Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Zola's metaphors, of one kind or another - It was as if the god of cloth had his own white tabernacle

Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames was a good novel to read intermittently because of Zola’s taste for the big, chapter-length scene.  I just had to bull through a chapter and then time could pass, just as it did in the novel.  The beginning of a typical chapter catches me up on what happened in the white space between chapters, and then the long scene begins, often a day in the life of the department store.  Maybe there is a big sale, or it is inventory day.  Maybe we start with Mouret, the owner, who in his tour of the store crosses paths with Denise, our heroine, so the story can switch to her.  Or start with Denise, until Mouret wanders by.  Or start with some minor characters, shoppers, one of whom is a shopaholic, who at some point encounter etc. etc. 

Not that the novel has such a strong plot, but I was impressed by how much storytelling, including some pretty soapy stuff, Zola could do with this device.  But it is also useful for showing the workings of the store, from the goods unloaded in the basement to the bad food in the upstairs employee commissary.

My favorite aspect of Zola is his metaphorical exuberance, as with the “Symphony of Cheeses” in The Belly of Paris (1873), so it was disappointing that Au Bonheur des Dames is relatively restrained in its metaphorical language.  Descriptions of store displays are often pure long lists, just colors and forms and types of cloth.  I am tempted to quote a paragraph in Chapter IX describing a complex display of umbrellas, which does contain one simile (they are like “big Venetian lanterns”) but is mostly just colors and locations (umbrellas run up the columns and staircases and placed to form stars, like that).

But I now think metaphorical excess would distract from the concept.  I mean, the department store itself, and every part of it, is a blaring metaphor for our current period of Early-mid Capitalism, distinguished by advertising, shopaholism, and massive ever-changing piles of the most amazing stuff.  So it is sufficient for Zola to describe the thing itself, and unnecessary to say what it is like.  It is like so many things, too many things.  It is still the world in which we live, even if today’s Zola might write a novel set in an Amazon distribution warehouse.

Having said this, in the extraordinary final chapter XIV, Zola apparently decided to cut loose. Mouret, a “genius” of the “art of display,” throws a giant white sale in which the entire store is decorated in white. 

Nothing but white, all the white articles of each department, a riot of white, a white star whose fixed ray blinded at first, so one could not distinguish the details, in the middle of this unique whiteness…  [many white items, gloves and handkerchiefs and so on]… up to the second floor; and this ascent of white took wings, hurried and lost, like a flight of swans…  long jets of lace (guipure) seemed to hang from the swarms of immobile, humming white butterflies…  One would say like a great white bed, which in its virginal enormity awaited, like in the legends, the white princess, who must come one day, all powerful, with the white bridal veil.

It’s a “song of white,” it’s a church,  it’s a “fugue” with “complicated orchestration.  “It was as if the god of cloth had his white tabernacle.”  (“Il semblait que le dieu du chiffon eût là son tabernacle blanc.”)  The god of cloth!  It is everything.  If Zola titled his chapters, this one would be “The Whiteness of the Wh-ite S-ale.”

And this massive display not only prefigures the triumph of the department store – its first million-franc day – but the resolution of the romantic plot, the triumph of the heroine, who it turns out is the all-powerful princess and the store is the marriage bed.  “[A]ll-powerful” is actually the last word of the novel, although it describes the arms of Mouret, the owner, which I take as an irony, since it is Denise who is the big winner.

Translations, likely full of instructive errors, are mine.

 

 

 

 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames, the department store novel - the flashy, sunny way of the new Paris

For some dumb reason I thought this summer, in the middle of moving across the country, was a good time to pick a nearly 500-page Émile Zola novel, about as difficult as any French I’ve read, as my text for the daily study of French, “daily” often meaning “weekly.”  This has not been a high-concentration period.  Or maybe I was wiser, or luckier, than I realized, since Au Bonheur des Dame (1883, For the Pleasure of the Ladies) is perfectly structured to leave the book alone for long stretches.  Between chapters, time passes.  I know the feeling.

Anyway, three months later, I’ve finished it.


My wink wink nudge nudge smutty English title, although pretty literal, is obviously a disaster.  Brian Nelson, in his recent Oxford World’s Classics translation, uses The Ladies’ Paradise.  The title is the name of a Paris department store.  This is the founding text of the small but real genre of department store fiction.  Real Paris department stores, contemporaries of Zola’s, are called Printemps (Spring, pictured above, image borrowed from here) and Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché (The Good Deal) and Louvre (across the street from the museum).  The Ladies’ Paradise is plausible, especially for the more visionary version of the department store Zola creates.  

The fictional Au Bonheur des Dames is about halfway between Louvre and Printemps, near the Palais Garnier, utterly plausible, although so specifically placed – the first real street name is in the first paragraph - that I wondered what contemporary Parisian readers thought.  “There’s no department store there!”  But what if there were?

Denise is a virtuous orphan girl whose only adult relative runs a doomed umbrella shop across the street from the new department store.  Mouret is the entrepreneur who creates the department store out of his deceased wife’s shop and fortune.  The character’s paths inevitably cross, which creates a story, although not much of a story.  Mouret’s earlier history can be found in Zola’s 1882 novel Pot-Bouille, unread by me.  That novel is about the little shopkeepers; this one is about the big time, three thousand employees and daily receipts of a million francs.

Au Bonheur des Dames is as authentically Darwinian a Zola novel as I’ve read.  There are two strands, first, the department store gradually crushing all the little shops around it, and second, the tournament-style labor market within the department store, where it is either up or out and the only way up is to outsell the employee next to you.  Denise gets a happy ending, since she wins the tournament, in a surprising way or perhaps in just the way you expected.  Her uncle and all the other little guys, their ending is not so good.  Many of the Zola novels I have read end in catastrophe, the deaths of the main characters and even the destruction of the setting, but here the glorious modern department store is bigger than ever, while on the last little store:

… was spread, like a flag planted in a conquered empire, an immense yellow poster, brand new, announcing in two-foot-high letter the great sale at the Ladies’ Paradise.  One might say that the colossus, after its successive growth spurts, taken by shame and repugnance towards the black neighborhood, where it had been born so modestly and which it later swallowed, turned its back, leaving the mud of the narrow streets behind it, presenting its upstart face to the flashy, sunny way of the new Paris.  (Ch. 14, tr. mine)

If only the whole novel were written like this, but my impression, which I hope is not just an artifact of reading it in French, is that Au Bonheur des Dames is less metaphorically inventive than some of the other Zola novels I have read, besides the fact that the main characters are less interesting and the story is minimal.  Yet the reputation of Au Bonheur des Dames has grown ever since it was published, inside France, at least.  Tomorrow I will poke at why.  Perhaps the reason is obvious.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Christopher Isherwood and Natalia Ginzburg write some fascist-era autofiction - “How monotonous you are! All you do is repeat yourself!”

 

I mean to write shorter, but I usually don’t.

***

Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood.  Character portraits, just one at novel length in Mr Norris, many in Goodbye, against the background of the Nazi takeover of Germany, background noise but suddenly the only thing that matters.  Charming, funny, elegant, all the nice words that go with a light, even simple, version of the British prose “house style” of the 1920s and 1930s, the most immediately appealing English house style I know.

The atmosphere of the novels is homosexual.  The ethos, even.  Armistead Maupin writes, in the introduction to the New Directions edition, that he was at first frustrated by the passive “camera eye” side of Isherwood – “his own life, particularly his sex life, was a blank” (p. ix), but these are novels where the absences are highly visible.  I mean, if I had read these as a naïve 14-year-old, I would have missed a lot, but not this:

The little American simply couldn’t believe it.  “Men dressed as women? As women, hey?  Do you mean they’re queer?”

“Eventually we’re all queer,” drawled Fritz solemnly, in lugubrious tones…

“You queer, too, hey? demanded the little American, turning suddenly on me.

“Yes,” I said, “very queer indeed.”  (p. 396)

***

Family Lexicon (1963) by Natalia Ginzburg.  A memoir, a novel, I don’t know.  It’s another book about creeping, and then open, fascism, this time in Turin, beginning as a portrait of Ginzburg’s goofball parents but turning into something else.  A resistance memoir.  “Leone was arrested in a clandestine printer’s shop” (154 of the NYRB edition). 

Curiously, though, the bulk of the novel is described exactly in the title.  Ginzburg catalogues all the strange phrases and inside jokes that every family has, the endless repetitions.

“How I do love cheese,” my mother invariably would say whenever cheese was served.

And my father would say, “How monotonous you are! All you do is repeat yourself!” (29)

Irony there, outstanding irony.  In the book’s extraordinary conclusion, the parents old, the fascists defeated, Ginzburg constructs an extended semi-dialogue consisting of nothing but decades of old stories and lines, all ending with exclamation marks, a high-level babble that only the family members, and the people who read Family Lexicon, can understand.

Jenny McPhee did the translation.  Admirably, she was not afraid of keeping all sorts of Italian obscurities, explaining them in notes.  Readers for some reason often praise a book for not sounding like a translation.  This translation sounds like a translation, thank goodness.

***

So, two books that are fascinating enough for their historical setting – Isherwood’s, especially, must have seemed like news from the front – but that also have more complex literary conceptions at their core.  And both have terrific characters with big personalities, observed and enjoyed by the narrator, and by me.

 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Pekka Hämäläinen's Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power - theory and practice

Portland has, by my standards, an outstanding public library, meaning they have new books but also old books, even in languages other than English.  The process of moving has not been good for what I will call intellectual activity, but I now have a new library to play with, and my reading has become a little more ambitious. 

And this book needs to get back to the library, so here it is.

Long ago, I wrote a little four-post series on Pekka Hämäläinen's original and surprising The Comanche Empire (2009), in which Hämäläinen conceives of Comanche-occupied territory as a state, a nomad empire, allowing him to apply a great deal of illuminating international relations theory to what at first seems to be sparse evidence.  Much becomes clear.  He finds an interpretive framework that makes sense of a lot of puzzles.

In Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power (2019), he does something similar with the history of the Lakota Sioux.  The differences are, I think, as follows:

First, the new book is much more synthetic than The Comanche Empire, based less on Hämäläinen’s own archival work and more on that of other historians.  Having said that, it is clear from the notes – not the bibliography; there is no separate bibliography – that the last twenty years, and perhaps especially the last ten, have been an exciting period in the history and anthropology of the interior of America.  There must have been plenty of times when Hämäläinen had to tear up some part of his own book as new archeological or documentary results were disseminated.  The work on Sioux sources, especially the complex pictographic winter counts, is crucial.

Second, and related, Lakota America is more of a narrative history and less of a social history than The Comanche Empire, with more “characters” and with much of the methodology and theory moved to the background.  More readers will likely find the book accessible.  Perhaps that is intentional.

I remember Larry McMurtry, in the New York Review of Books, complaining that there were so many books about Custer and the battle of the Little Bighorn that even he, a top collector of books about the American West, had stopped bothering with “Custeriana” (although a few years later he wrote his own Custer book).  One little irony here is that Lakota America becomes, in the last third or so, another Little Bighorn book, even if here, from the Lakota point of view, it is the battle of the Greasy Grass, and the opposing, losing, general, PȟehíŋŋskA (Long Beard), is neither a martyr nor hero.

But it’s an exciting story from many perspectives; what can you do.  The entire history is an exciting story.

Monday, October 11, 2021

In search of the meaning of Maine - a note of Richard Russo's Empire Falls

 

Recently, I moved to Portland, Maine, and have settled in enough to see if I can write anything coherent.  The last time I moved, eleven years ago, I wrote five posts a week, only resorting to a poetry-quoting post once.  That was a more energetic fellow. 

 


The photo is from nearby Mackworth Island, taken in September.

Expect to see me reading more books about Maine.  I will try not to harp on their Maineness, of limited interest, even if that is why I am reading them.  Richard Russo’s 2001 novel Empire Falls is eminently Maineish, set in a version of the many Maine mill towns, with the (former) mill owner on one side of the river and the (former) mill employees scrabbling on the other side, the mill itself an empty hulk dominating the town.  Today, the mill has likely been converted into condos or craft breweries or performance space, but not when Russo was writing.

The characters are ordinary people with ordinary lives, except exaggerated for comic effect, like they are drawn with thick outlines, speaking dialogue ready for actors as good as these.  Empire Falls is not as funny as Straight Man (1997), but I thought parts were awfully funny.  Russo is especially good with movement, just getting people in and out of cars and cars on and off sidewalks, that kind of thing.

Near the end, Russo pulls in a Big Social Issue of the Time that seemed to me like a mistake, since it is used primarily to jolt the characters forward in their ordinary-life plot.  I am not convinced Russo has any particular insight into the Big Social Issue, or uses it in a way that gives the novel any extra ethical meaning.  The Pulitzer Prize committee disagreed with me, but I have never understood them.

Russo’s ongoing critique of masculinity, now he has a lot of insight there.  It is not pretty to see, but in his hands it is at least funny, in a wincing kind of way.

I should provide a quotation or two to support some of the above notions, but just about the last thing I did this summer was take any notes.  I would especially like to support that bit about the craft of motion verbs.  Oh well.

I am 90% sure I have already run into Richard Russo, at Print, his – or his daughter’s? – perfect little bookstore, which I have visited once a week.  He was wearing a mask and hat, so I cannot be completely sure, but he had his dog in the store and was advising – ordering? – the manager to stock Inferno, since it’s the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death.

If you see me reading more Russo, or Sarah Orne Jewett, Stephen King, E. B. White, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Brock Clarke, Edwin Arlington Robinson, or Rachel Carson, you will know I am in pursuit of the essence of Maine.  It seems nice so far.  If you come by, let me know.  We can go to Print.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Richard Scarry taught me the principles of literary criticism when I was five - "Mouse has just bought a book at the book store"

Rooting around my old things, I found this 1971 set of books written and illustrated by Richard Scarry, mostly.  I believe they originally came in a cardboard sleeve, long lost, also decorated like a building.


I remember them as landmarks, books that taught me to read. Surprisingly, I see that they also taught me the critical principles that have governed my reading ever since.

First, Best Stories Ever. 


On the one hand, of course we become readers because we love stories.  But note the emphasis on the best stories.  Even at this young age, I was encouraged to judge and rank, to stop wasting my time with the typical story.  We will see, in later volumes, that for the imaginative reader story-as-such is not necessary at all, but as long as I want a story, stick with the best.

I also learned that many of the best stories are in verse.  Lyric poems, even.  This book is full of poems.

Leafing through, I am not so sure that these stories, despite some fairy tales and bits of Aesop, are actually the best, but I learned the principle.  That’s the important thing.


Reading is also for Going Places.  I always loved the casual surrealism of children’s books.  A goat in a hot-air balloon, a cat flying a helicopter, a Danish mouse-witch (“All witches must put their brooms away when they have finished with them, “A Castle in Denmark,” p. 19), why not, why not.


Related, but here is where I diverge from most readers: Things To Know.  Many readers of the internetting variety write about what they experienced, while I am more interested in what I learned.  In this book, it was colors, numbers, etiquette (“Everyone likes the polite elephant,” “The Polite Elephant,” p. 49, what propaganda!), but also the names of flowers and birds, and most curiously Epicurean philosophy, as expressed in the 25 pages of “I Am a Bunny,”* where the “thing to know” is not the biological life cycle of rabbits but the jumper-clad bunny’s attitude towards the universe (pp. 98-9):


Yes, that is the bunny on the cover of Best Stories Ever, but his anti-story actually appears in Things To Know.  “Story” can mean a lot of things.  The most curious thing in Things To Know is that it ends with a cluster of Mother Goose rhymes, which are themselves things to know.  In the arts, the only way to learn about things is to encounter them.  Many readers, as far as I can tell, read their dreary novels expecting to “love” them, and are often disappointed, while I read literature in order to learn what it is, and am always happy, and find that love generally takes care of itself.


The best for last: what is literature, really, what is reading, if not Fun with Words?  Now Scarry is giving me the pure stuff.

The first fifty pages of Fun with Words are much like the cover, typical scenes – a supermarket, a firehouse, “A Drive in the Country” - with every possible item labelled ("owl"), perfect for quick vocabulary growth and also for training the taste of a reader who especially loved – still loves – watching Robinson Crusoe unload the shipwreck item by item or Huckleberry Finn looting Pa’s cabin before faking his death.  Sometimes I want the best story, but sometimes all I want is a list, an imaginatively inspiring list.  The most material literature can be strangely abstract.  Fun with words.

The next 125 pages of this book contain an illustrated children’s dictionary full of recurring characters and little stories that unfold over the course of the alphabet.  Innovative!  No wonder I so enjoy novels written like dictionaries or indices or what have you.  I first read one when I was five.

I wonder what equivalent book today’s five year-old is reading.  I am not much of an identifier, but I hope whatever it is includes a scene as identifiable and influential as this one was on me:

 


* “I Am a Bunny” is not by Richard Scarry but by the Danish-American children’s publishing innovator Ole Risom, who supervised the Little Golden Books line and was also a Monuments Man!

Thursday, July 1, 2021

The disillusioned ethos of The Gallery - And what was this war really about?

John Horne Burns was not a combat soldier during World War II, but worked in military intelligence and censorship.  For a while his work was investigating crimes committed by American troops.  This kind of work, at least for a sensibility like Burns had, gives a writer an unusual perspective on war.  Thus he writes a book that is satirical, often contemptuous, and sordid.

I’m with the narrator of the “Promenades,” the sections between the short stories in The Gallery that are the wartime memoir of an author-like fellow:

I remember that my heart finally broke in Naples.  Not over a girl or a thing, but over an idea.  When I was little, they’d told me I should be proud to be an American.  And I suppose I was, though I saw no reason I should applaud every time I saw the flag in a newsreel.  But I did believe that the American way of life was an idea holy in itself, an idea of freedom bestowed by intelligent citizens on one another…  And I found that outside of the propaganda writers (who were making a handsome living from the deal) Americans were very poor spiritually.  (259)

I’ll stop here to note that long before this point I had concluded that the narrator was not the author but a parody of the author – “holy,” huh? – created for purposes as propagandistic as those of the “propaganda writers” he condemns.  He means “outside the writing of the “ etc., yes?  Not that the propaganda writers were spiritually rich, although see below.

And what was this war really about?  I decided that it was because most of the people of the world didn’t have the cigarettes, the gasoline, and the food that we Americans had.  (259)

Still, it seems to really bother this narrator that American servicemen buy cigarettes at the PX and trade them with prostitutes for sex, or that married men take up Italian girlfriends, or that officers in the censorship department spend most of their time scheming for promotions (“The Leaf,” the story I mean, is an insightful of bureaucratic literature that, like the one about syphilis treatment I mentioned yesterday should be much better known).  If American ideals are violated, Burns concludes that they must be false; if the ideals are false, the war – World War II – has no meaning.

A few pages later, after complaints about GI’s drunkenness and sexual rudeness:

And I remember seeing American MP’s beating the driver of a horse and wagon because they were obstructing traffic on Via Roma.  I don’t think the Germans could have done any better in their concentration camps.  I thought that all humanity had gone from the world, and that this war had smothered decency forever.  (262)

“[D]one any better” in cruelty!  That is a strange, strange sentence to see in 1947.  I was ready to forgive quite a few stolen cigarettes, even some cruelty, if it helped the American armed forces get on with the liberation of France and the camps.  But I was under the influence of another work of propaganda that I was reading around the same time, Joseph Kessel’s Army of Shadows, his of the moment (1943!) about the difficult, doomed heroism of the fighters in the French Resistance.  Kessel himself was not getting too rich flying a bomber for the Free French air force.  I should write more about that book.

So, I take The Gallery, like much fiction, as the exploration of a sensibility, sometimes expressed in new and surprising ways, and at other times less original and more ethically dubious.  It is of high period interest, at least.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Gallery by John Horne Burns - this was the first and last time he’d be at the center of the world

John Horne Burns’s The Gallery (1947) is I guess one of those lost classics.  Myself, I prefer the found classics, but this one is interesting enough.  Interesting because:

1. It is one of the first serious American fictional responses to World War II.  It was published a year before The Naked and the Dead, for example.  It prefigures Catch-22 and other later war fiction.  It has almost no combat, none until the very end.

2. Burns was gay, and some of the content is gay, sometimes subtly, sometimes directly.  This is unusual for any American novel circa 1947, and more so for a war book.  A lot of the book is about sex.

The structure is unusual, too.  The gallery in the title is the Galleria Umberto in Naples, a shopping center, but in the book, after the American invasion of Italy, full of bars and prostitutes, every pane of glass shattered.  Here is the protagonist of the last story, “Moe,” when he enter the Galleria:

He walked till he was in the very center of the Galleria, under the dome.  Slowly he spun round in his boots as though he were the needle of a compass orienting itself on the grid lines of a map.  Thus he was at the very center of that afternoon crowd in the Galleria.  He was the nub of hundreds of persons, American, British, French, Polish, Moroccan, and Neapolitan.  He smiled and said to himself that this was the first and last time he’d be at the center of the world.  (315)

There is also a gallery of characters presented in a series of vignette-like short stories.  Portraits, Burns calls them, so it’s a portrait gallery.  Between the Portraits are the Promenades, where a Burns-like (although in some ways -unlike) narrator makes his way, along with the U.S. army, from Casablanca to Naples.

This is quite like Dos Passos, and Burns’s prose is generally in Dos Passos or Hemingway territory:

The sailors were ubriachi and the lieutenants were icily sober.  (147)

The Gallery is full of untranslated Italian and French, which I think of as a Hemingway touch.  I don’t know who this sounds like:

He simply drawled at everyone, and all the things he said lay around in gluey pools like melted lavender sherbet.  (146)

Lavender because this, “Momma,” is the story of one typical night at a Galleria bar that has turned into a pickup spot for gay servicemen.

First came an Aussie in a fedora hat, to which his invention had added flowers and feathers.  Tonight he was more than usually drunk.  He slunk in with the slow detachment of a mannequin modeling clothes.  He waved a lace handkerchief at all:

– Oh my pets, my pets!  Your mother’s awfully late tonight, but she’ll try and make it up to you! (143)

That’s Ella the Aussie; a couple of British sergeants who act as a chorus call themselves, while in the bar, Esther and Magda.

At least the gay soldiers are having some fun.  The first story, “The Trenchfoot of Michael Patrick,” is about a soldier getting himself drunk enough so he has the courage to pick up a prostitute.  Somehow this involves drinking a bottle of cognac during a performance of La Bohème.  I guess that might be fun, too.  Not “Queen Penicillin,” though, the most Hemingwayish story, about life as a syphilis patient in the American army VD hospital, with one penicillin shot “’[e]very three hours, rain or shine, for a hundred and eighty hours’” (277).  Absolutely miserable, and not exactly something I ever wanted to read about, but fascinating in its own way.  The officer is lucky, in a sense, because penicillin has just been introduced as a treatment.  It at least works.

I have to mention “Father Donovan and Chaplain Bascom,” in which an army minister and army priest wander the Galleria arguing theology and everything else until they are simultaneously hit by a truck and killed.  I might well have laughed out loud.  Occasionally, The Gallery is actively bad.

All of this should suggest that the ethos of The Gallery is itself interesting, but I’ll save that for tomorrow.

I will mention here that I bought The Gallery for five dollars from the book room at a Mennonite quilt auction.  Don’t skip the Mennonite quilt auctions.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

"the minuteness of the journal that I must write" - Evelina does some new things

For its first few pages, Evelina looks like an epistolary novel, like a Samuel Richardson novel.  “I am, dear Sir, with great regard” (Letter I) etc.  Young Evelina’s guardians are planning her London debut.  Days, or months, pass between letters. 

Evelina herself finally takes over in Letter VIII (only twelve pages into my Norton edition – now there’s a difference from Richardson – shorter letters) and the rhetorical mode changes, quickly, until the letters do not sound much like letters at all.  They are full of scenes, dialogue, characters, jokes, the usual novelistic stuff.  Maybe like a journal, but not really.  More like, you know, a novel.  Picked almost at random:

Presently after, a very gay-looking man, stepping hastily up to him cried, “Why, my Lord, what have you done with your lovely partner?”

“Nothing” answered Lord Orville with a smile and a shrug.

“By Jove,” cried the man, “she is the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life!”

Lord Orville, as he well might, laughed; but answered, “Yes, a pretty modest-looking girl.”  (Letter XII)

On like this for a couple of pages.  And this is not Evelina eavesdropping on the men she met at her first ball, but her friend eavesdropping and reporting back, all of which is then written up by Evelina for the clergyman who is essentially her adoptive father.  So, really, it is Evelina imagining the scene based on whatever her friend told her.  Imagining, polishing, maybe exaggerating.  If there is a hint of unreliability, I missed it, but the possibility is there.

I am harping on all this because Richardson great motive for his invention of the English epistolary novel was realism.  Why does this text exist?  Well, letters, even ordinary people wrote those, often enormously long ones in enormous quantities.  One of Burney’s innovations is to merely gesture toward the conventions of the epistolary novel, keeping the interiority and moral reflection but dumping most of the rest of the epistolarity, unless she wants it for plotty reasons.  Evelina, and Burney, does become self-conscious just once near the end of the novel, when she mentions “the minuteness of the journal that I must write to my beloved [guardian].”

Burney keeps the key feature of the letter-writing device, which is that unlike the memoirists Esther Summerson, Jane Rochester, and “Ishmael,” her first-person narrator does not know how the story ends, or even what other characters are doing when not present.  I came across an amusing precept of Jorge Luis Borges in his Selected Poems, where he says one of his devices is to “narrate events as if I did not entirely understand them” (265), and the letters give Burney a way to do that with a narrator who is by far the sharpest character in the book.  Evelina in fact has the sensibility, eye for detail, and discernment of character of a good novelist.  She knows how to look around her, and to construct a scene.

Burney is also, in what I am pretty sure is another innovation, directly pulling the stage comedy of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith and likely other playwrights I haven’t read into the novel.  English stage comedy in the 1770s was doing a lot of new things, and I don’t remember earlier scenes in novels that look so much like scenes from plays.  One Sheridanish character, Mrs. Selwyn, is “satirical,” meaning she is a nonstop sarcastic joke machine.  Evelina’s grandmother, the ridiculously Frenchified English Mme Duval is another suspiciously Sheridan-like invention.


The British Library has a useful site about the novel (I borrowed yesterday’s image of the title page from it) that is largely about the 18th century context.  An entire gallery is about satirical images of women’s hair.  Evelina goes on a tour of London entertainment – the theater, the opera, parks, Vauxhall, the short-lived Cox’s Museum of automatons – all of which is fascinating to those interested but hardly the reason to read the novel if you are not writing your dissertation in 18th century London social venues.  Just one of many reasons to read it, only some of which have to do with the “how we get to Jane Austen” question.

Many thanks to the Twitter readalongists for the pleasure of revisiting Evelina.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Evelina and the comedy of manners - “It was impossible now to distinguish whose screams were loudest”

Business: the blog’s old “subscribe by email” function is being throttled on July 1.  I have moved every email subscriber over to a new service.  My hope is that the only change will be the format of the email, and that you, dear reader, will not have to do a thing, and that this will all be a nuisance to me and to no one else.  We’ll see.  Please let me know about problems.  Apologies in advance.


Pleasure: I read Frances Burney’s Evelina, or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778) alongside a Twitter group (#Evelina1778).  Evelina is a curious thing, a hinge in the history of the English novel.  It is nominally an epistolary novel, but moves much closer in form to a standard first-person novel (standard, I mean, for us, now) and in substance to Jane Austen.  Burney’s novel is simultaneously a vehicle to move the innovations of the English comic stage of the 1770s – Goldsmith, Sheridan – into the English novel.

Evelina is a seventeen year-old country mouse, timid and virtuous and beautiful, making her first visit to London.  She has a complicated, mysterious parentage that will move the plot along.  Maybe she is poor and illegitimate, and maybe not.  Guess, in the end, which.  In the meantime, she makes a tour of London entertainment with a variety of appalling friends and relatives, and fights off the unwanted attention, ranging from rudeness to sexual assault, of a variety of men.

To the first point, Evelina is a literal comedy of manners.  The governing conceit is that Evelina is unsophisticated but polite, while almost every other character, whatever their class status, is rude beyond belief.  The middle third of the book is spent with Evelina’s shopkeeper-class cousins (remember that Evelina is describing the scene in a “letter”):

The dinner was ill-served, ill-cooked, and ill-managed. The maid who waited had so often to go down stairs for something that was forgotten, that the Branghtons were perpetually obliged to rise from table themselves, to get plates, knives, and forks, bread or beer. Had they been without pretensions, all this would have seemed of no consequence; but they aimed at appearing to advantage, and even fancied they succeeded. However, the most disagreeable part of our fare was that the whole family continually disputed whose turn it was to rise, and whose to be allowed to sit still.  (Letter XLII)

The forks and bread are unusually material for Evelina, but the key, even new, observations are in the last sentence, about the rules of conduct and their violation.  Minutiae, but also the meaningful substance of much of the next two hundred years of the novel.  There is not much description in Evelina, not much stuff (aside from all of the different carriages, and their ownership, and who rides with whom, as important here as in Austen’s novels), but manners are described thoroughly.

To the other point above, the rules are meaningful and minute because however imperfectly obeyed they make civilization function.  Without them, men, especially, become animals.  Women are under constant threat of assault.  The freedom of women is tightly constrained, but the world outside the home, and sometimes inside, is awful.  This is a dark undercurrent for a comic novel.  The heroines of all three Samuel Richardson novels are kidnapped and threatened, or worse, and I wonder to what extent Burney, who is unlike her heroine a savvy city mouse, is deliberately invoking Richardson, her epistolary ancestor.  But I take the actual London to be a threatening place to an unaccompanied young woman.

The general ethos of Evelina is cruel, aside from the sexual menace.  The “prank” theme reinforces the cruelty.  One of the pranks of course involves the abduction of a woman.  One at the very end of the novel is based on a monkey dressed as a fop.  It goes on for many pages, just when I am ready to wrap up the book.  “It was impossible now to distinguish whose screams were loudest…” (Letter LXXXII).  It is not clear to me to what extent Burney means the pranks as pure comedy, however cruel.  Evelina is not so far from Don Quixote.

Tomorrow I’ll go into the literary history, what I meant by “hinge.”

Friday, June 11, 2021

I. J. Singer's bloodlands novel The Brothers Ashkenazi - the whole world was drenched in blood


I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi (1934-5 serialized in Yiddish, 1936 in English) is a big-sweep historical novel that begins with the takeoff of the weaving industry in Lodz and ends with the Russian Revolution and independence of Poland.  

Some features of the novel: textile factories, assimilating Hasidic Jews, possibly literature’s first depiction of a PowerPoint presentation (“Director Ashkenazi pointed to a chart which revealed that since his sinecure, the factory work force had grown from 3,000 to 8,000 men and women,” 301, tr. Joseph Singer).  One character spends his time “read[ing] Hasidic storybooks about squire who assumed the guise of werewolves in order to harm Jews and about the saints who used sacred blessings to frustrate these wizards and transform them into dogs and tomcats” (100).

But that stuff is not in this novel, which is also full of strikes, revolution, pogroms, and prison.  It is a real “bloodlands” novel, an account of the beginning of the 20th century Eastern European nightmare, especially in the second half, when “[t]he whole world was drenched in blood” (333).  And when the blood starts flowing, for any reason, the Jews suffer the worst.

The Brothers Ashkenazi is surprisingly Russian, not that it is much like any particular Russian novel.  Lodz is, at this time, ruled by Russia.  Revolutionaries get sent to Russian prisons, and German and Polish strikers are murdered by Cossacks.  A good chunk of the novel is set in Petersburg, in order to cover the Russian Revolution, with a few pages from the point of view of Lenin and another that of Czar Nicholas II:  

For a while he did nothing at all.  He followed his usual routine – played patience and dominoes, noted down the weather in his diary, and dined with his retinue.  When the telegrams grew too demanding, he behaved like any henpecked husband and took the advice of his wife, whom he considered his mental superior.  (339, Ch. 53)

A number of chapters essentially abandon the novel’s characters, replacing them with “the soldiers” and “ the rebels” and “the poor housewives.”  That’s pulled from the same chapter; when “the soldiers” refuse to fire on “the poor housewives,” that’s it for hapless Nicolas.  It’s the Russian Revolution in six pages.

It has been so long since I read James Michener that I fear I am wrong, but The Brothers Ashkenazi reminded me of Michener.  I don’t know who a contemporary equivalent might be.  I am expected to be similarly interested in the big history and the little, the true history and the fictional, which serves as something of an exemplar or vehicle, so what does it matter if the characters are one-dimensional and the writing full of clichés.

“Yes, true.  It’s all the Jews’ fault.  They started the was to make money….”

“They ought to be beaten.”

“We Ukrainians know how to handle Jews,” a lame soldier interposed.  “The rope is the only cure for a Jew.”

The others nodded in solemn agreement.

The wagon seemed to throb with blind hatred, ignorance, animal passions.  It choked Yakub like a poison gas, but it didn’t deter him from his mission.  The trains crawled along like a snail.  (394)

What I am trying to say is that this is not the kind of novel where I fuss too much over slow trains being like snails.

Now, that other simile.  I have wondered about this.  The Brothers Ashkenazi was a popular* novel in the United States, with a popular stage adaptation.  Readers of Singer’s novel were well prepared for what they would read in the newspaper over the next ten years.  There are numerous episodes which might lead the newspaper reader of 1940 or 1946 to think “Why, I read about exactly this, in that novel.”  A “poison gas” metaphor borrowed from a World War I battlefield turns into prophecy.  I think part of the power of the novel is that although in some sense a historical novel, it is about a history that is ongoing.

I would not mind reading a book or essay about how fiction had mentally prepared (well or badly) people for the events of World War II.

*  Rebecca Goldstein, introducing the 2010 edition of The Brothers Ashkenazi, writes that “published by Knopf in 1936, it went to the top of the New York Times best seller list, lingering there together with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind” (p. xi).  Adam Hirsch makes much of the connection: “In 1936, two novels dominated the New York Times bestseller list.”  Except it is not true; Singer’s novel was never, as far as I can find, on the best seller list at all, and certainly did not “top” or “dominate” it (number two behind Mitchell was George Santayana's The Last Puritan).  I do not entirely trust this strange old website with the best seller lists, and I certainly did not check every week.  Still: false.  Popular but not that popular.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

there weren’t many books anyhow, and she’d hardly read any of them - preparing to visit Edith Wharton's house

With any luck, I will, later this summer, visit The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts.  



Not bad, huh?

So I have been reading some Wharton, and hope to read a bit more before I set foot in the house.  Recently I read the novella Madame de Treymes (1906, about 60 pages in the Library of America edition) and Summer (1917, 150 pages).  They’re pretty good.

They both have kinda convoluted premises.  Let’s see.  Madame de Treymes is a Jamesian “American innocence versus European corruption” kind of thing.  The naïve American hero wants to marry the former Fanny Frisbee (!), now Madame de Malrive, if she can only divorce her morally poisonous French husband while keeping custody of her son, or as the French family thinks of him, the heir.  The path to the divorce goes through the sister-in-law, the Madame de Treymes in the title.  She is French, and also married to a corrupt French count, and to some degree corrupt herself, naturally, being French nobility.

The innocence versus experience business is ridiculous, Wharton doing James, but the James of thirty years earlier, and on the other hand who cares because she is having so much fun, as with the ludicrous Boykins, expatriate Americans too impenetrably ignorant to be corrupted by Europe, who “live in active disapproval of the world about them,” experiencing Paris like “persons peacefully following the course of a horrible war by pricking red pins in a map” (21).  

Or, for a simpler example, “one of the small gilt chairs which always looked surprised at being sat in” (same page).  A writer enjoying herself.  This Paris story has nothing to do with The Mount.

Summer does.  While creating the luxury of her estate, Wharton also got to know a bit of “the derelict mountain villages of New England”:

… grim places, morally and physically: insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation were hidden away behind the paintless wooden house-fronts of the long village street… (1002, Ch. 12 of A Backward Glance, 1933-4)


Ethan Frome
(1911) and Summer are both visits to these Berkshire hellholes.  Ethan Frome is famous for being so fatefully grim, like an American Hardy novel, but Summer is merely depressing, and surprisingly a bit creepy.  It is not strictly speaking the story of a girl groomed to be a much older man’s wife, but it has elements of that story.  The core story is more conventional: Charity Royall falls for the interesting young man who comes to town, in part on the merits and in part because her adoptive father figure has become a creep since his wife died; the nice young handsome boy turns out to be a dog; the father figure is a dog; men are dogs.

Wharton is explicit about male sexual desire and even about abortion in a way that surprised me.  Her scenes with the abortionist resemble those of Theodore Dreiser in An American Tragedy, but that book came out nine years later and everyone knew Dreiser wrote nasty shockers.  Perhaps Wharton, living in France, taking a break her work as a genuine French war hero, felt a little freer than usual, but the novel was published in an American magazine with no problem, so what do I know.

The main setting is a town with “no shops, no theatres, no lectures, no 'business block'; only a church that was opened every other Sunday if the state of the roads permitted, and a library for which no new books had been bought for twenty years, and where the old ones mouldered undisturbed in the damp shelves” (161, Ch. 1).  Our heroine Charity is the teenage librarian, among the world’s worst librarians:

… she replied that there weren’t many books anyhow, and that she’d hardly read any of them.  “The worms are getting to them,” she added gloomily (163).

That is part of the “meet cute.”  The first chapter is openly comic, and suggests a different way the novel could have gone.  It is the second chapter that takes a more disturbing turn.

“Well, I guess you made a mistake, then.  This ain’t your wife’s room any longer.”

She was not frightened, she simply felt a deep disgust; and perhaps he divined it or read it in her face, for after staring at her a moment he drew back and turned slowly away from the door.  (170-1, Ch. 2)

Charity is one of those Strong Female Characters many readers say they want, but one who is defeated, crushed.

I don’t know that wandering around the gardens of The Mount will give me much insight into Ehtan Frome or Summer, or vice versa.  Quite a contrast.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Eudora Welty is difficult, Poul Anderson is easy

The hardest book I’ve read recently, and the easiest.  The hardest not in French, a separate category of difficulty.


Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding (1946) is one of the first novels I really dismantled, studying it piece by piece.  This complex novel likely informs the way I understand fiction in ways I do not even know, but it certainly taught me that finding the patterns behind the surface is worthwhile.  The better understood work of art becomes more beautiful.  At least this kind of art.

The Golden Apples (1949) is a relative of Delta Wedding, but linked short stories, all set in the same little Mississippi delta town; how hard can it be, I thought?  And then the difficulties of the book defeated me again and again.  Comical, sometimes – oh no, I was supposed to be keeping track of that!  So I’ll write this off this attempt as something of a failure, except that it is useful preparation for my next reading, when I will be braced and alert and properly equipped.

It was a bit of a relief to poke into the Welty scholarship – don’t be afraid to ask for help! – and see The Golden Apples routinely described as her most difficult book.  By difficult I mean: layered patterning; concealed multi-directional references (the title, is that Hesiod or Yeats? Both); original symbolism; overlapping time; lots of characters; deferred information.  Mostly the latter, really.  Every basic who / when / what question will  be answered, but I may have to hold onto it for ten or a hundred pages.

It’s all the usual Modernist stuff, employed with a high level of art and craft.  Here’s the last sentence:

They heard through falling rain the running of the horse and bear, the stroke of the leopard, the dragon’s crusty slither, and the glimmer and the trumpet of the swan.

Next time, I’ll know what all of that means.  Next time.


I have a box or two of fantasy paperbacks, mostly well-known books, that are causing me anxiety (keep, sell, give away?).  I just re-read one of them, Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade (1960), with real pleasure.   It is a book written on principles opposite of Welty’s.  It is an easy book.  I am supposed to get it – all of it – right away.  I re-read this kind of book to repeat but not deepen the pleasure.

Given what it is, though, Anderson’s book is good fun.  Extraterrestrial invaders make the mistake of landing in a medieval village.  Soon enough, three knights and their yeoman archers and sturdy peasants have conquered an interstellar empire.  It is all preposterous but also episodically, logically inexorable.  The narrative pleasure is watching Anderson move the stakes up, notch by notch, until he runs out.

The High Crusade is an example of the genre of human triumphalism, a descendent of Aristophanes’s Birds (414 BCE), where the Athenians conquer Olympus through sheer exuberance.  Like the Aristophanes play, Anderson’s novel has elements that critique imperialism, but they are all swept away by the energy of the upstarts.  Empires are overthrown and replaced by new empires.  The overthrowing is so enjoyable that the replacement is barely noticed.

There are three more Anderson novels in that box, and come to think of it Tau Zero (1970) is also a human triumphalist book.  Anderson rigs things so humans conquer the next universe, the one that comes after the heat death of our universe.

If you see me reading old fantasy novels, you will know I am rummaging in the box.  They should go, mostly.  Like I need my own copy of The Martian Chronicles.  Like that book is hard to find if I want it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

No, more likely, he has failed somehow to read them rightly - Robert Coover, James Sallis, and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán


For some reason I paid $4.95 for Robert Coover’s Spanking the Maid (1982), although, if you can see the REGULAR PRICE, it’s $14!  For 94 pages!  This must have been twenty years ago.  Finally, I have read the book, as part of the ritual of getting rid of it.

Spanking the Maid is, as the title and cover suggest, a sadism and masochism novel, a struggle, possibly voluntary, possibly not, between a maid and her employer.  She is always making mistakes; he is consequently always spanking her, according to the rules of the manual.

The room is clean, the bed stripped and made, the maid whipped, why isn’t that enough?  Is there something missing in the manuals?  No, more likely, he has failed somehow to read them rightly.  Yet again.  (71)

Spanking the Maid is also, or I would say is primarily, a French New Novel by an American writer, about fiction about fiction about fiction, onward as far as you can stand.  Two characters, one setting (a bedroom with attached bath), with events repeated again and again, the perspective shifting from the maid to the employer and back, a few pages at a time.  The interest, the art, or alternatively the tedium, is in all the little variations in the events of the morning, all on the same template: the maid makes an error and is punished.  Again, perhaps as part of a sexual game, but perhaps not.  The woman eventually wins the game, for what that’s worth.

The internals rhymes and made/maid pun in the first sentence above are intentional and inventional – an intention/invention confusion is on the same page – and I would not have minded more of the linguistic play, more of the occasional Surrealist elements.  But mostly it is a text about repetition, like Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947), with less style.  


Speaking of whom – I am switching to James Sallis’s The Long-legged Fly (1992):

One of the plates read W. Percy, M.D., another R. Queneau.  The third one just read B.S.  I punched the button beside it.  (86)

That is New Orleans private investigator Lew Griffin on a missing-person case, invoking two of his novel’s ancestors, French and Existentialist-American.  The Long-legged Fly is less a mystery novel than one of those anti-mysteries I enjoy, full of literature and parody and an utter lack of resolution.  It takes a severe meta-fictional turn at the end, guaranteeing that most mystery fans, as I understand them, will loathe the book, but the character who writes detective novels notes that “[t]he books are very popular in France” (172), and in fact Sallis’s Lew Griffin novels are more popular, if not “very” popular, in France than in the U.S.  The Long-legged Fly was Sallis’s first novel, so it was a little weird to see him prophesy so well.  But he knew what he was writing – again, an Americanized existentialist French New Novel – so it was not such a crazy guess.


I’ll cram in one more detective novel, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Murder in the Central Committee (1981, tr. Patrick Camilleri), the fifth of the Pepe Carvalho series.  I felt I finally needed to read one of the novels that gave Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano his name, so my interest was meta-fictional to begin with, before we find a murder suspect complaining that “Vázquez Montalbán can win the Planeta Prize” (60) – for an earlier Carvalho novel.

Or perhaps the suspect is praising the prize.  I'm not sure.  The Central Committee is of Spanish Communists, newly liberated from Franco’s repression.  Their chief is murdered, so our detective and his poor readers have to sit through a lot of theoretical Communist gibberish, and I do not want to say I understood it all.

In between, there is a lot of food, and some vivid sex.  Vázquez Montalbán writes with the kind of exuberant post-Franco excess I associate with Pedro Almodóvar, the sense artists seemed to have that they needed to catch up with the rest of Europe, in gusto, among other things:

Madrid markets provide a lesson in polychromic symmetry, with their plumed onion, metallic tuna-heads, glassy, finely dressed trouts, scraps of humanised cardboard boxes, oily Toro pastry, chorizos from Candelario, individually polished green beans from La Granja, porcelain chickpeas.  He bought some cooked tripe, capipota, frozen peas, the first fresh artichokes of the year, a head of garlic, almonds, pine kernels, a chunk of meaty tuna fish, a tin of anchovies, oil, onions and tomatoes.  (127)

I am not convinced the mystery as such is so special – it turns into more of a comic espionage anti-thriller – but the Madrid food is extraordinary.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Enjoying some English prose - Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory and J. R. Ackerley's My Father and Myself

 


“The greatest English writer of our time” declares the cover of my copy of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940).  It’s a 1982 Penguin, so I assume the “time” is circa 1982, but who knows.  It’s plausible, right, even without looking into the competition (I pick either Penelope Fitzgerald or Michael Moorcock, depending on mood).

Greene’s novels travel the world, feature a wide variety of characters, deal with big philosophical and social issues, have exciting forward-moving plots, and are written stylishly without seeming to fuss over style.  I can see how for some readers – maybe more in the past than now – Greene was the ideal novelist.  These are not my ideals, but I can see the fit.

The Power and the Glory is the one with the Mexican whiskey priest, on the run from the Tabasco police and a regime that is suppressing the Church and murdering every priest it can find.  And the state is also prohibitionist, even worse, especially for an illegal priest performing illegal masses using illegal wine.  As is often the case with Greene, this is all exaggerated, but true enough.  I guess the actual Tabasco state was not so thorough, but Greene’s character is the last priest, so even if a bad priest, a drunk with a child, he is by default a mythic figure.  Whether his courage or sense of duty or desperation also makes him a saint, a sinning saint, is one of the questions Greene works on.

Duty, faith, sin, death, plus chase scenes.  Greene is at this point an expert in what I think of as the flow of the novel, knowing when to shift from one character to another or from inside to outside a character’s head.   How to move characters from one room to another, or make time pass:

They fell silent and time passed, the shadow of the customs house shifted a few inches farther towards the river: the vulture moved a little, like the black hand of a clock. (I.1)

This is just the third page of the novel, so that blatantly symbolic vulture will not murder anyone for a while.  Greene is inventive with metaphor, as here with the first look at our hero the alcoholic priest:

He had protuberant eyes; he gave an impression of unstable hilarity, as if perhaps he had been celebrating a birthday, alone.  (same page)

The metaphors are a good part of the pleasant, mild strangeness that I find characteristic of Greene.

Look at that edition of J. R. Ackerley’s memoir My Father and Myself (1968), number 4 in the NYRB Classics series.  Think of how easy it was to collect them when there were only four.  Ackerley’s book has two strains.  First, it is a straightforward account of life as a gay man in England under a repressive legal regime, the only twists being the author’s neuroses, but who doesn’t have those.  In the introduction W. H. Auden, when not directly summarizing the book, seems mostly interested in exactly which sex acts Ackerley would or would not perform.  I though he was clear enough, so clear that it was easy to understand why the book was deliberately published posthumously.  Auden wanted more, though.

The second strain is the life of Ackerley’s father, especially some late revelations about his active sex life, including the strong possibility that he had for several years been the handsome “kept man” of a rich gay Count.  The memoir has an odd structure, in that Ackerley’s writes about his father’s early life first, then returns at the end, after his father’s death, to the information suggesting that everyone involved was homosexual, but I would guess that most readers figure it all out, and are meant to, right away, so the suspense is all in how Ackerley makes the discoveries.

My Father and Myself would be valuable as a gay memoir even if the father were a more ordinarily dull chap.  But he provides the narrative energy.

Ackerley’s style is the good English literary style of his time, possibly just a bit more direct to increase the rhetorical “hard truth-telling” effect, full of carefully placed phrases and clauses.  Picked almost at random:

I was a cherubic little boy with large blue starry eyes; my first nickname was “Girlie,” and at the public school older boys soon began to make advances to me.  (105)

Why is this better as one sentence than three?  The three clauses each contain information, but connecting them adds meaning.  A little more complexity, a little more meaning.  It is the kind of sentence I associate with Graves, Orwell, or Huxley, more intricate than the standard American equivalent, and always a pleasure to read.

 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Farewell to The Third Policeman and The Commitments - Dublin Soul was about to be born

Let’s say farewell to some books this week.


Isn’t that cover of The Commitments (1987) great?  It is even more or less accurate.  “Jimmy Rabbitte knew his music” (1) – he’s the blond kid holding the picture of James Brown.  He organizes a Dublin bar band that performs twenty-year-old American soul music.  A lot of the pleasure of the book comes from the representation of the performance of the music:


I do not expect anyone to read this page (105, source of the post’s title), but am using it as a visual object.  You can see what Doyle is doing, the simplified Joycean tools he is using.  I associate Joyce with interiority and complex referential patterns, but in Ulysses there is also plenty of people just goofing around in bars, the Dublin cacophony, and Doyle is in that tradition.  Lots of speech, lots of energy, lots of noise.

The particular song represented here is James Brown’s “Night Train” (1961), a key work of 20th century music, which, on this page, in this performance, by means of adding Dublin train stops to the song lyrics somehow converts an amateur bar band cover into an art work full of meaning to the handful of people lucky enough to hear it.  The Commitments is about – this is what it is actually about – how popular art creates meaning.  “Dublin Soul had been delivered.”

The 1993 movie, whatever its charms, completely omits “Night Train.”  Too complex, or something.


The Third Policeman is Flann O’Brien’s follow-up to At Swim Two-Birds (1939), ready to go in 1940 but not published until 1967 due to circumstances and incomprehension.

It was so faultless and delightful that it reminded me forcibly, strange and foolish as it may seem, of something I did not understand and had never even heard of. (Ch. 5)

It is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for grown-ups, where Alice is replaced by a philosophically-inclined Irish murderer and Wonderland is not a dream but something perhaps related.  There is a shared metaphysics, at least, and a similar Carroll-like love of mathematical paradox.  The quotation above is, in context, about a series of boxes-within-boxes that does not go on to infinity but gets close.  This line is about the transfer of atoms from bicycle to rider and rider to bicycle, making people half-bicycle and bicycles half-human:

‘Your talk,’ I said, ‘is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand.’ (Ch. 6)

It is just atomic theory.  It is so simple.

Perhaps it is because of the Alice template, just because I understand it better, but I personally find The Third Policeman quite a bit funnier and easier than the meta-fictional At Swim Two-Birds, where fictional characters take vengeance on their creator.  Parts of Policeman are just comedy sketches, proto-Python.  A separate novel, about an insane philosopher and his cutthroat commentators, develops in the increasingly long footnotes.  Goofy exclamations are everywhere: “‘Great holy suffering indiarubber bowls of brown stirabout!’” (Ch. 6).  My kind of humor.  Perversely, then, I plan to sell the book I like more and keep the other, since it is the latter I want to understand better.  It is probably just as funny, once I get to know it.

Farewell to these jolly books.