Thursday, April 30, 2015

I’ve looked on beauty so much that my vision overflows with it - one side of C. P. Cavafy

Still in or near the 1890s but away from England, to the poems of Konstantinos Petrou Kavaphes, or as I know him C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), secret poet of Alexandria, printing up copies of poems for a few friends while working “as special clerk in the Irrigation Service (Third Circle) of the Ministry of Public Works” for decades (p. 439).  Poetry not only without money – we can take that for granted – but without prestige, without status.  Bold.

I have never read Cavafy, yet I have, because he has been one of the most reviewed poets due to the baffling number of Cavafy translations over the last twenty years.  I briefly knew an expert in modern Greek poetry, and she was baffled, too – there are so many other great Greek poets, she said.  But every couple of years there is a new Cavafy.

I’ve Looked So Much…

I’ve looked on beauty so much
that my vision overflows with it.

The body’s lines.  Red lips.  Sensual limbs.
Hair as though stolen from Greek statues,
always lovely, even uncombed,
and falling slightly over pale foreheads.
Figures of love, as my poetry desired them
. . . . in the nights when I was young,
encountered secretly in my nights.  (written 1911, “published” 1917)

Cavafy has two modes, almost exclusively two, one being poems drawn from his deep knowledge of Greek history and culture, Classical, Hellenistic, and Byzantine, the other mildly erotic poems about his homosexual love affairs.  Sometimes, as here, the two modes meet.  Cavafy makes sure that a poem that could be merely a metaphor, a poem about poetry, is pulled back to the actual object of desire.  The phrase that does the work, that is not generic, is “even uncombed.”  The poet has someone in mind. 

There, now that he’s sitting down at the next table,
I recognize every motion he makes – and under his clothes
I see again the limbs that I loved, naked.  (from “The Next Table,” 1919)

To my surprise, the editor says that “[i]n the original, the sex of the person sitting at the next table remains ambiguous” (412), an effect unavailable to the English translators.  Cavafy seems to give up this ambiguity in later poems.  “A good-looking boy, a tailor’s assistant / (on Sundays an amateur athlete)” adjusts his tie in a mirror, which

was full of joy now,
proud to have embraces
total beauty for a few moments.  (“The Mirror in the Front Hall, 1930)

Or the friend’s lover who dies “doesn’t want suits any longer”:

Sunday they buried him, at ten in the morning.
Sunday they buried him, almost a week ago.

He laid flowers on his cheap coffin,
lovely white flowers, very much in keeping
with his beauty, his twenty-two years.  (“Lovely White Flowers,” 1929)

The Greek, I am told, generally rhymes and is more metrical if not completely strict, so it must be less plain-spoken than this, which is fresh enough to have been published as prose in the Village Voice in the 1980s.  The puzzle might be that there have not been more versions, that the Cavafy boom did not really start until this century.

I went against fashion and read an old one, the Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard Collected Poems from 1975, source of all of the above.  I now see that there are so many Cavafy translations that this is not even the right Keeley and Sherrard, since a revised version of their book was published in 1992.  It’ll do for now.

Any suggestions for my next Cavafy will be warmly appreciated.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Facet, angle, colour, beauty, form - John Davidson, minor poet

John Davidson must be the most material Victorian poet.  One element is ideological.  Davidson was an atheist, sometimes an angry atheist, and atheism at this time meant a commitment to Darwin and science.  See the long poem “A Ballad in Blank Verse of the Making of a Poet” in the 1894 Ballads and Songs, in which the poet’s religious parents are wrong, but the smug young poet is cruel, with the overall tone being ironic rather than self-pitying.

That title, though, is more what I mean by “material,” that even a poem is a thing in itself.  Davidson was a great observer.

from Two Dogs

Two dogs on Bornemouth beach: a mongrel, one;
With spaniel plainest on the palimpsest,
The blur of muddled stock; the other, bred,
With tapering muzzle, rising brow, strong jaw –
A terrier to the tail’s expressive tip,
Magnetic, nimble, endlessly alert.  (ll. 1-6, 1908)

And for 108 more lines, the poet plays fetch with the dogs – “I seized the prize.  A vanquished yelp / From both; and then intensest vigilance” – with a gesture towards wisdom only in the last few lines.  Mostly, a man plays with dogs on the beach.

Davidson, in this mode, often sounds like our contemporary:

from Thames Embankment

As gray and dank as dust and ashes slaked
With wash of urban tides the morning lowered;
But over Chelsea Bridge the sagging sky
Had colour in it – blots of faintest bronze,
The stains of daybreak...
At lowest ebb the tide on either bank
Laid bare the fat mud of the Thames, all pinched
And scalloped thick with dwarfish surges…  (ll. 1-5, 9-11, 1908)

I should keep going – the next word is “cranes,” a permanent feature of today’s London skyline.  I felt like I had leapt forward not fifteen years but a hundred from “Thirty Bob a Week.”  Poems that look and sound very much like this are published now in Poetry and The Hudson Review.

The poems are good prose.  In the Selected Poems and Prose book, the strangest footnote recurs: “Based on a prose article.”  “Two Dogs” is based on ’A Railway Journey’, Glasgow Herald, 1907.  I have never before come across such a thing, such a poet.  Poem after poem, “based on a prose article.”

“Based on a prose article, ‘Urban Snow’”:


‘Who affirms that crystals are alive?’
    I affirm it, let who will deny: –
Crystals are engendered, wax and thrive,
    Wane and wither: I have seen them die.

Trust me, masters, crystals have their day
    Eager to attain the perfect norm,
Lit with purpose, potent to display
    Facet, angle, colour, beauty, form.  (1907)

I suspect this poem might also be about poetry.

Davidson’s nature poems are outstanding.  See “In Romney Marsh” (1894), full of brilliant conceits, like

The darkly shining salt sea drops
    Streamed as the waves clashed on the shore;
The beach, with all its organ stops
    Pealing again, prolonged the roar.  (ll. 25-8)

He is a fine satirist.  See “The Crystal Palace” (1905), in which he and Max Beerbohm, wander around that “portentous toy,” mocking the crowd, the building, the statue of Voltaire, the restaurant, and the Reading-room:

Three people in the silent Reading-room
Regard us darkly as we enter: three
Come in with us, stare vacantly about,
Look from the window and withdraw at once.  (ll.  293-6)

Although I read this and think “the Crystal Palace had a Reading-room, how civilized.”  Davidson’s satire has been defeated by the passage of time.  They thought they were decadents!

I want to include, before moving on from Davidson, a bit of an 1891 letter describing Davidson’s pals at the Rhymers Club: Wilde, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, everyone, and “W. B. Yeats the wild Irishman, who lives on water-cress and pemmican and gets drunk on the smell of whisky, and can distinguish and separate out as subtly as death each individual cell in any literary organism” (175).

Minor poet, pshaw.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I hope, like you - the pre-Shakespearian minor poet John Davidson

Now I am reading Ernest Dowson, who would be a logical choice to follow Lionel Johnson – aesthete, Paterian Francophile, died young – but Dowson is still in progress and by chance I read a contemporary who followed a different path, the Scottish poet John Davidson, a Fleet Street hack who somehow developed a fresh style that was less interested in beauty, less pre-Raphaelite, less French.  He called it “pre-Shakespearian,” which was in part a joke and in part a declaration that poetry should be socially reformist:

But the woman in unwomanly rags, and all the insanity and iniquity of which she is the type, will now be sung.  Poetry will concern itself with her and hers for some time to come.  The offal of the world is being said in statistics, in prose fiction: it is besides going to be sung.  James Thomson sang it; and others are doing so…  Poor-laws, charity organisations, dexterously hold the wound open, or tenderly and hopelessly skin over the cancer…  Poetry has other functions, other aims; but this also has become its province.  (1899, pp. 157-8*)

Two notes.  First, James Thomson is better known as Bysshe Vanolis, author of the great The City of Dreadful Night (1874).  I wrote five posts on that poem in 2010.  I should have written ten.  Second, this quotation gives the wrong idea entirely of the poetry Davidson actually wrote, with one major exception, “Thirty Bob a Week,” a white-collar response to Thomas Hood’s 1843 “Song of the Shirt” about the sufferings of the thousands of clerks scraping by in London:

I couldn’t touch a stop and turn a screw,
    And set the blooming world a-work for me,
Like such as cut their teeth – I hope, like you –
    On the handle of a skeleton gold key;
I cut mine on a leek, which I eat it every week:
    I’m a clerk at thirty bob as you can see.  (1894, ll. 1-6)

Kipling worked a similar vein in his Barrack-Room Ballads (1892).  No idea if Davidson had read it, but both writers are working on similar aesthetic problems.

For like a mole I journey in the dark,
    A-travelling along the underground
From my Pillar’d Halls and broad Suburbean Park,
    To come the daily dull official round;
And home again at night with my pipe all alight,
    A-scheming how to count ten bob a pound.  (ll.  13-18)

The poem has fourteen more stanzas in this mode, denouncing the Church, his bosses, and his own foolish decision to marry young (although fortunately his wife is tough, “she’s made of flint and roses, very odd”).  The poem ends with a howl of despair.  The letters included in the edition I read suggest that there may be some autobiography here, that the clerk may have some resemblance to the hack writer:

It’s a naked child against a hungry wolf;
    It’s playing bowls upon a splitting wreck;
It’s walking on a string across a gulf
    With millstones fore-and-aft about your neck:
But the thing is daily done by many and many a one;
    And we fall, face forward, fighting, on the deck.  (ll. 91-6)

As I said above, though, as good as “Thirty Bob a Week” is, it gives the wrong idea about Davidson.  This and another poem from the same year, “The Ballad of a Nun,” made Davidson’s reputation, for whatever good that did him.  The nun poem is, in Victorian terms, daringly sexual, which is one way to sell poems, but is even less characteristic.

So, one more post on Davidson.

*  Page numbers refer to Selected Poems and Prose, ed. John Sloan (Clarendon Press, 1995).  I also read this scanned copy of the 1894 Ballads and Songs, which includes “Thirty Bob a Week” and the shocking nun ballad.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The adorner of my tomb, the minstrel of mine epitaph - Lionel Johnson, minor poet

Now, Lionel Johnson, this is the poet on whom I overdid it.  Just two books of poems, the 1895 Poems and the 1897 Ireland, with Other Poems, but they were too much.  Too much repetition, too many bad poems, especially his Catholic poems (“Leo!  Vicar of Christ, / His voice, His love, His sword,” etc., from “To Leo XIII,” pure kitsch), although they did help me focus my attention on Christina Rossetti’s superior religious poems.

                                     Answer, O saddened souls!
Who mourn the death of beauty and the age of grace.  (from “The Age of a Dream”)

Johnson, one of many followers of Walter Pater and the pre-Raphaelite poets, was the epitome of the pale aesthete who “lived on eggs in the morning and nothing but tea and cigarettes during the rest of the day”; in his room at Oxford “[t]here was always conspicuous on a centre table a jug of Glengarry whisky between two open books: Les Fleurs du Mal and Leaves of Grass.”  Johnson is – or was, see below – best known as an important early influence on William Butler Yeats.  Turning from Johnson to Yeats was a strange experience.  I think of Yeats as having a strong voice, but his early poems, the ones in the Collected Poems under the titles “Crossways” (1889) and “The Rose” (1893), now made Yeats look like a promising Johnson imitator.  The latter section is even dedicated to Johnson.

Here should be none but Muses bright,
Whose airs go delicately sweet:
With swallow wings, and faery feet,
       Eager to dance or fly.  (from “Upon Reading  Certain Poems”)

Johnson, who was not Irish, began writing poems about Welsh and then Irish mythological subjects, suggesting  the idea to Yeats, who was Irish.  Yeats is responsible for a perfect way to read Johnson, the 1905 XXI Poems Written by Lionel Johnson.  It does not have every good poem from those two volumes of Johnson’s, but it omits all the bad ones.  It climaxes with “Dark Angel,” Johnson’s best poem:

Apples of ashes, golden bright;
Waters of bitterness, how sweet!
 O banquet of a foul delight,
Prepared by thee, dark Paraclete!

Thou art the whisper in the gloom,
The hinting tone, the haunting laugh:
Thou art the adorner of my tomb,
The minstrel of mine epitaph.  (from “The Dark Angel”)

My old 5th edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature omits Johnson – it in general treats the 1890s strangely, as is fitting, since they were strange – but there are three poems (pdf) in the current 9th edition, including “The Dark Angel.”  The notes make it clear that Johnson is included as a gay poet, and the poems chosen are about his homosexuality.  Johnson, to extend his biography, had the misfortune to introduce Wilde to the loathsome Bosie.  “The Dark Angel” and the other two poems are not solely about Johnson’s homosexuality, but the editors are not over-interpreting.

When gracious music stirs, and all is bright,
And beauty triumphs through a courtly night;
When I too joy, a man like other men:
       Yet, am I like them, then?

From “Mystic and Cavalier” (perhaps this is his best poem), which is also about being a poet.

Johnson’s best poems are all from his early 20s.  He converted to Catholicism and spent several years attempting to commit suicide with alcohol.  He failed for a while, then succeeded, age 35.  These poets.

I must mention this curiosity from Lionel Johnson’s Wikipedia entry:

"The Dark Angel" also served as one of the influences for the Dark Angels chapter of Space Marines in the Warhammer 40,000 fictional universe.  Their Primarch, Lion El'Jonson, is also named after the poet.

The Complete Poems of Lionel Johnson, ed. Iain Fletcher, Unicorn Press, 1953, p. xxiv.  The writer of those lines is George Santayana.

Friday, April 24, 2015

There shall be no more sea - Christina Rossetti writes poems about the sea

Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome
    Has many sonnets: so here now shall be
    One sonnet more…

The book has so many sonnets.  Christina Rossetti tells the truth.  The book is A Pageant and Other Poems (1881, the same year as her brother’s Ballads and Sonnets – so many sonnets), her third book of poems not counting devotional works and books for children and so on, and the least of them for reasons which include the large number of sonnets.

Christina Rossetti was facing the same problems as her brother, the same problems as every English-language poet.  There was a mismatch between the available forms and language of post-Romantic poetry and what poets were trying to express about themselves or their world.  Even as strong a poet as Christina Rossetti was affected.

I suppose I ought to defend this idea at some point. Reading a cluster of poets from the period it seems blatant, analogous to the exactly contemporary “crisis of Impressionism.”

Rossetti responded in two ways.  One was a reconnection with form, thus all of the sonnets, including many sonnet sequences, but also “The Months: A Pageant,” an allegorical poetic calendar that is the most conventional, kitschy Rossetti I have ever read.  It does have this marvelous stage direction:

[July retires into a shrubbery.]

The other response was Rossetti’s turn to devotional poetry and other devotional works, so that half of A Pageant is religious poetry.  Her next, and last, book of poems, Verses (1893) consists entirely of devotional poems.  I am not such a good reader of these poems, and I do not plan to read all of Verses, although I have paged through it. There are wonders, lines like “Steeped in this rotten world I fear to rot” (l.8 of “I, Lord, Thy foolish sinner low and small”) and poems like the sequence of three sea poems beginning with “Was Thy Wrath against the Sea?”

The sea laments with unappeasable
    Hankering wail of loss,
       Lifting its hands on high and passing by
           Out of the lovely light:

No foambow any more may crest that swell
    Of clamorous waves which toss;
        Lifting in hands on high it passes by
           From light into the night.  (ll. 1-8)

The poet tells the sea to reconcile itself with God’s purpose (“God doeth right”), yet the next poem is “And there was no more Sea,” and the third repeats the phrase:

Be stilled, my passionate heart;
    Old earth shall end, new earth shall be:
Be still, and earn they part
    Where shall be no more sea.  (ll. 9-12)

My difficulty with the devotional poems is that they are intentionally functional, meant to provide solace and aid worship, with imagery drawn from the (large, rich) pool of Christian tradition.  Yet, these sea poems – unconventional, personally expressive.

I read A Pageant but have barely mentioned it, and did not read Verses but am quoting from it.  I will say that the non-devotional poems from the earlier book, setting aside the longer allegorical stuff, are as good as the usual Christina Rossetti, which at this point meant better than anyone publishing poems in English.  This sea poem – not devotional, something else – was added to the 1888 edition of the book:

Birchington Churchyard

A lowly hill which overlooks a flat,
  Half sea, half country side;
  A flat-shored sea of low-voiced creeping tide
Over a chalky weedy mat.

A hill of hillocks, flowery and kept green
  Round crosses raised for hope,
  With many-tinted sunsets where the slope
Faces the lingering western sheen.

A lowly hope, a height that is but low,
  While Time sets solemnly,
  While the tide rises of Eternity,
Silent and neither swift nor slow.

This poem is followed by one titled “One Sea-side Grave.”  The grave is that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

And in his speech he laugh’d and laugh’d again - D. G. Rossetti translates

Mostly with older poets I ought to stick with some kind of Selected Poems.  That is what I used to do.  I began to feel, though, like I was missing something important about the context, about the books as such, so I have been reading more poetry books in their original form, or something like it.  All of the poems in order, at least, although I have come to appreciate the scanned copies of the  original books, stray thumbs and all.  Most of what I read recently were original texts.  In only one case was this a mistake, a waste of time.  That case was not Dante Gabriel Rossetti, even if his final 1881 book was second-rate by his own standards.

Rossetti is a funny case, though, because a Selected Poems is almost moot for him.  He wrote two perfect books, if you have any taste for his verse, the 1870 Poems and the books of translated Italian verse that I think of as Dante and His Circle (1874 – there is an 1861 version titled The Early Italian Poets).  I assume any Selected edition is mostly just going to choose from these two books, perhaps just from Poems, the home of “The Blessed Damozel” and “The Woodspurge” and the best “House of Life” sonnets.

And the Villon translations.  I do not have much of a taste for Rossetti’s painting, so I selfishly wish that he had sacrificed a few to create more translations. 

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
    Where are they gone, nor yet this year,
Except with this for an overword,-
  But where are the snows of yester-year?  (from “The Ballad of Dead Ladies”)

The Dante book, which includes the strange prose-poetry hybrid The New Life (1295) along with numerous poems written by Dante and others – many written to Dante by others – now seems to me like one of the greatest Victorian translations, alongside Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat and perhaps Longfellow’s Manrique.  Rossetti had a knack for capturing the voice of the pre-Raphaelite poet:

And I wrote this sonnet:-

I felt a spirit of love begin to stir
    Within my heart, long time unfelt till then;
    And saw Love coming towards me, fair and fain
(That I scarce knew him for his joyful cheer),
Saying, “Be now indeed my worshipper!”
    And in his speech he laugh’d and laugh’d again
    Then, while it was his pleasure to remain,
I chanced to look the way he had drawn near…

And then there is some stuff about Beatrice, of course, but what I like here is the naturalness with which Rossetti understands the allegorical figure.  Rossetti has the properly archaic imagination to envision Dante and Love wandering around Florence, looking at girls, looking for one in particular.

I think one of Rossetti’s tricks is that he has studied and absorbed poets like Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the ones who brought the Italian sonnet into English in the early 16th century, so even if it is a two hundred year anachronism they feel right, not as fancied up as Shakespeare, but not antique, either.

I don’t know how he did it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A sonnet pays the toll of Death - D. G. Rossetti's impearled sonnets

A sonnet is a moment’s monument, –
    Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
    To one dead deathless hour.  Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own arduous fulness reverent:
    Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
    As Day or Night may rule; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

I’m going to do a poetry roundup, whatever I have been reading for the last whenever.  This will go on for days.  Fictionists, see you in a couple of weeks.  I read many sonnets.  The above is the beginning of the sonnet that introduces a sequence of a hundred and one more of them titled “The House of Life” found in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ballads and Sonnets (1881), his last book before his death, and only his second books of original poetry.  It is not nearly as good as the 1870 Poems.  Back then, the “House of Life” sequence only included fifty poems, not a hundred and two, meaning that for this reason alone the 1870 book is more than twice as good as the 1881 book.

As Rossetti says in Sonnet LXXIV, Art has “turned in vain / To soulless self-reflections of man’s skill.”  The book demonstrates too much empty virtuosity, a kind of surfeit of beauty.  What moment is a poem catching if it has to be “impearled”?  And how much impearling is possible before the poem is in bad taste?  Rossetti has thickened rhetorically and thinned substantially.

So I break the poems into lines and images, and scrounge around for something more beautiful than pearls.  The hearts of two lovers lean on the heart of Love – is that over-elaborate -

As the cloud-foaming firmamental blue
    Rests on the blue line of a foamless sea.  (“The Lover’s Walk,” Sonnet XII)

After “Sleepless Dreams” (Sonnet XXXIX in 1881), the night is “A thicket hung with masks of mockery / and watered with the wasteful warmth of tears.”

I do not even have to know what Rossetti means – this from “The Cloud Confines,” not a sonnet, but a mood piece:

The sky leans dumb on the sea,
    Aweary with all its wings;
    And oh! the song the sea sings
Is dark everlastingly.

The edition of the book that I read is an 1887 reissue that includes a number of unpublished poems.  A group from a trip to France suggest what happens when the pearls are stripped away:

In France (to baffle thieves and murderers)
A journey takes two days of passport work
At least. The plan 's sometimes a tedious one,
But bears its fruit. Because, the other day
In passing by the Morgue we saw a man
(The thing is common, and we never should
Have known of it, only we passed that way)
Who had been stabbed and tumbled in the Seine,
Where he had stayed some days. The face was black,
And, like a negro's, swollen; all the flesh
Had furred, and broken into a green mould.  (“The Paris Railway-Station”)

First, I have added to my collection of literary visits to the Paris Morgue; second, even if this is not great poetry as it stands, it suggests a way to end the crisis of beauty.

I will let Rossetti finish the introductory sonnet:

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
    The soul, – its converse, to what Power ‘tis due:–
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
    Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue,
It serve; or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

All right, this conceit, especially in the last two lines, is terrific.

Please click here for a painting depicting “Rossetti reading proofs of Ballads and Sonnets at 16 Cheyne Walk” – I have never before seen a painting on the subject of the reading of proofs. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

All the misfortunes - Maria Messina's feminist Sicilian stories

When I was casting around for Italian books in January, a friendly reader, a teacher of Italian literature, suggested some books that are were not quite the usual stuff, not in English discussions.  This will be the first of those suggestions that I have read.

The author is Maria Messina, a Sicilian writer active from 1909 to 1928.  She explicitly emulated Giovanni Verga, writing sad stories about ordinary Sicilians and their hard times.  Compared to Verga she: 1) writes about a more eventful period, when the mass emigration to the Americas was overthrowing the old order in Sicily, 2) seems to focus more on women, and 3) seems not to have written a story at the level of “Rosso Malpelo” or “Malaria,” although few have.

I say “seems” because I do not quite trust the collection available in English, Behind Closed Doors: Her Father’s House and Other Stories of Sicily (The Feminist Press of the City University of New York, 2007, tr. Elise Magistro).  The Preface, and the Introduction, and also the Afterword – thirty percent of the book is apparatus – make it clear that the assumed interest is historical and sociological, that Americans researching the Italian immigration will be interested in stories about the women – wives, mothers, sisters – who stayed behind.

The editors are right – this material is of really high interest.  What I mean is that if Messina did write a story as good as “Rosso Malpelo” but it was not about a woman constrained by her husband, etc. it would not be in this collection.  What is here is good enough.

A woman remembers:

the arbor at Licata, with its ripening grapes, her mother dressed in black, and she herself embroidering bunches of red roses with stems as stiff as sealing wax onto a bright yellow coverlet.  The coverlet, that took forever to finish, was destined for her corredo [trousseau]  (“Red Roses,” 127)

But the woman’s mother dies and she is sent to live with her married brother.  She is essentially imprisoned in their house.  They refuse to let her marry, even with a good offer in hand, because they would have to pay a dowry.  All of this is seen as entirely normal by everyone involved.

She buried her face in her hands but did not cry.  Filled with anguish, she saw with exacting clarity her gray life as an aging spinster, still in love.  (134)

The end.  These are sad stories. 

God, it seemed, wanted to test Grandmother Lidda with all the misfortunes he had sent her,  She was a widow and poor; her daughter-in-law had died, and her son had nothing but La Mèrica in his head.  (“Grandmother Lidda,” 58)

Yes, a Job story.  So poor granny is now raising an infant, her grandchild, a burden at first but eventually one more thing, the last thing, for God to take away from her, when the father sends extra money from America – for a ticket for his son, but not for Grandmother Lidda.  In “America 1911,” it is the wife who is left behind – she goes blind, then mad.  In “America 1918,” it is the man who is destroyed by emigrating, while his wife prospers.  “With her husband sick and in need of medical attention, she was free to do what she wanted” (76).  Messina’s technique is almost inherently ironic.

I am discovering that Messina’s stories are hard to pull apart for quotations.  Verga is the same way.  A lot of what these writers do is pretty plain, but full of little traps.

Maybe someday someone will translate more of these stories. There is also a short novel in English, A House in the Shadows (1921) that I might be able to find.

Many thanks to JS for suggesting Messina.

Monday, April 20, 2015

There the slender plovers stay undaunted - Richard Jefferies knows what it is like to be a fish

It has been a while since I wrote about the ecological apocalypse novel of Richard Jefferies, After London, or Wild England (1885), in which the author so loathes London that he submerges it in a poisonous swamp.  Finally, I have read some more Jefferies, the magazine writing collected in the Penguin collection Landscape with Figures, covering 1872 through 1887, when Jefferies died, not yet forty years old.

The story the anthology tells is that Jefferies began as a writer on agricultural subjects, a country reformer.  These pieces, the first third of the book, are largely of historical and sociological interest.  As he shifted toward nature writing, though, to descriptions of the country itself, both his subject and style become richer, and stranger.

Richer meaning that he independently seems to me to be ahead of his time in his understanding of ecology, the interconnections between different species – see “Rooks Returning To Roost” (1878) for the effects of deforestation on rooks – and ethology, or animal behavior – actually, see “Rooks” for that, too, although I was thinking of the startling “Mind under Water” (1883), in which Jefferies tries to inhabit the mind of a fish.

Most people will only grant a moderate degree of intelligence to fish, linking coldness of blood to narrowness of intellect, and convinced that there can be but little brain in so small a compass as its head.  (162)

Jefferies has written a precursor of Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” (1974), much of it wrong  in detail but on a promising track.  See also “A Brook – A London Trout” (1880), in which Jefferies falls in love with the title fish, as did I, as might you.

I have never seen him since.  I never failed to glance over the parapet into the shadowy water.  Somehow it seemed to look colder, darker, less pleasant than it used to do.  The spot was empty, and the shrill winds whistled through the poplars.  (152)

Near the end of his life, his imaginative power had become quite free.  Few of us will be the “you” in this passage:

If you will look at a grain of wheat you will see that it seems folded up: it has crossed its arms and rolled itself up into a cloak, a fold of which forms a groove, and so gone to sleep.  If you look at it some time, as people in old enchanted days used to look into a mirror, or the magic ink, until they saw living figures therein, you can almost trace a miniature human being in the oval of the grain…  And I do not know really whether I might not say that these little grains of English corn do not hold within them the actual flesh and blood of man.  Transubstantiation is a fact there.  (“Walks in Wheat-fields,” 1887, 214)

That essay is much recommended to readers of Wendell Berry.  Meanwhile, in his pure nature writing, Jefferies is discovering a strange poetic yet precise prose.  The last line is the winner:

From their hereditary homes the lapwings cannot be entirely driven away.  Out of the mist comes their plaintive cry; they are hidden, and their exact locality is not to be discovered.  Where winter rules most ruthlessly, where darkness is deepest in daylight, there the slender plovers stay undaunted.  (“Haunts of the Lapwing: Winter”, 1883, 206)

A great little benefit of reading Jefferies is that I found the original of William Boot, the nature writer in Evelyn Waugh’s  Scoop (1937).  Boot writes “a lyrical but wholly accurate account of the habits of the badger” and begins a column with “Feather-footed through the plashy fens passes the questing vole.”   The last line of the novel is “Outside the owls hunted maternal rodents and their furry broods.”  I had wondered, who is Waugh imitating?  Now I know.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Trollope judges people who are false and bad and selfish and prosperous to outward appearances

Poor Lizzie!  The world, in judging of people who are false and bad and selfish and prosperous to outward appearances, is apt to be hard upon them, and to forget the punishments which generally accompany such faults.  (Ch. 21)

One of Trollope’s more Thackeray-like pronouncements, an outrageous statement presented as if it is an ordinary novelistic insight.  Lizzie is the character who “liked lies, thinking them to be more beautiful than truth” (Ch. 79), much like many novelists, and many readers of novels.  Of course he, and I, sympathize with that terror Lizzie.

That last line, from the end of the novel, comes just as the romantic fate of Lady Eustace is resolved, as she deals with the novel’s final marriage proposal.  Her marriage plot is anti-romantic, since even a sympathetic reader can only hope that she escapes all of the horrible people, many even worse than her, who want to marry her.  The only decent candidate is already engaged to a traditional Trollope heroine, the kind of character who might be the romantic lead of a Barchester novel, another of the novel’s romances made unsatisfying by the behavior of at least one member of the couple.

The romantic prospects of a good person serve as one kind of foil to poor Lizzie’s trouble.  The other foil is a nightmare, wholly negative.  If you have ever wondered about the problems of the arranged and semi-arranged marriages of the Victorian upper classes, for example the sexual problems, Trollope hits the problem head-on in The Eustace Diamonds.  Whatever damage Lizzie and her husband might do to each other, her marriages will always be a kind of comedy, while the story of Lucinda Roanoke is the tragedy.

“He'll offer tomorrow, if you'll accept him.”

“Don't let him do that, Aunt Jane.  I couldn't say Yes.  As for loving him; – oh, laws!”

“It won't do to go on like this, you know.”

“I'm only eighteen; – and it's my money, aunt.”

“And how long will it last?  If you can't accept him, refuse him, and let somebody else come.”

“It seems to me,” said Lucinda, “that one is as bad as another.  I'd a deal sooner marry a shoemaker and help him to make shoes.”

“That's downright wickedness,” said Mrs. Carbuncle.  And then they went down to dinner.  (Ch. 37)

I guess at this point the plot still seems like comedy.  That line about making shoes looks like a joke.  The response – “wickedness” – cannot be meant seriously.  But the former is not, the latter is.  As the story moves along, the engagement continues only because Lucinda is too weak to be wicked, either by breaking off the engagement or worse.  “It was her lot to undergo misery, and as she had not chosen to take poison, the misery must be endured” (Ch. 62).  Her lover’s kiss is pollution – “[n]ever before had she been so polluted.”

And the cause of the tragedy is this, and only this: that the wealthy Lucinda wants to live at a higher level of comfort and status than her existing, substantial wealth allows.  She is rich, but in her imagination is very rich.  This is actually her wickedness.

See, as an aside,  the amazing paragraph in Chapter 9, which describes a household of “poor rich people – if such a term may be used” which consists of a mother and her “seven unmarried daughters” who must get by on an investment income of £3,000 (somewhere between $120,000 and $240,000 U.S. dollars), which only allows them a staff of fourteen, if I counted right.  No novelist understands money better than Trollope.

That is enough about The Eustace Diamonds, I suppose.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Now there had come one glorious day - a Trollope proposal, a Trollope hunt

I have mocked Trollope for his excessive number of proposal scenes – Trollope had mocked himself for the same thing – but The Eustace Diamonds only has maybe six proposals, far fewer than in the previous Palliser novel, Phineas Finn, where they became an aggravation.

In smaller quantities, I can be more impressed with Trollope’s inventiveness.  Sir Florian Eustace is proposing to Lizzie Greystock.  One proposal out of the way, and we are still in Chapter 1:

The speech he made was somewhat long, and as he made it he hardly looked into her face.

But it was necessary to him that he should be made to know by some signal from her how it was going with her feelings.  As he spoke of his danger, there came a gurgling little trill of wailing from her throat, a soft, almost musical sound of woe, which seemed to add an unaccustomed eloquence to his words.  When he spoke of his own hope the sound was somewhat changed, but it was still continued.

I do not think of Trollope as much of a descriptive writer, but “a gurgling little trill of wailing” is pretty good.  And the most effective touch is that her strange sound adds color to his speech, or so he thinks, since I take that as Sir Florian’s thoughts, or illusions.  In other words, the beautiful, penniless, deceitful adventuress has hooked the rich, “vicious and… dying” baronet but good.  By the end of the chapter he is dead and Lizzie is a rich widow in possession of the diamond necklace that gives the book its title and the plot its momentum.  Again, I mean  by the end of Chapter 1 – this novel really cooks at first.

The six Barchester books had no hunting scenes.  I believe that Trollope, in real life, had not yet become a fox-hunting addict when he began that series, and as we know from Framley Parsonage, clergymen should not hunt.  All four non-Barchester novels I have read feature long, detailed hunting scenes.  When he is interested enough, Trollope cannot stop himself from describing a scene in detail – every horse, every obstacle, every movement of the game.  Some readers must find these chapters as dull as a play-by-play of a fictional baseball game.  Trollope does make use of these chapters, so they are not entirely there for his own Fantasy Fox-hunting entertainment.  The hunt in Chapter 38, for example, results in, what else, a  proposal.

I will save that for tomorrow, though, and turn to the poor fox:

They were off again now, and the stupid fox absolutely went back across the river. But, whether on one side or on the other, his struggle for life was now in vain.  Two years of happy, free existence amidst the wilds of Craigattan had been allowed him. Twice previously had he been “found,” and the kindly storm or not less beneficent brightness of the sun had enabled him to baffle his pursuers.  Now there had come one glorious day, and the common lot of mortals must be his.  (Ch. 38)

Trollope is so fluid – “They” are the hunters, “stupid” and “absolutely” are their words, collectively.  It is practically dialogue, from when one of the huntsman recounts the hunt at the pub.  Omniscient Trollope takes the reins and begins sympathizing with the fox – he sympathizes with everyone – and the rhetoric heightens, including some pleasing indulgence in the pathetic fallacy, entirely appropriate, since what reader will not feel the pathos of the death of the fox?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

He was astonished to find how sweet a thing was poetry - Trollope characters read

Should I write about the books in The Eustace Diamonds.  Whenever I can, I write about the books.  They are so much fun.  Even a shortage of books is fun:

“There isn't anything for you to do.  There are Miss Edgeworth's novels down-stairs, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in my bed-room.  I don't subscribe to Mudie's, because when I asked for ‘Adam Bede,’ they always sent me the ‘Bandit Chief.”  (Ch. 34)

John Sutherland did the notes in the Penguin edition I read.  He tells me that the lending library would substitute books if it thought your request was unsuitable, so the shocking Adam Bede is replaced by The Bandit Chief; or Lords of Orsino. A Romance (1818).  The poor heroine, Lucy Morris, not the pathological liar but the novel’s more traditional heroine, is being punished for the sins of her fiancée here by being forced to live with a woman who has only four books.  If I thought summaries of novels were of much value I would explain why.

Lucy has her own book, too, Proverbial Philosophy by Martin Tupper, a poem in three volumes with a “theme of self-help.”  What a dreadful thing to be stuck with.  I would have Pride and Prejudice and Castle Rackrent memorized by the time I left that house.  In her previous house, this character had “catalogued the library” (Ch. 3) for fun, so that is who she is.

Most of the reading in the novel is done by the false heroine, the actual protagonist, the “dishonest, lying, evil-minded harpy” (Ch. 11) Lizzie Greystock, Lady Eustace who in a bold break from novelistic tradition is not led to her ruin by over-indulgence in novels but by her love of poetry, especially Romantic poetry, in particular Byron and Shelley.

“Ah,” she would say to herself in her moments of solitude, “if I had a Corsair of my own, how I would sit on watch for my lover's boat by the sea-shore!”  And she believed it of herself, that she could do so.  (Ch. 5)

She means this Corsair, the Byronic Corsair from The Corsair (1814), the one with a “forehead high and pale” and “sable curls in wild profusion.”

The comic high point of the thing is the three page scene in Chapter 21 in which Lady Eustace reads Percy Shelley’s Queen Mab (1813), sacred text of the radical Chartists, en plain air.  “Her darling ‘Queen Mab’ must be read without the coarse, inappropriate, everyday surroundings of a drawing-room…”  But the bench is too uncomfortable and “there were some snails which discomposed her.”  Finally, she makes it through the first stanza, “eight or nine lines,” which are so magnificent that she memorizes them.  She never progresses a line farther with Queen Mab:

As she grew older, however, she quickly became wiser, and was aware that in learning one passage of a poem it is expedient to select one in the middle, or at the end.  The world is so cruelly observant now-a-days, that even men and women who have not themselves read their "Queen Mab" will know from what part of the poem a morsel is extracted, and will not give you credit for a page beyond that from which your passage comes.

Again, we are in Chapter 21 – yes, I read the novel.  Trollope rubs in the joke at the beginning of the next chapter, noting that Lady Eustace had meant to finally read The Faerie Queene at this time, but due to distractions reads even less of it than the Shelley poem, instead wasting her time with novels.

My title is from the first chapter; the theme runs through the entire book.  Trollope always does the same thing, I always think, but I am always in some ways wrong.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

‘Umpty Dumpty was a hegg - Trollope fails to invent the detective novel

The great Victorian novelists all missed a great opportunity.  I cannot see how they did not see it.

The Eustace Diamonds is plotted around a terrifically expensive diamond necklace – who is the proper owner, who is the actual owner, how to move it from place to place, that sort of thing.  It is not a McGuffin in that plenty of meaning is attached to it, and to the iron box in which Lizzie Eustace keeps it, by the characters.

The police become involved, and for two chapters out of eighty The Eustace Diamonds recognizably becomes a detective novel.  The detectives are Officers Bunfit and Gager of Scotland Yard.  Bunfit has interrogated a suspect, Billy:

“And what did he say to that, Mr. Bunfit?”

“Well he said a good deal.  He's a sharp little fellow, is Billy, as has read a good deal.  You've heard of ‘Umpty Dumpty, Gager?  ‘Umpty Dumpty was a hegg.”

“All right.”

“As had a fall, and was smashed – and there's a little poem about him.”

“I know.”

“Well: – Billy says to me: ‘Mr. Camperdown don't want no hinformation; he wants the diamonds.  Them diamonds is like ‘Umpty Dumpty, Mr. Bunfit.  All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put ‘Umpty Dumpty up again.’“

“Billy was about right there,” said the younger officer, rising from his seat.  (Ch. 57)

If more detective novels were written like this, I would read more detective novels.  Trollope here approaches the sublimity of Blind Man with a Pistol (1969) by Chester Himes, of the conversations between Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones.  In the second chapter of the mystery, Officer Gager makes perhaps the boldest move I have ever seen a police detective make.  How I wish I could read a novel starring Gager and Bunfit.  Perhaps someone has written such a thing.  Those are the kinds of books people write now.

Dickens has the Inspector Bucket chapters in Bleak House (1852-3), Collins practically invents the detective novel with The Moonstone (1868) and Sergeant Cuff, and here Trollope takes the trouble to invest Gager and Bunfit with some personality, and none of these popular commercial writers ever think to use their characters again, even with the example of Poe’s Dupin stories.  Collins is the real puzzler, but it is clear enough that Trollope had a great deal of fun in these two chapters.  But I know why he didn’t he do it again.

Trollope hates secrets.  The only thing he keeps from his readers is the future, as if his imagination does not allow time to pass until it has been written down.  Several chapters earlier he had already explained the mystery.  “The chronicler states this at once, as he scorns to keep from his reader any secret that is known to himself.”  So ends Chapter 52, which features events that cheaper writers would extend for suspense.

It is hoped that the reader, to whom every tittle of this story has been told without reserve, will remember that others were not treated with so much open candour.  (Ch. 56)

This is one of the oddest sentences I have ever seen in a novel.  After 500 pages, Trollope feels he needs to remind readers of the rules of his fiction, to remind them that the characters do not know everything the readers know.  I almost feel insulted.  But Trollope has become anxious that he has introduced too much suspense into his novel, that the readers have become too interested in the mechanics of the crime, that perhaps they are even doubting the omniscience of the narrator despite – or because of  - his protests.  The Eustace Diamonds was serialized in monthly four-chapter chunks, so it is possible that Trollope had picked this idea up from actual readers.  Or maybe it was all in his imagination.

So Trollope was not going to invent the ongoing series of detective novels, is what I am saying, even if he came close.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

With whom are we to sympathize? - the great and only aim of The Eustace Diamonds

Anthony Trollope books have become comfort reading for me, in the sense that after seventeen encounters with his books I do not have to spend much time learning the rules of his fiction.  I have long overcome the most of the initial resistance that a text presents to a new reader.  There is always some resistance – who are these people, and why them, and that kind of thing.  But in The Eustace Diamonds (1871-3), begun at age 56 after writing dozens of novels, Trollope is not going to make any major changes to how he presents information, or the kinds of details he emphasizes.  I know what I need to pay attention to now, on this page.  Or I think I do.

I suppose this is not what many people mean by “comfort reading.”  Maybe I should call it comfortable reading.  Some readers relish the work in establishing the rules of a text, while others see it as a burden, thus the demand for novels in long series.

These are the opening lines:

It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies – who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two – that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself.  We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her.  She was the only child of old Admiral Greystock, who in the latter years of his life was much perplexed  by the possession of a daughter.  (Ch. 1)

I would like to go longer; the first paragraph is so good, Trollope in his cruel, funny Evelyn Waugh mode.  Even if this Trollope novel is a Trollope novel like other Trollope novels, the author must keep himself entertained, so he takes as a protagonist someone unusual for him, a bad person.  Trollope’s sympathy project, the heart of his fiction, is the demonstration that much behavior that looks bad is merely weak, and thus deserving of sympathy at least at the distance of fiction.  He challenges himself in The Eustace Diamonds by writing about a woman who is an ignorant and  pathological liar,  “Too Bad For Sympathy” as the title of Chapter 35 calls her, who will definitely not “assume the dignity of heroine in the forthcoming pages” (Ch. 3)

“The major was not so well acquainted with Lizzie as is the reader, and he pitied her,” writes the bullying author in Chapter 68 after one more of Lizzie’s lies and after 600 pages with Lizzie as protagonist, but not heroine, so that the good joke here is after all of those pages with Lizzie and her thoughts, many readers will have felt some pity before the stern author reminded them that she is not weak, but bad.

That “Too Bad For Sympathy” chapter begins with an amazing four page attack on his readers.  It is the hero of the novel who has been behaving badly, so the narrator must defend him.

But why should one tell the story of creatures so base?  One does not willingly grovel in gutters, or breathe fetid atmospheres, or live upon garbage…

With whom are we to sympathize? says the reader, who not unnaturally imagines that a hero should be heroic.  Oh, thou, my reader, whose sympathies are in truth the great and only aim of my work, when you have called the dearest of your friends round to your hospitable table, how many heroes are there sitting at the board?...

The persons whom you cannot care for in a novel, because they are so bad, are the very same that you so dearly love in your life, because they are so good.

It is very clever, the way Trollope sets up his omniscient narrator as the heavy, making me argue against him in Lizzie’s favor, but with the arguments he had made 300 pages earlier.  The ethical argument of The Eustace Diamonds is not the comfortable part.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

it was feared that the story was not true - Mark Twain tells the truth

Variations on my favorite Mark Twain joke – the ur-joke – all from Roughing It (1872):

This was the most faultless piece of road in the mountains, and the driver said he would “let his team out.”  He did, and if the Pacific express trains whiz through there now any faster that we did then in the stage-coach, I envy the passengers the exhilaration of it.  We fairly seemed to pick up our wheels and fly – and the mail matter was lifted up free from everything and held in solution!  I am not given to exaggeration, and when I say a thing I mean it.  (Ch. 12)

And they tell of a native diver who went down in thirty or forty-foot waters and brought up an anvil!  I think he swallowed the anvil afterward, if my memory serves me.  However I will not urge the point.  (Ch. 72)

A white man cannot drink the water of Mono Lake, for it is nearly pure lye.  It is said that the Indians in the vicinity drink it sometimes, though.  It is not improbable, for they are among the purest liars I ever saw.  [There will be no additional charge for this joke, except to parties requiring an explanation of it.  This joke has received high commendation from some of the ablest minds of the age.]  (Ch. 38)

Roughing It is nominally a memoir.  Much of it is in fact a memoir, describing Twain’s life in the Nevada silver-mining country only a decade earlier.  He did, in fact, take the mail coach from St. Joseph to Carson City, Nevada; he did, in fact, visit the saline Mono Lake, which he describes in detail with some accuracy.  But everything is material for a joke, at the least, and I believe I have given here a couple of examples of the least of Twains’ jokes, which is why he urges the point while insisting that he is not. The commentary on the jokes, the insistence that they are not jokes – or that they are – is funnier than the jokes themselves.

The paradox of Twain’s travel writing is that contains a great deal of travel writing, as if Twain were a journalist producing material according to the professional standard of his time.  His travel writing as such is written much like that of many other professional writers of his time, and thus at times a little on the dull side.  His visit to the interior of an active volcano is interesting – volcanoes are interesting – but there is not much Mark Twain in it.  It is when he tires of his own account that Twain returns, as when he describes the prowess of Hawaiian divers, tells someone else’s story that perhaps goes too far, and decides he has to top it.  See above, second example.

The Stolen Elephant includes a seventy page account of a pleasure trip to Bermuda (“Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion”) that kills off close to half of its pages with the trip to the island, including a recurring joke about a young man “(who, by a sort of kindly common consent, had come latterly to be referred to as ‘the Ass’)” who does not understand humor.  The final ten pages have nothing to do with Bermuda at all, but contain “The Invalid’s Story,” a tasteless, overly long, and funny story about nitwits mistaking Limburger cheese for a rotting corpse.  A footnote reads “Left out of these ‘Rambling Notes, when originally published in the ‘Atlantic Monthly,’ because it was feared that the story was not true, and at that time there was no way of proving that it was not. – M. T.”

There we go, that is Mark Twain.

Friday, April 10, 2015

a delicate spider’s web over the face of the watch - Twain gets odd

I made a note on a three page Twain story, “My Watch – An Instructive Little Tale” (1870), that I thought could not be right: “Superb – like Kafka or Walser or Landolfi or Aira.”  Has anybody who wanders by here read Tommaso Landolfi?  He wrote a story where Nikolai Gogol marries a balloon woman.  He had a strange imagination.  So did Twain.  His strangeness is not always visible, maybe rarely visible, and is always concealed behind his jokes and his voice.

I could see it in “My Watch.”  Twain accidentally lets his new watch run down. He “stepped into the chief jeweller’s to set it by the exact time,” but is pulled into a minor repair.

I tried to stop him – tried to make him understand that the watch kept perfect time.  But no; all this human cabbage could see was that the watch was four minutes slow, and the regulator must be pushed up a little; and so, while I danced around him in anguish and beseeched him to let the watch alone, he calmly and cruelly did the shameful deed.

So the watch runs fast, is repaired again, runs slow, is repaired, runs alternately slows and fast, etc.  Each repair is more elaborate and damaging than the next.  The ending is the usual Twain humor column tall tale sort of thing.

The great conceit is nowhere above, but rather in the effect the watch has on its owner.  His life always moves at the pace of the watch.  When it runs fast, “[i]t hurried up house-rent, bills payable, and such things”; when slow “I failed all appointments, I got to missing my dinner.”  The watch becomes increasingly surreal – I mean like something in a dream sequence: “everything inside would let go all of a sudden and begin to buzz like a bee, and the hands would straightway begin to spin round and round so fast that their individuality was lost completely, and they simply seemed a delicate spider’s web over the face of the watch.”  So those are the two pieces, human time matched to the watch and the watch's surreal independence, that move Twain into rarer imaginative company.

Or I am just noting a story where Twain uses technology as the source of jokes.  Many of the tales that look especially strange to me have a conceit built around technology.  The original 1875 Sketches, New and Old has, you will note, illustrations.  In “Political Economy,” the technology is the lightning rod (see illustration).  The comic conceit of the piece is entirely unrelated (see title, and also jokes about a writer interrupted by a salesman).

The idea is to push the effects of the technology too far, which is the place where some interesting imaginative effects can occur.  Not always, though, as in “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton,” an overly elaborate story of a romance that occurs entirely over the telephone, invented only a few years earlier, with the man in Maine and the woman in San Francisco – they even marry over the phone –  and here the conceit that maybe does not work is that Twain does not mention the telephone at all for fifteen pages from the end, but rather has Alonzo set his watch for three pages to let the reader know either that he is insane or that the person he is speaking too is in a different time zone.  I had to go to the Stolen White Elephant collection to find this curiosity that reaches for a parable of higher interest but keeps getting tangled in its own wires.  Still pretty odd, if not odd like Tommaso Landolfi.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

It will probably never be accounted for - Mark Twain, comedian

Paging through Twain’s humor columns reminds me how hard they are to remember.  They are throwaways, time-killers, desperate ideas pounded into comedy often by means of a single line.  What I am doing here is thinking about Twain sitting at his desk in Buffalo or Hartford, trying to Be Funny.  I doubt anyone was ever so successful at the task for so long, but the strain is visible once I look for it, as is the mystery of humor.

Luckily, Twain repeats himself.  Lucky for him, lucky for me.  He is so angered by the idea of a “temporary insanity” defense that he mocks it again and again.  He loves nonsensical descriptions of women’s clothes, parodying the fashion items in the newspaper.  He invents the McWilliams family, where the wife is paranoid and the husband henpecked, whether the problem is lightning, burglars, or the “membranous croup.”  These stories always have a happy ending.  “Hence the tide of our days flows by in deep and untroubled serenity.”

Has there ever been an American humor columnist who has not declared that he is running for President?

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct.  The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose.  Does that unfit me for the Presidency?  The Constitution of our country does not say so.  No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives.  Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?  (“A Presidential Candidate,” 1879)

Then there are the improving books for boys.  Twain is driven to distraction by the transparent falsity of the improving books for boys.  Thus “The Bad Little Boy Who Did Not Come to Grief,” “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” (1870) and many more, including “Poor Little Stephen Girard” (1873) which is not even by Mark Twain!  Yet there it is on p. 547 of the Library of America collection!  But is so much like this Twain specialty that the confusion is almost necessary.

Thus perished the good little boy who did the best he could, but didn’t come out according to the books.  Every boy who ever did as he did prospered, except him.  His case is truly remarkable.  It will probably never be accounted for.

It occurs to me that beginning with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876 Twain launched on his own series of improving books for boys wherein bad boys prosper and good boys are not demolished in nitro-glycerin accidents like the good boy just above, which relatively speaking is a kind of prospering.  My point is that Twain had been worked up about boys’ books for fifteen years before deciding to solve the problem directly.

This has been random.  I am so indecisive – write about what is good, or what is dull, or what is new.  Look at “A Telephonic Conversation” (1880).  Look at the comic form that Twain invents, or so I suppose.

What did you say?


Oh no, I don’t think it was.


No! Oh, no, I didn’t mean that.  I meant, put it in while it is still boiling, - or just before it comes to a boil.




I turned it over with a back stitch on the selvage edge.


Yes, I like that way, too; but I think it's better to baste it on with Valenciennes or bombazine, or something of that sort. It gives it such a air, - and attracts so much notice.


It's forty-ninth Deuteronomy, sixty-fourth to ninety-seventh inclusive. I think we ought all to read it often.


Perhaps so; I generally use a hair-pin.

Etc. etc. etc., or as many etc. as three pages requires.  The “overheard on the phone” piece written today in imitation of Twain would be set on the subway or in a coffee shop.

So what I think I am trying to show here is Twain as a comedian.  Not that I did not find these bits funny, but tomorrow I will pick some pieces where Twain outdoes not just other comedians, but himself.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Now what - Mark Twain, magazine writer

Although I do not doubt that I write better when I have some idea as to what I am writing about, I am always pleased to take a run at a book with no ideas whatsoever.  The original writer already did the real work.  If I scrounge around, like a coyote or an opossum I will surely find something.  And what if I have four books at hand – what riches!

The four books, all by Mark Twain, are:

Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890, of which I read everything from 1870 through 1885, 550 pages out of 950, but I read 1852 through 1869 last year and wrote several posts begun with no predetermined notions, and you remember how those turned out.

Sketches, New and Old (1875), Twain’s first proper collection of the contents of the above, mostly humor pieces written for newspapers and magazines, mostly high-quality ephemera.  Lots of overlap with the Library of America book.  I read Elizabeth Conway’s copy.  Many thanks to Ms Conway.

The Stolen White Elephant Etc. (1882), more of the same except in some ways different.  My copy was the warmly appreciated gift of Mrs. Katherine Warthin.

Roughing It (1872), the other book about mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada published in 1872, except that Twain’s idea of geologizing consisted entirely of striking it rich with a silver mine.  He did, in fact, strike it rich, although a lot more slowly, by learning how to write tall tales and fabrications for frontier newspapers.

Not to obsess about pages, but an interesting feature of the Library of America book is that a single year, 1870, gets 18% of the pages and by far the most tales and sketches.  Given the book’s coverage the proportion should be more like two or three percent.  Twain has just had a hit with his first book, The Innocents Abroad (1869), and was in demand as a newspaper and magazine writer, a humorist, a job he was able to do, apparently, from such outposts of civilization as Elmira and Buffalo, and this was before the internet, if you can believe that.

Twain was ambitious, and he hated Buffalo, if you can believe that, so soon enough the magazine writing became intermittent and the pieces often longer and something closer to short stories.  Twain’s fame as a lecturer grew to the point where he could publish his speeches.  And he wrote more books, first another travel book – that’s Roughing It – then a mediocre novel (The Gilded Age) followed by a series of adventure books for boys.  His art and thinking deepened.  He did not stay in Buffalo and become the Dave Barry of the Gilded Age.  He could have, though, if he were a bit less of a genius.

When I compared Alphonse Allais to Twain, I was thinking of the Twain of this period, Twain as a popular magazine humorist.  Like Allais at around the same age, he had perfected his voice and his shtick.  He knew what kinds of jokes suited him and which were funny when repeated – like all humor columnists, he was highly repetitive, but of course I was supposed to read his pieces a couple of times a month, not a hundred in a row like I did.

That ought to be enough to write about, at least.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Alphonse Allais, pale slave of the truth

Another collection of jokes, stories, and nonsense by French humorist Alphonse Allais, chronicler, in his way, of the Montmartre Bohemia of the 1890s, has been charmed into English by Doug Skinner.  It is comparable to the others, comparably good.

The Squadron’s Umbrella is a collection of newspaper pieces and such ephemera, cullings from Allais’s humor column, but it is, I want to note, also a genuine book published in 1893.  Inevitably many references have become obscure,  the jokes dim or overly familiar, and the humor more theoretical than actually funny.

The same is true of Mark Twain.  Such is the nature of humor writing.  Later this week I want to write about Mark Twain’s first two collections of his newspaper writing.  Exact same problem.  The American context is more familiar to me, which helps, and Twain was a greater genius than Allais, although in the specific form of the punchy two-page newspaper anecdote, Allais does a lot better in the comparison than I would have guessed.

Oddly, The Squadron’s Umbrella even includes a Twain story, “Poor Little Stephen Girard,” translated and modified by Allais which I read just recently in the Library of America Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890.  The oddest thing is that the story is not by Twain.  See p. 149 of Skinner’s book.  It’s a good imitation of Twain, and a good fit for Allais.

How Allais works.  See “Too Many Kangaroos”:

At the present time, Paris – if I count correctly – holds within its borders no fewer than three boxing kangaroos.

The number three, which would be insignificant were we enumerating stars in the firmament, or grains of sand in the desert, acquires a special importance when the census of kangaroos is the subject.

For a long time, Paris was bereft of boxing kangaroos.  We found ourselves no worse, and no better, for that matter.  (30)

Allais goes to the zoo to interview the non-boxing kangaroos on the subject.  The zoo kangaroos, it turns out, think the boxing kangaroos are kind of trashy.  I am employing my usual demotic rhetorical mode, but please note how little of Allais’s humor really comes from any jokes about kangaroos but from  his lightly elevated rhetoric – “if I count correctly,” or the comparison to the stars and the sands, or the detached wisdom of “and no better.”  That last is the Allais signature.   The style can be applied to anything, and make anything funny. 

We must have Baudelaire, of course, but we must not have too much.  (41)

So true.  Or:

I apologize to my female readers for the unpoetical vulgarity of this detail, but when one writes for posterity, as I do, one renounces forever the right to embroider or to change the facts.  See in me nothing but a pale slave of the truth (lividus servus veritatis).  (137)

Twain has his own version of this exact joke; I plan to supply numerous examples over the next few days, since it makes me laugh every time.

Skinner’s annotations and illustrations are, as usual, exemplary.  Tracking down the Oxnard Beet Sugar Company in Grand Island, Nebraska (pp. 61 and 143) – above and beyond, Doug.  Skinner has an even newer new book out just now, a 17th century French zombie novel which I will have to see to believe.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

the only Italian nineteenth-century novel which had... - Calvino and Lampedusa steal from Nievo, Nievo steals from Foscolo, Foscolo steals...

From a 1985 interview with Italo Calvino, found in Hermit in Paris (2003, tr. Martin McLaughlin):

You would like me to mention some book I read as an adolescent and which subsequently made its influence felt in things I later wrote.  I will say at once: Ippolito Nievo’s Le confessioni di un ottogenario (Confessions of an Octogenarian), the only Italian nineteenth-century novel which had a novelistic charm that was comparable to that found so abundantly in foreign literatures.

What I am pretty sure Calvino meant was the kind of foreign books boys like: Treasure Island and Poe and The Count of Monte Cristo, books I have seen Calvino mention elsewhere as favorite childhood reading.  The Nievo novel he loves, then, is likely a partial one, the novel of the kitchen boy in the crumbling castle.

An episode in my first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests [1947], was inspired by the meeting of Carlino and Spaccafumo [the bandit].  An atmosphere vaguely reminiscent of the Castello in Fratta is evoked in The Cloven Viscount [1952].  And The Baron in the Trees [1957] reworks Nievo’s novel around the protagonist’s entire life, and it covers the same historical period, straddling the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the same social environments; moreover, the female character in my novel is modelled on Nievo’s La Pisana.  (240, everything in brackets are my insertions)

Calvino has mentioned his first three novels.  I doubt any other writer has made such thorough use of Nievo.  I reread Path and Viscount to see for myself, but actually before I came across this interview, and the connections were obvious.  The Path to the Nest of Spiders, as translator Archibald Colquhoun called it, is a realistic novel about a band of misfit anti-Nazi partisans operating in the woods of Calvino’s native Liguria.  It is told from the point of view of a boy, a ruffian, too young to understand women or politics or even violence, really, so a good outsider.  His name is Pin, so he is a protagonist like Kipling’s Kim (mentioned by name on p. 105) or Huck Finn or Jim (Hawkins).  Or Pinocchio.  It is only that one scene that looked like a direct nod to Nievo, where Pin, like Carlino, is lost in the woods and is guided to safety by a misfit, a smuggler in Nievo, a partisan in Calvino.

The tone of The Cloven Viscount could hardly be more different.  The title character is split in half by a Turkish cannonball, one side purely good, the other evil.  The evil side returns to his castle to terrorize his subjects.  The narrator is an eight year-old boy, a neglected nephew of the Viscount – so now we are in Nievo’s world.  Little action takes place in the castle itself, but rather everywhere in the surrounding countryside, the woods and hills.  I am getting more of a hint about what part of Confessions Calvino really liked.  The Baron in the Trees, which I have not read for twenty-five years, is also almost completely set outdoors (see title).

I had forgotten how comically disgusting The Cloven Viscount was, how many mutilated corpses of men and animals, casual murders, and disfiguring diseases were featured, all for a laugh along with details like the bride who “still had a few yards of veil left, [so] she made a wedding robe for the goat and a wedding dress for the duck, and so ran through the woods, followed by her two pets, until the veil got all torn in the branches and her train gathered every pine cone and chestnut husk drying along the paths.”  (240)

I had thought about writing a bit about Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958), in which the author reaches back a century to describe the moment his family’s world was demolished by Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily (by his side, Ippolito Nievo, who had just written Confessions).  But it is so obvious, right?  Manzoni, Nievo, Lampedusa, all following the same strategy.   Lampedusa also stole Nievo’s dog.  Lampedusa made some improvements, but the death of the dog in Confessions is a fine scene.

Nievo played the same game.  The great recurring guest star in Confessions, aside from Napoleon, first seen getting a haircut, is the radical Italian nationalist poet Ugo Foscolo, who plays a part in the overthrow of the Venetian Republic.  Nievo’s novel is even more packed with collapses, suicides, and weeping than The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis.  It has more weeping men, actually, than any non-Japanese novel I have ever read.  Foscolo’s novel is a blatant imitation of Goethe.  Etc. etc. etc.  It is all one great chain of books if you want to look at it that way.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

I swear to you that I’m spinning no romance here - the narrator of Confessions of an Italian spins a romance

Carlino the kitchen boy is in love with his cousin, La Pisana, daughter of the Count, but second daughter, and thus neglected and badly raised by a noble family nearing its end.  She treats Carlino badly, promises marriage then dumps him, flirts with other boys, and is alternately kind and cruel.  Carlino is ten years old, La Pisana eight.

I loved and I despised.

You will probably laugh at this tale of two children pretending to be adults, but I swear to you that I’m spinning no romance here: this is simply the story of my life.  (Ch. 6, 241)

No, Carlino is fourteen there and La Pisana twelve.  I need to go back to when they were ten and eight to find the most shocking, sexual scene in Confessions of an Italian.  Carlino has wandered far from the castle, far enough that he has gotten his first glimpse of the sea, instantly and permanently converting him into an early Romantic, which is amusing.  He is out late, gets lost, and is escorted home by a friendly bandit.  For years, he has slept in the same room as his beloved cousin, but now he is banished to a closet as punishment, not just for being late but for lying to protect the bandit.  Carlino screams and even injures himself to no avail.  But finally, late at night, La Pisana sneaks into his little kennel:

“But before I go I want you to thrash me and pull my hair hard for all my wickedness towards you.”  And here she took my hands and put them on her head.

“Goodness, no!” I said, withdrawing her hands, “I’d rather kiss you.”

“I want you to pull my hair!” she said , taking my hands again.  (Ch. 3, 111)

And after some back and forth, he does.

She was in a fury now.  And while I stood there, uncertainly, she jerked her head back so forcefully and so suddenly that the lock was left in my fingers.  “You see?” she said happily, “that’s how I want to be punished when I ask to be punished!  Goodbye now and do not move from here or I shall never come to play with you again.”  (112)

Finally, a reminder  - the boy is ten, the girl eight.  And the history between the two characters goes on for another six hundred pages, with the basic pattern that they are separated by circumstances, Carlino plunges into History, giving his life to Italy if he cannot give it to this woman, until the characters are reunited in some unlikely fashion, usually involving one saving the other from death, like in a Dumas novel.

I went with the love affair, which is never as intense as in this one scene, however the effect might linger, likely because the censorship allowed more license with the children.  I also thought about working through Chapter 5, the Siege, which really is like something from Scott or Dumas, one long adventure purposefully designed to feel like an episode from the Middle Ages except now made farcical, unless you are a little boy in which case it is absolutely thrilling.

During Carlino’s childhood, history is purely local, almost frozen for hundreds of years.  Then comes adolescence and the French Revolution; the end of the Venetian Republic; the first efforts to create Italy – in other words, History.  Until finally History passes Carlino by and he writes his book.  That is the conceit of Confessions of an Italian, plainly stated.