Friday, April 18, 2014

A whiff of the providential - Austen and Eliot, for example, changed my life

Today I look at two recent books that directly mix memoir and criticism, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014) and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter (2011).  Maybe I should omit the subtitle so as not to prejudice readers of Wuthering Expectations, who are mostly thinking “yuck.”  Not the target audience.

I have not read the entirety of either book, but have rather spot-checked them.  I do have them at hand, so you cannot just say “Well, the part you did not read is completely different.”  I can check.

Deresiewicz’s book is organized with a chapter per Austen novel, while Mead has a chapter per Middlemarch chapterMead loved her book from childhood and finds that the meaning of the novel deepens as life goes on, while Deresiewicz despised Austen until he had a graduate school epiphany, after which he became an Austen scholar and began learning various lessons from Austen.

Love, I saw, is a verb, not just a noun – an effort, not just another precious feeling.  (158)

Sorry, I did it again, as if I am trying to sabotage the book.  Let me get this out of the way.  Deresiewicz is writing a graduate school memoir, which in and of itself is a mistake.  Graduate students are the worst (the link is to a 30 Rock clip).  Then the structure of linking the events of his life to a particular novel, followed by a series of character-improving lessons, is bizarrely constricting, even if true – no, especially if true.  Deresiewicz presents himself as one strange bird.

If I just ignore the memoir, though, it turns out that his writing about the Austen novels is excellent.  His plot summaries are outstanding, his character portraits swift and vivid.  They are clear, efficient, and expert at deploy details and quotations from the text with enough elegance that I at first did not notice how many little slivers of the book he was really using.  The above “love” passage is preceded by a one-page run through the importance of the words “exertion,” “duty,” and especially “useful” in Mansfield Park (157-8).  If I had written that page as a blog post, I would have been pleased.

He does this first-rate close reading, and then writes about how he began to hang out with some wealthy Brooklynites, which made him appreciate Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and learn that rich people can be jerks.  I don’t get it.

Deresiewicz’s book is memoir plus close reading (with some biography) – Deresiewicz constantly links himself to Austen characters.  Rebecca Mead’s book is really a short Eliot biography with her autobiography and some criticism folded in, so she more often makes connections with Eliot herself.  In the old days, if a New Yorker writer wanted to write an Eliot book, all of the memoir would have been compressed into the foreword or afterword.

This is Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Chace Family Professor of English at Yale, reviewing Mead’s book in the April 24, 2014 New York Review of Books:

What is nonetheless a bit disheartening about My Life in Middlemarch is the apparent assumption that literary criticism and even biography will be most appealing to contemporary readers when packaged as memoir.  In George Eliot’s novel, few words carry a more consistently ironic charge than “Providence” or “providential”…  Though Mead is scarcely under such a delusion, there is still a whiff of the providential about some of the connections she traces between her own history and Eliot’s.  (59)

Or, less politely, the memoiristic passages should have been cut, some of the connections are inventions, and the fault is likely that of an agent or publisher (true for Deresiewicz, too, I’ll bet).  The review is otherwise pretty glowing, although it is mostly about how deeply interesting Eliot is.  And really, at this point, Eliot vs. Mead is not a contest, right?

I think I will just point towards Rohan Maitzen’s recent review for more, including lots of useful quotations that show Mead’s skill and some of her better and worse attempts to justify the exercise.

Neither of these books is a bad book, and I can imagine plenty of readers getting a lot out of them.  But I can also imagine the shadow books where the authors got out of the way, with all of the autobiography moved to the end, for example, so the artificial demand for connections is relaxed.  Those books seem like they would be better.

Next I want to look at Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010), which does much of what I am complaining about here, but I think with more success.  That will have to wait until Monday.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Personal criticism - two case studies - Then a chastened being, I began my new intellectual career.

Now, two examples of criticism that blend life and literature, that as Arnold says successfully “create a current of true and fresh ideas” by violating “disinterestedness.”  The authors get in the way of the reader first, then get out of the way.

They’re both essays that I had filed away as exceptions to my skepticism.  I might grumble about excessive memoirism in criticism, but then think “Yeah, but what about…”

Rohan Maitzen’s 2010 essay on racism in Gone with the Wind begins with a 740 word account of her history with the novel over a long period.  It was a favorite book; she had read the book many times;  her life had moved along.  Then what looks like a nostalgic description of her thirty year-old paperback takes a surprising turn:

This is the kind of metadata an e-book can never accumulate—but then, an e-book would also not leave me with quite the dilemma I now face, whether to keep the book on my shelf or to hide it away, to own or disown it.

My reading of Gone with the Wind this summer, my thirty-second, was my first really honest one, the first one during which I unequivocally named what I had always seen.  

The remaining 4,800 pages develop a careful argument about the ethical and aesthetic content of the novel based on the usual range of critical tools: close reading, historical context, comparisons with other novels, some theoretical help from Wayne Booth.  The argument is specific yet easily detachable from this particular book in the sense that it provides a useful way of thinking about any ethically problematic text.

Thus the value of the memoir.  Maitzen models not just how to interpret the book but how to live with it.  Interestingly, the memoir also becomes a source of authority, a declaration of credentials, necessary for such a controversial argument.  Certain lines of attack are closed down, others left defiantly open, almost as traps (“You’re not from the South”).  What looks like a biographical preface becomes a support structure for the argument.

Another favorite of mine is Judith Pascoe’s “Before I Read Clarissa I Was Nobody: Aspirational Reading and Samuel Richardson’s Great Novel” from The Hudson Review, Summer 2003, 239-53.  The article used to be online in a PDF, but it is now hidden in JSTOR, sorry.  Clarissa was one of the smash hits of the 18th century, and also possibly the longest novel in English.  The book is a bizarre mix of tedium and tension, moral uplift and depravity, pure stasis and bursts of excitement, or horror, or sorrow.  It is a sad, sad book.

Pascoe loves the novel, has read and taught it frequently (at the University of Iowa), which is madness, and is wants the well-read Hudson Review readers to set aside a couple dozen other, easier, faster, lighter books for this “book with the size and heft of a two-pound sack of flour” (239).

Some of the personal history passages (like Pascoe’s  “escape” from high school science teaching) do not do much.  There is some creative non-fiction filler.  “It is January in the Middle West an people are sliding across the iced campus walkways, their faces freezing into death grimaces whenever a stiff wind gusts off the river” (247), although “death grimaces” is funny.  Jokes soften me up for anything.  But Clarissa is such an unusual book.  Pascoe is not just delivering a blast of enthusiasm but also showing, through her own story and that of her students, how a problematic book like this can lead to such enthusiasm, how this unlovable book can be loved, and how you, too can “be initiated into the exclusive coterie of people who have read Carissa in its entirety” (247).

In moments of honest personal inventory, I realize that I may never distinguish myself among readers of Clarissa, but, still, here we all are: Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Mary Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Henry James, Virginia Woolf – along with Dan from Council Bluffs, Jessica from Cedar Rapids, and me. (253)

Back in 2003, this kind of personal advocacy was not so common.  I remember discussing this article with Rohan Maitzen at some point.  She wondered just how many articles like this a person could write.  It is a good question.  It is not just ordinary reading that make Clarissa or Gone with the Wind so important.  Maitzen has , in fact, written a couple more pieces along these lines, like this one about Josephine Tey, but this well can’t be too deep.  My deeply felt essay about the 14th most important book in my life will likely lack oomph.

To be honest, I doubt I could write even one of these.  But essays like Maitzen’s and Pascoe’s give me an idea about how to use the personal writing to guide me into the book.

Tomorrow: can this work at book-length?

Title from Pascoe, p. 240.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The great art of criticism is to get oneself out of the way - Arnold's disinterestedness

I am going to bend Matthew Arnold a bit today, but I do not believe I will break him.

A long chunk of “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” is devoted to the critical principle of “disinterestedness,” or rather an accusation that English critics lack disinterestedness, that the critics and their magazines are too concerned with “the practical spirit,” which sounds like it might be an ancestor of today’s battle of STEM and the humanities, but in fact is a reference to political and religious controversy.  Catholic journals  review these books in this way, Whig journals review those books like that, and nobody reviews writes about the books especially well.  Nobody in England – French and German critics are more effectively disinterested.

I do not know the extent to which any of this is true.  Arnold, or his followers, are moving toward some notion of objective and scientific criticism.  As Arnoldian as I am, I am also enough of a creature of my own time to know better than to argue for objective literary criticism.  Much less, Lord help us, scientific, which is not really Arnold’s word.

In a narrower sense than our normal usage, though, I will defend Arnold’s objectivity.  He calls criticism “’the endeavor, in all branches of knowledge… to see the object as it really is’”  (“Function,” Arnold is quoting himself).  Emphasize “endeavor,” which can come from many directions, take decades or centuries, give little more than glimpses even after great effort, and often fail entirely, and we are not so far from the common usage of “subjectivity.”

To try and approach truth on one side after another, not to strive and cry, nor to persist in pressing forward, on any one side, with violence and self-will, – it is only thus, it seems to me, that mortals may hope to gain any vision of the mysterious Goddess, whom we shall never see except in outline, but only thus even in outline.  (“Preface” to Essays and Criticism)

Not one side or another, but one side after another.  Arnold uses words like “perfection” and “truth” and, snort, “mysterious Goddess,” in ways that would not be useful now, but passages like this one remind me that much of the difference between his idea of good criticism and mine are largely rhetorical.

To the extent that the varied pieces in Essays and Criticism are demonstrations of Arnold’s principles, they look a lot like the kind of thing published today in the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books, just longer and with more extensive quotations.  Arnold’s model won the fight for the center, at least for a time.  “[T]he great art of criticism is to get oneself out of the way,” he wrote in “Pagan and Mediaeval Religious Sentiment,” another of the pieces in Essays and Criticism.

Now I will bend Arnold.  It has become clear to me through book blogs that many thousands of intense, dedicated readers reject Arnold’s model as too impersonal.  They want the critic to get in the way sometimes, maybe all the time.  Criticism is part of the endeavor to see the subject – the self.  Literature becomes a means to reveal the self.  Disinterestedness?  You have got to be kidding.

Memoirs and personal writing are of course forms with their own value, but this hybrid of criticism and memoir seems to me like something new.  For a long time, I have been skeptical of its value.  I read or have read hundreds of blogs, but I have typically read around the memoiristic stuff in search of insights about literature, which I do often find.  My skepticism has weakened, though, and perhaps ironically reading objective Arnold finally did it in.  I should look for “the best that is known and thought in the world” wherever I can find it.  I should learn a new approach, maybe not learn to do it but at least to read it.

For the next couple of days, let’s try a few of these out.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

they may have it even in criticizing - Matthew Arnold flatters me

Matthew Arnold is among the greatest literary critic of the 19th century, and among the greatest in English.  A long series of subsequent critics – Pater, Wilde, T. S. Eliot, to pick the ones I am sure about – defined themselves against him in some important way.  Arnold did not particularly care about fiction, which has perhaps caused a bit of a devaluation compared to Henry James now that we live in, or recently lived in, the Age of the Novel.  But since a good part of Arnold’s importance comes from his arguments about criticism and the role of the critic his importance is to a large degree independent of the fact that he mostly wrote about poetry, a form that almost no one reads any more, just as John Dryden’s immense value as a critic remains even though he wrote almost exclusively about Restoration plays.

I recently read the book now usually called Essays in Criticism: First Series (1865).  The curious thing about the book is the randomness and even inconsequentiality of the subjects of Arnold’s essays, typical for a collection of magazine reviews, but not really commensurate with my idea of Arnold.  Spinoza, Marcus Aurelius, Joubert, Heine (random); the French poet Maurice de Guérin along with a separate essay on the journals of his sister Eugénie de Guérin (inconsequential, however good they sound).  This is the greatest critic of his time?  What is going on here?

Well, one thing is that Culture and Anarchy  comes later (1869), as does the “second series” of Essays in Criticism which is mostly about English poets, along with Tolstoy and (who?) Amiel, so I should not put too much wright on this early book, however good it might be.  And it does have “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” which by itself is almost enough to make a critic’s reputation.

The critic’s job, says Arnold is “simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas” (“simply,” very amusing), and “to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarizing, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things.”  Preposterous, but there is a satirical strain in Arnold that I have not yet learned to read.  “Perfection” and “absolute” may be squishier words than they first appear.  But maybe not.

More appealing to me are a couple of other instructions to the critic.  One is his emphasis  on “the world” – thus the Heine, Spinoza, and French poetry – and the effort to read widely.  He argues that English critics and literary magazines are narrow and parochial.  So it will ever be.

The other is his insistence that criticism is a creative act, not ranked as high as the making of original work, but nevertheless a source of “true happiness”: “They [we; I] may have it [happiness] in well doing [original art], they may have it in learning, they may have it even in criticizing.”  Learning includes reading, so reading is also a creative act, “the free play of the mind upon all subjects” which is “a pleasure in itself.”

Arnold is in many ways very flattering to book bloggers.  Our sense of what is “best” and “true” necessarily varies a lot, but amateur criticism is an Arnoldian enterprise, aside from one enormously important aspect of it that he would loathe.  Tomorrow: “disinterestedness.”

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What the earth has given back once it will not withhold again at the final call - the most wonderful story in the world

One of Hebel’s stories stands out because of the extravagant, almost unbelievable praise it has received from Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti, and friendly commenter humblehappiness.  “The most wonderful story in the world,” for example.  The two page (plus woodcut) story is titled ‘Unexpected Reunion” in my translation, although I think of it as “The Mines of Falun,” the title of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s much expanded 1819 version.  Hugo von Hofmannsthal tried to turn it into a very strange play, but he never finished it.  Richard Wagner apparently wrote a one page treatment for an opera based on the story.  W. G. Sebald more or less stole it for the last sentence of the first chapter of The Emigrants (1992).  These are just the descendants I know of.

At Falun in Sweden, a good fifty years ago, a young miner kissed his pretty young bride-to-be and said, “On the feast of Saint Lucia the parson will bless our love and we shall be man and wife and start a home of our own.”  (25)

But the miner dies in the mine.  Fifty years later, miners find his perfectly preserved corpse.  The bride-to-be, now an old woman, claims the body and has him buried, promising to join him soon.

“What the earth has given back once it will not withhold again at the final call,” she said as she went away and looked back over her shoulder once more.” (28)

The Sebald, where a man emerges not from a mine but a glacier, is:

And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.  At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.  (The Emigrants, 23, tr. Michael Hulse)

The story is obviously built for all kinds of symbolic meaning, religious and visionary, or could this be another parable of war somehow?  It could; I have skipped the most interesting of the story’s five paragraphs.  The miner vanishes and the woman mourns, all in the first paragraph.  Here is the second:

In the meantime the city if Lisbon in Portugal was destroyed by an earthquake, the Seven Years War came and went, the Emperor Francis I died, the Jesuits were dissolved, Poland was partitioned, the Empress Maria Theresa died, and Struensee was executed, and America became independent, and the combined French and Spanish forces failed to take Gibraltar.  [Another event-filled sentence takes us into the Napoleonic Wars.]  The millers ground the corn, the blacksmiths wielded their hammers, and the miners dug for seams of metal in their workplace under the ground.  (26)

The power – in context, the uncanniness – of this passage of plain summarized history is hard to understand.  I guess the reader can be pretty sure the miner will somehow return just by looking at the title, but the long gap expressed in this particular way seems to give the unchanging dead man something like cosmic significance.  He stays the same while kings and nations change, when war and nature destroy whatever they can.  But as the last sentence shows, it is not just the dead man who stays the same.  So do many live men.

It all seems so obvious when taken apart, but that is not how it seems in the story, much mixed in with the other gentle and less gentle stories in The Treasure Chest.  Hoffmann is so scared of it that he adds a lot of weird fairy tale stuff.  Well, his version is good, too, just not the most wonderful story in the world.

Friday, April 11, 2014

things were pretty violent and bloody during the last war - Johann Peter Hebbel's war stories

The other 19th century war fiction I recently read was Johann Peter Hebel’s Treasure Chest (1811, more or less), which I read, of course, because of the chapter in Sebald’s A Place in the Country.  Almost none of the Hebel used by Sebald is present in the English Treasure Chest (tr. John Hibberd, 1994), or in English anywhere outside of the translated Sebald essay, which is an irritation.  I read this book as a substitute for a book that does not exist.

Hebel’s main literary form was the almanac, which he wrote under the guise of Der Rheinländische Hausfreund, the Rhineland Family Friend, beginning in 1808 and continuing, off and on, through 1819.  I am surprised it is not a form still in use by some literary eccentric.  I am not sure how “real” the almanacs were – what the weather prediction and holiday calendar was – but the form was flexible, allowing for stories, jokes, real news, fakes news, crime, moral tales, songs, poems, and riddles.

The almanacs were popular, thus the 1811 “greatest hits” collection of The Treasure Chest, which is leans towards the fully formed stories and away from the more topical writing.  The result is less personal, by which I mean there is less digressive fun – Hebel knows his Sterne – with the narrator, the Hausfreund as Sebald calls him.  And the translated book is itself just a selection of a selection.

I sound like I am complaining, but I am not.  I would just like to read more Hebel, that is all.  The strange thing about the English Treasure Chest is that something like a story begins to appear, even from the fragments.  The story is a war story.  What else, after all, made up the news of 1808 and on for several more years?

In the Tyrol things were pretty violent and bloody during the last war.  They had just murdered a Bavarian staff officer, and their swords and dung forks were wet with blood as they pushed into the room where his wife was, weeping with her child in her lap, telling God of her grief, and they were going to murder her too.  (120)

The story, just a page and a half long, is titled “An Officer’s Wife Is Saved,” so we know it turns out all right for her, if not the poor officer.  Horrors of war show up in more and more stories as the book goes along, and if not the war than something as bad, like “Terrible Disasters in Switzerland,” three and a half pages (plus a woodcut!) of anecdotes of those killed by or miraculously saved:

… in that one night, and almost within the space of the same hour, whole families were smothered by avalanches, whole herds and their byres were crushed, pastures, gardens and orchards were swept away, scooped out down to the bare rock, and whole forests were destroyed, flung down into the valley below or the trees tangled, crushed, bent and broken like blades of corn in the fields after a hailstorm.  (106)

I compare this to passages of Hebel quoted by Sebald, for example when Hebel “calculates matter-of-factly” some of the material costs of war, for example the materials use in one ship, “1,000 mighty oak trees, as one might say a whole forest; further 200,000 pounds of iron” (A Place in the Country, 29), plus the rope and canvas and tar and, incidentally, men, most of this soon to be destroyed.

The avalanches somehow become an aspect of war; war takes on a cosmic character; the author emerges from behind his gentle moral tales and riddles as a visionary writer.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Herman Bang's fragments and similes - like the stabs of a knife

Yesterday I emphasized interesting and rare subject of Herman Bang’s 1889 Tina; today I want to look at unusual prose.

Bang had been keeping up on his French writers.  Flaubert, Maupassant, the Goncourts.  That is clear enough.  “Realism” and “objectivity.”  The former meaning, if it means anything here, a focus on material surfaces, the latter, if it means anything here, a near-complete absence of narrator identifiable as a character.  Thus the metaphor of the camera, with the author as cameraman.  In a film we never see the camera even though we both know it is there and know that someone is operating it.  The personality of the operator is expressed through the choice of exactly what to film and the way the pieces are edited together.

But of course the author is not operating a camera.  If he were, we could in some sense see everything within the frame, no matter how trivial, while a fiction writer works with fragments.  Bang’s fragments are especially fragmented in a way that puts me in mind of certain 20th century authors, and no one at all from Bang’s time or earlier.  Short sentences, short paragraphs, short divisions within short chapters.

“Puff – Christmas is over,” he said proudly as he blew out each candle, as if he was grandly closing the door on Christmas; the others stood watching attentively while candle after candle was blown out.

“The last one,” cried Mrs Berg.  “The last one.”

The last candle was out, and the room was in darkness when Berg put Herluf down on the floor.  Mrs Berg took her husband’s arm, and they all left the room in silence.  (39)

I have quoted two other passages from Tina, the sudden beginning of the novel and a bit about refugees from the artillery bombardment, noisy and active scenes compared to Christmas winding down.  I did not mention that each one managed to slip in some metaphorical language.  A carriage, as it rolls away in the dark, is “likea great shadow,” and a man welcomes refugees into a house “like an officiousundertaker at a funeral,” which is excellent, if almost too portentous for those poor refugees.  Bang works in similes.  We cannot actually see what the imaginary camera sees, so we are given a little help seeing it.  It is like a shadow, he is like an undertaker, the boy’s movement is like – well that’s a funny one, isn’t it, because the simile does not appear to be visual at all, yet now I imaginatively give the boy some dramatic flourishes.

Through the storm and the pounding of the guns, which made the square tremble, came the screams of the wounded like the stabs of a knife, whenever the congestion on the road halted the strawless wagons into which they had been thrown, without compassion, by worn-out ambulance men at the end of their tether because of all the misery around them.  (118)

Now I am making Bang’s similes seem more common than they really are.  but I like the way he sneaks them in when he wants just a little bit more precision.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

It did get worse - Herman Bang's Tina, a Danish behind-the-lines war novel and vaguely Hardyish love story

I’ve got to stop reading these old Danish novels.  There is no end to the good ones.  There must be an end; the number of old Danish novels available in English must be small.  My revised assumption, after reading Herman Bang’s Tina (1889) is that they are all worth reading, by someone, not necessarily me.  I am glad I read this one. 

The fact remains, as this first translation in English makes clear, that Tina is one of the great nineteenth-century European novels, and the mystery is that the English-speaking world should have had to wait for only a few years short of a century for an opportunity of reading it.  (ix)

This is from the foreword, by Walter Allen, to the 1984 Paul Christophersen translation of Tina.  Do you like the optimism of “first”?  Using certain definitions of “great,” in terms of ambition or international significance or place in non-Danish literary history, that word is close to preposterous, although I note that a glance at German and French Amazon shows numerous translations in print, so I so not mean to take my own ignorance as the measure of greatness.

Regardless, Tina is certainly a finely made novel.

The novel’s subject is unusual and the book is deeply interesting for that reason alone.  It is a sad love story set just behind friendly lines during the 1864 Dano-Prussian War, a war that the Danes unfortunately lost badly, although the novel ends before the war does so the characters do not know that.  The front line parks itself just a short distance from the home of the young, large, generous, insufficiently appreciated and loved heroine, Tina.  Ordinary life is suddenly disrupted by bivouacking soldiers, mud, the incessant noise of artillery fire, and, soon enough, the wounded and the dead.

“And it’s for ever getting worse,” she said, shaking her head.

It did get worse.  Like the sound of rising waters at a spring tide, the thunder of the guns rolled over the house.

A new stream of refugees began knocking at their doors, and the Baron let them all in.  He stood at the drawing-room door like an officious undertaker at a funeral, and got an entrance ticket out of everyone in the form of an account of the horrors of the bombardment.  (111)

The emotional intensity and temporarily modified moral standards also lead to sex.  There is some amusing stuff with some of the servants who are more adaptable to the change (“’We’ve got to give the boys some fun this evening’”) in contrast with poor Tina.  She may not be everyone’s ideal of a Strong Female Character, since she is weak in some interesting and ultimately tragic ways.  Walter Allen notes a strong resemblance to Thomas Hardy, which I also felt, “but Hardy never had to show us the Valley of the Great Dairies under the onslaught of war.”  Are you like me, are you thinking “I want to read that variant of Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” maybe more than I want to read the real thing.

A novel about a young woman coping with the nearby war would have been interesting by itself, but the love affair leads to some artful emotional effects, and it certainly keeps the stakes high for Tina.

The style of the book is as original as the subject.  That sounds like a topic for tomorrow.

Monday, April 7, 2014

An incomparable day - the joys of Pelle the Conqueror

I do want to write a little bit about the joys of Pelle the Conqueror, not just the language but the liveliness of the book.  It has occurred to me that the movie, for all its virtues – it is superb – exaggerates the misery of the story by greatly compressing the timeframe.  Pelle is “eight or nine” (17) when the novel begins and a teen by the end, the toughest, smartest kid in town.  The film has to crowd all of horrible stuff – the infanticide, the brain damage, the, um, the castration – into a period commensurate with a lack of change in the actors, especially the boy who plays Pelle.  So in the book, these little tragedies occur over the course of years rather than months.

So how about some of the novel’s joy.

Christmas Eve came as a great disappointment.  (75)

Off to a bad start.  Pelle’s father Lasse is no longer young, so Lasse and Pelle are low ranked even among farmhands.  Farm animals do not have holidays, so someone has to stay home.

There was dried cod and rice pudding on Christmas Eve, and it tasted all right…  (76)

The normal diet is herring and porridge, so this is an improvement.  Still.

Lasse and Pelle went to bed.

“Why is there Christmas anyway?” asked Pelle.

Lasse scratched his hip reflectively.

“That’s just the way it is,” he answered hesitantly.  “Well, then it’s the time when the year turns around and goes upward, you see…  And of course it’s also the night when Baby Jesus was born!”  It took him quite a while to produce this last reason, but it also came with perfect assurance.  “One thing goes with another, you see.”  (76, ellipses in original)

One of my worries about the subsequent novels is that they presumably have much less Lasse, a loss.  Hey, look what the words did there, neato.

Let’s try another holiday.  Chapter 18, the longest in the book, covers a memorable Midsummer Eve.

There were jars of stewed gooseberries, huge piles of pancakes, one hard-boiled egg apiece, cold veal, and an endless supply of bread and butter…  In the front was placed a small cask of beer, covered with green oats to keep the sun off it; there was a whole keg of aquavit and three bottles of cold punch.  (181)

Now that’s more like it.  The farm workers visit all the local sites, like the old tower and the valley with an echo.

“What is Karl Johan’s greatest treat?”  And the echo answered right away: “Eat!”  It was extremely funny, and they all had to try it with their own names – even Pelle.  When that was exhausted, Mons made up a question that made the echo give a vulgar reply.
“You shouldn’t teach it stuff like that,” said Lasse.  “What if some fine ladies came up here, and he started calling that after them?”  They just about died laughing at the old man’s joke, and he was so delighted by the applause that he kept on repeating it to himself all the way back.  Ho, ho – he wasn’t quite ready to be thrown to the rats after all.  (189)

Yes, I will miss Lasse.

Maybe I should have just rambled in this chapter.  It is full of delights.

The music sounded so sweet in the ear  and in the mind;  memories and thoughts were purified of all that was ugly; let the day itself take its due as the holiday it was.  It had been an incomparable day for Lasse and for Pelle – making up for many years of neglect.  Too bad that it was over instead of just beginning.  (196)

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Another opening of another Danish novel - Herman Bang won't tell me anything

All right, I was wrong, I am not going to write about the characters in Pelle the Conqueror quite yet.  I want to write about the opening of another Danish novel.  Compare and contrast, as they say.

The novel is Herman Bang’s 1889 Tina.  I have just read the long first chapter, and have little idea about what the novel is about except for two things, 1) it is “about” or at least set during the 1864 Dano-Prussian War, which ought to be interesting, and 2) it does appear to be “about” the title character, who is female, a schoolmaster’s daughter heading towards old maid-dom.  The latter point is only of interest because after reading Niels Lyhne, Pelle the Conqueror, and reading about Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per through Scott Bailey’s many posts, I began to suspect that all classic Danish novels were Bildungsroman about young men.  Whatever Tina might be, is definitely not one of those.

But I just want to look at the beginning, since the beginning of Pelle the Conqueror is fresh in my mind.  Nexø begins with pure description, slowly introducing any people at all and only slowly moving to his main characters.  This is how Bang starts:


The first word is the novel’s title.

Tina, in tears, continued to run beside the carriage, while Mrs Berg shouted her last words into the darkness and the wind.

“You’ll make up the bed then – in the Blue Room – tonight – from tonight, don’t forget.”

“Yes – yes,” answered Tina, unable to speak for tears.

“And remember me – remember me to everybody,” sobbed Mrs Berg.  The wind carried her words away.  One last time Tina ran up and tried to grasp her outstretched hand, but she could no longer reach it.  She stopped, and the carriage, like a great shadow, vanished into the darkness.  Soon the sound of its wheel could be heard no more.

Splash, right into the middle.  This may not be so obvious to you folks who spend your time with new-fangled novels, but for a 19th century novel this opening is radical.  Who is Tina?  Who is Mrs. Berg?  Who knows?  What relationship do they have with each other – is Tina Mrs Berg’s servant, or daughter?  Why the tears?

Perhaps this will all be cleared up in the next paragraph, but it is not.  A new character is mentioned, Herluf.  He is absent, but he has toys, so he is a child, or else a pet.  Next paragraph: Lars, probably a servant, since he is in the “servants’ hall.”  Next: Maren, also a servant.  no, I was wrong, a crofter.  Then “Sophie the housemaid.”  Finally Bang violates the purity of his system a bit.  But the narrator never stops to explain.  He has moved close to the idea of narrator as movie camera.  He can read thoughts, so a telepathic movie camera.  I see what it sees and hear what it hears and have to piece the rest together as information gradually, naturally reveals itself.

No, not a camera, since it sees so selectively.  What does Tina look like, for example?  Madame Bovary begins with a description of Charles Bovary, his height and hair and boots and hat.  Tina refuses to simply tell me that, or anything.  I really have to pay attention and piece it all together as I go along.

How fun.  Bang is writing, in this sense, like William Faulkner, or like Eudora Welty in Delta Wedding (1946), which I think of a particularly artful examples of this kind of technique with its huge extended family and complicated history, although as I look at it I see that the first paragraph is close to what is now called an “infodump.”  Laura is nine years old, she is going to her cousin’s wedding, her mother is dead, etc.  In a few pages Laura will be plopped into the middle of her extended family where she and I are both disoriented by all of the uncles and aunts and cousins, although I will be able to piece the family tree together eventually if I pay attention.

Maybe I should dump everything else for Delta Wedding.  No, no, Bang and Pelle are good, too.

Paul Christophersen is Bang’s translator.

Friday, April 4, 2014

as if some great beast lay hidden out there in the fog - admiring the scenery of Pelle the Conqueror

Pelle the Conqueror begins:

It was the first of May, 1877, just at dawn.  From the sea the mist came sweeping in, a gray trail that lay heavily on the water.  There was movement in it here and there; it seemed about to lift, but closed in again, leaving only a strip of beach with two old boats lying keel uppermost upon it.  The prow of a third boat and a bit of breakwater showed dimly in the fog bank a few paces off.  At regular intervals a smooth gray wave would come gliding out of the mist up over the clattering pebbles of the beach, and then withdraw again; it was as if some great beast lay hidden out there in the fog, lapping at the land.

I think you can see here what I meant by “plain style” as applied to Martin Andersen Nexø, and which I mean relatively, relative to Zola or the more florid mode of Jans Peter Jacobsen.  He is not trying to impress anyone with unusual colors or vocabulary.  Yet he easily communicates not just the look but the movement of the shore, even before the curious metaphorical turn at the end.  The wave as the tongue of a hidden sea monster is not so plain.

Assuming the reader has not, like I had, seen the movie, there is little clue what the book will be about or who might be observing the scene.  Pelle and his father Lasse are out in the fog at this point, out with the beast, coming to Denmark.

I cannot resist the next paragraph.  Still just scenery.

A couple of hungry crows were busy with a puffy black object down there, probably the carcass of a dog.  Each time the licking wave glided in, the crows rose and hovered a few feet up in the air with their legs extended straight down toward their booty, as if invisibly attached.  When the water sighed back out again, they dropped down and buried their heads in the carrion, but kept their wings spread, ready to lift off before the next lick of the wave.  This was repeated with the regularity of clockwork.

Nexø is serious about the tongue metaphor – it licks its way through the paragraph.  The crows are perfect, right?  The scene, previously organic becomes mechanical.  The clockwork leads to the introduction of people in the next paragraph, or actually just the sounds of people in the fog  – shouts, bells, a horn, oars.  More sounds: “a quarryman’s iron cleats on the cobblestones,” “a loud morning yawn,” a scolding and a slap, a Mendelssohn hymn.  And finally, the sight of some people, a boat crew.

They were leaning forward, their hands clasped and hanging between their knees, and puffing on their pipes.  All three wore earrings to ward off colds and other evils, and all sat in exactly the same position, as if each were afraid of being the slightest bit different from the others.

I guess those are people.  The funny thing about all of this, however good it is, is that the great virtue of Pelle the Conqueror is its characters, mostly vibrant Pelle and his pitiful father, but also lots of secondary and even incidental characters who are unlike these sailors individually drawn.  Maybe a glance at some of the characters tomorrow.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

It looks pretty miserable - It was a glorious life - Pelle the Conqueror

The strange life of books.  I just finished the first volume of Pelle the Conqueror (1906) by Martin Andersen Nexø.  It’s a terrific novel.  Lots of people would enjoy it.  Young Pelle and old Lasse, his father, are Swedes working as laborers on a Danish farm that is almost feudal in its organization.  “’It looks pretty miserable,’ said Lasse” (183), and it is, yet “It was a glorious life, and Pelle was happy” (71).  Both are true.  Maybe that is part of why the book is so good.

Pelle is just a kid, running around with the cattle, happy when the sun is shining or school is out or adults are fair, unhappy when it is too cold or the schoolmaster makes him memorize hymns or when his father drinks too much.  The really miserable stuff goes on around Pelle in the adult world of violence, sex, and booze that he does not yet understand.  But he is a tough little kid.

Pelle’s childhood had been happy because of everything; mingled with weeping, it had been a song to life.  Weeping, as well as joy, is heard of music; heard from a distance it becomes a song.  And as Pelle gazed down upon the world of his childhood, only pleasant memories shimmered toward him through the bright air.  Nothing else existed, or ever had.  (239)

Now,  I think that in terms of prose that is the single worst piece of writing in the novel, but it says what I have been trying to say.  The style is normally not so blunt, but rather constrained by the limited point of view of either Pelle or his father.  Nexø had been reading some French novels, I would guess Zola, although Nexø ‘s style is plain where Zola’s is ornate.  Let me save this for tomorrow.

Pelle the Conqueror is a novel in four volumes, published from 1906 through 1910, and I have only read the first, Childhood.  How the later novels, 700 pages more, compare I do not know.  Childhood covers agriculture / the countryside; successive volumes move to apprenticeship / town and factory work / the big city, with Pelle eventually  becoming a labor organizer.  I accuse Nexø of schematism!  This sounds Marxist because it is – after World War II Nexø moved to East Germany! –  although I do not believe I would have figured it out on the evidence of Childhood alone. 

The 1987 Bille August film version of the book covers only the first volume of the whole thing.  The movie is actually more miserable than the novel, since it is so relentlessly focused on the world outside Pelle’s head, but is a joy to watch because of the acting and filmmaking, or so I remember it.  The movie inspired a revised translation of the first two volumes of the novel by Steven T. Murray, which, as far as I can tell are not in print.  An old translation is available online, but if you can get it you want the 1989 revision.  As the editor says in an afterword:

The 1913 translation of the present book, for example, omitted any references to sex (even barnyard procreation), bodily functions, body parts (the word “stomach” seemed to be particularly taboo), and anything else the translator deemed too immodest to put into print.  Needless to say, this resulted in mysterious gaps in the story, as well as wreaking havoc with the author’s style and intent.  (244)

Significant parts of the book would make no sense at all.  This novel is earthy.  That is a great part of its appeal, along with the characters, the interesting setting, the effective language, all of that.  Maybe a day or two more on all of that.  A lot of readers would like this book.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The weird condition we'll call tradition - Peter Cole's The Invention of Influence

My schematism is still acting up, so I remain too sick to write about Matthew Arnold.

I am hardly well enough to write about Peter Cole’s poems, either.  Cole has become a major translator of Hebrew poetry, medieval to contemporary, none of which I have read.  His own poems, as I found them in The Invention of Influence (2014) , are full of Hebrew references as I know from their titles (“The Reluctant Kabbalist’s Sonnet”), explanatory notes:

The words in capital letters are the ten Kabbalistic sefirot, in ascending order.  The sefirot are expressions or even translations of divine influence into existence, refracted attributes that reflect human qualities and processes as well.  (119)

and on rare occasions, my own paltry knowledge.

But I do not know how much it matters.  We all like flowers.

Summer Syntax

Saxifrage, arabis, phlox;
lobelia, euphorbia, nasturtium;
coreopsis, guara, flax;
brunnera, salvia, rubrum;
delphinium, snapdragon, alyssum;
bacopa, yarrow, thyme;
viola, cress, chrysanthemum,
convolvulus and clematis that climb
over the flowering fescue,
the prairie mallow, and sage,
with Lucerne sisyrinchium to the rescue
of spirit surveying the cage
of its inching calibrations –
luring us out to stare
into this constellation’s
efflorescence as        everywhere.

This poem is hardly typical of Cole except in its clever rhymes, fondness for Latinate words, and plunge, at the end, into the infinite.  The gap before “everywhere” is in the poem.

More typical are poems about angels, or poems about 13th century Jewish poets from Spain, or poems about poems, which also includes the first two categories (“Angels are letters, says Abulafia”):

Borges likens his Aleph to Ezekiel’s
four-faced cherubs facing at once
every direction – something conceivable
as well in the circuits of a quatrain’s hunch.  (from “Actual Angels”)

A poem titled “On Coupling” is only partly about sex; it is of course in rhyming couplets, and is in part about rhyming couplets:

So it is that a coupling’s rhyme
threads us, sometimes, through the sublime

The center of the book is a 52-page poem in varied meters about Victor Tausk, an actual person, a disciple of Sigmund Freud who comes to a bad end, unable to shake off or cope with Freud’s powerful father-figure.  Tausk is tormented by the idea of originality:

I cannot bear
    not to have been
the first to have uttered
    a certain thing.  (57)

Freud is describing the psychology of the plagiarist, but also describing Tausk.  Or is this Tausk describing himself?  “Weird is the word that suited him,” says Freud (56).  This is certainly Tausk:

Gaps are opened
    within the real,
which echoes like doubt –
    or debts we feel
and may have forgotten
    returning as
the weird condition
    we’ll call tradition.

“The Invention of Influence: An Agon,” it is called.  The story of Tausk and Freud are mixed in with Jewish wisdom from the Sayings of the Fathers and other sources.  The poem is ambitious.  A strong Austrian strain runs through the poems alongside the Hebrew theme (see “Six Cheers for von Hofmannsthal”), which is what attracted me to the book, but now I wonder about his big translations, The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition (2012) and The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492 (2007), how much work they would require to enjoy.

Have I given the slightest since of what Peter Cole’s poems are like?

Either the world is coming together
or else the world is falling apart –
    here – now – along these letters,
    against the walls of every heart.  (from “Song of the Shattering Vessels”)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

inconsequentiality, moderatism, and bourgeois tendencies - like an epistolary novel - Chernyshevsky chased with Nabokov

I am about halfway through What Is to Be Done? – I have just reached the establishment of the sewing collective – yes, you read that right, a cooperative sewing business with all profits shared equally, all described in great detail – how many readers are thinking “I was going to skip that Chernyshevsky novel, but I did not now it was about a sewing collective!” – my point is that I am on schedule to write about the Chernyshevsky novel and Notes from the Underground during the last week of April and beginning of May as I had originally planned, so to anyone curious enough to read along, there we go.

Chernyshevsky’s novel is certainly readable.  That is not the problem.

They attacked each other for inconsequentiality, moderatism, and bourgeois tendencies.  These were general charges.  But then each and every one in particular was accused of a special fault: for one it was romanticism, for Dmitry Sergeich, schematism, for another, rigorism.  (, p. 203 of Katz)

This is a game, being played by adults.  At a picnic.  All right, the novel is mostly readable; that’s mostly not the problem.  I was planning on writing something more substantive, but unfortunately my schematism has flared up, so nothing too serious until I recover.

I have Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift out because Chernyshevsky is the subject of one of its chapters, but it has also proved a helpful remedy for rigorism and schematism, by which I mean dull prose.  Just on the first couple of pages, a moving van has “a shamelessly exposed anatomy”; the name painted on its side “was shaded laterally with black paint; a dishonest attempt to climb into the next dimension.”  A man wears an overcoat “to which the wind imparted a ripple of life.”  The street “rose at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel.”

Ah, what relief, a writer who not only writes, but who put something interesting in every single sentence.  The Gift is about a young writer, a Russian émigré in Berlin.  His first book of poems has just been published, so he is in a heightened state of sensitivity to sensory impressions, which he funnels into the art-generating mechanism in his brain (“Someday, he thought, I must use such a scene to start a good, thick old-fashioned novel”).  Nabokov is not merely showing off.

A couple of pages later is this dull thing: “His landlady let him in and said that she had left his keys in his room.”  The sentence is secretly referring to the end of the novel, 350 pages later.  Its plainness is almost a tell.  Keep an eye on this one, there’s a trick somewhere.

All of this is extremely Proustian, perhaps the most purely Proustian stuff Nabokov ever wrote.  By chance I am just at the point in Time Regained where the narrator has achieved a heightened state of sensitivity to sensory impressions, allowing to him to solve the problem of his artistic vocation and begin writing a novel much like, but not the same as, the Proust novel he narrates, just as the writer in The Gift likely someday writes a novel much like The Gift, which will also contain

the tobacconist’s speckled vest with mother-of-pearl buttons and his pumpkin-colored bald spot.  Yes, all my life I shall be getting that extra little payment in kind to compensate my regular overpayment for merchandise foisted on me.

Nabokov, Dostoevsky, and others demonstrate that even the reading of What Is to Be Done? has some compensations.  People read it and then write masterpieces.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nothing in an intelligible language - Lars Gustafsson's profession

The first two books of Lars Gustafsson’s that I read were collections, tiny little selections from his work covering a career of twenty years or more.  I read each poem as a poem, but I also read the books like I read novels, like I read Niels Lyhne, scouring them for the little markers that connect one poem to another the way Jacobsen’s flowers and moss pulled distant scenes together.

Or more simply if I do not understand a poem I move to the next one.  Perhaps it will have a clue to the previous poem.

A well-written novel, within my usual sense of “well-written,” has to contain such clues.  A book of poems, especially a selection, has so such obligation.  Individual poems may well be radically dissociated.  Not usually, though.

Thus I discover that Gustafsson is fond of images of flight – birds or balloons or the Wright brothers – and that he loves dogs.  “I don’t know if I like cats. / Dogs are more my sort of animal” (from “Sleeping with a Cat in the Bed”).  And he has not just a poet’s but a philosopher’s interest in language.  In “Of Course Superman Is Clark Kent” Gustafsson describes his early philosophical training in the ideas of W. V. O. Quine “who always  / greeted me so kindly at the tobacconist’s / on Harvard Square,” including their preposterous results (“that Clark Kent is not Superman…  Did we really believe all this / in my youth?”).

A Time in Xanadu (2002, tr. 2008 by John Irons) is the one complete book of Gustafsson’s poems available in English.  It begins with a poem about language:

(Let L be a language
composed as follows:
V is a vocabulary
with words for love, hate, despair,
dreaming and waking, snaps and stinging nettles.  (“Monologue for Some Prince in Denmark”)

Until those snaps and nettles appear this promises to be the worst poem ever written.

In this book, Gustafsson kindly organizes the poems by subject – Reminiscences (mostly about Gustafsson’s Swedish childhood), Philosophies, Everyday Life (like that cat) – which encourages me to read across the poems.  If, for example, I do not get much out of the moldy surreal “Walk through a Dream Landscape,” I at least note “the boats / Tugging at their moorings” at the end of the poem, since they seem to reappear several poems later:

The Tired
The tired old boats
break their moorings in the first autumn gale
and go adrift,
heavy, half waterlogged,
and quietly philosophical
until they start to rot away in the reeds

Or I can wonder about a later dream landscape in “I Often Dream Here,” more clearly Swedish, that inspires a cry of “What does his place want of me?”

Whether any of this is intended I do not know.  Do the poems follow a plan or do they spill out of the same place?  “I did not choose this profession.  \ This profession chose me” Gustafsson writes in “The Profession,” where poetry or inspiration is like a radio that is always on.

Not the old set there, you blockheads!
I mean a different one, a so-called “inner” radio
where four or five stations fuse
crackling into noise and interference!
And nothing in an intelligible language!

So the poets job is clear enough.  “Of course Superman is Clark Kent.”  L and V “may grow into a song.”

Friday, March 28, 2014

four words and a fifth which is conjectural - the poems of Lars Gustafsson

Has anyone read the novels of Lars Gustafsson? Anyone who stops by Wuthering Expectations I mean.  New Directions has published a half dozen of them, some with first-rate titles: Funeral Music for Freemasons or The Death of a Beekeeper.  I do not believe I have ever come across an article about Gustafsson or review of his books written by anyone besides Michael Orthofer.

I did stumble across his poetry, which I recently read in bulk and enjoyed quite a bit.  The bulk is not so bulky in English, just three tiny books of 116, 69 and 84 pages, and since these are books of poetry those pages are nearly blank.


I’ve always had a liking for fragments.
The shred of papyrus, threadbare, brown
as an autumn leaf in the park in spring.
A philosopher quoted only once,
and then imperfectly, distorted,
by a very grudging patriarch,
who can’t hide the golden glow
issuing from four words and a fifth
which is conjectural.  *

Fans of Sappho and Heraclitus will appreciate that.  Of course I picked a poem with a literary subject.  Gustafsson is himself a philosopher as well as a poet and novelist, and was a longtime professor of philosophy at University of Texas – Austin.  He often writes about his childhood in rural Sweden, but also about Texas, where

there was music in the humidity.  It came from every
street.  Ballads and blues and a special kind of

pensive jazz.  It resembled nothing else I’d heard.
It came from warmer air, smelling of earth.

Never again to need my wool mittens,
sleeping like nice kittens in the closet! (“Austin, Texas”) **

Gustafsson frequently uses those unrhymed couplets.  Or maybe they rhyme in the original, although I doubt it.  All of the poetry was translated into English in close collaboration with Gustafsson.  Christopher Middleton notes that some of the “deviations in the English occasionally led to changes in the original” (Stillness, xii).

One more complete poem tonight.

The Stillness of the World Before Bach

There must have been a world before
the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor Partita,
but what kind of world?
A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding,
everywhere unawakened instruments
where the Musical Offering, the Well-tempered Clavier
never passed across the keys.
Isolated churches
where the soprano line of the Passion
never in helpless love twined round
the gentler movements of the flute,
broad soft landscapes
where nothing breaks the stillness
but old woodcutters’ axes,
the healthy barking of strong dogs in winter
and, like a bell, skates biting into fresh ice;
the swallows whirring through summer air,
the shell resounding at the child’s ear
and nowhere Bach nowhere Bach
the world in a skater’s stillness before Bach. ***

I know, isolating “isolated churches” is almost too cute.

*  From The Stillness of the World Before Bach: New Selected Poems (1988), tr. Christopher Middleton.
**  From Elegies and Other Poems (2000), tr. Yvonne L. Sandstroem.
***  From Stillness, tr. Philip Martin.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

She was rather fond of scenes - Niels Lyhne, irony, and the eternal gnome child

Happiness generally makes people good, and Niels strove earnestly in every way to shape their lives so nobly, beautifully and usefully that there would never be a pause in the development of their souls toward the human ideal in which they both believed.  (194)

My struggle with Niels Lyhne was with passages like this, the ones that directly challenged my usual, and useful, ironic mode of reading.  In the same paragraph Niels looks at his old poems, and finds that “he would regularly get tears in his eyes over his own poems.”  It seems cruel, yet necessary, to laugh at this, especially since a horrible tragedy strikes Niels two sentences later.

Jacobsen never gives us any of Niels’s poems.  I have a theory that the especially gooey passages, the ones with the great wingspans of tenderness and oceans of love, are meant to be extractions from Niels’s awful, awful poems.

The structure of the book sees Niels encounter a woman, one chapter, one woman.  Crushes, love affairs, his mother.  Although the bulk of the book belongs to Niels, in every case there is a point where the perspective shifts to the woman, and in almost every case the woman’s perspective is in some way ironic.  Early in the novel, for example, Niels spends too much time yearning after a widow.  She becomes engaged, Niels (finally) makes a pass at her, perhaps with her encouragement, but the result is a fight and tears.

The widow is genuinely upset, but as she cries she watches herself cry in a mirror.  (Are there flowers? Yes, “the variegated flowers of the sofa cushions”).  She begins to imagine other endings to the fight.  She begins to enjoy herself.  “She was rather fond of scenes” (107).  Poor, foolish Niels.

The women in Niels Lyhne are types, but at least with some variety.  The great flaw in the novel is that Niels Lyhne is so flat.  He is something of a Romantic Everyman and as such is never allowed to be too interesting.  I have not yet mentioned his atheism, a major theme of the novel, but it does not help much with the personality.  It is more of a position to argue.  What is the opposite of a Bildungsroman?  Niels never really develops much, part of the cost of the short novel’s birth-to-death scope and constant summarizing.

The best scene in the book is part of the long chapter that fills twenty percent of the novel, the account of an affair between Niels and Fennimore, who is married to Niels’s best friend.  Again, the best part of the best scene is given to the woman.  During a bleak winter night, Fennimore, alone, learns some terrible news.  For six pages, she wanders around her house, miserable.  “In black swarms, from every direction, the dark thoughts came flying like ravens, lured by the corpse of her happiness, and pecked at, beak after beak, while the warmth of life still lingered in it” (173).  A new set of images are developed, as if this is a novella within the novel.  The furniture turns sinister and Gothic.  The portraits of the family that owns the house become:

all those strangers who had been witness to her fall and guilt, somnolent old men, prudish-mouthed matrons, and the eternal gnome child that they had everywhere, the girl with the big round eyes and the protruding, high-domed forehead.  (174)

The “footstool with the black poodle on it,” a blatant reference to Goethe’s Faust, is also strange, but not as strange as the eternal gnome child.

Niels and Fennimore meet, fight, and separate.  In this case each character’s “ending” is ironic, but the irony is the usual novelistic stuff, where the characters do not understand each other or even themselves, where they act for reasons other than what they believe.  This, at least, I know how to read.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

the mist of distance had veiled the turbulent throng of details - Jacobsen's flowers

Niels Lyhne’s father has died, and his mother is ill.  They travel for her health.  Here, I thought, Jens Peter Jacobsen will surely include some details.  Please watch Jacobsen laugh at me:

In dreams and in poetry it had always somehow been on the other side of the lake; the mist of distance, full of presentiment, had veiled the turbulent throng of details and gathered the shapes in broad outlines into a completed whole, and the silence of distance had spread its festive mood over it, and it had been so easy to grasp in its beauty…  (92-3)

Well, there is a lake, since the trip eventually ends in Switzerland (and not just anywhere, but at the setting of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse).  You might wonder  – I certainly did – what the antecedent of “it” might be.  I believe that “it” is defined in a preceding paragraph as “the glory she had so sadly longed for,” but I cannot be sure.

So on the one hand there is the mode that veils the details in mists, but then there is the other side of Niels Lyhne:

… the blended smell of ordinary tobacco and earthen floors, of spices and rancid dried fish and wet homespun… a simple, bright garland stencil beneath the molding; there was a plaster rose in the middle of the ceiling, and the doors were ridged and had shiny brass handles in the shape of dolphins…  blue agapanthus, blue pyramid bells, finely leaved myrtle, fiery-red verbena, and geraniums, colorful as butterflies...  mirrors with flowers in white and bronze painted in the glass – rushes and lotuses floating on the smooth lake...  (124-5)

The ellipses are mine, since this is from a two-page paragraph.  I have omitted all of the furniture, some of it inlaid with mythological scenes.  I had read that Jacobsen had influenced Thomas Mann, and here we see Niels Lyhne turn into Buddenbrooks – this is even the description of the house of a grain merchant!  A young Mann must have gotten a good jolt when he found Jacobsen inventorying Mann’s own family home.

I don’t know what to do with the broad outlines, but I know what to do with those flowers.  If I turn back to the trip with the mother, the vagueness about “it” is soon followed by a long, elaborate furnishing of Switzerland. White snowdrops, “the veined goblets of crocus blossoms,” yellow primroses, blue violets, “velvet-soft moss,” and cherry blossoms “which butterflies speckled with red and blue” (all of this from page 94).  I haven’t named a third of the flowers.  In the furnished room, there is the mirror painted with bronze flowers to resemble a lake; in Switzerland the lake is “red as a copper mirror” (95).  The lake as a mirror is not so original, but combined with the later image something else is going on.  The rebirth of love in the grain merchant’s house is linked back to the death, surrounded by flowers, of Niels’s mother.

Niels does not marry Fennimore but later meets her again and begins an affair.  Could that later scene also be packed with flowers once I know what I am looking for?

She didn’t speak either; she lay there in silence with a heavy smile on her lips, pale as a flower.  (159)

Now that the work has been done, Jacobsen does not even need real flowers to build links, although there are plenty of those, too, and also two kinds of moss, the ground moss “which almost looked like firs or palms or ostrich feathers” and the tree moss that looked “the way you might imagine the grain fields of the elves would look” (162).  Just to make sure, Fennimore even reminds us of that furniture:  “Do you remember the furniture at home?...  How I love that furniture…” (157).  Jacobsen is as directly as he possibly can instructing his reader to page back and reread the description of the furniture.

All of this – the structure, the colors, the metaphors – is first-rate writing.  That moss is exquisite.  What a strange, frustrating novel!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

So enormously mild were his judgments - Jens Peter Jaobsen's Niels Lyhne

The back cover of the paperback translation of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s novel Niels Lyhne (1880) has testimonials from Rainer Maria Rilke, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, and Henrik Ibsen.  Jacobsen is Danish, while four of those five fellows are German and Austrian.  Jacobsen’s novel is itself quite Germanic, another descendant of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister.  The path of influence or transmission or simply translating and publishing, maybe that is all I mean, went from Scandinavian to German and back.  Thus books that are obscure in English are well known in German.  What proportion of the English-language readers of Niels Lyhne have come to it because Rilke, in the Letters to a Young Poet, writes about it so enthusiastically?  Very close to one hundred, is my guess.

Lord, what nonsense Rilke writes.  “[T]he more often you read it, the more everything seems to be contained within it, from life’s most imperceptible fragrances to the intense, full taste of its heaviest fruits.”  Who can argue otherwise?

Niels Lyhne has just recently been described accurately by litlove when she invokes two of the blurbers:

Hesse, like Rilke, is one of those writers who seems to write about the things I am properly interested in. He writes about how to live, when you do not feel like you fit with the ‘normal’ run of humanity, when you are miserable in ways others say you should not be, or when you simply want to live a good life and do not know how that can be achieved. His characters are always searching for a cure for living, and the answers they come up with – art, love, transcendent wisdom, acceptance with humour – feel like they might just work.

Jacobsen’s novel is one of those, right in that tradition.  Unfortunately for me, these are exactly the things I am not so interested in, because I do not really trust fiction to do them well, so I continually felt like I was reading the novel badly.  There is, after all, really only one cure for living, and by the end of the novel the title character is healed (by a Prussian bullet).

And then finally he died the death – the difficult death. (205)

This is from the 1990 Tiina Nunnally translation.  Whatever whining I might do about the novel, I always appreciated Nunnally’s struggle with it. 

The novel is an episodic parents-to-deathbed story about a sensitive Danish Romantic who flounders about with his vocation (can he be a poet?) and with women.  Sometimes the novel is comic, sometimes not so much; sometimes ironic, all too often sincere; sometimes sharply written, sometimes disastrously gooey. 

He had never known the intensity and vastness of this kind of feeling before [Niels is having an affair with a married woman], and there were moments when he felt himself a titan, much more than a human being; he sensed such an inexhaustibility within him, such a wingspan of tenderness swelled from his heart, so wide was his vision, so enormously mild were his judgments.  (166)

The whole page is like that.  “They were currents in the great ocean of love, single reflections of its full light, splinters of love, just as meteors that race through the air are splinters of a planet, because that’s what love was” etc. and so on.  Then two pages later begins one of the sharpest, most precise scenes in the book.  It has been a while since I read a book with such wild swings in rhetorical mode, and in quality.

But perhaps the result is more aesthetically coherent than I realize.  I will write about the book for another day or two, mostly the good parts, I hope.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Some few of the most beautiful lines ever written - a Sebald bibliography

A couple of days of vacation are on their way, so this will be the last post until Monday.

I have been ignoring the issue of just who Gottfried Keller and Johann Peter Hebel and so on actually are, or what they wrote – everyone knows Jean-Jacques Rousseau, right, but not Eduard Mörike – just taking it for granted that they are worth reading not only because Sebald found them valuable but because I have read them myself, not that I have written much about them.

Keller is a good example.  You would think that Keller’s massive Green Henry (1854) would have given me two weeks of material, but I barely mentioned it, likely because I never really got hold of it, or I was writing about something else.  Keller’s novel is a portrait of a young artist much like himself who runs through a series of troubles with school, girls, and his attempts to become a painter.   Sebald is writing about a description of Henry walking at night:

What is remarkable about this passage is the way in which Keller’s prose, so unreservedly committed to earthly life, attains is most astonishing heights at precisely those moments where it reaches out to touch the edge of eternity.  (109)

Like, Sebald says, “the work of a baroque poet of mortality and vanitas.”  And this really is just a passage about a man out walking in the dark.  Sebald is talking about the mysteries that slip in, like the “invisible swarms of migratory birds [that] passed high overhead with an audible rustling of wings.”

Green Henry is a strange book that violates almost every idea I have about good writing, much like Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer, the other long German-language masterpiece from the 1850s.  One strange thing about it is that it is constructed out of a series of novella-length and novella-like episodes, an unusual structure.  Why I did not write about Keller’s actual novellas, like the heartbreaking A Village Romeo and Juliet or the fine folk tale-like comedies Clothes Make the Man and The Three Righteous Combmakers is more of a puzzle, although I see that I did write a bit about not writing about them.  How very helpful.  Those stories are all easy to like.

Eduard Mörike is a different, since I have not read his long Kunstlerroman titled Nolten the Painter (1832) – Sebald makes it sound like a mess – but rather some poems, which I wrote about many years ago, and his effervescent novella Mozart on the Way to Prague (1855).  The poems are so sweet and charming, except for the one where the poet kicks acritic down the stairs, and the Mozart story is also a delight, and frankly a corrective to the “kooky Mozart” stereotype.

I feel that Sebald cheats a bit with Mörike, since he never mentions Mozart on the Way to Prague or the more amusing poems.  Not melancholy enough, I guess, although they, too are part of the artistic “mystery” Sebald describes, the result of craft and “a very long memory” and

possibly, a certain unluckiness in love, which appears to have been precisely the lot of those who, like  Mörike and Schubert, Keller and Walser, have bequeathed to us some few of the most beautiful lines ever written.  (87)

If I have turned this post into a bibliography, it is because the translator of A Place in the Country, Jo Catling, has created such a fine bibliography herself, with German and English sources, primary and secondary.  It would make a fine course of study, or a good guide to take with on a search for those beautiful lines.  It is full of temptations.  I predict I will soon succumb.