Wednesday, November 26, 2014

it is very far from absurd or even allegorical, but literally true - The Golden Pot is not literally true

‘… you may well think it mere crazy nonsense; nevertheless, it is very far from absurd or even allegorical, but literally true.’  (Third Vigil)

Yeah, well.  Maybe some of The Golden Pot is on the allegorical side, even if the allegory is essentially private.  Transcending earthly things or becoming an artist, something like that.  And even though some elements that look like they ought to be part of the allegory are just there for fun.

But other parts of the story are literally true, and those have meaning, too.  Hoffmann seems to have written The Golden Pot as a response to the Battle of Dresden, when Napoleon’s army invaded the city and defeated the Allied army outside the city.  Hoffmann wrote a “Vision on the Battlefield of Dresden” that I have not read.  The Golden Pot is stripped of the war – almost:

Angelica… was betrothed to an officer who was serving in the army, and he had not been heard of for so long that he must surely be dead, or at least badly wounded.  This had plunged Angelica into the deepest grief, but today she was cheerful and almost boisterous, which Veronica, as she frankly declared, found most surprising.  (Fifth Vigil)

She knows that her officer has been lightly wounded in the arm, which “prevents him from writing,” but will be home soon, and with a promotion to boot.  She knows this because a fortune-telling witch told her.  “’I don’t doubt it’s truth for a single moment.’”  All of the magical nonsense is resolved by the end of the story, but not this detail.  Hoffmann never says is the officer arrives or not.  Perhaps he knows and does not want to say.

These two sisters are the Realists set against the Idealist hero.  It is a Kantian novel.  In the last Vigil, the narrator reveals that although he would like to be an Idealist, he, too is stuck in reality.  He cannot even describe the hero’s happy ending:

I perceived with disgust the inadequacy of every possible expression.  I felt entangled in the petty tedium of daily life; my tormenting dissatisfaction made me ill; I crept around as though lost in dreams…

Luckily, the salamander magician intervenes for him, too, ordering Hoffmann to “leave your garret, come down your damned five flights of stairs [poor suffering writers], and pay me a visit.”  He brings the author “the favorite drink of your friend Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler,’” who is featured in other Hoffmann stories, “’a flaming arrack… sprinkled with sugar.’”  The wizard then plunges into the goblet.

Undeterred, I blew the flames gently aside and took a sip of the drink.  It was delicious!

And Hoffmann is able to finish his story.  If he cannot physically travel to the happy land of the lily and salamander, he “’at least [has] a pretty farm there, as the poetic property of [his] mind.’”  Maybe a little bit of an allegory.

Thus ends German Literature Month at Wuthering Expectations.  Thanks to Lizzy and Caroline for the impetus to read and reread.

I’ll take a couple of days off for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Back Monday with some books about India; that is the current plan.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

everything strange and weird came to seem merely unusual and romantic - E.T.A. Hoffmann's Golden Pot

E. T. A. Hoffmann’s weird and crazy novella The Golden Pot: A Modern Fairytale, a landmark of fantasy literature, was published two hundred years ago.  The branch that grew out of this story includes Carroll’s Alice books, George MacDonald’s dream novels, John Crowley’s Little, Big, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – the kinds of stories things and people are constantly transforming into other things and people, where it is not entirely clear which parts of the story  are dreams and which are “real,” or if there is even a difference.

Anselmus, a college student in Dresden, and a nebbish, or perhaps a schlemiel, in quick succession is cursed by a witch and falls in love with a green snake with “magnificent dark-blue eyes” who appears with her two snake sisters in a tree on the banks of the Elbe.

All was silent, and Anselmus saw in the three gleaming, shimmering snakes gliding through the glass towards the river; with a swishing, rushing sound they plunged into the Elbe, and as they vanished into its waves a crackling green flame shot up and flew obliquely towards the town, fizzling out as it went.  (First Vigil – The Golden Pot has not Chapters but Vigils).

Most Hoffmann characters who wander into another state of being are under the influence of something and Anselmus has been smoking his “health tobacco.”  The snakes turn out to be the daughters of a wizard-salamander who is from Atlantis, where – anyways a bunch of crazy nonsense follows.

Normal people, like Anselmus, just walking around in their everyday city, suddenly slip into a fairy tale world that has somehow overlaid the everyday world.  So lots of metamorphoses, people into birds and door-knockers; birds into flowers; flowers into birds:

Once more Anselmus was astonished by the magnificence of the conservatory, but he could now perceive that many of the strange flowers hanging on the dark bushes were in fact insects resplendent in gleaming colours, flapping their little wings and dancing and flitting in a swarm as though caressing one another with their probosces.  As for the rose-pink and sky-blue birds, they had turned into fragrant flowers…  (Eighth Vigil)

Hoffmann’s great discovery was that he could his assemble this hodgepodge of esoteric symbols, taken from myth or alchemy or Freemasonry but stripped of their original meaning.  He could arrange some so that they created meaning of their own, his meaning.  “You will then believe that this magnificent realm is much nearer at hand than you had previously thought,” writes the narrator in one of several interruptions addressed “outright” to the reader (Fourth Vigil).

And the fact is that it does not matter much if the reader finds any coherent meaning at all.  The sense of wonder and delight is all there.

I have been quoting from the Oxford World’s Classics The Golden Pot and Other Tales, tr. Ritchie Robertson.  The post’s title is from the Seventh Vigil; I have mangled it a bit, but the spirit is right.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Christopher Benfey searches for the event of a thread - his pottery memoir

I’ve become a fan of Christopher Benfey’s books, mixes of history, art, and biography, underlaid with literary history.  Benfey is an English professor at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts, a specialist in Stephen Crane and Emily Dickinson and seemingly the entirety of 19th century American literature. 

But his books are anything but pure literary studies.  He traces connections between disparate people, places and artworks.  The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003), his best book that I have read, begins with Herman Melville and ends with Martin Heidegger, which turns out to be completely logical once I follow his path.  A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade (2008) – well, see title.  With Benfey, you have to include the subtitle.

His books are like American non-fiction cousins of W. G. Sebald’s novels.  Another relative is Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), which ranges widely across de Waal’s wide-ranging family history, moving from Paris to Austria to Tokyo with ease.  Benfey’s last book, which I just finished, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay (2012) very strongly resembles Hare.  Both authors, for example, describe their training as potters in Japan, even if for Benfey it was just a teenage episode (de Waal is now one of the world’s greatest living potters).  No surprise that de Waal thanked in the acknowledgements.

Where the motif of the hummingbird flits through A Summer of Hummingbirds, in Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay it is clay* – different kinds of clay, different kinds of pots, and different kinds of artists, with pottery ranging from North Carolina folk pottery to the avant garde designs of Black Mountain College artists, and artists ranging from his mother, a potter, to his great-aunt Anni Albers, among the greatest fabric artists of the 20th century.  Thus Benfey’s great-uncle is the painter Josef Albers.

The book and its string of connections are based on Benfey’s own life an family, so it is effectively a memoir that reaches outside of the family in various ways.  It helps, for this kind of book, to be related to some famous artists.  He is related to the 18th century American naturalist William Bartram, too, so there is a chapter about that, Bartram’s wandering around the American southeast.  Benfey’s father was a chemist who, like the Bauhaus-affiliated Alberses, fled the Nazis.  He invented the spiral periodic table of elements.

I know, it is hardly fair.  The book almost writes itself.

The best section is the middle, on the Alberses and Black Mountain College.  The middle chapter is “The Meander,” about the pattern common in ancient European and American art, but also, secretly, about Benfey’s method.

During these forays on the site of what had once been a vital and creatively intense community, I was groping for a metaphor to capture the proceedings.  I wanted a dominant form that would somehow link our own zigzag path with the artistic concerns of the Alberses.  As we began to retrace our route through the maze of streets near Black Mountain, I realized that the key had been there all along, in the meander pattern so dear to Josef and Anni.  (152-3)

At Black Mountain, Anni Albers

led her students to discover what she called, somewhat mysteriously, “the event of a thread.”  I had sometimes imagined her as a modern Ariadne, leading the way out of the Labyrinth.  (147)

This is just what Benfey’s books do.  Ah, come on, all of that stuff doesn’t go together.  But no, it does, in the right hands.

*  Clay and Quakers.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

“I read Leg over Leg and understood it all!” - what Arabic novels were like in 1855

This last book featured during Wuthering Expectations education week mostly educated me, and it mostly taught me that it exists.  The book the 1855 Arabic novel is Leg over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree concerning The Fāriyāq What Manner of Creature Might He Be, Vol. 1 (of four), by Fāris al-Shidyāq, a Lebanese Maronite of great learning and greater smartassery.  The novel is a digressive, parodic, smutty metafictional autobiography, some kind of relative of Tristram Shandy although with vocabulary lists and discussions of grammar, far more writing about words.

Thus, the sounds produced by an organ:

The tambour is to the organ as the branch is to the tree or the thigh to the body, for the only sound that it makes is a strumming, while the organ produces strumming and humming, mumbling and rumbling, jangling and jingling, squeaking and creaking, [skipping many more sounds], frogs ribbiting and ears tinky-tinkling, bulls bellowing and gaming-house reprobates roaring, reverberations and crepitations, pots gently bubbling and chilly dogs whimpering, [skip skip skip] not to mention caw-caw and hubble-bubble and wham-bam and slurp-slurp and baa-baa and tee-hee and keek-keek and buzz-buzz and schlup-flup – after all of which, what’s wrong, God guide you, with plinkety-plink?  (89-91)

One of those is obscene.  At least one.*  Plenty of the book, and I have only read a quarter of the entire novel, is obscene, or as obscene as a list of words can be,  with, for example, lists of names for organs of the generative kind.  See this excerpt from Volume 3 – search for “protruberance.”  It is the smuttiness of the lexicographer.   The translator, Humphrey Davies, deserves a prize, and a vacation.  Please see this fascinating interview.  “What to do when seventeen Arabic words in a list are all given an identical definition in the Arabic dictionaries?”  The unimprovable 2013 New York University Press edition includes facing-page Arabic – the original language! in a translation not of poetry but a novel! – allowing me to see, just by visual inspection even though I do not know a single character of Arabic, some of the effects Davies is trying to duplicate.

Leg over Leg cooks along a lot faster than Tristram Shandy, so that by the time the first quarter of the novel has ended the protagonist has not only been born but has been schooled and begun his career as a merchant, which I think is actually an allegory for religious conversion – his “goods” are actually ideas is the conceit, I think.

My favorite part of the chapters about education are the warnings of the horrible deaths suffered by everyone who studies grammar – “tetters,” goiter, ulcers, and “a headache (and what a headache!), caused by connective wāw, resumptive wāw, affirmative wāw, supplemental wāw, and negative wāw” (169), none of which exactly encourages the study of Arabic grammar, or any grammar at all. Perhaps I should have instead quoted the preceding paragraph about the categories of metaphors, including “the absquililferous, the vulgaritissimous, the exquipilifabulous,” and so on through the “anal-resonatory,” which may give a hint about the tone in which al-Shidyāq is writing.

Over all, the prologue should be as difficult as possible to understand; a prologue that isn’t serves notice that the book as a whole is poorly written and not worth the reading.  (169)

Well, the book is not that difficult, but I believe I have made its challenges clear enough (although for a more complete review please see Michael Orthofer’s Complete Review).  It is worth knowing the book exists.  This is an Arabic novel from 1855, this crazy thing.

I borrowed the title from p. 247.

*  “schlup-flup” (khāqibāqi)

Friday, November 21, 2014

It was not surprising that none of these things was any help - Hesse tells two stories

It was the anti-school angle that attracted me to Hesse’s Unterm Rad aka The Prodigy.  I was curious to bounce it off of the French books that attacked school, like those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jules Vallès, and especially to skeptical German-language fiction like Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless, another book about sensitive boarding school boys that was published just a year after Hesse.  The Prodigy does not otherwise have much in common with Musil, but does resemble Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry (1855/ 1879) in a number of curious ways.

Hesse reaches towards the thickly described, distantly narrated fiction of Theodor Fontane and Thomas Mann, but formally he has written a classic 19th century German novella.  I think the most distinctive, irritating feature of the novel, the clumsy, sarcastic, intrusive narrator is his own.

I showed that narrator yesterday, and will just give one more example of how he can stomp on his own scenes.  The apple harvest has come in – it’s cider time!

The many children, however, rich and poor alike, ran about with little mugs, all of them carrying an apple they had bitten into in one hand and a hunk of bread in the other; for as long as anyone could remember there had been a saying – quite groundless – that if you ate bread at the cider harvest you did not get the colic.  (Ch. 6, 121)

You either cringe a little at “quite groundless” or you will get along better with the narrator than I did.  The digression on Swabia in Chapter 3 may still test your patience.  “And so this fruitful province whose politically great traditions stretch back into the past still exerts” okay let’s cut that short.

I don’t want to complain any more.  There is some fine stuff in this book.  There is, just a couple of pages after that Swabian nonsense, a student who is so cheap he secretly uses other students’ soap and towels and takes violin lessons, even though he hates the violin, just because they are free.  There is this doctor:

The pale ex-student strolled round in the open air every day, joyless and weary, avoiding even the few opportunities of social intercourse that were offered.  The doctor prescribed drops, cod-liver oil, eggs and cold shower baths.

It was not surprising that none of these things was any help.  (Ch. 6, 119)

No, not such a surprise.  I am piecing together the comic novel hidden in the actual more gloomy one.  But I what I want to end on is the uncanny part of the novel, which is not just obligatory in the German novella but greatly deepens and possibly even upends the meaning of the novel.

After a promising start, Hans has washed out of the theological college, for reasons discussed yesterday.  Back home, he revisits his childhood, including the fairy tale slum, full of vice and crime, which he loved:

The ‘Falken’ was the one spot where a fairy tale, a miracle, a dreadful horror could happen, where any magic was credible, where it was possible to believe in ghosts and where you could feel the same thrilling shudder that you felt as you read old legends…

The activities of the tanners in the various chambers, the cellar yard and on the floors were weird and peculiar, the vast, yawning rooms were as quiet as they were intriguing, the powerfully built and surly master was shunned and dreaded as an ogre, and Liese went about the remarkable house like a fairy protector and mother to all the children, birds, cats and puppies, brimful of kindness, stories and ballad songs.  (Ch. 5, 116-7)

Hans has at this point taken his exams, gone to college, and washed out.  This strange neighborhood and Hans’s strange relation with it has never been hinted at until this point, as if Hesse had just thought of it, as if he knew that the sternness of the schools was inadequate to the story he was telling, a story which is more fundamentally about the loss of childhood.  The more complex symbolic story, in this episode strongly literalized, dominates and perhaps crushes the more topical protest against teaching boys Greek.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

His task is not to educate unusual boys but to produce good honest fools - Herman Hesse hates school

From one prodigy to another, to The Prodigy, a  short 1905 Hermann Hesse novel.  Unterm Rad is the real title, which is not even remotely The Prodigy, but rather, to use the title of an older translation, Beneath the Wheel.  The wheel of school and homework and society so on.  The novel is about a sensitive boy genius who is destroyed by the inflexibility and lack of imagination of his school and his thick-headed father.  There is another way to tell the story, but let’s go with this one.

John Stuart Mill was, by contrast, a comparatively insensitive genius, although more sensitive than he or anyone else had guessed.  Both Hesse’s prodigy and Mill lost their mothers at an early age, so they have that in common.

That is not true about Mill, by the way; completely wrong.  His mother lived a long time.  I had just assumed that she had died when Mill was young because he never mentions her.  It did strike me as odd, given that his mother was obviously absent, that younger siblings kept appearing.  Autobiography may be a much stranger book than it first seems.

Back to Hesse.  I know that the above summary of the novel is correct because the narrator directly tells me so:

A schoolmaster would rather have a whole class of duffers than one genius, and strictly speaking he is right, for his task is not to educate unusual boys but to produce good Latinists, mathematicians, and good honest fools…  we have the comfort of knowing that in true geniuses the wounds almost always heal, and they become people who create their masterpieces in spite of school and who later, when they are dead and the pleasant aura of remoteness hangs over them, are held up by schoolmasters to succeeding generations as exemplary and noble beings.  (Ch. 4, 85)

The narrator has picked his side.  The novel – the narrator – can have a tone of adolescent self-pity that is not so appealing.  Hesse was twenty-eight when it was published, but the narrator sounds younger.  Perhaps Hesse was younger when he wrote the book.  He did have the sense to create some distance by making the more autobiographical character not the main hero but rather the hero’s school friend, a wilder, more poetical creature, who reads not the Classics but rather Romantics like Schiller, Shakespeare, and Ossian, and who speaks “in the manner of romantic youths enamoured of Heine” (71).  Hesse can then explore the real mental crisis he experienced at school from different perspectives by dividing his symptoms and sufferings among the two characters.

Here’s how wild that poetic kid, Heilner, is:

Hans was also horrified when he first noticed how Heilner treated his text-books…  He was disgusted to see that [Heilner] had covered whole pages with pencilled scribble.  The west coast of the Spanish peninsula [it’s an atlas] had been distorted into a grotesque profile in which the nose reached from Oporto to Lisbon and the Cape Finsterre region had been stylized into a curly wig, while Cape St Vincent formed the beautiful twisted point of a man’s beard.  It went on like this for page after page…  Hans was accustomed to treat his books as sacred possessions and this disrespect seemed to him partly a desecration of the holy of holies, partly a criminal yet heroic act.  (70)

A madman.  Thank goodness he is expelled.

The boarding school portrayed in the novel is real and still operating.  It is housed in a Cistercian monastery dating back to the 12th century.  Neither sensitive nor a genius, I thought it sounded pretty great.

Quotations and page numbers are from the W. J. Strachan translation, Penguin, 1973.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

I am rather below than above par - John Stuart Mill frightens me

Why I did not read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography (1873) or at any number of strategic points along the way I do not know, but I’ve read it now.

Autobiography is a book about education:

I have no remembrance of the time when I began to learn Greek.  I have been told that it was when I have three years old…  I faintly remember going through Aesop’s fables, the first Greek book which I read.  The Anabasis, which I remember better, was the second…  I also read, in 1813 [so Mill was seven], the first six dialogues (in the common arrangement) of Plato, from the Euthyphron to the Theaetetus inclusive: which last dialogue, I venture to think, would have been better omitted, as it was totally impossible.  (Ch. 1, Childhood and Early Education)

I see I have something in common with Mill, since I too remember finding Theaetetus impossible to understand, although I was not seven but rather thirty, and I read it in English rather than Greek.  I should include one more line:

But my father, in all his teaching, demanded of me not only the utmost that I could do, but much that I could by no possibility have done.

Mill was home-schooled, as we now say, by his father James Mill, who in a sense is the villain of Autobiography, if memoirs have villains.  Mill continued to work twelve to fifteen grade levels beyond his age all through his childhood and teens until, at age twenty, he experienced a “crisis in my mental history” that sounds to me like some kind of depression – “the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down” – from which he is eventually lifted by his discovery of the poetry of William Wordsworth.

Actually, his prodigious studies and writing continued even during his crisis.  “I went on with them mechanically, by the mere force of habit” (Ch. 5).  What an extraordinary mental machine Mill was.  His last name is like a pun.  He was a Learning Mill, always grinding away.

Almost everyone I read is unusual, some kind of genius – I take it for granted that there are many kinds of genius – but a few writers stand out even from that background.  When I read about the early educational experiences of the future George Eliot or Robert Browning or John Stuart Mill (all three to some degree or another self-educated), or study the life of Goethe, I sometimes find myself a bit frightened by the evident vastness of their cognitive capabilities.

I suppose Mill's mental breakdown is socially useful.  Helps cheer up us lesser folks, like reading about how St. Augustine was a young sinner, even if he did not really sin all that much.  Here is Mill’s own opinion on his father's methods:

If I had been by nature extremely quick of apprehension, or had possessed a very accurate and retentive memory, or were of a remarkably active and energetic character, the trial would not be conclusive; but in all these natural gifts I am rather below than above par; what I could do, could assuredly be done by any boy or girl of average capacity and healthy physical constitution: and if I have accomplished anything, I owe it, among other fortunate circumstances, to the fact that through the early training bestowed on me by my father, I started, I may fairly say, with an advantage of a quarter century over my contemporaries.  (Ch. 1)

Part of the literary interest of the Autobiography is that it has a classic unreliable narrator who tells outrageous lies while unconsciously revealing the truth to the attentive reader.  I mean, “rather below par”!  How could he possibly have believed that?

An aside: the part of the last chapter about Mill’s short career as a Member of Parliament is of high and direct interest to fans of Trollope’s Parliament novels, especially Phineas Finn.  Mill would have been in Parliament alongside Finn; the riot scene is in both books.  Instructive.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What are brief? What are deep? - Christina Rossetti's nursery rhymes

This week at Wuthering Expectations:  educational literature.  Or literature about education.  Whatever.  I don’t care.

First up, the former, Christina Rossetti’s Sing-song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).  I read this copy, housed at Indiana University.  I wanted an edition with the original illustrations by pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes.

Sing-song is not a great book, as a collection of Rossetti poetry or as something of interest to the youngsters of today, but it still has some interest to me.  Sometimes the Rossetti quality seeps through the poems.

Like here, p. 10:

I have no trouble hearing that this is the author of “In the bleak midwinter.”  Aside from the music of the poem, the specificity of the basket and the plant is appealing.  The “tombstone of snow” is almost too symbolically meaningful.

The snowberry bush, and the thrush, too, are part of the educational content of Sing-song.  Poems educate the littl’uns about flowers and birds, colors, sums, months, currency, time, and kindness to animals – again and again, kindness to animals.

I know that the point of the illustration is that the little boy – note his grisly snare in the background –  should leave the mole alone as well as the other critters, but given the mole’s central placement, and given that he is not mentioned in the poem, it is almost as if the poet is urging the mole to leave the worms and bugs alone, even taunting him by calling the beetle “fat.”  At least she omitted “juicy.”  Poor hungry mole.

Another sad example:

Hear what the mournful linnets say:
   “We built our nest compact and warm,
But cruel boys came round our way
   And took our summerhouse by storm.

“They crushed the eggs so neatly laid;
   So now we sit with drooping wing,
And watch the ruin they have made,
   Too late to build, too sad to sing.”  (14)

Poems like this one complement those about dead or dying children, of which there are at least eight.  The poems also have some value for mothers:

Crying, my little one, footsore and weary?
  Fall asleep, pretty one, warm on my shoulder:
I must tramp on through the winter night dreary,
  While the snow falls on me colder and colder.  (19)

Meanwhile the baby sleeps and dreams “of pretty things…  of pleasure.”

Rossetti also includes riddles and nonsense.  My favorite example of the latter, when a bit of nightmarish Carrollian surrealism intrudes:

The riddles can have their own beauty.  This example has obvious rhymes and sentiments, but is pleasingly sonorous:

What are heavy?  sea-sand and sorrow:
What are brief?  to-day and tomorrow:
What are frail?  spring blossoms and youth:
What are deep?  the ocean and truth.  (34)

I am perhaps making the book sound better than it really is.  Most of the poems are trivial, merely cute, no different than in a hundred other similar books.  The Poetry Foundation singles out this one for some reason:

Mix a pancake,
Stir a pancake,
    Pop it in the pan;
Fry the pancake,
Toss the pancake, –
    Catch it if you can.

Not that I am against pancakes – what a terrible thing to even suggest – but I do not think it required the genius of Christina Rossetti to come up with that poem.

Still, I went looking for Rossetti and found her.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

I see them with my blurred understanding - more Inger Christensen

All of Inger Christensen’s poetry in English comes from one translator, Susanna Nied, who worked closely with the poet, who knew English well.  So I have been able to enjoy six books of Christensen’s poetry, five tiny and one the beast, it, I described yesterday.

The first two, Light (1962) and Grass (1963) seem typical of a lot of European poetry written at the time.  I would never have guessed that the highly formalized, schematic, and long it (1969) could have grown out of them.

Christensen also wrote some novels around this time.  Azorno (1967) and The Painted Room (1976) are in English, both translated by Denise Newman.  They both seem to me like good but unexceptional imitations of the French New Novel.  The Painted Room is about Andrea Mantegna and the perils of being an artist in the Mantuan court, which could be pretty exciting in different hands.  These are formalist, intellectual novels. 

Likely I am misunderstanding most of these works.  Luckily, from here on out Christensen returned to poetry, and the poems are shorter, warmer, and easier.  “Luckily” really just applies to “easier” – I don’t mind the help.  The books are Letter in April (1979), alphabet (1981) and Butterfly Valley: A Requiem (1991).

Since alphabet is built from a two-part scheme combining the alphabet with Fibonacci numbers, that is not the poem to use to make my case:

I write like wind
that writes in water
with stylized monotony  (59)

The formal poetry in fact is personal, working with the world as she sees it.  But it does help that Letter in April has people, characters, the poet and her daughter on a vacation in Italy:

We arrive early one morning
almost before we’re awake.
The air is pale, a bit cool,
and it curls a bit over our skin
like a membrane of moisture,
We talk about spiderwebs
– how do they work –
about the rain that washed the water
as we slept along the way
while we rolled
over the earth.
Then we’re at the house
and we bathe in the dust of the gravel walk
as among sparrows.  (103)

The next poem continues the water imagery as it moves into the house (“this waterfall / of images”), but another direction is offered as each poem in a section is marked so that the poems can be read in at least two different orders.  I can stay outside and follow the spiderweb theme rather than the house theme.  The result is not too different stories but rather two different poetic ways of thinking.

Who knows,
maybe the pomegranate
itself is aware
that it’s called
something else.
Who knows,
maybe I myself
am called
something else
than myself.  (109)

the title poem of Butterfly Valley lacks people, aside from the poet,  but has butterflies.  She is in Macedonia, watching the butterflies.  The work is a sequence of fifteen sonnets, as traditional a scheme as Christensen uses, except – of course there is another rule – the first line of a poem is the last line of the previous poem.  Then the fifteenth and final poem is nothing but the first lines of each of the previous fourteen poems.  Every scrap of that last poem has thus appeared three times. 

Up they soar, the planet’s butterflies,
pigments from the warm body of the earth,
cinnabar, ochre, phosphor yellow, gold
a swarm of basic elements aloft.

Is this flickering of wings only a shoal
of light particles, a quirk of perception?
Is it the dreamed summer hour of my childhood
shattered as by lightning lost in time?

No, this is the angel of light, who can paint
himself as dark mnemosyne Apollo,
as copper, hawk moth, tiger swallowtail.

I see them with my blurred understanding
as feather in the coverlet of haze
in Brajčino Valley’s noon-hot air.  (Sonnet I)

And now you have the first two lines of the last poem, too.  “Butterfly Valley” is the most openly beautiful poetry of this tricky poet, beautiful in the way most people understand beauty.  But Christensen finds beauty in form, in repetition, less an antipoet than a poet of the greatest possible purity.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Build into the rules of the game the inevitable breach of the rules as if it were a rule - Inger Christensen's it

Build into the rules of the game the inevitable breach of the rules as if it were a rule.  As if inevitable death were a natural turn.  Needing only to be rephrase right.  O death where is thy breach?  So changed now that the system catches hold.  So free.

I have been reading, over the last couple of years, the works available in English of Danish poet Inger Christensen.  The above is from early on (p. 4 of Susanna Nied’s translation)  in it (1969).  The word “it,” with no capitalization, that’s the title.  In Danish, det

It.  That’s it.  That started it.  It is.  Goes on.  Moves.  Beyond.  Becomes.  Becomes it and it and it.

Those are the first lines, while up top are the last, of the first part of the PROLOGOS of it, which in Danish consisted of 66 lines of 66 characters each.  The translator had to relax that last constraint.  The second part of the PROLOGOS is two poems of 33 lines each, 66 characters across, on to the eighth part which has 66 poems of one line of 66 characters. 

Someone walks into a house and looks at the street from his window.

Someone walks out of a house and looks at his window from the street.

Someone walks down a street and looks at the others on this way.

Etc. for 63 more lines, remembering that in Danish each line is exactly the same length.  Passages like this can have the feel of reading a completed crossword puzzle.  In translation.

This is just the prologue!  Each of the poems subsequent parts has its own formal restrictions or purpose, some relatively traditional.  The first connection to A. R. Ammons is obvious – it is another typewriter poem, like, Tape for the Turn of the Year, where ideas about how the poem will look comes before ideas about content, and will inevitably, or so the poet thinks or guesses, influence the content.

The other link with Ammons is that it is, like Sphere, a cosmogony, a poem about the creation of all things, in the tradition of Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony.  Anne Carson covers all of this in the introduction to the New Directions edition, stealing my fun.  Epigrams in specific sections link the poem to William Blake and Novalis a number of French wild men like Bataille and Lautréamont, ecstatic Romantics:

a black storm in a sealed cave
black lilacs smelling of sulfur
black snow

conversations with death:
freedom freedom freedom

the snow falls
piles itself in great drifts on the sky
and the sky is completely black

In May the lilacs will bloom; they must!  (82)

it is maybe a poem where a question like “is it good” is beside the point.  Not always, perhaps not often.  Christensen, in the spirit of antipoetry, is writing poetry where “the standard expressions, torn loose, flutter around, turned to dust, tentatively seek a form…  the place where the unexpressed in the expressionless finds expression” (10).

As strange as it is, or because it is strange, and because the poem covers sex, drugs, ecology, and anti-war protests, it was a huge hit in Denmark.  From the translator:

Some of its lines are so familiar to Danes that they have slipped into conversational use.  For example,  the journal of Denmark’s city planners took its title, Soft City, from a line in det.  (p. x)

That last line is like a transmission from a distant planet.

It’s not random
It’s not the world
It is random
It is the world
It’s the whole thing in a mass of different people
It’s the whole thing in a mass of difference
It’s the whole thing in a mass
It’s the whole thing
That’s it
It                                           (p. 237, last lines)

Friday, November 14, 2014

I want to be named the area where charlatan rationality comes to warp - Ammons looks at the sphere

well, I don’t know about that: will the worms
send us back to the chef: will we be too rare

or too tough or overdone or sauceless: I
think not: I think we will be acceptable:


                  WITH BEAUTY
                    HERE, OKAY

That’s from Glare (1997), A. R. Ammons as cranky old guy, staring death in the face, getting everything off his chest while he still has a chance, even resorting to all caps like a true crank.  He is a quotable poet, from the earliest poem in Collected Poems: 1951-1971 up through Glare, as far as I’ve gone, forty years of poetry.

The unique voice was in place in the mid 1960s, circa Tape for the Turn of the Year, and runs through the rest of his work.  At times it feels like one giant mega-poem.  I’ll pick one and thumb through.  How about Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974):

my last fallacy of imitative form, my book on
roundness, disappointed me some (oh yes, it did), I meant
to write one unreadable, but a lot of people have

bought it, reading it or not: I wanted something
standing recalcitrant in its own nasty massiveness,
bowing to no one, nonpatronizing and ungrateful:
 I don’t know why:         (from “Summer Place”, Brink Road, 1996, p. 185)

And in fact I found Sphere to be by far Ammons’s most difficult book, an impossible attempt at the meaning of all things inspired by a photo of the Earth from space, something we now take for granted.   The subtitle, The Form of a Motion, comes, hilariously, from a college faculty meeting.* The form is 155 stanzas of four triplets each, long lines as opposed to Tape’s fragments, unrelenting, massive in feel even though the poem is only 69 pages long.  “it's hard to tell what an abstract poet wants” (stanza 132) – true, all too true.  Sphere is Ammons’s attempt at a cosmogony, although Hesiod never wrote a line like “if you bite me in the ear, I will knee you in the nuts” (st. 58).

Not much of an abstract reader, I searched the poem for passages like this:

                                                                           I thought
I saw a piece of red paper in the grass but it was a
cardinal: and I thought I saw  a clump of quince blossoms

move but that was a cardinal: one morning three orioles
were in the green-red quince bush: that was what it was:
the pear tree look like lime sherbet with whipped cream

topping: the bottom part all leaves and no blossoms and
the top part all blossoms and no leaves: a green sailboat
or a spring mountain, from tree-green to conic, glacial white:  (st. 96)

Or the manifestos, lines that maybe tell me how to read this dang poem (“now, first of / all, the way to write poems is just to start,” st. 125) or that are a statement of purpose:

         I want to be declared a natural disaster area:
I want my ruins sanctioned into the artifice of ruins: I
want to be the aspect above which every hope rises, a

freshening of courage to millions: I want to be, not shaved
marble in a prominence that cringes aspiration, but the
junkyard where my awkwardness may show:  (st. 129)

This sounds so much like Whitman, if Whitman had written about garbage.  Ammons wrote a book-length poem about garbage – Garbage (1993) – that I now see is a kind of sequel to Sphere, which continues:

                                    I want to be the shambles,
the dump, the hills of gook the bulldozer shoves, so gulls
in carrion-gatherings can fan my smouldering, so in the

laciest flake of rust I can witness my consequence and time:
I want to be named the area where charlatan rationality comes
to warp…

Now there’s a line to make Nicanor Parra or Knut Hamsun nod.

“[T]he best kind of poetry,” Ammons writes in Garbage, is “the kind that seeking resolution // and an easing out of tension still out-tenses the / intensifiers,” and I guess that is the kind he wrote often enough.

*  See the Paris Review interview from 1996 which is full of insights and good humor.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

I've hated at times the self-conscious POEM: - A. R. Ammons types up some antipoetry - the reason I write so much is that I can’t do anything else:

For months, I have been rummaging around in recent American poetry – Amy Clampitt, Rita Dove, Peter Cole – without writing much about it.  After, or during, all of that eminently Victorian poetry I had been reading Swinburne and The Ring and the Book and The Earthly Paradise – I needed a break.  I needed to recalibrate the sensors.

For various reasons I kept returning to the poems of A. R. Ammons, an old favorite of mine, and I since May I have read ten of his books.  Only a couple of days ago did I realize that Ammons was a kind of antipoet.  He shares with Nicanor Parra:  a mix of high and low language, stabs at big philosophical issues and retreats to ordinary life, deep suspicion of Romantic poetical rhetoric which they both regard as artificial, self-deprecating humor, and constant messing around with poetic form.  Both were descendants of Walt Whitman.  Ammons mixed in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams – all of the Americans with Ws in their name I guess.  Ammons was a genuine nature poet – that’s a difference from Parra.

That he called collections The Really Short Poems (1991) and Selected Longer Poems (1980) gives an idea of his blunt formal experimentation.  Poetry had become radically free, so it was time to re-impose some limits.  My favorite is the time he stuck a roll of adding machine tape in his typewriter and wrote a diary-in-verse on it until the tape ran out.  That’s Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965):

6 Dec:

today I
decided to write
a long
          employing certain
classical considerations:  (p. 1)
it was natural for
me (in the House &
              Garden store one
night a couple weeks
ago) to contemplate
     this roll of
adding-machine tape, so
narrow, long,
unbroken, and to penetrate
     into some
     fool use for it:  (pp. 2-3)

Man, this is going to be a long post.  The book is 205 pages, all just this tape-constrained column running down the middle of the pages.  As long as Ammons stays on the tape, he can do whatever he wants, whether or not he can think of anything to do.  An Ammon signature, by the way, which appeared at this time and lasted to the end was replacing periods with colons.  The lines no longer seem separate but rather chained together. 

     I’ve hated at times the
self-conscious POEM:
     I’ve wanted to bend
     more, burrowing
with flexible path
into the common life
     & commonplace:  (144)
poetry has
one subject, impermanence,
which it presents
with as much permanence as
possible:  (145)

Whether that is true or not, Ammons at this point begins typing up the weather (“thank it’s agonna snow / some: / don’t keer if it do:”), as he does when he seems unsure of himself, before switching to the childhood memory of a cherry tree in May:

how can these
pictures stay
in my head:
      how, after lying 30
yrs in darkness, can
they be brought up,
looked at, and
    what we don’t
    know’s a scare:
    & comfort:  (148)

Maybe I should focus more on nature, the many birds in the poem:

two bald iggles
     been sighted out
     tell me:
     can you beat that?
     I looked for any but
couldn’t find some:  (188-9)

But I keep returning to the method, to the tape, because it is so much fun watching Ammons fight with it:

the reason I write so much
that I can’t do anything
poem must be now
close to 40 feet long: I
can’t get it out
to write letters or
postcards or anything:
     hurry: or
is that cheating?  (58-9)

One could also take that as a philosophical question.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Who made this mishmash? - Nicanor Parra says one thing for another

I have to write about some of the Nicanor Parra antipoems that I read, however theoretically in Spanish, just to remind myself that I did it.  Much of Poemas y Antipoemas is available in English translation, but not quite all of it.

The book has three sections, all with good, odd, punchy, quotable poems.  The “Self-portrait (Autorretrato),” just as an example from part II, a schoolteacher’s lament (Parra was a math teacher, and later a physics professor).  He has ruined his health:

Para ganar un pan imperdonable
Duro como la cara del burgués
Y con sabor y con olor a sangre.
To earn an unforgivable bread,
Hard like the face of the bourgeois
And with the taste and smell of blood.  (tr. me)

His nose is ruined “by the lime of the degrading chalk,” his ideals “brutalized by the singsong / of the five hundred hours a week.”

The Nicanor Parra site must have a revised version of the poem.  No ruined nose but rather a line about a pair of shoes; “sabor” and “olor” are reversed.  Heck if I know.  Check the PDF of the first edition if you don’t believe me.  Hey, maybe Parra excluded entire poems in later editions; thus their absence from the website.

The third section takes a turn, though.  These, I thought, were the antipoems.  The first poem in the section is a “Warning to the Reader.”  “The doctors of the law say this book shouldn't see light,” “My poetry may very well lead nowhere.”  Parra promises to “bury my quills in the heads of my readers!”  This is David Unger’s translation.

The next poem is “Rompecabezas,” “Puzzles” or more literally “headbreakers,” although Parra’s anitpoems are antipuzzles:

¿Para qué son estos estómagos?
¿Quién hizo esta mezcolanza?

Yo digo una cosa por otra.
For what are these stomachs?
Who made this mishmash?  (tr. me)

I say one thing for another.

If there is an elaborate word puzzle buried in this poem, I’ll never find it.  But there is no way any puzzle created by Nicanor Parra has a solution.  That would destroy my anti-faith in him.  In “Solo de Piano,” Parra reassures me:

Since we do not even have the consolation of a chaos
In the garden that yawns and fills with air,
A puzzle that we must solve before our death  (tr. William Carlos Williams!)

The antipoems, for all their jokiness, feel as autobiographical as that self-portrait .  From “Words to Tomás Lago,” a Chilean poet and champion of folk art:

Vinieros también esas conferencias desorganizadas
Ese polvo mortal de la Feria del Libro,
Vinieron, Tomás, esas elecciones angustiosas,
Esas ilusiones y esas alucianaciones.
There come those disorganized conferences
That deathly dust of the Book Fair,
There come, Tomás, those heartbreaking choices,
Those illusions and those hallucinations.  (tr. me)

Even antipoets have to go to book fairs, how sad.  Oh, that’s the next line.

How sad all this was!
How sad! but how happy at the time!

Think back on old times, the poet urges his friend,

Porque es justo pensar
Y porque es útil creer que pensamos.
Because it is right to think
And because it is useful to believe that we think.  (tr. me)

That collection of Alexander Vvedensky I read last summer was titled An Invitation for Me To Think, which would have been a good title for a Parra collection.  The great puzzle is that of existence – who made this mishmash – the solution is to think, to record our poems on rocks, to laugh with the antipoets.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

But no: life doesn’t make sense - Nicanor Parra's greatest antipoem

Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos wanted people to read the poems and antipoems of Chilean physicist and antipoet Nicanor Parra.  We both read Parra’s Poemas y Antipoemas (1954).  Ricardo read a shiny new edition with an introduction and notes.  I read a battered old PDF of the first edition.  For some reason Parra has moved into English in selected poem editions – Rise of In Lieu of a Field Guide read a couple of those, including the one I read a couple years ago.  But I wanted the original book this time.

The Individual’s Soliloquy

I am the Individual.
First I lived by a rock.
(There I recorded some figures).

This is the beginning of the last of the Antipoemas.  The (anti)poem is a history of mankind.  Man’s first act worth noting is the creation of art.

The mindless translation is mine.  Allen Ginsberg loved this poem and performed it frequently.  He and Lawrence Ferlinghetti have an outstanding translation.  Their parenthetical line is “(I scratched some figures on it)” which is better, less formal, more evocative of the scene.  El diccionario also has, for the verb “grabar”, “engrave” (too technical), “incise,” “cut”- awfully close to “scratched.”  Although there is something to be said for “recorded.”  The Paleolithic art, the soliloquy, the antipoems – what are they but a record that he is the Individual.  The Spanish reader gets all the meanings at once.

The verb “grabar” is used throughout the poem, so the translator’s choice is going to do a lot of work.

The first line (“Yo soy el Individuo”) is repeated, too, eighteen more times, 15% of the entire poem.  Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti drop the capital “I” which again is more normal, less strident.  It is amusing that the Beats softened Parra a bit.  Maybe the capital was too authoritarian.

I then took a stone I found in the river
And began working on it,
Polishing it up,
I made it a part of my life.
But it's a long story.
I chopped some trees to sail on
Looking for fish,
Looking for lots of things,
(I'm the individual.)
Till I began getting bored again.  (tr. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti)

The Individual is restless.  He invents or discovers things – fire and religion at this point, watches and sewing machines later.  His boredom at this point leads to philosophy and monotheism, I think.

Storms get boring,
Thunder, lightning,
I'm the individual.
I began thinking a little bit,
Stupid questions came into my head,
Doubletalk.  (tr. G. & F.)

Parra’s line is “Falsas problemas,” but “Doubletalk” is perfect.  Books, cities, languages are created.  I began to wonder, by the end of the poem, if the Individual was not just man but also God.  After all this progress, a mystical glimpse “behind the curtains (Detrás de unas cortinas)” leads the Individual to wonder:

Better maybe that I return to that valley,
To that rock that served as my home,
And start recording anew,
To record backwards
The world upside down.
But no: life doesn’t make sense.  (tr. Amateur Reader)

Now that is the definition of an antipoem.

Nicanor Parra turned 100 in September.

Friday, November 7, 2014

What earthly joy remains free from bitterness? - Theodor Fontane's Irretrievable

The marriage of Count and Countess Holk has turned sour.  The children are old enough to go to boarding school; building the new beachfront mansion was a useful distraction, but it is now complete; the Countess has grown increasing judgmental, rigid, and a bit morbid, while the Count is too shallow to repair the damage himself.

That’s how Fontane’s Irretrievable (aka Beyond Recall, 1891) begins.  Early in the book, when the point of view hops around among several characters, I guessed that the Countess would be the focus, since she is the more interesting person.  When the Count is summoned to his official duties in Copenhagen, as gentleman-in-waiting to a Princess, I thought this was a device to get him out of the way, but no, the point of view now stays with Count Holk, moving to the big city where temptations await.

As Madame Bovary made clear, this kind of limited perspective technique is adept at finding the depth in shallow people.

The novel at this point becomes a detailed, even methodical, account of the steps by which the Count is led, or allows himself to be led, or leads himself, into a sexual affair with one of his colleagues.  Because of some bad luck, and because Holk is a fool, the consequences of the affair are sadder than he had expected.

It occurs to me that Irretrievable is something of a workplace comedy, where the “employment” is assisting and entertaining the elderly aunt of the Danish king.

They all met daily, alternating between the left- and the right-hand towers, and just as the company was always the same, so the entertainment, too, always took the same form, being limited to play-readings, poetry recitals, and charades.  (188)

Easy but dull.

Only near the end of the novel did I understand that the wife’s story had also been present through the book, like a soft cello playing behind the brighter instruments.  I use a musical analogy because the key moment of the novel is her strong response to a song early in the book, back in Chapter 4.

The music was already open on the piano, the lights were on, and they both began.  But what they had feared happened: voice and accompaniment failed to keep pace and they both burst out laughing, half embarrassed.  However, they started again at once and Elizabeth’s high, clear voice, still almost that of a child, rang through the two rooms.  Everyone listened in silence.  The countess seemed particularly moved and at the end of the last verse, she rose from her chair and went over to the piano.  Then, picking up the song still lying open on the music-rest, without saying a word to anyone, she left the room.  (28)

That last action is the secret chord that does not resolve for over 200 pages.  Much of the subtle art of the novel is in this story, the wife’s, the story that is not told.  The lyrics of the song are included, of course, just like in a Theodor Storm novella, even repeated several times.  Delicate things, Douglas Parmée shoves the English into footnotes.  “Peace is surely the best of all earthly happiness, what earthly joy remains free from bitterness?” (46).

Thursday, November 6, 2014

No one writes like that nowadays. Nowadays one writes much worse. - Thomas Mann, Günter Grass, and Samuel Beckett read Theodor Fontane

Three examples of Fontane’s influence or perhaps just presence, one predictable, another unusual, and the third hard to believe.

Thomas Mann must have grown up almost immersed in Fontane’s fiction.  Fontane is a rare case – he worked as a journalist, but did not turn to fiction until late, not publishing his first novel until he was almost sixty, and writing a string of masterpieces in his seventies.  Mann, who was a wonder kid whose publications began when he was, I believe, 18, would have been a teen in northern Germany when all of these radical new northern German novels were appearing.

Mann was always appreciative of Fontane.  “If I may be permitted the personal confession: no writer of past or present stirs in me that kind of sympathy and gratitude, that immediate, instinctive delight, that reflex gaiety, warmth, and satisfaction, which I feel reading any of his verse, any line of his letters, any scrap of dialogue.”

I found that in Phillip Lopate’s Irretrievable Afterword, p. 260; it is from the 1910 essay “The Old Fontane.”  Mann is a writer of many modes, most of them not especially evocative of Fontane, but it is hard to imagine Buddenbrooks (1901) without Fontane’s example.  The first part of the first scene is pure Fontane.  Little Tony Buddenbrooks is on her grandfather’s lap reciting her newly-memorized catechism; the grandfather gently mocks not her but the innovations recently introduced into it.  The grandfather is brought to life by this one little gesture based on a social change that a modern reader may not even be able to detect any more.

I have not read Günter Grass’s 1995 novel Too Far Afield.  I am not sure I could read it well.  It is about history and German unification, but it is also about Theodor Fontane, and not only about him but to some large degree composed of Fontane quotations.  Like a novelistic collage.  Good luck finding an English-language reviewer who was able to detect any of this.  The title, Ein weites Feld, is from a phrase Old Briest says repeatedly – in fact they are the last words of Effi Briest – a hugely famous quotation that not only means nothing to English-language readers but is not even recognizable to someone who has read Fontane in translation, since the two translations I know do not translate Briest’s words as “too far afield.”  Impossible.

The unlikely Fontane fan is Samuel Beckett.  I will quote extensively from Beckett’s Polish translator and collaborator, Antoni Libera:

Beckett arrived with his typical punctuality, at twelve on the dot, not a second later.  To a meeting that wasn't connected with any creative plans or projects he usually came "empty-handed", as he liked to put it.  This time he was holding a small book, which turned out to be an old, very well-thumbed copy of Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane.

Beckett's close friends and those who are experts on his work will know that it was one of his favourite novels, which he often went back to and which he also referred to in his writing.  "Let us hasten home", says Mr Rooney to his old wife in the radio-play All That Fall, "and sit before the fire. We shall draw the blinds. You will read to me. I think Effi is going to commit adultery with the Major."  And in Krapp's Last Tape, as he's making his recording, old Krapp muses: "Effi... Could have been happy with her, up there on the Baltic, and the pines, and the dunes" - because the action of the novel takes place near Stettin - a city which now, as Szczecin, belongs to Poland.

All of that is accurate, except for some reason in Krapp’s Last Tape the name is spelled “Effie”: “Scalded the eyes out of me reading Effie again, a page a day, with tears again”  (p. 25 of the Grove Weidenfeld edition).  Back to Libera and Beckett:

I plucked up the courage to ask the vital question:

"Why do you like that novel so much?"

There was a long pause before I got an answer.

"I used to dream of writing something like it.  And I still have a bit of that dream left.  But I never did.  I never did write it..."  He broke off.

"You never did write it?" I brazenly tried to drag the words out of him.

Another wan smile, and then, unfolding his hands, he said:

"For... I was born too late.  No one writes like that nowadays.  Nowadays one writes much worse."  He glanced at me and added jokingly:  "But don't worry.  The world is changing.  Perhaps you'll manage it."

Beckett seems to have actually lived in a Beckett play.  A page a day would be a strange way to read Effi Briest.  Still, what good company for reading Fontane.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why Fontane can be slow going - more ramblin'

When my old book club read Effi Briest – this was ages ago – several readers found the late 19th century Prussian setting and the German names and titles to be an obstacle.  Or perhaps more of a kind of friction, a thickening of the prose that was no longer present for these experienced readers of novels about Paris or London or St. Petersburg, which they had visited so often in fiction.

The friction was rough enough in Irretrievable that it slowed me down, though I had assumed I would be comfortable enough.  The setting is not even in Prussia, but mostly behind the scenes of the Danish court – the monarchical court, not the legal one – in Copenhagen, and occasionally in rural Schleswig, which at the time of the novel was Danish, but would be Prussian soon enough.  Note how I have snuck in another Scandinavian novel in German disguise.

There were times when I had to slow down quite a bit, either to puzzle out some mysterious reference or to file it away for later.  I mean, the functionings of the Danish court!  How helpful to have such easy access to good internet maps.

Fontane’s method contributes to the difficulty.  Characters are created from minute accumulations of detail, including pages of subdued scenes and trivial dialogue  – “social chatter” is what the editor of the NYRB Classics edition calls it (259).  Within every scene, there will be something in the chatter that is either deeply revealing about one or more characters, or will when mixed with something later becomes meaningful.  The effect is artful and subtle, but a cost of the method is that some of the chatter is merely that, deliberately shallow and sometimes even close to meaningless.

On top of this, as is common with novels of manners, there is little action of the melodramatic, plot-moving sort, but rather a great deal of ordinary motion, characters assembling for meals or taking walks.  Irretrievable is particularly slow, or daring, in this regard, with the first moment of action, the first point in which a reader can be clear what the novel is about, occurring on page 201 of 256.  In fact, two dramatic events occur at that same point, one genuinely melodramatic, a “damsel in distress” moment, as if Fontane wants to awaken the reader who has been lulled into a nap, or who did not notice that the first, character-driven dramatic event occurred in the white space between chapters.

As French as Fontane’s novels feel in some ways, and as concerned as they are with sex and adultery, Prussian standards of what could be directly expressed in print were much more Victorian than Parisian.  Given Fontane’s style, though, I doubt more permissive publishing would have changed much.

We are not so far, in Fontane, from basing an entire novel on a woman planning a party.  I do not think of Mrs. Dalloway as a novel where nothing happens; nor is that the case in Fontane novels, as the duel in Effi Briest or the climax of Schach von Wuthenow (1882) make clear enough.

Look at that title – English readers without a semester of German will have no idea how to pronounce it or what it is even supposed to mean.  It’s just a person's name.  The novella has been translated with the fake but less intimidating title of A Man of Honor.  Its story goes like this: romance, indiscretion, domestic stuff, domestic stuff, domestic stuff, OMG WHAT JUST HAPPENED HOW HORRIBLE, ironic ending.  That was from memory, so perhaps I did not count the instances of “domestic stuff” properly, and my whole point is that whatever delaying devices Fontane uses, I vividly remember where the story ends up.

I think Fontane is a terrific writer, but for some kinds of good readers he will be a real test of patience.  That’s what I took 600 words to say.

I really did think I was going to get to Samuel Beckett today.  How that was going to work – anyway, tomorrow, Mann, Grass, Beckett; more social chatter.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Why Theodor Fontane is good - no quotes, no examples, no nothin' - a ramble

Maybe ten years ago I read a number of the short novels of Theodor Fontane, the German novelist with confusingly French name,* and I reread his masterpiece Effi Briest (1894), still pre-blog.  In Germany he is, or at least used to be, much assigned to youngsters, which ought to make him hated, but my understanding is that a number of his characters are among the most beloved in German fiction, like Jo March or Jane Eyre in English.

Fontane’s greatest skill was creating lifelike or rounded or “real” characters, really wonderful characters.  He used techniques borrowed from French literature.  He brought Flaubert into German literature, much like Eça de Queirós was doing in Portuguese literature at the same time, with similarly vivid results, although he has none of Eça’s satirical savagery.

Great, lifelike characters had not been the strength of German literature in the 19th century.  Characters were flat or perhaps a better word is abstract, social and physical settings idealized, plots episodic.  German-language fiction was full of uncanny effects, whether as outright fantasy or the unsettling weirdness of Adalbert Stifter, who I would suggest as the extreme end of what I am describing.  I suppose it is not surprising that to the extent German literature seeped into English, the effect was mostly seen in fantasy literature.  A well-rounded character would be out of place in a Poe story, and might even destroy the effect.

Fontane is a realist in a Kantian sense.  Stifter, Hoffmann, Goethe – idealists.  As if this is any help.  Aside from the German setting, Fontane kept in touch with two distinctive aspects of German literature: first, he liked to include uncanny touches amidst the so-called realism; second, he made use of songs and poems within the novel, a device that is socially accurate but also connects his fiction to that of Theodor Storm and many others.

The novel I just read, Irretrievable (1891) makes especially poignant use of a couple of songs.  What more effective way to reach for a sense of beauty than to mesh the action with a poem?  Or what cheaper way?  But in this case, effective, so poignant, so sad.

Fontane firmly joins the European mainstream in his interest in stories about adultery and marriage.  He does not have a hint of the censoriousness that some readers find in, say, Tolstoy.  Well, even I find it in Tolstoy.  You pick a better example.  Fontane first, writes with some distance, and second, shows great sympathy for human weakness.  Any reader of, say, Effi Briest, who thinks that Fontane has picked a “position” on adultery will be surprised when he tries a different book.

Fontane ought to be read much more widely than he is.  A lot of readers would love him.  Tomorrow, though: the case against, or at least a sympathetic glance at those other readers.  Anything to avoid writing about the book itself (as with this very post).

*  No silent vowels in German.  The last “e” is a schwa.  Fon-TAH-nuh.  A French name made German.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Praxis would destroy many of my fantasies - Paul Scheerbart invents perpetual motion machines

Event: German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie’s Literary Life and Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat.

Book: The Perpetual Motion Machine by Paul Scheerbart (1910).

Scheerbart describes his various attempts to invent a perpetual motion machine, a “perpet.”

You have to imagine that you are actually in the box K, that this is a kind of vehicle, and the source of power is the effect of gravity on the weight L, which turns the giant wheels in such a way to launch the whole thing forward, with poor terrified me trapped in the dangling K-car.  The whole concept is based on an imaginative misunderstanding of gravity.

All through the month of March 1908 I wrote astral novellas, which took place on asteroids where the force of gravity is weaker than on earth.  (32)

Scheerbart calls his creations not inventions but “stories.”  The book is a memoir, but also a novel that the author enacted in order to create the book, and also a parable about imaginative creation.  The potential of a story leads to a reconfiguration of society:

It’s somewhat tiring and trying, to picture this kind of building activity; a couple thousand utopian novels could be written on this subject alone. (27)

The thought of a thousand utopian novels is what I find trying, and thus it is a relief to have Scheerbart imagine them for me.

This was without a doubt one of the most beautiful periods of my life; I had completely forgotten the Earth.  I was doing very badly in terms of finances, but I didn’t care.  I constantly argued with my wife, telling her that our dire straits themselves were a sign that something better was coming our way.  Yet I was never quite able to win her over to this point of view.  All the same I was so happy – as one can only be when constructing and working out the implications of new worlds…  (36-40, ellipses in original)

I believe the irony is clear enough in this passage to demonstrate the tone of the book.  It does not matter that the “stories” do not work.  No, it is better:

These are naturally only fantasies.  Actual reality is always completely different and destroys a good many fantasies.  And so I must honestly confess that I really don’t wish very strongly for the perpetuum to becomes practically usable.  Praxis would destroy many of my fantasies.  This I know with certainty.  (81)

As a glutton, I was dismayed to learn on p. 59 that Scheerbart is one of the people who dislikes eating: “It’s always been deplorable that we can’t just derive our sustenance from air.”  A page of scifi Schopenhauer follows, as the transcendence of earthly things leads us to our more authentic “astral existence.”  The gravity Scheerbart wants to escape is that of the material world, of the imperfectly functioning mechanism of life.

Recommended to anyone who does not mind some abstraction in her science fiction, or mechanical diagrams in his novel of ideas.

Andrew Joron is the translator, Wakefield Press the publisher.  More Scheerbart at seraillon and at Writers No One Reads.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

There are even places where people believe they can attain salvation through cowbells! - mysteries in Mysteries

No, I don’t know what that means.  It’s in Chapter 13 of Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries.

At Vapour Trails, Séamus has written about the mysteries of Mysteries.  The religious mysteries, mostly Christian, perhaps something else.  The next novel, Pan, is the pagan one.  I was surprised, this time though, how much religious language there was in Hunger, and there is far more in Mysteries.  The deliberate link of the two main women in the novel, Dagny and Martha, with Mary (Magdalena) and Martha  –  Séamus has completely convinced me about that.  And about how the Midget works as an alternative Christ figure to the crazy protagonist Nagel.

Séamus puts the novel in the tradition of the crisis of faith that was engaging so many writers at the end of the 19th century and would scoop up countless more.  Religious belief, shaken by all of the social and scientific changes of the time, wither had to be rebuilt (Dostoevsky’s solution) or replaced with a less satisfying alternative – science or philosophy or art.  Less satisfying for many people, at least, including Knut Hamsun who pushed his characters to extremes of behavior and irrationality to challenge, however futilely, the rational forces that were destroying something essential around them.

Hamsun was hardly alone here.  Another of my favorite lines:

“You mentioned Ibsen,” Nagel continued, in the same state of agitation, though no one had mentioned the name. (Ch. 13)

This is the one place where I truly identified with Nagel.

My experience has been that people who search for meaning usually find it somewhere.  Pykk has read far more Hamsun books than I have, so he is able to move the story along into his later writing.  Where others see religion, Pykk writes, “I, thinking about Hamsun some more, I see houses,” as Hamsun eventually replaces his homeless, restless wanderers, present in all three of these early novels but also in Hamsun’s books of the next twenty years, with a belief in place and soil that will cause trouble for him when the Nazis pick up the idea along many other much worse ideas that an elderly Hamsun could not see, flattered and blinded as he was by the German interest in this one particular idea of his.

Mysteries was the only one of these three novels in which I could glimpse Hamsun’s future political problems.  The third person narrator and the stronger role of characters living a community, contrasted to this wild outsider, made the proto-fascist aspect of Nagel’s irrationalism easier to see, especially in the Nietzsche an twaddle about “great men” in his last long stream of consciousness rant in Chapter 17.  not that the novel itself is fascist – if anything, the opposite – but I can see how a writer on this path could, with some historical bad luck, make a terrible wrong turn.  And similarly, I can see how László Krasznahorkai could make such fruitful use of Mysteries in his 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance, which is explicitly about the fascist impulse in our attraction to the irrational.

The Vapour Trails and Pykk posts are both typically insightful – thanks!  Séamus gives a nod to Nagel’s story-telling, which would make for a good post of its own.  Just for example, the long story in Chapter 10 where the narrator pees his pants because he doesn’t want his date to know he needs to visit a bathroom, or the genuinely frightening ghost story in Chapter 11.  Someone else should write that one.