Tuesday, October 25, 2016

He began to foresee that he had a bad time before him - Trollope's Prime Minister had me worried

The first quarter of The Prime Minister (1876), the fifth of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, had me worried for the first quarter or so.  Was this one going to be merely ordinary?

Trollope had spent the first quarter of The Way We Live Now (1875), his previous novel, introducing characters – so many characters – and enough subplots that I wondered, at the three-quarters mark, how he was going to wrap them all up.  But here, there are only two plots, two parallel stories.

One has Plantagenet Palliser, who Trollope introduced way back in The Small House of Allington (1864), become Prime Minister – see title – as head of a coalition government, a clever device because it completely strips politics of any relation to policy.  The politics become as pure as possible.  The only function of the Prime Minister is to remain Prime Minister.  The only goal of politics is the continuation of politics.  It is the perfect environment for Trollope’s game of Fantasy Parliament, and suggests why this is one of the few great novels about politics and also why there are so few novels about politics that are any good at all.

The other plot is – why it’s just a Victorian marriage plot! again! – charming, handsome, risk-loving, exotic Ferdinand Lopez wants to marry the lovely, incidentally wealthy Emily Wharton.  His charm and other gifts mean his star is on the rise, but Emily’s father is prejudiced, her family is against her, etc.

At about the quarter mark, the obstacles disappear, the couple marries, and the marriage plot turns into a plot about marriage, a bad marriage.  Trollope, that enemy of suspense, openly declares the husband a con man:

Ferdinand Lopez was not an honest man or a good man. He was a self-seeking, intriguing adventurer, who did not know honesty from dishonesty when he saw them together.  (Ch. 24, “The Marriage”)

The marriage is much more interesting than the courtship.  The main characters – Lopez, Emily, and her father – are much more interesting within the marriage story than the courtship story.  The marriage story has the disadvantage of being quite unpleasant, a painful story.  But it is interesting.

At the same time, the political story became less about politics and more personal, more about the psychological effects of the powerful role on the PM and his wife, one of Trollope’s greatest characters.  They’re not so happy, either.

Nor is The Prime Minister especially funny.

Because the novel is well over 900 pages long, a quarter of the novel is a long stretch.  I would guess that readers who have found other Trollope novels slow and repetitive will lose patience with this one.   I wondered, around page 200, if I would have anything to say about this book.

He began to foresee that he had a bad time before him.  (Ch. 9)

And he – Mr. Wharton, the father – does.  But I did all right.  A day or two more on The Prime Minister, then.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

I’m a gull. No, that’s wrong - Chekhov's Seagull - Empty, empty, empty. Ghastly, ghastly, ghastly.

I had never seen or read Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896), for no good reason, but now I have read it.  Now as of a few minutes ago.  It is hard for me to understand how radical the play was.  A writer, an actress, a doctor, etc., mill around a country estate.  They talk about art and talent quite a bit, talent more than art.  They fall in love with each other in combinations unlikely to bring much happiness.

MEDVEDENKO.  How come you always wear black?

MASHA.  I’m in mourning for my life.  I’m unhappy.

I understand that part of the revolutionary effect of the play came from Konstantin Stanislavky’s direction, which made the play slow, atmospheric, and symbol-heavy.  Played differently, though, the way I have become used to seeing Chekhov, those lines, the first lines of the play, are hilarious.  The first laugh of the play.

NINA.  Chilly, chilly, chilly.  Empty, empty, empty.  Ghastly, ghastly, ghastly.
Those are from the horrible, “decadent,” abstract play within the play from Act I, a play so bad that the playwright becomes offended when his mother laughs at it.

ARKADINA.  He told us beforehand that it was a joke, so I treated his play as a joke.

SORIN.  Even so…

ARKADINA.  Now it turns out that he wrote a masterpiece!  Pardon me for living!

I felt like Chekhov was constantly anticipating me.

One of these miserable people, a young woman who wants to get out of the boonies, as an actress, or anything, takes the shooting of a gull – the sad corpse of the thing is hauled around onstage – imagine the ragged old gull in the prop closet of theater companies around the world – as symbolic of something in her life.  What does the gull symbolize?  By God, she is going to make it symbolize something if she has to martyr herself to the symbol.

NINA.  I’m a gull.  No, that’s wrong…  Remember, you shot down a gull?  By chance a man comes along, sees, and with nothing better to do he destroys…  Subject for a short story.  That’s wrong… (Rubs her forehead)  (Act IV, ellipses in original)

Never mind exactly what the gull means.  If it were not the gull, something else would serve as the symbol.  The important thing is to live symbolically, which may be miserable but is not so dull.  In the same act, most of the other characters play Bingo, onstage.  “The game’s a bore, but one you get used to it, you don’t mind,” says one character.  Another spends most of the scene shouting out random numbers.  “Seven!  Ninety!”  All right, this really is getting close to a recognizably avant garde theater.  Do what you can to get out, you poor characters.

Wonderful stuff.  In the middle of writing the world’s greatest short stories, Chekhov was also able to do this.

Laurence Senelick is the translator and more importantly editor of the Norton Critical Edition, pointing out the context of every stray fragment of a song and also identifying his own shocking mistranslations and substitutions, replacing “Lovelace” with “Casanova” and so on.

Friday, October 21, 2016

there are strange strange things in being - Hardy's Moments of Visions

Byron’s poems of 1816 would be the next logical post, but I need to reread them.  It was a big year for him.

So, to something different, something I just read, a book from a century later, Thomas Hardy’s Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917).  Maybe I should stick to badly remembered Byron, though, because I do not feel I read Moments of Vision well.  The poems are, in general, too good.  Good poem after good poem, page after page.  The verse forms vary, the subject matter varies, the tone varies.  Yet some bad poems would have helped me see the better ones.

A code contains a bundle of political poems, tossed off for the war effort or refugee relief, with titles like “An Appeal to America on Behalf of the Belgian Destitute.”  These poems are weak enough that when I came to “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” I could see it for what it was:

Only a man harrowing clods
  In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
  Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
  From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
  Though dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
  Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
  Ere their story die.

And I call Hardy a pessimist!  This is about the cheeriest thing I have ever seen from him, an “earth abides” sentiment.

The main body of poems include a number about the courtship and early years of Hardy’s first marriage, a look back to the 1870s, but not in a way that creates a narrative, but rather a lot of movement in time.  Plenty of poems could be versified bits of theoretical Hardy novels. “The Head above the Fog,” for example, is exactly the kind of image I most enjoy in his fiction:

    Something I do see
Above the fog that sheets the mead,
A figure like to life indeed,
Moving along with spectre-speed,
    Seen by none but me.

The approaching woman, “[m]ere ghostly head as it skims along,” is either the woman the poet loves or her ghost – with just a head, and “hat and plume above / The evening fog-fleece” it is hard to tell.  Scene, or memory of a scene?

“Midnight on the Great Western” is another vivid poem:

In the band of his hat a journeying boy
        Had a ticket stuck; and a string
Around his neck bore the key of his box,
That twinkled gleams of the lamp’s sad beams
                Like a living thing.

Why it’s Little Father Time from Jude the Obscure!  Run for your life!  No, here he is just a boy taking a train trip by himself, “[b]ewrapt past knowing to what he was going.”

I was struck by “He Prefers Her Earthly” in part because I had just read Shelley’s “Alastor,” where a real woman is rejected for an ideal.  The narrator of this poem knows that is foolishness.  He sees a lost love in a sunset – presumably she is dead:

This after-sunset is a sight for seeing,
Cliff-heads of craggy cloud surrounding it.
    – And dwell you in that glory-show?
You may; for there are strange strange things in being,
                Stranger than I know.

But however beautiful or perfect she may be as a “firmament-riding earthly essence,” he wishes she were here, now, “as the one you were.”

If I were serious about Hardy, I would write a squib about each poem, as my only hope at remembering them.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Songs consecrate to truth and liberty - Shelley's first book of poems

Another bicentennial landmark: Alastor; or The Spirit of Solitude: and Other Poems (1816) by Percy Bysshe Shelley, his first book of poems, although hardly his first book.  His first good book; his first great poems; at the time, barely noticed, badly reviewed and completely misunderstood.

I had not read the book as such until a few minutes ago.  I had trusted the editors of my selected Shelley, the Norton Critical Edition Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, which includes the 700-line “Alastor” and the lyrics “Stanzas. – April, 1814,” “Mutability,” and “To Wordsworth.”  I don’t like Shelley that much.  Before writing this note, though, why not glance at a facsimile of the original, and thus I discover that two of the poems, including the only other long one, are chunks of Queen Mab (1813), reworked, but still, I've read it, one is a worthless political poem about Napoleon, and the whole thing could easily be published in forty pages – so just read it – which I did.

Thus I discover “Sonnet. From the Italian of Dante,” a translation that I would have assumed was an imitation, a parody, if I didn’t know otherwise:

Guido, I would that Lappo, thou, and I,
Led by some strong enchantment, might ascend
A magic ship, whose charmed sails should fly
With winds at will where’er our thoughts might wend,
And that no change, nor any evil chance,
Should mar our joyous voyage…

Dante then wishes that their lady friends were also with them on the magic ship.  It is the emphasis on the “magic ship” that is perfectly Shelleyan – Rossetti’s version sounds totally different – the great dream of the Shelley whose great non-intellectual hobby was folding paper boats, setting them aflame, and launching them onto Italian lakes.  Plus, I know, the irony, the lines are about what eventually killed him.

I didn’t notice anything else this good in the book, but I just read it, so who knows what I missed.

“Alastor” is about a poet – The Poet – who rejects real beauty for ideal beauty, a real woman for a dream girl, community for solitude, and likely a number of other oppositions, and it kills him.  As Shelley writes in his Preface,

He seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception.  Blasted by his disappointment, he descends to an untimely grave.

I enjoy the poem mostly for its wild landscapes, the scenes of the poet’s fruitless search:

The waves arose.  Higher and higher still
Their fierce necks writhed beneath the tempest’s scourge
Like serpents struggling in a vulture’s grasp.

“To Wordsworth” is a sonnet as literary criticism, or maybe just literary complaint, one we have all expressed in less poetic form at some point.  You used to be so great – how sad that your new book (in this case, The Excursion (1814)), the one other people are saying is so good, stinks so badly.

In honored poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty, -
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

Although Shelley’s case reminds me that there are other ways to cease to be, and other ways to grieve for a poet.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail - the great poetic event of 1816 - new Coleridge poems! Old new poems.

In the fall, my thoughts turn to books written two hundred years ago.  I even read them sometimes, revisiting books I read let’s say ten years ago, before Wuthering Expectations emerged from my forehead.

Goethe’s Italian Journey is an 1816 book about a trip taken in 1780s.  Its appearance after thirty years must have been a surprise.  The biggest surprise of the year, though, has to have been the appearance of a little book by Samuel Taylor Coleridge titled Christabel; Kubla Khan: A Vision; The Pains of Sleep.  The book contains exactly those three poems, something less than eight hundred lines, although the first two also have long prefaces.  The “Kubla Khan” preface is longer than the poem, and more interesting.  Not a knock – it must have been astonishing.

My understanding is that there had not been any new Coleridge poems, not in a book, since the 1798 Lyrical Ballads.  And suddenly here are three great ones, including what are now two of the three most famous Coleridge poems.  The joke is that “Kubla Khan” was written in 1797 or so, “Christabel” abandoned in 1801, and “The Pains of Sleep” written in 1803. Why the delay?  I don’t know.  Coleridge had a long rough patch in there.  In 1816, he launched into one of his most productive periods as a writer.

Because “Christabel” is unfinished, the narrative abandoned when it has barely begun, I can never remember what it is about, even when I have just read it.  Christabel meets the mysterious Geraldine in the woods.  Geraldine is the victim of some obscure crime, or perhaps a fairy, or a demon, anyways trouble.  The accentual meter – four accents per line, no matter the syllables – give the poem an antique feel – or no, like Coleridge has translated it from German:

A little child, a limber elf,
Singing, dancing to itself,
A fairy thing with red round cheeks,
That always finds, and never seeks,
Makes such a vision to the sight
As fills a father’s eyes with light…

“Christabel” has room for sleep and visions, which link it to the opium dream of “Kubla Khan” and the “contrast,” the “dream of pain and disease” (“KK” preface) of “The Pains of Sleep.”  I finally noticed the second vision in “Kubla Khan,” after the pleasure done and all that wild stuff, in the third stanza, where the poet yearns for the “symphony and song” of a “damsel with a dulcimer” who he saw in an earlier vision.  It is that music that he needs to describe the “sunny dome” and “caves of ice” of the second vision.  “And all who heard should see them there” – heard the music of the one vision to see the subject of the other.  Then the poet could be safe, then he could imagine himself as having “drunk the milk of Paradise.”

Two stanzas of magnificent stuff, lines among the most famous in English, and then one stanza that is a lament that the poet has failed.  What he really saw was much more wonderful.  If he could only – something.  He is left with his “[h]uge fragments.”

The poet can complete the visions of torment in “The Pains of Sleep,” though:

The third night, when my own loud scream
Had waked me from the fiendish dream,
O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,
I wept as I had been a child…

The poet feels that he is experiencing the sufferings of the guilty and remorseful, but what has he done?  He does not know his sin.

Such griefs with such men well agree,
But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?
To be beloved is all I need,
And whom I love, I love indeed.

Poor Coleridge.  A rough patch.

Christabel &c. was the poetic event of 1816, setting aside some other candidates.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

I dream of flying to the moon but give no thought to fame or fortune - enjoying Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac

Some works of art turn out to be beginnings; some are more like ends.  In the 1890s, The Master Builder (1892), Spring Awakening (1891), The Seagull (1896), and, heaven help us, Ubu Roi (1896) look like the future.

Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) is like a culmination of the French theatrical tradition before the madmen blow it up.  Corneille, Molière, Marivaux, the Romantics – they all lead to this “heroic comedy.”  Meaning, I sure enjoyed it.  And it is not really even the end of a tradition, not at all, but its descendant is Schönberg and Boublil’s Les Misérables, not Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.  Eh, like I know anything about 20th century French theater.

A big cast, a huge lead part, an onstage battle scene, an onstage theater scene, duels, an entire act set in a pastry kitchen (and, thus, to a gluttonous critic, among the greatest acts in theatrical history).  I wondered if Roxanne, the female lead, was a little thin, but she roars to life in Act IV.

I own a strange edition of the play, a Signet Classics paperback translated by Lowell Bair that includes a DVD of the 1950 Michael Gordon film, or should I say José Ferrer film, since all anyone cares about is his performance.  I haven’t watched it; I should.  My understanding is that it is, like the original, in verse.  The translation I read was all prose, except when Cyrano is dueling – he composes impromptu verse when dueling – or the poetically ambitious pastry chef is reciting a versified recipe.

RAGUENEAU.   There’s something lacking in this sauce.

THE COOK.  What shall I do to it?

RAGUENEAU.  Make it more lyrical.

I suppose I should read a version – Anthony Burgess’s? – that makes Cyrano more lyrical, but I was happy with this one.

Cyrano is an ideal man of the 17th century, brilliant, brave, adept in all useful skills – poetry and swordsmanship – and also, to use an anachronism, the epitome of cool, limited only by his ugliness, meaning his enormous nose.  His love for his cousin Roxanne is channeled into a successful attempt to win her for another man, a handsome idiot.  The jealousies of another character adds some complications to the plot.  Most of the play is done for laughs, but the pathos of the short final act, a kind of coda, is earned.

Cyrano is worth knowing for his own sake.  He declaims a long statement of purpose in Act II, Scene 7, (a response to the suggestion that he “temper [his] haughty spirit a little”) much of which applies as well to Rostand’s time as to his.

But what would I have to do?...  Dedicate poems to financiers, as many others do?  Change myself into a buffoon in the hope of seeing a minister give me a condescending smile?  No, thank you…  Attend councils held in taverns by imbeciles, trying to win the honor of being chosen as their pope?  No, thank you.  See talent only in nonentities?  Be terrified of gazettes, and constantly be thinking, “Oh, if only the Mercure François will say a kind word about me?”  No, thank you…  I dream of flying to the moon but give no thought to fame or fortune.  I write only what comes out of myself, and I make it my modest rule to be satisfied with whatever flowers, fruit, or even leaves I gather, as long as they’re from my own garden.

Is this the great hero of the 17th century or the 19th?

Monday, October 17, 2016

El Folk-Lore Filipino by Isabelo de los Reyes - an early instance of the encyclopedia novel, a compendium of worldview.

The great Caravana de Recuerdos, as part of Spanish Literature month, asked me to recommend criminally overlooked Spanish-language works.  I gestured towards medieval and early modern literature, which would be my answer for Italian, French, and English literature, too.  I don’t remember writing the answers to Ricardo’s questions, but they sound plausibly like me.

Of course no actual crime is involved.  That is a rhetorical device.

Rise, author of the extraordinary In lieu of a field guide, offered El Folk-Lore Filipino (1889) by Isabelo de los Reyes:

It may be a "folklore novel" and perhaps an early instance of the encyclopedia novel.  It is revisionary and revolutionary in intent, a compendium of local fables, customs, and traditions set off against Spanish colonialism.  More than a sociological and cultural curiosity, it is a compendium of worldview.

The first half of the book has been translated by Salud C. Dixon and Maria Elinora Peralta-Imson – university of the Philippines Press, 1994 – and the university library on which I lean impressed me by owning a copy.  So I can take one small step towards rectifying the crime.

The book is both what it says it is, an early work of anthropology, and something else.  Isabelo is collecting folklore, mostly from the northern region of Ilocos, the home of his family, but he also wanders in other directions.  The folklore is interesting, but I began to look forward to the digressions.  Most charming is a long section devoted to the poetry of the author’s mother, who was a master of the occasional poem.

Often the folklore is more than interesting.  A demon, the “pugot,” is described as a cat or dog or black giant:

Imagine him, my dear readers, seated on the window sill of a house, 18 meters high, his feet touching the ground. The common people say the pugot smokes giant-sized cigars.  (57)

The author is more hard-headed, a skeptic about the supernatural.  But he reports it all with enthusiasm.  It was odd, and enjoyable, reading Folk-Lore Filipino while reading about Dada.  The riddles, for example:

What cake cannot be sliced with a knife? – Water on a plate.

What well is deep and strewn with sharp weapons? – The mouth and teeth.  (491)

The riddles of my culture are amusing kid’s stuff; everyone else’s riddles are surrealist weirdness.  Maybe even stranger, because it is given as ordinary behavior of the Ilocanos:

They have dreams, even ridiculous ones like wishing they were taller but realizing the hopelessness of this, they discard the idea.  (197)

Running through, or underneath, the folklore is the Spanish culture that is after hundreds of years of colonial governance deeply tangled with older Philippine traditions.  It is startling to see a supernatural guardian described only as “like a European” (115) or that certain illnesses during pregnancy are “a sign that an anti-Christ will be born” (113).

Most surprising was the short story that ends the English volume, and is thus in the middle of the Spanish, a piece of “Administrative Folklore?” (question mark in the original) that describes an honest man’s journey through corruption, political power, mysticism, godhood, and revolution.  It’s the Philippine version of “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888).  As it ends, it seems to slip backwards in time, into history, concluding with this footnote:

Since these names and dates have no bearing on the administrative problems that are the concern of this article, we would appreciate it if our readers do not try to check their veracity, because they may have been distorted by my imagination.  (615)

Yes, what exactly is this book?

Rise’s essays on Philippine literature – see this annotated list of books that have made it into English – are like a glimpse of another world.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Two more Henry James ghost stories - previewing "The Turn of the Screw" in "The Way It Came"

Two Henry James ghost stories that, unlike the last two I read, are ghost stories.  Or they are closer.

The strangeness in “Owen Wingrave” (1892) is less the ghost, or its possibility, than the number of elements unusual for James.  Wingrave is some kind of pre-cadet, from a long line of military men.  He is being trained by something like a crammer, except that the preparation is not for Oxford but for a military academy; a tutor for new military officers.

Wingrave decides that he will discontinue his cramming, perhaps due to a new pacifism.  He “despises” “’I think, military glory.  He says we take the wrong view of it’” says a friend who may well have no idea what he is talking about.  “’He hates poor old Bonaparte worst of all.’”

Wingrave’s family, incapable of understanding a principled objection, fears cowardice.  Luckily their country house features a ghost, an angry old officer, allowing Wingrave to prove that he is courageous.

I can imagine James working backwards when thinking about this ghost story: ghost – fear – cowardice – bravery – battles (wait, don’t know enough about that) – military – etc.  “Owen Wingrave” is the closest thing I have seen to a James ghost story written to solve as much of a commercial as an artistic problem.

James can lay it on amusingly thick:

She characterized it as “uncanny,” she accused her husband of not having warned her properly.


As she confessed for her own part, in the dreadful place, to an increased sense of “creepiness,” they spent the early part of the night in conversation…

This, quotation marks and all, from a minor character who is very much an outsider in the story, looks like James winking at his readers, or at himself.

“The Way It Came” (1896), later retitled “The Friend of the Friends,” is a whole ‘nother critter.  A man and woman both saw visions or ghosts of their dead parents, a common enough ghost story, friends, including the narrator, think they should meet.  Is this perhaps a romance story, with ghosts as the meet-cute?  No, the characters somehow never meet, at least while they are both alive.  At the woman’s death, the man claims that he finally did see her.  He is by this point engaged to the narrator, who is jealous of the dead woman.  Is her fiancé having an affair with a ghost?  Is the woman just jealous of his gifts, his visions?

I should have supposed it more gratifying to be the subject of one of those inexplicable occurrences that are chronicled in thrilling books and disputed about at learned meetings; I could conceive, on the part of a being just engulfed in the infinite and still vibrating with human emotion, of nothing more fine and pure, more high and august than such an impulse of reparation, of admonition or even of curiosity. That was beautiful, if one would, and I should in his place have thought more of myself for being so distinguished.

The narrator writes a little bit like middle-period James.  But not quite.  When she goes for a scene, for dialogue, she sounds just like James, but when describing events more generally, or when describing her impressions, something is off about her.  It is possible that she is nuts.  None of the characters have names, which in a James story is as odd as anything else.  The story begins with a frame where an editor, or James, says that the story is unpublishable – “can you imagine for a moment my placing such a document before the world.”

The tale James published before this one was “The Figure in the Carpet.”  The next one would be “The Turn of the Screw,” with its frame, odd narrator, etc.  Boy am I glad I read this one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

“People don’t care for what you write” - some Henry James ghost stories of the non-Halloween variety

How are imaginary readers doing with my imaginary readalongs?  Great, I imagine.  I’ve taken Goethe to Sicily in Italian Journey, where he is horrified by the Villa Palagonia, a baroque folly near Palermo.  “[Y]ou will sympathize with anyone who has to run the gauntlet of this lunacy.”

As for Henry James, I thought I would cover a couple of his ghost stories now, gentle ones, though, not scary, completely inappropriate for Halloween, “The Private Life” (1892) and “The Real Right Thing” (1899).  Both are examples of James using ghosts to literalize a metaphor.  Both are about – what else – writers.

The earlier one may be the least ghostly ghost story ever.  The conceit is that people can be different in private and in public, which is true.  One character has no private self.  When not with people, he vanishes.  Another, a successful writer, is so different that he simultaneously exists in private and in public.  While his public self is socializing, his private self is back in his room, writing.  “[B]ut why was he writing in the dark?”  Because the private one is the supernatural creature, I guess.

The emphasis on the mechanics of the supernatural activity, once it is discovered by the Jamesish narrator and another character, an actress, is what makes the story a real ghost story.  They take the business seriously enough to learn how it works and then cynically exploit it.

“I wish you’d let an observer write you a play!” I broke out.

“People don’t care for what you write: you’d break my run of luck.”

And this is before James had his smashup writing for the theater.  There’s quite a bit of good self-deprecating writer comedy in “The Private Life.”

“The Real Right Thing” is of an entirely different hue, black to be specific.  This is the deceased author’s wife:

her large array of mourning – with her big black eyes, her big black wig, her big black fan and gloves, her general gaunt, ugly, tragic, but striking and, as might have been thought from a certain point of view, “elegant” presence.

Middle James is transforming into Late James here, isn’t he?  Mrs. Doyne wants the young writer Withermore (!) to write a biography of her husband:

It alarmed Withermore a little from the first to see that she would wish to go in for quantity.  She talked of “volumes” – but he had his notion of that.

Some writer humor here, too, although this story’s tone is generally sad.  Because Doyne is so recently deceased, all of his papers are in his study, so that is where the biographer works.  He feels at times that he is in the presence of the dead writer, is even assisted by him.  This “fancy” is so strong that he finds himself “waiting for the evening very much as one of a pair of lovers might wait for the hour of their appointment.”  On the one hand, the biographer is so immersed in his task that he feels he is in the presence of his subject, on the other, he is having an affair with his subject’s ghost.

Unlike in “The Aspern Papers,” where the biographer becomes an outright villain, it is never clear in this story what “The Real Right Thing” might be.  Should the biography be written or not?  Is there really a ghost, or is the biographer’s experience all psychological?  If there is a ghost, it is a gentle, undemonstrative one, who just wants to be left alone.  This is a ghost story where the only fear (“’he makes us dim signs out of his horror’”) is experienced by the ghost.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

I am against manifestos - Tristan Tzara guides future professors

The rest, called literature, is a dossier of human imbecility for the guidance of future professors.

That’s from a “Note on Poetry” by Tristan Tzara, originally published in Dada 4-5 (1919) – the title page, by Francis Picabia, is to the right.  I am reading the squib in Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries (Calder, 1977), translated by Barbara Wright.

Is there much point to reading this book?  I can think of – while reading I thought of – several objections.  First, is it not just a lot of arbitrary nonsense, much like that of other nonsense writers?

Dada is a dog – a compass – the lining of the stomach – neither new nor a nude Japanese girl – a gasometer of jangled feelings – Dada is brutal and doesn’t go in for propaganda – Dada is a quantity of life in transparent, effortless and gyratory transformation.  (“Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love,” part XI, read 1920, published 1921)

Though there is a fair amount of such stuff, the answer is No.  Tzara’s writing is generally coherent.

Second, is Dada not primarily of interest as a visual arts movement?  True.  Given that today’s high end art world is essentially Dadaist, an illogical endpoint of the movement, all too true.

Do we make art in order to earn money and keep the dear bourgeoisie happy?  Rhymes have the smack of money, and inflexion slides along the line of the stomach in profile.  Every group of artists has ended up at the bank, straddling various comets.  (from “Dada Manifesto 1918,” p. 5)

Visual art, design, theater, all more important than literature to Dada.  It helps me understand Tzara’s manifestos when I think of them as performances, as oral prose poems, to imagine Tzara declaiming “Dada Manifesto 1918” in a Zurich art gallery performance, surrounded by Hans Arps and Sophie Taeubers (although not the one to the right, from two years later).

I am writing a manifesto and there’s nothing I want, and yet I’m saying certain things, and in principle I am against manifestos, as I am against principles…  (p. 3)

I also lose the sense of the manifesto as an object, published as a pamphlet or poster or issue of Dada, with all of the surrounding artwork, although Wright’s translation does keep anything that is part of Tzara’s piece – strange typography, a mathematical problem I Have not deciphered, or a semi-abstract drawing of a large intestine.

So I just read the pieces as texts, as literature, which is what they have inevitability become.  Tzara’s manifestos, not to mention his little squibs on Pierre Reverdy and Picabia, turn out to be substantial works of art criticism.  Among the fine nonsense, he darts through some ideas about conceptual art that work as well in a museum today as they would have in 1920, except that none of this stuff would have been anywhere near a museum.

My third objection is something like “Why just Tzara?”  What about the manifestos by – everyone else – so many manifestos – by Hugo Ball, for example?  What about Tzara’s poems, or Arp’s, or etc.?  Yes.  Any recommendations are welcome.  I’m a curious ignoramus.

As I was writing, the October 27 New York Review of Books arrived.  It contains a survey of Dada by Alfred Brendel that is easy to recommend.  Brendel reminds me that in Zurich, this is the year of celebration of Dada, the centennial of the Cabaret Voltaire, with major exhibitions of Picabia and Kurt Schwitters, among many other events.  “Its high point,” writes Brendel,” may well have been the performance of the Symphony for Nine Harley Davidsons, Trumpet, and Synthesizer by the octogenarian avant-garde composer Dieter Schnebel,” which included a “motorcycle ballet.”  Lucky Zürchers.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

letting travesty take it into the realms of the absurd - Max Jacob taps into the police fund

Max Jacob was one of the great French weirdos of his time, a cubist poet in the sense that he was pals with Cubist painters.  Eventual Cubist painters, since Jacob somehow knew everyone – Picasso and so on – before they were famous.  He was a painter of some interest himself, but the paintings I feature here are portraits by Amedeo Modigliani, both from 1916, just before the publication of Le cornet à dés (1917), or The Dice Cup, all prose poems, whatever those are.  Those are these.

So, I stifled sobs of humiliation and wrote this page, letting travesty take it into the realms of the absurd.  (from “In Hill Country,” 67)

That is pretty close to a description of the work.

I read the translation by Christopher Pilling and David Kennedy (Atlas Press, 2000), which is just the first part of The Dice Cup.  They clearly had great fun.

The violator, vile rapist, took the rap: elated, the violated lady is in raptures! (from “The Pitiless Laugh of the Boa Constrictor,” 61)

“Pathetic!” my mother cut in, “this boy’s got a pathetic predisposition to parasitism, that’s to say paralysis.” (from “Paralysis-Parasitism,” 43)

Was the child scarred for life?  I don’t know, but he bellowed biblically enough when the cutlet was cut.  (from “Abraham’s Sacrifice,” 66)

These are all last lines of paragraphs that are not written this way, so they are almost like the punchlines of shaggy dog stories, except that there is no story. Or usually not.  “Adventure Story” is coherent:

So it’s true!  Here I am like Philoctetes!  abandoned by the boat on an unknown rock, because my foot hurts.  My misfortune is that my trousers were ripped off by the sea!  Having made enquiries, where else should I be but on the shores of modest England.  “I won’t be long finding a policeman!” and that’s just what happened: a policeman appeared, and one who spoke French: “You won’t recognize me,” he said in that language, “I’m the husband of your English maid!”  There was a reason why I didn’t recognize him: it’s because I’ve never had an English maid.  He led me to the neighboring town, hiding my nakedness with foliage as well as he could and, once there, found me a tailor.  And, as I wanted to pay: “No need,” he told me, “secret police funds” or “fun,” I didn’t quite catch the word.  (61)

I love that ending.  The other extreme, though, is more like a French Tender Buttons, where I have no idea how Jacob moves from sentence to sentence, or from word to word.

I hereby declare that I am world-wide, oviparous, a giraffe, parched, sinophobic and hemispherical.  I quench my thirst at the well-springs of the atmosphere which laughs concentrically and farts at my uncertainty.  (from “The Cock and the Pearl,” 28)

The first poem begins by asking “Doesn’t lightning have the same shape all over the world?” and ends with the poet “under police surveillance” (“1914,” 17).  The logic of the move from beginning to end is unclear, but the mood – the war, the threat – is clear.  Nonsense pierced with original images, wordplay that means nothing until suddenly it does, randomness as a principle of art, at least.

I will have to read more Max Jacob.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

the gibberish spoken by the men - Abraham Cahan's Yekl - immigration and assimilation

Abraham Cahan was a giant of Jewish journalism and politics but he also wrote English-language fiction, most famously The Rise of David Levinsky (1917).  I just read his first novel, written twenty years earlier, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896).

Jake has been in New York for three years, working, hanging out at the “dancing academy,” spending time and money on the ladies.  Jake’s a dog.  Back in Russia, though, he was Yekl, and still is to his wife and young son.

During the three years since he had set foot on the soil… he had lived so much more than three years – so much more, in fact, than in all the twenty-two years of his previous life – that his Russian past appeared to him as a dream and his wife and child, together with his former self, fellow characters in a charming tale, which he was neither willing to banish from his memory nor able to reconcile with the actualities of his American present.  (Ch. 3)

The next chapter begins at Ellis Island.  The family is here, old world peasants, a wife in a wig, which means Yekl is somehow back, too.

Presently, however, the illusion took wing and here he was, Jake the Yankee, with this bonnetless, wigged, dowdyish little greenhorn by his side!  That she was his wife, nay that he was a married man at all, seemed incredible to him.  (Ch. 4)

The psychology of Jake / Yekl, his identity problems, is pretty interesting, as is that of his poor wife who finds herself reunited with a stranger.  Their story is even more valuable given how few stories of immigrants we have from this period.  The settings – the dancehall, the “new tenements,” the textile shops – are of high interest, too.

Yekl is of more sociological and historic than artistic interest, yes, that’s right.  Artistically, it is a second-tier William Dean Howells novel in a new setting and with more vigorous speech.  Readers allergic to dialect had better stay away:

“Shay, Mamie, give dot feller a tvisht, vill you?”

“Dot slob again?  Joe must tink if you ask me I’ll get scared, ain’t it?  Go and tell him he is too fresh,” she said with a contemptuous grimace.  Like the majority of the girls of the academy, Mamie’s English was a much nearer approach to a justification of its name than the gibberish spoken by the men.  (Ch. 2)

I thought the Yinglish, or the simulation of it, about makes the novel, but I know some readers hate that stuff.

Cahan published a novella and some short stories around this time, collected in The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories (1898), which I hope to try soon.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Oscar Wilde's Collected Letters - reading lots of Wilde

Recently, I finished off a jolly year-long project of reading not all of Oscar Wilde’s writing but most of it, the largest proportion, 1,200 pages – big pages – on The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000, eds. Merlin Holland – Wilde’s grandson! – and Rupert Hart-Davis).

Two little books of what he called fairy tales and a similarly short collection of comic stories, including “The Canterville Ghost.”  Salomé (1892) and the four great comedies (1892-5) written at the height of Wilde’s fame, but not a pair of early verse* plays which sound unreadable (“The Duchess is unfit for publication – the only one of my works that comes under that category” writes Wilde in 1898, p. 1,091 of Letters).  The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Ricard Ellmann, a huge help for understanding his period, even if his ideas are not much other than watery Walter Pater – but funnier, crucially funnier.  Almost no early poems.  The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) for the third time, which honestly might be enough for a lifetime.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), by contrast, still seems endlessly rereadable.  I had the luck this year to see the touring company of the American Shakespeare Center perform it, too, young actors throwing themselves into Wilde’s nonsense.  It is the purest distillation of Wilde’s personality into literary form, with the stage business and social commentary of the earlier plays eliminated, replaced with pure Wilde, somehow distilled into a half dozen separate characters.

I had assumed that Wilde’s tragic crash, his legal troubles and imprisonment soon after the play opened, cut off the creation of more like it, so it was fascinating to read – between the lines – that Wilde did not really know where the play had come from and had no plans to write another like it, but rather more in the mode of The Ideal Husband (1895) and A Woman of No Importance (1893).

Who knows what might have happened.  Wilde’s creativity was destroyed by his farcical imprisonment for homosexuality, along with his social standing, income, family, and health.  Who knows what works Lord Alfred Douglas, the odious, sponging “Bosie,” and his idiotic feud with his repulsive father, cost Wilde.

Although he barely published after his imprisonment, Wilde did not stop writing - letters, I mean.  Fully half of the surviving Collected Letters are from after the trial, from prison – including the long self-explanation De Profundis (1905) – and then from the Normandy coast, or Paris, or Naples, or Switzerland, where Wilde finds himself trapped with the “tedious and unbearable” Harold Mellor, who is rich and pays for everything, but is also a miser.  “In the evening he reads The Times, or sleeps – both audibly” (1899, p. 1,134).  Someone should write a play about Wilde and Mellor.

This last half of Letters reads, as they say, like a novel.  It has terrific tragicomic narrative drive.  Wilde himself is comic; everything else is tragic.  Wilde struggles with his writing, money, depression.  He becomes a sponge, preferring the indignities of constantly begging for money to those of living on a budget.  Once in a while, he goes back to Bosie – oh no, don’t do it Oscar – he’ll break your heart again.  And he does.  Poor Oscar Wilde.

Anyway, this was all well worth reading, regardless of how little I have to say about it.

* Oops, one is verse - see comments.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Tess's paintings - the staring and ghastly attitudes of a Wiertz Museum

I am looking at Thomas Hardy: The World of His Novels (2013, Frances Lincoln Limited) by J. B. Bullen, an English Professor at Royal Holloway University of London.  Looking at much more than reading, since the book features many images, mostly Bullen’s own photos showing the correspondences between Hardy’s fantasy world and what for the sake of argument I will call the real world.  For example, here is the real Cross-in-Hand pillar, “desolate and silent,” “the site of a miracle, or murder, or both” (Ch. 44), from a public photo, not Bullen’s.  An essential book for planning your walking tour of Wessex.  Don’t lose your boots.

Much of Tess of the d’Urbervilles chapter is spent on a different kind of image, as Bullen works through references to a number of J. M. W. Turner paintings; some are speculation, some are sure things.  It is all tied into the sun theme.  I knew it.  I noticed the sun motif too late.

Tess is full of paintings.  In a comment, Trednyas Days points to a good example:

Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence.  (Ch. 13)

Those are some calm pheasants.  Hardy could be inventing the entire scene, but its explicitly allegorical nature makes me suspect he has a painting in mind.  Perhaps something he saw in Belgium.

I noticed the narrator twice referring to Belgian painters, a surprising theme.  In Chapter 16, he describes the Valley of the Dairies as “speckled as thickly with them [cows] as a canvas by Van Alsloot or Sallaert with burghers,” and in Chapter 39, in one of the oddest lines in the novel, the disillusionment of Angel Clare is described in terms of painting:

Nevertheless humanity stood before him no longer in the pensive sweetness of Italian art, but in the staring and ghastly attitudes of a Wiertz Museum, and with the leer of a study by Van Beers.

“Ghastly” is an interesting word to trace through Tess, but I’ll stick with the paintings.  Antoine Wiertz, judging by his most famous painting, was the greatest painter of the 19th century, but do not be too hasty – he was more typically terrible.  I have pulled a detail from the mammoth The Greeks and the Trojans Fighting over the Body of Patroclus which may be the kind of thing on Hardy’s mind.  The harmless Jan van Beers (“a minor Belgian painter,” the Norton editor deadpans in a footnote) is more of a puzzle.  Maybe this is a leer?

Angel Clare’s understanding of Italian art is pretty narrow, I’ll say that.

What puzzles me most about the explicit use (Turner is never named) of the Flemish and Belgian painters is what readers of Tess made of them.  Were Van Alsloot and Van Beers commonly understood references?  Did readers think “Oh, like Wiertz, what a shocking view of life”?  I know that today’s readers, the ones who love Tess, have looked up these artists and can answer my questions about them.  But how about the late Victorian readers?  I need another book.

Monday, October 3, 2016

What was comedy to them was tragedy to her - Tess versus McFate, round 2

Tess Durbeyfield is pursued in Tess of the d’Urbervilles by three men, Angel Clare, Devil d’Urberville, and an unnamed narrator who represents, or is, or thinks he is, Destiny, or Aubrey McFate, as Humbert Humbert calls him in Lolita.

An innocent amateur genealogist tells Tess’s father that the Durbeyfields “derive their descent from Sir Pagan d’Urberville,” a Norman knight.  The d’Urbervilles are gone, dead, but through a long series of small and large incidents, beginning with her father having a drink or two or three to celebrate his nobility, Tess’s life is ruined.  Tess has the worst luck, again and again.  At first she does not understand that Fate has it in for her:

Tess Durbeyfield did not divine…  that there behind the blue narcotic haze was potentially the ‘tragic mischief’ of her drama – one who stood fair to be the blood-red ray* in the spectrum of her young life.  (Ch. 4)

That’s Devil d’Urberville standing there emitting smoke.  Tess hardly would know any of that, would she, since she literally just met the fellow.  But McFate knows, and needs to tell me he knows.

Had she perceived this meeting’s import she might have asked why she was doomed to be seen and coveted that day by the wrong man, and not by some other man, the right and desired one in all [meaning Angel Clare, who will pop up later].

The narrator frequently interrupts to say how characters made the wrong decision.  He berates Angel Clare at the end of Chapter 39 for his treatment of Tess – and it would be hard to find a reader who disagrees with the narrator – but what can you do, “this advanced and well-meaning young man, a sample product of the last five-and-twenty years, was yet the slave to custom and conventionality when surprised back into his early teachings.”

McFate is at his cruelest in Chapter 44, part of Tess’s long walk, where after a series of pathetic setbacks the narrator says “she went her way without knowing that the greatest misfortune of her life was this feminine loss of courage at the last and critical moment…” [emphasis mine].  Yes, Tess could have been happy – relieved from her suffering, allowed a more ordinary life – if only – there are a lot of “if only”s, many branches to the story that get lopped off.

The narrator is openly in conflict with Tess.  Much earlier in the novel, Tess declared that she refused to study history, because history is the study of Fate, and she would rather not know:

“Because what’s the use of learning that I am one of a long row only – finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part; making me sad, that’s all.  The best is not to remember that your nature and your past doings have been just like thousands’ and thousands’, and that your coming life and doings’ll be like thousands’ and thousands’.”  (Ch. 19)

She will embrace the illusion of her existence, the illusion of her will, no matter how often the narrator insists it is an illusion, no matter if he is right.  Perhaps this is why Tess feels so alive compared to the other characters in the novel – compared to most characters in most novels.  The illusion fights back against the illusionist.  She is the predecessor of Professor Pnin, who ends up fleeing his own novel to escape the cruel narrator.  Tess figures out how to escape her novel, too.

My title is from Chapter 29, just barely nudged out of context, and a good description of how I read Tess – I’m one of “them.”

* See end of Stonehenge scene, Ch. 58.  Note for next time – keep track of sun references.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

She was not an existence, an experience - the narrator versus Tess - plus bonus layer of live rats

Writing yesterday about Tess of the d’Urbervilles at its wildest, I stopped before using the scene with this line: “But there was another hour’s work before the layer of live rats at the base of the stack would be reached; and [nice description of the moon]” (Ch. 48).  I have not yet found a book blogger quoting this line.  What novel were they reading?

I am hopping back to the Criticism in my outstanding Norton Critical Edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  What drives Dorothy Van Ghent crazy (from her book The English Novel: Form and Function (1953)), the “elements resistant to aesthetic cohesion” – she is so polite – that most bothers her, are the narrator’s invocations of poems.  Quotes from Wordsworth or Browning or Swinburne or whomever.  Tess, though she is reduced to swede-grubbing, is not uneducated. She could handle the quotations.  It is the surrounding lecture that “belongs to an intellectual battlefield alien from the novel’s imaginative concretions” (p. 428).

Tess and her family are moving – the subsequent scene, the description of the country-wide moving day, is outstanding – and they are singing a hymn that is sad but offers the hope of heaven.  Tess has spent the length of the novel suffering, so she does not share their hope:

for to Tess, as to not a few millions of others, there was a ghastly satire in the poet’s lines–
                Not in utter nakedness
                But trailing clouds of glory do we come.  [“Ode. Intimations of Immortality,” ll. 63-4]
To her and her like, birth itself was an ordeal of degrading personal compulsion, whose gratuitousness nothing in the result seemed to justify, and at best could only palliate.  (Ch. 51)

A classic statement of Hardyan pessimism.  What needles Van Ghent is not just the intrusion of the philosophical statement, but the anti-novelistic introduction of the “millions” and “her like.”  “[I]n what way do these statistical generalizations add to the already sufficient meaning of Tess’s situation?” (p. 429).  The novel is about Tess, Tess, Tess.  Any philosophical work needs to be done through her.  If Wordsworth is helpful, show us Tess reading Wordsworth.

Not that the narrator needs Wordsworth.  Nor does Tess.  Much earlier in the novel, after Tess has suffered her second, I think, great trauma, she is recovering.  She has resolved “to be useful again”; she has made some peace with an indifferent world.

The past was past; whatever it had been it was no more at hand.  Whatever its consequences, time would close over them; they would all in a few years be as if they had never been, and she herself grassed down and forgotten.  (Ch. 14)

A little jolt there at the end.  It is all pretty clearly Tess.  Yet the narrator is not satisfied.  She has not gone far enough for him.

She might have seen that what had bowed her head so profoundly – the thought of the world’s concern at her situation [unmarried mother] – was founded on an illusion.  She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself.  To all humankind besides Tess was only a passing thought…  Most of her misery had been generated by her conventional aspect, and not by her innate sensations.

I suppose it would be hard to find readers now who think badly of Tess because she had a child out of wedlock.  The “conventional aspect” has changed a lot.  But the narrator is after something else.  This is the side that Van Ghent finds bullying.  I do, too.  I found myself fighting with the narrator a lot, and not with his artlessness, whatever that might mean.  This structure, the narrator who tells the story but becomes frustrated that it does not say exactly what he wants it to say, is pretty interesting.

The narrator is fundamentally wrong.  He mistakes the illusion.  Tess was an existence, rather more than a passing thought, to me, while reading the novel.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

where the snow smells like whales - Tess's vegeto-human pollen - Hardy, the great fantasy novelist

Where The Return of the Native (1878) burrowed into a single strange landscape, Egdon Heath, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) takes its heroine on a tour of central Wessex, so Hardy can describe a series of weird places.  I am reading William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End (1896), which is entirely invented, and there has not been anything nearly so weird.  Early going, I hope.  Hardy’s fantasy novel is much more fantastic.

A valley that is a center of dairy production, sending cans of milk to London by train, I suppose a pretty ordinary place, is turned into a biology experiment:

Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Froom Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate.  The ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings.  (Ch. 24)

The milkmaids “writhed feverishly” in a landscape “which sent up mists of pollen at a touch” (I’m mixing chapters – 23 first, then Ch. 19).  People mate like plants.  In an earlier landscape, a hay harvest, the “floating, fusty débris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers” form “a sort of vegeto-human pollen” (Ch. 11).

The contrast is so strange, the Anglo-Celtic level of the story, the milk and turnip level, wrestling with the educated narrator who has a sharp enough ear to note that the sound of the dancing is muffled “from their being overshoe in ‘scroff’” – peat dust – “They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed” – but also can’t stop himself from dragging in the satyrs and nymphs, “Lotis attempting to elude Priapus.”

Ah, just a page earlier is that beautiful sunset, “when yellow lights struggle with blue shades in hair-like lines, and the atmosphere itself forms a prospect without aid from more solid objects, except the innumerable winged insects that danced in it.”  I rarely understand what is meant when a book is described as “atmospheric,” but in Tess of the d’Urbervilles the atmosphere is a constant presence, a motivating force.

The masterpiece is the description of Flintcomb-Ash, the turnip farm, “a starve-acre place” where the fields are full of “bulbous, cusped, and phallic” rocks, the migrating birds come direct from the North Pole, “gaunt spectral creatures with tragical eyes – eyes which had witnessed scenes of cataclysmal horror in inaccessible polar regions of a magnitude such as no human being has ever conceived” and the snow that follows the birds like a “white pillar of cloud,” a Biblical snow, “smelt of icebergs, arctic seas, whales, and white bears” (Ch. 43).

The snow smells like whales.  What were those idiots in the previous post talking about?  Hardy is awesome.  How could Robert Louis Stevenson, of all people, not experience some pleasing surprise when reading about that blizzard under a palm tree?

How this all fits together is still a puzzle to me.  Another piece tomorrow.

Friday, September 30, 2016

sundry gnomic texts and phrases - the botched and bungled Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Everybody has to establish how badly Thomas Hardy writes.  “The novels therefore are full of inequalities; they are lumpish and dull and inexpressive…  It is as if Hardy himself were not quite aware of what he did…” (400-1) writes Virginia Woolf.  “The book [Tess of the d’Urbervilles] is handled with very uncertain skill, botched and bungled” moans D. H. Lawrence, who loves Hardy (410).  “I will say that Tess is one of the worst, weakest, least sane, most voulu [forced] books I have yet read” howls Robert Louis Stevenson.  Hoots Henry James, in reply:

But oh yes, dear Louis, she is vile.  The pretence of “sexuality” is only equaled by the absence of it, and the abomination of language by the author’s reputation for style.  There are indeed some pretty smells and sights and sounds.  But you have better ones in Polynesia.  (388, the James and Stevenson from letters, not reviews)

The page numbers refer to the “Criticism” section of the 1979 Norton Critical Edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the 1891 novel in which Hardy leads, cajoles, and forcefully shoves poor Tess, the unluckiest heroine in English literature, to her Doom.  The incessance of the Hardy-bashing amidst – as part of – the serious attempts to understand Hardy are clearly an editorial decision.  Perhaps the editor is letting undergraduates know that it is okay to loathe Hardy’s writing.  Now, get that out of your system and, like Lawrence and Woolf and many others, move forward.

I have come across Hardy fans who deny that the bad Hardy sentence exists.  I wonder what they see when they come across something like this, which starts poor and crashes:

The ‘appetite for joy’ which pervades all creation, that tremendous force which sways humanity to its purpose, as the tide sways the helpless weed, was not to be controlled by vague lucubrations over the social rubric.  (Ch. 30)

Here’s one that starts pretty well:

His thought had been unsuspended; he was becoming ill with thinking; eaten out with thinking, withered by thinking; scourged out of all his former pulsating flexuous domesticity.  (Ch. 36)

The Latinate weirdisms like “vague lucubrations over the social rubric” are one side of Hardy’s bad writing.  They always belong to the narrator.  The other side is also always the narrator’s fault.

Like all who have been previsioned by suffering, she could, in the words of M. Sully-Prudhomme, hear a penal sentence in the fiat, ‘You shall be born,’ particularly is addressed to potential issue of hers.  (Ch. 36)

Her future children, that last phrase means, although that’s nothing compared to the four sentences of indirection in Chapter 5 in which the narrator tries to say but not say that Tess has a big chest.  But I am here more interested in the strange intrusion of the irrelevant, alien reference, so odd in a novel about a milkmaid.

If before going to the d’Urbervilles’ she [Tess] had vigorously moved under the guidance of sundry gnomic texts and phrases known to her and to the world in general, no doubt she would never have been imposed on.  But it had not been in Tess’s power – nor is it in anybody’s power – to feel the whole truth if golden opinions while it is possible to profit by them.  She – and how many more – might have ironically said to God with Saint Augustine: ‘Thou hast counselled a better course than Thou hast permitted.’  (Ch. 15)

Within a page there are quotations from Roger Ascham and Jeremy Taylor.  If only Tess had spent more time with their gnomic texts!  The way to save the narrator, both his vile style and private references, is to break him off from Hardy a bit, to make the narrator part of the argument of the novel.  Make him a little nuts. I can kind of see how to do it.

The other way to go is to ignore him, I guess, to just focus on big, vital Tess, who overshadows the narrator, the other characters, and even the landscape.  The people who love the novel love Tess.

All right, that’s out of my system. Forward.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A rummage through The Yellow Book

Some books I read to learn about better books.  A recent one for me was The Yellow Book: Quintessence of the Nineties (1964), ed. Stanley Weintraub, an anthology of short stories, poems, and Max Beerbohms from the short-lived London Yellow Book “magazine,” if that is the right term for a series of clothbound books.

The editors were, for texts, the American novelist Henry Harland, “a sort of lemonade Henry James”* and, for images, young wonder Aubrey Beardsley.  Beardsley’s involvement gave The Yellow Book a sheen of Decadence and Aestheticism, but that does not really describe the contents well.

Even Beardsley is on his best behavior (see right, for example, from the October 1894 issue).  After the first year, Beardsley own work hardly appears anywhere but the cover.

Nothing shocking here, even by the standards of the time.  “A Slip under the Microscope,” for example, an 1896 H. G. Wells story, is about the ethics of inadvertent cheating on a test.  The cheater finally turns himself in, sacrificing his science career (the story is science fiction but not “science fiction”).

Maybe Harland’s own “The Bohemian Girl,” about a non-manic pixie dream girl who is adored by all of the English and American art students in Paris, could not be shown to Victorian pre-teens, but even she ends up marrying an engineer.  Harold Frederic supplies a tale of heroic Irish martyrdom, a Scott knockoff, totally unlike The Damnation of Theron Ware.  George Gissing’s “The Foolish Virgin” is a still young “old maid” in reduced circumstances – a grim and grey tale, typical Gissing.

Kenneth Grahame’s “The Roman Road” is absolutely adorable, about a child who imagines the old road through town runs all the way to Rome (which in a sense it does).  He has seen the Coliseum in a woodcut:

so to begin with I plumped that down in the middle.  The rest had to be patched up from the little grey market-town where twice a year we went to have out haircut…

So the boy’s Rome is full of English pubs and Wesleyan chapels.  It is a story about the growth of the imagination, really.  No problem associating “The Roman Road” with the author of The Wind in the Willows.

William Butler Yeats, Henry James, John Buchan, Baron Corvo, John Davidson, Ernest Dowson, Arnold Bennett, for some of the more famous names.  A number of women – George Egerton, Charlotte Mew, Ada Leverson – who had just been, to me, names in someone else’s story.  Hey, there’s Reggie Turner, one of Oscar Wilde’s closest friends.  His story, “A Chef d’Oeuvre,” is about a man who spends years writing the perfect short story, an effort so agonizing it kills him.  The (fictional) story turns out to be, you know, pretty good, much like the actual story.  Much like most of the stories in The Yellow Book.

The Henry James stories and Max Beerbohm pieces are by far the standouts, so they are easily available elsewhere.

All of the issues are available at archive.org.  A browse is some fun for students of the period.

* See The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, p. 1056, note 5.

Monday, September 26, 2016

the abounding sufficiency and interest of the actual - Shaw's masterful You Never Can Tell

Stanley Kauffmann on George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell (1896):

I think it is the greatest high comedy in the English language after Sheridan.  If I were making a bouquet of high comedies in English, I would pick Much Ado About Nothing, The School for Scandal, The Rivals, and You Never Can Tell.  (I omit The Importance of Being Earnest because it’s sui generis.)*

Strong praise, huh?  It’s a wonderful play, and I would not have heard of it without Kauffmann’s praise.

The Clandons have returned to England after nearly twenty years abroad, having fled their cruel husband and father.  Mrs. Clandon is the author of the Twentieth Century Treatises (e.g. Twentieth Century Cooking, or Twentieth Century Children, “No family should be without them”).  Her eldest daughter, Gloria, is a New Woman – she reads Schopenhauer (“Very interesting author, sir: especially on the subject of ladies, sir”) – while the twins Dolly and Philip are hilarious nightmares, noisy, vulgar, clever idiots.

There is a love story, a courtship, between Gloria and a penniless dentist – the first act takes place in a dentist’s office, an innovation right there – and more seriously, the “high” in the high comedy, there is a story about the attempt of the father to reunite with the family.  He is an ideal Victorian, unable to understand that his ideal world has been gone for twenty years or more.  This family doesn’t need him.

The two acts of dentistry, by the way, occur just before the curtain opens and just after it falls.  No dentistry is depicted onstage.  Shaw is cruel, but not a sadist.

The reader of Shaw’s plays gets the benefit of Shaw’s amusing descriptions of his sets and characters.  “Recognising  this as a dental drill, you shudder and look away to your left, where you see…”or how about how the elements of the décor “all combine with the black marble which gives the fireplace the air of a miniature family vault, to suggest early Victorian commercial respectability, belief in money, Bible fetichism, fear of hell always at war with fear of poverty, instinctive horror of the passionate character of art, love and Roman Catholic religion, and all the first fruits of plutocracy in the early generations of the industrial revolution,” which is a lot to infer from the wallpaper and ormolu clock.  Likely the poor theater-goer misses a bit of it.

The waiter is a remarkable person in his way.  A silly old man, white-haired and delicate looking, but so cheerful and contented that in his encouraging presence ambition stands rebuked as vulgarity, and imagination as treason to the abounding sufficiency and interest of the actual.

Why so much attention to a bit part, I thought, but the waiter has the best part in the play.  He is something of an onstage theatrical manager, maneuvering the family members not just through their lunch – although Act II, the lunch scene, is a marvel – but to the play’s conclusion.  The title is his catchphrase.

WAITER (philosophically).  Well, sir, you never can tell.  That’s a principle in life with me, sir.  (Delicately sinking the philosopher in the waiter for a moment.)  Perhaps you haven’t noticed that you hadn’t touched that seltzer and Irish, sir, when the party broke up.

His son, an attorney, has a different motto: “You think you won’t, but you will.”  Both turn out to be truths.

Shaw has the lightest touch here.

* From an interview with Jane Ann Crum published as “Stanley Kauffmann on the Unknown Shaw: You Never Can Tell, Misalliance, Androcles and the Lion, Too True To Be Good” in Shaw, Vol. 7, pp. 31-44, and also published in Conversations with Stanley Kauffmann (2003), where I read it.