Saturday, October 31, 2015

“you use too many metaphors” - something I missed in The Portrait of a Lady

Sometimes I wonder about the point of writing at any length about as complex a work as The Portrait of a Lady given that I have read it once and cannot possibly have caught much more than the central movement of the story.

One thing I missed and then missed some more was James’s use of metaphors. 

He expressed this view, somewhat after this fashion, to his mother, who looked at him as if he had been dancing a jig.  He had such a fanciful, pictorial way of saying things that he might as well address her in the deaf-mute’s alphabet.

“I don’t think I know what you mean,” she said; “you use too many metaphors; I could never understand allegories.”  (Ch. 26)

I was misreading so badly that I thought James was at this point making a joke about his lack of metaphors, when in fact he was directly telling me – well, indirectly – that he used them all the time.  There are two in the first two lines I quote!  I enjoyed them for their humor without registering their frequency.

Di at The little white attic has been reading The Portrait of a Lady, too – in fact she invited me to read it now instead of (vague gesture) some other time – and she saw the metaphors.  Look at all of those metaphors.  But I now see how I did not see them.  Look at the journalist Henrietta Stackpole, “strongly identified as a newspaper-woman,” as Di says, meaning as a woman made of newspaper:

She rustled, she shimmered, in fresh, dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was as crisp and new and comprehensive as a first issue before the folding.  From top to toe she had probably no misprint.  (Ch. 10, the bold will be used in a minute)

And there’s more like that.  My first problem was that these clever comparisons are not actually visual, not meant to help me see what James is imagining, but rather to quickly get a sense of what Henrietta is like, or perhaps what Ralph is like, since the comparisons are his.  If I am looking for sensual precision, the way Zola or Nabokov or Bellow use metaphors, well, forget it. They want me to imagine the thing they are seeing, against the limitations of language.  James wants me to meet the person he has imagined.

Di has many more examples just as good, but I picked this one because of the second reason I missed it – it’s not in the book I read.  James made huge changes to the passage for the 1908 New York edition.  The original 1881 edition, which I read, has:

She was very well dressed, in fresh, dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was scrupulously, fastidiously neat.  From top to toe she carried not an ink-stain.

I could go either way on the last example, but the first two, no contest, right?  1908 James came up with some good ones.  Eh, even “no misprint” is funnier.

So, maybe I missed less than I think, and, without denigrating the book I read, next time I am reading the New York edition.

I should point to more of Di’s posts.  The one on silence is the perfect counter to my complaint that Portrait talks too much.  She calls her wrap-up “The greatness of Henry James,” which is a good place for me to stop.

Friday, October 30, 2015

"Ah" - Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

Never before have I read a novel where so many characters begin their lines with “Ah.”  I have been using “Ah” while answering comments lately, to test it out.  It is annoying.

“Ah, too interesting; you shouldn't allow it to be that, you know!” (Ch. 1)

“Ah, happy boy!” the old man commented. (Ch. 2)

“Ah,” said Isabel slowly, “you must be our crazy Aunt Lydia!” (okay, I love this one, Ch. 3)

“Ah, we never know why!" said her companion, laughing.”  (Ch. 5)

A total of 96 “Ah”s going by the computer search, or almost two per chapter, and they feel more concentrated because some chapters are especially dialogue-heavy.  In Chapter 5 there is one on every other page.  The “Ah”s were useful in helping me notice how much banter there was in the novel, especially early on, as if the characters were in a Golden Age Hollywood comedy, like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant trying to impress each other with their sharp wit.  Isabel Archer is Beatrice and every man she meets is Benedict – how exhausting for her.  And at times for me.

Most of the worst parts of the novel are in the dialogues:

“You are very selfish as I said before.”

“I know that.  I am selfish as iron.”

“Even iron sometimes melts.”  (Ch. 32)

Then the characters begin to banter around the word “reasonable.”  All so trivial, although given who one of those characters is, the best he could do.

The worst line in the novel – I want to be fair – replaces dialogue: “In that brief, extremely personal gaze, however, deeper meanings passed between them than they were conscious at the moment” (Ch. 43).  What novel is that from?  This one, really?

Everything in The Portrait of a Lady leads to something better.  The apotheosis of the banter is in Chapter 34 – James is explaining a one year gap and Isabel’s engagement, so this is before the three year gap and her marriage.  She is sparring with her cousin Ralph, one of her many men.  The situation has gone beyond banter, but Ralph has been poisoned by irony.

“Wait for what?”

“Well, for a little more light,” said Ralph, with a rather absurd smile, while his hands found their way into his pockets.

“Where should my light have come from?  From you?”

“I might have struck a spark or two!”

See, wit of a pretty low kind.  Ralph cannot resist.  But after a couple more pages, Isabel can. 

“I don’t think I understand you,” she said at last, coldly.  “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

This was, I found, a shocking moment, the first time someone refuses combat.  Ralph refuses the refusal, which then becomes a new struggle which Isabel wins by treating the subject of her liberty, money, and love life with seriousness and sincerity.  It felt like the novel had swiveled.  “Isabel had uttered her last words with a low solemnity of conviction which virtually terminated the discussion,” and the loser enjoys his self-pity:

Ralph, standing there with his hands in his pockets, followed her with his eyes; then the lurking chill of the highwalled court struck him and made him shiver, so that he returned to the garden, to breakfast on the Florentine sunshine.

I should note that James, aware that he has perhaps overloaded the novel with dialogue, came up with another solution that was always a lot of fun when he deployed it, a breathless wall of text, often a paragraph of a page or two, of nothing but babble.  Another side of the conversation is implied, but it likely consists of little but nods and “Mm, yes.” 

“Papa left direction for everything.  I go to bed very early.  When the sun goes off that side I go into the garden.”  (Ch. 30)

That’s Pansy, of course.  Remember, there’s over a page of that stuff in one paragraph.  It’s often the dimmer characters who are given this treatment, characters incapable of wit.  Again, I am sure I am wrong, that James borrowed this trick from someone. (Note added later: from Jane Austen - see Miss Bates in Emma).

Thursday, October 29, 2015

"He has a genius for upholstery" - not an ironic comment about the style of Henry James, but it could be

Chapter 36 begins strangely:

One afternoon, towards dusk, in the autumn of 1876, a young man of pleasing appearance rang at the door of a small apartment on the third floor of an old Roman house.

This is at the 65% mark.  Has the printer accidentally bound the beginning of a different James novel in the middle of my copy?  Why the sudden fuss about dates?  The man asks for Madame Merle, who is a character I know.  He turns out to be Mr. Edward Rosier, who I do not:

The reader will perhaps not have forgotten that Mr. Rosier was an ornament of the American circle in Paris…

This reader certainly had forgotten.  James has, it turns out, leapt ahead three years (thus the date) and reset the novel.  For three chapters he pretends, with a straight face, that having solved the problem of Isabel Archer’s marriage, he is now interested in the courtship of Mr. Rosier and Pansy Osmond, the strange, doll-like sixteen year-old who is now an odd, porcelain nineteen year-old.

I have a lot of skepticism about the practice of searching through James for homosexual characters, but Rosier is so gay.  He seems to want to add Pansy to his collection of knick-knacks.  “He thought of her in amorous meditation a good deal as he might have thought of a Dresden-china shepherdess.”  I am glad James provides no further details.

Later, Rosier proves his devotion by, well

“It’s very easily told,” said Edward Rosier.  “I have sold all my bibelots!”

Isabel gave, instinctively, an exclamation of horror; it was as if he had told her he had had all his teeth drawn.  (Ch. 50)

That’s one of my favorite lines in the novel.  He sells his trinkets for nearly a million bucks, current dollars, by the way.

Earlier, Isabel and Edward have this exchange, about Isabel’s husband:

“He must be very clever.”

“He has a genius for upholstery,” said Isabel.

“There is a great rage for that sort of thing now.”  (Ch. 38)

In some ways reading A Portrait of a Lady is akin to reading Jules Laforgue’s poems about commedia dell’arte clowns who live on the moon.  The characters in The Portrait of a Lady are a rarefied bunch.  The fiction of Ronald Firbank is now possible.

I did not mean to write so much about this marvelous minor character.  I meant to write about the subtly indirect ways James fills in three years of history for the important characters (it takes six chapters to finally get back to Isabel’s point of view).  But I might as well finish him off.

Whatever suspicions I have about Rosier’s love for a doll, the love affair turns out to be quite real for the doll herself, real to the point of genuine pathos, and real to Isabel, which is how the whole subplot transforms into the main plot.  I have some arguments with James’s bantering dialogue – maybe I will write about that tomorrow – but it allows Pansy one fine moment.

“Oh yes, I must indeed.  I can’t disobey papa.”

“Not for one who loves you as I do, and whom you pretend to love?”

Pansy raised the lid of the tea-pot, gazing into this vessel for a moment; then she dropped six words into its aromatic depths.  “I love you just as much.”

I so enjoy the line without dialogue that I almost wish James had left me guessing about the six words.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

this young lady had been seated alone with a book - Henry James time-travels

Henry James does something so remarkable in the third chapter of The Portrait of a Lady that it is, now, almost invisible.  It is no longer remarkable, yet here I am remarking.

We left Isabel Archer on the lawn of an English country house with her uncle and cousin, whom she had just met.  It was her aunt who brought her to England, so we need a bit of the aunt, and chapter 3 begins with a long paragraph about the aunt, about her situation.  Then:

She had taken up her niece – there was little doubt of that.  One wet afternoon, some four months earlier than the occurrence lately narrated, this young lady had been seated alone with a book. To say that she had a book is to say…

James has shifted from the aunt to Isabel and he has also shifted to a scene, with weather and props and a setting, “an old house in Albany,” and something like action.  “The visitor had not been announced; the girl heard her at last walking about the adjoining room.”  James needs to move the characters into the same room, right?

But he puts that off for three pages so he can sit with Isabel and her book, and more curiously the room and window and sofa where she likes to read, where she – this is the most remarkable thing James does – where she has always liked to read.  The long paragraph moves from the aunt to the niece to the niece as a child.  “She had been in the house…  weeks of which Isabel had the happiest memory…  even as a child she thought…  somehow, all her visits had a flavour of peaches…”

Are we still with Isabel in the “present” of the novel (the new present, the one that is “some four months earlier”), with Isabel’s memories?  James is subtly moving the scene into the past. 

… she had uncontrolled use of a library full of books with frontispieces, which she used to climb upon a chair to take down.  When she had found one to her taste – she was guided in the selection chiefly by the frontispiece – she carried it into a mysterious apartment which lay beyond the library, and which was called, traditionally, no one knew why, the office…  There was an old haircloth sofa, in especial, to which she had confided a hundred childish sorrows.  [Some stuff about a door to the street].  But she had no wish to look out, for this would have interfered with her theory that there was a strange, unseen place on the other side – a place which became, to the child’s imagination, according to its different moods, a region of delight or of terror.

It was in the “office” still that Isabel was sitting on that melancholy afternoon of early spring which I have just mentioned.

It is as if James has filmed the child reading on the sofa, perhaps with a sepia filter, and faded to the adult Isabel in the same place and posture, although with a different book (she “had been trudging over the sandy plains of a history of German Thought”).  Finally, hey, the aunt is in the doorway resulting in a more ordinary dialogue-heavy scene.

So: the present to four months past to, subtly, Isabel as a child to, with a snap of the fingers (actually with a paragraph break), Isabel as an adult.  Some of James’s transitional language looks clumsy and unnecessary (“the occurrence lately narrated,” “which I have just mentioned”) but this is because later fiction writers have filed the technique down to a perfect smoothness.

In 1881 no one – no one­ – had written a scene like this.

Can that claim possibly be true?  I assume, actually, that it is not, that someone was constructing fiction like this.  Someone less canonical than my usual reading.  Victor Hugo had a relatively free conception of fictional time.  He gets close in a couple of places.  George Eliot was sufficiently innovative that I have mentioned, somewhere on Wuthering Expectations, every single instance in her fiction when she shifts time.  I have mentioned it every time I have seen it because it is so rare.  Or was so rare.

If there had been MFA creative writing programs in 1881, The Portrait of a Lady would have become the standard textbook.  It’s full of stuff like this.

Monday, October 26, 2015

her flexible figure turned itself lightly this way and that - James set The Portrait of a Lady in motion

The Portrait of a Lady begins as if it were a play.  A play of the George Bernard Shaw variety, with three and a half pages of scene setting and notes on the characters.  The scene is the lawn of an English country house at tea time – this takes two pages – the characters are an old American banker, his tubercular son, and a neighboring English lord, each of whom gets a paragraph.  Then the play:

The father caught his son’s eye at last, and gave him a mild, responsive smile.

“I am getting on very well,” he said.

“Have you drunk your tea?” asked the son.

“Yes, and enjoyed it.”

“Shall I give you some more?”  (Ch. 1)

Ah, so this is apparently a parody of a play, the most boring play ever staged.  The younger men are in theory in motion (“strolling to and from, in desultory talk”), but once the play begins they might as well be frozen.  Even the dog in the scene is motionless.  The talk turns to women and then to a niece from America who will soon visit.  She is in the title; she is the most important character in the book.  This is a strange, static beginning.

I turn to Chapter 2, and look what happens.

While this exchange of pleasantries took place between the two, Ralph Touchett wandered away a little… his little rowdyish terrier at his heels.  His face was turned towards the house, but his eyes were bent, musingly, upon the lawn; so that he had been an object of observation to a person who had just made her appearance in the doorway of the dwelling for some moments before he perceived her.

Isabel Archer has literally set the novel into motion by her appearance.  She had in fact appeared and thawed Ralph and his dog before I even knew of it, at some point  (“while”) back in the first chapter.

This is an unusual effect, available only in fiction.  In a play or film you would have to show part of the scene twice, once still and once mobile.  Another way to think of the switch between chapters is that James moves from a play to film.  The rest of the chapter has lots of filmic equivalents – the camera moves and pans (“She had been looking all round her again – at the lawn, the great trees, the reedy, silvery Thames, the beautiful old house”).  The male characters, along with the reader, take a good long gaze at Isabel, “her eyes brilliant, her flexible figure turned itself lightly this way and that.”

Then after more like this Chapter 3 does something else entirely, as I will describe tomorrow as I march through The Portrait of a Lady chapter by chapter.  No, I will not go that far – although tomorrow really will cover Chapter 3 – but I could, because James uses chapters in interesting and novel ways.  He uses a large number of the tools of fiction in new ways.  Finally, I have seen the long-rumored master technician with my own eyes.  Much of what he does has been so thoroughly absorbed that it takes a strong sense of literary chronology to see it at all.  Don’t neglect your literary history.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"Rome is inexhaustible." - Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

“I think he has quite exhausted Rome.”

“Ah no, that’s a shallow judgment.  Rome is inexhaustible.”  (The Portrait of a Lady, Ch. 46)

The Portrait of a Lady, the 1881 novel about a young American woman who travels to Europe and attracts a series of stalkers, has a peculiar relationship with Rome, the city, not the empire.  One scene in America, barely more than one setting in England, glimpses of London and Paris, a bit more of Florence, but plenty of Rome.

James reverts to the travel writing mode I noted in his 1871 story “The Passionate Pilgrim,” but now he integrates the plot more closely with the tourism.  The heroine, Isabel Archer, is attending church at St. Peters (as a tourist – she is not Catholic) when she comes across one of her many obsessive suitors, Lord Warburton, and a scene with him takes place amidst the service.  “In that splendid immensity individual indiscretion carries but a short distance” (Ch. 27) – that is James taking a jab at the suitor, who should know to behave better in church, more like the second suitor attending the service:

“What’s your opinion of St. Peter’s?” Mr. Osmond asked of Isabel.

“It’s very large and very bright,” said the girl.

An answer worthy of Daisy Miller, although Isabel is smarter than Daisy Miller, or is smarter than Daisy Miller acts.

In the next chapter, the encounter with the Lord Warburton takes place in front of “the lion of the collection,” (Ch. 28), the Dying Gladiator (“It is a work of profound interest and unrivalled excellence,” see p. 208).  Is James going to write his novel by working his way through his Baedeker, I wondered?  No, James used Murray, not Baedeker.

After her marriage, Isabel lives in Rome in a palace, “a dark and massive structure,”

which bore a stern old Roman name, which smelt of historic deeds, of crime and craft and violence, which was mentioned in “Murray” and visited by tourists who looked disappointed and depressed… (Ch. 36)

Whatever my frustrations with James, I have learned to get his humor, and also his indirection.  In this scene one secondary character (Mr. Rosier) is fretting over another (Pansy), but James has not yet described the living arrangements of the heroine; this is the way he slips that in, as if I care about where Pansy lives.

The theme culminates with Isabel taking a drive on the Campagna, on the Appian Way, thus connecting her to Carducci and Pater:

She had long ago taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe.  She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet were still upright; she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself  and grew objective…  (Ch. 49)

That last is a highly Jamesian phrase.  The pathetic fallacy amongst the ruins.  “[S]he had grown to think of [Rome] chiefly as the place where people had suffered.”  Thus her cruel husband who, a few chapters earlier, had called Rome “inexhaustible,” an irony for poor suffering Isabel.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Walter Pater's Rome - at no time had the winter roses from Carthage seemed more lustrously yellow and red

Marius the Epicurean is in form a historical novel about 2nd century Rome, but a historical novel that allows itself lines like:

And the scene of the night-watching of a dead body  lest the witches should come to tear off the flesh with their teeth, is worthy of Théophile Gautier.  (Ch. 5, describing The Golden Ass)

Here, then, was the theory of Euphuism, as manifested in every age in which the literary conscience has been awakened to forgotten duties towards language, towards the instrument of expression: in fact it does but modify a little the principles of all effective expression at all times.  (Ch. 6, from a rich argument about style and literary decadence)

A phrase from Goethe’s Faust, a long quotation from Rousseau’s Émile, offhand references to Cardinal Newman and Walter Savage Landor – one might think the book is in fact some kind of work of literary criticism.  In part it is.  Part of the challenge of reading Pater is that the art criticism, literary essays, and fiction are all in service of a long continuing argument.  The imaginary portrait of Marius is different in form than the historical portraits of Leonardo and Winckelmann in The Renaissance (1873), but not in purpose.

I am not convinced that all of these forms should be used like this.  Maybe they should have different purposes!  All part of learning to read Pater.

Regardless, if the historical novel is rarely convincing, the novelized history is often excellent, especially in the chapters about Rome, “that city of tombs, layer upon layer of dead things and people… heroism in ruin” (Ch. 12), as in the descriptions of the horrific “games” involving the slaughter of men and animals in Chapter 14 – Marius rejects Stoicism in large part because of Marcus Aurelius’s indifference to the cruelty of the arena combats – or the marvelous “day in the life of Rome” in Chapter 11:

They visited the flower-market, lingering where the coronarii pressed on them the newest species, and purchased zinias, now in blossom (like painted flowers, thought Marius), to decorate the folds of their togas.  Loitering to the other side of the Forum, past the great Galen's drug-shop [another celebrity cameo], after a glance at the announcements of new poems on sale attached to the doorpost of a famous bookseller [there is more reading, more book-buying in Marius than I would have guessed], they entered the curious library of the Temple of Peace, then a favourite resort of literary men, and read, fixed there for all to see, the Diurnal or Gazette of the day…

I began to wonder if Pater was secretly describing a day in London.

The twelfth chapter is one of the book’s hybrids, a “speech” by Marcus Aurelius that is – I think – an ingenious hodgepodge of Meditations, Ecclesiastes, and Shakespeare. The speech somehow ends with not just the fall of night but the coming of winter, “the hardest that had been known in a lifetime.” 

The wolves came from the mountains; and, led by the carrion scent, devoured the dead bodies which had been hastily buried during the plague, and, emboldened by their meal, crept, before the short day was well past, over the walls of the farmyards of the Campagna.  The eagles were seen driving the flocks of smaller birds across the dusky sky.  Only, in the city itself the winter was all the brighter for the contrast, among those who could pay for light and warmth.  The habit-makers made a great sale of the spoil of all such furry creatures as had escaped wolves and eagles, for presents at the Saturnalia; and at no time had the winter roses from Carthage seemed more lustrously yellow and red.

Now, this is not London, right?  This is Rome, Pater’s Rome.

So next, the Rome of Henry James.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

living in that full stream of refined sensation - notes on Marius the Epicurean

This is the week – well, a week – in which I write about authors no one cares about, burning off any interest generated by my previously untranslated César Aira story (actual interest generated: none).  This is all leading up to Henry James, to The Portrait of a Lady.  But now, Marius the Epicurean (1885).

As a novel, a total failure.  Walter Pater had no gift for character or story, and as a result Marius was hard to read and will be harder to remember.  A young Roman explores a range of ethical systems, not just the Epicureanism of the title, before dying as a kind of non-Christian Christian martyr.  Characters include every celebrity of the time – meaning people I had heard of: Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Apuleius (a translation of the Cupid and Psyche section of The Golden Ass is inserted into the book), and Lucian, who stars in a fine, amusing Lucianic dialogue.

The novel is a hybrid, and should perhaps be more read than it is for that alone, since hybrids are in vogue now.  But how many readers at this point will care which ethical system Marius adopts?  Especially when the choice is an idealized, aestheticized early Christianity.

He has a strong apprehension, also, of the beauty of the visible things around him; their fading, momentary graces and attractions.  His natural susceptibility in this direction, enlarged by experience, seems to demand of him an almost exclusive pre-occupation with the aspects of things; with their aesthetic character, as it is called – their revelations to the eye and the imagination; not so much because those aspects of them yield him the largest amount of enjoyment, as because to be occupied, in this way, with the aesthetic or imaginative side of things, is to be in real contact with those elements of his own nature, and of theirs, which, for him at least, are matter of the most real kind of apprehension.  (Ch. 16)

The passage perhaps makes Pater seem even less readable than he really is.  I need two more lines:

As other men are concentrated upon truths of number, for instance, or on business, or it may be on the pleasures of appetite, so he is wholly bent on living in that full stream of refined sensation.  And in the prosecution of this love of beauty, he claims an entire personal liberty, liberty of heart and mind, liberty, above all, from what may seem conventional answers to first questions.

In other words, aesthetic concerns are ethical concerns, and are just as real as any other aspect of reality.  Even the turn to the early Church at the novel’s end is based on an aesthetic response to the service and music and iconography (see Chapter 23), much like the aestheticized defense of Catholicism Chateaubriand makes in The Genius of Christianity (1802).  For Pater’s Marius, his interest in Christianity is ethical because it is aesthetic.

I do not know if anyone else was thinking, when I was messing around with the English poets of the 1890s, “this dude needs to read more Pater,” but that is certainly what I was thinking, and here we have 500 words demonstrating that I have been reading more Pater.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Barbarian Odes - Carducci on the Appian Way - Drive from here the new men and their trivial works

Giosuè Carducci’s best book is Odi barbare (1877+), The Barbarian Odes, inspired in part by his first visit to the city of Rome and its ruins at age 42, several years after Italian unification.

It is his best title, at least.  A rich title. 

The ruined tombs stand in the drab winter scene, clad still with their ivy
and laurel, along the Appian Way.

Shining white clouds scud across the pale blue sky, which gleams
still with the rain when the sun catches it.

Egle stands there, and gazes up at that clear promise of Spring.
watching clouds and sun.

She watches; and the clouds above the ancient tombs reflect more the light
of her pure brow than of the sun itself.  (“Egle,” 1889)

“Egle” is a naiad, and the embodiment of spring, and also a young woman who is acting as Carducci’s muse – I said the ruins were part of Carducci’s inspiration.

Put simply, the heritage of Rome (ancient Rome) is the heritage of Italy, but are we not also the barbarians?  Sometimes the ruins are just piles of stone.  Perhaps they have no significance at all.

As he aged, Carducci’s hatred of the Catholic Church eased.  Still a champion of reason and enemy of superstition, he began to  see it more as an imperfect carrier of culture, a vessel that preserved some part of Roman culture for his own time, part of the path from ancient Rome to Dante and Petrarch and then on to himself, the Classicist.

Febris [a minor Roman divinity], hear me.  Drive from here the new men
and their trivial works: they outrage
my religious sense: the goddess
Rome sleeps here.  (“By the Baths of Caracalla”)

The younger Carducci would not have admitted to any kind of religious sense.  It is strange to see Carducci imagine the death of the sun, previously his symbol of Reason, observed by

a single
woman and man,

who palely standing in the middle of flattened mountains
and dead forests, will numbly watch you,
O Sun, as you set for the last time over one
interminable icefield.  (“On Monte Mario” – this poem begins with a view of Rome)

Or to see Carducci treat the railroad, his Satanic symbol of progress, more skeptically as it carries away his muse (“At the Station, One Autumn Morning”).

Rome even reconciles Carducci with Romanticism, most movingly in “By the Funeral Urn of Percy Bysshe Shelley,” when, after  a tedious invocation of too many relevant mythic figures ranging from Homer to Wagner,  the poet collapses back into the scene in front of him, into Rome, into nature or some simulacrum of it:

O heart of hearts, the sun, our divine father, enwraps
that poor silent heart of yours [Shelley’s] in the radiance of his love.

The pine-trees coolly tremble in the broad-blowing winds of Rome:
Where are you now, O poet of the free world?

Where are you?  Do you hear me?  With welling tears I gaze
beyond the Aurelian walls, towards the mournful plain.

I do not know how much of the narrative I have built on top of Carducci’s poems is an artifact of the selection, translation and notes of David Higgins, but I will work with the text I have.  There is a translation of The Barbarian Odes, complete, from 1950 that I read several years ago along with the Higgins Selected Verse.  That book is one of the two worst books of translated poetry I have ever read.  The English poems were quite bad.  But in some thin, weak sense, I have read the entire book.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Giosuè Carducci hated the moon yet won the Nobel Prize

Giosuè Carducci may not be the best Italian poet of the 19th century – he might be the fourth best – Leopardi, Foscolo, Belli, Carducci; how does that sound – as if I have read any others, as if I have any idea – but my point is that he is the one who lived at the right time and barely long enough to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1906.

There are a number of English translations of Carducci from around that time, but there has only been one in the last 65 years, the 1994 Selected Verse of David H. Higgins.  I have read it a couple of times.  It is pretty good: functional, informative, and at times even poetic.  Sometimes functional is enough:

Un bello e orrible                            Both beautiful and awful
Mostro si sferra,                              a monster is unleashed,
Corre gli oceani,                              it scours the oceans,
Corre la terra:                                   it scours the land:

Corusco e fumido                           Glittering and belching smoke
Come i vulcani,                                like a volcano,
I monti supera,                                it conquers the hills,
Divora i piani                                    it devours the plains.

We are approaching the end of “A Satana / To Satan” (1865).  Those punchy little Italian lines fly along like a steam train, which is what the “it” is.  The train is also Satan, which here is meant as a compliment.  Satan is reason, anti-clericalism, technology, and progress, everything that will defeat superstition and drag poor, backwards Italy into the 19th century.  Carducci’s is the least Satanic Satanism I have ever encountered, but still, he was thirty years old making what we now might call a punk gesture with his toast to Satan.

That Carducci was a classicist who believed in progress may give a hint as to why he died off in English once the Modernists arrived.  Even in Italian, he seems to have become a figure like Longfellow, Tennyson, or Hugo, someone for later advanced poets to reject and fight.  In a poem from the 1887 Rime nuove Carducci is so anti-Romantic that he criticizes the moon:

Ma tu, luna, abellir goli co ‘l raggio
Le ruine ed i lutti;
Maturar nel fantastico viaggio
Non sai né fior né frutti.

But they delight, O moon, is adorning ruins
and tombs with thy rays;
yet in thy fabled voyage thou art helpless
to ripen either flower or fruit.

Then thou fallest upon graveyards where vaingloriously
thou rekindlest
thy tired light, competing in the cold glow
with shinbones and skulls.

I hate thy idiotic, rounded face,
thy starched white petticoats,
thou lewd, prudish, impotent,
hevaenly hypocrite.   (“Classicism and Romanticism”)

Carducci favors the useful sun.  The poet is a craftsman, like a blacksmith.  What, though, is this if not a great Romantic gesture?

But for himself the poor craftsman
fashions a golden shaft,
and hurls it towards the sun:
he watches as it flashes upwards;
he watches and rejoices;
nothing more is his desire.  (“Congedo / Envoi” from Rime nuove)

As Carducci ages, he deepens, or so the selection fooled me into thinking.  The punk mellows.  He tempers his rejection of the Catholic Church, withdraws a bit from immediate political concerns, discovers nature, and discovers Rome, which is what I want to look at tomorrow.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Whether he had meant it as a joke - Aira's "Cecil Taylor" - She is not a story.

I doubt I was the only one who did this.  Roberto Bolaño had called César Aira’s “Cecil Taylor” (1987, I think) “one of the five best stories I can remember,” so even though it was not available in English I had to see for myself even if I could not exactly read it.  What I wanted to know was if the story was actually about Cecil Taylor, the thorny jazz pianist, one of the inventors of free jazz – he broke free from chords – and one of the few surviving giants of the 1950s.  One of two, I am afraid, along with Sonny Rollins.

Yes, the story is in fact about Cecil Taylor and his struggles early in his career not to be understood but just to be heard.  César Aira has now published something like ninety little books, sometimes producing three or four a year, but in 1988, well, I suspect there is some strong identification of the author with his subject.

His experience at Cooper Union was even less gratifying.  They used a blackout as a pretext to stop him halfway through; there was vigorous booing, and from what he heard later, his performance left the audience wondering about the limits of music, and whether he had meant it as a joke.  (349)

“Cecil Taylor,” now available in English via Chris Andrews in The Musical Brain and right here, was at that time only accessible in a 1992 collection called Buenos Aires: una antología de nueva ficción argentina (which someone should translate in its entirety).  Each story in the anthology was preceded by a new preface from the author.  How I wrote it; how I thought it up.  Aira prefaced “Cecil Taylor” with this (not in The Musical Brain):


The genie, outside of the bottle, tall like a twenty-story building, briefly instructed the young man:

“You will have in your life a beautiful woman who you will have at your whim.”


“More than you can imagine.  And helpless, without resources or friends.”

“For me?”

“For you alone.  She will be yours.  But there is a condition,” advised the genie with severity, “Do not think for an instant that she is an example or a metaphor for some other thing.  She is reality.  She is happening right now.  She is not a story.”   (my translation)

The nature of personal pronouns in Spanish tempts me to translate the last sentence as the Diderot-like “It is not a story.”  A Musical Brain features several genies; Taylor is himself described as a genie:

His continual changes of address protected him; they were the little genie’s suspended dwellings, and there he slept on a bed of chrysanthemums, under the shade of a droplet-laden spiderweb.  (346, tr. Andrews)

I know too little about the actual Taylor’s biography to know much about what in “Cecil Taylor” is fact and what is plausible guesswork, but this bit, I assume, is taken from life.

Here you can see Aira meet Taylor earlier this year, when Aira was in New York to promote The Musical Brain.

To hear Taylor, please sample anything from Cecil Taylor in Berlin ’88, which is what Taylor was doing when the story was written, not what he was doing in 1956.  His early innovations have been so thoroughly absorbed that Jazz Advance (1956) or, even better, The World of Cecil Taylor (1960) now just sound like jazz.

A conventional musician, [Taylor] thought, is always dealing with music in its most general form, as if leaving the particular for later, waiting for the right moment.  And they did pay [Taylor]: twenty dollars, on the condition that he would never show his face there again.  (351, Andrews).

That is how Aira’s non-story ends, but In Berlin ’88 and The Musical Brain tell me what happened when these artists kept showing their faces, again and again.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Surrealism is so beautiful! It changes everything! - César Aira embarks on the great avant-garde adventure

In one of the mad scientist stories, Leopoldo Lugones explicitly invokes Poe’s “imp of the perverse,” Poe's greatest psychological insight:

The demon of scientific inquiry, which is nothing but the embodiment of the spirit of perversity, impelled me, nevertheless, to resume my experiments. (Strange Forces, “Yzur”)

I take this as a self-description, and also as a description of his countryman, future Nobel anti-Prize winner César Aira.

Surrealism is so beautiful!  It changes everything!  (“The Infinite,” 1993, p. 226)

As if Aira’s own fiction did not contain enough self-description.  That one is about a young Aira and a friend inventing a game in which the goal is to say a number larger than the previous number, children demonstrating a philosophical exercise about representation.

Daydreams are always about concepts, not examples.  I wouldn’t want anything I’ve written to be taken as an example.  (235)

My knock on Aira is that however inventive the surface variation he is always writing the same story, but perversely The Musical Brain (2015), a collection of short stories, mostly variations on the same handful of ideas, is the perfect introduction to Aira.  When surveying Aira, it helps to be able to triangulate, or at least it is easier to see Aira mention again and again, in story after story, the “fact” “that a piece of paper cannot be folded in half more than nine times” (“A Brick Wall,” 2011, 18) or to wonder about the surprising number of genies.

My friends and I had become experts in deciphering that perfect economy of signs [Aira means film narrative].  It seemed perfect to us anyway, in contrast with the chaotic muddle of signs and meanings that constituted reality.  Everything was a clue, a lead.  Movies, whatever their genre, were really all detective stories.  Except that in detective stories, as I was to learn at around the same time, the genuine leads are hidden among red herrings, which, although required in order to lead the reader astray, are superfluous pieces of information, without significance.  (“A Brick Wall,” 7)

The movies “seemed like a super-reality.”  Sometimes I wondered is Aira was being too bald, but can I blame him if once in a while he wants someone to understand him, or, speaking for myself, pretend to understand him, since it is more than likely that I have been distracted by the savory red herrings, so good on toast.

From outside, it [contemporary art] might have seemed like a meaningless eccentricity contest.  But when one entered the game, the meaning became apparent, and dominated everything else.  It was, in fact, a game of meaning, and without meaning, it was nothing.  (“The Two Men,” 2007, 272)

Aira was the impetus for and center of a week of writing about conceptual art I did a couple of years ago.  In a 2013 essay in The White Review that is only superficially distinct from a couple of the stories in The Musical Brain, Aira describes the avant-garde, his avant-garde, as “an attempt to recuperate the amateur gesture,” to “restore to art the ease with which it was once produced.”

We were embarking on the great avant-garde adventure.  (“Athena Magazine,” 2007, 38)

The result is, as in this story and often in so-called real life, not the creation of the thing itself, in this case a magazine, but the perfect idea of a magazine, which for Aira almost counts as a success.  Not quite, though.  Tomorrow, “Cecil Taylor.”

Thursday, October 15, 2015

three days of horror beneath the celestial lash - the esoteric cataclysms of Leopoldo Lugones

As far as I can tell, all of two books by Leopoldo Lugones are available in English.  One is the 2001 version of Strange Forces (1906) translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, twelve short stories, half about mad scientists, half about nightmarish apocalypses, more or less.

The other is the 2008 Selected Writings in the Oxford Library of Latin America, translated by Sergio Waisman, which contains half of the stories from Strange Forces and thirty pages of newspaper writing and speeches, including the one from 1924 in which Lugones embraced fascism.  These writings were of mild historical interest.  Nowhere in the later book is the earlier translation even mentioned.  Honestly, I do not see the point of this book.  Did Waisman think Alter-Gilbert had botched his translation or something?

Alter-Gilbert does have a fondness for obscure English words.  My favorite new word was “fragor” (“a loud and sudden sound”), which translates the Spanish “fragor,” i.e., the same word.  The obscure Latinate words emphasize the resemblance of Lugones to Poe.

Lugones has a story titled “El Escuerzo” which Waisman “translates” as “El Escuerzo” and Alter-Gilbert as “The Bloat-Toad,” a superb title for a nightmare story. – “the toad began to inflate, to swell, to puff up by degrees, bulging, expanding, ballooning in a prodigious fashion, until it had tripled in size.”  How horrible.

The best Lugones stories feature neither mad scientists nor bloat-toads, but rather mythic apocalypses.  Sodom and Gomorrah get a story apiece, the latter describing in detail the city's destruction by a rain of super-heated copper pellets.  The stories finest moment is when the ruins of the city are invaded by lions:

Bald as mangy cats, their manes reduced to pitiful wisps of singed strands, their flanks seared unevenly, giving them the comic disproportion of half-clothed clowns wearing oversized masks, their tails standing on end and twitching, like those of rats in flight, their pustulous paws, dribbling blood – all this declared in the clearest terms their three days of horror beneath  the celestial lash…

“Origins of the Flood” mixes Genesis with Darwin.  Species rise and fall, with, at one point, the earth dominated by a species of intelligent mollusks that “lived, worked, and felt in a manner analogous to that of today’s humans” until the Flood, which did not involve rain but was rather “[a] progressive softening” which “endowed everything with the consistency of yeast.”   All of this is revealed by a spirit at a séance.  Perhaps the various chemicals and changes of state are meant to have an allegorical or alchemical meaning.

My favorite, though, is “The Horses of Abdera,” an expansion of an obscure myth associated with Hercules.  A city’s horses are so fine and well-trained that they develop intelligence and eventually rise up against the humans in an apocalyptic assault on the city.

Some time later, as it turned out, the beach was littered with dead fish which the tide had washed up, as had often happened in the past.  The horses glutted themselves on this gratuitous maritime bounty and, when they were sated, sauntered back to the suburban meadows with ominous slowness.

Etc., etc.  Weird, weird story.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Even apart from this last outburst of drivel - Leopoldo Lugones invents the Argentine Literature of Doom

When I came across Roberto Bolaño calling Argentine literature a “literature of doom,” I took it in part as a joke or as a way to emphasize the place of some specific Argentine writers like the prankster César Aira, at the time almost untranslated but now universally beloved, and the “excruciating” Osvaldo Lamborghini, still untranslated because, I assume, all decent English-language translators refuse to have anything to do with him.

But no, the more I have read in the literature, the more I have seen that Bolaño’s joke was of the “funny because true” variety.  Argentina has the most doom-laden, apocalyptic canon.  Esteban Echeverría’s “The Slaughterhouse” (1838/1871), Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845), and José Hernández’s The Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) all find themselves foundering in doom before they end.  And the tradition continues in Roberto Arlt, J. Rodolfo Wilcock, and Aira.  Much less so in Borges.

Thus the annual Argentinean Literature of Doom hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos, a connoisseur of literary doom.

This year I have finally read Leopoldo Lugones, specifically his Poe-like collection Strange Forces (1906), which I have been meaning to read in its Gilbert Alter-Gilbert translation since coming across, years ago, an enticing post at 50 Watts (and please see this interview with Alter-Gilbert).  Lugones is the key figure in Argentine Doom because he was the first writer to really see it, to pull the texts I mention above together as the central works of Argentine literature.  This was all long before he became a fascist and killed himself over a love affair.

He could see the strain of apocalypse because he shared it.  Strange Forces begins with the destruction of Gomorrah (“The Firestorm”) and ends with a scientist in an insane asylum.  If I am counting right, fully six of the twelve stories are about mad scientists, most of whom destroy themselves in their attempts to convert music into light, like Scriabin, or teach a chimpanzee to talk, or build a disintegration ray.  “What this extraordinary gardener wanted to create was a flower of death” (“Viola Acherontia”).

I guess it is an symptom of Doom – what other literature has such a high proportion of mad scientists?  They feature in Roberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen (1929), a novel that justifies its title, and Aira’s The Literary Conference (1997), just to pick a single example. J. Rodolfo Wilcock’s The Temple of Iconoclasts (1977) appears to contain an entire catalogue of mad scientists, making the mere six of Lugones look measly.

“I bought the ape at an auction of property from a bankrupt circus” (“Yzur”) – now that is a good first line.  The story cannot quite live up to it; none of Lugones’s scientific romances really do.  “[T]he resolution of any debate which the telling of this story may occasion will not rely, for its sole support, on my proficiency in the scientific arena” (“Psychon”), but in an all too authentically Poe-like gesture they mostly have too much science, too much scientistic gibberish.  “Even apart from this last outburst of drivel, the unbalanced personality of my interlocutor was evident to me…” (“Viola Acherontia”).  Lugones is in on the joke, although Alter-Gilbert argues that there is an esoteric side to the stories that the author meant entirely seriously.  All of that is invisible to me.

And anyways the six stories not about mad scientists are better, and less Poe-derivative, so who cares.  Tomorrow for those.

Monday, October 12, 2015

From the kentledge on the kelson - Kipling sings the Song of Steam

No, one more note on Kipling, a tentative one on his poems, his verse as he always called it.  I made an attempt on the 1940 Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Definitive Edition, 704 poems in 836 pages.  I got to page 191 in this round, so I have pretty much covered read the sea poems, dozens of sea poems.

It is “definitive” in a sense understood only by Kipling, who organized the book according to some secret design of his own, with, for example, the sea poems of Seven Seas (1896) kept together but reordered and mixed with his many other sea poems from earlier and later, stretching through the world war.  I see that Barrack-Room Ballads (1892) is coming up in a (reordered) section.  I can tell this by flipping around in the book, because it has the only table of contents puts the poems in alphabetical order by title.  Of course, there is also an index of first lines.  But if I do not know either the title or the first line, and let’s face it I do not, I am sunk.

It is a book designed for a reader who has had a long familiarity with Kipling’s poems over the course of decades, who had memorized some and made an attempt at others.  So, millions of English-language readers, at one point, but no longer, and not me.

I note that my Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th edition, published in 1986, a point where Kipling’s reputation may have been even lower than it is now, had room for just five short poems; I now see that the author of the potted biography practically begs undergraduates not to stop here.

Well, I set aside any neurosis about chronology or original publication and just read, a few poems a day until satiation.  The sea poems fit perfectly with The Day’s Work, so that is all right.

By sport of bitter weather
  We’re walty, strained, and scarred
From the kentledge on the kelson
  To the slings upon the yard.
Six oceans had their will with us
  To carry all away –
Our galley’s in the Baltic,
  And our boom’s in Mossel Bay.  (“The Merchantmen”)

Just sailors at work.  A pair of narrative poems that are clear attempts at Robert Browning-like monologues stand out, “McAndrew’s Hymn” and “The ‘Mary Gloster’”:

Lord, Thou hast made this world below the shadow of a dream,
An’, taught by time, I tak’ it so – exceptin’ always Steam.
From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see Thy Hand, O God –
Predestination in the stride o’ yon connectin’ rod.  (“McAndrew’s Hymn”)

See, another connecting-rod.  The engineer, like all engineers in Kipling, and at that time, everywhere, was Scottish, and my favorite moment in the poem is when he attacks poets for inattentiveness to his favorite subject:

Romance!  Those first-class passengers they like it very well,
Printed an’ bound in little books, but why don’t poets tell?
I’m sick of all their quirks an’ turns – the loves an’ doves they dream –
Lord, send a man like Robbie Burns to sing the Song o’ Steam!

The song McAndrews has just sung, in other words.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

There is nothing, unless, perhaps, the English language, more terrible than the workings of an English railway-line - Kipling absorbs great peace through his skin

A last note on The Day’s Work, on a story that is not quite one of the best but interesting – fascinating – in its own odd way.  It gives an especially strong sense of Rudyard Kipling, my imagined version of Kipling, while employing someone else's rhetoric.  It is “My Sunday at Home,” a comedy in which Kipling witnesses and narrates a complicated comic incident – one that he finds comic, at least.

This collection has two comedies about Americans getting into trouble by misunderstanding the English railroad system. 

There is nothing, unless, perhaps, the English language, more terrible than the workings of an English railway-line.

They come one right after the other; “Kipling” narrates both.  He has returned to England for the first time in years from his residence in Vermont.  Strange to think that all of these stories about ships and Indian polo were written in Vermont.  But The Jungle Book was written in Vermont, which is even stranger.

So the title is ironic.  Kipling is “at home” in the sense that he is in England, even though he spends most of the story stuck in a rural train station.  He is still on a train here:

“Where are we now?” said [the American].

“In Wiltshire,” said I.

“Ah!  A man ought to be able to write novels with his left hand in a country like this.  Well, well!  And so this is Tess’s country, ain’t it?  I feel just as if I were in a book.”

And at this moment a comic catastrophe ensues that leaves the pair stranded at Framlynghame Admiral, “which is made up entirely of the nameboard, two platforms, and an overhead bridge, without even the usual siding,” along with a drunken agricultural laborer who someone more expert in Thomas Hardy will have to identify for me.  Whatever else this story is, it is a sideways parody of Hardy.

The central joke of the story, a Victorian innovation, involves the effects of a powerful emetic on the Hardy-drunk.  The story is the direct ancestor of Monty Python’s World’s Fattest Man:

It was colossal – immense; but of certain manifestations the English language stops short.  French only, the caryatid French of Victor Hugo, would have described it…

Now that is another sideways shot, at Zola and his nauseating L’Assommoir.  Ah, the language of Racine and Voltaire; I believe that is the more typical joke.

While the laborer empties his stomach, the narrator mounts the bridge to survey Tess’s country:

It was the point of perfection in the heart of an English May-day.  The unseen tides of the air had turned, and all nature was setting its face with the shadows of the horse-chestnuts towards the peace of the coming night [I am not sure what this means].  But there were hours yet, I knew – long, long hours of the eternal English twilight – to the ending of the day.  I was well content to be alive – to abandon myself to the drift of Time and Fate; to absorb great peace through my skin, and to love my country with the devotion that three thousand miles of intervening sea bring to fullest flower.

That paragraph has another half page of this stuff to go before the return to the poor laborer.  It was at this point that the story really began to impress and confuse me.  Who knows, maybe Hardy is not the – I do not want to say target – inspiration.  The story ends:

And the seven forty-five carried me on, a step nearer to Eternity, by the road that is worn and seamed and channelled with the passions, and weaknesses, and warring interests of man who is immortal and master of his fate.

No, come on, who else?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

"Let the dirt dig in the dirt if it pleases the dirt" - Kipling takes the long view

“The Bridge-Builders” leads off The Day’s Work.  Kipling is building a gigantic bridge across the Ganges this time, rather than a ship’s engine or polo victory.

In the little deep water left by the drought, an overhead-crane travelled to and fro along its spile-pier, jerking sections of iron into place, snorting and backing and grunting as an elephant grunts in the timber-yard.  Riveters by the hundred swarmed about the lattice side-work and the iron roof of the railway-line, hung from invisible staging under the bellies of the girders, clustered round the throats of the piers, and rode on the overhang of the footpath-stanchions; their fire-pots and the spurts of flame that answered each hammer-stroke showing no more than pale yellow in the sun’s glare.

If I am not so sure that I want to read fiction about bridge-building, I am sure that if I do read it I want it to be written by a writer like Kipling, one who does not just know but sees, or perhaps I mean does not just see but knows.  What a memory he must have had.

As well as the early part of “The Bridge-Builders” introduces the main theme of the book, it is a bit of a diversion.  The bridge is nearly done when the Ganges floods.  Is the story about the heroic efforts of the chief engineer Findlayson and his Indian “all-around man” Peroo to save the bridge?  No, not at all.  Through circumstances too convoluted to describe, the two characters spend the flood trapped on an island, jointly hallucinating a debate of the Indian gods – Ganesh, Hanuman, the Ganges personified (well, crocodilified) – about whether or not the bridge will stand.  Ganesh takes the long view:

“It is but the shifting of a little dirt.  Let the dirt dig in the dirt if it pleases the dirt,” answered the Elephant.

A strange thing to read in a book about work and duty.

Kipling rarely resorts to actual gods but more typically allows his human-scale characters glimpses of the cosmic:

…an accident of the sunset ordered it that when he had taken off his helmet to get the evening breeze, the low light should fall across his forehead, and he could not see what was before him; while one waiting at the tent door beheld with new eyes a young man, beautiful as Paris, a god in a halo of golden dust, walking slowly at the head of his flocks, while at his knees ran small naked Cupids.  (“William the Conqueror”)

The characters fall in love when they reveal themselves, for an instant, as divine.  The Day’s Work ends with an uncanny repetition of the idea in “The Brushwood Boy,” where the recurring dreamscape of an English officer in India turns out to be a mystical link to a girl he knew in his childhood. 

He and she explored the dark-purple downs as far inland from the brushwood-pile as they dared, but that was always a dangerous matter.  The interior was filled with “Them,” and “They” went about singing in the hollows, and Georgie and she felt safer on or near the seaboard.  So thoroughly had he come to know the place of his dreams that even waking he accepted it as a real country, and made a rough sketch of it.

And Kipling makes a sketch, too.  Maybe I should have quoted a weirder bit, like when Georgie drowns and a duck laughs.  “The Brushwood Boy” is like a Lovecraftian weird tale of the Dream Cycle variety that ends not with the revelation of forbidden knowledge but rather the discovery of, to use the contemporary word, a soulmate and, as the romance readers call it, a HEA.  Weird, weird, weird.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Hearing men talk of their own work - even if the men are horses and the work is polo

She delighted in hearing men talk of their own work, and that is the most fatal way of bringing a man to your feet.  (“William the Conqueror”)

There are not many women in The Day’s Work, but William makes up for a lot.  She is the strongest of strong Female Characters.

Twice she had been nearly drowned while fording a river; once she had been run away with on a camel; had witnessed a midnight attack of thieves on her brother’s camp; had seen justice administered, with long sticks, in the open under trees; could speak Urdu and even rough Punjabi with a fluency that was envied by her seniors; had entirely fallen out of the habit of writing to her aunts in England, or cutting the pages of the English magazines; had been through a very bad cholera year, seeing sights unfit to be told; and had wound up her experiences by six weeks of typhoid fever, during which her head had been shaved and hoped to keep her twenty-third birthday that September.

Despite her masculinity, she is a man-killer, only partly because she is a rarity, a young, single English woman living with an army.  She could “look men slowly and deliberately between the eyes — even after they had proposed to her and been rejected.”

The story is about the man, Scott, who finally conquers her, and vice versa.  He does it by doing his duty under extraordinary circumstances, a South Indian famine (William of course does her duty as well).  In its description of meaningful work, the story is quite similar to “The Devil and the Deep Sea.”  Scott is not trying to straighten a bent rod but keep children alive when he is shipped wheat rather than rice.

What was the use of these strange hard grains that choked their throat?  They would die.

I do not remember reading any such thing, but I assume that there is a contemporary fiction of famine, stories of aid workers delivering powdered milk and Plumpy’Nut.  I doubt there was such a thing before “William the Conqueror.”  Kipling, like his hero and heroine, has to come up with solutions on his own.

Amidst the famine, and despite the characters barely meeting, a love story moves along, its apotheosis the moment that William is given a vision of Scott as a god, a moment that she is only granted because she herself is a goddess.  But this is mythic-Kipling, not Kipling-at-work, which here is “feeding babies and milking goats.”

As odd as it seems, “The Maltese Cat,” a detailed description of a polo match, is also structured much like the rebuilding of the engine or the administration of famine relief.  For the players, it is a series of difficult problems to be solved with great effort and at great risk.  The players in this case are the horses – the story is mostly from the perspective of the title character, the captain of the horses.  For the length of the story, the game is their work.

I am having trouble finding a quotation that does not make the story seem ludicrous.  It’s a polo match; the characters are horses (one name here belongs to a human):

Corks was watching the ball where it lay in the dust close to his near fore with Macnamara’s shortened stick tap-tapping it from time to time.  Kittiwynk was edging her way out of the scrimmage, whisking her stump of a tail with nervous excitement.

As with any story about sports, at least when it is not your sport, and mostly even when it is, the question that is hard to answer is “Who cares?”  I mean, it does not really matter who wins any polo match, much less a fictional one.  But here I found myself chasing the ball around the field, caring mostly about what Kipling was doing with his prose.  “It was as neat an exhibition as fancy figureskating.”

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Kipling repairs an engine - Next morning the work of reconstruction began

The shell that arrived by way of the Chief Engineer’s cabin was some five inches in diameter, with a practice, not a bursting, charge.  It had been intended to cross her bows, and that was why it had knocked the framed portrait of the Chief Engineer’s wife – and she was a very pretty girl – on to the floor, splintered his wash-hand stand, crossed the alleyway into the engine-room, and striking on a grating, dropped directly in front of the forward engine, where it burst, neatly fracturing both the bolts that held the connecting-rod to the forward crank.  (“The Devil and the Deep Sea”)

The engine powers a British vessel at this point manned by pearl poachers, petty criminals operating under the British flag in Dutch Malaysia.  The shell, fired from a Dutch gunboat, was meant as a warning shot, but it cripples the ship.  The poachers, after an interval of slave labor,* find themselves housed by a cheapskate official on their own ship.  They secretly repair the engine and escape, never, after one act of revenge, to be heard from again.

About a third of the story describes either the damage to or repair of the engine.  The protagonist, if not the engine itself, is the Chief Engineer.  The repair of the engine is taken as a great act of heroism.  It is a pirate story where I root for the pirates.  Great feats are worth the doing – that is the primary theme of The Day’s Work.  And great feats are made up of an accumulation of little feats – that is the secondary theme.

I ended the quotation with a rod and a crank.  The next paragraph describes the damaged mechanism in motion.  Pistons, columns, that rod flailing about.  How many readers even at the time could visualize the scene well?  How much does it matter?

There was a sound below of things happening – a rushing, clicking, purring, grunting, rattling noise that did not last for more than a minute.  It was the machinery adjusting itself, on the spur of the moment, to a hundred altered conditions…  [the ship] slid forward in a cloud of steam, shrieking like a wounded horse.

Metaphors help.  But there are still plenty of pistons and so on.  Perhaps a diagram would help.  Perhaps not.

I have not even gotten to the repair of the engine.  The climax – I will skip to that – is the straightening of that connecting-rod, a hallucinatory scene.  “It is curious that no man knows how the rods were straightened”:

At last – they do not remember whether this was by day or night – Mr. Wardrop began to dance clumsily, and wept the while; and they too danced and wept, and went to sleep twitching all over; and when they woke, men said that the rods were straightened, and no one did any work for two days, but lay on the decks and ate fruit.  Mr. Wardrop would go below from time to time, and pat the two rods where they lay. and they heard him singing hymns.

Kipling has moved into his mythic mode.  This is something beyond work as such.

“The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” has a plot not so far from a heist movie, except for the part of the story that us told as obliquely as any Modernist would dare, and it has characters, maybe only two, but characters like normal stories.  Except this story is about the repair of an engine.  It is radically original but also a dead end, at least for any writer without an imagination as capacious as Kipling’s.  Maybe it is one of a kind.  Sometimes it seems that is the real theme of The Day’s Work – stories no one has written before and will never write again.

*  Kipling’s narratorial voice is one of the few that deserves the word “sardonic.”  The crew is sent into, essentially, slavery: “Deep peace continues to brood over Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Australasia, and Polynesia.”

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Kipling's engineers and talking horses - The Day's Work

In a given book of short stories, how many of the stories should be from the point of view of a horse?  A narrow reader, my answer would be “None,” although really I do not grudge one.  The Day’s Work, Rudyard Kipling’s 1898 collection, has two, which is pushing it.  One of those is really from the perspective of the narrator-Kipling, who is listening to the horses debate.  They are debating American labor politics.  This story, “A Walking Delegate,” was a mistake.

These stories are contemporaries of The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895), so Kipling has talking animals on the brain.  He had always been good with animals.  But The Day’s Work also has a story about chatty railroad engines (“.007” – “.007 quivered; his steam was getting up, but he held his tongue”) and another one that does not personify an Atlantic freighter on its maiden voyage but rather all of the individual components of the ship including its steam (“The Ship that Found Herself”).  More characters: rivets, “a huge web-frame, by the main cargo-hatch,” and the garboard-strake (“the lowest plate in the bottom of a ship”).  These stories are not mistakes but are self-limiting.

Three more stories continue the train theme; two are farces about Americans running into trouble with the English railroad system, while one is about the apocalyptic cosmological implications of building a bridge across the Ganges.  Thus it introduces both the “men in India” theme, which continues in three stories, and the engineering theme, ditto in two.  One of those is about the destruction and part-by-part reconstruction of a ship’s engine (“The Devil and the Deep Sea”).

That one and “The Bridge-Builders” ought to be part of the curriculum at every engineering school.

One of the “men in India” stories, “The Brushwood Boy,” turns out to be a dreamy weird tale superior to Lovecraft’s except that it turns out to be a love story, and I do not want to read any Lovecraft love stories for comparison.  “William the Conqueror” is a terrific love story, too – this is one of the “men in India” stories, although William is a woman in India.

I am sorting the stories in this manner because when I describe The Day’s Work to myself in this way it sounds like a disaster, or at best a collection of oddities.  But I count five masterpieces out of twelve stories, which is a smaller proportion than in either Jungle Book but still, pretty rare.

That is one problem I have had thinking about this book – why would anyone write a story about repairing an engine and how could it be any good?  The other is that the overall themes of the collection are work and duty, as unfashionable a pair as I can imagine.  Perhaps Kipling has been done in not just by his political opponents but by his emphasis on ideas that have lost their literary audience, much like what happened to Walter Scott.

But who cares.  Some of these stories are terrific.  I sometimes use the metaphor of criticism as the dismantling of a story’s mechanism.  Never before has the image been so appropriate.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

"Guess what I have shot?" - some Saki stories that are stories

Saki’s first book of stories, Reginald (1904) turned out not to be a book of stories at all, despite leading off The Short Stories of Saki, but rather a collection of newspaper humor columns in which the title characters told jokes about this and that.  Reginald in Russia (1910) promises, via the title, more of the same.  A take it is a conceptual joke of Saki’s that Reginald appears only in the first “story” and is never seen or heard again, ever in the rest of Saki’s work, as if he went off a cliff with his arch-enemy Moriarty.  No, that is not the right analogy.

The Princess always defended a friend’s complexion if it was really bad.  With her, as with a great many of her sex, charity began at homeliness and did not generally progress much farther.

I am not complaining about the humor column side of Saki.  How about this one:

Reginald gave a delicate shiver, such as an Italian greyhound might give in contemplating the approach of an ice age of which he personally disapproved…

But my point is that most of the rest of this little book (my edition packs it into 62 pages) consists of genuine Saki stories, narratives with characters, movement, conclusions, and so on, not just a string of jokes.  Well, aside from a throwaway about ladies’ shopping habits that might as well include Reginald and a joke about Turks and women’s suffrage, both period pieces at best.

Otherwise, they are like “The Bag.”  The Major, who is in charge of fox-hunting, is coming to tea, along with another guest, a Russian youth, who has just shot – “’Guess what I have shot,’ he demanded.”

“Does it swim and eat fish?” asked Norah, with a fervent prayer in  her heart that it might turn out to be an otter.

“No,” said Vladimir, busy with the straps of his game-bag; “it lives in the woods, and eats rabbits and chickens.”

Norah sat down suddenly, and hid her face in her hands.

“Merciful Heaven!” she wailed; “he’s shot a fox!”

The Major enters just as they hide the fox.  Farce ensues.  I am so used to seeing farce ably enacted by humans, in plays and on screen, that I convince myself that actors are necessary for farce to work, but no, a nosey fox-terrier, a musky game bag, and prose are enough.

“The Bag” has a twist in the last line – just a single word – that does not upend what came before, but only deepens the social comedy.  “The Mouse” follows the same formula.  A man in a train compartment discovers he has a mouse in his clothes.  Can he possibly shake out or even remove some of his clothes in front of the lady in the compartment with him – when she is asleep?  For a while, his answer is No, which is funny, and after enough mousey torment he changes to Yes, which is funnier.

Farce is just comedy of manners with the manners at issues isolated or pushed to an extreme.  Why not just violate that standard, just this once?  Easy to say after the fact, or from the safety of my soft armchair at the club.

My understanding is that these stories were much read – and first read – by gentlemen at their clubs.  Did they have to stifle their laughter to maintain decorum, or could they let it out right there in the reading room?  Especially when they hit the twist words, nine words from the end of the story in “The Mouse,” seven from the end in “The Bag,” just four in the startling “The Reticence of Lady Anne.”  I am imagining little pops of laughter around the room from the men reading Saki in the Westminster Gazette.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Eight years of sickness, idleness, and ignorance - happy birthday to Wuthering Expectations!

The “eight years of my adolescence comprise a period of sickness, idleness, and ignorance” writes Vittorio Alfieri in his Memoirs (1806).  A few days ago Wuthering Expectations turned eight!  Health, activity, and knowledge may be on their way.

I feel that I have not had a single good idea in the past two years, but I have read a couple hundred good books which makes up for a lot.  Every two years, inspired by the title of a great Sonny Rollins album, I remind myself of what I have been doing.  This Is What I Do, Part 4.

The most popular, and also unpopular, thing I wrote was my best bad idea: a review of a review of a novel I have not read.  Although completely sympathetic with Francine Prose, on her side aesthetically, I could see that her review of The Goldfinch had serious problems of argumentation and evidence.  So the post was like a self-corrective.  It attracted terrific comments.  Always read the comments.

The basic aesthetic approach of Wuthering Expectations is best seen in a series on John Ruskin’s Modern Painters from two years ago and a series on Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education that began last week.  And in between, a week on W. G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country.  I’m only linking to the first posts.  You can move forward from them, day by day, until either you or I are sick of the topic.

Other series that were fun to write:  Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (those posts had especially good titles), Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir, Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian. Big significant books.

Not that smaller books are less fun.  H. G. Wells’s The First Men on the Moon, Herman Bang’s Tina, Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (well, this one is big).  A ramble through some shorter and longer early works of Henry James.

I can’t complain about all of the readalong opportunities of the past two years.  Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries, John Crowley’s Little, Big, Nicanor Parra’s Poems and Anti-poems, Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, all great books to share with other readers.  Worst yet best of all was Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done?, read by more people than I possibly would have guessed not just at that time but subsequently – I still see ripples from the readalong on other book blogs.  Maybe that was my best bad idea.  Many thanks to everyone who invited me along or joined in.

I splash around with Algernon Swinburne.  Authors I have read and not read.  Who is this Dino Campana character?  Who is this John Davidson character?  Who is this Sidney Lanier character?  Book bloggers have more freedom to just ask that question.  No professional need to pretend to expertise we do not have.

I say farewell to D. G. Myers.

How can I thank all of the book bloggers I read, or who stop by Wuthering Expectations to read, skim, comment, collaborate, or correct?  My writing is better as a result, my “thinking,” and especially my reading, which is where the blog begins, every day.  Thank you!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Knit together remaining stitches. Cast off loosely. - Amy Hempel knits patterns

One thing I wrote a few days ago needed a fact check, I thought.  I mean a reread.  Since I wanted to say that Flaubert was granddaddy of the minimalists, I thought I should remind myself of what a minimalist was like.  That word should be in quotations marks: “minimalist.”  These labels quickly become useless.

I picked a book I hadn’t read for twenty-five years, Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live (1985), an aesthetically coherent book of short stories that is probably less than a hundred pages all told.  There are many steps between Hempel and Flaubert, but she writes as if she had read Sentimental Education and thought “Yes, like this, but just leave out the boring parts.”  And she has very strong opinions about which parts those are.  Most of ‘em, is her answer.  Not necessarily the parts most other people find boring.

“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” Hempel’s most famous story, dives right in:

“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said.  “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”

I began.  I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet.  I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did.  I told her the shape of the moon is like a banana – you see it looking full, you’re seeing it end on.

The narrator is visiting her friend in the hospital, distracting her from her imminent death with trivia, jokes, nothing with too much meaning.  Hempel never specifies the friend’s illness.  The important thing is that she, they, are young.

The story of the hospital visit is almost the frame for the deeper story of the narrator’s boundless fear of her own death. 

What seems dangerous often is not – black snakes, for example, or clear-air turbulence.  While things that just lie there, like this beach, are loaded with jeopardy.  A yellow dust rising from the ground, the heat that ripens melons overnight – this is earthquake weather.

The story, like most in the collection is full of stuff, the trivia, details about the hospital, the patient’s routine, the activity on the beach (the stories are all in southern California, where some hospitals have beaches), not just seemingly disconnected as in Flaubert’s fiction but deliberately disconnected.  Hempel has to simulate randomness.  The punchline, or perhaps hinge of the story:

On the morning she was moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried, I enrolled in a “Fear of Flying” class.  “What is your worst fear?” the instructor asked, and I answered, “That I will finish this course and still be afraid.”

The trivia was not just a little gift to a dying friend, but part of the way the narrator orders – disorders –the world.  The miscellaneousness of the world is life.  The narrator – and the writer – somehow pulls this material into some sort of meaningful shape.

The next story makes the idea even more explicit. “Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep,” seeming gibberish that comes from non-metaphorical patterns for knitting (“Begin, slip together, increase, continue, repeat”), although the metaphor for Hempel’s art is if anything too blunt.

I wait for Dale Anne in the room with the patterns.  The songs in these books are like lullabies to me.

K tog rem st.  Knit together remaining stitches.

Cast off loosely.

Now that last line, that is a long ways from Flaubert.