Monday, February 29, 2016

the lines have the value of color - a Wharton short story rummage

I  had thought that  the only Edith Wharton I had read until now was Citizen Kane, but no, I had read but forgotten the story that leads off The Greater Inclination, Wharton’s first book.  The story is “The Muse’s Tragedy” (1899), and it is notable as, from the title on to the end, as a commentary on or parody of Henry James.  A young poet meets the still young muse of a great old, deceased poet.  What effect will she have on him?  Poems, a book about the older poet?  Instead they fall into a love affair, in Italy, where else.  “The Aspern Papers” meets “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” meets a number of other James tales.

The story is written like James, too, early James, not like the contemporary What Maisie Knew or The Turn of the Screw but James from twenty years earlier.  The first line:

Danyers afterward liked to fancy that he had recognized Mrs. Anerton at once; but that, of course, was absurd, since he had seen no portrait of her – she affected a strict anonymity, refusing even her photograph to the most privileged – and from Mrs. Memorall, whom he revered and cultivated as her friend, he had extracted but the one impressionist phrase: “Oh, well, she’s like one of those old prints where the lines have the value of color.”

It is also the first paragraph, though, which is not so Jamesian.  Wharton’s Jamesianism is simplified, or is the right word clarified, not just in style but character, theme.  The muse’s tragedy is that her story is not her own, so Wharton gives her a story of her own.  Although, strictly speaking, it is also an invention.

“Souls Belated” is a divorce story, one of several I have come across recently.  A couple is vacationing in Italy, traveling as husband and wife, not married yet, but waiting for a divorce to be finalized.  Even in 1899, Wharton does not treat this situation as especially shocking.    More shocking is the person in their train compartment, “a courtly person who ate garlic out of a carpet-bag” – not at all Jamesian.  Sometimes Wharton sounds more like Oscar Wilde:

“That’s the worst of it.  She’s too handsome.”

“Well, after all, she can’t help that.”

“Other people manage to,” said Miss Pinsent skeptically.

How about “Eleanor  is porous, and I knew that sooner or later the unnecessary truth would exude through the loose texture of her dissimulation”?  That is from “The Rembrandt,” a preposterous story about a museum curator who overpays for a painting out of cowardice and guilt.  I jotted the line down purely for its odd poetic qualities, its vowels sounds, all of those “u”s, ooh ooh ooh.

There’s some of this, there’s some of that.  “The Rembrandt” is from Wharton’s second collection, Crucial Instances (1901), which I sampled but did not read as a whole.  No, the titles of her story collections are not so good.  Reading Wharton’s short stories as a whole seems like a good project for someone else, as much as I enjoyed the ones I tried.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

the cedar-chest of indifference, the grace of artificiality - some early Edith Wharton stories

Early Edith Wharton short stories, those are things I have read recently.  I went so far as to read an entire book of them, in non-book form, the 1899 The Greater Inclination.   It is Wharton’s first book, and contains most, not all, of the stories she published during the 1890s, commercial magazine fiction of the time, of the better sort, although that is an easy judgment, since I have an idea of what is to come later.

But no, these stories are good.  One dud in The Greater Inclination, a two scene play about a man who asks his wife to rekindle an old love affair to help him get a political favor.  She is offended – enter old flame – she changes her mind.  French twaddle.  A bit where the characters flirt via metaphor is excruciating although hilarious:

Isabel:  If one has only one cloak [cloak is metaphorical] one must wear it in all weathers.

Oberville:  Unless it is so beautiful and precious that one prefers to go cold and keep it under lock and key.

Isabel:  In the cedar-chest of indifference – the key of which is usually lost.  (“The Twilight of the God”)

That “cedar-chest of indifference” is transcendently bad.  Two lines later there is “an auction sale of fallacies.”  All dialogue, please remember.  A parody of French twaddle, perhaps.  Let’s assume that.  And I remind myself, the sole dud.

More typical is the kickoff of the next story, “A Cup of Cold Water”:

It was three o’clock in the morning, and the cotillion was at its height, when Woburn left the over-heated splendor of the Gildermere ballroom, and after a delay caused by the determination of the drowsy footman to give him a ready-made overcoat with an imitation astrachan collar in place of his own unimpeachable Poole garment, found himself breasting the icy solitude of the Fifth Avenue.

So efficient – name, place, social status via a small but meaningful confusion.  As much as commercial magazine fiction has changed, mostly by becoming much less commercial, there is plenty that does not sound so different.  Well, no one would write “the Fifth Avenue.”

“A Cup of Cold Water” turns out to be a noir.  I mean, “In the unventilated coffee-room they found a waiter who had the melancholy air of being the last survivor of an exterminated race, and who reluctantly brought them some tea made with water which had not boiled,” Raymond Chandler might be okay with that one.  Desperate to marry a woman in the cotillion set, wearing much too nice of a coat for a bank clerk, Woburn has gambled heavily and embezzled a bundle from his bank.  He needs to be on an ocean liner to Europe, but spends the night finding excuses to not skip out quite yet.  The psychology of the character is quite good. 

Later in the night, he meets a dame in distress, and the story suddenly fills up with noir clichés, which were all I know were not yet clichés.  Perhaps they are inexorably generated by the form.  I prefer this description of the rich woman who does poor Woburn in:

Miss Talcott’s opinions had no connection with the actual; her very materialism had the grace of artificiality.  Woburn had been enchanted once by seeing her helpless before a smoking lamp: she had been obliged to ring for a servant because she did not know how to put it out.

This is closer to the Wharton her best readers know, right?  It should be assumed that I am an ignoramus about Edith Wharton.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Henry James uses metaphors

This will be something of a What Maisie Knew note dump.  I have said what I have to say and now just have questions.  The big one is how James uses metaphors.  I don’t understand it yet.  I ended my run on The Portrait of a Lady with the same question.

It’s the central question of style, which is the same as saying it is central to how the artist sees the world, “sees” being itself a metaphor.  For some writers – Saul Bellow – the metaphor is strongly visual, sensual.  To see the one thing – to see it in my imagination – he says, imagine this other thing.  Right, now you’ve got it.  Metaphor is a form of precision.

Gustave Flaubert’s metaphors are prosaic, useful but plain, but they are used to create an elaborate pattern of reference that is a thing of beauty, a glimpse of the reality behind reality.

Then there are writers in the plain style who think metaphors are dishonest, just rhetoric.  Sometimes they are right.  Say what it is, not what it is like.

Then there is James, who uses five hundred words to avoid the word “fat.”  Or uses a series of metaphors as a substitute for setting, movement and dialogue – for the usual components of a scene.  For characterization, too.  Maisie’s mother didn’t wear but “carried” clothes – she “carried them as a train carries passengers” (Preface)  That is not meant to be something I see, is it, but rather a description of the mother’s attitude, of her cool.  Or of her promiscuity.  Honestly not sure which.

Sometimes the metaphorical language feels like it must be visual, even if I have trouble seeing it.  Maisie’s mother’s “huge painted eyes… were like Japanese lanterns swung under festive arches”  (Ch. 25).  A “huge frosted cake” is “a wonderful delectable mountain with geological strata of jam” (Ch. 12).  For me, the vividness of the metaphor overwhelms what it describes.  I enjoy the grotesqueness James creates, but I think I need to learn to work my way back into the book.

I noticed one deliberate pattern.  In Chapter 4, I find “a lady with eyebrows arched like skipping-ropes and thick black stitching, like ruled ‘lines,’ on beautiful white gloves,” two reasonably visual similes that are both plausibly the perceptions of a child.  They are within her imaginative and linguistic world.  Eighty pages later the gloves return as “a pearl-grey glove ornamented with the thick black lines that, at her mother’s, always used to strike her as connected with the way the bestitched fists of the long ladies carried, with the elbows well out, their umbrellas upside down” (Ch. 15).  Then a few pages later ,the eyebrows from up above.

Vladimir Nabokov would omit “at her mother’s,” the direct reminder of the earlier scene.  That’s my job, to work that out, not his.  But I wonder what would happen if I followed James’s hint and rubbed these two scenes together.

I could then follow the umbrella theme, which is there, really, I think.  I began my posts on What Maisie Knew with an elbow metaphor, one I did not understand, from fourteen chapters after this one.  Hmm.

The only way to see how this all fits together, to figure out what kind of argument James is making with his language, is to reread the novel.  Maybe it doesn’t.  One time through What Maisie Knew, through Henry James, how would I know.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

“It MUST do us good – it's all so hideous” - What Maisie Knew as a novel of education

Is What Maisie Knew a kind of Bildungsroman?  Or is it the reverse, a parody, of the novel of development?  How much development  - meaning of the moral sensibility – should I expect of a nine year-old, especially when literally every person she meets is t best inept and at worst a heartless monster.

At times Maisie looked like a parody of the novel of education, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile turned into farce (and read a certain way, Émile is already pretty funny).  Maisie’s education is not merely neglected by her parents but openly impeded.  Her one relatively present governess, the magnificent Mrs. Wix, is an ignoramus, and thus comes cheap. 

They dealt, the governess and her pupil, in “subjects,” but there were many the governess put off from week to week and that they never got to at all: she only used to say “We'll take that in its proper order.” Her order was a circle as vast as the untravelled globe.  (Ch. 4)

Maisie’s step-parents are better educated than the governess, and less appalling than the actual parents, and thus occasionally make plans to educate Maisie.  For example, Sir Claude, he step-father, plans a course of reading for Maisie and Mrs. Beale, the step-mother:

He had got hold of an awfully good list – “mostly essays, don't you know?”  Mrs. Beale had said; a word always august to Maisie, but henceforth to be softened by hazy, in fact by quite languorous edges. There was at any rate a week in which no less than nine volumes arrived…  (Ch. 17)

Even more ambitiously, Sir Claude suggests a series “of lectures at an institution,” which have the added bonus that the institution is reached via the Underground, a thrill for Maisie.  The walk from the train was  

a pathway literally strewn with “subjects.”  Maisie imagined herself to pluck them as she went, though they thickened in the great grey rooms where the fountain of knowledge, in the form usually of a high voice that she took at first to be angry, plashed in the stillness of rows of faces thrust out like empty jugs.  “It MUST do us good – it's all so hideous,” Mrs. Beale had immediately declared; manifesting a purity of resolution that made these occasions quite the most harmonious of all the many on which the pair had pulled together.  (Ch. 17)

That may be my favorite passage in the novel.  Maisie, the emptiest of jugs, has no understanding of the lectures, but at least she is spending some quality time with her step-mom.

…  they dashed out together in quest of learning as hard as they often dashed back to release Mrs. Beale for other preoccupations…

But the joke is that Mrs. Beale’s interest is selfish.  She hopes that Sir Claude might also show up at the lectures and that the outings will be dates, with Maisie along as the excuse, or disguise.  Maisie’s step-parents are, you know, dating.  Or want to date.  Or something.  That’s the plot of the novel, or the background plot.

In the long end of the novel, almost a third of it Maisie is asked to make a choice that should not be asked of a nine year-old, but nevertheless requires her to balance moral and selfish interests in a way that has some resemblance to what I might see in a Bildungsroman.  Has she salvaged a moral education from the wreckage of her childhood?  To change the title a little, what does Maisie know?

Or, possibly, Maisie is manipulated into thinking she is make a choice etc. etc.  The adults are as always using her as a tool, giving her the illusion of choice for her own purpose.  She still doesn’t know anything.

Or, possibly, Maisie manipulates the adults into giving her the arrangement she wants.  They think they are giving her a choice etc. etc.  She knows far more than anyone realizes, but her knowledge is a form of corruption, and what else could it be given her educators?  I am kind of turning What Maisie Knew into one of those heist films where all of the robbers are triple-crossing each other.

Having read this slippery novel just once, I will not choose among the options.  The first is the most likely.

Underneath all of this, for me, was the sense of horror at witnessing a novel-length act of child abuse.  Someone give that poor little girl an education!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What Maisie Knew in layers and riddles - deficient in something that would meet the general desire

After the opening rush of the opening chapters of What Maisie Knew, the novel settles into something more conventional yet also unusual.  We have the little girl’s divorced parents, for whom Maisie is just a weapon used to harm each other.  Each parent quickly remarries, so there are two step-parents who like Maisie so use her not as a weapon but a tool in a separate little drama.

Then there is the great Mrs. Wix, Maisie’s nurse, with her “sad and strange appearance…  a kind of greasy greyness,” hair of “a turbid, sallow, unvenerable white” and an attire that “reminded her pupil of the polished shell or corslet of a horrid beetle” (all from Ch. 4).  Maisie has a little bit of a cruel streak, although not anything incommensurate with her age.  Mrs. Wix loves Maisie, but is not above making use of her when necessary, too.

So the structure of the novel has the parents and their, hmm, active, romantic lives off at a distance, and a triangle of the two attractive, friendly step-parents and the unvenerable widowed nurse in the middle, politely working to further or prevent schemes that would by themselves make a dull novel.

Then in the foreground, constantly, with a great conceptual purity, there are Maisie and James.  Everything in the story of the adults is seen through the thick screen of Maisie’s perception and James’s prose.  Maisie knows a lot, as the title suggests, but she knows as a child knows, while the narrator writes in a prose that obfuscates as a matter of artistic principle.

And then there is me, trying to solve the riddle of the plot using Maisie’s clues.  Early on, for example, she is happy that her step-parents seem so friendly with each other, while a corrupt, cynical – I mean adult – reader is likely to ask “Hey, wait, exactly how friendly are they?”

As Emma writes in the comments to her post at Book Around The Corner about What Maisie Knew, “There’s a distance between the text and the violence of the words and the compassion the reader (and the author) feel for Maisie.”

So another layer for me.  While I cynically read the novel over Maisie’s head, I simultaneously read her pitiful novel head on.

These multiple layers completely solve the sex problem.  Maisie is too young and innocent to ever understand certain primary motives of the adults.  There is a hilarious scene near the end where the proper nurse tries to impart a “moral sense” in Maisie about her step-parents, who may be you-know-what, but is completely incapable of giving Maisie the slightest hint about what might be immoral about her step-parents living together while both are still married to Maisie’s original parents.  So Maisie of course has no idea what Mrs. Wix means.  They both want to live with her, which could hardly be immoral, right?

Thus the cryptic James style actually matches the way the novel almost has to be read.  James includes actual riddles in the story.  Maisie’s father’s vicious friends pinch her legs, which are like “toothpicks”; Maisie feels that “she was deficient in something that would meet the general desire” (she is probably six years old here), and realizes that she lacked “a congenital tendency to the production of a substance to which Moddle, her nurse, gave a short ugly name, a name painfully associated at dinner with the part of the joint that she didn't like” (Ch. 1).  What a distance to go for the word “fat.”  Which, I remind myself, is what Maisie lacks.  The entire passage is an inside-out riddle, one that James does not solve for me.  This is by no means the only such passage.

James makes me solve riddles while simultaneously reading on two stories, one told through a highly distorted perspective.  Maybe this is as impressive than doing without scenes.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The actual was the absolute, the present alone was vivid - opening What Maisie Knew

What a shock to move from The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and its environs to What Maisie Knew (1897).  The sentences lengthen, the prose thickens, the ungrounded metaphors spread.  “Maisie could positively seize the moral that her elbow seemed to point in ribs thinly defended” (Ch. 28) – what?  If I were not already a believer in James’s periods, I would be now.  If I had not already read the previous James novel, The Spoils of Poynton (1896-7), who knows what I would think.

As a guess, I might blame – or credit – both, really, pros and cons – James’s legendary failure as a playwright for his change in style.  The next novel, The Awkward Age (1899), is the one mostly in dialogue, while Maisie begins with a much more difficult experiment.  For six chapters (plus an introduction) it comes quite close to abandoning scenes, instead describing actions that are ongoing and replacing setting and character with metaphor.

Maisie is a little English girl – how is she? five or so? and at the novel’s end, what, nine? – how I would like to see a timeline – anyway Maisie’s parent’s divorce and get an odd split custody where each one gets her, or she is forced on each one for successive six month periods.  After one round this arrangement is violated, which is one reason I didn’t follow the chronology well.  The father is “bespattered from head to foot” while the mother “might be regarded as showing the spots” (opening page), meaning they are both bad, bad people with no interest in their daughter except as a weapon against each other.  Both parents quickly remarry, luckily for Maisie to suckers who are not such bad people, and who have some human interest in the raising of a little girl.

One of the bold moves in Maisie is that the girl’s actual parents are so absent from her life that they barely count as characters.  The father is reduced to a beard and fine teeth.  They are both “awfully good-looking” and “made up together, for instance, some twelve feet of stature” – what an odd way to say that they are both tall.  Late in the novel, each parent is given a scene with Maisie; each is effective in part because I had so little idea what to expect from these vicious ciphers.

The world around the parents and Maisie is described in a rush.  I was startled to look back and see that the dense early chapters, the ones with only fragments of scenes and bursts of dialogue, only amounted to thirty pages, rapid little chapters that only hit the brakes to bundle Maisie off in another carriage to start her six months with another parent.

She was at the age for which all stories are true and all conceptions are stories. The actual was the absolute, the present alone was vivid. The objurgation for instance…  (Ch. 2)

“Objurgation,” there’s some James.  The conception of the novel is entirely, rigidly Maisie’s, but James is with her at all times; their partnership, Maisie’s and Henry’s, gives the novel its unusual voice.

After this purely novelistic opening, James resorts to more scenes and long dialogues in drawing rooms and similarly theatrical stuff, leaving later Modernists to attempt to write entire novels along the lines of these early chapters.  James has given himself another hard puzzle to solve which will take all of not his attention but mine.  Tomorrow, the riddles.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

a higher, unearthly realm of things - "The Artushof," sweet, gentle counterpart to "The Sandman"

“The Artushof” is E. T. A. Hoffmann’s sweet inversion of “The Sandman,” an uncanny tale about the development of an artist that looks like it could take a turn towards the horror of “The Sandman” but instead ends with a friendly return to domesticity and art as a career.

Both stories were published in 1816, but I know nothing else about their publication or what Hoffmann thought about them.  “The Artushof” follows “The Sandman” in the Penguin Classics Tales of Hoffmann, tr. R. J. Hollingdale.

The title could be translated – not sure why it is not – as “Arthur’s Hall” or something like that.  The story begins in that building, a Danzig merchant’s hall richly decorated with pseudo-medieval paintings and sculptures.  The art is what attracts – hypnotizes – Traugott away from his intended career in business and life as a merchant’s son-in-law.  The story launches when he draws two of the figures, perhaps a knight and his page, and is suddenly confronted with their living doubles.

A standard Hofmann move.  Later in the story, the doubles turn out to have doubles.  Triples are more rare in Hoffmann.  The real-life version of the knight turns out to be an old artist.  In many – all too many – Hoffmann stories he would be the wizard figure who sets the dream-like weirdness in action, but in this case young Traugott sort of just muddles through the story on his own.

The real-life page is a version of Olympia the clockwork girl from “The Sandman,” except here the protagonist escapes doom by eventually accepting that women are real.  Marry a real girl and work on your craft, that is more or less where “The Artushof” goes.  Pursue the Ideal while grounded in the Real.

In The Golden Pot (1814), the hero is engaged to an earthy bourgeois woman but falls in love with a magical snake woman.  In “The Sandman,” he is engaged to an earthy bourgeois woman but falls for a clockwork girl.  In “The Artushof,” he is engaged to the merchant’s daughter but falls for a cross-dressing artist’s daughter.  Hoffmann was in many ways astoundingly inventive.  Not in all ways.

Luckily for the hero of “The Artushof,” he goes to Rome.

Life took on a wonderful new meaning for Traugott when he at last found himself in the land he had so long desired to visit.  The German artists living in Rome accepted him into their circle, and it so happened that he remained there longer than seemed consistent with the desire to find Felizitas [the dream-girl] which had hitherto been propelling him on.  But the desire had grown somewhat cooler; he was now aware of it rather as a beautiful dream which permeated all his life, so that he felt that all he did, the practice of his art, was devoted to a higher, unearthly realm of things of which he had only a blissful presentiment.  (150-1)

In German Romanticism, this is a move towards mental health.  Italy holds the solution to all German problems.  Goethe’s Italian Journey was also published in 1816.  I wish I knew the dates.  That passage is like a summary of Italian Journey.  Hoffmann must be responding to Goethe’s book.  Must be, must be.

Hoffmann wrote many versions of this story, but this seems  to me like one of the better versions.  I guess that is my point.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

everything marvellous, glorious, terrible, joyful, harrowing - E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman"

Polidori’s Byronic vampire gave me a taste to read something similar but, how to say this, better, so I turned to a couple of E. T. A. Hoffmann stories, “The Sandman” and “The Artushof,” both published in 1816.  Bicentennial year!  I read both in the Penguin Classics edition of Tales of Hoffmann, translated by R. J. Hollingdale.

“The Sandman” is the premier example of creepy Hoffmann, the, or a, beginning of horror fiction.  “The Artushof” is an especially fine version of his more typical preoccupations, the intrusion of the Ideal on the Real.  I guess that is also what goes on in “The Sandman,” but in most Hoffmann stories like “The Artushof” it is a mere dream, not a nightmare.

I liked nothing more than to read or listen to gruesome tales of kobolds, witches, dwarfs, and so on; but over them all there towered the sandman, and I used to draw the strangest and most hideous pictures of him on tables, cupboards and walls everywhere in the house.  (88)

This narrator, Nathaniel, identifies the sandman with a grotesque man who visits his father at night possibly in order to practice alchemy.  He was

altogether loathsome and repellent; but what we children found repugnant above all were his great knotty, hair-covered hands, and we lost all liking for anything he touched with them.  He had noticed this, and took pleasure in touching, under this or that pretext, any little piece of cake or delicious fruit which our mother had secretly put on to our plate…  (90)

Commonly in Hoffmann any supernatural phenomena can be explained, with effort, leaning heavily on insanity and waking dreams, but these passages show the subtle weirdness Hoffmann brings to the reality of the tale.  Monsters drawn on walls, guests who torment children, that sort of thing.  The uncanniness of the Real.

I have never been able to remember the story of “The Sandman” because it is a little too dream-like to keep straight.  The title creature and his human avatar are actually secondary characters in Nathaniel’s love affair with Olympia, the clockwork girl.  One of the great advantages of a robot girlfriend is that she lets him read his godawful poems to her “for hours on end” with unflagging attention, “in short, she sat motionless” (118).  That Nathaniel enjoys this kind of attention is a sign that his attraction to the Ideal is a form of destructive egotism.  I mean, come on, robot girlfriend.  That’s terrible.  Olympia is one of Hoffmann’s greatest creations, or for all I know thefts.

“The Sandman” is at first epistolary, but Hoffmann eventually interrupts with an omniscient narration.  His interruption begins with a statement of purpose, fifteen pages into the story.

… you wanted to express your inner vision in all its colours and light and shade and wearied yourself to find words with which even to begin.  You felt you had, as it were, to compress everything marvellous, glorious, terrible, joyful, harrowing that had happened to you into the very first word, so that it would strike your hearers like an electric shock, but every word, everything capable of being spoken, seemed to you colourless and cold and dead.  (100)

“You” is him.  Hoffmann in a passage.  “The Sandman” is where this desperate attempt to penetrate the veil goes wrong.  For a fictional character, not for Hoffmann.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Lord Byron is a vampire who gives Bibles to poor children

Prof. Burstein has been teaching a class in the “Nineteenth-Century Gothic” this semester and I have been reading around in the syllabus, just the works I had not read, so no Frankenstein or Jane Eyre or James Hogg right now.  Mostly the, how to say this, lesser Gothic.  Third-tier Charles Dickens ghost stories.  Elizabeth Gaskell magazine fiction.  Enjoyable, but I am not expecting to stumble on the equivalent of A Christmas Carol or Cranford.

Thus John Polidori’s The Vampyre; A Tale (1819) is the worst book I have read in a long time.  It is a milestone in, you know, vampire literature, but more importantly it is built on an outstanding joke, which is that Polidori’s pal Lord Byron, the most famous writer in Europe, is a – is the – vampyre.  Polidori does everything he can to encourage the association.

The punchline comes after the story proper (“Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!” as if anyone cares), in the “Extract of a Letter, Containing an Account of Lord Byron’s Residence in the Island of Mitylene,” which on the surface has nothing at all to do with The Vampyre, and just below the surface acts as a denial that Byron deserves any of his notoriety.   His reading, for example, is not only not especially shocking; he is just a poet, a scholar:

On the tablet of the recess lay Voltaire’s, Shakespeare’s, Boileau’s, and Rousseau’s works complete; Volney’s Ruin of Empires; Zimmerman, in the German language; Klopstock’s Messiah; Kotzebue’s novels; Schiller’s play of the Robbers; Milton’s Paradise Lost, an Italian edition, printed at Parma in 1810; several small pamphlets form the Greek press at Constantinople, much torn, but no English book of any description.  Most of these books were filled with marginal notes, written with a pencil, in Italian and Latin.  The Messiah was literally scribbled all over, and marked with slips of paper, on which also were remarks.

The last line is the culmination of the joke, that Byron’s attention is focused on the era’s great religious poem.  When he is not reading, Byron gives Greek girls money for – their dowries – what did you think I was going to say?  “He also bought a new boat for a fisherman who had lost his own in a gale, and he often gave Greek Testaments to the poor children.”  He bought another “most beautiful” girl a piano.

Lord Byron’s character is worthy of his genius.  To do good in secret, and shun the world’s applause, is the surest testimony of a virtuous heart and self-approving conscience.

I don’t know how much of this is true; that is the third level of the story, the put-on.  Byron wasn’t a vampire, that part I know is untrue.

Prof. Burstein has The Vampyre paired with Byron’s Manfred (1817), an inversion of Goethe’s Faust in which Byron is a wizard who spends his time summoning demons who then refuse to serve him.  Kind of ineffective.  But Byron is doing the same thing Polidori would later do, practically demanding that his readers identify the demented Byronic character with the celebrity author.

The Vampyre is most interesting as a landmark in the literature of celebrity.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The old people thought it all beautiful - some William Dean Howells prose

My case against A Modern Instance has two main parts.  First:

They had got down to Charles street, and Halleck took out his watch at the corner lamp.

“It isn’t at all late yet; only half-past eight.  The days are getting shorter.”

“Well?”  (Ch. 20, 369-70)

And so on.  Too much of this dull artless flat stuff.  Compared to his contemporaries – James and Twain, obviously, but also Trollope, Crane, even Dreiser, Howells has a weak, undistinguished voice.

Second, the novel has an authorial stand-in character who is brought in to discuss the problems of the novel whenever Howells loses confidence in his dramatization of them.  For some reason this character is given a subplot, and a proposal scene, and the end of the novel, although no reader besides Howells himself has ever had the slightest interest in Atherton the ironic attorney.  Maybe he is actually a parody of an authorial mouthpiece.

The case for, aside from what I wrote yesterday, includes this description of a baby:

… she had passed out of slippery and evasive doughiness into a firm tangibility that made it a pleasure to hold her.  (28, 452)

This description of Indiana:

… the spring night, whose breath softly buffeted their cheeks through the open window, had gathered over those eternal corn-fields, where the long, crooked winrows, burning on either hand, seemed a trail of fiery serpents writhing away from the train as it roared and clamored over the track.  (39, 567)

This theater entrance:

They passed in through the long colonnaded vestibule, with its paintings and plaster casts and rows of birds and animals in glass cases on either side and she gave scarcely a glance at any of those objects endeared by association if not by intrinsic beauty to the Boston play-goer: Gulliver, with the Lilliputians swarming upon him; the painty-necked ostriches and pelicans; the mummied mermaid under a glass-bell; the governors’ portraits; the stuffed elephant; Washington crossing the Delaware; Cleopatra applying the Asp; Sir William Pepperell, at full length on canvas and the pagan months and seasons in plaster, – if all these are indeed the subjects – were dim phantasmagoria…  (13, 302-3)

Painty-necked!  And that crack at the end by Howells.  This bizarre place, where it seems that Howells has wandered into a Melville novel, is Moses Kimball’s Museum theater, recognizable to any Bostonian of the time.  I will bet that A Modern Instance is read more in Boston than anywhere else.  It has a lot of good Boston flavor.

A great many of the people seemed to be taking hulled-corn and milk; baked beans formed another favorite dish, and squash-pie was in large request.  Marcia was not critical; roast-turkey for Bartley and stewed chicken for herself with cranberry-pie for both seemed to her a very good and sufficient dinner…  (14, 312)

Very American, that passage.

Ordinary life with moments of melodrama and coincidence, as if Howells wants to assure me he is not above it; flat arguments mixed with fine descriptions; plain old things side by side with Boston’s best grotesquerie.  “The old people thought it all beautiful,” Howells writes at one point (19, 361).  I don’t think they’re completely wrong.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

He felt like a good man - William Dean Howell's A Modern Instance

A Modern Instance (1882), William Dean Howells.  This is the first Howells novel I have read.  Once upon a time, it was a famous book, much read.  Even now, it is one of two Howells novel still in print from Penguin Classics, along with The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), and it is also available in a Library of America collection (where I read it), which means two editions are currently available.  I’ve never come across a book blogger who has read it, but it ain’t dead yet.

The novel is about a young couple's bad marriage, one that turns sour because the husband turns out to be a much smaller man than he first appears and the wife has limited options.  I get into the 1880s and 1890s and suddenly I am reading a surprising amount of divorce fiction.

The way the husband embraces and settles into his limitations is psychologically acute, the wife’s self-delusions a bit less so, or a bit more familiar, although she becomes fairly complex, too.  A character, near the end, finds himself in “awe of her ignorance” (Ch. 39, 563); he stood in for me pretty well.

This is the husband, repairing some damage after a fight:

His heart was full; he was grateful for the mercy that had spared him; he was so strong in his silent repentance that he felt like a good man.  (Ch. 22, 386)

That last part should be read with as much irony as possible.  Similarly, this is the wife’s father, staying in Boston, missing his little town in Maine:

He suffered from the loss of identity which is a common affliction with country people coming to town.  The feeling that they are of no special interest to any of the thousands the meet bewilders and harasses them; after the searching neighborhood of village life, the fact that nobody would meddle in their most intimate affairs if they could, is a vague distress.  The Squire not only experienced this, but, after reigning so long as the censor of morals and religion in Equity[, Maine], it was a deprivation for him to pass a whole week without saying a bitter thing to any one.  (Ch. 22, 394)

Small insights about regular people, but it’s the small accumulation of petty grievances that wreck the marriage.  As the novel darkened, it began to remind me of Sister Carrie (1899), as in a scene where the husband begins to fantasize about the end of his marriage, about escaping it.  “His thoughts wandered to conditions, to contingencies of which a man does not permit himself even to think without a degree of moral disintegration” (Ch. 30, 478) – what if they had never married, or never met, or if he ran off.  Howells never gets as dark as, say Leo Tolstoy in The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), where in the exact parallel scene the husband thinks mostly about death, his wife’s and his own.  American fiction could only go so far, perhaps.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Only a little ink more or less - Crane's War Is Kind

War Is Kind (1899) is Stephen Crane’s second and last book of poetry, another tiny little Arts & Crafts book with poems – or “lines” or “pills” as Crane called them – much like those in The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895), meaning much unlike anything anyone else was writing at the time.

A little ink more or less?
It surely can’t matter?
Even the sky and the opulent sea,
The plains and the hills, aloof,
hear the uproar of all these books.
But it is only a little ink more or less.

Then this goes on to be, explicitly, about the absence of God, e.g., “Where is God?”  The strange writerly link between ink and God returns in a posthumous (1929) poem:

A horizon smaller than a doomed assassin’s cap,
Inky, surging tumults
A reeling, drunken sky and no sky
A pale hand sliding from a polished spar.
                                     God is cold.

Then there is the amusing attack on newspapers, “A newspaper is a collection of half-injustices,” etc.

The War Is Kind poems feel like a concentrated collection of Crane’s concerns.  Journalism, war, shipwreck, fatalism:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”

Crane perhaps would have turned to aphorisms if he had lived longer.  Some poems are more imagistic, some more like  “A man said to the universe,” the wisdom of a 28 year-old who has seen a lot.

I suppose I prefer the images:

A grey and boiling street
Alive with rickety noise.
Suddenly, a hearse,
Trailed by black carriages
Takes a deliberate way
Through this chasm of commerce…  (another posthumous poem)


Fire-rays fall athwart the robes
Of hooded men, squat and dumb.


To the maiden
The sea was blue meadow
Alive with little froth-people

There is a fantastic side to Crane’s imagination that he unleashes in his poems, where not only God but a variety of knights, demons and weird figures serve as characters.  Maybe if he had lived longer he would have written some Ambrose Bierce-like stuff, some weird tales.

War Is Kind concludes, to my surprise, with a sequence of love poems in which Crane imagines himself as an ogre, or a knight:

I was impelled to be a grand knight,
And swagger and snap my fingers,
And explain my mind finely.

What kind of a knight that is, exactly, I am not sure.  Sometimes God himself interferes; sometimes Crane “sees spectres, / Mists of desires.”  They are odd, the love poems, in keeping with the rest of the book.

Ten – well, twenty – years later, everything Crane does seems normal, and I am reading a hundred years after that.  I can only recapture the strangeness in specific images, phrases, and jokes.  There are plenty of those, though.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

stern, mournful, and fine - Stephen Crane's fatalism

Stephen Crane’s fatalism is well earned.  The arbitrariness of death was with him from an early age, when he likely contracted tuberculosis.  Shipwreck and battlefields could only reinforce the idea.  Why me and not him?  Why him and not me?

The correspondent in “The Open Boat,” rowing for his life, suddenly remembers a forgotten poem, about a dying soldier:

He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow.  It was less to him than the breaking of a pencil’s point.

Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing.  It was no longer merely a picture of a few throes in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming his feet at the grate; it was an actuality – stern, mournful, and fine.  (903)

He then envisions the soldier’s death.  “He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers.”  The series of ironies are outstanding, especially the first vision, of the poet and his tea – again, the character doing the envisioning is in a small boat on a stormy ocean, in danger of imminent death, although the next sentence tells me that the shark following the boat has “grown bored at the delay” had given up.  But the main irony is that the endangered man’s sudden outburst of sympathy is directed at a fictional character.

I thought the funniest declaration of fatalism was in “Twelve O’Clock,” the story about a cowboy who had never seen a cuckoo clock, and the terrible consequences thereof.  His other drunk pals refuse to believe him.  Some maybe do a bit worse:

A cowboy whose mother had a cuckoo-clock in her house in Philadelphia spoke with solemnity.  “Jake’s a liar.  There’s no such clock in the world.  What? a bird inside a clock to tell the time?  Change your drink, Jake.”  (832)

But what smart aleck could possibly resist pursuing the joke?  I sympathize.  Shame about the later murders.

“The Blue Hotel” is the most direct statement of Crane’s sense of the workings of fate.  I mean most direct in that unlike in  “The Open Boat” characters discuss the subject:

“We five of us, have collaborated in the murder of this Swede.  Usually there are from a dozen to forty women really involved in every murder, but in this case it seems to be only five men…” (827)

the last of whom, the actual killer, “isn’t even a noun.  He is a kind of adverb.”

This is another good example of what I was saying yesterday.  Odd ways of saying things.  Crane would have been a good mystery writer, not of the kind where a reader might be able to solve the crime, but the kind where I clutch my head in shock at the absurdity of it all, like in Chester Himes’s great Blind Man with a Pistol (1969).  If Crane had lived longer, he might well have written a story with that title.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Wonderful epithets - Stephen Crane rattles some words around

I see that The Portable Stephen Crane also divvies up his work by geography, although with less prosaic names.  “The World of Maggie” (New York City), “A World of Shipwreck” (the “Open Boat” incident), “A World of Ironies.”  The latter could cover any place in which Crane set foot.  In this book, it is the home of Crane’s Western and Mexican stories, among others, killers like “The Blue Hotel” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” Crane’s proto-Westerns.

Funny how much these stories look like what we now call Westerns.  If I knew how to use the word “tropes” I would use it here.  Like I know from tropes.

Crane’s voice is at full power.  It’s a screwy voice, but strong.  Some examples:

The punchers spent most of the morning in an attack on whiskey which was too earnest to be noisey.  (“Twelve O’Clock,” 830)

There is a kind of corn whiskey bred in Florida which the natives declare is potent in the proportion of seven fights to a drink.  (“Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure,” 916)

When the second engineer came to separate the combatants, he was sincere in his efforts, and he came near to disabling them for life.  (“Flanagan,” 916-7)

Taking up a strategic position, the man howled a challenge.  But this house regarded him as might a great stone god.  It gave no sign.  After a decent wait, the man howled further challenges, mingling them with wonderful epithets.

Presently there came the spectacle of a man churning himself into deepest rage over the immobility of a house.  (“The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” 796)

I wanted to use even more of that last.  “Yellow Sky” gets pretty close to putting some kind of reward in  every passage, something for a reader to suck on for a while.  An image or metaphor or oddly employed verb or adjective.  Churning himself into a rage.  Wonderful epithets.  He was sincere in his efforts.

Last year I read a couple of Charles Portis novels, Norwood (1966) and The Dog of the South (1979), both comic picaresques that begin and end in Texas, where several of these Crane stories are set.  Portis’s voice is hard to describe.  Off kilter.  Precise but somehow wrong, like the narrator can’t quite see straight. 

At last a man was afflicted with a stroke of dice-shaking. (“The Five White Mice,” 758)

The sailors charged three times upon the plate-glass front of the saloon, and when they had finished, it looked as if it had been the victim of a rural fire company’s success in saving it from the flames.  (“A Man and Some Others,” 776)

The prose matches the ethos.  “Twelve O’Clock” is about a series of murders caused by a cuckoo clock, or perhaps by man’s endless sense of wonder, a sense shared by the author. A cuckoo clock is a marvelous thing.  “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” is about what happens when there is a mismatch between style and ethos.  Maybe some other stories are about the same thing.  In Crane’s stories, style is an instrument of fate.

Page numbers from the Library of America collection.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Nibbling the sacred cheese of life with Stephen Crane

Reading Stephen Crane in – not in bulk – in handfuls, in heaps – has been rewarding.  He was an astounding short story writer, with a wide range of subject, tone, and rhetorical flash.  He was moving fast, too.

I have been working on his stories, journalism, hybrid non-fiction, sketches, etc. collected in the Library of America volume of Stephen Crane, a heck of a book.  That edition leads off with the novels and novellas then divides the shorter stuff by time and place, which makes sense for a wandering reporter like Crane – New York City, the Civil War detour, Mexico, Florida, Greece, Cuba, etc., all of which generated good fiction aside from whatever he was writing for newspapers to make a living.

I reconstructed Crane’s books to some degree, regrouping the short stories into The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (1898) and The Monster and Other Stories (1899, with an expanded English edition in 1901).  The former is a terrific book and it is a shame to break it up; the latter, in either form, makes no sense as a book and is best left in pieces.

I took a break from Crane, but the next book will be Wounds in the Rain (1900), stories from Cuba about the Spanish-American War, which Christopher Benfey has said is Crane’s most underrated and underread book.  Looking forward to that.

I skipped the novellas George’s Mother (1896) and The Third Violet (1897).  And I read Crane’s second tiny, original book of poems, War Is Kind (1899).  So that’s the logistical overview.  Anyone have strong positive feelings about those novellas?

As good as the Civil War stories were – as good as almost all of this material is – “The Open Boat” is such a triumph that it casts a dark shadow.  Crane was on his way to Cuba to cover the revolution; the leaky tub full of arms and mercenaries sank in a squall and Crane and three other men found themselves in a boat not designed for such conditions.

Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea.  These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation.  (part I).

The situation is rich in descriptive, metaphorical, and ethical possibilities.  Crane’s great stroke, though, is the duel narration, the way the omniscient narrator, heard above, interacts with the limited point of view of “the correspondent,” who just rows and sleeps  - he “watched the waves and wondered why he was there.”  He can rarely see over the top of the waves, while this other narrator perceives the cosmos.

They are both Crane, that’s the fun, right?  Retrospective, artistic, metaphysical Crane, recollecting in tranquility, and a Crane trapped in a particular moment, a moment that stretches for days, as a rowing machine who also thinks:

“If I am going to be drowned – if I am going to be drowned – if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?  Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?”  (part IV)

The omniscient narrator finds that last phrase hilarious.  It is not clear whether Crane-the-rower has as strong a sense of the ridiculous.

Crane and two of his companions survived; one drowned, randomly, utterly arbitrarily.  That man’s death is the great mystery and tragedy, or perhaps comedy, of “The Open Boat.”  Crane wrote two other versions of the story, a piece of reportage (“Stephen Crane’s Own Story”) and a story from the ship captain’s point of view (“Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure”), both of which make the artistry of “The Open Boat” look all the greater.  All three serve as tributes to Billy Higgins, oiler, who died in place of Stephen Crane.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Take care of the little box - Charles Simic's prose poems and knickknacks and whatnots on Joseph Cornell

I have at hand Charles Simic’s little books about Joseph Cornell, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (1992).  Cornell is one of classic American eccentrics like Captain Craig.  I think of them as wanderers, although Cornell barely left New York City.

America still waits to be discovered.  Its tramps and poets resemble early navigators setting out on journeys of exploration.  Even in is cities there are still places left blank by the map makers.  (p. 15)

The people who romanticize them, like E. A. Robinson, think of them as geniuses, if only conditions had been right, while Cornell was a genius of a unique sort, and conditions were somehow right.

Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together.  Once together they’ll make a work of art.  That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.  ( 14)

Simic’s book is a collection of prose poems about Cornell and his work.  Some are more prose, some more poems.  Some are about Cornell, some from his point of view, some positioned, I don’t know, somewhere else.  If the book were art history, not so many poets – Poe, Nerval, Baudelaire, Dickinson – would show up.

I’ve read that Goethe, Hans Christian Andersen, and Lewis Carroll were managers of their own miniature theaters.  There must have been many other such playhouses in the world.  We study the history and literature of the period, but we know nothing about these plays that were being performed for an audience of one.  (50)

Simic compares Cornell’s boxes to chess problems, fetish objects, “some abacuslike calculating machine” (43).  What is it, what is it?  I know that was my first question when I encountered a Cornell.  Now I know what they are.  They are Cornells.  “Look, they have a Cornell.”  That’s all I say now when I find a new one.

Now in the little box
You have the whole world in miniature
You can easily put it in a pocket
Easily steal it easily lose it

Take care of the little box.  (40)

Part of a poetic poem, that one, Simic’s translation of a Vasko Popa poem.

Sometimes Simic is merely a critic:

Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist.  For Cornell it’s the opposite.  In that sense Cornell is not a dadaist or a surrealist.  He believes in charms and good luck.  (61)

In Dime-Store Alchemy, Simic attempts to write about Cornell in the spirit of the artist.  Sometimes maybe he succeeds.  Pretty good.

I got to know Cornell’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago, so I have included some of my favorites from their collection, pieces I have studied from every angle allowed by the display.  From top to bottom, "Untitled (Soap Bubble Set)" (ca. 1957), "Dovecote" (1950), and "Soap Bubble Set" (1940/1953). Simic’s book has good photos of nine more Cornells, but from one side only.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

E. A. Robinson's abhorred iconoclast, Captain Craig - guest appearance by Count Pretzel von Würzburger, the Obscene

                                                Time throws away
Dead thousands of them, but the God that knows
No death denies not one:  the books all count,
The songs all count…  (p. 5)

Some lines from “Captain Craig” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, a poem that can only be found in one of those books that has been thrown away, Captain Craig: A Book of Poems (1902).  The poem is a discursive, philosophical narrative of 85 pages in the original, which means it is doomed.  No one putting together a Selected Poems of E. A. Robinson or an anthology of American poetry can afford to keep it.

Other poems from Captain Craig go in the anthologies: “Erasmus” (“There were some of them did shake at what was told / And they shook best who knew that he was right”) and the sweet (and just short enough at 15 pages) “Isaac and Archibald,” about two old friends worried each other’s mind is going.  But not “Captain Craig.”

It is an interesting poem just for its subject, the title character.  He is an early example of a great American type, the Bohemian who ends up on the bum.  A hobo or folk singer or poet.  Joe Gould or Neal Cassady or maybe, earlier, Henry David Thoreau.

“I, Captain Craig, abhorred iconoclast,
Sage-errant, favored of the Cosmic Joke,
And self-reputed humorist at large…  (56)

He is beginning his testament, like François Villon, one of his ancestors.  “Sage-errant” is a good pun.  These types are highly unreliable sages.  One of the smart touches in “Captain Craig” is that the narrator and his friends are attracted to but also suspicious of old Captain Craig’s wisdom.

There is a story, but not much of one.  The poet and semi-Bohemian friends have befriended Tilbury, Maine’s eccentric Captain; the poet leaves town but corresponds with Craig; the poet returns for Craig’s death.  Along the way there are a lot of ironic stabs at wisdom and stories of people even nuttier than Craig, the best of whom is

“Count Pretzel von Würzburger, the Obscene
(The beggar may have had another name,
But no man to my knowledge ever knew it)”  (35)

The Count is ““a poet and a skeptic and a critic” and a musician who

“Played half of everything and ‘improvised’
The rest: he told me once that he was born
With a genius in him that ‘prohibited
Complete fidelity,” and that his art
‘Confessed vagaries,’ therefore.”

Another of the classic type, a more extreme version.  Some of these phrases made me doubt the date of the poem, but these are proto-Beatniks.  Count Pretzel provides a perfect parody of the kind of E. A. Robinson sonnets that impressed me so much in Robinson’s previous book, The Children of the Night (1897); never let me say Robinson does not have a sense of humor about himself.

                                            I had sinned
In fearing to believe what I believed,
And I was paying for it…  (13)

Perhaps that gives an example of the kind of wisdom available not necessarily from the mouth but from simply knowing Captain Craig.  “I knew / Some prowling superfluity if child / in me had found the child in Captain Craig” (13).  Robinson was himself one of the types, just not so much as Captain Craig.

At some point I will give up Robinson’s original books and finish him off in a Selected Poems. But not yet.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

a deficiency of shading - "The Siege of London" and "Lady Barberina"

The most frequently reprinted, and best, of the James tales I read recently were “The Siege of London” (1883) and “Lady Barberina” (1884), both 90-pagers with many short chapters – little mini-novels.  The first is a return to the usual James theme of Americans in Europe, as one could guess from the title, with one particularly vulgar American lady as the siege engine, while Lady Barberina is an Englishwoman dragged to New York City by marriage.  The stories, and the women, contrast pleasingly.

Mrs. Headway, the battering ram, is much-married, not quite respectable, and from San Diego, New Mexico ( James’s New Mexico is a reminder that he was a fantasy writer).  None of this makes the character interesting to James.  Here is the problem:

There was something in Mrs. Headway that shocked and mortified him, and Littlemore had been right in saying that she had a deficiency in shading.  She was terribly distinct; her motives, her impulses, her desires, were absolutely glaring.  She needed to see, to hear, her own thoughts.  (Ch. V)

A “deficiency of shading”!  Jamesians gasp in horror.  I was rooting for Mrs. Headway.

A visit to an English country house results in a rare bit of Jamesian description.  Some deer are “scattered like pins on a velvet cushion over some of the remoter slopes,” which is easy enough to picture, unlike “the grayness of evening beginning to hang itself on the great limbs of the oaks” and even better “the trees had an air of conscious importance, as if nature herself had been bribed somehow to take the side of country families” (all from Ch. VII).

“Lady Barberina” had a good one (the characters are in a conservatory): “The gloom was rosy with the slopes of azalea, and suffused with mitigated music, which made it possible to talk without consideration of one’s neighbors”  (Ch. II).  There is a “band of music concealed in a bower of azaleas,” thus the odd phrase about the music.  It is an odd sentence all around, which is not a complaint.

As with the other tales from this period, “Lady Barberina” is comic and satirical, with plenty of jokes, although it is not a pure humor piece like others I have mentioned.  It has a story, characters, some ethical complexity, etc.  Characters debate a question “with the moral earnestness of a pair of Bostonians” (Ch. V) – can’t accuse James of that.  Or here an American couple wonder if an American doctor can dare marry an English aristocrat:

[Husband]: “Young female members of the British aristocracy have married coachmen and fishmongers, and all that sort of thing; but they have never married you and me.”

[Wife]: “They certainly haven’t married you.”  (Ch. IV)

If The Bostonians is not funny I am going to be so irritated.  I feel that if I have accomplished nothing else I have at least finally understood Henry James’s sense of humor.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

too serious for a joke and too comical for anything else - more Henry James comedy - What a place for me to live, who hate arithmetic!

I said James, post-Portrait of a Lady was bringing his Europeanized Americans back to America, but I only quoted an Englishman, a stuffy Member of Parliament.  James was bringing some Europeans over, too, as in “Pandora,” where the protagonist is a German nobleman and diplomat, the perfect combination of education, manners, and complete cluelessness, a good source of laughs, as when he gives a tour of the Capitol building – the one in Washington, D. C., that Capitol – despite the “certain bedaubed walls, in the basest style of imitation, which made him feel faintly sick” and its “lobby adorned with artless prints and photographs of eminent congressmen, which was too serious for a joke and too comical for anything else.”

And there we have a self-description.   “Pandora” is “Daisy Miller” turned inside out and put in reverse, just as claimed at The Little White Attic, “James’s little joke,” especially when a woman in the know warns the German that Pandora, the appealing girl from the title, “should be a Daisy Miller en herbe.”  It is six years after “Daisy Miller,” which was such a hit that James is only distantly referring to his own story at this point.

This Daisy Miller, who is perhaps something else, the self-made girl, “got into society more or less by reading, and her conversations was apt to be garnished with literary allusions, even with sudden quotations.”  Perhaps today’s Pandoras have book blogs.

There are some good jokes about Pandora’s “fat, plain, serious” parents, who “spoke sometimes, but they seldom talked.”  My favorite bit, about the father:

Her husband had a stiff gray beard on his chin, to which constant shaving had imparted a kind of hard glaze.

In “Pandora” the jokes come from James’s comments on his narrators point of view, while in “Impressions of a Cousin” (1883), we get a full-on comic narrator, the semi-Bohemian artist companion of her wealthy, beautiful heroine-like cousin, amusingly unreliable in that she mistakes what is going on around her, mostly which suitors are in love with which suitees.  They have returned to New York City from Europe to review their accounts or something.  The romance in the story is a little thin, but the jokes are good:

…  he asked me why I didn’t try people.  What people? the people in the Fifth Avenue?  They are even less pictorial than their houses.  I don’t perceive that those in the Sixth are any better, or those in the Fourth and Third, or in the Seventh and Eight.  Good heavens! what a nomenclature!  The city of New York is like a tall sum in addition, and the streets are like columns of figures.  What a place for me to live, who hate arithmetic!

The story is trivial, but the narrator is fun.  “I answered – I hardly remember what; but there was a taint of that perversity in it.”  Another self-description.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Henry James comes home - Who would have carried Plummeridge’s portmanteau?

The next Henry James novel I am going to read is What Maisie Knew (1897), spurred by Lakeside Musing and others, but since the last one I read was The Portrait of a Lady (1882), I also want to know what happens next.  James used his short fiction, his “tales,” and some of his earlier novels to prepare himself for his big statement, his masterpiece.  He worked on characters, ideas, and points of view.

James is the kind of writer who discovers what he wants to write by writing, but he has a strong enough conceptual sense that he does not want to risk improvising it all on the spot.  He works towards something; what that is he learns along the way.  That is the impression I have gathered.

How many writers are able to work their notes for a novel into polished commercial magazine fiction?  That by itself is impressive.

I read five “tales” written between Portrait and The Bostonians (1885-6), which I take as a the next major James novel.  The Princess Casamassima, even longer than The Bostonians, was serialized in a different magazine around the same time.  Maybe that one is also a major novel.  I have not read either.  James was as inexhaustible as Trollope at this point.  The “tales” are “The Point of View” (1882), “The Siege of London” (1883), “The Impressions of a Cousin” (1883), “Lady Barberina” (1884), and “Pandora” (1884).  Next would be “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” (1884) which I read a few years ago and which anyways does not fit the amusing pattern of Americans returning to America from Europe.

It is a good joke, as if he sent his characters to Europe and now has to bring them home.  In “Point of View,” this is almost literally the case, since it opens with a young woman from “The Pension Beaurepas,” published three years earlier and set in Switzerland, on an Atlantic ocean liner, “soon to enter the Bay of New York.”

The piece is barely a story but more of a collection of gags, a bundle of letters, all written by different people, back to Europe with impressions of America.  For all I know all of the letter writers are characters from old James stories.  That would be great.

Here is the Honourable Edward Antrobus, M.P., writing to his wife about the inconveniences of train travel:

I have sometimes thought it was a great mistake not to bring Plummeridge; he would have been useful on such occasions.  On the other hand, the startling question would have presented itself – Who would have carried Plummeridge’s portmanteau?

Then he goes on about his tin tub, and who would carry his valet’s tin tub, etc.  The conceit is that this letter is written in the upper berth of a sleeping car, and that the M.P. is completely freaked out that the sleeping cars are mixed sex and that there is a woman in the berth directly below him – “behind the same curtains.”

It is the purest piece of comic writing I have ever seen from James, with just a hint of a story, about that woman from “The Pension Beaurepas” and her attempts to marry an American.  Otherwise, mostly a humor piece.  And it brings James back to America.

Monday, February 1, 2016

They procured several books and settled on a system - Flaubert attacks knowledge in a book packed with everything he knows

Bouvard and Pecuchet, Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished 1882 conceptual novel, is what I have here.

The two title characters are Paris clerks who become friends, come into some money, and retire to the Normandy country side to pursue – well, what exactly?  They need something to do, so they do everything.

Bouvard and Pecuchet are good comic characters, and their adventures as city fools in the country – ruining their farm, offending their neighbors – have enough of the manner of a story to make Bouvard and Pecuchet something of a novel.

The bulk of each chapter, however, is more akin to a list.

“Six months later they had become archaeologists, and their home looked like a museum” (first line of Chapter 4, p. 87).  A couple of pages describe the contents of the museum in Flaubertish detail.  “The frame of the mirror was decorated with a black velvet sombrero, and an enormous clog, full of leaves, held the remains of a bird’s nest” (87), etc.  Then comes the activity.  B & P visit churches, fortresses, manors; they buy or dig up all sorts of artifacts; they investigate lots of tedious questions.  “No effort or sacrifice was too great” (90).  Faced with difficulties, some caused by their own folly, their enthusiasm for architecture and history wanes and is replaced by – let me move to the next chapter – a passion for literature.  “First they read Walter Scott” (first line of Ch. 5, 115).

Repeat.  Chapter 3 was about science.  Chapter 6 is about politics – 1848 intrudes.  Chapter 7, love.  Chapter 8, medicine.  Exercise, first, actually.  “Pleased with their regimen, they decided to improve their constitutions with gymnastics” (first line of Ch. 8, 170).  The failure of exercise leads to medicine, the failure of medicine leads to philosophy, the failure of philosophy leads to religion, the failure of religion leads to education.  “They procured several books about education and settled on a system” (first line of Ch. 10, 245).

The novel is as repetitive as it sounds, in places close to mechanical.  B & P clumsily grind through a field, preceded by the author who read the same books, and more, in order to extract little chunks of knowledge with which to pelt his characters.  One field after another, to exhaustion.  I had not realized that Flaubert had written an Omnibook, but here it is.

Flaubert is satirizing amateurism, which is painful enough, but more broadly he is satirizing the pursuit of knowledge, the value of knowledge, which is a rough message.  What drives B & P crazy is uncertainty.  Even the experts don’t agree!  They can’t even follow Voltaire’s advice to cultivate their garden, since no two sources agree on fertilizing techniques.

Then their minds developed a piteous faculty, that of perceiving stupidity and being unable to tolerate it. (205)

Everything ends wells at least.  The novel is unfinished, but there is an outline up to the end.

The friendship of the two characters is a treat, and there are the usual scattering of fine Flaubertian lines – “Dusk was falling; crows dropped into the furrows”  (25) is a particular favorite, the second verb making the translator do some work.

But the novel is conceptually pretty pure, even for Flaubert.

Page numbers and translations are from Mark Polizzotti’s outstanding recent version of the novel.