Saturday, June 25, 2016

It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him - looking for Wilde in Dorian Gray

My problem with The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) had been that one major character, Lord Henry Wotton, speaks in the voice of Oscar Wilde, the voice that Wilde would soon use so effectively in his great comedies, the voice of Wilde the celebrity.  Jokes and paradoxes.

“A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”

“Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know.”

“One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details.  Details are always vulgar.”

That stuff.  Sometimes really funny, sometimes chaff.  I fell into the trap of taking Wilde’s voice as representative of Wilde the author, the persona as the artist.

In A Woman of No Importance (1893), the single most Wilde-like man is openly a rake, and the villain of the play.  His name is Lord Illingworth, for pity’s sake.  Wilde sometimes pairs him with a different kind of comic figure, a woman who has no idea what he talking about.

LORD ILLINGWORTH. The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.

LADY HUNSTANTON. Ah! That quite does for me.  I haven’t a word to say.  You and I, dear Mrs. Arbuthnot, are behind the age.  We can’t follow Lord Illingworth.  Too much care was taken with our education, I am afraid.  Too have been well brought up is a great drawback now-a-days.  It shuts one out from so much.  (Act III)

Wilde repeats this joke several times, always after an especially empty quip of Illingworth’s, every one of which is, I will bet, a line that Wilde himself used at parties.  He is puncturing his own persona.

In Dorian Gray, he does it in a couple of different ways.  After the horror story gets going, Lord Wotton reappears after a long absence, and is given a long stretch of bantering with a new character.  What was fresh and lively in the first chapter is sour and tedious, and out of place, after the murder and sordidness of the book’s middle.  Now this seems like a deliberate effect of Wilde’s.  But even earlier, right from the beginning, he was doing something that makes me curious.  The line up above about the natural pose is followed closely by:

The sunlight slipped over the polished leaves.  In the grass, white daisies were tremulous.  (Ch. 1)

Similarly:

“I am quite sure I shall understand it,” he replied, gazing intently at the little golden white-feathered disk, “and as for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”

The wind shook some blossoms from the trees, and the heavy lilac blooms, with their clustering stars, moved to and fro in the languid air.

Perhaps the narrator is introducing a pause while the reader laughs.  Or the narrator’s attention turns to the flowers, away from the vapid line.  The overcooked lyricism of the lines (“tremulous”) is suspicious.  If the details are always vulgar, well, what about these?

Now I am more inclined to find Wilde in the painter Basil Hallward, earnest, thoughtful, so in love with Dorian Gray’s beauty that he magically preserves it, a pure artist:

“Art is always more abstract than we fancy.  Form and colour tell us of form and colour – that is all.  It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him.”  (Ch. 9)

Which could itself be a paradox or misdirection.  It survives for other reasons, but this is a novel about aesthetics.

Friday, June 24, 2016

What Dorian Gray’s sins are no one knows.

When The Picture of Dorian Gray was serialized, it was widely and snarkily reviewed.  Wilde engaged, with a couple of the reviewers, leading to exchanges of letters that are worth reading.  I mean Wilde’s – come to think of it, maybe I should read the other side, but only Wilde’s letters are included in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde (ed. Richard Ellmann, 1969).

The publicity was obviously good for all parties involved.

The letters contain a number of Wilde’s aesthetic principles, cleanly stated.  “The supreme pleasure in literature is to realise the non-existent,” that sort of thing (p. 240).

Dorian Gray magically acquires eternal youth and beauty, and thus enters into a life of sensuality and vice.  Setting aside the homemade perfumes and stamp collecting and so on, many readers, including this one, have been puzzled by the vagueness of Dorian’s vices, at least before we watch him commit a murder. 

It was rumoured that he had been seen brawling with foreign sailors in a low den in the distant parts of Whitechapel, and that he consorted with thieves and coiners and knew the mysteries of their trade.  His extraordinary absences became notorious, and, when he used to reappear again in society, men would whisper to each other in corners, or pass him with a sneer, or look at him with cold searching eyes, as though they were determined to discover his secret. (Ch. 11)

Brothels and opium would be the usual candidates, but in his response to the Scots Observer, Wilde is clear:

To keep this atmosphere vague and indeterminate and wonderful was the aim of the artist who wrote the story.  I claim, sir, that he has succeeded.  Each man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray.  What Dorian Gray’s sins are no one knows.  He who finds them has brought them.  (248)

So the novel is different for each reader.  In my case, that “low den” is a apparently a fried chicken shack, or a taqueria, or maybe a barbecue stand.  Dorian gets to eat and eat and it only his picture that suffers, while I have to be virtuous.  Wilde to the newspaper:

But, alas! they will find that it is a story with a moral.  And the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment.  (240)

So true.  Other readers, other renunciations, or excesses.

The reason the exact nature of the vice does not matter, and why there is all that stuff about perfumes and tapestries, is that the moral of the novel is not really what Wilde claims here, but is rather a warning about living an over-aestheticized life, just like in his earlier fairy tales, where birds and statues martyred themselves for a beauty that was ignored or obliterated.  Dorian’s first crime, early in the novel, is cruelty to Sibyl Vane, a young Shakespearean actress, who he wants to marry when he thinks she is good but dumps when he discovers she is bad.  He is in love with Juliet, not the actual person.

“The moment she touched actual life, she marred it, and it marred her, and so she passed away.  Mourn for Ophelia, if you like.  Put ashes on your head because Cordelia was strangled…  But don’t waste your tears over Sibyl Vane.  She was less real than they are.”

There was a silence.  The evening darkened in the room.  Noiselessly, and with silver feet, the shadows crept in from the garden.  The colours faded wearily out of things.  (Ch. 8)

Even though it is written in Wilde’s own voice, Wilde thinks this idea, especially the end of the dialogue, is monstrous, aesthetics as crime.  The curious thing is the authorial commentary that immediately follows.  I will try to follow that thread tomorrow.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Then he turned his attention to embroideries - the collage of The Picture of Dorian Gray

With some new context, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890, 1891) for the third time.  Three times is a lot for me, especially for a second-rate books like Wilde’s only novel, or collage fiction, or whatever it is.  But I had new information to bring to the book – Wilde’s criticism, his letters, especially some amusing sparring with newspaper reviewers which is instantly identifiable as what some of us now call “clickbait,” and finally J.-K. Huysmans’s À rebours (1884), a novel that is alluded to at tedious length.

The book does look quite a bit different to me now, so I suppose this exercise has been a success.

The parts of the collage are as follows:

1. The two page “Preface,” a prose poem in aphorism form.  “All art is quite useless,” etc.  I used to think the Preface was meant sincerely, an error on my part.

2. A penny dreadful horror story, a good one, with a murder and so on.

3. Passages stolen pretty cleanly from Huysmans, mostly in the hilarious Chapter 11, declared unreadable by many good readers, in which young, beautiful Dorian, given license to live a life of pure, consequence-free pleasure, vice and evil, spends his time as follows:

And so he would now study perfumes, and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily scented oils, and burning odorous gums from the East…

At another time, he devoted himself to music, and in a long latticed room, with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer, he used to give curious concerts  in which mad gypsies tore wild music from little zithers, or grave yellow-shawled Tunisians plucked at the strained strings of monstrous lutes, while grinning negroes beat monotonously upon copper drums, and, crouching upon scarlet mats, slim turbaned Indians blew through long pipes of reed or brass, and charmed, or feigned to charm, great hooded snakes and horrible horned adders…

Then he turned his attention to embroideries…

And so on.  “Then he became obsessed with quilting, and won several ribbons at the county fair.  Next, it was canning, especially spicy bread-and-butter pickles.”  Terrifying, the depths of Dorian Gray’s evil.

4. Prose versions of the paradox and banter that will soon, beginning with Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), form the core of an extraordinary series of plays.  Although often hilarious in the novel, this kind of dialogue is set free in the plays.  Wilde frequently loots his own novel, stealing the best jokes, and also some other jokes, and distributing them among the plays.  E.g. from Dorian Gray,

“Men have educated us.”

“But not explained you.”

“Describe us as a sex,” was her challenge.

“Sphinxes without secrets.”  (Ch. 17)

And from A Woman of No Importance (1893):

Lord Illingworth: What do you call a bad man?

Mrs. Allonby: The sort of man who admires innocence.

Lord Illingworth:  And a bad woman?

Mrs. Allonby:  Oh! the sort of woman a man never gets tired of.

Lord Illingworth:  You are severe – on yourself.

Mrs. Allonby:  Define us as a sex.

Lord Illingworth:  Sphinxes without secrets.  (Act I)

Apparently that line is so good it counts as a scored point in the banter duel.

It is to Wilde’s credit that he recognized that #4 was his great innovation but belonged in another form.  A couple of years later, the plays would make Wilde rich and (even more) famous.  A couple of years later than that, he was breaking rocks in prison.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Well, be glad there's nothing worse - Edwin Arlington Robinson's Shakespeare

As much as  I have enjoyed Edwin Arlington Robinson’s books, and as good as The Man against the Sky (1916) is, it may be time for me to switch to his Selected Poems.  Robinson is becoming more abstract; I am becoming more baffled.

Some of the abstraction is a move to an attempt to describe feelings or ideas at a more character-free level – at least I often can’t figure out who the characters are supposed to be – and some of it is a natural side effect of pared-down Robert Browning-like monologues.  I am supposed to be doing a lot of the work, I get that.

Begin with the title of “Bokardo.”  It is a term from formal logic, pure gibberish to me, given as a name to a man stricken with remorse and guilt to the point where he has perhaps attempted suicide.  He is confessing or complaining to the poet, who is unsympathetic.  The 120 lines are the poet’s ironic dismissal of Bokardo’s self-pity:

There’s a debt now on your mind
    More than any gold?
And there’s nothing you can find
    Out there in the cold?
Only – what’s his name? – Remorse?
And Death riding on his horse?
Well, be glad there’s nothing worse
    Than you have told.

Those last lines are brutal, as are a number of others.  It is possible that Bokardo is meant to be Robinson’s brother, who sold the family home at a loss and etc. etc., some list of irritating but petty nonsense that explain nothing about the poem, nor add anything to its imagery or moves toward wisdom:

They that have the least to fear
Question hardest what is here;
When long-hidden skies are clear,
    The stars look strange.

The great treat for me in this collection was the least abstract poem, “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford,” a 25-page monologue of one great poet talking about a greater.  Jonson is having a drink with a Stratfordian:

And I must wonder what you think of him –
All you down there where your small Avon flows
By Stratford, and where you’re an Alderman.

Nominally, he is grilling his guest about Shakespeare and his mysteries – Jonson presents Shakespeare as something of a cipher – but Jonson ends up doing all the talking.  This is all entirely plausible.

I gather something happened in his boyhood
Fulfilled him with a boy’s determination
To make Stratford all ‘ware of him.

The time of the poem is around Shakespeare’s retirement form playwriting, and he is given some kind of crisis of mortality:

“No, Ben,” he mused; “it’s Nothing.  It’s all Nothing.
We come, we go; and when we’re done, we’re done;
Spiders and flies – we’re mostly one or t’other –
We come, we go; and when we’re done, we’re done.”

Jonson suggests that Shakespeare get a dog, and dang it get his plays published (“what he owes to Gutenberg”).

He’ll do it when he’s old, he says.  I wonder.
He may not be so ancient as all that.
For such as he, the thing that is to do
Will do itself.

Just a wonderful tribute to “this mad, careful, proud, indifferent Shakespeare!” and to Jonson, too.  “I love the man this side idolatry.”

No post tomorrow.

Friday, June 17, 2016

in the light of my own vampire - Frankenstein as doppelganger novel

Shelley’s lack of narrative sophistication drove me crazy, as it always has.  I mean the times when Shelley loses control of her three-level narrative frame, when she forgets Victor Frankenstein is not English (II, 6), or inserts pointless digressions, like the digression on farming (I, 5, “A farmer’s is a very healthy happy life,” etc.), or travelogues, like the idyll in Oxford (II, 5, “The colleges are ancient and picturesque; the streets are almost magnificent,” blah blah blah).

But who is in charge here, Shelley or me?  I’m the reader; I’m in charge.  It took some work, but I found the novel I enjoyed more.  It’s Frankenstein as a doppelganger story, the cousin of what E. T. A. Hoffmann had recently written in The Devil’s Elixir (1815-6) and other stories.

Victor is insane and a) there is no monster, or no monster besides himself, or else b) the monster he creates is somehow a version of himself.  He has imprinted his brain patterns on it, or split his personality, or something like that.  Like when the Hulk and Bruce Banner are split apart.  Like in the Buffy episode where Xander is separated into Strong Xander and Weak Xander.  The Victor who narrates is the weak version of himself.  This explains why when his experiment succeeds he immediately freaks out and abandons his poor monster, who could use some guidance and training at that point.  They need to practice their act (that’s a video link).

Here is the first place I noticed Victor stating this idea directly.  His younger brother has just been murdered by the monster – by some monster:

I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect such purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose form the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me.  (I, 6)

Victor becomes more openly insane as the novel progresses:

All pleasures of earth and sky passed before me like a dream, and that thought only had to me the reality of life.  Can you wonder, that sometimes a kind of insanity possessed me, or that I saw continually about me a multitude of filthy animals inflicting on me incessant torture, that often extorted screams and bitter groans?  (II, 6)

The cemetery scene near the novel’s end, which is also the beginning of the final chase, (II, 12) is pure Hoffmann.

I was answered through the stillness of night by a loud and fiendish laugh.  It rung on my ears long and heavily; the mountains re-echoed it, and I felt as if all hell surrounded me with mockery and laughter.

Perhaps Victor did build a corpse-monster, but is that what he is pursuing now?  The novel turns into a fantasia of motion, a blur of geography and dream.

At the end, as Shelley shifts back to the basic frame, both Victor and the monster, a few pages apart, compare themselves to Milton’s Satan.  Victor hoped to be God, but “’like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in eternal hell.’”  The monster merely hoped to be Adam:

“I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and majesty of goodness.  But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.”

The novel I read is even farther from the novel James Whale filmed, but it solves, or eludes, the problems with the narration.  It is not quite as funny as the more literal Frankenstein.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined - Mary Shelley educates her monster

Today is the 200th anniversary of not the publication (1818) but the conception by the 18 year-old Mary Godwin of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus.  Godwin, her lunatic sister, her deranged boyfriend, the most famous poet in Europe (also mad), and some non-entities were celebrating the holiday by reading their favorite passages of Ulysses to each other; creative types, they decided to come up with their own Greek-mythology derived episodes, two of which were published and are read to this day, even though Polidori’s Vampyre is terrible and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also often terrible.

And at other times it is not.  It has a perfect last line, for example.

It is so rich with ideas.  Many books of the type – Dracula, for example – contain a concept so rich that it generates variations and retellings almost spontaneously, and Frankenstein has that kind of strength.  But it also is full of ideas as such, the product, I assume, of Shelley’s extraordinary education.  She would have been not just unusually well read, but would have read unusual things, and had the gifts to strap it all together.

Shelley had been reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau, certainly.  Frankenstein was created in Geneva, Rousseau’s birthplace; the novel of the name is full of Rousseau.  Sometimes Shelley is imitating Rousseau, as in the tedious early family scenes, which could be from Julie, or the New Heloise (1761).  The novice novelist needed a model, so she picked one of the four greatest novels ever written, as is only natural.

More fun is the argument or play with Émile, or On Education (1762) and other educational theories.  Victor Frankenstein, out of a weakness of character, builds and animates a corpse-monster only to immediately abandon it on aesthetic grounds.  The creature is thus responsible for its own education.  My favorite part of the novel has always been the Education of the Monster, the exact center of the novel, as the monster, with the help of some eavesdropping, teaches himself everything – language, philosophy, history, literature, social sciences, etc.  He is Rousseau’s ultimate and ideal experiential learner.

“These wonderful narrations [from world history] inspired me with strange feelings.  Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?  He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike.  (Vol. II, Ch. 1)

When he finally acquires some books of his own, they are “Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter,” which he reads again and again.

“But I thought Werter himself a more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined; his character contained no pretension [!], but it sunk deep.  The disquisitions upon death and suicide were calculated to fill me with wonder.”  (II, 3)

The one thing the monster apparently does not learn is how to understand literary irony.  This sincere misreading of Goethe is going to cause problems later.  The use of Paradise Lost is a more ingenious and more necessary to the novel (is the monster more like Adam, or Satan?) but the self-pitying Werther monster makes me laugh more.

Dolce Bellezza put up a Frankenstein post earlier today, as did Nonsuch Frances, and she has more to come.  I will have one more, too, where I pretend that Frankenstein is the E. T. A. Hoffmann story that it could have been, and almost is.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

As literature, it is beneath contempt. - Kipling's puzzles

It covers a period of two days; runs to twenty-seven pages of large type exclusive of appendices; and carries as many exclamation points as the average Dumas novel.  (43)

This document, beneath contempt, which kicks off “The Bonds of Discipline,” is a puzzle for the Kiplingish narrator, full of indecipherable nonsense about the operations of the British navy.  “Kipling’s” solution to the puzzle is to track down and interview some of the involved parties, who tell a story that is preposterous but solves the puzzle.

The story in Traffics and Discoveries that has suffered a similar fate but without the possibility of interviewing the characters, since they’re fictional, is “Mrs. Bathurst.”  A railway engineer, a pair of sailors (one of whom if in a half-dozen Kipling stories), and “Kipling” share a Bass on a South African beach and work over the strange story of Click, who may or may not have been bigamously married to Mrs. Bathurst, a New Zealand barmaid world-famous (among English sailors) for her sex appeal.  He is freaked out, as we now say, when he sees Mrs. Bathurst in a film, obviously shot in London – why is she there?

“She come forward – right forward – she looked out straight at us with that blindish look which Pritch alluded to.  She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture – like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle, an’ as she went I ‘eard Dawson in the tickey seats be’ind sing out: ‘Christ! There’s Mrs. B!’”  (398)

I love that interruption, a literally nonsensical description that somehow perfectly describes one of the strange visual artifacts of early film.  Motion pictures are all of nine years old at this point.

The story-tellers do their best to pool information – they do pretty well – yet there remain massive gaps in the story.  Is the story about the gaps?  There are some clues to that effect.  But plenty of people have made claims for solutions based on other internal clues.  I have no idea.

“’They’” and “’Wireless’” – I hate Kipling’s habit of putting quotation marks in titles – anyway these two stories could easily be treated as puzzles, too.  In each case “Kipling” encounters a supernatural phenomenon and comes to a conclusion about what it is, with the how left as ineffable.  Perhaps the first-pass interpretations are so satisfying that there is less temptation to probe, while “Mrs. Bathurst” is more frustrating.  Subtle gaps versus huge ones.

“’Wireless’” is a parable of creativity, an investigation of how all the material and psychological and let’s say mystical influences come together in the right way and the result is, in the story, a Keats poem, or a number of lines from a great one, and yet the cause of the poem is still completely unknown.  The tension in this story, even re-reading it, is hard to believe.  The excitement lies in seeing what the next line of a poem will be, even though I already know the next line.  This should be dull.

“’They’” is a gentler thing, a parable of grief, one of the few non-comic ghost stories.  Oddly, also about motoring.  All of the more trivial stories in Traffics and Discoveries end up reinforcing or commenting on the more significant ones.  The motor car is the vehicle to fairyland, and it can help get a doctor to a child quickly.

“Useful things cars,” said Madden, all man and no butler.  “If I’d had one when mine took sick she wouldn’t have died.”  (358)

But now I am moving into the clues (or just ironies), and for what reason, as I have no solution here, either.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

“Would some one mind explaining to me the meaning of every other word you’ve used” - Kipling compresses

“Would some one mind explaining to me the meaning of every other word you’ve used,” I said.  “What’s a trackless ‘heef’?  What’s an Area?  What’s everything generally?” I asked.  (“The Army of a Dream,” 276)

I think, maybe I should write about the good Kipling stories – take a run at the puzzle of “Mrs. Bathurst” or something.  Then I think, good is so overrated.

“The Army of a Dream” is the one story in Traffics and Discoveries that is easily classified as bad.  Kipling dreams himself into a world where England has become highly militarized, with universal conscription and a kind of permanent rotating global militia.  Some of his friends in the militia lead him through its logistics, including a climactic war game in which the scouts rout the regulars.  Or something like that.  I was a couple of steps behind the narrator, and that’s him up above, plenty confused.

Although presented as fiction, as a dream, the ideas for military reform are apparently meant seriously.  Kipling wants peace, so he prepares for war.  The proto-fascist nature of the ideas is blinding, now, painful, in a way that no one in 1904 could have seen, and my impression is that a decade later England would prove that it was all too prepared for war, although the Kiplingist counter-argument would be “Not in the way I meant.”  The story ends with Kipling realizing that the soldiers who have been his guides are all dead, killed in South Africa.

Then it came upon me, with no horror, but a certain mild wonder, that we had waited, Vee and I, for the body of Boy Bailey; and that Vee himself had died of typhoid in the spring of 1902.  The rustling of the papers continued, but Bayley, shifting slightly, revealed to me the three-day old wound on his left side that had soaked the ground around him.  (335)

The end is strangely moving; it’s good.  “The Army of a Dream” is propaganda disguising grief.  A failure, but fascinating.

To return to that first quotation, the method Kipling is pushing harder in T&D than he had before, perhaps harder than is wise, is a radical excision of explanatory material.  Or at his friendliest, a rearrangement.  “A Sahibs’ War” (and this is one of the good stories) begins:

Pass? Pass? Pass? I have one pass already, allowing me to go by the rêl from Kroonstadt to Eshtellenbosch, where the horses are, where I am to be paid off, and whence I return to India. I am a—trooper of the Gurgaon Rissala (cavalry regiment), the One Hundred and Forty-first Punjab Cavalry. Do not herd me with these black Kaffirs. I am a Sikh—a trooper of the State. (85)

He is a Sikh, former servant to “Kurban Sahib, now dead,” etc.  An enormous amount of information here – names of South African cities and Indian military units, plus a large dose of the character’s voice and state of mind, his pride and anger (“Pass?  Pass?  Pass?”) which I can see now, since I have read the story, but the first time, who knows.  I didn’t know what to keep, or since the answer is everything, I was not sure how to keep everything.  It took a long while, for example, for me to understand that Kurban (Corbyn) Sahib was English.  Kipling teaches me the cipher to his code while telling the story.  Yes, as with all significant art, I object, but Kipling now moves faster and skips more steps.  He assumes I can handle it.

Everything in this book, difficult or less so, was originally published as popular magazine fiction.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Kipling tells his tale worthily - some lesser Traffics and Discoveries

What a shame that there is not a recent edition of Rudyard Kipling’s collections of short stories, annotated – in some cases, heavily annotated – on the shelf of a nearby library.  I have been resorting to the scans on Google Books, most recently of Traffics and Discoveries (1904).  The books make sense as books, and it has been valuable to read them as such.

It has been clear enough, though, why no such edition exists.  The wise thing to do with Traffics and Discoveries is to pull out just three stories of eleven, “’Wireless,’” “’They,’” and “Mrs. Bathurst” for a Kipling Selected Stories of whatever size and ignore the one where British sailors play a prank on a French spy, or the one where British sailors play a prank on other British sailors, or the one about driving a car (and then driving a different car (and also playing a prank on a traffic policeman)), or the one about a semi-Utopian, semi-fascist scheme to militarize society, which is barely even a story.

Three greats, and then this other stuff, including several less peculiar stories about soldiers in the Boer War.  The problem here is that the story about, for example, motoring, “Steam Tactics,” is amazing as a piece of craft.  It is almost free of larger meaning but is an extraordinary construction.  It’s ending strongly signals as much – this story is set, I’ll note, in southern England:

He pointed behind us, and I beheld a superb painted zebra (Burchell’s, I think), following our track with palpitating nostrils.  The car stopped, and it fled away.  (233)

An ibis and a cluster of kangaroos also make an appearance.  The exotic animals are explained, but obliquely.  Nothing is ever explained in any way other than obliquely.  How has Kipling been drummed out of Modernism?  These stories are written with a density of detail combined with an absence of explanation that exceeds James Joyce in Dubliners, and a decade earlier.  Anyone who has read “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” thinking Joyce maybe takes a little too much for granted about the depth of his reader’s knowledge about Dublin politics will be perfectly at home in Traffics and Discoveries, except the puzzling we be over naval terminology and technology, which Kipling is sure to get exactly right, or to have a good reason to get wrong, to the delight of British naval veterans of all ages and times – but the rest of us?  From “’Their Lawful Occasions,’” with Kipling on a torpedo boat in the English Channel:

Even now I can at will recall every tone and gesture, with each dissolving picture inboard or overside – Hinchcliffe’s white arm buried to the shoulder in a hornet’s nest of spinning machinery; Moorshed’s halt and jerk to windward as he looked across the water; Pyecroft’s back bent over the Berthon collapsible boat, while he drilled three men in expanding it swiftly; the outflung white water at the foot of a homeward-bound Chinaman not a hundred yards away, and her shallow-slashed, rope-purfled sails bulging sideways like insolent cheeks; the ribbed and pitted coal-dust on our decks, all iridescent under the sun; the first filmy haze that paled the shadows of our funnels around lunch-time; the gradual die-down and dulling over of the short, cheery seas; the sea that changed to a swell; the swell that crumbled up and ran allwither oilily; the triumphant, almost audible roll inward of wandering fog-walls that had been stalking us for two hours, and – welt upon welt, chill as the grave – the interminable main fog of the Atlantic.  (146)

I never use such long quotations and blame no one for skipping this one, but there are some fine things in there if you want to puzzle them out.

Thus we floated in space as souls drift through raw time.  Night added herself to the fog, and I laid hold pf my limbs jealously, lest they, too, should melt in the general dissolution.  (150)

If Kipling survives, “I vowed I would tell my tale worthily,” however much or little there might be to the tale itself.

Friday, June 10, 2016

You were so full of signification! - more James, "The Patagonia" and "The Real Thing"

“I thought you thought everything signified.  You were so full,” she cried, “of signification!”

Yes, exactly, just what that character from “The Patagonia” (1888) said!  Each Henry James story fits into a bigger story about the creativity of Henry James.  In a sense they all do but in another there are plenty of dead ends, misfires, and curves.

“The Patagonia” is the name of a ship in this story, not a region, which features a shipboard romance that ends in tragedy.  The tragedy itself is thin stuff and James knows it. 

It will doubtless appear to the critical reader that my expenditure of interest had been out of proportion to the vulgar appearances of which my story gives an account, but to this I can only reply that the event was to justify me.

That is very close to what I had been thinking, aside from the “vulgar appearances.”  The story is told obliquely, through the James-like narrator and what he picks up from people aboard the ship as they cross from America to England.  The picture of life on the passenger ship – the lack of privacy, the gossip, and the general lowering of social standards in the name of dining – is pretty amusing.  The representative character is the odious Mrs. Peck, a vulgar gossip – perhaps James was admitting there was too much of her – no, I say, hardly enough!

Mrs. Peck stared at me a moment, moving some valued morsel in her mouth; then she exclaimed familiarly “Pshaw!”

I love “valued morsel.”  The ending is quite good, too, with another peripheral character supplying the interest the center of the story lacks.  “It was a dire moment.”  That is daring for a final sentence.

Perhaps I should have included “The Real Thing” (1892) among the stories about writers, but it is about a painter, one who is also an illustrator for novels and magazine fiction, perhaps even for Henry James stories.  He normally uses a Cockney woman and an Italian servant as his models for almost everything, but a married couple, a gentleman and his wife whose lives as sponges on the upper class – dinners and excursions to country houses and so on – are fading with their good looks.

They hesitated – they looked at each other.  “We’ve been photographed immensely,” said Mrs. Monarch.

“She means the fellows have asked us,” added the Major.

“I see – because you’re so good-looking.”

“I don’t know what they thought, but they were always after us.”

As models, though, they are too much themselves, always themselves no matter what the artist tries to do with them.

“Now the drawings you made from us, they look exactly like us,” she reminded me, smiling in triumph; and I recognized that this was indeed just their defect.

The art lies in what the artist does.  James is taking a swipe at any worry about who a character might be “based on.”  Yet for the artist, curiously, even though the couple “did me a permanent harm, got me into a second-rate trick,” he is happy to have met them, thus the story, by the artist, I mean, not Henry James.  His story, his characters, I suppose all of that he just made up.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Henry James peers into the great glazed tank of art

Henry James was a restless, experimental writer who wrote his way to his ideas.  I mean experimental in the sense that he had to try an idea out in a story to know how it worked, rather than think it out in advance like a conceptual writer.  I know, this is not the usual meaning of “experimental” in a literary context.  I should probably find another word.

The move towards The Portrait of a Lady (1882) in the late 1870s was easy to see in his shorter fiction, with characters, plots, and narrative stances moved around until James could decide in exactly what would go into his self-consciously designed masterpiece.

What was James aiming at after Portrait?  I have no idea.  The Bostonians (1886) has a lighter, more blatantly comic feel.  In the tales, there are more writers, far more, starting with “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” (1884), and most famously in “The Aspern Papers” (1888).

I read three recently, “The Lesson of the Master” (1888), “Greville Fane” (1892), and “The Middle Years” (1893), all about novelists who are definitely not Henry James but contain some element of James.

“Greville Fane” is about, I don’t know, Nora Roberts, someone who writes a lot (“She turned off plots by the hundred”) and, although “[s]he had an idea that she resembled Balzac” is essentially a writer of what we now call romances in a variety of European settings.  Actually, Greville Fane only writes three books a year, and Roberts has averaged six.  I am learning that the Jamesian signature is the phrase “had an idea that.”  The conflict between what people are and what they have an idea that they are will fill much fiction.

Greville Fane’s greatest illusions are not about her art, though, but her no good sponging children.  This tale is closer to a character portrait than a story.  A plausible life.

“The Lesson of the Master” has plenty of plot.  Henry St. George wrote three perfect novels – Ginistrella is especially good – early on, but now churns out popular junk, while Paul Overt [!] is a new, young perfectionist.  They compete for the affections of a beautiful woman who is a bit of a manic pixie dream girl, awfully perfect.  St. George, who is married, scares Overt off by arguing that marriage ruins art.  “’Oh, of course, often, they think they understand, they think they sympathize.’”  Overt goes on to write a perfect novel, but St. George gets the girl.  Was he deliberately clearing the field, or was it a coincidence, an accident of timing (Overt of course has to go to Italy to write a perfect novel).

I left this story amazed that Jamesian without irony call James “The Master.”  The Master is artless in his fiction and artful in his deceit.  Maybe they are at times ironic.

“The Middle Years” is direct, so direct I must be missing a lot.  A novelist is dying.  His last book is a masterpiece.  He and his doctor, a devotee of his work, discuss whether the writer really accomplished anything.  This writer is like James.  Each book is really a preparation for the next.

“We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have.  Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.  The rest is the madness of art.”

Life is our “first and only chance.”

Early in “The Middle Years,” the author, ill, forgetful, begins reading his own new novel.

…  what he had chiefly forgotten was that it was extraordinarily good.  He dived once more into his story and was drawn down, as by a siren’s hand, to where, in the dim underworld of fiction, the great glazed tank of art, strange silent subjects floated.

I don’t know why James gets so interested in stories about writers.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The sentiment of beauty - James looks around

Ransom had heard that the Cape was the Italy, so to speak, of Massachusetts…

I take this line as Jamesian sarcasm.  It comes early in the remarkable Chapter 35 of The Bostonians, in which Basil Ransom, out on the Cape in pursuit of Verena Tarrant, goes for a walk.  On the walk he meets Dr. Prance, my favorite character, and their conversation moves the story along, but that is only half the chapter.  In the earlier half, for three long paragraphs, Ransom just kinda looks around.

…  the shadow grew long in the stony pastures and the slanting light gilded the straggling, shabby woods, and painted the ponds and marshes with yellow gleams.  The ripeness of summer lay upon the land…

And so on , not at all in James’s travel writing mode, but the more usual attempt to fill out the scenery around the characters in a way that matches their moods.  In a James novel it is rare to find anything like it.

The road wandered among [the houses] with a kind of accommodating sinuosity, and there were even cross-streets, and an oil-lamp on a corner…  there was quite a little nest of these worthies [retired shipmasters], two or three of whom might be seen lingering in their dim doorways, as if they were conscious of a want of encouragement to sit up, and yet remember the nights in far-away waters when they would not have thought of turning in at all.

Those Gogolian sailors are of a piece with the view of Ransom’s hotel, another description that mixes the visual and existential:

Sometimes people went to the door of the dining-room and tried it, shaking it a little, timidly, to see if it would yield; then, finding it fast, came away, looking, if they had been observed, shy and snubbed, at their fellows.  Some of them went so far as to say that they didn't think it was a very good hotel.

Ten chapters earlier, Ransom and the female lead, Verena Tarrant, had taken a similar walk around Cambridge.  It is mostly talk – the scene is the beginning of their romance – but include little inset comments on Tarrant’s home neighborhood, where the houses “looked as if they had been constructed by the nearest carpenter and his boy,” and then of Harvard and, in some detail, the MemorialHall.  Some – too much – of the latter is in the travel-writing mode:

The yard, or college-precinct, is traverse by a number of straight paths, over which, at certain hours of the day, a thousand undergraduates, with books under their arm and youth in their step, flit from one school to another.  (Ch. 25)

But not now, so why mention them, except that the narrator has turned into a tour guide.  Or perhaps that is Tarrant showing Ransom around more pedantically than I had understood.

Ransom, a Confederate veteran, is given a good moment in the Memorial Hall, where his victorious opponents are honored:

For Ransom these things were not a challenge nor a taunt; they touched him with respect, with the sentiment of beauty.

A nice touch is when he abandons Tarrant, a pretty girl with whom he is falling in love, to look at the names of the dead a second time, “and read again the names of the various engagements, at several of which he had been present.”

I have noticed more descriptive passages in James’s short fiction from roughly the same time, too.  This impulse fades away, yes, as his concerns become increasingly interior?  But for a little while he lets his character just look around them.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A secret understanding about an apple-fritter - Henry James makes an effort to express the inexpressible

Henry James has some great descriptions of people in The Bostonians.  Maybe too many for what he is doing, even, like he is a comic who gets going on a riff and does not want to stop.  And why would he as long as he jokes keep coming.  After James spends almost three pages at the beginning of Chapter 14 describing the ludicrous Mrs. Tarrant (several excerpts given yesterday), he gives her another long paragraph at the chapter’s end – half the short chapter, just to linger with a character who barely appears again.

Mrs. Tarrant, with her soft corpulence, looked to her guest very bleached and tumid; her complexion had a kind of withered glaze…

The descriptions are often of a curious mixed kind, visual yet as much about personality or attitude.

… she had no eyebrows, and her eyes seemed to stare, like those of a figure of wax [solidly visual].  When she talked and wished to insist, and she was always insisting, she puckered and distorted her face, with an effort to express the inexpressible, which turned out, after all, to be nothing.

In a sense this is visual, in that I can imagine a face doing something like that, but the good trick is the way James expresses the inexpressible, which turns out to be something.  My favorite line follows:

She had a kind of doleful elegance, tried to be confidential, lowered her voice and looked as if she wished to establish a secret understanding, in order to ask her visitor if she would venture on an apple-fritter.

We all know that look, right?  The confidential apple fritter understanding look?

James is working with a comic method I associate with Wodehouse, or Douglas Adams, where the unlikeliness of the comparison, the impossibility of really imaging it, is by itself funny, yet the comparison stamps the character.  Yes, that is who she is.

The masterpiece in this sense is Olive Chancellor, the Boston Brahmin turned feminist activist who is one of the combatants for the hand of the lovely, magical Verena Tarrant.  Her physical description is minimal, but James frequently describes what she is , and who is constantly characterized in way that is possibly cruel but fills her with life:

It was the usual things of life that filled her with silent rage…  (Ch. 2)

… there was culture in Miss Chancellor’s tables and sofas, in the books that were everywhere, on little shelves like brackets (as if a book were a statuette)…  (Ch. 3)

Great efforts were nothing new to her – it was a great effort to live at all…  (Ch. 14)

In the middle of the book James surprised me by mentioning that Olive Chancellor used to go on dates – “she accompanied gentlemen to respectable places of amusement” – which sounds painful for all involved.

She always felt that she was too prim; her lips stiffened themselves as she spoke.  But the whole affair had always a primness; this was discernible even to Olive’s very limited sense of humour.  It was not so religious as going to evening-service at King’s Chapel; but it was the next thing to it.  (Ch. 15)

Humorless people are so funny, at a certain distance.  My great complaint about The Bostonians is that the heroic, insufferable Olive Chancellor drops out of it too often.

Monday, June 6, 2016

consumed by the passion of sympathy - some Henry James comedy in The Bostonians

She had been consumed by the passion of sympathy; it had crumpled her into as many creases as an old glazed, distended glove.  (Ch. 5)

Henry James spends a great deal of time in his 1886 comic masterpiece The Bostonians mocking his characters, sometimes with a ruthlessness that rivals Thackeray.

Mrs. Farrinder, at almost any time, had the air of being introduced by a few remarks.  (Ch. 4)

Mrs. Tarrant had the idea that she (Mrs. Tarrant) liked to study people…  Mrs. Tarrant, with the most imperfect idea of the meaning of the term, was always talking about people’s temperament… she also had an impression she knew a little French…  (Ch. 14)

The long practice of philanthropy had not given accent to her [Miss Birdseye’s] features; it had rubbed out their transitions, their meanings…  who knew less about her fellow-creatures, if possible, after fifty years of humanitary zeal, than on the day she had gone into the field to testify against the iniquity of most arrangements.  (Ch. 4)

The two pages describing poor Miss Birdseye are shocking in that the narrator is so cruel to a character he seems to mostly like, compared to Mrs. Tarrant, a con artist and fraud who deserves everything she gets.  You may notice that these marvelous minor characters are all women, and it is true that the surface satirical targets are people active in the women’s rights movements, feminists, although I suspect that any movement would do, that the satire is against movements, the “poor little humanitary hacks[s],” as Miss Birdseye is called in Chapter 5 rather than feminists as such.  The men, mostly con men, hustlers, and reactionaries, get a pretty good shellacking from James, too.  The male protagonist is a Confederate veteran who openly supports slavery, for pity’s sake, and is “conscious of much Bohemianism – he drank beer, in New York, in cellars, knew no ladies, and was familiar with a ‘variety’ actress” (Ch. 3).

This sad sack and the most intense of the feminists – the crumpled glove – compete for the attention of the novel’s heroine, Verena Tarrant, a young woman gifted with good looks and a peculiar talent for improvisatory speaking.  The Mississippi Bohemian wants to marry her; the glove wants to – well, James is pleasingly ambiguous about that, but wants to keep the girl’s talent for herself.

If there is a character with a point of view that represents the author (and perhaps there is not), it is the great and original Dr. Prance, Boston’s lady doctor who acts rather than theorizes, who “was impatient of the general question and bored with being reminded, even for the sake of her rights, that she was a woman – a detail that she was in the habit of forgetting, having as many rights as she had time for” (Ch. 6).

The minor characters are so much fun.  The politics are not meant entirely seriously, I do not think, except as one of many kinds of human foolishness.  How are the revolutionary politics of the Turgenev-inspired The Princess Cassamassima, published almost simultaneously with The Bostonians, meant?  I can guess; it’s by Henry James.

Friday, June 3, 2016

I have not / a Poet’s / Eye - later G. K. Chesterton poems

I have dithered about writing about G. K. Chesterton’s Collected Poems – maybe not interesting enough – but then maybe it is.  You may for some reason remember that I wrote about The Wild Knight and Other Poems (1900) not long ago, young Chesterton as mythographer and metaphorist, and also about The Ballad of the White Horse (1911), the last of the great verse epics – no, not really last but the Catholic allegory about King Alfred felt like a brilliant anachronism.

With the first book, Chesterton was a young poet, by the second he was already Chesterton, author of a library of books of all kinds and a public figure, expert on everything.  Poetry was still part of “everything” but his role as a public intellectual ruined Chesterton as a poet.  Thus my doubts, and thus my reading of the later part of Collected Poems, poems from the 1910s through the 1930s, becomes even more of a salvage expedition than usual.

The great problem is topical verse.  Politics of the day.  Church politics of the day.  Of historical interest, if that.

More promising: comedy.  Bab Ballads:

  No more the milk of the cows
  Shall pollute my private house
Than the milk of the wild mares of the Barbarian;
  I will stick to port and sherry,
  For they are so very, very,
So very, very, very Vegetarian.  (“The Logical Vegetarian”)

Or, similarly, the “Songs of Education” that sound like they are from a lost Gilbert and Sullivan satire of education bureaucrats:

The Roman threw us a road, a road,
And sighed and strolled away:
The Saxon gave us a raid, a raid,
A raid that came to stay;
The Dane went west, but the Dane confessed
That he went a bit too far;
And we all became, by another name
The Imperial race we are.

Chorus.
The Imperial race, the inscrutable race,
The invincible race we are.  (from “I. History”)

Chesterton has a terrific ear for parody, and he takes some good, fair swipes at Browning, Swinburne, and others, the cheapest of which (yet still funny) is “To a Modern Poet”:

But I am very unobservant
                 I cannot say
I ever noticed that the pillar-box
        was like a baby
               skinned alive and screaming.
               I have not
               a Poet’s
                   Eye
        which can see Beauty
                          everywhere.

Every once in a while, Chesterton also wrote a great poem, the highest concentration of which are in The Ballad of St. Barbara and Other Poems (1922), which has too much topical stuff but also has, for example, a sequence titled “For Four Guilds” where medieval labor is worked for its symbolic meaning.  “The Glass-Stainers” is especially effective as a poem where the language and the subject merge perfectly:

To every Man his Mystery,
A trade and only one:
The masons make the hives of men,
The domes of grey and dun,
But we have wrought in rose and gold
The houses of the sun.

Chesterton borrows not just the meaning of medieval stained glass, but the form, with each stanza in the poem, and then each poem in the “Guilds” sequence, placed like a panel in the cathedral windows.  In the last panel and poem, “The Bell-Ringers” summon us to see the work:

And we poor men stand under the steeple
Drawing the cords that can draw the people,
And in our leash like the leaping dogs
Are God’s most deafening demagogues…

If it were not perverse to wish that Chesterton had written more of anything, I would wish that he had written more poems like these.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Twain's Connecticut Yankee, a book about books - good enough Arkansas proof-reading, anyhow

When I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) long ago, long, long ago, I already knew that it was a mishmash of stories, King Arthur stories blended with other things.  An American engineer and pragmatist is transported to 6th century England, allowing lots of mockery of the tropes, if I am using that word right, of Arthurian stories and adventure fiction more generally.

Now, corrupted by knowledge, I can see that it is also a mishmash of books.  Not just King Arthur stuff, although once in a while Mark Twain just plops in a chunk of Thomas Malory, but Gulliver’s Travels and Don Quixote.  Robinson Crusoe:

But perhaps the worst of all was, that there wasn't any sugar, coffee, tea, or tobacco.  I saw that I was just another Robinson Crusoe cast away on an uninhabited island, with no society but some more or less tame animals, and if I wanted to make life bearable I must do as he did – invent, contrive, create, reorganize things; set brain and hand to work, and keep them busy.  Well, that was in my line.  (Ch. 7)

More subtly, just slightly, Connecticut Yankee is part of Twain’s continuing argument with Walter Scott’s phony baloney medievalism and its damaging influence on the American South.

The practical puzzle to me has been that of the seven Scott novels I have read only one, Ivanhoe (1820) is a medieval story.  The Scott I know is Scottish, and his history is modern, not medieval.  Yet the ethos of the Scottish novels, a world of glory and honor in the service of lost causes, goes directly to Twain’s criticisms.

Luckily, though, Twain ignored me and did not send his American back to Covenanter Scotland, because almost no one cares about that history any more, while King Arthur stories are still endlessly copied and retold.  We still get the jokes.  Also, it allows Twain and his stand-in to abolish slavery.

The narrator, the man sent back in time by a knock on the head, is not just a “practical Connecticut man” (Ch. 2) but an engineer, so a man of knowledge, yes, but also a hardhead:

… if on the other hand it was really the sixth century, all right, I didn’t want any softer thing: I would boss the whole country inside of three months; for I judged I would have the start of the best educated man in the kingdom by a matter of thirteen hundred years and upwards.  I’m not a man to waste time after my mind’s made up and there’s work on hand…

This is in Chapter 2, so a snap decision.  What any qualified Yankee would do.  Soon enough telephone lines are strung throughout the kingdom, factories are producing gunpowder, and newspapers are published that have “good enough Arkansas proof-reading, anyhow, and better than was needed in Arthur’s day and realm” (Ch. 26, “The First Newspaper”).  But he is also an idealist, attacking slavery, chivalry, and kingship.  His ultimate goal is to overthrow the Catholic Church.  Connecticut Yankee is – here are more books – a Utopian novel in the sense that it is a Lucianic satire.  The ignorance of mankind is laid bare and mocked without mercy, but the narrator’s Yankee certainty takes plenty of hits, too.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Death could drop from the dark / As easily as song – / But song only dropped - all Isaac Rosenberg poems become war poems

Isaac Rosenberg is now, inescapably, a “war poet.”  Rosenberg was killed in action in France in April 1918.  He was 27.  His great poetic achievements are a couple dozen poems about the war and soldiering, mostly written while Rosenberg was in the service, delivering barbed wire and sending poems off to Poetry magazine, which published “Break of Day in the Trenches,” with its “queer sardonic rat,” in 1916:

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies…
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?

But Rosenberg was not always a war poet.  He was a young post-pre-Raphaelite, a devotee of Keats, D. G. Rossetti, and some mishmash of 1890s poets, Francis Thompson, that sort of thing.  This sort:

These, my earth-sundered fantasy
On pillared heights of thought doth see
In the dark heaven as golden pendulous birds,
Whose tremulous wings the wind translates to words… (from “Night,” 1912)

Promising, although the most likely thing it promises, once he has shed some excesses – or really indulged them, is a good minor poet.  Or maybe a Romantic counterweight to the Eliot and Pound.

Rosenberg’s first chapbook, Night and Day (1912) is seen above.  There are “No symboled answers to my questionings,” the poet fears, but the poet’s job is to try.  Youth (1915) is better – more taut and grounded, even if the one war poem, “The Dead Heroes,” is almost abstract:

Flash, mailèd seraphim,
Your burning spears;
New days to outflame their dim
Heroic years.

I do not think of this one as a good poem, but it is a step towards the poems to come.  Rosenberg is preparing to meet that rat and to hear the larks along the “poison-blasted track” to camp:

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped…  (“Returning, We Hear the Larks”)

Or the lice in “Louse Hunting”:

See Gargantuan hooked fingers
Pluck in supreme flesh
To smutch supreme littleness…

As with Pasternak and Akhmatova, the strong aspect of Rosenberg’s biography, colors everything about him.  I include his Jewishness, the side of Rosenberg I find most puzzling.  In poems like “The Destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Hordes” he uses imagery from the Hebrew Bible that only obliquely matches with what I understand of the war.  They are another kind of “symboled answers” that I do not know how to decode.  An exception is “The Jew,” a painful cry against prejudice:

Moses, from whose loins I sprung,
Lit by a lamp in his blood
Ten immutable rules, a moon
For mutable lampless men.

The blonde, the bronze, the ruddy,
With the same heaving blood,
Keep tide to the moon of Moses.
Then why do they sneer at me?

The first stanza is especially fine, almost distracting me from the pointed end of the poem.

Although I tracked down more of his earlier poems, the 1922 Selected Poems is a good place to read Isaac Rosenberg. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Life is composed of details - some lines from Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak is likely made the most distant in translation than any of the great cohort of Russian poets I have been reading.  But he works with imagery as well as a purely poetic language, and translators can make their desperate attempts at the imagery if nothing else.

It may be that our knowledge
At the graveside fails.
But life, like autumn stillness,
Is composed of details.  (from “Let words drop, as resin,” 1917)

Please note the rhyme.  Jon Stallworthy and Peter France, in the Penguin Selected Poems (1983) succeed in creating poems that sound like poems that might have been published in poetry magazines circa 1983.  What else they do, I don’t know.  They provide a helpful introduction.  This book is another of those that, apparatus and blank pages aside, ends up with all of ninety pages of poems.  But maybe that’s about right.

from About These Poems

On pavements I shall trample them
With broken glass and sun in turn.
In winter I shall open them
For the peeling ceiling to learn.

The garret will start to declaim
With a bow to the window-frame.
Calamities, eccentricities
Will leapfrog to the cornices.

I don’t want to say that the translators are trampling Pasternak’s poems, but those rhymes, I dunno.  Regardless, I can see what the poet is doing.  Near the end of the poem he turns into Ebenezer Scrooge: “I shall shout to the kids: Hey, you, / What century is it out there?”  A reasonable question in 1917.  What is a poet going to do in the new world that has suddenly appeared outside his room?

As with Anna Akhmatova, the selection of poems become a biography.  Early exuberance (“Verses sob from the pen,” 1912, p. 47) and mastery (“And, Poetry, tonight I’ll squeeze you out / To make the thirsty paper flower,” 1916, p. 55); a revolution that gradually displaces him; a series of tragedies for other poets; a career as a translator, especially Shakespeare; Doctor Zhivago; the Nobel Prize:

Like a beast in a pen, I’m cut off
From my friends, freedom, the sun,
But the hunters are gaining ground.
I’ve nowhere else to run.  (from “Nobel Prize,” 1959, 154)

“Nobel Prize” is among the bleakest poems I have ever read.  “Of what crime do I stand / Condemned?”

And aside from the biography, imagery:

At twilight the swifts have no way
Of stemming the cool blue cascade.  (“Swifts,” 1916, 55)

Love in a foreign city:

Like any rep Romeo hugging his tragedy,
I reeled through the city rehearsing you.  (“Marburg,” 1916, 57)

Then summer took leave of the platform
And waiting room.  Raising his cap,
The storm at night for souvenir
Took snap after dazzling snap.  (“Storm, Instantaneous Forever”, 1917, 72)

Lots of poetry in these poems, still.

The poems from Doctor Zhivago, the ones that make up the last chapter of the novel, are included in Selected Poems.  They are mysteries to me, a deliberate turn to a plainer language that likely resists translation.  A note to the poem “Hamlet” tells me that as of the writing of this book, 1983, a particularly frozen period of Soviet history, “this poem [and a list of others] has never been published in the Soviet union, but thousands of people know it by heart and it was spoken at the poet’s funeral” (159).

No translator will capture that.

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.