Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Rise of David Levinsky - nothing short of a miracle - devoid of significance

Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) is an immigrant rags-to-riches novel.  Levinsky comes to America “with four cents in my pocket,” an orphan, and by the end is “worth more than two  million dollars and recognized as one of the two or three leading men in the cloak-and-suit trade in the United States.”  His memoir, though, is about his “inner identity,” which has not changed.  On the one hand, he has gone through changes that are “nothing short of a miracle;” on the other they are “devoid of significance.”  All of these quotations are from the novel’s first paragraph.  I have never read a Horatio Alger novel, but I assume that Cahan differentiates himself from one in a few lines.

Cahan’s novel is dated in a couple of ways.  His character explains a lot about Judaism and his culture:

A Talmudic education was until recent years practically the only kind of  education a Jewish boy of old-fashioned parents received.  I spent seven  years at it, not counting the several years of Talmud which I had had at the  various cheders.

What is the Talmud?  (Book II, “Enter Satan,” Ch. 1)

And then he explains what the Talmud is.  Not that we do not still need novels, or whatever, that tell gentiles what the Talmud is, but I think there are many more books with this educational aspect than were available in 1917.

Second, there are a number of scenes, especially early in the novel when Levinsky arrives in America, describing Jewish New York, mostly the Lower East Side, that are a delight but are in some sense now historical.  There are now many descriptions of the time and place.  We have translations from Yiddish writers now, for example, the plays of Jacob Gordin or Sholem Aleichem’s Motl the Cantor’s Son or poets like Moishe Leib Halpern – or literary histories like Ruth Wisse’s Little Love in Big Manhattan, about those poets – making Cahan’s Jewish New York more familiar.

The art of the novel lies in its voice, which curiously means in its simulation of artlessness.  Cahan’s short stories from twenty years earlier, the AmericanizedChekhov of The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of Yiddish New York (1898) were more artful in their language, detail, and imagery.  But why would David Levinsky, who runs a garment factory, write as well as Abraham Cahan?  Levinsky is intelligent and educated, however narrowly, but he does not write as if he has made his living by writing for forty years.

A late section set in the Catskills is an exception, with Levinsky finding a more poetic, metaphorical style, but that is because he is in love.  His tone when writing about his business is entirely different.  Much of the art of the novel is in how Cahan matches Levinsky’s rhetorical mode to his psychological state at any given time.

Levinsky is not exactly an unreliable narrator, in that he is never dishonest and never seems to deliberately hide anything, but there are plenty of times where he seems to have trouble hearing himself.  The novel is a clever exercise in readerly sympathy.  In his business practices,  especially, Levinsky is pretty ruthless, without much investigation of his own ethics.  In business, in sales, in relations with his employees, anything goes.  He can be self-pitying, a braggart, a bit of a schlemiel with women.  He is kind of annoying.  He is an artful character, but some of that artfulness is conceptual.

Readers like me will enjoy how his life is ruined, or saved, or anyways permanently changed when he is given a copy of Dombey and Son and has to rearrange his job, his life, everything, so that he has time to read it.

D. G. Myers’s review fills in some of my gaps.

Monday, January 28, 2019

sometimes life makes its own books - they do if you're Langston Hughes - his memoir The Big Sea

Another memoir, The Big Sea (1940) by Langston Hughes.  It covers his childhood, his time as a sailor and in Europe, and the Harlem Renaissance, to break it into rough thirds.  These are interesting subjects.  If Hughes had never written a poem, but somehow had still written some version of this book, a version with fewer poems, it would still be a good book.  Hughes lived an interesting life.

Hughes’s mode is conversational and humorous.  Not exactly plain; not fancy.  Here is Hughes in Paris, where he is finally doing alright, working as a busboy in a black nightclub:

That room was right out of a book, and I began to say to myself that I guess dreams do come true, and sometimes life makes its own books, because here I am living in a Paris garret, writing poems and having champagne for breakfast (because champagne is what we had with our breakfast at the Grand Duc from the half-empty bottles left by unsuspecting guests, in their ice buckets – thanks to their fleet removal by the waiters). (II, “Paris in the Spring,” 136)

I am trying to learn something about the 1920s, so this book was perfect, maybe even essential.  “At the height of the Negro Renaissance I was a student at Lincoln University, spending my week-ends and holidays in New York” (III, “Lincoln University,” 212), meaning that Hughes has some healthy distance from whatever is going on in Harlem, yet he gets a good dose of everything – the personalities, the music, the parties, the eventual collapse along with the stock market and the economy.

But that is always his position, the writer’s position.  He is not quite in the middle of things.  Maybe just one step away.  He is always aware of what is going on around him, or so he makes it appear in retrospect, but I will bet it was true.

Hughes’s work as a sailor, up and down the western coast of Africa and in the Atlantic, was never as bad as what was portrayed in B. Traven’s crazy novel The Death Ship (1926), but it was definitely in the same general world.  That Traven novel, now there is another interesting book about the 1920s.  Do not lose your passport!  Hughes has enough trouble when his is stolen in Italy – “I got as hungry in Genoa as I’ve ever been in my life (except in Madrid, years later, during the Civil War)” (II, “Beachcomber,” 155).  But at least he does not end up on a death ship.

I will have to read the sequel, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), to see what Hughes does in Spain.

Page numbers are from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Volume 13.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

This last thought completely stunned me. - the last volume of the Education of Maxim Gorky

My Universities (1923) is the third volume of The Education of Maxim Gorky, my title for the trilogy, not Gorky's, but it fits.  Young Gorky, age 15, orphaned, with no resources he does not carry with him, moves to Kazan with the hope – utterly futile – that he can attend college.  Kazan is a change, though, identifiable as a “college town.”  It is full of student radicals, Tolstoyans, oddballs, and most importantly for Gorky, the future Gorky, ideas and books.  There is a thick, yeasty ferment of ideas, good, bad, and crazy.

Sometimes it is as if Gorky had moved to, I don’t know, Haight-Ashbury in 1966. It is not the Summer of Love yet, but there is a strong hippie haze.  I mean like this:

The fat lecturer, who was blind drunk, was sitting on the floor in his underwear with a guitar in his hands amidst a chaos of furniture, beer bottles, and discarded clothes.  There he sat, rocking himself and growling: ‘Mer-cy…’ (88, ellipses in original)

Gorky worked in a radical bakery.  With one eye on the police, he was able to include objects besides bread in his deliveries – messages, pamphlets, books.  He becomes friends with the grocer who “possessed the best collection of banned and rare books in the town,” a library for the student radicals kept “in a secret storeroom”:

Some of the books had been copied in ink into thick notebooks, for example Lavrov’s Historical Letters, Chernyshevsky’s What is to be done?, a few articles by Pisarev, Tsar Hunger, and Crafty Tricks.  All of these manuscripts were well thumbed and had been read again and again.  (36)

The secret police spent a fair amount of their time searching for illicit printing presses; this is the result, a living system of circulating manuscripts.

There is a joke about the kind of well-meaning reformer who loves humanity but hates people, with Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House as the great fictional example.  Gorky is the opposite.  He has the lowest opinion of humanity, of any hint of a mob.  He loves people, though, and the book is about the people who were his great teachers, even when they were wrong, or nuts, or both.

‘People seek oblivion, comfort, but not knowledge!’

This last thought completely stunned me.  (53)

I wish I had read Gorky’s autobiography a long time ago.  It’s view of Russia, or part of it, from the bottom, from a writer of such intelligence and energy, is unique.

Page numbers are from the Penguin edition, the Roland Wilks translation.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, a philosophical war fantasy stained with ulfire

David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) is some kind of “good bad book,” I suppose, in the ambitious rather than escapist category.  It is an exploration of modern philosophical ideas by means of a fantastic journey on another planet.  Characters have names like Maskull and Nightspore and grow and lose third arms and eighth eyes as they move around.  They debate the meaning of all things, often with paradoxes:

“You think you are thoroughly disillusioned, don’t you?  Well, that may prove to be the last and strongest illusion of all.”  (Ch. 20, “Barey”)

That line is said to Maskull, near the end of the novel, by Krag, who is the devil, or god, or, given the gnosticism of the novel, both.

If this sort of thing sounds too awful to read, then it will be.  I like it pretty well.  I understand the philosophy a lot better than when I read it twenty-five years ago.  I had thought of the ethos of the novel as generally gnostic, which it is, but now I saw more specific investigations of specific philosophical ideas.

There is the Nietzschean side.  Maskull, as he moves from one nearly uninhabited landscape to another, has trouble not murdering almost everyone he meets.  “’So you’ve been trying to find Surtur [god, maybe] on your own account, during the intervals between killing and fondling?’”  That’s Krag, again, on the same page, one of the few lines that suggests Lindsay has a sense of humor, or at least a sense of how ludicrous his story is.

Then there is Schopenhauer, lots of Schopenhauer.  The real story, roughly, is that Maskull is, like David Lindsay, a disillusioned war veteran who believes his, our, world is merely a representation of some more “real” world.  By means of Will, I guess, he penetrates the veil and travels to Arcturus, only to discover that there is likely an even more “real” world behind this one.  “’Side by side with it [this world] another world exists, and that other world is the true one, and this one is all false and deceitful, to the very core’” (Ch. 14, “Polecrab”).  The novel describes his search for the real real world, which involves walking, climbing, and sailing due north, and murdering people.

Myself, I value the novel for its invention.  It is a fantasy of the purest quality, freed from almost all constraints of sense.  Arcturus has five primary colors, ours plus jale and ulfire, and this is not a throwaway gag, but used throughout the book (“It was an intense jale-blue. The whole northern atmosphere was stained with ulfire,” Ch. 20).  There is a mountain range that is in constant upheaval, with mountains rising and sinking with no warning.  There is a lake that can be played like a musical instrument, except the “music” is – this is the craziest thing in the book – an artillery attack:

When he came to his senses again, he saw everything.  Teargeld was gleaming brilliantly.  He was lying by the side of the old lake, but it was now a crater, to the bottom of which his eyes could not penetrate.  The hills encircling it were torn, as if by heavy gunfire.  A few thunderclouds were floating in the air at no great height, from which branched lightning descended to the earth incessantly, accompanied by alarming and singular crashes.  (Ch. 15, “Swaylone’s Island”)

I do not think that Lindsay is inventing here.  I will omit the description, a couple of paragraphs later, of a mangled corpse, a victim of the “music.”  For at least this one scene, A Voyage to Arcturus is a novel about the war.

Monday, January 14, 2019

falling to pieces, disintegrating - The Radetzky March

I have not been writing but I have been reading good books.  The best was The Radetzky March (1932).  The best novel.  There, I have set aside Yeats and The Tower.  The best novel.  Great novel.

Joseph Roth’s book would have fit in well several years ago when I spent a year or so reading a lot of Austrian literature.  His story of three generations of the Trotta family, military men or civil servants, and I mean “men” since the mothers sadly all die early, is in many ways a summation of earlier Austrian literature.  I thought the dialogue with Arthur Schnitzler was particularly explicit.  Roth will have his young officer work his way through most of the idiocy Schnitzler inflicts on his young officers – duels, gambling debts, destructive affairs.

The timing is central, though.  Roth begins his novel at the Battle of Solferino in 1859, but soon enough the pace and page count make it obvious that the novel will end with World War I.  All of the ideas of glory and honor, along with the duels and suicides, will be blown up, along with everything else, in the war.  It is an immense, blatant irony that the narrator openly mentions on occasion, noting that soon the officers in some scene will all be killed.

I know; Roth knows; every one of his readers knows.  “The country of the Trottas was falling to pieces, disintegrating” (Ch. 19, 288).  The Austrian Empire, a great culture in so many ways, could find nothing better to do with its young men than park them on the border in anticipation of war.  So of course war came.

The second great irony for Roth: in 1932, are we Austrians so sure that the break, before the war and after, is so clean?  Historical irony is the worst irony.

If I were to write more about The Radetzky March, I would write a post about Ch. 15, which is from the perspective of Emperor Franz Joseph I.  “Better far to seem simple than wise” (208).  The irony here is that he is present in the first scene – in the novel’s third paragraph – and alive for the entire fifty-seven years of the novel, dying two pages from the end.  “’I wish I’d been killed at Solferino,’ he said.  They did not hear” (317).  But what was he supposed to do?  What choice did he have?

Another post would have been about the big party scene at the end.  The announcement of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the spark of a war that will massacre the officers at the party, coincides with a massive thunderstorm.  It is a literal crashing irony.  Roth is a bold writer.

I think my favorite piece is Chapter  9, a description of a swampy borderland in Galicia, right in the middle of what I know will become a horrific bloodland, and not much fun for an army officer before that.

No one was as strong as the swamp.  No one could hold out against the borderland…  The isolation and swampy boredom of the garrison sometimes drove an officer to despair, to gambling, to debt, and into the company of sinister men.  The cemeteries of the frontier garrisons concealed many young corpses of weak men. (122-3)

Not that it would be much better, soon enough, to be strong.

The title page of the Overlook edition says “Translated by Eva Tucker based on an earlier translation by Geoffrey Dunlop.”  That original translation was from 1933.  This was a popular novel in some sense.  Well done, readers of 1933.