Friday, December 19, 2014

The Best Books of 1864 - This could but have happened once, / And we missed it, lost it for ever.

I begin with James McNeill Whistler’s 1864 Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, on display at the Freer, just because I like it, and for the metaphor, and because it prevents me from using a bizarre and hideous Millais that has tempted me.  No further japonisme follows.

An English reader in 1864 was in serial novel paradise.  Dickens had begun Our Mutual Friend; Trollope had completed Small House at Allington and started Can You Forgive Her?; Elizabeth Gaskell had Wives and Daughters in motion; if he also happened to subscribe to Dublin University Magazine he was getting Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, which sure ain’t Dickens but does have a locked room mystery.

Now, if I were alive in 1864 I would have ignored all of that while hashing away at the Best Books of 1714, but a wiser reader would have had a good time with the above.  Dickens was a celebrity, Trollope and Gaskell famous enough – I don’t know about Le Fanu – so these were all good candidates for Best of the Year lists, if the Victorians had had such vulgar things.

The novels would have had to compete with John Henry Newman’s memoir Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which I read this year but never mentioned here as perhaps a bit over my head, Tennyson’s pathetic Enoch Arden, and Robert Browning’s Dramatis Personae.  The latter is a masterpiece: “Caliban upon Setebos”! “Mr. Sludge, ‘The Medium’”!  Byronism!  I took this post’s title from one of its poems, “Youth and Art,” where the context is a little different.

The great caveat, as always: in English.  My pick for best book of the year is either the Browning or the Dickens, but the winner at this point in influence and status has been Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, one of the many literary responses to Fathers and Sons and that crazy Chernyshevsky novel.  Dostoevsky would likely not have made the Russian Best of the Year list, though, since his novella for ignored at the time.  Maybe Nikolai Leskov’s No Way Out, yet another response to Turgenev and nihilism, would have made it.  Lists would not even make sense in an environment like that, where literature is a branch of political and philosophical argument and no one cares about whether or not a book is a “good read,” whatever that is.

Two almost secret firsts.  Henry James published his first short story – strangely, a noir thriller about a contract murder – in a short-lived abolitionist magazine.  No one could have guessed what was to come.  Not such an important event, since if this one had not worked out the next one would have, or the one after that.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Mendele Mocher Sforim published his story “The Little Man” in the Yiddish supplement to a Hebrew-language newspaper, thus inventing modern Yiddish literature, just like that.  What a mystery, for such an act to have such consequences.  Mendele would write better fiction, including a redone novella-length version of this story, and his disciple Sholem Aleichem would write better fiction than that.  Something new had been brought into the world.  Almost no one in the world knew about it, but enough knew, and just the right ones, so it was not missed, not lost, but preserved.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

His volume heretofore was Man - Byron's Byronic 1814

1814 was an important year for Byronism, a Romantic text-transmitted disease that infected a number of the greatest writers of Europe.  Symptoms included melancholy, handsomeness, and conformity-smashing free-spiritedness.

George Gordon Byron’s immense celebrity began with Child Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812, a travel poem in which a Byronic fellow wanders about the Mediterranean – exotic Spain, exotic Albania.  Understanding the appeal of the character, Byron began to write silly best-selling adventure stories (“Turkish Tales”) starring an Orientalized version of the character, mostly in rhyming couplets, a form of which Byron was one of the few great masters in English.  Meanwhile, Byron increased his celebrity by behaving scandalously.  This formula has been successful for two hundred years now.

With Byron the difference between self-parody and self-mythologizing can be hard to see.  Some examples from The Corsair, canto and line numbers in parentheses:

Sun-burnt his cheek, his forehead high and pale
The sable curls in wild profusion veil  (I.203-4)

There was a laughing Devil in his sneer,
That raised emotions both of rage and fear;
And where his frown of hatred darkly fell,
Hope withering fled – and Mercy sigh’d farewell!  (I.223-6)

Lone, wild and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt  (l.272-3)

I would need a specialist in the transmission of Byronism to demonstrate the case, but I think the two cleverly linked verse romances of 1814, The Corsair and Lara, perfect the character.  The first is about a pirate captain who fights a Turkish Pasha for wealth and power.  It features a sea battle, disguises, a beautiful harem girl in distress, a prison escape.  All of what I would now call the usual nonsense.

So this is why in Chapter 17 of Jane Eyre the chic, repellent Miss Ingram wants to hear “’a Corsair-song’” – “’Know that I doat on Corsairs.’”   These stories, and this character, have been copied so often and so thoroughly that it is quite hard to see anything original, but there was a time when everyone thought they were the most daring, innovative, shocking poems anyone had ever seen.

Obviously, the pirate captain is not Byron, but a reader is allowed to imagine Byron as the hero, the image of Byron, the celebrity.  Thus, Byronism.

The preface to The Corsair declares that it will be Byron’s “last production,” but within the same year followed Lara, a meta-adventure.  Not only is the hero much like Byron, but also much like the Corsair. 

The chief of Lara is return’d again:
And why had Lara cross’d the bounding main?  (I.11-12)

But the case cannot be proved.  He has a page who turns out to be a woman, a foreigner, devoted to his life – the woman from The Corsair’s harem?  Maybe!  The home to which the chief has returned – a footnote simultaneously implies that the setting is Spain and not Spain (“the country is not Spain, but the Moon,” Byron wrote in a letter to his publisher).  It is all quite clever, a kind of inside-out parody of the Turkish tales.

Regardless, I would not recommend these adventure poems to anyone who does not savor Byron’s verse, who is happy to read 1,270 lines of this:

Books, for his volume heretofore was Man,
With eye more curious he appear’d to scan,
And oft, in sudden mood, for many a day,
From all communion he would start away:
And then, his rarely call’d attendants said,
Through night's long hours would sound his hurried tread
O'er the dark gallery, where his fathers frown’d
In rude but antique portraiture around (I.131-8)

And who is willing to take cheap thrills where he can get them, and laugh along with Byron at the silliness of the whole thing.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Best Books of the Year: 1814 - neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners

What were the Best Books of the Year in 1814?  What I have usually done in a post like this is scrounge together every book of any literary consequence at all from a given year, which is not as hard a task as it seems since two hundred years culls the herd of books so brutally (as does twenty years; as does two).  But 1814 was unusual because its best books were so influential.

Another change is that I did more anniversary reading than usual this year (usual: none), so I will just link back to some recent posts.  One of these influential, foundational works was E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Golden Pot, for example, which is back here.  Another German novella from the same year, Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso casts almost as long a shadow.  It’s about a guy who sells his shadow to the devil.  That’s why I said – ah, never mind.  It’s good, too, if narrower than Hoffmann’s fantasy.

Then there’s Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s best book, which is more read now than anything else I will mention, but the influence of which is complicated by the fact that it is Jane Austen’s worst book.  At the time it was published, Austen was something like what we would now call a midlist writer, not a bestseller, but a seller, a writer with a lot of good readers, including Walter Scott and the dissolute Prince Regent who would later become King George IV.  If she had only lived a few more years, she would have been a guest of the king, and then she could have written a hilarious novel about that.  And she could have finished Sanditon.  And, and, and.

We do not have enough Austen novels, but we have more Walter Scott novels than anyone wants to read.  The first was Waverley, from this year, the novel that went viral, as the youngsters say, that did not literally invent the idea of the historical novel but in effect did so.  Waverley must have directly inspired hundreds of novels; further Scott novels must have led to thousands.  Within twenty years Balzac, Hugo, Gogol, Pushkin, Manzoni, and Dickens had written historical novels that were clearly Scott-like.  Dumas and Cooper made careers out of the form.  On and on, to the present, even if the amount of Scott in contemporary novels has become homeopathic.

And Scott really was doing something innovative, and he knew it.  That’s why he spends the first chapter, and plenty of later passages, describing what he is doing:

I would have my readers understand, that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners…  (Chapter First)

Just the kind of thing many readers find deadly.  Scott certainly never seems to be in any hurry.  But Waverley is nevertheless a fine novel, funny, perceptive, and in some places fairly exciting.  I am rereading it now, so I will likely poke at the book more in the new year.

The final case, making at least four, is Lord Byron, who published some works key in the other viral phenomenon of the time, Byronism.  I want to save these for tomorrow, though.

So that’s: the novel that created historical novels, Byronism, Hoffmann fantasies, and an Austen novel.  Plus Peter Schlemihl.  And the earliest known Keats poems, but we have to wait two more years for the good stuff.

One final example, the reverse of the above.  The consensus Book of the Year in England, appearing on all of the lists, if there had been lists, would easily have been The Excursion by William Wordsworth, a book of great Significance and greater Tediousness.  It is close to unread now, and the curious thing is that it was made obsolete by Wordsworth himself, by the publication of The Prelude in 1850, a poem which does everything of value that The Excursion does except better – with more beauty, more narrative interest, and much less artificiality.  It took some time, but The Prelude eventually murdered The Excursion.  I doubt this happens very often.

From this distance, the number of surviving books from 1814 is hardly the point.  A good year.  I put a page from John Constable’s 1814 sketchbook, owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, up top.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Go before me, and show me all those dreadful places - Tom and Jo - a last bit of Bleak House

Just a bit more anthropomorphism from Bleak House.

The moon has eyed Tom with a dull cold stare, as admitting some puny emulation of herself in his desert region unfit for life and blasted by volcanic fires; but she has passed on and is gone…   and Tom is fast asleep.

Much mighty speech-making there has been, both in and out of Parliament, concerning Tom, and much wrathful disputation how Tom shall be got right. (Ch. 46)

Tom is a slum, Tom-all-Alone’s.  The paragraphs that follow make it clear that Tom-all-Alone’s is also The Destitute Poor more generally.

There is not an atom of Tom's slime, not a cubic inch of any pestilential gas in which he lives, not one obscenity or degradation about him, not an ignorance, not a wickedness, not a brutality of his committing, but shall work its retribution through every order of society up to the proudest of the proud and to the highest of the high. Verily, what with tainting, plundering, and spoiling, Tom has his revenge.

This is Dickens invoking the other Tom, Thomas Carlyle, rhetoric that is pure Carlylese (“verily”), the kind of passage that reminds me that Hard Times will be the next Dickens novel.

I finally understood this time something of the place of Tom-all-Alone’s in Bleak House.  It is just a street, “a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people,” full of squatters in rotting, collapsing buildings – “the next crash in Tom-all-Alone’s may be expected to be a good one.”  The street has taken this turn because of the lawsuit that is the novel’s backdrop.  Dickens plainly says this a few pages into Chapter 16, but I did not understand it.  I did not understand that the winner of the lawsuit wins this, a poisonous tenement.

And Tom-all-Alone’s birthed, somehow, Jo the street sweep who “’don’t know nothink,’” one of the children Esther Summerson tries to save. 

Jo lives – that is to say, Jo has not yet died – in a ruinous place, known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone’s.

Because someone was kind to him poor Jo becomes an accidental instrument, almost a kind of connective tissue, of the novel’s complex plot, which will resume later in this chapter after Dickens lets Jo walk a round a bit, accompanied by a vagabond dog, “a terrific dog to sheep; ready at a whistle to scamper over their backs, and tear out mouthfuls of their wool.”  What this dog is doing in London is likely a sad story.  But this line does explain why, in Chapter 25, “Jo has been standing on the spot where he woke up, ever picking his cap, and putting bits of fur in his mouth,” an odd habit that I now see he learned from that dog.

“‘Go before me, and show me all those dreadful places,’” another character says to Jo back to Chapter 16.  That’s Jo, and that’s Tom.

Because vacation and Best of the Year celebrations are upon me, I will have to put down Bleak House.  The next post would have been about Little Swills, the Comic Vocalist, who for many novelists would be the best character they ever invented, but for Dickens is just a recurring gag.

Monday, December 15, 2014

“Don't leave the cat there!” - Bleak House is alive

I mentioned a passage where Esther Summerson describes London as reflecting the sadness of her friend Ada by having “more funerals… than I had ever seen before.”  Bleak House must be among the most triumphant examples of the pathetic fallacy in literature, beginning with the extraordinary London fog in the first paragraph, the fog which has engulfed all of southeast England and is said to emanate from the law courts, and perhaps from one specific case, the one at the center, or just off of the center, of the novel.

The fog is not itself alive on that first page.  Or is it – “fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck”?  That is a malignant fog.  Aside from that, though, there are the gas lamps on the same page, the first real example of what I mean: “as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.”

The fog is left behind at the end of Chapter 5.  Three hundred pages later, back in London we have a “[w]intry morning” that “look[s] with dull eyes and sallow face” upon the city.  A couple of chapters later is a favorite of mine.  There are visitors at Sir Leicester’s country house, a series of dismal cousins, so the fires are roaring.  They “wink in the twilight on the frowning woods, sullen to see how trees are sacrificed.”  Bleak House temporarily becomes an eco-novel.  My real favorite is two pages later – same house, same fires: “Bedroom fires blaze brightly all over the house, raising ghosts of grim furniture on wall and ceiling.”  As a metaphor for shadows, this is outstanding, but in this novel the suggestion that even the furniture is imbued with a soul is not so far-fetched.

At least the crows are normally living creatures, so this is not so strange, in fact it is observed crow behavior:

The rooks, swinging in their lofty houses in the elm-tree avenue, seem to discuss the question of the occupancy of the carriage as it passes underneath, some agreeing that Sir Leicester and my Lady are come down, some arguing with malcontents who won't admit it, now all consenting to consider the question disposed of, now all breaking out again in violent debate, incited by one obstinate and drowsy bird who will persist in putting in a last contradictory croak. (Ch. 12)

But that solitary crow is an unusual specimen.  “Drowsy,” why drowsy I wonder.  This is part of the crow theme, attaching Lady Dedlock and her home to particularly crow-like lawyer, one of the novel’s villains.  And it is part of the larger bird theme.

Countered, all too briefly, by the cat theme, or at least by the junkman Krook’s terrifying cat.  Esther, attentive to London’s ugliness, notices “the sweeping out of shops, and the extraordinary creatures in rags, secretly groping among the swept out rubbish for pins and other refuse” (Ch. 5).  She is foreshadowing Little Jo, but only a few pages later the cat is introduced: “The cat leaped down and ripped at a bundle of rags with her tigerish claws, with a sound that it set my teeth on edge to hear.”  In  rag and bottle shop, this is not so odd, although given that a few pages earlier the bundle of rags was a person – well ,even this may not mean too much until we jump to Chapters 9 and 10, containing the death of the opium addict Nemo, where the repeated word is not “rags” but “ragged,” and as everyone else leaves the room:

“Don't leave the cat there!” says the surgeon; “that won't do!”  Mr. Krook therefore drives her out before him, and she goes furtively downstairs, winding her lithe tail and licking her lips. (Ch. 10)

Why won’t that do?  How does the surgeon know?  Who does that unnamed surgeon turn out to be anyways?  And is one of Miss Flite’s canaries named “Rags”? (Yes).

Now I think I know where I am going with this.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fire, bells, murderous refuse - this connects to that - I did not write up the bird theme in Bleak House, but was tempted

The tightly planned, or brilliantly improvised, nature of Bleak House is evident throughout the novel, or in another sense not evident, since so much of the matter that makes up the planning is unlikely to be evident to the first-time reader, nor much of it to the second-time reader, and I doubt that I the third time was a complete charm for me, either.  Amazing that Dickens could keep track of it all.  I know, he had notes, but so did I.

So of course I did not pay particular attention, when I read the book twenty years, when the heroine dreams that she is “no one,” because I did not know that there was a character almost literally named No One; once I did know, having reached Chapter 10, of course I did not remember Esther’s words from way back in Chapter 4; even if somehow I did, I would not understand the significance.  More sneakily, Nemo is first mentioned in Chapter 5, but only as an incidental detail in an advertisement.

Even something as unsubtle as the constant association of the junkman Krook and fire – “the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth, as if he were on fire from within” (Ch. 5) – is almost invisible the first time through.  Unsubtle once you know what happens to Krook in a scene I might put in the ten greatest scenes in fiction if I thought in terms of Top 10 lists.  It is just more stuff in a novel crammed with stuff, and in that case a chapter that features twice as much stuff as usual because it is partly set in a junk shop.  “There were a great many ink bottles.”  I don’t think that is anything more than scene-setting, but I used to wrongly think that of so much else in the book.

This is Esther writing.  She is on her way to Bleak House.  It will be the seventh bleak house she has visited in less than fifty pages – another thing I counted this time – but the first one actually named Bleak House:

It was delightful to see the green landscape before us and the immense metropolis behind; and when a waggon with a train of beautiful horses, furnished with red trappings and clear-sounding bells, came by us with its music, I believe we could all three have sung to the bells, so cheerful were the influences around.  (Ch. 6, first paragraph)

Now, the last line of the same chapter:

So I said to myself, “Esther, Esther, Esther! Duty, my dear!” and gave my little basket of housekeeping keys such a shake that they sounded like little bells and rang me hopefully to bed.

As Edgar Allen Poe once said so memorably, “bells, bells, bells, bells, \ Bells, bells, bells.”  Maybe I should have been keeping track of a bell theme, but I believe it just serves as a lovely way to pull the beginning and end of this chapter together.

Here’s another one.  Lady Dedlock, “bored to death,” is vacationing in Paris, where “poor wretches” are “encompassing” the city “with dancing, love-making, wine-drinking, tobacco-smoking, tomb-visiting, billiard card and domino playing, quack-doctoring, and much murderous refuse, animate and inanimate” (Ch. 12) – what could that mean, with murderous refuse?  Just a few lines earlier, Lady Dedlock’s French maid was offhandedly mentioned.  Why would I think these details are connected?  All will be revealed, 590 pages later.

So much of this kind of thing, so much, everywhere in the novel.  All those ink bottles.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Lastly, it was no one, and I was no one. - Esther Summerson's prose

My impression is that Esther Summerson becomes a better, more confident writer as she writes her book, which is only reasonable, so reasonable that I have doubts whether it is true.  She does not just silently notice things, but sometimes, even early on, she writes something like

watching the frosty trees, that were like beautiful pieces of spar, and the fields all smooth and white with last night's snow, and the sun, so red but yielding so little heat, and the ice, dark like metal where the skaters and sliders had brushed the snow away (Ch. 3, her first)

None of which is remotely necessary to tell her story.  Young Esther is riding in a coach to her new boarding school, accompanied by a mysterious figure who we later know – and of course Esther, writing over ten years later – knows is her patron and guardian.  So no need for sun of any color or ice like anything, much less those trees.

The omniscient “Dickens” narrator writes stuff like that all the time, on some pages in every sentence, inventive beyond comprehension.  Summerson  is less inventive, relies more on dialogue, and has a more limited vocabulary, writing at a lower reading level.

But she seems to improve.  Thus the description of the ships in Chapter 45, “when the sun shone through the clouds, making silvery pools in the dark sea, the way in which these ships brightened, and shadowed, and changed,” a passage Nabokov picks out as especially good, or the fine variation on the pathetic fallacy in Chapter 51 when, her friend at a low point, describes London as not just rainy, colorless, and smoky, but insists that “there were more funerals passing along the dismal pavements, than I had ever seen before.”

She is at her peak in Chapter 57, at the novel’s climax, or one climax, the only time a chapter of hers stands alone.  

It had set in snowing at daybreak, and it now snowed hard.  The air was so thick with the darkness of the day and the density of the fall that we could see but a very little way in any direction.  Although it was extremely cold, the snow was but partially frozen, and it churned – with a sound as if it were a beach of small shells – under the hoofs of the horses into mire and water.

Or a few pages later:

We were again upon the melancholy road by which we had come, tearing up the miry sleet and thawing snow as if they were torn up by a waterwheel.

Summerson is again in a carriage in the snow.  Now I understand the incidental detail over 700 pages earlier.  The narrator is linking, perhaps unconsciously, these two journeys, the most significant of her life.

I am at the point in the novel when the two halves finally join, when the detective character from the omniscient half figures out Esther’s role in the plot.  Esther always, with one ingenious exception,* narrates events she personally witnesses, while until this point the omniscient narrator only hints at her existence.  In another  kind of novel, this would be “suspicious,” as Scott Bailey says.  Maybe Esther does not exist (which in some sense is true).  Maybe Esther is the omniscient narrator.  Early on, she actually hints that she might be so (Esther is seated; a child is sleeping on her):

I began to lose the identity of the sleeper resting on me. Now it was Ada, now one of my old Reading friends from whom I could not believe I had so recently parted.  Now it was the little mad woman worn out with curtsying and smiling, now some one in authority at Bleak House.  Lastly, it was no one, and I was no one.  (Ch. 4)

Another passage that looks stranger the more I look at it.  “I was no one” of course proves to be a reference to – well, for twenty part 880 page serial novels, this is a tightly written book.

*  Chapter 51, and the ingenious bit is that in retrospect we know who Summerson’s source is.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

a story of goodness and generosity in others - Esther Summerson writes her book

With powerless heroines like Esther Summerson, I look for the places they exercise power, the places in the story where they direct their will outward.  When Fanny Price rescues her younger sister from her family, for example, and installs her in Mansfield Park.  Esther Summerson also saves children, or tries to save them and fails.  “The child died” (Ch. 8).  The number of failures Dickens allows in her story, especially the final one, at the climax when her portion intertwines with the omniscient narrator, is something I am still mulling over.

But other times she succeeds, she saves the children, one by one, extracting them from want or from their awful, unloving families.  The novel is perhaps even overstocked with bad parents – we get the point early, but they keep coming.  Introducing herself, Summerson says she always had “a silent way of noticing what passed before me, and thinking I should understand it better” (Ch. 3), a novelist’s talent.  Much of what she notices is along the lines of her room at the Jellybys, where “the curtain to my window was fastened up with a fork” (Ch. 4).  At this point, the detail seems comic, and Summerson is polite enough, but as the novel goes along it becomes clear that that fork is a moral indictment.

Here Summerson is trying to save a child who has an infectious disease.  She is arguing with Skimpole, a comic figure, a clown, a child himself, as he often says:

“In the meantime," I ventured to observe, “he is getting worse.”

“In the meantime,” said Mr. Skimpole cheerfully, “as Miss Summerson, with her practical good sense, observes, he is getting worse.  Therefore I recommend your turning him out before he gets still worse.”

The amiable face with which he said it, I think I shall never forget.  (Ch. 31)

That last line is Summerson’s description of evil, an evil that only she could see.  She does not tease, like the narrators of Cranford or Villette.  She condemns.

No, that is wrong.  She also teases.  Thus all of the digs at Mrs. Woodcourt and her famous Welsh ancestor who “appeared to have passed his life in always getting up into mountains and fighting somebody; and a bard whose name sounded like Crumlinwallinwer had sung his praises in a piece which was called, as nearly as I could catch it, Mewlinnwillinwodd” (Ch. 17).  Of course it is not just, or even primarily, Mrs. Woodcourt who is being teased here, but rather her son.

Writing her book is Summerson’s most surprising positive act of will, is what I am saying.  She makes it her own; she makes it about herself.  She is actually writing “full seven happy years” (Ch. 64) after the events of the novel.  Occasionally, rarely, Summerson switches to the present tense, which is what the omniscient narrator uses, even though his present is years before hers. 

It matters little now how often I recalled the tones of my mother's voice, wondered whether I should ever hear it again as I so longed to do, and thought how strange and desolate it was that it should be so new to me.  It matters little that… [more in this vein].  It is all, all over.  My lot has been so blest that I can relate little of myself which is not a story of goodness and generosity in others.  I may well pass that little and go on.  (Ch. 43)

The repetition, some of which I omitted, is another rhetorical device of the omniscient narrator’s.  Esther, the orphan, had met her birth mother, an encounter so powerful that she can only write about not writing about it.

I doubt I noticed any of this the first couple of times I read Bleak House.

Tomorrow, since I brought it up here, maybe a little about Esther Summerson’s prose.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages - let's try to figure out what the narrator of Bleak House is doing

The first person narrator, Esther Summerson.  She is a nobody, an orphan, a housekeeper.  In the other half of the novel, all sorts of exciting things are going on: a convoluted lawsuit, blackmail, spontaneous combustion, a section that is the prototype of the murder mystery, featuring a candidate for the first detective in English literature with all of the usual nonsense – master of disguise, unflagging eye for detail, indefatigable etc.  He’s even a bit hard-boiled.

Why “Esther’s Narrative,” as many of her chapters are titled, exists is a little puzzle.  “I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever” (Ch. 3) – that’s her first line.  Right away, difficulties appear.

Esther Summerson is a in an English literary tradition that was a hundred years old at this point.  She stands in a line of heroines who are highly virtuous to the point of passivity and readerly aggravation.  I am dating them back to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, but the controversial Fanny Price from Mansfield Park is another example, as is Jeanie Deans from Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, and as are, although curiously they are rarely seen as such, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe.  The latter pair are sassy while the others are at all like that.  All of these women are, because of their sex or social position or temperament, powerless, or so they seem to other characters.  They spend much of the novels in which they star saying “No,” often over and over again.  They are in reality unbreakable forces of will, more powerful than they appear.

Esther mostly says “Yes” in Bleak House, mostly because what she if offered is as good as she is: a home (more than once), purposeful work, love, friends.  Her will seems fairly domitable.  She says “Yes” to recounting her minor role in the crazy events mentioned above. “[M]y portion of these pages.”  I am not clear who asked her to write up her story, or why.  When Wilkie Collins borrows the device for A Woman in White and The Moonstone, someone is supposedly collecting documents for legal purposes.  Maybe that is the case here.

But then what attorney was expecting this woman to produce an autobiography filling 460 printed pages, a detailed account of her own life and opinions which occasionally brushes against other events. 

It seems so curious to me to be obliged to write all this about myself!  As if this narrative were the narrative of my life!  But my little body will soon fall into the background now.  (still in Ch. 3)

Esther also uses her book to describe in every detail of her acquaintance with and courtship by her husband while, for most of the book, specifically denying that she is doing so, which is a fine device for looking evasive while drawing attention to the thing evaded.

I have omitted to mention in its place, that there was someone else at the family dinner party.  It was not a lady.  It was a gentleman.  It was a gentleman of a dark complexion – a young surgeon.  (Ch. 13)

To this point, Esther has been careful enough to only mention things in her place.  But this is a forgivable clumsiness by an inexperienced writer.  Curious how only one subject causes these slips.  No, easy to explain, since Summerson is more than clever and is a narrator of sophistication and talent.  She could always go back and revise her writing.  She wrote the text she wants someone to see.

What actually is curious is that Bleak House was completed in 1853, along with Villette and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, all books told by self-effacing women with surprisingly wicked wits.

I’ll stay with Esther tomorrow.  I have hardly gotten anywhere.  The quotations above are good for showing Esther as a simple and rather plain writer.  I will have to undo that.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Prose, prose, prosing about Bleak House

How about a week of Bleak House (1852-3)?  Now that I have reread Bleak House, and Great Expectations earlier in the year, I have not only read every Charles Dickens novel, but have read them all within the last ten years.  I doubt I will ever do that again, although it would be great fun do it over and over, every decade until I expire.  There are not many books I have read even three times.

I took more notes than usual, as many as I took earlier this year for Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done?, but I was going to be tested on that one.  This time I was mostly wallowing in the Dickens stench and breathing in the Dickens fog.  “Fog everywhere” (Ch. 1).

The weather, for many a day and night, has been so wet that the trees seem wet through, and the soft loppings and prunings of the woodman’s axe can make no crash or crackle as they fall.  The deer, looking soaked, leave quagmires, where they pass.  The shot of a rifle loses its sharpness in the moist air, and its smoke moves in a tardy little cloud toward the green rise, coppice-topped, that makes a background for the falling rain.  (Ch. 2)

I fear this is what some readers are criticizing when they call Dickens “wordy,” as if the passage would be improved with fewer words, perhaps without “loppings” or “crackle” or “soft.”  The paragraph and page only improves as it continues – “the oaken pulpit breaks out in a cold sweat,” or “[t]he pictures of the Dedlocks past and gone have seemed to vanish into the damp walls in mere lowness of spirits, as the housekeeper has passed along the old rooms, shutting up the shutters.”

The book has the most marvelous things for the reader interested in looking for them, so many that I find myself a bit paralyzed at the moment. 

In another corner, a ragged old portmanteau on one of the chairs, serves for cabinet or wardrobe; no larger one is needed, for it collapses like the cheeks of a starved man.  (Ch. 10)

That one just popped out as I randomly paged through the novel.

That method will not work everywhere in the novel because of its unique dual narration, with half of the novel written by the usual omniscient Dickens narrator, made unusual only the extraordinary rhetorical and artistic effects he achieves this time around, and the other half written in the first person by one of the characters in the novel, Esther Summerson, in terms of the omniscient narrator’s story a secondary character at best, but, given that she gets half of the actual 880 pages, the novel’s protagonist.  Summerson is an implausibly great writer, but not at the level of Charles Dickens.  She is comparable to David Copperfield, and he's a professional novelist, while this is Summerson's first book!

A little more than half, actually, 53%.  This time I counted pages.  The novel alternates from the omniscient to the first person narrator, not by any fixed rule.  I thought that perhaps I had imposed a false symmetry, but no.  The fluidity with which Dickens varies the length, pace and tone of the alternating narrators is a minor pleasure of its own, now that I know the book.

I have no idea why more writers have not used this device.  It solves so many problems; it creates so many opportunities.  Not so long after Dickens, fiction writers grew tired of the omniscient narrator, preferring to explore the limited third person brought to prominence by Flaubert, or messing around with all of the variations of the pure first person.  The Bleak House narrator is a griffin, no doubt about that, a fantastic beast created to tell a fairy tale.

Boy, if I keep going like this, I’ll be able to write about Bleak House for two weeks, or ten.   “I went on prose, prose, prosing, for a length of time,” says Esther (Ch. 23).  Tomorrow, I’ll try to focus.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

All my thoughts and dreams about Nature are most probably based on impressions drawn from poetry and art - Doctor Glas, beauty, and purity

I ended yesterday with a quotation in which Doctor Glas describes his disgust with the sexual act, wishing rather that copulation were so pure and elegant that it could be performed in church (Glas is not a church-goer), “[o]r in a temple of roses, in the eye of the sun, to the chanting of choirs and a dance of wedding guests.”  I know this is an important passage because it contains two of the major structural themes of the novel, roses and the sun.  Söderberg does not manage to work in his butterflies, another key theme, but that could be overdoing it.

The novel is about an obsessed man trying to justify an act of murder.  The content of Doctor Glas’s diary is mostly his resentments, his theories, and how cyanide pills work, ugly stuff, yet the diary is also full of attempts to describe beauty.  He calls a former patient and her husband “scum” for “scolding a waiter,” but follows this with a landscape description as if from a genre painting.  “The canal mirrored the greenery on its banks and the blue of the sky,” “bicyclists spun over the bridge,” and so on “[w]hile over my table fluttered two yellow butterflies” (57).

It is useful to remember that Glas is not describing the scene as he sees it, but rather as he remembers or imagines it hours later, late at night, sitting at his writing desk.  The day’s entry even ends with an explicit reminder of the fact, that he is “writing this by a flickering candle” (60).  What did he really experience; why the curious appearance of the butterflies?  “All my thoughts and dreams about Nature are most probably based on impressions drawn from poetry and art” (58).

The butterflies and their cousins recur.  A “little fragile grey night-moth” (97) is killed by the flame of his lamp on the night Glas concludes that he might – not will, but might – murder his hated rival Gregorius.  In the earlier passage, Glas specifies that he is writing by candlelight because “I detest touching oil-lamps,” while in the later scene, Glas touches the oil-lamp “automatically, almost without being aware of it”, a sign of his moral and mental degradation.

The book is quite rich with connective imagery like this, most of it again being related to the sun and clouds and weather, an elaborate expression of the pathetic fallacy where nothing Glas actually describes can really be trusted because what he is actually describing is his own state of mind, at least until this storm near the end of the novel:

The clouds took on the shapes of dirty red devils blowing horns and whistling and screeching in wild pursuit as they whipped the rags off each other’s bodies in all sorts of whoredom.  And as I sat there I suddenly burst out laughing: I laughed at the storm...  I was thinking of myself and my affairs; therefore I fancied the storm did the same.  (126)

A reminder of the scene with the moth appears on the next page.  Also some roses.  Also a peculiar passage about his mother, the part of the novel that most puzzles me.  But at this point Glas has perhaps freed himself from his need to search for correspondences  between himself and the external world.  He has made the world more pure, more beautiful.  He has prepared himself for his own death.

Whatever I was expecting based on all the reviews of Doctor Glas that I had read, it was not an argument about the nature and possibility of beauty.  I was not expecting so much about aesthetics.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

An action that could be carried out in church, or in a temple of roses - Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doctor Glas

I’ve never known such a summer.  A sultry heat-wave since mid-May.  All day a thick cloud of dust hangs unmoving over streets and market-places.  (13)

More heat and dust, this time from Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doctor Glas (1905), from Stockholm during the summer.  I invite readers from most of the rest of the world to use their favorite search engine to see for themselves  what a Stockholm summer heat-wave looks like.  Quite pleasant.  Depends on what you’re used to.

More to the point, the narrator of Doctor Glas is a sociopath, not that I could tell from that opening.  Hints of Glas’s mental illness only begin to appear in the second paragraph, when “the heat-wave lifts and drifting slowly off turns to a long veil of red,” and the doctor runs into Reverend Gregorius, who he so loathes that he imagines “thumping him over the head with his stick” as Schopenhauer once did to an enemy.  “Well, I’m not Schopenhauer.”

Don’t sell yourself short, doctor.  The great question for much of the rest of the short novel, entirely told in the form of Glas’s increasingly crazed diary entries, is to what extent he is Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche, or Raskolnikov – exactly what the nature of his mental illness is and to what extreme of behavior it might take him.

The mention of Raskolnikov is a bit deceptive, which is why the unreliable narrator specifically mentions him (“I’ve read Raskolnikov, I’ve read Thérèse Raquin,” 100), as a trick, since, as you just astutely observed, one cannot read Raskolnikov but rather Crime and Punishment or Dostoevsky.  Glas is actually more attuned to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.  Imagine an Underground Man who has read Freud, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky.  Especially Freud.

The humor in the mention of Zola’s noir heroine is that in Thérèse Raquin, Thérèse and her boyfriend bump off her idiot husband in order to freely enjoy his money and bed only to be prevented from ever having sex by the husband’s squishy, disgusting ghost, while Doctor Glas is already neurotically disgusted by and presumably incapable of any sexual activity because of some unspoken trauma in his childhood.  The direct evidence suggests his father is to blame; some curious repressed clues make me wonder about his mother.

Why must the life of our species be preserved and our longing stilled by means of an organ we use several times a day as a drain for impurities; why couldn’t it be done by means of some act composed of dignity and beauty, as well as of the highest voluptuousness?  An action that could be carried out in church, before the eyes of all, just as well as in darkness and solitude?  Or in a temple of roses, in the eye of the sun, to the chanting of choirs and a dance of wedding guests?  (21)

The character writing this is, remember, a physician.  He is disgusted by sex, by pregnancy, by childbirth (“that terrible symphony of screams and filth and blood”).  Freud is useful here because the author, Sjöderberg, has read Freud and is pouring unadulterated Freud into his novel.  Thus the Oedipal plot, where the Doctor considers murdering the ogreish father-figure Reverend Gregorius in order to free his beautiful wife from his disgusting sexual attention.  Glas is of course in love with the wife, who is a highly sexualized mother-figure.

One more post on Doctor Glas, since I’ve set up so many nice details here.

I wonder how many blog posts I have read about this novel.  Just recent ones that I remembered: Novel Readings, Pechorin’s Journal, Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat, all with good points and good quotations.

The translator is Paul Britten Austin.  Page numbers refer to the 2002 Anchor Books paperback.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

It’s the poetical history of mankind - Jean-Claude Carriére's Mahabharata - it’s pure as glass, yet nothing is omitted

The third India-related book I read was The Mahabharata, not the ancient Indian epic itself, of course, since it is endlessly long and also bears a curse, but the superb French theatrical adaptation by Jean-Claude Carriére (1985) written for and with Peter Brook (who is also the translator).  I was a bit too young to remember the excitement when Brook brought the play to New York in 1987, but I do remember reading about, in The New Republic (RIP), and never finding, the 1989 film (Carriére is best known as a screenwriter).  The film is three hours long, cut down from a six hour television version, itself reduced from the play’s nine hours.

So of course this is really A Mahabharata, maybe even Several Mahabharatas.  The scale is reduced, although I can fill in what Carriére and Brook cannot.  He can say that an army of millions is fighting and dying, but onstage he has a dozen or two.  I have millions, and dozens, too.  I imagine what is in the theater; I imagine what I want.

YUDHISHTHIRA:  What’s this flame that’s devouring the world?  Elephants are howling in terror, snakes are hurling themselves into the sky.

BHIMA:  Aswatthaman has just released his father’s sacred weapon.

YUDHISHTHIRA:  What can we do?  Men, animals, the earth itself – all are shriveling to ashes.

GANDHARI:  I see a white heat.  (199)

The detonation of a mystical nuclear weapon by the desperate Kauravas is just one of the visual opportunities for a theater director, and one of the many surprises for the reader.  I have read versions of the epic before, yet it is so rich that I am always surprised.

The war that ends the play – by ends, I mean fills the last third – including the difficult argument of the Bhagavad-Gita is outstanding, and the myths, origin stories, and heroic deeds that occupy the early two-thirds are just as exciting, but what is really makes the play effective, and is an innovation of Carriére’s, is the narrator figure Vyasa, by tradition author of The Mahabharata, who wanders in and out of the action.  Here is how the play begins:

A boy of about twelve enters.  He goes toward a little pool.  Then a man appears.  He is thin, wearing a muddy loincloth, his feet bare and dirty.  He sits thoughtfully on the ground and, noticing the boy, he signals him to come closer.  The boy approaches, slightly fearful.  The man asks him:VYASA:  Do you know how to write?

BOY:  No, why?  The man is silent for a moment before saying:

VYASA:  I’ve composed a great poem.  I’ve composed it all, but nothing is written.  I need someone to write down what I know.

BOY:  What’s your name?

VYASA:  Vyasa.

BOY:  What’s your poem about?

VYASA:  It’s about you.
[skip a bit]
It’s the poetical history of mankind.  If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.  For it’s pure as glass, yet nothing is omitted.  It washes away faults, it sharpens the brain and it gives long life.  (3)

I was pretty much captured several lines earlier, even before I learned about all the prize I would win.  And at this point, Ganesha appears, offering his services as a scribe.  These three wander through the rest of the play which it turns out has not only not been written but not performed, or the history has been imagined but has not happened.  We watch it happen along with its author.

There are other good ways to read The Mahabharata.  R. K. Narayan’s prose retelling, for example, or William Buck’s.  Maybe not better ways, though.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The journey was uncomfortable - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust

I wonder if Ruth Prawer Jhabvala read Eliza Fay’s book.  Her narrator in Heat and Dust (1975) seems to have read it:

2 February.  Arrival in Bombay today.  Not what I had imagined at all.  Of course I had always thought of arrival by ship, had forgotten how different it would be by plane.  All those memoirs and letters I’ve read, all those prints I’ve seen.  I really must forget about them.  Everything is different now.  (2)

Funny coincidence at least.

Jhabvala, unlike Fay, spends her novel writing about India – Bombay in this case.  The young woman who narrates goes to India during hippie days – various Beatlesque spiritual seekers are wandering about, and there is some good comedy at the expense of one of them – to search for information about “Grandfather’s first wife, who had eloped with an Indian prince” (2). This gives Jhabvala two levels to work with, the present of the narrator, and the 1920s of her great-aunt Olivia.  Independent versus colonial India; ordinary Indians in the present compared to the prince and his court in the past; a modern woman of one time compared to a modern woman of another.

The two women visit the same shrines and landmarks; both have affairs with Indian men; both are tormented by the weather:

As the heat and dust storms continue, Ritu’s condition has become worse.  (81)

The journey was uncomfortable, and not only because of heat and dust.  (131)

It’s the title, so I am supposed to notice, right?  The former is in the present, the latter in the past.  I wonder how many “heat and dust”’s I missed.  The European women are supposed to escape into the mountains, to Simla, setting of so many Kipling stories, but Olivia, understandably drawn to the local prince, who is exotic and virile and the usual stuff but most importantly interesting, stays in Bombay to endure the heat and dust, a great act of will that in a novel from an earlier time and a different kind of writer would have destroyed her.  Not anymore.

Jhabvala’s prose is more or less like this:

As the Nawab touched the baize cloth covering the grand piano, a small animal – it looked like a squirrel – came scurrying out and ran for its life.  The Nawab did not seem surprised.  “Do you like my pianos” he asked Olivia; and added apologetically “There is no one to play them.”  (87)

The past section is obviously written by the narrator in the preset, but is full of things she could not possibly know, so is thus her own fiction about her relative; thus the parallels between the stories are to a large degree her invention.  Or it is not written by the narrator, but rather by the omniscient narrator who is aware of all sorts of big and little correspondence about which the young woman in the present knows nothing.  Choose your metafiction.

Abortions, or their possibility, feature in both stories.  Ah, I thought, I am reading a novel from 1975, working with feminist issues of its time.  Why did this narrator go to India, what was she looking for in this old family story?  These questions give Heat and Dust its less political, more psychological or even metaphysical interest.  The narrator turns out to be one of the spiritual seekers drawn to India.  What does she seek?  What does she find?  Jhabvala does not tell, not directly.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

yet this story must be told in my own way - Eliza Fay's Original Letters from India

I read some books related to India. One of the was Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay (1816), which is exactly what it says it is.  And yet the title is deceptive.  The content of the book is almost entirely about Fay’s travels to and from India – to Calcutta, specifically – beginning in 1779 rather than her intermittent life in India.

E. M. Forster discovered Fay’s book while researching A Passage to India.  I doubt it was much help to him, given that it is from a century before his own book and is only barely, see above, about India, but he loved it, especially the flavorful, demanding voice of the author (“Eliza Fay is a work of art,” 7), a Strong Female Character if I have ever seen one, so Forster got the Hogarth Press to put his edition in 1925.

The ways of Providence are inscrutable!  But to revert to my main subject, – glad shall I be when it is concluded; for I detest matter of fact writing, almost as much as matter of fact conversation: – yet this story must be told in my own way, or not at all.  (129)

Other than the unusually eventful voyages themselves, the reason the book exists is that Fay and her husband, arriving in India, were seized by a warlord as hostages in some game he was playing with the English and French, who were currently at war.  Their captivity is described in indignant detail:

… here we lay down, comparatively happy in the hope of enjoying a tolerable nights rest; my husband being provided with a long pole to keep off the rats; but surely never were poor mortals so completely disappointed and for my own part I may add, terrified…  The rats also acted their part in the Comedy; every now and then jumping towards the beds, as we could hear; however Mr. F–  on these occasions laid about him stoutly with his pole, and thus kept them at bay; but our winged adversaries were not so easily foiled…  (135-6)

I have cheated a bit by quoting a bit that could almost come from a Gothic novel, although one with an unusually resourceful heroine.  She does faint on occasion, though.  That Gothic heroine fainting is drawn from life.  Tight clothes, I suppose.  Regardless, an extraordinary woman.  She seems to have spent much of her life working as a speculative trader in India, a high risk occupation, but she was the sort of person who relished risk.

A good part of the fun of Forster’s edition of Eliza Fay’s book is in his notes:

JOHN HARE.  How she loathes this chattering mannikin!...  We must never forget that she herself was a most trying woman, particularly on a boat, and that Mr. Hare would not have found her table manners funny, or appreciated her contempt for the violin.  (note 17, p. 276)

Or maybe this is the best note:

FOOD.  From various passages it is clear that our heroine was of the hungry type.  People who write long letters often are.  That very June “the Surgeon of an Indiaman fell dead after eating a hearty dinner of beef, thermometre being 98°”… but the warning did not deter her.  She ate and ate till the end – asparagus, pork, tunny, turtle, preserved peaches, ghi.  (note 28, 280)

Eliza Fay is my new gluttonous role model.

Page numbers refer to the 2010 NYRB reprint of Fay and Forster’s book.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

it is very far from absurd or even allegorical, but literally true - The Golden Pot is not literally true

‘… you may well think it mere crazy nonsense; nevertheless, it is very far from absurd or even allegorical, but literally true.’  (Third Vigil)

Yeah, well.  Maybe some of The Golden Pot is on the allegorical side, even if the allegory is essentially private.  Transcending earthly things or becoming an artist, something like that.  And even though some elements that look like they ought to be part of the allegory are just there for fun.

But other parts of the story are literally true, and those have meaning, too.  Hoffmann seems to have written The Golden Pot as a response to the Battle of Dresden, when Napoleon’s army invaded the city and defeated the Allied army outside the city.  Hoffmann wrote a “Vision on the Battlefield of Dresden” that I have not read.  The Golden Pot is stripped of the war – almost:

Angelica… was betrothed to an officer who was serving in the army, and he had not been heard of for so long that he must surely be dead, or at least badly wounded.  This had plunged Angelica into the deepest grief, but today she was cheerful and almost boisterous, which Veronica, as she frankly declared, found most surprising.  (Fifth Vigil)

She knows that her officer has been lightly wounded in the arm, which “prevents him from writing,” but will be home soon, and with a promotion to boot.  She knows this because a fortune-telling witch told her.  “’I don’t doubt it’s truth for a single moment.’”  All of the magical nonsense is resolved by the end of the story, but not this detail.  Hoffmann never says is the officer arrives or not.  Perhaps he knows and does not want to say.

These two sisters are the Realists set against the Idealist hero.  It is a Kantian novel.  In the last Vigil, the narrator reveals that although he would like to be an Idealist, he, too is stuck in reality.  He cannot even describe the hero’s happy ending:

I perceived with disgust the inadequacy of every possible expression.  I felt entangled in the petty tedium of daily life; my tormenting dissatisfaction made me ill; I crept around as though lost in dreams…

Luckily, the salamander magician intervenes for him, too, ordering Hoffmann to “leave your garret, come down your damned five flights of stairs [poor suffering writers], and pay me a visit.”  He brings the author “the favorite drink of your friend Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler,’” who is featured in other Hoffmann stories, “’a flaming arrack… sprinkled with sugar.’”  The wizard then plunges into the goblet.

Undeterred, I blew the flames gently aside and took a sip of the drink.  It was delicious!

And Hoffmann is able to finish his story.  If he cannot physically travel to the happy land of the lily and salamander, he “’at least [has] a pretty farm there, as the poetic property of [his] mind.’”  Maybe a little bit of an allegory.

Thus ends German Literature Month at Wuthering Expectations.  Thanks to Lizzy and Caroline for the impetus to read and reread.

I’ll take a couple of days off for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Back Monday with some books about India; that is the current plan.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

everything strange and weird came to seem merely unusual and romantic - E.T.A. Hoffmann's Golden Pot

E. T. A. Hoffmann’s weird and crazy novella The Golden Pot: A Modern Fairytale, a landmark of fantasy literature, was published two hundred years ago.  The branch that grew out of this story includes Carroll’s Alice books, George MacDonald’s dream novels, John Crowley’s Little, Big, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – the kinds of stories things and people are constantly transforming into other things and people, where it is not entirely clear which parts of the story  are dreams and which are “real,” or if there is even a difference.

Anselmus, a college student in Dresden, and a nebbish, or perhaps a schlemiel, in quick succession is cursed by a witch and falls in love with a green snake with “magnificent dark-blue eyes” who appears with her two snake sisters in a tree on the banks of the Elbe.

All was silent, and Anselmus saw in the three gleaming, shimmering snakes gliding through the glass towards the river; with a swishing, rushing sound they plunged into the Elbe, and as they vanished into its waves a crackling green flame shot up and flew obliquely towards the town, fizzling out as it went.  (First Vigil – The Golden Pot has not Chapters but Vigils).

Most Hoffmann characters who wander into another state of being are under the influence of something and Anselmus has been smoking his “health tobacco.”  The snakes turn out to be the daughters of a wizard-salamander who is from Atlantis, where – anyways a bunch of crazy nonsense follows.

Normal people, like Anselmus, just walking around in their everyday city, suddenly slip into a fairy tale world that has somehow overlaid the everyday world.  So lots of metamorphoses, people into birds and door-knockers; birds into flowers; flowers into birds:

Once more Anselmus was astonished by the magnificence of the conservatory, but he could now perceive that many of the strange flowers hanging on the dark bushes were in fact insects resplendent in gleaming colours, flapping their little wings and dancing and flitting in a swarm as though caressing one another with their probosces.  As for the rose-pink and sky-blue birds, they had turned into fragrant flowers…  (Eighth Vigil)

Hoffmann’s great discovery was that he could his assemble this hodgepodge of esoteric symbols, taken from myth or alchemy or Freemasonry but stripped of their original meaning.  He could arrange some so that they created meaning of their own, his meaning.  “You will then believe that this magnificent realm is much nearer at hand than you had previously thought,” writes the narrator in one of several interruptions addressed “outright” to the reader (Fourth Vigil).

And the fact is that it does not matter much if the reader finds any coherent meaning at all.  The sense of wonder and delight is all there.

I have been quoting from the Oxford World’s Classics The Golden Pot and Other Tales, tr. Ritchie Robertson.  The post’s title is from the Seventh Vigil; I have mangled it a bit, but the spirit is right.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Christopher Benfey searches for the event of a thread - his pottery memoir

I’ve become a fan of Christopher Benfey’s books, mixes of history, art, and biography, underlaid with literary history.  Benfey is an English professor at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts, a specialist in Stephen Crane and Emily Dickinson and seemingly the entirety of 19th century American literature. 

But his books are anything but pure literary studies.  He traces connections between disparate people, places and artworks.  The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003), his best book that I have read, begins with Herman Melville and ends with Martin Heidegger, which turns out to be completely logical once I follow his path.  A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade (2008) – well, see title.  With Benfey, you have to include the subtitle.

His books are like American non-fiction cousins of W. G. Sebald’s novels.  Another relative is Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), which ranges widely across de Waal’s wide-ranging family history, moving from Paris to Austria to Tokyo with ease.  Benfey’s last book, which I just finished, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay (2012) very strongly resembles Hare.  Both authors, for example, describe their training as potters in Japan, even if for Benfey it was just a teenage episode (de Waal is now one of the world’s greatest living potters).  No surprise to de Waal thanked in the acknowledgements.

Where the motif of the hummingbird flits through A Summer of Hummingbirds, in Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay it is clay* – different kinds of clay, different kinds of pots, and different kinds of artists, with pottery ranging from North Carolina folk pottery to the avant garde designs of Black Mountain College artists, and artists ranging from his mother, a potter, to his great-aunt Anni Albers, among the greatest fabric artists ofthe 20th century.  Thus Benfey’s great-uncle is the painter Josef Albers.

The book and its string of connections are based on Benfey’s own life an family, so it is effectively a memoir that reaches outside of the family in various ways.  It helps, for this kind of book, to be related to some famous artists.  He is related to the 18th century American naturalist William Bartram, too, so there is a chapter about that, Bartram’s wandering around the American southeast.  Benfey’s father was a chemist who, like the Bauhaus-affiliated Alberses, fled the Nazis.  He invented the spiral periodic table of elements.

I know, it is hardly fair.  The book almost writes itself.

The best section is the middle, on the Alberses and Black Mountain College.  The middle chapter is “The Meander,” about the pattern common in ancient European and American art, but also, secretly, about Benfey’s method.

During these forays on the site of what had once been a vital and creatively intense community, I was groping for a metaphor to capture the proceedings.  I wanted a dominant form that would somehow link our own zigzag path with the artistic concerns of the Alberses.  As we began to retrace our route through the maze of streets near Black Mountain, I realized that the key had been there all along, in the meander pattern so dear to Josef and Anni.  (152-3)

At Black Mountain, Anni Albers

led her students to discover what she called, somewhat mysteriously, “the event of a thread.”  I had sometimes imagined her as a modern Ariadne, leading the way out of the Labyrinth.  (147)

This is just what Benfey’s books do.  Ah, come on, all of that stuff doesn’t go together.  But no, it does, in the right hands.

*  Clay and Quakers.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

“I read Leg over Leg and understood it all!” - what Arabic novels were like in 1855

This last book featured during Wuthering Expectations education week mostly educated me, and it mostly taught me that it exists.  The book the 1855 Arabic novel is Leg over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree concerning The Fāriyāq What Manner of Creature Might He Be, Vol. 1 (of four), by Fāris al-Shidyāq, a Lebanese Maronite of great learning and greater smartassery.  The novel is a digressive, parodic, smutty metafictional autobiography, some kind of relative of Tristram Shandy although with vocabulary lists and discussions of grammar, far more writing about words.

Thus, the sounds produced by an organ:

The tambour is to the organ as the branch is to the tree or the thigh to the body, for the only sound that it makes is a strumming, while the organ produces strumming and humming, mumbling and rumbling, jangling and jingling, squeaking and creaking, [skipping many more sounds], frogs ribbiting and ears tinky-tinkling, bulls bellowing and gaming-house reprobates roaring, reverberations and crepitations, pots gently bubbling and chilly dogs whimpering, [skip skip skip] not to mention caw-caw and hubble-bubble and wham-bam and slurp-slurp and baa-baa and tee-hee and keek-keek and buzz-buzz and schlup-flup – after all of which, what’s wrong, God guide you, with plinkety-plink?  (89-91)

One of those is obscene.  At least one.*  Plenty of the book, and I have only read a quarter of the entire novel, is obscene, or as obscene as a list of words can be,  with, for example, lists of names for organs of the generative kind.  See this excerpt from Volume 3 – search for “protruberance.”  It is the smuttiness of the lexicographer.   The translator, Humphrey Davies, deserves a prize, and a vacation.  Please see thisfascinating interview.  “What to do when seventeen Arabic words in a list are all given an identical definition in the Arabic dictionaries?”  The unimprovable 2013 New York University Press edition includes facing-page Arabic – the original language! in a translation not of poetry but a novel! – allowing me to see, just by visual inspection even though I do not know a single character of Arabic, some of the effects Davies is trying to duplicate.

Leg over Leg cooks along a lot faster than Tristram Shandy, so that by the time the first quarter of the novel has ended the protagonist has not only been born but has been schooled and begun his career as a merchant, which I think is actually an allegory for religious conversion – his “goods” are actually ideas is the conceit, I think.

My favorite part of the chapters about education are the warnings of the horrible deaths suffered by everyone who studies grammar – “tetters,” goiter, ulcers, and “a headache (and what a headache!), caused by connective wāw, resumptive wāw, affirmative wāw, supplemental wāw,, and negative wāw” (169), none of which exactly encourages the study of Arabic grammar, or any grammar at all. Perhaps I should have instead the preceding paragraph about the categories of metaphors, including “the absquililferous, the vulgaritissimous, the exquipilifabulous,” and so on through the “anal-resonatory,” which may give a hint about the tone in which al-Shidyāq is writing.

Over all, the prologue should be as difficult as possible to understand; a prologue that isn’t serves notice that the book as a whole is poorly written and not worth the reading.  (169)

Well, the book is not that difficult, but I believe I have made its challenges clear enough (although for a more complete review please see Michael Orthofer’s Complete Review).  It is worth knowing the book exists.  This is an Arabic novel from 1855, this crazy thing.

I borrowed the title from p. 247.

*  “schlup-flup” (khāqibāqi)

Friday, November 21, 2014

It was not surprising that none of these things was any help - Hesse tells two stories

It was the anti-school angle that attracted me to Hesse’s Unterm Rad aka The Prodigy.  I was curious to bounce it off of the French books that attacked school, like those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jules Vallès, and especially to skeptical German-language fiction like Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless, another book about sensitive boarding school boys that was published just a year after Hesse.  The Prodigy does not otherwise have much in common with Musil, but does resemble Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry (1855/ 1879) in a number of curious ways.

Hesse reaches towards the thickly described, distantly narrated fiction of Theodor Fontane and Thomas Mann, but at in form he has written a classic 19th century German novella.  I think the most distinctive, irritating feature of the novel, the clumsy, sarcastic, intrusive narrator is his own.

I showed that narrator yesterday, and will just give one more example of how can stomp on his own scenes.  The apple harvest has come in – it’s cider time!

The many children, however, rich and poor alike, ran about with little mugs, all of them carrying an apple they had bitten into in one hand and a hunk of bread in the other; for as long as anyone could remember there had been a saying – quite groundless – that if you ate bread at the cider harvest you did not get the colic.  (Ch. 6, 121)

You either cringe a little at “quite groundless” or you will get along better with the narrator than I did.  The digression on Swabia in Chapter 3 may still test your patience.  “And so this fruitful province whose politically great traditions stretch back into the past still exerts” okay let’s cut that short.

I don’t want to complain any more.  There is some fine stuff in this book.  There is, just a couple of pages after that Swabian nonsense, of the student who is so cheap he secretly uses other students’ soap and towels and takes violin lessons, even though he hates the violin, just because they are free.  There is this doctor:

The pale ex-student strolled round in the open air every day, joyless and weary, avoiding even the few opportunities of social intercourse that were offered.  The doctor prescribed drops, cod-liver oil, eggs and cold shower baths.

It was not surprising that none of these things was any help.  (Ch. 6, 119)

No, not such a surprise.  I am piecing together the hidden comic novel hidden in the actual more gloomy one.  But I what I want to end on is the uncanny part of the novel, which is not just obligatory in the German novella has greatly deepens and possibly even upends the meaning of the novel.

After a promising start, Hans has washed out of the theological college, for reasons discussed yesterday.  Back home, he revisits his childhood, including the fairy tale slum, full of vice and crime, which he loved:

The ‘Falken’ was the one spot where a fairy tale, a miracle, a dreadful horror could happen, where any magic was credible, where it was possible to believe in ghosts and where you could feel the same thrilling shudder that you felt as you read old legends…

The activities of the tanners in the various chambers, the cellar yard and on the floors were weird and peculiar, the vast, yawning rooms were as quiet as they were intriguing, the powerfully built and surly master was shunned and dreaded as an ogre, and Liese went about the remarkable house like a fairy protector and mother to all the children, birds, cats and puppies, brimful of kindness, stories and ballad songs.  (Ch. 5, 116-7)

Hans has at this point taken his exams, gone to college, and washed out.  This strange neighborhood and Hans’s strange relation with it has never been hinted at until this point, as if Hesse had just thought of it, as if he knew that the sternness of the schools was inadequate to the story he was telling, a story which is more fundamentally about the loss of childhood.  The more complex symbolic story, in this episode strongly literalized, dominates and perhaps crushes the more topical protest against teaching boys Greek.