Friday, November 30, 2018

A riffle through Illuminations - “This is how one pictures the angel of history”

Thinking about a more ideal Walter Benjamin collection, I imagine dropping “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), which is perverse but the problem is that is like a building that has been completely dismantled, its materials used as the structure of a hundred other, newer buildings.  I can imagine its explosive force – now I am imagining it as a bomb – in English in 1968, when so many people were ready to not just write about but theorize about television, rock music, comic books, and so on.

Benjamin, who mostly sticks to film and photography, keeps brushing up against the concept of pop art.

Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art.  The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. (227)

May the Village Voice and a million pop culture blogs bloom.  Every art – the creators, the audience – has had to wrestle with Benjamin’s notion that the individual art object has some kind of “aura” that is dimmed or destroyed by mass reproduction, by technology.  He is not against this, but he is a creature of literature, which had long accommodated itself to the printing press – heck, the scriptorium – rather than of visual art, where the response has been to everything possible to keep the aura, so that the original embodiment is worth a fortune and the exact reproduction is kitsch.  Theater and dance have made their own less insistent, less neurotic negotiations with film.

Benjamin thinks about the case of literature in “The Storyteller” (1936), nominally about Nikolai Leskov but more about the modes of literature:

The earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times…  What can be handed on orally, the wealth of the epic, is of a different kind from what constitutes the stock in trade of the novel. (87)

He takes Leskov as an example of the epic or storyteller type, even within the form of modern fiction.  He mentions Poe and Stevenson as other examples.  I am not sure this is true; Benjamin’s Leskov only distantly resembled the one I remember.  I wonder if he had read Sholem Aleichem.  Now that is an imaginary Benjamin essay I would like to read.

The essays on individual authors that he did write, on Baudelaire, Proust, Brecht (a close friend), and Kafka, are outstanding and accessible, by which I mean, as we all mean, written at or just above my head.  Like “Unpacking My Library,” these essays remind me that Benjamin is an unusual creature, a philosopher who is a true literary critic.  I mean that he deals with literature as literature, with Kafka and Baudelaire as artists, creative people, with whom he has personal affinities.

I have some doubts about, because I did not understand, the final piece, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), which has to be retained because of the single paragraph in which a Paul Klee angel takes on cosmic, apocalyptic meaning – “This is how one pictures the angel of history” (249) – one being you, Walter, but the “one single catastrophe” he sees the angel seeing is upon him, so what do I know.  With these few lines Benjamin willed into being Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels and I assume much many more unusual works of art.

I was planning to write about Illuminations, to the extent that it can be said that I have written about it, in December, but then I thought I would tack it onto GermanLiterature Month, why not.

In early February, I will continue my reading of classic literary criticism with Northrop Frye’s Fables of Identity, which should be something different than Kermode or Benjamin.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Walter Benjamin in New York with Antonio Muñoz Molina - Insofar as the past has been transmitted as tradition, it possesses authority

Antonio Muñoz Molina, the Spanish novelist, has an 85-page chunk of memoir in the latest Hudson Review (Autumn 2018).  He is writing about a walk, or maybe blending a number of walks, from the southern tip of Manhattan Island all the way to the Bronx, where he is “now,” meaning next to my bookmark (I haven’t finished the piece).  The piece, the walk, is in part inspired by Walter Benjamin, a classic flaneur, who is mentioned occasionally and at one point even encountered on the sidewalk, in Muñoz Molina’s imagination.

Muñoz Molina, up near Columbia University, has been noticing the honorary street names.  Duke Ellington, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and so on.  He imagines Federico García Lorca walking the same streets in 1929.  He remembers that Hannah Arendt lived nearby, and realizes that this is, more or less, where Benjamin would have lived if he had made it out of Spain.

Toward the end, his will and his imagination were focused on New York.  He had started learning English.  He was fond of American films and read Faulkner, Light in August, but found it so hard that he helped himself along with a French translation.  (410)

He read Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd,” which I find it hard to believe such a devotee of Baudelaire had not read, The Turn of the Screw, lots of Melville, The Postman Always Rings Twice.  This was to prepare for living in America, in New York.  He falls in love with Katharine Hepburn.  I am just taking Muñoz Molina’s word for all of this.

But it is true that if he had reached New York, he would have found a city as suited for his signature method – walking, looking, thinking – as Paris or Berlin, enjoying or at least absorbing

the noise, the rush, the general air of commercial vulgarity, the people speaking German or Yiddish or English with a German accent, the Jewish smells and flavors of the delis, the joy and guilt of having fled the apocalypse in Europe. (411)

It is hard to imagine Benjamin ending up in Los Angeles like Schoenberg and Mann, easy to imagine him finding some kind of tenuous university appointment like Nabokov.

So we are missing not only a New York Arcades Project, but full-length essays on Faulkner, Melville’s Pierre, the New York City Poe, and who knows what else.

I have been wondering, reading Illuminations, why this particular configuration of Benjamin has been so powerful.  There is a four-volume Selected Writings in English now, for example, so a different collection would be feasible.  But

Insofar as the past has been transmitted as tradition, it possesses authority; insofar as authority presents itself historically, it becomes tradition.  (Arendt, Introduction, p. 43)

And Illuminations has it from both ends now, authority and tradition.  Plus, poking around in the first two volumes of Selected Writings, I now realize that as far as complete, literary essays, Illuminations has almost everything Benjamin published.  But there are more book reviews, more excerpts from letters and fragments of notebooks.  Some other anthology could work.  I don’t know.  For a critic of this stature, there is just not that much.  What exists is extraordinary and makes me deeply regret that imaginary Faulkner essay.

The Muñoz Molina is titled “Mr. Nobody” and is a chunk of the untranslated Un andar solitario entre la gente (2018).

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Walter Benjamin's funny, depressing "Unpacking My Library" - Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

There are other ways to read Walter Benjamin now, maybe better ways, but people are still reading the book that introduced him in English, Illuminations (1968, tr. Harry Zorn), carefully assembled by Hannah Arendt.  So I read it, too.

The collection begins, after Arendt’s long introduction, with one of the most depressing essays I have ever read, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting” (1931), which is also charming and funny and the perfect way to meet a Benjamin who is not an intimidating theorist.

The conceit of the essay is in the title.  Benjamin is a real collector.  The essay is about the collector, a bit of light theorizing about the nature of book collectors filled out with a couple of pages on his greatest triumphs.  He is unpacking his books, which have been in storage for two years, lovingly handling each of his treasures, while somehow simultaneously writing an essay about his love.  Or let’s say dictating the essay.  Talking out loud.

The depressing part is all in the future.  A year later, Benjamin flees Germany for, eventually, Paris.  I do not know what happened to his “several thousand volumes.”  They could not have gone with him.

Nine years after the essay is published, Benjamin has to flee again, from Paris to Spain.  This journey, a fiasco, ends in suicide.

Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

Ah, what a line.  Just brutal.  In context, Benjamin is arguing about public versus private collections, that “the phenomenon of collecting loses it meaning as it loses its personal owner,” which is surely true since the meaning of the collection is entirely personal.  Or there exists a meaning that is entirely personal.  Earlier in this paragraph Benjamin opens a box containing his mother’s scrapbooks – talk about personal – “booklike creations from fringe areas” which are a central part of any “living library,” and which Benjamin calls the “seeds” of his substantial collection of children’s books.

I wonder what happened to that copy of Balzac’s The Wild Ass’s Skin that he bought at auction when he was a student, that he treasured so much.  Someone could write a novel following the book around.  Or a history, maybe.

“Unpacking My Library” turns out to be about the fragility of civilization.

I am not much of a collector at this point, but I recognize this line: “For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”  But this is true for every reader, even the one who depends entirely on the public library.  The true collection of every reader, the only one that is always there when I need it, is the one in my head.  Is it ever a mess.

Benjamin himself is quite funny in this essay.  “Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.”  And the second-best way is to borrow books and never return them!  I did not notice so many jokes in the rest of Illuminations.  Oh well.  I will keep writing about it for a couple of days.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

who needs context - novels by Gyula Krúdy and Ilf & Petrov - drink to the irrigation of Uzbekistan!

Two novels that seem like they should depend heavily on their context, but really do not.

The Twelve Chairs by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov (1928), tr. Anne O. Fisher, a serialized comic Soviet picaresque that transcends it genre, as they say.  By “transcends,” I mean it is better than almost everything like it, Soviet or not.  It must be, right?  It is still funny, the characters make sense as people and are at the same time completely ridiculous, and the blatantly episodic satirical chunks are essentially universal while keeping their amusing specificity.

For example:

Ostap continually proclaimed speeches, addresses, and toasts.  Everyone drank to popular education and to the irrigation of Uzbekistan.  (186)

I do not have to know too much about early Soviet culture to think that these toasts are pretty funny, a sign about what has gone wrong.  Eh, if it’s not funny, read something else.

The story is a comic classic: a former nobleman learns from his mother-in-law, on her deathbed, that in the Revolution she hid her jewels in one of his chairs.  Which one?  There are twelve possibilities, and the Revolution scattered some, and the events of the novel scatter the rest.  The nobleman takes a con artist as a partner, Ostap in the above quote, and they’re off after the jewels.

I was impressed by Ilf and Petrov’s true sense of comedy, by which I mean that they systematically, gleefully, grind their characters to powder.  They push the joke to its logical conclusion.  The comedy gets a little dark, as they say.

Big targets beyond the greed at the novel’s core include journalism, corruption, the theater, priests, and the craze for chess, the latter being maybe a little Soviet-specific, but what time and place does not have an equivalent.

Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy (1918), tr. John Bátki.  Another big hit, this time from Hungary, where readers apparently enjoyed wallowing in their nostalgia for a lost Romantic pre-war sense of something or another.  This is probably lost on non-Hungarian readers, who will take it as ironic, and hilarious:

Mr Pistoli spent his days perfecting his ennui.  (140)

Pistoli is an over-the-hill Casanova.  The last third of the novel chronicles his last days, his final meetings with old flames, his death and dramatic funeral.  Maybe he is more of a Don Juan.  Krúdy, one of the most prolific writers in history, wanders among characters in the first part of the novel until for some reason he settles on this one as suitable for a longer story.  I have seen reviewers online complain about this choice – they wish Krudy had picked one of the headstrong beauties of earlier chapters, not this old goat, but come on, look at this guy:

That night, with its besotted, harried ghosts and bulgy-eyed goblins, dragged on interminably, like a midnight train wreck, the morning after which the survivor takes stock of his remaining limbs.

The whiplash’s sting sent Mr Pistoli to seek refuge in one of his favourite activities: composing his will, perhaps for the twentieth time.  He apportioned his extant and nonexistent belongings among women he had known or would have liked to know.  (159)

The novel is a parody of Romanticism and the yearning for it.

Edwin Frank, editor of NYRB Classics, compares Sunflower to the work of Bruno Schulz and P. G. Wodehouse, and in both cases I think: almost.  Krúdy, like Schulz, piles on the metaphors – see those goblins above, that train crash – and they are great fun, but where Schulz uses them to create something new, Krúdy is merely rearranging the tropes, as they say.

And instead of Wodehouse, substitute the odder, more baroque Ronald Firbank.  I should write something about Firbank sometime.  He is an extreme case.

One fine day  Mr. Álmos-Dreamer up and died.

He did this every year after spending some time in Miss Eveline’s company, at times when love, the torments of lone wolves and the howling winds assailed him.  At times like these,  he started to play the violin in the house on this island frequented by the wind and storm-tossed birds.  At such times his servant, with his brass buttons, shabby white gloves and antique spats, would retreat into a cubbyhole. (36)

Like Firbank – not like Schulz! – Krúdy is a writer who needs just a few sentences to sort his readers from everyone else.  Those wolves, those spats – more of this?  There is more.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Demanding novels from Vladimir Sharov and Theodor Storm - This exchange reconciled nobody.

Two novels that depend heavily on context, maybe on outside knowledge.  What novel doesn’t.  More than usual, I guess I mean.  These were difficult books, I know I mean.

Before & During by Vladimir Sharov, 1993, tr. Oliver Ready.  Ready translated the zippy recent Crime and Punishment.  He must like texts that make him work.

Sharov’s novel at first appears to be about a man who is having memory problems.  He enters a mental hospital in the first sentence.  He is writing a Memorial Book, portraits of people he has known, or has thought about a lot, given that the third memorial is for Leo Tolstoy, who is from long before his time.

The first two memorials took odd turns, but the Tolstoy portion turns out to be largely about Tolstoy’s son, who is also Tolstoy himself, let’s say for simplicity a clone, and writes counter-novels arguing against his father.  So, a fantasy novel in some way.  Fantasy stories, at least.

The conversation had come back to Tolstoy.  Clearly, this was an inexhaustible topic for them, one that, for whatever reason, had long been troubling them, to no avail.  This latest exchange, like the previous one, reconciled nobody.  (93)

The patients at the hospital are arguing about Tolstoyism.  This passage is a kind of trick.  I was about a quarter of the way into the book, ready for a series of “memorials” hooked to the hospital.  But no, there is really just one more, that lasts a couple hundred pages and is about Germaine de Staël, the Swiss writer who died in 1817, and her direct involvement in Russian history up to and past the 1917 Revolution.  She occasionally gives birth to herself, which grants her effective immortality.

She also gives birth to Joseph Stalin, and then later becomes his lover.  It is that kind of novel.

There is a section where Lenin transcribes the mystical ranting of Scriabin about how his symphony of smells has the method to overthrow the Russian government encoded within it.  Lenin then uses the symphony to overthrow the government.  This was the only section where I was thinking “Please let’s move on.”  But it is far from the only part where I thought “What exactly is going on here?”

Weird, fascinating, and beyond me.  Sharov is a major post-Soviet writer.  He died recently.  Lizok knew him and wrote him a nice obituary.

Grieshuus: The Chronicle of a Family by Theodor Storm, 1884, tr. Denis Jackson.   Storm is an intensely local writer, and Grieshuus – just “Gray House,” really – is another Frisian story, set a few miles north of his familiar Husum.  But it is also set much earlier than usual, in the late 17th and early 18th century, amidst the so-called Northern Wars, when the Swedish Empire was dissipating its might throughout northern Europe.  The Second Northern War, the Scanian War, the Great Northern War.

I suppose it would be possible to read the book like a fantasy novel, a tragic fairy tale about the son who destroys his old noble family through a single horrible violent act, and take the shifting wars and troops and kings as background noise.  I thought the history was woven into the story pretty tightly, though.  This was a book that earned its extensive notes.

Denis Jackson has done heroic work with Storm, and is happy to annotate everything to the point of exhaustion.  I believe this is Jackson’s last Storm translation.  There is, surprisingly, an old translation, which Jackson calls “wildly inappropriate” (20).  This translation is an act of justice.

It is an exciting and sad story, with murders and wolves, so many wolves.  I was never actually baffled, as I was with Sharov.  But it felt like a text for the more devoted readers of Theodor Storm.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Kafka's creativity - everything written down bit by bit is inferior

Kafka wrote little paradoxical parables, and he wrote longer stories built on big, blatant symbols, and he wrote numerous scenes in those stories about interpretation.  He resists interpretation, but he also demands it.  The impulse to allegorize has the drawback of making any story, especially the longer ones, about anything.  The Castle is God; start there and start shoving the various pieces into place.

I was surprised, on this long visit with Kafka, how much writing there was in his stories, how many of them were directly about writing in some way.  His diaries make it clear enough that the stories are often about his own writing, his own creativity.  This is my totalizing allegorical contribution to the interpretation of Kafka.

I think there is only one late story, “Eleven Sons,” which Kafka actually declared to be about his writing.  “The eleven sons are quite simply eleven stories I am working on this very moment” (The Complete Stories, pp. 474-5).  Normal practice for Kafka.  From his diaries, January 18, 1915:

Headache, slept badly.  Incapable of sustained, concentrated work.  Also have been in the open air too little.  In spite of that began a new story; I was afraid I should spoil the old ones.  Four or five stories now stand on their hindlegs in front of me like the horses in front of Schumann, the circus ringmaster, at the beginning of the performance.

Kafka struggled to enter a state of uninterrupted concentration in which he could write for hours on end.  This rarely happened, but when it did he felt creatively satisfied.  It is at these moments that he gets a glimpse of the world beyond the veil.

Again I realized that everything written down bit by bit rather than all at once in the course of the larger part (or even the whole) of one night is inferior, and that the circumstances of my life condemn me to this inferiority.  (Dec. 8, 1914)

The struggles of the protagonists of The Trial and The Castle have some resemblance to Kafka’s creative agony.  The character in The Trial even spends the middle of the novel thinking about but not writing the “memorial” that will save him; of course it is never written.  In The Castle, it is his “plea.”  See “In the Penal Colony,” where writing is literally torture – the metaphor made literal.

Much of the last writing of Kafka’s life was directly about creativity – “The Hunger Artist,” “Investigations of a Dog,” “The Burrow,” and “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.”  Curiously, they are all from the point of view of animals, giving the Hunger Artist, in his circus cage, honorary animal status.  He is the greatest faster in the history of the art, but never allowed to do anything really great, meaning to fast until he disappears, at least not until no one cares.  The burrowing animal has built his masterpiece – Kafka is showing us The Castle from the inside – but it is never perfect, always threatened, and the snuffling artist’s life is full of fear and second-guessing.  Then, finally, “Josephine,” almost too sad to quote.

Kafka was preoccupied, at the end of his life, with the purpose of what he was doing.  He did not seem to doubt it, exactly, but wanted to understand it.  Soon enough he, like Josephine the singer, “will happily lose herself in the numberless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon, since we are no historians, will rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.”

I will now go register this post with German Literature Month, now in its eighth year, which is something.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How to Read Franz Kafka - with help from Roberto Calasso - The simple story had lost its clear outline

However you want, of course.  I read him literally, mostly, as a fantasy writer.   Gregor turns into a bug; that is what Metamorphosis is about, first.  I think of great fantasy writers as people who make metaphors literal.  Thus reading literally is also reading metaphorically, poetically.

Many enthusiastic readers have wanted Kafka to be allegorical.  They break his code and find that he is a religious writer, Jewish or possibly something else, some kind of gnostic.  Or everything is psychological, really about Kafka’s father, or about his frustrations with or fear of women.  Kafka has attracted totalizers.  He is so complex that they never seem entirely wrong to me.  Only the totalizing tendency is wrong.

It is always a pleasure to find people smarter than me who agree with me.  Robert Calasso’s K. (2002, tr. Geoffrey Brock) is a three hundred page rearrangement of Kafka.  The early chapters mostly put episodes of The Castle in different order.  Eventually other Kafka texts are pulled in, all of the major ones.  Another great temptation with Kafka is to dissolve his individual works, not just his fiction but the fragments, diaries, letters, offhand comments reported by Max Brod, everything, into one omni-text.  I understand completely.  The key to any given text may be somewhere in that other text.  It feels like it should be.  It never is, not quite.

Anyway, this is Calasso, who like me is not really looking for a key:

Kafka can’t be understood if he isn’t taken literally.  But the literal must be grasped in all its powers and in the vastness of its implications.  (25)

You tell ‘em.  Maybe that second sentence moves towards meaninglessness.  The rest of the paragraph is not much help.

It’s awkward to speak of symbols in Kafka, because Kafka experienced everything as symbol.  It wasn’t a choice – if anything, it was a sentence.  (118)

For Kafka, the metaphorical and the literal had the same weight.  The passage from one to the other was smooth.    The metaphorical could take the place of the literal and transform the literal into metaphor.  (119)

Knowledge leads to the evocation of an image.  And that image is immediately recognized as “only an image.”  To move beyond it, it will have to be replaced – with another image.  The process is never-ending.  (122-3)

That last one, that is merely a definition of literature, right?

I am not sure of the source of Kafka’s metaphysics, but it is something like Schopenhauer’s.  Kafka did not merely believe in the existence of a real reality behind the representation of reality in which he lived, he believed that he occasionally experienced that real reality.  It was accessible, occasionally, by means of writing fiction.  Or maybe it was just an image of the real reality, that’s fine too.

Tomorrow I will interpret Kafka a bit myself.  He invites it.  The climax of The Trial, the astounding “In the Cathedral” chapter, is mostly a piece of literary criticism, where Josef K. and the priest close-read and interpret the “Before the Law” parable to exhaustion.

K. said that with finality, but it was not his final judgment.  He was too tired to survey all the conclusions arising from the story…  The simple story had lost its clear outline…  (The Trial, tr. Willa and Edwin Muir, rev. E. M. Butler)

But maybe the characters missed the one true interpretation.  If they had only tried harder, or had access to Kafka’s diaries and letters.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

It’s not at all like me! - I love Kafka

I don’t know why I am drawing up this summary, it’s not at all like me!

Franz Kafka, Diaries, Dec. 31, 1914, tr. Martin Greenberg

Much of this book blog website consists of literary criticism and quotation of great writers I do not even especially like that much when we get right down to it, thus 103 posts tagged "JAMES Henry" at this moment, although who cares what I like.  And if we do care, what I like is literature, and is Henry James ever literature.  He’s endlessly interesting.

I am looking at a stack of books or about Franz Kafka, ten books that I read recently – and the stack is missing a couple that went back to the library.  Some I had read a long time ago, some not until now, and a few I had visited somewhere in between.  I find that I do not particularly want to write about them.  I love Kafka.  Talk about endlessly interesting.  It has been like an old friend dropped by and stayed for a couple of months.  A brilliant, hilarious, exasperating old friend.

I am glad he did not actually drop by.  We have had an issue with a neighbor’s barking dog.  How Kafka hated noise.  Keep an ear out for references to noise and silence in the works of Kafka.

How much have I read about Kafka in the last thirty years, without making any kind of a study of him?  Literary magazines are full of Kafka, whether in the ongoing flow of books about him or in references to him.  My impression is that he has always been there, while references to, reviews of, books about Proust have exploded.  Henry James, he was always there, too.  I have never grown tired about reading about any of them.  Some kind of citation count in major American literary magazines would likely prove that I am wrong about all of this.  What I am trying to say is that even though it has been almost thirty years since I read The Castle (1926), I feel that I have been reading Kafka all along, that I am always reading Kafka.

That last phrase is not true, but it sounds like something Italo Calvino would turn into a story.  “My author is Kafka, and my favourite novel is Amerika.”  Is that a real Calvino quotation?  Not phony internet nonsense?  I had not read Amerika until recently, and there were parts that were so Calvino-like.  But Amerika is, in Kafka’s compressed career, an earlier work, when he was still susceptible to the influence of unborn writers.  They have a similarly clear prose.  “Pure” is Walter Benjamin’s word for Kafka’s German.

The two authors had a similar sense of the absurd, a sense of humor.  I share the sense of humor, but not Kafka’s numerous and varied neuroses, nor his worldview, as far as I can make it out – there are books on this subject.  Though I am more of a creature of the Enlightenment than Kafka, I agree with his powerful psychological critique of reason to the extent that I understand it.

Kafka’s prose, his jokes, his arguments such as they are.  His imagination – as a pure fantasy writer, he is among the greats.  What pleasure there are in Kafka.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sjón's trilogy of stories, CoDex 1962 - making it resonate with world literature

Sjón’s CoDex 1962 (2018, in English) looks like one novel but is really three, a trilogy:

Thine Eyes Did See My Substance – a love story (1994)
Iceland’s Thousand Years – a crime story (2001)
I’m a Sleeping Door – a science fiction story (2016)

Sjón personally told me, and everyone else in the audience at the book festival, that he was born in 1962, and that everyone in Iceland would immediately recognize “CoDex” as a bookish parody of a genetic-testing company that advertises on television.  Yet the novels are not about the author, not particularly, but about his birth cohort, Icelanders born in 1962.  Or, as the subtitles of the novels suggest, stories about Sjón and his peers, especially one boy who is born in Iceland in unusual circumstances.

The stories include such characters as the golem of Prague, a werewolf, angels, and so on.  Saga heroes, of course.  Stories ancient and modern, for example from Fritz Lang’s M and Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.  Sjón is writing fiction that almost seems old-fashioned.  Remember postmodernism, or the aspect of it that was about story-telling?  When authors would enjoy themselves by mashing all kinds of stories together?  Readers, too, readers like me.

METAMORPHOSIS

One morning when Jósef L. woke up at home in bed after troubled dreams, he found himself transformed into a giant baby.  [A couple more sentences of this story, before it is interrupted.]

‘Not more stories!’

‘But this is a literary allusion.’

‘So what?’

‘It adds depth to the story of Marie-Sophie and my father, the invalid, making it resonate with world literature.’

‘I don’t care.  Tell me about the child, tell me about you.’  (Thine Eyes, pp. 64-5)

I guess there were, and are, many readers who share this exasperation.  They are likely also the ones who hate self-conscious postmodern screwing around like this.  I, by contrast, enjoy the self-aware playfulness.  Sjón piles on the tricks – dreams, poems, chapters in dialogue, a pageant of the dead.

The first novel in the trilogy is in some limited sense a Holocaust novel.  I have had doubts about the ethics of an author pumping up the significance of, say, his novel about adult literacy by attaching it to World War II atrocities, or writing about one’s love of Italian opera in the context of Maoist terrorism.  Sjón had me a little concerned early on.  But he has thought this through; later in the trilogy he addresses the issue directly.  Stories are in and of themselves powerful things.

Victoria Cribb is Sjón’s translator.  He could not  have said nicer things about her.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Kenneth Burke's Counter-Statement - a turn from the stress upon self-expression to a stress upon communication

Walter Benjamin logistics:  In my memory, used copies of Illuminations were everywhere, but it seems that lovers of critical theory and children’s literature have read so many copies to pieces that the market is not so flooded.  A new edition is being published in January.  It looks like it has a new cover, but otherwise looks like the same old thing.  It is a little odd that this specific configuration of Benjamin has been so enduring.

My point is that my plans are in no way changed, so that I plan to read the most battered, underlined copy of Illuminations I can find and write something on it in early December, or maybe in late November sneaking it in for German Literature Month – in its eighth year! – but if you planned to read along and prefer some new-book crispness in your reading matter, there will be a new book.  You may want to wait a bit.

Then there is a new configuration of Benjamin from Tess Lewis and NYRB in March.  Interesting.  But that is something different.

Meanwhile, I have continued my own reading of the greats of 20th century literary criticism with Kenneth Burke’s Counter-Statement (1931, although I read the expanded 1968 edition).  Counter to what, exactly?  As Burke notes in the preface to a subsequent edition, he is vague on this subject.  He is not a Marxist critic, not a Freudian, not a disciple of T. S. Eliot.  Whatever is going on in criticism in the late 1920s, he is not doing it.  He is doing something else.

The first essay is portrait of three art-for-art’s-sakers, Flaubert and Pater and Remy de Gourmont.  The second, “Psychology and Form,” moves the subject to readers and their expectations about forms, and the way writers use those expectations.  Burke describes this as “a turn from the stress upon self-expression to a stress upon communication” (223-4).  This turn continues through the book, perhaps through Burke’s career (Counter-Statement is his first book).  Burke like both, by the way, just as he likes a diversity of readers.  He is a generous critic.

I thought the first essay was terrific, with a Flaubert who looked a lot like my Flaubert, a Pater who behaved like the one I read, and a lot of interesting stuff about Gourmont, who had been a rumor to me.  Another highlight is a dual essay, “Thomas Mann and André Gide,” full of surprising parallels.  Burke was an early champion of both writers; he sees them both as “trying to make us at home in indecision…  trying to humanize the state of doubt” (105).

But of course I prefer – understand – Burke when he is writing about specific writers.  In the second half of Counter-Statement, he becomes more abstract, more of a systematizer, with essays titled “Program” and “Lexicon Rhetoricae” and “Applications of the Terminology,” which are not as dull as they sound, but were harder on my teeth.  “Program,” a move towards literature as sociology, may be as dull as it sounds.  I wonder if it is parodying something.

When I read Burke or Kermode or Benjamin, am I studying criticism or the history of criticism?  Some of each.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Maxim Gorky's My Apprenticeship - he becomes a reader - a book that was really true to life

I have been reading Maxim Gorky continue his education in the second volume of his autobiography, My Apprenticeship (1916).  The previous volume was My Childhood (1913), but that is over.  Now it is time to get to work.  Gorky is, when My Apprenticeship begins, eleven years old.

The book has a substantial resemblance to the grandfather of the picaresques, Lazarillo de Tormes (1554).  Like Lazarillo, young Gorky moves from job to job, enduring each one for the length of a chapter or two until the specific miseries of the situation induce a change.  And as in the Spanish story, the real interest is less the mechanics of the work but the people the boy meets.  One job is not even miserable, quite the opposite, the summer he spends gathering herbs and mushrooms in the woods with his grandmother, the only person alive who loves him.  Economically marginal, though, an idyll that cannot last.

The title of the book is ironic in that none of the jobs really turns into an apprenticeship, training in a skilled trade, just as the last volume in the trilogy, My University, is not about Gorky’s time at an actual university.  But My Apprenticeship is nevertheless about Gorky’s education, in people, in cruelty, but also in books.

The big reader, the childhood reader, will be pleased with My Apprenticeship.  Gorky is one of us; we identify.  His fundamental difficulties in acquiring books are in and of themselves dramatic, a plot.  The evolution of his tastes are another, his move from simple Russian moralistic stories (“It seemed that those books were actually laughing at me, as though I were an idiot…” Ch. 9, 138-9) to adventures and saint’s lives and a kind of serialized novel he calls “literature for the digestion of people who were bored to death” (161), and eventually to an amazed discovery of Dumas, Hugo, Scott, and “a book that was really true to life” (172), Eugénie Grandet.  “That truth, with which I was so familiar and which I found so boring in real life, now threw a completely new light on everything – calm and benevolent” (172).

Gorky reads Russian literature, too – Gogol, Turgenev, Pushkin – and the most startling scene is when he reads aloud Lermontov’s long narrative poem “The Demon” (1839) to a workshop of ikon painters and they have to lock the book away because it is too powerful (Ch. 14, 258).  Now that is the way to read.

Always fair, Gorky presents the opposing perspective.  This is from one of his relatives, when he has just fallen in love with reading:

“Some people who read books blew up a railway once and tried to murder someone.” (Ch. 8, 154)

How do you argue with that?  Yet Gorky kept reading.

For this volume of the autobiography I read the good translation by Ronald Wilks, the Penguin Classics edition, or at least the better one, since it cannot be worse than the one I read before.  See languagehat for the hilarious howlers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Some favorite bits of Nausea - Enjoying the ignoble marmelade

What did I especially like in Jean-Paul Sartre’s debut novel, La Nausée?  I will list many things.  Some may come from my misunderstanding of the French language.

For example, this sentence: “J’avais peur, mais j’étais surtout en colère, je trouvais ça si bête, si déplacé, je haïssais cette ignoble marmelade” (185).  “I was afraid, but mostly I was angry; I found it so stupid, so unwarranted; I hated this vile pudding.”  The narrator, Roquentin, has just had – or is writing in his journal as if he has just had – a profound experience in which he gets a glimpse of reality by staring intensely at the root of a chestnut tree.  This line comes a bit after.  The ignoble marmelade is reality, everything, or everything outside of Roquentin.  This is by far the most famous scene in the novel.

Soon after, in an long, especially novelistic scene, Roquentin has a long reunion with his ex-girlfriend, who gently expresses her despair and insists that they are never ever getting back together.  This leads the narrator – I am taking this all as psychological, rather than metaphysical – to embrace his newfound sense of freedom, of existence, while affirming his loathing of people and their fat, comfortable faces, and their popular novels (“ils écrivent des romans populistes / they write popular novels,” 217).

Won’t they be surprised, he thinks, when the forest invades the town and unleashes Lovecraftian horrors on the people, when third eyes appear in their foreheads and their tongues turn into millipedes, or maybe centipedes.  “Mille-pattes,” not sure how the French distinguish between the two.  A forest of phalli will erupt, oozing sperm and blood from their wounds.  “Alors j’éclaterai de rire, même si… / Then I will burst into laughter, even if…” (219)  I will direct you to Time’s Flow Stemmed, where Anthony thoughtfully posted the entire magnificent paragraph.

It was at this point where I realized I had to let the “philosophical” novel go, and accept that the narrator was an extreme psychological case, which is a good subject for a novel; this is not a complaint.

My other favorite scene is completely different, and sane.  It is a sketch of Sunday in a French city.  French Sundays have changed since 1938 – it is easier to shop – but maybe they have not changed that much.  This long scene, in which Roquentin wanders around looking for a place to just sit and read Eugénie Grandet, felt right to me.  Since we are fairly early in the novel, the narrator uses this section to describe the town, its streets and shops and crowds.  I especially like the exterminator across from the church, with a window display with a diorama of rats and mice sailing a ship, and being driven back to sea by some kind of poison.

J’aimais beaucoup cette boutique, elle avait un air cynique et entêté, elle rappelait avec insolence les droits de la vermine et de la crasse, à deux pas de l’église la plus coûteuse de France.  (67)

I really loved this shop; it had a cynical and stubborn air, recalling with insolence the rights of the vermin and the dirt, a couple of steps from the most costly church in France.

In Lyon, there is an exterminator a few steps from a church who has for some reason a mounted beaver in the window.  In Paris, there is a truly hideous exterminator displaying several rows of dead rats in traps.  I seem to have gotten away from the depiction of Sunday.  That seemed right, but so did the bit about the exterminator.

Roquentin gets a little Balzac read.  He for some reason copies a page directly into his journal.  Sartre puts a page of Balzac in his novel.  Now that is a real anti-novelistic gesture.

Translations are all mine; please correct them if that seem like a good use of your time.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

What does Nausea mean? - The boeuf en daube tempted me

Roquentin is a crisis that in retrospect we will call “existential.”  He is having a crisis of meaning – why am I here, what point is there in doing anything – but also something much stronger, a crisis of existence, actual doubts that he exists.  That anything exists.

These are bedrock philosophical issues.  It is a little odd to see the latter affect an adult so strongly.  Most of us reconcile ourselves to the existence of either the world, our self, or both, at an early age.  Haven’t we?  There is a solipsistic aspect to existentialism, but I should beware of my own solipsism.

Nausea (1938) is in the form of Roquentin’s journal, so I do not see the crisis exactly, but Roquentin’s retrospective expression of his crisis.  The meaning of this novel really shifts depending on how reliable I think the journal is.  Several of the longest scenes look suspiciously like scenes from novels, with lots of dialogue and minute action and gestures.  Lines are said adverbily, shoulders are shrugged.  I did not need the verb “to shrug” for getting by in France, for conversation, but boy do I need it for literature.

No surprise when the narrator declares, at the end of his journal and Sartre’s novel, that he will himself start work on a novel, presumably a refracted version of the one I just read.  Well, no, I was surprised, because Proust had ended his big series of novels this way only eleven years earlier and I was amazed that Sartre so blatantly copied him.  Ten years is the statute of limitations on endings, I guess?

I point anyone interested to the scene where the narrator and an acquaintance spend two pages ordering lunch in a café.  They look at the menu; they choose appetizers; they choose a main course; they choose wine.

Je parcours le liste des viandes.  Le boeuf en daube me tenterait.  Mais je sais d’avance que j’aurai du poulet chasseur, c’est la seule viande supplémentée.  (p. 147, Gallimard edition)

I looked through the list of meat dishes.  The boeuf en daube tempted me.  But I already knew that I would have the hunter’s chicken, the only dish with an extra charge. (my translation)

I identified closely with this scene.  I have experienced it many times.  How tedious to read!

But Roquentin’s crisis is caused  by an uneasy relationship with things, so it is nice to see him in a scene with a person, someone he knows from the library where he is researching a book, a history.  It helps him get his nausea, his existential queasiness, under control.

A few pages earlier, Roquentin had tamped his despair by a careful study of his own hand, which is part of his self yet exists outside of his self.  He moves from his hand to words – a big jump! – to thoughts.  Perhaps this steadies him during lunch.  “[S]i j’existe, c’est parce que j’ai horreur d’exister” (140).  “If I exist, it is because I have a horror of existing.”  It is “hate,” “the disgust of existing,” that convinces him he exists.

How much is Nausea a philosophical novel and how much is it a psychological novel?  Is there a meaningful distinction?  I don’t know.  With existentialism, maybe there is little difference.  The text gives a lot of room, as far as I can tell.

Tomorrow I’ll rummage through some of my favorite things in the novel, whatever it might mean.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Sartre's Nausea, doubtless very well known to you - and which I am incompetent to expound

Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea (La Nausée, 1938) is discussed in a substantial chunk of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, most of the fifth lecture, which I remind myself was to an audience at Bryn Mawr in 1965, mostly, presumably undergraduates.

The book is doubtless very well known to you; I can’t undertake to tell you much about it, especially as it has often been regarded as standing in an unusually close relation to a body of philosophy which I am incompetent to expound.  (133)

Nausea appears to be – Sartre argued that it was – something of an anti-novel, working against whatever one thought a typical or traditional novel might be.  Kermode uses it to ask “How far is it inevitable that a novel gives a novel-shaped account of the world?” (143) and a number of variations on the question.

What kills me, first, is that Kermode’s first line is likely true.  How things have changed.  What novel, published almost twenty-seven years earlier, in English for sixteen years, could today’s lecturer use?  The Savage Detectives is doubtless very well known to you.”  Impossible.  A new English translation of Nausea, Robert Baldick’s, had just been published.  The previous year, Sartre had declined the Nobel Prize.  Maybe the undergraduates had merely read a lot of reviews of Nausea.  Very funny.  It was a different world.

Nausea was almost completely unknown to me.  Twenty years after The Sense of an Ending, when I began paying attention, Sartre’s reputation had deflated, maybe a lot.  I do not remember him being mentioned in literary or cultural journals much; not as much as Foucault and Derrida.  Nor do I remember him from class.  We read Simone de Beauvoir in Western Civ, not Sartre.  I do remember enjoying his plays, The Flies (1943) and No Exit (1944), which I tried because they were in a Vintage International edition.  Back then, that meant “this is the good stuff.”

My understanding is that Sartre’s reputation has fallen quite a lot in France, too, but this is all relative.  He is much-read, much-discussed, just not at what must have been the exhausting level of the 1960s and 1970s, when he was the kind of figure who was in the newspaper every day, his opinion sought on every subject.  I was pleased and surprised to discover that La Nausée was within my reading level, early high school, maybe, although for ideas and interest it is more advanced.  The novel has an “existentialism for beginners” aspect, but it does not appear to be taught in French high schools at this point.  A new school edition of The Flies came out just this spring – I do not want to exaggerate.

So, poked by Kermode, I read La Nausée, in French, and plan to write about it for a couple of days, beyond today’s throat-clearing or context-setting or whatever it is.  Not only am I incompetent in the philosophy, but also in the French, so I assume I have made some basic errors in comprehension.  Not only am I incompetent in the philosophy, I now see that, as a solid materialist, I am antipathetic to it.  I take it for granted that the world outside of myself exists, that I exist, that kind of thing.  But that is all right.  I like reading about people different than me.

In the end, it is just a novel, and I have some idea how to read those.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Kermode on our endless epoch of transition

The Christian story of the beginning and end becomes damaged, replaced, by scientific discoveries.  Myths turn into literature.  That is how Kermode moves into the literature of his own time.

I mentioned that literary fictions changed in the same way – perpetually recurring crises of the person, and the death of the person, took over from myths which purport to relate one’s experience to grand beginnings and ends.  And I suggested that there have been great changes, especially in recent times when our attitudes to fiction in general have grown so sophisticated  (Ch. II: Fictions, p. 35)

Kermode uses the word “fiction” broadly, including political and legal and religious fictions as well as novels.  My sense is that in 1965, when he gave the lecture, there was enough countercultural activity that he was right.  The established fictions were getting thoroughly worked over, being “seen through,” to use Orwell’s old phrase.

But Kermode is wary, and works on another fiction, the moment of crisis, or the temptation to live in a moment of crisis, a time of transition that is paradoxically unending.  Some moments of crisis are real, as is obvious enough in retrospect.  But:

Crisis is a way of thinking about one’s moment, and not inherent in the moment itself.  Transition, like the other apocalyptic phases, is, to repeat Focillon’s phrase, an ‘intertemporal agony’; it is merely the aspect of successiveness to which our attention is given…  Our own epoch is the epoch of nothing positive, only of transition.  (Ch. IV: The Modern Apocalypse, 101-2)

This describes the novel in general here, isn’t he?  There is a stable beginning, a satisfying ending, and the writer and I spend all of our time in the transition between them, the novel itself.  I enjoy the transition, am surprised and moved and perhaps learn something, all along the way.

Kermode is skeptical of the uniqueness of the feeling of crisis or transition.  Maybe this is just ordinary psychology.  It is enjoyable how much of his discussion of his contemporary literature can be transferred to our contemporary literature with only a change of authors and titles.  He spends most of the fifth lecture on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938) – “This book is doubtless very well known to you” (133) – and plenty of time on Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, and Iris Murdoch, as representatives of the new ideas.  He clearly dislikes the newest of the new ideas, meaning William Burroughs.  “[N]on-communicative triviality” (121).

But it is the skepticism that I find interesting.  How new is the new?  What are today’s avant-gardists doing that the French novelists of the 1950s had not already done?  And then, what did they do that etc., etc.

In a recent interview with Alexandra Schwartz, Rachel Cusk describes her fiction in terms that reminded me of Kermode’s discussion:

I’m trying to see experience in a more lateral sense rather than as in this form of character. Which, as I said, I don’t actually think is how living is being done anymore…

I think this is a moment in culture, generally, where people are suddenly looking again at everything that was accepted, voices that have been ringing in our ears forever, and suddenly thinking, “I’m really sick of this, and I don’t want to read it anymore.”

As I understand Cusk, “character” means something other than the representation of personality.  “How much does character actually operate in a person’s life?”  The word that jumps out is “anymore” (the first instance).  Novels used to represent reality, “living,” when character existed, but not anymore, so new kinds of representation, new kinds of novels, are necessary.

Or things have not changed that much, and one of the most stable things is the useful fiction that things have changed a lot.

Since Sartre’s Nausea was not at all well known to me, I read it, and I will save my hapless flailing on that subject for next week.

Please come back in early December for more literary criticism, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which will, I hope, be over my head in different ways than The Sense of an Ending.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Sense of an Ending and its great charms - time, apocalypse, crisis

Frank Kermode is thinking about literary fiction, fictions more generally, as representing reality in some way.  They do not have to do so.  But that is the argument for a different book, maybe a response to The Sense of an Ending.  I would enjoy reading that book.

In this book, though, reality is a premise.  Anyone planning to join me with Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis next year will find some useful ideas in Kermode.

So, given some interest in reality, one strange thing about fictions as expressed in books is that the books begin and even more strangely, end.

We cannot, of course, be denied an end; it is one of the great charms of books that they have to end. (23)

I am not sure that books do have to end, exactly.  There are readers who clearly find it more of a nuisance that books end, readers for whom the endless fantasy or detective series is the ideal.  The story of Superman has been published continuously for eighty years, and is not ending anytime soon.  Maybe that book arguing with Kermode should be written by some kind of fantasy writer.

Kermode takes the charm and strangeness of endings seriously.  He looks for endings in reality.  There is death, personal death.  There is apocalypse, the end of everything.  Apocalypses are themselves fictions, even literary fictions, particularly the ones based on the 1st century Christian fantasy novel Revelation.  Kermode is interested, in this example, in how the fiction is used in reality, how the expectation of the imminent end of the world is expressed in the world itself, the psychology of apocalypse, so much of it tied into the imagery of Revelation.

The world constantly fails to end.  Geology and cosmology pushes the beginning of things further into the past, but the apocalypticist can just shift his fiction to keep the possibility of apocalypse.  Even if the year 1000 is not imminent, or, apocalypse (not) repeated as farce, Y2K is in the distant past, the psychology of “crisis” takes over.  The disaster is off in the distance, and this, right now, is the moment of crisis.  The moment of crisis is, essentially, perpetual, which is a great part of its attraction: “the stage of transition, like the whole of time in an earlier revolution, has become endless” (101).

Roughly speaking, Kermode begins with the end, the apocalypse.  He discusses the nature of time, from Augustine on through Aquinas in the third lecture.  The third lecture is quite difficult.  Medieval Christian philosophy.  I imagine, with pity, that original lecture audience.  I doubt that Kermode adds anything to Augustine on this subject.  I doubt that anyone ever has.  This is the first half of the book.  In the second half, Kermode turns to modern literature, and to regular old novels, which greatly eases the philosophical burden, even in Exhibit A is Sartre’s Nausea, which gets most of a lecture to itself as a type specimen.

That is something like a summary of The Sense of an Ending.

Tomorrow, I will write a bit about the last half of the book – novels, the crisis, then and now.  How we love the crisis.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Beginning Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending - You remember the golden bird

My imagination was for a time haunted by figures that, muttering “The great systems”, held out to me the sun-dried skeletons of birds, and it seemed to me that this image was meant to turn my thoughts to the living bird.  (William Butler Yeats, A Vision, 1925, from Book II: The Completed Symbol, Chapter XVIII)

Funny, I know – Yeats was an odd fellow, or pretended to be – but true, yes?  Ornithologists truly love the living bird, and they indulge, express, and manifest their love by studying bird skeletons, perhaps prepared with a little more care than letting the sun take care of it.

So we read criticism because we love literature.  Unless – there are layers here – literature is the skeleton and the living bird is something else.  Life, perhaps.  Reality.  What is criticism, then?  A drawing of the skeleton?  A discussion of the skeleton?

The tragedy of the Yeats quotation is the phrase “meant to.”  Yes, of course, but the skeletons themselves are so interesting.  Just a little more time with the skeletons.  By “tragedy,” I mean “comedy.”

Tragedy, we are told, must yield to Absurdity; existential tragedy is an impossibility and King Lear is a terrible farce.  (Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, 1967, Ch. I: The End, p. 27)

There is an earlier step, actually.

The end is now a matter of immanence; tragedy assumes the figurations of apocalypse, of death and judgment, heaven and hell; but the world goes forward in the hands of exhausted survivors…  This is the tragedy of sempiternity; apocalypse is translated out of time into the aevum.  (Ch. III: World without Beginning or End, p. 82)

Then comes the collapse into absurdity (or Absurdity), as King Lear and Hamlet collapse into Waiting for Godot and Endgame.  The survivors, they is us.

That’s one story Frank Kermode tells, relatively directly, in The Sense of an Ending, the move in Western literature from apocalypse to tragedy to absurdity, where we still languish, or flourish.  It is a book that sprays ideas in all directions, ideas he cannot possibly follow, a generous book.  Maybe someone in the audience picked them up.  The book collects a series of six lectures at Bryn Mawr.  What the audience possibly understood, I cannot say.  I have wondered the same thing about the lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and they were not half as specialized.  “You remember the golden bird in Yeats’s poem” (Ch. I, p. 3) – uh, I can look it up.  “Sailing to Byzantium,” yes, that is a really famous poem.  But I had to look up the bird.  Curiously, it is a bird without a skeleton.

A couple more days on Kermode’s sun-dried bird.  In some ways – e.g., “aevum” – it is a difficult book.  Which is exactly what I wanted.  I had to read it twice.  Some readers might want to skip past the medieval theology to the second half, to Lecture IV or maybe Lecture V: “as soon as the subject is the novel the argument drops into a perfectly familiar context” (Ch. V, 128).  So true.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

How to read Petersburg - The color red was emblematic of...

Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913/1916/1922/etc.), a great novel.  In the old days I would have chipped at it for a week or more.  It is complex, is it ever.  Long ago, I read the old Grove Press edition, but this time I wanted to dig in more, so I read the Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad translation (Indiana University Press, 1978), where a text shorter than three hundred pages has eighty pages of introduction and notes.

Good notes.  Fascinating notes.  But is this the way to read a novel?  Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no.

The Grove Press book is incomplete, notoriously error-ridden, and should be retired.  But there have been two subsequent translations, subsequent to Maguire and Malmstad, both less annotated. The reader in the “sometimes no” mood should read one of those, I guess.

But I will not lie, as I usually do – this novel is pretty hard, even aside from the unfamiliarity of the history or society or geography.  Maybe they are familiar to you!  They are interesting.  Still, a map, at least, will help.  Maguire and Malmstad include a fine map.

Petersburg is a father and son fight.  The father is about to rise to the highest rank of the ministry, while the son, a law student, is tangled in revolutionary politics.  He has even agreed to carry a time bomb to kill someone.  “Someone” turns out to be his father! The last third of the novel has a ticking time bomb plot.  It is tense.

Yet in practice the novel is non-melodramatic, more of a dream or even a move towards abstraction.  Bely constructs a complex pattern of colors, motifs, and references that create an object of great beauty for anyone who finds this sort of thing beautiful.  It is not so much that this sunrise is itself beautiful – maybe it is:

The lace [the silhouetted cityscape] metamorphosed into morning Petersburg.  There stood the five-storied houses, the color of sand.  The rust red palace was bedawned. (140, end of “Chapter the Fourth”)

It is the color scheme, recurring in many shades, Bely turning his city into art.  Greens, yellows, reds.  Mirrors, so many mirrors.  An uncanny statue motif, from the caryatids holding up every important building to the prominent sculpted Russians who occasionally come to life, populates the city even when it seems empty:

The Summer Garden lay somber.

The statues each stood hidden beneath boards.  The boards looked like coffins standing on end.  The coffins lined the paths.  Both nymphs and satyrs had taken shelter in them, so that the tooth of time might not gnaw them away with frost.  Time sharpens its teeth for everything – it devours body and soul and stone.  (97, beginning of “Chapter the Fourth, in which the line of the narrative is broken”)

That last sentence shows the narrator is his moralizing mode.  Hard to tell how much of that is parody.

Today’s bout [of heart trouble] had been brought on by the appearance of the red domino.  The color red was emblematic of the chaos that was leading Russia to its doom. (112)

A previous reader of my copy has penciled “Come on” in the margin.  He thinks that is too blunt, I guess.  I fear it is a trap.  Maybe I will figure it out the next time I read Petersburg.

For more on the translations, please see Michael Katz’s short, exasperated review of them in The Slavic and Eastern European Journal (2010).  He thinks the book’s readers need notes, and lots of them.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Russian books I have read recently - Teffi and Zoshchenko - "Yes, we'll loot and pillage!"

One great, tangled novel, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1916/1922), and two collections of sketches, stories and miscellanea by humorists, let’s call them, Teffi’s Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me (1918-56) and Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Nervous People and Other Satires (1922-55).

Actually, given what is in the Teffi collection, I would never guess that she has been thought of as a humorist.  The pieces are autobiographical, with maybe a little fictionalizing sprinkled in, and are observant and well written, with the ironic tone I associate with lots of great writers, but Teffi is not constantly going for the joke, like Mark Twain (or Zoshchenko).  Teffi’s pieces about her childhood, the Revolution, exile in France were more insightful than funny.  She – I mean, this book – is easy to recommend to anyone more interested in history than literature.

The title is a little off.  Teffi met Tolstoy as a child, and got a good, sensitive little story out of it.  But she knew her colleague Lenin far better, and the piece about him has a lot more insight.  Teffi on Lenin’s speaking:

Lenin simply battered away with a blunt instrument at the darkest corner of people’s souls, where greed, spite and cruelty lay hidden.  He would batter away and get the answer he wanted:

“Yes, we’ll loot and pillage – and murder too!”  (“New Life,” p. 106, tr. Rose France and Robert and Elizabeth Chandler)

The Tolstoy piece has a lot of insight about young Teffi, I guess.  The long, wild piece on Rasputin deserves its cover billing.

The Zoshchenko book really is, mostly, a collection of humor pieces, the kind of thing that made him famous and genuinely popular.  As an outsider, they are hugely instructive about early Soviet culture.  As an outsider, they are not as funny as maybe a Russian would find them, but still often pretty funny.  Many of the jokes are of a nature that would later get Zoshchenko in trouble, despite his popularity.  He jokes about purges, about collectivization, about bad living conditions.  His bedrock joke is that people are deeply selfish, whatever social organization overlays them at the moment.

A man drops a bottle on the street.  Smash.

Then I purposely sit down on the curb near the gate to see what would happen.

What do I see?  I see people walk on the glass.  They curse, but they still walk.  What lack of culture!  There’s not a single person who will fulfill his social obligations.  (“The Bottle,” 179, tr. Maria Gordon and Hugh McLean)

Zoshchenko spins this out for a couple of pages, but the funniest joke remains the one in the first sentence above, the narrator gleefully tsking at everyone who does nothing, all the while doing nothing himself.  I said I learned about Soviet culture, but that was in the details.  The human behavior is universal.

Boris Dralyuk’s recently translated not an anthology but a Zoshchenko book, Sentimental Tales (1929), which may have some overlap with the Nervous People collection but seems to capture one aspect of Zoshchenko that the anthology loses.  As with any humorist, the voice, the character of the story-teller, matters a lot.  Sentimental Tales has a single narrator, or so I understand.  With Nervous People, some stories presumably share characters but there is no real way to tell.  They all blur into Zoshchenko, which blurs some of the fun, some of his art.  Maybe a lot of it.

I was pleased to come across a long passage in which Zoshchenko parodies the style of Andrei Bely and his disciples (“the author will try to take a dip into highbrow artistic literature,” 45).  Would I have recognized the parody if I had not been in the middle of Petersburg at the time?  Yes, there is a footnote.  Would I have gotten the joke at all?  Eh, I don’t know.

I guess I will save Bely’s highbrow artistic literature for another post.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Czech books I have read recently - robot love, plus Kafka and Cather - Only you, love, will blossom on this rubbish heap

Maybe I should have put Franz Kafka in this category.  I organize literature by language, mostly, but it was Klaus Wagenbach’s little biography Kafka (1964) that had me frequently consulting a little map of central Prague.  It helped, too, that I have been there, briefly.  Kafka’s day-to-day world was so small, centered around the main square, the GrosserRing.  His father’s shop was in the same building as his high school.

The Kafka of today, poor fellow, is writing intense fables about people who are trampled by Segway tours and clobbered by selfie sticks.  Or maybe wake up after uneasy dreams to find themselves transformed into selfie sticks.  I did not have the best experience right there in the center of Prague where Kafka lived and worked.  The rest of Prague was great.

The Wagenbach biography is good, but I assume at least a but outdated now.  The Harvard University Press edition (2003, tr. Ewald Osers), has especially nice paper, presumably because it has so many photos.

Maybe I should count My Ántonia (1918), too, but I have not finished it.  Czechs – Bohemians – in Nebraska.  Ántonia and her family sound just like my Bohemian great-uncle, so Willa Cather got that right.

Otto pretended not to be surprised at Ántonia’s behavior.  He only lifted his brows and said, “You can’t tell me anything about a Czech; I’m an Austrian.” (I.18.)

One thing that has surprised me about Kafka, in the biography and in his diaries, is how German, as opposed to Austrian, he is.  Of course he visits Vienna and reads Austrians, but he visits Germany more, he reads German authors more.  On the periphery of one culture, living in another, he constantly looks to others.

I have not seen a mention, in the Kafka stuff I have been reading, of the one purely Czech writer I read recently, Karel Čapek.  What a shame if Kafka never saw R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920).  Will humanity ever tire of stories of robot’s destroying humanity?  It is one of the perfect science fiction conceits, transcending whatever specific story the author tells.  What I mean is that Čapek’s story suggests a profusion of other good stories.  Maybe once the robots actually do take over, that will be the end of it.

In Čapek’s play, an industrialist manufactures robots – androids, really – to replace human workers.  Everything goes well until the robots inevitably organize, destroy, and in the uplifting final page, replace humanity.

Only we have perished.  Our houses and machines will be in ruins, our systems will collapse, and the names of our great will fall away like autumn leaves.  Only you, love, will blossom on this rubbish heap and commit the seed of life to the winds.

So says the last human in the last lines of the play, as the robot Adam and Eve leave the stage.  How ridiculous this sounds will be very much in the hands of the actor and director.  I can imagine a wide range of tone.  I would love to see this play.

I understand that a number of Čapek’s novels are good?

I read the Penguin Classics edition, in Claudia Novack translation.