer, if that’s what you fear (I did), but Mann nevertheless has no problem violating good taste to emphasize her characters’ misery.  Be sure to put a toy in that donation box this Christmas.

Those two were just a few pages each.  “A Mere Interlude” is thirty, giving Hardy plenty of room to swerve around.  A young woman, unhappy with school teaching, agrees to go back home and marry a well-to-do merchant, much older than her.  She misses a ferry, though, and in the interval meets an old flame.  Wouldn’t she prefer to marry him? Right now?  She would; they do.  Now, they are waiting for the ferry again, the one she missed, but this time the plan is to introduce her new husband to her family and that disappointed merchant who thinks he will marry her tomorrow.

The heat of the morning was by this time intense.  They clambered up on some cliffs, and while sitting there, looking around at St Michael’s Mount and other objects, Charles said to her that he thought he would run down to the beach at their feet, and take just one plunge into the sea.  (72)

We’re not quite at the halfway point.  I way well have laughed aloud here.  So that’s where the story is going, that’s the “mere interlude.”  Poor Charles.

This leads to the only truly tin-eared sentence that I noticed.  I mean the second, although the first is no prize either:

By this time she was alarmed, and her alarm intensified when she perceived a little beyond the scene of her husband’s bathing a small area of water, the quality of whose surface differed from that of the surrounding expanse as the coarse vegetation of some foul patch in a mead differs from the fine green of the remainder.  Elsewhere it looked flexuous, here it looked vermiculated and lumpy, and her marine experiences suggested to her in a moment that two currents met and caused a turmoil at this place.  (73)

Don’t let “flexuous” and “vermiculated” distract you from the wonderful oddness of “her marine experiences.”

People say Hardy is depressing.  Well listen to this:

… her mother remaining below to complete the disposition of the supper, and attend to the preparation of tomorrow’s meal, altogether composing such an array of pies, from pies of fish to pies of turnips, as was never heard outside of the Western Duchy.  (77)

This is for a wedding, a party!  Turnip pie!  It’s the most depressing thing I have ever read in all of literature.

Other than this stuff, the Hardy story is pretty good.  All of the stories in the Byatt book have been at least pretty good.  But now I think I’ll put it away for a while.

He sees to things connected with his Department - short stories are stories

Byatt’s Oxford Anthology of English Short Stories is in my hands not just because I am enjoying it but because it is going to serve as the test text for an experiment run by Alex of Thinking in Fragments in which, by means of the technique of tagmemics, she is going to prove that “most so called short stories are actually nothing of the sort” because the “dénouement and/or conclusion is missing,” with readers “left to construct the elements that are missing” and, by extension, this is why people don’t “get” short stories.

By contrast, my experience has been that almost all short stories of any real quality, the only ones I am likely to read, are actually stories – most stories are light entertainment published in popular magazines, not avant garde fragments – and that readers do not like them for reasons that will sound uncharitable if I write them out.  Most novels, even many of the best, are more forgiving of a reader’s inattention, I will just say that.  I mostly read novels myself.

So I have been, like a diligent student, reading ahead.  Odds are I won’t understand a word of the tagmemicism, so the argument will be left unresolved.  If Alex does not insist on a chronological order, I suggest starting with “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, who was a rarity, a genuine English Surrealist.  She supplies the painting on the book’s cover as well as three pages of silliness about a saint who lives on a traffic island which, however random its contents, deliberately mimics the structure of an ordinary story. 

So here I am on the island with all size of mechanical artifacts whizzing by in every conceivable direction, even overhead.

Here I sit.  (371)

Or so it seems to me, using the technique of reading.

Another good test case is the Saki story “The Toys of Peace,” in part because its contents are so trivial and predictable.  An uncle and mother decide that the children should relinquish their tin soldiers for peaceful toys.  Presented with said toys, the little boys immediately march them off to war.  The appeal of this story lies entirely in its details.

In an awful silence he disinterred a little lead figure of a man in black clothes.

‘That,’ he said, ‘is a distinguished civilian, John Stuart Mill.  He was an authority on political economy.’

‘Why?’ asked Bertie.

‘Well, he wanted to be; he thought it was a useful thing to be.’

Bertie gave an expressive grunt, which conveyed his opinion that there was no accounting for tastes.  (156)

I included the last line because I feel it to be, as a joke, cheap and inferior.  The big laugh is in the word “Why.”

‘These little round things are loaves baked in a sanitary bakehouse.  That lead figure is a sanitary inspector, this one a district councillor, and this one is an official of the Local Government Board.’

‘What does he do?’ asked Eric wearily.

‘He sees to things connected with his Department,’ said Harvey. (157)

Sensitive readers will experience a joyous, healthful catharsis when, at the end of the story, Mill and the others have been doused with red ink.  “’He bleeds dreadfully,’ said Bertie, splashing red ink liberally on the façade of the Association building” (159).

I could use a technique which demonstrates which jokes are funny.  Regardless, I eagerly await the tagmemicist experiment, even though I am already know the results.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

as it is written in the book – as it is written in the book : ghost stories by Kipling, Wells, and M. R. James

I don’t know if A. S. Byatt’s Oxford Book of English Short Stories is truly eccentric or if I am imposing a pattern suggested by her clever misdirection.  But she says she developed a “dislike for the ‘well-made tale’” (xvi), and I see the evidence of it.  She likes stories that go screwy, that take a big swerve.  Hey, me too.  And she likes fantasy stories of many types.  I’ll glance at three of those, three ghost stories.

The M. R. James selection, “Two Doctors” (1919, maybe), is the most traditional ghost story, or else has no ghost at all but rather perhaps some other kind of hobgoblin.  Some readers might remember that two years ago I spent a week reading ghost stories, which was instructive even if I was “shaken a bit by the fact that 75% of the ghost stories I read this week were about haunted bedrooms and the mysterious movements of bedclothes.”  Hey, guess what’s in “Two Doctors”?  I can’t even.  This time it’s a pillow.

“Under the Knife” (1896) by H. G. Wells is a science fantasy on the theme of anesthesia.  The ghost is the narrator, who, certain that he will die during surgery, has what we now call a near-death experience, first watching his own surgery before dying – this is where the story swerves – and being flung into the cosmos:

At last a quarter of the heavens was black and blank, and the whole headlong rush of stellar universe closed in behind me like a veil of light that is gathered together.  It drove away from me like a monstrous jack-o'-lantern driven by the wind.  I had come out into the wilderness of space.  Ever the vacant blackness grew broader, until the hosts of the stars seemed only like a swarm of fiery specks hurrying away from me, inconceivably remote, and the darkness, the nothingness and emptiness, was about me on every side.  (136-7)

I have doubts about that jack-o’-lantern.  Maybe I should have saved this story for Halloween.  The cosmic journey climaxes with a vision of God, or perhaps Steve Ditko’s Eternity (see left).  Alan Moore pilfers the scene for Swamp Thing #50.  This is why people come to Wuthering Expectations.

In Rudyard Kipling’s “’Wireless’” (1902), the ghost is John Keats, or the electromagnetic spirit of radio, or some mix of both.  Whatever the source, which is never resolved, much of the latter half of the story is a description of a fellow in a trance composing Keats’s “Eve of St. Agnes,” as uncanny a performance as I have ever seen a fictional ghost pull off.

He repeated it once more, using ‘blander’ for ‘smoother’ in the second line; then wrote it down without erasure, but this time (my set eyes missed no stroke of any word) he submitted ‘soother’ for his atrocious second thought, so that it came away under his hand as it is written in the book – as it is written in the book.  (123)

This ought to be the dullest story ever written.  We watch one fellow write a poem while another tinkers with a radio. But that was not my experience.  The story is of course a parable about creativity as Kipling saw it – magic and science, good luck and hard thinking, what is right in front of me plus what no one has ever seen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

So, from the first, I was haunted by the letter B - a scary Dickens ghost story

When I started Wuthering Expectations I had wondered what kind of schedule I could keep.  But I always knew I could just write about short stories, just read one and get writin’.  I swore, though, that I would only resort to such desperate measures when – no, I thought I would do it all the time.  I don’t know why I don’t do it more.  I had been planning to spend much of this week writing about Walter Pater, for pity's sake.  Random English short stories: much easier.

So I am still in A. S. Byatt’s Oxford Book of English Short Stories.  Long ago, I wrote a little post wondering about the dearth of famous 19th century English short stories.  Compared to U.S. literature at the same time, I mean – Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, those folks.  Or Russian, French, or German literature.  The English, like the Americans, had magazines, and those magazine published fictional stories of various lengths and qualities.  They published such stories by famous writers, famous then, or now, or both.  Yet the British stories have always had a lower status, kept off in the margins as if they are second-rate compared to the best novels, which, in my experience, they mostly are until Stevenson and especially Kipling came along in the 1880s.  I have read more of the relevant pool of stories since I wrote that old post, but I have not solved the puzzle.

I do not know if it is coincidence, but I believe Kipling’s “’Wireless’” is the most famous or studied story that Byatt, who is deliberately on the lookout for oddities and obscurities, includes in the Oxford book, unless “The Haunted House” (1859) by Charles Dickens counts.  “Today, ‘The Haunted House of 1859’ is one of the attractions at Dickens World in Chatham in Kent” – if that’s not fame, what is.

One of the bedrooms is haunted by the ghost of young Master B., who was done in because he rang the bell while the owl hooted (the house is also haunted by an “’ooded woman with a howl”).  The sensible narrator, assigned to that room, is “uneasy” about the initial.

I also carried the mysterious letter into the appearance and pursuits of the deceased; wondering whether he dressed in Blue, wore Boots (he couldn’t have been Bald), was a boy of Brains, liked Books, was good at Bowling, had any skill as a Boxer, even in his Buoyant Boyhood Bathed from a Bathing-machine at Bognor, Bangor, Bournemouth, Brighton, or Broadstairs, like a Bounding Billiard Ball?

So, from the first, I was haunted by the letter B.  (34)

The ghost story, as readers of Wuthering Expectations are well aware, is an inherently comic genre.  This one takes a strange turn, though, into a genuinely sentimental childhood story, in which an elaborate schoolchild game based on The Arabian Nights is shattered by the intrusion of real death and poverty.  At the new (“cold, bare”) school

I never whispered in that wretched place that I had been Haroun or had had a Seraglio: for, I knew that if I mentioned my reverses, I should be so worried, that I should have to drown myself in the muddy pond near the playground, which looked like the beer.  (42)

“The Haunted House” is part of a frame story for a separate anthology with contributions by Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell and others, at least one of whom may have written a story more appealing to true fans of ghost stories, in which the ghost is not just a metaphor for the losses we all suffer, but surely less appealing to me, so I will not check.

Monday, September 22, 2014

He sincerely repented his fault - a comfy magic demon pig story by W. S. Gilbert's father

If “The Man without a Country” now seems minor, it was once a standard American classic, much anthologized, much loved, even.  Today I turn to a story I had never heard of, “The Sacristan of St Botolph” (1866) by William Gilbert, the father of half of Gilbert and Sullivan.  I came across the story in the prestigious spot it now occupies as the first work in The Oxford Book of English Short Stories (1998) as selected by A. S. Byatt.  She says “the end is not fully achieved” (xviii), so I will skip the ending.

A minor clergyman, Geoffrey Cole, believes that he is “so good that the saints alone were his equals” (1).  He has the temerity to declare that he would like to experience all of the temptations of Saint Anthony (“’for a month,’” 2) just to “’see if I could not resist them.’”

In fiction, if not in real life, this is asking for trouble, so the next morning the sacristan awakens to find himself in bed with “a large fat pig with a bell fastened round its neck with a leathern strap” (3).  The pig sits on Cole’s legs, eats his breakfast, and follows him around, generally making a minor nuisance of himself.  I first thought this conceit was merely amusing, but it is really quite clever.  Forget pain, seductresses, and offers of wealth – the sacristan cannot even handle the presence of an ordinary barnyard animal.

He then bought sufficient for his breakfast the next morning and afterwards some vegetables for the pig.  This last investment, we are obliged to acknowledge with great sorrow, caused him much annoyance.  He had a violent objection to spend money on anybody but himself, and although he wished to act the part of an anchorite as closely as he could, he never had heard of one spending money on a dumb animal, and he almost considered it to be a work of supererogation to waste the money as he had done on the pig.  However, it was done, and there was no help for it.  He sincerely repented his fault, and he could not say more; he would be more cautious another time.  (6)

I should mention that there is also an imp hanging around, but its use is purely expository.  The imp should have been omitted.  It is clear enough that the pig by himself is a great temptation to sin, mostly of the venial kind, admittedly, but enough to dispel the petty hypocrisy of Cole’s aspiration to sainthood.

A subtheme builds as the story proceeds, enough to become something of a twist ending.  The story’s sympathy actually lies with the sacristan.  He should be annoyed at the pig; he should resent the disruptions of his comforts and ordinary indulgences, his breakfast and wine and flirtations with a “buxom widow.”  He should, of course, not be a hypocrite about his trivial sins but rather embrace them.

Byatt, given the task of assembling a book of English stories, “decided to be stringent about the Englishness of the writers” (xv) in terms of both origin and attitude.  I guess “The Sacristan of St Botolph” is an example of the latter.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

he cried out, in a bit of frenzy - the almost weird "The Man without a Country"

My Pushkin-Tolstoy-Turgenev chain should have been followed by a story by Anton Chekhov or Isaac Babel .  That would be a good idea.  Maybe someone else will do it.  I’ll make a swerve.  I’m going to look at “The Man without a Country” by Edward Everett Hale, an 1863 story that was once a pretty solid American classic, but has shriveled up quite a bit.  Long ago, my great grandmother gave me a collection by Hale, and though I was too young to really understand it, I was surprised at how much I remembered, dimly of course.  It is a vivid piece of storytelling.

It is also desperately weird.  Young Philip Nolan, a U.S. Army officer, gets tangled up in Aaron Burr’s conspiracy to create a breakaway American state, his motive more vanity than anything else.  At Nolan’s trial

when the president of the court asked him at the close, whether he wished to say anything to show that he had always been faithful to the United States, he cried out, in a bit of frenzy:

“Damn the United States!  I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”

Shocking language, to an eight year-old, or whatever I was.  The judge grants Nolan’s wish.  He is put aboard a naval vessel that is given special instructions making sure that the prisoner never sets foot on or hears the slightest detail about his home country.  Newspapers are censored, books that mention the United States are removed from his access, officers and sailors watch their speech, and the buttons of his army jacket are replaced “for the reason that [they] bore either the initials or the insignia of the country he had disowned.”

Nolan travels the world as the guest and prisoner of the U.S. Navy, transferred from ship to ship,  until his death fifty-six years after his conviction for treason.  Along the way he repents but accepts the consequences of his punishment.  He goes so far as to aid his host vessel in its military operations, leading a cannon crew in combat (“and when the gun cooled again, getting it loaded and fired twice as often as any other gun on the ship” – if there was any scene I remembered distinctly, at the distance of several decades, it was this one), and aiding in the capture of a slaving ship, a scene I wish I had remembered because it is fascinating.

“The Man without a Country” is explicitly patriotic, a defense, during a dark period of the Civil War, of the justice of the Union cause – the fight against slavery but even more the effort to preserve the integrity of the nation.  The patriotism would be enough to doom a story stronger than this one, not to mention its concern with honor and glory, more unfashionable theme.  The story is decidedly not of our time.

But.  The art of the story lies mostly in the clever rhetorical moves the narrator makes to insist that the story is true, the moves towards realism.  Yet the story is obviously preposterous, really quite bizarre.  I kept picking up tastes of Herman Melville or sometimes Joseph Conrad, because of the seafaring setting, of course, but also because I could see how, especially at certain junctures, the story could easily be bent into a Melville or Conrad story, or for that matter a Franz Kafka parable, the tale of an American Flying Dutchman condemned to forever sail the seas by an insane judge and unreachable bureaucracy.

I wonder what later writers have done with “The Man without a Country.”  Something could be done with it, is what I am trying to say.

Friday, September 19, 2014

No neck, haystack hair, ears like bread - it's Turgenev's King Lear of the Steppes

Ivan Turgenev responded to Pushkin differently than Tolstoy.  Turgenev stripped down the elements of the story while piling up the prose.  He and Tolstoy were working towards similar goals, though  - how to put what was real, the Truth, into fictional prose.  Different ideas about what was true; different aesthetic satisfactions.

This is the title character of Turgenev’s 1870 novella A Lear of the Steppes:

Picture to yourselves a man of gigantic stature.  On his huge carcase was set, a little askew, and without the least trace of a neck, a prodigious head.  A perfect hay stack of tangled yellowish-grey hair stood up all over it, growing almost down to the bushy eyebrows.  On the broad expanse of his purple face, that looked as though it had been peeled, there protruded a sturdy knobby nose…  (Ch. 1)

And then his eyes and ears – “just like great twists of bread, full of bends and curves” – and so on.  Martin Petrovich Harlov, the Russian King Lear, is another in the long line of 19th century strong men.  At the story’s climax, he literally tears apart his house with his bare hands, like Samson, not Lear.  Had Turgenev been reading Les Misérables or Toilers of the Sea?  Of course he had, everyone read Hugo, but had they inspired this character?

Turgenev had the bad habit of introducing characters with long, instantly forgotten descriptions, as if he were writing not a story but a play.  That objection does not apply to the above opening.  A little bit of grotesquerie aids the memory.

Harlov only has two daughters, and when, after a dream urging repentance, he divides his kingdom among them, they both offer homage, so again this does not seem all that much like Shakespeare, except that the unmarried daughter Evlampia does not offer enough praise, is not sufficiently thankful for her early inheritance, and thus the trouble begins.

Anna at once dropped on her knees and touched the ground with her fore head; her husband, too, doubled up after her.  “Well, and you?” Harlov turned to Evlampia.  She crimsoned all over, and she too bowed to the earth ; Zhitkov bent his whole carcase forward.  (Ch. 12)

Zhitkov is a mix of Edmund and Cornwall, a scheming parasite.  I do not believe there is a Gloucester, or a Fool, nor does Harlov have three dogs, Blanche, Sweetheart, and Trey.  In the game of adapted Shakespeare, one of the arts is to know what to abandon.  The point of the story is not to identify correspondences between texts, although there are more in this book than in Turgenev’s 1852 story “Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District” or Leskov’s harrowing 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.  Three examples is enough to make a genre, yes?

It’s not Fathers and Sons, but it’s a good story.  Everyone gets to keep their eyes, which is all right by me.

I am looking at Constance Garnett’s translation, published in Volume 12 of a 15 book “Novels of Ivan Turgenev.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The snouts of the horses were wet. - "A Prisoner in the Caucasus" and Tolstoy's plain style

Now, a direct descendant of Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin, somewhat arbitrarily chosen, “A Prisoner of the Caucasus,” one of Leo Tolstoy’s many tales of military life, unusual in that it is not from early in his career but rather dead center between War and Peace (1865-69) and Anna Karenina (1873-77), so what I mean is, we are perched atop the peak here.

I read the story in Volume XIII of a 1913 set of the collected works of Leof N. Tolstoï.   No idea who the translator might be, so let us just assume that the English text is full of blunders of all kinds.  The text as is nevertheless tells a fine story.

An officer is captured by Tartars and held for ransom.  He is soon joined by another prisoner.  There will be no ransom, since his mother has no money.  He kills time in the village, befriends a Tartar girl, and plans his escape, or perhaps prepares for his death.  Reasonably exciting.

How does one of the great prose writers of all time begin?

A Russian gentleman was serving as an officer in the army of the Caucasus.  His name was Zhilin.

One day a letter from his home came to him.  His old mother wrote to him:-

Well, if the narrator’s prose is like this, the mother’s letter won’t be any more exciting.  I mentioned that Pushkin, in his fiction, approached a plain style; Tolstoy’s style is there.  It starts plain and stays plain.  Tolstoy is not out to dazzle, not this way, at least.

Not that Tolstoy tells the story like a fairy tale.  The world, especially once the prisoner reaches  the mountain village, becomes pretty solid:

Then two children on horseback came along on their way to the watering-trough.  The snouts of the horses were wet.

Inessential details, or inessential if Tolstoy were writing a summary of the story for an encyclopedia rather than a work of art.

Although the point of view is firmly fixed on Zhilin, and by any ordinary sense of sympathy the tension of the story lies in our hope that he can escape his captors, Tolstoy simultaneously creates some sympathy for the Tartars, who in another kind of story would simply be the  enemy.  This is a funeral – the “red-bearded Tartar”’s brother has been killed, presumably by the Russians.

They smoothed the earth over, and again sat around the grave in rows.  There was a long silence.

“Allah! Allah! Allah!”

They sighed and got up.  The red-bearded Tartar gave money to the old men, then he got up, struck his forehead three times with a whip, and went home.

It does not seem like much, but these people  and their culture become convincingly full.  This is one of Tolstoy’s greatest gifts.  What appears to be distance or an attempt at objectivity is the result of his great human sympathy.

I had meant to read this story for years because it is the source of a superb movie, Sergey Bodrov’s Prisoner of the Mountains (1996), which makes surprisingly – horribly – few changes in order to update the story to the then-current Chechen war.  If I were a more experienced film blogger I would plaster the post with stills of the mountain scenery and the Chechen village.  There is a scene where the prisoners tinker with a radio (in the story, a watch), and finally tune in – something – Louis Armstrong performing “St. James Infirmary,” which somehow sets the camera spinning.  The moment is ecstatic and sublime, and the effect unavailable to the literary artist, even to Leof N. Tolstoï.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the game resumed its usual course - Pushkin's ghosts

“The Queen of Spades” is Alexander Pushkin’s perfect little E. T. A. Hoffmann story.  Hoffmann was as inventive a writer as ever lived, but he could be a spongy prose writer – sometimes he needed to wring out his prose a little – while Pushkin’s story is light and crisp.  He borrows lightly and wisely from Hoffmann.

It’s a gambling story, a problematic genre, since pure randomness is not such an interesting topic to simulate by means of literature, and a psychological horror story – now there is something to make randomness interesting.

A gambler at a card party tells a story about his grandmother.  He claims that she knows a secret combination of cards that always wins at faro, three wins in a row, so the gambler can octuple his money.  The Countess, his grandmother, learned this secret sixty years ago in Paris, from the mysterious Count Saint-Germain, which I like to think of as a little tribute to Hoffmann, although Pushkin could be thinking of any number of Hoffmann’s weird peers, or no one at all.  Anyway, grandma has mostly kept the secret to herself.

Hermann, a desperate but methodical German – there it is again – engineer, resolves to learn the magic formula at whatever cost.  Consequences ensue.  That’s enough story.  The ending is terrific.  The middle is terrific.  The story has a curious arc.  I normally thinking of a story arc as a rise then a fall, but “The Queen of Spades” arcs moves sideways, from the gambling party to the Countess to her granddaughter to Hermann, the main character, I finally learn a third of the way into the story.  Then the usual arc – a rise, another rise, then a ghost, and yet another rise, and finally a nightmarish crash:

Chekalinskii gathered in the bank notes lost by Hermann.  The young man stood by the table, motionless.  When at last he left the table, the whole room burst into loud talk.  “Splendid punting!” the players kept saying.  Chekalinskii shuffled the cards anew: the game resumed its usual course.  (Debreczeny, 233)

I acknowledge that sounds like nothing if you have not read what comes before, but in context it is chilling as the icy grip of the cold Pushkinian narrator reasserts his control over this overheated story.

The ghost in “The Queen of Spades” is all business.  Those in “The Undertaker,” one of the Tales of Belkin, are more hideous.  The undertaker, in a fit of pique, has invited the dead over for a drink, and they come:

The room was full of corpses.  The moon shining through the windows lit up their yellow and blue faces, gaping mouths, murky half-closed eyes, and protruding noses…  All of them, male and female, surrounded the undertaker with bows and salutations; only one pauper, who had been buried gratis a little while back, stood humbly in the corner, feeling too awkward and ashamed of his rags to come forward.  All the others were properly dressed, the lady corpses in caps and ribbons, the gentlemen of rank in uniform, though with their chins unshaven, and the merchants in their holiday caftans.  (91, ellipses mine)

The ghost story, I have discovered, is fundamentally a comic genre:

His skull smiled affably and threadbare linen hung on him here and there as if on a pole, and the bones of his legs rattled in his jackboots like pestles in mortars.  (92)

But of course a kind of commonsense reasserts itself as the story ends, the kind that loves amusing stories and recommends champagne.

Monday, September 15, 2014

the sky merged with the earth - some Pushkin stories

The latest issue of The Hudson Review, Summer 2014, includes three of the five Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovitch Belkin (1831), translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky as part of a forthcoming – distantly, in 2016 – Collected Prose of Pushkin.  Since there were only two to go, including my favorite, “The Shot,” I got out my copy of Paul Debreczeny’s Complete Prose Fiction (Stanford University Press) to finish them off.  And since I had it out, almost inevitably I had to read “The Queen of Spades” (1833).  I did not continue to the 1837 novella The Captain’s Daughter, although I was tempted.

Pushkin’s fiction is pretty close to pure pleasure.  Two, or maybe three, of the Belkin stories are based on wild coincidences.  One is a ghost story of the “anxiety and indigestion” type.  The fifth is a sad slice of life, also featuring a bit of coincidence.  The frame around the little book is that the stories are “mostly true stories that he [the deceased Belkin] had heard from different people” (Debreczeny, 64) edited by Pushkin, his country neighbor. 

Although the coincidences are preposterous fictional contrivances, in the frame of story-telling, the implausibilities are not a problem but rather the point.  These are the five best stories Belkin ever came across.  Of course they are unlikely – that is exactly why Belkin wanted people to hear them.

In “The Blizzard,” a young couple makes plans to elope, but the groom is caught by surprise in a storm.  Everything goes wrong, then later it works out.  Well, not for him, but for other people.  Pushkin’s style is not exactly plain, but is clear and efficient:

But Vladimir had barely reached the fields outside the village when the wind picked up and such a blizzard set in that he could see nothing.  In one minute the road was buried; the surroundings disappeared in a dim, yellowish murk, through which white snowflakes flew; the sky merged with the earth.  (P & V, 192)

Vladimir finally pushes on to a wood:

The wind could not rage here; the road was smooth; the horse took heart, and Vladimir felt more calm.  (193)

I am trusting the translators for those semicolons, but that line sounds like Pushkin to me.  He is a vigorous prose writer, distant, unfussy, and exact.

Pushkin hardly has the strong, eccentric voice of later writers like Gogol or Dostoevsky.  I will bet that I would have trouble distinguishing blind passages of Pushkin, Lermontov, and early Tolstoy, the latter two in some ways close imitators of Pushkin’s style, and come to think of it his subject matter, although there I am thinking of The Captain’s Daughter more than the short stories.  But who, writing in Russian, did not in some way imitate Pushkin?  Pushkin imitated French translations of Scott and Byron, to the extent that he imitated anyone.

This has been a rambler, hasn’t it?  I think I’ll spend the week rambling through the Russian short fiction I read recently – Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Turgenev.  A little more Pushkin tomorrow.

Friday, September 12, 2014

How can we fold our arms after this? - Herzen in London

The first volume of My Past and Thoughts covers Alexander Herzen’s childhood, education, entry into radical politics and almost immediate trouble with the police, Siberian exile, and marriage.  In volume 2, the exile becomes more comfortable – Paris, Geneva, Nice – and Herzen witnesses the shattering of his political dreams post-1848 and the tragic shattering of his family soon afterwards.

In volume 3, Herzen relocates to London, where he helps establish first a Russian printing press and then a series of publications, especially The Pole Star and The Bell, that for a time become the most important source of uncensored news for Russians.  For three years:

But with all that, it wore one out that one’s work was never heard of: one’s hands sank to one’s sides.  Faith dwindled by the minute and sought after a sign, and not only was there no sign: there was not one single word of sympathy from home.  (1296-7, italics in original)

Yet the political environment , and political fashions, changed, and for a time Herzen’s newspaper became something like the officially approved organ of the opposition:

The Bell was accepted in Russia as an answer to the demand for a magazine not mutilated by the censorship.  We were fervently greeted by the young generation; there were letters at which tears started to one’s eyes…  But it was not only the young generation that supported us…  (1298, ellipses in original)

The Bell was allowed to circulate in Russia, circumspectly, and read by the highest levels of the government, including the Czar.  But the slightly younger generation is more interested in violence, the government turns more repressive, and the influence of Herzen and The Bell receded.

Herzen is something of a tragic hero, an idealist who was too much of a humanist to be an ideologue.  Where Nikolai Chernyshevsky seemed to be completely unaware of the practical consequences of his ideas – the horrific violence of a revolution, for example – Herzen was if anything too aware of them.  “One can only work upon men by dreaming their dreams more clearly than they dream themselves, and not by proving one’s thoughts to them as geometrical theorems are proved” (1495).  But of course there is another way – later Russian history proves that.

So all of this is plenty interesting, as well-told history.  Also interesting, and perhaps more fun, are Herzen’s story about life as an exile in London, and about all of the émigré communities that washed up there after 1848, “the vast museum of pathological anatomy, the London Exhibition of specimens of all the progressive parties in Europe” (1699).  His stories were so good that I wished they were even better, by which I mean that I wish Charles Dickens had known these people and written a novel about London’s revolutionary Germans, Russians and Poles.  Herzen is describing the rooms of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin:

heaps of tobacco lay on his table like stores of forage, cigar-ash covered his papers, together with half-finished glasses of tea; from morning onwards clouds of smoke hung about the room from a regular suite of smokers, who smoked as though they were racing each other, hurriedly blowing it out and drawing it in – as only Russians and Slavs do smoke, in fact.  Many I time I enjoyed the amazement, accompanied by a certain horror and perplexity, of the landlady’s servant, Grace, when at dead of night she brought boiling water and a fifth basin of sugar into this hotbed of Slav emancipation.  (1359)

And: “Note at the same time that both the maid and the landlady were madly devoted to him.”  The memoir will have to substitute for the great novel hidden within it.

If I were to write another post about Herzen, it would be about Vol. 3, Ch. 10, “Robert Owen,” who was in his 80s when Herzen met him – I was surprised he was still alive – and dismissed at this point as a crank.  The essay is the clearest statement of Herzen’s convictions that I can remember.

Now do you understand on whom the future of man, of peoples, depends?

‘On whom?’

‘What do you mean, on whom?  Why, on YOU AND ME, for instance.  How can we fold our arms after this?’  (1251)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The mutual interaction of men on books, and books on men, is a curious thing - advice about Alexander Herzen's My Past and Thoughts

Now, a post or two on the last of the massively long books I finished recently, Alexander Herzen’s memoir My Past and Thoughts.  Logistics first.

Writing about Herzen previously, I have muddled the date of publication, and I remain confused.  Herzen’s memoirs began as magazine pieces dating back to the 1840s.  They were assembled and possibly edited – possibly not – into coherent memoiristic volumes at intervals beginning in the 1850s.  I believe that the third volume was published in 1857 and the fourth, which is not coherent at all, but a pure hodgepodge of miscellaneous material, in 1862, but there is no reason to believe me.  Subsequent editions incorporated additional material, and the edition I read has every scrap, which is confusing.

Few writers would dare such a structure, and artistically they would be right, but there is a sense in which the increasingly ragbag-like form reflects the form of the author’s life.  Goethe’s multivolume memoir has the same structure, and the same problem, with the first books about his childhood and early life following the usual linear chronological path and with the later books feeling like a drawer of the author’s desk had been emptied into them.  But it is Goethe’s desk, Herzen’s miscellaneous scraps, not mine, so they are worth reading even if it is an effort to fit them together.

Nevertheless, I would recommend an abridged edition to most readers.  I assume – although how would I know – that many specialists in Russian history and literature make do with abridgements.  Oxford used to publish a pair of World’s Classics, Childhood, Youth, and Exile, with a title nodding at Tolstoy's first books, and Ends and Beginnings that amount to 900 pages and look like they cover the strongest narrative of Herzen’s life, the parts of his memoir often described as “novelistic.”  There is also a 750 page version (My Past & Thoughts, University of California Press) abridged by Dwight Macdonald that has the advantage, whatever else it might do, of including a long introduction by Isaiah Berlin that is close to essential.

My library had the four volume Knopf edition from 1968, translated by Constance Garnett and revised by Humphrey Higgens, so that is what I read, all 1,800 pages of it (plus the Berlin essay).  I am happy I read it all, but I know I also would have been happy with the shorter options.

The mutual interaction of men on books, and books on men, is a curious thing.  (p. 1,752, note 1)

Is it ever.  That footnote includes one of the rare mentions of Herzen’s radical rival Nikolai Chernyshevsky:

The young Russians who have come on the scene since 1862 are almost all derived from What Is To Be Done? with the addition of a few Bazarov features.

Bazarov, the nihilist hero of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, as we all remember from last December.

That leaves me one post to say what is in the last 800 pages of My Past and Thoughts.  I might have overdone the logistics, but anyone actually thinking of reading the book wants to know, right?  It is a book that requires planning.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Gods are kind, and will not suffer men all things to find they search for - why William Morris rhymes

Of what he said, that seemed both dull and long  (“The Lovers of Gudrun,” 1549)

I used to have a gag where I put a quotation in the upper right corner of Wuthering Expectations and claimed it was my motto.  If I still did that, this would be my new motto.

It’s a good question, what Morris was trying to accomplish with The Earthly Paradise, with the huge mass of it.  Why not write the stories he wanted to tell in prose?  In one of the many strange features of his strange career, Morris in fact had published a mix of verse and prose narratives during the 1850s, the short stories, fantasies and fairy tales, and in the 1890s he published a series of long heroic fantasy novels in prose.  So Morris was asking himself the same question, and answering differently at different times.

The rise of the novel pressed the issue.  At one point – even as late as the early 19th century – a long narrative poem had a clear advantage in prestige over the novel, and no obvious disadvantage in sales.  By the mid-19th century, The Song of Hiawatha and The Idylls of the King still had a mass audience, as did The Earthly Paradise, but the prestige gap was closing.  Writing a poem of the length and artistic quality of any of these is such a difficult task.  Writing a novel of the complexity of Middlemarch was, readers were beginning to realize, comparably difficult.  Meanwhile, writers like Melville, Flaubert and Gogol had demonstrated that the kinds of linguistic effects associated with poetry were also available to novelists.

 And then, eventually, the audience for poetry receded, but neither this point nor the previous could have been relevant for Morris.  Poetry was the means to achieve a certain kind of compression and intensity of language that, with skill, could achieve sublimity.

“The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon” is a version of the swan-maiden fairy tale.  The hero has captured the swan-princess by hiding her feathered cloak; they fall in love; he makes an error; she leaves, into the snow, to vanish:

She paused not; the wild west wind blew
Her hair straight out from her; her feet
The bitter, beaten snow did meet
And shrank not; slowly forth she passed,
Nor backward any look she cast,
Nor gazed to right or left, but went
With eyes on the far sky intent
Into the howling, doubtful night,
Until at last her body white
And its black shadow on the snow,
No more the drift-edged way did know.  (ll. 2067-78)

If I find this too dull and long, it is perhaps because I have failed to do my job as a reader.  I should not just read the poem but become the skald – I should , imaginatively, sing it.  Thus the elaborate story-telling frame.  Thus so many of the successful epics, then, before, and after, are about mythological subjects.

The Gods are kind, and hope to men they give
That they their little span on earth may live,
Nor yet faint utterly; the Gods are kind,
And will not suffer men all things to find
They search for, nor the depth of all to know
They fain would learn  (“Bellerophon at Argos,” ll. 2157-62)

The Earthly Paradise must still have some readers.  The scholarly edition I read is from 2002, and more surprisingly, the Icelandic novelist Sjón’s 2005 novel The Whispering Muse is somehow built around the poem.  As unlikely as it seems, The Earthly Paradise is alive.

A Muse ought to ought to tighten her girdle, tuck up her skirts, and step out - Swinburne on William Morris

I’ll just go right to the problem with The Earthly Paradise.  When I think of The Canterbury Tales, I think of a variety of tone and voice.  Even setting aside the dull prose parts, the characters telling the tale have some existence as people – sometimes, like the Wife of Bath, they are as alive as anyone in literature – and the tales and how they are told usually seem to fit the tellers.

Morris’s tale-tellers are not characters at all and the poems all sound the same.  Within the tales there are good characters, but not in the frame.  And although Morris is an outstanding poet in the usual senses, meaning he elevates the aesthetic effect of whatever he is doing by turning it into verse, he is hardly has the color or music – whichever metaphor is preferable – of the finest English poets.

Let’s turn to one of them.  Algernon Swinburne is a bit younger than Morris.  Swinburne and his old college chums worship Morris, who they call Topsy.  He has just torn through the second half of The Earthly Paradise and is writing to Dante Gabriel Rossetti about it:

I have just received Topsy’s book; the Gudrun story is excellently told, I can see, and of keen interest; but I find generally no change in the trailing style of work; his Muse is like Homer’s Trojan women [Greek gibberish] – drags her robes as she walks; I really think a Muse (when she is neither resting nor flying) ought to tighten her girdle, tuck up her skirts, and step out.  It is better than Tennyson’s short-winded and artificial concision – but there is such a thing as swift and spontaneous style.  Top’s is spontaneous and slow; and especially, my ear hungers for more force and variety of sound in the verse.  It looks as if he purposely avoided all strenuous emotion or strength of music in thought and word: and so, when set by other work as good, his work seems hardly done in thorough earnest.  The verses of the months are exquisite – November I think especially.  (The Swinburne Letters, vol. 2, ed. Cecil Lang, Yale UP, 1959, letter 331 to DGR, Dec. 10, 1869, p. 68)

The “Gudrun story” is the Laxdæla saga, which is superb, and the Greek gibberish is not gibberish to Swinburne, but just to me; how kind of Swinburne to translate it.  Perhaps we can see here why I have so enjoyed reading Swinburne’s letters.  I believe this phrase – “tighten her girdle, tuck up her skirts, and step out” – should be read with a touch of camp, as if said by Bette Davis or Nathan Lane – “and step out!”

I found Morris’s verse to be very thick, like it was surrounded by a gummy layer that took effort to penetrate, that made it hard, after a pause, to find the music and rhythm of the story again.  I would either read a fifty page story in one sitting, or read two pages and think: Try again tomorrow.  Exhausting.

Here is the first third of the “exquisite” November, in rime royal.  Please keep in mind that Swinburne had a finely tuned ear for poetry, much finer than, for example, mine:

Are thine eyes weary? is thy heart too sick
To struggle any more with doubt and thought,
Whose formless veil draws darkening now and thick
Across thee, e’en as smoke-tinged mist-wreaths brought
Down a fair dale to make it blind and nought?
Art thou so weary that no world there seems
Beyond these four walls, hung with pain and dreams? 

Monday, September 8, 2014

With hands stretched out for all that she had lost - William Morris & The Earthly Paradise

And she had fought with Gods, and they had won (“Bellerophon in Lycia,” l. 2334)

That is close to how I felt while reading William Morris’s gargantuan Canterbury Tales-like epic poem The Earthly Paradise (1869-70), but I won in the end, by which I mean I finished the poem, all 42,000 or so lines.  Morris’s book about twice as long as its gigantic peer The Ring and the Book (1868-9) and massively longer than Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, of which a healthy chunk was published in 1870 – what fun fans of long English poems had in those years!  A dang Golden Age of verse-in-bulk.

The Prologue of Morris’s poem, itself an eighty page poem, is about a squad of Vikings who sail to America and explore its coasts for years, discovering for example Mexico and I am not sure what else, since their great feat is stumbling onto a Greek colony – from Classical Greece, surviving a thousand years in America, cut off from their origin – who seem to the Vikings “[l]ike the gold people of antiquity” (l. 1206), which is just what they are.  Now aged and tired, the Vikings decide to live with their new Greek friends in “the Earthly Paradise.”  Twice a month, they assemble to tell each other stories, one Classical and one Medieval tale each month, twenty-four tales total, plus the prologue and some material describing each month, a bit like Edmund Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar (1579).

All that fuss about Vikings exploring America was just to give Morris an excuse to versify his favorite old stories.  Cupid and Psyche, Pygmalion, and a reworking of the Bellerophon story that is one step from Morris’s future invention of the heroic fantasy novel.  From the North, fairy tales, the Tannhäuser legend – no idea if Morris was familiar with Wagner – and in the longest single tale, a complete, terrific version of the 13th century Icelandic Laxdæla saga in rhyming couplets:

She turned, until her sightless eyes did gaze
As through the wall, the hills, must melt away,
And show her Herdholt in the twilight grey;
She cried, with tremulous voice, and eyes grown wet
For the last time, whate’er should happen yet,
With hands stretched out for all that she had lost:
I did the worst to him I loved the most.  (“The Lovers of Gudrun,” ll. 4897-4903)

I quoted the very end, since Morris’s endings usually have a lot of punch.  Here Gudrun, one of the strongest of Strong Female Characters, a complete terror, finally weakens, just a bit.

I actually read the first half of The Earthly Paradise in 2012, over several months, and was so exhausted by it that I waited over a year to start it up again, again taking months to read the entire book.  My understanding is that The Earthly Paradise was Morris’s first hit, and was once a genuinely popular book. Given how long it took to read, I should try to squeeze another three weeks of posts out of it, but I think maybe only two more are feasible.  I felt, when I had completed Browning’s monster, that I was finally ready to read it, and I feel the same way about Morris.  Next time, then I’ll be able to do something with it.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The ideal is always jealous - French Decadents on art and Schopenhauer

I had not planned to spend a week on French Decadent Tales, not that I couldn’t spend a month, working through a story at a time, more openly stealing ideas from Stephen Romer’s introduction.

He has a section on Schopenhauer, for instance.  Schopenhauer pervades theses stories, not his influence, exactly, but his musk.  The philosopher is the fashion among this crowd.  He provides intellectual cover for their misogyny, their contempt for the bourgeois, their fetishization of art.  Some of the writers may have a deeper interest in or understanding of Schopenhauer, but really, the philosopher they believe in is Charles Baudelaire.  Schopenhauer just provides a system.

I mentioned a couple of stories by Maupassant and Laforgue that directly invoke Schopenhauer.  Another that never uses the philosopher’s name but is clearly about his ideas is “The Time” (1901) by George Rodenbach, best known for the 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte. The story is about a collector of clocks.  He becomes obsessed with the idea of making all of his clocks strike the time simultaneously, which he hopes will transcend his earthly being and allow a glimpse of the eternal Will, or something like that.  The clocks do synchronize, but he misses the moment because he has neglected them for love and human kindness.  He is

punished for coveting love…  for having abandoned the ideal for reality.  The ideal is always jealous, and demands, if it is to be attained, immense, single-minded purpose.  Is it not our renunciation of Life itself, that alone makes us fit to attain our Dream?  (158, ellipses mine)

Little else in the story is so baldly stated, thank goodness.  The problem with the Decadents received idea of Schopenhauer, the artistic problem in general of received ideas, is that it leads to so many clichés, which is especially ironic with a group of writers so preoccupied with style.  They were children of Flaubert just as much as their enemy Zola was.  Or poisoned by Flaubert.  However you like.  Rodenbach’s story has some superb descriptions of clocks, for example (“chimes that whistled like blackbirds or squeaked like well-chains,” 152).

It is the official position of Wuthering Expectations that Naturalism was a con job foisted on gullible readers.  The opposition between the Decadents (ideal) and the Naturalists (reality) is a puzzler at this distance.  The squishy corpse-sex of Thérèse Raquin is hardly different and no less “shocking” than that is in these Decadent stories.  (I am imagining the shock, since I myself am not really shocked.  Maybe no one is or ever was.)  Zola’s inventory of hothouse plants in The Kill is written on the same principles as Rodenbach’s room of antique clocks.  Zola wrote prefaces in which he claimed to be doing something different, but c’mon, don’t be a sucker.

On the other hand, folks at the time bought it.  Gustave Geffroy, whoever he was, supplies a story to the collection that is a parable of Idealism and Naturalism, “The Statue” (1894).  A woman with artistic aspirations marries a successful society sculptor (they live just down the block from the mansion in The Kill!) and becomes his sole nude model.  Soon, perfect nudes of her are all over Paris.

The sculptor has a mid-life crisis.  He “experienced a vast emptiness” and sees “the hollowness of his artistic conception, the nullity of his work” (127).  He becomes a realist.  The wife still models, as he “catalogued her wrinkles, he drew up the inventory of her fleshy existence.”  An idealist, she begs him to seek other models, but she has become his grainstack, his Rouen Cathedral, his water-lily pond – he just wants to scuplt her in every angle of light.  “Walking in front of him, she began to dread the feel of her husband’s heavy gaze on her back” (129).  A cynical little twist ends the story.

Whatever skepticism I have about the ideas of the Decadents, they know something about art.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

his long, crushing, and furious embrace makes her swoon, and die - Decadent misogyny

The French Decadents, many of them, most of them, were gleeful public misogynists.  These attitudes are part of what make some of the stories in French Decadent Tales period pieces.  The writer is unable to escape the ordinary prejudice of his class and time.  What looked original to him is revealed, at a distance, as a cliché.

I am just going by the texts of their fiction.  In real life, they could have been better, or even more vile.

Back when I was writing about the Journals of the Goncourt brothers, I began but abandoned a post about the Goncourts terrible attitude towards women.  The Goncourts, when young, at least, seemed to think that all women were in one way or another prostitutes.  The few exceptions they knew, like George Sand, were baffling puzzles.  Yes, the few exceptions, because, in fact, almost all of the women the Goncourts knew were prostitutes of some kind.  It never occurred to them that this was the result of choices they had made in their associates rather than an insight into the nature of women.

Jules de Goncourt died young and Edmond de Goncourt eventually grew up.  If nothing else, he encountered a greater variety of women – for example, the wives of his friends like Mme Zola and Mme Daudet – and as a result relaxed his misogyny.   There are some passages in the Journals that curl the toes; fortunately they become infrequent as time passes.

As a Decadent example, I’m looking at “The Man Who Loved Consumptives” (1891), for example, by Jean Lorrain, an author about whom I know nothing, which is about a man who only takes as lovers women with fatal illnesses, not just so he never has to break up with them, although that is part of it (“there are no disagreeable scenes”), but because the sex is better:

‘The doomed woman is exactly the same; dying, she abandons herself frenziedly to pleasures that fill her with burning life even as they hasten her death; her time is running out; her thirst for love, her need to  suffer burns and flames within her, and she clings to love with the final convulsions of the drowning; and desiring still, she redoubles the force behind her last kiss.  Twisted under the hand of Death, she would kill the object of her desperate adoration, were she not expiring herself; and his long, crushing, and furious embrace makes her swoon, and die.’  (146)

The man, of course, does not die from frenzied pleasures but just finds another sick woman at the sanitarium.

Lorrain is perhaps the worst of the lot, although now I notice that two of his four stories are about predatory homosexual men, the only pieces in the book that have explicitly homosexual themes.  Stephen Romer, the translator, says the Decadents write as if they had a “kind of allergic reaction” to “female sexual power” (p. xx), but Lorrain writes in something more like a fit of hysterics.  He could use not just a Freudian literary critic, but a Freudian psychotherapist.

What seems like the cruelest, most outrageous story in the book is Jean Richepin’s “Pft! Pft!” (1892), the sound the heroine makes to show indifference, mostly to the nightmarish manipulations of her lover, who eventually murders her:

But with her dying breath, exhaled like a final answer, came an almost perceptible sigh:

‘Pft! Pft!’ (104)

The lover had one more manipulation, really awful, an avert-your-eyes kind of scene, yet he still loses the contest.  I had realized – the other Richepin stories in the collection had clued me in – that this author was actually a satirist of the Decadents, in this case of their misogyny.  Talk about a Strong Female Character!  And all the man in the story can think to do is try to at first conquer her and then destroy her.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The infinite lines and angles of Marcel Schwob

Perhaps the worst afflicted were the victims of disfiguring facial wounds, some of whom were so awful to behold that secluded rural settlements were established, where they could holiday together.  (John Keegan, The First World War, 1998, p. 7)

Keegan is describing France after World War I, while Marcel Schwob, in “The Sans-Gueule” (1891), is perhaps writing about the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War.  The translator of French Decadent Tales says that he retained the French title, rather than calling the story “The Faceless Ones,” because of later connections made between the story and the results of the later war.

Two men have lost their faces in battle, along with any ability to speak, and along, inconveniently, with their identification tags.  “They were like two pieces of human clay” (194).  They heal, up to a point, but only regain their  humanity to the point where they enjoy smoking pipes.

Schwob is quite vivid about all this.  Or graphic, perhaps that is the word.

A “little woman with a mass of hair” claims that one is her husband, but does not know which one.  So she takes them both home, first to try to determine which is her husband, and eventually because she likes them both.  “They were her ‘two monkeys,’ her red mannikins, her two little husbands, her burned men, her meaty rascals, her bloodied faces, her holey heads, her brainless bonces” (197).  The story is really about the woman.  It is a perplexing love story.  The end is worthy of Chekhov, except I do not know of any piece of his so deliberately repulsive.

I had never read Marcel Schwob, although he is not especially obscure – I assume a number of people who glance at this post will have read something of his.  I plan to read more, although I worry about the proper dosage.

French Decadent Tales includes two of Schwob’s little Imaginary Lives (1896), fantasies about Lucretius and Paolo Uccello, “Paul of the Birds, because of the numberless painted birds and beasts that filled his house, for he was too poor to feed animals or procure those he did not know” (205).  Schwob transforms Giorgio Vasari’s biography of Uccello into a portrait of what we would now call an outsider artist.  Uccello’s obsession with the new technique of linear perspective is turned into artistic madness:

The truth was that Uccello cared nothing for the reality of things, but only for their multiplicity and the infinite lines and angles that form them; so he painted blue fields, red cities, knights in black armour on ebony horses with mouth aflame, and spears bristling skywards in every direction like rays of light…  The sculptor Donatello would say to him: ‘Ah, Paolo, you are neglecting substance for shadow!’  (205-6)

Uccello is an Impressionist, or Cezanne; he prefigure Matisse or perhaps Kandinsky.  Schwob ends the life by directly ripping off Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece:

And so Uccello knew he had accomplished a miracle.  But all Donatello had seen was a chaos of lines.  (208)

Uccello dies with his eyes “fixed upon the mystery revealed.”  Balzac thought his obsessive artist a madman and a failure.  Schwob saw an artist, maybe even an exemplary case.  He also saw the future of visual art.  Maybe he just got lucky there.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The artificers give the last nudge - Jules Laforgue's pubescent princess and Taciturn Monster

Jules Laforgue’s story “Perseus and Andromeda, or the Happiest of the Three” (1887) was the highlight of French Decadent Tales.  Laforgue, you will remember, was the inventor of vers libre among other poetic distinctions.  I had not even know that he wrote any fiction.

The story is a retelling of the Greek myth in the title, but now from the point of view of Andromeda, trapped on an island by a monster, waiting to be rescued by a hero.  The tone is light, sweet, and melancholy, worthy of a poet who wrote an entire book of poems about clowns on the moon.  It has the sort of reversed plot that is now common in fantasy stories, with the focus turned away from the usual hero, giving the heroine and even the monster their say.



‘Hey! Monster!...’


‘What are you doing now?’

The Dragon-Monster, squatting at the entrance to his cave, turns round, and in turning all the rich, sub-aquatic, jewelled impasto along his spine shines out, and with compassion he raised his multi-coloured cartilaginously fingered eyelashes, to reveal two large, watery-glaucous orbs, and says (in the voice of a distinguished gentleman who has fallen on hard times):

‘As you can see, Poppet, I am breaking and polishing stones for your train; further flights of birds are forecast before sunset.’  (174, ellipses in original)

A little too much on the cutesy side, maybe, but the crash of tones is what turns a story of heroism into a tragedy – a tragedy for the wide-eyed monster, a victim of fate, or perhaps fatalism.

Let’s look at the hero:

Perseus rides side-saddle, his feet crossed coquettishly in their yellow linen sandals; from the pommel of his saddle hangs a mirror; he is beardless, and his pink and shining mouth might be described as an open pomegranate, the hollow of his chest is lacquered with a rose and his arms are tattooed with a heart pierced by an arrow; a lily adorns the swell of his calves and he sports an emerald monocle and several rings and bracelets; from his gilded cross-belt hangs a little sword with a mother-of-pearl dagger.  (185)

What a dreamboat!  Perfect for the pubescent princess heroine, herself wearing nothing but “espadrilles of lichen” and a “necklace of wild coral attached by a twist of seaweed round her neck,” yet in the end he is more interested in his mirror, and he also turns out to be a bit handsy, and maybe Andromeda really loved the monster all along.  How sad that he is dead.

Along the way, the princess recites Schopenhauer, a poem from his book The Truth about Everything,  and there is a sunset that Laforgue presents in vers libre.

The Star!...

Over there, on the dazzling horizon where the mermaids hold their breath.

The sunset sends up its scaffolding;

From footlight to footlight the theatre stalls rise up;

The artificers give the last nudge;

A series of golden moons blossom out, like the embouchures of cornets from where phalanxes of heralds would thunder out!  (183)

Etc.  Sexual awakening, love, beauty, music, the sky.

‘Fabulous, fabulous!’ gushes the Taciturn Monster in ecstasy; his huge watery eyeballs still lit up by the last streaks in the west.

Other than the invocation of Schopenhauer, I am not sure how this wispy thing is so Decadent.  As if I cared.  Unique.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The whole Baudelairean aesthetic is brought to life again - some French Decadent Tales

Now I’ll write a post or two about a collection of stories titled French Decadent Tales that came out last year as an Oxford World’s Classic.  It is a gift from translator and editor Stephen Romer to curious readers like me, since it is full of samples of many writers whose names I have tripped across but never read: Léon Bloy, Octave Mirbeau, Remy de Gourmont, writers like that, all active in the last third or so of the 19th century, a few slipping into the 20th.

What does decadence involve?  Some combination of weirdness, Schopenhauer , repellent attitudes towards women, mental illness, attention to prose style, prostitutes, artists, over-aestheticized attitudes, and some move towards the destruction of human values – unpunished murders, that kind of thing.  No single story has all of these features, thank goodness.  Perhaps I most strongly identify Decadence with outrageous or at least anti-conventional sexual behavior.  There is plenty of that.  Two stories featuring Don Juan, for example.  As Jean Lorrain writes in “The Man with the Bracelet”: “[T]he whole Baudelairean aesthetic is brought to life again” (141).

Two points to a collection like this.

The lesser point is the one mentioned above, to allow the curious but non-specialist reader like me to quickly encounter a bunch of third-rank writers of period pieces, for context or to see how once-shocking ideas quickly turn into clichés or if nothing else to now have something to associate with Catulle Mendès when I come across his name, which has happened frequently.

Many of the stories in French Decadent Tales are period pieces, meaning interesting and useful examples of the kind of thing writers were doing in Paris in the late 19th century, which in turn helps me understand greater works of art, novels by Zola or paintings by Degas.  In this sense the collection is a huge success.

The primary purpose is to direct my attention not to useful and interesting art and artists, but to unusually good ones.  The book works here, too.  The most famous writer in the book is Guy de Maupassant, who is treated well, with three stories that emphasize his Weirdness, along the lines of “La Horla,” rather than his snickering smuttiness.  His snickering story about Schopenhauer disciples is also included.

But I knew about Maupassant.  Who else was especially good?  The best thing in the book is a longish – 19 pages, where most stories are five or six – fantasy by Jules Laforgue, who I had only known as one of France’s great poets.  Original and exquisite.  The five miniatures by Marcel Schwob are easily in a different category than most of the writers.  Better prose, more concentrated ideas, more frightening conceits.  Then there are the three stories by Jean Richepin, among the more obscure writers included, who is light and satirical but frightening in his own way.  Many of the Decadents are just goofing around, churning out the magazine fiction of their time.  Richepin, and Schwob, too, in their own ways take the Decadents' ideas seriously, and thus are harder to brush aside.

I got a lot of good out of 200 pages and 36 stories, enough to hold me for a couple of blog posts.  That Laforgue story, definitely.  Romer’s introductory essay is so good that the book might be of interest to some readers who could track these stories down in French.  I have borrowed and will borrow from it liberally.