Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The most famous books I had not read but now have, 2018 edition, Cather and Wharton and Tintin

Ten years ago I assembled a little post about my 19th century Humiliations, the term, from a David Lodge novel I have not read, meaning the books it would be most shameful not to have read - if one were an English professor.  Which one is not.  It is just a game.  “Your bloody Hamlet” is the winner, I believe.  For non-professionals, it is in no way humiliating not to have read Hamlet.

Still, in a moment when I feel that I somehow know less than ever, it is nice to glance at that post.  I’ve read ‘em all, now.  Not bad.  Not so bad.

Based on a vague sense of prestige and imperfect memories of how often I see them mentioned in good literary writing, here are the Top Ten Humiliations I knocked off my list this year.  I had not, but now have, read:

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), Rainer Maria Rilke
The Custom of the Country (1913), Edith Wharton
My Ántonia (1918), Willa Cather
Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Sherwood Anderson
R.U.R. (1921), Karel Čapek
Red Cavalry (1926), Isaac Babel
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Thornton Wilder
La nausée (Nausea, 1938), Jean-Paul Sartre
Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Country, 1939), Aimé Césaire
Illuminations (1966, but really most from the 1930s), Walter Benjamin

Some are more famous.  Those last two are more on the prestige end.  I am probably overrating the status of the Čapek play, but c’mon, the word “robot,” right?  I am probably overrating the status of the Sartre novel at this moment.  It was still a super-high status art object when I was in college.

The only one of those I would put on my Top Ten Best of the Year list would be Red Cavalry.  For the little that is worth.

My perspective about prestige and fame is United Statesian, with some sense that the rest of the world exists.  From the French perspective, though, I could add some books that are much-read in France but have made much less impression here:

“L’attaque du moulin” (“The Attack on the Mill,” 1880), Émile Zola
La Gloire de mon père (The Glory of My Father, 1957), Marcel Pagnol
Le Lion (The Lion, 1958), Joseph Kessel

These are all books the French read when young.  School stuff, sometimes.  The charming Pagnol memoir is read in the U.S. by real Francophiles.  Kessel was a journalist and travel writer who also wrote fiction.  This particular novel, about an English girl whose best friend is a lion, was on the shelves of every bookstore, along with a less predictable selection of other Kessel books.  It was translated long ago, but seems to have vanished in English.  It seemed good to me.  Not a thriller as we use the word now, but tense and frightening.

Really, from the French perspective, the most famous books I read this year, the most universal books, were:

Tintin, volume 4 (Cigars of the Pharaoh, 1934) through volume 9 (The Crab with the Golden Claws, 1941), Hergé
Blake and Mortimer, the first six volumes, meaning The Secret of the Swordfish (1950-3), The Mystery of the Great Pyramid (1954-5), and The Yellow “M” (1956), Edgar P. Jacobs
Asterix, volume 1 (Asterix the Gaul, 1961) through volume 3 (Asterix and the Goths, 1963), René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo

The first two are Belgian.  All three are on the curious Le Monde100 Books of the Century” list, alongside Camus and Proust and The Little Prince.

The Asterix volumes were the hardest to find at the library – meaning, always checked out – which is why I read so few.  I became fascinated by the Blake and Mortimer books because they are, in many ways, quite terrible.  Nuclear war as envisaged by an eight-year-old obsessed with model airplanes, just to kick things off.  Barely a woman in sight, even in the backgrounds, in any of these books.

It would not be true to say that everyone in France has read the first volume of Asterix and, say, Tintin’s The Blue Lotus.  But it must be pretty close.  I am not exactly sure what I learned about French culture reading these comics, but I certainly felt I had joined in.

So this was my continuing Education, 2018.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The best French books of my year - Flaubert, Baudelaire, Sophocles, the usual stuff

My study of French has shifted my reading.  The point of reading in French is to learn French, so it hardly matters what I am reading as long as it is hard enough, yet the point – a point – of learning French is to read in French, so I sometimes indulge.  Meaning, gimme the good stuff.

I had wanted to get to the point where I could read Ubu Roi (1896).  And I did.  Similarly, Flaubert.  And thus Alfred Jarry’s muck-smeared puppet travesty and Flaubert’s Trois Contes (1877) – especially, of course, “A Simple Heart” – are among the best things I read all year.

My reading in French is poor, full of errors in understanding that would bother me if I only knew what they were.  Ubu Roi is built out of all kinds of abuses of language, while “A Simple Heart” is an example of something close to perfection.  Was reading them in the original language better than reading a translation?  I don’t know.  Different.  But how well did I read them, really?

Sometimes my eyes were bigger than my stomach, so to speak.  Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Country, 1939), the poet’s angry poetic investigation of his experiences when he returned to Martinique from Paris, founding text of Négritude, would likely be one of the best books I read this year, but it was too hard for me.  I suspect it is not so easy in translation, either.  All right, next time.

Another special case was Oedipe roi by Sophocle, or as I would normally say, Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, except that I read it in French, in the translation of Didier Lamaison.  I also read Oedipe roi by Didier Lamaison (1994), a transformation of the play into a detective novel, a polar.  It does not take much transforming.  King Oedipus is not what you would call a great detective, but he sure gets his man.

Any year I read a Sophocles play it will go on my Best of the Year list.  The detective novel was pretty good, too.

I should include Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), Paul Verlaine’s Romances sans Paroles (Songs without Words, very funny, 1874), some but not all of the Molière plays I read – maybe Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman, 1670) – keeping in mind that I have not quite dared the really good ones.

Jacques Prévert’s Paroles (1946) was at times like the Césaire book, and otherwise the opposite.  Prévert wrote a spray of playful little lyric poems many of which are readable and enjoyable by people with elementary French.  I knew about those.  I was looking for those.  His famous first book has scores of them.  But they surround giant blocks of prosy, slangy satirical poems that made me work.  Well, this is how we learn.

I read several short Louis Aragon books, Feu de joie (Fire of Joy, 1920) from the early days of Surrealism and a couple of later volumes with some wartime poems, Le Crève-Cœur (The Heartbreak, 1941) and Le Nouveau Crève-Cœur (The New Heartbreak, 1948), the former so playful, the latter so sad.  Some of the war poems are available in English in the Poetry magazine archive.  Not much else, though.  Maybe I should try to write a bit about Aragon next year.

I have an idea that next year I might write something about a number of the books I have read in French.  I read all kinds of surprising things, most of which were not among the best books of the year.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Bruno Schulz's Collected Stories - transformations into ever more artistic configurations

This is not Bruno Schulz describing himself, but it is close:

It is a characteristic of my existence that I parasitize metaphors; I am so easily carried away by the first fine metaphor.  Having gone too far with this I must now withdraw with difficulty, returning slowly to reason.  (“Loneliness,” 232)

The difference is that Schulz is carried away by not just the first metaphor, but the second and third and on to the end of his inventive powers, which are substantial.  His two little books of stories, Cinnamon Shops (1934) and The Sanatorium under the Hourglass (1937), are treasure houses of metaphor.

The girl languidly sinks her hands into the dough of the bedclothes, still warm and yeasty from sleep.  Finally, with an inner shudder, with eyes filled with the night, she shakes out a large, ample feather bed through the window and fluffs of down float onto the city, tiny down stars, a lazy sowing of nighttime dreams.  (“The Pensioner,” 221)

Someone should count the references to stars in Schulz’s books, stars compared to things and things compared to stars.

There was no end to the transformations of the sky, the metamorphoses of its multiple vaults into ever more artistic configurations.  Like a silver astrolabe the sky opened its inner mechanism on this magical night and revealed in endless evolutions the golden mathematics of its wheels and cogs.  (“Cinnamon Shops,” 53)

One word in that quotation reminds me that Schulz is commonly compared to Kafka, and boy are there some weird correspondences: many father-son stories, transformations into a cockroach or a fly or a bird (although it is the father that is always transforming or dying or returning to life, not the son), and an unstable and uncannily shifting geography.  But Schulz’s flow of imagery, the images turning into images, is unthinkable in Kafka.  In Schulz, everything metamorphosizes, and is constantly metamorphosizing.  It is exhausting.

In Cinnamon Shops, the abundance of imagery exists within or atop a small Polish town and an ordinary family.  Or maybe the imagery creates the town and the family, the father and the common-sensical maid Adela and their strange adventures collecting rare birds or fighting an invasion of cockroaches.  The perspective is always that of the son, and there is the possibility that the magic of the town and the strange fates of his father are all in his imagination.  I find this book to be a beautiful rush.

Some of the stories in Sanatorium are more of the same – the continuing adventures of the father are unmissable – but in others Schulz pushes towards a purely poetic form of prose, where I wonder if there is anything left but metaphor.  The pieces function more as prose poems, but at such length that I find them quite difficult to follow, the novella-length “Spring” being the most extreme example.  Sections of that piece feel like they are made of nothing but Schulz’s beloved stars.

The page numbers above are from the new (2018) Collected Stories of Schulz, translated by Madeline G. Levine.  She is working from a corrected text, a plus, puts everything under one cover, and the old translations by Celina Wieniewska are known to have problems, beginning with a change in Schulz’s title, but when I did some spot-checking, comparing the new Cinnamon Shops with the old The Street of Crocodiles, I did not find anything that did not look like the usual differences between translators.  Levine uses more repetition and lets the sentences get a little more long and tangled, so the new translation is less “smooth” than the old one, but if you have an old copy of Crocodiles I would not recommend throwing it in the fireplace.  I guess I do not know how cold you are.  And maybe the differences between the two versions of Sanatorium are larger?

Cinnamon Shops was among the very best books I read this year. Parts of Sanatorium, too.  Not just this year; also, ever.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson - I collect ferns.

The title character of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (1911) is a femme fatale who descends upon Oxford, the university, I mean, and wreaks havoc among the students, in particular the young Duke of Dorset, although not all that much “in particular.”  Beerbohm spends most of his time with the Duke, is what I mean.

The novel may have some particular meaning to people familiar with, or even graduates of, Oxford, but to me it is a land as fantastic as Hobbiton.  It may also have some specific satirical meaning which is now desiccated, as weightless as the prose of Beerbohm’s fantasy, a quite pure fantasy the way I read it.

A moment later, a certain old don emerged from Blackwell’s, where he had been buying books. Looking across the road, he saw, to his amazement, great beads of perspiration glistening on the brows of those Emperors. He trembled, and hurried away.  (Ch. 1)

The sweat on the brow of the stone busts of the Emperors, well-known to Oxonians, I presume, is literal.  They are trying to warn Oxford of “the evil that was to befall the city of their penance.”

Zuleika and the Duke are gods who walk the earth.  Their meeting invokes some peculiar god-rules and god-magic.  Woe for the mere mortals who gaze upon them.

For the men, at least.  Up in the header of Wuthering Expectations I have plopped a quotation from Zuleika Dobson that is all-too-appropriate: “I’ve read twenty-seven of the Hundred Best Books.”  Now, at this point I have actually read, I don’t know, seventy-seven of the Hundred Best Books, but the character who says this, the daughter of the Duke’s landlady, is in her early twenties and I am almost thirty years older.  So, twenty-seven, not bad, right?

The landlady’s daughter is making her case to the Duke.  It is an injection of normality into the craziness of the novel.  Why should he pursue Dobson, the destructive – fatal! – celebrity when he could have someone devoted, sensible, and well-qualified to be the wife of a Duke:

“And I’ve gone on learning since then,” she continued eagerly. “I utilise all my spare moments.  I’ve read twenty-seven of the Hundred Best Books.  I collect ferns.  I play the piano, whenever...” She broke off, for she remembered that her music was always interrupted by the ringing of the Duke’s bell and a polite request that it should cease.   (Ch. 17)

How I identify.  How I enjoy Zuleika Dobson.  It is unique, or almost so.  I suppose to many readers it is an anchovy, inedible.

I am beginning to write about the best books I read in 2018.  Zuleika Dobson was one of them.