Friday, September 30, 2016

sundry gnomic texts and phrases - the botched and bungled Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Everybody has to establish how badly Thomas Hardy writes.  “The novels therefore are full of inequalities; they are lumpish and dull and inexpressive…  It is as if Hardy himself were not quite aware of what he did…” (400-1) writes Virginia Woolf.  “The book [Tess of the d’Urbervilles] is handled with very uncertain skill, botched and bungled” moans D. H. Lawrence, who loves Hardy (410).  “I will say that Tess is one of the worst, weakest, least sane, most voulu [forced] books I have yet read” howls Robert Louis Stevenson.  Hoots Henry James, in reply:

But oh yes, dear Louis, she is vile.  The pretence of “sexuality” is only equaled by the absence of it, and the abomination of language by the author’s reputation for style.  There are indeed some pretty smells and sights and sounds.  But you have better ones in Polynesia.  (388, the James and Stevenson from letters, not reviews)

The page numbers refer to the “Criticism” section of the 1979 Norton Critical Edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the 1891 novel in which Hardy leads, cajoles, and forcefully shoves poor Tess, the unluckiest heroine in English literature, to her Doom.  The incessance of the Hardy-bashing amidst – as part of – the serious attempts to understand Hardy are clearly an editorial decision.  Perhaps the editor is letting undergraduates know that it is okay to loathe Hardy’s writing.  Now, get that out of your system and, like Lawrence and Woolf and many others, move forward.

I have come across Hardy fans who deny that the bad Hardy sentence exists.  I wonder what they see when they come across something like this, which starts poor and crashes:

The ‘appetite for joy’ which pervades all creation, that tremendous force which sways humanity to its purpose, as the tide sways the helpless weed, was not to be controlled by vague lucubrations over the social rubric.  (Ch. 30)

Here’s one that starts pretty well:

His thought had been unsuspended; he was becoming ill with thinking; eaten out with thinking, withered by thinking; scourged out of all his former pulsating flexuous domesticity.  (Ch. 36)

The Latinate weirdisms like “vague lucubrations over the social rubric” are one side of Hardy’s bad writing.  They always belong to the narrator.  The other side is also always the narrator’s fault.

Like all who have been previsioned by suffering, she could, in the words of M. Sully-Prudhomme, hear a penal sentence in the fiat, ‘You shall be born,’ particularly is addressed to potential issue of hers.  (Ch. 36)

Her future children, that last phrase means, although that’s nothing compared to the four sentences of indirection in Chapter 5 in which the narrator tries to say but not say that Tess has a big chest.  But I am here more interested in the strange intrusion of the irrelevant, alien reference, so odd in a novel about a milkmaid.

If before going to the d’Urbervilles’ she [Tess] had vigorously moved under the guidance of sundry gnomic texts and phrases known to her and to the world in general, no doubt she would never have been imposed on.  But it had not been in Tess’s power – nor is it in anybody’s power – to feel the whole truth if golden opinions while it is possible to profit by them.  She – and how many more – might have ironically said to God with Saint Augustine: ‘Thou hast counselled a better course than Thou hast permitted.’  (Ch. 15)

Within a page there are quotations from Roger Ascham and Jeremy Taylor.  If only Tess had spent more time with their gnomic texts!  The way to save the narrator, both his vile style and private references, is to break him off from Hardy a bit, to make the narrator part of the argument of the novel.  Make him a little nuts. I can kind of see how to do it.

The other way to go is to ignore him, I guess, to just focus on big, vital Tess, who overshadows the narrator, the other characters, and even the landscape.  The people who love the novel love Tess.

All right, that’s out of my system. Forward.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A rummage through The Yellow Book

Some books I read to learn about better books.  A recent one for me was The Yellow Book: Quintessence of the Nineties (1964), ed. Stanley Weintraub, an anthology of short stories, poems, and Max Beerbohms from the short-lived London Yellow Book “magazine,” if that is the right term for a series of clothbound books.

The editors were, for texts, the American novelist Henry Harland, “a sort of lemonade Henry James”* and, for images, young wonder Aubrey Beardsley.  Beardsley’s involvement gave The Yellow Book a sheen of Decadence and Aestheticism, but that does not really describe the contents well.

Even Beardsley is on his best behavior (see right, for example, from the October 1894 issue).  After the first year, Beardsley own work hardly appears anywhere but the cover.

Nothing shocking here, even by the standards of the time.  “A Slip under the Microscope,” for example, an 1896 H. G. Wells story, is about the ethics of inadvertent cheating on a test.  The cheater finally turns himself in, sacrificing his science career (the story is science fiction but not “science fiction”).

Maybe Harland’s own “The Bohemian Girl,” about a non-manic pixie dream girl who is adored by all of the English and American art students in Paris, could not be shown to Victorian pre-teens, but even she ends up marrying an engineer.  Harold Frederic supplies a tale of heroic Irish martyrdom, a Scott knockoff, totally unlike The Damnation of Theron Ware.  George Gissing’s “The Foolish Virgin” is a still young “old maid” in reduced circumstances – a grim and grey tale, typical Gissing.

Kenneth Grahame’s “The Roman Road” is absolutely adorable, about a child who imagines the old road through town runs all the way to Rome (which in a sense it does).  He has seen the Coliseum in a woodcut:

so to begin with I plumped that down in the middle.  The rest had to be patched up from the little grey market-town where twice a year we went to have out haircut…

So the boy’s Rome is full of English pubs and Wesleyan chapels.  It is a story about the growth of the imagination, really.  No problem associating “The Roman Road” with the author of The Wind in the Willows.

William Butler Yeats, Henry James, John Buchan, Baron Corvo, John Davidson, Ernest Dowson, Arnold Bennett, for some of the more famous names.  A number of women – George Egerton, Charlotte Mew, Ada Leverson – who had just been, to me, names in someone else’s story.  Hey, there’s Reggie Turner, one of Oscar Wilde’s closest friends.  His story, “A Chef d’Oeuvre,” is about a man who spends years writing the perfect short story, an effort so agonizing it kills him.  The (fictional) story turns out to be, you know, pretty good, much like the actual story.  Much like most of the stories in The Yellow Book.

The Henry James stories and Max Beerbohm pieces are by far the standouts, so they are easily available elsewhere.

All of the issues are available at  A browse is some fun for students of the period.

* See The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, p. 1056, note 5.

Monday, September 26, 2016

the abounding sufficiency and interest of the actual - Shaw's masterful You Never Can Tell

Stanley Kauffmann on George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell (1896):

I think it is the greatest high comedy in the English language after Sheridan.  If I were making a bouquet of high comedies in English, I would pick Much Ado About Nothing, The School for Scandal, The Rivals, and You Never Can Tell.  (I omit The Importance of Being Earnest because it’s sui generis.)*

Strong praise, huh?  It’s a wonderful play, and I would not have heard of it without Kauffmann’s praise.

The Clandons have returned to England after nearly twenty years abroad, having fled their cruel husband and father.  Mrs. Clandon is the author of the Twentieth Century Treatises (e.g. Twentieth Century Cooking, or Twentieth Century Children, “No family should be without them”).  Her eldest daughter, Gloria, is a New Woman – she reads Schopenhauer (“Very interesting author, sir: especially on the subject of ladies, sir”) – while the twins Dolly and Philip are hilarious nightmares, noisy, vulgar, clever idiots.

There is a love story, a courtship, between Gloria and a penniless dentist – the first act takes place in a dentist’s office, an innovation right there – and more seriously, the “high” in the high comedy, there is a story about the attempt of the father to reunite with the family.  He is an ideal Victorian, unable to understand that his ideal world has been gone for twenty years or more.  This family doesn’t need him.

The two acts of dentistry, by the way, occur just before the curtain opens and just after it falls.  No dentistry is depicted onstage.  Shaw is cruel, but not a sadist.

The reader of Shaw’s plays gets the benefit of Shaw’s amusing descriptions of his sets and characters.  “Recognising  this as a dental drill, you shudder and look away to your left, where you see…”or how about how the elements of the décor “all combine with the black marble which gives the fireplace the air of a miniature family vault, to suggest early Victorian commercial respectability, belief in money, Bible fetichism, fear of hell always at war with fear of poverty, instinctive horror of the passionate character of art, love and Roman Catholic religion, and all the first fruits of plutocracy in the early generations of the industrial revolution,” which is a lot to infer from the wallpaper and ormolu clock.  Likely the poor theater-goer misses a bit of it.

The waiter is a remarkable person in his way.  A silly old man, white-haired and delicate looking, but so cheerful and contented that in his encouraging presence ambition stands rebuked as vulgarity, and imagination as treason to the abounding sufficiency and interest of the actual.

Why so much attention to a bit part, I thought, but the waiter has the best part in the play.  He is something of an onstage theatrical manager, maneuvering the family members not just through their lunch – although Act II, the lunch scene, is a marvel – but to the play’s conclusion.  The title is his catchphrase.

WAITER (philosophically).  Well, sir, you never can tell.  That’s a principle in life with me, sir.  (Delicately sinking the philosopher in the waiter for a moment.)  Perhaps you haven’t noticed that you hadn’t touched that seltzer and Irish, sir, when the party broke up.

His son, an attorney, has a different motto: “You think you won’t, but you will.”  Both turn out to be truths.

Shaw has the lightest touch here.

* From an interview with Jane Ann Crum published as “Stanley Kauffmann on the Unknown Shaw: You Never Can Tell, Misalliance, Androcles and the Lion, Too True To Be Good” in Shaw, Vol. 7, pp. 31-44, and also published in Conversations with Stanley Kauffmann (2003), where I read it.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Two exciting readalong opportunities - Goethe's Italian Journey and the ghost stories of Henry James

So exciting I expect no participants at all.  But if these sound interesting, please, by all means.

First, it is the bicentennial of the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Italian Journey, his account of his momentous stay in Italy from 1786 to 1788.  It was meant to be a long vacation but turned into something more significant.

For November’s German Literature Month, courtesy of BeautyIs a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life, I will revisit Goethe’s book, among his most genial.  Some of the book is typical 18th century tourism, but other parts, especially the long stay in Rome, turn in to something much deeper.  This is the central text on the neurotic Northern vision of Italy, the idea that Italy is the place to really live.

I slipped out of Carlsbad at three in the morning; otherwise I would not have been allowed to leave.  (Sep. 3, 1786, p. 23)

Goethe had deliberately avoided two previous chances to visit Italy because, I don’t know, his Bildung was not sufficient or something.  This time, he plunges.

I will read the W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer translation (Penguin Classics), which is just under five hundred pages and is lightly abridged.  The other translation seems to have a similar page count.  Maybe it is also abridged?  I expect the book will take me a month to read, at least.  What’s the hurry?  My German Literature Month plans otherwise mostly involve plays – Wedekind, Hofmannsthal, Mann.

Second, for October, the ghost stories of Henry James.  Is this more or less them?

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (1868)
The Ghostly Rental (1876, what a scary title)
Sir Edmund Orme (1891)
The Private Life (1892)
Owen Wingrave (1892)
The Friends of the Friends aka The Way It Came (1896)
The Turn of the Screw (1898)
The Real Right Thing (1899)
The Third Person (1900)
The Jolly Corner (1908)

Look, already I learn something interesting.  James was not so interested in the ghost story, and then for ten years he was quite interested.  My understanding is that the turn to ghosts was partly commercial – a boom in the interest of magazines – but I just read “The Private Life” and there is no way that that is the kind of ghost story The Atlantic Monthly was dying to publish.  The ghosts are highly conceptual and highly Jamesian, literalizations of the metaphor of people being different in private than they are in public.  Surprise, it’s also a story about a writer!

I wonder about the completeness of the list.  “The Altar of the Dead” (1895) has nothing supernatural, but how is it not a ghost story – the two characters are obsessed with one particular ghost.  Maybe “The Aspern Papers” is a ghost story for similar reasons.  Everything everyone does is to please a dead poet.

I do not plan to read all of these stories.  I will do “The Turn of the Screw,” certainly, since it has been twenty-five years or more since I read it.

I plan to write about these stories as the spooky Halloween impulse strikes.  If you write about one I have not read, I will jump to it.

I read “The Private Life” today just to double-check, I guess – will this be fun?  Sure, sure.

Friday, September 23, 2016

standing still as if in thought - Tolstoy's "Master and Man"

Since I was commenting on Anton Chekhov’s struggles in the early 1890s with Leo Tolstoy, I should note a contemporary Tolstoy story, “Master and Man” (1895) that could almost be a Chekhov story.  By the end it is clearly Tolstoy, but if someone had printed it up as a Chekhov story it could have fooled me.

A merchant and one of his peasants – and a horse, itself a fine character – head into a blizzard.  The merchant wants to buy a piece of land, that’s all, so fighting the blizzard is just the usual short-sighted human idiocy.  There is a long tradition of Russian man-versus-blizzard stories, going back to Pushkin’s “The Blizzard” (1831) at least, and Chekhov wrote some himself.

Tolstoy wants the threat of the blizzard in order to write a variation on “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886) where death approaches quickly, but still slowly enough that the characters have a little bit of time.  A selfish man has the chance to do one selfless, meaningful act, that is the ethical core of the story.  Oddly, it has some close resemblances to Chekhov’s “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” where the selfless act is the creation of a melody.  Here it is more basic, the saving of another’s life.

Some of Tolstoy’s later stories are ethically dubious, especially when he is writing about sex, but I think this one is straightforward.  The style is straightforward, too, although not plain.  A lot of non-fussy detail.

Picking his way out of the dung-strewn stable, Mukhorty frisked, and making play with his hind leg pretended that he meant to kick Nikita, who was running at a trot beside him to the pump.

‘Now then, now then, you rascal!’ Nikita called out, well knowing how carefully Mukhorty threw out his hind leg just to touch his greasy sheepskin coat but not to strike him – a trick Nikita much appreciated.

After a drink of the cold water the horse sighed, moving his strong wet lips, from the hairs of which transparent drops fell into the trough; then standing still as if in thought, he suddenly gave a loud snort.  (Ch. 1)

Some of this matters later in the story – the relationship between the peasant and the horse, or the exact details of his coat – but the last paragraph would have been easy to omit.  But Tolstoy wants to get the horse right.

Those short paragraphs are characteristic.  “Master and Man” is a kind of adventure story.  It moves.  Even at the climax, with everything frozen in place, Tolstoy has to keep time moving.

Only in the final paragraph does the narrator accelerate, covering twenty years, bringing the story up to date (the survivor of the story died “only this year”).  The last line is unmistakable Tolstoy:

Whether he is better or worse off there where he awoke after his death, whether he was disappointed or found there what he expected, we shall all soon learn.

I read the Maude translation in Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Drink a health to the wonders of the western world - Synge and Yeats create Irish theater

What evil thing will come upon the world
If the arts perish?  (“The King’s Threshold,” 1904, William Butler Yeats)

I was reading the early plays of Yeats alongside Mythologies.  The poems, too, and since I read up to about 1921 I guess they were not necessarily so early at that point.  The plays are short, generally in verse, and generally on subjects drawn from Irish legend and myth, more distant and formal that the ghost stories he compiles in The Celtic Twilight.

The discovery of Noh drama in the 1910s was a huge help to Yeats, because it showed him a way to strip back his plays to the essential material.  Yeats was not a natural dramatist, so a more stylized form suited him.  Four Plays for Dancers (1921) is the place to see this discovery.

Yeats was also burdened by the non-artistic purposes of his plays: the establishment of an Irish theater, meaning not just a company and institution, the Abbey Theatre, and not even to write plays with Irish content, but to train Irish audiences in the conventions of play-going.  Actors representing characters, entrances and exits, time passing, and so on.  This was a surprise to me.

So some of the plays are pretty simple, like plays for children.  One is even a “stone soup” story.  On the other end, “The King’s Threshold” is, in fact, a plea for arts’ funding in the form of a one-act play.  The quotation I excerpted is entirely in context.

Meanwhile, alongside Yeats I read the plays of his colleague at the Abbey, John Millington Synge, who really was a natural dramatist, so this turned out to be another way to make the Yeats plays look a little thin.  Synge’s idea of Irishness was the rural Irish, their concerns, language and stories, told with so much vigor that his best play, The Playboy of the Western World (1907) caused idiot Dubliners to riot.

Christy is on the run, having knocked his horrible father ion the head after having finally been pushed too far.  Christy is what some people would now call a “beta male,” a sad sack.  Murdering his father, though, makes him an alpha, make him interesting, and attractive to women, especially the tough, earthy innkeeper Pegeen, who has had it up to here with wimps.  A neighbor, on the lookout for a husband herself, mocks Pegeen’s fiancé, Shawn:

Widow Quin (jeeringly):  It’s true all girls are fond of courage and do hate the likes of you.  (Act II)

But what can Shawn do:

Shawn (walking about in desperation):  Oh, it’s a hard case to be an orphan and not to have your father that you’re used to, and you’d easy kill and make yourself a hero in the sight of all.

In other words, Synge’s play is hilarious.  The third act, in particular, is a masterpiece.  How I would like to see it.  I understand, though, why that is unlikely.  The actors need specific skills.  Specific language.

Sara (She links their arms and gives them the glasses.)  There now.  Drink a health to the wonders of the western world, the pirates, preachers, poteen-makers, with the jobbing jockies; parching peelers, and the juries fill their stomachs selling judgments of the English law.  (Brandishing the bottle.)

Widow Quin:  That’s a right toast, Sara Tansey.

Synge’s five other plays were enjoyable, too, even if not wonders of the western world.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Yeats's ghosts and curses - A whistling seal sank a ship the other day - Mythologies

A little way from this lake I heard a beautiful and mournful history of faery kidnapping.  I heard it from a little old woman in a white cap, who sings in Gaelic, and moves from one foot to the other as though she remembered the dancing of her youth.  (The Celtic Twilight, “Kidnappers,” 73)

The Irishness of early William Butler Yeats has never meant much to me.  As, in his later years, he becomes one of the greatest poets of English, he abandons much of his early interest in Irish mythology and folklore.  So I never cared much that I did not care much.  I guess I cared enough, though, to read the early prose books of Yeats, The Celtic Twilight (1893), The Secret Rose (1897), The Stories of Red Hanrahan (1897), and some other stuff, much augmented and rearranged over time and eventually crammed together in the 1959 Mythologies – page numbers refer to that book.

The early prose is a lot of fun.  Yeats is a great writer; gee, who knew.  The Celtic Twilight is mostly a collection of anecdotes about ghosts, fairies, and other Irish weirdness as told to Yeats by a series of ancient people, and occasionally as experienced himself.  The quotation above, from a chapter that collects a bundle of stories about fairy kidnappers, shows how meeting the tale-tellers is as enjoyable as hearing the tales.

The dancing returns, too, at the end of the chapter:

There is hardly a valley or mountain-side where they cannot tell you of some one pillaged from amongst them.  Two or three miles from the Heart Lake lives an old woman who was stolen away in her youth.  After seven years she was brought home again for some reason or other, but she had no toes left.  She had danced them off.  (76)

The tone of the whole book is like this – casual, conversational:

Drumcliff and Rosses are choke-full of ghosts.  By bog, road, rath, hillside, sea-border they gather in all shapes: headless women, men in armour, shadow hares, fire-tongued hounds, whistling seals, and so on.  A whistling seal sank a ship the other day.  (92)

The other day!  I’ve not been to Ireland, but if I ever go I would reread The Celtic Twilight to prepare myself for encounters with ghosts.

The Secret Rose and the Red Hanrahan stories are more of a hodgepodge.  Some are written like fairy tales of the Grimm variety, some more like short stories, magazine fiction.  They are quite brutal, even violent – a bard executed, crucified, for no reason (“The Crucifixion of the Outcast”), or a Crusading knight sacrificing himself to recover some pigs (“Out of the Rose”).  A lot of murders; a lot of curses.  Red Hanrahan is a schoolteacher who violates some supernatural rule and is cursed to become a bard, a story-teller.  He is given powers, but also burdens, and it is never clear why.  The uncertainty creates a sort of tragic sublimity.

A great terror had fallen upon Hanrahan, and lifting his arms above his head he screamed out loud three times, and the cattle in the valley lifted their heads and lowed, and the birds in the wood at the edge of the mountain awaked out of their sleep and fluttered through the trembling leaves.  But a little below the edge of the rock, the troop of rose-leaves still fluttered in the air, for the gateway of Eternity had opened and shut again in one beat of the heart.  (“Hanrahan’s Vision,” 252)

Mythologies concludes with a series of pieces about alchemy and esoteric writing.  Yeats introduces his mystical pseudo-philosopher Michael Robartes.  All of this is very important for Yeats’s late, great poetry, but I do not pretend to understand it.  Something to wrestle with on my next pass at Yeats.

Monday, September 19, 2016

to find a new beauty / in some terrible / wind-tortured place - H. D.'s beautiful and intense Sea Garden

H. D.’s first book, Sea Garden (1916) is a classic of seashore poems, in the old American tradition of Walt Whitman.  Almost every poem in it is a shore poem, with the shore being simultaneously in imaginary Greece and remembered – oh, Maine, New Jersey, wherever young Hilda went on vacation.  Poems are about shrines to sea gods – “The Shrine,” “The Cliff Temple,” “Sea Gods” – and shore plants – “Sea Rose,” “Sea Lily,” “Sea Poppies,” “Sea Violet,” Sea Iris.”

Violets are everywhere.
Violets in clumps from hills,
tufts with earth at the roots,
violets tugged from rocks,
blue violets, moss, cliff, river-violets.  (from “Sea Gods,” II – the entire section is about violets)

The most common fruit is the pear, which I don’t associate with the sea, but anyways:

O white pear,
your flower-tufts
thick on the branch
bring summer and ripe fruits
in their purple hearts.  (from “Pear Tree”)

These samples are representative enough to show the difficulties of the book.  Is H. D. doing more than describing some object?  Are these Rilke-like Thing Poems?  They sometimes seem like it.  Plenty of flowers in Rilke’s New Poems, too.  And as in Rilke, maybe more so, the poet is strongly present, even if it is hard to pin down who or what she might be:

from Sheltered Garden

I have had enough.
I gasp for breath…
I have had enough –
border-pinks, clove-pinks, wax-lilies,
herbs, sweet-cress.

The poet protests against the greenhouse, or whatever the shelter is, the “pears wadded in cloth,” and demands that the fruit be exposed to the frost:

it is better to taste of frost –
the exquisite frost –
than of wadding and of dead grass.

For this beauty,
beauty without strength,
chokes out life…

O to blot out this garden
to forget, to find a new beauty
in some terrible
wind-tortured place.

“Sheltered Garden” is towards the middle of the book, so H. D. has already been clear about what that new beauty looks like: the “harsh” sea rose or the “slashed and torn” sea lily.  Or, presumably, a poem, as in “The Gift,” where the gift, in place of pearls, is the poem itself.  Pear, garden, violets – skip all that for this strange ending:

Only a still place
and perhaps some outer horror
some hideousness to stamp beauty,
a mark – no changing it now –
on our hearts.

Her heart was torn, a bit earlier in the poem, by a flower, which is I believe what that last line refers to.  “The Gift” is a love poem, but from a partner who is going to be a handful.

I could laugh –
more beautiful, more intense?

Emphasize both instances of “more,” as if the speaker is incredulous.  Impossible!

In her next few books, H. D. moves away from the astringency of the Sea Garden poems, particularly by working in more explicitly Greek content – more translations, more mythology – to the point of monotony.  Let’s see, which story is this, who is the speaker, where are we in the story?  Interesting poems, but similar.  The distance of the sea flower poems is replaced by a different kind of distance, with the old stories as the object rather than the flowers or rocks.  Come to think of it, Rilke did the same thing.  The old stories tell my story, the poet says, if I just change the emphasis a little.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Do you really think your song will save you? ---- fragments of H. D.

I read Arthur Waley’s early translations from the Chinese alongside the Collected Poems of H. D. (1925), containing her first five books, Sea Garden (1916), The God (1917), Choruses from the Iphigeneia in Aulis and the Hippolytus of Euripides (1919), Hymen (1921), and Heliodora (1924).  The titles alone give a sense of the comparison.  The young Modernist poets are plundering old traditions for new ideas.  For H. D., the tradition that really works, that she can use to express her own ideas and identity, in the Classical Greek lyric, especially as found in Sappho, the Greek Anthology, and the plays of Euripides.

There is something about the bright, thick, overstuffed English poetry of the 1890s that became dated almost immediately, so that the next generation of poets could not use it.  H. D. loved Swinburne, the great predecessor of the Decadents, and shared his love of Sappho and other Greek lyricists, but she could not write like him and be herself.  Who could.

H. D., Pound, and others were not really searching old traditions for innovations for their own sake, but for their own means of self-expression.  That us what I am trying to say here.  H. D. expressed herself by translating Sappho and Euripides.

The only book I had read by H. D. before, by the way, was her gorgeous 1937 version of Ion.  When I read the first edition owned by the University of Chicago library, the pages were uncut.  Not a center of H. D. studies, I guess. It was interesting to see that she had been working on the play for years, with early quite different fragments appearing in Choruses and Heliodora:

from The bird-chorus of Ion

ah drift,
ah drift
so light, so light,
your scarlet foot so deftly placed
to waft you neatly
to the pavement,
swan, swan
and do you really think
your song
that tunes the harp of Helios,
will save you
from the arrow-flight?  (in Heliodora)

Pieces of Hippolytus are scattered through the early books, too.  Those I can identify, and the Sappho translations, adaptations and riffs are clear enough, like “Fragment Thirty-Six”, which begins:

I know not what to do,
my mind is reft:
is song’s gift best?
is love’s gift loveliest?  (in Heliodora)

Of the eighty or so lines, I think only the first two are Sappho’s, the rest an extension or completion of Sappho.  A more up-to-date Collected Poems would be useful just to tell me when H. D. is concealing translated lines of classical Greek in her poems.

Subsequent writings by H. D. and others have added an enormous amount of biographical context to her work.  Although I am not as ignorant as her original readers, I am pretty close.  The original readers did not even know Hilda Doolittle’s name, for pity’s sake, much less her sex or who she had dated.

Actually, I did look up one point – had the Greece-obsessed H. D. been to Greece?  She visited in 1920, right in the middle of this period.  So, no, and then, yes.  The poems are about Greece and also about something else.

Maybe I should write something about the poems themselves.  Sea Garden, in particular, is a heck of a book.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Now every day I eat them recklessly - Arthur Waley's translations of Chinese poems

I read Arthur Waley’s first two books, A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918) and More Translations from the Chinese (1919) in some hope of getting more context for what contemporary Modernist poets like Ezra Pound and H. D. were doing, digging around in older poetic traditions – Classical Greek, medieval Provençal, a range of Chinese poetry – to juice up their own art.  What, “make it new,” no – a thousand years ago everyone was doing it this way.  Nothing new about any of this.

Pound’s Cathay (1915) precedes Waley, but that little book only has a few poems.  The bulk of Waley’s books must have been a shock, and the range (4th century BCE to 11th CE, plus a single 17th century poem for some reason).  Oh, Chinese poems are like this – and this – and also this.

The Other Side of the Valley

I am a prisoner in the hands of the enemy,
Enduring the shame of captivity.
My bones stick out and my strength is gone
Through not getting enough to eat.
My brother is Mandarin
And his horses are fed on maize.
Why can’t he spare a little money
To send and ransom me?  (1st C. BCE)

Familiar and exotic.  Not so different in content from a Spanish or Anglo-Saxon ballad.

The oddest aspect of Waley’s anthologies is the relative absence of T’ang poets, relative, I mean, to the attention they have been given by later translators.  Not a single Du Fu poem, for example, not that there is a shortage of Du Fu in English at this point.  Waley chose, for the second book, to translate a substantial amount of a single T’ang poet, Po Chü-i.  Long-lived and prolific, Waley’s Po Chü-i becomes an autobiography in verse, with plenty of narrative movement and lots of personality.

from Eating Bamboo-Shoots

My new province is a land of bamboo-groves:
Their shoots in spring fill the valleys and hills…
I put the shoots in a great earthen pot
And heat them up along with boiling rice.
The purple nodules broken, – like an old brocade;
The white skin opened, – like new pearls.
Now every day I eat them recklessly…

But all too soon he is transferred again, “relegated to deep seclusion / In a bottomless gorge,” in a province where the “inhabitants of Pa resemble wild apes; / Fierce and lusty,” and the poet is “pleased with anyone who is even remotely human” (“On Being Removed from Hsün-yang and Sent to Chung-chou”).  In the next poem, he plants flowers:

from Planting Flowers on the Embankment

… The people of Pa do not care for flowers;
All the spring no one has come to look.
But their Governor General [the poet], alone with his cup of wine
Sits till evening and will not move from the place!

His friends, illnesses, exiles, returns to favor, aging, fame, baldness (“On His Baldness: My tiresome comb for ever is laid aside”, and even his death, almost (“Last Poem: I lie back on my pillows and sleep with my face to the South”) – a life committed to seventeen volumes of poems, a version of it extracted by Waley.  This long section of Po Chü-i poems was a highlight for me, perhaps because it was more like a kind of book with which I was already familiar, but I think rather because the genial poet’s company was a pleasure.

I did not really learn too much about what other Modernist poets were doing, though.  Some similar books were written around the same time.

I actually read these poems as collected, rearranged, and revised in Translations from the Chinese (1941), so all quotations are from that text.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Many worlds in this world - Danielle Dutton's Margaret the First

I sometimes come across peculiar articles about historical fiction defining what the genre does and does not do, peculiar because any kind of novel can do anything, right?  Obviously?  A piece by Lucy Ives on the New Yorker website that reviews Danielle Dutton’s new novel Margaret the First begins with some throat clearing about what a historical novel is supposed to be – “ostensibly objective” and so on – but later puts the novel in the company of John Keene’s Counternarratives (2015), where it belongs.  Could have mentioned Jeffery Renard Allen’s Song of the Shank (2014), or something by Ishmael Reed, or a thousand other screwy books.

Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle (1623-73), was one of the first women in England to write for publication.  There are a number of related “firsts” attached to her name.  She had plays produced; she wrote a Utopian fantasy, The Blazing World (1666, and of course the original title is much longer), that, “with its river of liquid crystal, its caves of moss, and bears” – talking bears – must be something to behold.

I have just read a couple of poems by Cavendish, including “Of Many Worlds in This World,” where she imagines universes within atoms, including, amusingly, in earrings:

And if thus small, then Ladies well may weare
A World of Worlds, as Pendents in each Eare.

I’m quoting the version in The Penguin Book of English Verse.  Cavendish’s bad spelling is one of the running gags in the novel.  Part of what makes her interesting is that she was an autodidact.  Another part is that she was a weirdo.  She may still be most famous as a subject of Virginia Woolf, discussed in A Room of One’s Own and “The Duchess of Newcastle,” in The First Common Reader:

… though her philosophies are futile, and her plays intolerable, and her verses mainly dull, the vast bulk of the Duchess is leavened by a vein of authentic fire.  One cannot help following the lure of her erratic and lovable personality as it meanders and twinkles through page after page. There is something noble and Quixotic and high-spirited, as well as crack-brained and bird-witted, about her…  She has the freakishness of an elf, the irresponsibility of some non-human creature, its heartlessness, and its charm…

Dutton’s Cavendish is not an elf.  Her counternarrative is in some ways counter-Woolf, even if she borrows from and even quotes Woolf.  This character is a human weirdo, something of an outsider artist, tangled up in the bizarreries of early modern science without being allowed to join in, until she just does, through a combination of creativity, willpower, a supportive husband, and the celebrity of being a freak, a woman who writes books.

Dutton is terrific with the strangeness of the 17th century.  Strange to me, I mean.  The surrealism of early modern medicine, for example these fertility treatments:

… one for elevating, made of the backbones of vipers, to be taken half-a-dram each day dissolved in broth.  That same French doctor urged mutton dressed with new-laid eggs and a little nutmeg or amber.  He advised my husband to anoint his big toes in Spanish oil each night.  (44)

Science as such is a mix of metaphysics and odd experiments, a groping towards scientific method:

He thought the soul was attached to the human body through a gland, I remembered.  He thought the universe was like a machine, the body like a clock.  He’d once nailed his wife’s poodle to a board.  (57)

More purely surreal is what Cavendish see when she is invited to the Royal Academy, where women had been forbidden:

She sees a skeleton in the corner.  A jar alive with bees.  (149)

This is the world that leads her to write books about talking bears who live under the North Pole and mean it as science, not fiction.

Why do men deny fairies, yet burn witches at the stake?
Do fishes have brains?
Are stars made of fiery jelly or are they flecks off the sun?  (65)

Margaret the First is not one of those historical novels where every stitch of clothing ("two new gowns: one white and triumphant like a lighthouse, one bruised like autumn fruit," 84) has a historical citation but the characters are just clichés from 21st century popular fiction.  This world is strange, and these people are of this world.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Art for an audience of one - Chekhov's "Rothschild's Fiddle" and "Easter Eve"

How many Chekhov stories are the saddest Chekhov story?  So many candidates.  “Rothschild’s Fiddle” (1894) is one of them.  It is unusual in that it feels like a Yiddish story, from the title on.  It is also one of the small number of Chekhov stories about artistic creation.

“Yakov made good, solid coffins.”  He also occasionally plays fiddle with a Jewish wedding band, even though he hates Jews, especially the musician Rothschild, who makes everything sound so sad.  Yakov, who always thinks in terms of money, of loss and gain, spends the first half of the story watching his wife die, and the second half dying himself.

He is a narrow man, but his wife’s death and his illness make him more reflective, even if he has trouble escaping his favorite metaphor:

As he went home afterwards, he reflected that death would be nothing but a benefit; he would not have to eat or drink, or pay taxes or offend people, and, as a man lies in his grave not for one year but for hundreds and thousands, if one reckoned it up the gain would be enormous.  A man’s life meant loss; death meant gain.

But finally something changes:

Thinking of his wasted, profitless life, he began to play, he did not know what, but it was plaintive and touching, and tears trickled down his cheeks.  And the harder he thought, the more mournfully the fiddle wailed.

Rothschild hears and is moved by the melody.  The fiddle, and the song, become his.  “[T]he merchants and officials used to be continually sending for Rothschild and making him play it over and over again a dozen times.”

“Rothschild’s Fiddle” reminded me of an earlier story of Chekhov’s where art had found its ideal audience of a single person.  In “Easter Eve” (1886 – yes, another holiday publication) the Chekhov-like narrator, visiting a monastery for Easter services – people are mostly there to have their Easter cakes blessed – meets a low-ranking monk, stuck ferrying guests across the river, who tells him of a local genius, the monk Nikolay, who when he lived wrote hymns of praise of great beauty, although no one cared, no one but this one monk:

“And he cared for me more than anyone, and all because I used to weep over his hymns.  It makes me sad to remember.  Now I feel just like an orphan or a widow.  You know, in our monastery they are all good people, kind and pious, but… there is no one with softness and refinement, they are just like peasants.”  (ellipses in original)

The service makes the narrator “unbearably sore on [the ferryman’s] account.”  The one person most sensitive to the beauties of the Orthodox service is forced to miss it.  He imagines the dead hymn writer going out at night “to call to [the ferryman] over the water,” imagines how the poet “filled his hymns with flowers, stars and sunbeams.”

Chekhov himself wrote popular magazine fiction, more popular in 1894 than 1886, but still.  Do these lovely stories depict an ideal for Chekhov, or something he would have done if he had not had to write for money?  Or are they something he is doing, by depicting the thing he does not normally do?  He can create the melancholy, beautiful artistic effect and share it with more than one reader.

“Rothschild’s Fiddle” is in Constance Garnett’s The Chorus Girl & Other Stories.  “Easter Eve” is in The Bishop & Other Stories.  I do not notice any personified trees in the former (edit: see comments, it's there), but in the latter: “It seemed to me that the trees and the young grass were asleep.”

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning - Chekhov in 1894

When I last wrote about Anton Chekhov, I was looking at some stories from 1892 and 1893, a period when Chekhov was writing with extraordinary mastery but was nevertheless nervous about Leo Tolstoy’s hectoring orders to write moral, Tolstoyan stories.  I don’t know how Tolstoyan the resulting stories were, but they’re sure good.

Now I have haphazardly made it all the way to 1894.  I assume Chekhov is still working out his Tolstoy anxiety, based on “The Student,” a short one, a throwback to an earlier Chekhov.  Constance Garnett’s version is in The Witch & Other Stories.  It is a Good Friday story.

At first the weather was fine and still.  The thrushes were calling, and in the swamps close by something alive droned pitifully with a sound like blowing on an empty bottle.  A snipe flew by, and the shot aimed at it rang out with a gay, resounding note in the spring air.  But when it began to get dark in the forest a cold, penetrating wind blew inappropriately from the east, and everything sank into silence.

This is the opening, the masterful touch being the shot, the implied human hidden in the landscape.  He is a seminary student who becomes infected by the pathetic fallacy (“the cold that had suddenly come on had destroyed the order and harmony of things…  the lapse of a thousand years would make things no better”).  He stops at a peasant’s house to warm himself.  At the fire, he thinks of Peter in the garden at Gethsemane.  He tells the story if Peter’s denial of Christ, which deeply moves the peasants.  “The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her,” thinks the seminarist.

The student’s connection to the order of things is restored, “and the feeling of youth, health, vigour – he was only twenty-two – and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning.”

Few Chekhov stories end this way.  Many end in the exact opposite way.  But for a holiday, Chekhov can allow his character some joy.

A few months earlier, Chekhov had published “The Black Monk,” in which a professor has a recurring vision of the title character, “like a whirlwind or a waterspout, a tall black column.”  The monk even gives him advice.  Whether a hallucination or a mystical gift, as long as the professor takes the black monk seriously, his life goes well.  When he rejects the monk as the symptom of illness, his happiness disappears, too.

The sullen pines with their shaggy roots, which had seen him a year before so young, so joyful and confident, were not whispering now, but standing mute and motionless, as though they did not recognize him.  (Ch. 8)

More of Chekhov’s sentient trees, one of his favorite themes.  The idea of personified nature is entirely a human projection or creation, but it is also a manifestation of happiness, of health, as is the monk, oddly, even if it is also the result of mental illness, some kind of unconscious defense mechanism.  The monk only reappears at the professor’s death, as do those pines, returned to life, “which was so lovely.”  His death is ugly, yet “an unspeakable, infinite happiness flooded his whole being” (Ch. 9).

It is endings like this, the ironic capper of one of Chekhov’s harshest, most unpleasant stories, that make me nervous about the end of “The Student.”  Good luck, kid.

Friday, September 9, 2016

“I supply the most delicious irony” - "The Next Time" by Henry James, about a writer who is just too good - That was the colour of his magnificent mistake

he comic premise of “The Next Time” (1895) is that Ray Limbert wants to write something that makes money, but the harder he tries to be bad – bad work makes money – the greater - and therefore less commercial – his books.

She [his wife] gave a tragic shrug.  “What other course is open to him?  He wrote to them that such work as he does is the very worst he can do for the money.”  (Ch. I)

The narrator, not the novelist, is the James-like character, but my understanding is that something like this exact line can be found in James’s letters, but twenty years earlier, from his short-lived attempt to be the Paris gossip columnist for the New York Tribune.  He tried his worst, but it wasn’t bad enough.

Each novel is meant to be the one that sells.  A serialized novel is meant to be so bad that he insists his friends skip it until it is completed.  The narrator, when he finally reads it, wonders if Limbert had meant some sort of prank:

Popular? – how on earth could it be popular?  The thing was charming with all his charm and powerful with all his power: it was an unscrupulous, an unsparing, a shameless, merciless masterpiece.   

The narrator reads all night, finishing the novel as the sun rises:

The eastern sky, over the London housetops, had a wonderful tragic crimson.  That was the colour of his magnificent mistake.  (III)

As has been the case throughout this cluster of James stories, there is not the slightest hint about the content of the books, or a clue about what they are like – “tragic crimson”!  At least there are a couple of titles: The Major Key, The Hidden Heart, and Derogations, the latter a heck of a title, the middle one meant to be an adventure novel, but unrecognizable as such because it is too beautiful, too “deep and delicate.”  His friends learn to lie to him about how wonderful his books are.

Although I have no idea what Limbert’s writing is like, the narrator is an interesting case.  He gets off some good ones:

The strongest effect doubtless was produced on the publisher when, in its lemon-coloured volumes, like a dish of three custards, the book was at last served cold: he never got his money back and so far as I know has never got it back to this day.  (II)

A cruelly lovely metaphor embedded in money matters.  This narrator is James-like in the usual ways, but is subtly worse, more of a gasbag.  “It’s all tears and laughter as I look back upon this admirable time, in which nothing was so romantic as our intense vision of the real” (I) and so on.  Lots of arty baloney.  At first I thought “The Next Time” has some pretty serious flaws, but it was just my response to this narrator, who is just that much more irritating than is typical for James.  The narrator having it out with Mrs. Limbert, again, about a column the narrator supplies to Limbert’s doomed literary journal:

“It isn’t your price – [the publisher] says you’re dear at any price; you do so much to sink the ship.  Your ‘Remarks’ are called ‘Occasional,’ but nothing could be more deadly regular; you’re there month after month and you’re never anywhere else.  And you supply no public want.”

“I supply the most delicious irony.”

“So Ray appears to have declared.  [The publisher] says that’s not in the least a public want.  No one can make out what you’re talking about and no one would care if he could.”  (IV)

This is James’s self-parody.  James did not write novels that were just too exquisitely beautiful to live.  Who did? I wish I could read one of them.

Just to rub in the joke, Limbert’s sister is basically Nora Roberts, cranking out a bestseller every two or three months.  She would like to write a prestigious non-commercial book, but every time she tries it sells as well as ever.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

An act of homage really sublime - "The Death of the Lion" - “What sort of a damned fool are you?”

The narrator of “The Death of the Lion,” a journalist, wants to write a profile of his favorite midlist novelist, Neil Paraday.  Paraday’s new novel, brilliant, is about to appear.  The writers meet and, the journalist being a true fan, quickly become friends.  He is shown an even newer work, “the written scheme for another book”:

The subject I though singularly rich, quite the strongest he had yet treated; and this familiar statement of it, full too of fine maturities, was really, in summarized splendor, a mine of gold, a precious, independent work.  (III)

If only Paraday, who has been ill, will have time to complete this masterpiece.

But the new novel becomes a surprise hit, or at least “[t]he big blundering newspaper had discovered him, and now he was proclaimed and anointed and crowned,” (III) even if his “book sold but moderately” (VI).  The Lion’s first brush with fame is the arrival of a second, more vulgar, reporter, in pursuit of a more vulgar kind of piece.  Human interest.  The narrator deflects him:

“You will of course have perceived for yourself that one scarcely does read Neil Paraday till one reads him aloud; he gives out to the ear an extraordinary quality, and it’s only when you expose it confidently to that test that you really get near his style.  Take up your book and let me listen, while you pay it out, to that wonderful fifteenth chapter.  If you feel that you can’t do it justice, compose yourself to attention while I produce for you – I think I can! – this scarcely less admirable ninth.”

Mr. Morrow gave me a straight glance which was as hard as a blow between the eyes; he had turned rather red, and a question had formed itself in his mind which reached my sense as distinctly as if he had uttered it: “What sort of a damned fool are you?”  (V)

The narrator is a fool of the con artist type, not a lunatic but rather deflecting his rival reporter from his source.

The Lion goes on to have his life ruined – see the story’s title – by his fame, especially the endless time-sucking invitations to everything.  Meanwhile, the narrator performs one more deflection, convincing a young American lady, a genuine devotee who has actually read The Lion’s books, not to ever meet her idol.  That will be “’an act of homage really sublime.’”

Here the sexual theme of the story is introduced, a reversal of “The Lesson of the Master,” where the disciple deliberately keeps the lovely admirer away from the charms of the master and marries her himself.

The story ends with a comic country house party, special guest: The Lion, at which the aristocratic party-goers gesture at reading the celebrity author’s novel, a copy of it moving around the house:

“Somebody else presently finds it, with its air of momentary desolation, to another piece of furniture.  Every one is asking every one about it all day, and every one is telling every one where they put it last.  I’m sure it’s rather smudgy around the twentieth page.  I have a strong impression that the second volume is lost – has been packed in the bag of some departing guest; and yet everybody has the impression that somebody else has read to the end.”  (IX)

Both the author and the manuscript of the golden scheme, described above, become victims of these indifferent idiots.  The name of the country house, by the way, is Prestidge.

James does not give one word of The Lion’s work, not even a title this time.  Just take the narrator’s word for the quality even if his descriptions are utterly useless.  The proper attitude towards an author of genius is to make him as indefinite as possible – a glance can destroy him – unless you are the narrator.  What choice do you have?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

I am under no obligation, thank heaven, to be definite about the business - "The Coxon Fund" is indefinite

Good-bye, dear Gertrude!  Shall I see you at Lady Bonar’s tonight?  She has discovered a wonderful new genius.  He does… nothing at all, I believe.  That is a great comfort, is it not?  (ellipsis in original)

That is not Henry James but rather the blithering Lady Markby in Act II of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1985), ably summarizing James’s “The Coxon Fund” (1894).  Wilde and James were addressing the same type, the genius who performs at parties, who does nothing but talk, if that.  Geniuses like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or the old George Meredith, or the young Oscar Wilde.

I am never sure what is meant when reading about the great talkers of the past.  Something more than a raconteur, a great talk-show guest, but what?  Frank Saltram, the genius of “The Coxon Fund,” makes regular performances in the Mulville’s drawing-room:

I used to call it the music-room, for we had anticipated Bayreuth.  The very gates of the kingdom of light seemed to open and the horizon of thought to flash with the beauty of a sunrise at sea.  (Ch. IV)

His talk is like the music of Richard Wagner.  This is not helpful.  But it is clearly meant to be something well beyond story-telling or wit.  When Saltram is described more directly, as part of a scene, the narrator reverts to music.

I had of course a perfect consciousness that something great was going on: it was a little like having been etherized to hear Herr Joachim play.  The old music was in the air; I felt the strong pulse of thought, the sink and swell, the flight, the poise, the plunge…  (Ch. IX)

The narrator, and other characters, think – assume – that Saltram’s wisdom should be encased in a book, or many books, but “[t]he editors and the publishers were the last people to take this remarkable thinker at the valuation that has now pretty well come to be established” (IV, a strange way of putting it).  The plot of the story, the title, is about the attempt to give Saltram a kind of MacArthur fellowship, a genius grant.  Who gets the money; without the money can this character marry that; etc.

Saltram is not reliable, an alcoholic and perhaps worse, although whatever might be worse is kept as vague as Saltram’s talent.  He is estranged from his awful wife.  He fathered children out of wedlock.  “’I don’t want to know the worst,’” the narrator declares near the end of the story, and he never does, or never tells me.  Or perhaps he does tell me in Chapter XI, when the narrator accidentally (?) encounters Saltram in a park.

After I had sat by him a few minutes I passed my arm over his soft shoulder (wherever you touched him you found equally little firmness) and said in a tone of which the suppliance fell oddly on my own ear: “Come back to town with me, old friend – come back and spend the evening.”  I wanted to hold him; I wanted to keep him… 

It is – it continues along the same lines – the most openly, uncoded, homosexual passage I have ever seen, or at least recognized, in James.

The narrator is incapable of describing Saltram’s talent, and openly refuses to discuss Saltram’s behavior:

These are dead aches now, and I am under no obligation, thank heaven, to be definite about the business.  There are things which if I had to tell them – well, I wouldn’t have told my story.  (V)

Up to this point, I had been frustrated and mystified by James’s indefiniteness.  Sensing that frustration, apparently, James at this point directly tells me that “The Coxon Fund” is about indefiniteness.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

the periodical prattle about the future of fiction - Henry James writes about writers

In the mid-1890s, Henry James was working out, publicly, through his fiction, his ideas about what it meant to be a writer.  He invented a series of writers, none really identifiable as existing writers, not one of his friends, not James, so more like experiments – what if there were a novelist like this? – allowing James to isolate some curious aspect of the trade.

The interest is a bit older – “The Aspern Papers” and “The Lesson of the Master” are from 1888 – but there is a run of stories from “The Real Thing” (1892) through “The Figure in the Carpet” (1896) that is remarkable.  Maybe I have it defined wrong, though, since I have hardly read all of the stories of the period.  I don’t know if it matters that these stories were written during what I think is the longest gap in James’s writing of novels, between The Tragic Muse (1890) and The Other House (1896), neither of which I have read.  It is also the period in which James spent a great deal of time, energy and apparently frustration writing for the stage.

The three examples I read recently have something else in common.  “The Death of the Lion” (1894), “The Coxon Fund” (1894), and “The Next Time” (1895) are the three stories James published in The Yellow Book, the short-lived magazine of London aestheticism and Decadence, a venue well-suited to comic stories about misunderstood and abused artists.

You know, The Yellow Book lasted a little over three years.  Maybe, for such a creature, I should say “unusually long-lived.”  Anyway, it is not one of those magazines, the ones that will waste the time and ruin the life of the novelist who for reasons of fashion more than art suddenly becomes famous, The Lion:

The people I was angriest with were the editors of magazines who had introduced what they called new features, so aware were they that the newest feature of all would be to make him [the poor Lion] grind their axes by contributing his views on vital topics and taking part in the periodical prattle about the future of fiction.  (“The Death of the Lion”)

These Henry James stories say plenty about the future of fiction, but only in that they do such a good job of identifying types that are still with us – the artist whose success removes his time to write (“The Death of the Lion”), the troubled talent who for whom conditions are never quite right to actually write a book (“The Coxon Fund”), and the writer whose next book will be the big one, always (“The Next Time”).

None of the three stories were as ingenious as “The Figure in the Carpet,” which I rank as high as anything I have read by James.  In retrospect, they all appear to be steps towards “Figure,” but that is perhaps an illusion created by James’s method.  All three are identifiably written in James’s “middle style.”  I once doubted the existence of such a thing, but it is clear enough here.  In none of the stories does James supple the slightest hint, aside from some titles, what the prose of any of these artists might look like.  “The Next Time” is either the worst of the three, or trickier than I first realized.  I am leaning more to the latter view.

All right, there is something to writer about for a few more days.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Not to write a book, but to create a cloud and have it bound - Raul Brandão’s The Poor - "in 2016 there are still great Modernist writers left to discover"

Raul Brandão’s The Poor (1906) is hard to describe, I find, but luckily Miguel Rosa, once of the invaluable St. Orberose book blog, has written a substantial review of the book at The Millions, coming at it from every direction.

The novel in one way is a description of the rough lives of the inhabitants of a Lisbon tenement, including a group of women who work at a brothel.  But it is as much a work of symbolism, the working through of an elaborate water metaphor that begins in the title of the first chapter (“The Deluge”) and courses through the rest of the book.  I do not mean that it is like Zola, who digs into the real world and describes it using metaphor, but rather that the metaphor is much of the substance of the book.  It is right on top of everything else, the characters and hints of a plot.

The book is as much a prose poem as a novel.  Or something like August Stringberg’s Dream Play.  I had to check the date a couple of times – knowing nothing else, I would have thought this was a French novel of the 1920s.

“Life,” concluded the Astronomer, “is only worthwhile spent dreaming, taking pleasure in a great work.”

“No, not dreaming!”

“I wanted to be a poet…” adds one.

“If I were a poet, this is what I’d want: not to write a book, but to create a cloud…  And have it bound.  Ah, the reader, the reader would be amazed.  Imagine the colors and the dream…!  A cloud, just think of it…” said Pita  (p. 98, all ellipses in original)

Time is fluid.  Narrators shift across and within chapters.  A prostitute’s miserable childhood at a Catholic orphanage is set beside a philosopher’s aphorisms about a metaphysical system based on the single tree he can see form this attic window.  Then the whole thing is constantly soaked in water.

The same rain falls tenaciously from the cloudy, nerve-racking sky.  Beneath the downpour, the dead city is getting soaked in the mud.  Underneath one of these rooftops, the same miseries and dreams are hidden.  This stone shelters hatred, crimes, scorn…  It’s dawn, and with the first light, the city looks unearthed, the houses resurge, emerged from darkness, leprous, askew, spent with hatred, with ambition, with rancor.  (85-6, ellipses mine)

The key character is this fellow, Brandão, fighting against whatever the novel usually does to say whatever it is he is trying to say.  “Brandão’s Modernism, however, was more instinctive than planned, an inner necessity rather than a deliberate intention to shack up with the zeitgeist,” Rosa writes.  He points to Brandão’s affinity with certain works of Dostoevsky, even if the Portuguese writer “gradually divested himself of what he saw as artificial in literature in order to allow himself to communicate without rhetorical distortions.”  Or as the philosopher in the novel thinks, “Old books reveal everything except life” (38).

Rosa gives the translator, Karen C. Sherwood Sotelino, the highest marks for her difficult task.  I remember a St. Orberose blog post about Brandão’s longer and more difficult masterpiece Húmus (1917).  I will bet that Sotelino is aiming at Húmus; I hope to read it someday.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Theron Ware's Chopin - "You know this part, of course."

Chapter 6 of The Damnation of Theron Ware has a long paragraph describing how department stores are killing small book stores:

When Octavius had contained only five thousand inhabitants, it boasted four book-stores, two of them good ones.  Now, with a population more than doubled, only these latter two survived.  The reason?  It was in a nutshell.  A book which sold as retail for one dollar and a half cost the bookseller ninety cents.  If it was at all a popular book, “Thurston’s” advertised it at eighty-nine cents, - and in any case at a profit of only two or three cents.

The entire passage is artistically useless and should have been cut, but it was amusing to see the anti-Amazon argument in a book from 1896.  Reverend Ware “was indignant at this, and on his return home told Alice that he desired her to make no purchases whatever at ‘Thurston’s.’”  Many chapters later, when we finally see Ware buy a book, it is of course at Thurston’s.

He is buying a short biography of George Sand, from the “Eminent Women Series.”  Ware, when the novel begins, is a cultural blank slate, purely ignorant of anything that is not current Methodist theology.  A chance encounter introduces him to a Catholic priest and the attractive redhead, Celia, who plays the organ at the Catholic church.  Ware had never set foot in a Catholic church, had “scarcely ever spoken to a person of this curiously alien race before” – Irish, he means.  Music is just as alien, aside from Methodist hymn-singing and parlor pianos.  So he has never heard, or heard of Chopin, thus the need for a book about George Sand.

Celia, the free-spirited Irish musician who has her own money, collects statuary, and describes herself as Greek, is the main imaginative source of Ware’s trouble.  When he first meets the Catholic characters, Harold Frederic plays a little trick, making it look for a bit like the novel will be a sincere bildungsroman, or perhaps even a novel of conversion, as Ware is enlightened and enraptured first by Catholic aesthetics – music, incense, and stained-glass windows – then by Catholic ideas, and then faith, just as Chateaubriand argued in The Genius of Christianity (1802), or perhaps he would return to his original faith with more understanding of blah blah blah, that is not this novel.

Up against the proprieties of U.S. fiction, Frederic cannot have the Greek free-spirit physically seduce Ware, so instead there is an extraordinary, and long, scene in which Celia takes Theron up to her room and plays Chopin for him.  “’He is the Greekiest of the Greeks’” (Ch. 19).

The dreamy, wistful, meditative beauty of it all at once oppressed and inspired him.  He saw Celia’s shoulders sway under the impulse of the rubato license, - the privilege to invest each measure with the stress of the whole, to loiter, to weep, to run and laugh at will, - and the music she made spoke to him as with a human voice.  There was the wooing sense of roses and moonlight of perfumes, white skins, alluring languorous eyes, and then –

“You know this part, of course,” he heard her say.

Frederic keeps undercutting the clouds of Romanticism with lines like this.  Ware does not know that part of the Sixth Nocturne.  He knows nothing.

This chapter was reason enough to read the novel, I thought.

Later, a character who is a mother-figure for Ware reveals that she has found a treacherous use for Chopin.  She is the wife of a traveling revival preacher, a professional revivalist herself.  She has set the standard Methodist hymns to Chopin tunes so that when she sings, the whole congregation cannot join in with her, so she is the one performing.  She knows that none of the Methodists will know any Chopin.

It’s a funny novel.  A little bit on the cruel side.