Saturday, January 31, 2015

They all fall back to hell - an attempt to get some more people to read When Mystical Creatures Attack

When Mystical Creatures Attack by Kathleen Founds, a 2014 comic novel.  Not the kind of thing I normally read.  Blurbs point to or are written by George Saunders, Wells Tower, Karen Russell, and Mark Leyner (who is known, it seems, for his “fearlessness” – rest of y’all writers are cowards), which probably helps pin down Founds in some way.  I have never read any of these writers, barely know who they are.  I paged through the book, thought it was funny – in fact assumed it was more of a kind of humor book than it really is – and bought it.

It was the chapter of Methodist church cookbook recipes that got me, dishes like Valley of the Shadow of Death by Chocolate Cake:

Directions: As the cake rises, call the kids around, and tell them about your girlhood, when you had polio, and Dad made a special sleigh to ride behind the donkey during plowing season, so you could mash manure into the ground with a stick.  We never had luxuries such as Death by Chocolate Cake!  During the winter of ’38, we were so hungry we ate the seed corn.  Then we ate the milk-cow.  Then we ate Andrew.  Andrew was our dog.  Ask the children if they know where Hush Puppies come from.  Then give them their dessert.  (51-2)

Meanwhile, other recipes are actually moving along two stories, one a kind of crisis not of faith but works by the pastor(from a lamb chop recipe: “Ask yourself if, in your longing for clarity and order, you have negated contradiction and paradox…  Fry three minutes on each side.  Garnish with rosemary,” 55), the other a struggle between Janice Gibbs and her new stepmother (“Reply that you do not even consider this cooking,” 54).

The latter is part of the larger story of the novel, the bad decisions and hard times of Janice and a schoolteacher she had for a few months.  Various parallels are made between the two women.  The story is advanced by means of school assignments, email, a misguided advice blog, fiction within the fiction, and regular old fiction.  Many of these would be gimmicks if done badly.

My idea of what the novel was changed a lot as I read it.  A big change came in the chapter where the teacher is writing about her (bad) father:

Dostoevsky Give Us Some Hope

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky tells this story:

A stingy old woman served only herself, save this – she once gave a turnip to a beggar…  The intercessory spirit petitions God, who says:  take that turnip, see if it will drag her out of hell.  (30)

The woman grabs the turnip, and another soul grabs her, and another and another:

“My turnip!” the old woman shouts, when she sees linked souls looping behind her.  She kicks.  She thrashes.

The turnip breaks.  They all fall back to hell.

The teacher, cataloguing her father’s rare acts of kindness, suspects that he, too, would kick and thrash.

Dostoevsky, or his character Grushenka, tells this story in Part III, Book VII, Chapter II, “An Onion.”  Constance Garnett has “onion,” not “turnip.”  Maybe translators disagree.  Maybe Founds thought “turnip” was funnier (it is).  The troubled Grushenka says “it’s a nice story” and identifies herself with the old woman.  She calls herself “wicked,” aside from one good deed.  Typically perverse Dostoevsky psychology – by the end of the story, few readers will find it so reassuring or “nice.”

When Mystical Creatures Attack ends with a heretical inversion of Grushenka’s parable of works and grace that is the farthest possible extension of the idea of novelistic sympathy.  It is an audacious scene that would be worth seeing even if the rest of the book did not seem particularly funny.

I have been discussing the book with nicole at bibliographing.  It has not been reviewed much by book bloggers.  We worry that there is something wrong with the marketing.  Maybe the graphics, all done by Founds herself (see above, borrowed from her website), or the blurbs, make the book look like something it is not, or something that it is but not merely.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

No, children, you are wrong. - Pinocchio lives

Just one more Pinocchio post, I think.  So many people have been reading the book, saying what I might want to say.  Seraillon put up most of that and more a few minutes ago.  Simpler Pastimes is collecting other readers.

Pinocchio begins:

Once upon a time, there was…

“A king!” my little readers will say right away.

No, children, you are wrong.  Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.  (Ch. 1, ellipses in original)

One rhetorical side of the novel is summarized perfectly with “No, children, you are wrong.”  This is the most directly didactic book I have read in decades.

“My boy,” said the Fairy, “people who talk that way always end up in jail or in the poorhouse…  Idleness is a horrible disease, and it has to be cured early, in childhood; otherwise, when we are grown-up, we never get over it.”  (Ch. 25)

And there is a lot more like that.  Pinocchio at this point in the book is already an ex-con, having already been in jail for a four month stretch, although not because of his idleness but rather the capriciousness and inattention of the gorilla judge.  I need someone who knows Italy better than I do to write a piece about the social satire in Pinocchio.

The Fairy, who is a mother figure for Pinocchio and an analogue for the Virgin Mary, Dante’s Beatrice, and who knows what else, enforces her moral teachings by pretending to be dead, to the extent of building a false grave for Pinocchio to weep over (Ch. 23), and threatening Pinocchio with death, going so far as this:

At that very moment the door of the room opened wide and in came four rabbits as black as ink, carrying a small coffin on their shoulders.

“What do you want form me?” cried Pinocchio, sitting up straight in terror.

“We have come to get you,” replied the biggest rabbit.  (Ch. 17)

So Pinocchio drinks his medicine.  Maybe the weirdest part of the book is the Pinocchio’s constant shifting between wood and flesh depending on Collodi’s immediate needs, a “a curious composite human-puppet, flesh that is at the same time not flesh, object that is at the same time human,” as seraillon says.

The continual shifts in state affects everything in the novel – characters who are alive then dead then alive again, landscapes that shift, transformations into animals:

So Pinocchio, losing all patience, grasped the door knocker angrily, intending to give a bang that would deafen everyone in the building; but the knocker, which was mad of iron, suddenly became a live eel that wriggled out of his hands and disappeared into the small stream of water going down the middle of the street.  (Ch. 29)

The entire chapter, which includes puppet nudity, a talking dog, and a maid who is a giant snail, is one of the purest pieces of dream writing in a novel full of dream-stuff.  Wonderful chapter.

It is just the nature of fiction, but everything that is interesting in Pinocchio’s world is brought to the front and everything uninteresting (jail, school) is skipped in a couple of words.  So all of the ethical movement in the novel supports Pinocchio’s rebellions.  Seraillon again: “little of interest may happen in life if one doesn’t transgress from time to time.”  Obey and there is no novel, no Pinocchio.

Thanks to Simpler Pastimes for taking my suggestion to feature Pinocchio in her children’s literature event.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The death of Pinocchio

The Adventures of Pinocchio first appeared in 1881 as a serial in an Italian magazine for children.  The story ends with the murder by hanging of the puppet Pinocchio:

“Oh, dear father!... if only you were here!”

And he had no breath to say anything else.  He closed his eyes, opened his mouth, stretched out his legs, and, after giving a great shudder, he remained there as though frozen stiff.

THE END  (ellipses in original)

Pinocchio must be among the most cruel books I have ever read.  I did not remember it as so cruel, but it must be close to forty years since I last read it.  I still have that book.  The anonymous translator has “gave a long shudder, and hung stiff and insensible,” which is not much softer.

What is softer, though, is the presence of the next page, and of the rest of the book, and the absence of “THE END.”  Young readers, after appointments with their child psychiatrists, demanded that  Carlo Collodi continue Pinocchio’s adventures, resurrecting him (and in the process two other dead characters) for a time, so that now the above passage is merely the end of Chapter 15.  Although he suffers at least two more symbolic deaths, Pinocchio is not murdered for good until twenty-two chapters later, at the end of the novel as we know it.

“There he is over there,” answered Gepetto; and he pointed to a large puppet propped against a chair, its head turned to one side, its arms dangling, and its legs crossed and folded in the middle so that it was a wonder that it stood up at all.

Pinocchio turned and looked at it; and after he had looked at it for a while, he said to himself with a great deal of satisfaction:

“How funny I was when I was a puppet!  And how glad I am now that I’ve become a proper boy!”

Collodi was not responsible for Enrico Mazzanti’s illustration, which in this case – in most cases – amplifies the disquiet of the scene.

In fictional terms, Pinocchio was, as a puppet, alive.  His vitality, the odd sense of existence Collodi creates for him, this is why Pinocchio survives.  The dancing, badly behaved puppet, the corpse propped against that chair, was real.  I have just spent two hundred pages watching him dance around.  That soulless, satisfied creature sneering at the puppet is, fictionally, a total fake.

Ethically, the case is the same.  The puppet behaved like a real boy, lying and having fun and making mistakes, unlike the proper boy, an imaginary creation of didactic fiction.

Poor Pinocchio.

I read and am quoting the Nicolas J. Perella critical edition from 1986, which has facing-page Italian, the original illustrations, a book-length introduction, and some disconcertingly technical footnotes – “This gli, etymologically related to the fully stressed egli, which is used in the same way, is an enclitic subject pronoun (neuter-masculine, third person singular)…” (p. 475) – in other words, the perfect edition.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The yellow plain and the great purple-grey sphinxes - Grazia Deledda's After the Divorce

Grazia Delleda’s After the Divorce (1902) is a novel written a lot like a lot of novels are written now.  I would not have guessed it was so old.  Information is handed out as needed, not all at once.  The writer lingers on minor details.  Not every dang thing is explained every dang time.

First paragraph:

On the floor by the bed in the Porrus’ guest room a woman wept.  She crouched, rocking her head on her arms, sobbing in utter despair.  Her shapely figure, tightly laced into a yellow cotton bodice, rose and sank like a wave on the sea.  (1)

Then a little bit of this and that in the room, a cricket, a bit of sky where “a single yellow star shone” – yellow again, too bad I didn’t keep an eye on that – and the sound of a horse’s hoof on the cobbles.  The point of view is at some distance, impassive, willing to let the woman weep.

Soon enough – next paragraph, we get a name (Giovanna) and a place (Nuoro, the Sardinian town where the author was born).  The characters, setting, and story fill out.  Giovanna’s husband is on trial for murder.  What will happen to her when he is sent away? 

‘The new divorce law is going to be passed soon,’ Paolo said.  ‘A woman whose husband is serving a long sentence can become free again.’  (8)

That short first chapter, along with the title of the novel, gives a pretty good idea about what goes on in After the Divorce.

Deledda wrote frequently about the Sardinian peasants from her home, and all of their trials, errors, bad luck, and superstitions.  The husband here, for example, is not really defending himself from an accusation of murder because he feels he is being deservedly punished for marrying Giovanna in a civil ceremony, not in church.  You idiot.  Well, where would fiction be without such people?

Giovanni Verga’s dry stories of Sicilian peasants from twenty years earlier are a reference point, although to me this novel sounds nothing like Verga, even if Deledda shares his compassionate brutality, but is rather quite French.  Zola, Flaubert, that crowd.  A distant narrator, mostly limited third person moving easily among characters, details turned into motifs, metaphors mostly limited to the world of the characters, bursts of descriptive excess amidst the plainness:

The windows, whose stone sills burned in the sun, looked out over the whole village, blackish-brown, like a pile of spent charcoal, under its green veil of trees.  Beyond lay the yellow plain and the great purple-grey sphinxes.  In the burning afternoon silence, the incessant peal of the church bell sounded like the clang of a chisel working wearily away far-off in the centre of those mountains.  (115)

Yellow again.  I had not noticed that until I began assembling this post.  Oh well.  How I would like to visit Sardinia.  I could visit the Museo Deleddiano.

I would read another Deledda novel.  I will read etc.  A priest names Elias Portolu is a minor character in After the Divorce.  Her next novel, available in English, is titled Elias Portolu.  Maybe I should try that one next.

Page numbers from the 1995 Northwestern University Press edition translated by Susan Ashe.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

All is death on this side - Alfieri's Saul - a marmoreal atmosphere of tragic gloom

The plays of Vittorio Alfieri have not been brought into English effectively.  I say this on the basis of reading one of them – Saul (1784) – twice, meaning I do not know what I am talking about.  Some supporting quotations from Ford Madox Ford, who would have read Alfieri in Italian:

His plays can hardly be considered literature at all.  (655)

… there is hardly a word of poetry in the whole tragedy.

In their baldness – and they are as bald as the plays of Ibsen at their most commonplace – they achieve a sort of marmoreal atmosphere of tragic gloom.  The reader need hardly give time to reading them, but he should certainly not miss any opportunity to see them played, for he will get from them something of the sensation produced by the great Greeks, with an added agitation caused by the lightning flashes of the exclamations.  (all from p. 656, all from The March of Literature)

Yet Ford also quotes an Italian critic who ranks Alfieri with Aeschylus:  “Tragedy, born sublime, terrible, vigorous, heroic.”

To my knowledge there is really just one English translation of Alfieri, the 1876 E. A. Bowring revision of the 1815 Charles Lloyd of Alfieri’s tragedies.  I have just read the revised one.  I doubt they are so different.  Maybe they are.  Lloyd moved Alfieri into a choppy, energetic blank verse that makes him sound like simpler, watery Shakespeare.

For example, see this speech near the end of Saul, where the king is being tormented by ghosts of the prophet Samuel and by another priest he has ordered killed:

SAUL: Incensed, tremendous shade, ah, go thy way!
Leave, leave me ! . . . See: before thy feet I kneel . . .
Where can I fly ? . . . — where can I hide myself?
O fierce, vindictive spectre, be appeased . . .
But to my supplications it is deaf;
And does it spurn me ? . . . Burst asunder, earth,
Swallow me up alive . . .   (Act V, Sc 3, all ellipses in original)

This speech is witnessed by his grieving daughter (and David’s wife) Micah, making Saul resemble King Lear even more, although the Cassandra-like who Saul has rejected figure is David.

The Biblical subject helps, but few English readers will not hear King Lear.  Ford Ford does just what I did – I am ripping him off – with a scene from Alfieri’s Agamemnon that sounds like a rejected speech of Lady Macbeth.

Going by his Memoirs, Alfieri was not imitating Shakespeare at all, but rather modeled himself after Seneca (also a model for Shakespeare)  and Latin translation of Classical Greek tragedies.  He also had a negative model: he rejected the static drama of Racine and Corneille, with their gigantic protagonists declaiming long, intense monologues. My own experience with Saul in translation, though, is that it is most effective when poor, mad King Saul, doomed by his resentment of David and his sense that he has been abandoned by God, takes the stage alone and reveals his fears and humanity:

SAUL: But no; on this side a prodigious stream
Of blood restrains my steps. Atrocious sight!
On both its shores in mountains are up-piled
Great heaps of recent corpses: all is death
On this side: thitherward I then will fly . . .   (same scene, still seeing visions)

Alfieri’s psychology and imagery can rise to a high point in these “exclamations” whatever trouble the English might have.

The ideal translation would involve Percy Shelley not dying, losing his energy for original poems, and turning his attention to translating Italian literature.  His version of Alfieri would have been something to read.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

I cannot say how, or why, I was impelled to write these scenes in Italian - Vittorio Alfieri's Memoirs

Now, 18th century Italian tragedy, which I know by one name, Vittorio Alfieri, and by one play, Saul (1782), although he wrote several dozen.  Alfieri was a Count and a wild man, which makes his Memoirs (1806) quite a lot of fun.  He was the most curious mix of his own time and the one to come, an Enlightenment Romantic, systematically driven by passion, an aristocrat but an enemy of all tyrants, past and present, including the revolutionary tyrants who overthrew the tyrannical king and the tyrannical general who overthrew them in turn. 

Alfieri’s book is a portrait of an artist, with the mystery, the driving question, being how a wealthy, lazy, uneducated wastrel ever became a writer.  He learns nothing at boarding school in Turin.  He is not brought up to any sort of duty.  The “eight years of my adolescence comprise a period of sickness, idleness, and ignorance”  (60).  Alfieri in fact advises “my readers not to dwell on it too long, or even to skip it,” which is a funny thing to say at the end of a section, after I have already read it.  He then travels Europe, seeing everything but absorbing nothing, understanding nothing.

So what does happen?  This is the Romantic part.  He is subject to the urge to create:

…  I could behold the sea and sky without interruption.  In the midst of these immensities illumined into still greater beauty by the rays of the sun setting below the waves, I spent delicious hours of fanciful dreaming.  I would have written poetry there had I any knowledge of verse, or even of prose, or indeed of any language whatever.  (80)

First he becomes a reader – Voltaire, Plutarch, Montaigne (I’ll note that he did read Goldoni as a youth; everyone read Goldoni).  Second, he finds a Muse.  This is an odd part of the story, since the woman with whom he falls in love and spends most of his life is a celebrity, the Countess of Albany, the young wife of the no longer Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, angrily drinking his way through his life in exile.  The Chevalier Charles Edward Stuart, forty years younger, is a character in Waverley, which I have been reading.  It was odd to come across him here.

Third – now the Enlightenment side of Alfieri’s character – he works like the devil, working on his language, his style, systematically writing plays twelve at a time.  Why he writes in Italian rather than the more familiar French seems to be a mystery even to him:

When I now reflect on this attempt, it appears to me so much the more extraordinary as for five or six years I had not only never written a single line of Italian, but never even opened an Italian book of any kind except very rarely, and that at long intervals.  Thus, I cannot say how, or why, I was impelled to write these scenes in Italian, and in verse.  (142-3)

Later he calls French (and English) a “tyrant jargon” that sounds like “a detestable bagpipe” compared to the “fine toned harp” of Italian (255).  I guess he just thought Italian was more beautiful, whatever efforts it cost him to learn it as an adult.

Inspiration being what it is, Alfieri would go long stretches without writing anything, even thinking he had ended his career, turning his energy instead to horses or escaping the French revolutionaries or in one strange scene to the design of an elaborate jeweled collar (309), a sort of poet’s crown for himself.  But then out of nowhere, again and again, he needs to write, “tragi-melo-dramas” (278) or sonnets or translations or this memoir, even though “in degenerate Italy it is easier to gain public attention by one’s fine horses than one’s dramatic works” (245).

Page numbers are from the 1961 Oxford University Press edition of the anonymous 1810 translation.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Goldoni's smash hit play - I'm only one man but I got two guvnors

Some of you out there, who understand your commedia dell’arte, those with a liberal education, your hummus eaters, will know that this play is based on Carol Goldoni’s two hundred-year-old Italian comedy A Servant of Two Masters and you will now be saying to yourselves “if the Harlequin, that’s me, has now eaten, what will be his motivation in the second act”.  Has anyone here said that?  Perhaps in an attempt to impress a date.  No.  Good.  Nice to know we don’t have any dicks in tonight.  My character, Francis, has to find a new base motivation to drive his actions in the second half.  Your job is to try and work out what that might be.

This is said by a relaxed, well-fed Francis in Act II, Scene 2 of One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s hit 2011 adaptation of – see above for details.  Bean moves the setting to 1960s Brighton and makes the characters idiot British gangsters, giving him a port, slang, and violence, everything he needs to keep his farce cooking.

Bean pins Goldoni down pretty well here.  His is the literature of base motivations.  This one, by the way, appears instantly:  Enter DOLLY, miniskirt, boobs etc.

The story of The Servant of Two Masters is that a clownish, hungry servant finds himself in the service of two masters.  He has to run around doing errands for both without letting the other know, which is comic.  There’s also some nonsense with disguises and who’ll marry whom.  In the center of the play is a long, crazy scene where Francis / Truffaldino / Harlequin is simultaneously serving lunch to both of his guvnors, again, unknown to each other, while he steals scraps, or entire dishes.  Lots of racing around and slamming doors.

Not too long ago I saw a college production of Servant that put a lot of obstacles in front of its actors, but as they moved into that waiter scene, the awkwardness vanished.  The whole thing just took off.  What a scene.  Bean is obligated to escalate the action, and does he ever.  This must be almost painful to watch in the theater.  Laughter, the pain would be from laughter.  When it is over:

What I suggest we do is take a fifteen minute interval here.  You can have a drink.  We’re going to fill out some Health and Safety forms.  (Act I, Sc. 4)

I am tempted to just quote more jokes, but I suppose they lose something without the surrounding patter.  It’s a funny play.  I’m laughing now; too bad you can’t see me.  As I leaf through the actual Goldoni play, the Edward J. Dent translation found in The Servant of Two Masters and Other Italian Classics (ed. Eric Bentley), I cannot help but find it a little thin read right up against the super-charged One Man, Two Guvnors.  So don’t read them in that order is my advice.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

With all the power of his imagination - Carlo Goldoni reforms Italian comedy

Don’t forget that it is not too late to join in on next week’s Pinocchio fun.  I hope it is not too late, since I just started the book tonight.  It is a commonplace to note that the book is “dark” compared to the Disney version.  “Cruel” is more accurate.

But that is next week.  This will be 18th century Italian theater week, the works of Carlo Goldoni and Vittorio Alfieri,  an event demanded by no one about books loved by few, with one exception.

The exception is The Servant of Two Masters (1745), which I want to save for tomorrow.  I have read five other Goldonis:

The Coffee Shop (1750)
The Holiday TrilogyOff to the Country, Adventures in the Country, and Back from the Country (all 1761)
The Fan (1765)

And although Servant is easily the funniest, and also best, some of these other plays give a better idea of what Goldoni accomplished.  He was a lawyer with a gift for comedy who reformed, or perhaps invented, the modern Italian theater.  His innovation was to take the old commedia dell’arte characters and methods and inject a dose of local detail.  His characters were still types, but recognizably Venetian types, the setting the usual square but now a definably Venetian square.

As if I know much about the commedia dell’arte.  What I really have in mind are the light, elegant, almost abstract French comedies of Pierre de Marivaux, like The Game of Love and Chance, perfect in their way but detached, floating in the clouds.  Was it possible to pull Marivaux back to earth?  That is what Goldoni did.  If he had thought to do this in prose fiction, he would have been among the inventors of the modern novel rather than an ancestor of the sitcom.

Since I also know nothing about daily life in 18th century Venice, I am just taking the word of others that Goldoni is in fact representing daily life etc.  How would I know.

A trivial example, maybe.  The cast of Adventures in the Country has gone to a coffee shop:

GIACINTA.  Coffee.
LEONARDO.  A glass of cold water.
ROSINA.  An iced lime drink.
TOGNINO.  A cup of hot chocolate.
VITTORIA.  Coffee with no sugar.
COSTANZA.  Lemonade.
FILIPPO.  Water with lime juice.
FERDINANDO.  A glass of rosolio cordial.
SABINA.  And bring me a fruit sherbet.  (Act II, Sc. 3, tr. Anthony Oldcorn)

Characters snap at each other, the waiter mixes up all of the orders, poor Filippo gets to indulge the running gag in which he is served last, always last.

The Holiday Trilogy is almost too much like a novel, first in length when I read the three plays together, but also with its well-to-do characters putting themselves in predicaments that demand an ending less definite than what is available on stage.  This is harder to do in a novel, though:

GIACINTA.  Ladies and gentleman, at this point the author, with all the power of his imagination, had prepared a long speech of despair, a regular conflict of emotions, a mixture of heroism and pathos.  I thought it best to omit it, to avoid boring you further.  (Adventures, Act III, Sc. 4)

I will take Giacinta’s advice until tomorrow.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Eliot mocks the philistines

No, I have changed my mind.  I will write that post about Eliot’s humor.

It is a funny book; Eliot is a funny writer.  The Jewish side of the book is close to humorless, another knock against it.  And the Gwendolen Harleth side loses its humor, too, understandably given the story, which means that the first third of the novel has a lot of humor and the rest very little.  Maybe this is the imbalance that leads to so much disappointment.

A joke:

Music was soon begun.  Miss Arrowpoint and Herr Klesmer played a four-handed piece on two pianos, which convinced the company in general that it was long…  (Ch. 5)

Or the one I mentioned a couple of days ago, where Gwendolen’s Aunt Gascoigne is describing the advantages of a possible marriage for her:

“Only think: there is the Grandcourt estate, the Mallinger estate, and the baronetcy, and the peerage,” – she was marking off the items on her fingers, and paused on the fourth while she added, “but they say there will be no land coming to him with the peerage.”  It seemed a pity there was nothing for the fifth finger.  (Ch. 28)

That last line is the one that I thought was worthy of and as mean as the heartless Evelyn Waugh; it might be thought uncharacteristic of Eliot by a reader not familiar with the “Mrs. Tulliver’s Terpahim” and “The Family Council” chapters of The Mill on the Floss.

The two preceding jokes have in common that they are both mocking the philistines in Gwendolen’s family.  It was only just over twenty years since Matthew Arnold had drafted the German (and Biblical) word “philistine” into English as a term for self-satisfied bourgeois anti-intellectualism.  Eliot set up her novel as a war between the Jews and the Philistines, with the former the defenders of thought and creators of beauty and the latter interested only in status and money.  Eliot is merciless about Aunt Gascoigne, for example,  even to her name – “[her husband] had once been Captain Gaskin, having taken orders and a diphthong but shortly before his engagement” (Ch. 3).

Vladimir Nabokov’s essay “Philistines and Philistinism” begins:

A full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time.  I have said “full-grown” person because the child or the adolescent who may look like a small philistine is only a small parrot mimicking the ways of confirmed vulgarians, and it is easier to be a parrot than to be a white heron.  (Lectures in Russian Literature, p. 309)

Daniel Deronda is about two not yet full grown people (Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth) moving towards heronness.  Neither have quite gotten there by the novel’s end, although Daniel is pretty close, and I have hope for Gwendolen.  One of Eliot’s daring moves – this is an aside – is to write a Bildungsroman where the character barely changes, but where every tiny movement counts for a lot.

So the two main characters are on a different path, and the Jewish characters are off in a different aesthetic world.  But the families of the protagonists, the confirmed vulgarians – Eliot gives it to them but good, and it is a pleasure to watch her do it.

All right, given how badly I read it, that is more than enough about Daniel Deronda.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity - Daniel Deronda's narrator takes sides

In a comment to a Levi Stahl post on Daniel Deronda, Mark Marowitz advances the crackpot idea that the villainous husband Grandcourt is actually “the most misunderstood hero in the English novel…  a good man, a very good man!”  And that the lively, suffering Gwendolen Harleth is a murderer and  “one of the great villains in literature.”  I could argue with a couple of points – I disagree with the bit about the dogs – but the evidence is drawn from the text, even omitting some evidence that helps his case, like the strange business in Chapter 6 (Stahl and his co-blogger had already mentioned it) where Harleth is freaked out by a spooky picture, looking “like a statue into which a soul of Fear had entered,” whatever that looks like.

What evidence against his case does Marowitz omit?  How do I know that his interpretation is wrong?  Because the omniscient narrator tells me so, again and again.  I wish I had written down better bits about Grandcourt, but this gives the idea:

There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to corresponding stupidity.  Mephistopheles thrown upon real life, and obliged to manage his own plots, would inevitably make blunders.  (Ch. 48)

Want of sympathy is a great sin in Eliot’s fiction.  The narrator says almost the same thing a few chapters earlier:

Grandcourt could not indeed fully imagine how things affected Gwendolen: he had no imagination of anything in her but what affected the gratification of his own will; but on this point he had the sensibility which seems like divination.  What we see exclusively we are apt to see with some mistake of proportions; and Grandcourt was not likely to be infallible in his judgments concerning this wife who was governed by many shadowy powers, to him nonexistent.  (Ch. 44)

You are thinking: “I thought this was the realistic, non-German part of the novel.”  I know – divination, shadowy power – Mephistopheles!

Similarly, I can be sure that Gwendolen Harleth is not so bad, even when she appears to be even more cruel, snobbish and spoiled than I realized:

It was her temper that framed her sentences under this entirely new pressure of evils: she could have spoken more suitably on the vicissitudes in other people's lives, though it was never her aspiration to express herself virtuously so much as cleverly – a point to be remembered in extenuation of her words, which were usually worse than she was.  (Ch. 24)

How Harleth’s lack of sympathy is any better than her future husband’s is unknown, but it is, “usually.”  The narrator feels she has not made her case, that many readers will still find Harleth quite awful, so she intervenes again a few pages later, trying again:

That where these [money and status] threatened to forsake her, she should take life to be hardly worth the having, cannot make her so unlike the rest of us, men or women, that we should cast her out of our compassion; our moments of temptation to a mean opinion of things in general being usually dependent on some susceptibility about ourselves and some dullness to subjects which every one else would consider more important.

Why, she is just like me!  Like heck she is.  I lose sympathy for Gwendolen because in adversity she proves to have a bad character.  The narrator also lacks sympathy for people with bad character, as I would show if I wrote that post about Daniel Deronda as a satirical novel that I was thinking about.  The narrator can be scathing, as mean and even funny as Evelyn Waugh when she wants.  Look for the paragraph that ends “It seemed a pity there was nothing for the fifth finger” in Chapter 28 for an example.

It seems that the narrator is not just describing her heroine but justifying her, even pleading for her, and also against Grandcourt.  The narrator has taken sides.  Why should I trust her judgment?  Perhaps because she is omniscient, but then why is she unable to tell me what went on in the boat, in the action behind Chapter 55?  Somehow her omniscience fails her there.

I have spent a lifetime of reading fiction learning to distrust narrators.  Here I am identifying the heart of my struggle with Daniel Deronda.  Eliot gives me a surprising number of reasons to distrust this narrator.  Am I supposed to read the novel this way?  No, I suppose not.

Thanks, Mr. Marowitz, for pointing me to your comment, which I had missed at the time.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Real life was as interesting as ‘Sir Charles Grandison’ – Daniel Deronda's Real and Ideal

The second big innovation or experiment in Daniel Deronda is the one readers dislike so much, the joining of two stories written in discordant styles.  Last spring Levi Stahl and Maggie Bandur wrote an interesting series of pieces on the novel, put together as they were reading the book, in which they both follow the usual path (in fourteen detailed posts): delight at Eliot’s charming, ambiguous recasting of Emma followed by disillusion at the direction the Jewish part of the novel eventually takes, especially its wooden characters.  The word that they both use is “believe” – they do not believe in Deronda’s side of the novel, suggesting they in some way believe in Gwendolen Harleth’s side.

Stahl and Bandur are right, that one set of characters is lifelike and rounded (and fun) while another set – “We should stamp every possible world with the flatness of our own inanity” says Deronda in a not entirely unrelated context (Ch. 36).  Many readers respond: “You’re telling me!”  But I’ll argue that although “flat” is accurate, “inane” is not.  What looks at first like a failure of execution is in fact a success, but of concept.  Perhaps the concept is a failure.  I thought it worked all right.

Crudely, the marriage half of the novel is Realism, the Jewish half Idealism.  The former is English, the latter German.  Daniel Deronda is a fairy tale hero, the boy of dubious parentage who after trials discovers that he is a prince.  In one sense, I mean what he learns about his heritage, and in another I mean that although he is not actually a prince his mother turns out to be a princess, which, since I was on to the pattern by this point, was almost rubbing it on a little thick.

Deronda slips into fairy tale world when he rescues a princess (there are several instances where he crosses a threshold into Jewish Wonderland).  He gives her shelter in some kind of fairy cave, inhabited by Queen Mab – the fairy who presents the princess with the “tiny felt slippers” that are like “sheaths of buds.”  These slippers are too large for the princess, even though the fairies are themselves tiny, “all alike small, in due proportion with their miniature rooms…  All four, if they had been wax-work, might have been packed easily in a fashionable lad’s traveling trunk”  (Ch. 18).  That is one strange sentence.  But these characters, the Meyrick family, are meant to be a kind of wax-work. 

They so thoroughly accepted Deronda as an ideal, that when he was gone the youngest set to work, under the criticism of the two elder girls, to paint him as Prince Camaralzaman.  (Ch. 16)

They have moved to the Arabian Nights, but you see what I am talking about.  This is before we get to Mordecai, who a kind of philosophical or mystical Ideal.  Or see Chapter 37, in which the prince, princess, and little fairy women try to define the Ideal, but in aesthetic terms:

“If people have thought what is the most beautiful and the best thing, it must be true. It is always there.”

“Now, Mirah, what do you mean?” said Amy.

“I understand her,” said Deronda, coming to the rescue.  “It is a truth in thought though it may never have been carried out in action.  It lives as an idea.”

It is possible that this kind of scene is not well suited to the novel as we now think of it.  Try the long debate in the Philosopher’s Club, Ch. 42, for an even more dubious example.

I obviously have my own doubts about how some of this works, although I question specific scenes, not the notion of combining such clashing aesthetic ideas.  This was not my problem with Eliot.  I don’t actually believe in any of the characters.  They are all waxworks to me, some molded to fool the eye, some more abstract.  Eliot’s characterization in the Jewish Daniel Deronda is no different, in principle or execution than that in the idealist German fiction of Goethe, Stifter, or Hoffmann.  Mordecai and the fairy sisters are as well-rounded as the wizard and his snake daughters in The Golden Pot.

This would be the time to note the curious similarities between Hoffmann’s recurring musician Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler and Daniel Deronda’s musician named Musical Instrument (Klesmer), both of whom are able to move between the real world and the magical world presumably somehow by means of their special status as musicians.

I don’t always enjoy what Eliot is doing with all this, but it is a bold move.

The post’s title is from Chapter 4.  The joke is that most readers now - almost all - would find Jane Austen's (and apparently Gwendolen Harleth's) favorite novel to be the most boring novel ever written.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The make believe of a beginning - George Eliot bends time

George Eliot was a great formal innovator.  This is not the way I think about her, nor the way I usually see her described, yet it is true.  Much of the real clumsiness of her fiction comes from her struggle with received fictional form.  Like Dickens, she solves problems in her next novel.  Few writers would write a book as formally perfect as the fairy tale novella Silas Marner (1861) and then never try to write another book like it (until, in a way, Daniel Deronda).  Why do it again; what is the point?  Eliot is in that category of artist, whatever you call it.  The kind who has to write a book to know what book she is writing.

So when Eliot invents a form that seems perfectly suited for her strengths, the long eight part novel with branching plots  that is Middlemarch (1871-2), she keeps part of it but pushes against and perhaps even breaks other parts in her next book, Daniel Deronda (1876).  She would have repaired the damage, but created more problems, in her next novel, which sadly we do not have.

One of my struggles with Eliot is that I put a high value on formal perfection, a category of little interest to Eliot, even though temperamentally, as is obvious at Wuthering Expectations, I am much like her in this regard.  Of course I highly value what I am not, although if it were as simple as that I would attach a lot more value to Eliot’s wisdom.

Daniel Deronda is a sequel to Middlemarch in that it is another exploration of what a good, meaningful life looks like, with a shallow heroine replacing the preternaturally wise Dorothea Brooke – despite the difference they make not the same but analogous mistakes – and a hero paralyzed by doubts about his identity in place of the mistakenly confident Dr. Lydgate.  The eight volume novel is employed again, simplified from a triple plot to a double plot.  Where are the innovations?

First, the temporal structure of the book.  Daniel Deronda begins not in the middle, but close to it, with a flash-forward to the first time the protagonists, Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth, meet.  I did not know it was a scene out of place at first, even though Eliot specifically says it is in the baffling epigraph* at the beginning of Chapter 1, almost the first words of the book after a doom-laden poem (“vengeance…  slow death… pallid pestilence”) and Book One’s title (“The Spoiled Child,” who turns out to be an adult, and the heroine).  “Men can do nothing without the make believe of a beginning” – an odd way to begin a novel.  “No retrospect will take us to the true beginning.”  Eliot even uses the term “in media res,” which I did not notice or understand.

Soon, the novel moves into Harleth’s past, not just filling in the history as Trollope does when he introduces a character but working it out in scenes, with dialogue and description and all of the usual stuff, eventually taking me back to the opening scene, after which Eliot resets time again, going back even farther to cover Deronda’s childhood, education , and early flailing.

This was the history of Deronda, so far as he knew it, up to the time of that visit to Leubronn in which he saw Gwendolen Harleth at the gaming-table.  (end of Ch. 20)

If I were not so immersed in 19th century fiction, I would not have noticed how radical this is.  No one else was doing this, telling their story with the scenes out of order.  Even Wuthering Heights (1847) straightens out fast after a twisty start.  The device is so common now that I hardly notice it.  Everyone does it.  Unbroken, the Laura Hillenbrand bestseller, begins this way: three crashed American airmen are on a raft in the Pacific; a plane approaches; they are saved! – but no, the plane opens fire!  Then a jump way back to tell us who the men are and how they ended up on that raft.

Eliot uses her other temporal device, too, where the point of view suddenly leaps into the future for a sentence or two, a device that she was using as far back as Adam Bede (1859) and which I do not remember seeing anywhere else but Jane Eyre (1847 – see the tombstone of Helen Burns).

The monotony of time in pre-Modernist fiction can get old, but that was not a problem in Daniel Deronda.

OK, that was one big innovation.

*  These epigraphs are mostly a mystery to me, a layer of complexity that I have not tried to understand.  As Sir Thomas Browne wrote, or as Eliot claims he wrote, “Festina lente – celerity should be contempered with cunctation” (epigraph to Chapter 15).

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

First chop! - George Eliot's extreme bijou world-nausea

Having read the novel badly, I do not want to waste time making an argument about Daniel Deronda.  Mostly I just want to mess around with the book.  Poke at passages like this one:

It was Mab who carried her breakfast and ushered her down – with some pride in the effect produced by a pair of tiny felt slippers which she had rushed out to buy because there were no shoes in the house small enough for Mirah, whose borrowed dress ceased about her ankles and displayed the cheap clothing that, moulding itself on her feet, seemed an adornment as choice as the sheaths of buds.  The farthing buckles were bijoux. (Ch. 20)

I think I need to make one argument to get anywhere, and this passage supports it, not the surprising last sentence but rather Queen Mab and her felt slippers clothing the Jewish fairy princess.

But not today.  How about:

The exterior [of an ancient church converted into a stable] was much defaced, maimed of finial and gurgoyle, the friable limestone broken and fretted, and lending its soft gray to a powdery dark lichen; the long windows, too, were filled in with brick as far as the springing of the arches, the broad clerestory windows with wire or ventilating blinds.  (Ch.  35)

Maimed of Finial and Gurgoyle would be a good name for a metal band.  The next sentence I dislike (“pleasure on its piquant picturesqueness”) but the rest of the description has lots of nice colors and details.  “’Oh, this is glorious!’ Gwendolen burst forth,” and it is quite good, although the scene is essentially the description of an imaginary genre painting, Eliot imitating a Salon description (e.g., the puppy).

“She had a world-nausea upon her, and saw no reason all through her life why she should wish to live,” in Chapter 24; I love that, “world-nausea.”

These are the fairy girls again: “Their faces seemed full of speech, as if their minds had been shelled, after the manner of horse-chestnuts, and become brightly visible” (Ch. 18).  I have a lot of trouble with Eliot’s imagery, or really the complex things she does with it, but that’s a terrific line, although not as good as “the restlessness of vulgar furniture” (Ch. 12).  I do not understand why that is not a maxim, nor why it was not the title of a Belle and Sebastian album.

I hardly expected a George Eliot novel to have so much slang:

“That girl is like a high-mettled racer,” said Lord Brackenshaw to young Clintock, one of the invited spectators.

“First chop! tremendously pretty too,” said the elegant Grecian, who had been paying her assiduous attention; “I never saw her look better.”  (Ch. 10)

Clintock is nobody, a decorative character, but he lets Eliot show off her ear for what I assume is horsey talk, unless she is making the slang up; how would I know.  Clintock gets off an even better one a couple of pages later:

“What extreme guys those artistic fellows usually are?” said young Clintock to Gwendolen.

Slang is apparently cyclical.

One of the oddest lines in the novel soon follows:

Klesmer's verdict on her singing had been an easier joke to her since he had been struck by her plastik.

I read Daniel Deronda in Barbara Hardy’s Penguin Classics edition, so I had the honor of badly reading the novel in the company of Eliot’s best reader.  In her footnote, plastik “seems to be a rather odd usage by George Eliot” (p. 888).  But I am sure that for Hardy, as for me, some of the pleasure in Eliot – in any great writer – comes from her odd usages.

Yes, the German-Jewish musician is named Klesmer.  Please file that with the fairy slippers for later use.  The entire Jewish part of the novel is something of an odd usage.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The effect that clung and gnawed was a sense of imperfect mastery – reading Daniel Deronda badly

If I had more sense I would set Daniel Deronda (1876) aside and not write about it as I did with Middlemarch (1871-2) when I read it several years ago.  I read Daniel Deronda quite badly, with a real and irritating sense of struggle.  Eliot, in her two final masterpieces, challenges some of the assumptions I have about what makes great fictional art.  Arguments about great art, I would like to say, but I have some doubts.

I was reading the novel better in the middle than in the beginning, and even better by the end (850 pages allows a lot of room for improvement), so what the heck, I thought, take a run at the book, who knows what might happen.

Daniel Deronda has double plots that do not interweave but merely touch.  The one is about the sparkling Gwendolen Harleth and her bad marriage; the other about the title character and his search for identity, let’s say, which involves a number of Jewish characters.  The standard problem with the novel, one that even preceded its publication, is that many readers dislike the “Jewish” half of the novel so strongly that they fantasize about a semi-imaginary novel titled Gwendolen Harleth.  See The Great Tradition (1948) by F. R. Leavis for an example.  Henry James apparently agreed, since he chose to write something very much like that novel just a few years after reading Daniel Deronda, calling it The Portrait of a Lady.  I had figured this out by the 150 page mark, and I have not even read the James novel, but Leavis says it is his discovery (“which seems to have escaped notice,” p. 15 still – I have not actually read this book).  Fine, whatever.  So obvious.  I am sure many people had noticed before.  Leavis has always gotten on my nerves.  See above, aesthetic assumptions.

My introduction to Daniel Deronda was in The New Republic twenty plus years ago, a long review article of what book I do not remember dealing with the Jewish Question in Eliot’s novel and treating it with great seriousness.  I only vaguely knew that the marriage plot was in the book, but rather was predisposed to take it as a serious philosemitic treatment of Jewish issues of continuing interest.

Which it is.  But then the Gwendolen Harleth side has a terrifically alive and fizzy heroine, as good as – who are Eliot’s liveliest?  Young Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss? – as good as her best, and an outstanding brute of a villain, alive in his own way, and a handful of fine, often comic, supporting characters.  There were times when I had the idea that Eliot could have worked in Golden Age Hollywood, writing zippy dialogue for Claudette Colbert.  On Daniel Deronda’s side of the novels, characters are idealized, ideas are more important, and there is a lot less zip.  Sometimes the zip dries up completely.

I guess I see the point of the Gwendolen Harleth people.  None of this has much to do with any struggles I had, though.  The two halves are meant to clash a bit.  The dissonance is interesting, and perhaps new.  Maybe I will write about that.  I will just do my usual rummage through the book.  There is certainly plenty to look at.

For example, cat mummies in Chapter 32:

Yet how distinguish what our will may wisely save in its completeness, from the heaping of cat-mummies and the expensive cult of enshrined putrefactions?

Useful advice for a book blogger.  I read this book badly, but I’ve done worse.

The title, in context the thoughts of the terrible husband, is from the end of Chapter 30.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Sing of the needs / Of this our century; sing our ripe hope. - questions, scraps, oddities, and more books - an Italian hodgepodge

The title is ironically misappropriated from Leopardi’s Canto XXXII, “Palinode to the Marchese Gino Capponi,” in the J. G. Nichols version.  This final post on Italian literature will be un guazzabuglio.  More questions than answers.  I plan to, as the year goes on, drop in random Italian words that I have looked up on the internet, to add sapore and give l'impressione that I know some Italian, which I do not.

Would it be worthwhile to do something with opera?  Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, composers for the popular musical theater, were better known and are arguably greater artists than any of the writers I will be reading.  Yet their librettists are obscurities, even the one whose name I know, Arrigo Boito, author of librettos for several of Verdi’s late works.  If there a literary approach to the operas, which are, among other things, plays?  Do I know what I am doing?  Is it worth the effort?

A couple of writers are puzzling to me, too.  Gabriele D’Annunzio was for a time a giant, rich and famous and wild, author of a huge number of books in numerous styles and forms.  He was, at least in his later life, a fascist loon.  He and his followers, for example, seized a Croatian city in 1919 in order to do who knows what – the Italian Regency of Carnaro, with D’Annunzio as Il Duce.  “The charter designated ‘music’ to be one of the fundamental principles of the Fiume State,” (from previous link).  This sort of thing damages a writer’s reputation, it turns out, but the bad result for me is not that I have anything against reading the works of crazy people with bad ideas – oh no, quite the contrary – but rather that I have no idea which books are thought to be good (and are available in English, and are available to me).

Another fascist, the Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, presents a similar problem, but in his case I suspect a little more that his writings have become more interesting as intellectual history than as art.  Ford Madox Ford says I should read King Bombance and Mafarka the Futurist, which have better titles than D’Annunzio novels like The Flame of Life and The Triumph of Death.

Does anybody remember me mentioning the series of adventure novels about a Malaysian pirate by Emilio Salgari, “without whom there would be no Italian, French, Spanish, or Latin American Literature” says Carlos Fuentes.  An unlikely claim, but how could I not be curious?

A friendly reader has emailed to suggest I try Edmondo De Amici’s Cuore (1886), a hugely popular novel about a schoolboy; Ford Ford likes it, too.  Another De Amici novella available in English is titled Love and Gymnastics (1892).  Its library catalog classifications are “Women Gymnasts – Fiction” and “Love Stories,” so the title might be accurate.  This does not sound promising, but it has a foreword by Italo Calvino!

Also recommended by this thoughtful reader: more Sicilian fiction, including The Viceroys (1894) by Federico De Roberto, a Sicilian epic, and stories by Maria Messina, an adept of Giovanni Verga who specialized in tales about Sicilian women.  Verga, De Roberto, Messina, and then Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958), which is set during the same period – that could be an interesting chain of books.  Cuore and The Viceroys seem to follow that gigantic Nievo novel.  There are lots of stories to tell with books.

There is no way I will read all of this, everything I have mentioned over the past few days, not this year and not ever, but I have a lot to play with.  Please feel free to give me more, more titles and writers and paths.  The ideal solution is that someone else reads Emilio Salgari and King Bombance and so on and writes them up for me.  Thanks in advance.

Finally, I have been clear enough, I hope, about what I am not reading, an important limit because as usual I want to invite you to join me on a book if something seems to fit into whatever path you are following, if you just moments ago were thinking “I have been meaning to read Love and Gymnastics!”  Let me know; we will find a time; it will all work out somehow.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Now every heart is glad, and far and wide / Rises once more the rumour / of work as it once did - when Italian literature acquired an Italy

I have switched to the J. G. Nichols translation of Leopardi.  The title is from Canto XXIV, “The Calm after the Storm.”  I have finally gotten to the point where there is a united Italy.  And Italian literature expands.

Giovanni Verga – I want to revisit and read more of his stories of hard times in Sicily, like those in Little Novels of Sicily (1883), and I also want to try at least one of his novels, either The House by the Medlar Tree (1881) or Mastro-don Gesualdo (1889) or both.

Luigi Pirandello was also from Sicily.  The major plays for which he is best known are from the 1920s and 1930s, too late for me – as  usual I want to choke off my reading somewhere around World War I – but The Late Mattia Pascal, a novel, is early, from 1904.  Somebody will have to tell me what else is especially good.  I like the sound of Shoot: The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematograph Operator (1915).  Pirandello is the first Nobelist I will mention in this post.

Grazia Deledda (she’s the second) is Sardinian.  I would likely enjoy her novels just for their unusual setting, but I assume they have more to offer than that.  After the Divorce (1902) and Elias Portulu (1903) are in my local library, which is encouraging.  Deledda is another reason my attention had turned to Italy.

Matilde Serao is associated with Rome and Naples – I’m back on the boot – where she was a journalist and novelist.  The fairly recent short story collection Unmarried Women looks most promising to me, but there are a large number of novels in English published a hundred years ago.  Ford Madox Ford, whose taste is eccentric but who seems to have read everything, recommends Conquest of Rome, Desire of Life, and In the Country of Jesus (see The March of Literature. p. 859).  Unlikely, but life is full of surprises.

I think of Italo Svevo as a 20th century writer because of Zeno’s Conscience (1923), but his first two novels, A Life (1892) and As a Man Grows Older (1898), are much earlier.  I have read the latter but remember nothing more than that I thought it was pretty good.  I would appreciate advice on the former.  Svevo at this point was not actually in Italy, since Trieste was part of Austria.  Another marginal region raising its voice.

Back to Tuscany, the old center of Italy, to remind anyone interested of the Pinocchio (1883) readalong at Simpler Pastimes scheduled for later this month.  Just 200 pages, including illustrations, written for tiny little children.  So easy to join in.

The poets are more of a problem.  20th century Italian poetry strikes me as very strong – Italian fiction, too – but the period before the war is either weaker or poorly represented in English.

The great figure is Giosuè Carducci (Nobel #3), but even in Italian he seems to have lost some of his status, as if squeezed between the great 20th century poets and Leopardi.  The 1994 Selected Poems shows off Carducci well.  It includes his long ode Hymn to Satan (1865), which is not what the title suggests.  One of Carducci’s major collections, The Barbarian Odes (1877-89), is also available in English, but it is one of the worst translations I have ever come across.

A number of poets began publishing during or just after the war.  I hope to read Dino Campana, who wrote just one wild visionary book, Orphic Songs (1914), then, sadly, spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals.  I have my eye on Umberto Saba, too.  Move the cutoff just a bit later and lots of interesting writers pop up.

Look how efficient I was today.  Tomorrow I will end with the hard cases.  If you have advice on Gabrielle D’Annunzio or Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, let’s save it for a day – I do want it.  Then I will browse through some books I won’t read and take a glance at the 20th century.

Five days for all of this.  In my defense, it is an exciting literature.  Even in the 19th century, exciting.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Now that Italian valor lies uprooted, one huge ruin - Leopardi, Belli, Manzoni, Nievo

I went to a different Leopardi poem, Canto VI, “Bruto Minore, ” p. 57 in Galassi.  Giacomo Leopardi is the great poet and essayist of pessimism.  I am tempted to go on and on about him, but I should save that for a longer treatment.

One inspiration for turning to Italian literature was to take a crack at the 2010 Jonathan Galassi translation of Leopardi’s Canti (1818-35), which is proving to be ideal as a study guide.  The translation is on the literal side, and not so poetic.  The J. G. Nichols translations from 1994 are more poetic.  Nichols matches each poem to a prose selection from elsewhere in Leopardi’s gigantic corpus, from his brilliantly ironic essays and dialogues or his enormous ragbag book Zibaldone.

The latter appeared in English last year, almost 2,600 pages by a team of translators, quite a feat.  A sane reader will want to start with the selections assembled by Leopardi in the (short) book Pensieri, and to the Canti, and the Moral Essays, and then will want to return to them again and again, until he decides to write a monograph on Leopardi, and only then will he want to read Zibaldone, although in Italian, obviously.

You give Zibaldone a try and tell me how it goes.  I’m not going to read it.

Giuseppe Belli was a contemporary of Leopardi’s, but otherwise a polar opposite.  He wrote satirical sonnets, most profane, obscene, or both, in Romanish, the Roman dialect.  You may have noticed that every writer I have mentioned so far has been from northern Italy.  Belli stretches Italian literature to Rome for me.  The rough, crackly Harold Norse translation is a great treat – he moves the dialect into Brooklynese to good effect – but these five poems recently done up by Charles Martin give the flavor of Belli.

Two early novels, both candidates for Greatest Italian Novel.  I have read Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1827 / 1842) twice and do not plan to revisit it now – someday, I hope – but I recommend it highly.  It is a strange book, a mix of sentimentalism and grit, Catholic apologetics and action.  It’s structure is odd, its characterization is odd.  It is a historical novel, set during a 17th century Austrian invasion of northern Italy.  The plague scenes are horrifying.  With Decameron, this means two of the greatest prose fictions in Italian are about plague epidemics.

The other novel.  I was poking around on the internet trying to find a novel I had looked through in a library.  Success!  The Castle of Fratta by Ippolito Nievo, which I was surprised to discover was only an abridgment of a much longer novel, Confessions of an Italian (1867), which I was even more surprised to see will be published in a complete 928 page translation in the United States in three weeks.  Which I took as a sign that I should take a swing at it.  No idea what I am getting into.  The novel has maps and a timeline and a list of characters.  The list of characters includes a dog.  Is it an Italian War and Peace?  Or an Italian The Count of Monte Cristo?  Or, like The Betrothed, something unique.  Italo Calvino loves the book, but he is not to be trusted, since he, like me, likes everything.

Aside from writing a thousand page novel when he was 27, Nievo was a revolutionary and follower of Garibaldi, a real adventurer, who sadly drowned in a shipwreck, age 29, before he had found a publisher.  There’s some Italian valor.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

one man unworthy of his cowardly age - Alfieri, Goldoni, and Foscolo - 700 words and I can only cover three writers

What is Italian literature?  I ignored the question; it is an important one for this literature.  These judgments are always retrospective: Italian literature is what people interested in the subject treat as Italian literature.  But I am not only working with a conventional contemporary idea, but a central question going back to Dante, at the least.  What is the Italian language?  What is Italy?

Yesterday I glanced at some of the highlights of almost three hundred years of arguing about these questions, the extraordinary run from Dante Alighieri to the visionary poet Tommaso Campanella, who gets us into the 17th century.  Something happens to the literature then; the life sputters out of it.  My glib explanation is the Counter-Reformation.  But around 1609, Claudio Monteverdi perfected and popularized the form of musical theater we for some reason call opera, and if anything the cultural prestige of Italian music only increased.  There was no obvious lack of, to use a dubious metaphor, cultural energy in northern Italian kingdoms and cities.

I don’t know what happened to Italian literature.  Spanish literature caught the same flu about fifty years later and took two hundred years to recover.

My next Italian landmark is the Venetian comic playwright Carlo Goldoni in the mid-18th century, author of The Servant of Two Masters (1743) and dozens of other comedies.  I read a couple over the weekend, including the recent adaptation by Richard Bean, One Man, Two Guvnors (2011) that was such a big hit in London.  That is one funny play.  I’ll write about these soon.

Then there is the proto-Romantic Count Vittorio Alfieri, founder of Italian tragedy, possibly the only Italian tragedian of consequence.  He is a giant in Italian but not in English, and I can guess why – first, English barely has room for its own tragedies, and second, Alfieri’s almost singular dramatic theme was the overthrow of tyrants, which may have more juice in Italy and France than in England or the United States.

I’ve read his best known  play, Saul (1782), about the overthrow of a tyrant, and am now reading his posthumous (1806) Autobiography, about the triumph of a tyrant.  I have gotten to some good stuff, but not to the good stuff, e.g.:

… claiming to be a democrat because he never struck his servants with anything but his open hand, yet stretching out his valet with a bronze candlestick because the valet pulled his hair slightly while combing it…  and then sleeping – or claiming to sleep – with his bedroom door always open so that the valet might come in and, in revenge, murder him in his sleep.  (Ford Madox Ford on p. 655 of The March of Literature, first ellipses mine, second his)

A big personality.  It might make similar sense to read a couple more autobiographies contemporary with Alfieri, the Memoirs of Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte or more temptingly the massive Story of My Life of Giacomo Casanova, but I doubt that will happen.

Finally, the 19th century.  I plan to revisit to major figures from Italian Romanticism.  One is Ugo Foscolo, a genuine revolutionary and  fine poet although with a lyrical gift that has perhaps defeated his translators.  I remember many years ago running across a website with some lovely versions of Foscolo’s Graces (1803-1822) but I cannot find it now.  Foscolo also wrote The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis (1802), a novella that is a conceptual politicized Italianization of The Sorrows of Young Werther.  I hope to revisit it and see if it is as clever as I remember.  Or impassioned, or propagandistic, or whatever it is.

And then there is Giacomo Taldegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi.  The title quotation is again from Leopardi, from the same poem I used yesterday (p. 39), and is a description of Alfieri.

                                           He was the first to go
down into the ring alone, and no one followed,
for idleness and brutal silence now own us most of all.

The idea that Leopardi can be described as idle or silent is hilarious.  But look how long I have gone on.  I will start with Leopardi tomorrow.  I gotta pick up the pace.  At this rate – well, pretty soon I’ll get to books I haven’t read.  My ignorance should constrain the babble.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The strength and valor of Italianness - early modern Italian literature, a reading list

In 2015, I am concentrating on Italian literature.  Unlike some other reading projects I have pursued here – Yiddish, Scottish, and Austrian, and to some arguable extent Portuguese and Scandinavian – there is a substantial and, why deny it, superior early modern literature available in English that I have already explored and do not plan to reread right now.

I decided to make a list of the Italian books I think of as the best, or most instructive, from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, when Italian literature was the glory of Europe, the literature that writers in other languages imitated.  I have made a vague resolution to make more lists.  I love lists.

1.  Dante Alighieri, Inferno (c. 1320).  I have read this book several times in several translations, but the entire Divine Comedy only once.  Inferno is so rich, in characters, imagination, and ideas.

2.  Francesco Petrarca, Canzoniere (complete by Petrarch’s death in 1374), a selection, not necessarily a long one.  Many of Europe’s greatest poets will spend the next three hundred years modifying Petrarch.  It is hard to imagine what English, French, or Spanish poetry would have been like in his absence.  Perhaps this is a bad thing, but it is what happened.

3.  Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (c. 1353 – 14th century dating is an aggravation).  My Musa and Bondanella translation has a page describing possible abridgments, but I say read it all.  A hundred little stories, plus that extraordinary prologue about the Black Plague.

4.  Ludivico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (1532 for the final version).  A crazy fantasy epic in eight-line stanzas, “a poem that refuses to begin and refuses to end” as Italo Calvino wrote*, but despite its length who would want less of it?

5.  Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (c. 1532).  A great piece of satire, the foundation of political science, and more.  The Norton Critical Edition put together by Robert M. Adams is the greatest critical edition I have ever come across.  Stated so baldly, that sounds like a silly thing about which to have an opinion.

6.  Niccolò Machiavelli, The Mandrake (1524).  A play, a comedy, not the sort of thing associated with Machiavelli now, but a little masterpiece.

7.  Gaspara Stampa, Poems (complete by 1554).  The greatest woman poet in Italian, perhaps; a Petrarchan; in her best poems as good as Petrarch.

8.  Michelangelo Buonnaroti, Poems (complete by 1564), a selection.  In a handful of poems, another rival of Petrarch (and Stampa); in bulk, rough and repetitive, although he does have the advantage of original subject matter, since who else could write a credible poem about painting the Sistine Chapel?  The ideal translation of Michelangelo’s poems would be an anthology by many different translators.

9.  Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters (1568), some reasonable selection of the best parts, which by chance or design would include the most famous artists.  I believe Penguin Classics publishes a good one.

10.  Benvenuto Cellini, Autobiography (1558-63).  A crazy genius tells his crazy adventures.  Astounding, funny, ridiculous, irritating.  I’m not sure why this book is not more commonly encountered on book blogs.  I understand that for many readers, poetry is akin to poison, and half of this list is poetry.  That I get.  But Cellini’s book is so much fun.

It is by chance that this list has ten entries.  The next set of books I would list (Castiglione, Tasso, more Dante, etc.) are more – not more advanced – more work, or are helped by more context.  I have not read all that many more Italian books from the Renaissance than I am listing – another dozen – which makes this list absurd.  But that’s all right.

As usual, I plan to invite those interested to read along with me, but, honestly anyone who has not read the above should read the above, which I am not planning to read, and not, with a couple of exceptions, what I do plan to read, lists of which are forthcoming.

The post’s title is from “To Angelo Mai on His Finding the Manuscript of Cicero’s De re publica,” the third poem of Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti, lines 24 and 25 of Jonathan Galassi’s 2010 translation.  Leopardi is one of the exceptions.

*  “The Structure of Orlando Furioso” in The Uses of Literature (1980), tr. Patrick Creagh, p. 162.