Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A glance at the complete poems of Blaise Cendrars - Your menus / Are the new poetry

My reading is tipping towards London, which I will visit for the first time in January – if you are there, let me buy you a pint.  The London I mean is the city, not the writer, although I am now reading a book by London about London, which will make for a confusing post if I ever write it up, which I likely won’t.

More French books, instead, books I have read in French as part of my effort to learn to read books in French.  I will abandon the glib literary history now that I have gotten to the 20th century, but for my own sake stick to the basic chronology.

Today, the book is Du monde entier au coeur du monde (1946, written 1912-26, From the Whole World to the Heart of the World), which is the complete poems of Blaise Cendrars under a fancy title.  If I were writing the more literary-historical post, I would be writing about Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, the two writers and rivals who made the big parallel break in Modernist French poetry – before and after.  No more rules.  But I have only read Cendrars in French.

This book is a landmark for me, actually, since it is the first and only book over 300 pages that I have read in French.

To the left is Cendrars’s second published poem, “La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France” (1913, “The prose of the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France”), a collaboration with Sonia Delaunay.  It is sort of a poster, two meters long, that folds up like a map.  It has everything – a bit of collage on the top right, the Eiffel Tower on the bottom left, and a poem about young Cendrars riding on a Russian train with his French girlfriend.

Cendrars was twenty-six when he wrote the poem; in the poem he would have been more like sixteen.  He was in St. Petersburg in 1904 and 1905 as an apprentice watchmaker.  Why did a Swiss kid have to go to Russia to be an apprentice watchmaker?  I do not know.  Heck of a time to be in Petersburg, though.

Does it matter what is in the poem itself?  I mean, look at that thing.  There are no more rules.  Fragments, collage, montage, just like Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Cendrars was not formally educated.  He was a natural conceptual artist.  Do something new.  His first published poem was “Easter in New York” (1912), an early urban poem.  Third was “Le Panama or les aventures de mes sept oncles” (1918 but written in 1914, “Panama or The Adventures of My Seven Uncles”).  Cendrars is always on the move, writing about places he’s been, places other people have been:

Oh my uncle, you alone have never had homesickness
Nice London Budapest Bermuda St. Petersburg Tokyo Memphis
All the great hotels fight for your services
You are the master
You have invented numerous sweet dishes that carry your name
Your art
You give yourself you sell yourself they eat you
We never know where you are

You were always somewhere where something happened
You are maybe in Paris
Your menus
Are the new poetry

He wrote denatured sonnets, elastic poems, Kodak poems.  Menu poems, as if on an imaginary passenger ship, I love those.  They’re the new poetry:

Ragout of river crabs in pepper
Pork in milk surrounded by fried bananas
Hedgehog in nutmeg

That is one of the Kodak (Documentaires) (1924) poems, number VIII of the Menu Poems.  And now many of us photograph actual menus.

Around this point, in a typical conceptual-artist move, he gave up poetry for novels, which he eventually abandoned for screenplays, before ending with a series of memoirs.  I have read just a bit of the latter, a school edition of a chunk of The Severed Hand (1946), about World War I, in which Our Hero is ordered to capture a German prisoner, and does, more or less.  I was surprised by how much profanity there was in a school text aimed at junior high students.  I had not yet quite figured out how the school editions were labelled.  It was not for junior high students.  It was hard.  Someday I should read the whole book, and see how Cendrars loses his right hand.  The novels sound good, too.

The image of  “La prose du Transsibérien” shows Princeton’s copy, borrowed from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Berlin Alexanderplatz - he slices and squashes and bolts and snuffles and gulps and swallows - the hammer, the hammer comes down

The thing itself, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin as translated by Michael Hofmann.

Franz Biberkopf (BBK, Beaverhead) is an ex-con, just out of prison on the first page.  He has some typical adjustment issues.  He makes a half-hearted – sometimes perhaps three-quarters-hearted – attempt to go straight, but is pulled pack into his old world of gangsters and prostitutes.

So this was the end of Franz Biberkopf, which I wanted to describe from the moment he left Tegel prison to his end in the mental asylum Buch in the winter of 1928-9.  (Ch.9, 428)

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a Bildungsroman, or perhaps a parody of a Bildungsroman, since Franz is pretty close to uneducable.  As in Wilhelm Meister or Green Henry, the hero develops by means of defeat, by the author stripping away the false layers.  In Goethe, the process is largely intellectual, but with Franz it is rather more physical.  He takes a beating.  Here is the summary of the seventh of the nine books of the novel:

Chapter Seven

In which the hammer, the hammer comes down on Franz Biberkopf.  (287)

Everything is taken away, including, possibly, Franz’s personality.  How else does Siddhartha become Buddha except by stripping away the worldly excesses?  Franz is pounded flat.

“We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it” (440, almost the last line).  The decadent end of the Bildungsroman tradition.

Much of Berlin Alexanderplatz has little to do with Franz directly.  Döblin inserts advertisements, songs, newspaper stories pretty much directly (collage via Kraus, “To return to the train accident on Heerstrasse, all the injured passengers were said to be improving in the hospital,” 179); he hops freely from subject to subject, spending lines or pages on rewriting Job (“You haven’t lost as much as Job from the land of Uz, Franz Biberkopf,” 366) or wandering through a slaughterhouse or interrogating the poster of some dumb comic play:

Deeper meaning must and can only stand alone.  Exuberant humor should be got rid of, the way Carthage was got rid of by the Romans…  (181)

This is not the narrator, of course, but his description of the attitudes of certain Berliners.  The narrator, he thinks deeper meaning should be buried under a junk heap.  He enjoys shifts of register, parody, ordinary speech, technical language, everything, all at once.  My arbitrarily favorite example is a couple of pages where the narrator ducks into the cafeteria at the Criminal Claims Court and watches some nobody (“A fat young man in horn-rims,” 291) enthusiastically eat his lunch:

His eyes rove about his plate, even though no one’s threatening to take anything away from him, no one is sitting anywhere near him, he is all alone at his table, but he is still worried, he slices and squashes and shovels, quick, one two, one, one, and while he works, one in, one out, one in, one out, while he slices and squashes and bolts and snuffles and gulps and swallows, his eyes are wide open, his eyes are watching the diminishing quantity of food on his plate, guarding him like two Alsatians, alert to his surroundings.  (291)

That sentence is maybe more interesting than the norm – those dogs popping out of the eyes.  My one little bit of skepticism about Berlin Alexanderplatz is that the digressions and tone shifts don’t seem to make a more meaningful, artful pattern.  They mostly look like one thing after another, one thing piled on another.  Still, that’s what I found most exciting about Berlin Alexanderplatz – where will this nut go next?

Biblioklept’s review of Berlin Alexanderplatz points in many interesting directions, and describes pretty much how I read the novel.  I think I only borrowed one Döblin quotation from him.  A quote from Biblioklept himself: “Let Döblin’s narrator explain the relationship of temperature, starch, and sugar for you.”

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Nabokov's guide to Berlin, and Kawabata's guide to Tokyo

The yakuza in Confessions of a Yakuza takes over the gambling racket in 1920s Asakusa, a part of Tokyo I, like most tourists, had visited to see the famous Shinto shrines and also of course the kitchenware stores, including the ones that sell the wax food.  Wanting to learn more, I read Yasunari Kawabata’s The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1929-30), not knowing that it was basically Tokyo Asakusaplatz, a true cousin of Alfred Döblin’s novel.

Advanced Japanese writers went through a rapid Western Modernism phase in the 1920s, reading Ulysses in English, for example.  This Kawabata novel is one of the results.  The novel is if anything more fragmented than Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), more digressive.  The main characters are very young prostitutes and the main stories are about their fight to survive, but chapters and digressions wander everywhere (within the boundaries of Asakusa).

It is a brutal neighborhood, but it is also the home of Western-style theaters and most of Tokyo’s movie palaces.  Ultra-modern.  The whole place, including Tokyo’s tallest building, had been wiped out in the 1923 earthquake, and it would all be obliterated again in the war, but anyway in 1929 everything is brand new and exciting.  Kawabata’s prose tries to capture this energy in a dozen different ways.

I have to say, I found this book darn hard to pull into quotations.  Few passages, on their own, make any dang sense.  I am having the same problem with Berlin Alexanderplatz, frankly, but Kawabata’s book is even crazier.  The University of California Press edition, translated by Alisa Freedman, is, incidentally, superb – a map, photos, the original newspaper illustrations, an essay by Donald Richie, pages of desperately needed annotations.

I think of Kawabata as a quiet and restrained writer, in both subject and prose.  Scarlet Gang is anything but that.  It is written by a Kawabata who had not yet found his style and was trying out some new things, which he would soon jettison.

So that’s: same time as Döblin, similar style, similar subject, completely different place.

For the same time, same place, different subjects, and a completely different style, let’s turn to the Berlin stories of Vladimir Nabokov.  His beginnings as a fiction writer were in Weimar Berlin, where he wrote for a tiny audience of fellow Russian exiles.  The book will never exist, but a Nabokov’s Berlin collection, with the most Berlin-ish short stories and excerpts from the most Berlin-ish novels, would be pretty interesting.  For now, I have to piece Nabokov’s Berlin together from his complete Stories and King, Queen, Knave (1928) and so on.

Curiously, Döblin and Nabokov, writing at the same time, create characters who prefigure fascism through their passiveness when confronted with charismatic leaders.  Curiously, both characters are named Franz.

The style, though.  Let’s look at “A Guide to Berlin” (1925), a story that in its own way is highly fragmented.  The narrator tells his friend, over a beer, what he saw during the day.  “We sat down and I start telling my friend about utility pipes, streetcars, and other important matters” (155 of Stories, 1955, tr. VN and his son).  The tortoises at the zoo, life in the street.  Like this:

A young white-capped baker flashes by in his tricycle; there is something angelic about a lad dusted with flour.  A van jingles past with cases on its roof containing rows of emerald-glittering empty bottles, collected from taverns.  A long, black larch tree mysteriously travels by in a cart.  The tree lies flat; its tip quivers gently, while the earth-covered roots, enveloped in sturdy burlap, form an enormous beige bomblike sphere at its base.  A  postman, who has placed the mouth of a sack under a cobalt-covered mailbox, fastens it on from below, and secretly, invisibly, with a hurried rustling, the box empties and the postman claps shut the square jaws of the bag, now grown full and heavy.  (157-8)

The drinking companion is skeptical this adds up to much – “’Who cares?’”  But for Nabokov this is the stuff of art, looking closely, making it strange.  He’s the Berlin writer who has read Petersburg.  Where is the art, the interest, in a mailman emptying a mailbox?  It depends on how you look at it.

A book that does exist is Nabokovs Berlin (2001, note the absent apostrophe) by Dieter Zimmer, which is full of amazing facts about Nabokov’s life in Berlin.  Sadly, I cannot really read this book because it is in German.  The highly relevant picture up above, of the Graf Zeppelin over Wilhelmplatz in 1929, is on page 53.  The book has few pictures of Alexanderplatz because Nabokov’s characters rarely make it that far east.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Berlin Alexanderplatz and city literature

I’ve been spending my time in the 1920s, and the German Reading Month organizers kindly picked Alfred Döblin’s fragmented, jittery, pessimistic Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) for a readalong.  It is a member of an odd genre, the “city novel,” where the city is not merely a setting for the novel but part of is “aboutness.”  The city infects everything in the book.  A number of writers in the 1920s worked on these creatures.

Find me a piece on Berlin Alexanderplatz that does not begin with a lot of other books.  This post will not be much more than a list of books.  Ulysses (1922), Manhattan Transfer (1925), Mrs Dalloway (1925), “The Waste Land” (1922), for example.  Most commonly Joyce’s novel, perhaps because we can be sure everyone subsequent read it, which helps when claiming “influence.”  Nobody reading in English or German was reading Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913/16/etc.), which would have been an eye-opener.  Somebody writing about Berlin had read it – I’ll get to him.  Döblin actually read and reviewed Ulysses, in German, while writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, and specific aspects of the one book pretty clearly infiltrated the other.  That helps.

Eliot aside, the poets are not given enough credit.  They were exploring the cities first.  Charles Baudelaire demonstrated, or created, the link between the city and the new, the modern, soon to become the Modern.  City people were restless and uprooted.  They were constantly moving.  The city was constantly changing.  How to capture any of that in writing, or notes, or paint?  Lots of experiments; lots of different ways.

Some of the great New York writers were Yiddish immigrant poets, read by no one else, like Moishe Leib Halpern’s In Nyu York (1919).  Or they were European visitors, like Federico García Lorca or Blaise Cendrars.  I should write about Cendrars later, too.

Something changed with the introduction of film, too, especially montage, leading to pure narrative-free “city film”s like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).  How to represent the city – how about a little of this, a little of that, just glimpses seen from the tram window?  Collage changed things – why invent an advertisement when you can just paste in a real one?  Karl Kraus, in Vienna, would sometimes “write” pieces that were little more than him pointing at an appalling ad or article that summed up the age.  Look at how the set, nominally London, of the first scene of G. W. Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera (1931) has so much text, just above the people.

Part of the fun of Modernism is enjoying the dense and rapid network of ideas and techniques, with Picasso leading to Stravinsky to Eliot to Eisenstein, perhaps through something identifiable as “influence,” perhaps not – it is so vague to say that ideas were “in the air,” but “influence” is inadequate, often even false.  Artists of all kinds are looking carefully at the world around them, and looking at their materials.  Sometimes they see the same thing.  Sometimes they represent it similarly.

Tomorrow I will try to write about books, although not Berlin Alexanderplatz, and not just arrange them, however fun that is.  The reader might think “Not sure this guy has that much to say about BA.”  The reader might be right.  The reader who has gotten this far should probably skip this post and come back tomorrow.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Mann's novel of Anti-Ideas - primal ideas of beauty turn into slack-lipped gibberish - "That didn't get us very far."

3. The Magic Mountain is a novel of Ideas.  A Dialectical Novel.  An Anti-Dialectical Novel.

Characters spend a lot of time, and pages, arguing, about revolution, religion, Jesuits, Freemasons, canning – you know, storing fruit in jars, canning.

“Preserves don’t have time, so to speak, but stand there on the shelf outside of time.  But enough about canning jars.  That didn’t get us very far.”  (6, “A Good Soldier,” 502)

There’s the time theme again.  That is just a portion of a paragraph about canning  from what is generally considered to be one of the most profound, most intellectual novels of the 20th century.  Curious that Willa Cather beat Mann to the novelistic use of preserved fruit in jars as mystical objects by six years.

I should have read The Magic Mountain decades ago, and I knew I should have.  But I had picked up an aversion to the Novel of Ideas, and I took Mann to be the leader of the field, so I put it off for thirty years.  The Magic Mountain is in fact highly essayistic, as in the excursions about time I mentioned yesterday, but also surprisingly dialectical.  Meaning, ideas are less often portrayed in essays, as the product of the thinking of the narrator, but in argument, two characters debating, often with our young, attentive hero literally in the middle, stuffing it all into his spongy brain.

Some of these debates are tedious beyond belief, and a number seemed to degenerate into gibberish.  Others degenerated into shouting, which is at least dramatic.

Confusion reigned.  “Objective reality,” shouted one; “The self!” cried the other.  Finally one side was talking about “Art!” and the other about “Criticism!”  And both constantly returned to “Nature!” and “Spirit!” and to which of them was more noble… (6, “Operationes Spirituales,” 457)

Early on in the novel, I blamed my aversion to Ideas for my difficulty with these passages, but at this point it finally sunk in that Mann was deliberately enacting much of the gibberish.  He is critiquing dialectic, the very notion of argument and of any possibility of synthesis.  The above exchange ends in a ludicrous duel, with firearms.

All of this is before the introduction, in the final book, of Mynheer Peeperkorn, a character who speaks almost entirely in a hash of rhetorical fragments that infects our hero Hans and the other residents of the sanitorium, perhaps in part because Peeperkorn is wealthy and generous with alcohol:

The party gave itself over to its own blissful idleness; they exchanged disconnected small talk, scraps of elevated emotions, which in their primal state as ideas had promised ultimate beauty, but on the way to being spoken turned into fragmentary, slack-lipped gibberish, some of it indiscreet, some of it incomprehensible… (7, “Vingt et un,” 561)

Peeperkorn’s presence makes argument useless.  He “neutralized intellect instead” (7, “Mynheer Peeperkorn (Continued),” 580).  His story climaxes when he throws a party at a waterfall, and gives a long speech, with dramatic gestures, that is made completely inaudible by the water.

Mann is not using the novel to express his Ideas as much as he is attacking the possibility of expressing Ideas.  Perhaps Peeperkorn give a more hopeful solution in his great speech; too bad that no one “understand[s] a single syllable of what he expressed” (612).

Why so many pages expended on blow-by-blow arguments if so much of it is gibberish?  It is just like the (novelistic) argument Mann makes about time.  The reader must experience the uselessness of the arguments, even participate in it by working through the Ideas, as if they were what mattered.

I am not so sure that Mann is right, that I really needed to read quite so much nonsense about the nature of progress and so on to get to his point, but I am pretty sure that is why he does it.

Not reading The Magic Mountain has been a useful defense against whatever overhyped, soon-forgotten nonsense became trendy.  “I can’t read that,” I would think, “ I haven’t even read The Magic Mountain!”  But now I have.  What will I do.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Magic Mountain as a novel about time - Can one narrate time?

 2. The Magic Mountain is a novel about time.

Can one narrate time – time as such, in and of itself?  Most certainly not, what a foolish undertaking that would be.  The story would go: “Time passed, ran on, flowed in a mighty stream,” and on and on in the same vein.  No one with any common sense could call that a narrative.  It would be the same as if someone took the harebrained notion of holding a single note or chord for hours on end – and called it music.  (7, “A Stroll by the Shore,” 531)

I will direct Mann’s, and your, attention to this superb essay by Laura Glen Louis, in the Autumn 2019 Hudson Review, on her experience performing a choral version of Yves Klein’s Monotone-Silence Symphony (1947), which does not hold the note for hours but is in the ballpark.  Where would we be without the harebrained?  We live in a harebrained age.

I was so pleased with myself, figuring out that The Magic Mountain was in fact a novel about the narration of time, and then at the beginning of the final chunk, Book 7, see above, Mann just blurts it out, for four pages in the John E. Woods edition.  “[I]t is apparently not such an absurd notion to want to narrate about time” (532, emphasis Mann’s).

The novel simultaneously accelerates and decelerates.  The first short book describes a few hours, as Hans Castorp arrives at the sanatorium; the second hops like many novels hops back to his childhood, family, and education; the third, quite a lot longer, is one full day at the hospital, from breakfast to bedtime, in about 50 pages.  Then 90 pages cover the next three weeks; the next 150 pages covers – why am I describing this myself?

[T]he coverage of the next three weeks of the visit, however, will require about as many lines – or words, or even seconds – as the first three weeks required pages, quires, hours, and working days.  We can see it coming – we’ll have those three weeks behind us and laid to rest in no time.  (5, “Eternal Soup and Sudden Clarity,” 180)

Look at the standards of measurement.  Literal pieces of paper, counted two ways; words on the page; time measured two ways.  How long is a “working day” for Mann?  As The Magic Mountain expanded past the original conception as a novella, as years of writing passed, the subject of the book changed, and these meta-fictional comments, or occasionally essays, on time became a part of the experience of the book.

I am not convinced that Mann’s specific ideas about time are so deep.  Time is experienced subjectively, for example – I knew that.  What is new is that he explicitly moves the subjectivity onto his readers.  Time moves subjectively but in different flowing ways for the characters, for the author, and for the readers – and presumably in many different ways for different readers, who are often stubborn cusses, fighting with the author, reading perversely.  Mann gives us something new with which to fight.

Every piece of narrative writing works with time in some way or another.  Mann brings it to the front, so I can think about it.  He is not the only one.  I am thinking of the first chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), or the interlude in To the Lighthouse (1927), or maybe Benjy’s chapter in The Sound and the Fury (1929).  This is some of the high-level novelistic work of the age, making time do new things.

The chapter with the single day gives The Magic Mountain a pulse.  Once described, it is in the background, repeated endlessly without me having to read it endlessly.  Then there are the months, the seasons, the years, departures and deaths, a series of repetitions of varying intervals.  Mann is right, it is like music, with a lot of simultaneous cycles.  How does he keep the novel from being many simultaneous notes, played for hours but at varying intervals?  One answer is the usual novelistic stuff, characters and furniture and so on, see yesterday’s post, and the other answer is Ideas.  That’s for tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Magic Mountain, many novels in one - I chop it into a pasty hodgepodge - "Malice, sir, is the spirit of criticism"

“Malice, sir, is the spirit of criticism, and criticism marks the origin of progress and enlightenment.” (Ch. 3, “Satana,” 59)

Given that invitation, and the approaching end of German Literature Month, I had better write a bit about The Magic Mountain (1924), Thomas Mann’s comic tuberculosis-infected novel of ideas.  It is several novels in one.  I count at least three.  This helps me organize the long. complex novel, if nothing else.

1. The comic sanatorium novel, a novel about illness.  Illness, as we all know, is a useful metaphor.  Young Hans Castorp visits a Swiss sanatorium to spend some time with his cousin and somehow never leaves, not for years, until life finally intrudes too strongly (meaning, a world war breaks out).  As the director of the sanatorium says:

“First and foremost: there’s the air up here.  It’s good for fighting off illness, wouldn’t you say?  And you’d be right.  But it’s also good for illness, you see, because it first enhances it, creates a revolution in the body, causes latent illness to erupt…” (4, “The Thermometer,” 179)

The rest-cure that causes illness is pretty funny.  Sometimes the novel made me wonder what Kafka’s sanatorium novel would have been like, if he had lived to write it.  He certainly had enough experience with the institution.

The characters are mostly tuberculosis patients, so they are ill but active, with big appetites for food and life and sometimes sex.  The sanatorium is full of young, and less young, people in a world where some of the social rules are a bit relaxed.  Hans quickly falls for the lovely Frau Chauchat – one more reason he cannot bring himself to return to the outside world.  One of the comic high points of the novel is the chapter where he visits the director’s apartment, nominally to see his paintings but really to obsess over his crush.

The scene is packed with oddball sexual language.  The doctor owns an obscene coffee grinder, a gift from a patient, “an Egyptian princess” (“’Yes, that’s a tool for single gentlemen,” Behrens said,” Ch. 5, “Humaniora,” 258).  Hans, constrained from speaking directly about his lust, asks the doctor detailed medical questions about skin and fat, as if he is interested in science.

“I could easily have become a doctor.  The formation of breast milk… the lymph of the legs – it all interests me very much. The body!” he suddenly cried in a rapturous outburst.  “The flesh! The human body!  What is it? What is it made of?”  (261)

Hans uses this language to seduce Frau Chauchat (the italics signify that the conversation is supposedly in French):  “’Let me take in the exhalation of your pores and brush the down – oh, my human image made of water and protein, destined for the contours of the grave, let me perish, my lips against yours!” (5, “Walpurgis Nacht,” 537)

Death is never far from sex, or from anything, in The Magic Mountain.  It is not all comic.  But it is this side of the novel with all of the best little novelistic details, the kind of thing I enjoyed in Buddenbrooks, the cigars and furniture and food:

The room glistened with white from all the milk – a large glass at every place, a good pint of it at least. (3, “Clarity of Mind,” 66)

And fine minor characters:

At the next table on their left was an adolescent boy – still of school age, to judge by his appearance – whose coat sleeves were too short, and who wore thick, circular glasses; he chopped up everything heaped on his plate until it was a pasty hodgepodge, then bent over and wolfed it down, now and then pushing his napkin up behind his glasses to dry his eyes – it was unclear whether this was to wipe away sweat or tears. (3, “But of Course – a Female!,” 74)

My understanding is that Mann began The Magic Mountain as a comic counterpoint to Death in Venice – that was back in 1912 – but that the book expanded as he wrote it, turning into something more complex.  Thus, the second novel, the one about time. Tomorrow, that.

All quotations and page numbers are from the 1995 John E. Woods translation.

Monday, November 18, 2019

A survey of literary gangsters of the 1920s - “We got to keep amused, haven’t we?”

I’ve been reading heavily, over the last year or two, in the literature of the 1920s, and that means one thing: gangsters.  Criminals who organize their crimes.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and The Threepenny Opera (1928) are German variations on the theme.  The Odessa Stories (1923-4), Isaac Babel’s other masterpiece, cover a Russian version.

Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza (1989) takes care of Japan.  This one is non-fiction – I believe it is thought to be accurate, but with this subject, who knows.  Junichi, a doctor, transcribes the life story of his patient Eiji Ijichi, a professional criminal. He covers roughly the 1910s through the 1940s, but the 1920s get disproportionate attention, when Eiji was setting himself up as a Yakuza, primarily, says he, in the gambling racket.  The section about the 1923 Tokyo earthquake alone is worth reading, if you do not mind that it is a horrible nightmare.  Recommended to anyone interested in Japanese culture – this is not a story I had seen anywhere else.

The United States is at this point going through the episode of mass delusion known as Prohibition, giving gangsters plenty to do.  They enter literature slowly.  The earliest I encountered are in The Great Gatsby (1925), where they are either a minor or major part of the story depending on how receptive you are to  - now here I am going to refer to an idea that is not exactly a spoiler of the plot, but is perhaps something worse – to the idea of Gatsby as murder mystery.  Meaning, does our narrator Nick get Gatsby’s murder right, and if he gets it wrong is he ignorant or obfuscating, and if the latter is it unconscious (hiding something from himself) or purposeful (hiding something from me).  Regardless, any complete interpretation of the novel had better figure out what to do with the gangsters and Gatsby’s con-artist bond scheme.

Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” is the next place I get a good dose of gangsterism.  The twelve-page story spends eight pages just watching a couple of hired killers perform, like an early version of Pulp Fiction.  “In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team.”  They act like a vaudeville team.

“I don’t like it,” said Al.  “It’s sloppy.  You talk too much.”

“Oh, what the hell,” said Max.  “We got to keep amused, haven’t we?”

A curious, possibly central, aspect of enjoying Hemingway’s writing as art is feeling where he slips into kitsch, but this entire story is about someone else’s kitsch, a representation of kitsch, which is perhaps why it is so good.

1929 saw two great monuments to the American gangster.  One is Dashiell Hammett’s violent, lunatic Red Harvest, in which a detective solves a town’s gangster problem by arranging the murder – occasionally personally murdering – every thug who lives there.  Around the three-quarter mark, I was thinking that I should have kept track of the murders, but then in Chapter 16 the detective tallies them up for me: “’That’s sixteen of them in less than a week, and more coming up,’” and the next chapter is actually titled “The Seventeenth Murder.”

The other book, not as good but possibly more important, is W. R. Burnett’s Little Caesar, a nominally realistic picture of Chicago’s small-time gangs, with Capone as the big figure in the background.  Burnett’s great problem, as he spent years on this book, was that he wanted it to be literature, to sound like Edith Wharton or something, but at some point he realized that he should use the simpler, almost stupid, language of the gangsters themselves, or at least something that sounded like their language.

Rico [our little hero] smiled.  Then he took out his billfold and handed Seal Skin a ten.

“There’s a little cush for you.  You ain’t sore at me cause I socked you, are you?  I got red hot mad, that’s all.”

“You didn’t sock me hard,” said Seal Skin, “but it was ten dollars’ worth.”  (Ch. 6)

This kind of writing is pretty much screenplay-ready, so it is no surprise that the film that made Edward G. Robinson famous appeared in 1931.  More surprising is that it spurred a wave of gangster films, including Public Enemy and Scarface (which Burnett co-wrote); in other words, Burnett’s novel led to the creation of the genre of the gangster film.  Amazingly, Burnett pulled off the same trick a second time, writing the heist novel The Asphalt Jungle (1949), which is made in to a heist film that more or less creates or popularizes the genre of heist film.

This particular kind of high-speed entanglement of literature and film seems like something new.

As far as I can tell, nothing by W. R. Burnett is currently in print in the U.S.  We have so little sense of history.  Heaps of Burnett novels, Westerns, mysteries, everything, are in print in France, of course.

Monday, November 11, 2019

I counted American books in French bookstores - a study, with methodology and results and so on

Now, something about the French reading Americans, rather than me reading the French.

In July, I counted the titles by American fiction writers on the shelves at a French bookstore.  I even made a few notes, although most of what I include here is from memory.

The exercise was just to count the number of titles.  Prestige as measured by the proxy of shelf space.  Likely also sales, but who knows.  These are for-profit bookstores.  I doubt they have much on the shelf just for show.  They want to sell books.  They know their readers.

So, which American authors had the most titles on the shelves of a particular French bookstore in July?  There was a tie, two authors with 21 titles each.  You can guess while reviewing my methodology.

The bookstore I studied carefully was Librairie Passages, an exemplar of the mainstream bookstore.  I checked my results, pretty casually, at Le Bal des Ardents, Lyon’s most picturesque bookstore (see left), and the Decitre at the mall, which is the closest bookstore to the main public library.  The library is almost in the mall.  French life is well organized.

Le Bal des Ardents is weirder than Passages, with more tiny presses and oddities.  It is more highbrow, with, for example, the Complete Works of Antonin Artaud in 26 volumes on the shelf – who is buying this?  Decitre is populist – mall bookstore – but local, a branch of a century-old Lyon institution.

My American control is Prairie Lights in Iowa City, the best bookstore for hundreds of miles in any direction, which I visited in August.  It is not a typical bookstore, since Iowa City is the home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a UNESCO City of Literature.  All of these bookstores are roughly the same size, I think.

The non-American winner – I was not even counting non-Americans, but he stood out – was Stefan Zweig, who had 50 books (not titles, too many books to check for duplicates) on the shelf at Passages.  50 books!  Stefan Zweig!  Prairie Lights had one book, maybe.

The American winners at Passages were Philip Roth and Jack London.   Roth I had guessed myself.  But London!  London has a much higher status in France than in the U.S. Prairie Lights had a dozen or more Roth titles out, but just two by London, among the “adult” books, I mean, The Call of the Wild and I don’t remember.  Maybe there were more downstairs with the kid’s books.

The runners-up, all in the 10-to-12 title range:  Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Jim Harrison.  Living writers in the same range: Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison (alive then), Don DeLillo, Paul Auster.  I may have missed some of these.  I would have thought that Poe would be out of the running by this counting measure, but his works are rearranged into enough editions that he was close.

I did not jot down the numbers, but at Le Bal des Ardents, the winner (with fewer than 20 titles) was easily Faulkner, and second, including Russian works, was Vladimir Nabokov, who only had a few books at Passages.

Prairie Lights was generally similar.  Big differences, besides London: just three books by Joyce Carol Oates, and two or three by Kerouac.  I was surprised that it had as many Jim Harrison titles.  Maybe an artifact of the special qualities of that store.

Harrison mentions, several times, in the essays in A Really Big Lunch (2017), that his popularity at some point moved to France:

Luckily my books do very well in France…  The French saved my little family for which I’ll always be grateful.  I had many bestsellers over there but never in America.  (p. 265)

I remember Roth somewhere describing the same phenomenon (substituting Europe for France – German readers buy a lot of Roth).  It has struck me that French readers, or some of them, a lot of them, are interested in outsized American masculinity, thus the relatively high status of London, Hemingway, Kerouac, Harrison, and also noir detective novels and maybe even Oates.

Or maybe they like Harrison because of his many passages like this:

I have often thought that if I received an early warning that I would pass on sooner than later, I’d get myself to Lyon and eat for a solid month, after which they could tip me from a gurney into the blessed Rhône.  (164)

A kindred spirit.  Classic Lyon cuisine is not the healthiest food in France.

At the mall bookstore, the Americans with the most titles were, maybe – I did not keep exact track – Stephen King and George R. R. Martin and Mary Higgins Clark, like that.  Actually, it was probably a comic book writer, Geoff Johns or Stan Lee.  This was not true at Passages (I checked).  Donna Leon was up there, but nowhere near 21 books.

Anyway, something a little bit more concrete to go with all of the other impressions I have picked up.  How do other people think about literature, that is the endlessly interesting question.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Modern French poets of the 19th century - “Read me, to learn to love me.”

One good reason that these posts do not get written is that I start poking around in the texts themselves, and since I now want to race through post-Romantic French poetry, I find myself a bit crushed.  Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé – it is all so wonderful.  And those are just the giants of the period.

In his “Épigraphe pour un livre condamné” (“Epigraph for a condemned book”), Baudelaire urges his “quiet” and “sober” readers to throw away his book Les Fleurs du mal, leaving it to those who know how to plunge their eyes into the gulfs.  “Lis-moi, pour apprendre à m'aimer” – “Read me, to learn to love me.”

Well, we sure did, even many of us who have never read him. Baudelaire and Les Fleurs du mal (1857) are the beginning, or the beginning of the end if you think it was a wrong turn.  It is because of Baudelaire that Modernism is Modern.

There are many aspects to Baudelaire, even within Les Fleurs du mal; I guess my preferred Baudelaire is the one who brought Romantic ideas about nature to the city.  Romantic in theory, since the young French Romantics have a pretty darn tenuous relationship with actual living nature.  They are awful citified.  Baudelaire is really looking around and writing about what he sees.  If he lived in Jura and wrote about bird’s nests and yeast, he would have been a Romantic, but he lived in Paris and wrote about apartment buildings, which is Modern.

Paris change! mais rien dans ma mélancolie
N'a bougé! palais neufs, échafaudages, blocs,
Vieux faubourgs, tout pour moi devient allégorie
Et mes chers souvenirs sont plus lourds que des rocs.  (from “Le Cygne”)

Paris changes! but nothing in my melancholy
has moved! new palaces, scaffolding, blocks,
Old neighborhoods, for me it all becomes allegory
And my memories are heavier than the rocks.  (from “The Swan”)

I read Les Fleurs du mal in French about a year ago, so I can sympathize with the French students clawing through it for the Bac.  It is pretty hard in places.  Mallarmé is probably still too hard for me, I mean if I am trying to understand him.  Tristan Corbière is too hard, the language too crazy.  Jules Laforgue looks about right.  Arthur Rimbaud is clearly within my level.

The easy one is Paul Verlaine.  Much of his best work, entire (miniature) books, are readable by someone with a semester of French, a real beginner.  The beauty of his sound is audible.  He generally does not use too many words.  They are often such an obstacle to the language-learner, the words.  Verlaine felt like a reward.  When I could not read very much, I could read him.  I have read his first four books in French – “books,” they are such little things – and will keep going someday.

Anyway.  It’s all a marvel.  A rupture.  The beginning of “make it new,” the beginning of  poetic tradition that has stretched with real continuity until – I am not sure.  Possibly not today.  Poetry has a large place in French culture; contemporary poetry, maybe not much at all.  Who knows what will happen.  Meanwhile, French high school students will spend this spring cramming Hugo, Baudelaire, and Apollinaire.  Good luck.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

19th century French fiction crammed into one post

What happens next?  The French novel, French fiction as we know it, finally comes to life in a blast of coffee-fueled energy.  Balzac, Sand, Stendhal, Hugo, then Dumas, Flaubert, Verne, and then Zola and Maupassant, just to stick to the most famous, lots of terrific books that are still widely read and have all kinds of continuity with the French fiction written today.

I’ll blast through them myself, just making a few notes about reading them in French.  Heaven knows if you want to know what I think about Flaubert, that is easy enough to find.  Much of this is familiar to anyone who has taken advanced French.  These are familiar writers, familiar texts.

1.  Almost all of these writers are ideally suited for the punishing or educating of French schoolchildren.  They have written texts of a variety of lengths and difficulties allowing all sorts of clever paths connecting this book to that.

Start Balzac with one of his many short stories or novellas, with Colonel Chabert, move up to Eugénie Grandet, end with Père Goriot.  Maybe put that one on the Bac.  I read one of the possibilities in French, “The Elixir of Long Life” (1831), my fortieth work in the Human Comedy, and the first and only in French.  It is a Don Juan story that otherwise goes pretty much where you would guess from the title.

This year, the big 19th century novel on the Bac is Stendhal, The Red and Black.  The standard shorter Stendhal is Vanina Vanini, which I have not read.  Italian stuff.  For Sand, it’s La Marquise (1832), where the title woman is in charge, pursuing the actor she desires, not a masterpiece but an antidote to the masculinity of a lot of French fiction.  For Flaubert, it’s the Trois Contes (1877), or maybe just the first and easiest story, “A Simple Heart.”  What a triumph, when I finished it – I had read Flaubert in French.  And my French was not that good.

2.  So what do we do with Hugo?  His novels are monsters.

First, there is “Claude Gueux” (1834), a heart-wrenching story about a prisoner, friendship, cruelty, the death penalty – distilled Hugo, champion of the powerless.  As art, if that matters, I thought it was better than the propagandistic novella Diary of a Condemned Man (1829).

Second, French pedagogists have carved up Les Misérables (1862) into many books, not just into abridged editions of a variety of lengths, but more curiously into rearrangements of the novel, often focused on specific characters, so that there is Cosette’s Les Misérables and Gavroche’s Les Misérables.  There is a book titled Jean Valjean (A Journey around some Misérables), like it is a city or a park.  One can imagine an entire Hugo-based curriculum.

There is at least one of these for Balzac, too, The Novel of Vautrin, pulling together scenes featuring Balzac’s great proto-superhero character from many novels.

I don’t know that I approve of this butchery, but I am amazed that it exists.  It is an interesting idea, taking a novel like Les Misérables and returning to it from different directions.  I don’t know that any French teacher is really doing this, but the books exist, and are in print right now.

3.  Zola’s short story “Le grand Michu” (1870) surprised me because of its multiple connections to later French fiction, the whole line of French schoolboy stories, and also to Jean Vigo’s 1933 anarchic masterpiece Zéro de conduite.  The riot at the end of Zola’s story is enacted by Vigo and his little maniacs.  No idea if this is in English.

4.  I discovered that I have more to say, or can babble at greater length, about Guy de Maupassant than I had realized, so let’s cut all that and write more about Maupassant some other time.  He is obviously perfect for infliction upon schoolchildren and French language learners.  His French, at least in his newspaper stories, is pretty darn easy.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The big good poets of French Romanticism - finally I make use of my French - for all of the good it does me

I have in front of me The Oxford Book of French Verse, first published in 1907, “Chosen by St. John Lucas,” a 500 page collection of French poems in French, with only the introduction and notes in English.  Just about half of the book covers the 19th century, and half of that is just four poets: Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, and Alfred de Musset.  Those are the poets I want to linger over here.  You may note that I have skipped the Revolution and the “little bad poets of the Empire,” as the saint calls them (p. xxx).  I was going to say something dismissive, but not that cruel.  For whatever reason, Bonaparte was not good for French literature.

It roared back to life in the 1820s, first with the poets, then the theatre, and then the novel and its variants, but that will be more in the 1830s.  It began with The Poetic Meditations (1820) of Lamartine, and for him that is almost where it ended, since he used his fame to go into politics.  Inventing French Romanticism was only one of his accomplishments.

I am not entirely sure what French Romanticism is.  It is in large part an argument with French Classicism, and I am not so sure what that is.  I am reading an old school edition of Hugo’s Les feuillles d’automnes (Autumn Leaves, 1831) which includes notes about Hugo’s many violation of Classical rules, such as when he uses feminine rhymes inappropriately or puts the caesura in the wrong place.  If you say so, I think.  An advanced topic in French prosody.  Anyway, these poets are doing it wrong, however subtly, which was once pretty exciting.

My memory of the relevant English translations:

There’s a pretty good translation of Lamartine’s Meditations.

There is a functional but dull translation of Musset’s complete poems.

Given his stature, there is not much Hugo in English.

There is close to no Vigny in English.  No idea why.

A short selected Musset and selected Vigny would be valuable additions to English literature, hint hint, poetic translators.  Vigny and Musset have plays available in good English.  See Vigny’s Chatterton (1835) for some intense French Romanticism as reflected in an imaginary version of an actual misunderstood, doomed teenage poet.

I read that one in French while reading Vigny’s complete poems, now that I could.  I have also been filling in some Hugo, a tiny fraction of his thousands of pages of poems.  That would be a feat, reading Hugo’s complete poems.

Vigny wrote narrative poems, mostly in rhyming couplets.  Stories about Roland, Jesus, “The Anger of Samson,” (the death of) “Moses,” “The Death of the Wolf” – how the French love stories about wolves.  I could not believe how many children’s books there are about wolves, both funny and scary.  The hunter in the poem kills the wolf, but learns that wolves are better than people, or no worse.

Early Hugo has been a surprise and just what I expected.  He was immediately Hugolian, from the poems written when he was 18, hugely skilled, confident or a blowhard depending on one’s taste.  His first few little books, collected in Odes and Ballads (1828), are all political, legitimist, about the great fallen heroes who fought the Revolution.  I certainly learned the word for “executioner,” since it appears in every poem.  This is not the Hugo who is the champion of the powerless.  The primary victim of capital punishment he has in mind is Louis XVI.

Hugo changed quickly.  Maybe the poor are the subjects of the last half of Odes et Ballades.  I only read the first half.  Hugo exhausted me.

I have one complaint, which I can at this point make about Vigny and Hugo: they were not great rhymers.  They use lots of conventional rhymes, and there is clearly no penalty for repeating them in poem after poem – ombre / sombre (shadow / dark) , orage / nuage or orage / ombrage (storm / snow, shady), essor / trésor (flight / treasure) – that last one is the worst, since it is so phony.  The poets of a couple of a generation later wouldn’t allow this.  Paul Verlaine put an end to it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

My shallow French 18th century - You believe me to have more qualities than I do

I’ll race through the 18th century.  I think I have read just one 18th century text in French.  The issues are:

1.  The French classics of the 18th century are not, currently, taught at the collège level.  They are all, for one reason or another, advanced texts, lycée texts.  Thus when my reading was more narrowly limited to collège books, nothing crossed my path, so to speak.  Or nothing should have.

2.  I am reading more freely now, but I tell you nothing from the 18th century has really tempted me yet.  There are certainly some things I have never read and in some sense should, but re-reading, I have not felt the urge.  This is because:

3.  I guess I am not convinced that reading much of this stuff in French will be particularly rewarding.  The translations I have read are likely adequate.  This is “the artless 18th century,” as Nabokov says somewhere (remembering that he had no understanding of music and excepted, I don’t know, Chardin and I am sure also whoever else you are thinking of right now).  It is the Age of Reason, the Age of Clear Prose, more so in France than in England, not the Age of Poetry.

Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, those are the core writers.  The French seem to have narrowed the many hundreds of works of Voltaire down to his satirical contesCandide, Micromégas (another French giant), Zadig – just like we have in English.  The school editions of Rousseau’s works put him in another category, philosophy (Philo), not literature.  What else.  The Memoirs of Saint-Simon, Manon Lescaut, Les liaisons dangereuses.  This all looks pretty familiar (#2, above).

Less familiar – two playwrights have a much higher status in French than in English: Pierre de Marivaux near the beginning of the century and Pierre Beaumarchais near the end.  Marivaux has never caught on in English, and Beaumarchais is known only as the source of the opera versions of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, but not for the plays themselves. Not in France (Beaumarchais is on this year's Bac list). I should read Beaumarchais in French.  That is tempting.

The one 18th century work I have read in French was a Marivaux play, Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard (1730, The Game of Love and Chance).  What a mistake!  Marivaux’s art is to reduce comedy to its essence, to create as pure a comedy as he can, as free of social context or individual characters as possible.  A handful of characters, all types (the valet in Game is even named Arlequin, so I know right way exactly who he is.  Plus, I had read it in English, so I knew the story.  A young fellow is meeting his fiancée for the first time.  He has his valet pretend to be him (that's the master in the yellow suit on the left, but I assume Arlequin switches into it); he pretends to be his own valet.  Meanwhile, the fiancée has had the exact same idea, so the valet is courting the maid, thinking she is the mistress, while the mistress banters with the master thinking he is the valet.

Fun!  But much less simple than I had thought, and above my reading level, although I shoved my way through it.  A great challenge was the amount of “negative” language in the dialogue, which even now is relatively difficult for me.  This was something of a discovery.  Much banter, in many plays, is constructed in this way, with the characters in some way saying what they will not do, or describing what they are not:

LISETTE (the maid pretending to be her mistress): Vous me croyez plus de qualités que je n’en ai.

ARLEQUIN (valet pretending to be his master): Et vous, Madame, vous ne savez pas les miennes; et je ne devrais vous parler qu’à genoux.

LISETTE: Souvenez-vous qu’on n’est pas les maitres de son sort.  (Act II, Scene 5)

LISETTE: You believe me to have more qualities than I do.

ARLEQUIN: And you, Madame, do not know mine, and I must not speak except on my knees.

LISETTE: Remember that we are not the masters of our fate.

That line is ironic, since it first means that the parents are arranging the marriage, and second that these people are themselves servants.  Maybe Lisette at this point already knows Arlequin is a servant.  I don’t remember.  It is an intricate plot.  What was I thinking.  But it was the negative constructions that really hurt.  Now they are not so bad.  Progress.

That is my shallow French 18th century.  Maybe yours is deeper.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The 17th century French novel – “May God defend all decent people against such a woman as Madame de Lafayette.”

The French 17th century was an age of novels, a heap of novels that nobody reads anymore and one that everyone reads.  “Nobody” and “everyone” are exaggerated, but only for emphasis, not to distort the truth.

The lone survivor is The Princess of Cleves (1678) by Madame de Lafayette, a historical novel set 120 years earlier in the court of Henri II.  The characters are almost all real figures; the surrounding incidents are real; the central romance is a novelistic invention.  Why is this book, preceding Walter Scott by 140 years, not the first historical novel?  Because there was no such thing as a “historical novel” and this book did not invent the category; Scott’s novels did.

Why is this book, among the dead novels of its time, still read?  Because it looks like a novel as we know it.  Characters have depth and the plot turns on a couple of seemingly minor but psychologically true moments.  It is not just a series of adventures tacked together, although there is a dramatic joust at one point.

Why is this novel so important, on the Baccalaureate exam and the French civil service exam?  Why has it become a symbol of Frenchness?  I do not know.  It is a good novel, but its status comes from something else.

Lafayette is herself a figure of high interest, or at least Nancy Mitford’s little biography that introduces her 1951 translation makes her seem so.  That line in my title is from p. xxvii, and the context is Mme de Lafayette’s strongarm tactics to get an heiress to marry her son.  She was ruthless.

The composition of the novel is of interest.  It was collaborative, in some way.  It was, as we would say now, workshopped.  Lafayette ran one of the great salons of her time.  It is where the Duc de la Rochefoucauld brought his maxims to be polished and perfected; they too were workshopped.  Members of the salon worked on not just the story and prose but on the research, supplying historical details of all kinds.  Too bad we don’t know more.

What I think of, perhaps incorrectly, as a more typical novel of the time is a monster like Artamène, or Cyrus the Great (1648-53) by Madeleine de Scudéry, possibly in collaboration with her brother.  Ten volumes; 13,000 pages; over two million words; among the longest novels ever written; likely the longest French novel.

A prince, the son of Cyrus the Great, spends a lot of time wandering the Mediterranean trying to rescue the princess he loves, who is kidnapped three times – only three times, given that page count, but my understanding is that much of the bulk is filled with digressions and inset stories.  A new character appears and recounts all of his many adventures.  The last chunk of the first volume of Don Quixote (1605), where the phony shepherds tell their boring stories, is likely how I should imagine things going, except at much greater length.

My other understanding is that many or most of the characters are clear stand-ins for people in the court and the salons of the time.  The novel was a big hit, but I wonder what that meant.  How many people could possibly be reading it?  How many could afford it?  A thousand, more, less?  No idea.  But one reason a certain crowd was so eager to read each new volume was because they were in it.  The nobility read the novel to read about themselves.  Talk about identifying with a character.

Scudéry followed the success of this colossus with another ten volume novel, Clélie (1654-61), and then several more novels of a mere eight or four volumes.

The Princess of Cleves is only two hundred pages!  No wonder everybody reads nobody reads etc. etc.  Both Artamène and Clélie are in print today, but in drastically condensed four hundred page editions.  Somebody is in some sense reading them.  Graduate students?  The French equivalent of bookish lunatics like me?

The “longest novel” business is so arbitrary.  How big have our long-running detective and fantasy series gotten?  Why don’t they count as one gigantic novel?  The odd thing is I know Madeleine de Scudéry not as a novelist but as a pioneering lady detective, as recounted in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scudéry (1819), where Hoffmann invents the detective story, with numerous elements that later become widespread, yet somehow does not write the first detective story because, see above, there is as yet no such thing.  Literary history works backwards.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Molière and the short French 17th century

I have one point I want to make here about French literature of the 17th century.

Molière and his company played in Paris for only fifteen years, 1658 to 1673, before he died, not onstage but almost, at the age of 51.  Almost all of his surviving comedies were written in Paris.  Some are masterpieces, some are blatant rip-offs of Italian farces; some are prose, some verse.  They form a kind of backbone of the study of literature by French children who start with one of the Italian farces, Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671, Scapin’s Pranks gets the idea across), and move towards the complex verse masterpieces like Tartuffe (1664) and The Misanthrope (1666).

I will testify that this makes a lot of sense.  I have, myself, more or less followed the French youngsters, reading through most of the prose plays.  The verse plays are next.  You do not need much French, a year of college French, to read Les Fourberies de Scapin.  Then you have read – then I had read – Molière in French!  A triumph.

That exact period, when Molière was in Paris, is a miracle in French literature.  It includes the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld (1665), the first half of the Fables of La Fontaine (1668), Pascal’s Pensées (1670), and most of Jean Racine’s plays.  By 1678, just five more years – poor Molière, dead so young – I can add Racine’s Phèdre (1677), Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678), and a couple more books of the Fables.  I can add a lot more than that, but these are just the big ones, the core of the 17th century, heck, of French literature, as it is read and taught now.

Twenty years.  Corneille’s plays precede Molière, and a number of important works, like Perrault’s Contes, are later.  But, I mean, wow, that one amazing stretch, 1659 (when Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules, his first important play, was produced) to 1678.  It includes so much.

In 1659, Louis XIV was 21.  He and his court were not installed at Versailles.  This is exactly the period when the old hunting lodge was being renovated, and the Versailles as we know it, with its gardens and mirrors, was created.

It was a culturally energetic period.

My impression is that, over a long period, for example the 20th century, there has been a shift in French culture and education and theater performance from Racine to Molière.   Molière seems more alive, not that there are not plenty of performances of Racine and Corneille.  Not that the poor French students do not still have to read Racine.

There were other playwrights of the period, too.  I have seen the names of some of them.  I have no idea what they wrote.  I remember reading that French playwrights commonly stole from the Spanish stage as well as the Italian, but Molière just stole from the Italians, so I don’t know who was pilfering from Lope de Vega.  English playwrights freely looted all of them.

Next I want to write about 17th century French novels, a subject about which I know almost nothing.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Beginning the 17th century at a young age - La Fontaine and Perrault

In practice, for French readers, French literature begins in the 17th century.  Two works, really, that are not exactly children’s books but that are perfectly adaptable for children, the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine (1668-94) and the Contes of Charles Perrault (1697), or Les Contes de ma Mère l'OyeStories from My Mother Goose.

Early on, when my French reading level was that of a little child, I went to a Paris bookstore specializing in children’s books, Chantelivre, where I asked for the poetry section.  It was only a shelf or two, even in this store, and it was mostly illustrated selections of La Fontaine’s Fables, dozens of different editions of La Fontaine, a few poems, many poems, simplified poems, the real thing.  Luckily there was also a lonely copy of Les Plus Beaux Poèmes pour les enfants (The Most Beautiful Poems for Children), featuring a surprising number of poems about dead and dying mothers, which is more what I was looking for.  Still, I learned something about the place of the Fables in French culture just by looking at that shelf.

In a sense, we have them in American culture, too, and in a sense not.  The Fables are poetic versions of (mostly) Aesop’s Fables, beginning with “The Grasshopper and the Ant”:

La cigale, ayant chanté
      Tout l'été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue:
Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau.

The grasshopper, having sung
       All summer long,
Found himself much deprived
When the North Wind arrived:
Not a lone little bite
Of worm or of fly.

Look at the rhymes and sounds I was able to keep.  But why am I translating this myself, when I have Marianne Moore:

Until fall, a grasshopper
                 Chose to chirr;
With starvation as foe
When northeasters would blow,
And not even a gnat’s residue
Or caterpillar’s to chew…

I had wondered, reading Moore’s 1954 translation of the Fables long ago, how much of what I was reading was La Fontaine, and now that I have read (about half of) La Fontaine in French, I can see that the answer is that Moore includes a lot of herself and a lot of the original.  She keeps form, even line lengths, rhymes, plus the stories and characters and morals, some of which go on longer than the fable itself.

What a perfect match of translator to text.  But how many children find Aesop in Moore’s, or any, poetic form?  You likely remember that a big chunk of La Fontaine is on the reading list for next year’s Bac.  For many students, these will be poems and stories familiar from their earliest experience with books.

We have the Charles Perrault Contes, too, although I believe now we call them Disney stories.  Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard.  No Disney version of that, surely.  Retelling fairy tales was a popular activity in intellectual salons of the time, and I do not believe anyone knows whether the Contes were written for children or for an adult salon audience.  Both, I assume.  They are pretty sophisticated, rhetorically and linguistically, more so than the Grimm Brothers equivalent.   They are longer than the Grimm texts.  They are more composed.  But they lend themselves to simplification and illustration.  They lend themselves to rewriting.  There are a number of later periods in French literary history when writers become excited about the idea of the “conte” as opposed to the modern short story.  It is still a live form.

I had never, myself, read Perrault in English. Just versions of the stories.

Is there an equivalent in English literature, where children encounter the 17th century early on, and keep returning to it, even unto a painful exam to graduate from high school?  Maybe in the days of The Pilgrim’s Progress and Tales from Shakespeare, but that was before my time.  How much youthful Bible reading is of the King James Version?

In France, they start young.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

"Of the Bac" by Michel de Montaigne - eight times I have abandoned them

Charles Dantzig, author of the Selfish Dictionary of French Literature, gives the impression that he has read everything, but not quite.  Of Montaigne (Michel de):

It will be for my old age, Montaigne.  Eight times I have decided to read the Essays: all right, this time, the whole thing, all the way to the end!  Eight times I have abandoned them, the longest after two hundred pages.  He does not speak to me much, or I don’t hear him much.  (654)

He dislikes Montaigne’s narcissism, his gossiping, his French.  His French!  But I have only read him in Donald Frame’s English.  No, as with Rabelais and Proust, I have read a few French pages extracted in a school edition of I do not remember what.  Montaigne is too hard.  He is hard enough in English – difficult rhetorically, really, the challenge being to follow the flow of thought and quotation.

They are hard enough that two essays count as a book.  What do I mean by that.  French students take a series of exams to graduate from high school, including a substantial baccalaureate exam, written and oral, on French literature.  I saw them in the library, coming back early from vacation to study for their bac.  The Lyon public library was never more full of high school students than on the last few days of vacation.

This year’s texts were announced in April.  “You can already begin the reading.”  I feel that should have an exclamation point.  It is quite a reading list, although the student is only responsible for one work from each category.  No, you don’t choose; your teacher chooses.  That website will croak, so here is the list:

Poetry of the 19th to the 21st century
Victor Hugo, Les Contemplations, books I to IV
Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil
Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools

The literature of ideas from the 16th to the 18th century
Montaigne, Essays, “Of Cannibals” and “Of Coaches,” in modern French translation
Jean de la Fontaine, Fables (books VII to XI)
Montesquieu, Persian Letters

The novel and the story from the Middle Ages to the 21st century
Madame de Lafayette, The Princess of Clèves
Stendhal, The Red and Black
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian

The theater from the 17th to the 21st century
Jean Racine, Phèdre
Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro
Samuel Beckett, Happy Days

Pretty good list, right?  If you are reading for fun, not for a test.  I have read two from each category.  Three works from the 17th century, two from the 18th, three from the 19th, three from the 20th – no idea why the headers say “21st” – and just one from the 16th, and that’s just two essays, 23 pages in Frame’s edition, big pages, admittedly.  There are suddenly a half-dozen school editions with just these two essays and another hundred pages or more of supplementary material.  Context, ideas, additional texts, relevant artwork.  “The important words,” writing exercises, analysis of grammar.  I am looking at the table of contents of this French edition.  Even for me, this is kinda painful.

Honestly, I like Montaigne plenty, but I hope my teacher picks Jean de la Fontaine.