Friday, April 29, 2016

A poet’s speech begins a great way off - some Marina Tsvetayeva

One way to pin down a poet is to read her poetry on poetry.  This is Marina Tsvetayeva, who frequently wrote poems about and to poets, in 1923:

A poet’s speech begins      a great way off.
A poet is     carried far away by speech
By way of planets, signs, and the     ruts
Of roundabout parables…  (from “The Poet,” I, p. 35)

Those gaps are one of Tsevtayeva’s signatures, one of the ruts she digs into her poems to make her readers twist their dang ankles.  The poet – I mean The Poet – “confuses     arithmetic and weight,” “altogether refutes Kant,” and “burn[s] without warming.”

Tsvetayeva writes about Moscow and Prague, Akhmatova and Blok, love affairs and exile, with great intensity, her matter personal and intimate but hardly confessional.  Meaning, even the deepest grief, is pushed through language and imagery.  Her long “Poem of the End” (1924) is about the painful end of a love affair in Prague.  It begins with the couple still together, but the poet is uneasy.

A single post, a point of rusting
    tin in the sky
marks the fated place we
    move to, he and I

on time     as death is
    prompt     strangely
too smooth the gesture of
    his hat to me  (I, 48)

The river is “a strip as colourless / as a slab for corpses,” his laughter is like “that cheap tambourine,” and so on.  The metaphors, one after another, do much of the emotional work.  Once I decode the language, the poet’s anguish seems more direct.  Maybe it is a confessional poem.

A post.  Why not beat my forehead to
    blood on it?  To smithereens!  We are
like fellow criminals, fearing one
    another.  (The murdered thing is love.)  (7, 58)

This is a specific scene in a specific place (the man has broken up with the poet; they have returned to the site of the first line), but I found that it took several tries for the scene to emerge, to close the distance Tsvetayeva creates.

Or, said another way, I thought a lot of her poems were pretty hard.

Some poems are closer to pure metaphor, pure description. 

Readers of Newspapers

It crawls, the underground snake,
crawls, with its load of people.
and each one      has his
newspaper, his skin
…  No face, no features,
no age.   Skeletons – there’s no
face, only the newspaper page.  (1935, p. 35)

Even though the poem ends with a cry against “news/papers’ evil filth,” it’s a funny poem.   I see that two more of my favorites are from the same time.  The passengers in the rattletrap “Bus” “were like / peas in boiling soup,” “shaken / in vibrato, like violins” (91).  Tsevtayeva’s “Desk” is her “most loyal friend,” her “loaded writing mule”:

And when     my body will be laid out,
    Great fool!  Let it be on you then.  (89)

How Marina Tsvetayeva wrote like she did under the constraints she faced, what a mystery.

My book of Tsvetayeva is the 1981 edition of Selected Poems translated by Elaine Feinstein with the aid of numerous collaborators.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The people need poetry that will be their own secret - some Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems, translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin:

from He Who Finds a Horseshoe

Where to start?
Everything cracks and shakes.
The air trembles with similes.
No one word’s better than another;
the earth moans with metaphors...  (p. 46. 1928)

Starting at the end is too difficult, the poems from the 1930s impossible to separate from Mandelstam’s biography, his persecution by Stalinists, his exile, his murder.  And throughout this incessant need to make poems. 

The people need poetry that will be their own secret
to keep them awake forever,
and bathe them in the bright-haired wave of its breathing.  (p. 89, 1937)

But in the beginning Mandelstam was merely a poet, a great poet during a great period, arguing and drinking with other poets, rejecting Symbolism for Acmeism, whatever that means.  Is this either one of those – it’s a complete poem:

All the lamps were turned low.
You slipped out quickly in a thin shawl.
We disturbed no one.
The servants went on sleeping.  (3, 1908)

I wonder if this one gave Merwin much to do.  Mandelstam soon moves past these little poems that capture moments.  I was surprised at how often he invoked the Greek and Roman classics:

Orioles in the woods: length of vowels alone
Makes the meter of the classic lines.  No more
Than once a year, though, nature pours out
The full-drawn length, the verse of Homer.  (7, 1914)

Merwin must be messing around with the vowels, that variety of “o”s.

The poem before mentions Ovid, the next Rome, Homer again in the next, Caesar, Caesar – all of this in Mandelstam’s the 1916 edition of his first book, Stone, but the references continue to the end of his life, as in this poem from 1937. 

As though the fame of its mint and iota
Were never enough, the Greek flute,
Free, following its instincts,
Matured, labored, crossed ditches…

When he’s [the flutist] gone, we’ll have no one
To knead lumps of clay to death.  (97-8)

The preceding poem is about Cretan potters; thus, I assume, the reason the poet-flutist is also making pots.

I had no idea Mandelstam was such a classicist.  I began to feel sad for him.  It is like when I read Friedrich Hölderlin, another poet imaginatively immersed in Greece.  I wish he could have actually visited Greece.  Maybe it is best that he didn’t.  Mandelstam, heck, I wish he had escaped to Greece.

And Mandelstam did travel when he was young.  He had even studied in Heidelberg.  A 1932 poem is titled “To the German Language,” about, I think Mandelstam’s fear of exile, a poet’s nightmare.  What if he has to start over?

Destroying myself, contradicting myself,
like the moth flying into the midnight flame,
suddenly all that binds me to our language
tempts me to leave it…

Nightingale-god [Apollo], I’m being conscripted still
for new plagues, for seven-year massacres.
Sound has shrivelled, words are hoarse and rebellious,
but you’re alive still, and with you I’m at peace.  (65-6)

And so Mandelstam kept writing poems, Russian poems, until he was killed for it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Velimir Khlebnikov, Futurian with a curse on his head - as meaning glows in language - I give you my divine white brain

Leafing through The King of Time: Selected Writings of the Russian Futurian (Harvard, 1985, ed. Charlotte Douglas,  tr. Paul Schmidt), I think, did I read this book.  Already I am forgetting it, not because Khlebnikov is too much like other poets but because his work is too strange, too nonsensical.  I mean too nonsensical to remember easily.  Aesthetically, it is exactly as strange as it should be.

Dostoeskimo snowstorms!
Pushkincandescence of noon!
Night resembles Tiutchev,
Filling the unfathomable full of the unknown.  (p. 30, ca. 1915)

Or how about “Incantation by Laughter,” just a bit of it:

Hlahla!  Uthlofan, lauflings!
Hlahla!  Uthlofan, lauflings!
Who lawghen with lafe, who hlachen lewchly,
Hlahla!  Uthlofan hlouly!  (20, ca. 1910)

The editor writes that this is among Khlebnikov’s most famous poems.  That’s what the translator is up against.  Khlebnikov called this “zaum” or per Schmidt “beyonsense.”  He wrote poetry starting not just at the level of the word but of the syllable or even letter, exploiting and enjoying all of the arbitrary and delightful random correspondences among words.  Word ladders as poetry.

Glitter-letter wing-winker,
Gossamer grasshopper
Packs his belly-basket
With water-meadow grass.
Ping, ping, ping! Throstle-whistle
Swan-wing wonder!
Nightlessness! Brightness!  (24-5)

In “O Garden of Animals!” (1909), Khlebnikov’s first major poem, Schmidt can abandon the wordplay because the imagery is good enough:

Where a camel knows the essence of Buddhism, and suppresses a Chinese smile…

Where the bat hangs sleeping, and its capsized body resembles a Russian heart…

Where I search for new rhythms, whose beats are animals and men.
Where the animals in their cages glow, as meaning glows in language.

A little Futurian manifesto snuck in there at the end.

Khlebnikov’s poetry darkens with the Civil War and its ensuing catastrophes.  The opening lines of several poems from 1920 and 1921:

They used to have a cow
but they killed her.
Roast mouse.
Hunger herded humanity.  (pp. 46-50)

Khlebnikov died in 1922, just thirty-six, of malnutrition and repeated illnesses, as I might guess from this set of poems.  Yet others from the same time continue his linguistic ideas, or expand them in new directions:

Russia, I give you my divine
white brain.  Be me.  Be Khlebnikov.
I have sunk a foundation deep in the minds
of your people, I have laid down an axis.
I have built a house on a firm foundation.
“We are Futurians.”
And I did all that as a beggarman,
a thief, a man with a curse on his head.  (53-4)

Only about 50 pages of The King of Time is poetry.  The rest has stories, manifestos (“Projects for the Future”), paintings and photographs by and of Khlebnikov, and other strange stuff, plus a timeline of great utility.  In 1912, for example, Khlebnikov “[c]ontributes to A Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” which right there tells you why The King of Time – this entire period of Russian literature – is so exciting for readers with the patience for it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Mikhail Kuzmin's "Alexandrian Songs" - When I hear the word "Alexandria"...

I took a break from American poetry of the early 20th century with Russian poetry of the early 20th century, which I have been enjoying so much that I had to force myself to take a break from that.  The danger is that they will soon enough all blur together, however forceful and original the poems might be.  Translation is only one blurry filter.  The literary history is confusing, with poets rejecting Symbolism for Acmeism and so on.  Who cares.  Well, they cared.

So, several posts of notes and rummaging.  It is the most extraordinary set of writers, in the most extraordinary circumstances, with an explosion of innovation and expression stifled by war, destitution, exile, censorship, and death.  But I’ll stick with the poems.

First, Mikhail Kuzmin, author of the (or a) first gay novel, Wings – in 1906! In Russia! – but otherwise a man of the theater.  I have not read the novel, or Kuzmin’s plays.

Also in 1906 he published a sequence of poems, the “Alexandrian Songs,” a mostly free verse evocation of the Egyptian city, where Kuzmin had lived for a short time.

When I hear the word “Alexandria,”
I see a faded crimson sunset over a sea of green,
I see the fleeced and winking stars
and a pair of clear gray eyes beneath the thick brows –
eyes which I see
even when I do not hear the word “Alexandria.”  (I. Prelude 2.)

The mood is sensual, erotic.  Men and women admire men.

In your body I can locate the four virtues,
and, needless to say, the seven sins;
nor am I backward in tasting these delights…  (II. Love 6.)

Then the “gray eyes” return, as they often do.

The mood is hedonistic but melancholy, not decadent exactly but heavily perfumed (“the drift of verbena”).

How I love books (they are my friends),
and the quiet of a solitary dwelling
and the distant water-melon beds
which I see from my window.  (IV. Wisdom 3.)

None of this sounds much like Constantine Cavafy, but it often hints at Cavafy.  In a blindfold test, I would have guessed Cavafy.  I never would have guessed that the original language was Russian.

The “Alexandrian Songs” are actual songs, with music, performed by Kuzmin himself.  I have not listened to them enough to be able to say anything about how the music relates to the texts – texts, in Russian, that I cannot read.  The music is pretty.  The sequence ends with a dance, and rhyme:

Such is our knowledge,
such our love –
then let us the more tightly cling
to very fleeting, fragile thing.
whirl faster, step lightly,
join hands, clasp them tightly
like this.
The hiss
of the silvery sistrum is born, is born
through the echoing groves, now faint and forlorn.

I read “Alexandrian Songs,” and another sequence, “The Trout Breaks the Ice” (1928) that I did not understand so well, admirable title aside, in Selected Prose & Poetry, tr. Michael Green, Ardis.  For this entire series, comments beginning “Oh, that translation, no –” are appropriate.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Vachel Lindsay goes to the movies - the face of the whole earth changes

From A Doll’s “Arabian Nights”

(A Rhymed Scenario for Mae Marsh, when she acts in the new many-colored films)

I dreamed the play was real.
I walked into the screen.

Vachel Lindsay is anticipating Buster Keaton.  Lindsay wrote a number of poems about actors, including at least one more about Mae Marsh, one of D. W. Griffith’s favorite actresses.  I do not think the acting poems are among Lindsay’s best, but I am interested in their existence. 

I am the one poet who has a right to claim for his muses Blanche Sweet, Mary Pickford, and Mae Marsh.  I am the one poet who wrote them songs when they were Biograph heroines, before their names were put on the screen, or the name of their director…  There are two things to be said for those poems.  First, they were heartfelt.  Second, any one could improve on them.  (p. 4, Modern Library edition)

He loved movies; he theorized about movies.

The result, more important than the poems, was The Art of the Moving Picture (1915, revised 1922), “dated and cranky,” “hyperbolic and self-appointedly supreme” (says Stanley Kauffmann, p. viii) – Lindsay wants people to politely converse during the movie – he titles a chapter “The Substitute for the Saloon” and means it – yet insightful and thorough.

His vocabulary requires some transposition.  Crowd Splendor, Patriotic Splendor and Fairy Splendor. Sculpture-in-Motion, Painting-in-Motion and Architecture-in-Motion.  He is categorizing spectacle and imagery, looking for the uniquely cinematic aspects of film art.  Lindsay is almost an auteurist, praising the aspects of films that are not simply copied from the theater – strong images, intimate but non-verbal acting, crowd scenes, dream sequences.  Chases and special effects (“the wizard element”).

I have said that it is a quality, not a defect, of the photoplays that while the actors tend to become types and hieroglyphics and dolls, on the other hand, dolls and hieroglyphics and mechanisms tend to become human.  (94)

And this in a world almost without auteurs.  Georges Méliès is never mentioned; Charlie Chaplin only mentioned uncomprehendingly.  The one great artist for Lindsay is D. W. Griffith – “he is the star of the piece, except on one page where he is the villain” (124).

The feature-length film is only four or five years old when Lindsay is writing.  Part of the strangeness of the book, I admit, is imagining my way back into the world Lindsay inhabits, where Hollywood has not been built but is one of his correct predictions (Ch. XVI, “California and America”), where every aspect of movies is no new, and changing so fast, and where Lindsay can title his last chapter “The Acceptable Year of the Lord,” and can preach the Gospel of Beauty, prophesying “dreams deeper than the sea and higher than the clouds of heaven”:

It has come then, this new weapon of men, and the face of the whole earth changes…  by faith and a study of the signs we proclaim that it will go on and on in immemorial wonder.  (187)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Vachel Lindsay in Springfield and Biloxi - America's glories flaming high

They journeyed home, made young indeed,
    But opening the book of song
    Each poem looked so deep and long
They could not bear to start to read.  (from “The Visit to Mab,” Collected Poems, 221)

If the great quality of Vachel Lindsay is his imaginative power, his Collected Poems can be almost too powerful – too eccentric, too much of Lindsay at his most peculiar.  But also at his best, and his strangest is often his best.

He is a visionary poet, but a mild one.  He makes great claims for – see left – his high school in Springfield, Illinois, for example.  The UFOs that dominates the illustration is an incense censer, swung by angels over Springfield, with the high school glimpsed in the background.  Other illustrations depict buildings related to Abraham Lincoln and the state government.  No one else has ever attached so much mystical significance to Springfield, IL. 

No man may escape his bouncing infancy.  I do not expect to get ten feet from my childhood till I die.  (“Adventures While Singing These Songs,” 23)

Ah, now, metaphorically, now we’re getting somewhere.

Collected Poems ends with a section titled “Songs Based  on Cartoons, Bill-Boards, and American Hieroglyphics, and Motion-Pictures” that contains some of his dullest poems and also some of his best.  These are latish poems, form the early 1920s mostly.  A long Cleopatra fantasy, “A Song Based on Egyptian Hieroglyphics,” is almost unreadable.  “Billboards and Galleons (Inscribed to Stephen Graham” is full of terrific lines and passages.  Biloxi, Mississippi, “City of hearties, of birthday parties,” is invested with significance for some biographical reason, as are highway billboards:

They went like cliffs up to the sky,
America’s glories flaming high,
Festooned cartoons, an amazing mixture,
Shabby, shoddy, perverse and twistical,
Shamefully boastful,
Shyly mystical.  (p. 427)

Lindsay is not a gifted rhymer, that I’ll concede.  But he sure gets off some good lines.

Exaggerated Sunday papers,
Comic sheets like scrambled eggs,
And Andy Gump’s first-reader capers,
All on those billboards to the sky.

That “comic sheets” metaphor is one of my favorites.  Lindsay has another good poem titled “A Rhyme about an Electrical Advertising Sign”:

I look on the specious electrical light
Blatant, mechanical, crawling and white,
Wickedly red or malignantly green
Like the beads of a young Senegambian queen.
Showing, while millions of souls hurry on,
The virtues of collars, from sunset till dawn,
By dart or by tumble of whirl within whirl,
Starting new fads for the shame-weary girl,
By maggoty motions in sickening line
Proclaiming a hat or a soup or a wine…  (339)

And ending with a vision of the advertising signs making “a new Zodiac” and Broadway “mak[ing] one with that marvellous stair / That is climbed by the rainbow-clad spirits of prayer.”

On the one hand, Lindsay is the tramp poet obsessed with Johnny Appleseed; on the other, he is the Walt Whitman of advertising, singing the sign electric.  Very American.  Almost logically, then, one of the first writers to really understand motion pictures, which will be my last post on Lindsay.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Vachel Lindsay pours the owls upon us - Hail, all hail the popcorn stand

Come, let us be bold with our songs.  (Collected Poems, p. 24)

Vachel Lindsay was a performance artist, author of poems meant to be sung or chanted or danced.  They sound weird enough in performance but if anything are weirder alone on the page.  And they are bold.

Jaguar, cockatoot,
Loons, owls,
Hoot, Hoot…
Hail, all hail the popcorn stand…  (from “The Kallyope Yell”, p. 118)

Sometimes “bold” means so odd no one else would think to put such a line in a poem.  This one is “(To be given in the peculiar whispered manner of the University of Kansas ‘Jay-Hawk Yell’)” which is admittedly darn peculiar.  Perhaps it can be found on Youtube.  Lindsay wants “to teach the tune of the Jay Hawk Yell to the world.”

The literati of Great Britain do not seem to have realized it, but yell-writing is as steady an occupation of bright youths here, as the writing of sonnets was in England in the Elizabethan age.  I take it that “sonnet” is Sanskrit for “yell,” and “yell” will some day be Sanskrit for “sonnet.”  (p. 6)

More typical, and once a famous poem, is “The Congo,” a nine page chant written in protest of the treatment by the Belgians of the inhabitants of the Congo, which includes marginal instructions such as “Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre,” “With a great deliberation and ghostliness,” and “Like the wind in the chimney.”  The latter accompanies these lines:

Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.

Doug Skinner pointed me to some recordings of Lindsay. The wind in the chimney sounded different to him than it does to me. The exoticizing language makes the poem unperformable now – “A negro fairyland swung into view” – but it is easy to imagine how a performance could jolt an audience just learning about King Leopold’s crimes.

The performance poems were at their best when boldest, I thought, in imagery and language, when I wanted to whisper the poem aloud.  The scene here is that Jesus has just left the courthouse (?) and is miraculously healing the lame and blind; General William Booth, leader of the Salvation Army, is leading his troops to Jesus:

from General William Booth Enters into Heaven

  [Bass drum louder.]
Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole!
Gone was the weasel-head, the snout, the jowl!
Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean,
Rulers of empires, and of forests green!

General Booth is playing the drum.  That’s the first line of the poem – “Booth led boldly with his big bass drum.”

Maybe it is too easy to pick out the strange lines – there are also plenty of dull ones – but they are so pleasurable.  Here is a children’s poem, one of dozens of Lindsay moon poems, Grandpa Mouse mythologizing the owls:

What Grandpa Mouse Said

The moon’s a holy owl-queen.
She keeps them in a jar
Under her arm till evening,
Then sallies forth to war.

She pours the owls upon us.
They hoot with horrid noise
And eat the naughty mousie-girls
And wicked mousie-boys.

So climb the moonvine every night
And to the owl-queen pray:
Leave good green cheese by moonlit trees
For her to take away.

And never squeak, my children
Nor gnaw the smoke-house door:
The owl-queen then will love us
And send her birds no more.  (in General William Booth Enters into Heaven, and Other Poems)

The line that kills me, that seems uniquely Lindsay’s, is “She pours the owls upon us.”  I kept reading Lindsay for these bold verbal leaps.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

He bought his rhymes with bread - Vachel Lindsay preaches the Gospel of Beauty

Vachel Lindsay, poet, artist, tramp, temperance activist, visionary, genuine American eccentric.

They loved his wizard stories,
They bought his rhymes with bread.

That’s from “Upon Returning to the Country Road,” found in General William Booth Enters into Heaven, and Other Poems (1913), and Lindsay means it:

Now that is the header of Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread (1912), a sixteen page pamphlet crammed with poems that Lindsay printed up and took with him on one of his many tramps around America, preaching the Gospel of Beauty, this time from Illinois to New Mexico, I believe.  Please click to enlarge.

from The Santa-Fe Trail. (A Humoresque)

I am a tramp by the long trail’s border,
Given to squalor, rags and disorder.
I nap and amble and yawn and look,
Write fool-thoughts in my grubby book,
Recite to the children, explore at my ease,
Work when I work, beg when I please,
Give crank-drawings, that make folks stare
To the half-grown boys in the sunset glare,
And get me a place to sleep in the hay
At the end of a live-and-let-live day.  (in The Congo and Other Poems, p. 14)

I have read five books by Lindsay besides Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread:

General William Booth Enters into Heaven, and Other Poems (1913)
The Congo and Other Poems (1914)
The Art of the Moving Picture (1915/1922)
The Chinese Nightingale, and Other Poems (1917)
Collected Poems (1923)

The first three books with titles ending “and Other Poems” are short volumes of poems that look a lot like everyone else’s short volumes of poems.  Lindsay was taken up by Harriet Monroe and Poetry magazine as some kind of primitive, what we – some of us – now call an “outsider” artist, whose work “could be by a mental patient, or a hillbilly, or a chimpanzee” as the art dealer on The Simpsons says.  But those three books look professional, ready to submit for an arts grant or creative writing visiting professorship.

Collected Poems, on the other hand, with its crank-drawings of the mystical hotspots of Springfield, Illinois, its “Map of the Universe,” and its two separate introductions, now that book has a strong outsider flavor.  Even if much of it parts of it are tedious or only semi-comprehensible – no, I mean because etc. – it is now the place to get to know Vachel Lindsay.

My Grandfather Frazee had spoken rather contemptuously of poets in my self-important infant presence.  He said they were clever men, and we liked to memorize long passages from their works, and it was eminently desirable that we should do so.  But almost all of them had a screw loose somewhere.  He said this in the midst of his much-read books, which began with Shakespeare and Addison, and ended with all of Mark Twain.  And then incidentally, there were all the established authorities on short-horn cattle.  (Collected Poems, p. 15, bold mine)

Now that is a library.

I have been able to enjoy these books, all but one, through the magic of online scans of the original editions.  The exception is a the sore middle fingerof the above list, The Art of the Moving Picture, which I bought when it was re-published in 2000 with introductions by Martin Scorsese and more importantly the great film critic Stanley Kauffmann.  Chapters have titles like “The Prophet-Wizard” and “The Substitute for the Saloon,” yet this in fact the first American book-length treatise on film aesthetics, a book of great, sometimes almost prophetic, insight into the new art form, with some of Lindsay’s more idiosyncratic preoccupations sprinkled in.

All right, now I’ve got something to work with.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

So barren, and so mysterious - out on the moors with The Hound of the Baskervilles

A note on The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).  I just want to acknowledge that it is a good book.  The two earlier novels featuring Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890) are among the very worst books I have read in the last ten years – or the bad parts of them are among the very worst parts of books I have read – so it is a pleasure to read a good example.

I write this as someone who is not a fan of Sherlock Holmes.  I mean that in the positive, rather than colloquial, way.  A “fan,” in this case the Holmesian, is a specific kind of reader.  She is well aware of the problems with the Mormon half of A Study in Scarlet but values the novel for its Holmes lore, for the violin and the first meeting of Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson.

Or, in later stories, other Holmes motifs –  the cocaine, or Irene Adler  (“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman”).  That is the first line of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” found in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892).  Does Irene Adler ever appear again in anything written by Arthur Conan Doyle?  Doesn’t matter; it has been an imaginatively productive idea for later incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.  Fans knew what to do with it.  Fans are creative.

By the writing of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle was working with a mature concept and well-known characters, perfected in the 1890s in what became two volumes of short stories.  He knew them so well that he could make the daring move of dropping Holmes out of much of the novel.  He knew that Watson was an interesting enough character on his own, and that the tension created by Holmes’s absence – when and how will he return to the book? – would be enjoyable.  I found it enjoyable.

The use of the Devonshire landscape, or a little sliver of it, was original and interesting.

“It is a wonderful place, the moor,” said he, looking round over the undulating downs, long green rollers, with crests of jagged granite foaming up into fantastic surges.  “You never tire of the moor.  You cannot think the wonderful secrets which it contains.  It is so vast and so barren, and so mysterious.”  (Ch. 7)

A good place to set loose a gigantic demon dog on a cursed family.  That last line is amusingly blunt, Doyle’s character directly telling me how to feel.

Barren and mysterious worked for me, but it always felt quite small.  Near the end of the novel,  delaying a dramatic moment, Watson reviews the landscape:

Outside the sun was sinking low and the west was blazing with scarlet and gold.  Its reflection was shot back in ruddy patches by the distant pools which lay amid the great Grimpen Mire.  There were the two towers of Baskerville Hall, and there a distant blur of smoke [etc., etc.]…  (Ch. 11)

As if Doyle has sketched it out on a map, which he likely did.  This moor is in Devonshire, bordering Thomas Hardy country; the novel is one of many examples of contemporary novelists who had gotten interested in the people living in some of the more unusual landscapes of England.  The prehistoric stone huts that dot the moor were a Hardy-like feature, a way to give the setting some temporal vastness.

Easy to understand why later writers, real fans of Holmes and Watson, would want to pilfer from, imitate, and rewrite this novel.

Monday, April 18, 2016

He’d call it an adventure - Huck Finn vs Walter Scott, and the struggle to find Jim

Mark Twain had presented his argument against Walter Scott in Life on the Mississippi.  He returns to it in Huckleberry Finn and in fact makes it a principle, if submerged, theme of the novel.  It explains some of the unpleasantness of the novel’s final episode.

Southerners developed an ethical system that was a fantasy based on novels; that is Twain’s argument.  The novels are not really the issue, just useful stand-ins for a critique of Southern culture – the over-emphasis on honor, the duels and feuds, the glorification of violence, and the pride in lost causes – all of this on top of a dehumanizing system of chattel slavery, which was also part of the fantasy, allowing slave-owners to think of themselves as feudal chiefs.

Tom Sawyer is the novel’s representative of this ideology.  He wants to turn everything into an adventure story, a less innocent pastime than it first seems.  By the end of a novel, Sawyer is revealed as a sociopath, completely indifferent to human suffering and all too proud of his new bullet wound.  The irony of that detail is pretty ugly.

I love Huckleberry Finn for his independence and his ability to make moral decisions – “’All right, then, I'll go to hell’” (Ch. 31), right?  “It was awful thought, and awful words, but they was said.”  The escaped slave Jim becomes his friend, as human as himself.

Yet Finn cannot free himself from Tom Sawyer.  Jim and Huck come upon a steamboat wreck.  Jim says skip it; Huck says:

“Do you reckon Tom Sawyer would ever go by this thing?  Not for pie, he wouldn’t?  He’d call it an adventure – that’s what he’d call it; and he’d land on that wreck if it was his last act.  And wouldn’t he throw style into it?...  I wish Tom Sawyer was here.”  (Ch. 12)

Six pages later, just by the way, we learn the name of the steamboat:

“On the wreck.”

“What wreck?”

“Why, there ain’t but one.”

“What, you don’t mean the Walter Scott?”  (Ch. 13)

Huck had also wished Tom were present while he was emptying out Pap’s cabin and faking his own death.  Whatever problems a reader might have with the final episode of the novel, when Tom Sawyer engineers Jim’s escape from imprisonment, but only on Tom’s insane terms, as if they were all in a Dumas novel, you can’t say that Twain had not set things up.  Thematically, the ending logically follows.

The episode is deeply uncomfortable.  However resourceful Huck is on his own, he is crushed in the presence of Tom Sawyer, servile, even.  He achieves a powerful moral breakthrough about his friend Jim and then abandons it without a fight.  I understand why people dislike the ending.  It is unpleasant.

No more unpleasant, though, than what Jim has been experiencing throughout the novel.  He already lives away from his family, his wife and two children living on a Missouri farm while he works in town.  He flees slavery because of a threat that he will be sold away from his family.  He hopes to work in Illinois and buy his family.  The further he floats south – the longer Tom Sawyer keeps him chained up in prison – the more he risks not only personal violence but the loss of his family.

For Huck Finn, family is something to escape, plus he is just a boy.  How can he understand any of this?  The young reader has the same excuse.  The adult reader ought to struggle to bring Jim out from the background.

Much of the above is indebted to John Keene’s story “Rivers,” from Counternarratives (2015), in which Jim tells his story.  It is a fine piece of literary criticism.

Friday, April 15, 2016

It's lovely to live on a raft - Huckleberry Finn in his habitat

The materiality of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn extends to its landscape.  The mechanics of the flow of the Mississippi River, its weather , vegetation, and fish, and then all of the human adaptations, especially the watercraft, form the story at minor and major points, to the extent that Twain abandoned the novel for a long time when his characters reached the Ohio River.  Down the Mississippi – that’s one novel – up the Ohio – that’s another.  And what did Twain know about the Ohio River?

It was useful to have recently read The Return of the Native (1878) and even The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), a pair that could have been written – I don’t know that they were – landscape-first.  The writer imagines the place and then wonders what stories might occur there.  Huckleberry Finn must have been imagined character-first, since Huck is pulled from Tom Sawyer, but he’s a river rat, inseparable from the setting.

The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line – that was the woods on t'other side; you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away – trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks – rafts; … and next you've got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!  (Ch. 19)

I made a big chop in the middle of the most rapturous passage in the novel, a 266 word descriptive sentence that I will admit is not entirely credible coming from Huck Finn.  Perhaps his stenographer has cleaned it up a little, maybe added a little from his own observations.  I am sure glad I read Life on the Mississippi (1883), too, finally, so I can see how the novel informs the memoir and travel book, and how Twain’s return to the river for that book helped him solve the problems he had been having with the novel.  I think of Twain on the deck of the steamboat, seeing Huck and Jim ahead of him on their raft.  What are they doing out there?

“You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft,” says Huck at the end of Chapter 18, just before the  long idyllic passage partly quoted above.

Sometimes we’d have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time.  Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark – which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two – on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts.  It's lovely to live on a raft.  (Ch. 19)

This passage, Huck’s days in Arcadia, is a high point of the novel.  Ethically, it is so complex.  There are two people on that raft.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Mark Twain piles up stuff - The statements was interesting, but tough

Let’s move the interior decorating and furniture theme to the United States.  Huckleberry Finn has been locked in a forest cabin by his abusive, drunken Pap.  He has sawed his way out, though, and is furnishing a canoe, unfurnishing the cabin:

I took the sack of corn meal and took it to where the canoe was hid, and shoved the vines and branches apart and put it in; then I done the same with the side of bacon; then the whisky-jug.  I took all the coffee and sugar there was, and all the ammunition; I took the wadding; I took the bucket and gourd; I took a dipper and a tin cup, and my old saw and two blankets, and the skillet and the coffee-pot.  I took fish-lines and matches and other things – everything that was worth a cent.  I cleaned out the place.  I wanted an axe, but there wasn't any, only the one out at the woodpile, and I knowed why I was going to leave that.  I fetched out the gun, and now I was done.  (Ch. 7)

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) is a material novel, more purely concerned with things than almost any American novel of the time, up there with Moby-Dick.  I read this passage, and the entire surrounding episode, with fascination as a child.  I could not guess how many times I read this chapter, which is only about thirty pages into the novel, and a natural place to stop, apparently.

Did I read other similar passages with similar interest, say where Robinson Crusoe scavenges the wrecked ship, a scene that Mark Twain is inverting?  I most surely did.  Or how about the end of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck and Tom Sawyer dig into Jim’s cabin and fill it with garbage, parodying his own earlier scene?  “I did wish Tom Sawyer was there,” Huck says back in Chapter 7.  He eventually gets his wish.

Here we find the hidden key to the aesthetics of Wuthering Expectations.  Piles of stuff, please.

The other great household goods scene is in Chapter 17, when Huck describes the luxurious house of the feud-ridden Grangerfords.  “Nothing couldn’t be better,” he says.  The door has a doorknob.  There is a clock with “a big outlandish parrot on each side of the clock, made out of something like chalk, and painted up gaudy.”  A patriotic table cloth from Philadelphia.  A “little old piano… that had tin pans in it, I reckon.”  Books, of course, including a Bible and

“Pilgrim’s Progress,” about a man that left his family it didn’t say why.  The statements was interesting, but tough.  [Accurate!]

Best known are the pictures by a deceased daughter, the proto-Goth Emmeline Grangerford, which range from melancholy absurdism to Lovecraftian nightmare.  “These was all nice pictures, I reckon, but I didn’t somehow seem to take to them, because if ever I was down a little, they always gave me the fan-tods.”  How many times have I read this chapter?  “It was very good poetry…  If Emmeline Grangerford could make poetry like that before she was fourteen, there ain’t no telling what she could a done by-and-by.”

This perfect home, with its fancy doorknob and clock and so on is maintained by slave labor and is inhabited by a family of bloodthirsty sociopaths.  There’s an argument, an ideology, in that furniture.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Byzantine efflorescences of the brain and complicated deliquescences of language - Huysmans reads

Against Nature  is obsessed with books and reading.  Several chapters are closer to literary criticism than to fiction, although the opinions are those of the character, rather than J.-K. Huysmans; who knows how they might differ.  Reading leads to action, too, to story.  The best single chapter in Against Nature is spurred by reading.

Des Esseintes, in the grips of his nervous illness, reads Dickens to “soothe his nerves,” but the complete absence of any sexual content whatsoever works him into a lustful frenzy – des Esseintes is a deconstructionist, reading the novel’s absences.  He decides that a trip to London will help him “escape from the wearying debauches of a mind dazed by endlessly working in a vacuum” (Ch. 11, 149).  He orders his things packed, takes the train to Paris, and shops.  Finally, he eats a real dinner in a restaurant, the only substantial food he eats in the entire book – oxtail soup, a haddock, roast beef and potatoes, “a lump of blue Stilton, its sweet taste impregnated with bitterness,” etc., along with “two pints of ale” and a “porter, that black beer that tastes of licorice juice without its sugariness.”

In other words, he behaves like something close to a normal person for a single chapter.  He enjoys himself so much that he decides there is no reason to actually go to London.  “’What aberration was I suffering from that I was tempted to disown my old ideas, to condemn the docile phantasmagorias of my brain, in order to believe, like some complete fool, in the necessity, interest and benefit of a real excursion?’” (160).  So he goes home.  A good comic episode.

“But it was his books that principally preoccupied him” (Ch. 11, 161).  He commissions individual editions, with attention to covers, paper, and type – “he didn’t want the books by his favourite authors in his library to be the same as those in other people’s, the typefaces of which looked as if they’d been stamped into ragpaper by the hob-nailed boots of an Auvergne rustic” (161-2).  So his Baudelaire, for example, is made up like “a church missal” on Japanese paper, bound in “genuine sow skin.”

Poe, Balzac, Baudelaire.  Flaubert, Goncourt, and Zola.  Paul Verlaine, Tristan Corbière and Stéphane Mallarmé.  The latter list caught my attention.  Corbière had died young, but would have been thirty-nine when Against Nature was published.  Verlaine was forty.  Mallarmé was forty-two and essentially unknown, as was Corbière (“It was barely French,” 205).

I am trying to imagine a contemporary novel, one of our time, that contains substantial passages about living poets.  Poets not in the author’s MFA program.  Huysmans’s novel is to a large degree an exercise in taste-making, and as such its influence was substantial.  He gets a lot right, in a sense, my sense.  The only writer I didn’t know was the Belgian poet Théodore Hannon, best known, French Wikipedia implies, for being mentioned in this novel.  Anyone know him?   I should learn French and read him.

Des Esseintes, and surely Huysmans, desires “Byzantine efflorescences of the brain and complicated deliquescences of language” (Ch. 14, 197), or “gaminess,” as he amusingly calls it, literature that is pungent, that tastes too strong.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

more fictional French interior decorating from Against Nature by J.-K. Huysmans - to enhance the vivacity of its colors

I want to continue my exploration of furniture design and interior decorating in the French novel with À rebours (1884) or Against Nature by J.-K. Huysmans, the touchstone of future Decadents.  Nana (1880) and Bouvard and Pecuchet (1881) both had a lot of material about interior design, so that’s three novels in a short time.  Kind of an undramatic path for the novel to go down, you might think, correctly.

In English, the Huysmans novel is best known as the source of the infamous Chapter 11 of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), in which Dorian Gray describes his horrible crimes, which include cultivating orchids and mixing perfumes and worst of all reads (“Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book”), maybe a little disappointing for readers expecting something a little less aesthetic.  Good readers, more than one, have told me that Chapter 11 is unreadable – it is certainly skippable – so now imagine that chapter puffed into an arch, plotless novel, with its own entire chapters devoted to orchids and perfumes and books, the tedious nadir of which is a long inventory of 19th century French Catholic writing, “an enormous mass of insipidity” (Ch. 12, 166).

The protagonist, des Esseintes, is an enormously wealthy aesthete suffering from nervous complaints who retires to the countryside to furnish the perfect house.  Most famously, hoping “to enhance the vivacity of [the]colours” of an oriental carpet, des Esseintes acquires a tortoise, but no, “the carpet was still too gaudy, too showy, too new.”  He has the tortoise gilded and encrusted with rare gems, soon killing the poor beast, which “hadn’t been able to bear the dazzling luxury that had been imposed on it” (Ch. 4).

This reminds me that des Esseintes’s mother had “died of exhaustion” (“Notice,” 36), which came from doing nothing at all.

Des Esseintes decorates with books.  He decorates the dining room in a sea theme, with the sunlight entering the room through an aquarium containing mechanical fish and “the odour of tar” sprayed into the room;  the crowning touch is “a table on which rested a single book, bound in sealskin, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, specially printed for him on laid paper of pure linen with a seagull watermark, each sheet of which was selected by hand” (Ch. 2, 52).

The great tension of the novel is the distance between the genuine opinions of the author, which are eccentric, and the nonsense of the protagonist, who is way way out there.  The book is one of the source documents of 1890s Decadence, but is at the same time a parody of Decadence, an attack on the very ideas it advocates.

For Huysmans, the book was a turning point, a first step towards his return to the Catholic Church and transformation into a genuine religious writer.  He writes in a “Preface, written twenty years after the novel” that is took him eight years to understand the path the novel had put him on, although Zola, “shrewder than the Catholics,” saw it right away and urged Husymans to stop undermining Naturalism, whatever that means.

The translation, ornate and sharp, is Brendan King’s.  Maybe I’ll write one more post, about the books, of course, the books, what else.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Paris would never experience such fun again - Zola and Nana have some fun

Typically, I pick out bits of books I think are particularly good.  I did not do that with Nana; in fact I chose some passages that I thought had something quite bad mixed in with whatever was good, although I did not highlight their badness.  By bad, I mean that the narrator has started hammering, as when he shows Nana surveying her extraordinary new furnished mansion:

It was like a sudden extension of her own personality, her need for power and pleasure, her urge to possess everything in order to destroy everything.  Never before had she felt so deeply the immense force of her sexuality.  Looking slowly around, she said with an earnest, philosophical air:

‘Ah well, it’s really jolly sensible to get what you can while you’re young!’  (Ch. 10, 304-5)

I love “philosophical,” but those first couple of lines are awfully blunt.  Does Zola think I have been skimming his novel?  Then a couple of lines later, he ends the chapter with something a lot better:

To save time, she took hold of her thick blonde hair in both hands and shook it over the silver wash-basin; a shower of long pins fell out, tinkling like bells on the shining metal.

Nana is a novel in bad taste, possibly about taste at times.  “… and now and again she’d even open a book, because she prided herself on her literary taste” (Ch. 10, 287) – now that is just mockery of poor Nana, and the last we hear of her reading.  More to the point is her custom-made bed,

… utterly unique, a throne or altar where all Paris would come to worship her in her naked, equally unique, beauty.  It would be made entirely of embossed gold and silver, like some gigantic jewel, golden roses hanging on a silver trellis; along the bed-head a band of laughing Cupids would be leaning forward, surrounded by flowers and peering at the voluptuous delights concealed in the shade of the curtains.  (Ch. 13, 369)

Perhaps one of the heads can be Nana’s own.  The head, Nana thinks, why not the entire body?  “She could see herself as a silver statuette symbolizing steamy nights of love…”  (Ch. 13, 375)

And one of the many climaxes of this bizarre penultimate chapter is a tableau of a nude Nana posing “with the divine arrogance of her awe-inspiring idol” on her monstrosity of a bed, on one side the statue of herself, on the other a Marquis, a “senile old man,” “a death’s head at this feast celebrating Nana’s all-conquering flesh”  (Ch. 13, 401).

Nana is an outstanding character, but this late chapter is from the point when her celebrity has become so astounding that she loses much of her humanness.  The novel works perfectly as a satire of celebrity.  All too relevant.

At the beginning of the novel, just before my first glimpse of Nana appears on stage:

The public hadn’t been able to wallow in such stupid impudence for ages.  They felt refreshed.  (Ch. 1, 19)

And then a few pages from the end: “Paris would never experience such fun again” (Ch. 14, 422).

Those two quotations give a good sense of what comes between them.

Friday, April 8, 2016

the queen of first-class tarts - Nana triumphs

Zola builds Nana out of big set pieces, chapter-long scenes with lots of movement and characters.  A theatrical performance, then the next day at Nana’s apartment, a jump to another house, then back to Nana’s for a chaotic, drunken dinner party.  “Then the blond young man bearing the name of one of the great French families, desperate to find something funny to do and unable to think of anything better, took his bottle of champagne and emptied it into the piano” (Ch., 4, 105).  That kind of party.

Four chapters, four scenes; 100 pages; a quarter of the novel.  Exhausting.  Finally, Zola skips a month to another 35 page theater scene, in which the plot finally begins, a third of the way into the book, as Nana captures the upright, religious, and immensely wealthy Count de Muffat by getting him into her dressing room while she’s changing.  The Count, and also the heir to the English throne, the future King Edward VII; he’s there, too.  With Nana, Zola goes big.

The theater chapters are enormous fun, and would be worth reading even if the rest of the book were junk.  The other great scene is Chapter 11, when all of the characters go to the races.  Nana is at this point a celebrity:

So Nana became the toast of Paris, the queen of first-class tarts, battening on the stupidity and beastliness of males.  In the smart world of amorous intrigue, a world of reckless extravagance and brazen exploitation of beauty, her rise to fame was meteoric; and she immediately joined the ranks of the most expensive…  She represented the aristocracy of vice…  (Ch. 10, 274)

Gustave Flaubert has a long racetrack scene in Sentimental Education (1869) that is one of the highlights of the novel.  Eça de Queirós put a long, stunning racetrack chapter in The Maias (1888), a clear, and successful, attempt to outdo Flaubert.  I had not known that Nana contained Zola’s challenge to Flaubert, quite different than Eça’s.  A horse named after Nana is in the race; Nana herself is turned into a horse (her hair is “allowed to stream down her back like an enormous red horse-tail,” 307).  The horse is a longshot, but the author can do what he wants, and he wants a triumph for Nana.  He wants an apotheosis:

Nana was till listening to her name reverberating over the plain.  It was her subjects applauding her while she dominated them all, standing bolt upright in the sunlight, in her blue-and-white dress, the colour of the sky, with her hair glowing like a sun-queen.  (Ch. 11, 337)

She becomes the female Louis XIV, the embodiment of France.  What a scene.

Nana is allowed one more chapter as a human character – she and Muffat are pretty much the only characters in the novel with any depth – before she becomes some kind of ravaging goddess of sex, destroying men and families, until eventually she destroys France, somehow, symbolically, at the hands of the invading Prussians.  Venus has become Shiva.  The last few lines are clear enough about that, although they are too grisly to quote, except for

… her hair, her lovely hair, still flamed like a glorious golden stream of sunlight.  (Ch. 14, 425)

Thursday, April 7, 2016

a gust of gutter sex - Émile Zola's Nana

After I have read an Émile Zola novel, I usually blabber about the patternings Zola constructs, objects or colors or events that are not symbols but are used to build meaning within the novel, often by linking scenes together.  Zola learned the technique from Gustave Flaubert.  These motifs can be hard to see the first time through a novel.  This time, with Nana (1880), I did not see anything of the sort.  Maybe it’s not there.  More likely I will have to wait until the next time I read the novel.

Without these patterns as an additional source of aesthetic interest, as a source of meaning, novels like Flaubert’s and Zola’s can seem – be – vulgar, and Nana is at times vulgar beyond belief, among the ugliest 19th century novels I have ever read.  The title character, the subject of the novel, is herself a great beauty, a Venus on earth, a kind of living embodiment of sex.

In his manifestos Zola invokes science, but he might as well be writing a series of novels based on the Seven Deadly Sins.  The Belly of Paris (1873) covers gluttony, Money (1891) does greed, and Nana is pure lust.  This scheme does not really work, since every Zola novel I have read is about greed, but there are times when Zola is essentially creating medieval emblems for satirical purposes.

The waltz being played by the orchestra was the vulgar little dance-tune from The Blonde Venus, and as its cheerful, saucy rhythm flowed into the house it seemed to send a warm thrill through the old walls, like a gust of gutter sex sweeping away a bygone age in the haughty Muffat residence and dispersing their past, a hundred years of honour and Christian belief which had been sleeping in the dark corners of its lofty ceilings.  (Ch. 12, 353)

Muffat is a count who is destroying his fortune, family and mind on his kept woman, Nana.  The first chapter of the novel depicts Nana’s stage debut as the title character of The Blonde Venus, now, 300 pages later, her theme song.  Nana is limited actress and a poor singer, but she is a Marilyn Monroe-like figure, literally stunning the theater audience when she appears nude:

Now there was no clapping, and no one thought of laughing.  The men had a strained, earnest look on their faces; their nostrils were taut, their mouths parched and burning.  It was as if the softest of breezes had passed through, full of secret menace.  This good-natured girl had suddenly become a disturbing woman offering frenzied sexuality and the arcane delights of lust.  Nana was still smiling, but it was the mocking smile of a man-eater.

“Jesus!” said Fauchery simply, turning to la Faloise.  (Ch. 1, 25)

The joke is that I already know that Fauchery is completely jaded, but even he is captured by Nana. La Faloise still has some idiotic innocence. Twelve chapters later, Nana devours both men.

That breeze, that gust – is that one of the motifs I failed to see?  I think it is.

I read Douglas Parmée’s 1992 translation, which was terrific.  Page numbers from the Oxford World’s Classic paperback.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Small barbarians and grade school pirates - Stephen Crane's Whilomville Stories and other

Stephen Crane’s Whilomville Stories (1900) is a book about children but not a children’s book.  Or such is my interpretation.  It’s stories contain the adventures of little Jimmie Trescott who lives in a small town in New York, is in grade school, has a doctor for a father, and can whip anybody.  The point of view is firmly adult, almost anthropological at its best.  This is clearest in “The Carriage-Lamps,” where Jimmie has been grounded and is in his ground floor room.  His Tom Sawyer-like friend is at the window, pretending to be a pirate.  Dr. Trescott is also in the room, unknown to the tiny pirate.

“Oh, come on, Jimmie.  A boat awaits us at the foot of the rocks.  In one short hour you’ll be free forever from your ex – excwable enemies, and their vile plots.  Hasten, for the dawn approaches.”

The suffering Jimmie looked at his father, and was surprised at what he saw.  The doctor was doubled up like a man with the colic.  He was breathing heavily.

How handy, for Crane to model a response for his readers.  We, reading, the story in Harper’s, where it was first published, may not be laughing so hard that we are in pain, like the boy’s father, but still, I thought the scene was pretty funny.  I would have added more comical “w”s.  “Vile pwots… dawn appwoaches.”

These charming stories are a strange contrast to the Cuban war fiction of Wounds in the Rain, published the same year, even though the boys do plenty of fighting.  Crane he had written stories about children before, including some bad, bad New York City children.  See the shocking “An Ominous Baby” for an example: “After the small barbarian had got some distance away, he paused and regarded his booty.”  Don’t see “A Dark-brown Dog”; it is too sad.  These stories are circa 1892, an age ago in the rapid, compressed career of Crane.  The morality of children was all too useful for Crane’s view of human nature.

If you want to read the minor Whilomville Stories, I will note that the Library of America collection of Crane omits three of them, but keeps the one, “The Knife,” that is hmm hmm hmm not congruent with today’s views on the depiction of African-Americans.  The Library of America also omits the grotesque illustrations of the original edition.

See, or avoid, “The Angel Child,” between pages 14 and 15.

I take these light-hearted stories as deliberate money makers, but there are two twists.  One is that the same family features in the Crane novella The Monster (1898), in which a black servant is grievously injured in a fire while rescuing little Jimmie.  The story is a serious look at the town’s fear and hatred of the injured man, the monster, and the father’s loyalty to the man who saved his son.  The tone could hardly be more different than that of the Whilomville Stories.

The other odd thing is that Crane was working on another group of linked stories when he died.  Three of them are in the Library of America volume.  They are episodes in a fictional war between Spitzenberg and Rostina, written much like the Cuban stories except made up from scratch.  It is as if Crane knew he  could not wait for Austria and Italy to go to war – he died fourteen years too soon – so he had to get going in advance.  I wonder what he was doing.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Mine was not news for child to know - Walter de la Mare's Motley

The difference between a Walter de la Mare children’s poem and one not so labeled can be slight.  Motley (1918), the book that followed Peacock Pie, begins with “The Little Salamander” and “The Linnet,” with language and subject little different than in the children’s book.  Following the one book, with the other, I saw the traces of the children everywhere:

Perchance upon its darkening air,
The unseen ghosts of children fare,
Faintly swinging, sway and sweep,
Like lovely sea-flowers in its deep…   (“The Sunken Garden”)

The scene is of course “Latticed from the moon’s beams” – the moon is ever-present.  Soon enough, the language thickens, and becomes more grammatically complex, with more poetic inversions, for example, and two new subjects appear.  The first is the love poem, “The Tryst,” for example:

Flee into some forgotten night and be
Of all dark long my moon-bright company…
Or “The Ghost,” about a lost love, or its illusion:
A face peered.  All the grey night
    In chaos of vacancy shone;
Nought but vast sorrow was there –
    The sweet cheat gone.

The last line, borrowed by Scott Moncrieff, now turns the narrator into Proust’s Marcel and the ghost into Albertine, in which case she’s better off without him.

The other new subject can be guessed from the 1918 date of publication.

They are all at war! –
Yes, yes, their bodies go
‘Neath burning sun and icy star
To chaunted songs of woe,
Dragging cold cannon through a mire
Of rain and blood and spouting fire,
The new moon glinting hard on eyes
Wide with insanities!  (from “Motley”)

The speaker is a Fool, left behind as usual.

Mine was not news for child to know,
And Death – no ears hath.

After the three pages of “Motley” – long for de la Mare – it was hard not to think that every poem in the book was a war poem of some kind, if I could only grasp the metaphor.   In “The Marionettes” the European theater is converted into a puppet theater – “’Tis sawdust that they bleed” – that one is easy enough.  The Fool returns with a melancholy “Fool’s Song” – “’Tis sad in sooth to lie under the grass.”  De la Mare blends two stories, portraying Alexander the Great enthralled by the song of the Sirens, hoping that poetry will end war, not now, certainly, but “Come the calm, infinite night” (“Alexander”).

Although there are plenty of cryptic metaphors and lines, Motley is more often direct in its statements than was The Listeners.  The last few poems are a call to Beauty that would likely have made no sense before the war.  Pure aestheticism then; something else now.

Look thy last on all things lovely,
Every hour.  Let no night
Seal they sense in deathly slumber
     Till to delight
Thou have paid they utmost blessing;
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
     In other days.  (from “Fare Well”)

Monday, April 4, 2016

And quiet did quiet remain - Walter de la Mare's Peacock Pie at the edge of All the Ages

Another children’s book, Walter de la Mare’s Peacock Pie (1913), once a famous book, more in England than in America.  It’s a beauty, mysterious and evocative (but evoking what?).  Rarely twee.  Enjoyably odd.  An exemplar, complete:

The Horseman

I heard a horseman
    Ride over the hill;
The moon shone clear,
    The night was still;
His helm was silver,
    And pale was he;
And the horse he rode
    Was of ivory.

Either that gets me asking questions and wanting to know more, or it’s nothing.  And I have to be willing to accept, I suppose, that this is it, that the rest of the story has to come from my own imagination.  The poet’s job is to catch that one sublime moment.

A few poems do tell more complete stories – one, “Sam’s Three Wishes,” seems to borrow Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence – but more often something has just happened, or is about to happen, or should happen but does not.  “So I know not who came knocking, / At all, at all, at all” (“Some One”).

Maybe a kid and the moon stare at each other:

Full Moon

One night as Dick lay half asleep,
    Into his drowsy eyes
A great still light began to creep
    From out the silent skies.

It was the lovely moon's, for when
    He raised his dreamy head,
Her surge of silver filled the pane
    And streamed across his bed.

So, for awhile, each gazed at each —
    Dick and the solemn moon —
Till, climbing slowly on her way,
    She vanished, and was gone.

An ordinary event becomes like a supernatural visitation.  The very next poem inverts the idea.  “’I’m tired – Oh, tired of books’” says “The Bookworm.”  He wants Nature, unmediated, but his reason is mysterious.  “’Something has gone, and ink and print / Will never bring it back.’”  The poems are built on these gaps.

“The Bookworm” has one of my favorite lines:

To hear the hoarse sea-waters drive
   Their billows ‘gainst the shore;

Or favorite phrases – “hear the hoarse sea-waters.”  De la Mare is good with sounds, colors, animals, like the miller’s rat-hunting cats:

 Then up he climbs to his creaking mill,
Out come his cats all grey with meal –
Jekkel, and Jessup, and one-eyed Jill.  (from “Five Eyes”)

Peacock Pie ends with a section titled “Songs” that is the strangest in the book, building to a weird climax.  The songs are of “Secrets,” “Shadows,” “Enchantments” and “Dreams.”  The title phrase finally appears, but in “The Song of the Mad Prince”:

Who said, “Peacock Pie”?
   The old King to the sparrow:
Who said, “Crops are ripe”?
    Rust to the harrow:
Who said, “Where sleeps she now?
    Where rests she now her head,
Bathed in eve’s loveliness”? –
    That’s what I said.

The next stanza is even weirder.  This song is worthy of Hamlet, assuming we take him as genuinely mad.

The last song  is like the first I quoted, but bolder.  The imagination leaps past the poem, while within it all is still.

The Song of Finis

At the edge of All the Ages
     A Knight sate on his steed,
His armour red and thin with rust,
    His soul from sorrow freed;
And he lifted up his visor
    From a face of skin and bone,
And his horse turned head and whinnied
   As the twain stood there alone.

No bird above that steep of time
    Sang of a livelong quest;
No wind breathed,
“Lone for an end !” cried Knight to steed,
    Loosed an eager rein —
Charged with his challenge into Space:
   And quiet did quiet remain.

If you have read Michael Moorcock – honestly, is it not like a compressed Moorcock novel?  He loved de la Mare.  A livelong quest at the edge of All the Ages!  Let’s go!

Friday, April 1, 2016

As he is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful, said the Art Professor - Oscar Wilde's fairy tales

Simpler Pastimes runs her Classic Children’s Literature event in April.  That’s today!

I have read or am reading several books that could count.  The two I will poke at today are Oscar Wilde’s two little books of fairy tales, The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891).

The earlier book is shorter, sweeter, and written at a lower reading level.  The model for the fairy tales is Hans Christian Andersen, not the Grimms or other folklorists, so the tone is light but sad, oh so sad.  “The Happy Prince,” in particular, about a statue – it’s really a statue of a prince – and a swallow who sacrifice themselves for others hits the Andersen model perfectly.

The stories are mostly about selfishness and sacrifice.  They are perhaps a little monotonous.  Do good for others (“The Happy Prince,” “The Selfish Giant”), but be careful about, for example, committing suicide in the name of beauty (“The Nightingale and the Rose”) or being selfless in the service of a blowhard parasite (“The Devoted Friend”).  The final story, “The Remarkable Rocket,” is also about a blowhard, who is ironically a firework who fizzles.  Two stories  in a row about chatty blowhards – maybe one too many, although Wilde’s pompous asses are funny, as if Wilde is practicing towards his greater works, which he is.

“Idleness is a great sin, and I certainly don’t like any of my friends to be idle or sluggish...  Anybody can say charming things and try to please and to flatter, but a true friend always says unpleasant things, and does not mind giving pain.”  (“The Devoted Friend,” 75)

Both lines could be dropped into The Importance of Being Earnest without much work.  Similarly, from the Rocket:

“What right have you to be happy?  You should be thinking about others.  in fact, you should be thinking about me.  I am always thinking about myself, and I expect everybody else to do the same.  That is what is called sympathy.  It is a beautiful virtue, and I possess it in a high degree.”  (“The Remarkable Rocket,” 98-9)

Good stuff, but “The Happy Prince” doesn’t need it to succeed as a fairy tale.

The later book, A House of Pomegranates, is a stranger, darker thing.  Wilde seems to have decided that what fairy tales mostly lacked was long, elaborate descriptions.  I am a fan of such things, and Wilde’s are mostly quite good, but structurally, boy is he wrong.  The longest story, “The Fisherman and His Soul,” particularly suffers from a too-muchness, plus it is just a hodgepodge of other stories – “The Little Mermaid” mashed with Peter Schlemihl and other stories.

“The Birthday of the Infanta” is more successful in this regard.  The long descriptions of the princess’s birthday party, or rooms and gardens  in the Spanish palace, or a woodland idyll, are part of the beauty / ugliness contrast that is the heart of the story.

The purple butterflies fluttered about with gold dust on their wings, visiting each flower in turn; the little lizards crept out of the crevices of the wall, and lay basking in the white glare, and the pomegranates split and cracked with the heat, and showed their bleeding red hearts.  Even the pale yellow lemons, that hung in such profusion from the mouldering trellis and along the dim arcades, seemed to have caught a richer colour form the wonderful sunlight, and the magnolia trees opened their great globe-like blossoms of folded ivory, and filled the air with a sweet heavy perfume.  (“The Birthday of the Infanta,” 31-2).

Imagine more of this, more colors, more perfumes, a lot more.  Maybe too much.  It’s like the much-loathed Chapter 11 of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the Huysmans parody, compressed into a fairy tale.

Both this story and “The Young King” surprised me by their critique of beauty along social and ethical grounds, some of which I believe is borrowed from William Morris, although there is plenty of that in the earlier book, too.  “’As he is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful,’ said the Art Professor at the University” (“The Happy Prince,” 23).  Both books of fairy tales are moral books, and also well written.