Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Lawrence's Birds, Beasts and Flowers, where he shovels out the slush - But I must confess how I liked him

I’ve been making notes on each book of D. H. Lawrence poetry as I have gone along.  I suppose I enjoy his poetry as much or more than anything he wrote.  It takes a certain approach, though, reading books of poems.  I am looking for the great poems, the great images, maybe just the great lines.  Well, that is how I read everything, so never mind.

Here is Ezra Pound on Lawrence’s first book of poems, Love Poems and Others (1913), from a review in the July 1913 issue of Poetry, pp. 149-51:

The Love Poems are “a sort of pre-raphaelitish slush, disgusting or very nearly so” but the Others, the “low-life narrative[s],” are something else.  “[W]hen Mr. Lawrence ceases to discuss his own disagreeable sensations…  there is no English poet under forty who can get within shot of him.”  Pound singles out “Violets” and “Whether or Not” as “great art.”  Looking at my notes, linked for reference, I thought some of the other dialect poems were just as good, and wish I had a phrase in that post as good as “pre-raphaelitish slush.”

To be clear, Pound thinks Lawrence’s book is the best English poetry book of the year, and should win a big prize, even though much of it is junk.

Well, my survey of Lawrence, book by book, is easy enough to find.  By Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1922) – this is where I am going – he had shoveled out the slush but also dropped the dialect poems and written an entire book of purely Lawrentian free verse poems about the title subjects.  In matter, the poems resemble Rilke’s “Thing poems,” in that a poem called “Bat” or “Snake” or “Peach” is about that thing.  Also about Lawrence’s response to the thing – the poems have a lot of personality – but he is really looking around him, like a natural scientist, only a little more obsessed with the sex life of the tortoises he observes than a herpetologist would be.  Lawrence’s tortoises and kangaroos and bats are first going to be tortoises etc. before they become symbols of something else.

I suppose the most famous poem in the book is “Snake,” in which Lawrence encounters and fails to kill, or even want to kill, a poisonous Sicilian snake.

But I must confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink
         at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of the earth?

The last line foreshadows Lawrence’s desire to mythologize the snake, as an underworld god.

A few pages earlier, in my favorite sequence, Lawrence finds his Romantic limit.  Snakes he can handle, but bats, no.

Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags
And grinning in their sleep.

Not for me!  (“Bats”)

Thus when, in “Man and Bat,” Lawrence finds a bat in his Florence hotel room, the result is seven pages of repetitive action.

And round and round and round!
Blundering more insane, and leaping, in throbs, to clutch at
      a corner,
At a wire, at a bell-rope:
On and on, watched relentless by me, round and round in
     my room,
Round and round and dithering with tiredness and haste and
      increasing delirium
Flicker-splashing round my room.

“Man versus Bat,” but it works out all right.  The bat wins.  The man has a moment of imaginative sympathy with his enemy.

With a little work, I could have found less prosy examples of Lawrence’s poetry, but his free verse is pretty prosy.  Scrolling through the book, I see that I remember the animal poems fairly well but have forgotten everything about the plant poems.  The book ends with a series of New Mexican poems, Taos poems, which preview the crazier American Lawrence to come, except for the long one about his dog, which is some kind of classic.  “Bibbles.”  Lawrence named his dog Bibbles.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

D. H. Lawrence's English short stories - It was horrible.

I find it easy to imagine a slightly different D. H. Lawrence, healthier, less weird, maybe a little less ambitious, who is happy to be the novelist of the northern English coal pits.  Maybe he still pushes the sexual boundaries of English fiction, maybe not as far as the real Lawrence did.  This Lawrence would have been a great writer, too, an important writer.  A smaller writer than the real Lawrence.

My imaginary Lawrence overlaps with the real one most clearly in earlier novels like Sons and Lovers (1913) and the short story collections The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (1914) and England, My England (1922), especially the short stories which while distinctively Lawrence’s do not seem so far off from what James Joyce or Katherine Mansfield are doing with the short story around the same time.  Incremental innovation.

Although I am mentally contrasting these stories to the truly weird American stories Lawrence wrote in the mid-1920s, I know it is hard to “periodize” Lawrence.  The Rainbow is from 1915, and it is much weirder at the sentence level and in its reach for mythic meaning.  I mean, the prose – I last read this novel thirty years ago, but I can open it randomly and find my idea of pure Lawrence:

So eager was her breast, so glad her feet, to travel towards the beloved.  Ah, Miss Inger, how straight and fine was her back, how strong her loins, how calm and free her limbs!  (Ch. 12, “Shame”)

Maybe the formal control, even perfection, of the stories, is a commercial compromise, a concession to the magazine market.  The Prussian Officer includes a novella, “Daughters of the Vicar,” that is like a dry run of The Rainbow, with two coal-country sisters who love in different ways, written in more conventional language.  I am inspecting the most intense scene:

Then suddenly a sharp pang, like lightning, seared her from head to foot, and she was beyond herself…

And as if turned to stone, she looked back into his eyes.  Their souls were exposed bare for a few moments.  It was agony.  They could not bear it.  He dropped his head, whilst his body jerked with little sharp twitchings.  (Ch. 13)

But this is not the normal language of the novella.

The “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” in England, My England, one of Lawrence’s most famous stories, felt like it could be in Dubliners – at first.  A family – siblings – have finally run their father’s business into the ground.  They discuss their plans.  There is no indication, title aside, that the sister’s story is the real story.  For a while, Lawrence and I just watch and listen to the knucklehead brothers discuss their plans, and get angry because the sister will not discuss hers.  Those turn out to be a surprise, including a surprising shift in point of view.  The last third of the story is the classic Lawrence love scene, intense and deliberately unpleasant.

It was horrible to have her there embracing his knees.  It was horrible.  He revolted from it, violently.  And yet – and yet – he had not the power to break away.

It’s the gradual move towards the emotional moment, from a starting point at a great distance, that I find artful, less than the conclusion itself.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Some nightmarish D. H. Lawrence stories - a hatred of man's onward struggle towards further creation

The Citadel of Fear was the second Aztec “lost world” fiction I read in the last year.  D. H. Lawrence wrote one, “The Woman Who Rode Away” (1925).  She, the woman, is riding away from her unsatisfying husband, looking for – and finding – a Mexican to assault and murder her.  In this case, in the form of a hidden civilization making a ritual sacrifice to the sun, to Quetzalcoatl.  “And all the eyes of the priests were fixed and glittering on the sinking orb, in the reddening, icy silence of the winter afternoon.”

I say “in this case” because around the same time Lawrence wrote at least two more stories in which American women, white women, are sexually assaulted by Mexican men.  “The Princess” is more realistic, like a crime story, where “The Woman Who Rode Away” is explicitly fantastic.  I don’t know what “None of That” is supposed to be.  An American woman falls for a famous, brutish toreador, and is punished for it.  This one seems as much of a revenge fantasy than anything else, Lawrence punishing someone in his life, or in his imagination.

The novella St. Mawr, also from 1925, almost fits the theme.  An English woman falls deeply in love with a dangerous stallion, the title character.  Her husband is pretty masculine – quite masculine –  but not masculine enough, not an untamable stallion.  Near the end of the book, the woman, the horse, and a few other characters move to New Mexico to live a more authentic life.  She buys a little isolated mountain ranch.  The novella ends with a long history of the ranch, and the people who tried to make it work.  The protagonist of this section is an entirely different woman, one of the previous owners.  The stallion, all of the other characters, they vanish.

This section was outstanding, I thought.  I’m not sure what it is doing in the book.

And her love for her ranch turned sometimes into a certain repulsion. The underlying rat-dirt, the everlasting bristling tussle of the wild life, with the tangle and the bones strewing: Bones of horses struck by lightning, bones of dead cattle, skulls of goats with little horns: bleached, unburied bones. Then the cruel electricity of the mountains. And then, most mysterious but worst of all, the animosity of the spirit of place: the crude, half-created spirit of place, like some serpent-bird for ever attacking man, in a hatred of man's onward struggle towards further creation.

Look, there’s Quetzalcoatl sneaking in again.

What was Lawrence doing with these misogynistic, racist themes?  He seems trapped by them.  He would die a few years later.  Maybe he would have escaped if he had lived longer.  Or maybe he had been permanently poisoned.  He was always tempted to turn his stories about men and women into stories about Man and Woman, but his push for something mythic here takes him to some ugly places.

I read what seems to me like a lot of Lawrence over the last year, maybe eight books, a lot for a writer I don’t particularly like.  I used to be more concerned about whether or not a book was good, but over time it has become more important that a book be interesting.  I am not sure if this is a maturation or an abandoning of taste.

And man, Lawrence’s books are almost always interesting.

I want to poke at Lawrence for a couple more days.  At better stories and books.  I read these stories several months ago; who knows what I misremember.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The pulpy pre-Lovecraftian The Citadel of Fear - the grin of it was in no sense funny

Along with Jules Verne, I read another pulpy fantasy recently, a real pulp novel, Citadel of Fear by Francis Stevens (1918), pen name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, a young Minnesotan widow who started writing for money and proved to be one of the great innovators in her weird field.

The Citadel of Fear is for its first third a “lost world” novel, with a couple of tough guys stumbling into a hidden city of the Aztecs, full of either magic or advanced technology.  One of the Aztec gods is a classic Lovecraftian horror, and it follows the hero back to New England where it causes trouble for a while, partly by generating more Lovecraftian horrors along the lines of The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), except with Aztec iconography.

By “Lovecraftian,” I guess I should say “Stevensian” because in 1918 there was no Lovecraftian.  Bennett is one of the inventors of the eldritch horror that lurks in remote corners and drives men mad when encountered.  Let’s look at one – will we retain our sanity?

Then came the worst, for up from beneath his left shoulder a head rose and stretched itself on a thin, flat, tapering neck.  It was a head that seemed mostly mouth, a great triangular aperture, gaping, tongueless, with soft drooping lips, and behind it on either side a fleck of red that might have been eyes or their remnants.  (Ch. 20)

One difference from Lovecraft is that at this point, two-thirds into the novel, Stevens gives me a good look at her weird critters.  Another difference – a big one – is that her horrors can be fought, even defeated.  There are better – more humanistic – gods balancing the worst.  Lovecraft’s greatest imaginative feat, his metaphysics, his gnostic nihilism, his cosmic anti-epistemology, has no counterpart in Stevens.

Her monsters are good, though.

It was not a good face.  No evil, indeed, could have been too vile for its ugliness to grin at.  A toad’s mouth is wide, ugly – and rather funny.  The mouth of this face was toadlike in its width and narrowness of lip, but the grin of it was in no sense funny.  (Ch. 6)

I was a little surprised by how closely the plot followed what I would now call a standard Hollywood model, again, before there is such a thing.  The big fight at the end was handled much like in a contemporary action movie.  There is a bad guy, a super-villain.  Every character is given a role in the fight, some minor or major act of heroism.  Everything explodes.

I am pretty sure that I learned about The Citadel of Fear long ago in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books (1988) by James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock.  Their choices begin with Gulliver’s Travels and take their time getting to The Lord of the Rings.  Their list can be seen here; it is an outstanding list, a wonderfully weird list, within its almost entirely English-language limits.  Wuthering Heights and Moby-Dick; Dickens and James and Kafka; but also Edgar Rice Burroughs and Fritz Leiber and The Circus of Dr. Lao, a great mix of the most freely imaginative ends of the prestigious and the pulpy.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

From the Earth to the Moon, with sandwiches - "Hurray for Edgar Poe!"

A culture, a literary tradition, emphasizes its own writers more than anyone else does.  It’s normal and natural.  Exceptions are of the highest interest, yes.  And I am thinking of French readers, who like more of everything.

So Jules Verne is read more in France than in the United States, is where I am going today.  Looking at Amazon, judging the number of editions and the numbers of reviews, it looks like four Verne novels are still widely read in the United States.  In France it is at least eight novels, maybe as many as a dozen, and recently there was a beeyootiful reissue of everything, in cheap paperbacks with attractive embossed red covers and vintage illustrations, so that bookstores had plenty of random “now what is this” titles.  The School of the Robinsons?  The Sphinx of the Ice?  Maybe someday I will find out what they are.

This is not to say that the French take Verne particularly seriously.  A junior high-level collection of travel writing that I read called him a “popularizer of genius,” which gets the attitude.  He really is popular, still popular, with Verne-derived images all over, most charmingly on carousels.  And he is taken more seriously – more critically – than he was when he was alive.

I just finished De la Terre à la Lune, trajet direct en 97 heures 20 minutes (From the Earth to the Moon, on a Direct Path in 97 Hours, 20 Minutes, 1865), which I tried for a couple of reasons: it is fairly short, fairly easy, and inspired much of the imagery of a much greater work of art, George Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.  I occasionally had to force myself to really read the French text, since it was easier to just substitute an image from the film.  Close enough!  Sometimes quite close.

The title pretty well summarizes the novel.  The means of transportation is a big bullet shot out of a giant cannon.  To the extent that the book has characters, they are a couple of American artillery-makers who, lacking purpose with the end of the Civil War, come up with this crazy scheme.

To the extent that the novel has a plot – eh, it barely has a plot.  Based on this book alone, I would doubt the ability of Verne to plot.  From the Earth to the Moon is mostly engineering – a great moment of tension is the pouring of molten metal into a Florida pit to found the huge cannon (which is entirely underground) – but the parts that are not are satire.  This novel is packed with jokes.

The bomb-makers who belong to the Gun-Club have all been blown to bits, and now have wooden legs and rubber jaws and so on.  “[T]here was not quite one arm per four persons, and only two legs per six” (Ch. I).

I took this as a bit of a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and his story “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839).  The Gun-Club is in Baltimore, maybe another nod.  The President of the Club gives an inspirational speech in which he covers a pretty thorough history of fictional journeys to the moon, so Poe is there again:

“Hurray for Edgar Poe!” cried the assembly, electrified by the words of its president. (Ch. II)

That’s the spirit.

Several chapters are nothing but meetings.  The meetings feature sandwiches.  Easily my favorite sentence in the novel:

“We are ready,” replied the members of the Committee while each absorbing a half-dozen sandwiches.

– Nous sommes prêts, répondirent les membres du Comité en absorbant chacun une demi-douzaine de sandwiches.  (Ch. VII, “The Hymn of the Bullet”)

Three chapters straight of meetings.  Not satire, really, but gritty realism.

Gags, statistics, nonsense, engineering, and at the end, kaboom!  A strange novel.

All translations mine, so don’t trust them.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Auerbach, Kermode, Benjamin, Frye - an invitation to read some classic literary criticism with me

That was useful.

I have settled on a hybrid plan.  More logical.  More German.

A few shorter books to see how things go, then Mimesis.

End of September: The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (1967), Frank Kermode.  Time and apocalypse.  The word “fiction” in the title does not mean “novels.”  Under 200 pages.

End of November: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (essays from the 1920s and 1930s), Walter Benjamin.  A wide range of topics.  I know that there are other ways to read Benjamin in English now, which was not so true in 1968.

End of January: Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (1963), Northrop Frye.  His “practical” companion to the more theoretical (and longer) Anatomy of Criticism.  More essays, really.

Then we can spend the winter in front of the fireplace with a goblet of claret studying Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), Erich Auerbach.  Mimesis has twenty chapters, and I can imagine a madman, or genius, simply reading through them, but I will want months.  Not sure how many.  Open-ended.

Each of these books embraces a range of traditions and languages.  Their scope is a good part of their appeal to me.  It is the fantasy of knowing everything.  Here are some writers, readers, who got close to that.  Their subject is literature, but also history, language – civilization.

As far as “participating” in a “readalong” goes, do whatever you want, whenever you want.  These books, even Kermode’s, are well suited to rummaging.  I mean, don’t miss the first chapter of Mimesis, but otherwise do whatever is useful and pleasant.  I hope you will find it useful and pleasant to report back on what you have discovered.  Feel free to do so at Wuthering Expectations.

For some reason Arthur Krystal wrote a 2013 New Yorker profile of Auerbach and Mimesis.  This is a book with its own story, worth knowing.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Would anyone be interested in a readalong of classic, or at least good, or at least one hopes so, literary criticism?

My fifth idea is to read some literary criticism.  Classics of.  Books that are great in their own way, perhaps even works of art of some kind.  I have two impulses.

First, to steal ideas, or let’s say to find some new ways of looking at what I read. Spur some thought, if possible.

Second, it is clear that some of the best parts of the blog have been readalongs, and some of my worst ideas for readalongs have actually been my best (e.g., What Is To Be Done?), so why not invite interested people to join in.

The number of participants is of little importance.  A readalong of Melville’s Clarel had only one other reader, and she made an original contribution to Melville scholarship!  And anyway the important thing is that I learn a lot.

Two ideas.  One is to schedule a series of relatively short books, one every two or three months.  A variety of subjects, approaches, countries, forms.  Nothing too Theoretical.  For example, in ten months or a year, with readers joining as they like (all books I have not read):

Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations
William Empson’s Milton’s God
Barbara Hardy’s The Novels of George Eliot: A Study in Form
Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism
Paul Valéry’s The Art of Poetry

Except I feel obligated, for competing educational purposes, to read the latter in French, which seems unlikely, really, so let’s say a collection of essays by Eugenio Montale or Umberto Eco or something like that.

Maybe I am wrong about what is in these books.  My understanding is that they are good books.  But there are many other possibilities.

The other tack would be to tackle a monster.  E. R. Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Mikhail Bahktin’s Rabelais and His World, Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore.  Books that might take months to work through.

I am thinking of this project as work, maybe more like a study group than a readalong, but the kind of work that can be intensely pleasurable.
A good readalong ought to give the readers a lot to do, right?

Maybe this is a bad bad idea, rather than a good bad idea.  Please let me know what you think.  Feel free to contribute suggestions – favorite books, logistics, anything – even if you have no interest at all in participating.

We all have plenty to read.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Books I might read

Why would anyone care, but I have to remind myself how to write, so here we have this bit of self-indulgence.  What do I want to read in the next whenever?

1.  French, books in French.  No principle of organization besides reading level.  Hard enough so I learn, not so hard that I give up.

The most tempting project-like reading is a good wallow in French Romantic poetry – Lamartine, Vigny, Musset, Desbordes-Valmore, Hugo, more Hugo, and yet more Hugo – followed by a plunge into Baudelaire, Verlaine, etc., etc., stopping with – perhaps never stopping.  It’s the great glory of French literature, modern poetry, and much of it is graspable at my reading level.  Or almost graspable.  A little more patience; a little more work.

2.  Post-Victorian British literature.  The Lyon public library had an outstanding but maybe old-fashioned collection of British literature.  They absorbed an English library in – I don’t know when – and thus had plenty of Aldous Huxley, Richard Hughes, D. H. Lawrence, that sort of thing.  Cold Comfort Farm and Rogue Male and Malice Aforethought and Elizabeth Bowen and Rudyard Kipling short story collections in their original formats.  Whatever expats might have wanted to read circa 1965, I guess.  If I had refused to learn French, there would still have been plenty to read.

I thought I would be tired of this stuff, but back home I found myself picking up old favorites like Zuleika Dobson and Howards End, more of the same like The Moon and Sixpence, and even New Grub Street, which now looked like an immediate Victorian precursor of this post-Victorian tradition or attitude.

Maybe I should write some of this out, so that it makes some sense.  Anyway, more second-tier, sarcastic British literature.

3.  Not French, not British.  What I thought I would want to read immediately was the thing I was deprived of in France, like great Russian and German literature.  The Magic Mountain, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Red Cavalry, The Foundation Pit.  I want to revisit Kafka, who I haven’t really read for a long time.  Same for Bely’s Petersburg.

4.  The 1910s.  The 1920s.  Otherwise I will likely resume my chronological drift, floating through the 1910s into the 1920s.

5.  I have one more idea I would like to pursue –  literary criticism – but I would like advice on that, so I will write it up tomorrow.

What will you be reading in the next six months?  Something good, I hope?