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.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Some German books I read recently - Rilke, Kafka, Brecht - In the dark times / Will there also be singing?

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Stephen Mitchell.

Let’s just assume that I did not understand this novel.  There are fragmented pieces about a young man in Paris.  He walks around and goes to museums and so on.  Paris is endlessly interesting.  Then there are other fragments about the narrator’s odd childhood in a castle in Denmark, raised among a group of eccentrics.  These pieces are also interesting.

How the two kinds of pieces fit together, I missed that completely.  Something to look forward to when I read the novel again someday.

The novel has quite a bit of French in it, translated by Mitchell in the notes.  Now that I am reading French, I can just grind through in the text, saving time and energy.  That is a joke; reading the note is easier and faster.  But I don’t read it, no, I must practice my French.

Diaries, 1910-1913, Franz Kafka, tr. Joseph Kresh, ed. Max Brod

I just finished “The Metamorphosis,” (1915), minutes ago, which I have read several times.  It is for me among the perfect fictions, with a central idea that is an outstanding fantasy taken literally but expands endlessly as symbol, metaphor, or allegory, with prose that is precise and elegant, and most surprisingly with at least one character as psychologically complex and “real” as in any other fiction I know.  My memory is that Kafka did not pull off the latter trick so often.

His little 1912 book Meditation (many possible alternative titles) is made up of little observations, or prose poems, or micro-fictions.  I am not sure what they mean, mostly, but reading the diaries I at least see what they are.  Much of Kafka’s writing in his diary, at least in these years, consists of the beginnings of let’s call them stories.  Story starters, except often the story does not start.  One line, a paragraph, then nothing.  And then, inspiration strikes, and Kafka spends all night writing “The Judgment” (1913).  He keeps searching for that magic.  Endlessly frustrating from his point of view.  Meanwhile, Max Brod says “Hey, c’mon, some of these are good – publish them!”

One year, 1911, takes up a third of Kafka’s diary writing, much of which is about Kafka’s love of a Yiddish theater company that set up in Prague.  Kafka not only went to performances but became friends with the actors, hung out with them, had crushes on one in particular.  This whole chunk of the book is of high interest.  Whether it helps me understand anything else Kafka wrote, I will see.  I continue my exploration.

Poems 1913-1956, Bertolt Brecht, tr. many people, ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim

Reading this book was a lot like reading a diary, or, given the 150 pages of notes, a biography of Brecht.  Each poem, published or unpublished, is placed in its period.  The early song-writer becomes distracted by unexpected success in the theater and becomes fascinated by cities, by Berlin.  But in the 1930s events intrude, as strongly as possible, and Brecht becomes a writer in exile, in multiple exiles.

Some poems are public, some are private, unpublished.  Some are blatant propaganda, negligible as poetry, sometimes dismaying, but sometimes not.  But mostly the poems are poems, from the beginning through the worst.


In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Friday, September 14, 2018

More American literature I read recently - Michael Farris Smith and Sergio de la Pava

I forgot a couple.  Perversely, pathetically, since one of them is The Fighter (2018) by Michael Farris Smith, and I am a quarter way into another of his books, Desperation Road (2017), right now.

Smith is the source of the great line, which I heard him say about one of his own sentences, at a translation joust in Lyon in April, “maybe it’s not perfect but maybe it’s great,” which is useful.  These two novels are about down-and-outers in Mississippi – ex-cons, recovering addicts, aging boxers – who get tangled up in violent disasters but survive them.  What are these called in English?  The French term polar is helpful, since it includes not just mysteries but all kinds of violent crime novels.

What is interesting to me – maybe less so to Smith – is how he is trying to adapt the style of William Faulkner, and Faulkner’s many, endless, descendants, to his stories and characters.  Run-on sentences, sentence fragments, jumps in time, and surprising eruptions of the sublime, that is what I mean.  Smith will write a page or two of gritty plain prose, but once he gets into someone’s head he starts moving around.  Smith points to Larry Brown and Barry Hannah as more directs sources.  Here is how he introduces one of the protagonists:

In the southern Mississippi swamp you can watch the world awaken as the pale yellow sun edges itself between the trees and moss and widewinged cranes.  [Sentence about dragonflies]. [Now some turtles] with murderous patience and skill.  Limbs too old to hold themselves up any longer bend and break like old men accepting their marshy graves.  Reptiles slither and blackbirds cry as the early light slashes and relieves the deep and quiet night.  (Desperation Road, p. 29)

Now that is, I believe, an example of  the genuine Southern Gothic.  The guy thinking about this got out of prison about a week earlier.

Smith is good with plots, and I assume that there is some hope that he will write a book that will turn into a movie that will make some real money.  But meanwhile there are these characters who think plain thoughts in plain prose, but then sometimes think something quite different, maybe something great.

Sergio de la Pava is known for self-publishing his way to prestige with A Naked Singularity (2008), so his new novel, Lost Empress (2018) is on a division of Random House, and I suspect that the commercial interest comes from the possibility that he may someday write a real thriller, which will lead to a movie, and thus real money, since both of these novels contain within them good thrillers.  Unfortunately, in a sense, they are more like William Gaddis than Elmore Leonard, full of digressions, politics, and rhetorical flourishes.  I have stumbled across reviewers suggesting that de la Pava could use an editor.  The evidence suggest to me that he in fact has an editor, a good one, who is sympathetic to what he is doing.

De la Pava is a public defender, a thankless occupation, in New York City; where A Naked Singularity was about the court system, Lost Empress is about prisons.  Both novels are righteously angry, in places.  But then this novel is also about American football, and thus a good counter-argument to the idea that everyone is writing to some generic international audience.  A four page dialogue about the role of the cornerback was the one place I wished de la Pava would have cut, cut, cut.  Otherwise, football, why not.  Football, prison, and Joni Mitchell.  A truly surprising amount of writing about Joni Mitchell.  Please see pp. 421-2, two pages devoted to a track by track appreciation of For the Roses (1972).

Some characters are “real,” rounded and grounded, while others are more like movie characters, fantasy creatures, sometimes even speaking in screenplay form.  This split-level novel is the riskiest thing de la Pava does.  A science fiction conceit explains it, in a way that will make as many readers angry as happy.

What a pleasure it was to sink into a novel that surprised me so often.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Some American literature I read recently - Edith Wharton, Thornton Wilder, George Saunders

The Custom of the Country (1913), Edith Wharton

Wharton’s divorce novel.  She had gone through it herself, but here she uses it as a comic tool in the ruthless social climb, rung by painful rung, of Undine Spragg, a worthy cousin of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and Trollope’s Lizzie Eustace.  An American cousin.  Her ruthlessness mixed with her genuine American innocence, or ignorance, or both, is a great source of comic energy.

Plenty more comedy.  As a language student, I enjoyed the American traveler “in command of but a few verbs, all of which, on her lips, became irregular” (Ch. 12).  Wharton also occasionally finds some fine descriptive language, this hot August day in New York City, for example: “Swirls of dust lay on the mosaic floor, and a stale smell of decayed fruit and salt air and steaming asphalt filled the place like a fog” (Ch. 22).

But it is Undine who keeps this novel moving.  The final chapter is magnificent, turning the book into some kind of dystopian novel.  A triumph; a plunge into the abyss.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Thornton Wilder

Here I find an early use of the Winesburg, Ohio device, with stories connected by place and time.  A bridge collapses, inspiring a priest to learn about the victims.  He hopes to learn something about the problem of God and the existence of evil.  The stories that follow have a lot to say about how to live well, but of course almost nothing about theodicy, nothing the reader did not already know.  Maybe I am wrong about this.  Good for book discussion groups, I guess.  Still good.  See – do not read, but see – the last chapter of The Goldfinch (2013) for a current example.

The bridge is near Lima, and collapses in 1714.  Wilder reconstructs his Peru entirely from books and his imagination, which lets him think big.  I especially liked the third story, about an actress and her manager, or maybe a manager and his actress, the greatest actress in the Spanish-speaking world.

They went to Mexico…  They slept on beaches, they were whipped at Panama and shipwrecked on some tiny Pacific islands plastered with the droppings of birds.  They tramped through jungles delicately picking their way among snakes and beetles.  They sold themselves out as harvesters in a hard season.  Nothing in the world was very surprising to them.  (“Uncle Pio”)

It is almost fantasy, or at least grand opera.

Tenth of December (2013), George Saunders

I have not read any other Saunders, not a word.  In this collection, he is a lot like Kurt Vonnegut except not as funny.  Or to be precise, this book is not as funny as four of the five Vonnegut novels I have read.  Bluebeard (1987) was a dud.  The book is not as funny as that of his student Kathleen Founds.  But funny is not everything.

Several stories have light science fiction conceits, like memory-altering chemicals or the odd business in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” in which young immigrant women from difficult circumstances are used by faddish Americans as yard decorations, voluntarily, for pay.  I guess this one is also good for discussion, although I could not work out the allegory in any direction that was interesting.

The critic Robert Scholes wrote that Vonnegut put bitter coatings on sugar pills, and boy does Saunders ever do the same.  Nothing here seemed very hard to deal with, ethically or linguistically.

I thought the title story, the last one, was unusually good.  The conceit, or gimmick, is only linguistic.  A man with brain cancer wants to commit suicide before he becomes incapacitated.  He is losing his language.  As his consciousness streams along it has trouble:

With every step he was fleeing father and father.  Farther from father.  Stepfarther.  What a victory he was wresting.  From the jaws of the feet.  (230)

Punning as psychology, with the man’s despair a response not just to his own illness but to the frightening illness and death of his beloved stepfather.  A human-scaled story, with little comedy beyond the tone, the voice.  If it sounds dark, well, just let the pill dissolve a little.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Reading Winesburg, Ohio through a screen - "He was a sensitive man"

The strange thing about reading Winesburg, Ohio (1919) was seeing a literary tradition suddenly gel, the one that is Hemingway and Faulkner and any number of writers publishing fiction today.  Maybe I should have seen the same thing earlier, reading Gertrude Stein, for example, but I had not read Winesburg, Ohio then.  I was missing a step.

Sherwood Anderson was an intuitive writer, an experimental writer in the sense that he had to write his story to know what he was writing.  I have read that his method of revising stories was to literally rewrite them, to start at the beginning and redo it all from scratch.  Winesburg, Ohio appears to be highly conceptual.  Stories about characters who live in the same small town intersect and by the end perhaps even form a story connected enough to be called a novel.

The “novel” stars George Willard, Boy Reporter, so a writer and a blatant stand-in for a younger Anderson, not that Anderson had been a boy reporter.  His background was a notch or two down the social scale from George’s.  Still, his story ends the way it pretty much has to.  The last story is titled “Departure.”  It was a surprise, though, to read that Anderson had not planned any of this out, had not intended to include “himself,” but just wrote one story, then another, all set in a vaguely described but concretely named place, until the fourth story, about a troubled mother and son, gives him a character who can cross paths with everyone else.

That’s the conceptual innovation, the interconnected stories, even if it was not exactly new.  Stephen Crane’s Whilomville Stories (1900) has something in common, but has the disadvantage of not being especially good.  Spoon River Anthology (1915) is an immediate, direct, and acknowledged predecessor.  Was it really that important that someone do up a town in prose rather than verse?  I guess so.

For Hemingway and Faulkner, the prose was just as important.  The changes must be modest, but the Edith Wharton I have been reading feels like a logical, artful extension of 19th century prose style, while Anderson feels like he’s tossed out some of the old luggage.  He feels more like what I read in magazines today.

“The Untold Lie” is about a pair of farmhands.  The younger one, a wild man, gets a girl pregnant, and tells the older one, Ray, about it.  Ray is jolted.  “He was a sensitive man and there were tears in his eyes.”  He thinks through his own life, his own marriage.  He has a sublime encounter with the beauty of the Ohio countryside.  “The whole world seemed to Ray Pearson to have become alive with something just as he and Hal had suddenly become alive when they stood in the corn field staring into each other’s eyes.”  Ray gropes towards something like a moral, a lesson about the functioning of the universe, but the meaning recedes and the story ends.

Perhaps that is what I am seeing.  Characters in short stories will, once this device diffuses among other writers, no longer learn lessons but will have experiences which seem like they ought to be full of meaning, and maybe they are, who knows.  But anyways, something happened.

There is no real reason to read Winesburg, Ohio with any of this in mind.  I am just describing what I saw.  It was like a haunted book, with shades from the future passing through the stories.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

reading some best sellers (from a hundred years ago) - "I want to get a general view of the whole problem"

Strange sensations reading American fiction lately.  Positive and negative.  The negative is that I am having a bit of an allergic reaction to The Custom of the Country (1913), both to its subject and style.  First, some impatience with the problems of shallow rich people, and second some with the best-sellerishness of the novel, although I do not know how much of a best seller it really was.  It was not a smash like The House of Mirth (1905).

The list of the best sellers of 1913 is a glimpse of an unknown world.  I have heard of maybe six of the books from the decade's best sellers, and read none.  What am I talking about?

I mean scenes like the one that begins Chapter XV, where two minor characters discuss the Problem of Divorce for four pages, in dialogue worthy of the future Hollywood films that presumably use quality authors like Wharton as their models:

“Are there sides already?  If so, I want to look down on them impartially from the heights of pure speculation.  I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages.”

Or see an earlier scene, in Chapter X, in which two (other) minor characters discuss some financial scandal that presumably affects the plot later – I’m only halfway through the book – I hope everything works out well for everyone.  Wharton is vague about the financial details, understanding them about as well as I do.  The dialogue is pretty much screenplay-ready.

None of this has much to do with most of the novel, the good part, Undine Spragg’s rung by rung climb up the society ladder, at whatever the cost (to others).  All of this is terrific, and fiction is often at its best discovering the inner lives of shallow people, but I am enjoying it from a distance.

The Custom of the Country is the eighth Wharton book I have read within the last year or so.  Most of them have been short story collections.  Perfect commercial American magazine fiction of the first decade of the 20th century.  I enjoy it quite a lot, but I should probably take a break from it once I finish this novel.  Although the next thing Wharton does, chronologically, is to become a great French war hero.  Here I am whining about books about shallow people.

The commercial ideal, come to think of it, was also visible in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first collection of stories, Flappers and Philosophers (1920), where it was immediately obvious why he scored such a hit (This Side of Paradise, his first book, is from the same year).  These stories pop with energy.  They are zingy.  Specifically, the young women, the flappers, are enormous sparkly fun even if the story is fundamentally idiotic.  “The Offshore Pirate,” as an example, in which the flapper is captured by a pirate, ready for an actress to be dropped into the role.    Some kind of parable about Scott wooing Zelda probably.  Anyways, nonsense.  But I can see how readers of the Saturday Evening Post would be pleased to see that the new issue had a Fitzgerald story, just like the Scribner’s readers would feel when they say a Wharton story in the table of contents.  Yes, here’s the good stuff.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights by Paulo Lemos Horta - as interesting as it sounds

Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1967) was pretty much what I hoped it would be – hard, really difficult.  Readers less interested in medieval conceptions of time might want to skip to Lecture IV, or V, except that one is mostly about Sartre, or VI.  I plan to look it over again and write something in early October.

Meanwhile, here’s an entirely different kind of literary criticism, Paulo Lemos Horta’s Marvellous Thieves: Secret Author of the Arabian Nights (2017), about the translation of The Arabian Nights into French, in the 18th century, and English, in the 19th.  Literary history.  Good stuff.

A chapter by chapter summary makes it clear what is in the book.

First, two chapters on Antoine Galland and Hanna Diyab, mostly about the latter.  Galland was the first translator of The Arabian Nights (1704-17) into French.  This was a landmark translation.  For a hundred years – more – Europe read The Arabian Nights in translations of French translations.  There was a puzzle about the so-called “orphan stories,” like “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” famous stories, that had no Arabic texts.  Galland acquired these stories from the Syrian traveller Diyab.  Arabic stories told in French by Diyab and then rewritten in French by Galland.  Complicated.

Diyab is interesting enough on his own to fill the chapters.  The discovery, only a decade ago, of his memoirs make the early chapters uniquely valuable.

Chapter 3 is about the first translation of The Arabian Nights into English from an Arabian manuscript.  It was done in India by Henry Torrens, a colonial administrator in India, in collaboration with an unknown number of now-anonymous Indian scholars.  Events in India made sure that this translation was never completed.  Too bad.  It was a real translation.

The ridiculous Egyptologist Edward Lane gets the next two chapters.  An odd bird, he translated The Arabian Nights in order to fill it with his insights about Egypt.  The book is as much notes as stories, notes about contemporary Egypt.  Large parts of the original are summarized, rearranged, pushed into the commentary.  Really strange.

The final two chapters cover the minor pre-Raphaelite poet John Payne and Victorian superstar Richard Burton, the authors of the next two English translations of The Arabian Nights, using the terms loosely.  Payne barely knew Arabic but at least his book was a real translation – from French and German versions!  Burton then openly plagiarized Torrens, Lane, and Payne, rewriting their texts in his own distinctive and bizarre style.  The style is his own, that is true.  “Stealing with Style,” that’s one of Horta’s chapter titles.  It is always great fun to read about Burton, but I do it with my jaw dropped.  He is an outrageous character.

Horta’s book, full of original material from the archives, has almost nothing to say about translation itself, nothing linguistic, for example, except in the way it demonstrates how the translations were inherently collaborative, often in complex and confusing ways.  Sometimes the translations were not translations at all.

He also take the value of The Arabian Nights for granted, as do I.  The greatest insights into the texts themselves are in the first two chapters, as Horta finds sources for pieces of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba” and so on.  If a description of a palace feels more like Versailles than something in Persia, well, that’s right, Diyab was presented to Louis XIV.  This is true “world literature,” whatever that might be.

Horta’s books is as interesting as it sounds.