Now I’ll write a post or two about a collection of stories titled French Decadent Tales that came out last year as an Oxford World’s Classic. It is a gift from translator and editor Stephen Romer to curious readers like me, since it is full of samples of many writers whose names I have tripped across but never read: Léon Bloy, Octave Mirbeau, Remy de Gourmont, writers like that, all active in the last third or so of the 19th century, a few slipping into the 20th.
What does decadence involve? Some combination of weirdness, Schopenhauer , repellent attitudes towards women, mental illness, attention to prose style, prostitutes, artists, over-aestheticized attitudes, and some move towards the destruction of human values – unpunished murders, that kind of thing. No single story has all of these features, thank goodness. Perhaps I most strongly identify Decadence with outrageous or at least anti-conventional sexual behavior. There is plenty of that. Two stories featuring Don Juan, for example. As Jean Lorrain writes in “The Man with the Bracelet”: “[T]he whole Baudelairean aesthetic is brought to life again” (141).
Two points to a collection like this.
The lesser point is the one mentioned above, to allow the curious but non-specialist reader like me to quickly encounter a bunch of third-rank writers of period pieces, for context or to see how once-shocking ideas quickly turn into clichés or if nothing else to now have something to associate with Catulle Mendès when I come across his name, which has happened frequently.
Many of the stories in French Decadent Tales are period pieces, meaning interesting and useful examples of the kind of thing writers were doing in Paris in the late 19th century, which in turn helps me understand greater works of art, novels by Zola or paintings by Degas. In this sense the collection is a huge success.
The primary purpose is to direct my attention not to useful and interesting art and artists, but to unusually good ones. The book works here, too. The most famous writer in the book is Guy de Maupassant, who is treated well, with three stories that emphasize his Weirdness, along the lines of “La Horla,” rather than his snickering smuttiness. His snickering story about Schopenhauer disciples is also included.
But I knew about Maupassant. Who else was especially good? The best thing in the book is a longish – 19 pages, where most stories are five or six – fantasy by Jules Laforgue, who I had only known as one of France’s great poets. Original and exquisite. The five miniatures by Marcel Schwob are easily in a different category than most of the writers. Better prose, more concentrated ideas, more frightening conceits. Then there are the three stories by Jean Richepin, among the more obscure writers included, who is light and satirical but frightening in his own way. Many of the Decadents are just goofing around, churning out the magazine fiction of their time. Richepin, and Schwob, too, in their own ways take the Decadent’s ideas seriously, and thus are harder to brush aside.
I got a lot of good out of 200 pages and 36 stories, enough to hold me for a couple of blog posts. That Laforgue story, definitely. Romer’s introductory essay is so good that the book might be of interest to some readers who could track these stories down in French. I have borrowed and will borrow from it liberally.
Monday, September 1, 2014
Now I’ll write a post or two about a collection of stories titled French Decadent Tales that came out last year as an Oxford World’s Classic. It is a gift from translator and editor Stephen Romer to curious readers like me, since it is full of samples of many writers whose names I have tripped across but never read: Léon Bloy, Octave Mirbeau, Remy de Gourmont, writers like that, all active in the last third or so of the 19th century, a few slipping into the 20th.
Saturday, August 30, 2014
If you agree, as is only sensible, because it is true, that the best parts – best written, the most alive – of The Moonstone are the sections narrated by Gabriel Betteredge and Miss Clack, and that the best sections of The Woman in White are those narrated by “Count Fosco and the paralytic uncle,” in other words that the best parts of the novels are those narrated by oddballs with strong voices rather than those parts narrated by conventional figures of the ordinary fiction of their time, the dreary, dullish heroes and heroines who would be just as much at home in a thousand other forgotten novels, then you might ask why an author like Collins would not want to write a novel which is narrated only by the lively strong-voiced weirdos. That is such a good question! I was wondering the same thing.
Now, in The Moonstone, Betteredge and Clack between them fill well over half of the book, which is a lot. Add in the short sections contributed by lawyers and policemen and so on, information-packed plot advancers that may be dull to provide a supposedly “realistic foil for the wackier characters, and then also add in the late section narrated by Ezra Jennings, which I fear is a failed attempt at a more interesting voice, and most of The Moonstone is covered. It is only a hundred page stretch by the hero, Franklin Blake, that is nothing special but maybe could be.
Blake’s section, to be clear, is interesting. The Moonstone is a mystery novel; the sections advances and deepens the mystery. But it is not a distinguished piece of prose writing. It’s all right.
Remember that Franklin Blake is the character who has commissioned and organized the narratives that make up the book, not the novel but the non-fiction book. Why does he do this? As Rohan Maitzen asks her students:
Also, how far can we trust the story we think we know by the end, given the doubts Collins’s narrative technique has so effectively raised about first-person testimony? Do his multiple narrators cumulatively overcome the presumption of unreliability?
Blake was a prime suspect in the theft of the diamond, a suspect for good reason. By the end of the narrative (but before any of the “documents” are written), he has been cleared of the crime. The guilty party has been found; the fate of the diamond is known; Blake is suspected of the theft by no one, no one at all. Yet he goes to the trouble and expense of creating this book, this supposed true story, proving that he is not guilty. Which is just what he would do if he were, in fact, guilty, if he were trying to prove not just his own innocence but that the case was impossible to reopen.
In this case, the section he wrote becomes the most interesting section of all. I did not read it this way, because I did not realize that he was the master thief until I had finished the novel. Next time I read it, I will blow the lid off Blake’s crime.
This will mean nothing to people who have not read the book, but I want to address those who have: the misdirection is aimed at the Indians. If Blake wants the diamond for himself, he has to convince the Indians that someone else has it.
Just a few weeks into the serialization of Barnaby Rudge (1841), Edgar Allan Poe wrote a magazine piece solving the mystery of the novel. In an important sense, this was Poe's second detective story (he was the detective) after "The Murder in the Rue Morgue," published a few months earlier. Dickens was, of course, not writing detective fiction, so he did not follow Poe’s predicted story at all, but as a mystery Poe’s idea was far better. Even as a Dickens novel, Dickens’s idea was pretty poor, but that’s another issue.
I have no doubt that most of Collins readers, and Collins himself, answered Maitzen’s questions in the affirmative, but the important thing for later writers, of mysteries or otherwise, was that the questions now had to be asked, and if in this particular novel the answer was “yes,” one could imagine – and some people could actually write – novels with different answers.
The title is from Miss Clack’s narration, Ch. 2, where it does not refer to the content of this post.
Friday, August 29, 2014
I seem to be wandering off in search of Lord knows what, Lord knows where - some Moonstone narration
The Moonstone is about the theft of a diamond. The conceit of the book is that one of the prime suspects, Franklin Blake, has asked the various parties involved to write up their knowledge of the case (“’in the interests of truth,’” Betteredge Ch. 1), just their own point of view, as a narrative. He then assembles the pieces into the complete narrative. Collins had employed an identical scheme in The Woman in White eight years earlier. Like Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend, “[h]e do the Police in different voices.”
The conceit is preposterous, really, in the sense that almost no one would write an account the way these characters do, in so much detail, at such length, and so well. The longest section in The Moonstone comes from Gabriel Betteredge, the elderly house steward at the scene of the crime – Betteredge turns in almost 80,000 words, an entire novel. “I modestly declared myself to be quite unequal to the task imposed upon me – and I privately felt, all the time, that I was quite clever enough to perform it, if I only gave my own abilities a fair chance.” Betteredge was just waiting for someone to ask.
The result is outstanding comedy – digressions, prejudices, false starts:
Still, this don't look much like starting the story of the Diamond—does it? I seem to be wandering off in search of Lord knows what, Lord knows where. We will take a new sheet of paper, if you please, and begin over again, with my best respects to you. (end of Ch. 1)
Betteredge is succeeded by the amazing Miss Clack, who ranks with some of Robert Browning’s characters among the greatest unreliable narrators of 19th century fiction. Miss Clack is an evangelical Christian, and a vengeful hypocrite, eager to report on her self-martyring virtues and others’ indulgent vices. She is writing to settle scores, and also for pay. And of course, like Blake, who is paying her, the truth:
I deeply feel being obliged to report such language, and to describe such conduct. But, hemmed in, as I am, between Mr. Franklin Blake's cheque on one side and my own sacred regard for truth on the other, what am I to do? (Miss Clack, Ch. 2)
“Deeply feel” as in “feel pain,” but of course she loves reporting the immorality of others, particularly if it involves, as it does here, the novel’s heroine flirting with the fellow for whom Miss Clack has sublimated longings. This is also the passage where Miss Clack calls her aunt old and fat (“at dear Lady Verinder's age, and with dear Lady Verinder's autumnal exuberance of figure”). Please see Professor Maitzen for more fine examples of Miss Clack.
The Moonstone is not, like The Ring and the Book, the same story told again and again from different angles, but rather one story told in fragments, each character contributing his own little piece, with Miss Clack as the extreme case, since it seems clear enough that she does not quite understand what story she is supposed to tell. She has been tricked by Franklin Blake, although she does rebel, in the postmodern Chapter 6 of her narrative, which is a series of letters in which Miss Clack argues with her author – I mean with Blake – about what is allowed in her story.
“But, no – Miss C. has learnt Perseverance in the School of Adversity. Her object in writing is to know whether Mr. Blake (who prohibits everything else) prohibits the appearance of the present correspondence in Miss Clack's narrative? Some explanation of the position in which Mr. Blake's interference has placed her as an authoress, seems due on the ground of common justice.“
In a novel written later, much later, this chapter would be called postmodern.
These are fun, right? Let’s do one more tomorrow.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
something so hideous in the boy's enjoyment of the horror of the scene - more Moonstone, character, form, and ethics
Another thing that amazes me about The Moonstone is that Wilkie Collins never wrote a sequel or prequel reusing the professional detective, Sergeant Cuff, who is a fine invention and became the prototype for legions. It is not like Collins was above hackwork. Sergeant Cuff is the perfect professional, yet cares more about roses than crime; he is unerringly observant and a fine intuitive psychologist, but not infallible; he quirkily whistles “The Last Rose of Summer” when in deep cogitation. “I suppose it [the tune] fitted in somehow with his character” says one of the narrators (Ch. 12), true by definition, and a good tip for future writers – just substitute a violin for the roses and “little grey cells” for the whistling.
Sherlock Holmes is a reasonably original creation, but he is also in some part just Sergeant Cuff with the ratiocination of Poe’s Dupin stirred in. That narrator mentioned above acts as Watson. Cuff even has a single Baker Street Irregular. A modern reader, who has seen a million of ‘em, might well find Cuff too familiar.
The result is that one central aspect of the modern detective novel, the long series of cases, was not the invention of Wilkie Collins. I wonder why not. But then I don’t understand why it took writers similarly long to imitate Poe’s detective Dupin, who did appear in three short stories. I believe French writers were the leaders here. Perhaps some credit should go to Dumas and his Musketeer adventures. Now I am just blowing smoke. Has anybody read – maybe I will ask this question every post – any of the Monsieur Lecoq novels by Émile Gaboriau? They were written around the same time as The Moonstone and have recurring detectives.
Wilkie Collins is, of course, not writing a detective novel. Any such label is retrospective. How curious, then, that he also created or experienced one of the main problems with mysteries and brushed against another. Rohan Maitzen clearly hits them both in a single paragraph in a 2008 post about her Mystery and Detective Fiction class.
The first is the “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd” problem, named after the Edmund Wilson essay criticizing the mystery genre, a defect that afflicts most of the best mysteries. The solution to almost all detective stories is arbitrary, that is the fundamental problem, and thus: who cares? A skillful writer maintains suspense by keeping alive for as long as possible multiple solutions to the mystery, the possibility that any of those people in the drawing room really could be the killer, but once we learn that one particular character is the killer it is often a disappointment. The destabilized world is more interesting than the one that is restored to order. Maybe I should call this the “Murder on the Orient Express” problem since Christie’s novel offers a parodic solution.
The Moonstone is about a theft, not a murder, but the point is the same. As Collins moves toward the end of the novel, he has to spend his time ruling out the more interesting, surprising, or disturbing solutions.
Since the action is not a murder, Collins avoids the great ethical problem with so many mysteries, the trivialization of a horrifying crime – please see Maitzen’s post – but he nevertheless does not avoid it completely. Gooseberry is Cuff’s boy assistant:
“Robbery!” whispered the boy, pointing, in high delight, to the empty box.
“You were told to wait down-stairs,” I said. “Go away!”
“And Murder!” added Gooseberry, pointing, with a keener relish still, to the man on the bed.
There was something so hideous in the boy's enjoyment of the horror of the scene, that I took him by the two shoulders and put him out of the room. (Fifth Narrative, Ch. 1)
Collins was a prophet. He knew us, many of us – me.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
What amazes me about The Moonstone (1868), I mean what is right on the surface, what makes for the shallowest possible blog post, is not just that it is “first and greatest of the English detective novels,” as T. S. Eliot called it, but that it contains so much of what later became identified with detective fiction, “the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window,” as Raymond Chandler described the standard detective novel template (“The Simple Art of Murder,” 1950).
Wilkie Collins got it right the first time, good and bad. He created a mold from which thousands of later novels were stamped, a Standard Literature, readymade in one novel.
In The Moonstone, a character uses “Standard Literature” to refer to 18th century books, “all classical works; all (of course) immeasurably superior to anything produced in later times; and all (from my present point of view) possessing the one great merit of enchaining nobody’s interest, and exciting nobody’s brain” (Ezra Jennings, June 25th), a funny joke in context and much funnier given the subsequent history of the detective novel, by which I mean its eventual conquest of English culture, the Golden Age of detective fiction.
Have any of my readers tried an Edgar Wallace novel? He wrote 170 of them, and almost a thousand short stories. Said it took about three days to write one. I have never read him, but that supposed fact stuck with me, as did this one (quoting Wikipedia): “In 1928 it was estimated that one in four books being read in the UK had come from Wallace's pen.” I doubt the precision of the estimate, but not the approximate truth, that the craze for a specific kind of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s dwarfed, in intensity and length, recent fads for teen vampires and dystopias. Add in Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, Erle Stanley Gardner, Of course, the interest has never really ended, even if much of the activity has shifted to television. So many of us have such a strong taste for murders.
The Eliot quotation is from “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” written in 1927, so Eliot is right in the thick of things. He is pro-detective novel:
Those who have lived before such terms as “highbrow fiction,” “thrillers” and “detective fiction” were invented realize that melodrama is perennial and must be satisfied. If we cannot get this satisfaction out of what the publishers present as “literature,” then we will read – with less and less pretence of concealment – what we call “thrillers.” But in the golden age of melodramatic fiction there was no such distinction. The best novels were thrilling…
Examples: Bleak House and The Mill on the Floss (!). That pretense is gone now, or has shifted to other kinds of books. I wish readers arguing about so-called “Young Adult” literature would quote Eliot more. He just wants the melodrama to be better, to be more like The Moonstone.
Some other things amaze me about The Moonstone. One amazement per post, maybe.
Friday, August 22, 2014
Each party wants too much, claims sympathy
For its object of compassion, more than just. (IV, ll. 1572-3)
Oddly, this description of the opposing sides in The Ring and the Book is almost true.
One of the parties is a man who viciously stabbed his teenage bride, and her parents, because he suspected her of adultery, and whose defense is, primarily: what else can you expect a husband to do? Browning is modern enough to assume an audience that finds this defense appalling, yet the murderous Count Guido is given his own monologue, his pleas before the priestly judges who will sentence him to execution and who have extracted a confession by torture:
Noblemen were exempt, the vulgar thought,
From racking: but, since the law thinks otherwise,
I have been put to the rack…
Much could not happen, I was quick to faint… (V, ll. 11-14, 18)
Maybe a little sympathy begins to sneak in. A little bit of pity. After all, Count Guido is a man of his time, not ours, with different ideas of honor. Maybe I actually can, spending some time with him, become able to see his point of view, regardless of whether I agree with it. The power of fiction, or anyway the power of the first person narrator.
Count Guido gets two chapters, though. Book V was titled “Count Guido Franscechini.” Book XI is just “Guido.” Two hooded priests have just entered his cell to give him the Pope’s decision – death, tomorrow. All appeals are exhausted. So Guido talks to them, just lets it all out.
You have my last word, - innocent am I
As Innocent my Pope and murderer,
Innocent as a babe, as Mary’s own
As Mary’s self, - I said, say and repeat, - (XI, ll. 28-31)
The horror of Guido’s monologue lies in the discovery that he is much worse than he had seemed before, and yet the blasphemous passage above is sincere, or as sincere as anything in this Mephistophelian chapter can be. The chapter is an outpouring of bile, blood, sarcasm, and heresy rare in the nineteenth century outside of, perhaps, certain other Robert Browning poems.
I am used to this sort of thing in later fiction. I know how to keep my distance from Humbert Humbert in Lolita or the fictional murderers, dictators, and lunatics who have been narrating their own stories for the last century. I do not believe I would have been so savvy in 1869. I would have fallen for the tricks. Maybe I still did, a bit, because I was still a bit shocked by the end of the chapter, when death is truly at hand and Guido has exhausted his arsenal, and he turns to his Beatrice, Pompilia, his murdered child-wife.
Sirs, have I spoken one word all this while
Out of the world of words I had to say?
Not one word! All was folly – I laughed and mocked!
Sirs, my first true word, all truth and no lie,
Is – save me notwithstanding! Life is all!
I was just stark mad,- let the madman live
Pressed by as many chains as you pleas pile!
Don’t open! Hold me from them! I am yours,
I am the Granduke’s – no, I am the Pope’s!
Abate,- Cardinal, - Christ, - Maria, - God,…
Pompilia, will you let them murder me? (XI, 2409-19, ellipses in original)
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Here is where I lean on quotations I pulled from The Ring and the Book for various reasons. It’s an instructive exercise! I hope.
First, one example of one reason Robert Browning is difficult. He is describing the ring in the poem’s title, how it was made:
That trick is, the artificer melts up wax
With honey, so to speak; he mingles gold
With gold’s alloy, and, duly tempering both,
Effects a manageable mass, then works:
But his work ended, once the thing a ring,
Oh there’s repristination! Just a spirt
O’ the proper fiery acid o’er its face,
And forth the alloy unfastened flies in fume… (I, ll. 17-24)
Word-power builders like “repristination” are regular features of Browning’s poems. “A coinage of B’s, meaning a return to an earlier, purer state,” note on p. 263, emphasis added to make me feel better about not knowing the meaning of “repristination.”
Please review the last two lines above. Goal #1 is to follow the rules of blank verse, to count syllables and stresses. Goal #2 is to make the blank verse natural enough to credibly fit the character speaking the lines. Goal # 3 is cranking up the poetic effects, like the long string of “f” words in those two lines.
Granite, time’s tooth should grate against, not graze, -
Why, this proved sandstone, friable, fast to fly (I, 660-1)
Or even better:
Come, here’s the last drop does its worst to wound,
Here’s Guido poisoned to the bone, you say,
Your boasted still’s full strain and strength: not so!
One master-squeeze from screw shall bring to birth
The hoard i’ the heart o’ the toad, hell’s quintessence. (II, 1364-8)
It is possible that the more the poetic effects are laid on, the more obscure the verse becomes and the more damage is done to Goal #2, naturalness. An entire poem or this length written this way – well, Browning could never have finished it. Algernon Swinburne even in quite long poems is attracted to the idea that every single line must be puffed and polished to peaks of poetic perfection, and as a result he is even more obscure than Browning, at times a poet of songful gibberish, lovely, sonorous gibberish.
As interesting as the story is and as cleverly designed as the multiple perspectives are, the reader of The Ring and the Book has to enjoy the poetry, or else the enterprise if pointless. That is what I am trying to say.
Or, if not the poetry, the recipes (Gigia is the cook):
(There is a porcupine to barbacue;
Gigia can jug a rabbit well enough,
With sour-sweet sauce and pine-pips; but, good Lord,
Suppose the devil instigate the wench
To stew, not roast him? Stew my porcupine?
If she does, I know where his quills shall stick!
Come, I must go myself and see to things:
I cannot stay much longer stewing here) (VIII, 1368-75)
The old Joy of Cooking is with Gigia – porcupines are for stewing. A bit earlier (ll. 535-41) there is a recipe for liver with parsley and fennel – “nothing stings / Fried liver out of its monotony / Of richness, like a root of fennel, chopped.” How I would like this to be Browning’s comment on his poetry. He must constantly sting his blank verse out of its monotony. He uses every trick he’s got.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
To recap: Robert Browning; The Ring and the Book; an antique murder story told in dramatic monologues; difficult; long; brilliant.
Most people who have read it probably had the sensible old Penguin edition, but for some reason my library has a recent set of the Complete Works, which has its annoyances but also has rewards like this note (Vol. IX, 299):
The analogy between the death of the sage [Archimedes] and the death of innocence is a masterpiece of double entendre and innuendo. As Altick and Loucks say, the passage “must be the most audacious sexual scene in Victorian literature. Only a poet confident of his reputation for unintelligibility would have dared such lines.”
And bloggers whine that academic writing has no personality.
You’re maybe going to be disappointed:
As to love’s object, whether love were sage
Or foolish, could Pompilia know or care,
Being still sound asleep, as I premised?
Thus the philosopher absorbed by thought,
Even Archimedes, busy o’er a book
The while besiegers sacked his Syracuse,
Was ignorant of the imminence o’ the point
O’ the sword till it surprised him: let it stab,
And never knew himself was dead at all.
So sleep thou on, secure whate’er betide!
For thou, too, hast thy problem hard to solve –
How so much beauty is compatible
With so much innocence! (Bk. IX, ll. 751-763)
The shocker, in more than one way, is “let it stab.” Pompilia is the child bride who will be murdered – savagely, repeatedly knifed – by her noble husband, Count Guido. The monologist here is, please indulge the anachronism, the prosecuting attorney, writing up his case. Pompilia fled her husband’s mansion with the help of priest. Subsequently, she gave birth to a son, and only after that did Guido murder her. The paternity of the child is thus one of the factual puzzles of the book.
The prosecutor in effect becomes the defense attorney of Pompilia. He decides that in her defense he will posit that she was raped in her sleep by the priest, a story much worse in several ways than a love affair with the priest.
Why the prosecutor thinks this is a useful argument for the conviction of the murderer is something I do not want to untangle here. The previous book was told by the defense attorney. The two lawyers operate in a parallel fashion. Note that these are the eighth and ninth chapters of the novel, making them the eighth and ninth trip through the facts of the story. By this time, with enough repetition, I was solid enough on the basic facts to enjoy how both attorneys mangle not only their opponent’s side of the story, but their own, how despite the zero-sum nature of a trial they succeed in making everyone look worse.
Able once more, despite my impotence,
And helped by the acumen of the Court,
To eliminate, display, make triumph truth!
What other prize than truth were worth the pains? (1557-60)
Thus ends the attorney’s bravado assault on truth. But there is a coda, not part of the brief:
There’s my oration – much exceeds in length
That famed panegyric of Isocrates,
They say it took him fifteen years to pen.
But all those ancients could say anything!
He put in just what rushed into his head:
While I shall have to prune and pare and print.
This comes of being born in modern times
With priests for auditory. Still, it pays. (1561-8)
Browning’s characters can be so outrageous, and the irony so complex, that I lose my way, just as I do in the complicated story. Of course, we expect lawyers to behave this way, which I suppose is just one more irony.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
How happy those are who know how to write! - Browning's little joke - a post on The Ring and the Book
No one wants to read about it and I don’t want to write about it, but I read The Ring and the Book (1868-9) so I’m going to get some blog posts out of it. It’s Robert Browning’s massive 21,000 line verse novel about a sensational Roman murder and trial from 1698. Not exactly pulled from the headlines, but rather from a yellow book of documents Browning bought from an antique dealer in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria.
The problems with Browning’s “Italian murder thing” (Vol. VII, p. 261) are, to be clear: 1) length (800 pages of blank verse), 2) difficulty (it’s by Robert Browning), and 3) monotony, although much of the latter is a necessary help with the book’s difficulty.
The poem is in twelve chapters, an introduction by a narrator I will call Browning, ten dramatic monologues by participants in the case, including two by Count Guido, the murderer, and a return to Browning for a wrap-up. Each of the characters tells the story of the murder in his (or, once, her) own words, which means that the entire story is actually repeated ten times, each time with subtle variations in detail and emphasis. Ideally, I would I would file away every discrepancy and error with an eye to discovering the motive of the speaker, then filtering it all to piece together the True Story of the murder.
In practice, it was hard enough just keeping track of where I was in each retelling. “Oh, this is where Pompilia meets the priest, right.” Very useful, repetition, for the reader who is lost.
The murder story is complicated, but Browning had the right instinct, since it’s a good one. Pompilia, all of fourteen, has been married off by her aged parents to the noble but poor Count Guido, who mistreats her. With the help of a young priest Pompilia flees her husband. The fugitives are captured and separated, the priest exiled, Pompilia put in a convent. The twists start coming – e.g., Pompilia is pregnant (but by whom?) – leading to Count Guido’s murder of his child wife and her parents. One more twist – Pompilia, a tough teenager, clings to life long enough to identify her own murderer, along with a 1,828 line dramatic monologue. “How happy those are who know how to write!” she says in line 81, an inside joke from a poet whose specialty is speech in verse.
Anyway, thus the trial, the real-life documents, and the imagined monologues, from the murderer, the victim, the priest, lawyers for both parties, and even the Pope.
Jeanne of Necromancy Never Pays was, on her sixth anniversary, taking requests for poems. Eying the bulk of the thing myself, I suggested The Ring and the Book – as a joke, I swear, as a joke, except that I was going to and in fact did read it. The poem’s a stunner, a great achievement, and I will do my best, or at least second-best, let’s not go nuts, to point out some of its real pleasures, despite the element of absurdity about the whole thing – to reading it, or writing about it, or, directed at Browning, having written it.
I felt, once I had finished the poem, that I was finally ready to read it, that if I turned back to the first line and began again I might be able to get somewhere. But instead I read something else and write this.
I read The Ring and the Book in volumes VII, VIII, and IX of The Complete Works of Robert Browning, Ohio University Press, 1985-9.
Monday, August 18, 2014
Should I go into influence and literary history and all that? I may enjoy it a little too much, but it is so important. It helps answer the “Why this book?” question, which in turn illuminates the “What is this book?” question, always the most important question.
The puzzle is the narrowness of Hunger. For a book of its stature and time – mainly the latter – Hunger is a narrowly focused novel. We are used to this now. Nothing could be more common. But compared to the social sprawl of Trollope and Zola, or the ambitions of Buddenbrooks or Hardy, or simply the amount of incident in a Stevenson or Kipling novel, Hunger might seem like a fragment of a novel.
The action of Hunger is repetitive and trivial (the narrator sleeps in the woods or tries to sell a blanket), the social context stripped away as much as possible,*and the ambition – well, Hamsun is working through or enacting some ideas of Schopenhauer and maybe Nietzsche, so he is plenty ambitious. Small-scope ambition, though. One character, one setting, one problem.
What I found inescapable both when I did not know what would happen and when I reread the novel was the intensity of the narrator, of his voice or perhaps I mean his presence. To what extent is he a genius, to what extent a lunatic?
I snapped my pencil off between my teeth, leaped up, tore my manuscript in two, ripped every page of it in shreds, threw my hat down on the street and jumped on it. “I am a lost man!” I whispered to myself. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am a lost man!” And I repeated that over and over as I went on jumping on my hat. (Ch. 4, 224)
The narrator is imbalanced – I mean not mentally but as a fictional creation – in the way we can find in Dostoevsky. Hamsun’s narrator is a cousin of the Underground Man and several characters from the big, sprawling, incident-filled, ambitious novels, characters like Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov.
Hunger has not penetrated too far into American or English literature, but it was much read by not just Scandinavian but German and Russian writers. Isaac Bashevis Singer claims that Yiddish and Hebrew writers like David Bergelson were influenced by Hamsun, too. “European writers know that he is the father of the modern school of literature in every aspect – his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks [not really present in Hunger], his lyricism” – this is I. B. Singer, in the introduction to my edition of Hunger, p. ix. Too strong to be true, surely, but that is the idea.
Wild ideas popped up again in my head. What if I quietly went over and cut off the mooring ropes on one of the ships? What if I suddenly cried fire? I walked farther out on the pier, found myself a wooden box to sit on, and folded my hands; I could feel my brain moving nearer and nearer to chaos. I did not move this time, did absolutely nothing to prevent it. (Ch. 4, 231)
The next page is the last one, so salvation or catastrophe is near. I wonder if this is really what so many writers found interesting. I do not wonder that much, actually, since I know what they were writing. They were ready for fiction about chaos.
* Aside from the physical setting, Christiana, which is pretty interesting. I suspect it would be possible to track the narrator’s wanderings on a map.
Sunday, August 17, 2014
Each of the four sections of Hunger escalates the narrator’s misery. Each time he has gone without food for longer; he has a harder time finding even a scrap of money. The structure of the chapters is repetitive, but I would guess few readers find them repetitive in practice. The narrator’s suffering creates tension. The fact that in each chapter his suffering gets worse is itself a source of tension. I know, from the first sentence that the starving writer does not, in the end, starve, yet I experience something close to genuine relief when, at the end of each chapter, gets some money in his hands.
Chapter 3 violates the pattern in numerous ways, which I am ignoring. There is a woman involved in that one, a different appetite.
In Chapter 2, the narrator has become so hungry that he decides to sell the buttons of his coat. Or, he has become so craze with hunger that he believes he can get money for his buttons. He has already sold everything else of value, and tried to sell everything of no value.
The hope of selling these five buttons cheered me up instantly, and I said: “See, it’s all going to come out all right!” My joy overpowered me, and I immediately started cutting he buttons off, one after the other. All that time, I kept up a silent chatter with myself:
“Well, you see, a man becomes a bit pressed for money, just temporary of course…. Worn out, you say? You mustn’t make reckless statements. Just show me someone who wears out fewer buttons than I do. [snipping the fantasy conversation] All right, all right, go and get the police then. I’ll wait here while you’re looking for a policeman. And I won’t steal a thing from you… Yes, good day! Good day! My name is actually Tangen, I’ve been out a little too late…” (Ch. 2, 93-4, all italics in original)
To be clear, this is one side of an imaginary conversation the narrator, whose name is not “Tangen,” is concocting while cutting buttons off his coat. Even his fantasy ends with humiliation and even the police.
Later, more desperate, the narrator finally gives the buttons a try:
How well I knew that large basement shop, my refuge in dark evenings, my vampire friend! One by one, all my possessions had vanished down there, the little things I had brought from home, my last book. (110)
That, however vague, is almost the only time any mention is made of the character’s past. No family, no education, no hometown – this all remains a blank.
“Well, I have something here, and I wanted to ask you if you had any use for – something that was really in the way at home, you understand, no room for them, some buttons.” (110)
This is the real conversation. The narrator is, throughout the book, an imaginative and implausible liar, lying as he does here to shield himself from humiliation. The actual pawnbroker does not call the police but does something perhaps worse.
The old pawnbroker laughed and went back to the desk without saying a word. I stood there. I hadn’t actually hoped for much, and yet I had thought it possible I would get something. The laugh was a death sentence. (111)
Yet, when I turn the page, I see that the chapter is ending and our poor hero is, by a stroke of luck and kindness, saved.
From my earlier reading, years ago, I remembered this scene with the buttons more vividly than anything else in the book.
Saturday, August 16, 2014
Knut Hamsun, Mysteries, 1892. I will be writing about this novel, which I have not yet read, in conjunction with Caravana de recuerdos, at the end of October. Please, join us, anyone. The novel is supposed to be good.
I have read Hunger (1890) and Pan (1894). I recently reread Hunger and hope to get through Pan again before long. The disadvantage of picking Mysteries as the joint book is that it at around 340 pages by far the longest, which is still not very long. But Hamsun is intense, exhilarating but also exhausting. Hunger is just over 200 pages, Pan just under. Even a short book can feel like too much, especially when it is as concentrated as Hunger.
All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiana – that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him… (first sentence, ellipses Hamsun’s)
And this is what the narrator does. He is a freelance writer who has trouble writing, and thus has trouble eating. Perhaps the causality should be reversed. Shall we watch him write?
I had taken my pencil and paper out again and was sitting mechanically writing 1848 in all the corners. If only one good thought would rush in, then words would come! That had happened before, I had had times when I could write out a long piece with no effort at all, and it would turn out to be first-rate besides.
I wrote 1848 twenty times, wrote it crossways and intersecting and every possible way, waiting for a usable idea to come. (I, 32)
This is not the way to make a living writing for newspapers, especially given the narrator’s ambitions:
My courage had now returned; it was not enough any longer to write an essay on something so elementary and simple-minded as “Crimes of the Future,” which any ass could arrive at, let alone read in history books. I felt ready for a more difficult enterprise, I was in the mood to conquer obstacles and I determined on a consideration in three parts of Philosophical Consciousness. (I, 12)
This will involve a thorough refutation of Kant, or at least a reworking of “the problem of Space and Time” (13). Norwegian newspapers must have been loads of fun circa 1880.
In each of the novel’s four parts, he has reached a material crisis – no food, no money, just some hope for money that will allow him to stagger forward. The money obviously does appear at least three times, or else the novel would come to an abrupt end. Come to think of it, unless the narrator is a ghost, that first sentence suggests that he keeps body and soul together, however tenuously.
This tension between the demands of the material world and this intellectual’s radical desire to be free of it. He wants to exist in a state of perfect integrity, but his attempts to do so inevitably lead to violations of integrity, the most basic of which is the pain of hunger. Few things so inescapably pull us back into the physical world as hunger. I suppose I should be thankful that the workings of the excretory system were still taboo. I am sure a later novelist has written that book, Hunger re-written for the bowels.
The translation is Robert Bly’s. I have done nothing yet to make the novel sound as good or interesting as it really is.
Thursday, August 14, 2014
“It’s probably that socialism, isn’t it?” - Pelle The Conqueror, Volume 2 - suspense in starvation itself
At the end of the first volume of Pelle the Conqueror, our young hero was triumphantly, expectantly leaving the countryside for the town, farm labor for a skilled trade, and his father for independence. In Volume II, Apprenticeship (1907), he achieves all of that but is ground back into the dirt. At the end, he is leaving again: next stop, in Volume III, Copenhagen and who knows what else.
Behind him he had left everything, and he just kept staring forward – as if the great world might appear at any moment before the bow. He didn’t bother to think about what was to come or how he would grapple with it – he simply longed for it! (concluding lines)
Does the third volume end the same way, more or less? It almost has to, doesn’t it, given that there are four volumes. Down then up, four times.
The second part of Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel is still quite good. The first book was better, certainly, for a number of reasons:
1. Pelle’s father, Lasse, is a wonderful character, and by necessity there is now less of him. Whenever he does appear, the novel perks up. In future volumes, he is presumably gone for good. The new minor characters are still just as good.
2. In the middle of the bildungsroman, the story is less satisfying on its own. The first book had a natural place to end. I now have a dilemma. Stephen T. Murray and Tiina Nunnally translated only the first two volumes of Pelle, so if I want to continue I will have to resort to the bowdlerized 1913 version. But what choice do I have; I can’t stop in the middle.
3. Maybe this is just me, but with stories like this I always find the childhood of the character more interesting than his adolescence. This is true in Dickens, in Proust, you name it. The authors are following an accurate model of development, where the child is working on his relationship with the outside world while the teenager becomes more self-involved and awkward. The child’s defeats are mostly from something external, the adolescent’s from his own humiliating mistakes.
Having said that, a couple of Pelle’s most significant obstacles in Apprenticeship are also external, and an important part of his larger story, which ends, I believe, with Pelle becoming a labor organizer (Nexø was himself a Communist).
First, Pelle is now poor, perhaps poorer than he was on the farm:
There was suspense in starvation itself: were you going to die of it, or weren’t you?
Pelle was poor enough that everything lay ahead of him, and he possessed the poor man’s wide-open spirit (68)
Nothing more material than food and its absence. “Why should you carry on as if the world were collapsing because you didn’t have a tub of pork and a heap of potatoes to face the winter with?” (68) Pelle has to learn how to be poor.
The other external force is industrialization. Pelle falls into one of the worst possible apprenticeships, shoemaking, just as mass production is wiping out shoemaking as a skilled trade.
“It’s probably that socialism, isn’t it?” says Jeppe scornfully. (126)
But Jeppe, a master shoemaker on the verge of obsolescence, has it backwards. I am a little bit worried that Pelle the Conqueror will become more didactic – no, I mean propagandistic – as it goes along. But so far, so good.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
To finish what I charitably call my thought, the second thing I have found to be uniquely enjoyable in the fiction of Tove Jansson is her complex understanding of creativity. It is perhaps her great subject.
Jansson was painter, her parents were both visual artists, her brothers were artists – the subject is lifelong.
Daddy’s women are sacred. He doesn’t care about them after they are cast in plaster, but for everybody else they are sacred. (Sculptor’s Daughter, “Christmas,” 184)
The word “sacred” is meant ironically, which does not mean it is not true.
As soon as the Christmas tree was in the studio everything took on a fresh significance, and was charged with a holiness that had nothing to do with Art. Christmas began in earnest. (“Christmas,” 185)
So art is not the only source of sacredness. Just one.
Thus the snow horse in Moominland Midwinter:
Moomintroll now saw that it was made of snow. Its tail was the broom from the woodshed, and its eyes were small mirrors. He could see his own picture in the mirror eyes, and this frightened him a little…
“If there only were a single soul here that I knew of old,” Moomintroll thought. “Somebody who wouldn’t be mysterious, just quite ordinary.” (32)
One might detect here a link with the theme of sublimity I described yesterday. In the title story of Jansson’s 1978 collection Art in Nature, a couple has bought an abstract painting at an outdoor art fair that they insist is actually representational (and perhaps it is). They argue about exactly what is represented. A guard, who understands art like Jansson does, has a solution:
“Since a piece of art can be just about anything, and since we only see what we want to see, you could just not unwrap it and hang the package on the wall. Then you won’t need to argue.” (19)
The guard sounds like Andy Warhol, but the emphasis is actually different: he, and Jansson, are urging the viewer to match the artist in creativity. The results don’t matter that much.
But what I said was completely right, he thought. It’s the mystery that’s important, somehow very important. He went and lay down in the sauna with its four bare walls. It was nice to look at them and fall asleep without all the humdrum thoughts he was used to.
Or perhaps the couple has been bamboozled by a lunatic who likes to stare at blank walls. But I think, rather, that he is not contradicting but reassuring Moomintroll.
It is a utopia that Jansson recommends, in which everyone is perpetually creating mystery, but it was the world she lived in, or at least created for herself.
Thomas Teal translated Art in Nature; Thomas Warburton did Moominland Midwinter.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
They "had no idea what fun the whole thing was, which served them right" - Tove Jansson's catastrophes
Tove Jansson’s 100th birthday was August 9. Please see the pictures posted at the NYRB Classics Tumblr (sic) to get an immediate sense of who Jansson was. I believe they will be putting up more Jansson stuff for the centennial. Much of what I see on Twitter is just photographs of Moomin-related coffee mugs or Japanese Moomin restaurants. This is not what I have found interesting in Jansson’s books, the opportunity to collect mugs.
No, there are two things I have found in Jansson that are unusual. One or both themes run through all of her work that I have read.
The first is a strong sense of the sublime. Her books are full of catastrophes – hurricanes, tidal waves, and floods, or even the destruction of the earth by a comet (Comet in Moominland, 1946). The date of the latter suggests that she is, in part, allegorizing the external catastrophe of World War II, but there is something else at work. Jansson’s books are set in coastal Finland, and on little rocky islands in the Gulf of Finland. Readers of the novel The Summer Book (1972) are likely to remember the little girl who thrills in the massive August storm that hits them, but also fears that she summoned it, that it is her storm, her possession, which is exciting, but also her fault.
In Sculptor’s Daughter (1968), a memoir from the point of view of young Tove circa age six or seven, the storm is nothing but fun.
Everything lying on the slope below the house had floated out to sea and the off-shore wind was carrying it out towards the sound and the wind was getting stronger and stronger and the water was rising higher and higher. I was shouting with glee, too, as I waded up and down and felt the floating grass getting tangled round my legs…
And the visitors hauled on the rope and were soaked to the skin in their nightshirts and had no idea what fun the whole thing was, which served them right…
Then Daddy went out again. Mummy poured out tea for us all. It was the best storm we ever had. (“High Water,” 103-4)
For example. Or see “The Tulle Skirt,” in which a little girl crawls around in a big black skirt which creates, in a mirror, a shapeless monster with its own frightening existence, at least until Tove tires of the game. Or try “Snow,” where the girl and her mother are alone in a big house during a long blizzard.
The snow on the ground began to slither away. It slid in an enormous avalanche which grew and grew over the edge of the world… oh no! oh no!
I rolled backwards and forwards on the carpet to make the horror of it seem greater, and in the end I saw the wall heave over me and the pictures hung straight out on their wires.
What are you doing? Mummy asked. (“Snow,” 163-4)
This is all just child’s play, but of a kind Jansson kept doing in her fiction. The chapter in the memoir parallels the earlier Moomintroll Midwinter (1957) – the Swedish title, Trollvinter, is unimprovable – in which the young Moomintroll inexplicably awakes from hibernation and experiences, for the first time, winter, which from his point of view is a kind of catastrophe, unknown and frightening, but is really just an ordinary winter.
Thus, the sense of sublimity, the aesthetic pleasure that comes fear at a distance, from danger that is real but remote or controlled.
Kingsley Hart translated Sculptor’s Daughter.
Sunday, August 10, 2014
An extension of the idea of literary sympathy bounced off of the Phineas Finn chapters about politics.
The first Palliser novel, Can You Forgive Her?, had politics in it, just a little. It is only minimally about politics. A reader is not asked to be particularly interested in the political activities of the characters, in what a politician in Parliament in the 1860s actually does. One prominent character, for example, when elected to Parliament does nothing at all.
This character runs for Parliament almost as an investment, or a gamble. Phineas Finn, the hero of the second novel in the series, has not only ambitions but beliefs and even ideas. The political side of the novel – remembering that 70% of the book is about the love troubles of Finn and his friends – is very much about what he does in Parliament: how he speaks and votes, what it means to be a member of a party, and what it means to work in a ministry. In the latter, Finn’s specialty turns out to be the financing of Canadian railroads. Trollope does, happily, spare us too much detail about that.
But he does not spare us what we might now call the wonkery of the main issue that runs through the five years covered in the book, the issue of Reform, the issue that earns its generic name, since it is so purely concerned with the functioning of politics – who has the right to vote and how much does their vote count? In other words, as tedious a political subject as I can imagine to a reader not especially interested in politics.
I began to wonder about those readers. However much we might flatter or delude ourselves, we can’t be interested in everything, and political reform in mid-19th century England seems like one of many reasonable places to draw a line. I Care; I am Interested; I am Curious; I Just Can’t Bring Myself To Care.
Personally, that last category has shrunk over time. Classical music, dance, religious painting, abstract painting, wine, fashion – at some point, thankfully long ago for many of them, something I did care about finally got a hook into the subject I did not think I would ever care about. Often learning the history of the field helped, but sometimes it was the luck of seeing a particular performance.
By definition, because I do not care about them, it is difficult to think of subjects that still belong in the category. From experience, one I am sure of, from going to art fairs and museums, is jewelry. I can look at pottery with active pleasure, billing and cooing over glazes and artistic flaws, but a case of jewelry is instantly exhausting. I need to sit down, over there, where I can’t see the jewelry.
Some of the political chapters in Phineas Finn must be, for some readers, like cases of jewelry.
Literature has the curious effect of making us care about things we do not care about, if only – often for only – the length of the work. I care because the heroine cares; I sympathize with her so I join in with her interests. Or I care, temporarily, because I sympathize with the implied author and want to help him out with whatever he is trying to accomplish.
If there is a well-made novel that is actually about jewelry, with lots of descriptions of jewelry, I should try to read it, just to test this idea. Can fiction make me care even about this?
Friday, August 8, 2014
The disadvantage of reading a Trollope novel on vacation is that I take few notes and thus have forgotten where the juiciest lines are. True of any novel, I suppose, but the plushness and repetitiveness of the Trollope works against me. That line I want could be anywhere.
No, wait, I found this one:
He had recommended to her a certain course of reading, – which was pleasant enough; ladies like to receive such recommendations; but Mr. Kennedy, having drawn out the course, seemed to expect that his wife should read the books he had named, and, worse still, that she should read them in the time he had allocated for the work. (Ch. 23)
I thought bookish people would enjoy it. The “ladies like” bit is hilarious; that he “expect[s] his wife should read the books” is sublime. The next line: “This, I think, was tyranny.” Mr. Kennedy and his wife are newlyweds.
The main thrust of Phineas Finn is about the title character’s ambitions for his political career, but two of the side plots are about the ambitions of women, who are no less ambitious but live under much worse constraints than Finn. The wife in the passage above, the former Lady Laura Standish, should be in parliament herself, perhaps even in place of Phineas Finn, but since that is impossible she has to direct her energy elsewhere, resulting in the terrible mistake of her marriage. “[A] certain course of reading,” how awful.
That genial, sympathizing omniscient narrator is fairly restrained in Phineas Finn, a younger, high-spirited Trollope having purged most of his meta-fictional impulses way back in Barchester Towers, although there is one glorious eruption in Finn, when Trollope feels he needs to move into forbidden territory and write up a meeting of Cabinet Ministers:
And now will the Muses assist me while I sing an altogether new song? On the Tuesday the Cabinet met at the First Lord's official residence in Downing Street, and I will attempt to describe what, according to the bewildered brain of a poor fictionist, was said or might have been said, what was done or might have been done, on so august an occasion. (Ch. 29)
Trollope says that he, “[t]he poor fictionist,” the “strictly honest fictionist,” is used to getting things wrong (“He catches salmon in October; or shoots his partridges in March”) and suffering the rough correction of critics, but when dealing with, for example, legal matters he at least has lawyer friends from whom he can ask advice. He does not know anyone in the Cabinet, so he just has to make up the whole thing.
But then, again, there is this safety, that let the story be ever so mistold, – let the fiction be ever so far removed from the truth, no critic short of a Cabinet Minister himself can convict the narrator of error.
A fortuitous result of this meta-fictional fussing is that the chapter is the most finely described scene in the novel, the only one where Trollope describes the furniture, including the “certain papers which lay upon a side-table, – and which had been lying there for two years, and at which no one ever looked or would look.” Soon enough, the scene shifts to an all-talk format, but not until the imaginative hard, fun work has been done.
Thursday, August 7, 2014
Phineas Finn was in one significant way the weakest of the mere nine Anthony Trollope novels I have read. Twenty-plus years and twenty-plus novels into his career, with Phineas Finn Trollope comes close to abandoning any kind of physical or sensory description of the world of his novel. He takes it all for granted – the clothes, the furniture, the arrangement of rooms, even the appearance of characters.
Yet there is a huge mass of detail, as in the novel’s first two sentences:
Dr. Finn, of Killaloe, in county Clare, was as well known in those parts, – the confines, that is, of the counties Clare, Limerick, Tipperary, and Galway, – as was the bishop himself who lived in the same town, and was as much respected. Many said that the doctor was the richer man of the two, and the practice of his profession was extended over almost as wide a district.
The paragraph continues with information about Dr. Finn’s reputation, family (Phineas Finn, the novel’s hero, is his only son), pecuniary history, and his favorite cliché. Every detail except perhaps the last is not sensory and immediate but social. The information the reader needs is how characters exist in relation to each other: status, wealth, power, and attitude. A scene is then a passage in which these bundles of status, attitude, etc., by which I mean characters, are arranged in varying configurations so that they can converse. A scene in Phineas Finn is almost all talk – chatter, flirting, debate, advice. Everything important is between quotation marks.
There are few exceptions. Phineas has been visited by an unpleasant bill-broker who commandeers the fire:
“I can pay no part of that bill, Mr. Clarkson.”
“Pay no part of it!” and Mr. Clarkson, in order that he might the better express his surprise, arrested his hand in the very act of poking his host's fire.
“If you'll allow me, I'll manage the fire,” said Phineas, putting out his hand for the poker.
But Mr. Clarkson was fond of poking fires, and would not surrender the poker. “Pay no part of it!” he said again, holding the poker away from Phineas in his left hand. (Ch. 21)
In most scenes in Phineas Finn, the characters might as well be disembodied word balloons. Lots of writers do that kind of thing well. And that is setting aside the times, increasingly frequent as the novel nears its ends, when the conversations turn into debates about the duties of a parliamentarian or the role of the wife in a marriage. These passages are period pieces, artistically null.
The poker scene should make it clear that I am not demanding dazzle, nothing like the elaborate descriptions of pumpkins and cheeses I can find in an Émile Zola novel, but rather a sense of imaginative integration of character, language, scene, and action, like when the traveling salesman in Orley Farm springs onto a painted table. This is close to what I think of as the finest, rarest kind of fictional art. I am also skeptical of Zola’s baroque lists, which go to the other extreme. And there are, of course, other kinds of fictional art, many kinds, some of which can be found in Phineas Finn.
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Since I went to Europe, I read a Trollope novel. No, there is no logic there, but it has become a pattern. Phineas Finn (1867-8), the second book in the Palliser series, was the novel I took this time. The book is well suited to reading in interrupted chunks, a chapter or a serialized cluster of chapters at one sitting. I can take advantage of Trollope’s repetitions, which in mass can be maddening, but with some distance I don’t mind the gentle reminders – where was that character’s last scene, how did we leave that subplot?
Trollope is always careful about the passage of time in his novels, keeping all of the characters and threads consistent, which I suspect I find psychologically helpful. It is easier to put the book down for the day when I come to a “time passes” transition. Let some actual time can pass along with the fictional. And more time passes in Phineas Finn than in any other Trollope novel I have encountered. A Barchester novel might cover five months; Phineas Finn needs five years. So there are plenty of breaks.
The title character is young, smart, and handsome. He falls in with a powerful set who assist him, with the help of a lucky accident, to become a Member of Parliament at age twenty-five. Finn has talent but little money, and this is a time when the MPs had no salary, so a central surface theme of the book is how a successful career in politics can be pursued without money. In reality, the main theme is how such a career can work for a young man without sex. The bulk of the book is about Finn’s romantic troubles: who should he marry, who can he marry? Some of those women have their own money, tying the two ideas together.
I am joking, just a bit, but this story could not work in a French novel. M. Finn would have an affair with his maid or the wife of the Minister under whom he serves, and thus carry on his political work without distraction. The Irish Finn, who has no other outlet, falls deeply in love with, it seems, every young woman he meets.
My guess is that 70% of the book is about Finn and women, 30% about politics and vocation. Many readers likely find that ratio to be unbalanced, with much too much detail about the minutiae of offices, political intrigues, and colonial policy towards western Canada. I would not have minded a shift the other way, with a little less romantic stuff.
Somewhere – if I could only remember where – I read an anecdote about Trollope coming to breakfast – he wrote every day before breakfast – and announcing that he had just written his fiftieth – or more likely his five hundredth – proposal scene. Phineas Finn by itself has at least eight (8) proposal scenes involving a total of two men and four women. Five of the proposals involve Finn. The other three are all between the same couple, the man proposing to the same woman repeatedly. One of the proposals comes after she has accepted him. That is a lot of proposal scenes, although I guess I exaggerated when I said there were five hundred. Fifty novels, eight proposals per novel, so that’s four hundred tops.
Monday, August 4, 2014
When I have returned from long vacations I have had trouble writing, so this will be a shallow, digressive post about minor bookish aspects of my trip, designed more to rev up the word-generating machine more than to make a point. Why would anyone want to read such a thing? Follow that logic, though, and it’s the end of book blogging; extend the argument a bit more and it’s the death of criticism; then follows literature, the humanities in general, and, finally, civilization. Working backwards, reading this post is a defense of civilization.
In a related attempt to defend civilization, France has a law banning the discounting of books, in effect protecting bookstores and publishers at the expense not just of French Amazon but also many book buyers. One result of the law is more and better bookstores, marvelous bookstores, like Le Bal des Ardents or Librarie Passages in Lyon, the latter recommended to me by Emma of Book around the Corner, or the larger, deeper, crowded Librarie Kleber in Strasbourg.
I emerged from these stores weeping, or saying I was weeping, since I just meant it metaphorically. How I would love to live near such a store. With the books in English, I mean.
New topic. We plan our travel loosely. I knew we would be in Auvergne, the mountainous region in the center of France, but I did not know that we would visit Le Puy-en-Velay. When I began to read The Child by Jules Vallès, the 1878 comic autobiographical novel about the abuse the author received at home and at school, I did not know that it was set in Le Puy-en-Velay. Yet it is, and we in fact did spend a couple of days there, so I found I had directly if inadvertently prepared for my travels.
The town has some distinctive features:
The image is borrowed from Wikipedia. On the left is an 11th, or really 14th, century church topping a pillar of volcanic rock. On the right is the old city and its cathedral, the original starting point for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. In the center is a colossal statue of the Virgin Mary planted on an even taller volcanic pillar. The statue is made of melted Russian cannons. Many of the tourists, including me, clamber up each of the pillars. Many others seem to be happy to see them from below.
Vallès mentions almost nothing distinctive about the town. Streets are steep, and at one point he mentions the unmistakable smell of the mold used by the blue cheese makers. Why doesn’t he mention that giant red statue? Well, it did not appear until 1860, long after Vallès had moved elsewhere. How about that aerial church - it was there? Now I know the answer – he would almost never have seen it from any of his typical vantage points in the dense walled town.
Le Puy-en-Velay comes off well enough in The Child that the town can easily embrace him. Vallès’s misery was not their fault. Signs mentioned him frequently. This square contained the market described in the book; here is the street where he lived and the hospital, previously a church and a revolutionary meeting hall, where he was born. I had not gone looking for Vallès, yet there he was, and there I was, accidentally ready to meet him.