Tuesday, August 4, 2015

they thought about all that had happened, which seemed dark, very dark - yeah, no kidding, it's Giovanni Verga

Remembering all these things, they let their spoons drop in their soup bowls and they thought about all that had happened, which seemed dark, very dark, as though the deep shadows of the medlar tree hung over it.  (Ch. 15, 255)

Just three pages from the end of The House by the Medlar Tree here, and the surviving characters are thinking what I was thinking, pretty much, although I did not drag the tree back in, which is a little heavy.  The actual title of the novel is I Malavoglia, which would be The Malavoglia, the name of the family, not an impossible title in English but I see why no one uses it.

There was a time when the Malavoglia were as thick as the stones on the old Trezza road.  You could find them even at Ognina and Aci Castello, all seagoing folk, good, upright, the exact opposite of what you would think from their nickname.  (Ch. 1, p. 7, first two lines)

So even the family name needs a translation or explanation.  “The Ill-willed” or something like that, suggests Cecchetti, or “The Malevolent.”  “[T]hey always had their own boats in the water and their own roof tiles in the sun” (7).  Everything goes great for them until the third page of the novel, when the eldest grandchild is called up for military service, a huge irony because Sicily did not have a draft until Italian unification – “it was just what he deserved, and that it was all due to that revolution out of hell which they’d made by unfurling a tricolor kerchief on the church tower” (9), or so says the priest, who we saw yesterday on his way to his fried spaghetti.

But as luck would have it the boy was built without a flaw, as they can still make them at Aci Trezza, and the conscription doctor, when he saw that hulking young man in front of him, said that his only defect was to be planted like a pillar on those huge feet which looked like cactus blades. (9)

More irony, since the flawless grandson eventually does more to destroy his family than anyone else, aside from the acts of God – storms, cholera – with which the gentle, pitying novelist blasts his characters.

Maruzza was already in bed, and in the dark at that hour her eyes looked as though death had sucked them dry, and her lips were as black as coal.  In those days neither the doctor nor the pharmacist went about after sunset; and for fear of the cholera, even the neighbors barred their doors and pasted pictures of saints all over the cracks.  (Ch. 11, 172)

Giovanni Verga mostly writes in a plain style, using language and metaphors his characters would use, but these little surprises pop up, like those saints.  The sentence is one of horror, really.  The death of human fellowship.  “But little by little, their black kerchiefs around their necks, they began to go out on the street, like snails after a rainstorm, pale and still bewildered” (173).  Sharp as a knife, black as coal, cackled like a hen – I am pulling more ordinary similes from the same page as those more vivid and surprising snails.

The next Verga novel, Mastro-don Gesualdo, is more of a pain to find, but I will see if I can get it.  The characters start richer, so they should have further to fall.   Verga planned to write a five-volume series “collectively titled I vinti (The Doomed)” (p. viii), but only completed these two books.  Maybe two is enough.

Monday, August 3, 2015

One must be happy over other people’s good fortune - Giovanni Verga, The House by the Medlar Tree

Giovanni Verga, The House by the Medlar Tree (1881).

This novel was kinda hard.  I rarely say that.  Verga sets up a Sicilian family, not exactly poor – they own a boat and the house seen in the English title – and proceeds to systematically grind them to powder.  Unpleasant in its way, but not what I mean by difficult.  I mean Verga made me work a little bit.  The tough part comes in Chapter 2, when, after the short introduction of the Malivoglia family in the first chapter, Verga plunges into the village, introducing dozens of intertwined characters, little tags or relations or something to give poor me a hope of remembering them, if there were not so many at once.

Since Don Franco was an educated person he read the newspaper and made the others read it too; and he also had the History of the French Revolution, which he kept handy under the glass mortar, and so, to kill time, he quarreled all day long with Don Giammaria, the parish priest, and they both made themselves sick with bile, but they couldn’t have lived through a day without seeing each other.  (18)

Pretty good in isolation, but a couple of lines later add in “Don Michele, the sergeant of the customs guard…  and also Don Silvestro, the town clerk” plus “the Mangiacarrube girl, one of those girls who sit at the window, as brazen as they come” (20) and then “La Zuppidda, the wife of Mastro Turi, the caulker, suddenly popped up” (21).  Two pages earlier I had been told, by other characters, that Don Silvestro is interested in La Zuppidda’s daughter, but has been refused, “’[w]hich means that Mastro Turi Zuppiddo prefers the eggs of his own hens,’ Master ‘Ntoni replied” (19).  Several characters have multiple names, too.  The edition I read has a Cast of Characters at the beginning, thank goodness.

Many readers say they like novels, as opposed to short stories, because novels are “immersive.”  They should love The House by the Medlar Tree.  Kersplash!  Maybe that is not whatthey mean by “immersive.”

“Don Giammaria is having fried spaghetti for dinner tonight,” Piedipapera declared, sniffing in the direction of the parish house windows.

Don Giammaria, passing by on his way home, greeted all of them, even Piedipapera, because, times being what they were, you had to keep on the good side of even such troublemakers; and Piedipapera, whose mouth was still watering, shouted after him: “Say, Don Giammaria, fried spaghetti tonight, eh!”

“Hear that! Even what I eat!” Don Giammaria muttered through his teeth.  “They even spy on God’s servants to count every mouthful they take!”  (28)

A few more lines with the priest, not a particularly important character in the novel, and Verga hops to another character.  Verga is going to give everyone’s point of view, maybe just for a line, just a single thought, which as here is not really about spaghetti but is rather a comment, usually somehow resentful, about some other character.  Verga’s Sicilians are not exactly models of solidarity.

“I’m very glad about it,” said Uncle Crocifisso, who’d also come to watch, his hands clasped behind his back.  “We’re Christians, and one must be happy over other people’s good fortune.  The proverb says: ‘Wish your neighbor well, because you too will profit.’”  (56)

This particular character is a monster, and thus the perfect character for this speech.  The terrible irony is that in Verga’s world, this sort of sentiment has to be spoken aloud.  People have to be reminded of it.  And even then, they don’t mean it.

I read the Raymond Rosenthal translation.  It is, Giovanni Cecchetti writes, the first English translation of the complete text.  Earlier versions (by Mary Craig and Eric Mosbacher) cut a fifth of the text for the usual prudish reasons, so avoid those.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

So everything is to go on as before - living with Fontane's Poggenpuhl family

Fontane, at the end of his life, moved towards plotlessness.  He knew how to employ the melodrama of life, so to speak.  The events of Schach von Wuthenow / The Man of Honor (1882, the same year as L’Adultera) are effectively shocking.  Irretrievable (1892) has the main characters escape a fire across a rooftop, although I see that last year I wrote a post about Fontane’s slow pace in which I noted that the fire is practically the first event depicted in the novel, on page 201 of 256.  The first actual even, the beginning of an adulterous affair, took place in the blank space on page 200.

Not much happens in Fontane, is what I am saying, and my impression is that less happened as he wrote more fiction, culminating in a practically plotless but beloved and much quoted final novel, Der Stechlin (1898 – much quoted by Germans, I mean – I haven’t read it), and the novella Die Poggenpuhls / The Poggenpuhl Family (1896), which is intelligently paired with L’Adultera in a Penguin Classics volume.  A family with an old name has entered genteel poverty.  Three daughters live with their mother, “Major von Poggenpuhl’s widow” who “suffered from a perpetual cough and lived almost entirely on barley sugar and cough pastilles” (Ch. 1, 133).  I believe there may be some symbolism in that line.  Two sons are in the military, poor officers hoping to score promotions.  Every few days, the devoted maid has to dust and then, inevitably, rehang their prize possession, an oil painting “artistically of the third or even fourth degree of merit” showing the death in battle of one of their ancestors.

Whose story is told in the 96 pages of this book?  That of the mother; one or another of the daughters; the maid?  Soon the younger son drops in, so maybe – no, now he is gone.  An uncle visits, too, and treats his nephew and nieces to the theater and a restaurant.   One of the sisters goes to keep an aunt company.  There is a sledding accident.  The uncle dies and everyone goes to the funeral.  The Poggenpuhls have a bit more money at the end of the book than at the beginning.

“So everything is to go on as before?”

“Yes.”  (Ch. 15, 228, a few lines form the end of the book)

The book is not static but it is hardly eventful.  And it never does become the story of a particular character or two.  I sometimes felt Die Poggenpuhls was written twenty years too early.

So she took the coffee mill down from the shelf and went briskly to work.  When she had ground the coffee beans, she tipped them into the filter bag so that they would be ready later for her to pour on the water; finally she put the kettle back on the fire, picked up the basket of firewood… (etc., Ch. 2, 141)

Not that the entire book is written like this – hardly any of it – as if you do not know how coffee is made or fires are lit, just as not all of the dialogue is meaningless or atmospheric social chatter, although some of it definitely is.  How do you know who these people are?  In Fontane’s fiction, I do not eavesdrop on their thoughts.  I just live with them for a little while.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Well meaning but clumsy - a quote from but not a description of Fontane's L'Adultera

My shorthand for Theodor Fontane is that he brought the techniques of Flaubert into German literature, which spent most of the 19th century in its own aesthetic world.  I do not actually know that Fontane even read Flaubert.  He certainly could have reached the same point on his own path, his decades as a journalist and travel writer leading him, when he decided to turn to fiction at a fairly late age (59 when he published his first novel), to a Flaubert-like style: lots of incidental minutiae, limited third person point of views with lots of shifts among characters, scenes of dialogue that are more like chatter (another kind of minutiae).  Attention to detail but at a distance.  His novels are in the genre I call, after Trollope, “The Way We Live Now,” but with a style radically different than the voluble Trollope’s.

He was if anything more radical than Flaubert, spending more time on the surface of his story, allowing less time in the thoughts of his character.  Flaubert was more of a telepath.  Fontane just sees his characters, and hears what they say, thus the details and the chatter, Fontane’s artful, or trivial, means to reveal who his characters really are.

I keep nattering to excess about Flaubert not just because of style, but because Fontane’s best known novel, in English, at least, is an adultery novel, although one that has little resemblance to Madame Bovary.  Much closer is Fontane’s 1882 novella L’Adultera, the title translated, perhaps unnecessarily, by Gabrielle Annan as The Woman Taken in Adultery.  The Italian title is the name of a Tintoretto painting, the acquisition of which by the good-hearted but insecure Commercial Councillor van der Straaten prefigures the events of the novel.  Poor van der Straaten – his great fault is that at this worst, he is annoying, not solely but especially to his young, elegant wife.  His anxiety about being annoying is especially annoying.  For example, giving his wife the gift of a painting about an adulteress as an expression of his fear of adultery.  I believe we now use the term “passive aggressive.”

A big difference from Flaubert and Madame Bovary: despite his authorial distance – because of it, he might insist – he creates great sympathy for all of his major characters.  L’Adultera is a novel of surprising warmth and forgiveness. How can I not be sympathetic to a man who fears his family excursion to the countryside will be ruined:

“… out in front all the time with a harmonica.”

“For heaven’s sake,” cried van der Straaten, “A squeezebox?”

“No sir.  More like a mouth organ.”

“Thank God…”  (Ch. 8, p. 47)

Maybe this ploy for the sympathy of the reader is too blatant, since we all loather the squeezebox, but Fontane does create other, perhaps more substantial reasons to sympathize with van der Straaten and to not laugh but wince when he plays the fool too much.

The wife receives a similarly gentle, clear-eyed treatment.  The reconciliation at the novel’s end is a lovely moment, even if it still a bit passive-aggressive (“’Always the same.  Well meaning but clumsy.” Ch. 22, 129), and involves a specific kind of Prussian Christmas gift that requires a footnote.  I sometimes come across dismay that 19th century novels about adultery always end in a certain way.  No, not always.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Wandering Berlin with Theodor Fontane

I had the pleasure of spending a few days trooping around Berlin, getting to know the city a little bit.  A lot more than the glimpse of it I got fifteen years ago, which was hardly any help at all.  Berlin has changed so much, and so quickly; been destroyed and rebuilt in cycles.  It is still rebuilding and shifting, perhaps not as rapidly as in the 1990s, although there are still construction cranes all over.

Many years ago I was in a book club that read Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1895).  Several readers noted that they had difficulties with the place names and settings (in Berlin and a Baltic coast town).  They had few referents for Berlin, almost none compared to Paris or London, cities we visit in literature so often that their landmarks take on meaning regardless of whether we have been there ourselves.  We create our own geography out of books, films, and news, much of it wrong but imaginatively functional.  For English-language readers, Berlin is more nebulous.

And then they keep changing it!  Literary Vienna may be unfamiliar, too, but the Vienna of Schnitzler still exists in some way.  Fontane’s Berlin is harder to find.

L’Adultera / The Woman Taken in Adultery (1882), one of Fontane’s earliest novellas.  Title first (and for English readers that title needs a footnote), then surname, then address, as if I might send him a postcard.  The street has changed its name along with its character.  Their apartment has been replaced with either a parking lot or a Novotel. But he is right in the center of the city, on the Museum Island, in the middle of things, where a man of his stature ought to be.  Or so I understand now that I have looked into it.

The Penguin Classics edition, translated by Gabrielle Annan, that includes L’Adultera pairs it with the later, more exquisite, nearly plotless The Poggenpuhl Family (1896), about an aristocratic family in decline.  The address is delayed to the second sentence this time – “Since they had moved to Berlin from Pommersch-Stargard seven years ago they had lived in a corner house in the Grossgröschenstrasse, a new building only just completed and still damp in the walls when they arrived.”  I was not quite in the vicinity, but close enough to suspect that their apartment, if it survived the war, is now the home of a Turkish or Bosnian family.  Grossgröschenstrasse is definitely not in the center of things.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Pommersch-Stargard is now in Poland.

All of this would have been easy shorthand for Fontane’s readers.  Some of it is easy for current German readers.  But I have to, or at least should, look up every street and park.  Eh, once upon a time I did not know where Kew Gardens or the Bois de Boulogne were, either, or what it might mean if a character set foot in them, but that’s old stuff now.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Danube by Claudio Magris - The European spirit feeds on books

Books read weeks ago, inadequate notes, a vacation in the meantime.  Let’s see how this goes.

Danube (1986) is a river chronicle, a travel book, a personalized study of middle European culture.  The author, Claudio Magris, is an Italian professor of German literature at the University of Trieste, so mostly this book about a river is really about books.

The European spirit feeds on books, like the demons in Singer’s stories, gnaws at the volumes of history in the libraries or, like moths, eat into ladies’ hats, shawls, and other dainty items of the wardrobe.  (265)

Magris is in Budapest at this point, or pretending that he is.  The offhand reference to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who has no relation to the Danube at all, hardly the only one in the book, is what I mean by “personalized,” much like the surprisingly frequent mentions of Magris’s fellow Triestines Umberto Saba and Italo Svevo.

The book begins at the source of the Danube in southwest Germany – early sections about competing claims to the source are genuinely comic – and ends at the mouth.  In Germany and Austria, Magris, expert in the language, history, and culture, can stitch together every scrap at hand.  The city of Ulm leads him to Céline, the sacking of the city by 18th century Bavarian troops, the Bread Museum (“there is a great list of the prices of a pound of bread over the course of a decade (1914-24)),” and the extraordinary 2,164 page Navigation and Rafting on the Upper Danube (1952-64) by the Engineer Neweklowsky, who, “[l]ike Flaubert or Proust… devoted his entire existence to the work, to writing, to The Book.”  Sebald must have admired this section.  Everyone will admire the one on Ferdinand Thrän, author of The Cathedral of Ulm, an Exact Description of the Same (1857), and also a File of Rudenesses Received “which lies, unpublished and unknown, in a box put away in a cupboard in the cathedral” (75).  “If genuine writing is born from the desire to account for the copious inconvenience of living, then Thrän is a real writer.”

Once Magris enters Czechoslovakia he loses his language and becomes an outsider, even a tourist.  If anything, these chapters are even more interesting than those on the German-language countries, as Magris surrenders his certainty.  Mine, too.  What did I know about Slovakian literature, or the German literatures of Serbia or Romania?  Zippo.  Herta Müller is identified as particularly good, although now she “has been forced into silence” (306).

Magris discusses these writers and literatures with great curiosity, alongside his desperate attempts to get someone in Slovakia to serve him a beer.  “But even at the Kyjev [hotel] beer is a chimera; one evening, from under the counter, the porter furtively produces a lukewarm bottle for us” (227).  Magris is travelling circa 1983, 1984, and there is no illusion that the Communist countries are functioning at all well.  Ceaușescu’s Romania, where Magris attends a literary conference, is particularly awful; Bulgaria is especially pleasant.

An aside:  “Lászlo Németh, the leader of the school of writers who aim at popular appeal[!], has said that Hungarian literature is in a situation of ‘permanent death agony’” (257).  What a great slogan for a Hungarian reading event of some sort!  That is why I mention it.  “Permanent death agony,” outstanding!

A friendly reader thought I would enjoy Danube and pointed it out to me.  Yes, many thanks.  Patrick Creagh translated.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bookish travel notes from an unbookish vacation

New in Krimis:  Or new to me.  Animal mysteries.  Zoo mysteries.  These categories might overlap.  After the success of Glennkill: Ein Schafskrimi (2005), in which a flock of sheep solve a murder, a wave of animal detectives was inevitable, but I was not expecting a novel in which the sleuths are a pair of meerkats, a book I held in my hands in a Viennese bookstore.  If you had an idea for a mystery starring a raccoon or a flock of crows but thought, no, the whole thing is much too stupid, I say squelch your doubts and write the dang thing before someone beats you to it.  Cash in.

Similarly, we came across a Krimi in which the detective was Theodor Storm, who in fact did help solve crimes in his role as a judge in Husum, although the novel is set long before that, and before he wrote his great uncanny novellas, when Storm was a young Romantic poet.  Who investigated murders.  What a bad idea.  But now my own notion of a series of mysteries starring Marcel Proust only looks half as dumb.  The enigmatic stranger with the prosthetic leg, who may be the killer but turns out to be an ally, is Arthur Rimbaud.  Faked his death.  I’m giving that away for free.  I’m  not gonna write any Proust mysteries.  See above – the time is right for your series of Detective Whitman / Inspector Eliot / Special Agent Tzara mysteries.  Do not hesitate.  Either Eliot; both would make terrific detectives.  Tristan Tzara is the Dada Detective – good, right?  Better than Theodor Storm or a pair of meerkats.

Meine Frau read a zoo mystery, Das Schweigen des Lemming (The Silence of the Lemming, 2006) by Stefan Slupetzky, in which Lemming, a security guard at the Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Vienna investigates the death of a penguin, which maybe sounds a little thin, but it turns out the novel is full of detail about Vienna’s art world, including, for example, the 2003 theft of the Cellini Salt Cellar, which I finally got to see with my own eyes.

At one point – this is all secondhand, since I could not read the book myself – an informant needs to meet with Lemming.  Knowing the detective is a fan of Thomas Bernhard, he suggests they meet in the Kunsthistoriches Museum – “You know where.”  He means in the Titian room, in front of the painting “Man with a White Beard,” the setting of Old Masters (1985).  It had been so long since Lemming read Bernhard’s novel that he has to run to the bookstore to look up which painting is meant, but still, do you see what I am getting at here?

In Vienna, the stature of Thomas Bernhard is so high that in a mystery about the death of a penguin it is assumed that readers are comfortable with casual references to specific elements of Bernhard novels.  We stumbled upon Bernhard frequently, even in the Jewish Museum (Bernhard was not Jewish), where a clip from one of his plays was deployed ironically.  The Vienna-Bernhard phenomenon is unusual.

That Titian room is magnificent.  Like the room with the Cellini, it was closed the last time I was in Vienna.

Well, that’s something.  My post-vacation resolution is to make Wuthering Expectations more breezy and shallow.  Off to a good start.  Tomorrow, I will continue with a book I have read rather than books I have seen but cannot read.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Sicilian folktales and a storyteller of genius - and then I go on vacation

This will be the last post for a while as I vacate the premises.  Calvino’s Italian Folktales will top the blog for a couple of weeks.

About the only thing I have learned this year about Italian literature as a whole is to pay careful attention to the region of the writer and the book.  Italian literature is more fragmented than even German.  Italian Folktales is organized by region, moving from north to south, roughly.  No surprise that the northern stories are more Grimm-like, more German, with some exceptions like the impoverished backwater of Friuli, which we all remember as the region so remote that pagan fertility battles against witches survived into the 17th century, where the specialty is stories about the dim, greedy, peasant-like St. Peter who is always getting into dumb scrapes from which he is saved by his pal Jesus.

Poorer regions have different stories.  Calabrian tales are especially blunt and brutal.  And Sicilian tales – we have moved into another world here.  44 stories from Sicily, over a quarter of the book, eleven of them from a single story-teller of genius, Agatuzza Messia, “seventy-year-old seamstress of winter quilts.”

Messia’s stories are longer and more complex, with more unusual imagery and more imaginative attention to scene and action.  She tells her stories more like a novelist. 

They washed their hands, mixed up a bit of Majorcan flour, made four fine pies, and sent them off to be baked…
Then she made another one exactly like it, only with regular flour and water drawn from the trough in which she washed the oven broom.  (#150, “Pippina the Serpent,” p. 535)

Or how about:

Two of the loaves were ring-shaped and seasoned with anise and sesame seed.  (#149, “Misfortune,” 531)

Or examples that do not involve baking.  That same story has a description of laundering that on its own is too dull to quote, but in context plumps up Messia’s world a little bit.  Compared to most folktales, a lot.  One of her gifts as a storyteller is that she can pause on an action or description without losing her thread.

With that pile of money, she had all the rooms hung with tapestries.  She bought furniture, chandeliers, portals, mirrors, carpets, and everything else they have in princes’ palaces; she even employed a doorman with livery from head to toe and a stick topped with a gold knob. (#156, “The Wife Who Lived on Wind,” 562)

It is that gold knob that caught my attention, as it must have caught the attention of this Palermo peasant at some point, unless she never saw it but merely picked it up from someone else’s story.

Her characters are a step or two better than the norm, too, never exactly two-dimensional, but something more visible than the usual one dimension.  And her women, are they ever resourceful.  Folktale characters are always oddly resourceful, but Messia’s women are that and the more.

How lucky that her employer, a doctor named Giuseppe Pitrè, became interested in folklore and complied her stories.  Maybe she is why he became interested.

What I am saying is rather than start at tale #1 and stall out by #10, some readers might want to skip to #147, the highly original, Lovecraftian “Nick Fish” which is immediately followed by Messia’s great stories, and then by the rest of the Sicilian tales.  By itself, these would make a terrific book.  Then you can go backwards, by which I mean north.  The gory Calabrian tales are next – “’So you’re the farmer’s daughter!’ exclaimed the serpent, and he bit her on the throat and killed her” (#144, “Serpent King”).

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

My investment in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales finally pays off - the key to the door was in the possession of the hairy man

What a wise investment!  I bought Italo Calvino’s gigantic Italian Folktales (1956) for $11.95, going by the back cover.  In today’s dollars, that is $22.92, but now the list price is $25.00.  It’s like I made $2.08 just by storing and moving the book for twenty-six years.  Let’s not look at the discounted Amazon price.

The important thing is that I have finally read it, all two hundred tales, all 713 pages.  It is a great book, comparable in many ways to a Grimm collection, comparable in every way except significance.  The book would not exist without the example of the Grimms, who set off an flurry all over Europe of folklorists tracking down elderly peasant women and transcribing their weird stories before it was too late.

Calvino ransacked every old collection he could find, selecting, combining, and improving as he went along, again following the precedent of the Grimms.  For example: “My personal touches here include the prince’s yellow suit and leggings, the description of the transformation in a flutter of wings, the gossip of the witches who traveled the world over, and a bit of stylistic cunning” (note to tale 18, “The Canary Prince,” p. 719).

One great result of the folklorists’ research was that that many old stories had made their way all over the world, so the reader of any collection of folktales has to have the patience for more versions of Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack the Giant Slayer, among many others.  I am on the alert for novelty, for small touches and original oddities.  In Italy, when a king is needed  in a story, he is often the King of Portugal.  In “Ill-Fated Royalty,” more kings are needed – how about the King of Scotland?  “At the bottom of the mountain was a door that led directly into Scotland, and the key to the door was in the possession of the hairy man” (283).  In northern Italian folktales, kings often live next door to each other, observing the household business (and beautiful princesses) in the palace across the street.

The motifs and devices repeat in their own patterns.  It was amusing to read Italian Folktales alongside John Crowley’s Little, Big, which is practically an Aarne-Thompson tale type index disguised as a novel.  A Calvino tale has three sisters who each gives her brother a gift, along with instructions about when to open it; the identical scene pops up in Crowley.  Here is Crowley’s talking fish, there is one of many in Calvino.  All of your favorites are here, assuming you have learned to enjoy folktales.

Calvino was, at the point he compiled and wrote Italian Folktales, working for a publisher in Turin.  The publisher in fact commissioned him to write the book.  Publishing was different back then. He had written several books of fiction, all of interest – I have recently revisited most of them – but his first masterpiece, The Baron in the Trees, would appear in the following year.  Unless Italian Folktales is his first masterpiece.  I will present the evidence for that tomorrow.

A pleasant surprise of Italian Folktales has been to see how much later Calvino is germinating among these old stories.  What luck that he was able to write them.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Come and brood upon the marsh with me - notes on Sidney Lanier

Much of my writing here is note-taking.  Notes for what, who knows.  The less familiar the writer, the more sketchy the notes.  Today’s notes are about the poet Sidney Lanier, a rarity in three ways: 1) a 19th century poet from the Deep South, from Georgia, worth reading, 2)an American poet who was not a visionary iconoclast like Whitman, Dickinson, et. al, but rather wrote in the tradition of Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson – there must have been thousands such American poets, so again what is rare is that he is so good, 3) a poet who was a professional-level musician, and as a result had a number of music-based theories of poetry that I do not understand.

What is not rare is his early death from tuberculosis, caught in a Union prisoner of war camp, at age 39.  His widow edited a collected Poems that has been reprinted many times.  I read the 1999 University of Georgia edition, which tacks on a little appreciation by John Hollander, who seems to think the musical business is of interest.  The book includes a long section of “Unrevised Early Poems” that can be skipped, some dialect poems ditto, and too many occasional poems.  Someone might be able to make a good poem out of “Ode to the Johns Hopkins University,” (“the labyrinthine cave / of research”)  but not anyone who takes that title sincerely.

That leaves maybe 150 pages that are quite good and eight or ten poems better than that, mostly nature poems, burnished by their exotic (to the reader of Whitman and Whittier) setting, the marshes and rivers of Georgia and Florida.  Nature poeticized not for its own sake, but for its emotional meaning.  Lanier was a Romantic poet is what I am saying.

Awful is Art because ‘tis free.
The artist trembles o’er his plan
    Where men his Self must see,
Who made a song or picture, he
Did it, and not another, God nor man.  (from “Individuality,” 1878-9)

As direct a statement of art as I noticed, even if, in the poem, it is addressed to a cloud.

Sail on, sail on, fair cousin Cloud:
Oh loiter hither from the sea.
    Still-eyed and shadow-brow’d,
Steal off from yon far-drifting crowd,
And come and brood upon the marsh with me.

Many of Lanier’s best poems are a kind of brooding upon the marsh.

How still the plains of the water be!
The tide is in his ecstasy.
The tide is at his highest height:
                              And it is night.  {“The Marshes of Glynn,” 1878)

That poem may be Lanier’s best.  It does have just a bit of a visionary quality – “Oh, now, unafraid, I am fain  to face / The vast sweet visage of space” – but “Song of the Chattahoochie” (1877), another of the best, is more typical, a calm, meditative poem about a journey down or along a river which the poet loves but will eventually have to leave:

    But oh, not the hills of Habersham,
    And oh, not the valleys of Hall
Avail: I am fain for to water the plain.
Downward the voices of Duty call –
Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main,
The dry fields burn, and the mills are to turn,
And a myriad flowers mortally yearn,
And the lordly main from beyond the plain
    Calls o’er the hills of Habersham
    Calls through the valleys of Hall.

These ordinary Georgian places are given a mythic tone.  A reservoir on the Chattahoochie was named after Lanier, which was meant as an honor.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A frenzy, an illusion, / A shadow, a delirium, a fiction - Calderón de la Barca's Life Is a Dream

After reading one of the best plays of Lope de Vega I turned to the greatest play of the Siglo de Oro, Life Is a Dream (1635) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca.  Having read a dozen plays from the period, I am just parroting other critics who have read many, many more.  Geez, I hope they have.  Maybe they are bluffing.  Regardless, Life Is a Dream is the only one of those dozen that rivals Shakespeare in originality and imagery, if not in depth of character or language.

If it were a Shakespeare play, it would be housed with the late romances like The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline.  It is similarly free-ranging, loose, and weird.  The setting is Poland, a country as familiar to Calderón as Bohemia was to Shakespeare.  The king has locked his son in a remote tower, guided by omens suggesting that he will grow up to be Hitler.  The play occurs at the moment the king decides to test his son’s character by actually allowing him to be a prince, remembering that the fellow has spent his entire chained up in a secret prison.  The king’s failsafe is that if the prince turns out to be a monster, the king can whisk him back to the prison, allowing the prince to believe that everything he experienced had been nothing but a dream.

This play is as oddly modern as Fuente Ovejuna, except here the modern part is the bizarre psychological experiment, which is obviously insane and will have catastrophic results.  The really brilliant idea of Calderón is to have the prince actually believe that the vivid, lifelike episode was a dream.  Many rich ideas, dramatic and poetic, follow.  Metaphysically, Life Is a Dream rivals Shakespeare.

What man is there alive who’d seek to reign
Since he must wake into the dream that’s death.
The rich man dreams his wealth which is his care
And woe.  The poor man dreams his sufferings.
He dreams who thrives and prospers in this life.
He dreams who toils and strives.  He dreams who injures,
Offends, and insults.  So that in this world
Everyone dreams the thing he is, though no one
Can understand it.  I dream I am here,
Chained in these fetters. Yet I dreamed just now
I was in a more flattering, lofty station.
What is this life?  A frenzy, an illusion,
A shadow, a delirium, a fiction.
The greatest good’s but little, and this life
Is but a dream, and dreams are only dreams.  (end of Act II)

Calderón was a careful reader of Don Quixote.  The play has its Sancho Panza, too, a stock clown figure who is transformed – who is abused – in ways that are as original as the rest of the play.  As with most clowns, he is rarely funny, but he has the misfortune to be the only true empiricist in a dream play. If only he knew he were a fiction.  I have had the luck to see a good staging of Life Is a Dream, and the fate of Clarion the clown was a real shock, however well it reinforced the dramatic metaphysics.

I read the lively Roy Campbell translation.

All right, that was probably Spanish Literature Month for me.  Thanks to Richard and Stu.

plays as doughnuts - Lope de Vega's revolutionary Fuenteovejuna

Spanish Literature Month is here as decreed by Caravana de Recuerdos and Winstonsdad’s Blog.  I am lucky enough to have a vacation coming up, so I needed something short and punchy.  I revisited a couple of plays, Siglo de Oro masterpieces.

Now, Fuente Ovejuna (1619) by Félix Lope de Vega, author of five hundred plays, among other works.  Author, reputedly, of fifteen hundred plays – see Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer for evidence: “I could gobble up the fifteen hundred plays of Lope de Vega in one sitting.”  But that number is a myth.  A mere five hundred, just ten a year if he started young.  Not even one a month, for his entire adult life.  I have read three, I think.

I have never come across a critic who has read enough of them to deliver much of a judgment.  There must be some real duds among the five hundred, although what I really wonder is how deeply I could go before they became too repetitive or obscure.  Thirty more?  A hundred?  This passage from Fuente Ovejuna, which is otherwise not about play writing, may be instructive:

Talking of poets, have you not
Seen doughnut-bakers at their toil
Chuck chunks of dough into the oil
To fill their cauldron on the boil?
Some come out cooked, some come out charred,
Some come out soft, some come out hard.
Well, that’s how poets (I suppose)
Deal with the poems they compose.  (Act II, p. 109)

Fuente Ovejuna is one of the soft, well-cooked doughnuts, often called Lope’s greatest play, although who would really know?  The title (which is really Fuenteovejuna, the two word version being a kind of translation) is the name of a town, Sheep Fountain, which is being terrorized by a nobleman who is riding high as a war hero.  Whatever his knightly virtues, he cannot keep his hands off of the women. In the fast-paced final act, the villages rise against the knight, murdering him and – in the most shocking part of the play – maintaining their solidarity in the face of torture.

JUDGE: No scrap of writing can I bring in proof
Because, with one accord and single valour,
When to the question racked, they all reply:
“Fuente Ovejuna did it” and no more.
Three hundred of them, tortured on the rack
With terrible severity, replied
No other answer.  Little boys of ten
Were stretched yet it was useless.  (134)

There were passages that had me murmuring the date – 1619, no kidding.  The play was once a favorite of Marxist revolutionaries.  If it has not had a feminist revival, it should (the following characters are all women).

LAURENCIA.  Halt at this door.  You are no longer women
  But desperate legionnaires.
PASCUALA.                               Those poor old pansies
  We once called men, it seems, are men once more
  And letting out his blood!
JACINTA.                               Throw down his body
  And we’ll impale the carcass on our spears.

Wild.  There are some limits in the text, as one might expect, on how far a 17th century Spanish play can really go as early 20th century agitprop – I assume the Communists omitted certain parts – but still, wow, that last act.

The page number refer to Eric Bentley’s Life Is a Dream and Other Spanish Classics (1985), a great book that also includes The Trickster of Seville, Life Is a Dream, and a Cervantes play I do not think is that interesting.  The translator is the South African poet Roy Campbell.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Sea-satiate, bruised with buffets of the brine - Swinburne goes swimming

Vacation Friday; lucky me; no post.

My last Algernon Swinburne post was about his two remarkable sea poems from 1880.  I incidentally mentioned some funny stuff from Swinburne’s letters about his 1882 epic poem in rhyming couplets, a version of the Arthurian story of Tristram and Iseult called Tristram of Lyonesse, which approaches the unreadable – I do not understand why the editors of Major Poems and Selected Prose (2004, Yale UP) included the entire thing – but it has two spectacular long passages in which Tristram goes swimming in the sea.

… the glad wave gladdens, and the light
Sees wing and wave confuse their fluttering white,
So Tristram one brief breathing-space apart
Hung, and gazed down; then with exulting heart
Plunged: and the fleet foot round a joyous head
Flashed, that shot under, and ere a shaft had sped
Rose again radiant, a rejoicing star,
And high along the water-ways afar
Triumphed…            (IV, ll. 103-11)
…  happier for the imperious toil,
Swam the knight in forth of the close waves’ coil,
Sea-satiate, bruised with buffets of the brine,
Laughing, and flushed as one afire with wine  (ll. 117-20)

This bit is only forty lines long; the second is a hundred and fifty, pure indulgence by the poet, a chance to “taste / the rapture of its rolling strength” (VIII, 520-1).  The scene does tie into the story in that the rough sea prefigures Tristrams’s death.  The poem ends with a glance back to “By the North Sea,” with the shared cliff-top tomb of Tristram and Isolde falling into the sea,

And over them, while death and life shall be,
The light and sound and darkness of the sea.  (IX, 575-6)

It is as if Swinburne picked the subject because it is set on various coasts.

The editors of the Yale volume have a strong sense of Swinburne’s peak.  Selections from his first books, in 1865 and 1866, occupy 40% of the pages given to poetry.  The last twenty-six years of his life, from 1883 on, take up only 7%.  I will note that the Penguin Classics volume of Swinburne currently in print is 100% from 1865-6.  I detect a consensus.  But what I want to note here is that the poems the editors pick for those 7% of the pages, examples of the embers of Swinburne’s art, are almost entirely sea poems: “To a Seamew” and “Neap-Tide” from 1889, and “The Lake of Gaube” from 1904, terrific poems.

Death-dark and delicious as death in the dream of a lover and
    dreamer may be,
It clasps and encompasses body and soul with delight to be living
    and free:
Free utterly now, though the freedom endure but the space of a
    perilous breath,
And living, though girdled about with the darkness and coldness
    and strangeness of death:  (“The Lake of Gaube,” ll. 36-40)

Locals told Swinburne that people who swam in this freezing Swiss lake would die, which he of course found irresistible.

As a sea-mew’s love of the sea-wind breasted and ridden for
    rapture’s sake
Is the love of his body and soul for the darkling delight of the
    soundless lake  (ll. 49-50)

The earlier poem, “To a Seamew,” is in part about the imagined joys of flying, here transferred to the actual joys of swimming.  The correspondences between swimming and death are part of the attraction of dangerous swimming.  The adrenaline rush has been elevated to metaphysics.

Outside of the range of time, whose breath
    Is keen as the manslayer’s knife
    And his peace but a truce for strife,
Who knows if haply the shadow of death
  May not be the light of life?  (“Neap-Tide,” 56-60)

Had Swinburne become a brilliantly narrow poet in this period, or are the editors weirdly with poems about swimming and cliffs?

I suddenly wish I were spending my holiday on the shore.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

He had almost ceased to hope for anything except the end of it - that is not my experience of Phineas Redux

The property of manliness in a man is a great possession, but perhaps there is none that is less understood…  (Ch. 68)

Phineas Finn possesses the ideal characteristics of a gentleman – discretion, integrity, courage, good looks, wit but not too much wit, smarts but not etc., (the list of Finn’s virtues could go on and on), and most importantly a willingness to work.  The Trollopian gentleman has a purpose; the exact value of his purpose may not matter much.  Finn’s chosen work, in politics and government, is a tough road without money, and then is some discussion in Phineas Finn about whether he is too hasty – perhaps he should work for decades as a lawyer and then run for office – but the author seems to be on Finn’s side.  Give it a shot.  The perfect gentleman knows how to take risks.

It is the idlers who disgust Trollope, author, over the course of thirty-five years, of seventy or so books.

What I want to get at is what Trollope does with the ideal he has established.  He crushes it. He accuses his gentleman of murder and puts him on trial and in the newspapers.  A few friends believe he is innocent, more say he is innocent, others deal with their conscience in different ways.  Trollope allows Finn to be almost strong enough for his ordeal:

He had become almost numb from the weariness of his position and the agonising strain upon his mind. The gaoler had offered him a seat from day to day, but he had always refused it, preferring to lean upon the rail and gaze upon the Court [Finn stands during his entire trial!].  He had almost ceased to hope for anything except the end of it.  He had lost count of the days, and had begun to feel that the trial was an eternity of torture in itself. At nights he could not sleep, but during the Sunday, after Mass, he had slept all day.  Then it had begun again, and when the Tuesday came he hardly knew how long it had been since that vacant Sunday.  (Ch. 64)

It is this delay in the trial, entirely because of evidence in his favor, that knocks the strength out of him.  Once acquitted, he falls into a state that looks suspiciously like clinical depression.  He recovers through the continued and thoughtful assistance of his friends.  Trollope is redoing Reverend Crawley’s humiliations in The Last Chronicle of Barset, but with a character who is a gentleman, not a saint.  A different set of virtues.  They are saved in the same way, too, socially.

Almost all novels are social in the sense I mean here, but Trollope’s are moreso, and the Palliser novels even more than that.  There is a thought that could use some development.  Maybe with the next novel.   Thus the repeated, perhaps even repetitive gossip passages, or the characters who function as a chorus. Trollope’s social intricacies are closer to Proust’s than Balzac’s.

It is quite interesting to see Trollope but his creation in prison and break his spirit while the world watches.  Not what I was expecting from the novel.

I could have written a similar piece about one of the women in the novel, who in a parallel plot is similarly crushed, not by prison but by her bad marriage, and since she does not have the social support enjoyed by Finn, and is not the character in the title, she will have a harder time recovering.  She suffers more for her mistakes than does Finn.  Her story, the novels B plot, may even be a little more interesting.  Her story was also a surprise.  It is, oddly, a bit like Gwendolen Harleth’s story in Daniel Deronda, published two years later.  Maybe Eliot stole it from Trollope.  Ha ha ha!  If she did, it was fair game.

Everything else I might say about the novel is an incidental point – e.g., look, it is the return of the dirty, clever defense attorney Chaffanbrass, who I last saw in Orley Farm! – but I think I will retire Phineas Redux.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

were it even desirable to maintain a doubt - Trollope writes a murder mystery

In Phineas Finn, the title character, an ambitious yet conscientious young Irishman of good family but little means is elected to Parliament with the assistance of a number of prominent women.  He is extremely good-looking, but also an embodiment of Trollope’s complex ideas of gentlemanliness.  To stay in Parliament, he both needs to marry well and to balance the interests of his party against his own integrity.  By the end if that novel, he has retired from the field in a novelistically satisfying manner.

That novel had more marriage proposal scenes than any Trollope novel I have encountered, including, thankfully Phineas Redux, which only has a half dozen or so, three of which are explicitly comic relief.  That still sounds like a lot.

Phineas returns to Parliament in Phineas Redux, and the romantic question returns, too; it is the position of the various women that takes so many pages to establish.

The reader, if he has duly studied the history of the age, will know that the Duke did make an offer to Madame Goesler, pressing it with all his eloquence, but [plot plot plot]  (Ch. 17)

The phrase in bold translates as “if he has read Phineas Finn.”  I believe Trollope meant that as a joke, but it no longer is – what better way to study the history of that age than read Trollope novels?

What a surprise, given all this, when in Chapter 47, Phineas Redux turns into a murder mystery, with police detectives and private detectives and clues and red herrings.  Did Phineas Finn, in a fit of rage, murder his political enemy in a dark alley?  Few writers today would wait until page 510 to spring the murder on their readers, but regardless, things should really cook now.

Except that now Trollope faces a serious problem.  He is employing an omniscient narrator, and unlike more shoddy writers understands what an omniscient narrator is.  Trollope does not cheat.  So Phineas Redux is a murder mystery for all of 24 pages, as the narrator visits various characters to get their reaction to the murder – the poison of gossip and rumor is a major theme of the novel – but soon enough, he has to move Phineas back on stage, and then, in my favorite passage in the novel, the mystery is called off due to the integrity of the narrator, a thematic parallel with the strict integrity of Phineas himself:

The reader need hardly be told that, as regards this great offence, Phineas Finn was as white as snow. The maintenance of any doubt on that matter, – were it even desirable to maintain a doubt, – would be altogether beyond the power of the present writer.  The reader has probably perceived [he has!], from the first moment of the discovery of the body on the steps at the end of the passage, that Mr. Bonteen had been killed by that ingenious gentleman [that other guy].  (Ch. 49)

The phrase in bold is concentrated Trollope.  It is not desirable to maintain a doubt.  Your desire for suspense in fiction is a moral flaw.  Trollope does generate a certain amount of suspense during the trial of Phineas Finn – will he be hanged by the neck until dead? seems unlikely – of the cheaper kind by using a trick I had previously seen in The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866-7), in which the narrator is only omniscient regarding occurrences and characters in Great Britain.  Fog in Channel; continent cut off.  So the author has to dispatch characters to Europe to learn what is going on there.  An arbitrary but clear rule.  It is probably for the best that so few of his readers seem to notice what a formalist Trollope was.

Monday, June 29, 2015

taking the pernicious draught with his cheese - Phineas Redux is a sequel

The title is the first sign of trouble.  Phineas Redux (1873-4) is the first true sequel in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, and perhaps his first true sequel ever, certain portions of the later Barchester books aside.  Most of the plotlines successfully resolved in Phineas Finn (1867-8) are now dissolved, stirred back into the pot to be re-resolved, along with another plot from the intervening The Eustace Diamonds (1871-3) the resolution of which was impossible to believe.  I knew Lizzie Eustace would be back.  Like Glencora Palliser, she is too much fun.  As a character, Phineas Finn is less fun; as a novel, Phineas Redux is less fun.

For 150 pages, maybe 200, Phineas Redux was the most slack, the most minor, Trollope novel I have read, although it is only my eleventh – but eleven is a lot, right, with most novelists I could make confident generalization, while with Trollope and the other forty novels out there I can only guess.  Some of them must be slack to the point of immobility.

By slack, I mean that a novel-length portion of the 880 page novel is spent rearranging and reinflating the characters, who in this analogy are not marionettes, as I usually describe fictional characters, but balloons, apparently.  The fox hunting scene, obligatory in late Trollope, is introduced almost immediately, but even it seems perfunctory.  Around page 100 there is an actual scene, what a relief, in which the central balloon takes on flesh at a miser’s dinner:

There was some very hot sherry, but not much of it.  And there was a bottle of claret, as to which Phineas, who was not usually particular in the matter of wine, persisted in declining to have anything to do with it after the first attempt…  He played with his fish without thinking much about it.  He worked manfully at the steak. He gave another crumple to the tart, and left it without a pang.  But when the old man urged him, for the third time, to take that pernicious draught with his cheese, he angrily demanded a glass of beer.  The old man toddled out of the room, and on his return he proffered to him a diminutive glass of white spirit, which he called usquebaugh.  (Ch. 10)

Even slack Trollope is amusing, even without a “pernicious draught with his cheese,” and the fact is that four novels into this series I do have a stake in the characters and an interest in what Trollope will do with them.  The reader impatient with Trollope will not make it to Ch. 22, p. 234, when a media satire subplot starts up that is something new and savage.  But what is that reader doing with the fourth volume of a Trollope series?  Is it the only book in the cabin?  In which case, he likely will finish it, having little choice, plus halfway through the novel turns into a murder mystery, and it takes a reader of strong character not to finish a murder mystery.

I’ll undo some of the above tomorrow.  The second half of Phineas Redux is a lot more interesting than the first half, that is all I am trying to say here.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The land of lost content - A. E. Housman sings the tunes that killed the cow

A. E. Housman is chronologically a poet of the 1890s, and since I have been reading some of them I took the excuse to revisit A Shropshire Lad (1896).  Any excuse is a good one, since he is a great favorite of mine.  Aesthetically, he is about as far from the elaborate, Decadent world of Dowson and Wilde as I can imagine.  The 1890s did not know what to do with Housman (although British composers liked his songful poems right away), but soon enough England learned, to its sorrow, that Housman had somehow, twenty years in advance, written a classic of war poetry, ready for when England needed it.

With rue my heart is laden
    For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
    And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
    The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
    In fields where roses fade.  (poem LIV)

Pure, melancholy lyric poetry as song-like as possible, with hints of old ballads and Robert Herrick but hardly anything to suggest composition in the 19th century, much less 1894.  I might even call Housman’s poems simple, grudgingly – the compliment, for me, is “complex” – but if the poems are so simple why are there so few like them?  Housman’s poetry is still much read but little studied.  Study seems pointless.  Memorization is rewarded, though.  Housman is easy to memorize.

Into my heart an air that kills
    From yon far country blows:
What are these blue remembered hills,
    What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
    I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
    And cannot come again.  (XL)

“Heart” is a favorite word.  So is “lad,” “man,” “young.”  Neither of the above has “grave” or “earth,” even though they are present in the first poem, veiled by metaphor.  At least the sad sack in the second poems is presumably alive.  Housman can become repetitive and morbid, sometimes comically so, especially when the 63 poems of A Shropshire Lad lead directly to Last Poems (1922) and the posthumous More Poems (1936), published much later but I believe mostly from Housman’s youth.  More young men wandering the earth or falling in love only to die.

Now hollow fires burn out to black,
    And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
    And leave your friends and go.

Oh never fear, man, nought’s to dread,
    Look not left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread
    There’s nothing but the night.  (LX)

I have included these little eight-liners simply in order to enjoy complete poems, but they rarely go over forty or fifty lines.  One that does, one of my favorites, is proof of Housman’s sense of humor about his low key excesses:

  ‘Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ‘tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ‘tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.’  (LXII, ll. 1-10)

The poet spends the next sixty lines or so describing his method, comparing it to the taking of tiny doses of poison to build immunity for when, as is inevitable, your enemies try to assassinate you.  He also recommends beer as a cure for the ills untempered by poetry.

Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.  (ll. 17-20)

The poetry will be more help on “the dark and cloudy day.”  Housman’s poems have never seemed so bitter or poisonous to me, though, but perhaps I had been previously immunized and thus developed a taste for mournful tunes.

Friday, June 26, 2015

several poems of great merit - Isabella Bird gives a glimpse of a strange time and place

A side issue from A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains in the category “the past is an alien place.”  Even 19th century Victorians are alien.  Isabella Bird becomes close to a genuine mountain man, Mountain Jim Nugent, a violent, dangerous drunk who is murdered a year after Bird leaves Colorado.  He lost an eye to a grizzly bear – “the loss made one side of the face repulsive, while the other might have been modeled in marble.”  He is an Englishman, and when he cleans himself up has beautiful golden curly locks.  He is also – this is the alien part – a poet:

"Jim" shortened the way by repeating a great deal of poetry, and by earnest, reasonable conversation, so that I was quite surprised when it grew dark…  I wrote to you for some time, while Mr. Nugent copied for himself the poems “In the Glen” and the latter half of “The River without a Bridge,” which he recited with deep feeling.  It was altogether very quiet and peaceful.  He repeated to me several poems of great merit which he had composed, and told me much more about his life.  (Letter XVII)

In the 1870s this was all entirely normal.  No idea what poems those are that Mountain Jim copied.

The book’s great comic interlude features a second poet.  Bird and a couple of silver miners fear they will be trapped in their Estes Park cabin for the winter, to the extent that they are rationing their provisions.  To their surprise, a young man, a “theological student,” appears, an additional mouth to feed.

This “mouth” has come up to try the panacea of manual labor, but he is town bred, and I see that he will do nothing.  He is writing poetry, and while I was busy to-day began to read it aloud to me, asking for my criticism.  He is just at the age when everything literary has a fascination, and every literary person is a hero…  (Letter XV)

The poet is lazy, worse than useless, doing no work and losing the milk cow when he tries, and a parasite, sneaking food at night.

He has eaten two pounds of dried cherries from the shelf, half of my second four-pound spice loaf before it was cold, licked up my custard sauce in the night, and privately devoured the pudding which was to be for supper.

Worst of all, he shows Isabella Bird his published poetry:

In one there are twenty lines copied (as Mr. Kavan has shown me) without alteration from Paradise Lost; in another there are two stanzas from Resignation, with only the alteration of “stray” for “dead”; and he has passed the whole of Bonar's Meeting-place off as his own.  Again, he lent me an essay by himself, called The Function of the Novelist, which is nothing but a mosaic of unacknowledged quotations.

A post-modernist ahead of his time.  This epsiode would not be so amusing if the plagiarist caused everyone to starve to death, but everything worked out all right.  Mr. Kavan is not a hard case like Mountain Jim (he “makes the best bread I ever ate”), but still.  In those days Rocky Mountain silver miners could identify passages from Paradise Lost.  I’m not sure I can do that.  A strange, alien time.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

If it's the English lady traveling in the mountains - A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird

Since I was just in the Rocky Mountains, I will linger there for a day by writing about A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879) by Isabella Bird, the greatest tourist of the 19th century.  In this book she is mostly in Colorado, exploring the mountain trails on horseback, often alone, sometimes assisted by the desperados, settlers, and other tough characters she encounters.

…  I at once inquired if I could get to Green Lake.  The landlord said he thought not; the snow was very deep, and no one had been up for five weeks, but for my satisfaction he would send to a stable and inquire.  The amusing answer came back, “If it’s the English lady traveling in the mountains, she can have a horse, but not any one else.”  (Letter XII)

Her adventures – her unlikely existence – featured in the Colorado newspapers, Bird becomes a celebrity while she is there.  She is not the only celebrity in Colorado, but perhaps the only one who is not an outlaw, like the terrifying Comanche Bill (“my intelligent, courteous companion was one of the most notorious desperadoes of the Rocky Mountains, and the greatest Indian exterminator on the frontier,” Letter XI) and a man who becomes Bird’s close friend and companion, Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent (“She was as proud of having him in her house as if he had been the President, and I gained a reflected importance!,” Letter XVII).

Mountain Jim guides Isabella Bird on her ascent of Longs Peak, a highlight of the book.  Nowadays I believe you can drive most of the way to the top, and Bird herself writes that “[t]ruly terrible it was for me, to a member of the Alpine Club it would not be a feat worth performing” (Letter VII).  Nevertheless Bird’s book is part of the 1870s mountain-climbing craze, in the less crazed division.  Photo from the National Park Service.  They also have a little tribute to Bird as one of the founders of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Once Bird started traveling, and writing, she never stopped.  Trips to and books about Australia and Hawaii preceded A Lady’s Life, and the next stop would be Japan.  She is the woman that rode the mule ‘round the world, so to speak (warning: music).  I have read Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880).  As interesting as that book is, it does not have as good a story as A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, which in places has the narrative drive of an exciting novel and is curiously made more interesting by being less exotic.  Bird observes her own culture but in an unfinished form, as if civilization has collapsed but is being rebuilt amidst the rattlesnakes, blizzards, and black flies.  “Here the life was rough, rougher than any I had ever seen” she writes early in the book (Letter IV).  She not only develops a taste for certain parts of that roughness – not for the filth and flies – but helped develop that taste in who knows how many readers.

Friday, June 12, 2015

thous and thees and titanic glooms and whatnot - Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven"

For the next week and a half, Wuthering Expectations will be vacationing.  No posts on vacation.

I did not mention that Francis Thompson wrote cricket poetry.  The sport, not the insect.  Talk about obscure.  I will ignore those in favor of his unusual religious poems.  Every poem I quoted yesterday was a religious poem, so I mean more religious poems, ones I understand.

The clearest, to me, is “’In No Strange Land,’” a vision of the “world invisible” as it operates on earth, specifically in London.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry; - and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

And Christ is “walking on the water / Not of Geneserath, but Thames!”  I think “thou” and “thy” are referring back to the poet, but that is just a guess.  It is the specificity of the angels in London that I am enjoying here, “[t]he drift of pinions… at our own clay-shuttered doors.”  But then I wonder what “clay-shuttered” might mean.  If I just quote Thompson lines from which I understand every word, I won’t have much to quote.

Thompson’s masterpiece, “The Hound of Heaven,” is more abstract but succeeds in suggesting the sinful life of the speaker, who feels that Christ is a wild animal in pursuit of him, and who, if he catches the poet, will kill him, perhaps by eating his heart. 

Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
       Thee harvest, must Thy harvest fields
       Be dunged with rotten death?

So the poet flees:

            Up vistaed hopes I sped;
            And shot, precipitated
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
    From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

The poet indulges in the pleasures of this world, asking nature to display herself naked to him, in a passage that has not aged so well.  The results are ugly:

In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
         I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust o’ the mounded years –
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.

The Hound, at the end of the poem, explains that the traumas suffered by the poet are not caused by the Hound but by the flight from it.  The poet is Catholic, but the psychology of the poem, the fear that a spiritual experience can be a source of terror or harm, is more general.  Not universal, perhaps, but common.  It is the vision that drives a number of Flannery O’Connor characters, this frightening sense that the Hound will save them but in the process murder them.

I scouted around for O’Connor writing about “The Hound of Heaven” and found something quite funny, a 1963 letter wondering if youngsters should be kept from “The Hound of Heaven.”

Probably what he means about impounding “The Hound of Heaven” is that it ought not to be set up as THE type of religious poetry – lest the students think they had to have thous and thees and titanic glooms and whatnot in all religious poetry.  I wouldn’t impound “The Hound of Heaven,” but I would impound “Trees” early on.  Our pastor has a piece of bad verse to decorate most every sermon, all of which I feel sure was supplied him in some Catholic grammar school.

The sideswipe crack at Joyce Kilmer, another poet in the line of Patmore and Thompson, is pretty choice.