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.