Thursday, January 19, 2017

it beat every novel in the shop - In the Cage by Henry James

By chance, I read a second Henry James story with a working-class protagonist, possibly the only other one, In the Cage (1898) a ninety-page novella about – well, to return to my information management idea, here is the opening sentence:

It had occurred to her early that in her position – that of a young person spending, in framed and wired confinement, the life of a guinea-pig or a magpie – she should know a great many persons without their recognising the acquaintance.

The heroine never gets a name, although soon after the novel ends (“next week”) she will become Mrs. Mudge, and if that’s an improvement, no wonder James hides her name.  We see the cage of the title, but what is it?  It is a telegraph office; the young woman is a telegraph girl.  Although perhaps out of his element, James builds the story around a setting he would have observed closely many times.  Maybe that partly explains why Casamassima’s Hyacinth was a bookbinder, working in the kind of shop James likely visited himself.

This particular telegraph office is in a gourmet grocery store, so that it was “pervaded not a little, in winter, by the poison of perpetual gas, and at all times by the presence of hams, cheese, dried fish, soap, varnish, paraffin, and other solids and fluids that she came to know perfectly by their smells without consenting to know them by their names” (Ch. 1).  Thus, her office has a gourmet clientele; thus she entangles herself in the extramarital affair of two upper-class clients.  “They were in danger, they were in danger, Captain Everard and Lady Bradeen; it beat every novel in the shop” (Ch. 12).

The telegraphist goes so far as to continually delay her own marriage, to Mr. Mudge, because of her interest in the soap opera, which may involve the semi-subconscious desire for Captain Everard, who is so tall, and polite, and played by Hugh Grant in the hypothetical film version: “There were moments when he actually struck her as on her side, arranging to help, to support, to spare her” (Ch. 4).

“In the Cage” is from the same year as “The Turn of the Screw,” a clue that the heroine may be seeing some things that are not there, especially regarding her own importance in the story.  Not that it is all her own invention.  Just that her emphasis is too strong.

Today, the story would be turned into a thriller, with the cad enticing and seducing the telegraph girl in pursuance of some pointless scheme until the inevitable chase scene which ends when he is skewered on a giant telegraph needle.  Or maybe he is captured when he is locked in the cage – how ironic!

The workings of the telegraph office are quite interesting, the young woman’s restlessness sympathetic, and the original U.K. cover outstanding.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

“Ah, well, there’ll be plenty later on to give him all information!” - Princess Casamassima's information management

Going into The Princess Casamassima, I had no idea what to expect, aside from the watery connection to a Turgenev novel.  Fiction writing is a kind of information management, and the first chapter of Casamassima is an outstanding example.  A deliberate experiment on James’s part, I assume.  What if I --?

First sentence:

“Oh yes, I daresay I can find the child, if you would like to see him,” Miss Pynsent said; she had a fluttered wish to assent to every suggestion made by her visitor, whom she regarded as a high and rather terrible personage.

Three characters, two present, one nearby.  The next line has paper patterns and “snippings of stuff” –Miss Pynsent is a dress-maker, at home.  The personage, Mrs. Bowerbank, is probably a client (wrong).  Miss Pynsent “was very much flushed, partly with the agitation of what Mrs. Bowerbank had told her.”  What had Mrs. Bowerbank told her?

The child is pretty, and is likely outside staring into the window of a candy shop.  Miss Pynsent herself “lived on tea and watercress.”  There is a hint about the child’s parentage, I see now, he liked to look at the illustrated magazines in the shop window, especially “the noble characters.”  An eight year-old girl is introduced who will be important later, as a source of hope and despair.  All of this turns out to be important.

Over “tea” (of the brandy kind), Mrs. Bowerbank discusses her sister, and undertaker brother-in-law, and so on.  Is any of this important?

Her sister had nine children and she herself had seven, the eldest of whom she left in charge of the others when she went to her service.  She was on duty at the prison only during the day…

I am only on page 3, but for me that was the first of several upsettings of expectation in the chapter.  Prison!  It is a story with not a twist ending, but a series of twist beginnings.  Poor Miss Pynsent is raising little Hyacinth but is in no way related to him.  “’That would have seemed for most people a reason for not adopting a prostitute’s bastard’” (Ch. 2) – actual line from a Henry James novel.  Mrs. Bowerbank is not having a dress adjusted, but is delivering a message from Hyacinth’s mother, who is dying in prison, because she “’stabbed his lordship in the back with a very long knife’” (Ch. 1).  Hyacinth knows nothing about his true parentage, but a sharp kid seems to have intuited certain pieces.

All of this I have to piece together bit by bit, as I do in any novel, but James deliberately sets little traps.

Then she said, as if it were as cheerful an idea as, in the premises, she was capable of expressing: “Ah, well, there’ll be plenty later on to give him all information!”

After the first few chapters, James leaps forward.  Hyacinth is an adult, the prison is a memory, and a mostly new cast gathers.  The book begins to resemble more closely what I had expected from a James novel.  At first, though, James made me work.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Everything suggested this or that - The Princess Casamassima's descriptions

Henry James includes far more descriptive writing in The Princess Casamassima than I have ever seen in his work.  Clothes, interior decoration – “the tattered wall-paper, which, representing blocks of marble with beveled edges, in streaks and speckles of black and gray, had not been renewed for years” (Ch. 4)

Or, since the book is about working-class radicals, working-class London people:

He liked the people who looked as if they had got their week’s wages and were prepared to lay it out discreetly; and even those whose use of it would plainly be extravagant and intemperate; and, best of all, those who evidently hadn’t received it at all and who wandered about, disinterestedly, vaguely, with their hands in empty pockets, watching others make their bargains and fill their satchels, or staring at the striated sides of bacon, at the golden cubes and triangles of cheese, at the graceful festoons of sausage, in the most brilliant of the windows.  (Ch. 5)

When James turns to things – the food – he is not half as original as contemporaries like Zola.  But as a description of people, this is quite good.  The passage is representative of James’s attitude.  He is describing types, not individuals.  There is always a strain of generalization.

The next line is practically stolen from the beginning of Bleak House – “the carboniferous London damp”!

The “He” that begins that sentence is the protagonist, Hyacinth, so he is the one observing London payday, alongside James.  A later passage, a four-page paragraph showing Hyacinth’s state of mind, is also about London, now at night:

Bedraggled figures passed in and out, and a damp, tattered, wretched man, with a spongy, purple face, who had been thrust suddenly across the threshold, stood and whimpered in the brutal blaze of the row of lamps.  The puddles glittered roundabout, and the silent vista of the street, bordered with low black houses, stretched away, in the wintry drizzle, to right and left, losing itself in the huge tragic city, where unmeasured misery lurked beneath the dirty night, ominously, monstrously, still, only howling, in its pain, in the heated human cockpit behind him.  (Ch. 21)

With the name hidden, I would never guess that the author of that passage was Henry James.  Now there is an individual man, before the description, again very much in Hyacinth’s language, becomes more general and emotional.

Curiously, in an earlier scene at which Hyacinth was not present, two Italians abuse – or praise? – the English.  Prince Casamassima is tormented by his wife’s slumming with radicals: “The Prince mused for a while, and then he said, ‘How can she bear the dirt, the bad smell?’”

He is told that the English are not like the Romans:

“Every one has a sponge, as big as your head; you can see them in shops.”

“They are full of gin; their faces are purple,” said the Prince…  (Ch. 18)

Then, a few chapters later, there is the spongy, purple fellow.

I don’t know.  As Hyacinth thinks, “Everything in the field of observation suggested this or that; everything struck him, penetrated, stirred; he had, in a word, more impressions than he knew what to do with – felt sometimes as if they would consume or asphyxiate him” (Ch. 10).  No surprise that his politics are eventually overwhelmed by art.

Monday, January 16, 2017

the bastard of a murderess, spawned in a gutter - that's how Henry James writes in The Princess Casamassima - too shocking

The Princess Casamassima (1885-6) is the Henry James novel about radical politics, anarchist assassinations, and book-binding.  The latter surprised me.  Henry James has so many stories starring and about writers; finally, here is one about, forget the writers, books.

The novel is built from books.  It is inspired directly by Ivan Turgenev’s longest novel, Virgin Soil (1877), which is also about radical politics, a bunch of inept Russian revolutionaries who blow their big chance, assuming they had one.  The protagonist’s great discovery is that his political beliefs are, quoting myself, “hopelessly compromised by his inherent Romanticism.”

Turgenev worried that Virgin Soil was too influenced by Dickens.  Casamassima contains several chapters that seem like direct imitations of Dickens.  They are pretty good as such, but I think some of the problems with the novel are clear enough.  Why read a Dickens knockoff rather than Dickens or a Turgenev knockoff ditto.  And what does James know about the working-class people who make up one mob of characters, or the international revolutionists who form another, or for that matter the Italian princess in the title?  Not his circles.

But that Italian princess is actually an American, one who was born in Europe and never been in America, in other words, as I know from many earlier works of James, extremely dangerous.  She is estranged from her husband and slumming in revolutionary politics, or perhaps her interest is really young, good-looking male revolutionaries.

The important one, the protagonist, is Hyacinth Robinson, “the bastard of a murderess, spawned in a gutter, out of which he had been picked by a sewing girl” (Ch. 35).  Does that sound like a line from a Henry James novel?  Shocking stuff.

Hyacinth is “a youth on whom nothing was lost,” so a real Henry James character.  What is a James character doing in a London pub, arguing with anarchists?  It turns out that Hyacinth’s education is insufficient.  There was only so much that poor, well-meaning sewing girl could do.  Hyacinth only becomes himself when he learns not to want to “destroy” the “society that surrounded him,” but to love “the wonderful, precious things it had produced… the brilliant, impressive fabric it had raised” (Ch. 29).

His Bildung becomes complete on a trip to – guess where – c’mon, guess.  No, it is too easy.  Italy, of course, on a trip to Italy, especially Venice – “what an enchanted city, what ineffable impressions, what a revelation of the exquisite!” (Ch. 30).

The foreign travel scenes are quite interesting.  Lots of scenes are interesting, even if the novel is as a whole a hodgepodge, likely pretty much improvised during serialization as an experiment in subject and style rather than an argument about political aesthetics.  The Princess Casamassima is even more of fairy tale than most novels, from the title onward.

Look at this sentence, those Jamesian names:

Hyacinth and Mr. Vetch carried her bier, with the help of Eustache Poupin and Paul Muniment.  (Ch. 28)

It is like something from an A. A. Milne competitor, like a Winnie-the-Pooh imitator that never caught on because it was too sad.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Oh, I see the connection now!" - how Kate Chopin uses Flaubert

The first time I read The Awakening, I saw the story I described yesterday.  The second time, a couple of years later, I had read a lot more (and a lot more Flaubert), and I saw the other story, about a woman who regresses to her childhood, and whose “awakening” is that of a child.  All of this is tied to her father somehow.  This story contrasts with the surface story, and in some ways contradicts it.  Complicates it, at least.

The reason I keep mentioning Flaubert is because this under-story is told mostly in a combination of memories, images, and metaphors, not at all through ordinary plotting.  It is a startling and artful method.  It is basically invisible to all but the keenest first-time readers.

The sea was quiet now, and swelled lazily in broad billows that melted into one another and did not break except upon the beach in little foamy crests that coiled back like slow, white serpents.  (Ch. 10)

Edna has been trying to learn to swim, and suddenly she can.  She is like “like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence.”  Once I am on the alert for metaphorical references to children, this seems almost like giving the game away.  Edna’s “awakening” is repeatedly described as if the heroine has just reached the age of reason, as if she is not twenty-eight but eight.

Edna’s awakening and childhood are linked to the sea, which is odd, since she grew up in Kentucky, but here’s how:

“’The hot wind beating in my face made me think – without any connection that I can trace – of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than the waist.  She threw out her arms as if swimming when she walked, beating the tall grass as one strikes out in the water.  Oh, I see the connection now!’”  (Ch. 7)

She wonders if she was “’running away from prayers… read in a spirit of gloom by my father that chills me yet to think of it’” – the father always appears somewhere.  Edna does not see all of the connections.  Note that we are a few chapters back, before Edna learns to swim in a sea that smells like “new-plowed earth, mingled with the heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms somewhere near” (back in Ch. 10).  All of this is tied to Edna’s love life, too, her childhood crushes through her loveless marriage.  Again, I have to follow the imagery, not what Edna is doing.

Those serpents, for example.  “The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents around her ankles.”  Now I am in the last chapter, a few lines from the end of the book.  Chopin has paraphrased her earlier line, bringing the serpents back, moving the color to Edna, who has regressed even more – “She felt like some new-born creature.”  The meadow is mentioned; her father is mentioned; some other thematic elements are mentioned.  A new theme appears in the last sentence – “There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air” – which must mean something new, since there were no bees or pinks until now.

Reading The Awakening for the third time now, after a gap of twenty-five years, the under-story still seems full of fresh ambiguities.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

who did not know she was awake - Kate Chopin's The Awakening

I was assigned Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) twice in college, once in American Literature II out of a big Norton anthology, and later in a class on Southern fiction writers.  This was, I now know, the period just after the novel’s “rediscovery,” its reclamation by feminist critics from the dismissive label of “local color,” so lots of teachers were assigning it and discovering how it worked in class.

Why Kate Chopin, with her fiction about New Orleans, was a regionalist, a “local color” writer, while Gustave Flaubert, with his fiction about rural Normandy, was not, is a mystery to me.

I poke at Flaubert because The Awakening is a first-rate example of an American trying to “do” Flaubert, in fact the purest example I know.  Long-time, and I hope medium-time, and surely even a few short-time readers of Wuthering Expectations know that I am not referring to the adultery plots of these novels but to questions of style.  Kate Chopin understood the style of Flaubert, and most importantly understood it the way I understand it.

Chopin tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a Kentucky girl who has married into New Orleans society.  Now she is 28 and something is off.  She has never thought of herself as an especially good wife or mother, not compared to some of the women in her circle.  But as the novel begins, something else happens.  The wives are at the beach, on a Gulf Coast island, accompanied by idle young men from respectable families, which is not a violation of New Orleans mores, but is trouble for Pontellier, who is an outsider.

Out on these islands, away from her husband, at the side of a young rake, something happens to Pontellier, the awakening of the title.  In Chapter 13, it is literal, the aftermath of a long nap.

She was very hungry.  No one was there.  But there was a cloth spread upon the table that stood against the wall, and a cover was laid for one, with a crusty brown loaf and a bottle of wine beside the plate.  Edna bit a piece from the brown loaf, tearing it with her strong, white teeth.  She poured some of the wine into the glass and drank it down.  Then she went softly out of doors, and plucking an orange from the low-hanging bough of a tree, threw it at Robert, who did not know she was awake and up.

An illumination broke over his whole face when he saw her and joined her under the orange tree.

“How many years have I slept?” she inquired.

It is as if Pontellier is passing through a religious initiation, in which she is, symbolically, Eve – that orange, or perhaps she is joining the Freemasons.  All of this looks more symbolically blatant on re-reading.  Edna makes a series of decisions that declare her independence from her conventional role; the later adulterous affair is merely a symptom, as is drinking a beer by herself.

She rummaged in the larder and brought forth a slice of “Gruyère” and some crackers.  She opened a bottle of beer which she found in the icebox.  (Ch. 24)

For some reason that bit has stuck with me for twenty-five years, perhaps because it involves cheese.

No one understands what has happened to Pontellier.

“Has she,” asked the Doctor, with a smile, “has she been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women – super-spiritual superior being?  My wife has been telling me about them.”  (Ch. 22)

No, not that.  Still, this cannot end well.  What room does Edna have to move, to do anything on her own?

That is more or less the novel I saw the first time I read it.  The first layer.

Friday, January 13, 2017

sweet, printed books, / bright, glancing, exquisite corn - Lawrence writes sequences of poems in Look! We have come through!

Look! We have come through!, a 1917 book of poems by D. H. Lawrence, his third, but also his ninth book if I am counting right.  Four novels, short stories, travel, etc.  What a phenomenon.

Look! What a terrible title!  Lawrence’s poems are often beyond good and bad, and this book is more beyond than the previous two.  Plus it has more bad poems.  It is also a poetry book with a concept,

an essential story, or history, or confession, unfolding one from the other in organic development, the whole revealing the intrinsic experience of a man during the crisis of manhood, when he marries and comes into himself.  The period covered is, roughly, the sixth lustre of a man’s life.  (“Foreword”)

These are mostly honeymoon poems, when David and Frieda were wandering about Europe in 1912.  None of the poems are about the incident where he was arrested as a spy, unfortunately.

One representative bad bit, just for laughs:

A woman has given me strength and affluence.

All the rocking wheat of Canada, ripening now,
has not so much strength as the body of one woman
sweet in ear, nor so much to give
though it feeds nations.  (Manifesto I,” ll. 1-6)

I have long argued that All the Rocking Wheat of Canada (Neil Young & the Rocking Wheat, 1983) is the most underrated Neil Young album.  As a metaphor, though, it is pretty silly.  The “Manifesto” sequence is built on a series of hungers, including, in the third poem, for books, which is heartwarming:

man’s sweetest harvest of the centuries, sweet, printed books,
bright, glancing, exquisite corn of many a stubborn
glebe in the upturned darkness (III, ll. 6-8)

Then sex, the “hunger for the woman” (IV), and finally the “ache for being” (VI), ending with an apotheosis as men, free from hunger, become like angels and flowers, with emotions “like music, sheer utterance.”

We shall not look before and after.
We shall be, now.We shall know in full.
We, the mystic NOW.  (VIII, last lines)

That is the kind of D. H. Lawrence poem I read with a lot of skepticism.

“Manifesto” is a kind of sequence poem, which is the great innovation of Look! We have come though!  There is a set of Bavarian poems, a set of “night” poems,” a set of “rose” poems.  Single poems become stronger as parts of longer arguments.  Wild roses found on a walk, where the “simmering / Frogs were singing” (“River Roses”), suggest a comparison the next morning while watching his wife bathes, that the parts of her body are roses (“her shoulders / Glisten as silver, they crumple up / Like wet and falling roses,” “Gloire de Dijon”), then, picked, reappear on the breakfast table where “their mauve-red petals on the cloth / Float like boats on a river” (“Roses on a Breakfast Table”).  Individual poems can be minor, individual images banal, with the theme-and-variation creating most of the meaning.

At this point the sequences are more likely to be semi-formal, rhymed and so on.  Not true of the “tortoise” sequence, a few years in the future, although one poem in the “night” sequence, “Rabbit Snared in the Night,” sounds like the tortoise poems.

What are you waiting for?
What are you waiting for?
What is the hot, plumb weight of your desire on me?
You have a hot, unthinkable desire of me, bunny.

Oh Lawrence is so weird.  I mean, the bunny is in some sense Frieda, I know.  Still.  I read Look! We have come though! as much in anticipation of, preparation for, the poems Lawrence would soon write as for those he actually was writing.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

for we came to believe that it had a soul and that it was in hell - Mark Twain's The Devil's Race-Track

The Devil’s Race-Track: Mark Twain’s Great Dark Writings, University of California Press, 1980, and how can you resist a book that tells you right in the title that the contents are great?  It’s a sure thing.

Personally, I thought the contents were varied in quality – varied in “dark,” too – but absolutely fascinating.  The book consists entirely of writing from a narrow period (1896-1908) unpublished by Twain, sometimes because of its irreligious content, often because the piece was unfinished, and if it was unfinished it was likely because Twain had written himself into a dark, weird corner.

The book is a way to see Twain’s mind at work during a period of crisis.  Twain had gone bankrupt, and while on a worldwide lecture tour to recover his fortune, his daughter, at home in Hartford, died of spinal meningitis.  Twain’s wife began to suffer from serious health problems and would die in 1904.  Twain was never exactly a ray of sunshine, but one result of his suffering was this body of savage, angry, fearful unpublished writing.

The core of the book is a series of linked, unfinished, symbolically charged writings in which Twain keeps returning to stories he doesn’t know how, or doesn’t want, to finish.  A beloved dog alerts a ship’s crew that the ship is on fire, saving them, but the captain leaves the dog behind to die.  A ship becomes trapped in an endless current, The Devil’s Race-Track, and somehow escapes only to find itself in an area of perfect calm, “a trap; and that trap was the Everlasting Sunday” (“The Enchanted Sea-Wilderness,” 34).  The compass not only does not work, but

acted like a frightened thing, a thing in frantic fear for its life.  And so we got afraid of it, and could not bear to look at its distress and its helpless struggles; for we came to believe that it had a soul and that it was in hell.  (34-5)

That is dark, and quite strange.

A father experiences great success, or else catastrophe – a house destroyed by fire, a bankruptcy – one of which is real, one a dream.  “Which Was the Dream?” is the title of that one.

Another endless sea voyage in “The Great Dark,” this time across a microscope slide, the ship constantly threatened by microscopic monstrosities.  The characters vaguely remember a different life, perhaps a dream life, in which they were regular people, on shore, perhaps looking into a microscope.

Almost a third of the book is filled by “Three Thousand Years among the Microbes.”  The narrator is transformed by a magician “into a cholera-germ when he was trying to turn me into a bird” (?) so he spends the next three thousand years (germ years, not human) in the body of the tramp Blitzkowski.  The result is something like Twain humor mixed with Calvino’s Cosmicomics:

I often think of a talk I once had upon some of these things with a friend of mine, a renowned specialist by the name of Bblbgxw, a name which I have to modify to Benjamin Franklin because it is so difficult for me to pronounce that combination right; but that is near enough anyway, because when a foreigner pronounces it it always sounds a little like Franklin, when it doesn’t sound like Smith.  (176)

Bblbgxw is a yellow-fever germ.  That tramp is in rough shape.  But in the end, it is fiction about entropy, ending – or never ending – in the Devil’s Race-Track or Everlasting Sunday, unfinished, unfinishable, sad metaphors for the writer who works through his grief in the only way he knows.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

“This is all idiotic. I’m furious.” - the Dada plays of Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes

How about something crazy.  How about a collection of the Dada plays of Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes?  The Emperor of China, The Mute Canary & The Executioner of Peru (Wakefield Press, tr. Christopher Butterfield) is the book.  1921, 1920, and 1926 are the years of the first productions, respectively.  Horrifying and preposterous nonsense, Ubu Roi with more Grand Guignol gore and the red haze of a terrible war floating over everything.

IRONIC: Oh, Equinox, there’s a war on.
EQUINOX:  Where?
IRONIC:  Over there, over there.  I’ve just come back from it.  What did I see?
[list of horrors]
There’s no more enemy.  All our soldiers are dead.  (Emperor, p. 81)

Ironic and Equinox were portrayed by puppets in the original performance.  Much of Dada was not a response to World War I – the movement contained many kinds of artists doing many kinds of things, but Ribemont-Dessaignes seems more direct to me.  Perhaps it is just the violence, the beatings and stranglings and corpses dragged around the stage.

The Executioner of Peru prefigures the Latin American dictator novel, even in its setting.  The leaders of Peru set off to catch butterflies (“a nocturnal butterfly which carries on its front right wing a little mark shaped like an eye, without a doubt the image of the creator,” 139), leaving the executioner in charge.  He proceeds on a murderous reign of terror, goaded by his Mephistophelean assistant, Love, who carries a typewriter everywhere he goes, “that bloody writing machine,” the Executioner complains, that is

worse than a blinding spotlight.  It pierces the pupils and shamelessly chops up the horizon’s little secrets for which no one is responsible…  it’s treacherous and gives life a rotten taste such as one finds only at the bottom of a well or in the wake of truth.  (207)

But the dictator is in error to worry that the truth about his terror will be exposed.  Love, prefiguring later totalitarian states, wields the typewriter like a weapon, as if he had “built a little machine gun into his typewriter so that certain letters fired bullets.”

The Executioner of Peru, the latest play of this group, is if anything too coherent.  The early plays are more Dada, more playful, more nonsensical.  The Emperor of China begins with typewriters, too (“Typists typing extremely quickly”), but they appear to be banging out random words:

TYPIST 1:  Small-town brains.
TYPIST 2:  Turnover.
TYPIST 3:  Counter calculator.
TYPIST 4:  Mail delivery.  Postman.  (7)

Character named Ironic and Equinox babble at each other like broken Beckett tramps.  “The penguin throws itself to the ground and shatters” is a typical stage direction.  As one character shouts, “This is all idiotic.  I’m furious” (94).

These plays are an expression of chaos, with only the faintest attempt to organize them into coherence.  The absence of order is felt, though, as in the symbol of the mute canary, at the center of that little play:

OCHRE:  It’s a mute canary that someone gave me.
            I whistled all my tunes to it and it learned them by heart.
BARATE:  If it can’t sing, how do you know it knows them by heart?
OCHRE:  That’s the way it is.  Even though it’s mute, by now I know that it knows all my music.
            A mute canary is very rare.  It’s an amazing, shy creature, a true friend.  (118-9)

Is this an expression of faith or despair?

Friday, January 6, 2017

it’s so pleasurable to imagine that it makes me clench my teeth slightly - Colette's Retreat from Love

Here I see the Obooki put Colette on his list of “Favourite 53 Novels.”  His specific choice is “Something… it really doesn’t matter what.”  I would like more opinions on this subject, not because I think the Obooki is wrong – the opinion seems plausible – but because I can’t read Colette’s books all at once and would like some pointers.  Not there is anything wrong with “whatever is at hand.”

What was at hand last month was Retreat from Love (1907), a lovely novel that I had read previously.  The novel has an odd history.  It’s Colette’s first book after freeing herself from her odious husband Willy, who forced his brilliant wife to churn out books in his smut factory, or something like that.  Retreat from Love is the fifth book in the Claudine series, but the first that is written without the shadow of Willy, and also the only one that I have read.

You might think that it would be helpful to know the histories of the characters and so on.  Maybe!  In Margaret Crosland’s translation, some endnotes catch me up, although I am not sure any are needed.  Claudine is living in the countryside in Jura with a friend, Annie, who “has become a despairing nymphomaniac” (3, translator’s introduction).  Claudine’s much older husband is ill and in a sanitarium.  Her stepson Marcel, almost her age, and a flaming homosexual, drops in to escape some trouble in Paris.  Marcel and Annie are both in the thrall of “young bodies,” while Claudine is devoted to an absent old one.  Mild complications ensue.

Claudine thinks about the sex life of her friend, misses her husband, gathers flowers and pine cones, and watches the animals, all of the novel’s magnificent animals:

As light as an elf, a little squirrel flies along in front of us from branch to branch.  Its russet tail fans out like smoke, its fleecy front moving up and down as he leaps along.  He’s plumper, better upholstered and richer than an angora rabbit and leans down to look at me, his forelegs wide apart, his fingernails holding on in human fashion.  His beautiful black eyes quiver with a timid effrontery, and I yearn to catch hold of him, to feel his tiny little body beneath the soft fleece; it’s so pleasurable to imagine that it makes me clench my teeth slightly.  (152)

The sensual theme of the novel is tied to the animal theme.  “A crazy bee flew by, passing so close to her mouth that she drew back and wiped her lips with the back of her hand” (205).  The people are animals, the animals, “the circle of my animal friends,” people:

all those I can’t see in the dusk, but whose mysterious footsteps I can hear: the tap-tap of the hedgehog who trots adventurously from cabbage to rose, from rose to basket of peelings – a light sound on the gravel, the sound of someone dragging a leg: it’s the slow walk f the very old toad who lives beneath the stones of the fallen wall.  Toby’s afraid of him, but Péronelle is not beneath giving a timid scratch to his grainy back with the tip if one teasing paw.  (218)

The next few lines move to a hawk moth, “transparent and quivering so violently that he seems to be his own shadow.”  The toad, eighteen months younger, can be seen in a quotation I used eight years ago.  Péronelle is back there, too.  Toby is a bull terrier who practically steals the show.

Maybe I should rephrase my request.  Which Colette books have the most animals?  I love those animals.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Tolstoy's "Father Sergius" & it's Chekovian interlude - Unkindly relations between people caused her actual physical suffering

Leo Tolstoy I think of as almost beyond influence, and the older Tolstoy would seem particularly settled in style, yet reading his novellas of the 1890s, “Master and Man” (1895) and “Father Sergius” (finished 1898, published 1911) I saw traces of Anton Chekhov.  The first could almost have been by Chekhov; the second is unmistakably Tolstoy but takes a Chekhov-like turn in its last episode, as if the title character must journey through a Chekhov story to reach his goal.  Maybe this is all an illusion, caused by the lingering flavor of Chekhov.  Tolstoy has a strong taste, too, though, right?

“Father Sergius” is the most bearable of a kind of lust trilogy, along with ethically dubious “The Kreutzer Sonata” and “The Devil” (both 1889).  In this case, the title character is a monk, a vowed celibate, so his struggles with lust are an ordinary part of his vocation, less important, usually, than – a part of – his struggles with pride.  He enters the convent in large part out of pride; he becomes a hermit out of pride; he becomes a miracle worker, healing the sick, which leads to more pride.   His constant lunges at humility control his pride, but are also perhaps sources of pride.

The most memorable scene is one of Father Sergius’s struggle with lust.  A rich woman tries, on a dare, basically, to seduce the monk, and in his struggles with lust he – if this story were really written alongside “The Kreutzer Sonata” he would murder her – he does something similarly shocking, but only to himself.  As for the shocked woman, “[a] year later she entered a convent as a novice” (Ch. III).

In a later moment of suicidal despair, Sergius for some reason remembers a girl he knew and bullied as a child, Pashenka.  As an act of contrition he makes a pilgrimage to visit her, an ordinary woman.  “She presented herself to him as a means of salvation” (Ch. V).  How a poor grandma who gives music lessons to get by can save him is a puzzle, but he cuts his hair and tramps “as a beggar” to her home, confesses his sins, and then – well, it is still a puzzle.

This is the Chekhovian section, Chapter VI.  “Unkindly relations between people caused her actual physical suffering.”  But she is no saint:

“Mamma!” – her daughter’s voice interrupted her – “Take Mitya!  I can’t be in two places at once.”

Praskovya Mikhaylovna shuddered, but rose and went out of the room, stepping quickly in her patched shoes.  She soon came back with a boy of two in her arms, who threw himself backwards and grabbed at her shawl with his little hands.

“Shuddered” is a tough, fine touch.  Grandma can’t have one minute alone with the holy man.  It is not exactly that this episode sounds like Chekhov, but rather that I can imagine the story from the family’s point of view – the day the famous monk dropped by – that would be the Chekhov story.

The monk’s story is that he is somehow converted to ordinary life.  “’I lived for men on the pretext of living for God, while she lives for God imagining that she lives for men.’”  It is hardly clear that this is true, but it sets Sergius on a new path.  “And little by little God began to reveal Himself within him.”  I suppose this gets him where he wants to go.

The quotations are from the Maude translation, in Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Abraham Cahan brings Chekhov to the Lower East Side - A nightmare of desolation and jealousy choked her

I ended 2016 with some of Chekhov’s last stories, astounding things.  Make sure your collection has both “Peasants” and “In the Ravine.”  Maybe you’ll need more than one book.  That’s fine.  Read them together, and write a blog post; it will likely be among your best.  I don’t have anything else to say about these stories, but you will.  I look forward to reading it.

I will do something easier and write about imitation Chekhov.  Abraham Cahan, the titanic Yiddish-language journalist, was a champion of Chekhov’s in the United States, long before Chekhov was translated.  Cahan’s first book of English-language fiction, Yekl, A tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) was pretty good, but he is sharper and sadder in his second, The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of Yiddish New York (1898), and maybe one reason is that he lets himself imitate the best.

In “The Imported Bridegroom,” Flora is assimilating quickly – “She sat in her rocker, in front of the parlor stove, absorbed in Little Dorrit” – “the only girl of her circle who would read Dickens, Scott or Thackeray.”  Her father returns to Russia to visit the graves of his parents, and in a fit of piety buys his daughter a husband, a great scholar, a prodigy.  The bidding scenes are worth seeing – the bridegroom, a rare and valued specimen, is sold at auction.

Flora wants to marry a doctor, not a Talmudist; the father wants a son-in-law to say Kaddish; the prodigy is maybe not as interested in the Talmud as he first appears, not once he learns English and discovers the Astor Library.  Yes, he will study to be a doctor, and Flora gets her husband, but by the end of the story the prodigy is already moving on, now to socialism.  The ending could be from Chekhov:

A nightmare of desolation and jealousy choked her – jealousy of the Scotchman’s book, of the Little-Russian shirt, of the empty tea-glasses with the slices of lemon on their bottoms, of the whole excited crowd, and of Shaya’s entire future, from which she seemed excluded.

The short stories in the book share some of the themes – “A Providential Match,” “A Sweatshop Romance” – and settings.  Hopes are dashed; people discover they are weaker than they had realized.

In “A Ghetto Wedding,” a grindingly poor couple have a lavish wedding in the hope that they will come out ahead on the gifts.  It does not work out.  It is a painful piece of comedy.  They cannot even take a cab to their new, empty apartment.  They are almost assaulted on the street.  Only the author is still with them at the end of the story, giving them this final little gift:

A gentle breeze ran past and ahead of them, proclaiming the bride and the bridegroom.  An old tree whispered overhead its tender felicitations.

Yes, the book ends with one of Chekhov’s sentient trees, another gift from one writer to another.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book reading indeed requires good intentions - Wuthering Expectations in 2017

Don‘t deliberate too long before you begin to write a sketch.  All kinds of nice ideas can disappear, never to be seen again.  On the other hand, I advise you not to tremble in the face of months, years even, of procrastination, since there’s something quite formative and educational in waiting.

Such good advice from Robert Walser, as found in his 1933 sketch “Something about Eating,” as found in Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories (2016).  I always flail around a lot after a break, as if I have forgotten how to write.

The reading and writing on Wuthering Expectations, now in the winter of its tenth year, will likely look much like it did last year, for a time, at least.  More American literature, more Henry James, more poetry circa World War I.  The chronological drift continues, though, so more of the James will be the dreaded, beloved Late James.  The war poetry will become post-war poetry.  Books from 18XX will become more rare, books from 190X more common.

Twelve or so years ago I began reading 19th century literature intensely, reading through it with a chronological bias – not neurosis, I hope – in order to see how the pieces of the different literary traditions fit together, and how the traditions bumped against each other.  When I started Wuthering Expectations I was just leaving the 1830s, and thus writing about Balzac, Poe, and early Dickens.  Now I am looking forward to the end of the long 19th, the years before the war.  Conrad, Wharton, James; Lawrence, Kafka, Proust.

I spent some time reading Yiddish, Scottish, Portuguese, Scandinavian, Austrian, and Italian literature as a way to study those traditions from a different direction, separated from the drift.  These literatures are small – I mean, in the 19th century and especially in English – and manageable.  The chronological drift was really determined by British, French, American, and Russian literature.

For whatever reason, last year my reading of poetry raced forward into the 1910s.  The story these books of poems are telling remains exciting.  Even the early books of a diehard second-rater like Conrad Aiken, who aspired to the condition of music and thus labeled his poems “symphonies” and “nocturnes” and such nonsense, have been deeply interesting as part of the larger story of poetic Modernism.  So it is likely that I will drift into the 1920s.  Lorca, Eliot, Vallejo, WCW, Rilke, Moore, Yeats, Jeffers – what happened next? is what I keep asking.

The number of books published 18XX that I am excited about reading now and in reality, rather than someday and theoretically, has gotten pretty small.  But I am about ten percent of the way into War and Peace, which I have not read for a long time, in part because I have doubts about its bloggability, and it is among other things making me excited to reread Anna Karenina.  There are no rules here.

Book reading indeed requires good intentions…  I must stress, incidentally, that very few contemporary books, books of today, fall into my hands.

That’s Walser again, from “A Woman’s Book.” “The reader might note that none of this is so terribly significant.”  So true.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Please do not bother me with practicalities - The Wuthering Expectations Best Books of 2016 - falling in love with war again

The best books of 2016, meaning that I read.

1.  Among recent books, Christopher Logue’s War Music, the English poet’s from-the-foundation anachronistic reconstruction of The Iliad.  The renovation has been ongoing since the 1950s, but is now complete, by the sad reason of Logue’s death in 2011.  A sample, which begins with Zeus talking to his daughter Athena, and suddenly shifts:

    And giving her a kiss, He said:

    ‘Child, I am God,
Please do not bother me with practicalities.’

    Hector and Agamemnon.  Slope sees slope.
    Drivers conducting underbody maintenance.  (p. 123)

Funny, brutal, tough, with armies that “Moved out, moved on, and fell in love with war again” (82).  Quite likely gibberish without a pretty decent knowledge of Homer.  That the book is a fragment only roots it more firmly in its epic tradition.

2.  I completed a re-read – mostly “re-” – of Anton Chekov’s short stories in the thirteen-volume Constance Garnett translation.  Paying some non-neurotic, I hope, attention to chronology, I was mostly past the earlier, shorter, simpler stories; however good that stuff can be, this year it was “The Steppe” (1888) and “Ward No. 6” (1892) and so on, ending last week with “Peasants” (1897), “The Lady with the Dog” (1899), and “In the Ravine” (1900), examples of the greatest fiction ever written.

I guess the plays will have to wait for next year’s list.

3.  This was the year I took Oscar Wilde seriously, reading his short fiction, novel, plays, a volume of criticism, and a 1,200 page book of letters – not everything he wrote, but a lot, and with the exception of The Importance of Being Earnest, which even Wilde saw as a freak, none of these books were as interesting on their own as they were together.  The meta-story of Wilde as artist, prisoner, and exile was a great story.

I had a similar experience with Mark Twain, where even some pretty trivial pieces became more interesting as part of the Mark Twain story.  And then once in a while he writes a masterpiece, just to keep my attention.

4.  The most famous books I read for the first time were The Return of the Native and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Bostonians and What Maisie Knew, Pudd’nhead Wilson and Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, and to get away from English, Nana and La Regenta (famous in Spain, anyways – many thanks to everyone who gave a shot at the readalong).

None of these are among my favorites, exactly, but finally, finally.

5.  Similarly, I finally read The Education of Henry Adams – “greedily devoured it, without understanding a single consecutive page” (Ch. 31), as Adams says about his own reading.  This would have been the perfect book with which to close out a 19th century book blog, but I did not know enough to plan that well.  Maybe I’ll write about this book next year.

6.  As for poetry, I spent the year cramming poems of the 1910s (and earlier, and sometimes later) down my gullet like I was a goose fattening my own liver.  Stefan George, Stephen Crane, Walter de la Mare, Ezra Pound, G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, H. D., Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, and many more.  Four books by Edwin Arlington Robinson.  Four books by Vachel Lindsay.  So much great, good, bad, crazy poetry.  Welcome to Modernism.  The movement from poet to poet and from year to year was as exciting as almost anything an individual poet was doing.  Finishing one book, however good, I moved to another.  I wanted to see what happened next.  I still do.

There is no way my poetry-liver is absorbing these poems well.  I feel like an undergraduate again, tearing through the poetry section of my Norton Anthology of American Literature – what is this – what is this?  Absolutely terrific fun.

Wuthering Expectations will be on a holiday break for a couple of weeks, and back in early January for more good books.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Let it explain / Me its life - the best books of 1916, in a sense

I usually do not mess around with a “best of a hundred years ago” post, however fun it might be, because I am too ignorant to make basic judgments.  To the best of my knowledge, for example, I have read no more than four novels from 1916: James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Sholem Aleichem’s cheery Motl the Cantor’s Son (I think just the second half, Motl in America, is from 1916), Gustav Meyrink’s well-titled Bats, and L. Frank Baum’s Rinkitink in Oz.  However easy it is to pick out the best book from this group – Rinkitink is awesome – I do not have a good sense of what other novels are in contention.

But this year I have been reading a lot of English-language poetry from 1916 – eight or ten books depending on how I count – plus, recently, plenty of individual poems from French, Italian, German, and Russian from various collections, so I thought I would pull some of them together.  Maybe just the books, to make my task easier.

It is the ferment that is so exciting, the variety, the movement.  On the one hand, Robert Graves, in his first chapbooks Over the Brazier and Goliath and David, sounding like Housman or Hardy, skilled but not radical:

from The Shadow of Death

Here’s an end to my art!
    I must die and I know it,
With battle murder at my heart –
    Sad death for a poet!

The old forms are good enough for war poetry.

Then there’s Lustra of Ezra Pound:

from Further Instructions

You are very idle, my songs.
I fear you will come to a bad end.
You stand about in the streets,
You loiter at the corners and bus-stops
You do next to nothing at all.

Which is not really how it seems, reading the poems and their mixture of ancient Greek, classical Chinese, and now.

H. D. wants her songs to do something.  In Sea Garden she strips them down more than Pound, merging the Maine coasts with ancient Greek myths to create her new voice:

from Sheltered Garden

O to blot out this garden
to forget, to find a new beauty
in some terrible
wind-tortured place.

Make it new, make it new, as explicitly as possible, in this year of the birth of Dada.

Even for Pound, though, “newness” was less a goal of its own than a search for a voice, which is closer to what I see in 1916.  Many poets, not all but many, found the old poetic modes inadequate, at least not them, thus all the improvisation, innovation, and flailing about.  What, in Amores, is D. H. Lawrence trying to do that is new other than express himself?

from Restlessness

But oh, it is not enough, it is all no good.
There is something I want to fell in my running blood,
Something I want to touch; I must hold my face to the rain,
I must hold my face to the wind, and let it explain
Me its life as it hurries in secret.

I am not sure that is good, but is it ever Lawrence.  Their flavors are not as strong as Lawrence’s, but H. D. is working on a similar problem; so are Isaac Rosenberg (Moses) and Conrad Aiken (The Jig of Forslin, A Symphony and Turns and Movies).  Edwin Arlington Robinson (The Man against the Sky) has already found a strong voice. Robert Frost is only on his third book, Mountain Interval, but it feels as if he had been Frost forever.  Maybe I should have started this post with Frost.  What a confident poet.

from The Oven Bird

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

And, I remind myself, I have heard poets singing just as loudly in Russian, German, Italian, and French.  The list is long; the idea of “best” becomes moot.

White-eyed and poisonous-finned, shark-toothed and serpentine-curled - the best books of 1866

The best book of 1866 is so obvious that it is barely worth disagreeing, but as Raskolnikov says himself, “The wrong form, you mean – the aesthetics aren’t right!” (VI.7, tr. Oliver Ready).  My favorite book of 1866 is not Crime and Punishment but Victor Hugo’s staggering and preposterous man-against-nature – man-against-hurricane – man-against-octopus – epic The Toilers of the Sea, illustrated above.  The steamboat pictured is about to get stuck on a strange rock formation, and the hero will spend most of the novel fighting everything Hugo can throw at him to get it moving again.  “Then, taking up in the hollow of his hand a little water from a pool of rainwater, he drank it and cried to the clouds: ‘Fooled you!’”  That’s right, he is insulting the clouds, defying the cosmos, as one does in a Victor Hugo book.

Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler this year, too, alongside Crime and Punishment, under contractual conditions that would have crushed most writers.  Now there is some kind of heroism.  I would like to read a Victor Hugo novel about Dostoevsky writing Crime and Punishment and The Gambler.

Henrik Ibsen’s Brand is from 1866, as well, about another defier of the cosmos.  Brand, Raskolnikov, and Hugo’s hero – big characters in big stories.

I do not believe I have read any English-language novels from the year.  Wilkie Collins’s Armadale, George Eliot’s Felix Holt, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, just barely unfinished, would be likely candidates for the Booker Prize, if there had been such a thing.  Gaskell had never won the prize, beat by Thackeray, Dickens, and Trollope, so I think she picks this one up posthumously.  I am just making this up.  Like I care about prizes.

It was a broadly interesting year for poetry.  Paul Verlaine published his first book, Poèmes saturniens, which I have only read in part, and of course in English.  The French looks like this, from “Chansons d’automne,” one of Verlaine’s best-known poems:

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
     De l'automne
Blessent mon cœur
D'une langueur

Lip-smacking French verse.  Those first three lines, those vowels, those nasalizations.  Maybe the poem also means something.

Algernon’s first books of lyrics, Poems and Ballads, appeared, ruining English poetry for decades until austere, brutal Modernists dynamited and carted off his lush, sweet gibberish:

from Hymn to Proserpine

Where beyond the extreme sea-wall, and between the remote sea-gates,
Waste water washes, and tall ships founder, and deep death waits:
Where, mighty with deepening sides, clad about with the seas as with wings,
And impelled of invisible tides, and fulfilled of unspeakable things,
White-eyed and poisonous-finned, shark-toothed and serpentine-curled,
Rolls, under the whitening wind of the future, the wave of the world.

It is like The Toilers of the Sea turned into English verse.  Swinburne was Hugo’s greatest English champion.

Christina Rossetti’s second book, The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems seemed like a paler version of her brilliant first book, but I’ll note it, at least.

In the United States, Herman Melville published Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, his debut as a poet and his first book in a decade, the first of all too few volumes of poetry.  Even more surprising somehow is James Greenleaf Whittier’s nostalgic, ironic “Snow-Bound,” surprising because Whittier was generally such a bad poet, but one who occasionally wrote a great poem.  Whether the torments inflicted by the poem on several generations of schoolchildren are to the demerit of Whittier I leave to the conscience of the individual reader.  Those days are long past.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Stop! - for thy tread is on an Empire's dust! - the best books of 1816

Isn’t that 1816 Constable landscape pretty.  It’s Wivenhoe Park, Essex, for some reason now in Washington, D. C.  1816 was the Year without a Summer, the year of a worldwide volcano-induced deep freeze, even with the Napoleonic Wars over, a terrible year in Europe.

It was a wonderful year for English poetry, with Shelley’s first great book, Alastor; or The Spirit of Solitude: and Other Poems, and Keats’s first published poems, including “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (a book would come in 1817).  Few knew it.  Everyone knew about best-seller George Gordon Byron’s great year, with three big hits: the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (the post’s title is from stanza XVII), “The Prisoner of Chillon,” and one of his dumb Orientalist narrative poems, The Siege of Corinth, my personal favorite of his dumb etc.

Alp, “the renegade,” has been refused the hand of the woman he loves, so he has thrown in his lot with the Turks.  Is he helping them besiege the recalcitrant Greeks in Corinth for love or revenge?  Regardless, the poem ends in not just a battle scene but a massive explosion, just like it would in the Hollywood action movie of which The Siege of Corinth is a genuine precursor.  The last seventy lines describing the explosion are superb, with the shock moving out to the armies, then to the animals, to the birds, as if the world is protesting the event:

Many a tall and goodly man,
Scorch’d and shrivell’d to a span,
When he fell to earth again
Like a cinder strew’d the plain:
Down the ashes shower like rain…  (Canto XXXIII)

Horrible, violent, shocking poetry.  I had meant to reread the more allusive and difficult Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage before writing this post, but picking up the Selected Poems I was sucked into The Siege of Corinth instead.

Walter Scott published three books in 1816.  To understand this silly story it is important to remember that he was a best-selling poet but published Waverley (1814) anonymously, then Guy Mannering (1815) as “By the Author of Waverley,” and now The Antiquary (1816) as by the same.  The latter is the favorite Scott novel of many eminent writers, so I am glad I have read it.  Waverley kicked off the craze for historical novels that continues to this day; The Antiquary is in many ways about historical novels.  If only it were better.

At this point, with three hit anonymous novels under his belt, Scott decided to play a prank.  He retired “the Author of Waverley” and began a new series, with a new publisher, the Tales of My Landlord, which resulted in one short novel, The Black Dwarf and one long one, Old Mortality, published simultaneously.  To extend the prank, Scott published vicious (anonymous) reviews of his own novels.  Nevertheless, both books were hits, and readers with any sense of style knew they are by the Waverley writer.

Old Mortality is Scott’s best novel, I think, along with The Heart of Midlothian (1818).  It is about religious fanaticism, a topic of continuing relevance.  The stakes are higher than in Waverley, the world more dangerous.

What else is going on in 1816?  Goethe’s Italian Journey, Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” and “The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King,” Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe.  I have often mentioned how little French literature survived this period, but here is a major exception, a politician’s novel about a love affair with an older, stronger woman.  It is a dissection of the love affair and the narrator’s feelings about it:

We were living, so to speak, on a sort of memory of the heart, strong enough to make the thought of separation painful, but too weak for us to find satisfaction in being together.  I indulged in these emotions as a relaxation from my normal tension.  I would have liked to give Ellenore tokens of my love that would have made her happy, and indeed I sometimes went back to the language of love, but these emotions and this language resembled the pale and faded leaves which, like remains of funeral wreaths, grow listlessly on the branches of an uprooted tree.  (Ch. 6, tr. Leonard Tancock)

The entire book is written like that, with few scenes, description, or even dialogue, but rather alternating movement and analysis.  It is a kind of fiction I associate strongly with French literature.  The Albertine sections of In Search of Lost Time are in this mode.

The Empire is dust, and French literature is returning to life.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The best books of 1516, 1616, and 1716 - Thou joy’st in better markes

The best books of the year!  Always a lot of fun. In this case, three years: 1516, 1616, and 1716.  Why not?

How would I know which are the best books of those years?  How many can I Have possibly read?  Right.  So I just read the ones that centuries of other readers have told me are the best.  I am just repeating what they say.

My pick for 1516 is Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, at this point just the first forty cantos – the whole big thing will not be finished until 1532 – which are thrilling enough.  I’ll put Thomas More’s Utopia in second place.  There, those are the two books from the year that I have read.  Good ones.  Still, look at the Wikipedia entry for “1516 in art.”  Start with Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece and work your way down.  Wow.  That’s where the creative energy is.

My pick for 1716 is: I don’t know.  Addison has shuttered the Spectator.  Pope is busy with his Iliad.  Swift is doing I don’t know what.  Voltaire is writing plays.  Congreve is not writing plays, having shifted entirely to politics.  Marivaux is not yet writing plays.  Defoe has not yet re-invented the novel.

I’ll have to go with the only 1716 text I am sure I have read, a couple of pages from John Gay’s satirical poem “Trivia: Or the Art of Walking the Streets of London,” as plucked out in The Penguin Book of English Verse (2000), a description of the weather, cleaning days, market days:

  When fishy Stalls with double Store are laid;
The golden-belly’d Carp, the broad-finn’d Maid,
Red-speckled Trouts, the Salmon’s silver Joul,
The jointed Lobster, and unscaly Soale,
And luscious ‘Scallops, to allure the tastes
Of rigid Zealots to delicious Fasts.

I should read the entire poem someday.

The best book of 1616 – now that’s an easy one.  It’s The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, Jonson’s First Folio, the inspiration for that later, more famous, First Folio.  Nine plays, of which three – Volpone, Epicoene, and The Alchemist – are unique masterpieces.  By “unique,” I mean no one else had ever written comedies quite like them.  Two clusters of poems: Epigrammes, satirical; The Forest, lyrical.  Then a number of masques and “entertainments,” also unusual texts, which I have only sampled.  I mean, I have not read this book, just most of its contents.  Complete plays in two volumes, complete poetry in another, masques in yet another.

The Forest includes a number of “To Celia” poems, like:

Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes,
    And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kisse but in the cup,
   And Ile not looke for wine.


Come my Celia, let us prove,
While we may, the sports of love;
Time will not be ours forever:
He, at length, our good will sever.

Etc., etc., perfect lovely singable fluff.  Other poems flatter, insult, seduce, flatter some more – one of the best, “To Penshurst,” flatters a house, an estate:

Thou joy’st in better markes, of soyle, of ayre,
    Of wood, of water: therein thou art faire.

I picked an illustration from 1616, “The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt” by Peter Paul Rubens that is preposterous nonsense, but I have seen it with my own eyes in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  Huge, a monstrosity, but it has a lot going on.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

more / Lovely than things that were not / Lovely before - an Edward Thomas calendar

The Edward Thomas collection I read – The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2008) – ignores the original publication of the pieces in Poems (1917) and Last Poems (1918) and so on and puts them all in the order in which they were written.  There are a few poems in December 1914, close to two-thirds of the total in 1915, a third in 1916, and a few in January 1917.  Thomas is killed in April, 1917.

In effect, the poems are written over the course of two years.  Because Thomas is a kind of nature poet – a rural poet – the sequence becomes that of a calendar.  Months, holidays, seasons, agricultural activity, the movement of birds, the life-cycle of plants – that covers a lot of the poetry.  The repetition of the sequence is especially interesting, as Thomas returns to a poem from a year ago, or for all I know completely forgets the earlier poem but returns to the same seasonal inspiration.  I showed an example yesterday, two four-line poems written a year apart.  Wouldn’t it be nice if I had taken the notes needed to pursue this idea?

All right, let’s just rummage.  Every poem is good.  Thomas’s signature line resembles Frost, a ragged blank verse, but then again plenty of poems are something else entirely:

The Wasp Trap

This moonlight makes
The lovely lovelier
Than ever before lakes
And meadows were.

And yet they are not,
Though their hour is, more
Lovely than things that were not
Lovely before.

Nothing on earth,
And in the heavens no star,
For pure brightness is worth,
More than that jar,

For wasps meant, now
A star – long may it swing
From the dead apple-bough,
So glistening.  (March, 1915)

What a tangle up there, especially in the second stanza.  The poet sees a jar hanging in a tree, used to trap and kill wasps, and thinks something like “Gee whiz, that jar is pretty in the moonlight,” and this chain of thought eventually comes forth.  The jar is a thing of ugliness, a utilitarian death trap, but for a moment it is not just beautiful but “worth” more than anything on earth, or any star!

A little more than a year later, Thomas, in one of his grimmest poems, returned to one of the lines of this poem in a way that darkens the entire poem:

from The Gallows

There was a weasel lived in the sun
With all his family,
Till a keeper shot him with his gun
And hung him up on a tree,
Where he swings in the wind and rain,
In the sun and in the snow,
Without pleasure, without pain,
On the dead oak tree bough.  (1st stanza, July 1916)

In each of the three subsequent stanzas, the keeper hangs more animals from the “dead oak tree bough”.  Each stanza ends with that line.  The jar, so beautiful a year ago, returns to its role as a death trap, the wasps joining the weasels, crows, and “many other beasts” hanged from a tree branch.  One may wonder if “The Gallows” is also a war poem.  I wonder.

Friday, December 9, 2016

"Everything would have been different" - reading Edward Thomas

As far as I can remember I had never read an Edward Thomas poem until recently.  How sad for me.  What a fine poet.  What a sad story.

Thomas worked as a hack writer – for example, “from 1900 to 1914 Thomas wrote ‘just over a million words about 1,200 books’” (Introduction, p. 12).  Yee-ikes.  His nature writing, or more accurately rural writing, is something well beyond hackwork.  I read Thomas in The Annotated Collected Poems (ed. Edna Longley, Bloodaxe Books, 2008) where the annotations dwarf the hundred pages of poems, mainly because of the long samples of Thomas’s good prose.

By good luck, Thomas became friends with Robert Frost just as North of Boston (1914) was published, and something in his creative organ was set off.  He began writing poems, lots of them, a couple a week in 1915, then maybe one a week in 1916.  For reasons that are a mystery, Thomas, at age 38 and this late in the war, volunteered to fight in France, where he was killed within a few months.  His first book, Poems (1917), was in press when he died.  His second was thus titled Last Poems (1918).

Strictly speaking, he is not a war poet – not a trench poet – since he did not write any poems while serving in France and only rarely addressed the war directly while in England.  The war is mostly a source of absence, the reason there are no young men in his countryside.  Sometimes he is explicit, as in this little poem:

In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will never do again.

A year later he writes another version:

The Cherry Trees

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

In another poem from 1916, “At the team’s head-brass,” the poet talks to a ploughman, first “About the weather, next about the war” and then about the fallen elm on which Thomas is sitting.  Why has it not been removed – it is an obstacle for the plow:

‘Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead.  The second day
In France they killed him.  It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too.  Now if
He had stayed here we would have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here.  Everything
Would have been different.’

In a few early poems, Thomas sounds like Frost, but he soon only resembles Frost conceptually, both poets writing dialogue poems and poems about the woods and so on, both, to me, looking like modern children of Wordsworth, like a century of poetry had been leaped.

I will do another day of browsing through Thomas, just fir the excuse to quote more poems.