Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Lao She's proletarian classic Rickshaw - a ghost caught in Individualism’s blind alley

How about one more novel where the protagonist moves around all the time.  Mostly within one city, Peking, in this case, Rickshaw by Lao She (1937).  You will find this book on pretty much ever list of the greatest or most important or what have you 20th century Chinese novels.  I know very little about 20th century Chinese novels.

I read the 1979 translation by Jean M. James.  Look at this translator’s note:

Those who have read Evan King’s translation published in 1945 as Rickshaw Boy will wonder if Rickshaw is the same novel.  It is.  King cut, rearranged, rewrote, invented characters, and changed the ending. (p. vi)


One more note, which I found amusing, about the intellectual context, not the translation:

During the twenties and thirties the Chinese literary world expended a lot of time and ink on the question of proletarian literature.  All the left-wing writers were convinced that such literature was needed and must be written…  With so much energy going into polemics over the need for proletarian literature, the left-wing writers did not actually do much creative work.  (xi)

But here it is finally, a real proletarian novel, about a young, strong, ambitious Peking rickshaw driver who lives in a sociologically accurate world and runs into just the kind of trouble his real counterparts would meet.  He dreams of nothing more than owning his own rickshaw, and once in a while he succeeds, but he has no support when anything goes wrong – conscription, illness, a corrupt policeman.  He succeeds by his own strength, and fails by bad luck, until he finally stops trying.  He has become, in the novel’s last line, “that degenerate, selfish, unlucky offspring of society’s womb, a ghost caught in Individualism’s blind alley” (249).  The novel ends in despair, or in a political rallying cry, for readers who took it that way.

Novels that rely on lines like that are not what I think of as great works of art, and this one has plenty of lines like that, but it has other pleasures.  The depiction of Peking is always interesting.  “It was filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable; it was the great Peking of early summer” (240).  The social picture is interesting, too, not just of the protagonist but of other rickshaw drivers worse off them him.  A chapter about the inhabitants of an awful tenement, right in the middle of the novel, is instructively grim.

My favorite moments in the book are when Lao She mixes the elements into something almost visionary, as in Chapter 8, when he describes Lao She working during one of Peking / Beijing’s signature winter sandstorms:

The cold wind whistled up his sleeves, making his whole body shudder the way it did in a cold bath.  Sometimes a wild wind rose, making it hard for him to breathe, but he lowered his head, gritted his teeth, and charged onward like a big fish swimming against the current.  The greater the wind the stronger his resistance to it; it was as if he and the wild wind were in a battle to the death…  His entire frame fought back like a green insect surrounded by ants.  And what sweat!  When he put down the rickshaw, let out a long breath, and wiped the yellowish sand out of the corners of his mouth he knew that he was a man no one could match!  (74)

Lao She is rarely as inventive as his hero and inspiration Charles Dickens, but how many writers can say that.

Next up, a novel where the protagonist mostly just sits still, staring into the fire.

Monday, April 27, 2020

I. J. Singer's wandering Yoshe Kalb - “Name the cities you visited.” “They cannot be enumerated.”

I. J. Singer’s Yoshe Kalb (1932, tr. from the Yiddish by Maurice Samuel) is another novel about wandering, contemporary with Narcissus and Goldmund.  Goldmund’s wandering was personal, more about finding what is best in life, while poor Yoshe Kalb is expiating a crime, or so he thinks.  He begins as Nahum, a fourteen year-old rabbinical scholar who is married off to the fourteen year-old daughter of a powerful rabbi, and –

I want to interrupt myself.  The world of the novel is that of the Galician Hassidim, by no means representative of other Jewish communities – unrepresentative, even – what I am saying is never marry off fourteen year-olds, to each other or to anyone.  I suppose most of us knew this.

So even the brilliant, well-meaning, pious, but still only fourteen years-old Nahum gets into trouble when jerked out of his home and plunged into what is practically a different culture.  Stricken by his sin, his crime, his mistake, his completely understandable weakness, if it is even that, he wanders Galicia, stripping himself of his identity, becoming the fool Yoshe Kalb.  First half of the novel; second half.  Scholar versus fool, or is it saint, and what is the difference, really?

“Why did you abandon your wife?”

“I had to do that.”

“Where were you?”

“Out in the world.”

“Name the cities you visited.”

“They cannot be enumerated.” (Book 3, 241)

Yoshe Kalb is answering the questions.  Or Nahum is.  Who knows.  He is on trial here, again, near the end of the novel.

I thought the best part of the novel, easily, was the complex satirical depiction of Galician Hassidic life.  It is hopelessly corrupt, with powerful rabbis creating empires based on monetizing the superstitions of their followers, and the sons of the rabbis turned into Machiavellis in their attempt to take over the empire.

Hey, is there a plague in this novel?  There sure is, more or less in the middle, and poor Yoshe Kalb becomes the scapegoat for it.

I. J.’s kid brother wrote an amusing, loving, informative introduction to the 1965 edition of Yoshe Kalb, in which he says that New York’s Galician Jews were thrilled to see themselves depicted in the Forward, where the novel was first published, since the fiction had previously been about the Litvaks, the Lithuanian Jews.  I found this pretty funny, since the picture of Galician Jewish life is so horrible.  I can imagine a reader of the Forward saying to me “Exactly, why do you think I’m in New York now?”

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Hesse's proto-hippie Narcissus and Goldmund - that which was all-important to him, apart from the ecstasy of love: freedom

After the inventiveness of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and the first big chunk of The Man Without Qualities (1930), it was a surprise to read such an old-fashioned but contemporary book as Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund (1930, tr. Leila Vennewitz) that deliberately reached back to the 19th century German-language novella.  To Goethe and that crowd.  The first sentence describes a chestnut tree “brought back generations earlier by a pilgrim returning from Rome” (Ch. 1).  I had met that pilgrim, many times, in German literature.  Goldmund is another in that line, even if he never leaves German-speaking territory.

Goldmund is a student in a monastery who discovers that he is irresistible to women.  The secret is in his voice, apparently.  So that’s it for the monastery!  Goldmund becomes a wanderer, a tramp, really a kind of hippie.  A proto-hippie.  The reason for the Hesse boom in the 1960s was quickly obvious.  Of course dissatisfied young people wanted to read this book.

Digression – this is James Laughlin in The Way It Wasn’t (2006):

I went through it [Siddhartha] and thought it was very readable, but a little too Germanic and the message was just Buddhism with a sugar coating. I stalled but Henry [Miller] would write about every three months saying I had to publish that book.  Finally, to oblige Henry, I did.  The first year it sold only 400 copies, but sales kept growing and at the height of the Hesse boom we sold a quarter of a million copies in a year. (290)

This novel, like Siddhartha is more or less picaresque, and it was the a long episode about art that drove home Hesse’s hippie ethos.  Goldmund informally apprentices himself to a Tilman Riemenschneider-like limewood sculptor and becomes a real artist, but worries that artists are too bourgeois:

For more than three years Goldmund had sacrificed to art that which was all-important to him, apart from the ecstasy of love: freedom.  To be free, to roam wherever he pleased, to live the random life of the wayfarer, to stand on his own two feet and be independent: all this he had renounced … Art, that goddess who seemed so spiritual, required so many banalities!  It required a roof over one’s head, and tools, wood, clay, paint, gold; it demanded work and patience.  (Ch. 11, 140)

So he gives it up.

The novel is set during the 14th or 15th century.  Is there a pandemic in it?  There sure is.  The plague arrives in Chapter 13, and Goldmund lives, with some other refugees, in an isolated forest idyll.  “There being no bread, they adopted another goat, and they also discovered a small field of turnips” (Ch. 13, 169).  This lasts until the world intrudes.  Hesse is unsparing about the horrors of the plague, and the horrors of people during the plague.

Narcissus, up there in the title, is a monk, priest, teacher and friend of Goldmund’s who appears only in the opening and closing episodes.  Hesse apparently found the form of the novel insufficient for his ideas, because both of these sections include philosophical dialogues of dubious value.  They seemed artless, and the ideas expressed shallow.  Philosophy for twelve-year-olds.  Well, they need philosophy, too.  But the scenes, the action of the novel, and Goldmund’s responses to what he found out in the world, good and bad, expressed ideas, too, and with more art.

I borrowed the image of the Riemenschneider sculpture from the Museum für Franken in Würzburg.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The birds, the birds, sir! - visiting the Camargue and other marshes with Henri Bosco

A number of people are readalonging or have readalonged Henri Bosco’s 1948 novel Malicroix, newly translated by Joyce Zonana.  I’ve mentioned that French literature lacks nature writing, which is widely read in its English and American incarnations, but somehow not much produced by French writers.  Bosco is an exception, a novelist known not just for a strong sense of place but for writing seriously about nature.

Malicroix is set on an island in the Camargue, the delta of the Rhone River, my old friend from Lyon, although with a different character further south.  I hope the novel’s readers have been looking up the Camargue.  Much of It is a nature reserve now, known for its superb migratory birds, including France’s flamingos.  A character in the novel calls the marshy plain a harsh country, but concedes:

“When one goes to the shore of a pond, especially at dawn, when the water barely ripples, the coots, the flamingos and even the sacred ibises fish solemnly in the warm mud.  A little before winter a flight of cranes and ducks fly very high in the air in quest of clouds…  The birds, the birds, sir!...  ah! the birds…” (p. 67 of the 1948 French edition, translation mine, ellipses in the original)

The region is also famous for its herds of white horses, it herds of black bulls, and, logically, its cowboys, who ride the white horses to round up the black bulls for use in French bullfighting.  French cowboys!  French swamp cowboys!  There is a lot here that violates received ideas of France.  Part of the history, within the novel, part of the conflict, is an old feud between cattlemen and sheepherders, like in an American Western, except this one also involves a legendary white bull that almost – well, we know what crimes white bulls on Mediterranean shores commit.

I have stolen all of the photos from the Arles tourism site.  I have meant to go the Camargue, and in fact planned to go on three separate visits to France, but I have not yet made it.  Someday.

I’m about a quarter into Malicroix.  Another Bosco book, The Boy and the River (1945), was one of the first novels I read in French.  It is a juvenile novel, a real boy’s book, where one boy rescues another from a kidnapping, and they escape down a river to a hidden marshy area where they simply enjoy nature for a while.  The beginning is exciting enough, an adventure story with a bit of a Tom-and-Huck flavor, but the middle third of the novel is more like pure nature writing.  The boys fish, swim, mess about in a boat, hide from a wild boar, watch birds:

At dawn, nothing at first was visible but one great bird.  It stood, utterly motionless, upon the thing line of a mudbank, fifty yards or so from our boat.  Its pointed beak hung threateningly above the surface.  High-perched upon its legs, with pouter breast, the grey heron was fishing solemnly.  We looked at it with wonder, but in silence, for the slightest sound would be enough to startle it.  (p. 68, tr. Gerard Hopkins)

L'enfant et la rivière is a terrific book for language learning because it is full of bird, plant, boat, and river vocabulary.  Just the verbs describing the movement of the river, how useful.  I read an edition that had, in the back, labelled drawings of the novel’s plants and animals – now that was handy.

At some point, the nature idyll has to turn back into a novel, and the boys have to find families.  To my surprise, the novel moved from the real to the unreal, becoming an imitation of Alain-Fournier’s Goethean Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), including a several-page recounting of a symbolic puppet show.  I don’t know if Malicroix will follow the same path.  It seems likely.  Maybe no puppets.

Given the pace of my French reading, it will be, or at least feel like, approximately forever before I write more about Malicroix, and it’s not even especially difficult.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The pampas Utopia -there was always something more to unfold - via César Aira and the current Booker Prize - And pinot noir to boot

Argentinean Doom begins when Argentinean literature begins, with The Gaucho Martín Fierro, “the 1872 epic gaucho poem by José Hernández,” “the root of Argentine literature.”  I’m quoting myself, why not.  The title cowboy takes a beating from the world until, finally, he “Martín takes a drink, smashes his guitar, steals some horses, and disappears across the frontier.”  Quoting myself again.

One of the current Booker Prize nominees, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s The Adventures of China Iron (2017), spins its title character out of Martín Fierro.  China Iron is Fierro’s wife, barely mentioned, a commodity with a name that demands its own story.  Cabezón Cámara describes the germ of the book:

I was in Berkeley, California, loving the sun, the clear skies, the trees, having the ocean and the sierras close by. And pinot noir to boot…  And I started writing with an overwhelming feeling of happiness.

That sounds, I won’t kid myself, great.  Not necessarily the resulting novel, which I have not read, but the model for living.  Ain’t much doom there.  The novel sounds like it is, if anything, a direct counter to her literature’s Doom.  The author is going to rescue her character from Doom.

Claire at Word by Word calls the story “a heroine’s journey from dystopia to utopia,” moving from the pampas to a fort (the frontier), and ending among the Argentinean Indians “where even the air feels easier to breathe.” I am turning back to the interview with the author:

I wanted to write an elegy to the flora and fauna of Argentina, or whatever is left of it, an elegy to what used to be here before it all got transformed into one big grim factory poisoned with pesticides. I wanted to write a novel infused with light.

The weird thing, reading Claire’s review, was that I felt I had just read this book, except it was César Aira’s Ema, the Captive (1981, tr. Chris Andrews), his second novel, in which the prisoner Ema emerges from a brutal journey across the pampas (to a fort) to eventually be captured by or escape to the Indians who live in a utopia based on raising pheasants and printing fiat currency (that Arlt novel also has a money-printing theme, a deep concern for Argentineans).  Here is how western Argentina looks on a map:

Beautiful miniatures stood in for absent inscriptions: the capital with its palaces and bridges, villages in remote clearings, and even the fort in Pringles and the settlement, where Ema was able to recognize the hut in which she had lived.

One of the maps, her favorite, was devoted to the pheasants.  Meticulous drawings represented each of the breeds.  (164)

The novel is full of animals, many of them like the pheasants dubiously Argentinean, but what do I know:

Above all, there were the grotesque dragonflies with their bulging eyes, which could be popped out with a little squeeze to lie in the palm of the hand like two tiny red balls.  They also saw a curious insect, a kind of mantis, which the gauchos called a tata-dios.  It was as big as a dove, and had so many joints that its definitive form remained elusive: there was always something more to unfold. (35)

Ema is early Aira, from when, as he writes in his fiftieth-birthday essay (Birthday, 2001, tr. ditto), “I used to write with the sole aim of producing work of high quality: good novels, better than others, etc.” (57).  Its plot and characters have a kind of novelistic coherence that he would later abandon, but the Argentina represented, as history and landscape, becomes more fantastic as the novel progresses until it has wandered into a true Utopia, Nowhere.  I assume, given the date, that Aira is engaged in a parody of so-called magical realism, perhaps pushing it back to its origins in Surrealism as detailed in Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Lost Steps (1953).  He pushes pretty far.  Early in the book, a French officer imagines writing a novel on anti-Airan principles:

… a novel could be written about those changes of color in the sky and the transformations of the clouds between say, six and eight, so long as the author confined himself to the most rigorous realism.  The resulting novel, a report on atmospheric colors, shifts, and flows, would be the apotheosis of life’s futility.  Why not?  (17-8)

Ema, the Captive is not that book.  Nor, by the sound of it, is The Adventures of China Iron.  Are there more of these books in Argentinean literature?  They are so strangely close, like “jolly historical pampas travesty” is an established genre.  I hope it is.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Translation as amateurism - Roberto Arlt's The Flamethrowers - a cranny in his flesh where it could be safe from his horror

Caravana de Recuerdos is for some reason encouraging people to read some literature from Argentina this year – a “full year of “’the strain of doom’” that characterizes so much Argentinean literature from its beginnings.  What, now, who needs it, you might say, loudly.

Regardless, I took a run at doomy Roberto Arlt’s The Flamethrowers (1931), not really a novel on its own but rather part two of the perfectly titled Seven Madmen (1929).  A bunch of anarchists, nihilists, and lunatic gangsters jitterbug around Buenos Aires as part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government by means of poison gas, funded by and manufactured at a chain of brothels.  This plan somehow does not work, and the first part of the novel jerks to a halt with the shattering of the conspiracy.  Someone is murdered, maybe?  I find crazy stories hard to remember.

Seven Madmen is available in two good, professional translations, but for some reason no one published The Flamethrowers until 2017, when the tiny, deconstructionist River Boat Books released it.  The translator is either Larry Riley, who learned Spanish solely in order to read and then translate this book, or is possibly the oddball novelist Rick Harsch under a complexly-maintained pseudonym.  Please see Steve Holt on Twitter for the plausible evidence.  “Riley’s” translation is amateurish in both the better and worse ways.

The Astrologer’s hands remained in the pockets of his shirt.  He listened to Hipólita contemptuously scrutinizing her with a grimace that left his eyelids half closed, so as to filter through his eyes the possible intentions of his visitor. (22, the second page if you want to check the Spanish)

Some of the prose, especially in its more functional mode, has this kind of strain in the English, an awkwardness that a professional translator would relax.  Where exactly do the adverbs go in the sentence; “shirt pockets,” or just “pockets”; drop “so as”; do something with “filter through his eyes,” something.  The tone ought to be more informal.

Having said that, the entire novel, in conception, characters, incidents, meaning, and of course prose, is completely insane, written by the eighth madman.  The novel had better have some awkwardness, some pieces that just ain’t right, where there is no way to know who is to blame, the translator, the author, or the metaphysics.

Sometimes “Riley” gets the voice right, especially in sections that are more interior or extreme, like “The Death Agony of the Melancholy Ruffian” or “The Curtain of Anguish,” a piece of tormented late-night mad scientist existentialism:

The voice shrank and retracted.  Erdosain felt that it was searching for a cranny in his flesh where it could be safe from his horror.  It filled up his belly as if it wanted to make him explode.  And Erdosain’s body vibrated as if it had been placed upon a chassis supporting a supercharged motor.  (75)

Elegance and efficiency are beside the point in scenes like this.  And these are the best parts of the novel, easily, the important parts.

The good side of amateurism is that the translation is an act of love, and I am glad to have it.  I finally know how the dang story ends (in a bloodbath, as I could have guessed).  And parts of the translation are pretty good.  Someday someone will do a better one, but now I have this one.

I once thought that blogs and the like would lead to a lot more amateur translation.  On this very website there is a short piece by César Aira that as far as I know has still not been translated anywhere else.  My Spanish is a lot worse than “Larry Riley’s.”  Let’s get it all out there, then fix it up.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Makioka Sisters implies another novel - You can imagine how we suffered.

The Makioka Sisters begins in late 1936 and ends on April 26, 1941.  It was published in three parts from 1946 to 1948.  The beginning was serialized in 1943 and then censored, suppressed – I would love to know what happened there.  Imagining an original reader, the novel begins seven years in the past, and by chance ends seven years in the past.  Some of those intervening years were all-too-eventful.

Japan is at war during the entire length of the novel, in Manchuria at the beginning and then more broadly when Japan invades China in 1937.  All of this is at a great distance from the events of the novel.  I see why Tanizaki wanted a family of sisters.  Just the homefront here.  An unknowing reader might think that the “ordinary life” of the Makioka family in the beginning of the novel is just preparation for the extraordinary, almost unimaginable, except that every reader of 1946 had just survived it, life during the war with the United States.

But no.  The entire 530 page novel – in the original edition, 1,400 pages! (Keene, 109) – is just preparation.  The catastrophe is always coming but never comes.  Donald Keene notes that the novel’s “continuous movement of life is not interrupted by the ends of chapters” (108).  It is not even interrupted by the end of the novel!  This is the famous last line:

Yukiko’s diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo. (3.37, 530)

That is a perfect Makioka sentence, with the interesting event, the illness, and the date.  The only strange thing is that no sentence or chapter or page follows it.  The next five-hundred page novel, the one where there is no longer such a thing as ordinary life, the one containing the bombing of Osaka (March 13, 1945) and the American Occupation, is not written but entirely implied.

I could see that the implied novel existed.  Imagine those first Japanese readers.  What novel did they see?

Tanizaki builds towards the war.  Outside events are mentioned rarely, then occasionally, then frequently.  The 530 pages are justified.  Time has to pass; the outside world has to impinge in a way that feels natural.  By the end of the novel, Tanizaki even, finally, shifts his tone, allowing a more direct ironic effect.  A chapter about Sachiko’s vacation, a “second honeymoon,” is unique:

Perhaps she was too tired, however, for there had been an air-raid drill that day [first mention of this!] and she had found herself in a bucket brigade.  In any case, she would doze off and dream of the air-raid drill and wake up only to doze off and dream the same dream again…  Coffee cups and beer steins and wine glasses and wine and whisky bottles would be snapping and cracking in the dining room too.  This is just as bad – she would lead them upstairs, where they would find all the light bulbs exploding.  (3..25, 462)

The explicit symbolism (drinking vessels from around the world) and violence of the dream are clear enough.  A couple of pages later, when I read that the lake “had until recently been noisy with refugees from the heat” (464) the innocent metaphor takes on another meaning.  A few pages from the end of the novel, Tanizaki reprises the theme.  The Makiokas receive letters from their German friends, now back in Germany.  One is from Hamburg (“Here in the city we all live in caves,” 3.36, 522, remembering that this is merely 1941), the other from Berlin:

It has been very cold, but from now on it will be warmer, they say.  In January it went down to zero.  You can imagine how we suffered.  We have steam heat, however, and it is pleasant and warm indoors.  German houses have double windows and are far better built than Japanese houses.  We are not bothered by wind through the cracks!  (524)

This passage, to rub it in nominally written by a child, is excruciating.  Vladimir Nabokov ends his 1947 totalitarian fantasy Bend Sinister by looking away from his own pages as his story becomes too cruel to bear.  Tanizaki seems to be doing something similar, except more radical.  You know, he suggests, what happens next.

Dolce Bellezza hosted this readalong of The Makioka Sisters for her long-lived Japanese Literature Challenge, may it last forever.