Wednesday, November 25, 2015

the delight felt at the annihilation of the individual - The Birth of Tragedy, in which Nietzsche aspires to the condition of music

My final German Literature Month book (look at all of the participants!) will be The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872) by Friedrich Nietzsche, his first book, an imaginative consideration of the psychological impulses that led to the creation, degeneration, and recovery – in the works of Richard Wagner – of Greek tragedy.  It is a strange book, not scholarly yet based on the latest German classical archaeology and anthropology, leaping far beyond the actual evidence, difficult, exhilarating, and preposterous.

Greek tragedy is, for Nietzsche, in the first form visible to us, the plays of Aeschylus, a balance between the rational and the irrational, the steady Apollonian and frenzied Dionysian sides of the human personality.  The chorus, the music, is the Dionysian side.

It is vain to try to deduce the tragic spirit from the commonly accepted categories of art: illusion and beauty.  Music alone allows us to understand the delight felt at the annihilation of the individual.  (Ch. 16, p. 101)

A strongly Schopenhauer-like claim, and one with which I roughly agree.  Literature, even at its craziest, is typically way over on the Apollonian side compared to dance and music.  Poetry moves towards the Dionysian to the extent that it resembles music.  I am beginning to sound like Walter Pater, or Pater sounds like Nietzsche.

Tragedy goes into sharp decline in the hands of the innovative parodistic screwball Euripides, mostly because he pulls too much music out of the chorus, destroying the Dionysian side of tragedy.  But Nietzsche forgives Euripides, for he is just a pawn of the true villain:

For in a certain sense Euripides was but a mask, while the divinity which spoke through him was neither Dionysos nor Apollo but a brand-new daemon called Socrates.  Thenceforward the real antagonism was to be between the Dionysiac spirit and the Socratic, and tragedy was to perish in the conflict...  The marvelous temple lies in ruins; of what avail is the destroyer’s lament that it was the most beautiful of all temples?  And though, by way of punishment, Euripides has been turned into a dragon by all later critics, who can really regard this as adequate compensation?  (Ch. 12, 77)

Turned into a dragon!  Like the greedy, murderous giant Fafner in Das Rheingold and Siegfried.

The creation of opera by, let’s say, Monteverdi in the 17th century should restore the balance, but Nietzsche does not believe such a thing happened before Wagner.  To use Shaw’s phrase, Rossini and Verdi are “opera, and nothing but opera,” not tragedy.  I did not understand Nietzsche’s argument, and would be pleased to dismiss it as prejudice, but I am too ignorant to do so.

Our art is a clear example of this universal misery: in vain do we imitate all the great creative periods and masters; in vain do we surround modern man with all of world literature and expect him to name its periods and styles as Adam did the beasts.  He remains eternally hungry, the critic without strength or joy, the Alexandrian man who is at bottom a librarian and scholiast, blinding himself miserably over dusty books and typographical errors.  (Ch. 18, 112)

Non-Wagnerian opera “is the product of the man of theory, the critical layman, not the artist.  (Ch. 19, 115), not even Socratic but, per the previous passage, Alexandrian, desiccated, the province of scholiasts.  I know, this is as bizarre and wrong-headed a description of Rossini as I can imagine.

Luckily Bach and Beethoven, alongside Kant and Schopenhauer, created the superstructure – “succeeded in destroying the complacent acquiescence of intellectual Socratism” – that allowed Wagner to save the day, at least for a while.

The end of The Birth of Tragedy is extraordinary.  Nietzsche is arguing for the value of the Dionysian impulse, arguing that you Swiss and Prussian and Victorian squares seek out the Dionysian a little more.

The reader may intuit these effects if he has ever, though only in a dream, been carried back to the ancient Hellenic way of life.  (146)

What a line – “if”!  In a dream, perhaps, but also, possibly, in some other way, such as time travel, or, and this is an example from German literature, madness, like that of poor Friedrich Hölderlin who at times seemed to believe he lived in Classical Greece.  I wonder if the line is actually referring to Hölderlin.  I wonder if poor Nietzsche ever thought it might refer to himself.

After a pause for the holiday, I will return to the idea of the Dionysian with the help of Walter Pater.

Page references are to the 1956 Francis Golffing translation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

all allegories come to an end somewhere - Shaw interprets Wagner - Bakunin, soap opera, and phossy jaw

George Bernard Shaw argues, in The Perfect Wagnerite, that the Ring operas are a response to the revolutions of 1848 and are an allegorical argument for democratic socialism.  Maybe so!  In Das Rheingold, a greedy dwarf acquires a gold ring of great, ill-defined power.  He uses it to force the other dwarfs into an industrial mining operation. 

This gloomy place need not be a mine: it might just as well be a match-factory, with yellow phosphorus, phossy jaw, a large dividend, and plenty of clergymen shareholders.  Or it might be a whitelead factory, or a chemical works, or a pottery, or a railway shunting yard, or a tailoring shop, or a little gin-sodden laundry [Zola reference!], or a bakehouse, [etc.] (18)

The factory is in the music as well as the text, as eighteen behind-the-scenes anvils bang out the dwarf motif when Wotan and Loge descend into the mine.  If Shaw is right about this scene, and it seems undeniable to me, he could be right about others.

In Die Walküre, Wotan begins to play the long game, manipulating events to further the birth of an ideal hero, Siegfried, who can recover the ring from the dragon who guards it.  He succeeds, in that Siegfried is some kind of anarchist creature of nature who is beyond wealth and other earthly things, so far beyond them that it is not clear whether Wotan has created a hero or a new kind of monster.  He is

in short, a totally unmoral person, a born anarchist, the ideal of Bakoonin [!], an anticipation of the “overman” of Nietzsche.  (48)

In other words, a Russian revolutionary, even Chernyshevskian, hero, supreme in righteousness and upper body strength.  I love Shaw’s description of Bakoonin forging his magic sword:  “Meanwhile Siegfried forges and tempers and hammers and rivets, uproariously singing the while as nonsensically as the Rhine-daughters themselves” (54).  You know, like “Heiaho! haha! / haheiaha!”  First, Shaw’s summaries are a lot of fun; second, good allegorists know how far to push things.

But then comes the point where Shaw does not push enough.  Siegfried slays the dragon, acquires the ability to speak with birds, casually murders his foster father, etc., etc., terrific fairy tale stuff, before encountering and defying his grandfather Wotan – “But all this is lost of Siegfried Bakoonin” (60), and he breaks Wotan’s staff, allegorical representation of the rule of law, and plunges past the illusionary flames of received truth (of, for example, Christianity) into the true Truth, overthrowing Church and State and ushering in the Revolution.

If Shaw is laying it on a little thick, it is because he has still has one scene left in Siegfried and one entire opera left, and he has run out of allegory.

And now, O Nibelungen Spectator, pluck up; for all allegories come to an end somewhere; and the hour of your release from these explanations is at hand.  The rest of what you are going to see is opera, and nothing but opera.  (61)

By which Shaw means both opera – the usual choruses and ensemble singing and so on missing from the early Ring plays – and what we would call soap opera, because the rest of the story of the ring is about love, sex, jealousy, betrayal, and other melodrama about which Shaw does not care, so he simply expels it from his interpretation. 

Indeed, the ultimate catastrophe of the Saga cannot by any perversion of ingenuity be adapted to the perfectly clear allegorical design of The Rhine Gold, The Valkyries, and Siegfried.  (63)

It is exactly here that Shaw betrays himself, because even as limited an ingenuity as mine can see that the allegory continues, that Bakoonin is corrupted not by money, to which he is genuinely immune, but by women, and that as a result he is murdered by a rival political faction, Leninists, I suppose.  Then comes, inevitably, the apocalypse.  Shaw has no better idea than I do what new horrors will fill the vacuum.  The soap opera is just as allegorical as the less soapy opera, if I want it to be.  As Shaw says, thinking of Wagner, not himself, “Constancy has never been a great man’s virtue” (98).

Monday, November 23, 2015

Shaw creates The Perfect Wagnerite - animated beer casks, the craze for golden hair, and the curse of the foreign music teachers

Reading Wagner gives me the opportunity to read around Wagner.  For example, George Bernard Shaw’s little 1898 book The Perfect Wagnerite, in which Shaw soothes the anxieties of Londoners worried that the current vogue for Wagner will go over their heads.

I offer it to those enthusiastic admirers of Wagner who are unable to follow his ideas, and do not in the least understand the dilemma of Wotan, though they are filled with indignation at the irreverence of the Philistines who frankly avow that they find the remarks of the god too often tedious and nonsensical.  (ix)

If that sounds insulting, yes, The Perfect Wagnerite is full of insults.  On page 135 Shaw insults the Eiffel tower and Handel festivals.

If our enthusiasm for Handel can support Handel Festivals, laughably dull, stupid and anti-Handelian as these choral monstrosities are, as well as annual provincial festivals on the same model, there is no likelihood of a Wagner Festival failing.  (135)

An English Wagner Festival would be no worse than Bayreuth, where

[s]ome of the singers are mere animated beer casks, too lazy and conceited to practise the self-control and physical training that is expected as a matter of course form an acrobat, a jockey or a pugilist.  The women’s dresses are prudish and absurd…  The ideal of womanly beauty aimed at reminds Englishmen of the barmaids of the seventies, when the craze for golden hair was at its worst.  (136)

Etc., etc.  Has anyone, by the way, come across a novel, of the time of historical, which mentions the 1870s craze for golden hair?  It was news to me.  More to the point, does this kind of rhetoric convince anyone, ever?  No wonder Shaw did not get his English Wagner Festival.

This sort of thing is a lot of fun, and Shaw is a music critic of such depth that he can get away with it.

Abominably as the Germans sing, it is astonishing how they thrive physically on his leading parts.  His secret is the Handelian secret. (138)

Meaning that Wagner writes as if the singers and what they are singing is meant to be heard and understood, as if he is a dramatic artist as well as a composer, rather than performed like an athletic feat.  “A presentable performance of The Ring is a big undertaking only in the sense in which the construction of a railway is a big undertaking…” (139)

To understand Shaw’s criticisms of Wagnerian singers I have to set aside the great changes in opera singing, performance and recording in the last century.  I have to ignore the interpretive subtlety of Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau as Wotan.  After all, I know that Shaw is right, that singers as unprepossessing as Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny can credibly sing Wagner:

The truth is, there is nothing wrong with England except the wealth which attracts teachers of singing to her shores in sufficient numbers to extinguish the voices of all natives who have any talent as singers.  Our salvation must come from the class that is too poor to have lessons.  (140)

Now that is a Shavian ending.  If I were describing The Perfect Wagnerite  in the proper order, the ending would circle back to Shaw’s interpretation of Wagner, the first seventy percent of the book.  I skipped it in order to enjoy the insults more freely, and to save it for its own post.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

To my loathing I find only ever myself - notes on Richard Wagner's Ring as literature

I am going to write one post about Richard Wagner’s four Ring of the Nibelunga operas, or really the texts.  To do that I need a translation, a book.  The book is Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung (1993), edited by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington, which has German and English texts (translated by Spencer) side by side, along with a number of helpful essays  about the operas’ sources, composition, performance, and also the minor side issue of the music.  What a helpful book.  The translator’s general method is to sound like he is translating the Poetic Edda, with punchy lines and lots of alliteration, while Wagner’s method was to sound like he was imitating the Poetic Edda.

Das Rheingold (1869), Die Walküre (1870), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (both 1876).  I have identified the dates of first performance, but the texts go back to the 1848, with some version of them published – without any music – as early as 1853.  Wagner began with the idea of an operatic version of the great medieval German epic Die Nibelungenlied, but kept discovering that he needed to move backwards.

The history of the text and score, evolving over almost thirty years, gives Wagner experts a lot to do.  My favorite part of this story is that Wagner insisted that his texts embodied the ideas of Ludwig Feuerbach, until he discovered the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, after which, having changed almost nothing, he claimed that the Ring exemplified the ideas of Schopenhauer.  I assume Wagner was as right as wrong each time.

The Ring is a cosmological story, beginning, obliquely, with the creation and ending with the apocalypse.  Less symbolically, a dwarf steals a gold treasure from some mermaids, and the pursuit of this treasure by various parties, especially the Norse gods, Wotan and so on, leads eventually to the destruction of the heroes and gods by fire.  The dwarf puts a curse on the gold when, in Das Rheingold, it is seized from him by the might-makes-right gods, and supposedly this curse generates much of the subsequent action:

No joyful man
shall ever have joy of it;
on no happy man
shall its bright gleam smile;
may he who owns it,
and he who does not
be ravaged by greed!  (Das Rheingold, Sc. 3, p. 98)

But one of the finest subtleties of Wagner’s conception is that there is no curse.  No curse is needed to evoke ordinary human nature at its worst.  Almost all of the characters – the dragon, the dwarfs, the gods – are credibly human.

The Ring is gigantic enough – Götterdämmerung in particular always seems like it will never end – to include many stories.  The Ring is about many things.  What struck me most strongly this time was what I will call the Tragedy of Wotan, the Shakespeare-like story of the king with too strong of a sense of fate, the existentialist Odin.  He schemes, he acts, he even triumphs, but always with the knowledge that in the end, even for an all-powerful, all-knowing being, none of it matters:

How can I make that other man                                                
who’s no longer me
and who, of himself, achieves
what I alone desire? –
O godly distress!
O hideous shame!
To my loathing I find
only ever myself
in all that I encompass!  (Die Walküre , Act II, Sc. 2, p. 152)

What will strike me next time I read the Ring is anybody’s guess.  Would a reading of the Ring plays have any meaning to someone who had no interest at all in the operas, the music?  I don’t know.  Probably not.

I found that backstage image of Siegfried slaying Fafner the dragon, as portrayed in Paris in 1902, in The New Grove Book of Operas, 2000 edition, p. 586.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

a trap for what the professor correctly assumes is the enfeebled German brain - Gottfried Benn goes angling for monsters

Michael Hofmann’s Gottfried Benn is a bit like a character in a novel about an old man ruminating over his past mistakes.  This novel is innovatively presented as a translation of the old man’s poetry and prose, but also including the original German poems, which are sometimes great masterpieces.  That last part is the one no novelist can do.  Not many.

Benn moves from his early stark shockers (“two hundred pages, thin stuff, one would be ashamed if one were still alive,” as Benn described his own poems in 1921) to a bold lyricism to a loose, conversational style, like I’m meeting him in a bar:

from Nocturne

From the saloon bar the rattle of dice on a wooden tabletop,
beside you a couple at the anthropophagous stage,
a chestnut bough on the piano adds a natural touch,
all in all, my kind of place.  (p. 123)

Somehow the booze leads Benn to think of its effect on his primitive brain – he is a doctor, remember – and then to the primitive ocean, long before man,

before consciousness and conception,
no one went angling for monsters,
no one suffered deeper than ten feet,
which if you think about it isn’t so very much.

Benn made one big mistake.  In 1933, he “drifted into the Nazi orbit” (Hofmann, p. xvii) and supported them in the minor but real ways a poet can support a bunch of culture-obsessed ideologues.  What is impressive about Benn is that within a year and a half he had realized his mistake.  “It dawned on Benn that the Nazis were not a bunch of pessimistic aesthetes like himself, but rather imbued with a sanguinary optimism…”  (xvii).  How many artists disentangle themselves from their bad politics so quickly?

Who knows what might have happened to Benn, but, as strange as it sounds, he was saved by the war.  For Benn, a doctor specializing in venereal diseases, military service was like a writer’s retreat.  Stationed in some boring behind-the-lines backwater military hospital, he could finally get to work on his writing.  Both the first and second world wars were highly productive times for him.  So odd.

During World War II, his writing would have got him shot if the wrong people had known he was doing it.

The second-longest prose piece in the book is an extraordinary piece of memoir, “Block II, Room 66” (1944), “the address of the quarters where I was billeted for a number of months” (308).  Recruits pass through, each batch both younger and older than the last, the training period shorter every time, “[e]ver new waves of men, waves of blood, destined to dribble away into the Eastern steppes after a few shots and gestures toward so-called enemies” (310).  The nation’s leaders become more obvious confidence men and thugs, “club wielding clowns, heroes with brass knuckles” (312); the propaganda grows more rancid and desperate.  The “individualist felt like a one-man cosmic catastrophe” (315), the irony being that this is how Benn always felt.

As with Karl Kraus, the rise of the Nazis had the effect of ruining the satirists’ ironies.  “Block II, Room 66” has a streak of Kraus running through it.  Benn is enraged by the use of German poets in Nazi propaganda.  “Listen: in the Naval Review of November 1943… that makes its way through our blocks, a professor for church and international law at a Bavarian university treats questions of war at sea (a church lawyer?) under four aspects,” supporting his claims with quotations from Rilke and Hölderlin:

Now, it’s possible to come at the Duino Elegies from many angles, but to interpret them as in some sense warlike is something they really won’t bear.  The allusion to Rilke is a trap for what the professor correctly assumes is the enfeebled German brain.  (318)

Then it’s Christmas.  Then the Russians come.  “The part that lives is not the same part that thinks, that’s a fundamental fact of our existence, and we had better get used to it.”  But Benn does get a lot of writing done.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Michael Hofmann's translation of Gottfried Benn - unlike Brecht, he’s not even unpopular

It was The Blue Lantern, I believe, who alerted me to the 2013 publication of Michael Hofmann’s translations of Gottfried Benn, Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose.  Nearly half prose, in effect.  Benn is a strange case.

And yet we’re talking of someone of the eminence of, say, Wallace Stevens, someone most Germans (and most German poets too) would concede as the greatest German poet since Rilke.  (xiv)

The horrible thing about that sentence is that it might even be true.  “Most Americans would concede that Wallace Stevens is someone they have never heard of” – also true.

The word “concede” and the dig at the German poets gives hints of the difficulty.

Benn’s first book, the 1912 Morgue and Other Poems, is a pamphlet of five autopsy poems, some of which are as grisly as that sounds.  A punk gesture.

Little Aster

A drowned drayman was hoisted onto the slab.
Someone had jammed a lavender aster
between his teeth.
[skipping the dissection]
Drink your fill in your vase!
Rest easy,
little aster!  (9)

That aster recurs frequently over the next forty years.  Some people find it useful to call this Expressionism, but Benn, a young doctor, was just writing what he knew.  And what he knew was dissection, skin problems, and venereal diseases.  These subjects suited his dark temperament.

A normal life and a normal death –
I don’t know what they’re good for.  Even a normal life
ends in an unhealthy death.  Altogether death
doesn’t have a lot to do with health and sickness,
it merely uses them for its own purposes.  (from “Restaurant,” a much later poem, 127)

I have picked a couple of examples that sound especially prosy in English, but Benn – a slightly older, less shocking Benn – worked with form and rhyme and the usual business.  He reminds me of Verlaine sometimes, creating musical beauty whatever the subject.

Ich kann mir keine Bücher kaufen,
ich sitze in den Librairien:
Notizen – dann nach Aufschnitt laufen: –
das sind die Tage von Turin.

I can’t afford to buy books;
I sit around in public libraries,
Scribble notes, then go for cold cuts,
These are the days of Turin.

The tragic speaker here, by the way, is an ill Friedrich Nietzsche; soon, in the next stanza, he will hug the horse.  The more conventionally formed Benn poems are from the 1920s and 1930s, but Hofmann warns me that any sense of movement is an illusion of the translator based on his failure with most of the poems from this period.

I’m afraid they were too difficult and idiosyncratic for me to carry them into English in any important way.  (xxii)

He gives an example, just two lines:

Banane, yes, Banane
vie méditerranée?

Banana, yes, banana
Mediterranean life?

Says Hofmann:  “I don’t think so.”

But Hofmann gives me better than Benn has gotten before:

Thus unsuccessfully transmitted, Benn has no English admirers; unlike Brecht, he’s not even unpopular.  (xiv)

And more importantly, he has given me more Benn.  Because what this book really gives is not deathless verse, not on the English side of the page at least, but a strong personality, like in a novel.  I ought to write one more post about that, the flavor of Benn.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Verga's landscape, hellish, poignant - a mist, a sadness, a black veil

I included a grotesque description of a character from Mastro-Don Gesualdo, which is from a section full of grotesquerie, almost nothing but grotesques, the chapters where cholera comes to the land and Sicily, pretty bad all along, turns into Hell.

More Italian literature is directly descended from Dante than I had realized a year ago.

As they went along, he told stories that would make your hair stand on end.  At Marineo they had murdered a traveler who kept hanging around the watering trough, during the hot hours of the day.  He was ragged, barefoot, white with dust, his face burning, his eyes sullen, trying to do his thing in spite of the Christians who were guarding from a distance, in suspicion.  At Callari they had found a body behind a fence, swollen as a wineskin; they had found it from the stench.  At night, everywhere, you could see fireworks, rockets raining down, just like on Saint Lawrence night, God save us!  (226)

The characters flee to the countryside, to their farms.  Amidst this horror, Verga decides to start up a love story, with Gesualdo’s daughter falling for her cousin, repeating her mother’s history, although she does not know it.  Love in the time of cholera.  Hey, wait, I’ve read that book.

The beginnings of love are inspired by the land, her father’s property, which are foreboding, perhaps from the aura of her father:

The level fields were deserted, shaded in dark.  There was a low wall covered with sad ivy, a small abandoned water basin in which some aquatic plants were rotting, and on the other side of the road some squares of dusty vegetables, cut across by abandoned roads that ended up drowning into the thick boxwood bristling with yellow, dead branches.  (235)

That does not sound so inspiring, yet the sad landscape contain traces of her lover:

…  burned pieces of paper, damp, still moving about as if they were living things – burned matches, torn ivy leaves, shoots broken up into small pieces by his feverish hands, during the long hours of his waiting, in the automatic activity of his fantasizing. 

The scene of Isabella’s love becomes, years later, a place of epiphany for her dying father, Don Gesualdo:

But down there, before his property, he indeed realized that it was all over, that all hope was lost for him, when he saw that now he didn’t care at all.  The vines were already leafing, the wheat was tall, the olive trees in bloom, the sumacs green, and over everything there spread a mist, a sadness, a black veil…  The world was still going its own way, while for him there was no hope any more, gnawed inside by a worm just like a rotten apple that must fall from the tree – without the strength to take a step on his own land, without feeling like swallowing an egg.  Then, desperate that he had to die, he began to hit ducks and turkeys with his stick, to break out the buds and the wheat stocks.  He’d have liked to destroy in a single blow all the wealth he had put together little by little.  He wanted his property to go with him, desperate as he was.  (311, ellipses mine)

And in the next sentence, he is whisked away from his property forever.

Monday, November 16, 2015

In small towns there are people who would walk miles to bring you bad news - they'll even write novels - Giovanni Verga's Mastro-Don Gesualdo

Giovanni Verga’s Mastro-Don Gesualdo (1889) is another tough one.  The title character is a mason who works his way to wealth but makes the mistake of marrying into the corrupt, diseased, decaying, immoral, filthy Sicilian village aristocracy.  The social setting is a couple of notches higher than in The House by the Medlar Tree (1881).  Verga planned to write a five volume Zola-like series, each of which moved further up the social scale, but he only completed two.  Giovanni Cechetti, the novel’s translator, speculates that he did not know enough about the upper classes.  The evidence from this novel suggests that he loathed them like cholera and could not stand to spend any more time with them.

Like The House by the Medlar Tree, Mastro-Don Gesualdo a kind of Job-story, with the character starting at a peak, making one greedy mistake, and then gradually losing everything, very gradually, mostly due to the resentment of his neighbors, siblings, and in-laws.

Somebody who was born as poor as Job, and now had become stuck up, and was a sworn enemy of the poor and the liberals!  (294)

This is presented as a kind of opinion of the mob as they loot one of Gesualdo’s storehouses.  The ironic inversion (by Verga) and complete misunderstanding (by the mob) of the story of Job gives the ethos of the novel pretty well, as do lines like this:

In small towns there are people who would walk miles to bring you bad news.  (180)

Against this background, the narrow materialist Don Gesualdo becomes a tragic figure.  He is a genuine entrepreneur, his plans are out in the open, he has a certain amount of self-control, and he is not a parasite, which separates him from almost every other character in the book.  Sicily is a nightmare.  In a Zola novel, I would treat Gesualdo with suspicion.  In a Verga novel, he is a hero.

Verga novels are mob fiction.  Chapters are built around crowd scenes – a fire, a festival, a theater performance.  The characters come in waves.  By the end of the book, I pretty much knew who was who.  It took a while.  That family Gesualdo married into has seven aunts and uncles and I don’t know how many cousins, aunts like Baroness Rubiera:

The panic knew no bounds when people saw Baroness Rubiera, paralyzed, fleeing away seated in an armchair, because she could not fit in a sedan chair, since she was so enormous, and four men struggled to carry her, with her head hanging to one side, her big face livid, her purple tongue half out of her slobbery lips, with only her eyes alive and uneasy, and her almost dead hands traveled by a constant quiver.  (211)

The novel is full of grotesques, done in by illness and petty-mindedness, dragging Gesualdo down to their level because he dared to rise above his own.

I would say that I should reread Verga’s novels if I ever plan to go to Sicily, except that they might make me change my plans.  They are terrifying yet bursting with life.

Maybe one more post on this book.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Champagne or Chartreuse? - Alponse Allais reconciles the old values with a somewhat ruined life

He then seemed to hesitate between a glass of fine champagne and one of Chartreuse.  (p. 17)

I have had the great luck to read the latest volume of Doug Skinner’s translations of Alphonse Allais, humorist, prankster, man about Montmartre.  This time it is Allais’s only novel, The Blaireau Affair (1899), one of those books that sounds minor and weightless, like it should be a dead period piece, yet in practice – meaning, reading – is effervescent and flavorful, perfect in its way.

And in France, it is alive and well.  The most recent film version is from 2010!  The most recent non-pornographic version.  Despite having read Skinner introduce Allais four times now, his introductions remain eye-openers.  Or eyebrow-raisers.  I suppose my eyes were already open, given that I was reading.

The novel is about a woman who likes bad boys (mildly bad boys), the gymnastics instructor who must prove himself to be (mildly) bad, the poacher , Blaireau, who is mistakenly tossed in the klink as a result, and the complications that ensue from this miscarriage of justice.  A B-plot about a Paris courtesan and her boyfriends is at least as funny as the main plot.  Some theorizing about courtesans:  

“Their reputation may not be intact, but they’re dishonored under such charming conditions!  And besides, they lead lives of activity and surprise, whereas we…  The ideal, you see, Baron, would be to reconcile the old family values of the provinces, with a somewhat ruined life…  But it’s very difficult.”  (30, ellipses in original)

A footnote, though, reminds me what Allais thinks of his plot:

I probably shouldn’t  tell you this now, but, too bad, I just can’t help myself.  Know then that Arabella will get married near the end of the novel, and will be very happy.  (32)

Bookish controversies are eternal.

The art of the book is in the voice, even more than the characters or the jokes, Allais’s literary simulation of genial conversation:

So, here we are in Paris.

In the Étoile district.

In a cozy little apartment occupied by a young woman, one of those young women who… one of those young women of whom…

This person who is not a young girl, because she is a young woman, as I said, is also not the wife of some individual.

Widow?  Not in the least.

And besides, it would be inelegant to insist upon this inquiry, which is perfectly unnecessary anyway, and more suitable for some mercenary working for the census, because the lines that follow will establish  soon enough the regrettable civil status of the pretty little sinner. (81-2, ellipses in original)

The punchy little paragraphs are the signature of a newspaper man.  The hesitations, the indirection, the rhetorical shift in the last sentence, those are French, delightfully, irrepressibly French, champagne and Chartreuse.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

He often doubts the existence of the present - E.T.A. Hoffmann idealizes

In some important ways, E. T. A. Hoffmann was an original, but he was not what I would call a thinker.  His work is full of philosophical ideas, but they have already been filtered through literature, especially that of Goethe, who was working on Kant and subsequent thinkers directly.  The real and the ideal, that is the big issue. Like Hoffmann, I find them a lot easier to handle when they have been converted into imagery.

“Be my own true love, and rule with me over the trivial world of puppets which gyrates around us.”  (69)

Especially when the imagery is funny.  That is not the narrator-monk but his evil girlfriend, who thinks he is his double disguised as a monk.  She is on to something.  But if it is a world of puppets, is she not then one of them?  Is there a way – passionate love, for example – to escape that world, to find the ideal, or to become real?

I had contrived to introduce a fictitious character who could in future represent either the escaped Medardus or Count Victor, whichever the situation required.  (177)

Now this is the narrator, who is Medardus but at this point is presenting himself as his double Count Victor, who at this point is wandering about in the costume of a monk, calling himself Medardus.  Or vice versa.  The introduction of an additional, fictional double of the doubles is a brilliant move.

Hoffmann was a composer of distinction.  Music, formal but abstract, is to him a kind of reach for the ideal.  Prose, even fiction, even Hoffmann’s fiction, is more over in the real.  Perhaps it can provide a glimpse behind the veil, but not much more.  In The Devil’s Elixir, the wizard / composer figure is a religious painter, possibly a ghost, who appears in mysterious and unlikely circumstances.  He has an earthly counterpart, my favorite character, the barber Peter Schönfeld / Pietro Belcampo – he contains his own double.

As a barber he physically transforms people.  But his one self tells his other “do not be such a fool as to believe you actually exist” and enumerates his sins:

“This evil creature, who calls himself Belcampo, Sir, commits all manner of crimes: amongst other things he often doubts the existence of the present, gets horribly drunk, starts fights and ravishes beautiful virgin thoughts.”  (105)

It is an unusual list of sins.  It is also parodies the behavior of the narrator, who murders, (attempts) rapes, and drinks the devil’s elixir, which is wine or blood or both.  “Ho, ho, ho!  I am king and shall drink your blood!”  (227).

Belcampo, who is also linked to tailoring, another source of transformation, is the inspiration for a considerable amount of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, which was a desperate attempt to convert Hoffmann and German Romanticism into English prose.

Please note that the character has a German and an Italian identity.  A good part of the structure of the novel is built on a journey to Italy, that great Goethean obsession.  Rome, in the novel is the center of civilization but also completely rotten, nothing but corrupt, murderous Papal conspiracies, just like in The Portrait of a Lady.  Any hope for atonement and transcendence will have to take place back in Germany.

I was tempted to write about the chapter satirizing Goethe’s Weimar.  I’m telling you, Goethe, German literature just radiates out from Goethe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

As though they had befallen some other person - E.T.A. Hoffmann's double-novel The Devil's Elixir

German Literature Month, via Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat, plus a bicentennial anniversary means that I read The Devil’s Elixir by E. T. A. Hoffmann, the first of his two novels.   Maybe it is just two hundred years since the publication of Part I of the novel, with the entire thing only published in 1816.  Close enough.

An insane monk decides he will either be Saint Anthony or a murderous villain.  He is pursued by a mysterious double who is also a villain, or perhaps a supernatural force, or possibly a close relation, or possibly the monk himself.  They both lust after a beautiful woman who is – I have misplaced my family tree – the cousin of both?  She may also be a saint.

A cursed bottle of wine, one of the temptations of Saint Anthony, may be the cause of some of this confusion, but as usual in Hoffmann strong drink, even when it is evil, only removes inhibitions.  Hoffmann was an innovative psychologist.  Sigmund Freud was his greatest disciple.

This line describes the general scheme of the book:

Such were my thoughts whenever my dreams brought back to me the events in the palace, as though they had befallen some other person; and this other person was the Capuchin again, not I.  (95)

The joke behind this, again, is that the narrator here is a Capuchin monk, and the person he describes as “the Capuchin” is his double who is not a monk but who is wandering around in the narrator’s discarded habit.  Probably.  Unless the monk who narrates is actually the other monk, who then would be - . Anyway, radically dissociative personality, that is one of the conditions explored by Hoffmann.


Feeling turned to thought, but my character seemed split into a thousand parts; each part was independent and had its own consciousness, and in vain did the head command the limbs, which, like faithless vassals, would not obey its authority.  The thoughts in these separate parts now started to revolve like points of light, faster and faster, forming a fiery circle which became smaller as the speed increased, until it finally appeared like a stationary ball of fire, its burning rays shining from the flickering flames.  “Those are my limbs dancing; I am waking up.”  (229)

This just under the chapter heading “Atonement.”  Hoffmann is not a first-rate prose writer, but he excelled at embedding passages of great strangeness amidst his more ordinary stuff.  The pattern is to start flat and add ripples of weirdness, then waves, then hurricanes.  The Devil’s Elixir is a joyfully disorienting novel.

Anyone who has read Matthew Lewis’s 1796 kitsch Gothic novel The Monk will find all sorts of suspicious similarities, especially in this passage (this is the female saint writing, not the murderous monk-saint):

In my brother’s room I once saw a new book lying on the table, and opened it.  It was a novel called The Monk, translated from the English.  A shudder went through me at the thought that my unknown lover was a monk; never had I suspected that it could be sinful to love a priest.  I felt that the book might help me in my perplexity, and taking it up, I began to read.  (218)

Any character who gets her moral education from The Monk is on the naïve side and is going to run into trouble.

I read the 1963 Ronald Taylor translation, which briefly returned to print as a Oneworld Classic.  It is the only modern and only complete translation.  The 1824 version, which is the free one, is abridged.  Too scary, I guess.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Blind man who thinks \ He reads, fool who thinks he knows! - Victor Hugo's God

And the luminosity said: silence!  Blind man who thinks
He reads, fool who thinks he knows!  I tell you:
For all eternity does the wondrous emerge from the mysterious!  (God, The Ocean of the Heights, IX, ll. 314-6, p. 133)

The End of Satan (1886) has the advantage of familiar stories.  Hugo makes them less familiar, sometimes, but I have a baseline.  I know where the story has to go, whatever ornamentation Hugo piles on.

But Dieu (1891), God, Hugo’s other big posthumous semi-unfinished epic, it’s a tough one.  More philosophical.  More abstract.  It is a series of encounters between a Hugoish narrator, who has become a winged ghost (“because Man becomes wingèd when he muses”), flying upward in a kind of inverted abyss, and a variety of voices and semi-allegorical figures, most of them also winged figures, who deliver a monologue full of anti-wisdom, a perspective to be rejected.  I think.  For example, The Bat, which is atheism (Hugo says so), who declaims:

And all of Creation, with Man,
With what the eye sees and what the voice names,
Its worlds, its suns, its rare currents,
Its dazzling, streaking, mead meteors,
With its golden globes like great domes,
With its eternal passage of phantoms, waters,
Swarms, birds, the lily that we believe blessed,
Is only a vomiting of darkness into the Infinite!  (The Ocean of the Heights, I – The Bat, ll. 92-9, p. 91)

A hundred and thirty lines of this black spew, in the original in rhyming couplets.  Thank goodness the translator, R. G. Skinner, did not try to reproduce the rhyming couplets.  They don’t sound ridiculous in French, but in English ruin the poem.

However, the translator does omit most of the animals, so I have no idea what the owl or eagle are supposed to represent.  The griffin, included is Christianity, progress, human thought moving in the right direction, but still, to Hugo a now unnecessary mediation between himself and a direct encounter with God.  I guess.

Oh wait, I see that the eagle is Judaism.  “You hail from Sinai, but I come from Golgotha,” says the griffin to the eagle.

It is all a bit like a compressed, misty Divine Comedy, with the spirit ascending towards a direct encounter with God, and thus with death.  As programmatic as the scheme of the poem is, even in this abridgment, the end, what I take as Hugo’s death, or his preparation for his death, has power.

Listen – Up to now you have seen only dreams,
Only vague glimmers floating on falsehoods,
Merely the muddled appearances which pass in the winds
Or tremble in the night for you living creatures. (Epilogue, ll. 1-4, p. 135)

Hugo demands his encounter with God, knowing that it means death – “Yes! – I shouted. / And I felt that creation trembled like a fabric.” 

Specter, you misled me, I still know nothing.

     (God is infinite.  He keeps withdrawing perpetually –
         No transformation of life ever reaches
            him. – One only advances into the
            light.)   (Epilogue, p. 137)

Some kind of gnosticism is where Hugo is going.  I don’t know why I am worrying about the poem’s ideas, rarely a great strength with Hugo, rather than the imagery to be found within the monologues of the bat and griffin and so on.  I suppose because I understand the poem so poorly that I am have to work on the structure first, just to see what it is.  The quotation up top, that is pretty funny.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Hugo plunges into chaos and writes in the margins of the abyss - the end of The End of Satan and also the middle

Victor Hugo, in The End of Satan (1886), is describing the Gospels and their authors (“four simple men”):

This story seems added by them to God,
As if they wrote on the margins of the abyss;
Their entire book resembles a shaft of light from a summit;
Each page thrills there under the sacred shudder;
And that is why the earth said: I shall read it!  (The Gibbet, Jesus Christ, VI – After Passover, ll. 200-5, p. 261)

A big part of the translation covers Christ’s death and resurrection.  This passage is a perfect Hugolian blend of devout Christianity and outright heresy.  It also serves as a good self-description.  Then a bit more modestly, a good description of creativity, of art.  Written on the margins of the abyss – a rich metaphor.

The section with the crucifixion is titled “Le Gibet,” “The Gibbet,” for didactic reasons.  Hugo is continuing his lifelong argument against capital punishment.  Christ as Everyprisoner.  His death is shocking; the world takes on a Gothic tinge:

Tombs, suddenly opened wide,
Revealed their caverns where the moles dug up
Fragments of skeletons lying in shrouds;
The ghastly dead, having emerged from their graves,
Were seen by several of those who dwelled in the city.”  (The Gibbet, The Crucifix, ll. 105-9, p. 293)

Those skeletons return after a lecture on the death penalty, now prisoners – former prisoners, I guess – in the Bastille. 

… it is here that men’s steps tremble,
Here that their dark hair turns white.  (The Prison, The Skeletons, ll. 29-30, p. 395)

What is really curious is that the skeletons are a digression in the middle of a long Browning-like monologue by Satan in which he is a prisoner in a dungeon, or thinks of himself as such.  If he is a prisoner, he is owed a great deal of sympathy, and the monologue is a brilliant mix of sincere yearning and ironic self-pity (a Browning specialty).

I love him! – Night, sepulchral cell, living death,
Darkness that my sombrous sob frightens, [Skinner is squeezing in the word “ombre”]
Solitudes of evil where flees the great punished one,
Measureless glaciers of infinite winter,
O torrents of dark chaos which saw me banished,
Despair whose cowardly peal of laughter I hear,
Void where Being, Time, Place, vanish,
Deep chasms, hells, abysses!  I love God.
I love him.  That is all.  (Beyond the Earth III, Satan in the Night, I, ll. 1-9, p. 309)

But Satan can hardly remain in that last state.  He cycles through every injury done to him, vowing revenge, before collapsing back into the condition we see here.  Hugo’s vision of hell, of Satan’s punishment, is an endless loop of self-inflicted anger and despair.  But the poem ends, or almost ends, with a section titled “Satan Forgiven,” in which God, or Hugo, calls on him to “arise out of the darkness with the dawn on your brow” – “you need only say: I shall live!” (p. 409)

Hugo does not give Satan’s answer.  Perhaps God’s offer is another part of the endless cycle.  Instead, Hugo presents a vision of his death, of his own afterlife, in which he joins “[t]he plungers into chaos, the sounders of disaster,” like Moses, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare, “[a]ll the other shepherds of somber humanities,” who gather to “burst forth their thoughts which become / Stars.”

These comets are those we sometimes see passing
Though the heavens with an immense brilliance,
Stretching across the silent aether,
Formidable, amidst the eternal shadow,
Tongues of fire from off their crowns taking wing.  (p. 415)  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

I already have dragons, I have no wish for men - Victor Hugo's The End of Satan

Victor Hugo is a giant in French poetry.  Why we do not have, in English, some kind of collected edition of his poems (in many volumes) I do not understand, except that almost no one wants to read poetry, even fewer old poetry, even fewer translated old poetry, etc.  Other than all of those reasons, I don’t understand it.

But last year translator R. G. Skinner and Swan Isle Press filled approximately half of a major gap in that imaginary shelf of books with the release of God and the End of Satan – Dieu et La Fin de Satan: Selections: In a Bilingual Edition, which contains – what a title – about of each of Hugo’s two huge unfinished posthumous poems, The End of Satan (1886) and God (1891), the latter somehow the most Hugolian of all possible titles.  Victor Hugo thought big.

Today, Dieu is often considered Hugo’s single finest achievement.  There is nothing quite like it in our language.  Its first English readers compared it to the strange late poems of Blake; and that is possibly still the closest analogy.  (Foreword, p. xi, E.H. and A.M. Blackmore, themselves translators of Hugo’s poems)

Exactly how often, I would like to ask.  I will also note that the “first English readers” were the Algernon Swinburne and his circle, the poets and critics who had rediscovered Blake’s cosmic poems.  I am not sure the fit with Blake is that good.  But then we are left with nothing.

The End of Satan is about the fall of Lucifer and – hey, wait a minute, maybe we do have something like this in English!  It is pretty strange reading this episode in an English so flat, even though as a translation it is fine.  But it’s not Milton:

The fall of the damned one began once again – Terrifying,
Overcast, and pierced with luminous holes like a sieve,
The sky full of suns vanished, the light
Trembled, and into the night this giant plummeted headlong,
Naked , sinister, and dragged down by the weight of his crimes;
And like a wedge, his head opened the abyss.  (Beyond the Earth I, And Then There Was Night, II, ll.29 – 34, p. 165)

No complaints about the imagery, or Hugo’s since of scale, especially his conceit that Satan’s fall is sin some way part of creation, that he creates the abyss and hell as he falls.

The original is in rhyming couplets, which, to my poor understanding, sound dignified and suitable for declaiming by a good actor:

Nu, sinistre, et tiré par le poids de son crime,
Tombait, et, comme un coin, sa tête ouvrait l’abîme.

Hugo works his way through the Bible, how thoroughly I do not know.  The abridgment includes the story of Noah but omits Adam and Eve, for example.  It includes a long part of Christ’s crucifixion, but how much of his earlier life I cannot say.  Noah is included, I assume, because the imagery is so strong:

And since Man had filled his squalid soul
With abysses, God could say to the abyss: Fill the world.

The urn of the abyss tilted, day fled;
And all that lived and walked became night,
While lifeless Eve trembled in her deep grave.  (The first page I, The Entry into Darkness, I, ll. 49-53, p. 185)

The world  is deluged not with rain, but something worse, whatever dark matter fills the abyss Satan created.  Hugo is doing something new, bringing his own coherence and imagery to the old stories, which is a bit like Blake.  Later Chaos and The Flood argue about the meaning of the destruction of mankind.  “I already have dragons,” says Chaos.  “I have no wish for men.”  In this big, mythic setting Hugo does not always sound like Hugo to me, but that sure does.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Literature indeed! This is life, this is passion! - no, this is Pirandello, so it is literature - and I do it very quietly

All I’m saying is that you should show some respect for what other people see and feel, even though it be the exact opposite of what you see and feel.  (It Is So! (If You Think So), 71)

Eric Bentley deserves conceptual credit for his bold stroke.  Given room for five Pirandello plays in Naked Masks, he leads with two that are by no means masterpieces – “[i]n reconsidering Pirandello today, fifteen years after his death, the first play to read is Liolà” (viii), Bentley writes, and he means it.  What is Pirandello trying to do?  These plays are as clear as any.  The quotation above could hardly be more direct. 

The three masterpieces Bentley includes – Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), Henry IV (1922), and Each in His Own Way (1924) – are all variations on the same theme.  All have thin, melodramatic plots behind them, but the clichés are now made necessary by the various ways each play toys with, mocks, or crushes the illusionism of theater, the great emphasis – hardly a discovery – of Pirandello’s.

A family crashes a theatrical rehearsal to demand that their story be told on the stage.  Or actually not just told but finished, since the members of the family are not real people but characters in an unfinished play that only has two scenes.  The author presumably gave up on the characters and their play because it was such typical, trivial stuff.  How the characters embody themselves as people is never explained, but is that not what typically happens on a theatrical stage?  So we have a play within the play I am reading, with characters who are characters and characters who are not characters, but rather the actors who are going to play the characters.  And then I have to remind myself that both the “characters” and the “actors” would all be played, if I went to see a performance, by actual actors.

The Son [contemptuously].  Literature!  Literature!

The Father.  Literature indeed!  This is life, this is passion!

The Manager.  It may be, but it won’t  act.

Now we are all used to this sort of fun.

Each in His Own Way plays the play within the play straight.  Its innovation is that the intermissions are performed on stage.  Does this mean that the actual audience gets no intermission?  When do I get my between-acts champagne?  I instead watch other, imaginary people, played by actors, drink imaginary, or worse, real, champagne while they discuss the dreary play we were all watching.  The trick is that the scenes taking place in the “theater lobby” during “intermission” is substantially more comic, dramatic, and interesting than the nominal “play.”

Voices from the Spectators.  Go on with the play!  Put them out!  Less noise!  Shut up!  Signora Moreno!  Put her out!  The third act!  We want the third act!  Pirandello!  Put him out!  A speech!  A speech from Pirandello!  Put him out!  A speech!  He’s to blame!  (355-6)

The ideal way to manage all of this would be to stage the intermission scene during the actual intermission in the actual lobby, while I am in the line for sparkling wine, and try to goose the audience members into joining in on the shouting.  I would not have been one of the people yelling for the third act.   More fun to be had in the lobby.

In Henry IV, the melodrama is shoved entirely into the back story.  An insane man thinks he is Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, and has surrounded himself with actors playing his courtiers.  An attempt to cure him reveals that he had in fact been cured long ago, but preferred the illusion to reality; the cure thus drives him back to insanity.  Unlike in Six Characters or Each in His Own Way, all of the breaks in theatricality take place within the world of the play, which allowed the central character some pathos:

You know, it is quite easy to get accustomed to it.  One walks about as a tragic character, just as if it were nothing…  I am cured, gentlemen: because I can act the madman in perfection, here; and I do it very quietly, I’m only sorry for you that have to live your madness so agitatedly, without knowing it or seeing it.  (205-6, ellipses mine)

Henry IV was the only one of these three where the characters turned into, you know, characters, and I had some interest in what might happen to them as opposed to what Pirandello would do with them.

Please note the date of Each in His Own Way.  This post is my belated entry in the 1924 Club run by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, a good idea.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Is Pirandello getting so low that he makes comedies on society gossip? Yes.

The logical place to go after the feminist domestic fiction of Matilde Serao and Maria Messina is to the plays of Luigi Pirandello.

That preposterous statement is almost true.  It contains the key to why I had never really understood Pirandello’s plays.  Now I understand them.   Oh sure.  If I go down that path, there is no point to any of this, so let’s all pretend.

The issue was all of the melodrama Pirandello uses, all of the soap opera stuff.  Also the clichéd characters that enact the melodrama.  Here we have, by reputation, one of the great originals of 20th century theater, yet his plays are full of all this old stuff, the furnishings of the well-made play.

And Pirandello… is Pirandello getting so low that he makes comedies on society gossip.  (p. 332, ellipses in original)

That line is a multi-level inside joke from Each in His Own Way (1924).  The great avant-gardist had been doing just that all along, going back even to his 1904 novel The Late Maria Pascal.  Early on, his characters were not making self-conscious references to what was going on in Pirandello plays, including the one they were in.  That kind of messing around with theatrical illusion did come later.

Liolà (1916) is about a man who cheerfully goes around his Sicilian village impregnating young women.  Uncle Simone and his young wife have not been able to have a child.  Liolà is happy to help them solve that problem.  Everyone in the village knows what happened.  The conflict, the drama, is about the difficulties in deciding exactly what everyone will agree to claim is true. 

Words, words, WORDS!  The deceit people see in us is no deceit at all.  The real deceit is in you – but nobody sees it!  (55)

By the end there is an agreement on which deceit does the greatest good.  Fortunately Liolà is a free spirit who is easy to please and loves to please others.

My page numbers refer to Eric Bentley’s 1952 Pirandello collection Naked Masks (various translators), which leads with Liolà, which is not a major play, exactly to make this argument, that Pirandello’s investigation of truth and illusion is not an artifact of art or the theater, but rather of life, and it is not just individual but social.

It Is So! (If You Think So) (1917) is more openly theatrical, but it still does nothing to violate the illusion of the stage.  A group of gossips try to learn the true story of a new family.  The mother says her son-in-law is insane due the loss of his wife; the husband says his mother-in-law is insane due to the loss of her daughter (here, again, is the core melodrama).  Neither one appears to be insane except in their insistence that the other is insane.  Meanwhile, who exactly is the husband’s current wife, who stays offstage until the final scene?  The gossips, like a more active theatrical audience, arrange several scenarios or tricks that they hope will reveal the truth.  In a Pirandello play, that won’t work.

Pirandello often has an observer character, Laudisi in this case, who can express something close to his own point of view – Pirandello can be pretty blunt:

Sirelli.  Oh, nonsense!  In that case neither of them would be mad!  Why, one of them must be, damn it all!

Laudisi.  Well, which one?  You can’t tell, can you?  Neither can anybody else!  And it is not because those documents you are looking for have been destroyed in an accident – a fire, an earthquake – what you will; but because those people have concealed those documents in themselves, in their own souls…  the result is that you are in the extraordinary fix of having before you, on the one hand, a world of fancy, and on the other, a world of reality, and you, for the life of you, are not able to distinguish one from the other.  (98, ellipses mine)

I think I expected Pirandello to be screwier than he really is, more clever or surreal.  More like Stoppard or Ionesco, descendants of Pirandello.  But no, in these earlier plays, as in the even earlier novel, truth is real but impenetrable because of the illusions with which people conceal it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Such, however, are the lives of all wives - a grim feminist Sicilian novel from Maria Messina

I’ll follow Serao’s Neapolitan unmarried women with a Sicilian example from Maria Messina’s little novel A House in the Shadows (1921), one kind of feminist fiction with another.   Serao’s stories almost suffer from their abundance of characters and movement.  Messina’s book is in places almost static.  Serao’s women worry about the ways they are trapped by circumstances, but poor Nicolina can barely leave the house.

Nicolina’s sister makes what seems like a good match with an estate manager.  Nicolina goes along help establish the household and keep her sister company.  Soon enough they discover that Don Lucio is a petty tyrant – sometimes worse than petty – using everything, for example his health problems or his obsessive compulsive disorder, as a weapon:

Peeling fruit was the most delicate task…  Pears and apples, carefully peeled and cut in pieces, one piece already stuck on the little silver fork…  (31)

Neither the wife nor her sister do anything except serve this husband.  The house is a prison.  The title, even aside from the symbolism, is accurate.  A “narrow little street,” a view of nothing but “reddish, moss-covered roofs,” no neighbors, no family.  Serao’s book was of high interest just because of all of the detail about life in Naples.  A House in the Shadows is almost free of local color, or much color of any kind.

The novel begins with a young boy on his sickbed, with Nicolina doing everything she can to accommodate the father.  It is a relief when the son becomes old enough to become a character in his own right.  At least he can leave the house!  This is a grim novel.  “Such, however, are the lives of all wives” (29).  In this novel, actually, all women.

I hope it does not sound like I am complaining.  I can handle 125 pages of this stuff, and it should be clear enough how the tone of the novel is necessary for its argument.  But Messina does sacrifice some novelistic pleasures in the process.  I suppose I found the greater concentration of her short stories to be more artful.

Messina’s novel ends with, I was shocked to find, an element of hope.  For all of their suffering, Nicolina and her sister have perhaps succeeded in one way – they have protected the sister’s two daughters from their abusive father, Don Lucio.  Or so I understand the ending:

They listen.  A footstep, a voice in the street.  An impetuous exuberance surges in their young bosoms.  They are growing up like certain odd delicate flowers that appear between the cracks in old walls and that the rain will soon spoil.  Don Lucio clears his throat.  The two girls are startled, but then laugh for having been startled, and then they are silent, once again waiting, anxious and moved, while the heavy, silent hours pass across the starry sky.  (125)

The father is still there, in the middle of the daughters’ reverie.  But they are young and he is now old.  They can outwait him.

John Shepley is the translator.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

as though she were fed up with so much foolishness - Unmarried Women in Naples

Scott at seraillon has been reading Italian literature this year, like I have, except more widely and deeply and etc.  Today we cross paths with the 1885 Unmarried Women, an accurately titled collection of short story-like texts by prolific Neapolitan journalist, editor, publisher, etc. Matilde Serao.

I understand there has been some recent interest in fiction about women in Naples.  People with such an interest should read Unmarried Women.  Maybe there will be a Serao revival.  Maybe two blog posts count as a revival.

Serao loves crowds.  She fills her scenes with people, with those unmarried women, whether the setting is a girl’s school on exam day, a religious festival with fireworks, a line to enter the bathhouses at a public beach, or, in Serao’s greatest stroke, the State Telegraph Office (Women’s Section).  Here the women are eavesdropping, so to speak, on a mushy love-telegram:

The girls all listened intently: Ida Torelli, the skeptic, snickered; Caterina Borelli, the wit, shrugged her shoulders, as though she were fed up with so much foolishness.  But the others were rather moved by this incandescent telegraphic prose and were already whispering about their own loves, for better or for worse.  Adelina Mark, the beauty, had two or three admirers she couldn’t stand, instead …  Peppina Sanna thought about her handsome naval officer…  Maria Morra, the amateur actress…  Annina Pescara…  (“The State Telegraph Office,” 145)

Those ellipses all hide interesting things, but I want to emphasize the bombardment by people.  Serao can be a little hard to follow.  Giovanni Verga did the same thing in The House by the Medlar Tree (1881), and he does it again in Mastro-Don Gesualdo (1889), all of the characters introduced at once.  If you are thinking of doing this in your own fiction, I tell you, it is hard to follow.

However, Serao follows the characters from story to story.  A number of the women working in the miserable telegraph office in the fourth story are able to work there because they passed their exams back in the first story.  Serao shows the same characters at school, work, parties, and so on.  The book is structured a lot like an ensemble television drama, with different “episodes” emphasizing the family or love life of different characters, with occasional pure ensemble pieces, like the zippy, exhausting episode about the telegraph office on election night.  A TV series about the young women working in the Neapolitan telegraph office in 1880, how would that not be great?

So eventually I pulled the mass of characters apart, is what I am saying.  One of them, the sassy bookworm, “the wit” up above, is, the introduction tells me, the author before she was an author, “a bit overweight, ‘nasty as a fat monkey,’ ‘a shameless sleepyhead, glasses slipping down her pug nose, given to too much reading: in short, a nerd” – I am quoting Scott’s post.

The women are often, but not always, desperate and miserable.  The depiction of Naples as a lived-in city is by itself valuable, a great contrast to the wealthy tourist cities I saw in The Portrait of a Lady.  The telegraph office was of especially high interest, but I read it all with pleasure.  How to make good fiction out of kids waiting in line to go the beach?  Serao did it.  A lot of people would like this book.

Paula Spurlin Paige is the translator.  The translation is recent, from 2007, so it is not well known yet.  Once again, I will point to seraillon, whose post is three times longer, has better quotations, and is decorated with relevant illustrations.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

“you use too many metaphors” - something I missed in The Portrait of a Lady

Sometimes I wonder about the point of writing at any length about as complex a work as The Portrait of a Lady given that I have read it once and cannot possibly have caught much more than the central movement of the story.

One thing I missed and then missed some more was James’s use of metaphors. 

He expressed this view, somewhat after this fashion, to his mother, who looked at him as if he had been dancing a jig.  He had such a fanciful, pictorial way of saying things that he might as well address her in the deaf-mute’s alphabet.

“I don’t think I know what you mean,” she said; “you use too many metaphors; I could never understand allegories.”  (Ch. 26)

I was misreading so badly that I thought James was at this point making a joke about his lack of metaphors, when in fact he was directly telling me – well, indirectly – that he used them all the time.  There are two in the first two lines I quote!  I enjoyed them for their humor without registering their frequency.

Di at The little white attic has been reading The Portrait of a Lady, too – in fact she invited me to read it now instead of (vague gesture) some other time – and she saw the metaphors.  Look at all of those metaphors.  But I now see how I did not see them.  Look at the journalist Henrietta Stackpole, “strongly identified as a newspaper-woman,” as Di says, meaning as a woman made of newspaper:

She rustled, she shimmered, in fresh, dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was as crisp and new and comprehensive as a first issue before the folding.  From top to toe she had probably no misprint.  (Ch. 10, the bold will be used in a minute)

And there’s more like that.  My first problem was that these clever comparisons are not actually visual, not meant to help me see what James is imagining, but rather to quickly get a sense of what Henrietta is like, or perhaps what Ralph is like, since the comparisons are his.  If I am looking for sensual precision, the way Zola or Nabokov or Bellow use metaphors, well, forget it. They want me to imagine the thing they are seeing, against the limitations of language.  James wants me to meet the person he has imagined.

Di has many more examples just as good, but I picked this one because of the second reason I missed it – it’s not in the book I read.  James made huge changes to the passage for the 1908 New York edition.  The original 1881 edition, which I read, has:

She was very well dressed, in fresh, dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was scrupulously, fastidiously neat.  From top to toe she carried not an ink-stain.

I could go either way on the last example, but the first two, no contest, right?  1908 James came up with some good ones.  Eh, even “no misprint” is funnier.

So, maybe I missed less than I think, and, without denigrating the book I read, next time I am reading the New York edition.

I should point to more of Di’s posts.  The one on silence is the perfect counter to my complaint that Portrait talks too much.  She calls her wrap-up “The greatness of Henry James,” which is a good place me to stop.

Friday, October 30, 2015

"Ah" - Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

Never before have I read a novel where so many characters begin their lines with “Ah.”  I have been using “Ah” while answering comments lately, to test it out.  It is annoying.

“Ah, too interesting; you shouldn't allow it to be that, you know!” (Ch. 1)

“Ah, happy boy!” the old man commented. (Ch. 2)

“Ah,” said Isabel slowly, “you must be our crazy Aunt Lydia!” (okay, I love this one, Ch. 3)

“Ah, we never know why!" said her companion, laughing.”  (Ch. 5)

A total of 96 “Ah”s going by the computer search, or almost two per chapter, and they feel more concentrated because some chapters are especially dialogue-heavy.  In Chapter 5 there is one on every other page.  The “Ah”s were useful in helping me notice how much banter there was in the novel, especially early on, as if the characters were in a Golden Age Hollywood comedy, like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant trying to impress each other with their sharp wit.  Isabel Archer is Beatrice and every man she meets is Benedict – how exhausting for her.  And at times for me.

Most of the worst parts of the novel are in the dialogues:

“You are very selfish as I said before.”

“I know that.  I am selfish as iron.”

“Even iron sometimes melts.”  (Ch. 32)

Then the characters begin to banter around the word “reasonable.”  All so trivial, although given who one of those characters is, the best he could do.

The worst line in the novel – I want to be fair – replaces dialogue: “In that brief, extremely personal gaze, however, deeper meanings passed between them than they were conscious at the moment” (Ch. 43).  What novel is that from?  This one, really?

Everything in The Portrait of a Lady leads to something better.  The apotheosis of the banter is in Chapter 34 – James is explaining a one year gap and Isabel’s engagement, so this is before the three year gap and her marriage.  She is sparring with her cousin Ralph, one of her many men.  The situation has gone beyond banter, but Ralph has been poisoned by irony.

“Wait for what?”

“Well, for a little more light,” said Ralph, with a rather absurd smile, while his hands found their way into his pockets.

“Where should my light have come from?  From you?”

“I might have struck a spark or two!”

See, wit of a pretty low kind.  Ralph cannot resist.  But after a couple more pages, Isabel can. 

“I don’t think I understand you,” she said at last, coldly.  “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

This was, I found, a shocking moment, the first time someone refuses combat.  Ralph refuses the refusal, which then becomes a new struggle which Isabel wins by treating the subject of her liberty, money, and love life with seriousness and sincerity.  It felt like the novel had swiveled.  “Isabel had uttered her last words with a low solemnity of conviction which virtually terminated the discussion,” and the loser enjoys his self-pity:

Ralph, standing there with his hands in his pockets, followed her with his eyes; then the lurking chill of the highwalled court struck him and made him shiver, so that he returned to the garden, to breakfast on the Florentine sunshine.

I should note that James, aware that he has perhaps overloaded the novel with dialogue, came up with another solution that was always a lot of fun when he deployed it, a breathless wall of text, often a paragraph of a page or two, of nothing but babble.  Another side of the conversation is implied, but it likely consists of little but nods and “Mm, yes.” 

“Papa left direction for everything.  I go to bed very early.  When the sun goes off that side I go into the garden.”  (Ch. 30)

That’s Pansy, of course.  Remember, there’s over a page of that stuff in one paragraph.  It’s often the dimmer characters who are given this treatment, characters incapable of wit.  Again, I am sure I am wrong, that James borrowed this trick from someone, but it was new to me, or new to my idea of what writers were doing as of 1881.