Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Damnation of Theron Ware - "I've got their measure down to an allspice."

Harold Frederic was, for fifteen years, the New York Times London correspondent.  On the side he wrote fiction, including at least one unusually good comic novel, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), in which a talented but naïve young Methodist minister is sent to Frederic’c home town of Utica, New York, where he is corrupted in various entertaining ways.

Theron Ware is a reversed bildungsroman.  The character does not grow, but shrink.  The more he learns, the worse he becomes, until everyone is sick of him.  The title is ironically hyperbolic, although on the last page a dark joke makes the word almost literal, in a metaphorical way, the one time the novel turns into horror fiction.  Mostly, we watch Reverend Ware become a huge jerk.

Some representative quotations:

Thereon Ware was extremely interested in the mechanism of his own brain, and followed its workings with a lively curiosity.  (Ch. 4)

With his tender compassion for himself there mingled now a flutter of buoyant prescience, of exquisite expectancy.  (Ch. 18)

He had not comprehended at all before what wellsprings of spiritual beauty, what limpid depths of idealism, his nature contained.    (Ch. 24)

These should suggest the primary sins that that Ware’s seminary education did not really prepare him to fight, or even encouraged.

Generally, the fundamentalists get banged pretty hard for pettiness and narrow-mindedness.  The great contrast is with a Catholic priest who is educated and thoughtful, but does not seem to believe in Christianity, although he believes strongly in the Catholic Church.

Frederic’s style is like that of William Dean Howells but rougher.  This could easily have been a Howells novel.  There is plenty of dead wood, passages that could just be cut:

The Rev. Mr. Ware found Levi Gorringe’s law-office readily enough, but its owner was not in.  He probably would be back again, though, in a quarter of an hour or so, the boy said, and the minister at once decided to wait.  (Ch. 12)

So dull.  But Frederic gets off some good comic metaphors.

The Bishop droned on laboriously, mispronouncing words and repeating himself as if he were reading a catalogue of unfamiliar seeds.  (Ch. 1)

The “unfamiliar seeds” actually return as part of the plot.

I am not sure how to visualize this one, exactly, but it’s funny:

Sister Soulsby gave a little involuntary groan of impatience.  She bent forward, and, lifting her eyes, rolled them at him in a curve of downward motion which suggested to his fancy the image of two eagles in a concerted pounce upon a lamb.  (Ch. 14, Ware of course considers himself to be the lamb)

Frederic is good with dialogue, giving it some authentic upstate flavor (as if I have any idea how people spoke in Utica in the late 19th century):

“Why, man alive, that’s the best part of it.  You ought to be getting some notion by this time what these Octavius [that’s Utica] folks of yours are like.  I’ve only been here two days, but I’ve got their measure down to an allspice.”  (Ch. 14)

I have never heard that last idiom, and for all I know Frederic invented it, but I love it and hope to use it frequently.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Clamorously falling / Into gabbling incoherence, never resting - good D. H. Lawrence poetry

Sometimes the interest of a D. H. Lawrence poem is the subject – the sexual longing of an engaged couple, parents arguing, a mother dying – and sometimes it is the sheer overwhelming Lawrenceness of the thing, but often he is just doing what good poets do, although maybe not as often as most good poets.  Doing things like describing the sounds of bells:

from Week-Night Service

The five old bells
Are hurrying and eagerly calling,
Imploring, protesting
They know, but clamorously falling
Into gabbling incoherence, never resting,
Like spattering showers from a bursten sky-rocket dropping
In splashes of sound, endlessly, never stopping.

It is like a children’s poem for adults (and also children), full of imaginative personifications, not just of the bells:

The wise old trees
Drop their leaves with a faint, sharp hiss of contempt,
While a car at the end of the street goes by with a laugh…

Barely a hint of a human, a poet, but the exhilaration as “the old church sobs and brags” as well as the contempt when “the poor bells cease” must be his, really.

“Week-Night Service” comes early in Amores amidst other energetic poems of sound and movement.  It would also fit at the end of the book, as part of a sequence of five night poems.  Or maybe seven, but the longer, ambitious “Blue” I don’t understand, and the longer, ambitious “Snap-Dragon” is another of the “no sex before marriage” poems; the former begins on a “dark sea” and ends in “The Darkness,” while the latter ends with repetitions of the word “dark” before a harvest moon appears, so you see my confusion.

Anyway, the last five begin with “In Trouble and Shame,” where the “swaling sunset” and the poet’s shame lead him to yearn for death, a trip “Through the red doors beyond the black-purple bar.”  Then “Elegy” – grief, “small sharp stars,” a white moon.  Then “Grey Evening,” “Firelight and Nightfall,” and “The Mystic Blue” – so that earlier “Blue” poem must be part of the sequence.

None of these are among Lawrence’s most famous poems, but they are a good argument for reading Amores rather than a selection of poems.

“Grey Evening” in particular is a beauty.

When you went, how was it you carried with you
My missal book of fine, flamboyant hours?
My book of turrets and of red-thorn bowers,
And skies of gold, and ladies in bright tissue?

Now underneath a blue-grey twilight, heaped
Beyond the withering snow of the shorn fields
Stands rubble of stunted houses; all is reaped
And garnered that he golden daylight yields.

Dim lamps like yellow poppies glimmer among
The shadowy stubble of the under-dusk,
As farther off the scythe of night is swung,
And little stars come rolling from their husk.

And all the earth is gone into a dust
Of greyness mingled with a fume of gold,
Covered with aged lichens, pale with must,
And all the sky has withered and gone cold.

And so I sit and scan the book of grey,
Feeling the shadows like a blind man reading,
All fearful lest I find the last words bleeding
With wounds of sunset and the dying day.

Nothing to cheer you up like a good book.  This particular poem gives no hint of what grief the poet may be suffering, although other poems in Amores present plenty of possibilities.  “You” in the first line could refer to a death, a lover, or the sun, which could make the lines about the book amusingly literal.  But no, the poet’s happier if fantastic thoughts turn back to a troubling reality, even if it is thickly covered with metaphor – the shift from the harvested field to the harvest in the sky is wonderful.  The poet peers into Nature, which is almost unreadable.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Sexy D. H. Lawrence - Now I am all / One bowl of kisses

D. H. Lawrence’s Amores (1916) is the book I have at hand.  It’s his second collection of poems, but his Nth book.  He already has four novels behind him, including Sons and Lovers (1913) and The Rainbow (1915), along with other kinds of books.  And he is thirty years-old.

Based on the contents of Amores I would guess much younger, but no, he is a mature poet writing sexual poems against some serious constraints about subject matter – constraints which he ignores – that make him sound more adolescent than he really is.  In the first poem, “Tease,” he imagines that a woman is his housekeeper, caring for and exploring “All the chambers of my soul”:

You have fingered all my treasures,
    Have you not, most curiously,
Handled all my tools and measures
    And masculine machinery?

“Virgin Youth” is about masturbation, likely from a woman’s perspective, which is bold:

Then I tremble, and go trembling
Under the wild, strange tyranny of my body,
Till it has spent itself,
And the relentless nodality of my eyes reasserts itself…

I had to include that last line, which is hilariously bad, an example of the way Lawrence’s poems sometimes fling themselves into grotesqueries and bad taste.  In my notes I see that I only labelled two entire poems as “terrible,” but I could pick out plenty of lines that made me laugh.  Not that I care.  I know who I am reading here, and I am happy to push beyond my dull notions of taste:

from Mystery

Now I am all
One bowl of kisses,
Such as the tall
Slim votaresses
Of Egypt filled
For a God’s excesses.

By the sixth stanza, this poem has turned pornographic (“Comingled wines / Of you and me”), and where else could that marvelous, bonkers opening go?  This guy’s girlfriend would need a sense of humor, as do the readers of certain of his poems.  In “Mating,” Lawrence turns into Cole Porter.  “Birds do it, anemoNES do it”:

 Round clouds roll in the arms of the wind,
The round earth rolls in a clasp blue sky,
And see, where the budding hazels are thinned,
         The wild anemones lie
In undulating shivers beneath the wind.

The birds (ducks) are in the next stanza, with a drake preening over his harem.  This poem is a good example of how Lawrence’s insightful observations of nature get pulled into his other concerns.

Ah love, with your rich, warm face aglow,
What sudden expectation opens you
    So wide as you watch the catkins blow
        Their dust from the birch on the blue
Lift of the pulsing wind – ah, tell me you know!

Not everyone finds the windborne distribution of pollen so sexy.  This poem ends graphically, too, although with an additional cry – why “do you call it evil, and always evil?”

My understanding is that Lawrence’s next collection of poems, Look! We Have Come Through! (1917) has plenty of poems from or about Lawrence’s honeymoon, so I expect more of the same but with the frustration removed, or displaced.  No room for a surprising poem like “Hands of the Betrothed,” where the poet’s crazed desire for his fiancée makes him too handsy,

She puts me away, like a saleswoman whose mart is
Endangered by the pilferer on his quest.

She keeps tight control over her “Two wild, dumb paws in anguish,” “suppressed in the folds of her skirt,” holding back “the pain that is her simple ache for me.”

Some of these really looked like new kinds of poems.  I see I haven’t gotten to the ones I thought were especially good, so I’ll spend one more day on Amores.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Francis Parkman's France and England in North America, opinionated

I have finished Francis Parkman’s seven volume France and England in North America (1865-92), the “history of the American forest,” as the author called it.  The history of French Canada, really, from early exploration to English conquest, written by America’s greatest historian, or 19th century historian, at least.  I took about a decade to read it all, maybe 2,800 pages, plus I should add The Oregon Trail (1847, not a history but an exciting travel book) and The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War (1851, a warmup to the big series), which brings the total to 3,500 pages.

I am writing this post not so much because I have anything to say about the books, but rather to apply for my merit badge.  Parkman’s books are not as good as Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), but my feeling of accomplishment was similar.

Parkman’s greatness was at least twofold.  First, with Gibbon as a model, he picked an ambitious subject early on – in college – and then stuck with it, even in the face of severe ill health, and was lucky to live long enough to complete a fifty-year project.  Second, he is not the prose writer that Gibbon was – in this way he resembles almost everyone who has ever written anything – he had the advantage of having not just Gibbon as a model but also Walter Scott.  No one would mistake Parkman for a novelist, but he absorbed Scott’s innovations in narrative history.  He is good with scenes, novelistic detail, characters, that sort of thing.

Third, he set a new evidentiary standard for historians, which is part of why he needed so much time.  Part of that new standard is described, incidentally, in The Oregon Trail, Parkman’s account of a youthful trip to the Rocky Mountains which he took partly for health, partly for fun, but largely so he could meet, interact, and even live with Native Americans.  He was acting as an early anthropologist, studying living native peoples in the hopes of understanding those of earlier centuries.

The Oregon Trail is a terrific adventure, as is La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West (1869).  Anyone who enjoys books about exploration will enjoy these.  At the far end of the series, Montcalm and Wolfe, which covers the entire French and Indian War and is quite exciting – George Washington, the expulsion of the Acadians, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, etc.  The stretch of The Old Regime in Canada (1874), Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV (1877), and A Half Century of Conflict (1892) does not cover such interesting material, although it will all prove to be enormously useful during your vacation in Quebec City.

Parkman’s great weird masterpiece, though, is The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century (1867), a cruel and dark book about the meetings of two cultures alien to each other; they are also both alien to Parkman, the Jesuits much more so than the natives of the Canadian forest.  This book is not quite a narrative history, but it is certainly not fiction, or no more so than Parkman’s sources require.  I have never read anything quite like it.

There, that was some opinionating on Francis Parkman, which I believe meets the requirements of the badge.

What preposterously enormous history should I launch into next?  John Motley’s seven-volume history of the Netherlands (1856-67)?  Could that be as exciting as a history of Canada?  Theodor Mommsen’s three-volume History of Rome (1854-6) is tempting, too.  The most likely answer is that I’ll never read such a thing again, although I would like to re-read Gibbon.  Well, I’d like to re-read Parkman, too, someday, a long time from now.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The question that he frames in all but words - Frost's Mountain Interval

Mountain Interval (1916), Robert Frost’s third book, and third book of poems in four years, is more lyrics than dialogues, with a variety of forms, sonnets and so on (plus a few longer blank verse dialogues, just like those in North of Boston) beginning with “The Road Not Taken,” now, somehow, something like the most famous American poem because of the illusion that it contains a self-congratulatory self-help message.  I guess.

My favorite Frost poem, the one I remembered most strongly since the last time I read Frost with any seriousness, is in this book:

from ‘Out, Out –‘

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood.
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.

An accident occurs, the one maybe you were expecting, even given the distraction of those mountains and that sweet smell.  The boy who is injured “saw all / Since he was old enough to know.”  The title is from Macbeth, but we get a look at Frost’s classicism here, as the boy is a perfect Stoic.  The last lines, though, introduce another kind of stoicism:

No more to build on there.  And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

It is a firmly unsentimental poem, neither folksy nor reassuring, an astringent counter-example to the Hallmark card reputation Frost has picked up over the years.

I love this cider-drunk cow, too, drawn from life, I suppose:

The Cow in Apple Time

Something inspires the only cow of late
To make no more of a wall than an open gate,
And think no more of wall builders than fools.
Her face is flecked with pomace and she drools
A cider syrup.  Having tasted fruit,
She scorns a pasture withering to the root.
She runs from tree to tree where lie and sweeten
The windfalls spiked with stubble and worm-eaten.
She leaves them bitten when she has to fly.
She bellows on a knoll against the sky.
Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.

The poem echoes – quotes – poems from North of Boston, including “The Mending Wall” and “After Apple-Picking,” suggesting a self-parody.  But Frost produces poems, at least.  Maybe I am the cow, reading delicious poems and producing nothing.  But look at that pasture – there’s no grass left, what am I supposed to do?

I am likely too quick to interpret poems as being about poems, I know, but then I come across “The Oven Bird,” “a singer everyone has heard”:

The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

On the one hand, I see a real bird, its song signaling the end of summer, and on the other, he sounds pretty Frosty.

What a debut.  The next book, New Hampshire, comes in 1923, seven years later, forever, compared to this first burst of poems.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall - some Frost prosody

What is in North of Boston (1914)?  It begins and ends with lyrics, including an epigraph poem that looks like a possibly deceptive statement of purpose:

The Pasture

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may);
I shan’t be gone long. – You come too.

I’m going to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother.  It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long. – You come too.

Yep, just a simple country poet, gazing upon nature and chronicling acts of agriculture.  Thus poems about repairing stone walls, picking blueberries, picking apples, unloading hay, chopping wood, and so on.  I do appreciate Frost’s invitation.

The book does not sound much like this, though, except in the number of feet.  Much of the book is in dialogue, and almost all of it in a loose and flexible blank verse, with two additional exceptions, “Blueberries,” odd eleven-syllable lines of rhyming couplets and triplets (but I just notices this one, so who knows what I have missed), and “After Apple-Picking,” which is mostly blank verse but occasionally collapses into shorter lines, matching the conceit of the poem, which is that the speaker is too tired:

For I have had too much
Of apple picking.  I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the apple-cider heap
As of no worth.

“Stubble” then rhymes with “trouble.”  The rhyming is irregular and subtler than this passage suggests, as if the poet is too tired to keep to a single scheme.  I have suspicions that this is a poem about writing poems.  But it is also a poem about harvesting apples.

More typically, there is a lot of this:

‘You needn’t smile – I didn’t recognize him –
I wasn’t looking for him – and he’s changed.
Wait till you see.’

                               ‘Where did you say he’s been?’

‘He didn’t say.  I dragged him to the house,
And gave him tea and tried to make him smoke.
I tried to make him talk about his travels.
Nothing would do: he just kept nodding off.’  (from “The Death of the Hired Man”)

Lots of lines that do not look like anything special by themselves, do not look poetic, whatever that might mean.  Plain speech, except always rhythmic.  Language that has been heightened or energized, but just barely, so it still registers as ordinary as well as poetic.  This voice, simultaneously plain and not, seems like one of Frost’s great discoveries.

No one would put up with this at any length is it were not for Frost’s gift as a storyteller.  “The Death of the Hired Man” could have been a fine short story.  But this post is about prosody, dang it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

He is in love with being misunderstood - Some early Robert Frost

Robert Frost was 39 when his first book, A Boy’s Will, was published in 1913.  North of Boston came out in 1914, Mountain Interval in 1916.  What a run of books.  North of Boston leads with “Mending Wall,” and Mountain Interval with “The Road Less Taken.”  And everyone – Pound, Yeats, etc. – recognized Frost’s poems, right away, for their worth.  A career’s worth of poems in just a few years, with many more books to come, decades of poems, a string of prizes and university appointments.

North of Boston, with longer poems, more dialogues and stories, and Mountain Interval, with more lyrics, are both astounding.  Without much in the way of formal innovation, Frost developed a voice – several voices – that sounded like an American version of early Wordsworth, ordinary New Englanders who somehow always speak and think in a heightened blank verse, who find meaning in work and the natural world.  Frost was a serious classicist, and his influences were as much Latin* as English, but those two latter books feel to me like the first serious American descendants of Wordsworth, by a “VURRY Amur’k’n talent,”** as Pound, that goofball, described Frost.

Frost’s first book, though, A Boy’s Will, that one I don’t get.  The table of contents of the original edition included a series of annotations that help explain my difficulties***:

Into My Own  The youth is persuaded that he will be rather more than less himself for having forsworn the world.
Ghost House  He is happy in the society of his own choosing.
My November Guest  He is in love with being misunderstood.

And so on, each explication funnier than the previous (“The Demiurge’s Laugh  about science,” yeesh).

These notes make the poems sound unbearable, which they are not, and Frost had the sense to drop them in every future edition, leaving cruel editors to stick them back in.  There is at least some self-mockery in A Boy’s Will:

In Neglect

They leave us so to the way we took,
    As two in whom they were proved mistaken,
That we sit sometimes in the wayside nook,
With mischievous, vagrant, seraphic look,
    And try if we cannot feel forsaken.

The adult poet has plenty of ironic distance from the adolescent feelings described in the poems.

The title character in “My November Guest” is a female personification of sorrow, which could hardly be more boyish:

Her pleasure will not let me stay
    She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
    Is silver now with clinging mist.

A Boy’s Will is exceedingly autumnal.  It is perhaps meant to be growth that the boy learns, contra Sorrow, to miss the birds:

Now Close the Windows

Now close the windows and hush all the fields:
    If the trees must, let them silently toss;
No bird is singing now, and if there is,
    Be it my loss.

It will be long ere the marshes resume,
    It will be long ere the earliest bird:
So close the windows and not hear the wind,
    But see all wind stirred.

A sequence of poems about storms, dead butterflies, and falling leaves begins.  Perhaps the boy has been dumped by his girlfriend:

from Reluctance

Ah, when to the heart of man
    Was it ever less than treason
To go with the drift of things,
    To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
    Of a love or a season?

So ends the book, on this note of resigned anti-wisdom.  The poems in A Boy’s Will are very pretty.  Now that I got.

* “It [North of Boston] was written as scattered poems in a form suggested by the eclogues of Virgil,” “Preface to an Expanded ‘North of Boston,’” Collected Prose, Poems, & Plays, Library of America, p. 849.

**  The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2, Third Ed., p. 1,082.

*** LOA, p. 969.

Monday, August 22, 2016

’But it really is interesting, you know!’ - Leonid Andreyev's "Darkness" and "The Seven Who Were Hanged"

When I last wrote about Leonid Andreyev, I had not read the last two stories or novellas in Visions: Stories and Photographs of Leonid Andreyev, edited by his granddaughter Olga Carlisle.  Now I have read them.  “Darkness” (1907, tr. Henry and Olga Carlisle) is a melodrama about a man on the run from the law who takes up with a prostitute for a night; “The Seven Who Were Hanged” (1908, tr. Nicolas Luker) is a set of depictions of people facing execution and their varied reactions.

Both stories feature protagonists who are terrorists, anarchists using assassinations and bombings to overthrow the Czar.  The hero of “Darkness” will end up in a prison waiting for his death, just like the members of the terrorist cell in “The Seven Who Were Hanged.”  I found the melodrama of the former to be a real weakness.  Why is this setup imitated so often?  Because it is too easy to squeeze phony depth out of it.  But the psychology of the anarchist is of high interest, especially his strange conversion experience under the influence of stress, exhaustion, booze, and a capricious woman:

Like a dye that washes off in water, the bookish wisdom of others was fading, and in its place appeared something peculiar, somber, and wild, like the voice of the dark earth itself.  This ultimate dark wisdom of his spoke of untamed distances, boundless, impassable woods, endless fields.  In it one could hear the frenzied ringing of bells, the bloody reflection of fires, the clanging of iron shackles, and the frantic praying and the satanic laughter of a thousand gigantic throats – the black cupola of the sky above his uncovered head.  (224)

The story is a preview of the better one to come, “The One Who Will Be Hanged.”

“The Seven Who Were Hanged” was written as a protest against capital punishment, and was widely circulated, including in an early American translation, as such, but its artistic effectiveness – perhaps also political – is in its distance.  This is the most Chekhov-like story in this collection, especially in a pair of ingenious expansions of the underlying concept.  The terrorist group has only five members.  The other two who will be hanged are more ordinary criminals, joined with the terrorists in a gesture towards bureaucratic efficiency.  Each of the seven characters gets a chapter alone to work on their death.  One goes mad, another feels content in her martyrdom, yet another becomes, I don’t know, a bodhisattva?

The more ordinary characters, though.  Well, Mishka the Gypsy, “alias the Tartar,” is hardly ordinary.  He is a career criminal whose bad deeds have caught up with him.  In one especially fine moment, he volunteers to demonstrate, in court, his “real, wild, robber’s whistle that deafens horses, makes them twitch their ears and rear, and turns men pale despite themselves” (266).  As one of the judges says, “’But it really is interesting, you know!’”

Even better is Chapter III, the story of Yanson the peasant, an idiot and an Estonian who somehow ends up in Russia, never really understanding where he is or what is going on around him.

Once he received a letter in Estonian, but as he was illiterate and those around him knew no Estonian, the letter remained unread.  With wild, fanatical indifference, as if he did not understand that it contained news from home, he flung it on the manure heap.  (255)

Yanson never understands his crime, and never understands his impending execution.  Somewhere in here is the great Chekhovian touch, where I sympathize not with Yanson’s deeds, of course, or even his situation, but with his incomprehension.

Friday, August 19, 2016

translate more than translate the authority - Gertrude Stein dissolves meaning, or else creates it

My first pass at Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) is that the poet’s idea is to create writing in which the connection between the word and its meaning has been destroyed.  She uses common objects as titles, words with strong significations for most readers, words that are hard to separate from the thing they signify – apple, shoes, salad – and then, crack!, shatters the usual meaning and does not replace it with anything else.


Apple plum, carpet steak, seed clam, colored wine, calm seen, cold cream, best shake, potato, potato and no no gold work with pet, a green seen is called bake and change sweet is bready, a little piece a little piece please.

An ideal example, as the passage contains many of Stein’s strategies.  The first item in the list suggests that Stein is making associations with original word, perhaps expanding meaning, but then “carpet steak” suggests otherwise, or else the associations quickly become so private as to become meaningless to poor me.

Some amusing pairs like “seed clam” / “calm seen” make Stein fun to read aloud, and I can imagine a good performer working wonders with Tender Buttons, although I can also imagine the fun diminishing quickly.  A half-hour performance would feel long.

Finally, in the last phrase enough meaning returns to fill me with doubt.  That looks like a child begging for a bit of apple.  Pretty clear.  Maybe there is more meaning than I think.  Or maybe just enough meaning is simulated to suggest meaning without the bother of actually creating meaning.


It is a winning cake.


What is bay labored what is all be section, what is no much.  Sauce sam in.


It was a peculiar bin a bin fond in beside.

If I were to go all in on meaning – if I wanted to interpret the text rather than explain it conceptually – I would keep my eye on that little girl begging for an apple slice.  I would take Tender Buttons as an exploration of early childhood linguistics, like it is from the point of view of a child learning language fresh, when the arbitrariness of language is a source of mystery and pleasure.


Asparagus in a lean in a lean to hot.  This makes it art and it is wet wet weather wet weather wet.

Is Tender Buttons joyous nonsense or dreary nonsense?  Every example I have picked is from the “Food” section of the book, which I enjoyed the most, and which lends itself best to my “childhood language” idea.  The “Objects” section was more purely baffling.  The “Rooms” section, a single long prose poem, more adult.  A number of interpreters have argued that Tender Buttons is, from the title onwards, full of sexual material.  I did not know how to break this code, until I got to certain parts of “Rooms”:

The sister was not a mister.  Was this a surprise.  It was.

For example.  So, yes, maybe there is something about life in the Stein and Toklas household in this book.  Maybe the references are too private, maybe not.

Dance a clean dream and an extravagant turn up, secure the steady rights and translate more than translate the authority, show the choice and make no more mistakes than yesterday.

Still, my first guess is that the conceptual linguistic ideas are what matter.  Someone, circa 1914, had to demonstrate the concept, and here it is.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

An impression of coherence - working on a Reverdy poem

Another Pierre Reverdy from The Roof Slates (1918), a good one for me to work on.

The Shadow of the Wall

An eye with a quill through its back
A tear that comes from the moon
              A lake
The world finds its home in a sack
              After dark
The cypress trees all give one sign
That the highway’s white blank underlines
The hibernal landscape is blue
                   Fingers tremble
A big square another resembles
Shadows dance between the two
Invisible animals
 The length of the road
                                         Rain falls

This is on p. 77 of The Roof Slates and Other Poems of Pierre Reverdy, tr. Mary Ann Caws and Patricia Terry.

Several lines rhyme.  Does the French rhyme?  Yes, in roughly the same places.  Keeping the rhymes in English is not a special problem – “signe / souligne,” “tremblent / ressemblent.”  The choice of “back” in the first line gets us a bonus rhyme, to add to the “lake / sack” slant rhyme (“lac / sac”).  Reverdy uses rhyme, perfect and off, frequently but irregularly.

The poem describes a scene, observed or imagined, static.  Let’s say it does.  The title presents an object.  The subsequent lines describe it with a series of images, not necessarily logically connected.  The violent first image is almost irritating now, since I cannot escape the similar, more famous, image in Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929).  The shadow as a moon-tear is cute.   Anyone in a poetry writing class could free associate from there to a “lake,” kept by Reverdy because of the rhyme with his next metaphor.

The next set of images moves away from the wall, expanding the scene.  If this were a painting, with everything presented at once, I would likely move in reverse – winter scene; road; line of trees; wall; shadow.  Reverdy works outward from one corner of the imagined painting.

“La paysage hivernal est bleu” – I guess “hibernal” is chosen rather than the more ordinary “wintry” because of the internal rhyme with “highways.”  The trembling fingers are the only hint that the viewer, the poet, is in the landscape.  This is the poem’s first bit of motion, which then extends to the two squares.  Are they moving, or are they just like something that is moving?  I don’t understand the English line at all.  “Deux grands carrés qui se ressemblent” – “Two big squares that resemble / Shadows dancing among / Animals that can’t be seen,” translates the French student, taking the three lines as a single sentence, which may be wrong.

If I move around in the book, the number of overlapping elements is huge.  Shadows, shapes, lines, rain, walls.  Dancing.  “On the backdrop / A handsome troup / Dances.”  “On the edge of the roof /       A cloud is dancing.”  “Lights play on the wall.” “The shadow hidden by a leaf in flight” – now that’s a curious idea, isn’t it, moving my attention away from the thing I am seeing to its theoretical but hidden shadow.  I am literally leafing through the book, compiling Reverdy’s private vocabulary, words that he would like to imbue with more meaning.  He wants them to signify what they usually do, and also more.  How often this can really happen, I don’t know.  “A reader who responds to a Reverdy poem will find that it gives an impression of coherence before he can explain how this is so” (Patricia Terry, p. 9).  Yep.

Tomorrow, I’ll turn to Gertrude Stein, who prefers an impression of incoherence.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

In my head lines, nothing but lines - some Pierre Reverdy

I’m going to look at a couple of Cubist poets, first Pierre Reverdy and then Gertrude Stein.  What is a Cubist poet?  A poet who was friends with a Cubist painter.  Are the poems of a Cubist poet particularly Cubist in any other way?  Not in any way that I understand.  It is a weak metaphor.

There is a link to visual art, though.  Reverdy’s first book was the 1915 Prose Poems.  Perhaps this poem can serve as a statement of principles:

Strokes and Figures

    A blue-tinged patch in the sky; in the forest, clearings
quite green; but in the town where pattern imprisons us, the arch
of the porch circle, the squares of the windows, the diamond-shapes
of the roofs.
    Lines, nothing but lines, for the convenience of human
    In my head lines, nothing but lines; if only I could make
a little order of them.
(Selected Poems, p. 9, tr. Mary Ann Caws)

Reverdy returns to these images in the opening poem of his 1918 Roof Slates:

On every slate
                        sliding from the roof
                                 had written
                                                    a poem

The gutter is rimmed with diamonds
                                                the birds drink them  

Translated by Patricia Terry this time (p. 39).  In the original edition, the first stanza, let’s call it, was “in a very large dark type, elsewhere use for titles,” the second stanza thus like “one individual slate on the ground” (Roof Slates and Other Poems of Pierre Reverdy, Terry, p. 7).  The patterns and structures that are a source of anxiety in the prose poem have been put to use as the material for poems.  The concern with lines is built into the visual shape of Reverdy’s poem, as my eye follows the slide and fall of the slate tile.

Reverdy poems do not generally have such a strong calligrammic touch, but the attention to the visual line is clearly important:

Across the Way

          On the edge of the roof
                     A cloud is dancing
Three waterdrops hang from
                                               the gutter
Three stars
And your shining eyes watch
         The sun behind the window pane


(SP, 73, tr. Terry)

Although this poem is actually shaped like a diamond – the image is more obvious in the French poem, where the first (“Au bord du toit”) and next to last lines (“La soleil derrière la vitre”) are much shorter.

One might wonder exactly what the translator’s job is here.  “Three stars” = “Trois étoiles,” “Noon” = “Midi,” “A cloud is dancing” = “Un nuage danse,” and so on.  At least in the last case there had to be a decision about the English verb tense.  Often, with these early Reverdy poems, the translator’s role is visual as well as verbal.

I have been quoting from Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1991, tr. Mary Ann Caws and Patricia Terry), which is a rearranged and expanded version of their 1981 The Roof Slates and Other Poems (Northeastern University Press, 1981).  The 2013 NYRB collection, Pierre Reverdy, which I have not read, appears to be another revision and expansion of the same translations.  This decades-long commitment by the translators and editors to create an English Reverdy is impressive.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

“You mean real madmen?” - metaphorical Andreyev

Leonid Andreyev is about the doomiest pre-Soviet Russian writer I have ever encountered.  Titles in this one collection (Visions: Stories and Photographs) include “The Abyss,” “Darkness,” and “The Seven Who Were Hanged.”  Madness, murder, rape, and war.  An apocalyptic vision.  The title of “The Red Laugh” is a metaphor for massive head trauma, like the head being blown off by an artillery shell.  Ha ha ha!  “He's one of the few truly pessimistic writers” writes valued commenter obooki, just a few minutes ago, as I was wondering what to write next.

The oddest aspect of “The Red Laugh” is that it seems like it should be about World War I, but since it was published in 1904 it is rather a response to the Russo-Japanese War.  The confusion, and the prophetic quality, comes from the complete absence of identifying detail about the participants in the war.  No one has a name, and no country-specific detail is included.  The narrator’s army fights “the enemy,” when not firing at its own side in the shocking “Sixth Fragment.”  I don’t see why the narrator could not be Japanese.  The timing is narrow, since trains, artillery, barbed wire, and the Red Cross are mentioned, and airplanes are not.

“The Red Laugh” at first seems like it is meant to represent the war’s violence realistically, but gradually a symbolic premise becomes clear:

“Are there many wounded?” I asked.

He waved his hand dismissively.

“There’re more madmen than wounded.”

“You mean real madmen?”

“What other kind is there?”  (Fifth Fragment, p. 95)

The madness of war is like a pestilence in the story, infecting all of the soldiers and spreading to everyone.  The story ends with the nightmarish return of the dead, overwhelming the earth – “wherever there had been an empty space near a body another would appear – the earth was expelling them” (Final Fragment, 142).

So horrible.  Andreyev has a grisly metaphorical imagination, whether at this symbolic level or sentence by sentence.  My just possibly slightly ridiculous favorite:

But the moaning had not died down.  It was still hanging over the earth – thin, hopeless, like a child crying or like the whimpering of a thousand abandoned, freezing puppies.  (Fifth Fragment, 100)

Another story from 1904, “The Thief,” is written quite differently.  It begins: “Fyodor Yurasov, a thief who had served three sentences, set out to visit his former mistress, a prostitute who lived about seventy miles out of Moscow.”  It stays at this level of specificity, accompanying the thief on his final, doomed railroad journey.  He is doomed because he cannot help himself, because a thief is what he is.

He is traveling incognito, or likes to imagine that he is, as “a respectable German, Heinrich Walter,” but becomes enraged not because people see through him but because they do not care.  There is a subtle idea about ego and identity here:

In the mirror he looked like other people, only perhaps better; it was not written on his face that he was the peasant Fyodor Yurasov, a thief who had served three sentences, and not a young German named Heinrich Walter.  As usual, this incomprehensible, treacherous something that was apparent to all except himself aroused in him dull despair and fear.  (155)

There is a lovely scene where the thief, out on the platform between cars, sings along with the train while watching the sunset.  His voice “spread over the earth.”  The “setting sun grew brighter and deeper, like a beautiful face turned toward someone beloved who is ever quietly disappearing” (158-9).  The thief is somehow done in by his refusal to accept that this is just metaphor.

I'll likely write a bit more on Andreyev when I finish this collection.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Leonid Andreyev updates Crime and Punishment - remember Raskolnikov, who perished so pitifully and so absurdly

I’ve been reading some horror stories lately, the fiction of Leonid Andreyev.  His story “The Thought” (1902) is a kind of parody of Crime and Punishment.  A doctor commits an elaborate murder of revenge.  His plan for escape is to fake insanity.  The result is that he goes insane, or I suppose reveals the insanity that was there all along.

I was not afraid of myself – that was more important than anything else.  For a murderer the most terrifying thing is not the police or the trial, but the criminal himself, his nerves, the powerful protest of his whole body, trained in familiar traditions.  Remember Raskolnikov, who perished so pitifully and so absurdly, and all those multitudes like him.  (39)

Right there me might have a little clue about the reliability of the narrator, since Raskolnikov is alive at the end of Crime and Punishment.  But the doctor is right that some of the grim comedy – and horror – of Dostoevksy’s novel comes from the difference between Raskolnikov’s initial belief that he is a Great Man of Reason and his instantaneous collapse into hysteria and mania once, or even before, he kills the pawnbroker.  Andreyev’s doctor, more of a psycho to begin with, is a cooler customer, allowing us to watch him, in his own words, slowly unravel:

Altogether it seemed to me that an exceptional actor was hidden within me, one capable of combining naturalness of performance, which at times led to a complete identification with the character portrayed, with a relentless, cold control of the mind.  Even when reading a book I would enter fully into the psyche of a character.  Would you believe it, even as an adult I wept bitter tears over Uncle Tom’s Cabin…  If man is destined to become God, his throne shall be a book.  (43)

You see why I am nervous about identifying with characters, right?  People who identify too much are likely sociopathic killers, as Andreyev understands.  That last Nietzschean line is the only kind of religious invocation the madman makes.  He ends his confession or testimony with a promise of apocalypse.  In a prophetic touch – Andreyev specializes in prophetic touches – the doctor vows to build a nuclear bomb.

I shall pretend to be well, I shall attain freedom, I shall devote the rest of my life to study, I shall surround myself with your books, I shall wrest from you the might of your knowledge, of which you are so proud, and I shall find the one thing that has long been needed.  It will be explosive matter.  So powerful that no one has ever seen anything like it; more powerful than dynamite, more powerful than nitroglycerine, more powerful than the very thought of it.  I have genius.  I have persistence, I shall find it.  And when I find it I will blow up your accursed earth, which has so many gods and no one, eternal God.  (77, italics in original)

The killer is, after decades of debate about the term, an authentic nihilist.  His “thought” is total destruction.  After all of this writing, his only word in court, his only defense, is “Nothing.”

Page numbers are from Visions: Stories and Photographs by Leonid Andreyev (1987).  The translation is by Henry and Olga Carlisle.  Olga Carlisle is Andreyev’s granddaughter.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Crime and Punishment translations - comparing Ready and Garnett

How different is the new Oliver Ready translation of Crime and Punishment from other translations?  I don’t know!  It felt different.  Zippy.  I read Constance Garnett long ago.  Let’s take a look.

There was a momentary silence.  Pyotr Petrovich slowly took out a cambric handkerchief reeking of perfume and blew his nose with the air of a virtuous man who has suffered a wound to his pride and who, moreover, is determined to receive an explanation.  (IV.2, 277, Ready)

A moment’s silence followed.  Pyotr Petrovitch deliberately drew out a cambric handkerchief reeking of scent and blew his nose with an air of a benevolent man who felt himself slighted, and was firmly resolved to insist on an explanation.  (Garnett)

Both versions are hilarious.  What a nose-blowing.  Both are similar, as is typical with translations of novels.  Most of the different choices by Ready are in the same direction – “slowly” replaces “deliberately,” “perfume” replaces “scent,” “virtuous” replaces “benevolent,” and so on.  Case after case, Ready chooses the word more commonly used today.  It is just an update, the language of my time instead of that of a hundred years ago, and as a result I find, however accustomed I am to reading English from that time, that the book is lighter on its feet.

Whether Ready is correcting or introducing errors, I can’t say.  But I can see the modernizing.  I also find “virtuous” funnier than “benevolent,” but I will bet just because it is closer to my natural English.

A bit of Raskolnikov’s confession to Sonya, a scene of great intensity that would likely stand up to some pretty incompetent translation.  Raskolnikov’s mention of a spider invokes his evil dream double Svidrigailov, who is often linked to spiders:

“Nonsense!  I just killed.  I killed for myself, for myself alone; and whether I’d become anyone’s benefactor or spend my entire life as a spider, catching everyone in my web and sucking out their vital juices, shouldn’t have mattered to me one jot at that moment!...”  (V.4, 393, Ready)

“Nonsense!  I simply did it; I did the murder for myself, for myself alone, and whether I became a benefactor to others, or spent my life like a spider catching men in my web and sucking the life out of men, I couldn’t have cared at that moment…”  (Garnett)

Is “did the murder” a little fussy?  Otherwise, the only issue in Garnett is the odd repetition of “men” when “them” would be unambiguous.  Is Garnett being a literalist here, reproducing a hiccup in the original?  Or is Ready thinking it’s normal Russian and should sound like normal English?

A little more of the spider, from Svidrigailov’s great chapter:

Waking up, flies attached themselves to the untouched portion of veal on the table next to him.  He looked at them for a long time and eventually began trying to catch one with his free right hand.  He tried and tried, but with no success.  Finally, catching himself at this peculiar task, he came to his senses, shuddered, got up and walked straight out of the room.  (VI.6, 479, Ready)

Some flies woke up and settled on the untouched veal, which was still on the table.  He stared at them and at last with his free right hand began trying to catch one.  He tried till he was tired, but could not catch it.  At last, realizing that he was engaged in this interesting pursuit, he started, got up and walked resolutely out of the room.  (Garnett)

The last line, in Garnett, is bizarre.  “Interesting pursuit” sounds like a sarcastic comment from the narrator.  I find Ready’s choices – “tried and tried,” “shuddered” – more frightening, a better fit with the nightmarish tone of the dreams (and reality) of the chapter.

Translation of novels are mostly quite similar.  The differences between Ready and Garnett are numerous but, choice by choice, small.  Taken together the differences somehow lift a bit of the weight off the novel, or add a little more energy.

I sincerely hope that Ready is encouraged by the success of this translation to translate not more Dostoevsky, of which we have plenty, but other old books that have never made it into English.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

a few enigmatic words before immediately lapsing back into nonsense again - Crime and Punishment's reality

Near the end of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky makes a strange move that adds a new layer to the novel and threatens to destroy it:

For Raskolnikov. a strange time had begun: it was as if a fog had suddenly descended, trapping him in hopeless, oppressive isolation…  He was absolutely convinced that he’d been mistaken about many things, such as the duration and timing of certain events…  He had, for example, mixed up one event with another, and considered a third to be the consequence of something that had happened solely in his imagination…  (VI.1, 413)

I do not know if I am supposed to identify those specific events.  Should I work back through the novel, sorting events – real, imaginary, unclear?  My sense is that the exercise is largely pointless.  Other novelists will take care of the problem, writing the story where the murdered only imagines that he commits the murder and so on.  Vladimir Nabokov wrote one.  At least one.

But if Dostoevsky does not convert his novel into an E. T. A. Hoffmann story, he does destabilize it in a Hoffmann-like way.  “Svidrigailov made him especially uneasy: he even seemed to get stuck, as it were, on Svidrigailov.”  Svidrigailov is Raskolnikov’s most absurd, villainous double, his least “real” double.  He exists, in that he is has scenes with other characters, so is not entirely a figment of Raskolnikov’s imagination, but it often seems like some aspects of him are projections of Raskolnikov’s.

After Svidrigailov brings his series of dreams to their expected melodramatic conclusion – the novel is almost over – Dostoevsky returns to Raskolnikov.  What was he doing during that chapter?  “He’d spent the whole night alone, God knows where.”  He is “disfigured by tiredness, foul weather, physical exhaustion and almost twenty-four hours of inner struggle” (VII.7, 481).  He was out in the rain that soaked Svidrigailov.  This struggle, whatever he had been doing, occurred entirely while Dostoevsky gave his attention to a secondary character.  Dostoevsky never does clear up what Raskolnikov did, except that he thought about killing himself; Svidrigailov did kill himself.

I wondered, why does Dostoevsky direct me away from the central character, especially at such an important moment?  But now I see that he did not.  Instead, he led me through a parody of Raskolnikov’s night, as enacted by his parodic double.  Everything I need to know is there, but on reversed ground.  This is a strange, bold effect.  It makes the entire book more dream-like.

The grotesqueries work the same way.  This is how a police detective interrogates Raskolnikov:

On and on he prattled with his meaningless, empty phrases, occasionally coming out with a few enigmatic words before immediately lapsing back into nonsense again.  By now he was virtually running around the room, making his chubby little legs work faster and faster, keeping his eyes to the floor, tucking his right arm behind his back and continuously waving his left in a variety of gestures, all astonishingly ill-matched to his words.  (IV.5, 315)

This is Svidrigailov’s view of the afterlife:

‘I don’t believe in the life to come,’ said Raskolnikov.

Svidrigailov was deep in thought.

‘What is there’s nothing but spiders there or something like that?’ he suddenly said.  (IV.1, 271)

He means it.  “’[S]ome little room… with spiders in every corner, and that’s it, that’s eternity.’”

Set scenes like this alongside the continual howling, shrieking, and strange gestures of the characters, like the police inspector laughing until he turns purple, take all of this as what is real in Crime and Punishment, hardly distinguishable from what is a dream.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

an exceptional resemblance to reality - Crime and Punishment's "Nighttown" chapter

In morbid states dreams are often unusually palpable and vivid, bearing an exceptional resemblance to reality.  The resulting picture may be quite monstrous, but the setting and the unfolding of the entire spectacle are so credible, and the details so fine and unexpected, while artistically consistent with the picture as a whole, that the very same dreamer could not invent them in his waking hours, were he even an artist of the order of Pushkin or Turgenev.  (I.5, 51)

I am quoting not a textbook but Crime and Punishment.  Dostoevsky is introducing the first of the many dreams in the novel – the first in a long series stretching through The Brothers Karamazov.  Much of what looks to me like Dostoevsky’s best writing, the most “fine and unexpected,” I find in the dream scenes.

Part of this first one is on the back cover of the new Penguin edition – axe murder on the front, but something more surprising on the back.  The feverish Raskolnikov, not yet a killer, is a child in his dream, revisiting a traumatic scene that may have happened to him, when he witnessed a drunk peasant beat his old horse to death.

Aside from the psychological relevance to Raskolnikov’s later decision to murder a woman, the scene is packed with elements that reappear throughout the novel.  The scene is even replayed much later in the book, with a woman, the prostitute Sonya’s mother, driven to despair by the cruelties and burdens of her life, breaking down in the street, like the horse, even if she is killed by untreated tuberculosis rather than a beating.  “The nag stretches out her muzzle, sighs heavily and dies” (55); “She gave a deep, deep sigh and died” (V.5, 408).  That sort of thing.

Maybe the dream sequence is too easy.  A writer can pile it full of any old junk, without constraint, and then loot it later.  An axe, flies, specific colors, a “horned headdress,” even a prophetic or coincidental name (the peasant who kills the horse has the same name as a nutcase who falsely accuses himself of Raskolnikov’s crime).  But in Crime and Punishment, the dreams keep coming, bleeding into the “real” world.  The most unusual thing about the horse dream is the first part I quoted, the announcement that the character is dreaming.  Usually it is harder to tell.

A minor character, Svidrigailov, is for much of the novel used as a stock villain, a plot device (eavesdropping, for pity’s sake), plus he serves the dual purpose of creating some phony sympathy for Raskolnikov by being even worse.  He is a melodramatic parody double of Raskolnikov.  At the climax of the novel, when we should be following Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky gives an outstanding chapter (VI, 6) to Svidrigailov, which I called his “Nighttown” chapter a couple of posts ago.  As in the chapter in Ulysses, Dostoevsky frees himself from the “reality” of the novel by pumping up the strangeness, especially by inserting a sequence of interlocking dreams which are only barely distinguishable from the “real” events.

Svidrigailov is in his oddly shaped little hotel room, preparing to do – well, something dramatic.  There are “strange, continuous whispers form the adjoining cell – at times, they were more like shouts.”  Through a crack, Svidrigailov eavesdrops –his recurring device – and witnesses a scene from some other parallel novel, one drunk man lecturing another.  “His friend sat in a chair, with the look of a man who desperately wanted to sneeze but couldn’t.”  All of this is, as far as I can tell, meant to be real.  The dreams have not started yet.

When they do, they pull in a number of elements from other dreams and scenes, plus some new imagery that strongly suggests Svidrigailov is working out his psychological expiation for some horrible crime that Dostoevsky has hinted at previously but otherwise not described.  An aggressive mouse, a drowned girl in a coffin, and so on, weirder and weirder, yet it is outside of the dream where Svidrigailov “looked at them [the flies] for a long time and eventually began trying to catch one with his free right hand” (479, Svidrigailov is often associated with spiders).

The difference between the dream and otherwise becomes arbitrary in this great chapter, just a convention of fiction.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Raskolnikov sneered at this gross and deliberate distortion of his idea

That's from III.5, p. 240.

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky presents a series of ideas, embodied in characters, for me to distort or ignore.  The saving power of Russian Orthodox monasticism, or the Nietzschean idea that Great Men are allowed a different moral system for the sake of their Greatness.  I found Crime and Punishment far more interesting, though, not as a novel of ideas but as a novel of the psychology of ideas.  Perhaps this is Dostoevsky’s great idea in the late novels, the psychological use of ideas.  That sounds plenty glib.

But I did take it as a real insight when Raskolnikov, near the end of the novel, makes a last desperate run at justifying the murders he committed, including the Great Man nonsense.  “’But that’s all wrong,’” his sister protests.  Raskolnikov replies:

‘The wrong form, you mean – the aesthetics aren’t right!  I just can’t understand it: why is raining down bombs on people, during a regular siege, a more honourable way of doing things?  Fear of aesthetics is the first sign of weakness!  Never, never have I understood this as clearly as now, and never have I understood my crime less!’  (VI.7, 487)

A breakthrough.

In what is I suppose the worst chapter in the novel, two minor characters, one secondary and the other, I don’t know, quaternary, discuss the Utopian reformist ideas of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? (1863), the same target as Notes from the Underground (1864), still a fresh subject.  The Chernyshevskian is made by Dostoevsky to do himself in:

‘You don’t understand a thing!  In the commune, this role [prostitute] does not exist.  That’s why people found communes in the first place.  In the commune, the essence of this role will be completely transformed: what is stupid here will become clever there, and what, in the current circumstances, is unnatural here will become entirely natural there.  (V.1, 347)

“What is stupid here will become clever there” is the most perfect distillation of Utopian thought I have ever come across.  What I mean by “worst chapter” is that this piece is completely detachable from the novel.  It is another variation of Dostoevsky’s attack on rationalism, light and comic compared to the murderous theorizing of Raskolnikov.  It is almost a clown scene.  Dostoevsky makes other, more subtle parodic uses of Chernyshevsky’s novel elsewhere in Crime and Punishment.  In this chapter, he just mocks it.

Oliver Ready’s notes do a fine job of covering this ground, but boy am I glad I fought through What Is to Be Done?  The best reason to read that book is to see what Dostoevsky does with it.

Maybe I’ll work on some of the dreams next.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Fear of aesthetics is the first sign of weakness! - notes on Crime and Punishment

We have a bookish curiosity in the house, a paperback Bantam “gift edition” of Constance Garnett’s translation of Crime and Punishment (1866).  There it is on the left, atop the recent U.S. Penguin edition of Oliver Ready’s awesome new translation.

The gift is from the Schering Corporation, “makers of ETRAFON®.”  It is a premium given to doctors by pharmaceutical salesmen.  Please pause for a moment to remember the vanished world of the 1970s, when pharma reps gave doctors not golf junkets or cash bribes, but a classic novel that “contains some clinical descriptions of an interesting and highly complex cluster of symptoms.”

And the novel features exactly that, along with a lot else.  I read Garnett’s version a long time ago, and reading Ready's version this time  I found that I remembered a lot but had completely forgotten anything not directly connected to the central plot – the law student Raskolnikov’s murder, apparently for theoretical reasons, of a hideous old pawnbroker and, by inevitable accident, her innocent idiot daughter; his pursuit by a bumbling, or clever, or both, police detective; his salvation by a hooker with a heart of gold, a device that has not aged well and is not much better in Dostoevsky’s hands.

I wonder how many readers have come at Crime and Punishment as a mystery novel or crime novel without worrying much – perhaps skimming – the more sentimental or digressive or peculiar parts.  It’s a terrific crime novel.  The murder, the psychology of the killer – so much more complex than anything Poe ever tried – and the police interrogations, all terrifically effective stuff.  And memorable.

But this is the part of the novel that is reinforced, that is frequently mentioned by other writers in all sorts of contexts.  Maybe I am remembering them, not Dostoevsky.  I did not remember the chapter (V.1) that is full of mockery of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, nor the nightmarish breakdown of the prostitute’s mother, nor the “Svidrigailov in Nighttown” chapter.  Crazy scenes, big, wild scenes, uniquely Dostoevskian.  Dostoevsky’s many tics would drive me nuts, then a great scene would blast the annoyances away.

Tics meaning, for example and especially, the incessant shrieking and howling, and the constant stage directing of speech and facial expressions:

‘Brother! What are you doing to your mother?’ she whispered, eyes burning with indignation.

He gave her a heavy look.

‘Callous, spiteful egoist!’ shrieked Dunya.  (IV.3, 293)

That’s from maybe the worst two-page stretch in the novel, as far as “whispered hotly” and “said, rather strangely” and “said suddenly” goes, the sort of thing that is pounded out of fiction writers today as simultaneously too detailed and too vague.  Or maybe this is the best stretch, since it contains this, which I love:

He seemed to smile, though a smile was the last thing it seemed.  (292)

Once bad writing is pushed far enough, it is no longer bad but inspired, audacious, even, that “highly complex cluster of symptoms” we call art.

Page numbers refer to Oliver Ready’s translation, the first new one in a long time.  It is energetic and zingy compared to Garnett.  It is great fun.

The post’s title is from VI.7, 487.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Do not leave me, suffering, stay! - later Ungaretti poems

I find that Giuseppe Ungaretti becomes more cryptic as he gets away from his war poems.  Images, or perhaps the associations of specific words, seem more arbitrary to me.


I hear a dove from other floods.


D’altri diluvi una colomba ascolto.

That is a complete poem from 1925.  A narrative can be pulled from this line, with the poet on some kind of ark, metaphorical, I suppose, soon after a catastrophe, like, say, a world war.  But past the Noah reference, it could mean anything, private or public.

In 1939, Ungaretti lost his nine-year-old son to appendicitis.  The poems in his 1947 book Il Dolore (The Grief), at least the examples translated by Mandelbaum, are impossible to separate from that event, or from the second war that surrounded Ungaretti.


Stop killing the dead,
Outcry no more, do not outcry
If you would hear them still.
If you would not die.

Their whisper is imperceptible.
They are no louder
Than the growing of the grass,
Happy where man does not pass.

Ungaretti may be referring to a stanza of his 1935 “Greetings for His Own Birthday,” from before his public and private tragedies:

Yet and yet I would outcry:
Swift youth of the senses
That, in the darkness, keeps me from myself,
Allowing images to the eternal,

Do not leave me, suffering, stay!

What a terrible irony or bit of fate-tempting.  I believe the verb Mandelbaum translates as “outcry,” “gridare,” is more commonly translated as “shout” or “cry,” neither of which must have seemed anguished enough.

Ungaretti’s poems are on the miserable side.  The 1953 “Secret of the poet” begins “Alone I have the night as a friend,” which sounds practically Goth in English.  A companion poem is titled “Variations on Nought”:

This null-and-nought of sand that flows away
Within the silent hourglass and settles,
And, fugitive, the imprints on the flesh,
Upon the flesh that dies, of a cloud…

Ellipses in the original, but in the original original, there are so many repetitions of words across the three stanzas that I wonder if there is some kind of system to the poem, as if it is a relative of the sestina.  As so often with Ungaretti, the emphasis turns out to be on individual words rather than images or even sense.

I’ll leave Ungaretti with a song, one full of life, until the end:


A woman wakes and sings
Wind follows and entrances her
And stretches her upon the earth
And the true dream takes her.

This earth is nude
This woman is warm
This wind is strong
This dream is dead.

Una donna s’alza e canta
La segue il vento e l’incanta
E sulla terra la stende
E il sogno vero la prende.

Questa terra è nuda
Questa donna è druda
Questa vento è forte
Questa sogno è morte.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Ungaretti / man of pain - resurrecting the cadaver of literary Italian

Giuseppe Ungaretti is a poet I meant to read back when I was poking around in Italian poetry.  Now I’ve read him, in the Selected Poems translated by Allen Mandelbaum.

Mandelbaum writes that “the problematic, terrible task of every modern Italian poet, the task that takes its toll in silence” was “to resurrect or to bury the cadaver of literary Italian” (p. ix).  Eugenio Montale chose to bury the corpse, while Ungaretti resurrected it.  I have no idea what any of this means, but it sounds grisly and exciting!

Santa Maria La Longa il 26 gennaio 1917


“This poem is often cited as an example of untranslatability,” Mandelbaum says in a note (p. 208).

Santa Maria La Longa, January 26, 1917

       illumines me.

Ungaretti was on the path to be an Italian version of a French avant-gardist – he was close friends with Apollinaire – when the war and military service intervened.  His first books were all war poems, meaning poems written at the Italian-Austrian front.   “Mattina” is one of them, however oblique.  They are often oblique:

Forest of Courton, July, 1918

        We are as –
        in autumn
        on the trees –

Short lines – often a single word, an isolated image.  In one poem, he even singles out the word as his goal, or unit, or something like that:


When I find
in this my silence
a word
it is dug into my life
like an abyss

That poem is directly addressed to the lieutenant who noticed that Ungaretti was writing poems in the trenches and who published them, in an edition of eighty copies, without Ungaretti’s knowledge.

The poems have occasional rhymes and endless assonance, but I wonder if the latter – maybe even the former – is an artifact of Italian, all too beautiful Italian.


E l’uomo
dal sole
si rinviene

How lovely, I think, however I am mangling the pronunciation.  It means something like:

And the man
over the water
by the sun
as shadow

Less lovely.  Pretty plain stuff until the last three words.  But I am an English-speaker, and an ignoramus, and Italian is inherently beautiful.  I remember the gorgeousness (in Italian) of a weirdo like Dino Campana.  Maybe this reader is just a sucker for Italian.  Surely Italian readers are not such saps.

Vallonvello dell’Albero Isolato, August 16, 1916

        In ambush
        in these bowels
        of rubble
        hour on hour
        I have dragged
        my carcass
        worn away by mud
        like a sole
        or like a seed
        of hawthorn

        man of pain
        you need but an illusion
        to give you courage

        a searchlight
        sets a sea
        into the fog

The middle stanza (“Ungaretti / man of pain”) is a statement of purpose for Ungaretti’s entire long career, for the next five decades of poems.  Part of his pain is biographical, or existential, and part is from his incantation of resurrection, recovering Italian from Romantic excess one word at a time.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Life is too strong for you - Spoon River Anthology

From saints to sinners.  My vacation reading was a book that survived fragmented attention, Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of 211 poems told by the dead, often ironic epitaphs and post-death truth-telling, but thankfully not always.  Masters was sensible enough not to lock himself into the concept.

The concept is strong, though, so strong that there is little need to read the actual book to get what Masters is doing, to use it, for example, while writing your own play or book of connected short stories puncturing the hypocrisies of that small town you are so thankful you escaped.  Just connect the characters as elaborately as you can.

So “Minerva Jones,” “the village poetess” tells of her rape by “Butch” Weldy and the botched abortion that killed her.  “I hungered so for life!”  “Doctor Meyers” defends himself – “I tried to help her out – she died” and “Mrs. Meyers” defends her husband, backhandedly:

Mrs. Meyers

He protested all his life long
The newspapers lied about him villainously;
That he was not at fault for Minerva’s fall,
But only tried to help her.
Poor soul so sunk in sin he could not see
That even trying to help her, as he called it,
He had broken the law human and divine.
Passers by, an ancient admonition to you:
If your ways would be ways of pleasantness,
And all your pathways peace,
Love God and keep his commandments.

Amidst these poems, “’Butch’ Weldy” tells about how he was severely burned in a fire, a rape hardly being the most memorable part of his short, pointless life.

Rough stuff for 1915, for the United States, at least, and the shocking sexual content of the book was part of its great success.  Honestly, it felt old-fashioned to me, not just in its shocking of the bourgeoisie but in its simplified Whitmanian verse, which was an avant garde move at the time.

Mrs. Sibley

The secret of the stars,ꟷgravitation.
The secret of the earth,ꟷlayers of rock.
The secret of the soil,ꟷto receive seed.
The secret of the seed,ꟷthe germ.
The secret of man,ꟷthe sower.
The secret of woman,ꟷthe soil.
My secret: Under a mound that you shall never find.

There’s a baby buried there, isn’t there?  That device has had the pathos so thoroughly wrung from it by later stories – by television – that it has lost its capacity to surprise.  But the poem itself gains meaning when paired with its predecessor, “Amos Sibley,” where the reverend complains of his wife, a “termagant,” a “wanton,” who he could not divorce because he never made enough money.  Reverend Sibley’s pettiness and spite gives Mrs. Sibley another secret, a depth he does not have.

Some of the connections Masters creates are quite funny, as is a horrifying mock epic, “The Spooniad.”  A section of poems about soldiers is moving.  Despite the high numbers of murders, violent accidents, and illnesses, not all of the characters have miserable ends.  Masters gives his grandmother a lovely poem:

from Lucinda Matlock

At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you –
It takes life to love Life.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

through the very fact of his existence - one of Flaubert's saints

As much as Eça de Queirós’s Saint Christopher puzzled me – why did he write this? what is it? – I knew one thing that it was: an imitation of Gustave Flaubert’s short hagiography “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller” (1877), one of the Trois Contes.

Flaubert’s Julian is another medieval saint who has a series of picaresque adventures.  Julian is born to nobility, while Christopher is born to peasants.  Christopher pursues good works ought of a boundless sense of charity while Julian is atoning for a curse.  Both stories end with the saint working as a poor ferryman; both culminate in a final sacrifice, the character’s death, from carrying Christ across the river.

Flaubert’s story is short, twenty of thirty pages, so Eça has lots of room for expansion.  But he pretty well loots Flaubert:

Long rain-spouts, representing dragons with yawning jaws, directed the water towards the cistern, and on each window-sill of the castle a basil or a heliotrope bush bloomed, in painted flower-pots.  (Flaubert)

At the corners of the house, tall, thin-winged dragons turned their wide-open gullets toward the courtyard.  The rainwater would pour through them into the gutters of the cistern.  The lantern of a servant passing through the terrace lit up the thick row of pumpkins set out on the parapet to dry in the sun.  (Eça, 3-4)

Lots of touches like this.  Eça is the great imitator of Flaubert, an imitator of great originality.

I have never really understood Flaubert’s religious fiction.  Luckily, he says, in the last line of the story, why he wrote “The Legend of Julian”:

And this is the story of Saint Julian the Hospitaller, as it is given on the stained-glass window of a church in my birthplace.

Not a word of either quotation about the rain-spouts is necessary to tell the lives of these saints, but Flaubert is trying, with the tools he has, to recreate the beauties of the stained glass that he had admired for as long as he could remember.

The hagiography must have also had a special appeal to Flaubert because it is a genre of great cruelty.  Julian becomes addicted to hunting at a young age, and a frightening, bizarre hunting scene, in which masses of animals seem to approach Julian to be killed, is the source of his curse:

… after he had slain them all, other deer, other stags, other badgers, other peacocks, and jays, blackbirds, foxes, porcupines, polecats, and lynxes, appeared; in fact, a host of beasts that grew more and more numerous with every step he took.  Trembling, and with a look of appeal in their eyes, they gathered around Julian, but he did not stop slaying them; and so intent was he on stretching his bow, drawing his sword and whipping out his knife, that he had little thought for aught else.  He knew that he was hunting in some country since an indefinite time, through the very fact of his existence, as everything seemed to occur with the ease one experiences in dreams.

Quite strange, that last sentence.  Sainthood, for Flaubert, is a frightening condition.  None of this hunting business is actually in the Rouen Cathedral stained glass, as far as I can see.

I read the version of the story in The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, third edition, presumably translated by someone; don’t know who.

That’s enough saints for a while.  Like I know from saints.

Monday, August 1, 2016

another Iberian saint - Saint Christopher by Eça de Queirós

One book about sainthood followed by a neighbor, since I was reading José Maria Eça de Queirós’s Saint Christopher (pub. 1912, written in the 1890s) while writing about La Regenta.  The latter is a novel, an attempt to look at the meaning of sainthood in a world resembling the real one.  Saint Christopher is an out and out hagiography.

You may remember – I did – Eça as the author of the savagely anti-clerical The Crime of Padre Amaro and The Relic, an attack on religioushypocrisy.  Or a defense of religious hypocrisyThe Relic features a long scene in which the narrator, an ordinary fellow of the 19th century, witnesses or hallucinates the Passion of Christ, so Saint Christopher has a predecessor in Eça’s work.  But, still, I do not really understand why he was writing straightforward saints’ lives.  Maybe it is not so straightforward.

The setting is a vague, fantastic medieval Europe.  The saint is a monster, a grotesque, worst at his birth:

Dark, all covered by rough, wrinkled skin, with an empty, shapeless face where the features were formed by vague, lumpy protuberances, the enormous hands clasped over his fuzzy belly, twisted legs that ended in two sharp feet, like those of a faun, all together he had the appearance of a dark root, the root of a strange tree, still dark from the dark earth out of which it had been torn.  And not a cry.  (p. 14)

Christopher gradually becomes more human-like than this, but Eça frequently compare him to animals, plants, and even rocks, and not just physically but mentally.  A saint in this world is not quite human.

Super-strong – another character in the 19th century superhero tradition – and with an endless capacity both for suffering and for charity, Christopher wanders through a series of picaresque adventures, developing his understanding of good and evil.  He serves a boy prince, is exhibited in a circus, becomes a hermit, a nurse in a plague-ridden city, and the leader of a peasant revolt.  His empathy only grows:

Later on, and from out of the depths of his simple and dense soul, there came little by little to be born the idea that the tree also suffered, as did the little flowers in the fields.  And from that time on, Christopher never again carved a shepherd’s crook from out of a tree trunk.  From that time on, all branches that were dry, broken, and lying on the ground pained him and made him suffer.  (130)

Soon his sympathy is extended to rocks:

And many times, with his vast body, he provided shade for the rocks; and during these periods of cold, his hands, working like long spade, would free these same rocks and stones from the icy frigidity that imprisoned them.

A number of episodes at the end of the book, including this one and the most famous one, where he carries the infant Christ across a river – in this telling, the crossing is Christopher’s death – achieve a real sublimity.  Perhaps that is sufficient explanation of Eça’s purpose.

If you are thinking, hey, doesn’t this sound a lot like Flaubert – it does!  You are perceptive and thoughtful.  Let’s turn to Flaubert tomorrow.  I don’t understand Flaubert’s saints, either.

The translation is by Gregory Rabassa and Earl E. Fitz, and was published by Tagus Press just last year.