Friday, May 31, 2019

A bit of Kristin Lavransdatter - What if she screamed now so that her voice pierced through the song and the deep, droning male voices

Since I am going to Norway for a little vacation and am reading around in the 1920s, I read the first volume of Sigrid Undset’s beloved Kristin Lavransdatter, The Wreath (1920), the story of a young woman who is a Strong Female Character even for 14th century Norway, when the women generally seem pretty strong.

I read the 2005 Tiina Nunnally translation which is obviously superior to the old one, the beloved one.  Undset wrote in a plain style with lyrical interludes, much like so many novels written today, and was sexually frank in a way that is surprisingly not so far from another novel from 1920, Women in Love, and Lawrence had to publish that by private subscription to avoid the obscenity laws that squashed The Rainbow.  The older translation is full of pseudo-medieval “aughts” and “naughts” and “thees” and “thous”; Nunnally cleans out all of that and restores substantial passages that were too sexy for the Americans and English in the 1920s, so this is “the first unabridged English translation,” Nunnally says in her translator’s note.

But it is the older translation that was beloved by a large number of readers.  It is obviously inferior, but maybe I should have read the novel that people really read, the text of the phenomenon.  Do I want the phenomenon or the novel itself?  I guess the novel itself, and I guess the new one is closer.

In the novel itself, remembering that we are in a plausible and well-researched 14th century Norway, Kristin is first a child, then a teen who is promised to one man but falls in love with a bad boy, and finally through cussedness and suffering marries the one she wants.  Those are the three parts of the book.  The ethos is what I would call feminist, a challenge from the 14th century to the 20th, and very feminine.  Kristin makes butter, Kristin cooks, Kristin goes shoe shopping.  I can see why some readers love this book, and why others are bored to tears.

Characters in The Wreath, male and female, regularly burst into tears.  “Then Kristin burst into tears” (III.6).  Kristin Lavransdatter seems to be an exercise in mentalité, an attempt to novelize not just the clothes and customs of an earlier time, but also the psychology, the ways of thinking.  The characters are meant to be a little bit alien.  They are like us, but also definitely not.

But as Dion sang so long ago, "Well, if you want to make me cry, that won't be so hard to do," and The Wreath is about a "Teenager in Love." They are not like us, but then again are.

The long wedding scene that fills roughly the last sixth of the novel is formally the most interestingly scene.  Undset parallels a carefully reconstructed wedding of the time – clothes, language, ritual – with the increasingly chaotic thoughts of the heroine.  It is a bit Expressionist.  “Kristin thought: What if she screamed now so that her voice pierced through the song and the deep, droning male voices and reverberated out over the crowd?” (III.8).  Many motifs of the novel, not necessarily so interesting by themselves, are pulled together in the wedding, at both the “material” and “psychological” levels.

I know, it is not a great recommendation – “the last thirty pages are really good!”  Well, that is one way novels work.

My favorite novelistic detail, easily: “The titmice clung to the timbered walls and hopped around on the sunny side; the pecking of their beaks resounded as they looked for flies asleep in the gaps between the wood” (III.4).  An observation, I suspect, from the 20th century, or the 19th, from Undset’s childhood, another way to link the past and present.

Monday, May 20, 2019

texts chosen at random - Fench novels, Virginia Woolf, and a lot more - Auerbach says "write your own book!"

Wrapping up Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis.  He ends with three chapters on the modern novel, mostly French, but covering a lot of territory.

19. “Germinie Lacerteux,” Goncourt brothers, Flaubert, Zola.

This chapter is by itself a history of the 19th century French novel, repeating some of the ideas of the previous Stendhal / Balzac / Flaubert chapter.   It is too bad that Auerbach begins with the novel that is not read much, but it is too useful for his purposes, since it is about a servant, a maid, which links back to the passage from the Odyssey in Chapter 1.  And the background of Germinie Lacerteux (1865) is useful, hilarious – the longtime servant of the brothers dies and they discover that she had her own life, that she was human, thus inspiring the novel.  How do you represent such a person?  Can a novel be built from “the sensory fascination of the ugly, the repulsive, and the morbid” (499)?  I know, now this sounds ridiculous.  It might have sounded slightly ridiculous at the time to a reader who – but now I am repeating my doubts about Zola’s “ideas.”

Auerbach has great fun with Zola.  “Even today, after half a century the last decades of which have brought us experiences such as Zola never dreamed of, Germinal is still a terrifying book” (512).  So-called Naturalism died off because “there was no one left to vie with him in working capacity, in mastery of the life of the time, in determination and courage” (515).

This chapter is so expansive that it includes significant sections on 19th century German and Russian literature, plus Ibsen.

20. “The Brown Stocking,” Woolf and Proust.

The passage with which Auerbach begins is the longest in Mimesis, three and a half pages of To the Lighthouse (1927) in which Mrs. Ramsay knits a sock and thinks, or maybe just exists.  Auerbach then summarizes the passage, which takes him six pages, or perhaps eight.  Woolf’s text is so compressed that merely describing it expands it.

That is pretty much all Auerbach does with Woolf’s text.  He just looks at it.  Looking at it carefully is a lot of work and source of insight.

When I noted a few posts ago that Mimesis was half French, I was understating, since I was counting this chapter as English, when it is actually half French.  Auerbach moves to Woolf to some passages from Proust, and then wanders freely – Joyce, Hamsun, Mann, Gide.  He writes that he “could never have written anything in the nature of a history of European realism; the material would have swamped me” (548).  Well, the book he did write is quite the substitute.


Auerbach describes his method.  Take some texts – passage, really – from each period and use them as “test cases for my ideas.”  Which texts?  “[T]he great majority of the texts were chosen at random, on the basis of accidental acquaintance and personal preference rather than in view of a definite purpose” (556), which is random in a sense but maybe not in some other senses.  He wishes he had been able to cover more “English, Spanish, and German texts” (557).  He wrote Mimesis in Istanbul, in exile, away from a research library.

As useful as always, the commenters at Languagehat pointed me to Edward Said’s introduction to the 2014 edition of Mimesis.  Said argues that some features of the book are personal responses to the war.  France is a conquered country; Germany is the conqueror.  Auerbach is righting the balance.  Maybe so.

In the end, the reader is left to fill in the gaps, pick his own passages from various languages, and write his own book, possibly in some other form.

Which book should we all read together next?  European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages or what?  What will possibly be as good as Mimesis?

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Auerbach on Voltaire, Goethe, Balzac - we've reached the modern novel - They will then seem most real.

I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them.  They will then seem most real.  (The Good Soldier, 1915, Ford Madox Ford, Part 4.1)

16. “The Interrupted Supper,” Abbé Prévost, Voltaire, the Duc de Saint-Simon.

The French 18th century, with all that drags in.  “In the literature of the eighteenth century tears begin to assume an importance which they had not previously possessed as an independent motif” (397).  Thank goodness for the “light, agile, and as it were appetizing” Voltaire.  It is Rousseau who poisoned everything.

… [Voltaire] is free from the cloudy, contour-blurring, overemotional rhetoric, equally destructive of clear thinking and pure feeling, which came to the fore in the authors of the Enlightenment during the second half of the century and in the authors of the Revolution, which had a still more luxuriant growth in the nineteenth century through the influence of romanticism, and which has continued to produce its loathsome flowers down to our day.  (407)

For Auerbach, romanticism is long regression, a slide away from reality.

The section on the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon introduces, a new theme, historicism, which moves us to:

17. “Miller the Musician,” Schiller and Goethe.

More German literature more generally, really.  This is a complex, subtle chapter that will, for readers of Wuthering Expectations, contain few surprises.  German imaginative literature, in the 19th century, was off in its own world, wrestling with the Ideal while other literary traditions made big moves toward the Real, ironically influenced in many cases by 18th century German historicism (Auerbach calls it “Historism”), meaning that a good novel, for example, is not just set in a specific time and place but is in some important way engages with the setting.  Comments on it, critiques it, whatever.  We take this almost for granted now.  Every Trollope novel I have read does this.  Adalbert Stifter novellas do not.  Roughly speaking.

Auerbach blames Goethe, obviously, such a giant that he is responsible for everything that happens in German literature for a hundred years, but more specifically his response to the French Revolution, “his aversion to everything violent and explosive” (447).  Goethe responds directly to the Revolution, but he does so by shifting towards Classicism, towards some kind of Idealism.  I guess I never wrote about this before, but Nicholas Boyle writes about it in detail in Goethe: The Poet and the Age Volume II: Revolution and Renunciation, 1790-1803 (2000).

This is an unusual chapter of Mimesis.

18. “In the Hôtel de la Mole,” Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert.

Many readers should probably skip from Chapter 1 to here, since Auerbach writes about modern novels for the last three chapters.  I know, many of you only care about novels.  That is fine.  You are a creature of the age.  You cannot help it.

Here is Auerbach saying what I just said up above:

[Balzac] not only, like Stendhal, places the human beings whose destiny he is seriously relating, in their precisely defined historical and social setting, but also conceives this connection as a necessary one: to him every milieu becomes a moral and physical atmosphere which impregnates the landscape, the dwelling, furniture, implements, clothing, physique, character, surroundings, ideas, activities, and fates of men, and at the same time the general historical situation reappears as a total atmosphere which envelops all its several milieu. (473)

Auerbach has – obviously! – chosen a chunk of the opening of Père Goriot, the long description of the boarding house, as his representative Balzac passage, a landmark in prose fiction.  I have expressed, all over Wuthering Expectations, a lot of skepticism about the value and even the existence of Realism or even so-called “realism,” so it might seem that I do not have much sympathy with Auerbach’s project.  Yet I spend a lot of time quoting writers describing furniture.  But Auerbach is really writing about, as in his subtitle, the “representation of reality.”  It is the representation that is changing so much over the centuries.  It is the representation that matters.

These last chapters could have been their own little book, and one that more people would have read.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Erich Auerbach on Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, etc. - the lyrico-everyday polyphony

Erich Auerbach has gotten to (early) modern literature.  Things should roar along now.

11. “The World in Pantagruel’s Mouth,” Rabelais, obviously.

Pantagruel is a giant, so big that there are people and cities and so on in his mouth. Maybe you are living in Pantagruel’s mouth right now!  We are in a sense a long ways from a “representation of reality,” but of course the great fun of the conceit is the realistic portrayal of human civilization in a fantastic context.  As far as Auerbach’s running themes, we get the increased role of ordinary people in literature, the mixing of styles, and one of the greatest examples of what I call baroque prose, but Auerbach calls “his lyrico-everyday polyphony” (282), a phrase I would adopt if I thought anyone would understand it.

Auerbach wonders if Rabelais really belongs in Mimesis (282 again), except that he is so much fun.  Who would want to omit him?

12.  “L’Humaine Condition,” Montaigne.

Maybe Auerbach should have omitted this one (and published it separately – it is a wonderful essay).  Montaigne offers an extreme case for Auerbach, a “random life” presented in great detail.  For  a page number, see 298, 299, and many others – the word “random” recurs frequently.

13.  “The Weary Prince,” Shakespeare, specifically Henry IV, Pt. 2, but ranging widely, and then Goethe.

In the last few chapters, Auerbach has been concerned that the mixing of styles and levels, Classical and Christian, low and high, is good for comedy and personal essays, but destroys tragedy.   In this chapter, he works in the other direction.

“I open a volume of Shakespeare at random and come across [a bit of Macbeth]” (325) – this is, really, Auerbach’s method.  Start with a passage - any passage - and move outwards.

Auerbach is open about Shakespeare’s “often unrealistic style” (327).  Shakespeare is another example of a baroque style, really, a writer almost too concerned, for Auerbach’s purposes, with linguistic play.  But Shakespeare does everything, so here he is.  How tired we all are of Shakespeare doing everything.

Speaking of which.

14.  “The Enchanted Dulcinea,” Don Quixote, starting with one of the endless great bits of Part 2.

It is possible that I have read so much about Don Quixote that Auerbach’s chapter just looks like one more terrific essay about Don Quixote.  I hope I never tire of reading about Don Quixote.

15.  “The Faux Devot,” Jean de La Bruyère, Molière, Corneille, Racine.

Or the unmixed style, the return to Classicism, especially Racine’s attempt to find a pure form of the tragic style in French, so pure that it strips away much of what Auerbach finds valuable – detail, sociology, anything but the most intense psychology.  “[I]t is comparable with the isolating procedure used in modern scientific experiments to create the most favorable conditions; the phenomenon is observed with no disturbing factors and in unbroken continuity” (383).

Even Molière is surprisingly narrow.  It has struck me as I have read through him in French – his easier prose plays, still, but there are a number of those – how limited his range and rhetoric are compared to Shakespeare.  I would not subject many writers to a comparison with Shakespeare, but Molière can handle it.  The thing he does is perfect of its kind.

I just blasted through Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Molière.  Ridiculous.  Next: the novel.  Exciting!

Friday, May 17, 2019

More is packed into this passage than in any of the others we have so far discussed in this book - Dante's miracle and its consequences

An “earnest and likeable” student has asked Professor Joseph Epstein for a post-graduation reading list.  He fears his Northwestern University education was inadequate.

An obvious answer would have been to tell him to read the Bible straight through – something I myself have never done – and then proceed to read the Iliad and the Odyssey back to back.  Yet this advice, I felt, would only have depressed him; and contemplating it briefly, sound though it was as advice, I had to admit that it depressed me a little too.  (“p. 34, “Joseph Epstein’s Lifetime Reading Plan,” in Once More Around the Block, 1987)

Epstein’s actual advice can be found in this oldie.  Still, the Bible, the Odyssey – I mean, they are going to come up again.  For example, in Mimesis:

8. “Farinata and Cavalcante,” Dante

Auerbach is a real Dante specialist, so he does not need to wander too far from the exemplary passage he chooses.  It does everything.  “More is packed into this passage than in any of the others we have so far discussed in this book…” (178).

Some praise: “But if we start from his predecessors, Dante’s language is a well-nigh incomprehensible miracle” (182).  The divergent Classical and Christian tracks suddenly converge in Hell, in Dante’s rhetoric and language as much as in his big, wild theological system.  The mixing of styles is going to be a running theme for the rest of Mimesis.  In Dante, “nowhere does mingling of styles come so close to violation of all style” (185).

I am pulling out phrases that have some punch, but they are almost always supported by a paragraph or more of evidence.  As evidence of the Dantean linguistic miracle, Auerbach spends a page working on the Dante’s use of the word da, a preposition.

If it is funny that a book on the “representation of reality” hinges on a poet wandering around Hell with a ghost, first, Auerbach finds it funny too, and second, reality has many sides.  “More accurately than antique literature was ever able to present it, we are given to see, in the realm of timeless being, the history of man’s inner life and unfolding” (202).

9. “Frate Alberto”, Boccaccio and some earlier tales for the purpose of contrast

The idea here is that there is a medieval genre of short, funny, pathetic, improving, or obscene tales.  Why are the ones in Decameron any better?  The mixing of styles, especially rhetorical levels, allowing a greater emphasis on sensory detail and characters who are ordinary people.  “Boccaccio’s characters live on earth and only on earth” (224).  But it is his rhetorical skill that allows them to live at all.

It sometimes seems like Auerbach’s is steering the book towards the modern novel, towards Proust.

10.  “Madame du Chastel,” Antoine de la Sale and a bit of Fifteen Joys of Marriage

Narrative passages that are “literary representations of a night conversation between a married couple” (250), one of which is about a wife wanting a new dress. The texts are from the 15th century, but they still feel medieval.  French has not caught up with Boccaccio’s Italian.  But the next chapter is about Rabelais.  Oh yeah!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Auerbach in the Middle Ages - It is a reawakening of the directly sensible

We’re enjoying Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a chapter at a time, but more briefly than yesterday.

3. “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres,” Ammianus Marcellinus, The Golden Ass, Augustine’s Confessions

Late Classical Latin, with three genres, history, a novel, and something truly new, Augustine’s memoir.  “Equally at home in the world of classical rhetoric and in that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, he may well have been the first to become conscious of the problem of the stylistic contrast between the two worlds” (72-3), between classical and Christian prose.  That is the kind of thing that is likely to be wrong, but it sounds right to me.

With Ammianus, who I have not otherwise read, Auerbach introduces the idea of Baroque prose.  “With glittering words and pompously distorted constructions language begins to depict the distorted, gory, and spectral reality of the age” (57).  Or else the writer is just goofing around with language.  We can debate this and swing back and forth for the next two millennia.

4. “Sicharius and Chramnesindus,” Gregory of Tours

A complete change has taken place since the days of Ammanius and Augustine.  Of course, as has often been observed, it is a decadence, a decline in culture and verbal disposition, but it is not only that.  It is a reawakening of the directly sensible.  (93-4)

Gregory’s Latin may stink, but he can tell a punchy story.

Now we skip five hundred years, because “so few texts that can be used for our investigation have survived from his period and indeed from the entire half of the second millennium” (95).  We’re not supposed to call this the Dark Ages anymore, but Auerbach is right.

5. “Roland against Ganelon,” The Song of Roland

Here I will stop to note that there are sixteen chapters left, and the linguistic division is: two Italian, two English, one German, one Spanish and thus (I will need all of my fingers) ten chapters about French literature.  Which sounds about right to me.  Auerbach only glances at Russian literature because discussion “is impossible when one cannot read the works in their original language” (Ch. 18, 492), and he completely ignores American literature because he, I don’t know, does not care, however much I would love to read his (imaginary) chapter on Moby-Dick.

Mimesis is half French.  And Auerbach, and for that matter the translator, Willard Trask, assumes we all read French.  Long passages are translated, but untranslated sentences and phrases are scattered everywhere.

6.  “The Knight Sets Forth,” Chrétien de Troyes

As marvelous as the Arthurian romances of Chrétien may be, to Auerbach they are a regression, a move away from the depiction of reality.  In a familiar move, he criticizes the world-building of the Arthurian romances.  How does the economy work?  Who is paying for all of these isolated enchanted castles?  Not that he is wrong, but it is amusing.

7.  “Adam and Eve,” a 12th century French Christmas play, Mystère d'Adam, plus texts by Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi

 I’ll just note that Auerbach assumes no one has read the play, since he describes it in some detail, but of course everyone knows the basic story.

With the help of mystery plays and writerly saints, we are on our way to Dante and Shakespeare.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity - beginning Erich Auerbach's Mimesis

Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946, tr. Willard Trask) was the final book in my hodgepodge reading of classics of literary criticism.  It’s a great book.  Let’s go through each of the twenty chapters.  From Homer and Genesis in the first chapter to Woolf and Proust in the last.  Mimesis is, among, other things, a literary history.

1. “Odysseus’ Scar,” Homer and Genesis.

Readers of the Odyssey will remember the well-prepared and touching scene in book 19, when Odysseus  has at last come home, the scene in which the old housekeeper Euryclea, who had been his nurse, recognizes him by a scar on his thigh.  (p. 3)

This is the first line of the book; it is not typical.  Every other chapter begins with a long, or sometimes very long, quotation in its original language, the text from which Auerbach launches his sermon.  But why quote Homer?  You remember.

At this point, I have read almost every work Auerbach addresses, which certainly helps me follow along.  I do remember.

The first chapter is as much about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis as it is about Homer.  It is a primal text in comparative literature.  Homer does this; the Genesis author, that.  “It would be difficult, then, to imagine styles more contrasted than those of these two equally ancient and equally epic texts” (11).  Homer uses “a definite time” and “a definite place” while in Genesis “time and place are undefined and call for interpretation.”  In Homer, “thoughts and feelings are completely expressed” while in Genesis they “remain unexpressed, only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches.”

Yet both texts are attempts to represent reality.  Different rhetorical devices represent reality in different ways.  Homer merely tries to represent the real, while the Genesis author

… was oriented toward truth.  Woe to the man who did not believe it!  (14)

Although Mimesis is a coherent book, meaning there are transitions from chapter to chapter and arguments that build as the book progresses, every chapter is detachable.  If you want to know about Stendhal, read the Stendhal chapter.  I believe “Odysseus’ Scar” is commonly read on its own. It is a primal example of comparative literature.

2.  “Fortunata,” Petronius, Tacitus, and the Gospel of Mark

Auerbach moves to Rome and Latin, starting with a juicy, digressive page of Trimalchio’s banquet from Satyricon.  It is fiction, in a novel, and in the first person, one character at the banquet describing other characters while inadvertently revealing himself, much like we think fictional narrators do today, and much like we think – I think – people do in reality.  Tacitus is, if anything, behind Petronius.

Auerbach seems to be a believer in progress.  More (representation of) reality is good, less is bad.  Maybe this is a limitation of Mimesis.

The Marxist side of Mimesis comes to the front in this chapter.  Auerbach is interested in how ordinary people are portrayed in literature, how the servants in Homer become more prominent.  How the goofily abstracted shepherds in Tacitus turn into “real” shepherds in Thomas Hardy, say.  My example, not Auerbach’s.  His, in this chapter, is Peter’s denial of Christ in the Gospel of Mark:

A scene like Peter’s denial fits no antique genre.  It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history – and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity. (45)

Progress.  1,900 years and eighteen chapters to go.  I gotta speed this up.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Style in Pontoppidan - comparing translations, complaining about clichés, constructing the comic novel it almost is

I thought Henrik Pontoppidan, in Lykke-Per, was an excellent writer in passages.  Other times, he was not so good: flat and clichéd.

First, though, what is going on in the translations – what a luxury, to have two translations!  In this scene, the sister of the heroine, rich cutie Nanny, is flirting, by means of radishes, with her no-good journalist boyfriend.

Here’s Paul Larkin, the translator I read:

“She told us that you were, ahm, entertaining; so we asked her to show us into this room.  My my Dyrhing, you do have a better class of radish.”

Nanny judiciously picked out a new victim from the plate, dipped it into the salt bowl, and snapped her shining white teeth into it.  (Ch. 8, p. 199)

The whole scene approaches camp.  This is Naomi Lebowitz:

“She told us there was someone with you and showed us in here.  These are really good radishes!”  She selected a new one carefully from the plate, dipped it in the saltcellar, and sank her shining white teeth into it.  (p. 162)

Those are different.  “Snapped” versus “sank” perfectly represents the two translations, every passage I checked.  The translators are working on different editions of the novel, how different I do not know, but my guess is that Larkin thought Lebowitz was too flat, too toneless, so he fixed that, did he ever.

So, discussing the style of Lykke-Per, I have to keep in mind that I am reading the punchy, perhaps even, “ahm,” creative, translation.

Positive Pontoppidan: the parallels in the arc structure; the fairy tale and especially the troll motifs.  Thickly descriptive introductions, to places and people.  Pontoppidan does not describe minor characters as part of scenes, but rather provides an entire “portrait” upon introduction.  The gradual scenic method is more artful, but many of the portraits are outstanding, full of little insightful details.  Places get similar treatment.  Per’s college landlords and their home, at the beginning of Chapter 2, is a descendant of Balzac’s boarding house passage that opens Père Goriot.  The landlords have a series of annual parties, including parties for the canary, commemorating the loss of the husband’s big toe (!), and for the wife’s annual blood-letting, which “was always initiated with a substantial lunch with a chocolate theme.”

And that’s the last we ever hear of that.

The beginning of Chapter 19, a description of a Jutland landscape begins with geology and turns into social history, pushing pirates, Vikings, eel-catchers, “haughty country squires” on “flatulent shire horses,” and Per’s Lutheran minister ancestors across the scenery, finishing with a brand-new character who will at least feature in the novel.

Negative: The clichés really wore me out in places.  Received ideas, received imagery.  “Her heart was in her mouth,” that kind of thing.  But I don’t want to catalogue them.  It is too boring.  Here is a more original image:

Fully lit by the setting sun, the old windmill stood by the ruins of the city ramparts at the end of the square.  As if welcoming the sun’s demise with open arms.  (Ch. 18)

My favorite troll description:

… the mountain trolls who could not face the sun without sneezing, the shadow beings that only really came alive as twilight descended and they could sit on their little hillock playing their fiddle or dainty little glockenspiel.  (Ch. 20)

Were you expecting the troll to have a glockenspiel?  Oh you were.  Fine.  Were you expecting the glockenspiel to be dainty?

Pontoppidan often seemed to be on the edge on turning Lykke-Per into a black comic novel.  It never happens.  He means it, whatever “it” is.  Too bad.

Thanks to Dorian Stuber and everyone else reading along.  I have to get the book back to the library, so I am way ahead of most readalongists, who are all, I believe reading Lebowitz.  Please fill me in on the Nietzsche-Kierkegaard synthesis, which I did not really understand.  Frederic Jameson’s 2011 piece on Lykke-Per is the best thing I have read on the novel, for what that is worth.  Good luck.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

happiness lay in, what else, a renunciation of this world - trying to take the ideas seriously in Lucky Per

I think or fear that the psychology of Lykke-Per is driven by philosophy, and not vice versa, meaning that Henrik Pontoppidan expects you, the reader, to work through Lucky Per’s successive stages of development at a pretty abstract, philosophical level, just like Per does.  Maybe just like Pontoppidan does.

But the more he read, the more confused he became.  Throughout his steadfast search for the touchstone of that final and incontrovertible phrase or word that for all time would banish every superstitious belief in the existence of ‘the other side,’ he staggered around as if in some mental game of blind man’s bluff played in the dark of his own confusion…  With the implicit faith in books, which every autodidact develops…  (Ch. 13)

I had better stop there.  Too painful for this autodidact to continue.  I hope that Pontoppidan means that “faith in books” stuff ironically.  This whole passage has to be ironic, right?  But this is where the most Nietzschean section of the book launches, so I am not sure.

Pontoppidan scholar Flemming Behrendt, in the Afterword of the Paul Larkin translation, writes that Pontoppidan had a crisis midway through Lykke-Per, which is why there is no publication during 1900.  He spent the time reading Friedrich Nietzsche, which cured his writer’s block, not only allowing him to continue the novel but inspiring him to begin rewriting earlier parts to include more Nietzsche.

Thus the amazing climax of Chapter 13, in which Per shoots, with a revolver, a Tyrolean statue of Jesus, a truly peak moment of Zarathustranism, is not in the early 1899 version of the chapter but was added later.  Per is hiking with his Jewish girlfriend Jakobe, who herself is awfully Zarathustran.  It is at times like reading an Ayn Rand novel, with Per’s ludicrous harbor plans in place of Roark’s awful buildings.  Are the blasphemers punished, by the way?

And on they went, slowly downwards, embracing the glorious sunshine that bathed the valley as they went, overwhelmed by the heady scents of spring.  (end of Ch. 13)

Since this is just the middle of the novel, there is a lot of development still to come, including a temporary return to Lutheranism, albeit a sunnier version that that of his childhood, and a passage through what I think is a set of ideas drawn from Kierkegaard.  Per succumbs to the Sickness Unto Death, and has what people will later call an existential crisis – “[n]ow that he fully appreciated and understood his aloofness and dread of life” (Ch. 26), that sort of thing.

What I think is going on at the end of the novel is, over the course of several chapters, a synthesis of ideas.  Christianity, the slave religion, is rejected in all forms, and Nietzsche’s excesses are rescued by Kierkegaard (or is it the other way?).  The ultimate answer turns out to be the usual one of the German Bildungsroman:

Right down through the history of mankind the same command: the denial of the self, the expunging of the I – because happiness lay in a renunciation of this world.  (Ch. 25)

“Renunciation,” that’s Goethe’s word, his answer, although in practice it does not look like Per’s.  One must “either pledge oneself to the cross or the champagne glass,” Per fears, but he still has several chapters to find another way.

Maybe some or all of this is meant ironically.  Jakobe, the heroine, takes her Nietzschean ideas down a different path, but of course she does not have to struggle out from under the weight of Danish Lutheranism.  Maybe she is a step or two ahead of Per.

Maybe Pontoppidan means every word.  Maybe I have trouble taking Novels of Ideas seriously.  Tomorrow, let’s at least glance at Pontoppidan’s art.  Aesthetics, Per tries and rejects that early in the novel.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

He had never felt so depressingly empty - Lykke-Per's psychology

He had never felt so depressingly empty, never more abandoned by all the forces for good in the world, than right at that very moment.  (Ch. 23, last line)

Poor Per.  Getting near the end of the book.  What has he done?  He has essentially surrendered to his older brother, for money, and to a cute blonde pastor’s daughter, for love, and to Christianity, for solace.  Look at the result.

Per is the misfit son of a Lutheran pastor.  Lykke-Per can be read as Per’s lifelong struggle with his background, his religion, and especially his father.  Much of the philosophical content of the novel can be taken psychologically, thank goodness.  Tomorrow I will try to take the philosophy seriously on its own terms – I mean, not seriously seriously – but it can all be shifted into psychology pretty easily.  It’s all part of the fight against the father.

The death of Per’s father in Chapter 12 – precisely paralleled by the death of his mother in Chapter 18, exactly opposite on the parabola – sets off a crisis of meaning.  No, it changes the direction of Per’s ongoing crisis.  He travels to the mountains, so out of Denmark, obviously, he reads a lot of philosophy – “[b]ut the more he read the more confused he became” (Ch. 13) – he shoots Jesus Christ with his revolver.  A statue.  “[S]hards and splinters of wood were thrown up in the air from one side of the cross.”  There  may be some kind of symbolic meaning there.

Going back a step, the previous chapter, with the death, may be my favorite in the novel.  It is more concrete and in-the-moment, the kind of thing I always praise.  The passages in Per’s head are more about memories than moods:

There he was releasing his giant dragon-kite ‘Hero’ into the sky, and then attaching the cord to a toy wagon loaded with stones – his shriek of delight when Hero began to pull it down the meadow with the ease of a god at play.  (Ch. 12)

Per spends a good part of the novel joining alternative “families.”  There are his Copenhagen landlords in Chapter 2, and then the wealthy Salomons, Jewish but in part attractive because they appear to have no religion whatsoever and are truly modern Danes free from all of the burdens of Danishness (see Ch. 16 for an explicit statement of this), and so on, until Per renounces them all.

I wonder about Jakobe, the novel’s heroine, the Salomon daughter who becomes engaged to Per.  She has a struggle, too, which I find a little harder to define.  The great event of her life before Per was an encounter with a group of refugees, something like an encounter with real Judaism.  She is a bit of a Goth, always described as “dark,” and saying or writing wild things like:

Perhaps there was no escaping the need for a terrible rending asunder of the criminal and hypocritical society in which they lived, a vengeful apocalypse that would purge the world in fire and blood.  (Ch. 8)

Her search for purpose, her struggle and escape from her family, is something like a move from ideas to works, while Per moves towards abstraction.  It is like a Catholic novel.  Saint Per goes into a hermitage, while Sister Jakobe helps the poor.  But strip out anything Catholic, or for that matter Lutheran or Jewish.  The ideas behind the characters are philosophical.  There is no escape from it.  Oh well.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Lykke-Per as a Danish novel, or how the Danes found hygge

My supplemental reading for Pontoppidan’s The Fortunate Man was Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia (2014), an amusing and sociologically sharp look at Scandinavian cultures.  Booth, a magazine writer, is married to a Dane and lives in Denmark, and the book was inspired by the routine appearances of Denmark at or near the top of various surveys of happiness.  “What,” he thought, “these people! Happy!”  I am paraphrasing; see p. 1.  “’Well, they are doing an awfully good job of hiding it.’”

Booth hits a range of topics central to, or at least brushed against, in Lucky Per.  It was surprising to read about the Danes’ love for and constant display of their flag, the Dannebrog, which other Scandinavians find a little weird, and then come across this in Pontoppidan:

… [Per] was momentarily overcome with an actual feeling of bourgeois contentment.  So much so that when he saw the red and white of the Danish flag catching what little wind there was above one of the villa gardens, he was quite moved.

‘My God, Jakobe – our good Dannebrog!’ he cried.  (Ch. 16)

The flag stuff is in Chapter 12 of Booth, a chapter titled and about hygge, which at its best means something like “relaxed coziness.”  At some point I realized that one of restless Per’s problems was that he lacked hygge.  In Chapter 25, Pontoppidan directly told me that I was right.

That basic lack of either a need, or desire, in his character to create his own comfortable space around himself… was once again starkly exhibited here.

Den Mangel paa Evne til at skabe Hygge om sig, der var ham egen… mærkedes ogsaa her.

Here we see, by the way, translator Paul Larkin’s habit of refusing to pick a single word but rather including several (“need, or desire” for “Evne”), to catch the nuances, I guess.  Kinda wordy.

So one thing that Lykke-Per is for Danes is a part of the historical argument about how they got from there to here.  How they changed from grim, pious Lutherans to happy, atheist Lutherans.  How they found their hygge.

Per’s father is a Lutheran minister of the grimmest type.  Early in the novel, Per thinks of his family, and most Danes, as “a grotesque kingdom of humpbacked underground trolls who shunned the bright light of life” and Denmark as “an upside down land where small things were deemed to be big and the crooked declared straight.”  (Ch. 6)  Later, he realizes that he, too, is a troll.  Scott Bailey has a post describing a number of the novel’s trolls.  But even if Per is a troll, he is different.  This is Booth again:

As The Economist put it in their Nordic special edition, Scandinavia is a great place to be born… but only if you are average.  If you are averagely talented, have average ambitions, average dreams, then you’ll do just fine, but if you are extraordinary, if you have big dreams, great visions, or are just a bit different, you will be crushed, if you do not emigrate first.  (Ch. 14, pp. 111-2, ellipses in original)

That’s our hero Per, who literally wants to dig up and remake Denmark.  Maybe he is crushed; maybe not.

One way to read the novel is as a book about Denmark, about Danishness.  Who cares, the non-Dane might ask.  A good question.  Tomorrow I will try an approach that is less specifically Danish.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Pontoppidan's Lykke-Per - the views people published in books were rarely meant to frighten or provoke real thought

The Happiest People in the World, the Danes, had a terrible idea in 2004.  They assembled committees and created an official Danish Culture Canon, with each art represented by, for some mystical reason, exactly twelve works.  One of the canonical books is Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lykke-Per (1898-1904), a major novel by a Nobel Prize-winner that for some reason never made it into English until 2010, and was again translated in 2018, so now we have two of them.  Odd.  Bille August made a film version, that’s the reason for the duplication.

I read the British-English – or Irish-English – version titled A Fortunate Man, translated by Paul Larkin, while the American-English title is Lucky Per.  Both titles hide an ambiguity.  In Danish as in German, “lucky” can also mean “happy.”  Our hero Per is certainly lucky sometimes, but is he happy?  That’s the 700-page question.

Unluckily for me, Lykke-Per is a Novel of Ideas, and I am bad with those.  It is a Bildungsroman in which the hero works through a series of competing philosophies or at least stances towards life.  My impression is that Pontoppidan would like readers to engage seriously and thoughtfully with these competing ideas, reaching a synthesis, a conclusion.

Books could be a great diversion.  But the views people published in books were rarely meant to frighten or provoke real thought.  (Ch. 25)

But not this one.  Luckily for me, Lykke-Per is a Novel of Ideas, presenting a useful and necessary challenge to my usual standards.

The ethos of the novel is resolutely atheist and anti-Christian in the Nietzschean sense.  The novel is structured like a parabola, with some parallel scenes on each side of the arc, and a peak, or a pit, depending on which way you think the parabola is going, which includes a hilarious culminating moment of extreme Zarathustrianness and a sojourn in Rome.  Lykke-Per is a real descendant of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796), so it is will be no surprise to readers of Wuthering Expectations that the center of the novel is in Rome.  Experienced readers of Goethe et. al. will also guess where the story ends up.

Per’s story, the hero’s story, that is.  Many others are right now busily reading Lucky Per because Dorian Stuber suggested a readalong.  He was intrigued by the novel’s depiction of Jewish life in Copenhagen, and particularly the Jewish heroine, Jakobe.  She is an unusual creation, perhaps even something new in fiction, and her story goes in some directions that I don’t remember seeing in earlier fiction.  Per’s story has some resemblance to, oh, the city-conquering Rastignac in Père Goriot or the willful Julien Sorel in Red and Black, as well as the protagonists of earlier Bildungsroman like Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry.  But Jakobe’s story is something else, something not found in Daniel Deronda or Sholem Aleichem.

Lykke-Per was originally published in eight volumes from 1898 to 1904.  It is really as much a roman fleuve as a Bildungsroman.  I have dropped in some of the original covers, borrowed from a superb Danish Pontoppidan site, which has the searchable texts we will all need as we work on the novel together.  We live in an age of miracles.  One of the covers, the one that could almost show Rastignac at the end of Père Goriot, is from a 1959 edition.  The one with the moon is from the 1903 seventh volume, Lykke-Per, his Journey to America.  Per never goes to America!  That title is ironic.

For the rest of the week, I guess I will get to work on this novel.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The history of reading, updates from the field - Jonathan Rose's Readers' Liberation

Do you want to know what has been going on in the fresh and exciting field of the history of reading?  I do, so I read Readers’ Liberation by book historian Jonathan Rose, University of Oxford Press, 2018.  It is a 200-page synopsis of the history of reading, the academic field, I mean, a subject of high interest to readers, surely.  It has only been a coherent academic field for about thirty years.  Rose wanders around in it.

Maybe it is still not especially coherent.  Chapters cover, for example, fake news, access journalism, reading pedagogy, and prison reading programs.  That last one is fascinating.  “Larry E. Sullivan, the leading scholar of this small but enthralling literary subfield, has concluded that probably the favorite author behind bars is Friedrich Nietzsche,” which comes with both psychological benefits and costs (p. 112).  Never would have guessed.  That is as of, checking the bibliography, 1998.

This book is most valuable as a kind of annotated bibliography.  As a readable annotated bibliography.

I of course wanted to know about readers of literature.  The “Up from Middlebrow” chapter is a friendly history of a century of best-sellers and their kin, starting with the records of turn-of-the-century Muncie Library and ending with Oprah’s Book Club.  If the Muncie Library sounds familiar, that is because I wrote about it in 2014.  Rose’s summary of the 2015 book on the database, Frank Fenkelstein and James J. Connolly’s What Middletown Read: Print Culture in an American Small City, is not enormously different from my blog post, which I guess is reassuring.  You read it here first.

I have noted, reading American literature from the 1920s, how the best-sellers list begins to overlap with what we now think of as the “classics” list.  A lot of the best authors are the most famous, and vice versa.  Something was changing among readers.  In Babbitt (1922), Sinclair Lewis mocks his suburban housewives for reading Dante at their book club (“’I've never waded through his po'try, but we learned about him in the U.,’ said Babbitt,” Ch. IX), but, gee whiz, Dante for book club, not bad, and those same housewives would have been avid readers of Sinclair Lewis, so they were in on the joke.  As Rose notes, looking over bestseller lists that include John Maynard Keynes, Eugene O’Neill, and All Quiet on the Western Front, “[i]n the age of Babbitt, everyone was reading more books and better books” (68).

Book sales – good books, bad books – exploded during World War II and only accelerated with the mass spread of paperback editions.  A couple of pages on the Armed Services Editions – “roughly eight volumes for every active duty soldier, sailor, and airman” (76) – explains one side of this.  I knew that the U.S. Army turned The Great Gatsby into a famous book, but not that there were ASE editions of Katherine Anne Porter and Virginia Woolf.

I look back on the 1950s and 1960s with envy.  “America had created something unprecedented in history – a mass highbrow market – and that left no room for middlebrow” (81).  Unprecedented in American history, Rose should have said.  Part of the appeal to me of French culture, I have noted, is the balance between the highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow.  The French read everything, their own authors but also ours, their smart authors but also their less smart ones.  Americans used to do that, too.  A lot more Americans.

So I continue to wonder about the necessary conditions, so to speak.  The value of the field, of this book, is that it historicizes reading.  It is always good to historicize.

I’ll note that most of the readers in the studies in Readers’ Liberation are American.  But the first chapter gives a quick world tour, glancing at studies of literary clubs in colonial Ghana, Cuban cigar-workers reading aloud to each other, post-war Japanese libraries, and dissident Chinese internet literature.  I have no idea how representative any of this is.  Rose can only summarize research that has actually been done.  There is always room for more.