Friday, July 31, 2015

Wandering Berlin with Theodor Fontane

I had the pleasure of spending a few days trooping around Berlin, getting to know the city a little bit.  A lot more than the glimpse of it I got fifteen years ago, which was hardly any help at all.  Berlin has changed so much, and so quickly; been destroyed and rebuilt in cycles.  It is still rebuilding and shifting, perhaps not as rapidly as in the 1990s, although there are still construction cranes all over.

Many years ago I was in a book club that read Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1895).  Several readers noted that they had difficulties with the place names and settings (in Berlin and a Baltic coast town).  They had few referents for Berlin, almost none compared to Paris or London, cities we visit in literature so often that their landmarks take on meaning regardless of whether we have been there ourselves.  We create our own geography out of books, films, and news, much of it wrong but imaginatively functional.  For English-language readers, Berlin is more nebulous.

And then they keep changing it!  Literary Vienna may be unfamiliar, too, but the Vienna of Schnitzler still exists in some way.  Fontane’s Berlin is harder to find.

Commercial Councillor van der Straaten, of 4 Grosse Petristrasse, was incontestably one of the most substantial financiers in the capital, a fact scarcely affected by the circumstance that his solid reputation rested more on his business than on his personality.

L’Adultera / The Woman Taken in Adultery (1882), one of Fontane’s earliest novellas.  Title first (and for English readers that title needs a footnote), then surname, then address, as if I might send him a postcard.  The street has changed its name along with its character.  Their apartment has been replaced with either a parking lot or a Novotel. But he is right in the center of the city, on the Museum Island, in the middle of things, where a man of his stature ought to be.  Or so I understand now that I have looked into it.

The Penguin Classics edition, translated by Gabrielle Annan, that includes L’Adultera pairs it with the later, more exquisite, nearly plotless The Poggenpuhl Family (1896), about an aristocratic family in decline.  The address is delayed to the second sentence this time – “Since they had moved to Berlin from Pommersch-Stargard seven years ago they had lived in a corner house in the Grossgröschenstrasse, a new building only just completed and still damp in the walls when they arrived.”  I was not quite in the vicinity, but close enough to suspect that their apartment, if it survived the war, is now the home of a Turkish or Bosnian family.  Grossgröschenstrasse is definitely not in the center of things.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Pommersch-Stargard is now in Poland.

All of this would have been easy shorthand for Fontane’s readers.  Some of it is easy for current German readers.  But I have to, or at least should, look up every street and park.  Eh, once upon a time I did not know where Kew Gardens or the Bois de Boulogne were, either, or what it might mean if a character set foot in them, but that’s old stuff now.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Danube by Claudio Magris - The European spirit feeds on books

Books read weeks ago, inadequate notes, a vacation in the meantime.  Let’s see how this goes.

Danube (1986) is a river chronicle, a travel book, a personalized study of middle European culture.  The author, Claudio Magris, is an Italian professor of German literature at the University of Trieste, so mostly this book about a river is really about books.

The European spirit feeds on books, like the demons in Singer’s stories, gnaws at the volumes of history in the libraries or, like moths, eat into ladies’ hats, shawls, and other dainty items of the wardrobe.  (265)

Magris is in Budapest at this point, or pretending that he is.  The offhand reference to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who has no relation to the Danube at all, hardly the only one in the book, is what I mean by “personalized,” much like the surprisingly frequent mentions of Magris’s fellow Triestines Umberto Saba and Italo Svevo.

The book begins at the source of the Danube in southwest Germany – early sections about competing claims to the source are genuinely comic – and ends at the mouth.  In Germany and Austria, Magris, expert in the language, history, and culture, can stitch together every scrap at hand.  The city of Ulm leads him to Céline, the sacking of the city by 18th century Bavarian troops, the Bread Museum (“there is a great list of the prices of a pound of bread over the course of a decade (1914-24)),” and the extraordinary 2,164 page Navigation and Rafting on the Upper Danube (1952-64) by the Engineer Neweklowsky, who, “[l]ike Flaubert or Proust… devoted his entire existence to the work, to writing, to The Book.”  Sebald must have admired this section.  Everyone will admire the one on Ferdinand Thrän, author of The Cathedral of Ulm, an Exact Description of the Same (1857), and also a File of Rudenesses Received “which lies, unpublished and unknown, in a box put away in a cupboard in the cathedral” (75).  “If genuine writing is born from the desire to account for the copious inconvenience of living, then Thrän is a real writer.”

Once Magris enters Czechoslovakia he loses his language and becomes an outsider, even a tourist.  If anything, these chapters are even more interesting than those on the German-language countries, as Magris surrenders his certainty.  Mine, too.  What did I know about Slovakian literature, or the German literatures of Serbia or Romania?  Zippo.  Herta Müller is identified as particularly good, although now she “has been forced into silence” (306).

Magris discusses these writers and literatures with great curiosity, alongside his desperate attempts to get someone in Slovakia to serve him a beer.  “But even at the Kyjev [hotel] beer is a chimera; one evening, from under the counter, the porter furtively produces a lukewarm bottle for us” (227).  Magris is travelling circa 1983, 1984, and there is no illusion that the Communist countries are functioning at all well.  Ceaușescu’s Romania, where Magris attends a literary conference, is particularly awful; Bulgaria is especially pleasant.

An aside:  “Lászlo Németh, the leader of the school of writers who aim at popular appeal[!], has said that Hungarian literature is in a situation of ‘permanent death agony’” (257).  What a great slogan for a Hungarian reading event of some sort!  That is why I mention it.  “Permanent death agony,” outstanding!

A friendly reader thought I would enjoy Danube and pointed it out to me.  Yes, many thanks.  Patrick Creagh translated.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bookish travel notes from an unbookish vacation

New in Krimis:  Or new to me.  Animal mysteries.  Zoo mysteries.  These categories might overlap.  After the success of Glennkill: Ein Schafskrimi (2005), in which a flock of sheep solve a murder, a wave of animal detectives was inevitable, but I was not expecting a novel in which the sleuths are a pair of meerkats, a book I held in my hands in a Viennese bookstore.  If you had an idea for a mystery starring a raccoon or a flock of crows but thought, no, the whole thing is much too stupid, I say squelch your doubts and write the dang thing before someone beats you to it.  Cash in.

Similarly, we came across a Krimi in which the detective was Theodor Storm, who in fact did help solve crimes in his role as a judge in Husum, although the novel is set long before that, and before he wrote his great uncanny novellas, when Storm was a young Romantic poet.  Who investigated murders.  What a bad idea.  But now my own notion of a series of mysteries starring Marcel Proust only looks half as dumb.  The enigmatic stranger with the prosthetic leg, who may be the killer but turns out to be an ally, is Arthur Rimbaud.  Faked his death.  I’m giving that away for free.  I’m  not gonna write any Proust mysteries.  See above – the time is right for your series of Detective Whitman / Inspector Eliot / Special Agent Tzara mysteries.  Do not hesitate.  Either Eliot; both would make terrific detectives.  Tristan Tzara is the Dada Detective – good, right?  Better than Theodor Storm or a pair of meerkats.

Meine Frau read a zoo mystery, Das Schweigen des Lemming (The Silence of the Lemming, 2006) by Stefan Slupetzky, in which Lemming, a security guard at the Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Vienna investigates the death of a penguin, which maybe sounds a little thin, but it turns out the novel is full of detail about Vienna’s art world, including, for example, the 2003 theft of the Cellini Salt Cellar, which I finally got to see with my own eyes.

At one point – this is all secondhand, since I could not read the book myself – an informant needs to meet with Lemming.  Knowing the detective is a fan of Thomas Bernhard, he suggests they meet in the Kunsthistoriches Museum – “You know where.”  He means in the Tintoretto room, in front of the painting “Man with a White Beard,” the setting of Old Masters (1985).  It had been so long since Lemming read Bernhard’s novel that he has to run to the bookstore to look up which painting is meant, but still, do you see what I am getting at here?

In Vienna, the stature of Thomas Bernhard is so high that in a mystery about the death of a penguin it is assumed that readers are comfortable with casual references to specific elements of Bernhard novels.  We stumbled upon Bernhard frequently, even in the Jewish Museum (Bernhard was not Jewish), where a clip from one of his plays was deployed ironically.  The Vienna-Bernhard phenomenon is unusual.

That Tintoretto room is magnificent.  Like the room with the Cellini, it was closed the last time I was in Vienna.

Well, that’s something.  My post-vacation resolution is to make Wuthering Expectations more breezy and shallow.  Off to a good start.  Tomorrow, I will continue with a book I have read rather than books I have seen but cannot read.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Sicilian folktales and a storyteller of genius - and then I go on vacation

This will be the last post for a while as I vacate the premises.  Calvino’s Italian Folktales will top the blog for a couple of weeks.

About the only thing I have learned this year about Italian literature as a whole is to pay careful attention to the region of the writer and the book.  Italian literature is more fragmented than even German.  Italian Folktales is organized by region, moving from north to south, roughly.  No surprise that the northern stories are more Grimm-like, more German, with some exceptions like the impoverished backwater of Friuli, which we all remember as the region so remote that pagan fertility battles against witches survived into the 17th century, where the specialty is stories about the dim, greedy, peasant-like St. Peter who is always getting into dumb scrapes from which he is saved by his pal Jesus.

Poorer regions have different stories.  Calabrian tales are especially blunt and brutal.  And Sicilian tales – we have moved into another world here.  44 stories from Sicily, over a quarter of the book, eleven of them from a single story-teller of genius, Agatuzza Messia, “seventy-year-old seamstress of winter quilts.”

Messia’s stories are longer and more complex, with more unusual imagery and more imaginative attention to scene and action.  She tells her stories more like a novelist. 

They washed their hands, mixed up a bit of Majorcan flour, made four fine pies, and sent them off to be baked…
Then she made another one exactly like it, only with regular flour and water drawn from the trough in which she washed the oven broom.  (#150, “Pippina the Serpent,” p. 535)

Or how about:

Two of the loaves were ring-shaped and seasoned with anise and sesame seed.  (#149, “Misfortune,” 531)

Or examples that do not involve baking.  That same story has a description of laundering that on its own is too dull to quote, but in context plumps up Messia’s world a little bit.  Compared to most folktales, a lot.  One of her gifts as a storyteller is that she can pause on an action or description without losing her thread.

With that pile of money, she had all the rooms hung with tapestries.  She bought furniture, chandeliers, portals, mirrors, carpets, and everything else they have in princes’ palaces; she even employed a doorman with livery from head to toe and a stick topped with a gold knob. (#156, “The Wife Who Lived on Wind,” 562)

It is that gold knob that caught my attention, as it must have caught the attention of this Palermo peasant at some point, unless she never saw it but merely picked it up from someone else’s story.

Her characters are a step or two better than the norm, too, never exactly two-dimensional, but something more visible than the usual one dimension.  And her women, are they ever resourceful.  Folktale characters are always oddly resourceful, but Messia’s women are that and the more.

How lucky that her employer, a doctor named Giuseppe Pitrè, became interested in folklore and complied her stories.  Maybe she is why he became interested.

What I am saying is rather than start at tale #1 and stall out by #10, some readers might want to skip to #147, the highly original, Lovecraftian “Nick Fish” which is immediately followed by Messia’s great stories, and then by the rest of the Sicilian tales.  By itself, these would make a terrific book.  Then you can go backwards, by which I mean north.  The gory Calabrian tales are next – “’So you’re the farmer’s daughter!’ exclaimed the serpent, and he bit her on the throat and killed her” (#144, “Serpent King”).

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

My investment in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales finally pays off - the key to the door was in the possession of the hairy man

What a wise investment!  I bought Italo Calvino’s gigantic Italian Folktales (1956) for $11.95, going by the back cover.  In today’s dollars, that is $22.92, but now the list price is $25.00.  It’s like I made $2.08 just by storing and moving the book for twenty-six years.  Let’s not look at the discounted Amazon price.

The important thing is that I have finally read it, all two hundred tales, all 713 pages.  It is a great book, comparable in many ways to a Grimm collection, comparable in every way except significance.  The book would not exist without the example of the Grimms, who set off an flurry all over Europe of folklorists tracking down elderly peasant women and transcribing their weird stories before it was too late.

Calvino ransacked every old collection he could find, selecting, combining, and improving as he went along, again following the precedent of the Grimms.  For example: “My personal touches here include the prince’s yellow suit and leggings, the description of the transformation in a flutter of wings, the gossip of the witches who traveled the world over, and a bit of stylistic cunning” (note to tale 18, “The Canary Prince,” p. 719).

One great result of the folklorists’ research was that that many old stories had made their way all over the world, so the reader of any collection of folktales has to have the patience for more versions of Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack the Giant Slayer, among many others.  I am on the alert for novelty, for small touches and original oddities.  In Italy, when a king is needed  in a story, he is often the King of Portugal.  In “Ill-Fated Royalty,” more kings are needed – how about the King of Scotland?  “At the bottom of the mountain was a door that led directly into Scotland, and the key to the door was in the possession of the hairy man” (283).  In northern Italian folktales, kings often live next door to each other, observing the household business (and beautiful princesses) in the palace across the street.

The motifs and devices repeat in their own patterns.  It was amusing to read Italian Folktales alongside John Crowley’s Little, Big, which is practically an Aarne-Thompson tale type index disguised as a novel.  A Calvino tale has three sisters who each gives her brother a gift, along with instructions about when to open it; the identical scene pops up in Crowley.  Here is Crowley’s talking fish, there is one of many in Calvino.  All of your favorites are here, assuming you have learned to enjoy folktales.

Calvino was, at the point he compiled and wrote Italian Folktales, working for a publisher in Turin.  The publisher in fact commissioned him to write the book.  Publishing was different back then. He had written several books of fiction, all of interest – I have recently revisited most of them – but his first masterpiece, The Baron in the Trees, would appear in the following year.  Unless Italian Folktales is his first masterpiece.  I will present the evidence for that tomorrow.

A pleasant surprise of Italian Folktales has been to see how much later Calvino is germinating among these old stories.  What luck that he was able to write them.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Come and brood upon the marsh with me - notes on Sidney Lanier

Much of my writing here is note-taking.  Notes for what, who knows.  The less familiar the writer, the more sketchy the notes.  Today’s notes are about the poet Sidney Lanier, a rarity in three ways: 1) a 19th century poet from the Deep South, from Georgia, worth reading, 2)an American poet who was not a visionary iconoclast like Whitman, Dickinson, et. al, but rather wrote in the tradition of Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson – there must have been thousands such American poets, so again what is rare is that he is so good, 3) a poet who was a professional-level musician, and as a result had a number of music-based theories of poetry that I do not understand.

What is not rare is his early death from tuberculosis, caught in a Union prisoner of war camp, at age 39.  His widow edited a collected Poems that has been reprinted many times.  I read the 1999 University of Georgia edition, which tacks on a little appreciation by John Hollander, who seems to think the musical business is of interest.  The book includes a long section of “Unrevised Early Poems” that can be skipped, some dialect poems ditto, and too many occasional poems.  Someone might be able to make a good poem out of “Ode to the Johns Hopkins University,” (“the labyrinthine cave / of research”)  but not anyone who takes that title sincerely.

That leaves maybe 150 pages that are quite good and eight or ten poems better than that, mostly nature poems, burnished by their exotic (to the reader of Whitman and Whittier) setting, the marshes and rivers of Georgia and Florida.  Nature poeticized not for its own sake, but for its emotional meaning.  Lanier was a Romantic poet is what I am saying.

Awful is Art because ‘tis free.
The artist trembles o’er his plan
    Where men his Self must see,
Who made a song or picture, he
Did it, and not another, God nor man.  (from “Individuality,” 1878-9)

As direct a statement of art as I noticed, even if, in the poem, it is addressed to a cloud.

Sail on, sail on, fair cousin Cloud:
Oh loiter hither from the sea.
    Still-eyed and shadow-brow’d,
Steal off from yon far-drifting crowd,
And come and brood upon the marsh with me.

Many of Lanier’s best poems are a kind of brooding upon the marsh.

How still the plains of the water be!
The tide is in his ecstasy.
The tide is at his highest height:
                              And it is night.  {“The Marshes of Glynn,” 1878)

That poem may be Lanier’s best.  It does have just a bit of a visionary quality – “Oh, now, unafraid, I am fain  to face / The vast sweet visage of space” – but “Song of the Chattahoochie” (1877), another of the best, is more typical, a calm, meditative poem about a journey down or along a river which the poet loves but will eventually have to leave:

    But oh, not the hills of Habersham,
    And oh, not the valleys of Hall
Avail: I am fain for to water the plain.
Downward the voices of Duty call –
Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main,
The dry fields burn, and the mills are to turn,
And a myriad flowers mortally yearn,
And the lordly main from beyond the plain
    Calls o’er the hills of Habersham
    Calls through the valleys of Hall.

These ordinary Georgian places are given a mythic tone.  A reservoir on the Chattahoochie was named after Lanier, which was meant as an honor.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A frenzy, an illusion, / A shadow, a delirium, a fiction - Calderón de la Barca's Life Is a Dream

After reading one of the best plays of Lope de Vega I turned to the greatest play of the Siglo de Oro, Life Is a Dream (1635) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca.  Having read a dozen plays from the period, I am just parroting other critics who have read many, many more.  Geez, I hope they have.  Maybe they are bluffing.  Regardless, Life Is a Dream is the only one of those dozen that rivals Shakespeare in originality and imagery, if not in depth of character or language.

If it were a Shakespeare play, it would be housed with the late romances like The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline.  It is similarly free-ranging, loose, and weird.  The setting is Poland, a country as familiar to Calderón as Bohemia was to Shakespeare.  The king has locked his son in a remote tower, guided by omens suggesting that he will grow up to be Hitler.  The play occurs at the moment the king decides to test his son’s character by actually allowing him to be a prince, remembering that the fellow has spent his entire chained up in a secret prison.  The king’s failsafe is that if the prince turns out to be a monster, the king can whisk him back to the prison, allowing the prince to believe that everything he experienced had been nothing but a dream.

This play is as oddly modern as Fuente Ovejuna, except here the modern part is the bizarre psychological experiment, which is obviously insane and will have catastrophic results.  The really brilliant idea of Calderón is to have the prince actually believe that the vivid, lifelike episode was a dream.  Many rich ideas, dramatic and poetic, follow.  Metaphysically, Life Is a Dream rivals Shakespeare.

What man is there alive who’d seek to reign
Since he must wake into the dream that’s death.
The rich man dreams his wealth which is his care
And woe.  The poor man dreams his sufferings.
He dreams who thrives and prospers in this life.
He dreams who toils and strives.  He dreams who injures,
Offends, and insults.  So that in this world
Everyone dreams the thing he is, though no one
Can understand it.  I dream I am here,
Chained in these fetters. Yet I dreamed just now
I was in a more flattering, lofty station.
What is this life?  A frenzy, an illusion,
A shadow, a delirium, a fiction.
The greatest good’s but little, and this life
Is but a dream, and dreams are only dreams.  (end of Act II)

Calderón was a careful reader of Don Quixote.  The play has its Sancho Panza, too, a stock clown figure who is transformed – who is abused – in ways that are as original as the rest of the play.  As with most clowns, he is rarely funny, but he has the misfortune to be the only true empiricist in a dream play. If only he knew he were a fiction.  I have had the luck to see a good staging of Life Is a Dream, and the fate of Clarion the clown was a real shock, however well it reinforced the dramatic metaphysics.

I read the lively Roy Campbell translation.

All right, that was probably Spanish Literature Month for me.  Thanks to Richard and Stu.

plays as doughnuts - Lope de Vega's revolutionary Fuenteovejuna

Spanish Literature Month is here as decreed by Caravana de Recuerdos and Winstonsdad’s Blog.  I am lucky enough to have a vacation coming up, so I needed something short and punchy.  I revisited a couple of plays, Siglo de Oro masterpieces.

Now, Fuente Ovejuna (1619) by Félix Lope de Vega, author of five hundred plays, among other works.  Author, reputedly, of fifteen hundred plays – see Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer for evidence: “I could gobble up the fifteen hundred plays of Lope de Vega in one sitting.”  But that number is a myth.  A mere five hundred, just ten a year if he started young.  Not even one a month, for his entire adult life.  I have read three, I think.

I have never come across a critic who has read enough of them to deliver much of a judgment.  There must be some real duds among the five hundred, although what I really wonder is how deeply I could go before they became too repetitive or obscure.  Thirty more?  A hundred?  This passage from Fuente Ovejuna, which is otherwise not about play writing, may be instructive:

Talking of poets, have you not
Seen doughnut-bakers at their toil
Chuck chunks of dough into the oil
To fill their cauldron on the boil?
Some come out cooked, some come out charred,
Some come out soft, some come out hard.
Well, that’s how poets (I suppose)
Deal with the poems they compose.  (Act II, p. 109)

Fuente Ovejuna is one of the soft, well-cooked doughnuts, often called Lope’s greatest play, although who would really know?  The title (which is really Fuenteovejuna, the two word version being a kind of translation) is the name of a town, Sheep Fountain, which is being terrorized by a nobleman who is riding high as a war hero.  Whatever his knightly virtues, he cannot keep his hands off of the women. In the fast-paced final act, the villages rise against the knight, murdering him and – in the most shocking part of the play – maintaining their solidarity in the face of torture.

JUDGE: No scrap of writing can I bring in proof
Because, with one accord and single valour,
When to the question racked, they all reply:
“Fuente Ovejuna did it” and no more.
Three hundred of them, tortured on the rack
With terrible severity, replied
No other answer.  Little boys of ten
Were stretched yet it was useless.  (134)

There were passages that had me murmuring the date – 1619, no kidding.  The play was once a favorite of Marxist revolutionaries.  If it has not had a feminist revival, it should (the following characters are all women).

LAURENCIA.  Halt at this door.  You are no longer women
  But desperate legionnaires.
PASCUALA.                               Those poor old pansies
  We once called men, it seems, are men once more
  And letting out his blood!
JACINTA.                               Throw down his body
  And we’ll impale the carcass on our spears.

Wild.  There are some limits in the text, as one might expect, on how far a 17th century Spanish play can really go as early 20th century agitprop – I assume the Communists omitted certain parts – but still, wow, that last act.

The page number refer to Eric Bentley’s Life Is a Dream and Other Spanish Classics (1985), a great book that also includes The Trickster of Seville, Life Is a Dream, and a Cervantes play I do not think is that interesting.  The translator is the South African poet Roy Campbell.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Sea-satiate, bruised with buffets of the brine - Swinburne goes swimming

Vacation Friday; lucky me; no post.

My last Algernon Swinburne post was about his two remarkable sea poems from 1880.  I incidentally mentioned some funny stuff from Swinburne’s letters about his 1882 epic poem in rhyming couplets, a version of the Arthurian story of Tristram and Iseult called Tristram of Lyonesse, which approaches the unreadable – I do not understand why the editors of Major Poems and Selected Prose (2004, Yale UP) included the entire thing – but it has two spectacular long passages in which Tristram goes swimming in the sea.

… the glad wave gladdens, and the light
Sees wing and wave confuse their fluttering white,
So Tristram one brief breathing-space apart
Hung, and gazed down; then with exulting heart
Plunged: and the fleet foot round a joyous head
Flashed, that shot under, and ere a shaft had sped
Rose again radiant, a rejoicing star,
And high along the water-ways afar
Triumphed…            (IV, ll. 103-11)
…  happier for the imperious toil,
Swam the knight in forth of the close waves’ coil,
Sea-satiate, bruised with buffets of the brine,
Laughing, and flushed as one afire with wine  (ll. 117-20)

This bit is only forty lines long; the second is a hundred and fifty, pure indulgence by the poet, a chance to “taste / the rapture of its rolling strength” (VIII, 520-1).  The scene does tie into the story in that the rough sea prefigures Tristrams’s death.  The poem ends with a glance back to “By the North Sea,” with the shared cliff-top tomb of Tristram and Isolde falling into the sea,

And over them, while death and life shall be,
The light and sound and darkness of the sea.  (IX, 575-6)

It is as if Swinburne picked the subject because it is set on various coasts.

The editors of the Yale volume have a strong sense of Swinburne’s peak.  Selections from his first books, in 1865 and 1866, occupy 40% of the pages given to poetry.  The last twenty-six years of his life, from 1883 on, take up only 7%.  I will note that the Penguin Classics volume of Swinburne currently in print is 100% from 1865-6.  I detect a consensus.  But what I want to note here is that the poems the editors pick for those 7% of the pages, examples of the embers of Swinburne’s art, are almost entirely sea poems: “To a Seamew” and “Neap-Tide” from 1889, and “The Lake of Gaube” from 1904, terrific poems.

Death-dark and delicious as death in the dream of a lover and
    dreamer may be,
It clasps and encompasses body and soul with delight to be living
    and free:
Free utterly now, though the freedom endure but the space of a
    perilous breath,
And living, though girdled about with the darkness and coldness
    and strangeness of death:  (“The Lake of Gaube,” ll. 36-40)

Locals told Swinburne that people who swam in this freezing Swiss lake would die, which he of course found irresistible.

As a sea-mew’s love of the sea-wind breasted and ridden for
    rapture’s sake
Is the love of his body and soul for the darkling delight of the
    soundless lake  (ll. 49-50)

The earlier poem, “To a Seamew,” is in part about the imagined joys of flying, here transferred to the actual joys of swimming.  The correspondences between swimming and death are part of the attraction of dangerous swimming.  The adrenaline rush has been elevated to metaphysics.

Outside of the range of time, whose breath
    Is keen as the manslayer’s knife
    And his peace but a truce for strife,
Who knows if haply the shadow of death
  May not be the light of life?  (“Neap-Tide,” 56-60)

Had Swinburne become a brilliantly narrow poet in this period, or are the editors weirdly with poems about swimming and cliffs?

I suddenly wish I were spending my holiday on the shore.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

He had almost ceased to hope for anything except the end of it - that is not my experience of Phineas Redux

The property of manliness in a man is a great possession, but perhaps there is none that is less understood…  (Ch. 68)

Phineas Finn possesses the ideal characteristics of a gentleman – discretion, integrity, courage, good looks, wit but not too much wit, smarts but not etc., (the list of Finn’s virtues could go on and on), and most importantly a willingness to work.  The Trollopian gentleman has a purpose; the exact value of his purpose may not matter much.  Finn’s chosen work, in politics and government, is a tough road without money, and then is some discussion in Phineas Finn about whether he is too hasty – perhaps he should work for decades as a lawyer and then run for office – but the author seems to be on Finn’s side.  Give it a shot.  The perfect gentleman knows how to take risks.

It is the idlers who disgust Trollope, author, over the course of thirty-five years, of seventy or so books.

What I want to get at is what Trollope does with the ideal he has established.  He crushes it. He accuses his gentleman of murder and puts him on trial and in the newspapers.  A few friends believe he is innocent, more say he is innocent, others deal with their conscience in different ways.  Trollope allows Finn to be almost strong enough for his ordeal:

He had become almost numb from the weariness of his position and the agonising strain upon his mind. The gaoler had offered him a seat from day to day, but he had always refused it, preferring to lean upon the rail and gaze upon the Court [Finn stands during his entire trial!].  He had almost ceased to hope for anything except the end of it.  He had lost count of the days, and had begun to feel that the trial was an eternity of torture in itself. At nights he could not sleep, but during the Sunday, after Mass, he had slept all day.  Then it had begun again, and when the Tuesday came he hardly knew how long it had been since that vacant Sunday.  (Ch. 64)

It is this delay in the trial, entirely because of evidence in his favor, that knocks the strength out of him.  Once acquitted, he falls into a state that looks suspiciously like clinical depression.  He recovers through the continued and thoughtful assistance of his friends.  Trollope is redoing Reverend Crawley’s humiliations in The Last Chronicle of Barset, but with a character who is a gentleman, not a saint.  A different set of virtues.  They are saved in the same way, too, socially.

Almost all novels are social in the sense I mean here, but Trollope’s are moreso, and the Palliser novels even more than that.  There is a thought that could use some development.  Maybe with the next novel.   Thus the repeated, perhaps even repetitive gossip passages, or the characters who function as a chorus. Trollope’s social intricacies are closer to Proust’s than Balzac’s.

It is quite interesting to see Trollope but his creation in prison and break his spirit while the world watches.  Not what I was expecting from the novel.

I could have written a similar piece about one of the women in the novel, who in a parallel plot is similarly crushed, not by prison but by her bad marriage, and since she does not have the social support enjoyed by Finn, and is not the character in the title, she will have a harder time recovering.  She suffers more for her mistakes than does Finn.  Her story, the novels B plot, may even be a little more interesting.  Her story was also a surprise.  It is, oddly, a bit like Gwendolen Harleth’s story in Daniel Deronda, published two years later.  Maybe Eliot stole it from Trollope.  Ha ha ha!  If she did, it was fair game.

Everything else I might say about the novel is an incidental point – e.g., look, it is the return of the dirty, clever defense attorney Chaffanbrass, who I last saw in Orley Farm! – but I think I will retire Phineas Redux.