Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Emmanuel Bove's sad, ironic My Friends - I imitated him, limping for no reason.

The title of Mes Amis (My Friends, 1924) is ironic.  Our narrator, poor Victor Baton has no friends.  In each of the short sections of Emmanuel Bove’s episodic novel, Baton almost makes a friend, almost.  The failures are often but not always his fault.  Some of the failures are deliberate self-sabotage.

Baton has no family, and no past, except for his injured hand, a war injury that brings him a small disability pension.  Is he suffering from some kind of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or some other mental illness?  Or is he taking, although he would not call it that, a philosophical stance?  A proto-existentialist rejection of the world, to the extent that rejection is possible.  Bove’s novel is a strong, pure expression of a kind of alienation that will soon appear in a thousand French books.

The prose is simple and material, full of ordinary details and actions.  It is perfect for the French language learner.  If you are one of those, you can read the first edition digitized by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the one I read and the source of my page numbers.  Several post-war French writers pushed back against the traditional elegance and even correctness of literary French.  Mes Amis is one of those books.  Much of it is even written in the present tense.  It is the oldest French novel I have come across written in the present tense.

Not that it stays in the present.  The EuropeNow website features a couple of pages of Janet Louth’s 1986 English translation, reissued in 2019.  See the plain language, and the short sentences and paragraphs.  Baton has noticed an attractive woman noticing him.  He fantasizes that she (or someone) becomes his girlfriend, that they go on dates:

I should pay without looking at the meter. I should leave the door open.

Passers-by would watch us. I should pretend not to see them.

Look at all of those conditional tenses.  You, the French student, still have to know your tenses, sorry, what can you do.

Note the ordinariness, the generic quality, of Baton’s fantasy.  Please also note, hidden in the middle the sudden appearance of metaphorical language:

The solo violinist would sway backwards and forwards as if on a spring-board, balancing his body. Locks of hair would flop over his eyes, as if he had just come out of a bath.

This is my favorite part of the novel, the surprising eruption of original and interesting metaphorical language amidst the usual clear, plain prose.  Bove gives his characters lot of little psychological insights, too.  There is the big psychological question – why does he drive everyone away – but also good small ones like this (Billard is a potential friend):

Billard rose slowly, balancing with his arms, limping a little, without doubt because he had remained immobile.  I imitated him, limping for no reason.  (“Henri Billard I,” 47, tr. me)

What is our narrator looking for, really?  He can’t say.

As a little bonus, the Paris of the novel, functionally described is highly recognizable.  In the “Neveu, the Sailor” episode, for example, Baton and a depressed sailor come to the verge of killing themselves by jumping in the Seine.  Various clues put them under the Pont d’Austerlitz, on the Left Bank.  Now the bike path goes right by the spot (“there was a heap of peaked sand, some tools of the city of Paris, a gatehouse, and a chained wheelbarrow” (106) – all still there).  Someone should put up a plaque.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Evelyn Waugh's Labels - traveling "with a mind as open as the English system of pseudo-education allows"

Since I was complaining that I read too many great books, I will poke at a couple of not so-greats I recently enjoyed.

The pleasure in Evelyn Waugh’s Labels: A Mediterranean Journey (1930) is in the voice, the jokes and use of adjectives and I guess the vision of life, although compared to his novels from that time the latter is watery here.  Mild* Waugh.

The author claims that the idea was to write a book about the Soviet Union, but he does not make it there, or anywhere especially close, and instead wanders the Mediterranean on a cruise ship, writing about places “constantly and completely overrun with tourists” (11), with the hope of “investigating with a mind as open as the English system of pseudo-education allows, the basis for the reputations these famous places have acquired” (12).  See, there is one of signature Wavian those adjectival jokes.

Perversely, Waugh writes almost nothing about Athens or Venice, instead going on endlessly about Port Said (“Few people stay in Port Said except for some rather dismal reason,” 91).  But since all that matters is the voice, who cares where Waugh wanders.

William Pritchard, in his study of the English literature of the 1920s and 1930s (Seeing Through Everything: English Writers 1918-1940, 1977) uses Labels as a way of isolating Waugh’s style from his content, since the content of the travel book is so obvious.  For example (Waugh is in Palestine):

The driver of our motor car was a restless and unhappy man.  He smoked “Lucky Strike” cigarettes continuously, one after the other.  When he lit a new one he took both hands off the wheel; often he did this at corners; he drove very fast and soon outdistanced all the other cars.  When we most nearly had accidents he gave a savage laugh. (78)

The description goes on for a page more, with most of its sentences featuring something as surprising as “restless” or “savage” or those semicolons.

A new edition of Labels has appeared in England, and Kaggsy read it a couple of months ago, choosing a number of quotations that I wanted to use, especially the one with the bed stuffed of skulls.  I will just borrow some of it from her:

My next hotel was remarkably less comfortable. It was exactly facing into the Metro, where it runs very noisily above ground, and the bed was, I think, stuffed with skulls. The only furniture was a bidet and a cupboard full of someone else’s underclothes. There were some false teeth under the pillows, and the door opened oddly, being permanently locked and detached from both hinges, so that it could only be moved at the wrong side just far enough to admit of one squeezing through. (10-11)

We are in the tradition of Mark Twain’s travel books, and Bill Bryson’s.  Labels is not as good or funny as The Innocents Abroad (1869), which in fairness invented this genre, but is maybe comparable to Following the Equator (1897).  I have never read an entire Bill Bryson book.

I actually read the original American edition, retitled A Bachelor Abroad for some reason, possibly because of the surprising number of times Waugh visits brothels, just to describe them for the book and have a drink.  Look, it’s none of my business.  I am just saying who knows how the page numbers line up with any other edition of the book.

Look at all those words.  I guess I will write about Emmanuel Bove’s novel Mes Amis (1924) tomorrow.

Vile Bodies (1930), Scoop (1938), those are full-strength Waugh.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Christopher de Hamel meets remarkable manuscripts

Bookish Twitter now and then has a cathartic freakout about someone or another destroying a book for some reason or another.  Living, as I do, in the age of mechanical reproduction, I am not bothered by art projects and backpacker tips.  And what proportion of published books end up in the pulper?  I sometimes enjoy thinking about that.  I say I write about “books,” but that is a metaphor.  I don’t care so much about books.

Now, the books in Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World (2016), those are something else.  Those are treasures, mostly invisible except in facsimile.  De Hamel, a leading expert in medieval manuscripts has written a book about meeting these unique books in person.  A page of The Spinola Hours (p. 541 in de Hamel), at the Getty, is to the left.  Meetings fills many pages with that sort of thing.

Twelve books in twelve chapters.  The Book of Kells in Dublin, the Carmina Burana in Munich, a “poem on ancient astronomy” (140) in Leiden, one of the two oldest copies of The Canterbury Tales in Wales.  Gospels, psalms, books of hours.  A Latin textbook on military strategy, now in St. Petersburg.  A lot of variety.

Part of the fun of this book is that each manuscript is in a different library, so Meetings is also a travel book, assuming you like to visit libraries.  Boy, I do.  On the right we see the view from the manuscripts reading room of the Royal Library in Copenhagen (295).

Different kinds of texts, different libraries, and finally different issues in book history.  De Hamel picks books that allow him to emphasize different ways to study the manuscripts.  Each book stars in multiple stories.  Who created the book – who were the scribes, the illustrators, the patrons, the binders?  Who changed the book over time?  How did the book move around?  Few of the twelve manuscripts are near where they were created.  Where did the materials come from?  Where did the text come from?

The chapter on the Chaucer manuscript is more about the search for the identity of the scribe, for example.  The one on The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre spends more time on the way the book moved.  It was Nazi loot, so the story is dramatic.

The key is that de Hamel is not just showing off the manuscripts, although he does plenty of that – a page from the 15th century Visconti Semideus military manual is to the left (496).  He shows how to think about them.  He demonstrates the kind of evidence experts look for and the kind of arguments they make.  That is fascinating.  On their own, bindings, parchment, Latin in incomprehensible script – why would I care.  But, no, this all goes somewhere.

De Hamel is a lively writer:

My private impression from having pages of the Book of Kells turned before my eyes, one after the other throughout the day, is that the picture pages interrupt the text and are hard to enjoy, despite all their fame.  I am not even sure we can regard them as beautiful.  They are spectacularly important in the history of art and their commercial value is almost beyond estimation (I write as a former employee of Sotheby’s), but they are confusing and difficult to decipher…  There is too much decoration.  The eye has nowhere to rest.  (121)

It is not just me who can’t make heads or tails of Kells, I am happy to learn.

This is a terrific book on this subject, a great way to spend some time with superb art objects that are generally only barely visible in a case, if that.  These art objects happen to be books.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Mrs. Ramsay and the bay leaf - peering into the dish in To the Lighthouse

This is a piece about how readers change.  And about food.

The long dinner chapter of To the Lighthouse (1928), Chapter XVII of “The Window,” what a masterpiece.  It does so much.  Here is a taste.

… and an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off.  The cook had spent three days over that dish.  And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes.  And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought. (100)

Mrs. Ramsay thinks of celebration but also death, that love “bear[s] in its bosom the seeds of death.”  Then the outside intrudes on her and the dinner guests praise the dish, a boeuf en daube, and mock English cooking as “an abomination (they agreed).”  I have to say, I ate so well in London, the English food included.  No doubt circa 1910, the time of the novel, things were not so good.

The stew is first mentioned about twenty pages earlier, in Ch. XVI.  Mrs. Ramsay is nervous about her big dinner:

… and they were having Mildred’s masterpiece – Boeuf en Daube.  Everything depended upon things being served up to the precise moment they were ready.  The beef, the bay leaf, and the wine – all must be done to a turn.  To keep it waiting was out of the question… things had to be kept hot; the Boeuf en Daube would be entirely spoilt.  (80)

When I last read To the Lighthouse, maybe twenty-five years ago, I suppose I nodded along, sympathizing with Mrs. Ramsay’s anxiety.  This time, though – do you cook? – you saw it, right?  “The bay leaf must be done to a turn”?  The bay leaf!

Boeuf en daube is beef stewed in wine, and is not a difficult dish.  It is classic Provence country cooking, not imperial cuisine.  I can make a daube – come over some time.  One good way to agitate bookish Twitter is to say a book is or is not “difficult,” because the word can mean different things.  In fact, daube is difficult in three ways – let’s use a recipe attributed to Julia Child:

1. The list of ingredients is long.  Nothing exotic, but many pieces.

2.  The preparation ideally takes, as the cook has told Mrs. Ramsay, three days, which requires planning.  One day of marinating, one day of checking the stewpot, one day of just sitting there until reheated.  The amount of work by the cook is, mostly, minimal, although see below.  I am assuming the Ramsay vacation house has a stove.

3.  At one point, you have to make a basic roux, and you could burn that.  I mean, I could.  Pay attention!

Otherwise, this is a forgiving and flexible dish.  It will not be “entirely spoilt,” nor spoilt at all, if reheated.  The meat was actually “done to a turn” the day before the dinner.

As for the bay leaf, and for that matter the wine and many other ingredients, you just toss them in your Dutch oven, or your daubière if you have one, and put it in the oven.

Mrs. Ramsay does not understand what her cook has told her.  Apparently, at some point in the past, there was some fuss over bay leaves.  Perhaps the cook insisted that she could not make a certain dish because there were no bay leaves, and now Mrs. Ramsay fixates on them.  “Done to a turn” may be the cook’s phrase, too.

Now, having said this, the logistics of getting the food to the table at the right temperature for a dinner of twelve or more is a challenge.  Then there is the question of the stove.  A cook at the time often functioned more like a naval engineer, keeping a complex and temperamental machine operating at a consistent temperature.  Too bad Kipling never wrote a story about this, a great cook and the things she can make her Victorian stove do.  Keeping dishes hot required real skill.  We have it easy, now.

I wonder if I had any idea what boeuf en daube was when I first read this novel.  Now that I know, and even know how to make it myself, an entire extra little dimension of the story unfolds.

So this is one way we change as readers.  We learn things.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Tanizaki's Seven Japanese Tales - Maybe you think I’m just being perverse, but I’ve never been more serious

Seven Japanese Tales (1970, tr. Howard Hibbett) by Juichiro Tanizaki.  Four of the “tales” are short stories from the 1910s and 1920s, pretty obviously newspaper pieces, although heaven forbid an editor mentions where anything is from.  Three tales, two from the 1930s and one from 1959 – impressive career! – are more like novellas.

I thought this would be a good place to get to know Tanizaki, who I had not read at all.  Poking around, I found a review or two saying it was not the place to start.  I suppose I did not think anything in this book was world-class, but I know Tanizaki wrote other books.  And much is visible right here.

The oldest story, “The Tattooer” (1910), made Tanizaki famous.  That is worth seeing.  A sadistic tattooer dreams of creating the perfect tattoo (“a huge black-widow spider,” 167) on the perfect woman.  He does so, but somehow in the process transfers his creative strength to the woman:

“All of my fears have been swept away – and you are my first victim!”  She darted a glance at him as bright as a sword.  A song of triumph was ringing in her ears.  (169)

Sure, why not.  I had picked up somewhere that Tanizaki was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, and in these early stories I can see it, not so much in the Gothic giant spider but in the extreme, self-destructive psychology of the men, who all succumb to Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse.”  I noted Theodore Dreiser borrowing the same idea in The American Tragedy (1925), contemporary to Tanizaki’s early stories, although Dreiser also borrows Poe’s distinctive, bizarre language, Tanizaki much less so, at least in this translation.  But in the character who has a phobia about riding on a train (“Terror,” 1913), or the kleptomaniac who can’t bring himself to tell a lie (“The Thief,” 1921), I can see the shadow of Poe.  “’Maybe you think I’m just being perverse, but I’ve never been more serious’” (184).

Also immediately visible was Tanizaki’s interest in another aspect of the word “perverse.”  Five of the seven stories feature dominant / submissive relationships with a woman in the dominant and a man in the submissive role.  “The Tattooer” is the only one where the man is dominant but becomes submissive.  Some of these relationships are sexual, some not, but the psychology is repeated.  Theme and variation.

The most interesting variation was in “A Portrait of Shunkin” (1933), where the woman is a blind music prodigy and the man is first her servant, then pupil, then lover – husband, really.  She is a tyrant, willful and capricious; he is perfectly devoted.  At one key point, his devotion goes way, way too far, in a way I do not want to describe.  Yikes!  Ick!  Tanizaki seems to like extreme cases.

I thought “Shunkin” was the best-written story, too, in the sense that the sentences were the most interesting.  More phrases and clauses, more rhetorical variation.  In some of the stories, the prose got pretty flat.  The recurrent symbolic songbird theme was blatant but effective:

Nightingales are often long-lived if properly cared for, but they require constant attention.  Left to an inexperienced person, they soon die.  (51)

The Japanese Literature Challenge, now in its 13th year, is ongoing, so I read this book and hope to read another Tanizaki or two.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Yet somehow this is not the Fool’s own book - The Book of the Red King by Marly Youmans - One can only go so far with logic

I read only a few new books last year, but two of them starred Fools - the capital F kind – Kehlmann’s Tyll and Marly Youmans’s The Book of the Red King, a collection of lyric poems that do not make up a narrative, exactly, but suggest one, or many.

I, Fool, unpacked The Book of the Red King
And wrote these words because I could not bear
For every spark and speck of mystery
To die, then sealed them with my foolish kiss.  (from “Naked in the Sands”)

The Fool searches for the Red King; the King awaits the fool.  Or the Fool dreams of the Red King; the King dreams of the Fool.  Who can say which creates the other.  The title is the first of many, possibly endless, literary references.  Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel’s Red King, from Through the Looking-Glass (1871), is on the left – do not wake him!  Youmans’s characters dream a lot, and occasionally try to pass through mirrors (see “The Looking-glass Stop”).

King Lear had a Fool, I was thinking, and then he appeared in “’My Poor Fool is Hang’d,’” although luckily this king rescues his fool, who is hanging by his foot, like the Hanged Man in the tarot deck.  The Fool is himself one of the Major Arcana, and the next poem is “The Tarot Fool.”

Yeats is everywhere, his gyre built into the book’s third major character, a spiral shell that could be the female principle, the Holy Ghost, or a pretty souvenir the Fool picked up at the beach, and in the Red King’s spiral tower.  The cento near the end of the book, “Fool’s Motley,” is composed of lines of Proust, Yeats, Dickens, Christopher Logue, Charles Causley, and other authorial spirits.

I have followed the  writers because I enjoy the pursuit, but they are no help, in the sense that they do not explain the poems, no more than following the motifs of snow, mirrors, stars, games, leaves, or many others from poem to poem.  Stated plainly, they look so simple, but Youmans creates such complex patterns with them, or perhaps she scatters them about like seeds so her readers can create their own patterns.  I have noticed that readers have been reluctant to quickly interpret The Book of the Red King.  See Scott Bailey’s piece, please, or Fred Chappell’s metaphor of the book as “a mystical, metaphysical board game.”  It is a game with a large number of pieces.

Hart Crane is explaining the obscurities of his own poem sequence, The Bridge (1930), to Yvor Winters in a letter: “One can only go so far with logic, then willfully dream and play – and pray for the fusion.”*  The fusion is up to me.

And why is this the book of the Red King
When it was plainly written by a fool?
Its every word proclaims its lunar source,
Yet somehow this is not the Fool’s own book…
The Fool has done nothing to earn the book.
The Fool was given a gift, and that is all.  (from “The Red Book of the King” – note the curious alternative title)

I wonder how the poems look on their own, without their neighbors or any sense of sequence, without my attempt to connect them.  They would look different.  Perhaps my favorite, all by itself, although it fuses with several other poems, is “The Fool Tells the Children a Story at the Solstice,” about Hob, the  speck of dust who dreamed of becoming a star:

Hob floated in the dark’s abyss,
Dreaming of a burning kiss

To change his coat of soil to light,
To pin his flame against the night.

See Bailey’s post for the ending.  Hob’s dream comes true, logically, even.

The Book of the Red King seems to me like a major work, if that is a term anyone still uses in the context of poetry.  I suspect you will have to buy it yourself if you want to read it.

Marly is Friend of the Blog.   We have discussed, in comments here and there over the years, some of the poets who lie hidden behind or around her book.  She has recommended Charles Causley to me several times, but still I have not read him.

* O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, eds. Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber, letter from Nov. 15, 1926, p. 289.