Tuesday, March 31, 2015

As I recall it aloud, I write what I recall - Nievo describes the kitchen, and other things

It was all about getting the voice right, said the translator of Confessions of an Italian.  The opening chapter is a tour of the Castle of Fratta (“today no more than a pile of rubble from which the peasants gather stones to brace their mulberry trees”), in Venetian territory a bit north and a ways east of the city, by the boy who turns the spit in the kitchen.  Chapters are long – 42 pages here – so there is room for a couple dozen characters, from the ancient Countess down to the old loyal servant now useless for anything except “grating the cheese.  Down to “Marocco, the Captain’s dog,” actually, another resident of the kitchen.  The friendly  Penguin edition thankfully includes a Cast of Characters for reference.

As if all those characters, including several clergymen of various ranks, were not sufficient, it turns out that the narrator (and the author, Ippolito Nievo) is a fan of Tristram Shandy and has a tendency to wander.  The seven page digression on the functioning of the Venetian legal system is the most surprising of them, and the dullest.  Then it is, finally, back to the kitchen.  There were points where I wondered if the narrator was ever going to get out of the kitchen.

He addresses the point in the first lines of the second chapter:

The principal effect of chapter one on my readers will most likely be a great curiosity to finally learn just who this Carlino is.  In fact, it has been quite an accomplishment on my part – or maybe just simple fraud – to send you rambling through an entire chapter of my life, always nattering on about me, without first introducing myself.  (Ch. 2, first lines, p. 45)

So Nievo is much more efficient than Sterne.  It is only Chapter Two, and the memoirist is not only born but as old as eight or nine.  If anything, the rambling, chaotic first chapter suggests Sterne much too strongly.  Mostly the novel is more conventionally told than the first chapter suggests.  Mostly Nievo and Carlino moves forward.  “As  I recall it aloud, I write what I recall,” Carlino says, and I believe him (Ch.6, 241).  As when he describes his discovery and love of Dante – surely this is the author himself speaking without a mask – and ends by saying that “It is unfortunate, but we often have to put up with such digressions when someone is telling his story,” which leads to an amusing digression on clarity:

Courage, therefore: I criticize no one, but when you write, consider the fact that many are going to read you.  (Ch. 10, 372-3)

Lucky for me, Carlino is wrong; I am read by few.

I also had the strange feeling in the early chapters of resemblances to later novels by writers that cannot possibly have known Nievo.  The decaying castle at the end of its long history full of useless inhabitants evoked Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, if that novel were narrated by the kitchen boy Steerpike.  There are several parallel characters.  Odd.

One of those characters suggests even more novels.  Confessions is built on a dual plot where one long line is Italian history, the futile struggle for independence, and the other is the kitchen boy’s ongoing love affair with his demonic cousin La Pisana.  Ongoing for decades, so at points the novel resembles Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor and Gabriel García Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.  Those examples suggest a command of language and imagery which Nievo does not have, but there are – I need a vague word – resonances.

Tomorrow, let’s follow the loves of Carlino and La Pisana.

Monday, March 30, 2015

a miserable account of a few, ordinary boyish feats - Ippolito Nievo's Confessions of an Italian

The week, a short one (holiday on Friday) is devoted to Confessions of an Italian (1867) by Ippolito Nievo, one of the two great novels of 19th century Italy, meaning “great” in the sense of “large” (858 pages in the new Penguin edition) as well as important.

The author wrote this beast in 1858 in a frantic fit of despair after one of the long series of failed attempts to free Italy from foreign rule.  Nievo was 27 and maybe a bit of a propagandist hack, not so promising as an artist, and he had never written anything on this scale.

The narrator is in his 80s.  So his story reaches back far before Nievo was born, back to the series of invasions, fizzled revolutions, and double-crosses of the Napoleonic Wars that shattered the lasting medieval institutions (for example, his beloved Republic of Venice) and inspired the dream of a free, unified Italy.

Perhaps Nievo thinks the earlier revolutions had something to do with the one for which he fought.  The other great – greater – Italian epic novel, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1827), also features invasions of Italy by French and Austrian armies, but during the 17th century.  What else is the historical novel for?  Three-quarters of Confessions of an Italian are set during the 18th century.  Although the narrator lives on, it essentially ends with the failed revolutions of 1848, one more in the series.

The novel is full of events, maybe too full, described at secondhand, interspersed with “a miserable account of a few, ordinary boyish feats” (620).  The reader without a strong sense of the relevant Italian history will need some patience.  It does not help that Nievo is not a first-rate prose writer.  He uses conventional language, is unafraid of cliché, and has limited descriptive capacity.  But, you say, is that not perfectly appropriate for the narrator, since the book is written by an ordinary fellow, not a professional writer, and is memoir, not fiction?  Yes, you are right!  The concept of the novel was ingeniously chosen to hide what I assume are real artistic limitations of Nievo’s.

Tim Parks has a terrific review of the novel in the April 2, 2015 New York Review of Books, not available online, I am afraid, which he ends with a little comparison with Manzoni who, he says,

is still a staple of the Italian school curriculum, while it is rare to meet anyone who has read Nievo.  Yet there is no doubt in my mind which author English-speaking readers will prefer now that Confessions of an Italian is at least attractively translated in its entirety.  (66)

I also have no doubt – they’ll prefer Manzoni!  I seem to always disagree with Parks.

An abridgement of Confessions of an Italian has been available in English before, but Frederika Randall has made the first complete translation.  What a service she has done.    It was all about getting the voice right, she says.

Now that I know what is in Nievo’s novel, I am seeing it all over Italian literature.

The saddest line in this sad novel is on p. 466:

“To die at twenty-eight, greedy for life, avid for the future, mad with pride, replete only with pain and humiliation!”

Ippolito Nievo died at twenty-nine, in a shipwreck.  He had joined Garibaldi’s Thousand and had helped Garibaldi liberate or conquer Sicily and Naples.  He helped create a unified Italy, but he did not quite get to see it.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

It was most horrible - Henry James in New York - "I like that!"

Aside from James-in-Europe I have been poking at the lesser phenomenon of James-in-New-York, using the contents of the NYRB collection The New York Stories of Henry James, an odd book in that a third of it is the novel Washington Square (1880), the book James wrote to raise cash to fund the writing of The Portrait of a Lady.  It does not look like James took New York that seriously as a subject.

“Crawford’s Consistency” (1876) has a lot of good New York flavor, though.  James never put this story in a collection, so he must not have thought much of it, but I enjoyed it as much as any of the other early James stories.

Crawford is in love with a beautiful, rich woman.  When that engagement falls through, out of cussedness he marries a woman who runs a boarding house.  Out of further cussedness he sticks with her even though the marriage is no good.  The story is a comedy for everyone put poor Crawford.  James is arguing for inconsistency.

I always mention my trouble with the vagueness of James’s world, but that was not a problem here.  There are few passages of descriptive writing, but rather little bits slipped in that do the necessary work.  Lots of good bits.  The narrator is a young doctor:

I see again my shabby little consulting-room, with an oil-cloth on the floor, and a paper, representing seven hundred and forty times (I once counted them) a young woman with a pitcher on her head, on the walls…

What better way to say he did not have many patients?

Here the parents of the rich woman, declaring the end of the engagement to Crawford:

Mrs. Ingram, very pale, and with her thin lips looking like the blades of a pair of scissors, turned to her husband.  “Mr. Ingram,” she said, “rescue me from this violence.  Speak out – do your duty.”

Mr. Ingram advanced with the air and visage of the stage manager of a theater, when he steps forward to announce that the favorite of the public will not be able to play.

All I need for each character.

The new wife, the boarding house-keeper, is at a “concert-garden” in Central Park – I would call it a beer-garden.  She is complaining that Crawford did not take her to see Niagara Falls.

Crawford listened to this, smiling, unflinching, unwinking.  Before we separate – to say something – I asked Mrs. Crawford if she liked music?  The fiddlers were scraping away.  She turned her empty glass upside down, and with a thump on the table – “I like that!” she cried.  It was most horrible.  We rose, and Crawford tenderly offered her his arm; I looked at him with a kind of awe.

What a shame that James was not more interested in writing about working class people.  He is so good with them.  Maybe a little cruel.  Maybe this is all he had.  I can easily imagine it being an incident from life, perhaps from years earlier, that James had tucked way waiting for the right story.

That is enough James for now.  Maybe I’ll be ready for more six months from now.  The Americans and “Daisy Miller” are up next.  That should be fun.

Friday, March 27, 2015

to sharpen his perception of the ridiculous - James claims Europe

Let’s see, what other Henry James stories did I read that I have not mentioned.

“The Last of the Valerii” (1874).  Almost a fantasy story, a Hawthorne story, a comedy at the expense of Europe.  An American woman marries a Roman Count, who is devoted to her.  There is a trivial conflict about the bride’s Protestantism and the groom’s Catholicism, which is just a screen for the real story, which is that the Roman Count actually worships Roman gods.  He is a pagan.  Those Europeans are as bad as you thought, says James.  On the other hand, James is falling in love with Italy, and who can blame him.  The one “tourist” scene is in the Pantheon, the only Roman monument I have visited myself, which was handy for me:

“This is the best place in Rome,” he murmured.  “It’s worth fifty St Peters’…  Now, only the wind and the rain, the sun and the cold, come down; but of old – of old” and he touched my arm and gave me a strange smile – “the pagan gods and goddesses used to come sailing through it and take their places at their altars.” 

“Madame de Mauves” (1874) also has a naïve American who marries a pagan, this time a corrupt Frenchman:

The Baron was a pagan and his wife was a Christian, and between them, accordingly, was a gulf.

The Baron’s paganism is “the same sort of taste, Longmore moralized, as the taste for Gérôme in painting, and for M. Gustave Flaubert in literature.

That is the judgment of a sexless American loafer  who is too in awe of the perfection of the woman to begin an affair with her.  Some bits of what I quoted may suggest that James thinks he is an idiot.

An early chapter – “Madame de Mauves” is a novella – describing the rich young woman’s education and courtship by the caddish French nobleman is the best thing in the story, which has a lot in common with The Portrait of a Lady which James will write a few years later, having realized, with the assistance of Daniel Deronda, that the interesting point of view is that of the wife who enters into the bad marriage open-eyed.

It is only now sinking in how often James rewrote his own, and other people’s, stories.

In “Eugene Pickering” (1874 – these are all from 1874 – busy writer) the corrupt European is the woman, the American fool hypnotized by the idea of Europe the man.

“Pickering’s unworldly life had not been of a sort to sharpen his perception of the ridiculous” – no, that is what James is here for.  In this story the stakes are much lower than in “Madame de Mauves” so James can have a narrator stand-in  who openly ridicules poor Pickering.

“That’s a polite way of calling me a fool,” said Pickering.  “You are a sceptic, a cynic, a satirist!  I hope I shall be a long time coming to that.”

And despite a hard fall, he does not come to that, being given the gift of innocence by his creator James in spite of the worst Europe can throw at him.

This first collection of James stories is like a flag James has planted in Europe.  “I claim this territory for my fiction.”

Thursday, March 26, 2015

All human life is there - kitsch and tourism in James

I wanted to include some Henry James humor from “The Madonna of the Future,” which I thought was among the funnier James that I’ve read.  How to describe his tone – not exactly withering:

She lived on a fourth floor, and she was not rich; but she offered her visitors very good tea, little cakes at option, and conversation not quite to match.

But a good ding on the hostess.  Subtle.  James, is subtle, yes?  Not always.  Most of the story is about the painter s obsessed with perfection that he produces nothing, but the narrator also has a run-in with the creator of “a peculiar type of statuette” made of “a peculiar plastic compound” of his own invention.  The statuettes “consisted each of a cat and a monkey, fantastically draped, in some preposterously sentimental conjunction.”

“The idea is bold; does it strike you as happy?  Cats and monkeys, – monkeys and cats, – all human life is there!”

James like that last line so much, and I do not blame him, that he later ends the story with it.  The contrast of the idealist painter with this artiste of horrible kitsch is blunt, not subtle, but effective, and funny.

What did I want to mention, besides the monkeys and cats?  The travel writing.  The title story of the 1875 A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Stories has some importance as the beginning of James’s fictional engagement with the big subject of Europe, or of Americans in Europe, and as I noted a couple of years ago it at times literally turns into travel writing, as if for the travel section of the newspaper.  James even switches to second person and present tense in these sections, as if they were written separately and then pasted into the story.

“The Madonna of the Future” integrates the travel writing into the fiction better, but the Florence of the story is the tourist Florence and nothing more.  The David statue, the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, that’s Florence.  I almost expected the narrator to step into that gelato shop I liked so much.

We lingered often in the sepulchral chapel of San Lorenzo, and watched Michael Angelo’s dim-visaged warrior sitting there like some awful Genius of Doubt and brooding behind his eternal mask upon the mysteries of life.  We stood more than once in the little convent chambers where Fra Angelico wrought as if an angel indeed had held his hand, and gathered that sense of scattered dews and early bird-notes which make an hour among his relics seem like a morning stroll in some monkish garden.

A passage like this is a reminder that the narrator is not quite James, who in his own travel writing would turn the goop down a notch.  The narrator is more susceptible to the beauty-worshipping painter, more of a believer, than James would be, thus allowing the story to function, much as James restricting the settings to the Florence he knew himself makes perfect sense for the story.  The painter’s natural calling was to be not an artist but a tour guide.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

rather too fond of superfine discriminations - James says what kind of writer he is

I fancied he was rather too fond of superfine discriminations and of discovering subtle intentions in the shallow felicities of chance.

Strangely that is not a description of Henry James but rather a description in “The Madonna of the Future” (1873) of an American painter in Florence, an anti-Jamesian character, a figure James (but not his narrator) finds horrifying.

The painter has for years been working on a single masterpiece, a Madonna that will rival Raphael’s Madonna in the chair.  Most Florentines who know the painter express doubts that there is any painting at all, but he insists that he is working:

“If you but knew the rapture of observation!  I gather with every glance some hint for light, for color or relief!  When I get home, I pour out my treasures into the lap of my Madonna.  O, I’m not idle!”

A friend of the painter brings up Balzac’s great novella The Unknown Masterpiece (1832), in which a painter devotes his life to perfecting a single painting only to discover that a pure devotion to form inevitably leads to abstraction – well, that is how I interpret the story, although that is not what Balzac, one of literature’s greatest hacks, and I mean greatest in every good sense, was thinking. 

“There are many people who doubt whether there is any picture to be seen.  I fancy, myself, that if one were to get into his studio, one would find something very like the picture in that tale of Balzac’s,- a mere mass of incoherent scratches and daubs, a jumble of dead paint!”

We can guess where this ends:

“I never began!  I waited and waited to be worthier to begin, and wasted my life in preparation.”

At this point James had been a professional writer for a decade – at this point he was a successful professional, one of the finer hacks of American magazine writing.  It is as if James is warning himself about what would happen if he stopped writing so much – perhaps he would be likely to stop writing at all, paralyzed by perfection.  Or, perhaps, there is no risk at all that James would stop, and he is just mocking the ultra-Romantic inspirationists he has met.  He is telling them to do what he does, to write, and if it’s not good write some more.  Just keep writing.  James himself rewrites this story a number of times.

There really is some good stuff in this story mocking the painters Romanticism.  I do not know what James knew, so perhaps it is an unintended irony that the painter is completely wrong about how Raphael worked, that rather than being the Keats of the 16th century he ran a large and efficient workshop. 

“Think of his [Raphael] seeing that spotless image, not for a moment for a day, in a happy dream, as a restless fever-fit, not as a poet in a five minutes’ frenzy, time to snatch his phrase and scribble his immortal stanza, but for days together, while the slow labor of the brush went on, while the foul vapors of life interposed, and the fancy ached with tension, fixed, radiant, distinct, as we see it now!”

Completely wrong.  And I see that James makes sure the painter does not understand Keats either.

I would like to call “The Madonna of the Future,” James’s twentieth story, his first masterpiece,  except that I have not read eleven of the earlier stories, nor an 1871 novel, so how would I know?  But that’s what I would bet, that this is the first really good one.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

scrutinising with ingenious indirectness - Henry James sounds like Henry James

Some time ago I publicly declared that I would not read Henry James neurotically, meaning specifically that I would not be a completist or read in a particular order or read all five volumes of the Library of America Complete Stories, however tempting these options might be.  I do not think I am such a good reader of James, but the most likely way to read better is to read more.

So I have been reading more, non-neurotically, or just a little bit neurotically.  I picked out the short stories James picked himself for his first collection, A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales (1875). At this point James had published 27 stories; he picked six for the book, including one masterpiece, one nullity, and four stories that James would build on for the next forty years.

The nullity is “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” (1868) set among 18th century descendants of Puritans and with a ghost story tacked onto the end.  I did not, as they say, get it.  The masterpiece is “The Madonna of the Future” (1873), which I want to save for a day or two.

I supplemented the James-picked collection with some early choices from The New York Stories of Henry James (NYRB), one of which was excellent (“Crawford’s Consistency,” 1876, saved for later), one trivial (“The Story of a Masterpiece,” 1868), and one – now here is where I wish I in fact had read as a completist, because what I want to say is that “A Most Extraordinary Case” (1868) is the earliest James story that really sounds like Henry James.  But I don’t really know that, do I?  Regardless, it took him four years of magazine writing to find his voice.  Pretty quick.

What do I mean?  I mean that based on style and subject I might not have guessed that “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” or a number of earlier stories were by James.  But I with “A Most Extraordinary Case” I would have guessed right.

Colonel Mason picked up some kind of deadly non-communicable illness during the Civil War.  Malaria, maybe?  James, in a classic Jamesian move, never names the illness.  “The disorder was obstinate and virulent, but there was no apparent reason why care and prudence should not subdue it.”  Whatever it is.  Mason is recuperating at the Hudson River home of his aunt, where he also finds a beautiful cousin with whom to fall in love.  She in turn falls in love with Mason’s doctor.  Their impending marriage destroys Mason’s will to live, making him an “extraordinary case” to the rationalist doctor.

It was a very simple matter to Miss Hofmann that she should be charmingly dressed, that her hands should be white and her attitude felicitous: these things for her had long since become mechanical.  But to mason, who was familiar only with books and men, they were objects of constant, half-dreamy contemplation.  He would sit for half-an-hour at once, with a book on his knees and the pages unturned, scrutinising with ingenious indirectness the agreeable combination of colour and outline which made up the physical personality of Miss Hofmann.

That sounds like James, right?  And this sickly, sexless man in love with a healthy, vigorous woman is going to reappear many times in James, in The Portrait of a Lady and elsewhere.  This is also the first story where, if you find this sort of thing entertaining, you can pretend that Mason is homosexual and actually in love with the doctor, not Miss Hofmann.

I was planning to include a joke or two, since “A Most Extraordinary Case” is lightly but funny, but they require too much setup.  A scene where Mason almost comes to terms with his illness (and thus knows he cannot have Miss Hofmann)  is poignant, more so even than his death scene.  These are genuine if minor Jamesian pleasures.  I am learning to see them.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

How can one pray that there are no gods? - David R. Slavitt finds lost Sophocles choruses

David R. Slavitt is a phenomenon.  He has published a hundred books since 1952, some of which were best-sellers, some worst-sellers.  I know him best, to the extent that I know him at all, as a poet and translator, the latter mostly but by no means exclusively from Classical Greek and Latin.  His work on Sophocles has led him to a good idea, his new Choruses from the Lost Plays of Sophocles (Barefoot Muse Press, 2015), the conceit explained by the title.

Slavitt invents choruses for several dozen of the Sophocles plays for which we only have the title, the name of a mythological figure.  The story has already been told. 

from A Chorus from Enomaus

Some Oracle is predicting disaster again.
Your son will kill you, or grandson, or son-in-law,
but the truth the rest of us have to learn to live with
is that they will survive us, bury us, and inherit
whatever we have won or earned in life. (16)

I guess a lot of the fun is that Slavitt has two modes to work with: first he can try to credibly imitate Sophocles, or more accurately modern translations of Sophocles – no one can check the original Greek – and second he can modernize or parody or comment on Sophocles, which is how I take the first line here, at least, a line that could be slid into any number of plays.

A possible third mode would be to build the poems around actual fragments of the lost plays.  No idea whether Slavitt ever does this.

Over and over, the choristers debate questions of fate.  Who is to blame?  “We cannot fault Orestes.  What he is doing / is necessary” (“A Chorus from Aletes,” 8).  “You can’t blame Alcmene.  She was tricked” (“Two Choruses from Amphitryon,” 10).  The gods are to blame.

from Two Choruses from Aigisthus

What is far worse is how the gods
use us as their instruments of torture,
so that we blame ourselves for the evils
that follow us and even our children.
[details of the horrible crimes of Atreus and Thyestes]
What hope could there be for Thyestes’ son,
Aigisthus, with such blood in his veins?
Knowing who he was and what he came from,
we wonder what were his choices, what could he hope for?
How can one pray that there are no gods?  (5-6)

Some of Slavitt’s characters seem to make peace with their fate.  The Chorus observes Cassandra “perhaps half-smiling,” while Philoctetes, although he hates both the Trojans and Greeks “will save us. / He is beyond caring, but does what he does.”

That last ends “A Chorus from Philoctetes at Troy,” the sequel to the surviving Philoctetes, one of the few times I know how the lost, imagined play fits with an existing play.  I had never looked at a list of lost Sophocles plays before, so I was amazed at how many of them are about the house of Atreus and their terrible acts and curses, including numerous plays about the characters familiar to us form The Oresteia.  Over and over again, year after year.

I am with this chorister in “A Chorus from Tyndareos” (also part of the Atreus story by marriage):

Not even wisdom is safe.  Look at the prophets
and how their lives are tortured.  Let me be
ordinary, unexceptional, one
unremarkable member of the chorus.  (55)

I love the conceit that Sophocles would have written such a line.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Umberto Saba's prose - as though they were the honorable dead

Poetry is to many people an allergen, or even a toxin, but fortunately Umberto Saba also wrote prose, short fiction and memoir that grew shorter over time until he published them as “shortcuts” and “very short stories.”  There is also a late, unfinished novel, Ernesto, that I have not read.  What I have read is a book titled The Stories and Recollections of Umberto Saba (1993), translated and assembled by Estelle Gilson.

The fiction is mostly about the poor and the Jews of Trieste.  “And at one and the same time, she felt both a certain compassion for him and a desire to grab him by the throat and throttle him” (“Valeriano Rode,” 54).  That is a wife describing her idiot husband, but the line could easily appear in a number of places, perhaps used by the reader.  High quality short fiction circa 1910 was populated by frustrating nitwits; this is not unique to Saba.  See “The Lottery Numbers” for a powerful example, where a husband;s refusal to let his wife play a set of lucky numbers turns out to be the tipping point of a series of resentments that destroy the marriage.

Or the best story, “The Hen,” in which a young man buys his mother the wrong gift.  He once had a pet hen:

…  the hours he spent with the hen were truly his own; whether he had her sit,  perch, really, next to him on the brick steps between the kitchen and the dining room, steps that turned a strange red in the setting sun and reminded him if the steps outside purgatory that he’d seen in a religious painting, or whether, hugging her so tightly to him that she shrieked, and happy in his belief that he had so much time ahead to live and enjoy the pleasures of the world (and thereafter, he’d have all eternity), he would talk to Có-có about daring deeds and journeys, and about future joys, in effect, about everything that went through his head.  (76-7)

Saba’s sentences do not usually roll on like that.  The story is a warning about the pain of trying to revive childhood pleasures and illusions.  This from a poet who is constantly returning to his childhood in his writing.

Saba has another subject – Trieste, the war and its aftermath.  Encounters with writers: his Triestine neighbor Italo Svevo who “used to drop in on me almost every evening” at the used bookshop, Curzio Malaparte who “tried to help me when I was in trouble,” and that maniac, “the Glorious One,” the “immaculately white-suited” Gabriele D’Annunzio, to whom Saba says he owes “three poems from his [Saba’s] Autobiographia” and “a recipe for preparing that superb pasta with tomatoes.”

Then there is the bookshop itself, an accidental career – “I bought it intending to throw all the old books in it into the Adriatic and to sell it empty at a higher price” – that became something else:

During all the years of fascism it was a refuge, sheltering me from loudspeakers.  It’s fairly hopeless for a poet to make a living in literature.  And during those years it seemed more hopeless than ever.  However, the antiquarian books, whose existence I’d just discovered, didn’t upset me or reflect the hateful face of the present, the way almost all of the new ones seemed to do.  What’s more they gave off a sense of peace, as though they were the honorable dead.  (“The Story of a Bookshop,” 141)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The poet has just so many days to live - Umberto Saba repeats himself

My unhappy youth was spent with
images of sadness and of pain; art
has made them pleasing to others
like a green and tranquil hillside.  (From Autobiography, sonnet 1, tr. Hochfield & Nathan)

Thinking about how to describe Umberto Saba, I keep returning to the 1924 Autobiografia, a sequence of fifteen sonnets which epitomize the autobiographical poems he had been writing for twenty years, and would write for another thirty.  His father abandons him (“My father had been ‘the assassin’ to me / until I was twenty, when I met him,” sonnet 3).  He is unhappy.  He falls in love with a boy – “I wrote / long letters to him, as if to a bride” – but “perhaps he wasn’t what he seemed to be” (sonnet 6).  He does his military service. He becomes a poet, meets Gabriele d’Annunzio (“all courtesy / to his guest, but otherwise no help to me” and the Florentine poets who “never liked me much” (sonnet 10).  He meets Lina, who he marries (“I loved her for the depth of her sadness,” sonnet 12).  He buys his bookshop.

All of this, however plain it is in English, in lovely, regular, rhyming verse:

With the war I was an infantryman again.
I was a rotten poet and a good soldier –
I wish I could say so!  But even as a child
I did not like to be untruthfully praised.

Ritornai con la guerra fantaccino.
Fui cattivo poeta e buon soldato:
vorrei ben dirlo!  Ma non pur bambino
amavo contro il vero esser lodato.  (Sonnet 14)

Saba benefits greatly, in translation, from being read in quantity.  If here is not poetry, there is a story that is created by the poet’s obsessions.  Somehow he understood this aspect of his art early on.  In 1911, just as he began publishing his poems, he wrote “What Remains for Poets To Do,” a personal manifesto calling for “honest poetry,” which no one had written for a hundred years, but more interestingly for repetition, since “a man cannot go outside of his real self, the feeling and expression will repeat themselves obsessively”:

The Songbook of Petrarch and that of Leopardi are full of repetitions, as well as the most sublime part of the Divine Comedy, “Paradise,” because these poets were trying to give voice to their great passions, and not to astonish like jugglers, who are finished if they repeat the same number twice.  (pp. 527-8)

Saba is arguing against the “make it new” ethos of his jittery peers in Italy and elsewhere, but what is most curious to me is that he had only published one book at this point (at age 28), meaning he had not been especially repetitive yet.  But he would be.  He already knew it.

The poet has just so may days
to live,
like every one of us, yet so many ways
to live them!

Il poeta ha le sue giornate
come tutti gli uomini; ma quanto,
quanto variate!  (from “The Poet,” 1912, tr. Sartarelli) 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A poet lives serenely in this atmosphere - Umberto Saba, poet of used bookstores

The conventional history of Italian poetry that I have pieced together has a 19th century dominated by Leopardi and neo-Classicism, then a fast-moving  turn of the century full of churning movements – Decadence, Futurism – sucking up foreign influences, reacting to technological changes, and philosophical challenges.  Like poetry everywhere.  Suddenly the point of poetry is for it to be new.  Luckily, there are many kinds of newness.

Umberto Saba (1883-1957) wrote confessional poetry.  On the margins of Italian literature – on the margins of Italy, in fact – he did not write in a way that was formally innovative but rather new in the way he wrote about himself.  When I was writing about Saba’s contemporary Dino Campana, I noted that he often seemed like an American Beat writing forty years too early.  Saba sometimes seemed like he belonged with Robert Lowell and John Berryman, except, again, forty years earlier.  Is that all American poets were doing in the 1950s, looting Italian poetry?

Saba spent most of his life before World War II in Trieste, where he was born, meaning that he was by birth Austrian, not Italian.  His mother was Jewish, so Saba spent the war in hiding, mostly in Florence.  For twenty years he ran an antiquarian bookstore in Trieste.  The store is still operating.  Why there are not more famous poets who were used book dealers is a mystery.

A curious antiquarian shop
is open on an obscure street in Trieste.
Various golden hues of antique bindings
delight the eye that wanders across its shelves.

A poet lives serenely in this atmosphere.
In this living memorial of the dead
he does his work, honest and content,
brooding on Love, unknown and solitary.

He would like to die one day, undone
by his secret passion, the eyes that have seen so much
closing on his beloved manuscripts.

And what remained beyond his time and place,
art painted for him still more beautifully,
and poetry made it all the sweeter.  (Autobiography, Sonnet 15, 1924)

In Italian this sonnet rhymes and is sonorous and all of the usual stuff:

Vive in quell’aria tranquillo un poeta.
Dei morti in quel vivente lapidario
la sua opera compie, onesta e lieta,
d’Amor pensoso, ignoto e solitario.

He kept returning in his poetry to the same subjects – his beloved wet nurse Peppa, a Slovenian who was in effect his foster mother; his absent father; the neighborhoods of Trieste; a homosexual crush when he was a teen.  New events join the story – the happiness of meeting Lina, his wife; troubles in the marriage; the destruction and disruptions of the war.  In 1921 Saba first thought to organize his life’s work into a Canzoniere or Songbook.  Subsequent poems were incorporated into the Songbook, much like what Walt Whitman did with the later editions of Leaves of Grass, although Saba’s inspiration was a fellow secularized Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine.

Saba also wrote fiction and memoirs, mostly on the same matter as the poetry, also quite good.  For the prose, I read The Stories and Recollections of Umberto Saba (Sheep Meadow Press, 1993, tr. Estelle Gilson).  For the poems, I tried two collections, both titled  Songbook, the 1998 Stephen Sartarelli translations published by Sheep Meadow Press  -Sartarelli is now raking in the big translation bucks as the translator of Andrea Camilleri – and the 2008 George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan versions published by Yale.  The sonnet above is from the latter.  Both books are prosy, but both include the Italian.  The Hochfield and Nathan has more poems, about half of the Italian Canzoniere, which with Saba is a plus.  The translators disagree to a certain extent about which poems are good, which is interesting.

So, a couple more days rummaging through Saba.

Monday, March 16, 2015

It's very unpleasant, but it's true - Pelle the Conqueror takes an idealistic turn

“It’s very unpleasant,” said Ellen, with a shudder.  “But it’s true.”  (Ch. 23)

A mother is commenting on a painting by her son Lasse that depicts a scene of a sad working-class on-the-job accident.  She describes one side, the miserable side, of Martin Andersen Nexø’s Pelle the Conqueror, his four volume novel of a Danish farmboy’s development into a leader of the international class struggle.  Then there is the joyful side stated in the title:

“Everything seems to turn out well for you, Pelle,” said Morten suddenly.  (Ch. 23)

Which is what happens at the end of idealistic Bildungsromanen.  All of the suffering and struggle creates the person.  The last volume, Daybreak (1910), is where Nexø can demonstrate his results of his experiment.

Morten, last seen as a fanatical Communist has become an almost bourgeois writer.  Guess what book he plans to write after the line above, less than a page before the novel’s end, guess its title.  Pelle himself becomes a bookworm for a period – “People wondered, at the library, over the grave, silent working-man who took hold of books as if they were bricks” (Ch. 7).  Karl Marx and Henry George are favorites, and a curious passage involves a long mental argument with Darwin and Origin of Species (Ch. 9) which leads to Pelle opening a cooperatively-operated shoe factory.

Please note that along with all of these books, Pelle’s son is, at the end of the novel, studying to be a painter of the fine art variety.  Daybreak is where artistic and intellectual matters become important for the first time.  Nexø is thinking in developmental stages.  At the library, Pelle becomes friends with a patron, a wealthy librarian, Brun, sadly afflicted with booklung (“the dust of the books attacked his chest, and every minute his dry cough sounded through the room”) who assists Pelle in various ways.

Brun has a strange resemblance to the patron in an earlier development novel, Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer (1857).  The more I looked, Daybreak began to resemble Stifter, like a proletarian Indian Summer.  The introduction of a gardening theme made me sure that Nexø knew Stifter:

They soon became familiar with the plants in their own way, and entered into a kind of mystic companionship with them, met them [the plants!] in a friendly way and exchanged opinions [with the plants!] – like beings from different worlds, meeting on the threshold.  (Ch. 11)

Later there is a discussion of whether or not plants think.

Much of the material of Daybreak is practical: the mechanics of a cooperative business, or plans for worker housing.  But such was the case for Stifter’s novel, too, even if the concerns were more aesthetic.  By the end, everything must be in order.  Order is unfortunately not the most artistically interesting aspect of Nexø’s world, although it rounds off the four novels logically.

To reiterate: the first volume, Childhood, a surprising masterpiece, easy to recommend widely.  The next two, Apprenticeship and The Great Struggle, lesser but still well written and conceived.  The last volume of Pelle is artistically the worst of them.  It is more abstract, with more of Pelle thinking.  There is less room for the raggedness of life so well described in earlier volumes.  But it is good enough that anyone who has read the first three would be nuts to skip it.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Giovanni Verga's success

How funny.   Tim Parks has just written a blog post about writers who are “stifled by success,” and his primary exhibit is Giovanni Verga.  As usual with Parks’s essays, and with Wuthering Expectations, the more I look at the actual logic and evidence of the argument the more the blog post falls apart, presumably because it was written in great haste.  I know what that looks like, I tell you.

So let’s not look too closely except to pick out some interesting bits.  The two Sicilian novels, The House by the Medlar Tree (1881) and Mastro Don-Gesualdo (1889), which I have not read, are “overly long, muddled works,” damaged by Verga’s misunderstanding of his own achievement, which was the “apparently collective narrative voice” and protagonists who “accept and even engineer their own downfalls because… they have completely internalized society’s judgment… and see nothing strange in their ‘punishment.’”  Which is just what I have been saying about Verga, either this week or when I wrote about him a couple of years ago.

I will read at least one of the novels this year, to see for myself, but I have wondered how Verga’s innovations could work over a lengthier text.  I can imagine the distant, “objective” voice becoming monotonous, or the parade of misery becoming numbing if not too much too bear.  The best places to see that “collective” narrative voice, for example, are in ten page stories like “Malaria,” “Property,” or “Freedom,” which do not appear to have central characters or even plots.  No, “Freedom” has a strong plot – revolution, murder, and a trial – “The judges dozed behind the lenses of their glasses, which froze your heart”.

 Cecchetti includes two longer stories, “Ieli” (1880) and “Black Bread”  (1882) that are about forty pages each.  They both depend more heavily on stories of troubled marriages, on adultery.  They need a little more melodrama to move the story along.

Otherwise, though, “Ieli” is a perfect companion for “Rosso Malpelo.”  The title character is an uneducated boy like Malpelo, but he herds horses and lives outdoors, not in a sandpit.  His life is only ordinarily miserable, not an extreme test case.  He has friends; he marries.  Yet a key moment of his life parallels Malpelo’s.  Leading his herd to a fair at night, one of Ieli’s favorites falls.

As Stellato remained alone in the ravine, waiting for somebody to come and skin him, his eyes still wide open and his four legs stretched out – lucky he, who at last didn’t suffer any more.  Ieli, now that he had seen how the factor had aimed at the colt and fired the shot in cold blood while the poor animal turned his head painfully as if he were human, stopped crying and sat there on a stone, staring fixedly at Stellato until the men came to get the hide.

Ieli remembers the dead horse once more, in a context that links it to the woman he loves and eventually marries.  Although the horse does not reappear, the theme is moved forward in other ways  through the last few sentences of the story.

Parks says that “growing wealthy from his sales,” Verga began to misunderstand his art, thinking he was doing Zola-like anthropology (which is of course not what Zola was actually doing, but certainly what he claimed he was doing, separate argument, never mind).  Cecchetti says that “the only work of his that became widely known was ‘Cavalleria Rusticana,’ thanks to the theater version and to Mascagni’s opera,” and that “[f]ame was to come to Verga after World War I” (xx).  Cecchetti always writes about Verga’s as if he is working on artistic problems, while Parks emphasizes money and status.  Somewhere in between, maybe?  Both?  I do not know.  At this point, the art if all that is left.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

He hated the moonlit nights - "Rosso Malpelo"'s baptized flesh

“Rosso Malpelo” – Verga’s stories more generally are firmly materialistic in ethics and aesthetics.  The Catholic Church is itself material, and it has its place in many Verga stories, but the characters rarely have a thought beyond this world, beyond food and warmth.  Romantic love is an exception so there are several stories about love going wrong, ending in hardship, or murder.  See “Stinkpot,” about a sap with a name worse than “Rosso Malpelo.”  Superstitions are another exception, as in “War Between Saints,” in which two parishes go to war because one of them spent too much money on a parade for its saint, so now its Saint Rocco versus Saint Pasquale, through violence, drought, and cholera.

“Rosso Malpelo” appears to be an extreme example.  The title misfit has no education, no religion, his father dies in the mine, and his mother does not love him.  His only friends are a donkey and another boy miner, both of whom he occasionally beats, both of whom die.  There are hints that the Church exists. 

So on Saturday night mastro Misciu was still scraping away at his pillar; the Ave Maria had long since sounded and all his companions had lit their pipes and gone away after telling him to have a good time scratching the sand for love of the owner, and warning him not to die the death of a rat.

Which he does, right in front of his son.  When he is finally found ten pages later, he is carried off “the same was [the cart driver] did the fallen sand or the dead donkeys, but this time, besides the stench of a carcass, he carried a friend, and baptized flesh.”  The italics are in the original, as if to emphasize the strangeness, within the story, of the phrase.

One passage suggests that Malpelo has an inner aesthetic life:

Yes, during the beautiful summer nights, the stars shone brightly on the sciara too, and the countryside all around was black as lava, but Malpelo, tired after the long day’s work, lay down on his sack with his face toward the sky, to enjoy that silence and that glittering fiesta high above; on the other hand, he hated the moonlit nights, when the sea swarms with sparks and the countryside takes form dimly here and there, for then the sciara seems more barren and desolate than ever.

He prefers the stars to the moon, infinity to vagueness.  Distinctions within the sublime.

Two related passages suggest that Malpelo has an inner spiritual life.  His donkey dies and is thrown in the ravine.  “He went to see the Gray’s carcass at the bottom of the ravine, and dragged Frog along too, though he didn’t want to go.”  The donkey has been torn apart by dogs, its ribs exposed – what could be more material?  “’Now he doesn’t suffer anymore.’”  A page earlier, the narrator had interjected “He had some strange ideas, that Malpelo!”  This narrator always lies.

When poor Frog dies, Malpelo’s first act is to return to see the donkey again.  “Now nothing more was left of the Gray than a jumble of bones, and it would be the same with Frog.”  And of course later the same with Rosso Malpelo.  Malpelo has developed some ideas about death without anyone’s help.  The last two pages pursue the idea to Malpelo’s death, with an ironic, anti-materialistic twist.

Now I wonder if this sort of argument is present in other Verga stories, too.  Maybe not, though.  “Rosso Malpelo” is an extreme case. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

His mother had almost forgotten his real name - Verga's "Rosso Malpelo"

Whatever I was going to do, I was not going to write about “Rosso Malpelo,” the 1880 Giovanni Verga masterpiece.  “Redhead Evilhair,” something like that.  James Wood’s Verga essay,* the best thing he ever wrote, is mostly about “Rosso Malpelo.”  Argumentative Himadri, back from a trip to Sicily, not previously familiar with Verga, goes straight to “Rosso Malpelo.”  It is irresistible, so I will stop resisting, even if I use the same quotations and make the same points.

Rosso Malpelo is an unloved boy who works in a sandpit.  His life is nothing but work, abuse, and death.  Everyone quotes the first lines (this is Cecchetti translating):

He was called Malpelo because he had red hair; and he had red hair because he was a mean and bad boy, who promised to turn into a first-rate scoundrel.  So everybody at the red-sand quarry called him Malpelo, and even his mother, having always heard that name, had almost forgotten his real one. 

Verga is paired with words like “realism” and “objective” but look at what happens in the second clause.  The narrator is not distant and objective; no, the narrator has picked sides, in this case the side of Sicilian society as a whole, the wrong side.  Even Malpelo’s mother is on this side.  Everyone is.  Even Malpelo himself:

Knowing that he was malpelo, he tried to live up to that name as well as he could, and if an accident happened, if a worker lost his tools, or a donkey broke a leg, or a piece of the tunnel caved in, everyone knew it was his doing; and in fact, he took his beatings without complaining, just like the donkeys, who arch their backs, but go on doing things their own way.

Malpelo’s father, who dies in the sand quarry, was actually nicknamed Jackass, bad but a step up from Malpelo.  I was reading Verga and “Rosso Malpelo” while writing posts on Pinocchio (1883), and if I became a little strident on the side of the donkeys and the puppets who turned into donkeys against the boys who did their duty with no complaints, this is the reason.  I also read the Verga’s “Story of the Saint Joseph Donkey,” which is “Rosso Malpelo” but with an actual donkey for a protagonist rather than boy who is repeatedly compared to and treated like a donkey.

If this sounds like it ought to be sentimental, yes, it should, but that bastard of an “objective” narrator is always arguing for the other side – that this is just the way things are.  This is the key Verga innovation, not distance or his Sicilian subject, but rather a narrator who constantly intervenes against sympathy.  Thus, when Malpelo visits a dying boy, his only friend to the extent that he has any:

Poor Frog already had one foot in the grave; his mother cried and was in despair as if her boy were one of those who earned ten lire a week.

The language is shared by Malpelo and the narrator, and it is outrageous, this idea that a mother is grieving too much for her dying child, so cruel that it demands a protest from the reader.  Thus, the pretence of objectivity leads to even greater sympathy, but a sympathy created against the narration, against the ethos of the story.

It is a great shtick, and a great story.

*  Available in The Irresponsible Self, 2004.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Re-introducing Giovanni Verga - to myself, I guess - a “hard bed on the ground” became a “hard biscuit”

I have here beside me the second edition of a collection of Sicilian fiction writer Giovanni Verga stories, The Sea-Wolf and Other Stories, as translated by Giovanni Cecchetti.  This book is superb but long out of print, now a priceless cultural relic.  Can you believe that a university library let me walk out the door with it? 

The Penguin collection that is in print has lots of overlap with The Sea-Wolf, and I am sure it is fine.  Then there are the D. H. Lawrence translations of Verga’s original collections, Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories and Little Novels of Sicily.  The former has the same title as the Penguin and has become rare (although there is a more recent translation); the latter is easy to find, and I enjoyed it a lot myself.  These two collections hold the core Verga stories, the masterpieces, “Rosso Malpelo” and “Malaria” and “Property” and so on.  Great, great stories.

This is Cecchetti on Lawrence:

Lawrence did not know Italian sufficiently well, nor did he have enough time to do justice to the original.  As a result his Verga is full of oddities.   He misunderstood or misread many Italian words, so that “a picnic in the country” became “the ringing of the bells,” a fiancée” became a “wife,” a “mother” a “midwife,” a “hard bed on the ground” a “hard biscuit”…  (the list goes on for a while, p. xxii)

A hard biscuit!  I didn’t notice anything like this, which is embarrassing.  Perhaps I just put it down to Lawrence being an oddball.  Well, read Lawrence’s Verga in the appropriate spirit.

Cecchetti does something curious and almost destructive.  He ends his collection with an 1874 story, “The Mark X,” that is “an example of the author’s early writing” (xxi) and is also terrible, a cheap French knockoff shifted to Milan.  A beautiful woman in a mask, instant love, tuberculosis.  A few years later Maupassant was going to churn out superior versions of these by the cartload.

I assume Cecchetti thought it was more shocking to put this exemplary story at the end of the book rather than in its chronological place.  It is shocking.  Soon after writing this story, Verga began to develop a new style and new subject: stories of hard-scrabble Sicilian peasant life told in a distant manner, made highly ironic because of the distance, a chronicle of misery told without judgment or sometimes almost with approval.  The fluff about chasing consumptive beauties around La Scala disappears.

Verga did turn his attention back to Milan, but it was to apply the new style to Milanese misery, like the 1884 “Temptation” where three ordinary fellows are step by step led to a terrible crime.  Led by what or whom is the central, frightening question.  Or the 1883 “Buddies,” a battle from the soldiers point of view, which may hint at Verga’s debt to Stendhal:

There Gallorini was hit.  A bullet broke his arm.  Malerba wanted to help him.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing, leave me alone?”  (231)

Awfully plain, but plain is not the way I remember his best stories.

It is strange that Verga wrote his great Sicilian tales, two novels and two books of stories, while living in Milan, and stranger that after a decade of them he returned to Sicily and gave up writing.  He would live for another thirty years.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Life began to be a bit easier when he had drowned himself in the sewer - in volume 3 Pelle the Conqueror continues to be good

Having now read the third volume of Martin Andersen Nexø’s Pelle the Conqueror (The Great Struggle, 1909) I can answer the question that had worried me – does Nexø ruin his fine novel of the life of a poor Danish farm boy by turning it into Communist propaganda?  The title was a bad sign, and this is the book where Pelle moves to Copenhagen and becomes a labor organizer.

Also, I had to shift translation.  After the great 1987 film version of Pelle the Conqueror, the first two volumes were newly translated in complete versions, but volumes 3 and 4 are still only available in the 1913 which I was warned leaves out the earthy stuff, for example the word “stomach.”  So of course as I was reading the novel, all I could think about was how the word “stomach” was probably supposed to be right there.  It was like the book was haunted.

But no, so far so good.  The novel, by the end of volume 3, is the story of a man who becomes a labor organizer, a Bildungsroman in which a good part of the Bildung involves the solidarity of the international working class.  The one character who is a genuine Communist is presented as saintly but crazy, a religious fanatic (“’Revolution is the voice of God,’” Ch. 16).  In a novel that is not full of literary references, he feels like a refugee from Dostoevsky:

“’Last night I dreamed I was one of the starving.  I was going up the street, grieving at my condition, and I ran up against God.  He was dressed like an old Cossack officer, and had a knout hanging round his neck.’”

I am not convinced that Nexø ever quite figures out how to dramatize the union organizing side of the novel, a hard problem, but he has no difficulties with scenes of the life of the poor in Copenhagen.  Much of the novel is set in a slum tenement, the “Ark,” that gets most of the best writing:

When he passed from the brightly lit city into his own quarter, the streets were like ugly gutters to drain the darkness, and the “Ark” rose mysteriously into the sky of night like a ponderous mountain.  Dark cellar-openings led down into the roots of the mountain, and there, in its dark entrails, moved wan, grimy creatures with smoky lamps…  Here they moved about like greedy goblins, tearing away the foundations from under the careless beings in the "Ark," so that one day these might well fall into the cellars…  (Ch. 8)

The building is the sewer drain of the city, collecting its waste people.  Another favorite detail is the “bluish ring of vapor [that] always hovered, revealing the presence of the well, that hidden ventilation shaft for the thronging inmates…  (Ch. 17)

That miasmatic shaft is where the novel begins, actually, where the children play on the “sticky flagstones” where “all that one touched wore a coating of slime.”  Yet Pelle thinks of this pit as the setting of a fairy tale (those goblins are his).

… the waste-pipes stuck straight out of the wall, like wood-goblins grinning from the thicket with wide-open mouths, and long gray beards, which bred rose-pink earthworms, and from time to time fell with a heavy smack into the yard…  in the greenish, dripping darkness, sat curiously marked toads, like little water-nymphs, each in her grotto…  (Ch. 1)

Eventually the goblins make one of the above metaphors made literal during an especially severe winter, when the desperate residents begin plundering the building itself for fuel, first the moldings, then the railings, then every second step of the staircase, then – well, you can guess the fate of the “Ark.”

It is clear enough that there is an argument here, but it is made with the tools of art.  Too bad Nexø rarely makes the portions about union organizing as vivid, the great Parade of the Unions that ends the novel excepted.

So, on to Volume 4, Daybreak, which is perhaps where Nexø ruins his novel by etc. etc.

The title quotation, from Chapter 9, makes the novel sound more miserable than it really is.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

How fast his firedint is gone - Hopkins, Heraclitus, and the residuary worm

Gerard Manley Hopkins is, in a letter from 1880, asking a friend what he thinks of Wagner:

This is a barbarous business of greatest this and supreme that that Swinburne and others practice.  What is the thing that has been?  The same that shall be.  Everything is vanity and vexation of spirit.  (Penguin, p. 194)

Hopkins was a wise man.  Many echo Ecclesiastes but few mean it.  Hopkins had an answer to this problem, the one I would expect, as evident in the title of this 1888 sonnet-plus:

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an       air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they       glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.

Heraclites reduced all things to fire.  Water is fire; clouds are fire.  Hopkins is turning to a Classical source to find remind himself that all is vanity.

Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest's creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature's bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!

The editor tells me that “parches” are “flat cakes of mud from wheels, etc.” – never would have guessed that.  The imaginative paradox is bold here, with nature’s fire demonstrated by a rainstorm, by mud, air, water, and earth.  Man is the center of Nature, her “dearest,” yet he too is just a spark, soon extinguished.

This was probably a bad place for a break since “gone” will rhyme with “shone” below.  I find the alliteration of Hopkins so overpowering that I never notice his rhyming.  I do not think I remembered that he rhymed so consistently.  But his rhymes are pretty ordinary.  It is everything else that is new.

Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
                            Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart's-clarion! Away grief's gasping, | joyless days, dejection.

In the letter to Robert Bridges that includes this sonnet, Hopkins says its subject is also that of a sermon which will be “put plainly,” unlike the poem which is “not at all so plainly,” but once he hits “Enough!” the content becomes more conventional, returning to the Catholic Church.  I would not call Hopkins a heretic – the idea is ridiculous – but some of the paths by which he reaches orthodox opinion are very much his own.

                            Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world's wildfire, leave but ash:
                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                            Is immortal diamond.

The last line has three stress marks, on “Is,” “im-,” and “dia-.”  Adjacent stresses are standard with Hopkins (“Jack, joke,” “patch, match-“).  Or maybe “diamond” is an “outride,” more of Hopkins’s own private prosody.

To follow Newman, many kinds of assent have been imaginatively supported by Hopkins’s unusual mortal trash, at this point saved from the wildfire by his friend Bridges, not ash yet. Some of the assent has been religious of the Christian kind, other of the literary.

If, more sensibly, you would like to read the poem without my interruptions, it is at the Poetry Foundation.

Friday, March 6, 2015

meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder - quite true, Gerard Manley Hopkins, all too true.

How few poems Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, or how few survived, I mean.  Forty-nine poems that fit in fifty-seven pages (and “The Wreck of the Deutschland" is by itself twelve pages) in the Penguin Classics edition, plus another twenty-two pages of early poems and fragments.  The bulk of the book is filled out with prose, mostly letters.

I say “filled out” as if the letters and journal entries are filler, but they are almost as good as those of – I want to say Keats, but that is not right – let’s go with Swinburne.  And perhaps more useful, since Hopkins defines his specialized vocabulary – “instress” and “quains” and “inscape” and so on – “The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense” (May 9, 1871).  Maybe that is not so useful, actually; maybe the poems do all right without worrying about Hopkins’s accents and sprung rhythms.

from Henry Purcell

Have fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear
To me, so arch especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell,
An age is now passed, since parted; with the reversal
Of the outward sentence low lays him, listed to a heresy, here.  (ll. 1-4, written 1879)

“[S]ix stresses to the line,” and I suppose it does help to know that the rhythm is unusual, for example that in the first line every syllable beginning with an “f” gets a stress (“dear” is the sixth).  Still, there are other ways to make the lines sound good.

Maybe it is more important that mostly at the urging of his friend Robert Bridges, Hopkins uses his letters to explain his meaning.  “The sonnet on Purcell means this: 1-4. I hope Purcell is not damned for being a Protestant, because I love his genius” (Penguin notes, p. 231).  Or maybe I would rather not have known that.  How many of the Modernists who fell in love with Hopkins once his poems were published in 1918 really bothered to figure out what he meant. Purcell has turned into a “stormfowl”:

The thunder purple seabeach, plumèd purple-of-thunder,
If a wuthering of his palmy snow pinions scatter a colossal smile
Off him, but meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder.  (ll. 12-14)

“The sonnet (I say snorting) aims at being intelligible” (246), writes Hopkins to Bridges about a later poem; that one does come pretty close, although at the cost of some of the pure Hopkins voice, the lines like “Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion” (“The Windhover” l. 14) and

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage
    Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells –
    That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age. (“The Caged Skylark” ll. 1-4)

I wonder how many errors I have introduced into these lines. I know “free fells” must be correct because of the rhyme.  It does not look right.

Reading some of the contemporaries of Hopkins, especially Swinburne, or maybe I mean Lewis Carroll, has made Hopkins look a little less strange to me.  He is still pretty strange.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

John Henry Newman's Grammar of Assent - otherwise thought is but an idle amusement

By chance I have been spending some time with some of England’s Catholic writers – Coventry Patmore, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and, for a couple of months, John Henry Newman in his 1870 apologia An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.  It was tough climbing with Newman, so I took it slowly, a couple of months for a book that is not 400 pages, and early on I wondered if I should turn back:

Reverting to the two modes of holding propositions, conditional and unconditional, which was the subject of the former Section, that is, inferences and assents, I observe that inferences, which are conditional acts, are especially cognate to notional apprehension, and assents, which are unconditional, to real. (Ch. I, “Modes of Apprehending Propositions”)

This looks rather more like formal philosophy than I had been expecting or can handle, but fortunately after establishing some terminology Newman relaxes into something I could read if not necessarily understand.  A Grammar of Assent is a subtle and tolerant essay on the psychology of belief, more akin to William James than to theology.  Though Newman, in the end, wants to make the case for Christian belief (and that is how he spends the last fifth of the book), he first wants to know how we believe anything at all.  Or, to switch back to his term, how we assent to a belief.  Newman takes true belief as an act, something we do.

Such as I am, it is my all; this is my essential stand-point, and must be taken for granted; otherwise, thought is but an idle amusement, not worth the trouble.  There is no medium between using my faculties, as I have them, and flinging myself upon the external world according to the random impulse of the moment, as spray upon the surface of the waves, and simply forgetting that I am.  (IX.1)

The end of the argument, to summarize hundreds of pages, is that assent comes from a combination of our conscious, logical, and sensory capacities with our imagination.  Much of the argument is about the role of the imagination in leading to belief.  Newman’s argument is in many ways about literature, which is why I was led the book.  When we “believe” in a book, when we assent to its ethos and language and nonsense, we are deliberately imitating the process, perhaps unconscious, that created our more fundamental beliefs.  Our imaginative encounter with art in turn might change or more likely reinforces our beliefs.

If I understood Newman’s book better I think that is the argument I would pursue.  He gives a nice example (VIII.2.) comparing Pascal, Montaigne, and a scene from Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South on the immortality of the soul (the “fluff filling my lungs” scene).  The logic of the deep thinkers has its role, but its Gaskell’s dying factory worker who wins converts.

Newman is one of the finest prose writers in English, and especially fine for a prose writer who does not have a strong voice like Thomas Carlyle or John Ruskin.  A writer could actually learn how to write by studying Newman and not come out sounding like a barking lunatic.  I will just put one example here, amusing because it is about the internet.  I put the wisest bit in boldface:

In this day the subject-matter of thought and belief has so increased upon us, that a far higher mental formation is required than was necessary in times past, and higher than we have actually reached.  The whole world is brought to our doors every morning, and our judgment is required upon social concerns, books, persons, parties, creeds, national acts, political principles and measures.  We have to form our opinion, make our profession, take our side on a hundred matters on which we have but little right to speak at all… except in abstract truth, no judgment rises higher than probability.  (VII.3.)

What I omitted is just as accurate.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Jenny Jop, Corporal Bullock, and the periphrastic and ambagitory Waverley

This is close to my favorite bit of Waverley:

Tired of the attendance of Callum Beg, who, he thought, had some disposition to act as a spy on his motions, Waverley hired as a servant a simple Edinburgh swain, who had mounted the white cockade in a fit of spleen and jealousy, because Jenny Jop had danced a whole night with Corporal Bullock of the Fusileers.  (Ch. 51)

The sneaky Callum Beg was a famous character for a while.  “[M]ounted by white cockade” means “joined the rebellion.”  So much of Scott has to be explained now.  None of this is what I like, but rather that none of the last three characters in that sentence, the swain who becomes Waverley’s servant, Captain Bullock, or the high-spirited, fickle Jenny Jop are of any importance.  The servant is at least mentioned a couple of times, leading Waverley’s horse and so on, but never with the life he is given when he is introduced here.  A little touch of Nikolai Gogol; an entire little scene popping into existence, then popping like a bubble.

Most impressive is how little pedantry there is in the sentence, or in the other examples of Scott at his best.  Pedantry is, unfortunately, a central technique for Scott.  One of the secondary characters, the Baron Bradwardine, a good one in most ways, is marred by his comic flaw, his tedious multilingual pedantry, his explanations of genealogy and heraldry interspersed with Latin and French, translated in the endnotes if for some reason you want to bother.  Or I should say he is marred by Scott’s insistence on taking the joke so far, always giving two paragraphs or pages of dull, mangled gibberish when one might still be funny.

Scott is not quite in on his own joke.  Flora Mac-Ivor, super-patriot, super-woman, not remotely a comic character, is as much of an antiquarian as the Baron, specializing in “the music and poetical traditions of the Highlanders” (Ch. 21).  Her brother, a paragon of obsolete and misguided but real heroism, is almost as bad.  See their conversation in Chapter 23:

“A truce, dear Fergus! spare us those most tedious and insipid persons of all Arcadia.  Do not, for Heaven's sake, bring down Coridon and Lindor upon us.”

“Nay, if you cannot relish la houlette et le chalumeau, have with you in heroic strains.”

And the author himself is worst of all.  This is meant to be self-mocking: 

But without further tyranny over my readers, or display of the extent of my own reading, I shall content myself with borrowing a single incident from the memorable hunting at Lude, commemorated in the ingenious Mr. Gunn's essay on the Caledonian Harp, and so proceed in my story with all the brevity that my natural style of composition, partaking of what scholars call the periphrastic and ambagitory, and the vulgar the circumbendibus, will permit me.  (Ch. 24)

Scott’s third novel, written two years later, puts the argument in the title.  The Antiquary (1816) is a self-critique, a justification of Scott’s method, a defense of the minutiae that compose culture.  Scott saw his novels as a way to preserve what was lost, or destroyed.  Few of his successors – few that we still read – had much interest in this idea.  Few writers of historical novels are themselves antiquarians.  Maybe this is one more obstacle in the way of reading Scott well, or at all.  I think he gets it out of his system, though.  I’ll reread Old Mortality for its bicentennial next year and see what I think.  It’s a novel about religious fanaticism, a subject of continuing rather than antiquarian interest.

Monday, March 2, 2015

As if her clothes had been flung on with a pitchfork - specific Scott

Walter Scott is not usually thought of as a first-rate prose writer, and he is not, but he was moving in the right direction.  He in fact had, from my perspective, crossed a threshold in the physicality of the novel.  Many of the greatest 18th century novels have plenty of stuff – see Crusoe salvage a shipwreck, or worry with Clarissa Harlowe about where she can hide the supply of paper that will allow her to crank out a thousand pages of letters – but Scott had a stronger sense of the artistic uses of the thickly imagined world.

Perhaps the blending with history focused his imagination, or perhaps he was adapting aspects of Romantic and proto-Romantic poetry into prose.  Jane Austen was working on the same problem, so I assume mostly the latter.

It is not easy to find much of this in 18th century fiction:

By this time the Baron… had indued a pair of jack-boots of large dimensions, and now invited our hero to follow him as he stalked clattering down the ample stair-case, tapping each huge balustrade as he passed with the butt of his massive horse-whip, and humming, with the air of a chasseur of Louis Quatorze…  (Ch. 12)

Well, obsolete verbs like “indued” are easy to find.  I mean the specific actions that help – or demand that – the reader visualize the character’s descent of the staircase.  A film version of Waverley will have to interpret the exact sound of the boots on the stairs (“stalked clattering”), but the whip and the tapping can go straight into the screenplay.  The Baron is a figure from an earlier time even in the context of the history of the novel and in many ways a figure of ridicule, but here Scott shows him at his confident best in every detail.

Metaphor creates a different kind of precision:

… a strong, large-boned, hard-featured woman, about forty, dressed as if her clothes had been flung on with a pitchfork, her cheeks flushed with a scarlet red where they were not smutted with soot and lamp-black… (Ch. 30)

The passage continues with more detail in description and action, perhaps even too much.  Nothing as good as that pitchfork.

My favorite in all of Waverley – a drummer has fallen in with a troop of Cameronians, religious fanatics, on the march:

[H]e protested he could beat any known march or point of war known in the British army, and had accordingly commenced with “Dumbarton's Drums,” when he was silenced by Gifted Gilfillan, the commander of the party, who refused to permit his followers to move to this profane, and even, as he said, persecutive tune, and commanded the drummer to beat the 119th Psalm.  As this was beyond the capacity of the drubber of sheepskin, he was fain to have recourse to the inoffensive row-de-dow as a harmless substitute for the sacred music which his instrument or skill were unable to achieve.  (Ch. 34)

Again, I have some doubts here – “drubber of sheepskin” is awful fussy – but otherwise this is all a fine joke.  The (omitted) next couple of lines are pedantic, but I want to save Scott-the-pedant for tomorrow.

With Waverley, English letters have not quite achieved the fog of Bleak House or Becky Sharp throwing Johnson’s Dictionary out the window or that idiot in Wuthering Heights mistaking a pile of dead rabbits for kittens or whatever your favorite concrete piece of fiction might be, but it is on its way; it is now well on its way.