Friday, May 27, 2016

Why is this age worse than other ages? - Anna Akhmatova, narrative poet

Poems of Akhmatova, translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward, is the book I read.  How many translations of Anna Akhmatova are there now?  She seems eminently translatable, with poems that would be interesting even if not poetic in plain prose.  Her life is interesting, her subject matter is interesting.

The Kunitz translation has all of sixty pages of English poetry.  The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, a 1990 translation, has seven hundred pages, just of the poems, not the apparatus.  So what do I know.

Why is this age worse than earlier ages?
In a stupor of grief and dread
have we not fingered the foulest wounds
and left them unhealed by our hands?
In the west the falling light still glows,
and the clustered housetops glitter in the sun,
but here Death is already chalking the doors with crosses,
and calling the ravens, and the ravens are flying in.

Are they ever.  This poem is only from 1919.  The next forty years gave her many opportunities to update this poem.  The narrative push of this collection is irresistible – this must be true of any chronological collection – as I move, with dread, to the next age, always worse than the previous, until Akhmatova finally outlasts everyone.

I have enough treasures from the past
to last me longer than I need, or want.
You know as well as I… malevolent memory
won’t let go of half of them:
a modest church, with its gold cupola
slightly askew; a harsh chorus
of crows; the whistle of a train;
a birch tree haggard in a field
as if it had just been sprung from jail…  (from “March Elegy,” 1960, first ellipses in original)

Not that Akhmatova’s pre-war poetry is so cheery, but it shares the sense of freedom and possibility with her amazing cohort of peers:

We’re all drunkards here, and harlots:
how wretched we are together.  (1913)

But it is a meaningful Bohemian wretchedness, full of emotion and art:

His eyes are so serene
one could be lost in them forever.
I know I must take care
not to return his look.

But the talk is what I remember
from that smoky Sunday noon,
in the poet’s high gray house
by the sea-gates of the Neva.  (from “To Alexander Blok”)

A number of the poems give a sense of eavesdropping on the talk of the poets, maybe a little too intimately, as in the many poems about Akhmatova’s husband, Nikolai Gumilev:

Three things enchanted him:
white peacocks, evensong,
and faded maps of America.
He couldn’t stand bawling brats,
or raspberry jam with his tea,
or womanish hysteria.
…  And he was tied to me.  (1911, ellipses in original)

If only this had been the tumultuous life of Akhmatova.  No vigils in front of prisons, or sieges of her city.

Put it all to the torch!  And the king named one by one
the towers, the gates, the temples – this marvel of the world;
then brightened, as the thought leaped into words:
“Only be sure the Poet’s House is spared.”  (from “Alexander in Thebes,” 1961)

Please recommend favorite translations of Anna Akhmatova.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Here is a man in ecstasy - Mayakovsky's fish of the imagination

More, now, in my series on hastily read Russian poets and their barely-understood poems.  Today, Vladimir Mayakovsky, then Anna Akhmatova, and next week, I guess, Boris Pasternak.

What these three poets have in common, aside from chronology, is that for the hasty, English-only reader, their poetry is inseparable from their biographies.  They all have such strong stories.  As if their poetry is not muted enough by translation, their frightening, heartening, interesting personal histories practically swamp the poems.  I mean, as I am reading them, in books with fifty pages of introduction and ninety pages of poetry.

I am having trouble focusing the microscope, so to speak.

Vladimir Mayakovsky was a wonderful nut, a true anarchist of the spirit, who inexplicably became Stalin’s favorite poet, a preference that was also a kind of curse.  Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930, at the age of thirty-six, is both a mystery and overdetermined.

Where Velimir Khlebnikov was closer to a pure language poet, Mayakovsky used the avant garde toolbox to write about himself, his love affairs and revolutionary activities and arguments and poetry.  Mayakovsky, in the middle of a romance in Paris, has been asked to write political poetry, and responds with “Letter from Paris to Comrade Kostrov on the Nature of Love”:

Public squares begin to buzz;
carriages roll past;
I stroll about,
                         jotting verse
in my notebook.
Cars
        whir
                  along the street
without knocking me down.
They understand,
                                the smart fellows:
here is a man
                         in ecstasy.
The assembly of visions
                                            and ideas
is brimmed
                     to the lid.
Here
         even bears
might grow wings.  (“Letter from Paris to Comrade Kostrov on the Nature of Love,” 1929, 215-7)

Mayakovsky wrote plenty of propaganda poems, too, a third of his collected works, and drew propaganda posters, none of which is included in The Bedbug and Selected Poetry, tr. George Reavey and Max Hayward.  This side of the poet remains a puzzle to me.  He is so exuberant, as in the 1915 “The Cloud in Trousers”:

I never want
to read anything.
Books?
What are books?

Formerly I believed
books were made like this:
a poet came.
lightly opened his lips,
and the inspired fool burst into song –
if you please!
But it seems,
before they can launch a song,
poets must tramp for days with callused feet,
and the sluggish fish of the imagination
flounders softly in the sludge of the heart.  (75)

The English poems display an inspiring variety of metaphors.

Most puzzling of all is the 1929 play The Bedbug, a satire of science, the Soviets, futurism (small-F), Communism, etc., just the sort of thing to get a writer in serious trouble.  A worker, a Party member, Ivan Prisypkin, is marrying into a bourgeois family, where he will abandon his Soviet ideals and become Pierre Skripkin, even if now he is so vulgar that mistakes brassieres for bonnets.  By accident, he is frozen and resurrected in the future – 1979 – where he is no longer recognized as human, only barely distinguishable from the bedbug that was frozen with him.

PRISYPKIN:  What is all this?  What did we fight for?  Why did we shed our blood, if I can’t dance to my heart’s content – and I’m supposed to be a leader of the new society!  (292)

But dancing has been replaced with calisthenics and propaganda:

ZOYA BERYOZKINA:  Tomorrow I’ll take you to see a dance performed by twenty thousand male and female workers on the city square.  It’s a gay rehearsal of a new work-system on the farms.

The Bedbug played in 1929 and 1930 and was a failure; it was revived in the 1950s, post-Stalin, and was a smash.  It is something else, especially the screwball, Marx Brothers-like wedding scene.

In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.  (“Past One o’Clock…,” 1930, 237)

I guess so.  Then Mayakovsky spins the chamber of his revolver and points it at his chest.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A La Regenta readalong for July - and really also June - it's a long book - the profound self-pity of egotism aroused by its misfortune

My working theory is that long books make the worst readalong books, yet there has been interest in La Regenta (1885) by Clarín, also known as Leopoldo Alas, one of the gigantic classics of 19th century Spanish literature alongside Fortunato and Jacinta (1886) by Benito Pérez Galdós.  Emilia Pardo Bazán’s The House of Ulloa is also from 1886, but it is a more sensible length.

Alas was a professor of Roman law whose literary output amounted to just two novels and some short stories, while Pérez Galdós was some kind of tapas-powered fiction machine, writing over seventy novels, dozens of them forming a series covering episodes in 19th century Spanish history in what must be pretty thorough detail.  His models are French, Balzac, Hugo, and Dumas.  Alas is I believe closer to Flaubert and Zola, although less conceptual and physical.  Probably not so many loving descriptions of la comida Asturiana.  Just look at that bean stew, la fabada; Zola would give a paragraph to each variety of pork.

The story is of a married woman in a provincial city who is buffeted between a local Don Juan and a priest.  La Regenta is out for a walk on the promenade:

For a moment Ana was a part of this ragged sensuality.  She thought about herself, about her life devoted to sacrifice and to an absolute prohibition of pleasure, and felt the profound self-pity of egotism aroused by its misfortune.  ‘I am poorer than any of these girls.  My maid has her miller who whispers into her ears words which set her face alight; and here I am listening to these guffaws of pleasure which give rise to emotions I have never experienced.’  (194)

Working through that idea ought to fill up a novel, especially when the entire town is pulled in.  La Regenta is famous for having an enormous number of supporting characters.

I was impressed by the review at seraillon – if that post does not make the book sound appealing, nothing will – especially that the first half of the long novel covers only three days.  Intense.

Let’s try a page 99 test.  First non-dialogue line:

As soon as they were in Vetusta the orphan girl suffered ‘a set-back to her convalescence’, according to the family doctor, who was prudent and did not call things by their right names. 

All right, there we have an example of something else mentioned at seraillon, the ironic acidity of the narrator.  “[M]akes… Flaubert and Eça de Queiroz seem almost timid,” says Scott.

The Penguin Classics edition, tr. John Rutherford, I believe the only version in English, is 700 pages, and dense pages, inky.  The endnotes are in tiny print, and in two columns!  Twenty pages a day will need thirty-five days, which would put be right in the middle of July, which is as an accepted fact Spanish Literature Month.  So that is where I am aiming.

I am expecting as many as two other people to read La Regenta with me.  I hope many more enjoy whatever we think to write about it.

This will be what I read in June, when not reading other things.  Perhaps the 1818 edition of Frankenstein – I did not know there was such a difference between editions – for a June readalong suggested by Dolce Bellezza, then later Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) as organized by seraillon, if I have the fortitude for it after the bulk of La Regenta.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

so that dust was above and below us all the time - some Juan Rulfo

Read more Mexican literature, suggests Caravana de Recuerdos.  So I read Juan Rulfo’s two little books, The Burning Plain and Other Stories (1953) and Pedro Páramo (1955).  Both books are set in the interior of Jalisco, rough country, brush and scrub.  In the story “They gave us land,” some peasants – soldiers? – are given parcels in a land reform, land without “even the shadow of a tree, or a seedling of a tree, or any kind of root,” where there “isn’t even enough here for the wind to blow up a dust cloud” (15).

That is more or less the setting of the stories and the novel, too, sometimes in town, sometimes more up in the mountains, but always bad, bad country.  Puerto Vallarta is part of Jalisco – it’s a coastal province!  Rulfo’s characters have no notion of the ocean.  They have enough trouble staying alive.  Many do not.

The characters in Pedro Páramo may all be dead.  A man looking for his father, the title character, finds a town full of ghosts, and himself becomes a ghost.  Or he is a madman who imagines a town full of ghosts.  The first option is more fun.  The conceit that the ghosts are confused about exactly who else is a ghost is too good to throw away for some “he’s crazy” explanation.

Please see Vapour Trails and six words for a hat and many others I have forgotten for more on Rulfo’s novel.  It is a lot like Absalom, Absalom with the narrators replaced by ghosts.  Huge debt to Faulkner.

The stories (the novel, too) take place mostly during the 1910s and 1920s, during the Mexican Revolution and a later regional uprising, the Cristeros War, giving plenty of room for social comment and violence, along the lines of Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (1915).  The tone is sardonic fatalism.  “Everything is going from bad to worse here” (31, “We’re very poor,” yes, that’s the title of the story).

But there is also a weird strain that runs through the stories, anticipating Pedro Páramo, that I enjoyed a lot.

“It was like bats flitting through the darkness very close to us.  Bats with big wings that grazed against the ground.  I got up and the beating of wings was stronger, as if the flock of bats had been frightened and were flying toward the holes of the doors…  I saw all of the women of Luvina with their water jugs on their shoulders, their shawls hanging from their heads and their black figures in the black background of the night.”  (“Luvina,” 117)

Or “Talpa,” a grotesque story, where adulterous lovers try to murder the sick husband by accompanying him on a religious pilgrimage, over a month on the road which they hope will do him in, but which means that they are simultaneously, sinfully, blasphemously making the pilgrimage themselves.

At that point people coming from all over began to join us, people like us who turned onto that wide road, like the current of a river, making us fall behind, pushed from all sides as if we were tied to them by threads of dust.  Because from the ground a white dust rose up with the swarm of people like corn fuzz that swirled up high and then came down again; all the feet scuffling against it made it rise again, so that dust was above and below us all the time.  And above this land was the empty sky, without any clouds, just the dust, and the dust didn’t give any shade. (69)

A mix of close observation and leaps into nightmare.

The translator of The Burning Plain is George D. Schade; of Pedro Páramo, Margaret Sayers Peden.

Monday, May 23, 2016

colours for which it is hard to find a name in human speech - Chekhov gives a character a gift

“The Beauties,” the 1888 story that followed “The Steppe,” is where Scott Bailey says to go next.  The nine year-old boy from “The Steppe” seems to have become the teenager in “The Beauties.”  He has transformed his personifications of nature, which, please remember, often involved plants coming to life in wind storms, in a natural direction, onto beautiful women:

It was that butterfly’s beauty so in keeping with waltzing, darting about the garden, a laughter and gaiety, and incongruous with serious thought, grief, and repose; and it seemed as though a gust of wind blowing over the platform, or a fall of rain, would be enough to wither the fragile body and scatter the capricious beauty like the pollen of a flower.  (289, The Bishop & Other Stories)

An earlier passage in the story is like a one page compression of “The Steppe,” but filtered through the boy’s matured sensibility – “crimson, orange, gold, lilac, muddy pink; one cloud is like a monk, another like a fish, a third like a Turk in a turban” and so on (281).  It is all color and metaphor now.

Not in “Gusev,” though, published two years later.  Gusev is a peasant soldier discharged for illness.  He had been in the far East service and is returning by ship, via the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  He will not make it home.  He is in the company of other sick men who will, like him, die at sea.

The story first appears to be about a conflict between reason and superstition.  Gusev is the latter:

Suppose the fish [that sank a ship] were as big as a mountain and its back were as hard as a sturgeon: and in the same way, supposing that away yonder at the end of the world there stood great stone walls and the fierce winds were chained up to the walls…  if they had not broken loose, why did they tear about all over the sea like maniacs, and struggle to escape like dogs?  If they were not chained up, what did become of them when it was calm?  (146, The Witch & Other Stories, ellipses in Garnett)

His poor companion, educated, dying, is driven nuts by this peasant nonsense.  He dies; Gusev thinks of home (“He still sat dreaming of the frost”); Gusev hopes he will live long enough not to be buried at sea.  “The sea has no sense and no pity”( 161).

Like in “The Beauties,” whatever metaphorical leaps Gusev might make, the story stays grounded in the kind of humanism I associate with Chekhov.  What a surprise, then to follow the sailcloth-wrapped body of Gusev into the ocean, down many miles (“It was said to be three miles to the bottom”).  Here comes a school of harbor pilot fish; here comes a shark.  “The harbour pilots are delighted, they stop to see what will come next” (165).  If I had been asked which  great Russian author wrote about the delight of a school of fish, it would be a long time before my guessing got to Chekhov, yet here it is.

The narrator – as omniscient as any I know – decides to surface and look at the clouds:

one cloud like a triumphal arch, another like a lion, a third like a pair of scissors…  From behind the clouds a broad, green shaft of light pierces through and stretches to the middle of the sky; a little later another, violet-coloured, lies beside it; next that, one of gold, then one rose-coloured…  The sky turns a soft lilac.  Looking at this gorgeous, enchanted sky, at first the ocean scowls, but soon it, too, takes tender, joyous, passionate colours for which it is hard to find a name in human speech.  (165, all ellipses in Garnett)

Gusev, it turns out, was correct; he was not superstitious but perceptive.  The physical world in which he lives is personified, capable of emotion and willed action, even if the will is supplied by the author, the boy from “The Steppe” and “The Beauties” grown into the world’s greatest short story writer, seen here giving a gift to one of his characters.  The world is not indifferent to his suffering.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Chekhov makes the plants dance

This passage of “The Steppe” grabbed me – remember that the story is from the perspective of a boy traveling on the Russian prairie:

But at last, when the sun was beginning to sink into the west, the steppe, the hills and the air could bear the oppression no longer, and, driven out of all patience, exhausted, tried to fling off the yoke.  A fleecy ashen-grey cloud unexpectedly appeared behind the hills.  It exchanged glances with the steppe, as though to say, “Here I am,” and frowned…  [wind comes up]  Prickly uprooted plants ran stumbling and leaping in all directions over the steppe, and one of them got caught in the whirlwind, turned round and round like a bird, flew towards the sky, and turning into a little black speck, vanished from sight.  After it flew another, and then a third, and Yegorushka saw two of them meet in the blue height and clutch at one another as though they were wrestling.  (185-6)

This is not exactly a description of what Yegorushka sees, but a personification.  Is he the one who imagines that the steppe itself has lost patience, or that the cloud frowns, or that those magical plants have limbs and volition?  I love those dancing plants.  They return 90 pages later, when a real storm hits:

The tattered, ragged look of the storm-cloud gave it a drunken, disorderly air…  By now, most likely, the whirlwind eddying round and lifting from the earth dust, dry grass and feathers, was mounting to the very sky; uprooted plants must have been flying by that very black storm-cloud, and how frightened they must have been!  But through the dust that clogged the eyes nothing could be seen but the flash of lightning.  (273-4)

So Yegorushka sees nothing but is remembering the plants from the day before, wondering what had happened to them, where they have gone.  I have a hint here about the significance of the incidents of the story.  It is not just that the boy has a series of experiences, but that he imaginatively acts on them.

Maybe.  In “The Horse-Stealers,” a man is being robbed – his horse stolen – during a blizzard:

White clouds were floating about the yard, their long tails clinging to the rough grass and the bushes, while on the other side of the fence in the open country huge giants in white robes with wide sleeves were whirling round and falling to the ground, and getting up again to wave their arms and fight.  And the wind, the wind!  The bare birches and cherry-trees, unable to endure its rude caresses, bowed low down to the ground and wailed: “God, for what sin hast Thou bound us to the earth and will not let us go free?”  (18, The Horse-Stealers & Other Stories)

This is a little – a lot – too much to credit to a character 1) busy with other things and 2) so distinctly unimaginative.  “The Horse-Stealers” is the most frightening Chekhov story I know.  This fellow stares evil in the face and his only response is to feel ashamed that he does not have the strength of character to be evil himself, because it seems like evil would be fun, more fun than his miserable life, at least.  And this is in a world where the trees are Orthodox believers, at least.

The next step is “Gusev,” right?  So I’ll write about “Gusev” next.  Chekhovian metaphysics.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

this unknown land in the company of terrible peasants - Chekhov crosses the steppe

You cannot go over the road past the fence
Without trampling the universe.  (Boris Pasternak, “Steppe,” 1917, tr. Jon Stallworthy and Peter France)

Or at least seeing the universe, which is a possible summary of Anton Chekhov’s 1888 novella The Steppe.  Yegorushka, “a boy of nine with a sunburnt face, wet with tears,” is crossing the steppe with his uncle and an elderly priest.

It is a one-way trip for Yegorushka, thus the tears.  The men, including the priest, are selling wool, but the boy is going to a new school, far from home.  In the middle of the story, the uncle, for obscure reasons, hands the boy over to the wool-carters, who are traveling in the same direction, allowing Chekhov to mix the boy with characters of a different social class and some different incidents.

Not that there is much in the way of drama in The Steppe.  Yegorushka sees, feels, thinks.  He comes down with a fever near the end, but recovers.  When his uncle and the priest leave him at the end of the story (“something whispered in his heart that he would never see the old man again”) the boy

felt that with these people all that he had known till then had vanished from him for ever.  He sank helplessly on to the little bench, and with bitter tears greeted the new unknown life that was beginning for him now….

What would that life be like?  (302, ellipses Garnett’s)

The implication is that the events of the trip across the steppe are somehow significant, not symbolic but rather part of a web of associations or memories with either the boy’s past life or new life.  Or they are just a series of experiences, which I experience along with Yegorushka.

The travelers go past a prison, and memories stir.  Then a cemetery:

… white crosses and tombstones, nestling among green cherry-tree and looking in the distance like patches of white, peeped out gaily from behind the wall.  Yegorushka remembered that when the cherries were in blossom those white patches melted with the flowers into a sea of white; and that when the cherries were ripe the white tombstones were dotted with splashes like bloodstains.  (163)

Yegorushka’s grandmother is buried there.  He is still in familiar territory – old experiences, old memories.  But he is in a heightened, receptive emotional state.  Everything potentially means something, the distant windmill that is for hours the only interruption of the prairie, the marmots and birds, the storm, the peasants working or traveling, many of whom have their own little stories inset into the larger story, stories that could be independent Chekhov stories if the point of view were swiveled away from the boy.  But this way, these stories become Yegorushka’s stories.  Or not.  Maybe he forgets them.  Who knows?

And these men and the shadows round the camp fire, and the dark bales and the far-away lightning, which was flashing every minute in the distance – all struck him now as terrible and unfriendly.  He was overcome with terror and asked himself in despair why and how he had come into this unknown land in the company of terrible peasants? (270)

I’m not sure I have given a hint about what kind of masterpiece The Steppe is.  Tomorrow, a different approach.  Just ignore this post.

I read and quoted the Constance Garnett version found in The Bishop & Other Stories.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

And then the book’s so full of tenderness – there are such lovely things in it about flowers and children : Wharton criticizes an age of festering pessimism and decadent depravity

Two more Edith Wharton stories from The Descent of Man (1904).  That ought to do it.  They are a pleasure to revisit.

Two New York stories, both comic stories about writers.  Wharton had been publishing almost a book a year since 1899; five years on is about the right time to start mocking writers.

“The Descent of Man” is practically relevant.  An entomologist – “the distinguished microscopist” – has become disgusted by pop science books, particularly their specious ethical arguments and palliative attempts to prove that God is not dead and so on.  He writes his own, but as a parody, a hoax.  It becomes a best-seller. 

“Why you fit in everywhere – science, theology, natural history – and then the all-for-the-best element which is so popular right now.  Why, you come right in with the How-to-Relax series, and they sell way up in the millions.  And then the book’s so full of tenderness – there are such lovely things in it about flowers and children.”  (26)

Wharton perhaps expresses some contempt for the reading public in this passage.

The microscopist begins “’a series of “Scientific Sermons” for the Round-the-Gas-Log column of The Woman’s World.” He gives “hundred-dollar interviews on every subject.”  He does product endorsements – “his head passed in due course from the magazine and the newspaper to the biscuit-tin and the chocolate-box.”  Only the last move seems outlandish, from a different world.  Richard Dawkins does not have a line of snacks (he doesn’t, does he?).

The man of reason is ruined by his success, poisoned by money.  The descent Wharton saw in Charles Darwin’s title is entirely ethical.

“Expiation” gives us a lady novelist, her first book just published.  It has a racy title, Fast and Loose, and “’handle[s] the subject without gloves’” whatever the daring subject might be (she “show[s] up the hollowness of social conventions”).  Mrs. Fetherel fears that her book will be “’denounced by the press,’” by which she means she hopes it will be a scandal, and therefore a success.  The first obstacle comes with the first review:

“’In this age of festering pessimism and decadent depravity, it is no surprise to the nauseated reviewer to open one more volume saturated with the fetid emanations of the sewer ---“’

Fetherel, who was not in the habit of reading aloud, paused with a gasp…

‘”Of the sewer,”’ her husband resumed; ‘”but his wonder is proportionately greater when he lights on a novel as sweetly inoffensive as Paula Fetherel’s ‘Fast and Loose’…  Let no one be induced by its distinctly misleading title to forego the enjoyment of this pleasant picture of domestic life, which, in spite of a total lack of force in character-drawing and of consecutiveness in incident, may be described as a distinctly pretty story.”’  (97-8)

Poor Mrs. Fetherel!  Earlier, she had been “so afraid of being misunderstood,” since she was “in advance of my time… like poor Flaubert” (83, ellipses in original), like “Ibsen or Tolstoi.”  But things will work out all right with the help of her uncle the Bishop, who is also an author (“’The Wail of Jonah’ (twenty cantos in blank verse)” – Wharton has so much fun in this story that she is not averse to hideous puns and other jokes.

The Bishop was very fond of his niece Mrs. Fetherel, and one of the traits he most valued in her was the possession of a butler who knew how to announce a bishop.  (86) 

At this point, comic Wharton is my favorite Wharton mode, and writers are endlessly mockable.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

the evils of desultory reading - Edith Wharton shocks me

The two most shocking stories in Edith Wharton’s 1904 collection The Descent of Man are “The Mission of Jane” and “The Other Two,” one about adoption, the other about divorce or really about remarriage.  I make Wharton sound like a social issue novelist.  Perhaps she was, a little.

In “The Mission of Jane,” a couple decides – or the wife decides and the husband surrenders – to adopt a child to save their marriage:

‘A baby?’

‘Yes.’

‘A – human baby?’

‘Of course!’ she cried, with the virtuous resentment of the woman who has never allowed dogs in the house.  (164)

Little Jane, “preternaturally good,” grows up to be an unbearable pill – “there was something automatic and formal in her goodness, as though it were a kind of moral calisthenics which she went through for the sake of showing her agility.” She develops the habit of lecturing adults, including her parents:

She proved to him by statistics that he smoked too much, and that it was injurious to the optic nerve to read in bed[!].  She took him to task for not going to church more regularly, and pointed out to him the evils of desultory reading[!!].  (180)

The parents pray for a suitor, but when one finally appears, the mother feels obligated to warn him away (her husband “thrilled at his wife’s heroism”).  The last few pages are a comedy of parental anxiety – will something go wrong – will they be stuck with Jane forever?  “But if the bride was reluctant her captor was relentless,” and she is gone.  “Jane had fulfilled her mission after all: she had drawn them together at last” (194).

The father never especially likes his daughter, while the mother eventually learns to dislike her.  The reader has no reason or obligation to like any of them.  The great Sympathy Project of 19th century fiction is dying.

In “The Other Two,” Waythorn has just married a woman who has been twice divorced.  Much of the early part of the story describes the flexibility of the ethics of Wharton-world which makes divorce a problem in the abstract but understandable, socially forgivable, in this specific case.  Waythorn, though, discovers that he is much less cool with the idea of the ex-husbands than he had expected.  The first husband is legally allowed to visit his sick daughter in Waythorn’s own house; the second is in Waythorn’s professional circle.

Sometimes Wharton seems to be writing about an arcane, archaic sub-culture, and at other times, I mean in the same story, she might be writing about people alive today.

Waythorn’s first adjustment is to regard the ex-husbands as “a lien on the property” (66).  He is horrified to realize, and for a time denies, that they are part of his wife’s history, her identity.  He is horrified to realize that she has an identity independent from his own.  But he learns, he adjusts, he is gently mashed into a new shape.

In the final scene, Waythorn accidentally encounters the vulgar first husband in his home.  Well, there is nothing to be done.  He offers a cigar.  He means to leave, but “after all the little man no longer jarred on him.”  Then the middle husband appears – business.  Never before have all three been in the same room.  Another cigar.

He held out the case he had just tendered to Haskett, and Varick helped himself with a smile.  Waythorn looked about for a match, and finding none, proffered a light from his own cigar.  Haskett, in the background, held his ground mildly, examining his cigar-tip now and then, and stepping forward at the right moment to knock its ashes into the fire.  (73)

Now enter Mrs. Waythorn. Everyone has a cup of tea.

The cigars almost shocked me; “proffered a light from his own cigar” actually shocked me.  That Collier’s magazine was publishing such smut!  But I was not shocked to see Wharton confirm that the story was about what I thought it was about.

Monday, May 16, 2016

What a scene it was! - Edith Wharton's styles

Let’s look at The Descent of Man and Other Stories (1904), Edith Wharton’s sixth book, if I am counting correctly – three books of stories, a novel, and two novellas.  The next book is The House of Mirth (1905).

The Descent of Man is a better book than Wharton’s first collection, The Greater Inclination (1899), which was already better than the usual magazine fiction.  Just five years later, Wharton had successfully 1) specialized and 2) diversified.  A specialty in what everyone thinks of as Wharton-world, the domestic life of monied New York, but when she wanted she good write a good story set somewhere else.

So there’s a Hudson Valley ghost story (“The Lady Maid’s Bell”), a romance of the Italian revolution (“The Letter”), and a boy’s adventure story set in Venice (“A Venetian Night’s Entertainment”).  I would put “The Dilettante” in this alternative category, too, since it is in style a Henry James parody set in Wharton-world, .  “Perhaps her most shocking story” writes Roxana Robinson in The New York Stories of Edith Wharton (p. xviii).  Perhaps!  But I was more shocked by at least two other stories in this very collection, particularly the scene in “The Other Two” where three men married to the same woman rub their phallic symbols together.  Not expecting that!  While a story about a man quietly but cruelly manipulating a woman who loves him, that I have seen before.

By “James parody” I mean that it is propelled by the kinds of little emotional moves that Jamesians call “subtle” and that it is written like this:

It surprised Thursdale to find what freshness of heart he brought to the adventure; and though his sense of irony prevented his ascribing his intactness to any conscious purpose, he could but rejoice in the fact that his sentimental economies had left him such a large surplus to draw upon.  (269, page references to original edition)

Wharton catches James’s metaphorical mode:

The words fell strangely on the scented stillness of the room: they seemed out of harmony with its setting of afternoon intimacy, the kind of intimacy on which, at any moment, a visitor might intrude without perceptibly lowering the atmosphere.  It was as though a grand opera-singer had strained the acoustics of a private music-room.  (277)

If “strained the acoustics” sounds odd, it is.  A paragraph earlier, the narrator interrupts a character’s impassioned speech to note that “she mixed her metaphors a little” (277), which might even be a dig at someone.  Not James.  Jamesian characters.

By contrast, the boy’s adventure story, “A Venetian Night’s Entertainment,” where the energetic all-American lad is set loose on Venice:

A moment more and he was in the thick of it!  Here was the very world of the old print, only suffused with sunlight and colour, and bubbling with merry noises.  What a scene it was!  (319)

Or:

Tony was no chicken-heart.  He had something of a name for pugnacity among the lads of his own age at home, and was not the man to stand in Venice what he would have resented in Salem…  (324)

Wharton’s stylistic adaptability is impressive.  Tomorrow, though, I will stay in Wharton-world, where Wharton sounds like herself.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Her changing mode had something disordered about it - some Balzac organ music in "The Duchesse of Langeais"

A French general has been searching for five years for his lost love, who has fled to a Spanish convent.  He searches every convent in Spain, finding her in the last, most inaccessible, one, perched on a Mediterranean island.  They meet.  The woman tells the attending nun that the general is her brother, but then shifts – “’I lied to you, this man is my lover!’”  Thus, the general knows that she still loves him.

Thus begins “The Duchesse of Langeais,” the 1834 novella that ends the NYRB Balzac collection.  Now Balzac flashes back, as we expect – how did these people get here?  Their sadistic and masochistic love affair is described in great detail, with the couple taking turns tormenting each other, reducing each other to subjection.  Psychologically, this is the great interest of the story.

Or more precisely, in terms of the history of psychology in fiction, this is an early example of the portrayal of this particularly psychology.  A century earlier, in Manon Lescaut (1731), the man is dominated by the woman, while here they take turns, crushing each other and then allowing themselves to be crushed in turn.

Balzac begins this section with an essay on the recent history of the French aristocracy – no, the history of the meaning of the French aristocracy – that is among the dullest things I have ever read by him, painfully abstract.  The idea that Balzac’s fiction is useful or good because of his understanding of society or social forces or even ideas is an error.  He is at his worst with ideas, and Anthony Trollope is a much sharper social scientist.  He is great for taking fundamental emotions and psychology and blowing them up, making them bigger, drawing a thick black outline around them.  The result can be cartoonish, like a great caricaturist, or a Cézanne portrait.

The general had known he had found the duchess by the way she played the organ:

She enriched it with graceful developments whose different rhythms spoke of a human gladness.  In its brilliant trills a soprano might try to express her love, and her songs fluttered like a bird near its nest.  Then at moments she leaped back into the past, now to frolic, now to weep.  Her changing mode had something disordered about it, like the agitation of the happy woman at her lover’s return…  Shifting from a major to a minor key, the musician was able to inform her listener of her present lot.  Now she told him of her long melancholy, her lingering moral malady.  (290-1)

Is this the general’s projection, or something in the performance?  It really is her, though.  In Balzac’s fiction, this is possible.

“The Duchesse of Langeais” is part of a trio of novellas, The History of the Thirteen, all of which feature some nonsense about a secret society (the general is a member).  I have not read “Ferragus,” but the “The Girl with the Golden Eyes” is perhaps my least favorite Balzac, not the worst thing I have read by him, but the most unpleasant, a story of lust and murder told in lurid golds and crimsons that later became a touchstone of French Decadence.  “Langeais” threatens to go in that direction at one point, but backs off, finally turning into something that could easily be a Three Musketeers episode:

This stairway, miraculously light and perfectly solid, cost twenty-two days of labor.  A phosphorous light and the undertow of the waves would destroy all trace of it forever in a single night…   Montriveau slept on the rock for two nights, wrapped in his cloak.  (412)

More, more, more, more suffering, more money, more ambition.  More, Balzac, more.

Friday, May 13, 2016

So great had been his pleasure – or, perhaps, so terrible his torment - Balzac goes big

Balzac is a writer of superlatives.  His characters are the richest financier, the most beautiful young man, the most sexually exciting courtesan, the greatest criminal mind.  His lovers love with the most powerful intensity; his cynics are the most cynical.  His Romanticism can be exhausting.  His so-called “realism” is overrated.  Yet both Madame Bovary and The Three Musketeers launch off of Balzac.

The sculptor Sarrasine is at the theater.  He sees, for the first time, the famous soprano, La Zampinella:

Sarrasine cried out in pleasure.  There before his marveling eyes stood that ideal beauty whose perfections he had thus far sought out only in bits and pieces…  In La Zampinella he found – united, delicate, and perfectly alive – all the exquisite proportions for which he so yearned, all the perfections of a femininity of which a sculptor is at once the sternest and most passionate critic…  So great had been his pleasure – or, perhaps, so terrible his torment – that his life had poured out of hum like water from an overturned vase…  Passion had left him utterly undone  (“Sarrasine,” 126-8)

This is all from a single paragraph, over two pages long, of the same rhetorical character.  I had trouble pulling quotations in that almost every line was useful for my point – “ideal,” “utterly,” “perfections.”  Some ironic use is later made of that perfect femininity, more or less the point of “Sarrasine.”

You can also see, with that vase, an example of Balzac’s frequent resort to cliché.  He can be so original, but he wrote so fast.

In “Adieu,” his energy is almost visible.  French soldiers are retreating across Russia.  A major discovers that his lover, a general’s wife, is part of the retreat.  He will save her – he will sacrifice himself and save them both!  If only they, and the French army, can cross the river.  A bridge gives way under the crush:

No shriek could be heard, only a dull sound like a stone falling into water, and a moment later, the river was clotted with corpses…  After trampling and breaking so many dying bodies, the horses were soon crushed to death in their turn, overrun by the human cyclone sweeping over the bank.  The major and the grenadier survived purely by main force.  They killed so as not to be killed.  The hurricane of human faces, this surge of bodies, animated by one single movement left the bank of the Berezina deserted for a few moments.  The herd had poured back onto the plain.  (“Adieu,” 181-2)

On and on, wilder and wilder.  An avalanche, a wave, a brush fire, every comparison Balzac has at hand, none original, but what a page-turner, and that is without the tension of whether the major or his mistress will survive, since I know from the frame story – there is always a frame story – that both characters live, although the poor countess has lost her mind.

The truly crazy part of the story, an extraordinary invention, is when the major, in an attempt to restore the countess’s sanity, re-creates the river crossing in France, using sets, costumes, a thousand peasants and a canal dug to simulate the Russian river – using specially made wartime ruins (“He erected huts, campsites, batteries, then incinerated them,” 194).  That, in Balzac, is what dedication and true love looks like.

Big and bigger.  The NYRB Selected Stories really gets this aspect of Balzac across, maybe more than any other.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The NYRB collection of Balzac stories - a useful book

A brief repetition of my antique advice about Honoré  de Balzac:

Père Goriot (1835) is the centerpiece of Balzac’s conception of a gigantic, interlinked web of fiction, so I’ll take for granted that you ought to read that one.  It’s the entryway to Lost Illusions (1837-43) and A Harlot High and Low (1838-47), Balzac’s grand opera.  Many shorter works hook onto these.  Plus it is arguably Balzac’s single best novel, all on its own.

I give that honor to Eugénie Grandet (1833), more perfect in structure and detail, what I and a later French tradition think of as artful.  Balzac is rarely interested in perfect.

The vengeful Cousin Bette (1846) and the cheery Ursule Mirouët (1841) are also good slabs of Balzac.

Much of the best or most Balzacish Balzac is in his shorter fiction.  Some of it is essential to understanding pieces of the gigantic Human Comedy apparatus – plot, characters, metaphysics – and some of it is as good as anything Balzac wrote.

The most recent English-language collection, The Human Comedy: Selected Stories (2014) from NYRB Classics is a most helpful book.  The translations are all new, from several translators.  Highlights:

“A Passion in the Desert” (1830), Balzac’s best story.

“The Red Inn” (1831) and “Gobseck” (1830), nearly necessary appendices to Père Goriot.  I mean, there is a chunk of the novel that makes no sense without “Gobseck,” a downside of making everything connected.  The Human Comedy is like DC Comics – it has “continuity” with the accompanying pleasures and aggravations.

“The Red Inn” is available in an older Penguin Classics collection, also useful, but to my knowledge “Gobseck” had not been translated for a hundred years.  Baffling.

Then there is “Sarrasine” (1831), perhaps Balzac’s most-read story since it became the foundation-text for S/Z (1970), a work of structuralist theory by Roland Barthes.  How many graduate students have read this bit of Balzac and nothing else.  It is good to have “Sarrasine” restored to its place among the other stories.

A third of the NYRB collection is a single work, the novella “The Duchess de Langeais” (1834), a risky move since some of it is pretty dull.  Other parts, though, show where Alexander Dumas learned how to write adventure novels.

With this book, I have read 39 pieces of the 91 or 93 or 97 parts of The Human Comedy,  not quite 5,000 pages. Ten novels and twenty-nine shorter things.  It is important to read the shorter pieces in order to run up the count.

Tomorrow I will try to write something about the stories themselves, a bit of a “best of” post, but just as a consumer guide: this book was long overdue.  It fills a gap in a way NYRB’s earlier Balzac volume, The Unknown Masterpiece, did not, although anyone interested in art would not want to miss that title story.  Only two stories overlap with the Penguin Selected Short Stories, which is of comparable quality, but omits “A Passion in the Desert.”  Neither collection includes “The Firm of Nucingen,” another Père Goriot adjunct.  Someone should publish a book titled  Père Goriot Plus, with the novel plus all of the related short fiction.  NYRB Classics should publish a third volume of Balzac stories.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Satires of Circumstance - Thomas Hardy visits some graves

Satires of Circumstance, Thomas Hardy, 1914.  A great book.  “Channel Firing,” “The Convergence of the Twain,” “God’s Funeral,” “The Workbox.”  The “Poems of 1912-13” sequence, for his deceased wife, and many more poems tracing their love affair and marriage from the beginning, decades earlier.  Plenty of fun for the reader of Hardy’s novels, too, with lots of moments and characters that look familiar.  The first poem, “In Front of the Landscape,” at times sounds like a tribute or farewell to Hardy’s characters:

Later images too did the day unfurl me,
           Shadowed and sad,
Clay cadavers of those who had shared in the dramas,
            Laid now at ease,
Passions all spent, chiefest the one of the broad brow
            Sepulture-clad.

Although Hardy as likely meant real people, or a new set of imaginary people to kill off.  The poems are full of the dead, full of graves, possibly even too many graves.  The last two poems are set at graves.  The last poem in the next-to-last section is set at Hardy’s grave, and he was alive.

“The Moth-Signal” is another Wessex poem.  Just like in The Return of the Native, a moth (“the pale-winged token”) is used to signal a nighttime rendezvous, this time adulterous.  The lovers do not know they are observed:

Then grinned the Ancient Briton
    From the tumulus treed with pine:
‘So, hearts are thwartly smitten
   In these days as mine!’  (ll. 33-6)

Ancient graves, new graves, graves everywhere.  Two poems are about the graves of cats. In one of them, the cat is buried among other graves, ancient Roman ones:

‘Here say you that Caesar’s warriors lie? –
But my little white cat was my only friend!
Could she but live, might the record die
Of Caesar, his legions, his aims, his end!’  (ll. 17-20, “The Roman Gravemounds”)

“The Workbox” follows, with a carpenter making his wife a sewing box out of the scraps from a coffin:

‘The shingled pattern that seems to cease
    Against your box’s rim
Continues right on in the piece
    That’s underground with him.’  (ll. 13-16)

The wife is freaked out, perhaps by her husband’s placidity in the presence of death, possibly for other reasons.  “The Workbox” is much-assigned to youngsters for mangling and explication, so a quick poke at the internet turned up lots of ideas I had never considered.  Maybe the carpenter murdered the dead man.  Maybe the wife murdered him.  One of my favorites, regardless.

Hardly is brilliantly musical in this book, his “fulth of numbers freaked with musical closes” as he says in a tribute to and parody of  Swinburne (“A Singer Asleep”), even if I have not given many such examples.

      Between the folding sea-downs,
                  In the gloom
      Of a wailful wintry nightfall,
                When the boom
Of the ocean, like a hammering in a hollow tomb…  (ll. 1-5, “The Re-enactment”)

O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.  (ll. 1-3, “Beeny Cliff,” )

        Over the mirrors meant
        To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.  (ll. 7-9, “The Convergence of the Twain”)

Looking ahead, Hardy’s poetry books stay pretty strong, don’t they?  Surely not this strong.

Monday, May 9, 2016

they knew that it was modern - J. Alfred Prufrock looks for a girlfriend

Howling Frog inspired me to revisit, after a couple of decades, T. S. Eliot’s first book, or pamphlet, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) – what an enticing cover – which in 31 pages contains “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and other good poems.

I find that the status of Eliot, however eroded now, mutes his humor, so what a good reminder how funny he can be, in his grim way.  Plus I made two “discoveries,” first that the poems make perfect sense – more sense – if they are assumed to be about and in the voice of a single character.  Prufrock, I’ll call him.

He is timid and anxious; he imagines proposing to a woman but does nothing but dither; he is constantly in the society of Boston women of an intellectual type – lots of afternoon concerts – many of whom are his cousins and aunts; he exists in a state of perpetual sexual frustration.  The horsey cousin, Nancy, is especially exciting and unattainable.

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
but they knew that it was modern.  (34)

Prufrock is going abroad soon (see “Portrait of a Lady” – “’You hardly know when you are coming back, / You will find so much to learn’” – also see Eliot’s biography) and by the end of the sequence takes, or possibly imagines, his farewell to Boston and one or more real or imaginary woman (“La Figlia che Piange”).

Prufrock is commonly taken as middle-aged, but my second “discovery” was that the poems seem more comprehensible and funnier if Prufrock is young, if he is somewhere around Eliot’s age, twenty-five, maybe.  Just as an example, his anxiety about his bald spot is funnier if the balding barely exists.  His related anxiety about his sexual potency is more pathetic, and the poem (“Rhapsody on a Windy Night”) where he spends the night wandering the streets, resisting the temptation to engage a prostitute, more frightening.  His strong senses of disgust and inadequacy help him in that case.  Poor guy is a mess.

Eliot omits a lot of narrative information from any given poem, so what I am doing is filling in the gaps in one poem with scraps of the other poems.  If I pull out a poem by itself, I get a different interpretation, sure.

Marina Tsvetayeva called newspaper readers faceless skeletons.  Eliot says

The readers of the Boston Evening TranscriptSway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.
When evening quickens faintly in the street,

Wakening the appetites of life in some
And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript,
I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld,
If the street were time and he at the end of the street,
And I say, “Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript.” (32)

First,  the joke, of the “there are two kinds of people” variety, and what kind is the poor speaker?  Second, if I take this to be Prufrock then he has come over from Cambridge to attend one of his aunt’s “evenings” where the women talk of Michelangelo or “hear the latest Pole / Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and fingertips” (17-18).  Actually, that is specified to be an afternoon concert in “Portrait of a Lady,” the one poem where the narrator is directly identified as young, unless you want the person addressing him to be older, in which case the passage is ironic in a different way.

‘You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.’
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.  (19)

The famous fog-as-cat passage of “Prufrock” is the best thing in the book.  The fogs coils its way into several other poems.  Maybe I should have just written about that.

“Squalid,” Howling Frog calls these poems.  I say they’re the all time great poetic sequence about a guy who needs a girlfriend.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

An' a fork an' a spoon an' the moon an' the moon - D. H. Lawrence's first book of poems

D. H. Lawrence’s first book of poems is Love Poems, and Others (1913).  I read the 1915 edition, the copy at the Princeton Library, which was a bequest of Hamilton Cottier, class of 1922.  Cottier added a handwritten note on what the scan calls page iv.  He, or someone, added a handwritten note in 1916 saying that the book “add[s] to the interesting, but far from satisfying, impression of Love that Lawrence gives” and is “Of minor interest and no importance as poetry.”  Ouch!  I have little temperamental sympathy for Lawrence, but I liked it more than that.

Sometimes, certainly, a poem falls into Lawrence kitsch, like a self-parody:

        If only then
You could have unlocked the moon on the night,
And I baptize myself in the light
Of your love; we both have entered then the white
        Pure passion, and never again.  (from “Reminder,” p. 29)

Specifically, the “white / Pure passion” is what I am calling kitsch, but there are surely too many moons in this book.

Having said that, his voice is already original, truly his own, and he is thinking in terms of imagery that is his own:

I slept till dawn at the window blew in like dust,
Like the linty, raw-cold dust disturbed from the floor
Of a disused room: a grey pale light like must
That settled upon my face and hands till it seemed
To flourish there, as pale mold blooms on a crust.  (from “Coldness in Love,” 21)

It took me some effort to understand that this sentence followed ordinary grammatical rules.  The speaker does not sleep until dawn!  Well, he does, but the sentence has other business.  My point is more that this stanza could be plopped into a Lawrence novel with minor changes.

Sometimes Lawrence is playful in the way of poets.  Assume a bee, a rose, a “you”:

Wait among the beeches
For your late bee who beseeches
To creep through your loosened hair till he reaches,
    Your heart of dismay.  (from “Song-day in Autumn,” 35)

Lawrence also experiments with loose long lines, lone for English, with six or seven feet, if I am counting right, which I doubt (this is a complete poem):

A White Blossom

A tiny moon as white and small as a single jasmine
        flower
Leans all alone above my window, on night’s wintry
        bower,
Liquid as lime-tree blossoms, soft as brilliant water or
       rain
She shines, the one white love of my youth, which
        all sin cannot stain.

This poet really loves the moon.

Aside from the love poems, Love Poems contains a section of narrative poems in dialect, the highlight being “The Collier’s Wife,” where the title character is told her husband is injured and is in response almost too practical.  It is a different kind of love poem:

An’ a fork an’ a spoon he’ll want, an’ what else;
    I s’ll never catch that train –
What a trapse it is if a man gets hurt –
    I s’d think he’ll get right again.  (76)

The book ends with three poems under the heading “The Schoolmaster,” a glimpse at Lawrence’s frustrations (“I am sick, and tired more than any thrall,” 88) from his short time as a schoolteacher.  The poems are a mix of the concrete and Lawrence weirdness:

But the faces of the boys, in the brooding, yellow light
Have shone for me like a constellation of stars,
Like full-blown flowers dimly shaking at the night,
Like floating froth on an ebbing shore in the moon.  (from “A Snowy Day in School,” 82)

Maybe this is also a love poem.  It uses the same language as the rest of the book.

Friday, May 6, 2016

There was talk some years ago about novels going out - the rigid artistry of Howells

“The test of the value of Mr. Howells’ work will come fifty years from now, when his sheaf of novels will form the most accurate, sympathetic and artistic study of American society yet made by an American.”

That is Hamlin Garland as quoted by cub reporter Stephen Crane as found in “Howell Discussed at Avon-by-the-Sea” (1891, Library of America, p. 457).  Garland calls A Modern Instance “the greatest, most rigidly artistic novel ever written by an American.” 

“Well,” submitted Irene.  (The Rise of Silas Lapham, last line of Ch. 17)

The characters in Silas Lapham, Bostonian and Vermontian alike, frequently begin sentences with “Well,” or use the word as a sentence.  Writers are told not to mess around with alternatives to “said,” but Howells is comically skilled in that department and I can see how he leads other writers astray.

The critic William Pritchard wrote a helpful appreciation in the Winter 2011 issue of The Hudson Review (“Howells and the Right American Stuff”) in which he traces the Rise of William Dean Howells, by which like Howells he also means the fall, the slow fade of the most powerful American Man of Letters (editor, critic, champion) of the late 19th century at the hands of H. L. Mencken (“uninspired and hollow…  elegant and shallow,” p. 560) and others.

Pritchard takes for granted that the core of Howells’s novels are the 1880s run – A Modern Instance (1882), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Indian Summer (1886), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889) – are significant novels; he a couple of earlier novels and four later obscurities.  He is like a book blogger, pawing through this forgotten stuff.  He notes that because these novels are so unknown

my procedure will be more scattershot and partial in an attempt to bring out some of the pungent style of each novel [now we see why I like this essay so much].  This is done in hopes that putative readers may find a well-stocked library with these novels on their shelves, having been borrowed last in, say, 1905 or thereabouts.  (561)

The implicit question is “What have we lost?” by abandoning these books for others.  They’re all good books, obviously.  Pritchard picks out the tormented, even Dostoevskian embezzler of The Quality of Mercy (1892), and the amusing portrait of the publishing industry in The World of Chance (1893) among other passages and characters.  Sort of sad, all of this good writing and inventiveness now necessarily forgotten because the novels that contain it are not quite good enough.

It will happen to Silas Lapham, too.  The biggest loss will be Chapter 14, the long dinner party scene, the peak of the rise of Silas Lapham, where “the talk [runs] off upon a subject that Lapham had never heard talked of before,” meaning novels:

“There was talk some years ago,” said James Bellingham, “about novels going out.”

“They're just coming in!” cried Miss Kingsbury.

Yes, that’s the spirit!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

“I see you’re reading ‘Middlemarch.’” - William Dean Howells divides people into groups

I am early in the marriage plot of The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885).  Corey, from Boston society and 18th century money, will perhaps marry Irene Lapham, daughter of the new-money Vermont paint baron.  Penelope is the other daughter:

But after Corey greeted Irene he glanced at the novel under his eye, and said, in the dearth that sometimes befalls people at such times: “I see you’re reading ‘Middlemarch.’  Do you like George Eliot?”

“Who?” asked the girl.

Penelope interposed.  “I don’t believe Irene’s read it yet.  I’ve just got it out of the library…  I wish she [Eliot] would let you find out a little about the people for yourself,” she added.  But here her father struck in:

“I can’t get the time for books.”  (Ch. 7)

Middlemarch (1871) is a recurring motif the Howells novel.  It is used as a stand-in for culture in general.  The nouveau entrepreneur has no time for culture, while everyone in Boston society reads Middlemarch as soon as it is published, and in between is Penelope, capable of matching the old money intellectually, but in the cultural rearguard, reading Middlemarch late, reading a library copy; then there’s poor Irene.

The events of Silas Lapham suggest that it is set sometime after 1873, when the Long Depression begins – rough times for a commercial paint manufacturer.  This idea that reading the library book, reading the novel a couple of years late (“’I didn’t know it was so old.  It’s just got into the Seaside Library,’” Ch. 9) is a genuine point of division between the social levels of the two families, and also between the two daughters, the one who reads and the one who does not.  Chapter 9, the source of the proceeding injured protest, includes an excruciating scene where Irene and Corey for advice on stocking the library of their new million dollar (in 2016 $) mansion.  Poor Irene.

It is not at all clear that all of those cultured readers of Middlemarch, a book of great ethical depth and artistic complexity, have gotten much out of it.  As Corey’s mother, a Middlemarch reader, comments:

“I suppose it’s the plain sister who’s reading ‘Middlemarch.’”  (Ch. 8)

The major temperamental division turns out, though, to be different than who has  read what but rather who is an ironist and who is not, and to what degree.    The entrepreneur is the model of sincerity – he has faith in his paint – although one daughter, the reader, is an ironist, “satirical” as Corey calls her.  The old money characters have been corrupted by irony to the point of dysfunction.  The useless father of that family is even Wildean at times:

His father shook his head with an ironical sigh.  “Ah, we shall never have a real aristocracy while this plebeian reluctance to live upon a parent or a wife continues the animating spirit of our youth.  It strikes at the root of the whole feudal system.”  (Ch. 5)

That really should be read as if Mr. Corey is Aunt Augusta in Earnest.  On the other side is the strange, blunt episode in Chapter 17 where Reverend Howells – I mean Reverend Sewell – preaches the Gospel of Common Sense to the paint maker and his wife; the scene is either a flop or a brutal form of counterpoint.  After all, Howells is an ironist, too.  These hilarious lines – paragraphs – close a chapter:

“Well, we must stand it, anyway,” said Mrs. Lapham, with the grim antique Yankee submission.

“Oh yes, we’ve got to stand it,” said Penelope, with the quaint modern American fatalism.  (Ch. 9)

If only he’d let me find out a little about the people for myself.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Rise of Silas Lapham - colors, pencils, and plots

When Bartley Hubbard went to interview Silas Lapham for…

Hey, Bartley Hubbard, I know that guy.  He’s the no-good journalist husband in A Modern Instance (1882), and here he is, the first thing I see in the first line of The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885).  Why waste time coming up with a second Boston journalist when you have spent so much energy on this one.  William Dean Howells had been reading Balzac and Zola.  He was a great champion of international fiction.

What else do I learn in this first chapter.  The journalist interviews the title character for a newspaper profile, a handy device for a novelist that would grow old fast.  Silas Lapham is a paint manufacturer.  He inherited a Vermont paint mine – who knew there were such things – and developed it into a successful company.  Whatever else Howells does, he creates a convincing entrepreneurial type, a rare feat.

Silas Lapham already seems to have risen quite a lot.  A few chapters later, he begins building a million dollar mansion, for example.  Maybe the title is ironic.  Maybe Howells will describe his fall.

Oh no, Lapham has two daughters of marriageable age!  Why, this novel isn’t going to be about paint manufacturing after all – it’s a dang marriage plot, isn’t it?    It is.  Can vulgar, energetic new money find love and happiness with Boston’s listless but sophisticated old money?

Anthony Trollope – the novel resembles Trollope far more than anything French I have ever read – would alternate and parallel the two strands, the business plot and the marriage plot.  Howells, strangely, works on the marriage story for a couple hundred pages, brings it to a crisis, and suspends it, then he launches the business plot.  I began to wonder if Howells had forgotten about the marriage plot.  He returns to it with 22 pages to go, which turned out to be sufficient, but still.  Kinda off-kilter.  But what’s so special about working up parallel plots that have little to do with each other, the A-plot / B-plot of the well-made sitcom?  Howells’s structure is fine, just unusual.

The business plot is a good portrait of the entrepreneurial character, or the interaction between ethics and risk.  The marriage plot is more deeply ironic.  I’ll save that for tomorrow.

The prose of Silas Lapham can be dully plain: “He took a note-book from his pocket, laid it on his knee, and began to sharpen a pencil” (first page).  Or alternatively:

… at the end of one [street] the spars of a vessel penciled themselves delicately against the cool blue of the afternoon sky.  The air was full of a smell pleasantly compounded of oakum, of leather, and of oil.  It was not the busy season, and they met only two or three trucks heavily straggling toward the wharf with their long string teams; but the cobble-stones of the pavement were worn with the dint of ponderous wheels, and discolored with iron-rust from them; here and there, in wandering streaks over its surface, was the gray stain of the salt water with which the street had been sprinkled.  (Ch. 1)

The smells remind me that the context is commercial paint, for buildings, ships and machinery.  That the ship’s masts are “penciled” or that the street’s colors are “iron-rust” and “gray” are the narrator’s subtle counterpoint to his hero Silas Lapham, who would like to paint that ship, that street, everything, in bolder, long-lasting colors.  Maybe a little jab at the corroded journalist, too, who uses his pencil for less elegant purposes.

Tomorrow, Middlemarch.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Vladislav Khodasevich - sound is more honest than meaning / and strongest of all is a word

Vladislav Khodasevich is a poet I knew via Nabokov, who had translated three of his poems and had a character based on him in The Gift (1938), a Russian poet in exile in Berlin.  The 2014 Selected Poems translated by Peter Daniels is surprisingly the first book-length collection of Khodasevich in English.

Whyever not the four-foot iamb,
cherished from before the flood?
And what to sing, if not to sing
the iamb’s gift, so rich and good?  (p. 169, 1938)

The ideal of the formalist poet, that the form itself is “cherished.”  Khodasevich is a Russian classicist, here invoking his great 18th century predecessors.  More commonly he refers to, quotes, and idolizes Pushkin.  Do I have much hope of identifying such references through the fogginess of at least two translators, Daniels and whoever’s Pushkin I read?  Surely I do not.  One more reason to be happy that there is now a book, with many notes.

“The Automobile” (1921) is a poem about poetic inspiration.  It is a good place to see what the similarities between Khodasevich and Nabokov.  It is night; a car is approaching.

Its paint of shimmering glossy black,
its crystal facets shining bright;
into the dark it stretches out
two broad angelic wings of white.  (p.115)

Actually, I can imagine Nabokov objecting that an angel’s wings are on its back, not coming out of its eyes, but setting that aside, the visual precision and the originality of turning headlights into wings are appealing.

The angels return with a Rilke-like frequency.  In a poem describing fishermen launching their boats, an unfurled sail becomes “a rosy-feather wing”

And others making their approach
to join the first, unhurriedly,
are ruffling with their flowing wings
the smoky darkness of the sea.

The thickening clouds are in a swirl;
angels are rising on patrol,
and who would think, among them, simple
boats with nets are setting sail?  (p. 119, 1922)

Why so many poems about poetry, about metaphor?  Khodasevich elaborates in “Ballada” – “Ballad of the Heavy Lyre” for Daniels, “Orpheus” for Nabokov – that poetry is a transcendence of all earthly things, and also of death.  Pure Schopenhauer.

Oh my life is so worthless, a quagmire
where I’m stuck with no way to get free!

Inspiration strikes, somehow, a mystery, but:

It’s nothing but passionate nonsense!
Whatever it means, it’s absurd,
But sound is more honest than meaning,
and strongest of all is a word. (p. 121, 1921)

A formalist, I think I mentioned.  In the first stanza, the poet is gazing at his ceiling, at the light fixture, “a plasterwork heaven,” and now “a music, the music of music” (originally “и музыка , музыка, музыка”, “and music, music, music”) causes him to rise from “where I exist but am dead” into the world beyond the veil (“there is no plasterwork heaven”).  He plays the lyre like Orpheus, making not the rocks but his sad exile’s furniture dance to his song.

So there is a lot at stake in a poem, says Khodasevich.

Since I took a break from reading early 20th century Russian poets, I will now have to cease writing about them for a little while.  What a cohort.