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.