Friday, September 19, 2014

No neck, haystack hair, ears like bread - it's Turgenev's King Lear of the Steppes

Ivan Turgenev responded to Pushkin differently than Tolstoy.  Turgenev stripped down the elements of the story while piling up the prose.  He and Tolstoy were working towards similar goals, though  - how to put what was real, the Truth, into fictional prose.  Different ideas about what was true; different aesthetic satisfactions.

This is the title character of Turgenev’s 1870 novella A Lear of the Steppes:

Picture to yourselves a man of gigantic stature.  On his huge carcase was set, a little askew, and without the least trace of a neck, a prodigious head.  A perfect hay stack of tangled yellowish-grey hair stood up all over it, growing almost down to the bushy eyebrows.  On the broad expanse of his purple face, that looked as though it had been peeled, there protruded a sturdy knobby nose…  (Ch. 1)

And then his eyes and ears – “just like great twists of bread, full of bends and curves” – and so on.  Martin Petrovich Harlov, the Russian King Lear, is another in the long line of 19th century strong men.  At the story’s climax, he literally tears apart his house with his bare hands, like Samson, not Lear.  Had Turgenev been reading Les Misérables or Toilers of the Sea?  Of course he had, everyone read Hugo, but had they inspired this character?

Turgenev had the bad habit of introducing characters with long, instantly forgotten descriptions, as if he were writing not a story but a play.  That objection does not apply to the above opening.  A little bit of grotesquerie aids the memory.

Harlov only has two daughters, and when, after a dream urging repentance, he divides his kingdom among them, they both offer homage, so again this does not seem all that much like Shakespeare, except that the unmarried daughter Evlampia does not offer enough praise, is not sufficiently thankful for her early inheritance, and thus the trouble begins.

Anna at once dropped on her knees and touched the ground with her fore head; her husband, too, doubled up after her.  “Well, and you?” Harlov turned to Evlampia.  She crimsoned all over, and she too bowed to the earth ; Zhitkov bent his whole carcase forward.  (Ch. 12)

Zhitkov is a mix of Edmund and Cornwall, a scheming parasite.  I do not believe there is a Gloucester, or a Fool, nor does Harlov have three dogs, Blanche, Sweetheart, and Trey.  In the game of adapted Shakespeare, one of the arts is to know what to abandon.  The point of the story is not to identify correspondences between texts, although there are more in this book than in Turgenev’s 1852 story “Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District” or Leskov’s harrowing 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.  Three examples is enough to make a genre, yes?

It’s not Fathers and Sons, but it’s a good story.  Everyone gets to keep their eyes, which is all right by me.

I am looking at Constance Garnett’s translation, published in Volume 12 of a 15 book “Novels of Ivan Turgenev.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The snouts of the horses were wet. - "A Prisoner in the Caucasus" and Tolstoy's plain style

Now, a direct descendant of Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin, somewhat arbitrarily chosen, “A Prisoner of the Caucasus,” one of Leo Tolstoy’s many tales of military life, unusual in that it is not from early in his career but rather dead center between War and Peace (1865-69) and Anna Karenina (1873-77), so what I mean is, we are perched atop the peak here.

I read the story in Volume XIII of a 1913 set of the collected works of Leof N. Tolstoï.   No idea who the translator might be, so let us just assume that the English text is full of blunders of all kinds.  The text as is nevertheless tells a fine story.

An officer is captured by Tartars and held for ransom.  He is soon joined by another prisoner.  There will be no ransom, since his mother has no money.  He kills time in the village, befriends a Tartar girl, and plans his escape, or perhaps prepares for his death.  Reasonably exciting.

How does one of the great prose writers of all time begin?

A Russian gentleman was serving as an officer in the army of the Caucasus.  His name was Zhilin.

One day a letter from his home came to him.  His old mother wrote to him:-

Well, if the narrator’s prose is like this, the mother’s letter won’t be any more exciting.  I mentioned that Pushkin, in his fiction, approached a plain style; Tolstoy’s style is there.  It starts plain and stays plain.  Tolstoy is not out to dazzle, not this way, at least.

Not that Tolstoy tells the story like a fairy tale.  The world, especially once the prisoner reaches  the mountain village, becomes pretty solid:

Then two children on horseback came along on their way to the watering-trough.  The snouts of the horses were wet.

Inessential details, or inessential if Tolstoy were writing a summary of the story for an encyclopedia rather than a work of art.

Although the point of view is firmly fixed on Zhilin, and by any ordinary sense of sympathy the tension of the story lies in our hope that he can escape his captors, Tolstoy simultaneously creates some sympathy for the Tartars, who in another kind of story would simply be the  enemy.  This is a funeral – the “red-bearded Tartar”’s brother has been killed, presumably by the Russians.

They smoothed the earth over, and again sat around the grave in rows.  There was a long silence.

“Allah! Allah! Allah!”

They sighed and got up.  The red-bearded Tartar gave money to the old men, then he got up, struck his forehead three times with a whip, and went home.

It does not seem like much, but these people  and their culture become convincingly full.  This is one of Tolstoy’s greatest gifts.  What appears to be distance or an attempt at objectivity is the result of his great human sympathy.

I had meant to read this story for years because it is the source of a superb movie, Sergey Bodrov’s Prisoner of the Mountains (1996), which makes surprisingly – horribly – few changes in order to update the story to the then-current Chechen war.  If I were a more experienced film blogger I would plaster the post with stills of the mountain scenery and the Chechen village.  There is a scene where the prisoners tinker with a radio (in the story, a watch), and finally tune in – something – Louis Armstrong performing “St. James Infirmary,” which somehow sets the camera spinning.  The moment is ecstatic and sublime, and the effect unavailable to the literary artist, even to Leof N. Tolstoï.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the game resumed its usual course - Pushkin's ghosts

“The Queen of Spades” is Alexander Pushkin’s perfect little E. T. A. Hoffmann story.  Hoffmann was as inventive a writer as ever lived, but he could be a spongy prose writer – sometimes he needed to wring out his prose a little – while Pushkin’s story is light and crisp.  He borrows lightly and wisely from Hoffmann.

It’s a gambling story, a problematic genre, since pure randomness is not such an interesting topic to simulate by means of literature, and a psychological horror story – now there is something to make randomness interesting.

A gambler at a card party tells a story about his grandmother.  He claims that she knows a secret combination of cards that always wins at faro, three wins in a row, so the gambler can octuple his money.  The Countess, his grandmother, learned this secret sixty years ago in Paris, from the mysterious Count Saint-Germain, which I like to think of as a little tribute to Hoffmann, although Pushkin could be thinking of any number of Hoffmann’s weird peers, or no one at all.  Anyway, grandma has mostly kept the secret to herself.

Hermann, a desperate but methodical German – there it is again – engineer, resolves to learn the magic formula at whatever cost.  Consequences ensue.  That’s enough story.  The ending is terrific.  The middle is terrific.  The story has a curious arc.  I normally thinking of a story arc as a rise then a fall, but “The Queen of Spades” arcs moves sideways, from the gambling party to the Countess to her granddaughter to Hermann, the main character, I finally learn a third of the way into the story.  Then the usual arc – a rise, another rise, then a ghost, and yet another rise, and finally a nightmarish crash:

Chekalinskii gathered in the bank notes lost by Hermann.  The young man stood by the table, motionless.  When at last he left the table, the whole room burst into loud talk.  “Splendid punting!” the players kept saying.  Chekalinskii shuffled the cards anew: the game resumed its usual course.  (Debreczeny, 233)

I acknowledge that sounds like nothing if you have not read what comes before, but in context it is chilling as the icy grip of the cold Pushkinian narrator reasserts his control over this overheated story.

The ghost in “The Queen of Spades” is all business.  Those in “The Undertaker,” one of the Tales of Belkin, are more hideous.  The undertaker, in a fit of pique, has invited the dead over for a drink, and they come:

The room was full of corpses.  The moon shining through the windows lit up their yellow and blue faces, gaping mouths, murky half-closed eyes, and protruding noses…  All of them, male and female, surrounded the undertaker with bows and salutations; only one pauper, who had been buried gratis a little while back, stood humbly in the corner, feeling too awkward and ashamed of his rags to come forward.  All the others were properly dressed, the lady corpses in caps and ribbons, the gentlemen of rank in uniform, though with their chins unshaven, and the merchants in their holiday caftans.  (91, ellipses mine)

The ghost story, I have discovered, is fundamentally a comic genre:

His skull smiled affably and threadbare linen hung on him here and there as if on a pole, and the bones of his legs rattled in his jackboots like pestles in mortars.  (92)

But of course a kind of commonsense reasserts itself as the story ends, the kind that loves amusing stories and recommends champagne.

Monday, September 15, 2014

the sky merged with the earth - some Pushkin stories

The latest issue of The Hudson Review, Summer 2014, includes three of the five Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovitch Belkin (1831), translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky as part of a forthcoming – distantly, in 2016 – Collected Prose of Pushkin.  Since there were only two to go, including my favorite, “The Shot,” I got out my copy of Paul Debreczeny’s Complete Prose Fiction (Stanford University Press) to finish them off.  And since I had it out, almost inevitably I had to read “The Queen of Spades” (1833).  I did not continue to the 1837 novella The Captain’s Daughter, although I was tempted.

Pushkin’s fiction is pretty close to pure pleasure.  Two, or maybe three, of the Belkin stories are based on wild coincidences.  One is a ghost story of the “anxiety and indigestion” type.  The fifth is a sad slice of life, also featuring a bit of coincidence.  The frame around the little book is that the stories are “mostly true stories that he [the deceased Belkin] had heard from different people” (Debreczeny, 64) edited by Pushkin, his country neighbor. 

Although the coincidences are preposterous fictional contrivances, in the frame of story-telling, the implausibilities are not a problem but rather the point.  These are the five best stories Belkin ever came across.  Of course they are unlikely – that is exactly why Belkin wanted people to hear them.

In “The Blizzard,” a young couple makes plans to elope, but the groom is caught by surprise in a storm.  Everything goes wrong, then later it works out.  Well, not for him, but for other people.  Pushkin’s style is not exactly plain, but is clear and efficient:

But Vladimir had barely reached the fields outside the village when the wind picked up and such a blizzard set in that he could see nothing.  In one minute the road was buried; the surroundings disappeared in a dim, yellowish murk, through which white snowflakes flew; the sky merged with the earth.  (P & V, 192)

Vladimir finally pushes on to a wood:

The wind could not rage here; the road was smooth; the horse took heart, and Vladimir felt more calm.  (193)

I am trusting the translators for those semicolons, but that line sounds like Pushkin to me.  He is a vigorous prose writer, distant, unfussy, and exact.

Pushkin hardly has the strong, eccentric voice of later writers like Gogol or Dostoevsky.  I will bet that I would have trouble distinguishing blind passages of Pushkin, Lermontov, and early Tolstoy, the latter two in some ways close imitators of Pushkin’s style, and come to think of it his subject matter, although there I am thinking of The Captain’s Daughter more than the short stories.  But who, writing in Russian, did not in some way imitate Pushkin?  Pushkin imitated French translations of Scott and Byron, to the extent that he imitated anyone.

This has been a rambler, hasn’t it?  I think I’ll spend the week rambling through the Russian short fiction I read recently – Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Turgenev.  A little more Pushkin tomorrow.

Friday, September 12, 2014

How can we fold our arms after this? - Herzen in London

The first volume of My Past and Thoughts covers Alexander Herzen’s childhood, education, entry into radical politics and almost immediate trouble with the police, Siberian exile, and marriage.  In volume 2, the exile becomes more comfortable – Paris, Geneva, Nice – and Herzen witnesses the shattering of his political dreams post-1848 and the tragic shattering of his family soon afterwards.

In volume 3, Herzen relocates to London, where he helps establish first a Russian printing press and then a series of publications, especially The Pole Star and The Bell, that for a time become the most important source of uncensored news for Russians.  For three years:

But with all that, it wore one out that one’s work was never heard of: one’s hands sank to one’s sides.  Faith dwindled by the minute and sought after a sign, and not only was there no sign: there was not one single word of sympathy from home.  (1296-7, italics in original)

Yet the political environment , and political fashions, changed, and for a time Herzen’s newspaper became something like the officially approved organ of the opposition:

The Bell was accepted in Russia as an answer to the demand for a magazine not mutilated by the censorship.  We were fervently greeted by the young generation; there were letters at which tears started to one’s eyes…  But it was not only the young generation that supported us…  (1298, ellipses in original)

The Bell was allowed to circulate in Russia, circumspectly, and read by the highest levels of the government, including the Czar.  But the slightly younger generation is more interested in violence, the government turns more repressive, and the influence of Herzen and The Bell receded.

Herzen is something of a tragic hero, an idealist who was too much of a humanist to be an ideologue.  Where Nikolai Chernyshevsky seemed to be completely unaware of the practical consequences of his ideas – the horrific violence of a revolution, for example – Herzen was if anything too aware of them.  “One can only work upon men by dreaming their dreams more clearly than they dream themselves, and not by proving one’s thoughts to them as geometrical theorems are proved” (1495).  But of course there is another way – later Russian history proves that.

So all of this is plenty interesting, as well-told history.  Also interesting, and perhaps more fun, are Herzen’s story about life as an exile in London, and about all of the émigré communities that washed up there after 1848, “the vast museum of pathological anatomy, the London Exhibition of specimens of all the progressive parties in Europe” (1699).  His stories were so good that I wished they were even better, by which I mean that I wish Charles Dickens had known these people and written a novel about London’s revolutionary Germans, Russians and Poles.  Herzen is describing the rooms of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin:

heaps of tobacco lay on his table like stores of forage, cigar-ash covered his papers, together with half-finished glasses of tea; from morning onwards clouds of smoke hung about the room from a regular suite of smokers, who smoked as though they were racing each other, hurriedly blowing it out and drawing it in – as only Russians and Slavs do smoke, in fact.  Many I time I enjoyed the amazement, accompanied by a certain horror and perplexity, of the landlady’s servant, Grace, when at dead of night she brought boiling water and a fifth basin of sugar into this hotbed of Slav emancipation.  (1359)

And: “Note at the same time that both the maid and the landlady were madly devoted to him.”  The memoir will have to substitute for the great novel hidden within it.

If I were to write another post about Herzen, it would be about Vol. 3, Ch. 10, “Robert Owen,” who was in his 80s when Herzen met him – I was surprised he was still alive – and dismissed at this point as a crank.  The essay is the clearest statement of Herzen’s convictions that I can remember.

Now do you understand on whom the future of man, of peoples, depends?

‘On whom?’

‘What do you mean, on whom?  Why, on YOU AND ME, for instance.  How can we fold our arms after this?’  (1251)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The mutual interaction of men on books, and books on men, is a curious thing - advice about Alexander Herzen's My Past and Thoughts

Now, a post or two on the last of the massively long books I finished recently, Alexander Herzen’s memoir My Past and Thoughts.  Logistics first.

Writing about Herzen previously, I have muddled the date of publication, and I remain confused.  Herzen’s memoirs began as magazine pieces dating back to the 1840s.  They were assembled and possibly edited – possibly not – into coherent memoiristic volumes at intervals beginning in the 1850s.  I believe that the third volume was published in 1857 and the fourth, which is not coherent at all, but a pure hodgepodge of miscellaneous material, in 1862, but there is no reason to believe me.  Subsequent editions incorporated additional material, and the edition I read has every scrap, which is confusing.

Few writers would dare such a structure, and artistically they would be right, but there is a sense in which the increasingly ragbag-like form reflect the form of the author’s life.  Goethe’s multivolume memoir has the same structure, and the same problem, with the first books about his childhood and early life following the usual linear chronological path and with the later books feeling like a drawer of the author’s desk had been emptied into it.  But it is Goethe’s desk, Herzen’s miscellaneous scraps, not mine, so they are worth reading even if it is an effort to fit them together.

Nevertheless, I would recommend an abridged edition to most readers.  I assume – although how would I know – that many specialists in Russian history and literature make do with abridgements.  Oxford used to publish a pair of World’s Classics out, Childhood, Youth, and Exile, with a title nodding at Tolstoy's first books, and Ends and Beginnings that amount to 900 pages and look like they cover the strongest narrative of Herzen’s life, the parts of his memoir often described as “novelistic.”  There is also a 750 page version (My Past & Thoughts, University of California Press) abridged by Dwight Macdonald that has the advantage, whatever else it might do, of including a long introduction by Isaiah Berlin that is close to essential.

My library had the four volume Knopf edition from 1968, translated by Constance Garnett and revised by Humphrey Higgens, so that is what I read, all 1,800 pages of it (plus the Berlin essay).  I am happy I read it all, but I know I also would have been happy with the shorter options.

The mutual interaction of men on books, and books on men, is a curious thing.  (p. 1,752, note 1)

Is it ever.  That footnote includes one of the rare mentions of Herzen’s radical rival Nikolai Chernyshevsky:

The young Russians who have come on the scene since 1862 are almost all derived from What Is To Be Done? with the addition of a few Bazarov features.

Bazarov, the nihilist hero of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, as we all remember from last December.

That leaves me one post to say what is in the last 800 pages of My Past and Thoughts.  I might have overdone the logistics, but anyone actually thinking of reading the book wants to know, right?  It is a that requires planning.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Gods are kind, and will not suffer men all things to find they search for - why William Morris rhymes

Of what he said, that seemed both dull and long  (“The Lovers of Gudrun,” 1549)

I used to have a gag where I put a quotation in the upper right corner of Wuthering Expectations and claimed it was my motto.  If I still did that, this would be my new motto.

It’s a good question, what Morris was trying to accomplish with The Earthly Paradise, with the huge mass of it.  Why not write the stories he wanted to tell in prose?  In one of the many strange features of his strange career, Morris in fact had published a mix of verse and prose narratives during the 1850s, the short stories, fantasies and fairy tales, and in the 1890s he published a series of long heroic fantasy novels in prose.  So Morris was asking himself the same question, and answering differently at different times.

The rise of the novel pressed the issue.  At one point – even as late as the early 19th century – a long narrative poem had a clear advantage in prestige over the novel, and no obvious disadvantage in sales.  By the mid-19th century, The Song of Hiawatha and The Idylls of the King still had a mass audience, as did The Earthly Paradise, but the prestige gap was closing.  Writing a poem of the length and artistic quality of any of these is such a difficult task.  Writing a novel of the complexity of Middlemarch was, readers were beginning to realize, comparably difficult.  Meanwhile, writers like Melville, Flaubert and Gogol had demonstrated that the kinds of linguistic effects associated with poetry were also available to novelists.

 And then, eventually, the audience for poetry receded, but neither this point nor the previous could have been relevant for Morris.  Poetry was the means to achieve a certain kind of compression and intensity of language that, with skill, could achieve sublimity.

“The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon” is a version of the swan-maiden fairy tale.  The hero has captured the swan-princess by hiding her feathered cloak; they fall in love; he makes an error; she leaves, into the snow, to vanish:

She paused not; the wild west wind blew
Her hair straight out from her; her feet
The bitter, beaten snow did meet
And shrank not; slowly forth she passed,
Nor backward any look she cast,
Nor gazed to right or left, but went
With eyes on the far sky intent
Into the howling, doubtful night,
Until at last her body white
And its black shadow on the snow,
No more the drift-edged way did know.  (ll. 2067-78)

If I find this too dull and long, it is perhaps because I have failed to do my job as a reader.  I should not just read the poem but become the skald – I should , imaginatively, sing it.  Thus the elaborate story-telling frame.  Thus so many of the successful epics, then, before, and after, are about mythological subjects.

The Gods are kind, and hope to men they give
That they their little span on earth may live,
Nor yet faint utterly; the Gods are kind,
And will not suffer men all things to find
They search for, nor the depth of all to know
They fain would learn  (“Bellerophon at Argos,” ll. 2157-62)

The Earthly Paradise must still have some readers.  The scholarly edition I read is from 2002, and more surprisingly, the Icelandic novelist Sjón’s 2005 novel The Whispering Muse is somehow built around the poem.  As unlikely as it seems, The Earthly Paradise is alive.

A Muse ought to ought to tighten her girdle, tuck up her skirts, and step out - Swinburne on William Morris

I’ll just go right to the problem with The Earthly Paradise.  When I think of The Canterbury Tales, I think of a variety of tone and voice.  Even setting aside the dull prose parts, the characters telling the tale have some existence as people – sometimes, like the Wife of Bath, they are as alive as anyone in literature – and the tales and how they are told usually seem to fit the tellers.

Morris’s tale-tellers are not characters at all and the poems all sound the same.  Within the tales there are good characters, but not in the frame.  And although Morris is an outstanding poet in the usual senses, meaning he elevates the aesthetic effect of whatever he is doing by turning it into verse, he is hardly has the color or music – whichever metaphor is preferable – of the finest English poets.

Let’s turn to one of them.  Algernon Swinburne is a bit younger than Morris.  Swinburne and his old college chums worship Morris, who they call Topsy.  He has just torn through the second half of The Earthly Paradise and is writing to Dante Gabriel Rossetti about it:

I have just received Topsy’s book; the Gudrun story is excellently told, I can see, and of keen interest; but I find generally no change in the trailing style of work; his Muse is like Homer’s Trojan women [Greek gibberish] – drags her robes as she walks; I really think a Muse (when she is neither resting nor flying) ought to tighten her girdle, tuck up her skirts, and step out.  It is better than Tennyson’s short-winded and artificial concision – but there is such a thing as swift and spontaneous style.  Top’s is spontaneous and slow; and especially, my ear hungers for more force and variety of sound in the verse.  It looks as if he purposely avoided all strenuous emotion or strength of music in thought and word: and so, when set by other work as good, his work seems hardly done in thorough earnest.  The verses of the months are exquisite – November I think especially.  (The Swinburne Letters, vol. 2, ed. Cecil Lang, Yale UP, 1959, letter 331 to DGR, Dec. 10, 1869, p. 68)

The “Gudrun story” is the Laxdæla saga, which is superb, and the Greek gibberish is not gibberish to Swinburne, but just to me; how kind of Swinburne to translate it.  Perhaps we can see here why I have so enjoyed reading Swinburne’s letters.  I believe this phrase – “tighten her girdle, tuck up her skirts, and step out” – should be read with a touch of camp, as if said by Bette Davis or Nathan Lane – “and step out!”

I found Morris’s verse to be very thick, like it was surrounded by a gummy layer that took effort to penetrate, that made it hard, after a pause, to find the music and rhythm of the story again.  I would either read a fifty page story in one sitting, or read two pages and think: Try again tomorrow.  Exhausting.

Here is the first third of the “exquisite” November, in rime royal.  Please keep in mind that Swinburne had a finely tuned ear for poetry, much finer than, for example, mine:

Are thine eyes weary? is thy heart too sick
To struggle any more with doubt and thought,
Whose formless veil draws darkening now and thick
Across thee, e’en as smoke-tinged mist-wreaths brought
Down a fair dale to make it blind and nought?
Art thou so weary that no world there seems
Beyond these four walls, hung with pain and dreams? 

Monday, September 8, 2014

With hands stretched out for all that she had lost - William Morris & The Earthly Paradise

And she had fought with Gods, and they had won (“Bellerophon in Lycia,” l. 2334)

That is close to how I felt while reading William Morris’s gargantuan Canterbury Tales-like epic poem The Earthly Paradise (1869-70), but I won in the end, by which I mean I finished the poem, all 42,000 or so lines.  Morris’s book about twice as long as its gigantic peer The Ring and the Book (1868-9) and massively longer than Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, of which a healthy chunk was published in 1870 – what fun fans of long English poems had in those years!  A dang Golden Age of verse-in-bulk.

The Prologue of Morris’s poem, itself an eighty page poem, is about a squad of Vikings who sail to America and explore its coasts for years, discovering for example Mexico and I am not sure what else, since their great feat is stumbling onto a Greek colony – from Classical Greece, surviving a thousand years in America, cut off from their origin – who seem to the Vikings “[l]ike the gold people of antiquity” (l. 1206), which is just what they are.  Now aged and tired, the Vikings decide to live with their new Greek friends in “the Earthly Paradise.”  Twice a month, they assemble to tell each other stories, one Classical and one Medieval tale each month, twenty-four tales total, plus the prologue and some material describing each month, a bit like Edmund Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar (1579).

All that fuss about Vikings exploring America was just to give Morris an excuse to versify his favorite old stories.  Cupid and Psyche, Pygmalion, and a reworking of the Bellerophon story that is one step from Morris’s future invention of the heroic fantasy novel.  From the North, fairy tales, the Tannhäuser legend – no idea if Morris was familiar with Wagner – and in the longest single tale, a complete, terrific version of the 13th century Icelandic Laxdæla saga in rhyming couplets:

She turned, until her sightless eyes did gaze
As through the wall, the hills, must melt away,
And show her Herdholt in the twilight grey;
She cried, with tremulous voice, and eyes grown wet
For the last time, whate’er should happen yet,
With hands stretched out for all that she had lost:
I did the worst to him I loved the most.  (“The Lovers of Gudrun,” ll. 4897-4903)

I quoted the very end, since Morris’s endings usually have a lot of punch.  Here Gudrun, one of the strongest of Strong Female Characters, a complete terror, finally weakens, just a bit.

I actually read the first half of The Earthly Paradise in 2012, over several months, and was so exhausted by it that I waited over a year to start it up again, again taking months to read the entire book.  My understanding is that The Earthly Paradise was Morris’s first hit, and was once a genuinely popular book. Given how long it took to read, I should try to squeeze another three weeks of posts out of it, but I think maybe only two more are feasible.  I felt, when I had completed Browning’s monster, that I was finally ready to read it, and I feel the same way about Morris.  Next time, then I’ll be able to do something with it.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The ideal is always jealous - French Decadents on art and Schopenhauer

I had not planned to spend a week on French Decadent Tales, not that I couldn’t spend a month, working through a story at a time, more openly stealing ideas from Stephen Romer’s introduction.

He has a section on Schopenhauer, for instance.  Schopenhauer pervades theses stories, not his influence, exactly, but his musk.  The philosopher is the fashion among this crowd.  He provides intellectual cover for their misogyny, their contempt for the bourgeois, their fetishization of art.  Some of the writers may have a deeper interest in or understanding of Schopenhauer, but really, the philosopher they believe in is Charles Baudelaire.  Schopenhauer just provides a system.

I mentioned a couple of stories by Maupassant and Laforgue that directly invoke Schopenhauer.  Another that never uses the philosopher’s name but is clearly about his ideas is “The Time” (1901) by George Rodenbach, best known for the 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte, which is about a collector of clocks.  He becomes obsessed with the idea of making all of his clocks strike the time simultaneously, which he hopes will transcend his earthly being and allow a glimpse of the eternal Will, or something like that.  The clocks do synchronize, but he misses the moment because he has neglected them for love and human kindness.  He is

punished for coveting love…  for having abandoned the ideal for reality.  The ideal is always jealous, and demands, if it is to be attained, immense, single-minded purpose.  Is it not our renunciation of Life itself, that alone makes us fit to attain our Dream?  (158, ellipses mine)

Little else in the story is so baldly stated, thank goodness.  The problem with the Decadents received idea of Schopenhauer, the artistic problem in general received ideas, is that it leads to so many clichés, which is especially ironic with a group of writers so preoccupied with style.  They were children of Flaubert just as much as their enemy Zola was.  Or poisoned by Flaubert.  However you like.  Rodenbach’s story has some superb descriptions of clocks, for example (“chimes that whistled like blackbirds or squeaked like well-chains,” 152).

It is the official position of Wuthering Expectations that Naturalism was a con job foisted on gullible readers.  The opposition between the Decadents (ideal) and the Naturalists (reality) is a puzzler at this distance.  The squishy corpse-sex of Thérèse Raquin is hardly different and no less “shocking” than that is in these Decadent stories.  (I am imaging the shock, since I myself am not really shocked.  Maybe no one is or ever was.)  Zola’s inventory of hothouse plants in The Kill is written on the same principles as Rodenbach’s room of antique clocks.  Zola wrote prefaces in which he claimed to be doing something different, but c’mon, don’t be a sucker.

On the other hand, folks at the time bought it.  Gustave Geffroy, whoever he was, supplies a story to the collection that is a parable of Idealism and Naturalism, “The Statue” (1894).  A woman with artistic aspirations marries a successful society sculptor (they live just down the block from the mansion in The Kill!) and becomes his sole nude model.  Soon, perfect nudes of her are all over Paris.

The sculptor has a mid-life crisis.  He “experienced a vast emptiness” and sees “the hollowness of his artistic conception, the nullity of his work” (127).  He becomes a realist.  The wife still models, as he “catalogued her wrinkles, he drew up the inventory of her fleshy existence.”  An idealist, she begs him to seek other models, but she has become his grainstack, his Rouen Cathedral, his water-lily pond – he just wants to scuplt her in every angle of light.  “Walking in front of him, she began to dread the feel of her husband’s heavy gaze on her back” (129).  A cynical little twist ends the story.

Whatever skepticism I have about the ideas of the Decadents, they know something about art.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

his long, crushing, and furious embrace makes her swoon, and die - Decadent misogyny

The French Decadents, many of them, most of them, were gleeful public misogynists.  These attitudes are part of what make some of the stories in French Decadent Tales period pieces.  The writer is unable to escape the ordinary prejudice of his class and time.  What looked original to him is revealed, at a distance, as a cliché.

I am just going by the texts of their fiction.  In real life, they could have been better, or even more vile.

Back when I was writing about the Journals of the Goncourt brothers, I began but abandoned a post about the Goncourts terrible attitude towards women.  The Goncourts, when young, at least, seemed to think that all women were in one way or another prostitutes.  The few exceptions they knew, like George Sand, were baffling puzzles.  Yes, the few exceptions, because, in fact, almost all of the women the Goncourts knew were prostitutes of some kind.  It never occurred to them that this was the result of choices they had made in their associates rather than an insight into the nature of women.

Jules de Goncourt died young and Edmond de Goncourt eventually grew up.  If nothing else, he encountered a greater variety of women – for example, the wives of his friends like Mme Zola and Mme Daudet – and as a result relaxed his misogyny.   There are some passages in the Journals that curl the toes; fortunately they become infrequent as time passes.

As a Decadent example, I’m looking at “The Man Who Loved Consumptives” (1891), for example, by Jean Lorrain, an author about whom I know nothing, which is about a man who only takes as lovers women with fatal illnesses, not just so he never has to break up with them, although that is part of it (“there are no disagreeable scenes”), but because the sex is better:

‘The doomed woman is exactly the same; dying, she abandons herself frenziedly to pleasures that fill her with burning life even as they hasten her death; her time is running out; her thirst for love, her need to  suffer burns and flames within her, and she clings to love with the final convulsions of the drowning; and desiring still, she redoubles the force behind her last kiss.  Twisted under the hand of Death, she would kill the object of her desperate adoration, were she not expiring herself; and his long, crushing, and furious embrace makes her swoon, and die.’  (146)

The man, of course, does not die from frenzied pleasures but just finds another sick woman at the sanitarium.

Lorrain is perhaps the worst of the lot, although now I notice that two of his four stories are about predatory homosexual men, the only pieces in the book that have explicitly homosexual themes.  Stephen Romer, the translator, says the Decadents write as if they had a “kind of allergic reaction” to “female sexual power” (p. xx), but Lorrain writes in something more like a fit of hysterics.  He could use not just a Freudian literary critic, but a Freudian psychotherapist.

What seems like the cruelest, most outrageous story in the book is Jean Richepin’s “Pft! Pft!” (1892), the sound the heroine makes to show indifference, mostly to the nightmarish manipulations of her lover, who eventually murders her:

But with her dying breath, exhaled like a final answer, came an almost perceptible sigh:

‘Pft! Pft!’ (104)

The lover had one more manipulation, really awful, an avert-your-eyes kind of scene, yet he still loses the contest.  I had realized – the other Richepin stories in the collection had clued me in – that this author was actually a satirist of the Decadents, in this case of their misogyny.  Talk about a Strong Female Character!  And all the man in the story can think to do is try to at first conquer her and then destroy her.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The infinite lines and angles of Marcel Schwob

Perhaps the worst afflicted were the victims of disfiguring facial wounds, some of whom were so awful to behold that secluded rural settlements were established, where they could holiday together.  (John Keegan, The First World War, 1998, p. 7)

Keegan is describing France after World War I, while MarcelSchwob, in “The Sans-Gueule” (1891), is perhaps writing about the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War.  The translator of French Decadent Tales says that he retained the French title, rather than calling the story “The Faceless Ones,” because of later connections made between the story and the results of the later war.

Two men have lost their faces in battle, along with any ability to speak, and along, inconveniently, with their identification tags.  “They were like two pieces of human clay” (194).  They heal, up to a point, but only regain their  humanity to the point where they enjoy smoking pipes.

Schwob is quite vivid about all this.  Or graphic, perhaps that is the word.

A “little woman with a mass of hair” claims that one is her husband, but does not know which one.  So she takes them both home, first to try to determine which is her husband, and eventually because she likes them both.  “They were her ‘two monkeys,’ her red mannikins, her two little husbands, her burned men, her meaty rascals, her bloodied faces, her holey heads, her brainless bonces” (197).  The story is really about the woman.  It is a perplexing love story.  The end is worthy of Chekhov, except I do not know of any piece of his so deliberately repulsive.

I had never read Marcel Schwob, although he is not especially obscure – I assume a number of people who glance at this post will have read something of his.  I plan to read more, although I worry about the proper dosage.

French Decadent Tales includes two of Schwob’s little Imaginary Lives (1896), fantasies about Lucretius and Paolo Uccello, “Paul of the Birds, because of the numberless painted birds and beasts that filled his house, for he was too poor to feed animals or procure those he did not know” (205).  Schwob transforms Giorgio Vasari’s biography of Uccello into a portrait of what we would now call an outsider artist.  Uccello’s obsession with the new technique of linear perspective is turned into artistic madness:

The truth was that Uccello cared nothing for the reality of things, but only for their multiplicity and the infinite lines and angles that form them; so he painted blue fields, red cities, knights in black armour on ebony horses with mouth aflame, and spears bristling skywards in every direction like rays of light…  The sculptor Donatello would say to him: ‘Ah, Paolo, you are neglecting substance for shadow!’  (205-6)

Uccello is an Impressionist, or Cezanne; he prefigure Matisse or perhaps Kandinsky.  Schwob ends the life by directly ripping off Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece:

And so Uccello knew he had accomplished a miracle.  But all Donatello had seen was a chaos of lines.  (208)

Uccello dies with his eyes “fixed upon the mystery revealed.”  Balzac thought his obsessive artist a madman and a failure.  Schwob saw an artist, maybe even an exemplary case.  He also saw the future of visual art.  Maybe he just got lucky there.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The artificers give the last nudge - Jules Laforgue's pubescent princess and Taciturn Monster

Jules Laforgue’s story “Perseus and Andromeda, or the Happiest of the Three” (1887) was the highlight of French Decadent Tales.  Laforgue, you will remember, was the inventor of vers libre among other poetic distinctions.  I had not even know that he wrote any fiction.

The story is a retelling of the Greek myth in the title, but now from the point of view of Andromeda, trapped on an island by a monster, waiting to be rescued by a hero.  The tone is light, sweet, and melancholy, worthy of a wrote who wrote an entire book of poems about clowns on the moon.  it has the sort of reversed plot that is now common in fantasy stories, with the focus turned away from the usual hero, giving the heroine and even the monster their say.

‘Monster!’

‘Poppet?...’

‘Hey! Monster!...’

‘Poppet?...’

‘What are you doing now?’

The Dragon-Monster, squatting at the entrance to his cave, turns round, and in turning all the rich, sub-aquatic, jewelled impasto along his spine shines out, and with compassion he raised his multi-coloured cartilaginously fingered eyelashes, to reveal two large, watery-glaucous orbs, and says (in the voice of a distinguished gentleman who has fallen on hard times):

‘As you can see, Poppet, I am breaking and polishing stones for your train; further flights of birds are forecast before sunset.’  (174, ellipses in original)

A little too much on the cutesy side, maybe, but the crash of tones is what turns a story of heroism into a tragedy – a tragedy for the wide-eyed monster, a victim of fate, or perhaps fatalism.

Let’s look at the hero:

Perseus rides side-saddle, his feet crossed coquettishly in their yellow linen sandals; from the pommel of his saddle hangs a mirror; he is beardless, and his pink and shining mouth might be described as an open pomegranate, the hollow of his chest is lacquered with a rose and his arms are tattooed with a heart pierced by an arrow; a lily adorns the swell of his calves and he sports an emerald monocle and several rings and bracelets; from his gilded cross-belt hangs a little sword with a mother-of-pearl dagger.  (185)

What a dreamboat!  Perfect for the pubescent princess heroine, herself wearing nothing but “espadrilles of lichen” and a “necklace of wild coral attached by a twist of seaweed round her neck,” yet in the end he is more interested in his mirror, and he also turns out to be a bit handsy, and maybe Andromeda really loved the monster all along.  How sad that he is dead.

Along the way, the princess by reciting Schopenhauer, a poem from his book The Truth about Everything,  and there is a sunset that Laforgue presents in vers libre.

The Star!...

Over there, on the dazzling horizon where the mermaids hold their breath.

The sunset sends up its scaffolding;

From footlight to footlight the theatre stalls rise up;

The artificers give the last nudge;

A series of golden moons blossom out, like the embouchures of cornets from where phalanxes of heralds would thunder out!  (183)

Etc.  Sexual awakening, love, beauty, music, the sky.

‘Fabulous, fabulous!’ gushes the Taciturn Monster in ecstasy; his huge watery eyeballs still lit up by the last streaks in the west.

Other than the invocation of Schopenhauer, I am not sure how this wispy thing is so Decadent.  As if I cared.  Unique.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The whole Baudelairean aesthetic is brought to life again - some French Decadent Tales

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.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

You have learnt to talk nonsense seriously - deconstructing The Moonstone

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 interestingThe 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

The composing influence of Standard Literature - Wilkie Collins, first and greatest

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

All was folly - I laughed and mocked - sympathy with Browning's murderer

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

Oh there’s repristination! - or, Robert Browning roasts a porcupine

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.