Friday, July 18, 2014

Goncourt in Paris - that reddish, burnt-paper black of present-day crowds

How about some Paris, via the Goncourt journals.  The Universal Exhibition of 1889 is opening!

A mauve sky, which the illuminations filled with something like the glow of an enormous fire – the sound of countless footsteps creating the effect of the rushing of great waters – the crowds all black, that reddish, burnt-paper black of present-day crowds – a sort of intoxication on the faces of the women, many of whom were queuing up outside the lavatories, their bladders bursting with excitement – the Place de la Concorde an apotheosis of white lights, in the middle of which the obelisk shone with the rosy colour of a champagne ice – the Eiffel Tower looking like a beacon left behind on earth by a vanished generation, a generation of men ten cubits tall.  (6 May, 1889).

The strangeness of the Eiffel Tower is certainly hard for me to imagine now.  In the next entry, Goncourt is dining on its platform with “the Zolas, etc.” where “we were afforded a realization, beyond anything imaginable on ground level , of the greatness, the extent, the Babylonian immensity of Paris, with odd building glowing in the light of the setting sun with the colour of Roman stone, and among the calm, sweeping lines of the horizon the steep, jagged silhouette of Montmartre looking in the dusty sky like an illuminated ruin.”  (2 July, 1889)

These novelists and their light effects.  Goncourt has become a tourist in his own city.  After this, the passage turns to less pleasant topics, so I will skip all that except for this one magnificent line: “And he [Zola] finished his sentence by squeezing his nose, which in the grip of his sensual fingers took on the appearance of a piece of indiarubber.”

Montmartre presumably looked especially ruinous because of the ongoing, endless, construction of Sacré-Cœur Basilica, the monument to the crushing of the Commune in 1871.  The passages of the Goncourt journals describing the Siege of Paris and the Commune are extraordinary, although the subject does most of the work.  Jules de Goncourt died just before the start of the Prussian War, which was oddly helpful in distracting Edmond from his loss.  He has lost interest in literature, temporarily, but he is intensely interested in his horsemeat ration and the shells crashing around his house.  And if the Siege is bad, the civil war is worse. 

There is smoke everywhere, the air smells of burning and varnish, and on all sides one can hear the hissing of hose-pipes.  In a good many places there are still horrible traces of the fighting: here a dead horse; there, beside the paving-stones from a half-demolished barricade, a peaked cap swimming in a pool of blood…  Behind the burnt-out theatre, the costumes have been spread out on the ground: carbonized silk in which, here and there, one catches sight of the gleam of golden spangles, the sparkle of silver.  (29 May, 1871)

See, the light; novelists cannot help themselves.  One more entry, from a two weeks later.

Dined this evening with Flaubert, whom I had not seen since my brother’s death.  He has come to Paris to find some information for his Tentation de Saint Antoine.  He is still the same, a writer above all else.  This cataclysm seems to have passed over him without distracting him for one moment from the impassive making of books.  (10 June, 1871)

I will be back from France in early August, well-fed and refreshed.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Goncourts on Flaubert - his style, his innovations, his jam jars

The issue with the Goncourt brothers and Gustave Flaubert is that all three writers were working on related aesthetic problems, and the Goncourts in some sense got to them first, with their first novel published in 1851, five years before Madame Bovary began to be serialized.  Yet it was Flaubert who was immediately understood to be an innovator; it was Flaubert who attracted disciples; it was always Flaubert.

Now, it is possible that Edmond de Goncourt was simply mistaken about exactly how critics were differentiating between Flaubert and the Goncourts, or it is possible that he was exactly right, except that what later critics, those writing now, for example me, value in Flaubert is not the same thing critics at the time valued; in other words, we can all be right.  This is one of the benefits of the humanities.  Or maybe the Goncourt novels really are second-rate compared to those of Flaubert and his disciples Zola and Maupassant.  It is as if there is not enough room in English for four French writers sharing a period and style.

I don’t know.  I should read a Goncourt novel someday and see for myself.

Anyway, that is the source of a passage like this:

Nowadays, among literary writers, style has become so affected, so selective, so eccentric as to make writing practically impossible.  It is bad style to place fairly close to one another two words beginning with the same syllable; it is bad style to use the word of twice in the same expression, and so on and so forth.  Poor Cladel, a victim of this modern malady of perfectionism, has just started rewriting for the fifth time a novel in which he has not yet reached page sixty.  (3 March, 1875)

Léon Cladel (1835-92), “novelist”; your guess is better than mine.  This is the result of everyone imitating Flaubert rather than Goncourt, although Goncourt does single out “the nebulous Mallarmé,” “a madman madder than the rest,” and Mallarmé ain’t Flaubert’s fault.

The argument goes back twenty years:

After that [an argument about metaphors] a tremendous argument over assonance, which Flaubert said had to be avoided even if it took a week to eliminate a single example.  The Flaubert and Feydeau started discussing a thousand different recipes for style and form, pompously and earnestly explaining little mechanical tricks of the trade, and expounding with childish gravity and ridiculous solemnity ways of writing and rules for producing good prose.  They attached so much importance to the clothing of an idea, to its colour and material, that the idea became nothing but a peg on which to hang sound and light.  We felt as if we were listening to an argument between grammarians of the Byzantine Empire.  (11 April, 1857)

That last simile is so good I am doubly tempted by a Goncourt novel, but I am warned away by the suggestion that they might possibly have ideas in them.   But of course I am a disciple of Flaubert.

Regardless, this is sublime:

Flaubert makes himself out to be the most extravagant and careless of men when it comes to handling money; but in fact he has no tastes to indulge, never buys anything, and has never been known to allow a sudden whim to make a hole in his pocket.  Flaubert makes himself out to be the most extraordinary of innovators in matters of interior decoration; but in fact the only idea he has had so far has been to use jam-jars as flower-vases, something of which he is inordinately proud.  (3 May, 1873)

On the one hand, see what I said above, on the other, I don’t care, I want this to be 100% true.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

He is a master of the art of poisoning with praise - rummaging through the journals of the Goncourt brothers

Soon I will be in France.  Thus some rummaging in Pages from the Goncourt Journals, the 1962 Robert Baldick edition of the enormous journals of brothers and novelists Edmond and Jules de Goncourt.  I have no idea what or how much Baldick omitted.  About 40% of this book, covering 1851 through 1870, is written by “we,” until Jules becomes too ill to continue and the journals belong to Edmond alone.  Jules dies; Edmond lives until 1896, the journal ending just twelve days before his death.

I have never read a Goncourt novel, although they sound like the kind of thing I like.  I don’t know how much they are read anymore, in France, I mean.  I just read the journals, abridged.  What is in them?

1.  Gossip, literary gossip.  The Goncourts knew almost everyone in French literature, over the course of a couple of generations of writers.  Going by the number of entries in the index, they spend the most time with, or at least writing about:

Émile Zola
Gustave Flaubert
Alphonse Daudet
Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve
Théophile Gautier
Victor Hugo

And scores of others in cameo appearances – Turgenev, Degas, Sand, Dumas father and son, Huysman, Mallarmé, Manet, Verlaine, Maupassant, Baudelaire, Swinburne.  A number of people on whom Proust characters are considered to be “based,” whatever that means.  They never met or mention Rimbaud or Corbière, but otherwise I think they knew everyone I had ever heard of.

That, in fact, is Saint-Beuve’s greatest and perhaps only conversational skill – savage criticism in the guise of support.  He is a master of the art of poisoning with praise.  (11 April, 1864)

Maybe a little self-description there.  The Goncourts make everyone look awful, including themselves.  No, Turgenev comes out all right.  Otherwise, the book is a chronicle of backbiting, jealousies, pointless feuds, and highly incisive and accurate insults.  Readers who insist on liking writers, personally liking them, should retain their illusions and avoid the journals.

2.  Literary insight.  Many of these writers held regular salons and dinners.  They often talked shop, perhaps especially while Flaubert was in attendance.  They – well, he, Flaubert – said all sorts of brilliant things about the art of fiction, or at least Flaubert’s fiction, that the Goncourts wrote down.  They have some insights of their own, too.  All of this has been plundered by later critics and biographers.

Dinner at the Café Riche with Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev, and Alphonse Daudet.  A dinner of men of talent who have a high opinion of each other’s work, and one which we hope to make a monthly occasion in the winters to come.

We began with a long discussion on the special aptitudes of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhoea; and we went on to talk about the mechanics of the French language.  (14 April, 1874)

Deep, deep insights.

3.  Paris.  Literary Paris, ordinary Paris, the streets, the theaters.  It’s a great Paris book.  Goncourt is superb on the Prussian war, the Siege of Paris, and the uprising of the Commune.  This is Edmond – the previous year of the journal is a moving account of the degeneration and death of Jules.  It is a tragic sequence – illness, death, grief, then the long list of shocks and horrors of the war – and also a fine piece of writing.

Three major topics and two days left before I leave for France.  That ought to do it.  I believe this book qualifies for Dolce Bellezza’s Paris in July event.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What an event! - the baby in The House of Ulloa

Litlove, of Tales from the Reading Room, was reading a particularly male novel and had this amusing feeling:

I was also feeling incorrigibly feminine, and rather wishing that someone, in either of these novels, would have a baby or go shopping or need to sit down and speculate on another person’s emotions.

For all of their supposed realism and attention to the world around them, how many babies are there in 19th century fiction?  In L’Assommoir, baby Nana vanishes until she is old enough for Zola to find her interesting.  The House of Ulloa, though, has a baby, and what a baby:

The pink, waxen face; the moist, toothless mouth, like a pale coral taken from the sea; the tiny feet, whose heels were red from continuous and graceful kicking…  To this soft bun that still seemed to retain the gelatinous texture of the protoplasm, that lacked self-consciousness and lived only for physical sensations, the mother attributed sense and knowledge.  (Ch. 18)

That first line is from the point of view of the mooncalf priest “who had seen only chubby cherubs on altarpieces [and] limited knowledge of child nudes,” while the second, in a rare move, has shifted over to the mother.  The limited point of view in Emilia Pardo Bazán’s novels is almost always male – the priest, the lunkhead nobleman, and throughout the climax of the novel, an eight year-old boy who sees everything the reader needs to round off the novel, including a murder.  The baby features prominently; the climatic chapter actually ends with a struggle for the soft bun.

A page after the passage I quoted, the baby pees on the priest – “What an event!”  Other parts of the novel describe childbirth and nursing in ways that would be unlikely in Victorian novels, which are not allowed to get too earthy.  Zola was insistent on the importance of first-hand knowledge, of research.  Perhaps I see here a writer with her own expertise.

There is an outstanding baby, I should mention, in The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, the otherwise nearly unreadable Charles Dickens Christmas novella of 1848.

Let’s see, what else does Pardo Bazán write about?  It’s not all babies.  She’s good with a kind of parody Gothic:

In the shadows of this almost underground place, among the clutter of old junk left to the rats, the leg of a table sketched a mummified arm, the sphere of a clock became the white face of a corpse, and a pair of riding boots that stuck out among rags and papers and was eaten away by insect evoked the fantasy of a man assassinated and hidden there.  (Ch. 20)

Maybe a tiny bit of foreshadowing there.

Pardo Bazán’s vocabulary can be surprising.  The first thing the translator does is apologize – don’t blame me, he says.  A long ride on a horse “had disjointed every one of his sacroiliac bones” (Ch. 1).  The dinner after a hunt is “the time for cynegetic anecdotes, and most of all for lies” (Ch. 21).  The word “cynegetic” (“of or relating to hunting”) shows up three times.  Pardo Bazán’s language creates an ironic distance.  She and her educated audience are in Madrid, studying the curious folkways of the Galician rustics.

A couple of chapters about local politics move too far away from the important characters.  They should have been told from the point of view of the priest, or the nobleman, neither of whom would have understood what the heck was going on, which is my point.  That would have made for better comedy.  Once that episode is over, the novel wraps up in a satisfying way – see above, eight year-old, witnesses a murder, etc.

Thanks to Ricardo and Stu for Spanish Literature Month!

Monday, July 14, 2014

flesh and blood in excess - The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán

I’ve got one last entry for Spanish Literature Month, the 1886 novel The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán.  My understanding is that is Spain this is and has always been a much-read book, of similar stature as Clarín’s La Regenta (1884-5) and Benito Pérez Galdós’s Fortunata y Jacinta (1886-7).  In the edition I read, translated by Roser Caminals-Heath, the novel is 260 pages long, compared to the 800 plus pages of each of those other two novels, so the Pardo Bazán is the easier one to deal with is what I am suggesting.

Look at those dates.  What a burst of books.

In The House of Ulloa a young, nitwit priest joins a noble household in the Galician countryside, where he is shocked by the young Marquis’s mistress and illegitimate son, as well as by the decay of the chapel, house, and entire way of life. He makes attempts at improvement; some succeed, some fail.   The priest has “an aversion to purely material things” (Ch. 6), a handicap in a Naturalist novel.

Pardo Bazán had absorbed her French neighbors pretty well, Zola and Flaubert and Balzac, so the novel is written with their bundle of tricks – a lot of good descriptive writing, a mostly limited point of view that freely moves among the characters, and a strong sense of how ordinary life functions underneath whatever excitement might be occurring in the plot.

Something like this, the description of an enormous uncle:

Constricted to a sedentary life, he clearly had flesh and blood in excess and did not know what to do with them.  Without being exactly obesity, his corpulence spread in all directions: each foot was like a boat, each hand like a carpenter’s hammer.  He suffocated in formal dress, did not fit in small rooms, panted loudly in a theater seat, and at mass elbowed his neighbors  to conquer more space.  A magnificent specimen suited for mountain life and the warfare of feudal days, he wasted away pathetically in the vile idleness of the city, where he who produces nothing, teaches nothing, and learns nothing is good for nothing and does nothing.  (Ch.9)

Nothing here would have seemed too out of place in the Zola novels I have read.

One reason to read a novel like this, even one less well written than Ulloa, is that it has an interesting, unusual setting.  The Galician mountains, Santiago de Compostela – where else can I read about these people, and these places?  Every place and every time should have its own Balzac, its own Trollope, its own novel of The Way We Live Now.

The House of Ulloa frequently reminded me of several different Eça de Queirós novels, the ones set in the countryside of northern Portugal, like The Sin of Father Amaro (1875) which also stars a young priest, or The Noble House of Ramires (1900), with another old aristocratic house in decay.  But Galicia borders Portugal; Pardo Bazán’s characters are practically neighbors with Eça’s.  This was not much of an insight.  Yet here I am, typing it out.

While I am wandering, readers of Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville may remember that one of the noblemen in that 17th century play was from the Ulloa family.  The name could hardly have a better literary pedigree.

I guess I’ll save the baby for tomorrow.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

when you recognize fire, say wherefore you yearn - some poems of Alexander Vvedensky

The book is An Invitation for Me to Think, a collection of the avant-garde poems of Alexander Vvedensky, the second of the NYRB Poets series.  Miguel Hernández led me not to another Spanish poet, but to a book that looks the same, but with a blue cover rather than green.

The two poets do share one terrible similarity.  Vvedensky died in 1941, just six months before Hernández, while being transported between prisons.  He was born in 1904, so he made it to age 37, while Hernández died at 31.  Vvedensky is closely associated with the somewhat better known poet Daniil Kharms (1905-42).  Died in prison, yes.  Their crime was, essentially, writing avant-garde poems.

Vvedensky and Kharms were in the cohort of poets after the Stray Dog Cabaret group, poets like Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, so I can see why they thought that the new regime tolerated and maybe even encouraged experimental literature.  They would have grown up in that little window when it was true.  They missed the moment when the window closed, or perhaps it was too late, experimental poetry was ingrained.  They both actually made their living writing children’s literature.

Vvedensky as a language poet, and is thus obviously untranslatable in some key way.  Not in other ways, though.  This is from a late poem, “Elegy” (1940):

With envy I look at beasts,
I trust neither thoughts nor words,
our minds have suffered a loss,
there’s no reason to struggle.
We apprehend all as a fall,
even the day the dream the shadow,
and even the buzz of music
won’t escape the abyss.

The poem is a cry of despair, a survey of the ruins.  It is an apology for poetry:

No swans above the festive boards
flap the white pinions of their wings,
together with bronze eagles
trumpeting hoarsely.
Eradicated inspiration
now visits for almost no duration,
orient yourself death by death,
singer and poor horseman.

The translator informs me that “Elegy” is, as is fitting for a poem about poetry, crammed with references to other poems.  Maybe even in English I can catch a glimpse of Pushkin in there; otherwise, I will take his word for it.

In an earlier prose piece, from “The Gray Notebook” (1932-3), Vvedensky is explicit about why he writes like he does:

The era of verbs is ending right in front of our eyes.  In art, plot and action are vanishing.  Those actions that exist in my poems are illogical and useless, they already can’t be called actions.  Of a person who used to put on a hat and walk outside, we used to say: he walked outside.  This was meaningless.  The word walked, an incomprehensible word.  But now: he put on his hat and it was getting light and the (blue) sky took off like an eagle.  (75)

There is a terrible irony here.  The Soviets , who could not understand what he wrote, accused Vvedensky of hiding anti-Soviet messages in his poems.  But Vvedensky wrote the way he did because he feared there was nothing in poems at all.

from The Meaning of the Sea

to make everything clear
live backwards
take walks in the woods
tearing off hair
when you recognize fire
in a lamp a stove
say wherefore you yearn
fire ruler of the candle
what do you mean or not
where’s the cabinet the pot

And so on for a couple more pages.  There is no logical stopping place, but rather a series of continuing associations based on image and arbitrary aspects of language, of which rhyme, which the translator keeps in various ways, is just the most familiar.  A lot of Vvedensky’s poems look like this one; then again, many do not.

The poems are translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich, both poets themselves who have translated other anthologies and collections featuring Vvedensky and his circle.  This would be a great little project, reading more of these poets, if it were not too overwhelmingly depressing that they are all senselessly murdered.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Don’t let go, don’t find out what’s happening - some poems of Miguel Hernández

The book I will write about now, which might as well be part of Spanish Literature Month, is Miguel Hernández by Miguel Hernández (1910-42), published in 2013 as the first of the NYRB/Poets line.  I feel the title is a mistake, since that should be the title of a book about Miguel Hernández, or else the title of an old-fashioned novel.  This is a book of selected poems by one of the great Spanish of the twentieth century.  One of the many great Spanish poets etc.

Hernández was a rare creature, an actual, in the flesh shepherd poet, not a literary creation but a shepherd who fell in love with poetry and wrote it himself.  The usual literary conceit is that the shepherd poet is naïve and untutored, but Hernández was sophisticated and well-read, in poetry, at least.

Before the war, Hernández was something of a formalist, writing numerous sonnets, for example:

Death, in a Bull’s Pelt

Death, in a bull’s pelt,
full of the holes and horns of its own
undoing, grazes and tramples
a bullfighter’s luminous field.

Volcanic roaring, ferocious snorting
all from a general love for everything born –
Yet the eruptions that flare
kill peaceful ranchers.

Now, ravenous love-starved beast,
you may come graze my heart’s tragic grasses,
if you like its bitter aspects.

Like you, I am tormented by loving so much,
and my heart, dressed in a dead man’s clothes,
winds over it all.

The original lines should rhyme; the translator abandons that.  Supposedly professional book reviewers have so abused the word “luminous” that I distrust it, but I remember being inside the bullfighting ring in Ronda on a sunny day; the metaphor is accurate.  As for the love-starved bull, that is hilarious.

The war jolted him into free verse, and wilder imagery – more death, wounds, and blood.  “And wounds make sounds, just like conch shells,” (from “The Wounded Man”), more like that.

The dates of his birth and death are almost a sufficient biography.  Hernández died in prison of tuberculosis, another victim of Franco.  The third, and longest,  section of the tiny NYRB book is titled “Last Poems from Prison (1939-1941).”  The civil war, in which he fought, turned Hernández’s poems to death:

The Cemetery Lies Near

The cemetery lies near
where you and I are sleeping,
among blue nopals,
blue pitas, and children
who shout at the top of their lungs
if a corpse darkens the street.

From here to the cemetery everything
is blue, golden, clear.
Four steps away, the dead.
Four steps away, the living.

Clear, blue, and golden.
My son grows remote there.

Blue, blue, blue.  During the war Hernández lost a young son to malnutrition.  His most famous poem, “Lullaby of the Onion,” is “dedicated to his son,” his second son, an imprisoned father’s love song in a world of deprivation.  The mother only has bread and onions to eat;  boy is “nursed \ on onion blood”:

Fly away, son, on the double
moon of the breast:
it is saddened by onion,
you are satisfied.
Don’t let go,
don’t find out what’s happening,
or what goes on.

The books in the NYRB series are quite small, as well as short; it turns out all of the other selections of Hernández  in English are similarly short, or shorter.  This translation, by Don Share, seemed good.  Someday I will test it against some of the others.  A University of Chicago edition has facing-page Spanish, so that’s where I will go first.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Selma Lagerlöf’s "giant bees of the imagination"

Favorite single line from The Saga of Gösta Berling:

Then he set up this organ, which had such strange tones, whose dreadful bassoon stop intermittently bursts forth in the middle of a peaceful hymn – no one knows why or how – and causes the children to cry in church on Christmas morning.  (Ch. 13, 193)

This organ builder was once loved by Mamsell Marie, whose name gives the chapter its title.  Mamsell Marie now sews quilts and curtains, and is adopted by Countess Märta, one of the novel’s villains – I have finally reached a character who matters for the plot.  The monstrous Countess cruelly mimics and mocks Marie.  Countess Elisabet, her daughter-in-law and the most important female character in the book, takes pity on Marie.

I am just saying that the organ that makes children cry, an invention worthy of Hoffmann, is pretty distant from the story as such, as is much of the text of The Saga of Gösta Berling.  This chapter begins:

Silence, by all means, silence!

There is a buzzing over my head.  It must be a bumblebee flying around.  No, just be quiet!  Such an aroma!  As sure as I’m alive, if it isn’t southernwood and lavender and birdcherry and lilac and narcissus.  It is a glory to sense this on a gray autumn evening in the heart of the city. (190)

And this goes on for a while, just the narrator thinking about plants and an old story, which she then tells, as she has been doing all along.  A narrator like this is designed to test the patience of many readers.  I found her to be full of surprises.

A few chapters later, that wicked mother-in-law is cursed by a witch so that the magpies – I guess I can skip the horrible details.

No one had a more bitter life.  Can anyone keep from pitying her? (Ch. 19, 248)

In a later chapter, one of the cavaliers is given a gift by a wood nymph – “’hereafter shall you with your two hands be able to execute whatever work of art you wish, but only one of each type’” (Ch. 33, 353), for example “a wagon that moved by itself” and wings that allow him to fly.  This gift also turns out to be a curse, more due to the temperament of the cavalier than the ill will of the nymph.

The book ends with the return of that bumblebee, an expansion of Selma Lagerlöf’s meaning.  “[T]he legends swarm around you like the bees of summer,” she writes, which leads her to one more little story, or joke, really, about the “giant bees of the imagination” and their difficulty in entering “the beehive of reality.”  Her strange novel is meant to help.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Selma Lagerlöf’s The Saga of Gösta Berling - some Swedish renunciation

Selma Lagerlöf’s first novel, The Saga of Gösta Berling (1891), turned out to be, to my surprise, a Don Juan story transplanted into western Sweden in the 1820s.  The title character’s horse is actually named Don Juan – that was a subtle clue – but more importantly Berling shares two characteristics with Don Juan, first, that he is a chaos seed, an impulsive prankster who delights in disorder and has trouble seeing the damage he does, and second, that he is irresistibly attractive to women.

Berling does not actually seduce any of the women, though, because Lagerlöf is writing under something like Victorian moral standards – so no sex outside of marriage – and also because both Berling and the various women practice the Goethean art of renunciation.  She loves Berling but must renounce him for some higher purpose, or perhaps Berling renounces the woman.   Lagerlöf’s novel is a mix of Don Juan and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.  Except there is more sex in Wilhelm Meister.

Scandinavians read German writers and Germans read Scandinavian writers.  I am not sure what else I have learned from my little project this year, but now I know that.  The Saga of Gösta Berling has more in common with German novellas (Theodor Storm, E. T. A. Hoffmann) or Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry than with anything going on in French or English literature at the time.

The story as such barely makes sense.  Gösta Berling is an alcoholic priest who finds himself leader of a group of “cavaliers,” washed up remnants of the recent wars who have been taken in as retainers by a woman who owns a large ironworks.  It is a bit like a Western about a tough female rancher and her bunkhouse of grizzled cowboys.   The book covers a year of their adventures.  Each of the eleven cavaliers gets his own chapter and adventure.  I think they each get a chapter.  I didn’t count them.

Chapter 8, for example, “The Great Bear in Gurlita Bluff,” is about “Anders Fuchs, the bear killer,” and his ongoing attempt to kill a magical bear.  “A bullet of silver and bell metal, cast on a Thursday evening at the new moon in the church tower, without the minister or organist or any person knowing of it, would quite certainly kill him, but such a bullet is perhaps not so easy to secure.”  Much of the chapter is about Fuchs acquiring the bullet.  By the end of the story, he does a good deed by letting someone else kill the bear.  More renunciation, for which he is duly rewarded (“’Lord God, how good you are!’ he says, clasping his hands together”).  It’s a good story, and though some bits of it are brought in later in the novel, it could easily have been omitted or published separately.

The rest of the chapters belong to Berling or one of the women with whom he becomes entangled.  Often, Berling’s pranks cause trouble far beyond his control, yet with an ultimate result that is good.  A man is accidentally driven from his wife (bad prank, Berling) but in the process becomes a saint.  That sort of thing.

Why do I keep writing these posts with no quotations?  Tomorrow, some quotations.  And the devil, the wood nymph – I already covered the werebear.  Some strange stuff in this novel.

I read the terrific 2009 Paul Norlen translation, the Penguin Classic.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Trickster of Seville by Tirso de Molina - The sumptuous Tagus swirls its train - in which I emphasize the wrong parts of the play

Caravana de Recuerdos invited people to read the great 1630 play The Trickster of Seville and His Guest of Stone by Tirso de Molina, so I thought I would revisit it.  I am glad I did.  Tirso de Molina is hardly an artist at the level of his contemporary Pedro Calderón de la Barca, but he managed something rare.  He was the first person, apparently, to write down the story of the womanizer Don Juan, one of those unusual fictional characters who has had a long metaphorical life outside of any particular text.

Simpler Pastimes, who read the play in Spanish, writes that the play is “not perhaps the best known” version of the story, which is “likely” the Mozart and da Ponte’s opera Don Giovanni (1787).  Very droll!  The Trickster of Seville is no better than fourth, discounting film versions, also trailing Molière’s brilliant 1665 version and Byron’s glorious, enormous reconfiguration of the character (1819+).  Well, maybe not so many people read Byron anymore.

Tomorrow I will write a bit about a Selma Lagerlöf which, to my surprise, turned out to be another Don Juan retelling.

This first version, more than that of Molière or da Ponte, is not just a seducer but a sociopath, not just chaotic but evil.  Maybe not a lot more.  He is irresistible to some women, but delights as much in tricking them into sex – impersonating their lovers, for example.  He not only has no interest in the consequences of his sexual affairs, but seems to actively enjoy the damage.  He is for a time protected from the consequences by his powerful patrons, until, as was inevitable, he is burned to death by a vengeful statue.

Readers of English plays contemporary with Tirso de Molina will likely be amazed, as I am, by the looseness and rapidity of the play, even compared to Marlowe or Shakespeare.  They may also be surprised by the intrusions of early modern erudition.  I did not remember this stuff at all.

DON GONZALO:  Why, Lisbon is the world’s eighth wonder!
Cleaving the heart if her asunder
To travel half the breadth of Spain,
The sumptuous Tagus swirls its train
And through the ranges rolls its thunder
To enter deep in to the main
Along the sacred wharves of Lisbon
Of which it laves the southern side. (Act I, p. 156)

None of the play’s scenes are set in Lisbon, yet this speech about the city goes on for four pages, covering Lisbon’s ships, fortifications, religious institutions, and royal court.  When I last read this play, I must have been baffled, but now I at least know that this is a city encomium, a genre popular, if that is the right word, with early modern humanists, but that has not survived so well.

A bit earlier, a shipwrecked Don Juan washes ashore and into the arms of a fisher girl who talks like this:

THISBE:  Here where the slumbrous suns tread, light
And lazy, on the blue waves’ trance,
And wake the sapphires with delight
To scare the shadows as they glance;
Here by white sands, so finely spun
They seem like seeded pearls to shine,
Or else like atoms of the sun
Gilded in heaven;  [etc. etc. etc.]  (Act I, pp. 148-9)

In other words, the play suddenly turns into a pastoral poem – other characters do not talk like this – or more specifically into a parody of Luis de Góngora’s baroque reworking of pastoral poetry in Los Soledades.  Now I wonder which other passages are actually borrowings from Horace or whoever.

Honestly, if I were performing the play I would cut all of this learnedness.  I am emphasizing the aspects of the play least likely to attract readers.  Well, there is too much reading as it is; I have always thought that. And come on, it’s the story of Don Juan – seductions, murder, madness, a funny servant, a terrifying supernatural statue along with occasional detours into obscure early modern modes.  It’s a great story.  Subsequent writers have made that clear enough.

I read Roy Campbell’s translation, found in Eric Bentley’s Life Is a Dream and Other Spanish Classics, which contains at least two plays better than The Trickster of Seville.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

This one’s really worth what it cost. - wrapping up L'Assommoir

Tomorrow is a holiday, so I will be back on Monday with some Spanish literature.  It is the arbitrarily-declared Spanish Literature Month!  Or maybe I will cover Knut Hamsun first.  Who knows.

Regardless, I will wrap up L’Assommoir.  I could just keep writing about Zola.

I could pursue the ironing for example.  Actually, I would have to do some research about.  Edgar Degas painted several examples of women ironing, including the one on the left at the National Gallery, this one at the Musée d’Orsay, and this one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The Oxford World’s Classics edition features yet another Degas of a woman ironing.  Zola knew Degas, and likely saw some of these paintings (most that I linked precede L’Assommoir).

The connection to painting is not coincidental.  First, Zola was so intensely visual.  I occasionally suspect that Zola, in a descriptive passage, is literally describing a painting – that he has simply inserted a painting, like maybe a Degas showing women ironing, into his novel.  Second, one of the heroine’s children actually becomes a painter.  Third, one of the craziest scenes in the novel is when Gervaise’s wedding party spends four pages touring  the Louvre:

Centuries of art passed before their bewildered ignorance, the subtle rigidity of the Italian primitives, the magnificence of the Venetians, the rich and brilliant life of the Dutch.  What interested them most, however, were the copyists, with their easels installed amid the crowd, painting away nonchalantly.  One old lady, mounted on a high ladder and using a whitewash brush to spread soft sky-blue upon an immense canvas, struck them particularly.  (Ch. 3)

The copyists, you don’t say.  There we have, by the way, an example of what I suspect are concealed puddles, proto-puddles.  The punchline of Zola’s joke is that a member of the party has taken them to the Louvre just to show them an earthy Rubens:

“Will you look at this!” Boche kept saying.  “This one’s really worth what it cost.  Here’s a guy puking.  And this one, he’s watering the dandelions.  Look at this fellow!  Oho, look at this one here!  Oh well, they’re a pretty bunch, they are!”

The painting will turn out to be thematically relevant.  The wedding party’s own drunken feast starts about five pages later.  For a few of the characters, it lasts for the rest of the novel.

How I have restrained myself, not writing about the food in L’Assommoir.  How strange to think of this book so full of hunger and misery as a food novel.  There is so much food in it, so much eating.

The Louvre trip is the only time in the novel that country girl Gervaise leaves her adopted home, a few streets and an outlying industrial area north of Montmartre.  At the novel’s end, in 1869, Gervaise finds that even her Paris is being destroyed by Baron Haussmann’s urban renewal, as long open boulevards punch through the little streets in which she has spent her life.  “The long vistas of avenues opening before her seemed to make her stomach feel even more empty” (Ch. 12).  In The Kill, Saccard makes his hollow fortune through insider trading in real estate affected by the new boulevards.  L’Assommoir is written from the other side.  “Underneath the rising tide of luxury, the miserable poverty of the Paris slums was still there to undermine and to besmirch this brand-new city that was being so hastily constructed.”

I guess this can count as my backhanded contribution to Dolce Bellezza’s Paris in July event.  Paris, je t’aime.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Intoxicating herself with this stench of humanity - fat L'Assommoir

The Goncourt journal, or at least the abridgement I read, is full of Zola, who is mentioned more than any other individual.  The index, under Zola, has four entries just for “and food,” including this one:

Zola was tucking into the good food, and when I asked him whether by any chance he was a glutton, he replied: “Yes, it’s my only vice; and at home, when there isn’t anything good for dinner, I’m miserable, utterly miserable.  That’s the only thing that matters; nothing else really exists for me.  You know what my life is like?”  (25 January, 1875)

Poor Zola.  I knew Zola was a glutton from reading his foodie novel The Belly of Paris, a book built on a metaphor of the Fat versus the Thin, with the Fat eventually eating the Thin.  Zola has sympathy for the Thin, but is himself one of the Fat.  This is not so much a matter of girth or caloric intake but of temperament.  At the end of the novel, the heroine Gervaise has nothing to eat, yet she has become not merely fat but obese.  Her husband was fat until alcohol finally, after a decade of abuse, hollowed him out again:  “Now his unhealthy soft fat of earlier years had melted away and he was beginning to wither and turn a leaden gray, with greenish tints like those of a corpse putrefying in a pond” (Ch. 10).

The father of Gervaise’s children, Lantier, a monstrous parasite, is also one of the Fat, even if he never becomes more than plump.  For a stretch of the novel, for example, he lives on nothing but sugar, devouring his way through his girlfriend’s candy store: “He seemed actually to be turning into honey” (Ch. 10).

Curiously it is the eldest son of Gervaise and Lantier, Claude Lantier the painter, who delivers a long “Fat versus Thin” lecture in The Belly if the Paris.  Claude defeats his heritage – he is one of the Thin.  Nana is Fat; her chapter is plump and fleshy, her appetites more sexual than gluttonous.  Someone will have to fill me in on the other son, or sons.

Again, this is all metaphor, all character.  Whatever the reputation of the novel, Gervaise is not done in by alcohol or food but rather by dirty laundry:

She thrust her bare pink arms deep among shirts yellow with grime, towels stiff from greasy dishwater, socks threadbare and eaten away by sweat.  The strong odor hitting her in the face as she leaned over the pile of clothes made her a bit drowsy.  Sitting on the edge of a stool, bending far over, reaching her hands to right and left with slow, easy gestures, she seemed to be intoxicating herself with this stench of humanity, smiling vaguely, her eyes misty.  It may be that the beginnings of her laziness came from that, a kind of asphyxiation caused by dirty clothes poisoning the air about her.  (Ch. 5)

Since the piece I bolded is the craziest thing the narrator says in the entire novel, Zola repeats it four pages later:

The long kiss that they exchanged, mouth to mouth, amid all this accumulated filthiness of soiled laundry, was perhaps a first step downward in the gradual corruption of her life together. 

Is this even subtle enough to be foreshadowing?  There is still two-thirds of the novel to go.  It was, to me, the biggest shock of the novel.  Gervaise’s weakness is sensualism.  Thus her sensitivity to colors and odors, her appetite for food and men and, eventually, strong drink.  Gervaise is doomed by her love of life, her gusto.  The Thin, of whom there are plenty of examples in L’Assommoir among the supporting characters, fail to live.  Gervaise lives.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A certain taste for charlatanism - Naturalist L'Assommoir

Ah ha, I knew it (this is from Pages from the Goncourt Journals, tr. Douglas Parmée):

This evening Flaubert, while paying tribute to his colleague’s genius, attacked the prefaces, the doctrines, the naturalist professions of faith, in a word all the rather flamboyant humbug with which Zola helps along the sale of his books.  Zola replied roughly to this effect: “You, you had private means which allowed you to remain independent of a good many things.  But I had to earn my living with nothing but my pen; I had to go through the mill of journalism and write all sorts of shameful stuff; and it has left me with – how shall I put it? – a certain taste for charlatanism… I consider the word Naturalism as ridiculous as you do, but I shall go on repeating it over and over again, because you have to give things new names for the public to think that they are new…”  (19 February, 1877, p. 229)

The ellipses are in the text I used, but it is an abridgement, so who knows.  I should have done some abridging myself, but I wanted to enjoy the sight of a writer confirming my darkest suspicions. There are reasons not to take the Goncourt journal too seriously, but whenever it supports my prejudices, I will just take it as gospel truth.  Zola’s, or Goncourt’s, end to this passage is superb:

“First of all I took a nail and with a blow of the hammer I drove it one inch into the public’s brain; then with a second blow I drove it two inches in…  Well, that hammer of mine is the journalism I write myself around my novels.”

Ouch, ha ha ha, ouch, my brain!

The Naturalist argument of L’Assommoir is, roughly, that its heroine Gervaise is doomed not by – or not only by – her own bad luck and bad decisions but an inherited flaw, a predilection for vice or alcohol or something like that, which she then passes on to her own three or four children.  She, and they, are on the corrupted Macquart side of the Rougon-Macquart series, so she, and they, take it in the neck.

The actual argument of L’Assommoir, the one in the plot and its supporting details, is almost entirely opposed to the quasi-genetic Naturalist idea.  Gervaise is ultimately, after a long period of time during much of which she is actually successful, doomed by bad luck, a poisonous social environment, and a predilection for sensualism of which alcohol is a minor component.  Much, much more interesting than inherited alcoholism, even if the latter is more likely to be True.

I had met one of Gervaise’s children in The Belly of Paris, written a few years earlier.  The painter Claude Lantier is barely in L’Assommoir, having been sent away in the fourth chapter to learn his trade.  He seems to have inherited his mother’s sensitivity to color.  He does all right in Belly, but I understand that The Masterpiece (1886) does him in. 

The daughter is Nana, who will get her own novel in a couple of years.  Nature and nurture work hand in hand with Nana.  Then there is Etienne, “now a railroad mechanic” at the beginning of Chapter 13, but Zola later changed his plans and moved poor Etienne into Germinal (1885), the coal mining novel.

The railroad novel (1890) instead features his brother Jacques Lantier, the serial killer, who – this is where I have been headed – is not in L’Assommoir at all!  No wonder he becomes a murderer – he was so neglected as a child that he was never mentioned by anyone around him, including the omniscient narrator of the novel.  Even his mother never knew he existed, never even knew she was pregnant or gave birth.  Now, though, I can see him in L’Assommoir, the silent ghost child standing in the background of many scenes, a grey creature in a colorful novel, invisible to everyone but me.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Being used to puddles - the puddle theme in L'Assommoir

Zola, in L’Assommoir, uses arbitrarily chosen objects within the world of the novel to create elaborate patterns that reinforce or undermine or comment upon the surface meaning of the story.  The objects are not necessarily symbolic in whatever sense critics use that word, although they may become symbolic in some way to one or more of the characters.  Or the characters may not notice them at all; only the author and the more attentive readers can see the pattern.

Zola learned to do this from Gustave Flaubert.  I wrote about the technique in the context of Madame Bovary a couple of years ago.   I do not know if anyone believed what I wrote, since it is contrary to a lot of ideas about what fiction should do.

Thus:

To the right of the water tanks the steam engine’s slim smokestack exhaled puffs of white smoke in a strong, steady rhythm.

Being used to puddles, Gervaise did not bother to tuck up her skirts before making her way through the doorway, which was cluttered with jars of bleaching water.  (Ch. 1, 18-19)

Gervaise has entered a laundry, that is all that is happening here, but Zola has now introduced, right next to each other, the Puddle Theme and the Steam Engine Theme.  I should probably only follow one of them in this post.  Puddles it is.  A few pages later, the Puddle Theme is expanded into the Colored Puddle Theme:

When she was through, she went over to a trestle and hung upon it all her things, which began to drip bluish puddles onto the floor.  (I, 24)

What is this besides ordinary, and kinda dull, detail about a Parisian laundry?  Why even notice it?

In the next chapter, Gervaise first enters the tenement where she will spend most of the rest of the novel.

Down the center of this entranceway, which was paved like the street, a rivulet of pink-dyed water was flowing.  (Ch. 2, 51)

To get through the entranceway she had to jump over a wide puddle that had drained from the dye shop [thus, the pink].  This time the puddle was blue, the deep blue of a summer sky; and in it reflections from the concierge’s small night lamp sparkled like stars.  (Ch. 2, 71)

Maybe a reader remembers the blue puddles from the laundry, maybe not.  At this point, I was looking for them, although I do not think I caught them all.  Here is another, from Chapter 6, the chapter that greatly develops the novel’s romantic subplot, a great positive moment in Gervaise’s life:

Over a puddle of muddy water that barred the way two planks had been thrown.  She finally ventured onto the planks, then turned to the left,…  (Ch. 6, 183)

One of the things she sees on the other side of that puddle is a big steam engine; also a man who “could feel within himself as much damn power as a steam engine” (189).

Now, the end.  Gervaise has hit bottom.

She had to step over a black stream, the overflow from the dyers, that went streaming and cutting its muddy way through the whiteness of the snow.  Black was the proper color to go with her thoughts.  The lovely soft pinks and blues of other days had flowed far away!  (Ch. 12, 466)

A number of other themes have been pulled together, as I would expect in a climactic scene.  I believe I see  a difference from Flaubert here: Zola actually reminds his readers of (some) of the earlier colored puddles.  Flaubert is a harsher master.  I’m supposed to be paying that kind of attention.  And in fact, under the tutelage of Flaubert and Nabokov and a few other writers, I have trained myself to at least try to keep up with this kind of patterning, which, frankly, is awfully hard to do the first time through a novel, and often leads to a lot of dead ends and red herrings.

Not the puddles, though.  For the re-read, someday, I will track down the ones I missed, and the near puddles and slant puddles.  I have a crackpot idea about Gervaise’s sensitivity to color.  I need another trip through the novel to support (or discard) this idea.

Ah, this is the fun stuff.  The posts will all be downhill from here.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A pair of heavy pliers, drawing the wire through the holes of a drawplate held in the vise - Zola describes work

How is L’Assommoir written?  It is the seventh of the twenty interconnected Rougon-Macquart novels, of which I have read only, I remind myself numbers two and three, The Kill and The Belly of ParisL’Assommoir is in many ways written quite differently than those two books.

Zola has modified his list-making.  The earlier novels sometimes felt like catalogues, with their long lists of descriptions of carriages, dresses, furniture, plants, and cheeses.  The best-written catalogues in the history of mail-order retail, I mean, but the problem, more ethical than aesthetic, is that the lists are too easily detachable.  They lack meaning.  They are effective as brilliantly thick scene-setting, but they crowd out character, story, and action.  These baroque sensory passages threaten to become the point of the book.

This is hardly a problem for me.  I love this stuff.  I refer you to the magnificent Symphony of Cheeses in The Belly of Paris, a masterpiece of description in a novel that has barely more than a wisp of a story and was written for its baroquely rich descriptions, as well as – I am arguing with myself – a powerful metaphor that will be of great importance in L’Assommoir.  But few readers think of the elaboration of a metaphor as a meaningful story.  I mean the “fat versus thin” theme.  I want to save that for a later post.

L’Assommoir has no lack of story, the rise and sad fall of Gervaise Macquart the laundress, and no lack of meaning, ethical and even sociological.

Good Lord, all I Have said so far is “no lists.”  Yet L’Assommoir has plenty of description.  Zola is more careful to keep descriptions within the range of the characters, usually Gervaise.  It is not exactly her language, but an intensification of what she sees, as when she visits the gold-wire makers who will becomes her relatives by marriage.

… Gervaise was all a-flutter, stirred particularly by the notion that she was entering a place full of gold…  At last, however, her eyes focused upon Mme. Lorilleux, a short, stout redhead who was pulling on a black wire with all the strength of her short arms, aided by a pair of heavy pliers, drawing the wire through the holes of a drawplate held in the vise.  Lorilleux, also short of stature but slimmer than his wife, was seated before his workbench, toiling away as lively as a monkey, holding in tiny pincers something so minute that it was lost between his knotty fingers.  He was the first to raise his head, a skull on which only a few straggling hairs were left, with a long, drawn face the pale yellow of old wax.  (Ch. 2, 63)

The passage is obviously full of descriptive language, and it is not the only one that describes the Lorilleux’s work as low-level goldsmiths.  A long paragraph soon follows, for example, describing how Lorilleux makes gold chains.  Work, the concern of the working-class poor if L’Assommoir has replaced the long lists of stuff that obsess the rich of The Kill and the shopkeepers and market-women of The Belly of Paris.

Goldsmithing, roofing, metal work, laundering, and ironing – I think that is the list of occupations that are described fastidiously by Zola.  The last one was a special trial.  Heaven help me, I thought, he is going on for pages about ironing.  What could be more dull?

Paper flower-making.  I forgot that one.  “Just one motion of picking up a narrow strip of green paper, a swift rolling of the paper around the brass wire, a drop of paste at the top to hold it, and there it was, a sprig of fresh and delicate greenery, ready to grace a lady’s bosom” (Ch. 11, 400).  Zola does not give so much detail about flower-making, though, because the relevant character never learns the trade well.

Gervaise is, for many years, a truly great ironer, so Zola gives me more information than I could have possibly wanted about ironing, because the character cares about it.  Whether I care or not is of no interest.  Zola sticks to his characters.

OK, this is one way L’Assommoir is written.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

L'Assommoir - a summary - Three years rolled away.

Here’s how you can tell how long I plan to write about L’Assommoir – I’m actually going to try to summarize it.

Gervaise Macquart is at a low point when the novel begins.  She is a teenage laundress from the provinces, mother of two sons, just now abandoned by her no-good parasite of a boyfriend, who has run off with another woman.  The catfight at the climax of the chapter is between the insulted Gervaise and that woman’s sister.  Later in the book, the sister takes in the parasite, who literally eats through everything she owns and then in turn abandons her.  He is a fine minor character, Lantier the sponge.

Gervaise, though, buckles down, working hard, saving money, marrying a reliable man, or at least a reasonable bet.  Their wedding, which fills Chapter 3 in one long, continuous scene, is a heck of a thing, perhaps now the standard by which I will judge future Zola novels.  Gervaise opens her own laundry shop, eventually employing three people, and despite some bad luck achieves a fair amount of success for a fair amount of time (“Three years rolled away,” Ch. 5, p. 179), culminating in the gluttonous birthday party – “orgies of cooking, feasts from which you came away round as a ball, your belly stuffed with a week’s supply” – in Chapter 7, right in the center of the novel.  Then everything unravels, but again, slowly.  It takes two chapters, for example, for the laundry business to fall apart.  L’Assommoir really only becomes a study of poverty in its last quarter, the last four chapters, where Zola grinds Gervaise down, step by step, as if through a hierarchy of poverty and misery.

The arc of the book, then, is about as simple as possible.  Start with nothing, work up to the possibility of some sort of escape, then tear away everything – money, family, health, dignity, even the streets she knows – piece by piece.

Once I map it out, I can see how symmetrical the arc is.  Chapter 7, the big feast, is the middle.  Chapter 6: the parasite returns; Chapter 8: Gervaise is back in bed with the parasite.  Chapter 5: Gervaise opens the shop; Chapter 9, she closes it.  Chapter 4: the husband starts drinking; Chapter 10, Gervaise turns to booze.  Chapter 3 is the wedding; Chapter 11 – now this is a curious one – this chapter is all about Gervaise’s daughter from that marriage, now a teenager herself, and is in effect a prequel to Nana, written three years later.  I will leave Chapters 2 and 12 and 1 and 13 as an exercise for the reader.

I did not pay enough attention to know if time passes symmetrically, but given Nana’s age at different points, it must be pretty close to balanced.

Maybe I should have made a table or some kind of diagram with arrows.  Use your imagination!

Now, I hope everyone remembers all this as I break the novel into pieces.  I hope I remember it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

L'Assommoir - Zola's comic, boozy tragedy - it would be lots of fun if her chemise split open

The Child was only one of two 19th century French novels about child abuse I read recently.  The other is Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir, published in 1877, just a year before the otherwise quite different Vallès novel.  Perhaps Zola’s success offered Vallès encouragement: don’t hold anything back.  People have read worse.  They already read about the little saint who is beaten to death by her drunken, psychopathic father in Chapter 12.  Dickens would work the scene for pathos; Zola goes for horror.

Strangely, given such scenes, given the miserable ends of many of the characters, L’Assommoir is, for most of its length a comic novel.  The novel is at heart a comic form, and what novel proves the point more than this one.  The first chapter, just to pick one of many possible examples, ends with a catfight in a laundry, with two women fighting over a man, pouring water on each other, tearing their clothes, like in some smutty sex comedy. 

A big fellow with a thick neck, he was laughing and enjoying himself hugely because of the glimpses of pink skin the two women were baring to view.  The little blonde was plump as a partridge; it would be lots of fun if her chemise split open.  (Ch. 1, 33)

Hey, there’s some of that free indirect narration we all enjoy so much.  Zola is reminding me that he is not going to be bound by petty conventions like good taste.

Finding drawers underneath, she reached her hand into the opening and ripped them off, exposing Virginie’s naked thighs and naked behind.  Then, raising her paddle, she began to pound away, just as she had pounded the wash in days gone by, back at Plassans, on the bank of the Viorne, when she was working for the laundress who did the washing for the garrison.  The hard wood sank into the soft flesh with a watery thud, each smack leaving a streak of red mottling the white skin.  (Ch. 1, 34)

What smutty pulp novel have I stumbled into here?  But Zola has a serious purpose, likely more serious than in any of the other Zola novels I have read, the corpse-squishing noir of Thérèse Raquin (1867), or the luxury goods catalog of The Kill (1871), or the gourmet provisioner’s window of The Belly of Paris (1873).  That last one barely had a story at all.

L’Assommoir is, I think, the first Zola novel that is fundamentally about the life of the poor, in this case the working poor of Paris.  They work and booze, marry no-good husbands and raise no-good children, strive for better but after one hard blow too many give up the chase.  Zola can hardly revisit the long, detailed inventories of furniture and dresses and carriages from The Kill, since these people hardly have anything.  He does revisit the food of The Belly of Paris, though, along with one of that novel’s arguments.  L’Assommoir is a greasy, sugary book, and that's before we get to the hard liquor.

I read one of the older of the modern, complete translations, the 1962 Atwood H. Townsend version.  He kept the French title, which is a tricky one in English.  It is the name of a bar in the book, but it is also a type of bar, one that distills its own spirits, and I do not believe there is an English word to capture this.  A good alternative title would be The Dive, which captures both the nature of the bar and the ultimately tragic arc of the novel.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Vallès & The Child's style and humor - When exposed to the light of day, it glints like a saucepan!

I think of 19th century prose style as elaborate, based on just a few writers, I know – Flaubert, Zola, Gautier, Nerval, Hugo, and so on, writers who can really pour it on when they want, who can twist and elaborate with the bets in literature.  How strange to read a contemporary of baroque Zola write like this:

What’s this something that my uncle said was at the bottom of my bag?

Ten francs!

Since they come from him, I can accept them…

I’m rich all of a sudden! (129)

This is the signature style of The Child:  frequent ellipses, short lines, single-sentence paragraphs, and incessant exclamation points.  Not every other sentence, like here, but close.  A Victor Hugo signature is a long, intricate paragraph followed by one of a single line, maybe just a word or two, the trick of a preacher or dictator.  Jules Vallès is of course just falling into the imitation of a little kid.

Here the kid, in detention and forgotten, finds a copy of Robinson Crusoe, which he reads in an intense burst:

Hunger takes over: I’m absolutely ravenous.

Am I  going to be reduced to eating the rats in the hold of the classroom?  How can I make a fire?  I’m thirsty, too.  No bananas!  Ah, he had fresh limes!  And to think how I adore lemonade!



Click!  Clack!  Someone’s fiddling at the keyhole.



Is it Man Friday?  Or the savages?  (96)

No, it is merely the embarrassed teacher who had forgotten him for so many hours.  Those extra-wide breaks between paragraphs are from the text.  Chapters are chopped to fragments, even within a scene, as here.

Not that Vallès has not picked up some tricks from Flaubert or the Goncourt brothers or whomever he was reading.  The adult writer takes over to describe a bakery:

The owners are standing behind the counter weighing the round loaves and they too are wearing coats that are whitish or the color of rye.  In addition to the round loaves, there are cakes in the windows: brioches looking like plump noses or tarts like crumpled bits of tissue paper.  (32)

The novel has plenty of little rewards.

I should mention something about the humor of the book.  There is plenty, despite the poor narrator’s frequent beatings.  Much of it – most, maybe – comes from his mother, an updated, lively version of the miserly French peasant, social-climbing yet suspicious of everything outside here little sphere.  When her son wins a school prize, she is certainly not going to buy him a coat for the ceremony.

She rummages around in a large wardrobe that contains her wedding dress, some umbrella covers, remnants of skirts, odd scraps of silk.
Finally she scratches herself on a garish piece of material, so filelike in quality that it scrapes your fingers when you touch it.  When exposed to  the light of day, it glints like a saucepan!  A really lovely material inherited from my grandmother and which cost a “mint of money.”  (38)

And the coat is not the end of it, as the poor kid has to suffer through buttons, and a hat, and white stirrup pants “like a device for a clubfoot.” 

“MY SON,” announced my mother triumphantly, pushing me forward when we arrived at the entrance.  (40)

Maybe it’s not Mel Brooks, all right.  But the mother is a fine character.

Monday, June 23, 2014

My second is full of surprise and tears - a grim return from vacation with Jules Vallès's comic novel The Child

The book I’ll start with, now that I am back from vacation, is The Child by Jules Vallès (1878), a brutal childhood memoir with the names changed to make it a novel, “one of the funniest in French literature,” according to the back cover copy on the salmon-colored NYRB edition (2005), translated by Douglas Parmée, but then come self-serving blurbs by Émile Zola (“a book composed of the most exact, the most poignant human documents”) and Maurice Barrés (“He is the man who liberates us from the family, who liberates us from our father and our mother” etc.) that suggest, or warn, that as funniest novels go this one may not actually be all that funny, and may even be a little bit on the grim side.

Sorry, I’ve been away for awhile, and needed to stretch a little.  Anyway, The Child is an abuse novel:

I didn’t try to kill my father.  He would have liked to cripple me.  He kept screaming, “I’ll break every bone in your body!”

Oh no, you won’t!  You’re not going to break anybody’s bones.  I’m not going to hit you but you aren’t going to lay a single finger on me!  It’s too late, I’m too big now and too grown up.

JUST KEEP YOUR HANDS TO YOURSELF OR WATCH OUT!  (325)

Not so funny, but this is something like the emotional climax of the book, when the author, writing thirty years after the fact, abandons irony to reveal the continuing pain of his abuse by his father, a schoolteacher with a neurotic respect for the discipline of his profession, and his mother, a peasant with a cruel streak.

So my earliest memory starts with a beating; my second is full of surprise and tears.  (6)

I have gone back to the beginning of the novel.  The author moves from the author’s childhood in rural, scenic Le Puy-en-Velay to an eventual escape to Paris, where he becomes a well-known radical journalist.  In between, paradise is a stay in the countryside with his uncle, and hell is studying Latin and Greek, useless, all useless, while his parents alternately punish him.

My mother often comes down to pinch my ears and give me a clout.  It’s for my own good, so the more she slaps me, the more I’m convinced that she’s a good mother and I’m an ungrateful brat.  (12)

The book is dedicated “To all those who were bored stiff at school or reduced to tears at home, who in childhood were bullied by their teachers or thrashed by their parents” (3).  It is a fine member of the lively French anti-school genre, stretching back, at least, to Rousseau’s Émile and continuing today with Daniel Pennac.  And a lot of it of course is funny.  What a poor start I have made.  Tomorrow I will try to undo some of the damage.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Quintessence of Shaw's Ibsenism - the unbearable face of the truth

I will be on vacation for a while, returning, with luck, next Thursday, so I will wrap up Ibsen with George Bernard Shaw’s brilliant little book The Quintessence of Ibsenism.  The publication history is complex:  lectures at the Fabian Society in 1890, a book in 1891 – and thus missing Ibsen’s last four plays, and revisions or I think really additions in 1913 and 1922.

Writing about Ibsen, I have included fewer quotations than usual.  I am mimicking Shaw, who uses almost none, maybe just a fragment slipped in occasionally.  He covers each play from Brand through When We Dead Awaken in a few pages – as few as a single page sometimes – that summarize the story, pull out a conclusion or two, and link the play backwards and forwards.

I have referred to Shaw’s summaries many times recently.  They were at first a bit baffling.  I would think, I just read this play, this is not how things happened.  But I was wrong.  Shaw does not tell the story that happens onstage, but rather the story that occurs in the fictional world of the play.  He dismantles all of the revelations about past behavior and straightens them out into a conventional linear plot.  If there is a secret from ten years ago that we do not learn about until it is explosively revealed in Act V, Shaw has moved it to the beginning of the story, to when it “really” “happened.”

As a result, in the six pages that summarize Hedda Gabler, four of them cover events before the curtain rises.  The play we see is all in one long (two page) paragraph.  The Master Builder is even more extreme.  Four short lines cover the onstage action.  Here are two of them:

The play begins ten years after the climbing of the tower…  This time he really does break his neck; and so the story ends.

Enough technical business.  It is a commonplace to say that Shaw tries to bend Ibsen into Shaw, but when the book was first published Shaw was not exactly Shaw.  He had not had a play produced, and was best known as a music critic.  He emphasizes the reformist side of Ibsen, and has no interest in the visionary side, or more likely thinks they are the same thing.  The Socialist paradise would be on earth.  Shaw has read the plays, so he is careful not to push too hard for specific Ibsenian reforms, but rather embracing the long-running and subtle Ibsenian attack on what Shaw perversely calls “idealists.”  What is Shaw if not an idealist, but no, the idealists are those who “will be terrified beyond measure at the proclamation of their hidden thought – at the presence of the traitor among the conspirators of silence – at the rending of the beautiful veil they and their poets have woven to hide the unbearable face of the truth” (“Ideals and Idealists”).  Ibsen’s plays are then are a powerful assault on false conventions, some legal, some traditional, but many more psychological.

Shaw’s book begins with some of the more hysterical attacks on Ibsen by English reviewers (“Bestial, cynical, disgusting, poisonous, sickly, delirious, indecent, loathsome” etc.) and ends with a call for an Ibsen theater along the lines of Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth.  “But I think Ibsen has proved the right of the drama to take scriptural rank, and his own right to canonical rank as one of the major prophets of the modern Bible.”  However excessive that rhetoric, however unrealistic the idea, all I had to do to agree with Shaw was read Ibsen’s plays one after the other.