Friday, April 30, 2021

Kay Boyle's short Lawrencian novels - leading their own strong violent life

Kay Boyle’s short novel The Crazy Hunter (1940) is about wealthy, horsey English people, and The Bridegroom’s Body (also 1940) begins:

The swannery had been established there, just on the edge of Lord Glourie’s grounds, because it was here the swans had come of themselves  since years, since centuries maybe, to feed on the weeds and to lead their own strong violent life in the lagoon. (143, page numbers from Three Short Novels, New Directions, 1958).

Soon enough a swanherd appears.  This is the only fiction I have read featuring a swanherd.

At some early point in The Crazy Hunter I thought “Isn’t Kay Boyle American?”  Yes, born in St. Paul, raised in Cincinnati, with the next major step a career as a Paris Bohemian, a “scenester,” almost, who pops up in most accounts of Americans in Paris in the 1920s.  Boyle’s life in the 1920s and 1930s was complicated and likely a lot of fun.

She did briefly live in England.  She must have sponged it up pretty thoroughly.  I would never have guessed that the author of these two stories was not English.  That is partly, though, because she so thoroughly sponged up D. H. Lawrence.  Her prose, characters, use of animals, and attitude are the most Lawrence-like I have seen outside of Lawrence.  See above, “strong violent life.”

St. Mawr (1925) is Lawrence’s little novel about a married couple who fight and fall apart over a horse.  In The Crazy Hunter, Nancy’s new horse, a gift from her father, has a stroke and goes blind.  The colder mother wants it put down, as anyone would; Nancy wants to keep it, ride it, and even train it to jump; the warmer, drunken, failed artist father supports his daughter to the point of self-destruction.  Lawrence’s gender roles have all been moved around here, but they are recognizable.  The mother – the parents have names but are often referred to by their roles, as “the mother” and “the father” – is not a villain but is understandably worried that show jumping with a blind horse is crazy and will get Nancy killed.

In The Bridegroom’s Body, the male swans try to murder each other over the females, and the male humans do not actually fight but certainly compete for a new young female who appears in their ecosystem.  What can animals do about their instincts.

The protagonist, Lady Glourie, not the woman everyone is fighting over, is watching a swan bathe:

He was just across the lake with the moon shining fully on him, and presently she began walking panther-swift and soft along the path that led her to where he bent and dipped and shook under the lambent dripping veils of mingled water and light.  Her eyes did not leave him; as if it was his own luminosity that drew her like a sleepwalker to him she moved, seemingly stepless, seemingly mindless, towards him. (198)

And “staining the incredible purity as blood might have stained it,” “[t]he great throbbing of his wings,” and so on.  It is in these sexually intense scenes that Boyle really leans on Lawrence’s style, although I think she is more self-consciously controlled.  Maybe.

They can’t stink more than stud-farms do of sex and monstrous matings and foalings brutaler than murders. (The Crazy Hunter, 34)

But that’s a character, the self-pitying father, sounding like Lawrence at his most ranting, not the narrator.

Looking in Leo Hamalian’s D. H. Lawrence and Nine Women Writers (1996), to make sure I am not seeing things, I find that Boyle herself says (p. 101) that the first Lawrence book she read was Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), perfect for a future American Lawrencian, which her mother sent to her in Paris from Cincinnati.  What a great mom! Boyle quickly read all available fiction, and poetry, and everything, and nodded to him constantly in her fiction of the 1920s and 1930s.

I should read Boyle sometime, although I have no idea what.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Hugh MacLennan's Canadian novel about novels - She knew she was supposed to admire these writers for their realism, but actually she loved them for their style

The last third of Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes jumps from World War I to the 1930s, ending in 1939 with the start of World War II, and the main characters switch to Paul, the son of the aristocratic, enlightened Athanase and Heather, the daughter of the war widow from the chapter I praised yesterday.  Young people problems come to the front, like romance (the French/English division will be reconciled by love and patriotism) and jobs and writing the Great Canadian Novel.  A surprising amount of the novel is about novels.

Hemingway, for example, inescapable in 1947:

He [Paul] went into the kitchen and opened a can of beans, spilled the beans out into a saucepan and heated it on the stove.  Then he cut a slice of bread and buttered it, and poured himself a glass of milk.  The beans and milk tasted good.  (225)

That last sentence especially, even if the whole thing is stolen from “The Big Two-Fisted River” (1925).

If that seems thin – although it is directly stolen – let’s look at Heather selecting a book from “her collection of post-war writers”:

All of D. H. Lawrence was there, all of Aldous Huxley and Dos Passos, some Hemingway and the social works of Bertrand Russell.  She knew she was supposed to admire these writers for their realism, but actually she loved them for their style.  She could not bear a book that lacked style.


On the next page, MacLennan spends a paragraph watching Heather read the first ten pages of A Farewell to Arms.  “It was vibrant, it was beautiful, it was life!”  MacLennan is listing his own influences here, all easily detectable long before this page, however paler they become in his own style.  Well, I have never read Russell.

Paul and Heather begin a love affair that moves the novel firmly into Lawrence territory, although my notes tell me that I lost the most relevant page numbers (what a useful note, thanks, past me).  Not that Lawrence was not visible early on (this is Paul’s older brother, an interesting character in his own right):

His hatred of his father collapsed in a longing for his father’s approval, never attained because stubbornness of pride made him refuse consistently to do a single thing his father wished. (38)

Admittedly, that’s a heck of a lot balder than Lawrence would ever write.  How about what may be my favorite single line in Two Solitudes:

Twice last autumn, on silent nights with a full moon, he had heard miles away the cough of a rutting moose.


A moony, moosey echo of a favorite bit of Women in Love (1920):

The moon was transcendent over the bare, open space, she suffered from being exposed to it.  There was a glimmer of nightly rabbits across the ground.  The night was as clear as crystal, and very still. She could hear a distant coughing of a sheep. (Ch. 19, “Moony”)

Paul is also the name of the hero of Sons and Lovers (1913).  That made me laugh when I remembered it, although the characters are more like Rupert and Ursula in Women in Love, with their honeymoon trip along the Gulf of St. Lawrence full of resonances.

Paul has been writing a novel about the masses – “Could any man write a novel about masses?” (307) – but it is not going well.  “A novel should concern people, not ideas, and yet people had become trivial” (same page).  His great breakthrough, with Heather’s help, is to turn to a novel about Canada.  This is what happened to MacLennan, too.  This is, of course, a terrible idea, leading to the kind of kitsch I find on the very last page, where MacLennan feels it necessary to summarize the meaning of Canada.  Inevitably, the moony moose returns: “the moose came out of the forests on October nights and stood in silhouette against the moonpaths that crossed solitary lakes” (369).  It worked out all right for MacLennan, overall.  We do not see how it works for Paul.

A highly instructive novel. Thanks again, Dorian, for the recommendation.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

She was each of the characters in turn - Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes

Dorian Stuber asked people to let him recommend a book; I asked; he pointed me to Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes (1945), a novel that became a reference point – the title especially – for the differences between English and French Canada.  So poetic!  It’s from Rilke!  I assume that all such references are now to Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006).

The first two-thirds of the novel are set during or just after World War I, when the English Canadians are gung ho to help their British countrymen fight the Huns, and the French Canadians are not.  You would think they would want to help the French, but no, the French have become godless lunatics who deserve their suffering.  The portrait of the Quebecois village in 1917 is like a trip back in time to the French 18th century, with a tyrannical village priest and characters named Polycarpe and Athanase.

Athanase is the central character of the first section.  He is a man of the Enlightenment, believing in knowledge and progress and probably not so much in God:

He looked at the print of Rousseau hanging beside Voltaire.  Rousseau was wearing a fur cap, and it made him look like an early French-Canadian colonist, almost a coureur de bois.  (75, 1945 edition)

Poor Athanase is ground to a powder, between his intolerant, backwards neighbors (prints of Rousseau and Voltaire cannot compete with that priest), and the greedy momentum of the English bankers who want to turn his Quebecois idyll into a factory town.

Two Solitudes is a family saga, with the son of Athanase and the daughter of another character using the last third of the novel to reconcile the two sides of Canadian culture.  I will leave that for tomorrow.  It turns out to involve the writing of the Great Canadian Novel.  Most of my notes are from the last third.

MacLennan’s novel is good with the culture clash, and good with Montreal – anyone interested in Montreal should read it, no question – but also quite good with death.  The death of the defeated Athanase, torn between three faiths, Catholic, Protestant, and atheism, is excellent, and anticipated by the best chapter in the first part of the book, when the focus shifts for just one chapter to a minor character, a woman whose husband is a soldier.  The post office has received an official letter, “from His Majesty the King, via the Canadian Ministry of Defense,” and everyone in town can see it.  Everyone knows what it means.

Then she began to walk very fast down the road to her father’s house.  All the stories she had ever read in which one of the characters received bad news of a bereavement began to chase each other through her mind.  Idiotically, they got out of control, they became herself.  She was each of the characters in turn, bravely keeping her personal grief from intruding on others, she was nothing but memories and the things which had made her what she was.  (129-30)

But at home, no one has seen the letter, and life is just flowing onward.  Only the widow knows what has happened.

The advantage of including it in a novel is that in the later part of the book, MacLennan can show how her husband’s death in combat poison her life, or perhaps how she chooses to let it poison her life, and tries to use it against her daughter.  But this ironic chapter could stand on its own as a terrific short story.

Tomorrow, D. H. Lawrence and the Great Canadian Novel.  Thanks for the recommendation, Dorian!

I borrowed the book cover from the irritatingly sparse Wikipedia entry.  That’s the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City on the cover.  The characters in Two Solitudes never go to Quebec City.  It’s a Montreal novel.  Don’t ask me.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

“Kh-i-r-r-r-f! S-s-s-s” - Call It Sleep, a note or two


Call It Sleep, Henry Roth, 1934.  What a book.  One of the great novels in many categories – a list: immigrant novels, Jewish novels, childhood novels, New York novels, education novels, dialect novels.  It is also a genuine example of a “lost classic,” mostly ignored on publication but a bestseller – a big bestseller – in the 1960s, when there was, however unlikely it seems now, a mass audience for Modernist Jewish novels.

David, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, is five, and in Brooklyn, when the novel begins and eight, in the East Village, when it ends.  His father is a printer and then a milkman.  His mother only leaves the tenement apartment to buy groceries.  She is devoted to her sensitive son.  Her “overwrought, phobic, and dangerously imaginative little boy,” as Irving Howe described David in his 1964 review of the paperback.  The father, who has what we would now call “anger management” issues, often hates his son.  Call It Sleep is a Joycean novel in a number of ways, one of which is that it is A Portrait of the Artist as a Child, and another of which is that each long episode moves towards a stream-of-consciousness intensity, the last episode turning into this:

Poor little David, in search of the light of God, has suffered a terrible accident.  Everything in italics is his monologue, off in some other state, possibly near death; the dialogue is a chorus, mostly men from a nearby bar, in various dialects; “Kh-i-r-r-r-f! S-s-s-s” is the sound of a policeman resuscitating David.  It just takes a little work, is all I’m saying, to keep everything straight.  The content of the text, David’s thoughts especially, works through all of the thematic material developed in the previous four hundred pages.

I read Call It Sleep almost thirty years ago, and the real surprise to me was how little stream of consciousness and Joycean cacophony there was.  Much of the novel is plainer.  “Aunt Bertha would show his mother some day how to make a sponge-cake.”  I picked that randomly.  I didn’t take any notes, for some reason.  Aunt Bertha, fat, earthy, vital, what a great character.  The energy level rises whenever she is in the scene.  The rhetorical mode moves towards stream of consciousness as each episode intensifies and reaches its climax.  Five year-old David gets lost in Brooklyn, or, later, at cheder, has a genuine religious experience.  That sort of thing.  That’s when the consciousness begins to stream.

No, there was one other surprise.  I had not read enough D. H. Lawrence long ago; this time I could see how Lawrence had – influenced, I don’t know – freed Roth to write about his parents in a particular way.  I doubt Roth would have allowed the son to so openly fear the father, the father to so clearly hate the son, the mother to love them all so deeply, without Lawrence’s example.  I mean, maybe he would have, who knows.  Call It Sleep is also full of obscenities, all of the words that I thought were forbidden in American fiction of the time.  Sometimes they are hidden a bit by dialect, but they’re here.

D. G. Myers wrote about Call It Sleep, and took notes. He emphasizes the Jewish aspect of the father-son combat, the tradition of the Jewish stories.

The Yiddish is in standard English.  The English of the Yiddish-speakers is in dialect.  The English of the Poles and Italians and Irish is in other dialects.  The Hebrew is in Hebrew.  This is what I meant by saying it was a great dialect novel.  The cacophony is one of its themes.

When I read it again in thirty years maybe I’ll take some notes.

Tomorrow, more D. H. Lawrence, this time in Quebec.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Hiroshige, Bashō, Kawabata - some Japanese books - "Not the slightest chance."

Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Month celebrated its fourteenth year recently.  I read three books for it, but never wrote them up, likely because I have nothing to say about them.  Well, let’s clear the deck and just look at them.

That beautiful Hiroshige art book contains a big 1997 London Royal Academy of the Arts exhibit, 142 prints, mostly but not entirely landscapes.  The text, by Matthi Forrer, is translated from the Dutch (by Peter Mason), but still, this book counts as Japanese; sure it does.  One of the supplementary essays is Japanese.

The marvelous light and snow and mist effects are the highlight.  The strip of color along the top of the print, like an atmospheric effect, was an innovation of Hiroshige’s, in collaboration with his printer.  

But I will have to read another book about Hiroshige someday, one that focuses on his work doing covers and illustrations or novels.  Above we see the covers of Strange Tales of Nighttime Cherry Trees under the Eastern Moon (1836), “a three-volume novel of the gokān type” (30).  What do you think goes on in the novel?  Someday I will find out.

For all of Hiroshige’s landscapes, he rarely crosses the route taken by Matsuo Bashō in his hybrid poetry collection / travel book titled, by Donald Keene, The Narrow Road to Oku (1702).  Bashō visits the sites of his favorite poems, composing his own poems in response.  The book is as pure a love letter to poetry as I know. 

The Pine of Takekuma is truly a startling sight…  Many years ago, when a nobleman who had come down from the capital to serve as Governor of Mutsu, he cut down the Pine of Takekuma and used the wood for stakes supporting the bridge over the Natori River.  That may be why Nōin wrote in his poem, “No trace is left now of the pine.” (67)

But the pine has been replanted, so Bashō is looking at a tree which has replaced a tree that he knows from a poem about its absence.  And he includes two new poems about the tree, one by a friend given to Bashō when he began his journey, and one newly composed:

This is all so Japanese.  Every poem of Bashō’s is set aside from the prose text and accompanied with an illustration by Miyata Masayuki; this is as much an art book as poetry or travel or whatever it is.  An unusual book.

Yasunari Kawabata’s 1952 novel Thousand Cranes seems to me to be most useful for similar cultural reasons.  The older of the handful of characters are tea ceremony hobbyists, as was Kikuji’s late father.  A little soap opera – will Kikuji marry – takes place amongst the tea things, with lots of examination of antique pottery.  I felt I learned more about the place of the tea ceremony in Japanese culture from this exchange than from the entirety of Okakura’s The Book of Tea:

“You’ll be lonely by yourself.  Suppose you bring a few friends from the office.” [The speaker is one of the mistresses, trying to get Kikuji to marry.]

“Very unlikely.  Not one of them is interested in tea.” [Kikuji]

“All the better.  They won’t expect too much, and the preparations have been very inadequate.  We can all relax.”

“Not the slightest chance.”  Kikuji flung the words into the telephone.  (42, tr. Edward Seidensticker)

Kawabata’s readers often go on and on and on about his subtlety, the tiny gestures full of complex meaning, but at least in this book, plainly written and full of dialogue, he does not seem any more subtle than any number of significant writers.  He does achieve some interesting poetic effects, as when one of the characters commits suicide:

Kikuji sat by the telephone with his eyes closed.

He saw the evening sun as he had seen it after the night with Mrs. Ota: the evening sun through the train windows, behind the grove of the Hommonji Temple.

The red sun seemed about to flow down over the branches.

The grove stood dark against it.

The sun flowing over the branches sank into his tired eyes, and he closed them.

The white cranes from the Inamura girl’s kerchief flew across the evening sun, which was still in his eyes.  (65-6)

I wonder, in passages like this, which Bashō poem is Kawabata thinking of, which Hiroshige image is he evoking?

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Summarizing 3/5ths of Faust II - any proper ghost has to be classical

Two key themes in Faust II: the ongoing Renaissance project of the merger of Classical and medieval culture, and sperm.

Act I begins with Faust “couched on grass and flowers, fatigued, restless,” presumably recovering from Margaret’s tragic or comic fate at the end of Faust I.  Some spirits, including Shakespeare’s Ariel, enjoy the pastoral landscape, but Faust is more into the mountains and cataracts, and feels “a vigorous resolve / to strive henceforth towards being’s highest form” (I, “A Pleasant Landscape”).  That doesn’t last long, though, since soon, as part of a tedious magical masque to entertain the emperor, Faust falls in love with a vision of Helen.  You know, from the Trojan War, that Helen, long dead, if real in any way.

MEPHISTOPHELES (hoisting FAUST on his shoulder).

That’s life for you!  To be encumbered with a fool

can’t even help the devil in the end.

In Act II, Mephistopheles and Faust return to his university office for some still relevant academic satire, and more importantly the creation of the Homunculus.  An alchemist has been plugging away at Paracelsus’s little critter, but has failed until the arrival of the devil who adds something to the mix.  A clue was provided to me by the Argumentative Old Git, who points to Tristram Shandy (1759), where “Homunculi” are simply spermatozoa; see Tristram suggesting to the Catholic Church that “after the ceremony of marriage, and before that of consummation” they “baptiz[e] all the HOMUNCULI at once, slapdash, by injection” (I.xx.), for the sake of efficiency.

Anyway the Homunculus is born, a perfect Renaissance creature, a fusion of classical and medieval learning, and thus a representative figure for Faust II.


Born in a later, fog-bound age,

to a chaotic world of monkery and knighthood,

how can your northern eyes be anything but blinkered –

you only feel at home where gloom prevails…

So he whisks everyone off to the Classical Walpurgisnacht.  Where the crazy Walpurgisnacht in Faust I was northern and (anti-)Christian, full of witches and devils and gnomes, the crazier new scene brings on the monsters from Greek mythology, griffins and sphinxes and cranes of Ibycus:

Romantic spectres are the only ones you know,

but any proper ghost has to be classical.  (II, “Laboratory”)

Mephistopheles, eminently northern, is freaked out (“I had no trouble handling Northern witches, / but these strange phantoms leave me ill at ease,” II, “Classical Walpurgisnacht”) although he adapts well enough, helped especially by the monsters that look like naked ladies.

Meanwhile the Homunculus falls in love with a sea nymph and is – well, this is an obscure passage – it is likely that he dies during sex (“I almost can hear the loud groans of its travails. / He’ll shatter his vial on her glittering throne” – what smut!), possibly leading to the rebirth of Helen, who washes up on a beach at the beginning of Act III.

After working through an elaborate parody of Euripides, with Faust and Helen marrying and producing Lord Byron, the great embodied reconciliation of North and South, medieval and classical, Christian and pagan, into what we would call Romanticism but Goethe thinks of as modern, up to the minute.  Byron, as we know, dies young, the pseudo-Helen vanishes, and the last two acts get out of Greece and wrap up Faust’s story (Act IV dull, Act V sublimely nuts).  In a surprising twist, the Euripidean chorus of Trojan women, rather than return to Hades, stays in Greece to drink wine (“last year’s wineskins must be emptied”).

Strange stuff.  I suppose the great problem for some general “us,” readers today, even the few who will bother with Faust, is that the mapping and combining of the great Western traditions, Classical and medieval, northern and southern, is now a pretty abstract intellectual subject.  Renaissance history, art history.  We live in the fusion but are so far from the originals.  It was alive for Goethe, who is engaged in what now looks like a great summary.  He’s wrapping it up.  Faust II is the end of the line, not a new beginning.

Act III, for example, Helen to Byron, is a magnificent poem, but is completely intellectualized.  The end of the play, I should say, when Mephistopheles and his troupe of little devils battle the angels and cherubs, armed with rose petals and cute rear ends, for the soul of Faust, is an extraordinary thing.  Mephistopheles is often an entertaining ironist.  The grotesque invention of  the Homunculus and the Classical Walpurgisnacht is fun.  But Faust II is, for such a high-spirited work, a text to study.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Let us make a vital effort! - a start on Goethe's Faust - one of the most delightfully urbane moments in all of German literature

For years I considered doing some kind of big reread of the major works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a giant of a writer, but a distant one.  Never happened, but The Argumentative Old Git and I recently chewed on Goethe’s final masterpiece, the result of sixty (!) years of off-and-on writing, the second part of Faust (1832).  I revisited Faust I (1808) as well, all in the Stuart Atkins translation.

I meant to write this up a couple of weeks ago, but I was distracted by a little vacation to see the migrating Sandhill cranes.


Murderous shouts and dying moans,

flap of wings that beat in terror!...

Let us make a vital effort!

Swear to hate this scum forever!

Trumpeting, the CRANES disperse in the air.  (Faust II, Act II, ll. 7660-1, 7674-5)

Exactly what I saw on the Platte River.

Faust I functions more or less like a real play, however odd it is.  Herr Professor Doktor Faust trades his soul to the devil, or a devil, the ironist Mephistopheles, in exchange for power and knowledge, but once in possession of power spends his time chasing cute girls.  Marlowe’s Faust spends all of Act IV playing pranks on random people, but what Goethe’s Faust really wants, it turns out is a girlfriend, specifically the innocent Margaret, who he impregnates and accidentally, tricked by Mephistopheles, abandons.  As Randy Newman summarizes the story in the liner notes to Randy Newman’s Faust (1995):

In South Bend, Margaret has Henry [Faust]’s child, and crazed with grief and shame, drowns it in a creek.  This is the comic high point of Goethe’s original play, and one of the most delightfully urbane moments in all of German literature.  (liner notes, p. 3)

A digression: Linda Ronstadt’s recording of Margaret’s prison song, “Sandman’s Coming,” is extraordinarily beautiful.  Her voice if of course perfect, but it’s really the dynamics, the phrasing.

The operas and musicals are all based on Goethe’s great innovation, the Margaret story.  Faust II is mostly ignored, largely because it is insane, an unperformable nightmare, that has of course now been performed many times by various brilliant theater people.

Late in his long career, Goethe, nominally some kind of Classicist, became loose with form.  The novel Wilhelm Meister’s Year of Wandering (1821) and the final part of his autobiography Poetry and Truth (1833) at times feel like – I think in fact are – rummagings through Goethe’s papers, unpublished scraps that will never find another home, so why not put them here.  The essential Goetheness supplies the form, perhaps.  Faust II is more coherent on a high level, but within acts and scenes has a similar ragbag quality.  It is a bit of an omnibook, with Goethe tossing in everything he knows, and he knew everything.  The cranes of Ibycus, that is, as classical references goes, an obscure one, although there was a Schiller poem on the cranes several decades earlier.

Grotesque, overstuffed, outrageous, obscure.  Often static, painterly.  Atkins diligently notes the paintings that serve as references for scene after scene.  Almost no characters as most of us understand the term, sarcastic, frustrated Mephistopheles, yes, but Faust, in the second part, no.  Lots of openly symbolic and allegorical speaking parts – Fear and Care and An Olive Branch Bearing Fruit, that sort of thing.

In German, both parts of Faust, and Goethe more generally, have contributed numerous phrases and lines to the language, much like Shakespeare in English, but all of that is totally lost on me.  The best translator cannot translate a culture.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?  Barely readable.  Tomorrow, a couple of scenes, some text.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Josephine Tey, Aldo Leopold, and Pär Lagerkvist, a library roundup - supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized

Three books I recently read that need to go back to the library.  They are contemporaries, which is, I think, a coincidence.

The Franchise Affair, Josephine Tey (1948), the 11th best mystery according to the old British Crime Writers poll but only the 81st best for the Mystery Writers of America (both lists visible here).  For much of the novel, it is as much a comedy of manners as a mystery, written in an exemplar of the ordinary literary prose of its time:

In the patch of sunlight was his tea-tray; and it was typical of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet that tea was no affair of a japanned tin tray and a kitchen cup.  At 3:50 exactly on every working day Miss Tuff bore into his office a lacquer tray covered with a fair whole cloth and bearing a cup of tea in a blue-patterned china, and, on a plate to match, two biscuits, petit-beurre on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, digestive Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  (pp. 1-2)

The Franchise Affair has almost no puzzle aspects whatsoever and only the urgency that seems natural to the events of the moment.  Kinda relaxed, really.  No phoney-baloney fake page-turner climaxes at the end of the chapters.  The Golden Age was, apparently, over.

A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold (1949), a year with the inhabitants (trees, birds, little critters) of a recovering Wisconsin farm (“our predecessor, the bootlegger, who hated this farm, skinned it of its residual fertility, burned its farmhouse, threw it back in to the lap of the County (with delinquent taxes to boot), and then disappeared among the landless anonymities of the Great Depression,” “February”), along with some additional essays and a long polemical piece advocating what now look like standard conservation practices,  standard in part because of the (eventual, hard-fought) success of Leopold’s arguments.

Not just the concept but the prose is heavily dependent on, what else?, Walden, especially the “Economy” chapter:

The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized.  To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.  (“January”)

Leopold witnesses the dance of the timberdoodles; he eulogizes the passenger pigeon; he bands chickadees.  The manifesto ends with “The Land Ethic” but begins with a “Conservation Esthetic,” which by itself says a lot about why this book is as good as it is.

Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist (1950, tr. Alan Blair).  Somewhere as a kid I picked up the idea that there was literature and then there was the really serious stuff, the books about God and death and so on, for example the re-tellings of what I knew as “Bible stories,” brought up to date, historically and existentially.  

For example, Barabbas, which has a serious cover and a serious author’s name and a serious subject.  Christ died to save us, but for Barabbas the bandit, saved from crucifixion by the execution of Jesus, this was literally and immediately the case.  This is a solid basis for a Novel of Doubt and Faith.

Lagerkvist’s treatment is short (140 pages), not fussily historicized or smothered in research, and plainly written (here, Jesus has just been entombed):

He [Barabbas] walked up to the tomb and stood there for a while.  But he did not pray, for he was an evil-doer and his prayer would not have been accepted, especially as his crime was not expiated.  Besides, he did not know the dead man.  He stood there for a moment, all the same. (10)

Lagerkvist lets the subject matter do the emotional work, which it does, I thought.

The Vintage paperback, reproducing the first English edition, includes two French prefaces, one by André Gide which is a barrel of laughs:

The Swedish language has given us, and is still giving, works of such outstanding value, that knowledge of it will soon form part of the equipment of any man calling himself well-educated.  We need to be in the position to appreciate the important part likely to be played by Sweden in the Concert of Europe. (xiii)

Pure, high-level, litbiz kitsch.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

More philosophical Balzac - magic powers and opera criticism

Of the six Balzac “Philosophical Studies” I read, three are fantasy stories with supernatural elements and three are about art.  The category could cover anything, really, but Balzac meant those.

They all share Balzac’s loving verbal construction of places.  His Paris is one I can walk around in.  “The scene changed again, he realized, to the corner of rue de l’Orangerie and rue des Récollets…” (“Melmoth Reconciled”), just around the corner from my last Paris hotel, the one with all the bird decorations, the one right by where Heinrich Heine spent his sad last years paralyzed in his sickbed.  When the busted-flat protagonist of The Wild Ass’s Skin is going to jump into the Seine, he has to pick a specific bridge, and has to walk to it by a plausible route.

Don’t worry, on the way to the bridge he by whim, or to experience just a bit more life, wanders into an antique store and acquires a magical wishing skin.  Also cursed, obviously.  The antique store description goes on for pages, junk and treasures piled up in long paragraphs.

The French title of the novel is La Peau de Chagrin (1831, 240 pp.), which could be The Skin of Chagrin or The Skin of Shagreen – it’s a double cognate!  But the French pun is impossible in English, and who knows what “shagreen” is, and anyways those titles are terrible.  Maybe The Chagrin Skin.  No, that’s worse.  The wild ass’s skin is also a skin of sadness because as we all know, I hope, you should never mess with wish-granting magic.

The Wild Ass’s Skin has a terrific dueling scene at the end.  More advice: do not demand a duel from a guy with a magical wishing skin.

The “philosophical” core of the novel, and the story, really, is the cursed man’s attempt to set up a life where he never, even moment to moment, wishes for anything, allowing him to avoid the wishing skin.  Balzac subscribed to some kind of idea of “vitalism,” in which life is not just lived but “used up” somehow.  The Wild Ass’s Skin is a literalization of that idea.

The Wild Ass’s Skin is easy to recommend.  If I am reading the websites correctly, Penguin Classics only has seven Balzac titles in print now, and Oxford World’s Classics only has three (!), but both have The Wild Ass’s Skin.

“Melmoth réconcilié” (“Melmoth Reconciled,” 1835, 40 pp.) also features magical wishes.  The Melmoth in the title is the same as in Charles Maturin’s great nested-story fantasy novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820 – so, today, a blatant copyright violation).  Melmoth made a deal with the devil, gaining superpowers and long life in exchange for damnation – unless! – he can find someone else to take on the powers and curse.  Which he never can, because everyone else in the world is too pure, which seems unlikely.  Balzac laughs and has Melmoth pawn off his damnation on another sucker, an embezzler who then wanders Paris having nightmarish adventures and eventually sells the whole package off to someone else, after which the Devil’s Pact is formalized for sale on the stock exchange where it circulates widely, explaining a lot.  An eminently Balzacian ending.

In 1836 or so, Balzac became deeply interested in opera, and wrote a pair of stories, one even published in a music journal, about opera:

“Gambara” (1837, 60 pp.), built around Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (1831)

“Massimilla Doni” (1837, 80 pp.), about Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto (1818)

And when I say “about,” I mean that each story contains a long summary and musical description of each opera, delivered by characters, but still, music criticism, at length.  Tedious.  “Gambara” has a story in which a cynic exploits an alcoholic composer in order to sleep with his wife – very Balzacian – but “Massimilla Doni” barely has a story at all.  It’s interest, if the Rossini talk is not doing it for you, is in the descriptions of Venice and its palace and opera houses.  Balzac loves the vibrant Italian audiences.  He tosses in a “Frenchman,” not part of the story at all, just to have a French foil for the opera talk.

Maybe a more devoted opera lover would get more out of these, or perhaps the discourse would just seem archaic.  I don’t know.  I am quick to argue that when Balzac writes about painting he is also writing about writing, about his own art, but these opera stories seemed more direct: outpourings of enthusiastic amateur love of opera.

Boy, these are even more like pure note-taking than usual.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Balzac's "Philosophical Studies" - it will be necessary to defend THE CHURCH

Balzac retroactively organized the pieces of his evolving “Human Comedy” into big categories, some obvious, like “Scenes from Parisian Life,” some more obscure, like the largest group, “Scenes from Private Life,” which includes the extremely Parisian Le père Goriot (1835), so don’t ask me.  I never took Balzac’s organization seriously, and in France his books are published on their own.  So I thought I would take a look, specifically at Volume 15 of an 1870 edition of the Complete Works of H. de Balzac containing the second part of the “Philosophical Studies,” which could mean anything.

I read the book until I was tired of it, which covered six texts, ranging from 20 pages to 240.  Three I had previously read in English; three were new to me, Numbers 41 to 43 of my progress through the 92 novels and stories Human Comedy.

The counting, by the way, is a joke going back to the beginning of Wuthering Expectations, mocking a tic critics have picked up when writing about Balzac.  He wrote an enormous amount in a fairly short time (twenty years for his mature works), certainly, but for what other author do we fetishize the number of “novels and stories,” as if those were comparable.  Elizabeth Bowen, checking quickly, wrote 89 novels and stories (10 novels, 79 stories), almost as many as Balzac.  But who would ever think to say that means anything?

Let’s see what I learned.

“Jésus-Christ en Flandre” (“Jesus Christ in Flanders,” 1831, 20 pp.)

I’d always wondered about that title.  A boat full of passengers almost founders in a storm off the coast of Ostend, but luckily Jesus Christ is on board.  He saves the faithful poor but not the faithless rich.  Christ’s footprints in the sand were, “the attestation of the last visit Jesus had made to the earth.”  That was in 1793.  In 1831, the narrator visits the chapel on the site and concludes that after the 1830 July Revolution “it will be necessary to defend THE CHURCH” (emphasis Balzac’s).

In the largest part of Balzac’s work, it would be impossible to know that France has a religion at all.  Religion is completely absent.  In at least two stories, better stories than this one, “An Incident in the Reign of Terror” (1830) and “The Atheist’s Mass” (1836), the personal meaning of the Mass is explored, but with some distance (see that last title).  I was surprised to see such a direct religious expression by Balzac.

Two pages and one long paragraph are given to a detailed description of the chapel, including organ music that agitates the narrator’s spirit.  These carefully described settings are common features of this set of stories.  They are a big part of Balzac’s “realism,” something he picked up from Walter Scott and developed into a major part of his art. 

“Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu” (“The Unknown Masterpiece,” 1831, 30 pp.)

For example, it is an artist’s studio that gets the treatment in this unusual story, a favorite of both Cézanne and Picasso.  The painter Frenhofer has been obsessively working on a single painting, his masterpiece, unseen by anyone.  A plot involving the young Poussin (we are in the early 17th century) and his smoking hot model girlfriend leads to the completion of the painting, which is revealed to be “a chaos of colors, tones, and vague shadings,” with “a delicious foot, a living foot” in the corner.  Frenhofer has spent, as Poussin and I suppose Balzac see it, ten mad years not making but obliterating a masterpiece.

Or, as Cézanne, Picasso, and many more recent readers see it, Frenhofer has invented Modernist painting a couple of hundred years too early.  I wrote similarly about “The Unknown Masterpiece” ages ago.  I have not, since then, come across another text with such a mismatch between how it presumably looked to its first readers and how it looks now.

I’ll save the other four for tomorrow.  The bits of translated text above are all my fault.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Flaubert's aesthetics vis The Temptation of Saint Anthony - “He believes, like a brute, in the reality of things” - not quite!

I suggested to The Argumentative Old Git that Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony has a lot in common with Goethe’s Faust, Pt. II, and the result is a pop-up readalong of Goethe’s “play,” or whatever it is.  Join us, on Twitter, or wherever.  We are reading it next week, writing whenever.  The goal is to make both head and tail of it.  Both head and tail.  Don’t let books boss you around, right?

Young Flaubert read aloud his first version of Saint Anthony to his friends, who were bored and appalled, but made a brilliant suggestion, so good that Flaubert took it:  write, his friend said, a Balzac novel.  Write about the people and places around you right now, and use the form of the novel.

Some relevant commentary by Flaubert’s friends can be found in this old post, based heavily on Francis Steegmuller’s Flaubert and Madame Bovary (1950).  In this new one, I predict I will repeat much of what is in the old one, but not as well, so, there we go.

The friend’s insight was two-fold: first, the constraint of form is good, and second, Flaubert was making some formal conceptual innovations that were independent of content, so it did not matter at all what Flaubert was actually writing about.  These innovations involved the deliberate construction of an elaborate pattern of motifs, images, words, and ideas, that form a deeper but somewhat hidden novel.  The pattern itself is a work of beauty, or perhaps the work needed to see it makes it so.  This is all quite Schopenhauer-like.  The artist is looking behind the veil of reality, or even creating the marvelous thing behind the veil.

I’ve just read Temptation once, so what do I know.  A problem with hidden patterns is that they are hard to see, especially once through when I have no idea what I should be looking for.  Most novels are read once, not studied, and Madame Bovary and Bely’s Petersburg and Nabokov’s Pnin are mostly read as the meaningful novels they certainly are, and the niggling question of “What is the deal with all these squirrel?” is not pursued.  Which is fine.  Again, that is the insight of Flaubert’s friends.

Searchable texts make it easier to pursue the patterns.  I quoted a passage yesterday that ends with a seemingly arbitrary sycamore, but that one is definitely something more, I think an anchor Anthony uses to return to reality, although at least one of these references baffles me.  I also have suspicions about the word “bluish” (“bleuâtre”).  And there are likely more words, or images not so closely tied to words.  Here is where translators get into trouble; here is where the mot had better be juste, or the whole thing vanishes.

And to see more than a hint of this the first time through a book, and then with my level of French, please.

“He believes, like a brute, in the reality of things,” says one of the devil figures* in Temptation (end of Ch, 4), but the devils in the book never quite understand Saint Anthony.  Anthony, like Flaubert, believes in the reality of things and the reality behind the reality.  I had been puzzled about Flaubert’s attraction to the subject of Saint Anthony in part because Flaubert has no religion.  But he has a metaphysics. 

Saint Anthony ends with a parade of animals (for example, “The Beasts of the Sea”) and plants and minerals, and Anthony just looks at them.

He lies down on his stomach, leans on his elbows; and holding his breath, he looks.

He sounds like an Epicurean more than a Catholic:

“O happiness! happiness! I have seen life born, I have seen movement begin….  I want to fly, swim, bark, roar, bellow…  I want to have wings, a shell, bark…, to snuggle up** with all the forms, to penetrate each atom, to descend to the bottom of matter – to be matter!”

Flaubert returns to Saint Anthony again and again because it is a vehicle for the purest expression of his aesthetic ideas, not actually abstract art, but as close as he can achieve with the imperfect medium of words, so deeply flawed because they always drag in something other than the pure thing itself.

 *  Apollonius, who we saw last week raising the dead in The Circus of Dr. Lao.

 **  Surely not, although I like it.  Curl up?  “me blottir sur toutes les formes”

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Flaubert's Saint Anthony - all together these horizontal and perpendicular lines, indefinably multiplied, would resemble a monstrous skeleton

American and Irish fantasies last week; French this week, beginning with the Gustave Flaubert’s semi-novel, his obsessive folly, La Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1874).

Saint Anthony, in his Egyptian desert hermitage, is tormented by loneliness, lust and either a series of demons or his own hallucinations.  Or both, they could be both; this is a fantasy; why I am imposing rules.  Few of the temptations are in any way tempting.  By the end of the novel he feels better.  Or I should say “anti-novel,” since there is not much of what anyone would expect in a novel.  Prose poem, maybe.  Screenplay treatment.  I don’t know.

Saint Anthony is so lonely at the beginning of the book that he wishes he had a jackal for a friend:

One alone remained, which held itself on its hind legs, its body half-bent and head to the side, in a pose full of defiance.

“How nice it is!  I would like to pass my hand over its back, gently.”

Anthony whistled for it to come over.  The jackal disappeared.  (Ch. 1, all translations mine)

In every old French edition that I have seen, including the one I read, Anthony’s speech is identified not by quotations marks but by larger type.  Speech is in large type, description in small type.  Heck if I am going to try to reproduce that.

The long Chapter 4 is a Walpurgisnacht of early Christianity, with a series of heresiarchs and lunatics dancing across the stage, shouting slogans at Anthony.  This chapter is deadly:


What, then, is the Word? Who was Jesus?

                                THE VALENTINIANS

He was the husband of repented Acharamoth [or “the repented husband” – this is Gnosticism, so who knows]

                                THE SETHANIANS

He was Shem, son of Noah!

                                THE THEODOTIANS

He was Melchisedech!

                                THE CERINTHIANS

He was nothing but a man!

Quite a lot of the stuff in this chapter is Gnosticism, actually.  Anthony is not tempted in the sense that his orthodox Christian faith is in doubt.  He is only tempted to argue.  A little of this kind of thing feels like a lot, and Saint Anthony has a lot.

A reader of other works by Flaubert may wonder if these excerpts have anything to do with the famous “mot juste,” the exact word that caused Flaubert so much anguish.  Maybe it sound more perfect in French.  “C’était Sem, fils de Noé”; “Ce n’était rien qu’un homme.”  Can you hear it?  Maybe this is the wrong kind of passage.  Here is a beautiful fig tree:

And Anthony saw clearly above the bamboo a forest of bluish-gray columns.  They are tree trunks coming from a single trunk.  From each of the branches descend other branches which sink into the ground, and all together these horizontal and perpendicular lines, indefinably multiplied, would resemble a monstrous skeleton, if it did not have, here and there, a little fig, with a blackish leaf, like that of the sycamore.

If my French is ever good enough to hear how Flaubert’s mots are any more justes than those of any number of his French contemporaries, I will feel I have learned some French.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony is in form, more than anything else, a series of tableaux, or a masque.  Representational figures parade through the scene, whether they are heretics or vanquished Greek and Roman gods or varieties of animals.  I watch them along with the Saint, who occasionally comments.

Why on earth did Flaubert write this?  He wrote three versions before publishing one of them.  I think I will save that question for tomorrow.

The French of Saint Anthony was surprisingly straightforward, but as I have noted before, Flaubert’s prose is often, against his reputation, awfully plain.  Even the more baroque parts of Saint Anthony were more difficult because of words I would have had to look up in English, like “des barques thalamèges” – boats like that one up above.  Flaubert has a poet’s love of old words and names.  But otherwise his French is clear.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Consciousness shuddering in the void - more 1935 fantasy: Joseph O'Neill's Land Under England and C. L. Moore's Northwest Smith

Two more fantasy books that are exact contemporaries with The Circus of Dr. Lao.  Real period specialists read a lot of third and fourth and fifth tier books, and even some real garbage.  It is educational; both of these third-tier books are instructive.  I just mean that they are not as good as The Circus of Dr. Lao, although I enjoyed them plenty.

In Joseph O’Neill’s Land Under England (1935) the Romans manning Hadrian’s Wall at some point escape into a network of underground caves, where they establish a new civilization.  The narrator discovers this lost world while searching for his father, who disappeared searching for the Romans.

Does this not sound like fun?  Modern technology and ideas knocked up against the Romans?  A Scotsman in Emperor Hadrian’s Court?  That is not this novel at all.  The underground Romans have adapted into a telepathy and mine control-based slave society.  Almost no aspect of Roman culture has survived.  The father has been “absorbed” into the collective; the narrator struggle to avoid the same fate.  The climax is a chase scene, the father pursuing the son:

I should have to make my choice soon between killing him or allowing him to seize me.  The man was mad, but he was my father.  The person who was following me had always been there, inside my father’s skin.  He had always been there, making him different from himself at times, even in the old days – a double personality, not like my mother.  (p. 266 of the Tusk edition).

A descent into the dark depths, dream-like landscapes, psychic struggle, a struggle with the father – it took me a while, but finally I saw it.  Land Under England is a genuine, no joke Freudian novel, the Oedipal conflict made literal.  I often think of fantasy as fiction that literalizes metaphors.  This is that.

C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith (1933-6) is a collection of pulpy stories, all published in Weird Tales alongside H. P. Lovecraft and Conan the Barbarian, about the Han Solo-like title character, an interplanetary smuggler who keeps running into weirdness, usually in female form, like Medusa or the Sirens, but as aliens, and then defeats them with his willpower and a shot or two from his ray gun.  The “Greek monster as space creature” idea only lasts for the first two stories, after which the inventions become more original.  “Black Thirst” features a vampire who feeds on the “beauty-force,” and creates women so beautiful that a glimpse of one nearly drives Northwest Smith mad.  The vampire feeds on these women, but lures in our hero because:

“I realized then how long it had been since I tasted the beauty of a man.  It is so rare, so different from female beauty, that I had all but forgotten it had existed.” (65, the 1981 Ace Books edition)

He plans to “nourish the roots of male beauty” before feeding.  This is pretty wild stuff for 1934 America, but the pulp magazines had different rules.  It is perhaps worth noting, what with the energy-sucking medusa and beauty-draining bisexual vampire and so on, that the “C.” in the author’s name stands for Catherine.

If I set Northwest Smith beside Land Under England, the constant scenes of mental struggle take on a different character.  The stories attempt to portray extreme states of consciousness, whether caused by sex, dreams, maybe drugs, maybe trauma.  The psychology – not of the character, but more abstractly -  becomes meaningful:

Smith’s consciousness shuddered in the void where it drifted, raged against its own helplessness, watched in horror-struck fascination the surges of billowing gray that rolled slowly into the room…  The prospect of the world’s destruction had made him sick with a hopeless dread, but the thought of his own body offered up as a sacrifice to the floating gray, leaving him to drift for eternity through voids, cracked like a whiplash against his consciousness in one flash of hot rebellion that jerked him all out of focus to the scene he watched.  (“The Cold Gray God,” 256)

I mean, if you can stand the prose, which is on the heavy side.  I found that reading one story immediately after another was a mistake.  They were published months or even years apart; that’s more like it.

Next week will be devoted 19th century French fantasy fiction.

"The world is my idea; as such I present it to you." - Charles Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao

To the left, we see the back cover of the 1964 Bantam edition of Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935), which I purchased for $1.50 at the Chicago Powell’s in, let’s say, 1993, and read immediately.  Messing around in the literature of the 1930s, I re-read it recently.  Fittingly, the book is something of a freak, its own creature, a hodgepodge fantasy in a lightly satirical mode.  Babbitt goes to the circus, but a circus full of mythological beasts.  Everything on the back cover is in the novel.  Strange things come to Abalone, Arizona, for just one day.  A couple dozen characters read an ad, watch a parade, and experience peculiar events.

What does this book sound like?  For a hundred page novel with dozens of characters and weird critters, it’s kind of leisurely.  This is how the circus magician resurrects a dead man, a laborer in overalls, a cowboy hat, and “old worn army shoes”:

The corpse looked as if it was sleeping in a very uncomfortable position.

Apollonius began to pray a low, thick prayer.  His eyeballs turned dead green; thin, hazy stuff floated out of his ears. He prayed and prayed and prayed.  To the subtle spirit of life he sent his terrible invocation.

Then all of a sudden, when everyone was most[!] expecting it, the dead man came to life, sat up, coughed, and rubbed his eyes.

“Where the devil am I?” he wanted to know.

“You’re at the circus,” said the doctor.

“Well, lemme outa here,” said the man.  “I got business to attend to.”

He got to his feet and started off with a slight limp.

Luther caught his arm as he made for the door.  “Listen, mister,” he asked, “was you really dead.”

“Deader than hell, brother,” said the man and hurried on out of the tent.  (39)

And that’s almost the last we see of him.  Finney was an Arizona newspaper editor, and if the characters are more or less types and caricatures, the vernacular touches, the talk, is from life.

It is curious to see the ideas of the times wander through the novel.  Miss Agnes Birdsong, high-school English teacher, has a memorable encounter with a satyr (“’I am a calm, intelligent girl, and I have not seen Pan on Main Street,’” 23); it is not even twenty years since Max Beerbohm mocked encounters with Pan on Main Street.  The climax of the novel is a spectacle with a cast of eleven thousand (“’Why, that’s a goddam lie!’ said Plumber Rogers. ‘There ain’t hardly that many people in Abalone,’” 6) depicting the sacrifice of a virgin to a pagan god.  It has some interesting resemblances to Francis Stevens’s The Citadel of Fear (1918) and D. H. Lawrence’s “The Woman Who Rode Away” (1925).  Perhaps it is a parody.

The novel as such ends on page 100 with the end of the spectacle and the collapse of the circus tent.  Then follows the most surprising thing in the novel, “The Catalogue,” nineteen pages of annotated lists.  Sometimes greatly annotated (from “The Male Characters”):

The Dead Man Apollonius Brought Back To Life: Arnold R. Todhunter.  A homesteader.  Later on, when a Tribune reporter interviewed him about the hours he spent in the arms of death, he testified that he was just on the point of being issued a harp and a gown when Apollonius reclaimed his clay.  He said Heaven reminded him more than anything else of an advertisement he had once read of Southern California.  (103)

Lists of animals, statues, and “The Foodstuffs.”  The next to last list is a series of plot holes and confusing points.

The Circus of Dr. Lao won the 1935 National Book Award for Most Dang Peculiar Book, a category they no longer award. It is a unique little monster.

There is no way Steven Millhauser does not know the novel.  Ray Bradbury loved it, but I have not read the obviously relevant Bradbury book.

Despite a reference to The Temptation of Saint Anthony on page 113 (“Chimera: Described by Rabelais, Flaubert, and Finney”) I think I will next poke at a couple more 1930s fantasies.

My title can be found on p. 94.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

a sub-department that sold full-sized Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and roller coasters - Steven Millhauser piles things up

Steven Millhauser won a Pulitzer for his novel Martin Dressler (1996) and somewhere around that time I read a review that must have impressed me, since I bought the novel and The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (1998), $5.95 at the Chicago Powell’s, regular price $22.00.  What a bargain!  I read neither, and moved them both at least three times.  Never again!  Or, really, one last time.

Now I’ve read The Knife Thrower.  It’s a collection of fantasy stories.  Some are in the American vein of Bernard Malamud and John Cheever, like “Flying Carpets,” where, bored with their bicycles, the suburban youth spend the summer flying around on the new craze.  Others are more like Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, but transported into an American setting (usually) and idiom (always).  Where Borges describes, in “The Library of Babel,” his fantasy (or nightmare) of an infinite library, Millhauser, in “The Dream of the Consortium,” writes about an endless, perpetually changing department store:

We passed among dinner plates with pictures of blue windmills on them, footed glass dessert dishes filled with wax apricots, brightly colored ten-cup coffeemakers with built-in digital clocks.  We wandered past glittering arrays of laser printers and laptops, past brightly painted circus wagons, rolls of brown canvas, and bales of hay… a sub-department that sold full-sized Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and roller coasters…  precise wooden and plaster models of Victorian London, Nuremberg in the age of Dürer, and Manhattan in 1925… imperfect mannequins… full-sized replicas of entire ancient cities.  (156-7, those ellipses of mine cover a lot more stuff)

For a reader who read I don’t know how many times the chapter of Robinson Crusoe where Crusoe unloads the wrecked ship, and the chapter of Huckleberry Finn where Huck loots his father’s cabin before faking his death, is this ever my kind of thing.

Can a story have no characters?  Millhauser, like Borges, comes as close as possible.  The narrator, that general “we,” whether it explores the department store,  watches the performance of a famous knife thrower, or lives in a town built over a series of mysterious tunnels, is the guiding sensibility, a character, maybe the only character, by default.

I know some people say that settings can become characters, but I do not know what they mean.  Millhauser’s settings are settings, lovingly invented and described.

Millhauser loves theatrical excess, American and European, things that are too big or too small, whatever surprises.  Thus, in the department store, the circus wagons, roller coasters, and miniature cities, and also the “gloomy department of caves and tunnels” (153).  The Knife Thrower has, effectively, a climax, the forty-page “Paradise Park,” where a classic Coney Island amusement park pulls together the major themes from all the other stories.  Rides, games, spectacles, but also hidden levels, anti-rides, abstraction, alienation as amusement.

These stories can be a little bit like the kind of computer game where you explore a landscape, often obsessively, not caring exactly what is around the corner as long as it is something.  Any invention will do.

But they are also often – maybe too often? – arguments or allegories about imagination and creativity.  “The New Automaton Theater” is especially bald.  The great maker of miniature automatons is the ultimate realist (“Every perfectly rendered gesture seems designed only to draw us more deeply inward; we feel an uncanny intimacy with this restless creature, whose mysterious life we seem to know more deeply than our own,” 117) but has a crisis and becomes an Expressionist, maybe?  Some kind of Modernist:

But Graum’s new automatons suffer and struggle; no less than the old automatons do they appear to have souls.  But they do not have the souls of human beings; they have the souls of clockwork creatures, grown conscious of themselves.  (124)

This is obviously about fiction, right?  Everything changing in 1910, as Virginia Woolf says.

Expect Martin Dressler to appear here at some point.  Going backwards, the next book I should write up is Gustave Flaubert’s folly The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but I think I will follow the theme and look at another circus book: The Circus of Dr. Lao

Monday, February 22, 2021

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” - some jolly bits of Richard II

I fear I need a system, a structure, to get writing again.  What if I work backwards?  Let’s see, what is the last book I finished.  Oh no, it’s Richard II (1595, let’s say).  Oh no, or good, I don’t know. 

Richard II is the first Shakespeare play I took seriously, and really worked through, as a college student. The professor insisted, again and again, that our papers had to have lots of evidence form the text, so I “wrote” a paper that was half quotations.  I must have included most of every monologue of the title character.  “Too much,” she said, correctly, usefully.  But those passages are so rich, so good.

It is a strange play, in that King Richard begins as some kind of villain, a hypocritical schemer, a “Machiavelli,” to use the term the Elizabethan playwrights loved, under the influence of a pack of parasites.  In short, one of the crowd of Shakespeare’s bad, weak kings, capricious, corrupt, and incompetent.  Threatened, then overthrown, he becomes sentimental and self-pitying.  He becomes a lot like Hamlet, or one side of Hamlet, obsessed with death and puns, for example “ay / I” in the abdication scene:


Are you contented to resign the crown?


Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be.

Therefore no “no,” for I resign to thee.  (Act IV, Scene 1)

“Ay, no; no, ay” is one of those poetic lines of Shakespeare's that verges on abstraction or anti-poetry, like King Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never!”

Somehow Richard becomes a sympathetic and tragic figure, a great Weak Male Character.  And it is all done through language.  His self-serving, self-pitying, ironic monologues are magnificent.  “King” is a role he played all his life, but he should have been a poet.  Richard, for example, imagines Death as the court fool, accompanying the him “within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king, “scoffing” and “grinning,”


Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life

Were brass impregnable; and humored thus,

Comes at the last and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and farewell, king!  (Act III, Scene 2)

Richard has a Gothic imagination.  “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” he says a bit earlier in the scene.  Or look at the beginning of his final speech, just before his murder:


I have been studying how I may compare

This prison where I live unto the world

And for because the world is populous

And here is not a creature but myself,

I cannot do it.  (Act V, Scene 5)

And then he does it anyways, because he loves to spin out conceits.

Di, at The little white attic, has been reading a lot of Shakespeare, most recently Richard II.  The excerpts she picks have all sorts of correspondences with the ones I used.  She also acknowledges that the play has other characters and context and ideas and so forth.  Those are interesting, too.

The idea of Richard not being king but playing the role of king I got from Harold Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1 (1951).  On the surface, the motivating idea of Richard II is a critique of the divine right of kings, and, honestly, who cares about that anymore; Goddard effectively modernizes the play.

All quotations are from the Folger Shakespeare Library text.

What’s next, looking back?  A collection of Steven Millhauser stories.