Friday, August 28, 2015

Of course she was joking, but there was always something ironical in her jokes - the greatest sentence of Henry James

He stooped and picked up the pug, lifted it to his face and wiped his eyes on its little soft back.  (The American, Ch. 25)

Easily the greatest single sentence I have found in Henry James.  Context does it no harm, but I will just note that it is from the near end of The American, not the more goofy beginning.  There have been deaths, heartbreak, betrayals , renunciation – “serious” stuff.  The protagonist Newman has become a new man, almost but not quite wrecking himself against old, cruel Europe.  Yet James can still have an old man use a dog as a handkerchief. 

Of course she was joking, but there was always something ironical in her jokes, as there was always something jocular in her gravity.  (Ch. 10)

Yes, exactly.

I was surprised by the genuine grotesques in The American:

Madame de la Rochefidèle had an aged, cadaverous face, with a falling of the lower jaw which prevented her from bringing her lips together, and reduced her conversations to a series of impressive but inarticulate gutturals.  She raised an antique eyeglass, elaborately mounted in chased silver, and looked at Newman from head to foot.  Then she said something to which he listened deferentially, but which he completely failed to understand.  (Ch. 12)

Proust would have been happy with this character.  Then there are the Wildean lines I have mentioned before:

Between him and Newman, his whole manner seemed to declare there could be no interchange of opinion; he was holding his breath so as not to inhale the odor of democracy.  (Ch. 13)

I am tempted to put in something from the obese duchess, too.  These examples have all been at the expense of the French nobility, who lend themselves to grotesquerie.  Who would really know if James was exaggerating; who would have ever met any of them?  I am only guessing myself.

“Madame de la Rochefidèle says that she is convinced that she must have seen Americans without knowing it,” Madame de Cintré explained.  Newman thought it probable she had seen a great many things without knowing it…  (Ch. 10)

The two strains of jokes are combined, by Newman himself, which suggests that the narrator has been seeing what his character is seeing and hearing what he is hearing.  In other words, one way Newman loses his blankness is that I am allowed to notice what he notices.  There is a great deal of personality in noticing.

Now a sentences that I was surprised to find in James for other reasons – Newman is trying to persuade a Frenchman to avoid a duel:

“I don't say you are the most useful man in the world, or the cleverest, or the most amiable.  But you are too good to go and get your throat cut for a prostitute.”  (Ch. 17)

Most shockingly, the character referred to is not actually a prostitute, but more of a kept woman.  Newman can be direct.  Henry James, famously evasive, can be direct, or could at one point in his life.  He wrote to William Dean Howells that William James, reading the serial in the Atlantic, was shocked – “he speaks of some phrases (on Newman’s part) as being so shocking as to make the ‘reader’s flesh creep’”  (Library of America edition, p. 1271).  The example given, though is Newman calling a woman “a high class of goods.”  I will never quite understand this sensibility.

Is there more James like The American?  Are there more James sentences like the one with the damp pug?  I doubt it.  So next I try some different James, similar yet different.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

"You can say all sorts of bright things in it" - the Americans in The American learn French

From The American’s American to other characters, some of whom are also Americans, such as Babcock the Unitarian minister who “lived chiefly on Graham bread and hominy” to the extent that “[i]n Paris he had purchased a bag of hominy at an establishment which called itself an American Agency” and took his Grand Tour with it, insisting that the cooks at his various Italian hotels prepare it for him, a position that the narrator, who can be snide, “show[ed] extreme serenity and fortitude.”  Babcock “was extremely fond of pictures and churches” but “nevertheless in his secret soul he detested Europe.”

Babcock fills much of Chapter 5 and is never mentioned again.  He provides a good example of how the character of the protagonist, Brigadier-General Newman, is presented negatively.  Newman is at risk of looking inflexible, but no, he is not like Babcock.

Goethe recommended seeing human nature in the most various forms, and Mr. Babcock thought Goethe perfectly splendid.  He often tried, in odd half-hours of conversation to infuse into Newman a little of his own spiritual starch, but Newman's personal texture was too loose to admit of stiffening.  His mind could no more hold principles than a sieve can hold water.  He admired principles extremely, and thought Babcock a mighty fine little fellow for having so many.

That last line is Wildean, yes?  The American who is the contrast on the other side, Mr. Tristram, gets off some good ones, too.  He has just met Newman – we are back in the Louvre – after a gap of eight or nine years.  If Babcock has too much sensitivity to Europe, to culture, Tristram has none at all.

“I have just made arrangements to take French lessons.” [this is Newman]

“Oh, you don't want any lessons. You'll pick it up. I never took any.”

“I suppose you speak French as well as English?”

“Better!” said Mr. Tristram, roundly.  “It's a splendid language. You can say all sorts of bright things in it.”

“But I suppose,” said Christopher Newman, with an earnest desire for information, “that you must be bright to begin with.”

“Not a bit; that's just the beauty of it.”

I had wondered if James meant Newman to be a bit of an idiot.  Knowing what I was thinking he introduces a genuine specimen to steer me in another direction.

In case I go to far the other way, imaging that Newman is secretly sly, James brings in Mrs. Tristram sophisticated, almost Machiavellian, where her husband is idiotic, with a “marked tendency to irony” (Ch. 3).  It would not be too much to say that much of Newman’s development in Europe is to acquire a sense of irony, but not so strong that it corrupts him.  Corrupt is a little too strong for Mrs. Tristram, who “was buying a good conscience, by installments.”  Also a good line.

I could do the same exercise with the French characters but I will not.  By the end – no, by the middle – Newman has emerged out of these American and French types with a character of his own, which is then allowed to deepen through hardship and suffering in something more like an ordinary good novel.  It’s a bold way to set up a character.

Tomorrow: a different kind of character, the grotesques, not something I associate strongly with James.  And also some favorite lines, some like what I am calling Wildean, some a whole ‘nother thing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The comically implausible American of The American

The American of The American, Christopher Newman, is an odd character.  Or should I call him General Newman?  He rose, from nothing, to the rank of brigadier-general during the Civil War.  No one in the novel calls him General, though.

He is also enormously rich, an entrepreneur, but exactly how rich I cannot say.  He is called a “millionaire,” including by the narrator, and casually refers to another character being able to earn “half a million” in America under his guidance, but “million” may well be a synecdoche for “very rich.”  I remind myself that a million in May 1868 is something like twenty billion today, and Newman does not need to be anywhere near that wealthy for the story to function.

Regardless, there is an issue with Newman’s wealth.  In the first sentence, when Newman is lounging in the Louvre, it is May 1868.  He is thirty-six.  He was poor before the war, although “’in business since I was fifteen years old’” (Ch. 6, “at one time I manufactured wash-tubs”).  He is poor after, “without a penny” (Ch. 2) when he enters San Francisco, where he makes his fortune in some vague way.  That brigadier-general rank cannot have hurt.

The fortune is sufficiently large that he is about to engage in a stock market speculation worth $60,000 (or, today, $1.2 million) when he is struck by an epiphany – “’a mortal disgust for the thing I was going to do’” – and throws up the game.

Let’s say that was several months earlier in 1868. He musters out of the U.S. Army in 1864 (he was in for four years, he says).  After four years, during some of which he is still poor, he is wealthy enough to make a massive stock market gamble for the sake of revenge (“’I owed him a grudge, I felt awfully savage at the time,’” Ch. 2).  Not that people did not make fast fortunes in California, but this much, this fast?  I at times wondered if James had forgotten that his novel was set a decade before he was writing it.

But the implausibilities of Newman’s story, the most unlikely of which is his crisis of conscience, the realization by a blank man that he is a blank, helped me see what James was doing with The American.  Newman is not meant to be typical, or even likely.  The novel is more broadly comic than is usual for James, and one source of comedy is that he goes big.  He is too rich, just as his character is too narrow (the narrator summarize him in four words: “Decision, salubrity, jocosity, prosperity,” Ch. 1).  Even the plot, where he tries to marry a French countess, is about as implausible as James could make it, as if a Mark Twain con man somehow crashed into a Proust novel.  I guess he could have had Newman court a duchess, or a Bourbon princess.

Anyway, my point is that for a writer strongly associated with something called “realism,” this particular novel is impressively exaggerated.  The contrasts are going to be big ones.

It took me a little effort to figure this out.  The Europeans, written a year later is not written like this, but is a more ordinary social comedy, even if there is a character married to a German prince.  Washington Square, from three years later, is not written like this, even if the sums of money involved are similarly eye-widening.

This is all a setup for the comedy itself, so that is where I should go tomorrow.  Big laughs ahead, for me and other readers who happen to remember the context of the jokes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

He had sat down with an aesthetic headache - Henry James begins The American

If I were reading The American as it was serialized in Atlantic Monthly (June 1876-May 1877), I might not at first realize that I was reading a novel.  Let me assume that I had skipped the first two novels of Henry James, even though they both appeared as serials in the Atlantic, I suppose because they looked too boring, but that I for some idle reason started this one.  For its first few chapters The American is blatantly comic and plotless.  An American self-made millionaire who as a character is close to a perfect blank is wandering around Europe for some reason, encountering a variety of comic types, French and American, roughly one per chapter.

By the sixth chapter and what I am guessing was the third month of serialization, Christopher Newman, the millionaire, decides he wants to marry a French countess he met previously and a more ordinary, unpicaresque plot unrolls with romance, conflict, and even melodrama, like the plot of a novel.  At one point the book even threatens to become a murder mystery.

So that is all fine, but I was most impressed by the boldness of James’s opening, especially by the emptiness of the title character, Mr. Newman, who is characterized negatively for much of the book, meaning that James does not show what he is but rather what he is not – he is not like the series of people he meets on his adventures.  Then, once the more plotty part of the novel begins moving, he begins to fill out on his own.  It is like James is writing a parody of a Bildungsroman, with the joke that American men do not do their developing until they come to Europe.  Maybe that is not meant as a joke.

Another joke.  Is it not Henry James who complained about Anthony Trollope’s comical names – Dr. Fillgrave – calling them a “terrible crime”?  Yet here we have Mr. New Man and his first encounter with Europe, with culture.

He had looked out all the pictures to which was an asterisk was affixed in those formidable pages of fine print in his Bädeker; his attention had been strained and his eyes dazzled, and he had sat down with an aesthetic headache…  Raphael and Titian and Rubens were a new kind of arithmetic, and they inspired our friend, for the first time in his life, with a vague self-mistrust.

This is from the first page, the first paragraph.  It is practically the first thing we learn about Newman.  Actually the first thing James mention is that he is “muscular” and “had often performed great physical feats which left him less jaded than his tranquil stroll through the Louvre.”  Also, that he enjoys looking at the women who come to the Louvre to copy paintings, and is thus led to the first of his picaresque meetings with comic types.   Also his second, and even third – takes Newman a chapter-and-a-half just to escape the Louvre.

I would like to say that The American is about how Newman cures his “aesthetic headache,” but that is too glib.  James skillfully makes a big shift as the novel goes along, both in structure and tone, and then meaning.

I may just write about the opening chapters, though, because they are funnier.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A dark and livelong hint of death - Walter de la Mare poems, for children and others

Now Walter de la Mare, a writer who like G. K. Chesterton wrote an enormous number and variety of books, but who unlike Chesterton seems to have disintegrated.  At one point his poems for children were quite popular.  I wonder how many of them I might have read as a child.

None from Songs of Childhood (1902), de la Mare’s first book, rang any bells.  Too bad for young me.  The book is comparable to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses or Christina Rossetti’s Sing-Song (1872).   Better than Rossetti’s book, actually, although similarly, to use current parlance, dark.  The first poem of de la Mare’s first book of poems for adults (Poems, 1906) declares that

The loveliest thing earth hath, a shadow hath,
A dark and livelong hint of death  (from “A Shadow”)

That hint runs through de la Mare’s early verse, whomever it might have been written for.

Songs of Childhood moves through a child’s day.  The child has trouble arising from bed but is enticed by the gnomes to arise (“Sleepyhead”).  What the gnomes want with the child – well, be suspicious, but perhaps it is all a dream.  The child’s play, encounters with fairies and witches and so on is light and charming, but darkens with the sky.  Soon, the subjects of the poem are ogres and wolves and a dying raven.  The child, with little comprehension, attends a funeral, depicted with great skill:

They took us to the graves,
    Susan and Tom and me,
Where the long grasses grow
    And the funeral tree:
We stood and watched; and the wind
    Came softly out of the sky
And blew in Susan’s hair,
  As  I stood close by.  (“The Funeral”)

Lest one think, as I did, that the funeral was for the children, as these lines strongly suggest, in the next stanza they are having their tea in the nursery, and “Tom fell asleep in his chair, \ He was so tired, poor thing.”

At this point in the sequence, sleep returns again and again, as the day comes to an end and bedtime nears for the young reader.

Sleep, sleep, lovely white soul;
Time comes to keep night-watch with thee,
Nodding with roses; and the sea
Saith “Peace! Peace!” amid his foam.
“O be still!”
The wind cries up the whispering hill –
    Sleep, sleep, lovely white soul.  (from “Lullaby”)

I find it easy to imagine something stronger than sleep behind these gentle poems.

The adult poems are more explicitly attuned to “Death’s stretching sea,” to use the last line of “Sorcery,” one of two poems about Pan in Poems.  Sleep, or the poet’s imagination, offers an entry to a dream-world of gods, fairies and Shakespeare character.  “Who, now, put dreams into thy slumbering mind?” (a question never answered from “The Death-Dream”).

Umbrageous cedars murmuring symphonies
Stooped in late twilight o’er dark Denmark’s Prince:
He sat, his eyes companioned with dream –
Lustrous large eyes that held the world in view
As some entrancèd child’s a puppet show.
Darkness gave birth to the all-trembling stars,
And a far  roar of long-drawn cataracts,
Flooding immeasurable night with sound.  (from “Hamlet”)

There is a hint that Hamlet, in his old age, would become Prospero.  Much more than a hint, since Ariel in mentioned directly.  The strange thing to me was now un-Shakespearian the ten poems about Shakespeare characters were.  De la Mare had converted them into de la Mare characters.

A section titled “Memories of Childhood” most clearly pulls the poems for children and adults together.  De la Mare’s childhood is a sad, lonely place.  This is from “The Echo,” so the first speaker is the poet, , the second the echo.

“Who cares?” I bawled through my tears;
    The wind fell low:
In the silence, “Who cares? who cares?”
   Wailed to and fro.

In this situation you receive the answer you ask for.

Lovely, gloomy things, these early Walter de la Mare poems.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The old frenzy to make some thing - early G. K. Chesterton poems

How about some of those posts where I poke at poets about whom I know nothing?  That’s always fun.  For me.

Since I ran out of British poets of the 1890s whom I wanted to read, I have moved on a bit, to G. K. Chesterton (The Wild Knight, 1900), Walter de la Mare (Songs of Childhood, 1902, and Poems, 1906), and William Butler Yeats (this and that).

The 1900s was Yeats’s decade for Celtic mythological poems.  They mostly bounce of me.  I have read and forgotten them before, and now I have done it again.  By The Green Helmet and Other Poems he is turning into the Yeats I know better.  I’ll set Yeats aside.

Does anyone wandering by have opinions about the plays of Yeats?  I have never read those and am curious.

Chesterton and de la Mare were the same age, and these are early books, poems of poets in their twenties.  Both wrote in a pleasing, straightforward lyrical style, in the line of Housman and Hardy – none of that baroque 1890s stuff for them.  They wrote poems to memorize.  For a time, de la Mare must have been among the most memorized poets in English, his children’s poems, at least.  For both poets, the distinction between poems for children and for adults can be uncertain.  Both poets are explicitly religious, with the difference that Chesterton is Catholic and de la Mare seems to worship fairies.

Early Chesterton at his best:

The Skeleton

Chattering finch and water-fly
Are not merrier than I;
Here among the flowers I lie
Laughing everlastingly.
No: I may not tell the best;
Surely friends, I might have guessed
Death was but the good King’s jest,
    It was hid so carefully.

The early lines join and parody a long tradition of English nature poetry, the last introduce a note of mystery.  Is the grinning skeleton telling the best or not?  “King” is doubled, yes, a secular king and Christ, with the line taking a different meaning for each.

Tolkien fans should seek out “Modern Elfland,” the Scourging of the Shire in 32 lines:

I filled my wallet with white stones,
   I took three foxgloves in my hand,
I slung my shoes across my back,
   And so I went to fairyland.
 But lo, within that ancient place
   Science had reared her iron crown,
And the great cloud of steam went up
   That telleth where she takes a town.

Do not worry, the hobbit champions will soon return from the war and Elfland will be restored.

I suppose I prefer the Chesterton of the grand but grounded metaphors, as in “The Skeleton” or “Cyclopean,” in which the planet is turned into a living monster:

But though in pigmy wanderings dull
I scour the deserts of his skull,
I never find the face, eyes, teeth,
Lowering or laughing underneath.

The end of this one has a sublime moment, when the monster looks back:

Then cowered: a daisy, half concealed,
Watched for the fame of that poor field;
And in that flower and suddenly
Earth opened its one eye on me.

The image of the poet staring in astonishment at and into a daisy, thinking it is the earth looking back at him, that and moments like it are the good stuff in these early Chesterton poems.

The title phrase is in the prefatory poem to The Wild Knight, a poet's apology in which his excuse is that if God can be forgiven for making man, surely a poet can be forgiven for writing poems.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

John Keene's Counternarratives - a warning - I elude him and all of them, gliding higher

I want to write more of a warning than a review.  The book is John Keene’s Counternarratives (2015), short stories and one novella about hidden aspects of the black experience in America, mostly meaning the United States but also Haiti and Brazil.  Each story is formally distinct – written in two columns, or as a historical work, or as a (long) footnote to a different book, or as the stream of consciousness of a madman.  The novella, which is also the footnote, is written four or five different ways.

Titles include “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” and “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon.”  Often, especially early on, the key is to pay attention to the black characters hidden behind the surface story.  Soon they move to the front, often writing or telling or thinking their own stories, as in, say, “Acrobatique” where the confident acrobat Miss La La describes her meeting with Degas (the painting is in the London National Gallery), or “Cold,” where the creator of the first African-American musical is driven to suicide.  That one is stream of consciousness with inset sidebars containing his song lyrics, ironic in context, and perhaps also out.  The black characters are always unusually intelligent or talented.

Now we should all have a clear idea about the heavily conceptual aspect of the book.  Many readers would hate it, find it distant (which much of it is), resent that it suggests a person might know something about history, etc.  My warning has nothing to do with this, since Keene’s ideas about fiction are sharp and his choices of form fit the stories he tells with them.  Maybe the last one, a dialogue between two African dictators, maybe that one fell flat.

No, my warning is about “Rivers,” in which the narrator is the former Jim Watson, the slave for whom Huckleberry Finn risks Hell, describing his life subsequent to Huckleberry Finn, including his second trip into the Deep South, this time as a soldier in the Union Army.  “It was a bit daunting to take on ‘Jim’ from Mark Twain’s novels, though I also wondered why no one had done so before. (Or maybe someone has.)” says Keene in an interview.  Inevitably, the story is also about Huck Finn.

Yet the mere mention of that boy’s name, one I seldom think about, not even in dreams or nightmares, retrieves the sole two times since those years that I saw his face.  That first time the name and face had become molded to the measure of a man, still young and with a decade before him but rendered gaunt and taut by struggles unknown to me and perhaps to that writer, also from Hannibal, who had made him, both of us, briefly famous.  (219)

There is a suggestion that Huck does in fact go to Hell in some way.  Tom Sawyer, by contrast, has become, or always was, a monster.

Many versions of Jim’s story are imaginable, and Keene’s is plausible and meaningful. “Rivers” is going to be much-anthologized and much-taught, mostly alongside Huckleberry Finn.  If you have some sort of arbitrary “will it be read ten years from now” rule, I am saying the answer is “Yes!”  So will the rest of the book, but “Rivers” is going to be the famous one.  The stories disguised as Brazilian colonial history are fascinating, but unteachable to ordinary undergraduates.  “Rivers” is good but also useful.  You should know about it.

Two reviews I found useful in helping me understand Counternarratives: Adrian West in Music & Literature and Eric McDowell in Michigan Quarterly Review.  Both give a better idea than I do of what Keene is doing and why it is worthwhile.

The title quotation is from "Acrobatique," p. 247.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Your mad desire to be bourgeois yourselves - the surprising politics of Germinal

The politics of Germinal have been a puzzle to me since I started reading Zola, which was all of five years ago, to be clear about my ignorance.  I knew that Zola was the champion of the poor – I knew about Germinal – but Thérèse Raquin was about bourgeois shopkeepers , as was The Belly of Paris, as was, surprisingly, L’Assommoir, even if the central character starts poor and ends poor.  In The Belly of Paris, Zola makes good use of the metaphorical opposition between the Fat and the Thin, categories distinct from Rich and Poor.  L’Assommoir’s heroine grows fatter as she prospers, and fatter yet as she declines.  Zola himself is one of the fat.  He has great sympathy for the fat, or some of them, and also for the thin, but only some of them.

The Kill is about the super-rich, even less help.

Finally, I have made it to Germinal and can answer my question about the narrative’s politics.  I will write as if a novel can have its own political views.  The novel is outraged by the living and working conditions of the coal miners, their misery.  The novel thinks the mine owners are criminal conspirators.  The novel includes a number of political radicals, including the amazing Souvarine, a Russian terrorist who has intruded from some other novel:

“But why don’t you explain? What’s your object?”

“To destroy everything.  No more nations, no more governments, no more property, no more God or religion.” [this is Souvarine speaking]

“Yes, I gather that.  only where is it going to lead you?”

“To the primitive and formless community, to a new world, a fresh start.”

“And how are you going to carry it out?  How do you propose to set about it?”

“By fire, poison, and the dagger.  The real hero is the murderer, for he is the avenger of the people, the revolutionary in action, not someone just trotting out phrases out of books.  We must have a series of appalling cataclysms to horrify the rulers and awaken the people.”  (4.4)

The next paragraph describes Souvarine in his Raskolnikov-like mania, and is even more Dostoevskian.  The novel believes that Souvarine is a lunatic.  Less  violent radicals are sane, but con artists.  Étienne, the novel’s point of view character, gets something of a happy ending, in that we last see him going to Paris to join other labor organizers, where, in a couple of years, he will be killed in the suppression of the Paris Commune, assuming he survives the Siege of Paris.  The 1870 threshold is a source of great irony for Zola.

The novel is also horrified by – or means to horrify others by means of – the sexual promiscuity of the teenage girls in the mining village.  The boys, too, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Zola describes the sexual customs of the youth of the villages in great detail, in general and with specific instances.  One of the mine managers is even more obsessed with the coal mining girls than is the narrator:

His anger boiled up against these people who would not understand.  How gladly would he have made them a present of his fat salary if he could have had their tough hide and could have copulated like them, easy come, easy go!  Why couldn’t he sit at his table and stuff them with his pheasant, while he went off fornicating behind the hedges, laying girls without bothering who had done so before.  (5.5)

And on for a while longer.  That poor fellow is having marital problems, which has led him to abandon his proper bourgeois values, but not the narrator, no.  He wants not revolution but reform, higher wages, more calories, proper education, everything that will lead to the inculcation of standard French bourgeois values among the miners, that will cause them to behave better.

Bourgeois readers could safely marginalize the radicals; radical readers could sideline the lurid threat of teen promiscuity.  Either way, Zola is the champion of the poor in Germinal.  Everyone is happy.   Maybe if I reread the novel, it will look different.  That is how it looks now, like the most bourgeois radical literature I have ever read.

The title quotation is from 6.3, crazy Souvarine again.

Monday, August 17, 2015

the darkness thickens - the first quarter of Germinal

The earlier Zola novels I read had a six or seven long chapters – in L’Assommoir’s case, quite long – allowing for long, complex scenes with all of the color and movement Zola can pack into them, like the tour of the produce market that opens The Belly of Paris or the splendid wedding chapter in L’Assommoir, where the festivities include a visit to the Louvre.

Germinal again has seven big parts, but Zola breaks them into many little chapters, making the novel more zippy and allowing easier changes in perspective, even, in occasional ironic chapters, to the rich mine operators and shareholders.  Thus Étienne Rougon, the stranger who comes to town in the first chapter can act as a standard point-of-view character without limiting Zola at all.  He can leap from Étienne’s make-it-strange bewilderment to a chapter of the Maheu family getting out of bed and preparing for their day in the coal mine, to a scene of routine and ordinary domesticity, however pinched.

Lights were going out now.  A last door banged and everything relapsed in to slumber; women and children were settling down to have their sleep out in roomier beds.  And all along the road from the silent village to the panting Le Voreux a line of shadows tramped slowly through the blast.  The colliers were off to work with shambling gait and folded arms, for they did not know what else to do with them.  Each one had his briquet [sandwich] on his back.  Though they were shivering in their thin clothes, they did not quicken step, but plodded on, strung out along the road like a trampling herd.  (Part 1, Ch. 2)

No need to explain what “the panting Le Voreux,” the mine pit, is, since the perplexed Étienne learned about it in the previous chapter.  The coal miners in that line are about to meet Étienne.   They include Maheu, the father, along with three of his children.  Maheude, the mother, and four more children, are in the earlier sentence, getting a little more sleep.  Maheu and Maheude are terrific characters, big characters, perfectly played by Gérard Depardieu and Miou-Miou in the 1993 Claude Berri film adaptation of the novel, if you can get over the fact that a fine French actress is named Miou-Miou.  They are the heroes of the book, even if the outsider Étienne gets more space.

Anyway, to return to my point, what a shock it was to reach the end of Part 2 – 11 chapters and 118 pages from many points of view – and realize that less than twenty-four hours had passed in the novel.  This is a full quarter of the novel!  An amazing piece of showing off by Zola.

Darkness had submerged everything in the plain beyond, Montsou, Marchiennes, the forest of Vandame, the vast sea of beet and corn, unrelieved now except by far-off beacons – the blue flames of blast-furnaces and the red glare of coke-ovens.  It was raining now and the darkness was thickening, as the steady continuous downpour engulfed everything in its monotonous stream.  Only one voice could still be heard, the slow, heavy breathing of the drainage pump, ceaselessly panting day and night.  (2.5)

The pit first pants on the second page; the instance up above is twenty pages later; now we’re about a hundred pages on.  What is literary art but repeating words at intervals, with different words in between to distract the inattentive reader?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

He could not even make out the black ground in front of him - Zola's Germinal, a novel in the dark

Germinal by Émile Zola (1885), he last of the books featuring long arguments about radical politics that I read on vacation.  By the time I got to Zola’s, I was sick of them, but that is not his fault.  To be fair – fair to me – in Turgenev, Wells and Zola alike, the scenes of political argument are all now period pieces.  Not good examples of the art of any of these novels.

But the rest of Germinal, well all right.  Zola kept me on my toes.

Germinal is Zola’s novel of coal mining, bad labor practices, and crushing  poverty caused not by coal mining as such but a global recession followed by a strike.  The style is accordingly tamped down, with less pure description, less metaphor for its own ingenious sake.  No one’s description is purer than Zola’s, so what I mean is that Germinal has nothing like the Symphony of Cheeses from The Belly of Paris.  I enjoy this stuff and missed it, but the luxuriousness Zola style is unsuited to subject.  Style is an ethical choice, not just aesthetic.

L’Assommoir was moving in this direction, but Germinal  is more radical.  The result is a novel of plain houses, empty landscapes, and little color.  A novel that takes place in the dark.  Sensory immiseration to complement the material immiseration of the coal miners.

On a pitch-black, starless night, a solitary man was trudging along the main road from Marchiennes to Montsou, ten kilometres of cobblestones running straight as a die across the bare plains between fields of beet.  He could not even make out the black ground in front of him, and it was only the feel of the March wind blowing in great gusts like a storm at sea, but icy cold from sweeping over miles of marshes and bare earth, that gave him a sensation of limitless, flat horizons.  There was not a single tree to darken the sky, and the cobbled highroad ran on with the straightness of a jetty through the swirling sea of black shadows.

The first lines, Zola laying out the challenge he has set for himself.  He does not even allow himself a curved road.  There is instead more description of movement.

There was only one thing he could see clearly: the pit gulped down men in mouthfuls of twenty or thirty and so easily that it did not seem to notice them going down.  The descent to work began at four; the men came from the locker-room barefoot and lamp in hand, and stood about in little groups until there were enough of them.  Like some nocturnal beast the cage, with its four decks each containing two tubs, leaped noiselessly out of the darkness and settled itself on its keeps…  Without a sound the cage would first make a little jump and then drop like a stone, leaving nothing behind but the vibrating cable.  (Part I, Ch. 3)

That last line is especially cinematic, meaning a camera could mimic it, the camera stationary with everything in motion around it.  The film would lose the metaphors, though, which are abundant but simplified, even clichéd (“like a stone”) so that Zola can share them with his characters, and perhaps with readers who are like his characters.

I read the Leonard Tancock translation which is  very, very British to the point where I had to look up some words, and not just the coal mining terms.  Good solutions.  Most importantly, the text is complete, unbowdlerized.  Tancock’s Germinal is appropriately earthy.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Base immediacies fouled the truth - Wells's comet-induced Year Zero - books, countless books, too

The story of In the Days of the Comet – the one where the maddened socialist tries to murder his girlfriend under the green glow of a comet – is told in retrospect by the murderer.  Or not told, but written in his old age, because, he says, he had always wanted to write a book.  He frequently addresses young readers, suggesting or insisting that they will not understand what he has written about politics, violence, poverty, religion, privacy, and so on, all of which has been eliminated.

Now you must understand that the world of thought in those days was in the strangest condition, it was choked with obsolete inadequate formula, it was tortuous to a maze-like degree with secondary contrivances and adaptations, suppressions, conventions, and subterfuges.  Base immediacies fouled the truth on every man’s lips.  (I.1.2)

Wells does not cheat.  He spends the last third of the novel describing the creation of the world-wide Utopia, all caused by the mysterious gases of the comet that has hit or rather enveloped the Earth.  Human nature is instantly changed, making all – all – people pacifists and collectivists.  It is the end of ownership, war, crime, and churches.  Maybe the worst part of this section is an argument about free love, essentially, that strains against but is defeated by Edwardian sensibilities.  By which I mean, Wells is either craven or confused on this point, or wants me to think that he is.

Otherwise, he is bold.  Wells makes the comet a Year Zero, after which all is new.  Humankind spends its first two years tearing down almost every city and building on the planet and replacing them with cities of reason.

Most of our public buildings we destroyed and burnt as we reshaped our plan of habitation, our theater sheds, our banks, and inconvenient business warrens, our factories (these in the first year of all), and all the “unmeaning repetition” of silly little sham Gothic  churches and meeting-houses, mean looking shells of stone and mortar without love, invention, or any beauty at all in them, that men had thrust into the face of their sweated God, even as they thrust cheap food into the mouths of their sweated workers; all these we also swept away in the course of that first decade.  (II.3.1)

But that is not all.  Into the bonfires go “great oil paintings, done to please the half-educated middle-class,” “a gross multitude of silly statuettes and decorative crockery, and hangings, and embroideries, and bad music, and musical instruments,” and “books, countless books, too”:

And it seemed to me that when we gathered those books and papers together, we gathered together something more than print and paper, we gathered warped and crippled ideas and contagious base suggestions, the formulae of dull tolerances and stupid impatiences, the mean defensive ingenuities of sluggish habits of thinking and timid and indolent evasions.  There was more than a touch of malignant satisfaction for me in helping gather it all together.

By this point if not before a horrified reader may either deem Wells insane or realize that In the Days of the Comet is a Lucianic satire, a book that deliberately undermines its own arguments.  It is, in the great tradition of literary Utopias, sneakily anti-Utopian.  The central premise of the novel is that a workable pacifist socialism is only possible with a massive, universal change in human nature as caused by, for example, a magic comet.  This was not an argument I expected from H. G. Wells.  He is subtle, or devilish.

He also misses, or hides, the best part of his own invention.  The narrator wonders about the strange chance that brought green, gassy salvation to his planet, but of course the atmosphere-altering comet did not collide with the Earth by chance.  It was a weapon.  It was obviously a weapon, but one so fiendish that it not only disarms its victims but removes their ability to understand that it was a weapon.  As the novel ends, unknown to the rabbit-like humans, their alien enslavers draw near.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

“Let me only kill!” - In the Days of the Comet by H. G. Wells

In the Days of the Comet (1906) is an H. G. Wells novel in which a comet passes the earth, releasing a gas that permanently makes humans, all of them – in fact all air-breathing animals – pacifists and economic collectivists, allowing for the establishment of a worldwide communist Utopia.

You might note that this novel comes several years after the famous Wells science fiction novels from the late 1890s.  Perhaps there is something in my description that explains why this one is not so famous.

Yes, perhaps.  Yet it is mostly quite good, as well or better written than the earlier novels, if less inventive.  Some of the political writing threatens to turn the book into an Edwardian period piece, but other ideas retain interest.

Most of the book, its actual story, is about a young labor radical, Willie, whose steady girl jilts him for a poshie, not just because the rival is rich but because the narrator’s politics have made him a bit of a pill.  Willie is driven into a murderous rage:

“Let me only kill!” I cried.  “Let me only kill!” (Bk. I, Ch. 4, Sub 1)

Frankly, he presents himself as a psychopath.  Meanwhile, a green, gassy comet is approaching, growing ever more visible and brighter, allowing Wells to play with his paint box:

It turned our ugly English industrial towns to phantom cities.  Everywhere the local authorities discontinued street lighting – one could read small print in the glare, – and so at Monkshampton I went about through pale, white, unfamiliar streets, whose electric globes had shadows on the path.  Lit windows here and there burnt ruddy orange, like holes cut in some dream curtain that hung before a furnace. A policeman with noiseless feet showed me an inn woven of moonshine, a green-faced man opened to us, and there I abode the night.  And the next morning it opened with a mighty clatter, and was a dirty little beerhouse that stank of beer, and there was a fat and grimy landlord with red spots upon his neck, and much noisy traffic going by on the cobbles outside.  (I.5.1)

The shadows of the streetlamps are a fine touch, one of many in the book.

Meanwhile (another meanwhile), war erupts between Britain and Germany, a war as realistically intricate and pointless as the one that would actually occur eight years later.  Wells the pacifist knew his subject.  He is particularly good describing a naval action that uncannily prefigures the 1915 Battle of Dogger Banks.  But at that time everyone interested in international politics was obsessed with the new-fangled massive battleships, the way we had to be experts in nuclear deterrence strategy to keep up in the 1980s.  Wells-the-prophet scores some points.

Willie’s lunatic (cometic?) drive to murder his ex-girlfriend provides plenty of narrative drive as the novel moves along, as does the impending and then active war, as does the comet that’s about to hit the Earth.  Maybe that is too much narrative drive.  There is a culminating scene where the madman is chasing his ex, shooting at her, while a naval battle is occurring in the background, all in the weird green light of a comet that will save mankind (the story is retrospective, so that we know) any minute now.  Pretty wild.

Then comes tomorrow’s subject, world peace, communal dining, and bonfires of books.  Utopia.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

closely dotted with big spots like warts - Turgenev goes back in time

Writers, especially those with long careers, can become cavalier about form as they age.  Visual artists, too.  The ones I am thinking of become less concerned with perfection or elegance.  Turgenev is one of my examples.  At some point his books get longer and less carefully constructed.  Spring Torrents (1871) is practically two novels in one, as if Turgenev broke it down the middle.

This is not at all a complaint.  I’m only thinking of great writers.  The results can be interesting.  Who wants them to write the same thing again and again?  That is where late Turgenev is weakest.  Another Superfluous Man, who cares?

Virgin Soil is constructed more loosely yet.  A play about revolutionaries in a garret turns into a country house romance.  Then it becomes a picaresque, as the protagonist visits his neighbors, all a bunch of eccentrics, as if the novel is turning into Dead Souls.  Turgenev in fact wondered if he had been too influenced by his recent reading of Dickens, but it is no surprise that Dickens filtered through Turgenev looks like Gogol.  The political novel returns, with sad results for most of the characters.

I want to look at one of the Dead Souls-like scenes.  It is so odd.  I remind myself that this is a novel about a group of young anarchists who want to overthrow the Czar by violence by means (I think) of peasant uprisings, and who will be shot or sent to Siberia if discovered. Yet a chapter in the middle of the book is entirely devoted to Fomushka and Fimushka, a married couple “of pure Russian descent,” “the oldest inhabitants of the town” (Ch. 19, 123).

“Time seemed to have stood still for them,” freezing them in the 18th century.  Their house serfs have become house servants, but otherwise nothing has changed.  One member of the household is a dwarf, “kept for entertainment”!

The house itself is full of tiny rooms and closets “and raised landings with balustrades and alcoves raised on rounded posts, and all sort of little back premises and cellars” (124).  The carriage, used no more than once a month, resembles “a terrestrial globe with one quarter cut out in front, lined within with foreign yellow material, closely dotted with big spots like warts,” while the coachman “was an exceedingly aged man, redolent of train-oil and pitch; his beard began just under his eyes, while his eyebrows fell in little cascades to meet his beard” (125).

Turgenev loves describing this decayed fairy-tale couple and their magical house full of antiques and old-fashioned habits.  He has a lot of fun with it.  I had a lot of fun with it.

Fomushka brought out and showed his visitors his favourite carved wood snuff-box, on which it had once been possible to distinguish thirty-six figures in various attitudes; they had long ago been effaced, but Fomushka saw them, saw them still, and could distinguish them and point them out.  ‘See,’ he said, ‘there’s one looking out of window; do you see, he’s put his head out…’ and the spot to which he pointed with his chubby finger with its raised nail was just as smooth as all the rest of the snuff-box lid. (130)

Now that, I tell ya, smacks of symbolism.  Could this humorous, incongruous episode, featuring a dozen characters who are never seen again (though some are at least mentioned) be part of Turgenev’s argument?  The great “Oblomov’s Dream” episode of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov was a return to a idealized version of 18th century Russia.  I spent some time there and then in Sergei Aksakov’s A Russian Gentleman, so I have literary precedent.  Is Turgenev arguing with a living political idea here, some demand to return to the days of bound serfs and a French-speaking nobility?  Fomushka literally sleeps with a copy of Candide  – “in a secret box under the head of his bed he kept a manuscript translation of Candide” (132).  Well, I don’t know what any of this exactly, but I can sure tell that it is something.

In the next chapter, the picaresque tour moves to the 20th century – “’Golushkin’s such an advanced man that it wouldn’t do to reckon him in the nineteenth.’”  Also a clue.  Virgin Soil rarely does what a well-made novel is supposed to do.  Turgenev had moved beyond such petty notions.  Good for him.

Monday, August 10, 2015

unutterably stupid and even meaningless - Turgenev's radicalism - Virgin Soil

For some reason I took three novels on vacation that all featured radical revolutionary politics.  Not sure what I was thinking.  Virgin Soil (1877) by Ivan Turgenev, Germinal (1885) by Émile Zola, and In the Days of the Comet (1906) by H. G. Wells.  I had no idea what was in the Wells, so at least I have than excuse.

All three books gave me about the author’s attitude towards his radical characters.  Not the actual author’s attitude, about which who cares, but the implied author’s attitude.  The text is organized to make an argument, several arguments.  What might those arguments be?  The Wells novel seemed contradictory, the Zola closer to sly.  All three books approach their politics ironically.  They are all literature, so they behave like literature.

Turgenev seemed easier to place because I have a long history with his previous thirty years of writing, particularly his theme of the Superfluous Man and its many updates. 

“’Do you remember at one time, a long while ago, there used to be a great deal of talk about “superfluous” people – Hamlets?’” (Ch. 30, 233)

Yes, I do remember that.  The generation of Nihilists replaces the Superfluous Men, only to discover that they themselves were superfluous, and now the more violent, conspiratorial, anarchistic Populists elbow out the nihilists, finding, to their despair, that they are entirely superfluous.  A couple of alternatives are provided, though, one of whom is a spot-on Communist International Leninist forty years ahead of the real thing.  What any of this has to do with actual revolutionary movements in Russia in 1877 I can only guess.  V. S. Pritchett writes that Virgin Soil is the novel that made Turgenev famous outside of Russia: “a month after it was published fifty-two young men and women were arrested in Russia on charges of revolutionary conspiracy, and a shocked public in France, Britain, and America turned to the novel for enlightenment” (p. iii).  The novel was read as news.

Nezhdanov had enough sense to know how unutterably stupid and even meaningless what he was doing was; but he gradually worked himself up to such a point that he did not realise what was sense and what was nonsense.  (Ch. 32, 246)

A one-line summary, is how I would take that.  The novel is like a Bildungsroman in reverse.

Turgenev is continuing the argument he kicked off in Fathers and Sons, the argument with Chernyshevsky and Dostoevsky and many others.  To my surprise, Virgin Soil begins in St. Petersburg, in a garret “saturated with tobacco fumes” full of cash-strapped revolutionaries plotting violence, written essentially like a play with one set, lots of dialogue, and entrances and exits.  I was amazed – a Turgenev novel not set on a country estate!

Four chapters in, the first act of the play is over and the protagonist, the superfluous Nezhdanov, so ineffective that he is not just a revolutionary but a poet, is whisked to a country estate.  “The air of the room, heavy with the scent of lilies-of-the-valley (great nosegays of these exquisite spring flowers made patches of white here and there, was stirred from time to time by an inrush of the light breeze which was softly fluttering over the luxuriant leafage of the garden,” (Ch. 5, 32).  In other words, the kind of place where one finds Turgenev characters.  There Nezhdanov falls in love, meets a variety of curious specimens, and realizes that he is hopelessly compromised by his inherent Romanticism.  That’s the plot summary.  Maybe I should move it higher up in the post.

My understanding is that Henry James substantially based The Princess Casamassima (1886) on Virgin Soil.  I will have to see it to believe it.

Quotations are from the Constance Garnett translation, page numbers from the Grove Press edition, which has the Pritchett introduction.

Friday, August 7, 2015

"Pass the bottle" - Conrad's narrators narrate ("Youth" & "The Secret Sharer")

“Youth: A Narrative” (1898) and “The Secret Sharer” (1910), by Joseph Conrad, perfect epitomes of Conrad in fact.  Sea stories in the Far East with voluble ship captain narrators.  Although there are degree of volubility.  I was going to write that the narrator of “The Secret Sharer” is not Conrad’s alter ego Marlow but might as well be, but then I thought to read “Youth,” the first appearance of Marlow (“at least I think that is how he spelt his name,” ha ha).  If Marlow had narrated “The Secret Sharer” it would be twice as long.  Marlow is much more digressive.  He performs his stories, like a bard, with a refrain of “Pass the bottle.”

Conrad and Marlow are almost cheating in “Youth,” since it is about a ship with a cargo of coal that catches fire, an adventure that does not need a writer as good as Conrad to make it exciting and original.

“Between the darkness of earth and heaven she was burning fiercely upon a disc of purple sea shot by the blood-red play of gleams; upon a disc of water glittering and sinister.  A high, clear flame, an immense and lonely flame, ascended from the ocean, and from its summit the black smoke poured continuously at the sky. She burned furiously, mournful and imposing like a funeral pile kindled in the night, surrounded by the sea, watched over by the stars. A magnificent death had come like a grace, like a gift, like a reward to that old ship at the end of her laborious days. The surrender of her weary ghost to the keeping of stars and sea was stirring like the sight of a glorious triumph.”

All of this spoken, late at night, “round a mahogany table” to an audience of “a director of companies, an accountant, a lawyer, Marlow, and myself,” all former sailors who knew that when Marlow is ready to tell a story, stop what you are doing – unless what you are doing is getting out the booze – and settle in.

It is not clear whom, if anyone other than himself, the narrator of “The Secret Sharer” is addressing.  He is a captain with his first command who comes across an officer who has fled his own ship because he killed a man during a storm.  The captain ought to arrest the man, but instead makes him a stowaway, hiding him in his cabin.  Much of the text of the story is about the elaborate steps the captain has to take to prevent the discovery of the stowaway.  Finally, the captain endangers his own ship to allow the fugitive to escape.

The narrator does not appear to know why he behaved so strangely, and at such risk to himself and others, why he feels alienated from his own crew, why he was so unthinkingly sympathetic to the fugitive, who he appeared to take as some kind of double.  I suppose the text is the result of the narrator searching his own story for clues.  As in Lord Jim and perhaps Heart of Darkness and possibly even “Youth,” the narrator’s obsessive attention to the story, the significance with which he imbues the story, becomes the real story.  I see why Conrad could not use Marlow here, though.  Marlow is too self-aware.  In “The Secret Sharer,” the narrator seems to be trying to uncover his own secrets.

I do not know what he finds.  I am not such a good reader of Conrad.  File all this away.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

“But where the hell did we make a mistake?” - Andrea Camilleri's silly, smutty Sciascia novel

The Brewer of Preston is a 1995 Andrea Camilleri novel that is not part of his long-running, 23-volume (as of now) Inspector Montalbano mystery series.  It is set in the same town, except 120 years earlier, and it does feature a police inspector who is indistinguishable from Montalbano, although at this point there was no series but just a single Montalbano novel.  Anyway, The Brewer of Preston is not a mystery novel, not really, although it has a detective novel subplot.  More of a comic parody that turns sour, by which I mean a standard portrait of life in Sicily.

A Florentine official decides that the hostile (this is 1875, just a few years after unification) populace of his Sicilian town needs more culture , so he rams an opera down their angry throats.  The opera is a real one – in fact the historical incident is real, discovered by Camilleri in The Report on the Social and Economic Conditions of Sicily (1875-1876) – although why a 19th century Italian opera composer thought a story about an English brewer was a good idea is beyond me. 

“And we’re supposed to inaugurate our new Vigàta theatre with an opera by this mediocrity just because our distinguished prefect is besotted with him?” asked Headmaster Cozzo, menacingly touching the back pocket in which he kept his revolver.

“Oh Jesus, blessed Jesus,” said the canon.  “Mozart alone is a funeral, so we can well imagine what a bad copy of a bad original is like!”  (17)

Camilleri notes that “[m]erely mentioning the name of Mozart, inexplicably despised by Sicilians, was like uttering a curse or blasphemy” (16).  This is why I read, to learn about other cultures.

In real history, the result was unrest and arrests.  In the novel, quite a bit more.  Arson, riots, murders. Mafia business.  Sex – Camilleri’s non-Montalbano novels are kind of smutty.

The paragraph where Headmaster Cozzo’s pistol goes off is a fine thing.  “The bullet – happy to be free after decades of confinement – treated itself to a flight itinerary that would have driven a ballistics expert mad” (191).  If you say on p. 17 that there is a pistol in the Headmaster’s pocket, by p. 191 it absolutely must go off.

The story is told out of sequence, the chapters in an order that Camilleri calls a “suggestion” (236).  The last chapter, for example, is Chapter I of a book by one of the characters.   The first sentence of each and every chapter is a reference to the first sentence of some other book.  Melville, Schnitzler, Gadda, Sterne, Calvino, etc. Thankfully the translator, Stephen Sartarelli, identifies them all; who in the devil remembers the first line of Man’s Fate, or any of the rest of it, for that matter?

There is a lot of goofing around with fiction, is what I am saying.  A good bit of goofing around more generally.  But as each subplot moves to the end, it curdles.  The detective story goes wrong, the political story collapses, and even the bit about a local mafioso becomes bitter.

Arelio, meanwhile, was helping Cocò back on his feet, since he couldn’t manage on his own, doubled over and moaning as he was.  None of the people looking on made any sign of wanting to help.

“But where the hell did we make a mistake?” Arelio asked himself aloud.

He had no answer; nor did the idlers around him, who resumed idling, nor the passersby, who passed on by.  (210)

Many characters could ask that question by the end of the novel.  This is why I wanted to write about Leonardo Sciascia.  Camilleri has actually written a sillier, smuttier Sciascia novel, a good copy of a good original.  Perhaps because of the imperatives of a series, or perhaps because Sicily really has improved, Camilleri’s detective novels cannot give expression to a full Sciascia-like pessimism.  But back in 1875, away from Montalbano, he is free.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Leonardo Sciascia's "history of the continuous defeat of reason"

I want to look at Leonardo Sciascia’s books for a minute.

No flights of fancy, the major had warned him.  All right, then, no flights of fancy.  But Sicily is all a realm of fantasy and what can anyone do there without imagination?  Nothing but plain facts, then…  (The Day of the Owl, 35)

Captain Bellodi, who is not Sicilian but a northern Italian, is trying to solve a mafia murder.  He is repeatedly assured that there is no such thing:

“Has any document or witness any proof at all which has ever come to light establishing a sure connection between a crime and the so-called mafia?  In the absence of such proof, and if we admit that the mafia exists, I’d say it was a secret association for mutual aid, no more and no less than freemasonry.  Why don’t you put some crimes down to the freemasons?”  (64)

The Day of the Owl was published in 1961.  All of Italy was, at that point, a realm of fantasy, in which corrupt politicians and a corrupt press denied the very existence of the Sicilian mafia.  Sciascia’s novel, one of his earliest, was instrumental in  making the mafia a public issue in Italy.  This sounds so strange.

It is also, of the three Sciascia novels I have read, the most effective mystery as such, although it does not end – they never do – like almost all other mysteries, and Sciascia never had the commercial good sense to create a series.  Whatever the many virtues of Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian mysteries featuring Detective Montalbano, they are in the end just detective novels, constrained by the requirements of the form.  Sciascia was unconstrained.

I have often read that the pleasure of the mystery lies in the restoration of order.  Sciascia’s are about the revelation of a disorder more profound than I first knew.  They are, he says, “the history of the continuous defeat of reason and of those who have been personally overcome and annihilated in that defeat” (TDOH, viii).

Sciascia makes this idea clearest in Equal Danger (1971), or in its original, accurate title Il contesto. Una parodia.  It is explicitly a parody, an anti-mystery, with nods to Borges and Robbe-Grillet, among others, self-consciously literary – “and this in a country which boasted a whole body of literature dealing with the unforeseeable moods, contradictions, gratuitous actions, and radical changes to which human beings are prone” (12).  Oddly, this country is not quite Sicily, but an invented country, perhaps in Latin America somewhere.

Rogas pulled out his paper, opened it to the literary supplement.  There was a piece about the translation of a Moravia novel, a Solzhenitsyn short story, essays by Lévi-Strauss, Sartre, Lukács.  Translation, translation, nothing but translation.  (77)

A sour joke, to my taste; also to Sciascia’s. “I began to write it with amusement, and as I was finishing it I was no longer amused,” he writes (Note, 119).

To Each His Own (1966) is a mystery more in the line of The Day of the Owl.  A schoolteacher thinks he has the clue to a mob killing.  The real mystery is why he bothers to investigate – why this sudden burst of integrity and truth-seeking which can, in Sicily, only lead to disaster?

It has been a while since I read To Each His Own, so I will set it aside, although I feel I remember it well.  Not so much the short stories in The Wine-Dark Sea (1973), which I am now re-reading.  It is not so crime and mafia obsessed, even if the story “Philology” is about the origin of the word “mafia.”  Well, reminding myself of the contents, there are plenty of murders, but these are not detective stories as such.  They are merely about Sicily.

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.