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 more 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?