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.