Wednesday, November 30, 2016

He cursed his love of metaphor - some Forster metaphors - (Untrue; but then, so is most information.)

He cursed his love of metaphor…  (Ch. 8)

Just one of many ways the reader is warned to suspect, or perhaps even despise, Cecil, the heroine’s fiancée and secondary obstacle to her marrying the right fellow.

The narrator, of course, the Forster figure, loves metaphor.  See that passage about violets I quoted yesterday.  Or watch the tourists in Florence:

… the ladies bought some hot chestnut paste out of a little shop, because it looked so typical.  It tasted partly of the paper in which it was wrapped, partly of hair oil, partly of the great unknown.  (Ch. 2)

She watched the tourists [see?], their noses as red as their Baedekers, so cold was Santa Croce.  (Ch. 2)

I guess it is just possible that the last metaphor is meant to be Lucy’s – someone has just run off with her guidebook, so it is on her mind.  The narrator, though, is generally extremely intrusive, constantly correcting his characters:

The men on the river were fishing.  (Untrue; but then, so is most information.)  (Ch. 2)

The first sentence is supplied to Lucy by the similarly intrusive lady novelist Miss Lavish; the parenthetical is the narrator’s.  I have no idea what the men on the river are doing.  I didn’t see them when I was in Florence.

He also loves to pour on the rhetoric, to empurple the scene – violets, etc. – as in this description of fairly ordinary curtains that are the light that they are not quite blocking:

A poet – none was present – might have quoted, “Life like a dome of many coloured glass,” or might have compared the curtains to sluice-gates, lowered against the intolerable tides of heaven.  Without was poured a sea of radiance; within, the glory, though visible, was tempered to the capacities of man.  (Ch. 8)

Pure narrator, a bit of a smart aleck.

I only thought the narrator really overdid it one, near the end of the novel as Lucy in some sense hits bottom.  “She gave up trying to understand herself” – she gave up on Bildung – “and joined the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words.”

They [soldiers in this army, meaning almost everyone] have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue…  They have sinned against Eros and against Pallas Athene, and not by any heavenly intervention, but by the ordinary course of nature, those allied deities will be avenged.  (Ch. 17)

This was the only time I shouted to the narrator “Get out of the way!”  I wanted to see Lucy, not this stuff.  The main sin against truth here is that the narrator appears to be serious.  The metaphor in the last line of the chapter is more chilling: “The night received her, as it had received Miss Bartlett thirty years before.”  But that is because I have spent all too much time with the narrow Miss Bartlett, and know fear that Lucy really could will herself – exile herself – into that life.

But this is a jolly book, full of Italy, full of life, and everything works out; even Miss Bartlett turns out to be more alive than she seems – she has, after all, been to Italy.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Room with a View in which Germanic English fall in love in Italy, "the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth"

Pan had been amongst them – not the great god Pan, who has been buried these two thousand years, but the little god Pan, who presides over social contretemps and unsuccessful picnics.  (Ch. 7)

That’s from E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908).  Max Beerbohm’s story “Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton,” in Seven Men (1919), includes a fine joke about the literary satyrs, with “their hoofs and their slanting eyes and their way of coming suddenly out of woods to wean quiet English villages from respectability.”  By the time Beerbohm is writing, they have become clichés.  Perhaps “become” is too generous.  When I first read Beerbohm, I understood the joke theoretically, but recently I have been reading more of the English literature of the faun, going back to Walter Pater.  They are all Paterians, aren’t they?  I’ll bet they are.  For example, although I did not mention it when I wrote about Robert Graves’s first book, it had at least one faun too many.

Paganism is infectious – more infectious than diphtheria or piety – and the Rector’s niece was taken to church protesting.  (Ch. 15)

The Forster narrator is often hilarious.  Victorian, and then Edwardian, respectability, is the enemy.  Why so uptight, you squares?

The sitting-room itself was blocked with books.

“Are these people great readers?” Freddy whispered.  “Are they that sort?”

“I fancy they know how to read – a rare accomplishment.  What have they got?  Byron.  Exactly.  A Shropshire Lad.  Never heard of it.  The Way of All Flesh.  Never heard of it.  Gibbon.  Hullo! dear George reads German.  Um – um – Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and so we go on.”  (Ch. 12)

The heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, is not a reader, certainly not of anything as preposterous as Nietzsche, but she is a serious amateur musician with her own Romantic Germanic tendencies.  The same character who has not heard of Housman or Butler attributes Lucy’s lapses from respectability – her “startled eyes,” say – to “’Too much Beethoven’” (Ch. 5).

Lucy and George are flung together by a pagan force more powerful than a faun – Italy, specifically Florence, and more specifically, the impulsive murders and endless violets of Tuscany.  The story of the novel is how the Englishness that surrounds Lucy interferes with the Italianness that will make her happy.

Again, although A Room with a View looks like a romance between two lively young English people who meet in Italy, they are the two German characters, the two who have experienced, George deliberately and Lucy intuitively, Bildung, thus preparing them for the radical aesthetic effects of Italy, like those violets:

From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam.  But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.  (Ch. 6)

Once the two characters drink from the well-head, nothing can be the same, right?  “He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves.”  I guess compared to some other treatments of the theme, I find Forster’s treatment of Italy and its Beauty superficial, but it is all in the same general realm.  And that specific scene could hardly be improved.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

part of the pattern in the great web of human doings - Hardy can't describe moss

In a way my favorite description in The Woodlanders is the one where Hardy’s narrator admits defeat:

Further on were other tufts of moss in islands divided by the shed leaves – variety upon variety, dark green and pale green; moss like little fir-trees, like plush, like malachite stars; like nothing on earth except moss.  (Ch. 42)

He piles on the metaphors, but in the end the moss overwhelms his baroque poeticism.

Hardy piles them onto his characters, too, not to describe their appearance but their – what? – their position in the universe.

In this room sat she who had been the maiden Grace Melbury till the finger of fate touched her and turned her to a wife.  (Ch. 25)

The scene to him was not the material environment of his person, but a tragic vision that travelled with him like an envelope.  (Ch. 32)

Several times the characters are moved into Norse mythology, as when Grace tries to attract the attention of the wood-God, Giles, while he is high up in a tree, “motionless and silent in that gloomy Niflheim or fog-land which involved him” (Ch. 13).  The tree is not lost in the fog – Giles is perfectly visible from below – but rather the character’s mind.

Thus the primary mechanism of the plot, the means of separating characters who should marry and pushing them towards those they should not, is a constant series of small misunderstandings.  “Grace had been wrong – very far wrong – in assuming that…” (Ch. 39), and it hardly matters what she is wrong about in this case.  The same line could be used throughout the novel, substituting other characters for Grace.  Characters do not quite see what they should, or see it and make the wrong interpretation.

I thought the strongest ethical argument to emerge from the novel – no idea if Hardy had it in mind – was the importance of allowing multiple interpretations of the behavior of other people.  Maybe even be generous.  The characters in The Woodlanders like to pick one possibility and cling to it.

And yet, looked at in a certain way, their lonely courses formed no detached design at all, but were part of the pattern in the great web of human doings then weaving in both hemispheres, from the White Sea to Cape Horn. (Ch. 3)

In the first chapter, the narrator even declares that the forest village sees “dramas of a grandeur and unity truly Sophoclean,” which now seems like over-promising.  The scale of The Woodlanders is human, compared to the cosmic horror of Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure, or even to the long reach of history as in The Mayor of Casterbridge.  The pagan relics and Roman ruins are not so visible among the trees.

In an 1895 Preface, Hardy claims that The Woodlanders is about “the question of matrimonial divergence, the immortal puzzle – given the man and woman, how to find a basis for their sexual relation.”  If that were the case, he could have handled it with a lot less fuss.

I’ll take a couple of days off for the holiday.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

excited thumbs now fleshless in the grave - the winter day emerged like a dead-born child - Hardy describes things

With The Woodlanders, I’ll skip the classic bad Hardy sentences, having made any point I might have back when I wrote about Tess of the d’Urbervilles, except for this wonderful specimen:

But to give the lie to her assertion she was seized with lachrymose twitches, that soon produced a dribbling face.  (Ch. 45)

Isn’t that something?  It is like a riddle.  I can see how a good Hardy reader develops a taste for these.  I may have developed a taste for them.

The descriptive passages in The Woodlanders have a strong flavor.  The narrator can sound nuts:

There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air, and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child…  Owls that had been catching mice in the outhouses, rabbits that had been eating the winter-greens in the gardens, and stoats that had been sucking the blood of the rabbits, discerning that their human neighbours were on the move discreetly withdrew from publicity, and were seen and heard no more from nightfall.  (Ch. 4)

The novel has barely begun, and the sun is rising like a dead baby.  Nothing in the story, at this early point, matches the bleak imagery of the narrator, nor is this specific foreshadowing.  It is the narrator seeing something that his characters cannot see. His paganism is les explicit than in The Return of the Native, less attached to the characters, however much one resembles a fruit-god, but is often present in the descriptions:

… slimy streams of green moisture, exuding from decayed holes caused by old amputations, ran down the bark of the oaks and elms, the rind below being coated with a lichenous wash as green as emerald.   They were stout-trunked trees, that never rocked their stems in the fiercest gale, responding to it entirely by crooking their limbs.  Wrinkled like an old crone's face, and antlered with dead branches that rose above the foliage of their summits, they were nevertheless still green – though yellow had invaded the leaves of other trees. (Ch. 27)

The trees are consistently interesting and strange.  Two exhausted women are lost in the woods at night, cold, so that they “clasped each other closely.”  Overhead, “the funereal trees rocked and chanted dirges unceasingly” (Ch. 33).  Again, the trees seem to know something that the characters do not.

It is not just the forest that is fun.  Look at these old playing cards

that had been lying by in a drawer ever since the time that Giles’s grandmother was alive.  Each card had a great stain in the middle of its back, produced by the touch of generations of damp and excited thumbs now fleshless in the grave; and the kings and queens wore a decayed expression of feature, as if they were rather an impecunious dethroned dynasty hiding in obscure slums than real regal characters.  (Ch. 10)

Which I suppose is closer to what they are.  Yes, yesterday I quoted a different passage that invoked “a city slum.”  They are the only two in the novel.  I do not understand how they might be connected, and am puzzled by every mention of the city in this profoundly rural and sylvan novel, where the characters, plot, imagery, and language are all tangled in the depths of forest.

Monday, November 21, 2016

“She may shail, but she'll never wamble” - Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders

Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders (1887), is the book I recently read; my sixth Hardy novel, it means I have moved to the second tier of fame if not quality.  I thought it as good as the more famous Wessex novels that preceded it, like The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886).  What it does not have, perhaps, is a character as gigantic and alive as The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye or Casterbridge’s Henchard or Tess.  Maybe a bigger Hardy fan than I am has insight into this mystery.  I enjoyed The Woodlanders as much as any of the others, but enjoyment only goes so far.

The forest setting of The Woodlanders is as exciting and metaphorically rich as is at this point typical in Hardy.  It is not as ceaselessly strange as Egdon Heath in Native, but is otherwise as interesting.  It is pretty strange:

They went noiselessly over mats of starry moss, rustled through interspersed tracts of leaves, skirted trunks with spreading roots, whose mossed rinds made them like hands wearing green gloves; elbowed old elms and ashes with great forks, in which stood pools of water that overflowed on rainy days, and ran down their stems in green cascades.  On older trees still than these, huge lobes of fungi grew like lungs.  Here, as everywhere, the Unfulfilled Intention, which makes life what it is, was as obvious as it could be among the depraved crowds of a city slum.  (Ch. 7)

The moss, fungi, slugs – lotta slugs in this novel – and the strange sounds of the trees add weirdness to many of the best descriptive passages in the book.  I’ll do another post on the scenery, as good as any Hardy writing I remember.

Now that I have read six Hardy novels I finally see how he repeats himself, rearranging character and story elements in new combinations.  A forester, Giles Winterborne, takes on a Tess-like role, his luck constantly bad, fate always working against him, but merely fate, not Fate.  His bad luck is less cosmically meaningful than Tess’s.  Grace Melbury is like Native’s Eustacia Vye, educated out of her place in the landscape, educated away from Giles –

He rose upon her memory as the fruit-god and the wood-god in alternation; sometimes leafy, and smeared with green lichen, as she had seen him amongst the sappy boughs of the plantations; sometimes cider-stained and starred with apple-pips…  (Ch. 38)

– and towards something less leafy, specifically a demonic doctor.  They “meet cute” over an old lady’s severed head, which is pretty odd.  Much of the story of the novel is built out of the pull on Grace between the wood-god and the doctor.  As Grace’s parents say:

“Fancy her white hands getting redder every day, and her tongue losing its pretty up-country curl in talking, and her bounding walk becoming the regular Hintock shail and wamble!”

“She may shail, but she'll never wamble,” replied his wife, decisively.  (Ch. 11)

Exactly!  Much of the rest of the story comes from the doctor being a total hound dog, a story as old as any fruit-god.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Plainly this was the moment immediately before a disaster - a glance at the Italian journeys of W. G. Sebald and Yves Bonnefoy - I was thus flattered in my Gnostic tendencies

W. G. Sebald’s first novel, for some reason called Vertigo in English (1990, tr. Michael Hulse), describes a number of Italian journeys – those of Stendhal, Kafka, and a version of himself – that cross paths with Goethe in a number of ways.  Sebald deflects the comparison, declaring that in Venice he is reading not Goethe but

Grillparzer’s Italian Diary, written in 1819.  I had bought it in Vienna, because when I am travelling, I often feel as Grillparzer did on his journeys.  Nothing pleases me, any more than it did him; the sights I find infinitely disappointing, one and all; and I sometimes think that I would have done far better to stay at home with my maps and timetables.  (53-4)

The fantasy of Italy has a power that the actual place, full of murders and bad pizza and impending disaster, lacks or even violates.  See pp. 77-80 for details on all of that, one of my favorite passages in Sebald, where he includes a photograph of a receipt from the Pizzeria Verona, “which even from the outside made a disreputable impression,” as if to prove he were there, not to me, who thinks of Vertigo as fiction, but to himself “Plainly this was the moment immediately before a disaster” – that is some bad pizza – perhaps the disaster he foresaw a dozen pages earlier in Venice.  “For some time now I have been convinced that it is out of this din that the life is being born which will come after us and will spell our gradual destruction, just as we have been gradually destroying what was there long before us” (63).

Sebald is inverting Goethe, yet he finds himself “occupied more or less exclusively with my study of Pisanello, on whose account I had in fact decided to travel to Verona” (72).  There is no end to Bildung.  He describes a Pisanello fresco in detail.  “A landscape of a more northerly character rises (the word is suggested by the nature of the depiction) into a blue sky” (74).  Please see a recent post at Tony’s Reading List for more.

It is exactly that kind of landscape that Yves Bonnefoy uses in The Arrière-pays (1972, tr. Stephen Romer) to explain the title of his book, the “hinterland,” the “back country,” the strong sense, with him from his childhood, of the place that exists beyond wherever he is and whatever he knows.  In art, this place revealed itself first through the skies of Poussin, but eventually, once he travelled to Tuscany, through the detailed landscapes of 15th century Italian art. Or even before his Italian journey, described in Chapter III of The Arrière-pays, when he becomes lost in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Paolo Uccello.

His first surprise in Italy is that the surrealism of Chirico is real,

that what I’d taken in Chirico for an imaginary, even an impossible, world existed, in fact, on this earth, except that here it was renewed, re-centred, made real and habitable by an act of spirit as novel for me as my own being, memory, and destiny became at a stroke… (67, ellipses in original)

Perspective itself, as in Uccello’s paintings, is imbued with meaning – “I was thus flattered in my Gnostic tendencies” (67) – by its implication of a world beyond the flat canvas.  The real Italy replaces the imaginary, works in person replace reproductions, yet the result is only the removal of the imagined world to some other place.  Visiting Italy awakens a lifelong, intense interest in art yet is destructive, and simultaneously creative.  “All sophistry, of course, because I was considering art, which is an order with its own laws, as merely an epiphenomenon which would provide a clue” (76).

Everything works out in the end – the Seagull Books edition includes several later, related essays attesting to the fact – due to the passage of time and Bonnefoy’s eventual recognition of the limits of his Gnosticism, perhaps in large part due to the writing of this book.  How I would love to know if Sebald knew it.  They are kindred books.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Why not earlier? Why at such cost? - Goethe's Italian study abroad

For all of Goethe’s status, for all of his writing, all of his learning, Italian Journey is a chronicle of firsts.  His first view of the sea, for example, which occurs in Venice:

Now, at last, I have seen the sea with my own eyes and walked upon the beautiful threshing floor of the sand which it leaves behind when it ebbs. (96)

He collects shells and watches, “for hours” the “bizarre and graceful performance of” of the crabs as they try and fail to hunt limpets (100).

Goethe has his first encounter with a Roman ruin, and with a Palladio building, and with any number of other things he had only read about.

I have spent the day looking and looking.  It is the same in art as in life.   The deeper one penetrate, the broader grows the view.  (109)

The trip really is something like Goethe’s college study abroad in Italy, a German major with a minor in art history, except that he is a highly non-traditional student.

How different all this is from our saints, squatting on their stone brackets and piled one above the other in the Gothic style of decoration, or our pillars which look like tobacco pipes, our spiky little towers and our cast-iron flowers.  Thank God, I am done with all that junk for good and all.  (95)

And Goethe has only reached, at this point, Venice!  Italian Journey has a great deal of interest as a pure travel book, especially its middle third covering Naples and Sicily, but the intellectual core of the book is in the fifty pages about Goethe’s first visit to Rome.  Everything about the classical world, Renaissance art, and to some degree living Catholicism creates a tumult.  Every idea is shaken.

Everything in me is suddenly beginning to merge clearly.  Why not earlier?  Why at such a cost?  (173)

Goethe is described a crisis point in his own development, his Bildung.  “I am not here simply to have a good time, but to devote myself to the noble objects about me, to educate myself before I reach forty” (137).  In his own work, the ideas from Italian Journey are most clearly expressed in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-6), where Italy is given enormous symbolic power as the nearly mythical “land of flowering lemon trees,” as Christopher Middleton translates the “Mignon” poem – go to p. 28 of Italian Journey to see Goethe meet Mignon and the harpist in the flesh – the land of fulfilment, aesthetic, intellectual, and sexual.  German readers thus knew about all this twenty years before Italian Journey itself was published; thus we see versions of the idea appear in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixir (1815-6), for example.

The Goethean juxtaposition of Italy and the repressed north recurs many times, and not just in German literature.  It is amusing to read E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) in this context, with the heroine finally able to cast off her Victorian chains via the influence of lively Italian murders and violets.  It took longer for Goethe to free himself, and the result was replacing a pursuit of fulfillment with an embrace of renunciation – classicism in place of romanticism, realism in place of idealism, and on like that.  German literature would never be the same.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Introducing Goethe's Italian Journey by means of a throat-clearing introduction to the whole Goethe thing

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had had two previous opportunities to visit Italy.  He swerved away, though.  Italy was too symbolically powerful.  One of those opportunities was replaced with Goethe’s installation as the friend and right-hand man of the Duke of Weimar when Goethe was twenty-six and perhaps the most famous writer in Europe.  The Duke had recognized, through Goethe’s celebrity, his enormous cognitive abilities.  Sometimes I think he must have been the smartest person in literary history.  In literature, smarts only gets ya so far.

After his thirty-seventh birthday party in 1786, Goethe sneaks away to Italy, informing only the Duke.  He stays for a year and a half – a little more.  His account is in Italian Journey, published thirty years later in 1816 as a strange hybrid book of letters, diaries, memories, alterations, and elisions.  Why thirty years later?  Because, in the last twenty years of his life, Goethe was kind of emptying his desk into books.  Plus, he had been publishing his memoirs.

Goethe financed his extended leave of absence through the advance on an eight-volume collected edition of his works.  His published works, at this point, amounted to four volumes.  Four volumes would contain new work.  This is how enormous Goethe’s stature was – four volumes, unwritten, no problem.  Of course eventually Green Henry spends forty days reading a fifty-volume set of Goethe.  Long way to go.

I had been able to send the first four volumes to the publisher and was intending to send the last four.  Some of their contents were only outlines of works and even fragments, because to tell the truth, my naughty habit of beginning works, then losing interest and laying them aside, had grown worse with the years and all the other things I had to do. (Sep. 8, 1786, p. 34)

Thus Faust, Part I, which is mentioned in Italian Journey as something Goethe will finish up any minute now, does not appear in print for another twenty years.  Part II is published twenty-five years after that!

One irony is that the Italian journey kills Goethe’s literary production for almost a decade, until he meets Friedrich Schiller.  It takes him that long to absorb everything.  Goethe’s life often feels like he planned it with the knowledge that he would live to eighty-two.  Take a decade off of literature – no big deal.  There will still be fifty volumes by the end.  Skip two chances at Italy – no worry, he’ll go when the time is exactly right.

What is Goethe absorbing?  Classical and Renaissance art history.  The fact that art has a history, even.  Architecture, Christianity, the sea, a long growing season for plants, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  Sex – the great omission from Italian Journey is Goethe’s Roman girlfriend, a waitress and widow.  But he had written about her in the warm Roman Elegies (1795).

It is such a pain dealing with Goethe.  In the years before Wuthering Expectations, when I spent my time in the 18th century, I read maybe ten volumes of Green Henry’s fifty, and I have trouble writing about any given work of Goethe’s without addressing the enormous phenomenon of Goethe.

Tomorrow, then, I’ll just dive into the book.  Goethe’s study abroad in Italy.

Quotations are and will be from the Penguin Classics edition, translated by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer – mostly the latter, I think.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

or if people could buy ready-made children at a shop - Samuel Butler's comedy

Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh is the book.  Ernest Pontifex is badly treated by his father, a clergyman, his mother, a religious fanatic, and the brutal pointlessness of his school.  His vocation as an Anglican priest is meaningless, unconnected from anyone’s lived experience, so unconnected poor Ernest lands in prison.  His friend is a con man, his wife an alcoholic, his family cruel, his beliefs empty.  But everything works out all right.

Butler’s novel is a comedy in the tradition of Thackeray and Forster.  Their omniscient narrator – I am currently reading A Room with a View (1908) and enjoying the narrator enormously – is replaced by Ernest’s godfather, a character in the story with his own opinions on everything that are often not those of Ernest.  He is collaborating with Ernest to tell his story, so he knows everything Ernest knows, or pretends to, and also knows more.  Semi-omniscient, and a clever solution.  He is often sarcastic:

Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances.  (Ch. 6)

He is more often sarcastic about the opinions of others, like this mockery of Ernest’s father:

If [Ernest’s mother] could have given birth to a few full-grown clergymen in priest’s orders – of moderate views, but inclining rather to Evangelicalism, with comfortable livings and in all respects facsimiles of [Ernest’s father] himself – why, there might have been more sense in it; or if people could buy ready-made children at a shop of whatever age and sex they liked, instead of always having to make them at home and to begin at the beginning with them – that might do better, but as it was he did not like it.  (Ch. 20)

The reader who does not find that funny will not find much in this book funny.

This narrator does not have much to do with the physical world, but he is good with psychological metaphor.  This is a favorite – teenage Ernest has been not quite caught in a sin – will he confess all to his mother?:

Ernest, through sheer force of habit, of the sofa, and of the return of the associated ideas, was still so moved by the siren’s voice as to yearn to sail towards her, and fling himself into her arms, but it would not do; there were other associated ideas that returned also, and the mangled bones of too many murdered confessions were lying whitening round the skirts of his mother’s dress, to allow him any possibility to trust her further.  (Ch. 40)

The fact is that I don’t care much whether Victorian ideals and institutions are demolished.  That part of The Way of All Flesh has receded into history.  There is a passage early on where the narrator mocks the philistinism of Ernest’s grandfather, compared to Ernest’s (eventual) freedom from received ideas about art.  But by the time Butler is writing, anti-philistinism is also a received idea, the shot at the old-timers funny but cheap.  The Bildungsroman, though, and the great comedy of a son escaping from his father, even if it lands him in prison, are stories that have to be told again and again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Again I asked Ernest whether he minded my printing this. He winced - Samuel Butler grinds himself to a powder in The Way of All Flesh

Samuel Butler’s posthumous The Way of All Flesh (1903) became, by chance, a Victorian tombstone, a novel-long critique of Victorianism published just after the fact.  He wrote the novel in the 1870s and 1880s, amidst published books on Darwinism and religion, as well as his amusing satirical Utopian novel Erewhon (1872).

Butler was not really a novelist, though – more of a controversialist – so it must have been a surprise that he had such an accomplished novel in the drawer.  It is something of a family saga, a rare genre for Victorians, it has an unusual narrator, and is psychologically sharp.  Visually, the book does not do much.  The insights are social and personal.

It is a novel of ideas that attacks the Victorian family, church, and schools.  Cambridge comes off well, but not the education that “had been an attempt, not so much to keep him [Ernest, the protagonist] in blinkers as to gouge his eyes out altogether” (Ch. 61).  This is just before poor Ernest does something so dumb he goes to prison for six months.  Long, long, long ago I asked where the English prison novels were, since it was such a common theme in French fiction.  Here it is, not where I expected.

The first fifth of the novels covers Ernest Pontifex’s ancestors, as personally known to the elderly narrator.  Ernest’s great-grandfather is a kindly craftsman, an 18th century figure, his grandfather a vulgar merchant (“Yet when a man is very fond of his money it is not easy for him at all times to be very fond of his children also,” Ch. 5), his father a narrow and cruel Anglican priest.  “The clergyman is expected to be a kind of human Sunday” (Ch. 26).

Ernest is sensitive and artistic, loving music especially.  The principle of the central three-fifths of the novel is to grind Ernest down to powder, expunging all of the false Victorianism from him.  Father, school, and church are the first means of punishment, then prison and a noble but bad marriage.  Ernest emerges as a perfect – what – a perfect gadfly.  A perfect idealist, who publishes controversial books about Darwinism and religion.  My favorite bit of grinding is incidental, Ernest’s attendance at a comic burlesque of Macbeth: “’What rot Shakespeare is after this,’ he exclaimed, involuntarily” (Ch. 70).  Even Victorian bardolatry has to be purged to make the new man. In the last fifth he builds himself back up.

Autobiography, obviously, but with the clever addition of the narrator, who is writing up Ernest’s story with his permission, and even presence:

Again I asked Ernest whether he minded my printing this.  He winced, but said, “No, not if it helps you to tell your story: but don’t you think it is too long?” (Ch. 53)

The narrator, who freely expresses his opinions about everything, is the constant narratorial voice, which is a clever way to split the author between the narrator and protagonist, allowing more irony and tamping any self-pity.  Both are Butler, so neither are Butler, and they can disagree on things.

It's a good novel.  I can see how The Way of All Flesh, published when it was, felt like a necessary novel to many readers.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Poetry makes both better - Robert Graves, war poet

Robert Graves is an author I have barely read – until recently just his translation of The Golden Ass (1951) – but I have acquired the illusion that I know a lot about him because of all the magazine articles I have read about him.  Reviews of Graves biographies, and biographies of the many other famous people in his life, and who knows what else.  I knew that Graves had been severely injured in World War I – details in the memoir Good-Bye to All That (1928), which I have not read – but it had never sunk in that he got his start as a writer as a war poet.

His first two chapbooks, Over the Brazier and Goliath and David, are from 1916, the same year Graves suffered an injury at the Battle of the Somme.  Most of the poems appear again in his first book, Fairies and Fusiliers (1917).  That odd title is accurate, even in its ordering.  Poems about the experience men at war, gritty but ironic, slide over towards poems about a magic-tinged childhood, where if fairies and fauns are not quite real it is easy enough to imagine that they are.  Then the poems slide back to the trenches, simultaneously real but unreal.

The perfect example in a single poem is “Sorley’s Weather.”   Charles Sorley was a young poet killed in action in 1915.  His only book was published in 1916:

Sorley’s Weather

When outside the icy rain
  Comes leaping helter-skelter,
Shall I tie my restive brain
  Snugly under shelter?

Shall I make a gentle song
  Here in my firelit study,
When outside the winds blow strong
  And the lanes are muddy?

With old wine and drowsy meats
  Am I to fill my belly?
Shall I glutton here with Keats?
  Shall I drink with Shelley?

Tobacco’s pleasant, firelight’s good:
  Poetry makes both better.
Clay is wet and so is mud,
  Winter rains are wetter.

Yet rest there, Shelley, on the sill,
  For though the winds come frorely,
I’m away to the rain-blown hill
  And the ghost of Sorley.

The archaic “frorely” just means “coldly.”  The narrator is not a child, but he has written something close to a child’s poem about the comforts of reading poetry on a stormy night.  But the reader, the narrating reader, is also taken back to a different setting of mud, rain, and wind.  Perhaps the “rain-blown hill” in France is the reality of the speaker, and the study the fantasy.  They co-exist, somehow.

The next poem, “The Cottage,” repeats the idea more bluntly.  The poet is in a place where “Snug inside I sit and rhyme,” yet nothing, no weather or flowers or “magic keep me safe to rhyme,” since “Death is waiting by.”  The act of writing a poem during war is classically pastoral.  Death is in Arcadia, even; Death is everywhere.

Near the end of the collection, Graves again writes about reading poetry in “The Poet in the Nursery.”  He is a child, although a poet himself, “the youngest poet,” who finds a book “full of poetry” in a library while the “ancient poet” wrestles with his own work – “rhymes were beastly things and never there.”

The book was full of funny muddling mazes,
  Each rounded off into a lovely song,
And most extraordinary and monstrous phrases
  Knotted with rhymes like a slave-driver’s thong.
And metre twisting like a chain of daisies
  With great big splendid words a sentence long.

No hint of the war here.  Perhaps this celebration of the joy of poetry dates to some time before it.

This is, for all its necessary ugliness, a lovely book.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Dreams and gratuitous nudity in The Well at the World's End - And the wind in the willows is with us at last

My understanding is that William Morris is given credit for inventing the template of the heroic fantasy novel, they key to which is the understanding that the world of the novel is in some sense “real,” the only world the characters have, at least.   George MacDonald’s fantasies, like Phantastes (1858) and the great Lilith (1895) are explicitly dream-worlds, with characters from our “real” world visiting the fantasy world.  Two templates for fantasy – Middle Earth and Narnia – ready for later writers.

Thus my curiosity about Morris’s repeated update on the dreams of his hero.  Every three chapters Ralph goes to sleep.  Sometimes he is “troubled by no dreams of what was past or to come” (Bk. I, Ch. 24); other times he has symbolically loaded dreams, like the one about fish made “of gilded paper stuffed with wool” I mentioned yesterday.  Morris never has his knight dream of the dream world Morris created in News from Nowhere (1890), unfortunately.

The dreamy vagueness slips into the waking world.  Characters are vaguely defined, the landscape unfolds itself as needed, and the central plot, the quest for the Well at the World’s End, is continually treated by the hero as something not quite real.  Why is he searching for the Well, “which is but a word,” a rumor (Bk. II, Ch. 11)?  “’Maybe thou art seeking for what is not’” (Bk. II, Ch. 29), a Queen tells him, and he shares her doubts.  On the literal verge of the discovery of the Well, “it came into Ralph’s mind that this was naught but a mock, as if to bid the hapless seekers cast themselves down from the earth, and be done with it forever” (Bk. III, Ch. 20).

At this point, Ralph, of course, goes to sleep.  He “awoke from some foolish morning dream of Upmeads” (III, 21) and completes his quest.  A few pages later he dreams of home again, the dream no longer foolish.

The dream language gives The Well at the World’s End much of its symbolic weight, even if I have trouble saying what any of it might mean.  Another surprising pattern is the explicit sex and gratuitous nudity.  Temporally, this is still a Victorian novel, but holy cow.  The scene where Ralph defends his traveling companion, who is completely nude, from a bear attack, that was the gratuitous part.  When, after drinking from the Well, the couple bathes nude in the sea and reenacts the Garden of Eden – “and the deer of that place, both little and great, had no fear of man, but the hart and hind came to Ursula’s hand” etc. (III, 22) at least has some clear allegorical meaning.

Now I have a question.  Morris, a fine poet, includes only a couple of poems in the novel.  One of them has this stanza:

Come up, then up!
Leave board and cup,
And follow the gleam
Of the glittering stream
That leadeth the road
To the old abode,
High-walled and white
In the moon and night;
Where low lies the neighbor that drave us away
Sleep-sunk from his labour amidst of the hay.
No road for our riding is left us save one,
Where the hills’ brow is hiding the city undone,
And the wind in the willows is with us at last,
And the house of the billows is one and o’er-past.  (II, 34)

Is this the source of Kenneth Grahame’s title?  The internet has not been much help.  It fits.

Friday, November 11, 2016

the world was worse than he had looked to find it - on the road with William Morris's The Well at the World’s End

I still have Goethe’s Italian Journey to poke at for German Literature Month – look at all of that blogging – but I want to save it for a bit later.  So now what.

I never wrote about William Morris’s long 1896 fantasy novel The Well at the World’s End.  That’ll do.

The novel is an adventure story, a knight’s quest set in an imaginary world where magic exists.  The setting is medieval English, but not England.  Towns and people have English names – Ralph, Richard, Roger.  There is a single, long-established Christian church, with saints and so on.  Once there is even a mention of Rome.  But it takes the characters a year to reach the ocean, and they have to cross a mountain range with active volcanoes to get there.

The mechanics of the plot are those of a journey, not just a series of adventures, although there are those – “full of heroic exploits, peril and satisfying resolutions” says Classical Carousel, who recently zipped through the novel – but a great deal of attention to movement, transportation, and not so much landscape as geography.

The novel is one of the direct ancestors of The Lord of the Rings and ten thousand other heroic fantasy novels, but it was surprisingly not Morris, a visual artist of such distinction, who realized that the first page of a novel like this should feature a map.  So I made my own map, in my head.  Morris’s directions are quite clear.

The traveling mechanics are so important that numerous chapters – I’m going to guess a third of them – end with the characters going to sleep.

So he lay down in his bed and slept, and dreamed that he was fishing with an angle in a deep of Upmeads Water; and he caught many fish; but after a while whatsoever he caught was but of gilded paper stuffed with wool, and at last the water itself was gone, and he was casting his angle on a dry road.  (end of Bk. I, Ch. V)

That’s an especially good example.  Few are that good.  For a long chunk of the novel, Morris moved at the pace of three chapters = one day.  Chapters are short, so that’s fifteen to twenty pages.  Every day I would read one “day” of Ralph’s quest.  The pace felt entirely natural.  I fall into the same rhythm with travel books, finding some pace that allows time to pass, simulating the experience of the characters in the book.  Honestly, The Well at the World’s End mostly felt a lot more like a travel book, an account of exploration, than a heroic novel. Much of the pleasure, some of it vaguely uncanny, came from not knowing the map.  The idiot hero seems to know literally nothing of the territory outside of his tiny little home.  “And himseemed the world was worse than he had looked to find it” (Bk. I, Ch. XIV).

About “himseemed” – the entire novel is written in a slightly flat pastiche of Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) and The Faerie Queene (1590-6) and so on, updated to a late Victorian idiom.  It can be numbing in its consistency, much like I found Morris’s expert verse in The Earthly Paradise (1868-70).  I found it difficult to pull out really exceptional passages or images.  Everything just flows forward at a nice even pace – a combat in the woods, Ralph’s first sight of the ocean, a merchant caravan crossing a pass – all written in the same register.

Gee, now that I’m writing I feel that I have a million trivial observations about this novel.   More of the same tomorrow.  Time for bed.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Each of the guests was moved by the beauty of the scene - the art of Fontane

So now I will ignore everything I wrote yesterday and assume that we all actively enjoy fiction set in times and places when and where we not understand every detail; that we even prefer fiction full of things we – I – did not know, by itself one reason to read Theodor Fontane.

The title character of Schach von Wuthenow (1883) is a cavalry officer, a perfect gentleman, a Prussian ideal.  He is courting a woman older than himself, a great beauty, or perhaps her daughter, who lost her beauty to smallpox, although people still remember the effect she made at her debut.  The confusion of the situation causes trouble.  Prussia is small enough at this point, 1806 – this is real historical fiction – that the romantic problems of a cavalry officer are of interest to the King, who is a minor character.

Schach is one of those stories where everyone gets what they want, but in a horribly ironic way, like a perverse genie has given them a wish.  As Fontane novels go, it gets quite exciting near the end.  A nasty shocker.

Here the cavalry officers watch a sunset:

Each of the guests was moved by the beauty of the scene.  But the most beautiful sight was the numerous swans which, as everybody was looking up to the evening sky, were approaching in a long single file from the direction of Charlottenburg Park.  Other swans had already taken up a forward position.  It was obvious that the entire flotilla must have been attracted by something to have come so close to the villa, for as soon as they were level with it, they wheeled around military fashion to form an extension of the front line of those which, still and motionless with bills buried in their feathers, were riding at anchor, as it were.  Only the reeds were gently swaying behind their backs.  A long time went by in this way.  (p. 57)

Jenny Treibel (1892) is a dissection of Berlin class differences.  Tiny class differences.  The title character is a grocer’s daughter who almost married a professor but instead jumped to a merchant of higher distinction.  Can she possibly allow her weak-spined son to marry that professor’s daughter?  “’One might be able to get into a ducal family, but not into a bourgeois family,’” the professor says (289).

Terms as crude as upper or middle class are wholly inadequate.  Even geography matters – the Berlin merchant outranks the Hamburg merchant, who are such snobs because their business is international, so that the Hamburger “really believes seriously that we can’t distinguish between sole and turbot here, and is always using the English for lobster, and treats curry powder and soy sauce as the utmost secrets…” (241).  That is the title character, who can be awfully funny, not always intentionally.

The first half of the novel covers one day – a dinner party and another social gathering.  The next quarter is occupied with another party, a picnic, a good place for the marriage proposal that spurs such plot as the novel has.  The last chapter is a party scene, too, at a wedding.  Fontane is like Proust, here.  Most human activity worth documenting takes place at parties, or just before, or just after.

More Jenny Treibel – she is a married woman with adult children, and has just told the professor that although her life is wonderful of course she should have married him:

Schmidt nodded in agreement and then uttered a simple “Oh, Jenny…” with a tone in which he sought to express all the pain of a misspent life.  Which he did succeed in doing.  He listened to the sound of it and quietly congratulated himself that he had played his little part so well.  Jenny, despite all her cleverness, was still vain enough to believe in the “oh” of her former admirer.  (239)

Little insights, little ironies, little beauties.  And some bigger ones, too, but much of the art of Fontane is in moments like this one.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"He can pick it up like a macaroni" - some novels of Theodor Fontane that are harder sells

Theodor Fontane was a Prussian of French descent who could see his world – it classes and follies – from just a little bit outside of it.  He pulled advanced French fictional techniques (in shorthand, Flaubert) into German, almost alone as far as I can tell.  He was a journalist who did not turn to fiction until he was almost sixty.  He nevertheless had a twenty-year career as a fiction writer, long enough to have identifiable stages.

The esthetically unappealing but useful German Library series includes two novels in Short Novels and Other Writings (1981), one early, one late, so to speak, Schach von Wuthenow (1883, tr. E. M. Valk) and Jenny Treibel (1892, tr. Krishna Winston).  Both novels are full fine insights into the characters, beautiful little touches, descriptive and psychological, and a great sense of how the people live and act within the constraints – tight constraints – of their world.

Boy, are they dense with information.  A tough sell, I fear.  I have seen plenty of good readers have trouble with Effi Briest (1895), and these are both denser.  Fontane does much of his work with small talk, pages of it, so they are both denser yet often in a given moment quite trivial, especially when I have only a light acquaintance with foreign policy problems of Napoleonic Berlin, which is how Schach begins.  “’We may be equal to dealing with the Poles perhaps, but the Hanoverians are a fastidious breed’” (p. 4), etc. etc. etc.  The stories of real interest in both novels are marriage stories, love affairs.

Or look at the long, very German passage in Jenny Treibel in which a young woman and her beloved housekeeper discuss the astringent properties of pears.  Papa prefers the peel, core, stem, and all – this is with cooked pears:

“He can pick it up like a macaroni and hold it up and eat it all up from the bottom…  He really is a peculiar man…”

“Yes, that he is!”  (282, ellipses in original)

A full page on pears, before the conversation turns to the woman’s impending – or now maybe not – marriage, all of this while she is grating stale rolls for a bread pudding.

Or look at the title of Schach von Wuthenow.  The translator changes it to A Man of Honor, which is fits the story, at least.  Cavalry Captain von Schach’s ancestral estate is in Wuthenow.  The chapter where, in emotional turmoil, he revisits his old home and messes about in a boat is a lovely thing.  But for the reader without German, that title is too much of a mouthful.

I’m trying to get the negatives out of the way in this post.  In Jenny Treibel, so little happens – a series of parties – that the idea of plot moves towards abstraction.  A Man of Honor is, for Fontane, almost a thriller, so much happens, even a sex scene.  See if you can spot it:

Oh, these were the words her heart had been yearning for, whereas it had sought to don the armor of defiance.

And now she was listening to them in a daze of silent and blissful abandon.

The clock in the room struck nine and was answered by the church clock outside.  Victoire, who had been keeping count of the strikes, smoother back her hair and stepped up to the window and looked out into the street.  (64)

It is deliberately missable, even given the constraints on what can be described in a novel of the time, given later events in the story meant to have readers paging backwards – “Wait, when did that happen – oh.”

The terrible prose of the first line should be assigned to Victoire, not the narrator; unused to sexual attention, she has to resort to clichés she has picked up from a book.  That kind of subtlety is artful, but a hard sell.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Often I get up in the middle of the night and stop all the clocks - Hofmannsthal's melancholy Mozartish Cavalier of the Rose

The Cavalier of the Rose (1911), better known as Der Rosenkavalier, was written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal as a libretto.  Strauss had wanted to follow the intense Salome (1905) with something more light and fun and Mozartish.  Instead, working with Hofmannsthal, he did the intense and in many ways quite similar Elektra (1909) as his next opera.  They saved the farcical romantic comedy for next time.  I doubt I would guess, blindfolded, that the music was by the same composer, although the many waltzes might let me guess it was Austrian; I would never guess that the cross-dressing hero and fast-moving physical comedy came from Hofmannsthal, who is admittedly a pretty blank slate, at least not until the great act of renunciation in the last act of the opera.

PRINCESS: There’s many a matter here on earth
nobody could ever believe
did they but hear the story told.
But the one it happens to, that one believes and knows not how…  (Act 3, p. 524)

The princess, the tragic figure of the comedy, begins the play in bed with her young lover, the 17-year-old Octavian, who is so beautiful that everyone he meets, female and male, falls in love with him.  When the grotesque and foolish Baron intrudes on the boudoir, Octavian disguises himself as a female servant.  The Baron is smitten; the comedy is ready to begin – a duel, disguises, pranks, waiters dashing about, like that.  In the next act, Octavian meets his female counterpart Sophia, coincidentally engaged to the vulgar Baron.  There’s the romance.

But wait, didn’t the play begin with Octavian in love with – sleeping with – the Princess?  Didn’t he burst into tears when she suggests that “sooner or later” he will leave her for “one younger and more lovely than I” (427)?  Hofmannsthal includes the necessary frothy, sparkling romantic plot, but he puts this sadder love affair behind it.

PRINCESS:  Time is a strange thing.
While one just lives for the moment, it is nothing.
But then all at once
we feel nothing else but it,
it’s all around us, it’s right inside us,
it trickles away in our faces, it trickles in the mirror,
in my temples it flows away.
And between you and me it is flowing too.
Soundless, as an hour-glass.
Ah Quinquin [Octavian’s nickname]!
Often I hear it flow incessantly.
Often I get up in the middle of the night
and stop all the clocks.  (Act 1, 428-9)

Or as she says earlier, “It’s all a mystery, so much is mysterious” (424).  She is such an unusual character that as beautiful as her part is, she is absent for most of the rest of the opera.  There are hints that she is the Empress of Austria.

Another unusual feature of the libretto is that it only occasionally looks like a libretto, employing choruses and refrains and set-piece arias and so on, although it has all of those at times.  It mostly looks like a play.  The dialogue mostly looks like conversation.  It is highly readable.  Thus, I read it.

Christopher Holme did the version in Selected Plays and Libretti.

Friday, November 4, 2016

For him who is happy as we, be silent and dance! - Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Electra

When Hugo von Hofmannsthal was nineteen, he was widely known as Austria’s greatest living poet.  He brushed against Stefan George’s German circle, which was devoted to pure lyric poetry and private artistic expression.  Somehow this (or that, or the other) led him to abandon the lyric and then fiction – to abandon private art.  See “The Lord Chandos Letter” for details, maybe.

He turned instead to public art, collaborative art, to the stage, co-founding the Salzburg theater festival and most famously writing libretti for Richard Strauss.  Temperamentally, their partnership makes little sense, but that difference in aesthetics and approaches must have been what Hofmannsthal needed.

My taste for Strauss is weak.  I am listening to Elektra (1909) as I write this, and when I am not paying attention it recedes into shrieking backed by strange orchestral sound effects.  “She broke into howls  and threw herself / in her corner” (p. 8).  With attention – well, I would love to see it performed someday.

The libretto – or really the play, first performed in 1903 – is highly readable on its own.  I am looking at Alfred Schwarz’s translation, in Selected Plays and Libretti (Bollingen, 1963).  It is not presented as an original play but as an adaptation of Sophocles, so again, explicitly collaborative.  It is adapted not so much into German as into Freudian.

Electra – in the translation she is Electra – her father is murdered, “driven away, down into his cold pit” (11), by her mother Clytemnestra and her no-good bum of a stepfather.  Her older brother is missing, perhaps dead.  Her younger sister Chrysothemis just wants a normal life.  The closest thing to a love duet is between Electra and her sister:

ELECTRA:  As you struggle against me, I feel what arms
they are.  You could crush whatever you clasp
in your arms.  You could press me, or a man,
against your cool firm breasts with your arms
and one would suffocate!  Everywhere
there is such strength in you!  It flows like cool
pent-up water from the rock.  It streams down
with your hair upon your strong shoulders!


The mother, Clytemnestra, is in just one scene, but it is spectacular.  She is superstitious, “completely covered with jewels and charms” (22), terrified of her daughter’s insanity, which she fears is witchcraft, and haunted by guilty nightmares “[s]o that the marrow dissolves in my bones” (29).

As events move towards their inevitable happy ending, the play requires music as much as the opera, something to which Electra can do her “nameless dance”:

ELECTRA:  Be silent and dance.  All must
approach!  Here join behind me!  I bear the burden
of happiness, and I dance before you.
For him who is happy as we, it behooves him to do
only this: to be silent and dance!   (77)

Or maybe this is weirder with no music, Electra dancing only to whatever tormented sounds are in her head.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A horror play no theatre will produce - Frank Wedekind's Lulu plays

More than Henry James’s ghost stories, my Halloween reading was the Lulu plays of Frank Wedekind – The Earth Spirit (1895), Pandora’s Box (1904), and the odd coda Death and the Devil (1905) – which at this distance are still lust-crazed nightmares, climaxing in the murder of much of the cast by Jack the Ripper.  Spring Awakening (1891) is a children’s play by comparison.

That last act of Pandora’s Box must be deeply uncomfortable to see performed.  Merely reading it was unpleasant.  I have not seen the 1929 G. W. Pabst film adaptation, nor have I seen a stage performance, but I assume that anything goes, and the more Expressionist and crazy the production the better, to distract the poor audience from the horror at the heart of the plays.

RODRIGO:  You’ve written a horror play with my fiancee’s calves as the two leading characters and that no theatre will produce.  You crazy fool!  You miserable worm!...  I’ll pollute the whole auditorium with my stink.  (Pandora’s Box, Act One)

That’s about right.  The great struggle in the play is between Lulu, who is a human woman of ordinary intelligence, depth, and character cursed with such strong sex appeal that she becomes a kind of living embodiment of sex to everyone who meets her.  Men compete for her, cheat each other, kill themselves, etc. to possess her.  They all rename her as a primary act of possession – “As you know, I christened her Nelly in our marriage contract” (Erdgeist, Act One).  Three of the four acts of Earth Spirit end with the death of one of her husbands, which is comic but increasingly disturbing.  Pandora’s Box starts high and ends at the end, fulfilling Lulu’s dream of escape:

LULU (as though telling a fairy tale):  Every other night I used to dream I’d fallen into the hands of a sex-murderer.  Come on, give me a kiss.  (Pandora’s Box, Act One)

It’s a George Grosz illustration brought to a simulation of life.

For all of the creeping horror, Wedekind’s humor is pervasive.  Here Rodrigo the trapeze artist is making his escape from Lulu, or at least trying:

RODRIGO:  Besides that, she loves me for myself.  She’s interested in more than just obscenities, unlike you.  She has three children by an American bishop; and all of them show the greatest promise.  The day after tomorrow we’ll be married by the registrar.

LULU:  You have my blessings.  (Pandora’s Box, Act Two)

The irony is that in the previous scene Lulu barely evaded being sold to an Egyptian brothel.  She may be shallow, but it is everyone else who keeps returning to obscenity.

Earth Spirit begins with an animal trainer in front of a circus tent.  Lulu, “dressed in a Pierrot costume,” is silent, carried around like a beast, exhorted not to “dislocate our views.”  But the trainer, armed with a whip and pistol, does not use his weapons on her.  No, he fires into the audience.

I read the Carl Richard Mueller translations, which did their job.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Stefan George's poems - The brief beholding makes me glad

Was it going to be worth reading the poems of Stefan George in translation, I wondered?  Lyric poems in the tradition of Goethe and Heine, known for their singular beauty and innovative use of German; images derived from a semi-private mysticism; translations by a disciple of the poet.  Maybe the last worried me most, for some reason.

But no, everything is fine.  Poems (Pantheon, 1943), translated by Carol North Valhope and Ernst Morwitz, at least, is good, worth reading.  Instructive. There are later volumes by Morwitz, working with other collaborators, that contain more poems (good), but the one I had available was first singularly ugly, an insult to a poet as deeply concerned with the aesthetics of his books as William Morris, and second lacked the German poems (very bad).

The early poems, in German, are exquisite.  Even an ignoramus like me can hear it.

Sieh mein kind ich gehe.
Denn du darfst nicht kennen
Nicht einmal durch nennen
Menschen müh und wehe.

See my child, I leave,
You must not behold,
No, nor yet be told
How men toil and grieve.  (pp. 62-3)

In the second stanza, Morwitz has to bend English for a rhyme (“Over you I gloom”), but that hardly violates the spirit of the poem.  The third stanza ends with a repetition of the first line.  A poem for a child.

George brings French Symbolism into German, and thus in English often sounds like an English Decadent, colorful:

The wasps with scales of golden-green have gone
From folded cups of flowers, and we swerve
Within our boat in widely sweeping curve
Around the isles of leaves in bronze and fawn.  (p. 71, from “Now do not lag in reaching for the book”)

Here he describes a Fra Angelico painting, or really his method:

The gold from holy chalices he took,
For yellow hair, the ripened wheaten stalks,
The blue from women washing at the brook,
The pink from children coloring with chalks.  (p. 41, from “An Angelico”)

The above poems are all from the 1890s.  As George aged he became more of a sage, a prophet, with a “circle” that would issue pronouncements – theater is bad, music is bad, that kind of thing.  Baffling.  His poems take a turn to the abstract and esoteric, some of the ideas embodied, and then disembodied, in the figure of Maximin, a blond boy who died young.  Think Death in Venice, I guess.  I do not understand the more abstract ideas in these later poems, yet to his last book in 1928, George continued to write perfect lyrics, like “Seelied (Seasong),” where the old poet watches a Maxinim-like figure play on the beach while the sun sets:

Mit gliedern blank mit augen klar
Kommt nun ein kind mit goldnem haar,
Es tanzt und singt auf seiner bahn
Und schwindet hinterm grossen kahn.

With naked limbs, with cloudless eye
A goldhaired child now passes by,
It sings and dances as it nears,
Behind the boat it disappears.

I watch it come, I watch it go,
Though never words for it I know,
And never speech for me it had,
The brief beholding makes me glad.  (pp. 234-7)

Reading George in English is also a kind of “brief beholding” of a great poet.

File this one under German Literature Month.