Sunday, October 31, 2021

My last two Colette books - hotels and apartments - What remains to be said about a passionate love affair?

Just two Colette books left.  Lots written, a book a year as usual, in the 1930s and 1940s, but I have only read a couple of them.

Bella-Vista (1937).  Just as I say that Colette writes thematically, conscious of the book, even when it is a collection of short pieces, here we have a book that looks like a miscellany.  One story looks back to the music hall days, another is a little melodrama about young couples on vacation, and a third is about the sexual misadventures of Colette’s half-brother, a piece that would fit in La Maison de Caludine – Sido is keeping track of her unacknowledged grandchildren.  And the fourth piece is one of Colette’s many Saint-Tropez stories, although I have not read any of the earlier ones.

Perhaps that is the theme, a collection of previous themes, perhaps with a little more sex in them.

The title story has a famous opening:

It is absurd to suppose that periods empty of love are blank pages in a woman’s life.  The truth is just the reverse.  What remains to be said about a passionate love affair? It can be told in three lines.  He loved me, I loved Him.  His presence obliterated all other presences.  We were happy.  Then He stopped loving me and I suffered. (tr. Antonia White)

I don’t know what story this suggests to you, but the He in this case turns out to be the title pension, not quite seaside, where Colette and her personable dog stay during the off-season because she is renovating her new house.  Or not, since a running joke is that whenever she drops by the workman are playing boules, grilling sausages, and drinking rosé – “’they offered me a glass.’”  Colette falls in love with Bella-Vista, where she eats well even if she gets no writing done, then things take a turn and she falls out of love.

I do not want to say much about it, but “Bella-Vista” includes a transsexual theme that might make the story of interest to people interested in such things.  Which I doubt.  Who, among the devotees of the new, wants to read this old stuff?

If I ever go to Saint-Tropez, I will eat at Colette's namesake restaurant, next to her house.

Three… Six… Nine… (1944).  Nine different apartments in Paris over the course of a life, culminating in the final, permanent one, where a decade later Colette would die.  Charming, light, and suspiciously missing something.  The war, the Nazi occupation, that is what is missing, although the book is presumably some kind of celebration of the liberation of Paris – it was published in December, 1944.  The last page, a description of the nearby Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, by a writer not normally particularly religious, is surely an oblique gesture in this direction.

The book is probably best read by someone who knows Paris at least a bit.  It sure made me want to go back, but what does not do that?

The first edition featured a number of illustrations by André Dignimont.  I used one of them, Colette at her writing desk in the last apartment, for the first post in this series; the one above is also from this book.

I am sure I will read more Colette soon enough.  For example, the famous Gigi, which appears the next year (1944).  Colette’s most famous works appeared in 1900, 1920, and 1944 – how many writers have a record like that?  Please let me know which Colette books you have especially enjoyed.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Five more Colette books, including La Maison de Claudine - My mother smelled of lemon-verbena leaves which she rolled between her palms or thrust into her pocket

Colette wrote close to a book a year for fifty years.  It’s a lot of books.  I’m still in the early 1920s, the time of the novels Chéri and Le Blé en herbe.  I have mostly read Colette’s short pieces, not her novels.  From this period:

La Chambre éclairée (1922, The Well-lit Room), a ragbag of pieces published during the war, some of which are about wartime life in Paris, which sounds to me more interesting than it is.  The Collected Stories only includes one of the these, a few pages about a misogynistic dressmaker.

La Femme cachée (1924, The Hidden Woman).  Whereas almost all of this is in Collected Stories, likely on the grounds that this book is something new for Colette, a book of short stories.  Regular old short stories, largely about couples, often in hotels.  Young couples on a honeymoon, older couples working on their marriage, that sort of thing. 

I hope I have made clear that one interesting thing about Colette is that although she mostly wrote short pieces, and always wrote short books, she thought in terms of the book, the text as a coherent object of some kind.  Animals or the music hall or couples in hotels.  Books that make sense as books.  One more reason it would be nice for English-language readers to be able to engage them as such.  Colette would make more sense.

La Maison de Claudine (1922).  This one is a beauty.  It is a childhood memoir in the form of vignettes, centered around Sido, Colette’s mother, set in village Burgundy, full of animals, flowers, and minor small-town incidents.  Colette links the book to her earliest books, the Claudine novels, but only in the title, The House of Claudine.  The most recent English translation abandons the connection, going (accurately, as far as the contents go) with My Mother’s House. 

She was easily moved to laughter, a youthful, rather shrill laughter that brought tears to her eyes, and which she would afterwords deplore as inconsistent with the dignity of a mother burdened with the care of four children and financial worries.  She would master her paroxysms of mirth, scolding herself severely, “Come, now, come!...” and then fall to laughing again till her pince-nez trembled on her nose.  (“Laughter”, ellipses in original, tr. Una Vincenza Troubridge and Enid McLeod)

Colette gives her mother a big, appealing personality.  And she, Colette, is such a pure sensualist:

My mother smelled of laundered cretonne, of irons heated on the poplar-wood fire, of lemon-verbena leaves which she rolled between her palms or thrust into her pocket.  (“My Mother and Morals”)

In a few years, Colette would write another little book, Sido (1930), that openly mythologized her mother, turning her into some kind of domestic nature deity.  Her father and siblings, also treated in the book, come off more like people.  An odd book.  My Mother’s House is the easy, maybe the easiest, Colette book to recommend to newcomers, at least those who do not mind a book that is minimally eventful but more about personality and mood.

Now I have just two more Colette books to go, the two I read most recently, but I am now reminded that, no, I have read one more Colette book, sort of, a collège anthology of letters titled Mère et fille (Mother and Daughter), which gives about a third of its length to the formal 17th century Mme de Sévigné, most famous for Proust’s use of her; a third to George Sand scolding her daughter; and the rest to Sido writing young Colette and Colette writing her own daughter.  Honestly most of what I remember about this book is that George Sand was a nightmarish mother.  Colette and her mother and daughter were all ordinary people, not constantly disappointed geniuses.  The complete collection of the correspondence between Colette and her daughter is over 600 pages long.  I enjoy Colette enough that I sometimes imagine reading “all” of her fifty plus books, but maybe not all of “all.”

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Some Colette novels about affairs with younger men - beggars for favours of her kind drink in the illusion of generosity

At some point here Colette begins a long love affair with her 16 year-old stepson – I suppose he does not stay 16 for long – and writes a few short novels about older women with young boyfriends. The most famous is Chéri (1920), where the title character is the most beautiful man in France, an exquisite surface:

He was capering about in front sun-drenched rosy pink curtains – a graceful demon, black against a glowing furnace, but when he pranced back towards the bed, he turned white again from top to toe, in his white silk pyjamas and white Moorish slippers.  (first page of the novel, tr. not mentioned in the British edition I am looking at)

Chéri (in English maybe Dearie) is always feminized, and is at this moment wearing his mistress’s pearls.  She is a high-end courtesan nearing the end of her career, keeping her spirits up with the help of Chéri’s youth. She is a wonderful character, but she gets to think about age and death and the meaning of love, subjects with weight.  It is a testament to Colette’s skill that shallow Chéri functions as a character at all, and is not just some kind of faun or nymph.

Where Chéri is sad but balanced, the sequel, The Last of Chéri (1926), gives itself over completely to Dearie and becomes a work of complete despair, or revenge.  I probably read the Chéri books twenty years ago, and I had remembered the mood of the first one pretty well, but not the inexorable grimness of the second.  Colette was adept at writing plotless stories, but she could turn on the melodrama when she wanted.

Le Blé en herbe (1923, Ripening Seed) is about a pair of teenagers, in love with each other but working on the complicated problem of whether or not they are a couple in an entirely plausible adolescent fashion.  I can think of a few precursors, mostly French, but this book seemed to me like a genuine advance in the fictional representation of adolescent psychology.

The boy in the couple adds a complication by allowing himself to be seduced by a single woman, bored, older (all of thirty) on vacation in the neighborhood.  Let’s look at some sexy Colette prose:

She put her arms on his shoulders, and with a slightly brutal shove she forced his dark head down on her bare arm.  Thus burdened, she hurried towards the narrow confines of the shadowy realm where she, in her pride, could interpret a moan as an avowal of grief, and where beggars for favours of her kind drink in the illusion of generosity. (last page of Ch. XIV, tr. another old edition that doesn’t say!)

The eroticism gets a little abstract there.  The sex is hidden by the chapter break.

Emma at Book Around the Corner has a perceptive review of The Ripening Seed.

It is curious that the point of view of these novels is, as a group, mostly that of the young man.  Colette’s work is always inspired by her own life, but she is not a narcissist, not always the subject of her work.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Colette's music hall, and some more animals - green like a sick leaf, green like a bitter lime

I should try to go faster than one Colette book a day.

Backstage at the Music Hall

Colette was a touring actress for a while.  I am amazed by how much writing she did while acting, but a common theme of her writing about the music hall scene is how boring it is.  Many of the sketches in this fascinating little book are about performing as work, as a job, and many others are about her co-workers. 

Hélène is not a real dancer, but a “little piece who dances.” 

She made her music-hall debut last season, in a revue, and as her first attempt, she “flung” at her audience two scabrous little ditties, putting them across at the top of her band-new, unsophisticated, brassy voice, without any of the simperings of false modesty, but with a perfectly straight face, and with an aggressive innocence that enchanted…  She boasts of being a “hard worker,” and sticks to her ungainly, plebeian name.  (“The Hard Worker,” tr. Anne-Marie Callimachi)

I see a lot of vocabulary in that passage that is not among the 1,000 most common words in French.  The translation, and most of the book, can be found in The Collected Stories of Colette (1983, ed. Robert Phelps), a book that perhaps hurts Colette as much as it helps.  The author of charming little thematic collections is crammed into a 600-page monster, the stories incomplete and arranged in a scheme that I have not figured out.  The music hall stories are all together, at least.

Someone should publish new editions which are just the original books with the original illustrations in the original order.  That is all I ever want.  Use the original typeface and page layout while you are at it, please.

The earlier novel The Vagabond (1910) is based on the music hall experiences, too, but I have not read it.

La Paix chez les bêtes (1916) – The Peace at the Home of the Beasts.  What was in this one?  Lots of animals, cats and dogs and more.  For two pages, Colette describes butterflies (“The Butterflies”):

The “citric” butterfly turns there, green like a sick leaf, green like a bitter lime, it flies away if I move, watching the least movement of my hands. The red sylvan creatures, the color of the dirt, rise up in a cloud before my steps, and their tawny lunules seem to spy on me.

My translation, I guarantee a bad one because I do not understand everything I wrote in English, much less in French.  Colette is in her prose poem mode here.  For some reason almost none of the contents of this book are in The Collected Stories.  Are these ever pure Colette.

Do I have room for one more?  The next book I have read is Chéri, which is in a new phase, so no.  Tomorrow, the beautiful young men.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Colette's Tendrils of the Vine - I no longer enjoy a happy sleep, but I no longer fear the tendrils of the vine - with a digression on Philippe Delerm

On with Colette.

The Tendrils of the Vine

I borrowed the original cover from Wikipedia.  Colette is at this point, and for a long time to come, calling herself “Colette Willy,” even though she has divorced the odious Willy.  Professional names have their own logic.

This is a collection of short pieces: some stories, some sketches, a couple more dog-cat dialogues.  Even the stories are not so plotty.  The title piece, two pages long, begins with a just-so story, why the nightingale sings at night, so that now:

He sings just to sing, he sings such lovely things that he does not know anymore what they were meant to say.  But I, I can still hear, through the golden notes, the melancholy piping of a flute, the quivering and crystalline trills, the clear and vigorous cries, I can still hear the first innocent and frightened song of the nightingale caught in the tendrils of the vine…

So this fable is about Colette, about her escape into the difficulties of freedom.  “I no longer enjoy a happy sleep, but I no longer fear the tendrils of the vine…” (tr. Herma Briffault, from The Collected Stories of Colette).  Many of the little pieces are about Colette.

The French tradition is more attached to the prose poem, whatever that is, than any other I know, and I often find it useful to think of Colette as an author of prose poems, whether they are published as two-page units or as elements of novels or memoirs.  Extractable descriptions of sensory experiences, often visual, are what I find best in Colette.  Charles Dantzig, in the entry on Colette in his Selfish Dictionary of French Literature (2005) writes that “I love better her eye than her belly” (p. 235), meaning her appetites and pleasures, and I agree, but this is a matter of taste, and the more I read her the more I appreciate her sensory exuberance in whatever form it takes.  It puts her a line with Proust, against the anti-rhetorical Cartesians that wrote so much of the French literature of the time, even if that other stuff is easier for the poor schmoe working on his French.  Too many words rather than too few.

Tendrils of the Vine reminded me strongly of the work of Philippe Delerm, a junior high French teacher who had a big best seller with the 1997 The First Swallow of Beer and Other Minuscules Pleasures (La Première gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules), a collection of thirty-five one- or two-page pieces about positive sensory experiences.  Note that the title piece is not about the pleasure of beer, but of the first swallow, the immediate anticipation, taste, and muscle action.  Two pages on that is a lot of words.  My other favorite, that I remember clearly, is about the pleasure of the banana split, not so much about eating it, but about the irresponsibility of ordering it in the first place, and watching it being brought to the table.  Delerm has made a career out of these little things – the other book of his I have read is It’s Always Good (C'est toujours bien, 1998), the same concept but directed at 10-year-olds (my reading level at the time was that of a 10-year-old), the pleasure of the evening of the last day of summer vacation, like that.  I guess we have this kind of thing in English, but much less of it.

Tendrils of the Vine is for some reason the representative Colette book on a curious and fascinating “100 Books of the Century” poll created by the newspaper Le Monde in 1999.  Now that I have read a dozen or more Colette books, it seems like an arbitrary choice, but perhaps I would feel that way about many of them.

I thought I was going to get to the music hall book today, but I guess not.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Beginning a run through some Colette books - "I will dance nude or dressed, for the sole pleasure of dancing"

Since the Zola novel was dragging on so long, I thought, why not mix in a French book that is light and elegant and short and easy?  Some Colette, for example?  Light, elegant, short, but honestly just as difficult as the Zola, with lots of slang, regionalisms, and advanced vocabulary.  But shorter, I remembered that part correctly.

A few years ago there was a craze for autofiction, mostly British as I remember, both the craze and the books.  I read a number of professional reviews of who knows which books which made a number of claims about the innovations of the current books, all of which, every time, made me think “Have you not read Colette?  She was doing that a hundred years ago.”  More people should read Colette. 

My impression is that those who do read Colette agree with me, whether they prefer her or her sentences.  She wrote memoiristic fiction and fictionalized memoir, so her personality is everywhere in her work.  I am more interested in her insight into animals, including the human type, and her poetry, those surprising words that make her more difficult than she first seems.  But she makes a good imaginary friend, the kind who might be hard to take in large doses but is wonderful to meet once in a while.  She does all the talking.  She has been doing such interesting things.  Her actual life was preposterously eventful.

I’ve read quite a lot of Colette since I started studying French seriously, and thought it would be a good idea to write some kind of overview.  This and subsequent posts are the shallow version of that idea.  Let me load up Colette’s French Wikipedia entry.

The Claudine books come first, Claudine at School (1900) and three more.  I have not read these.  They were published under the name of Willy, Colette’s odious but seductive husband, the greatest hack of turn-of-the-century French literature.  They somehow seem compromised to me, and their subject is certainly soapy stuff, a roman fleuve of marriages and affairs and so on.  Or so I understand.  They’re likely better than I think.

Retreat from Love (1907), now this I have read a couple of times in English.  It is the last Claudine novel, and Colette’s declaration of independence from Willy, dumped and divorced, her reclamation of the characters.  The book is quite close to plotless and full of the kind of thing I call “lovely” writing, especially all of the extraordinary descriptions of animals.  I wrote a piece about Retreat from Love four years ago, and wrote a bit about its animals long before that.  I apparently had more to say about Colette before I had read many of her books than I do now.

Seven Dialogues of the Beasts (1904, Barks and Purrs in an old translation), expanded to Twelve Dialogues and arranged in other ways.  The stories are literally dialogues between Colette’s Chartreux cat Kiki and brindle bulldog Toby.  The animals weather a storm, meet a puppy, meet a turtle, and cope with a late dinner.  Toby is a bundle of anxiety; Kiki is an ironist. 

The dialogues are as charming, or twee, as they sound.  I read them in a school edition, collège (junior high) level – what lucky students to have this book forced on them – visible here.  What I loved about the edition – about French literary education generally – is that it has an entire section on the literary tradition of talking animals {“Words of the beasts” / “Paroles de bêtes”), with texts from Aesop and Perrault and so on.  Then it has another section about dialogue as a stylistic device.  The French teach literature by surrounding it with more literature.

One of the dialogues, “Toby-dog Speaks,” from a bit later (1908), post-Willy, turns out to be a key Colette text.  Anxious Toby reports to Kiki a monologue Colette directed at him.  The story is really a Colettian manifesto for a new life, written in the form of a dialogue between a cat and a dog.

“You hear me,” She cried, “you hear me, brindled toad, big-hearted little bull! I will not go to the premieres any more – except on the other side of the ramp.  Because I will yet dance in the scene, I will dance nude or dressed, for the sole pleasure of dancing, adapting my gestures to the rhythm of the music, turning, burned by the light, blinded like a fly in a sunbeam… I will dance, I will invent beautiful slow dances where the veil sometimes covers me, sometimes envelops me like a spiral of smoke, and sometimes stretches behind me like the sail of a ship…  I will be the statue, the living vase, the leaping beast, the balanced tree, the drunken slave…”  (translation, such as it is, mine; all ellipses in original)

And that is just what Colette did, or was doing.  Is this ever autofiction.  The dog-cat dialogue turns out to be a flexible form.

Tomorrow, Colette in the music hall.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translations, likely full of instructive errors, are mine.

Monday, October 18, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Tuesday, October 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 11, 2021

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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