Friday, October 2, 2015

Eight years of sickness, idleness, and ignorance - happy birthday to Wuthering Expectations!

The “eight years of my adolescence comprise a period of sickness, idleness, and ignorance” writes Vittorio Alfieri in his Memoirs (1806).  A few days ago Wuthering Expectations turned eight!  Health, activity, and knowledge may be on their way.

I feel that I have not had a single good idea in the past two years, but I have read a couple hundred good books which makes up for a lot.  Every two years, inspired by the title of a great Sonny Rollins album, I remind myself of what I have been doing.  This Is What I Do, Part 4.

The most popular, and also unpopular, thing I wrote was my best bad idea: a review of a review of a novel I have not read.  Although completely sympathetic with Francine Prose, on her side aesthetically, I could see that her review of The Goldfinch had serious problems of argumentation and evidence.  So the post was like a self-corrective.  It attracted terrific comments.  Always read the comments.

The basic aesthetic approach of Wuthering Expectations is best seen in a series on John Ruskin’s Modern Painters from two years ago and a series on Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education that began last week.  And in between, a week on W. G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country.  I’m only linking to the first posts.  You can move forward from them, day by day, until either you or I are sick of the topic.

Other series that were fun to write:  Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (those posts had especially good titles), Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir, Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian. Big significant books.

Not that smaller books are less fun.  H. G. Wells’s The First Men on the Moon, Herman Bang’s Tina, Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (well, this one is big).  A ramble through some shorter and longer early works of Henry James.

I can’t complain about all of the readalong opportunities of the past two years.  Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries, John Crowley’s Little, Big, Nicanor Parra’s Poems and Anti-poems, Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, all great books to share with other readers.  Worst yet best of all was Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done?, read by more people than I possibly would have guessed not just at that time but subsequently – I still see ripples from the readalong on other book blogs.  Maybe that was my best bad idea.  Many thanks to everyone who invited me along or joined in.

I splash around with Algernon Swinburne.  Authors I have read and not read.  Who is this Dino Campana character?  Who is this John Davidson character?  Who is this Sidney Lanier character?  Book bloggers have more freedom to just ask that question.  No professional need to pretend to expertise we do not have.

I say farewell to D. G. Myers.

How can I thank all of the book bloggers I read, or who stop by Wuthering Expectations to read, skim, comment, collaborate, or correct?  My writing is better as a result, my “thinking,” and especially my reading, which is where the blog begins, every day.  Thank you!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Knit together remaining stitches. Cast off loosely. - Amy Hempel knits patterns

One thing I wrote a few days ago needed a fact check, I thought.  I mean a reread.  Since I wanted to say that Flaubert was granddaddy of the minimalists, I thought I should remind myself of what a minimalist was like.  That word should be in quotations marks: “minimalist.”  These labels quickly become useless.

I picked a book I hadn’t read for twenty-five years, Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live (1985), an aesthetically coherent book of short stories that is probably less than a hundred pages all told.  There are many steps between Hempel and Flaubert, but she writes as if she had read Sentimental Education and thought “Yes, like this, but just leave out the boring parts.”  And she has very strong opinions about which parts those are.  Most of ‘em, is her answer.  Not necessarily the parts most other people find boring.

“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” Hempel’s most famous story, dives right in:

“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said.  “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”

I began.  I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet.  I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did.  I told her the shape of the moon is like a banana – you see it looking full, you’re seeing it end on.

The narrator is visiting her friend in the hospital, distracting her from her imminent death with trivia, jokes, nothing with too much meaning.  Hempel never specifies the friend’s illness.  The important thing is that she, they, are young.

The story of the hospital visit is almost the frame for the deeper story of the narrator’s boundless fear of her own death. 

What seems dangerous often is not – black snakes, for example, or clear-air turbulence.  While things that just lie there, like this beach, are loaded with jeopardy.  A yellow dust rising from the ground, the heat that ripens melons overnight – this is earthquake weather.

The story, like most in the collection is full of stuff, the trivia, details about the hospital, the patient’s routine, the activity on the beach (the stories are all in southern California, where some hospitals have beaches), not just seemingly disconnected as in Flaubert’s fiction but deliberately disconnected.  Hempel has to simulate randomness.  The punchline, or perhaps hinge of the story:

On the morning she was moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried, I enrolled in a “Fear of Flying” class.  “What is your worst fear?” the instructor asked, and I answered, “That I will finish this course and still be afraid.”

The trivia was not just a little gift to a dying friend, but part of the way the narrator orders – disorders –the world.  The miscellaneousness of the world is life.  The narrator – and the writer – somehow pulls this material into some sort of meaningful shape.

The next story makes the idea even more explicit. “Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep,” seeming gibberish that comes from non-metaphorical patterns for knitting (“Begin, slip together, increase, continue, repeat”), although the metaphor for Hempel’s art is if anything too blunt.

I wait for Dale Anne in the room with the patterns.  The songs in these books are like lullabies to me.

K tog rem st.  Knit together remaining stitches.

Cast off loosely.

Now that last line, that is a long ways from Flaubert.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

rising like flowers blossoming out - I admit that Flaubert is a realist - the true reality is in the writer's language

One last note on Flaubert’s plain style.  In this passage, something terrible has happened.  An infant has just died:

She [the mother] sank on to the edge of the divan, where she sat with her mouth open and tears pouring from her staring eyes.  Then a torpor came over her and silence fell on the room.  The furniture had been overturned.  Two or three napkins were lying on the floor.  Six o’clock struck.  The night-light went out.  (3,4)

The clipped sentences and imprecise number of napkins are all in the French original.  Thousands of subsequent “minimalist” writers have tried to recapture the effect of this moment.  The same flat style that is tedious when describing a dinner party becomes sublime in the presence of death.  Who would criticize such a scene for lacking ornament?  Many of those later writers, especially those who wrote short fiction, thought something like “Why not just cut out the boring dinner party scene and just keep the really powerful moment?”  And some succeeded in doing just that, while others only managed to make emotionally rich moments dull.

4.  Beauty.  Such moments are among the easiest in Sentimental Education to call beautiful, as are the moments of elevated language, the garden of asparagus “which looked like a little forest of feathers” (2, 5) and so on.  I could imagine an aesthetic in which the flatter, plainer, duller passages are meant to contrast with – pump up the significance of – the heightened moments.  A risky strategy, boring the reader. 

Men sitting at a narrow table were placing lumps of paste on revolving disks in front of them; their left hand scraped out the inside while their right stroked the surface, and vases could be seen rising like flowers blossoming out.  (2, 3)

Flaubert, though, considers the novel to be beautiful all the way through.  Any surface dullness is of no consequence because he can see the hidden patterns he has carefully constructed underneath the flat surface.  They are always there somewhere, they are beautiful.

I have increasingly wondered why Flaubert was so committed to the form of the novel.  Why do so much research if the good part is the part you make up?  Why not write prose poems, or Finnegans Wake, or The Rings of Saturn?  The latter gives me a clue.  Flaubert, I am often told, is a “realist.”  And he is.

5.  Metaphysics.  Here I need help.  I am going to get it from Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946, tr. Willard Trask).

Auerbach describes Flaubert as a kind of mystic of reality, the devotee of a theory “of a self-forgetful absorption in the subjects of reality” (486).  The purpose of the artist is “to transform reality through style; transform it so that it would appear as God sees it, so that the divine order – insofar as it concerns the fragment of reality treated in a particular work – would perforce be incarnated in the author’s style” (357-8).  The representation of reality by the artist is more beautiful and meaningful than reality because the representation is more real.

There is a strong dose of Schopenhauer here, although I doubt he is Flaubert’s source.  The artist – the great artist? – is, in a limited way, able to glimpse the real reality behind the usual false reality which he then represents as a new false but improved reality.  And that’s the best you can hope for.  Thus the subject does not matter, the characters do not matter (although being able to take jabs at some bourgeois enemies is a pleasant bonus), or they only matter arbitrarily as material for the creation of the marvelous new object.  “[I]n his book [Madame Bovary] the world consists of pure stupidity, which completely misses true reality, so that the latter should properly not be discoverable in it at all; yet it is there; it is in the writer’s language…” (489).

No one is obligated to believe any of this to read Flaubert successfully.  I believe Flaubert believed it.  A number of later writers, too.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

He praised its cathedral and its pies - the aesthetic sensibility of an idiot - or, a gesture towards meaning

What do the patterns, repetitions, and obscurely linked details in Sentimental Education mean?  Oh, so many things.

1.  Individual psychology.  Some of the patterns are created by the characters, perhaps unconsciously.  They are also created by Gustave Flaubert, but they are given to the characters.  It is Frédéric who always notices ribbons and who associates them with his love affairs.  He may not realize he is doing this.  He is not especially perceptive.

2. Heightened perception.  But sometimes he is more perceptive.  Flaubert signals these moments with his signature semicolon lists.

Cisy recalled the happy days when, mounted on his sorrel, with a monocle in his eye, he had ridden along beside carriage doors; these memories intensified his anguish; an unbearable thirst scorched his throat; his feet sank into the sand; it seemed to him that he had been walking for eternities. (2,3)

Poor Cisy is about to fight a duel in which he assumes he will die (he is incompetent) so all sort of trivia becomes intensely interesting to him (“At the corner of a path a woman in a madras kerchief was talking to a man in a smock”).  Meanwhile Frédéric is experiencing something similar, even if he is less certain or terrified of death.  So we have not just one but two characters who are suddenly unusually alive and perceptive, and the entire passage, a famous one, is written accordingly.  “A ray of sunlight, passing through the leaves, fell upon them; and to Cisy’s eyes they seemed to shine like silver vipers in a pool of blood.”  The sacking of the Tuileries Palace is another good example (dog alert!).

Love and death, those are the cause of heighted sensitivity in the characters, when they become – well, when they become more like Gustave Flaubert, when even a dip like the novel’s hero develops an aesthetic sensibility.

Actually, there is a simpler impulse that has a similar effect, hunger, thus the frequent menus of multi-course meals.  It is not quite right to say that Flaubert describes the dishes.  He writes as if he were the waiter.

Food reminds me of one of my favorite lines in the novel.  I have nowhere to put it, as an aside:

And, when it was pointed out that she was a native of Chartres, he went on:

‘Chartres!  Now that’s a pretty town.’

He praised its cathedral and its pies…  (2,4)

Frédéric is an idiot.  Also, I missed the pies when I was in Chartres and now feel cheated.

To my initial point, the use of random details to create moments or states of heightened emotion and as the kinds of semi-conscious patterns people construct to make meaning out of their lives – “Then a vague memory occurred to him of other evenings like this, with similar silences,” to repeat a quotation I used yesterday – is psychologically sharp and fairly new as a technique of characterization, or new when used to this extent.  Not actually new; what ever is?  Meanwhile, Leo Tolstoy has discovered, from different aesthetic grounds, how to do the same thing.

Note that none of what I have described really requires a reader to consciously perceive the patternings any more than the characters do.  Sentimental Education can be successfully read and enjoyed as if it is not a radical avant garde anti-novelistic gesture (see Himadri do just that), in part because it is still a novel with all of the usual features – characters, plot, meaning.  Flaubert, anticipating the French theorists of a century later, is aware to an unusual degree that he is simulating characters and meaning within an artificial form, but no reader has any obligation to notice.

#3 on the list will be Beauty and #4 will be Metaphysics.  And I have one more point to make about heightened perception, this time of the reader.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Flaubert's dogs and ribbons - The dog’s barking went on

Ribbons and dogs in Sentimental Education.  Flaubert drops them into his novel frequently.  I have mentioned several examples of both.  A river bank is like “two wide ribbons,” the protagonist Frédéric disturbs a “couple of sportsmen with their dogs” before, in the next sentence, first seeing and falling instantly in love with Madame Arnoux.  The pink ribbons of her hat are the second detail in her description (the first is the hat).  Then her hair, her dress, her sewing (the character’s motif), and finally her face.  Four pages later, while Frédéric is walking home, I find the next dog, and perhaps also the next ribbon.

A broad, deep-red band of colour lit up the western sky.  Huge corn-ricks, standing in the midst of the stubble, cast gigantic shadows.  A dog started barking on a distant farm.  He shivered, seized with a nameless anxiety.  (Pt. 1, Ch. 1)

It is entirely natural to mention ribbons when describing the attire of French women at this time, just as it is natural do plop in a dog or two now and then.  But as much as Flaubert is now for his sensory descriptions, what he mostly does is omit the scenery.  He just picks out a few things, the things he is going to use and reuse.

The ribbons, real and metaphorical, connect Frédéric’s women.  This time, the courtesan Rosanette:

At last they would come back by the Arc de Triomphe and the great avenue, drinking in the air, with the stars above them, and all the gas-lamps down to the end of the vista lined up like a double string of luminous pearls.

Frédéric always had to wait for her when they were going out; she spent ages arranging the two ribbons on her bonnet round her chin; and she would smile at herself in her wardrobe mirror.  (Pt. 3, Ch.3)

The water metaphor is repeated with Rosanette, too.  “The sun shone on the cascade, and the greenish stones of the little wall over which the water was flowing seemed to be covered by a never-ending ribbon of silver gauze” (Pt. 2, Ch. 5).  There is at least one more of these (“the dusty paths looking like greyish ribbons,” 3,4).  I have not sorted out the colors, but it looks like there is a scheme.

The third (or fourth) of his women is Madame Debreuse, a wealthy married woman.  From the moment of seduction:

Madame Debreuse closed her eyes and he was astonished at the ease of his victory.  The tall trees in the garden, which had been rustling gently, stood still.  Motionless clouds streaked the sky with long red ribbons, and the whole universe seemed to have come to a standstill.  Then a vague memory occurred to him of other evenings like this, with similar silence.  Where could it have been?...  (3,3, ellipses in original)

Once I looked for it, I was not surprised to find a dog earlier in this scene, although an imaginary one.  Rosanette has an actual pair of dogs, which are pulled into the plot at one point.  Madame Arnoux is associated with the dog in the distance.  The barking dog mentioned above, and Frédéric’s nameless anxiety, are on, roughly, page 7 of the novel.  It is 270 pages later, and the point of view moves to Madame Arnoux:

… she had dreamt that she had been standing for a long time on the pavement in the Rue Tronchet.  She was waiting there for something indefinite yet important, and without knowing why, she was afraid of being seen.  But a horrible little dog which had taken a dislike to her was worrying at the hem of her dress.  It kept coming back to her and barked louder and louder.  Madame Arnoux awoke.  The dog’s barking went on.  She strained her ears.  The noise was coming from her son’s bedroom.  (2,6)

The scene is one of the moral pivots of the novel, a turning point for Mme Arnoux and in consequence Frédéric, foreshadowed in the first few pages of the book in a passage that might make a reader shiver once he knows what Flaubert is doing.

Next I will try to make Sentimental Education look a bit less like a word association puzzle.

Friday, September 25, 2015

From the beginning of Sentimental Education to about four pages in - or why Ford Madox Ford says I have to read the novel 14 times

The first line, and paragraph, of Sentimental Education announces a date, time, and the names of a dock and a ship, with “clouds of smoke pouring from its funnel,” a detail that fills me with dismay, but I will have to hold that thought.

The next paragraph, also a single line, introduces the central artistic device of the novel, the accretion of details separated by semi-colons:

People came hurrying in, out of breath; barrels, ropes and baskets of washing lay about in everybody’s way; the sailors ignored all inquiries; people bumped into one another; the pile of baggage between the two paddle-wheels grew higher and higher…

No hint of whose point of view is represented or why these details are chosen in place of all of the other possibilities.  The next line (and also paragraph) does something new:

At last the boat moved off; and the two banks, lined with warehouses, yards, and factories, slipped past like two wide ribbons being unwound.

The novel’s first metaphor!  And a good one.  When Flaubert wants to be, he is a master of figurative language.  How frustrating that, if I understand his method of composition, he spent so much time excising metaphorical language from his fiction.  He wrote ‘em then killed ‘em.  Aside from ordinary uses of language, there is not a hint of metaphor for another two pages (a “curtain” of “pale poplars” on the shore).

And this from pages that have almost nothing but sensory detail, as when Flaubert writes that “it was the custom in those days to put on one’s oldest clothes for travelling,” and then describes the clothes of the passengers:

Here and there a coffee-stained calico shirt showed under a knitted waistcoat, gilt tie-pins pierced tattered cravats, and trouser-straps were fastened to list slippers.  [More clothes]  The deck was littered with nutshells, cigar stubs, pear skins, and the remains of sausage-meat which had been brought along wrapped in paper.  [More people, more clothes] To get back to his seat, Frédéric pushed open the gate leading to the first-class section of the boat, disturbing a couple of sportsmen with their dogs.

It was like a vision:

At this point, amidst all of this random and perhaps arbitrary detail, callow Frédéric sees and instantly falls for Madame Arnoux and the novel gels.  What is the book about?  This:

She was wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat, with pink ribbons which fluttered behind her in the wind.  Her black hair [a sentence about her hair, another about her dress].  She was busy with a piece of embroidery; and her straight nose, her chin, her whole figure was silhouetted clearly against  the background of the blue sky.

Is this not just one more arbitrary list of plain details or even just nouns (“her chin”)?  Everything I skipped is more of the same, except that among the details I have chosen to include, there are some that I know have particular artistic significance, that are going to be repeated at key moments all through the novel.  To my knowledge the coffee-stains and pear skins are merely incidental detail, atmosphere, so I can set them aside, while the ribbons and dogs I am going to need.  Remember that the ribbons first appeared in the metaphor in the third sentence.  I think these are the first dogs.  These motifs are going to be used by Flaubert to create a hidden pattern of correspondences behind the surface of the novel.  My next post, which may not appear for a couple of days, is going to be nothing but ribbons and dogs.

My little howl of frustration in the first sentence of the post come from realizing at that moment that the smoke from the ship’s funnel is the beginning of – the smoke theme? no, how absurd – the feather theme that I completely missed.  The link is one of those outstanding but rare metaphors that appears 368 pages later – “the smoke of a railway engine stretched out in a horizontal line, like a gigantic ostrich feather whose tip kept blowing away.”  The ostrich feather theme is a sub-theme of the feather theme.

All of this is completely invisible except by chance the first time through the novel.  Ford Madox Ford claimed, in a quotation – not even that, a paraphrase, for which I have never seen a real source, so it is likely nonsense – that one has to read Sentimental Education fourteen times to really get it.  I am not even close.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

They chatted about the subject under discussion - Sentimental Education's boring triumph - actually I'll write about the triumph later

Flaubert hammered Sentimental Education until it was flat, even flatter than Madame Bovary.  A line that epitomizes the flatness: “They chatted about the subject under discussion” (Pt. 1, Ch. 5).  I can think of a number of later writers working in Flaubert’s tradition who would not have allowed such a line in their books except as some kind of grotesque joke.

If you are thinking of blaming the translator, Robert Baldick: “Ils causèrent de ce que l’on disait.”

Received criticism praises Flaubert for his beauty – I hated Emma Bovary, I hated spending time with these horrible people, but of course the writing is beautiful – and I will argue later that Flaubert creates works of great beauty, but the beauty is only occasionally at the level of the sentence.  The search for le mot juste is a destructive process.  Flaubert builds up a scene, fills it with adjectives and metaphor, and then strips them out before I or anyone else gets to see them, pounding the prose back to flatness.

In fairness, I will note that Sentimental Education is aesthetically more radical than Madame Bovary, more unforgiving.

When Eça de Queirós wrote his version of Sentimental Education’s relatively vivid horse race scene he made every sentence interesting, packing everything in the novel into one magnificent long chapter.  Zola worked in the same way; so did Proust.  Flaubert is the father of this kind of maximalism but also oddly also of minimalism.

I am on the same page as “They chatted etc.”:

The party stopped beside a fisherman, who was cleaning some eels in a tank for live fish.  Mademoiselle Marthe wanted to see them.  He emptied his box on to the grass; and the little girl went down on her knees to catch them, laughing with pleasure and screaming with fright.  They were all lost.  Arnoux paid for them.

(If you were thinking of blaming the translator: “Toutes furent perdues.  Arnoux les paya.”  Baldick does have his troubles.  “A good many began singing.  Spirits rose.  Glasses were brought out and filled” (Pt. 1, Ch. 1), which in French is “Beaucoup chantaient.  On était gai.  Il se versait des petits verres.”  I guess “Many sang” sounded too primitive or ugly, although the next sentence makes up for it.  It was at this point – on page two – that I began spot-checking the French.  Oh come on, I thought, having forgotten how this book works, Flaubert did not write “Spirits rose”!  But he did, or close enough.  I do not know why Baldick did not want the glasses to be little.

The flat descriptive prose is accompanied by conversations, about politics, business, art, or nothing, that are even less interesting:

There were not many quadrilles, and the dancers, judging by the listless way in which they dragged their feet, looked as if they were performing a duty.  Frédéric heard snatches of conversation such as these:

“Were  you at the last charity ball at the Hotel Lambert, Mademoiselle?”

“No, Monsieur.”

“It’s going to be terribly hot soon.”

“Yes, absolutely stifling.”

“Whom is this polka by?”

“I really don’t know, Madame.”  (Pt. 2, Ch. 2)

“What to do when the novel triumphs by boring you?” asks Miguel at St. Orberose.  Admittedly this particular passage is really rubbing it in.  Miguel suggests focusing on the good bits – metaphors, imagery, satirical jabs – some of which are extraordinary.  I’ll do some of that tomorrow.  Then I’ll work a little on the other way to read Sentimental Education, even though it is a bit beyond me cognitively.  I am never actually bored by Sentimental Education.  It always gives me something to do.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

he resolved to lead a selfish life - Sentimental Education has characters and a story

A shallow young man falls in love with a married woman he has barely met – he is in a heightened and susceptible emotional state at the time.  The chance meeting and strange reaction influence or even determination almost everything he does for the next decade of his life.

Or more accurately everything he does not do, since Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) is the great nineteenth century novel of missing the main event.  More events almost happen than happen, if that makes sense.  Or they happen elsewhere, with our hero – is that ever the wrong word – Frédéric Moreau just missing them.

Flaubert does not quite have nothing at all happen, but he comes as close as he dares.  Frédéric repeatedly almost begins a sexual affair, with the woman he meets on the first page or with someone else, or almost marries, or almost finds himself involved in some kind of revolutionary activity (the novel hinges around 1848).  He is involved in a duel which turns into a farce, so it is too much to say he fights in a duel.  He is present at the 1848 sacking of the Tuileries Palace, a great scene, although as a witness more than a participant.

The Tuileries scene is so memorable that I remembered the novel as having far more scenes of political violence than it really does.

People slipped in the mud on clothes, shakos, and weapons; Frédéric felt something soft under his foot; it was the hand of a sergeant in a grey overcoat who was lying face down in the gutter.  The wine-merchants’ shops were open, and every now and then somebody would go in to smoke a pipe or drink a glass of beer, before returning to the fight.  A stray dog started howling.  This raised a laugh.  (Part 3, Ch. 1)

So much of what Flaubert is doing in Sentimental Education, his radical aesthetic method, is visible in this passage, but I want to save that for the next few days.  Keep an eye on that dog.

The dubious, amoral Frédéric is in a predecessor of Proust’s Marcel in that his behavior and thoughts, if that is the right word, always make him seem several years younger than he really is.  The novel is full of jokes at his expense.  “And in a sudden burst of animal health, he resolved to lead a selfish life” (Pt. 2, Ch. 1).  The joke is that a quarter of the way into the novel I had yet to see him live any other way.  Pure self-delusion.  Or see this one, when Frédéric realizes that he has a chance of an affair with a wealthy woman: “Greedy, in all probability, for power and action, and married to a mediocrity who she had served devotedly, she wanted a man of strong personality to guide her” (Pt. 3, Ch. 3).  Fifty pages from the end of the novel, I can be certain that if she is interested in Frédéric it is cannot possibly be for his strong personality.

What Proust’s protagonist has that Flaubert’s lacks is an aesthetic sensibility.  And people call Sentimental Education “autobiographical”!  For the next few days, nothing but aesthetics.  Nothing but style.  Frédéric will reappear only to be mocked.

I read Robert Baldick’s translation in the same Penguin Classics edition I read twenty-five years ago.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

a kind of immense, Homeric laughter racked my entrails, unable to burst out freely - notes on The Late Mattia Pascal

Sometimes I figure out, or guess at, or trick myself into thinking I know what a book is doing early on, and then I take lots of notes and write about it for four or five days.  And then sometimes a book remains a puzzle from beginning to end and I come to write about it having only written down a single quotation.

The quotation that I finally caught in the last chapter of Luigi Pirandello’s The Late Mattia Pascal (1904) is:

In my nervous state, I could hardly feel my legs; I walked along as if I weren’t touching the ground.  I couldn’t now describe my mood at that moment.  All I can remember is that, in my emotion, a kind of immense, Homeric laughter racked my entrails, unable to burst out freely.  If I had allowed it to explode, it would have knocked out my teeth, shaken the houses, uprooted the cobblestones of the streets.  (Ch. 18)

Now that is vivid enough, but I picked it for that laughter in the middle that I finally, by the end, could identify as a description of not just the narrator’s but the novel’s mood, maybe even its ethos.

Mattia Pascal is – well, first, unlike Luigi Pirandello, he is not Sicilian.  I read forty pages before I figured out my error and jerked the characters and their hovels out of Sicily and dropped them up north, closer to Turin.  His French name provides a clue.

Mattia Pascal is on the run from his miserable married life when he 1) lucks into some money and 2) read in the newspaper that he has killed himself.  He takes his chance and creates a new identity and life.  The legal, ethical, and existential complications of the new life eventually lead him to kill off the second identity and return to a version of the old, at which point he becomes the fellow named in the title.  That is exactly the moment of the above quotation, a moment worthy of Homeric laughter.

The arbitrariness of Pirandello’s story is an ingenious conceptual move that made the novel difficult to pin down.  Pascal’s life is the one that happened, one of many possible lives.  Given the chance to make a new life, he makes another series of arbitrary choices (also some less arbitrary choices) and experiences another set of contingencies.  He rents a room with a theosophist, for example, which drives a surprising amount of the later plot, especially in an amusing séance scene.  It is just something that happens (the theosophist would disagree).  The Late Mattia Pascal is a novel of accidents.

In a number of places, especially in the beginning when the narrator has trouble ordering his thoughts, Pirandello’s book reminded me strongly of the ironic digressive masterpieces of Machado de Assis, especially, obviously, blatantly, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881) – comparing titles is sufficient for my point.  Perhaps next time I will read them side by side.  Next time I might know what I am looking for.

The translation I read is by William Weaver, published in 1964 before he launched into those great Italo Calvino translations.  The edition, from The Eridanos Press, features thick, attractive paper with a kind of gridded watermark inside a cover marred by an irrelevant Giorgio Morandi painting that is ruined by the overall black-and-salmon theme.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Oh, what precious nonsense! - reading Gilbert and Sullivan

The one thing I knew about W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s operetta Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride (1881) is that its central character, Reginald Bunthorne the Fleshly Poet, was a caricature of young Oscar Wilde.  So the one thing I knew was half wrong.

The flock of women in love with Bunthorne ask that he read his new poem.



[The Dragoons are 1) in love  with the women enraptured by the poet and 2) per a song a few pages earlier, a mixture of Bismarck, Fielding, Thackeray, Thomas Aquinas and Trollope, so sensible prosy fellows]

BUN.  It is a wild, weird, fleshly thing; yet very tender, very yearning, very precious.  It is called, “Oh, Hollow! Hollow! Hollow!”

PATIENCE.  Is it a hunting song?  [a joke nearly lost now]

BUN.  A hunting song?  No, it is not a hunting song.  It is the wail of the poet’s heart on discovering that everything is commonplace.  To understand it, cling passionately to one another and think of faint lilies.  (Act I)

So if half wrong, also half right.  Other details clearly identify Bunthorne as if not specifically Dante Gabriel Rossetti at least a paid-in-full pre-Raphaelite, obsessed with phony baloney medievalisms.  But the women “play on lutes, mandolins, etc.” (pre-Raphaelite) but are also “dressed in aesthetic draperies” (rather more Wildean) and think the uniform of the Dragoons should be “made Florentine fourteenth-century” but then “surmounted with something Japanese.”  A little of this, a little of that.

PATIENCE.  Well, it seems to me to be nonsense.

LADY SAPHIR.  Nonsense, yes, perhaps – but, oh, what precious nonsense!

A little self-description there by W. S. Gilbert.  If anyone is wondering why I am reading Patience – and not just that one, but H. M. S. Pinafore (1878) and The Pirates of Penzance (1879) – which tends to be a little hard on the contribution of Arthur Sullivan, the reason is first that in a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan I only catch about half of the words and second I can linger over the jokes. 

SERGEANT.  No matter; our course is clear.  We must do our best to capture these pirates alone.  It is most distressing to us to be the agents whereby our erring fellow-creatures are deprived of that liberty which is so dear to us all – but we should have thought of that before we joined the Force.

ALL POLICE.  We should!

SERGEANT.  It is too late now!

ALL.  It is!   (The Pirates of Penzance, Act II)

Awfully funny performed, but similarly funny on the page, funny enough to reread immediately.

In other words, I read the plays to read  them.  In practice, they are a pleasure to read.  They are basically forty-page Bab Ballads, illustrations and all.  Sorry, Arthur.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

the ennui of not having set the world quite on fire as yet - Wilde becomes Wilde

The Wilde letters I read, running through his 1882 American tour, are before The Importance of Being Earnest, before The Picture of Dorian Gray, before his fairy tales, before his critical essays, before almost everything.  In 1881 Wilde published his first book, Poems, which is, to be polite, and accurate, very much of its time.  He had written his first play, Vera; or, the Nihilists, “a drama on modern Russia” (Letters, p. 96) which, if it had been written by the Wilde of the 1890s would be a great comic masterpiece but was instead written by the Wilde of 1880, a fellow who was still, to be polite, exploring his talents, and is thus dreary twaddle.  The play reached the stage in 1883, where it remained for one week.

A number of Wilde’s letters are to actresses and producers, badgering on about this awful play.  I assume there will be plenty more of this stuff in the Letters, simultaneously tedious and fascinating, when Wilde is at his peak.

Wilde achieved some celebrity, for his talk, his wit, as an Oxford undergraduate.  He was incidentally a first-rate classicist.  Early letters are about cramming, and then about celebrating his First in Greats.  His wit is only lightly present in his letter to his friends.  But of course he is not performing for them the way he would in public.  He is “kill[ing] time and pheasants and the ennui of not having set the world quite on fire as yet” (28 November 1879, 84).  (Young Wilde avidly hunted and fished).

It is amusing, and also a little dull, to watch Wilde hustle.  His obsequious letters  to Robert Browning and Matthew Arnold* accompanying dedication copies of Poems mask what was simultaneously happening at London salons.  Wilde was becoming famous for his jokes and paradoxes, not his mediocre poems, so famous that the London audience for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (1881) assumed that the Fleshly Poet protagonist was a parody of Wilde, even though he is obviously Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Gilbert had made an error – the character should have been Wilde, and the audience (and soon enough the director and actor) behaved accordingly.  Wilde was 26.

Soon Wilde is working arm in arm with the Patience producer, on his way to America to simultaneously promote the operetta and himself, performing offstage as a British aesthete and dandy, dragging “a hat-box, a secretary, a dressing-case, a trunk, a portmanteau, and a valet” – “I can’t travel without Balzac and Gautier” (6 July 1882, 175) – all over the United States and Canada.  Thus the lectures on aesthetics to Colorado silver miners.  Thus he finds himself trapped in Topeka, Kansas:

The local poet has just called on me with his masterpiece, a sanguinary lyric of 3000 lines on the Civil War.  The most impassioned part begins thus:
‘Here Mayor Simpson battled bravely with his Fifteenth Kansas Cavalry.’
What am I to do?  (21 April 1882, 165)

In America the Wilde I knew begins to appear in his letters.  The next four hundred pages of letters promise a lot of pleasure.

* And Gladstone!  Do British poets still send their first books to the Prime Minister? “[T]o one who has always loved what is noble and beautiful and true in life and art” blah blah blah yuck (20 July 1881, 113).

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Young Oscar Wilde tells jokes

Algernon Swinburne’s letters have been so much fun that I thought I would try out Oscar Wilde’s, which should be even more fun, or at least funnier.  Well, not yet, not quite.  I am reading The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000), ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, a book that has 1,230 pages of letters.  I am up to page 192 at this point, when Wilde returns to England from his 1882 American lecture tour, which felt like a good spot for a break.  Wilde’s letters are just beginning to be really funny.  The trip to America practically turned him into Mark Twain.

In England Wilde gave a lecture titled “Impressions of America” (1883) – it is in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde – that is pretty close to stand up comedy.

I had to descend a mine in a rickety bucket in which it was impossible to be graceful.  Having got into the heart of the mountain I had supper, the first course being whisky, the second whisky and the third whisky.

That joke appears in two more versions in the letters, where Wilde was polishing it.

Is this next one even Wilde’s joke?  It feels kind of moldy:

So infinitesimal did I find the  knowledge of Art, west of the Rocky Mountains, that an art patron – one who in his day had been a miner – actually sued the railroad company for damages because the plaster cast of Venus de Milo, which he had imported from Paris, had been delivered minus the arms.  And, what is more surprising still, he gained his case and the damages.

Now this one is pure Wilde:

I was disappointed with Niagara – most people must be disappointed with Niagara.  Every American bride is taken there, and the sight of the stupendous water fall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life…  To appreciate it really one has to see it from underneath the fall, and to do that it is necessary to be dressed in a yellow oil-skin, which is as ugly as a mackintosh – and I hope none of you ever wear one.

Wilde’s tour was comprehensive.  Griggsville, Illinois.  Leadville, Colorado.  That’s where Wilde went down into the silver mine with the miners who attended his lecture on “the Ethics of Art.”

I read them passages from the autobiography  of Benvenuto Cellini and they seemed much delighted.  I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me.  I explained that he had been dead for some little time which elicited the inquiry “Who shot him”?

Twain at this point would have tightened up the joke, or maybe spread it out, but he of course had twenty years of additional humoristic experience.  Wilde was only 28, 29 when he was in America, lecturing the silver miners and amateur painters on aesthetics and dandyism and the art of the English Renaissance.  Wilde gets funnier later.

Heck of a job I have done writing about Wilde’s letters.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

terrible truth, unutterable despair, reasonably big laughs - rambling through another volume of Chekhov stories

I did not take many notes on Volume 11 of Constance Garnett’s Chekhov stories (The Schoolmaster & Other Stories).  Not nearly as many as on Volume 12.  Maybe I have nothing to say.

The first story, “The Schoolmaster” (1886), kicks off the recurring “death and illness” theme.  An esteemed teacher attends  his fourteenth annual district banquet.  Everything is just a little bit off this time, because all of the other teachers and administrators know that the schoolmaster is mortally ill, that this will be his last banquet.

And at once on all the faces, in all the motionless eyes bent upon him, he read not the sympathy, not the commiseration which he could not endure, but something else, something soft, tender, but at the same time intensely sinister, like a terrible truth, something which in one instant turned him cold all over and filled his soul with unutterable despair.  (10)

So this book is rough going.  What relatively healthy  reader is not looking at the teacher similarly, so to speak?  Although we are likely to sympathize with his self-delusion in a way that his fictional colleagues cannot.

That sentence looked stranger even than I remembered it as I typed it out – “soft, tender.”

Oh, the next story, “Enemies” (1887), holy cow.  A doctor’s six year-old son has just died, minutes ago, when a man arrives demanding the doctor come treat his wife.  A tragedy, however ordinary, turns farcical, and becomes more absurd as the story progresses.  Chekhov is not above Maupassant-like twists – this book has a couple of good ones – although this story is more like a parody of the twist story.  No clever ending is going to bring that child back.

Look at these crows:

Then the carriage drove into dense shadow; here there was the smell of dampness and mushrooms, and the sound of rustling trees; the crows, awakened by the noise of the wheels, stirred among the foliage and uttered prolonged plaintive cries as though they knew the doctor’s son was dead and that Abogin’s wife was ill.  (23)

No pathetic fallacy is more genuinely pathetic than that of Anton Chekhov.

Luckily, Chekhov breaks the mood in the next one, “The Examining Magistrate” (1887), which is more of a genuine comic Maupassant twist ending story.  It features a doctor, a suicide, a betrayal, etc. but is nevertheless comic relief.

Lots of comedy in this book, I remind myself.  Chekhov may think that homeopathic medicine is a con, but he sets up a story so that the patients of a sincere homeopathic doctor are cheating her (“Malingerers”).  A man (“the man whose new galoshes were stolen last year,” the best joke in the book, a detail tossed out as if I will just nod along, oh yes, that fellow) accidentally drinks paraffin but has the devil’s time convincing his wife or anyone else that he has poisoned himself (“An Inadvertence”).  Another man is so afraid of being murdered by robbers that he overdoes it (“Overdoing It”).  “A Play,” in which a budding playwright reads her manuscript to a famous writer, is close to something Mark Twain might write.  “The jury acquitted him” is the last line.

I guess that last batch are mostly throwaway stories, but they make the book readable.  Thank goodness Constance Garnett had the sense not to compile the twenty most miserable Chekhov stories in one place.

Well, I had something to say.  A break from Chekhov now.  I’m sure I’ll be back to him soon enough.

Monday, September 14, 2015

the lazy fellow’s soul is filled with a sense of glory and triumph - two supposedly minor Chekhov stories

“Shrove Tuesday,” published February 23, 1887 in a St. Petersburg newspaper.  I read it in The Cook’s Wedding & Other Stories.  Pavel Vassilitch should help his son Styopa with his math homework, but it is Shrove Tuesday, so everyone if full of pancakes.  The fast begins tomorrow.  Not a great time to concentrate on fractions.  “’To be sure after pancakes, lessons are nasty to swallow.’”  The father instead tells stories about his schooldays.

“He [the teacher] would begin explaining some theory, get in a tangle, and turn crimson all over and race up and down the class-room as though someone were sticking an awl in his back, then he would blow his nose half a dozen times and begin to cry.  But you know we were magnanimous to him, we pretended not to see it.”  (133)

The house is full of cats.

The samovar is hissing and puffing out steam which throws flickering shadows on the ceiling.  The cats come in from the entry sleep and melancholy with their tails in the air.  (134)

Melancholy cats.  The story is full of similes.  Styopa “is swaying to and fro like a Chinese idol and looking crossly at a sum book” (132).  “The old-fashioned clock in the drawing-room does not strike, but coughs ten times huskily as though it had a cold” (136).

Newspapers in 1887 St. Petersburg were different than newspapers now.  Better.

“Art” (1886) is in the same volume, near the end, not about children at all but about the creation of a religious artifact, a “Jordan,” directly on top of a frozen river for an Epiphany festival at which the river will be blessed.  The characters are a regional artist who is a prima donna and a lazy drunk but who has a real talent for this form, and his almost mindless assistant.  “If he were told to stand on the river for a day, a month, or a year he would stand there” (267).  They break the ice, make a frame and pegs – “whoever gets hold of a peg after the blessing of the water will be lucky for the whole year” – and dip a large cross in the water allowing them to care a dove in the ice that encrusts it.  The artist drinks and complains, but the work gets done.

[He] pulls away the mat… and the people behold something extraordinary.  The lectern, the wooden ring, the pegs, and the cross in the ice are iridescent with thousands of colors.  The cross and the dove glitter so dazzlingly that it hurts the eyes to look at them.  Merciful God, how fine it is! (272)

I usually assume that stories about visual art are really about writing.  In this case I am less sure.  Chekov had no assistant.  He was cranking out stories like I write these blog posts, and all in his own words, and at this level!  But did Chekhov think of his newspaper stories as similarly ephemeral?

Guns are fired, the bells peal furiously, loud exclamations of delight, shouts, and a rush to get the pegs.  Seryozhka [the artist] listens to this uproar, sees thousands of eyes fixed upon him, and the lazy fellow’s soul is filled with a sense of glory and triumph.  (273)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

what papa exists for is unknown - Chekhov makes it strange

Twenty-five stories in The Cook’s Wedding & Other Stories, seventeen about children in one way or another, five about animals in ways that are thematically relevant to the childhood stories, and then the last three, one a gag story about fishing, one about the creation of religious art and the other a screwy murder mystery, that as far as I can tell have nothing to do with children.  All but one story from 1883 to 1888.  The exception, “Whitebrow” (1895) is about a wolf and her cubs and her accidental adoption of a puppy – this is what I mean by thematically relevant, nothing more than that.

Given that they are almost all little – six, eight, ten-page – stories cranked out on a weekly basis for newspapers, pure ephemera, there is no reason they should even be readable anymore, much less works of art.  Hacks of genius are different than other hacks.

Some stories are from the perspective of children.  They are full of fine make-it-strange moments.  They are written for those moments.

Nurse and mamma are comprehensible: they dress Grisha, feed him, and put him to bed, but what papa exists for is unknown.  There is another enigmatical person, auntie, who presented Grisha with a drum.  She appears and disappears.  (“Grisha,” 50)

The story practically ends with a Joycean epiphany, but at the level of a child who is not yet three.

This next one rips off a classic Yiddish joke.  “I learned my name is Irving.”  Look it up; it’s a good one.

The assistant asked each one his name. and his father’s name, where he lived, how long he had been ill, and so on.  From his mother’s answers, Pashka learned that his name was not Pashka, but Pavel Galaktionov, that he was seven years old, that he could not read or write, and that he had been ill ever since Easter.  (“The Runaway,” 36)

It’s Pashka’s first trip to the hospital, one of many Chekhov compassionate but exasperated stories about the ignorance of peasants.  The child’s perspective makes the ignorance more forgivable.  Like it’s his fault.

In other stories, the point of view is that of an adult, so it is the children who look strange.  In “Home,” a father knows he should punish his son for smoking (the boy is seven).  But although an educated and kind man he does not quite understand his son:

From daily observation of his son the prosecutor had become convinced that children, like savages, have their own artistic standpoints and requirements peculiar to them, beyond the grasp of grown-up people…   Thus he [the boy] would depict the sounds of an orchestra in the form of smoke like spherical blurs, a whistle in the form of a spiral thread…  To his mind sound was closely connected with form and colour, so that when he painted letters he invariably painted the letter L yellow, M red, A black, and so on. (74, first set of ellipses mine, second Chekhov’s, or Garnett’s)

In other words, the boy has synesthesia.  He is Vladimir Nabokov, twelve years before his birth.  Nabokov’s colors were different – L white, M pink, etc.  I can’t remember Nabokov mentioning this story, but internet research tells me that Tolstoy especially liked it.  The father solves the problem by telling a moralistic story – “[t]his ending struck Yevgeny Petrovitch as absurd and naïve, but the whole story made an intense impression on Seryozha” – how Tolstoy must have agreed – but then ends on am impressionistic detail that would have made me date the story much later if I were guessing.  This is a great one.  Now usually translated as “At Home,” I think.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Constance Garnett reorganizes Chekhov

The basic Chekhov chronology is that for several years he wrote lots of very short stories, sometimes two stories a week, but once he became famous enough to be paid well he started writing fewer but longer stories.  So in 1886 he published 55 stories and in 1889 three.  But he also became a more complex artist.  Those three are all masterpieces.  The later stories are pretty much all masterpieces.

When Constance Garnett turned to Chekhov she translated 201 of his stories, somewhat less than half of what was available to her.  She translated almost everything from 1888 on, the bulk of the material from 1885 to 1887, a little bit from 1883 and 1884, and one story from 1880 to 1882.  Then she assembled her Chekhov in thirteen volumes, in her order.  What a job she did.  The first two or three volumes are to me the epitome of Chekhov, just perfect; then for several volumes Garnett roughs him up a little, lets him get stranger.  All of this is still mostly the great, later stories with a few earlier pieces mixed in.

Around volume 9 or 10, though, Garnett is running out of late ones, except for a few she has carefully saved, while she still has a hundred of the little 1883 to 1887 stories.  She organizes them thematically, so that volume 10 is especially dark – Chekhov on horror, murder and madness – with “The Horse-stealers” (1890) and “Ward No. 6” (1892) leading off the theme in the late style.  Volume 11 has more than its share of illness and doctors.  And volume 12, most remarkably, is almost all about children, and if not children, dogs.  The only late ringer, “Whitebrow” (1895) is about dogs.  And a wolf; it is from the perspective of a wolf.

Volume 12 is The Cook’s Wedding & Other Stories.  I has not read it as a book until recently.  I had dipped in, since it is the home of some of my favorites, like “Vanka” and “Oysters.”  But I had not realized what Garnett was doing with her anti-chronological organization, how clever and effective it was, even with more minor Chekhov.  Taken as a whole, Volume 12 does not seem so minor.

Other Chekhov collections are good, too.  It is hard to find fault with The Portable Chekhov, where you can read “The Lady with the Pet Dog” (Garnett Vol. 3) right after “Gooseberries” (Vol. 5) and just after “In the Ravine” (Vol. 6), all in one place, which is great; whatever Chekhov you read do not miss “In the Ravine,” right?  Owning just The Portable Chekhov is wiser, I suppose.

But those thirteen books Garnett assembled, what a treasure chest.

I also recently read Volume 11, The Schoolmaster & Other Stories, as well as Volume 12, and what I plan to do is write a little about the contents of these two books, but I guess I am getting my little tribute to Constance Garnett, not just as a translator but as an anthologist, out of the way first.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

His senses were satisfied and his conscience at rest - Svevo stares into the void

Why this turn by so many outstanding writers, and eventually readers, to such unpleasant characters?  What motivates Italo Svevo (or Machado de Assis or Luigi Pirandello) to wallow in the blinkered selfishness  of a protagonist, Emilio, who provides the narrative motion and ethical meaning of the novel by his complete failure to understand himself, where the irony of the novel is that he is always wrong?

I have many conventional ideas on this subject, and will mention some of them before wallowing a bit myself.  First, this is not the social realism of, say, Verga or Zola, who are going to show the world the way it really is, with all of the dirt and the grit.  Not that Svevo was not reading Verga and Zola with interest.  Nor is this the distant aestheticism of Flaubert, in which the empty amorality of the characters are in the service of the creation of an object of extraordinary beauty, perhaps.  Not that Svevo had not absorbed Flaubert.

No, here we see an example of a novel written against or across or within a background of the contemporary philosophy and science of 1898.  Nietzsche, Darwin, and perhaps some precursors of Freud, or the actual Freud, just maybe.  As a psychologist, Svevo is a peer of Freud.  He is studying men, mostly himself, I suppose, who have lost not just their faith in the wake of these big modern ideas, but also their religion, their church.  Society no longer even requests that they fake their faith.  In the absence of God, what values does man substitute?  Svevo has little interest in the religious aspect of this question, but he is interested in the void.

The protagonist of As a Man Grows Older does not do so well in the face of the void – he has even written a novel, for pity’s sake – but other characters do all right.  There are sympathetic characters in the novel, but Svevo makes me work for my sympathy.  Emilio keeps blocking my view.

In the course of his life he had dreamed of theft, murder, and rape.  He had experienced imaginatively the criminal’s courage, strength and perverse desires, he had even dreamed the results of his crime, above all that he should invariably escape punishment.  But then he had had the double satisfaction of indulging in his dream and of discovering all the things he had wanted to destroy still intact, so that his senses were satisfied and his conscience at rest.  He had committed a crime without any harmful results.  (37)

For example.  Or even better, one about Emilio’s best friend, a sculptor:

Emilio met him next morning walking behind the cart which took dogs away to be killed, and quite overcome by pity for the poor beasts.  He was no doubt genuinely affected, but he admitted that he indulged in the emotion because it increased his artistic sensibility.  (133)

Italian literature must be the most comically grim literary tradition of the 19th century.  This is the second most important thing I have learned about Italian literature this year.  I wrote down some more good ones, but probably not as good as the above, and while reading the most ironic aphorism-packed chapters (5 through 7), I did not take any notes at all.  So these will do.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Adopting an ironic tone which it often amused him to assume towards himself… - Italo Svevo's As a Man Grows Older

The book at hand is When a Man Grows Older (not a great title) aka Emilio’s Carnival (terrible title) aka Senilità (actual Italian title), by Aron Ettore Schmitz aka Italo Svevo, published in 1898.  It’s Svevo’s second novel.  I haven’t read the first, A Life (1892).  Svevo was so disgusted by the failures of these two novels that his third did not appear for twenty-five years, and even then it took the encouragement of James Joyce, who had been Svevo’s English tutor in Trieste, which is an unlikely story but I guess true.

When a Man Grows Older is not as good as The Confessions of Zeno / Zeno’s Conscience (1923) – why Svevo’s titles cause so much trouble I do not understand – or at least not as good as the later novel’s amazing first chapter, the “last cigarette” chapter.

The reason Senilità did not sell is that it was a hideously ugly book, judging by the photo at Wikipedia.  The other reason is that the interior of the book is also quite ugly in a way that modern literature has trained us to endure but was apparently not so easily digested in 1898.  Now we – some of us – are used to it.

Emilio, who per the title is a man and who is growing older in the sense that we all are – he is thirty-five when the novel begins – picks up a young woman, Angiolina, on the street, a new adventure for him but not so much for her.  Eventually their love affair is destroyed by Emilio’s jealousy and disgust at Angiolina’s lies about her sexual behavior.  Sometimes it is all quite a lot like the “Swann in Love” part of Swann’s Way.  But Emilio is a much smaller man than Swann.

The novel’s subplots are about depression, betrayal, and death.  Angiolina in some sense represents a life lived rather than delayed, impeded or destroyed. 

Her figure even became a symbol…

That lofty, splendid symbol sometimes seemed on the point of coming to life again as a warm-blooded woman, but always stayed a sad and thoughtful one.  (235)

These corrosively ironic lines are practically the last of the novel.  From the point of view of Emilio, which occupies most of the book, Angiolina has always been more of a symbol than a person.  The ingenuity of the novel is that it lets me see Angiolina’s warm-bloodedness through the distorted perspective of Emilio.   Angiolina has always been alive; Emilio in some more abstract state.  “[I]n his emotion he had gone in search of images and metaphor” (218).  The novel is a masterpiece of subtle and less subtle ironies.

Quotations and page numbers from the NYRB Classics edition, translated by Beryl de Zoete.  The title quotation, which describes the novel perfectly, is on p. 18.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Saki says disrespectful things about the universe - some lines from Reginald

Saki’s first book of short stories, Reginald (1904), turns out not to be a books of short stories, despite leading off the Modern Library Short Stories of Saki.  You knew this; I did not.  The Reginald “stories” are newspaper humor pieces, jokes, satire, goofing around.  The Modern Library edition compresses the “book” into 42 pages with no strain on the eye or margin.

The vehicle for Saki’s jokes is his young aesthete Reginald, who if taken seriously is a lunatic, but what fool would take him seriously.

None of the rest of his family had anything approaching Titian hair or a sense of humour, and they used primroses as table decorations.

It follows that they never understood Reginald, who came down late to breakfast, and nibbled toast, and said disrespectful things about the universe.  The family ate porridge, and believed in everything, even the weather forecast.  (“Reginald’s Choir Treat”)

Draining the fun from that passage, I note that “weather forecast” is pretty cheap, but a joke that still looks like a joke.  “Primroses” has lost any humor it might once have had.  Almost requires a footnote.  Oscar Wilde was so obsessed with lilies that they became a trademark of English aestheticism.  I assume that helps me place the “primroses” joke, but who knows.  “[S]aid disrespectful things about the universe” is larger than a joke.  A statement of purpose.

People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.  (“Reginald on Christmas Presents”)

I give this as an example of something disrespectful, although one could argue the point.

“To have reached thirty,” said Reginald, “is to have failed in life.” (“Reginald on the Academy”)

That’s Reginald as Wilde.  Saki was of course in his early thirties when he wrote that line.

I found every one talking nervously and feverishly of the weather and the war in South Africa, except Reginald, who was reclining in a comfortable chair with the dreamy, faraway look that a volcano might wear just after it had desolated entire villages.  (“Reginald”)

That volcano is in what I think of as P. G. Wodehouse mode, which I suppose I should begin calling the Saki mode.  Christopher Morley, in his introduction, says of Saki that “[a]unts and werewolves were two of his specialties” (p. vii), which werewolves aside sounds awfully like Bertie Wooster.

A character who is not Reginald, and hopes to reform him:

And like every woman who has ever preached repentance to unregenerate youth, she dwelt on the sin of an empty life, which always seems so much more scandalous in the country, where people rise early to see if a new strawberry has happened during the night.  (“Reginald’s Choir Treat”)

That might be my favorite line in Reginald.  Cuts two ways, don’t it?

Saki’s next book seems, despite its title (Reginald in Russia), to contain short stories, which is close to but not really a shame.

Friday, September 4, 2015

“Oh, I shall mind what I read!” - Europeans in America, Americans in Europe - one more Henry James post

“He is a dear good fellow,” the young lady rejoined.  “And he is a perfect husband.  But all Americans are that,” she continued smiling.

“Really!” Lord Lambeth explained again; and wondered whether all American ladies had such a passion for generalising as these two.  (“An International Episode,” Ch. II)

Little joke there from Henry James.  All American ladies in Henry James stories from 1877 through 1879 have this passion for generalizing.  That’s pretty close to true.

I am not convinced that James’s international theme is all that substantive, but it was plenty important for James.  It gave him plenty of fine social comedy, at least.  Here two Englishmen are having their first meal in America.  Lord Lambeth is not the “clever one.”  He is an idiot.  His great triumph in the story is to realize that he is an idiot:

“Don’t you know, what’s-his-name’s, close to the thingumbob?  They always set an English waiter at me.  I suppose the think I can’t speak French.”

“No, more you can.”  And the elder of the young Englishmen unfolded his napkin.
his companion took no notice whatever of this declaration.  “I say,” he resumed in a moment, “I suppose we must learn to speak American.  I suppose we must take lessons.”

“I can’t understand them,” said the clever man.

“What the deuce is he saying?” asked his comrade, appealing from the French waiter.

“He is recommending some soft-shell crabs,” said the clever man.  (Ch. I)

Wodehouse refugees.

The Daisy Miller is “An International Episode” is actually an anti-Daisy Miller, a person no one will mistake for a frivolous flirt, well-read and knowledgeable about history and culture.

“Ah, well, you know,” said her companion [Lord Lambeth again], “those things are often described by fellows who know nothing about them.  You mustn’t mind what you read.”

“Oh, I shall mind what I read!” Bessie Alden rejoined.  “When I read Thackeray and George Eliot, how can I help minding them?”

“Ah, well, Thackeray – and George Eliot,” said the young nobleman; “I haven’t read much of them.”  (Ch. III)

In a shocking turn, almost unprecedented in modern fiction, Bessie Alden not only learns from novels but turns out to be right to have done so.  Lord Lambeth should have read more, or better, novels.

“The Pension Beaurepas” begins with Stendhal and Balzac and includes a funny parody of Père Goriot, with the Daisy Millerish daughter blowing through her sick father’s money.  This Daisy Miller really is a shallow nitwit, interested only in shopping.  She helped me see some of the nuance in the Daisy Miller of “Daisy Miller” who is sharper than she seems.  James is always rearranging the pieces in his stories (this one in fact has two Daisy Millers, one of whom is Europeanized and aspires to Daisy’s freshness and innocence).  Where Miller’s father stays in Schenectady, and Bessie Alden’s brother-in-law stays in New York, the sad sack father of the dim Daisy of “Pension Beaurepas”  is the comic high point of the story.

…  I inquired of my friend whether he had been long in Europe.

“Well, it seems precious long,” he said, “but my time’s not up yet.”  (Ch. II)

Europe, for the American businessman, is a prison that for some reason has expensive shops where his wife and daughter can bankrupt him.  The story is not really about him or his family – Simon Lavery’s post on “Beaurepas” has the actual story – but James ends the story with the stoic, depressed father.

“Don’t wait for me,” he said, sitting there on his stool, and not meeting my eye.  “I’ve got to see this thing through.”

Another American victim of Europe, or more precisely, another American victim of Americans in Europe.