Thursday, December 8, 2016

save our treasures of beauty - Thomas Mann's "Death in Florence"

Long, long ago, when Thomas Mann was a living writer and his status in English literature was at a peak, a 1936 collection titled Stories of Three Decades, introduced by Mann himself, was the way to read “Death in Venice” and much else.  Over time, Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations have been revised and replaced, and the stories republished in many (shorter) arrangements, often with the earlier stories neglected and the complex later, longer novellas pulled together.

What I wanted to know was if there was anything in Stories of Three Decades that later anthologists had ignored, anything that I had missed.  There is, and surprisingly it is a play, Fiorenza (1906), although likely a closet drama.  I think the last act would work on stage, but otherwise I have doubts.

Fiorenza a character in the play, the only woman, but also Florence – so this is another example of a German in Italy – in 1492, the day before Lorenzo de Medici dies.  The last act is a confrontation between the dying Lorenzo, a demonstrably great man, especially in contrast to the pale idiots who surround him, and Friar Girolamo Savonarola, a fanatic, a madman, but very much alive, and on the verge of taking over Florence.

Lorenzo is the representative of art, beauty, and the Classical spirit of the Renaissance.  He recognizes, unlike the pale idiots, including his useless sons, that the Renaissance values he embodies are too abstract and empty.  His sycophants flatter his poems – better than Dante! – and “divine origins.

LORENZO:  That is poesy, poesy, my friend!  That is beauty, beauty – but neither knowledge nor consolation!  (239)

Not what a dying man needs to hear, even though Lorenzo embodies these values himself, however corruptly.  Too corruptly.  Some of the emptiness is a pagan hedonism.

LORENZO:  I was the state.  The state was I.  Pericles himself took the public money unhesitatingly when he needed it.  And beauty is above law and virtue.  Enough.  But when they rave against it, then Piero [useless son], save our treasures of beauty.  Rescue them.  Let all else go, but protect them with your life.  This is my last will.  (250)

But Piero, the perfect courtier, is hardly the man for that job.  The impulse to destroy these values, to burn books and slash art, as advocated and enacted by Savonarola and his followers, will have its moment of triumph.  As I understood the last act, Mann is entirely on the side of Lorenzo, but suggests that the refusal to curb the excesses of the pursuit of beauty, the embrace of decadence, inevitably created the counter-reaction of Savonarola.  The bonfires are not Lorenzo’s fault, but he is to blame for failing to imagine them.

So, not such a surprise that Thomas Mann, in 1936, thought it a good idea to include this old curiosity among his other stories, whatever he had meant by it in 1906.  German art, literature, and learning, however extraordinary, were no defense against modern Savonarolas.  They instead needed to be defended.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Urmuz disappears into the small infinite

The Complete Works of Urmuz (tr. Miron & Carola Grindea) is a little Atlas Press chapbook sort of thing.  Urmuz’s complete works seem to fit easily in 33 pages.  A few of the summaries on his impressively thorough Wiki page are as long as the works themselves.

Ismail also gives audiences but only on top of the hill near the badgers’ nursery.  Hundreds of job-hunters, contributions of money and firewood are first introduced under an enormous lampshade, where each is obliged to hatch four eggs.  (from “Ismail and Turnavitu”)

Much of the prose is like this – nonsense, keeping enough coherence to give the illusion of a narrative.  Urmuz is a pseudonym, a crazy name to go with crazy prose.  The actual human was a judge and law clerk.  He killed himself in 1923, when he was 40; I do not know the dates of specific pieces – the 1910s and 1920s.

The world is falling about; so is language; so is meaning.

One day, deep into his usual philosophical researches, Stamate had for a moment the feeling that he had laid his hand on the other half of the “thing in itself,” when suddenly he was distracted by a female voice, the voice of a siren that goes to one’s heart as it wafts from afar, fading into an echo.  (from Part III of “The Funnel and Stamate”)

Reasonably, Stamate rents a sailing ship and blocks his ears with wax, pursuing the siren in the manner of Odysseus.  But at the end of the story he is still searching, “climbing into his crank-driven perambulator for a final journey,… shrinking his size in the hope that he will some time in the future penetrate and disappear into the small infinite.”

The search will never end in life.  Language and art undermine the search for truth as much or more than they assist.  So Urmuz just plunges in.

The least nonsensical Urmuz piece is the longest, “The Fuchsiad: An Heroic-Erotic (and Musical) Prose Poem,” in which the pianist Theodor Fuchs, who “spent three years hidden at the bottom of a piano” – it is still awfully nonsensical – is summoned to Olympus to copulate with Venus and produce a “new and superior race” of true art-lovers.  He does the best he can, composing a “Romance for piano” while perched in Venus’s ear.  No, that’s not what was wanted.  He is hurled into Chaos, which is a kind of Modernist music, “a shower of dissonances, of inverted and unresolved discords, of interrupted cadences, false relations, trills and especially of pauses… a longer rest broke his spectacles.”

Urmuz urges Fuchs, as the story ends – I remind myself that Fuchs was a real performer, and Urmuz “never missed a concert” (Introduction, p.11) – to continue, even if defeated and corrupted, to “bring about on this planet by dint of education a better and superior race of men for his own glory and for the glory of the piano and of Eternity.”

Anything that I hopefully identify as a statement of purpose may be a false clue, just another version of this fine stuff:

His only wish was to be able to celebrate his silver wedding anniversary.  To do this, he summoned all of his servants and, after first inviting them to peck some hemp seed, threw them into a lime pit.  (from “Going Abroad”)

Tristan Tzara admired Urmuz.  So did Eugène Ionesco.  People turning into rhinos and so on logically follows from Urmuz.  It would be useful for me to learn more about this artistic pathway between Romania and France.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Marcel Schwob preaches the Book of Monelle - the green girl led her by the hand to an unknown liberty

A week of writing about short books chosen as if at random, but no, all following some long-running Wuthering Expectations theme, I believe that is what I have in front of me this week.

First up is The Book of Monelle (1894) by French oddball Marcel Schwob, in the Kit Schluter* translation from Wakefield Press, a book beloved by Symbolists, Dadaists, Surrealists, in general by artists with sympathy for conceptual art.

Monelle is Schwob’s Beatrice, a muse and a saint, apparently the patron saint of conceptual art:

And to imagine new art you must break its forebears.  And thus new art seems a sort of iconoclasm.

For all construction is made of debris, and nothing is new in this world but forms.

But you must destroy the forms. (7)

Monelle is the apostle of Modernism.  The above is from the first part of the book, “The Words of Monelle,” which per the novel’s title is a Biblical parody:

Monelle found me in the plain where I was wandering and took me by the hand.

“Do not be surprised,” she said.  “It is I, and it is not I”…

And Monelle said again: I shall speak to you of young prostitutes, and you shall know the beginning.  (3)

Then she reveals the prophecy of Modernist conceptual art to her true believers.

The last part of the book returns to the religious aspect of Monelle.  It is something like Dante’s New Life merging into Paradiso.  Monelle dies but is resurrected etc.  I am skeptical about this section.

The middle of the book, though, is amazing.  “The Sisters of Monelle.”  It is a series of fairy tales and parodies of fairy tales, mostly with characters whose lives are ruined, or perhaps saved, by believing in fairy tales.   Poor Ilsée, in “The Fated,” spends her life waiting for what she sees in her mirror.  It comes, eventually.  Poor Bargette, in “The Disappointed,” hitches a ride to the south of France on a barge, where she thinks she’ll find the South Seas – turtles, coconuts – even though the practical couple who operate the barge keep insisting that “’there’s going to be a bit of sun, but really, that’s all’” (35).

One girl wants to be Cinderella, another wants to be Bluebeard’s wife (“’This is going to hurt!’”).  Another, Morgane, has read about the mirror in Snow White, and also the mirror in Ilsée’s story.  She goes on a quest for her own magic mirror:

And further on is an underground city of black men who go unvisited by their gods, except in sleep.  They eat hemp fibers, and cover their faces with chalk.  And those who intoxicate themselves at night with hemp slit the necks of those who sleep, that they be sent to the nocturnal divinities.  Morgane was terrified of them.  (61)

Me, too!  Schwob’s fairy tales are on the scary side.

She opened the door and held her arm out into the night.  Just as Bûchette had once led her to the homes of man, the green girl led her by the hand to an unknown liberty.  (41)

The sublime, as readers of Wuthering Expectations well know, is the mixture of beauty and fear.

*  A good interview with the translator at 3:AM Magazine; another at The Paris Review.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"But that's poetry" - A Doppelgänger, Theodor Storm as Naturalist

A Doppelgänger (1886), the novella in Denis Jackson’s recent translation that is new to English, is a shocker, not like anything else I have read by Theodor Storm.  It is about the life and sufferings of an ex-convict, John Hansen, in Husum, walking around where I have walked.  He suffers because of the prejudices of his neighbors, the economics conditions of his time, but also due to his own psychology – his guilt, his lack of impulse control, that sort of thing.  He is in some ways a sympathetic figure, but at his worst he is violent and dangerous.  The domestic abuse in the story is the most shocking part.

Storm was for many years a judge, and much of the detail of the story must have come from his courtroom.  It was no surprise to see Jackson write that A Doppelgänger is “considered even today to be the first Naturalistic literary work in Germany” (188).  Meaning Naturalism as a subject, a genre, the unsentimental literature of the poor and downtrodden as in Zola’s Germinal, not anything to do with style.  For Storm, though, the style is pretty plain.

The world was increasingly hostile towards him; whenever he needed help, or wherever he sought it, he received in response only a reproach for the crime in his past; and he was soon to hear it too where no other person could hear it.  One might have asked: ‘You with those strong arms, with your mighty fists, why do you tolerate it, why don’t you just silence them?’  He had once, when a loud-mouthed sailor had called his wife a beggar girl.  He had knocked the fellow to the ground and almost cracked his skull…  (128)

Less plain language is reserved for special occasions, and for an uncanny old well that for some reason torments John.  You know someone is going to end up in that well.  You can pretty much guess who.

The other place where the prose is less plain, where it is Storm’s ordinary poeticized prose, is in the frame story, a forest idyll, in which the Stormish narrator, in a distant land, meets a woman from his home (he recognizes her accent).  A few clues and he realizes that he of course knew her father, the notorious ex-con.  But she barely remembers him:

“I looked up at the stars, and they all shown down at me so peaceful and friendly.  ‘Father,’ I said, ‘ask Him for a small piece of bread this evening!’  I felt a warm drop fall onto my face; I thought it came from the dear Lord. – I know I was still hungry later that night in my bed; but I quietly went to sleep.”  (111)

She has escaped her early poverty, now living in a world of “yellow irises blooming at its [a pond’s] edge in a profusion I had never seen before” (112).

Strangely, the central story is not a discovered document or memory of the narrator, but a vivid fantasy.  He imagines the life of the father of the woman in the woods, tempered by his few childhood associations with the character, one of which involves the well.  In a directly anti-Naturalism move, the narrator acknowledges that he’s made it all up.  “’Hm,’ said the level-headed man [the woman’s husband], his eyes resting on me trustingly.  ‘But that’s poetry’” (157).  However far from his usual work, still Theodor Storm, in other words.

How lucky we are to have these new translations.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

an irresistible feeling of compassion - the new translation of Theodor Storm's Aquis submersus

The great Theodor Storm translator Denis Jackson published his fifth volume of Storm’s novellas recently – A Doppelgänger with Aquis submersus.  The latter is also available in the old James Wright collection, The Rider on the White Horse; the former is new to English.

No offense meant to the actual translations of Wright, but the editions Jackson produces are ideal.  Jackson loves the North Frisian landscape and culture as much as he loves Storm, so his research on the villages and landscape and their connections to Storm’s fiction are worth seeing for their own sake.  I have been to Husum, Storm’s home, visited his grave and all that.  I have never been to a place more tangled with the works of an author.  Thomas Hardy’s Wessex is a useful comparison, but Wessex is much bigger, with novels set over a much larger space.  In Storm’s stories – in the two I just read – the characters keep walking past places I have been in Husum.  They keep visiting places that now have plaques telling me that this building stands on the site of the Aquis submersus house.

The hedgerows of hornbeam in our ‘Schlossgarten,’ which had earlier belonged to the ducal castle yet since time immemorial had been quite neglected, were once laid out in the old French fashion but in my youth had already grown into narrow, ghostly avenues.  (p. 31)

This is the first line of Aquis submersus (1876), and a good example of why I associate him with W. G. Sebald, who I assume knew his work well.  Although Storm is an author full of hope and joy, openly striving for beauty, his fiction has a similar sense of historical entropy.  He lived in a landscape where once in a while a North Sea hurricane destroys everything, literally smashing islands into pieces and drowning entire cities.  Storm is well aware of the natural history of destruction.

On the other hand, that garden, where I have been, is now best known for its spectacular spring crocuses.

In both of these stories, the “present” is idyllic, but the past is tragic.

Aquis submersus is historical fiction.  The narrator, as a child, was fascinated by a painting in a local church that showed

a beautiful boy of about five quietly lying in a cushion with lace decoration, holding a white water lily in his small pale hand.  The delicate face, as though beseeching help, still carried the last sweet trace of life beside the horror of death; and an irresistible feeling of compassion came over me when I stood before this painting.  (34)

The narrator actually describes the entire contents of a church, with Jackson, in his notes, telling me either where I can visit each artifact or when it was lost, but most importantly this painting, inscribed “1666” and “C. P. A. S.”, perhaps Cupla patris aqua submersus – “Through the fault of the father drowned.”  The bulk of the story is a fortuitously discovered manuscript written by the painter telling the tragic story of that painting and that inscription.

Back to the narrator:

[The painter’s] name does not belong among those who are named; hardly would he be found in any dictionary of artists; indeed, even in his own land no one knows of a painter of this name.  The chronicle of our town does in fact mention the large Lazarus painting, but the painting itself, like the rest of the art treasures dispersed following the demolition of our old church at the beginning of the present century, has disappeared.  (99)

Friday, December 2, 2016

The cynicism of it! - Shaw's Major Barbara

I barely know a thing about George Bernard Shaw, most of what I know is likely wrong, and now that I see that I took the dumbest notes on Major Barbara (1905), but how will I learn if I stay silent I say to myself.

Major Barbara is a major in the Salvation Army.  Act II takes place at a Salvation Army shelter.  Great stuff.  Barbara’s father, Andrew Undershaft, is England’s greatest armaments manufacturer.  Act III partly takes place at his gigantic manufacturing plant, which is something like the giant Krupp plant as if it were run by Robert Owen.

UNDERSHAFT [stopping to smell the bouquet].  Where did you get the flowers, my dear?

LADY BRITOMART.  Your men presented them to me in your William Morris Labor Church…  Yes, with Morris’s words in mosaic letters ten feet high round the dome.  NO MAN IS GOOD ENOUGH TO BE ANOTHER MAN’S MASTER.  The cynicism of it!

UNDERSHAFT.  It shocked the men at first, I am afraid.  But now they take no more notice of it than of the ten commandments in church.

Undershaft is such a perfect cynic about the effects of his products on the world – “Here I am, a profiteer in mutilation and murder” – that he is in practice perversely sincere, as much of a Utopian reformer as his daughter Barbara.  Much of the plot is about Undershaft’s attempt to find a successor to run the factory – a fairy tale where the prize for the plucky peasant hero is a dynamite plant – and I kept detecting the idea, never stated by Shaw that I noticed, that the heir really should be Barbara, even if her ideals are completely different.  She and her father share the impulse to organize the world.

Maybe that is what happens at the end, come to think of it.  Her husband gets the business, but he is an idiot, and a cynical cynic, not a sincere one, a classicist who bangs the bass drum in the Salvation Army only because he wants to marry the wealthy Barbara.

CUSINS.  It takes the poor professor of Greek, the most artificial and self-suppressed of human creatures, from his meal of roots, and lets loose the rhapsodist in him; reveals the true worship of Dionysos to him; sends him down the public street drumming dithyrambs [he plays a thundering flourish on the drum].  (Act II)

The “artificial and self-suppressed” part is accurate, at least.  Please note the appearance of the god of satyrs and fauns, like an Edwardian timestamp.

Perhaps a reader can detect some irony in the play’s central conflict.  Strangely, Shaw was criticized for attacking the Salvation Army, as he describes in the long preface to the play.  As if he were in favor of the cannons and warships instead.  Major Barbara is an argument against the illusion of purity.  “He must either share the world’s guilt or go to another planet” (Preface).  “He” being anyone, everyone.

The first act of the play is a drawing room comedy as funny as the others by Shaw I have read recently, Candida (1894) and You Never Can Tell (1896).  Shaw is expert with upper-class prigs and idiots.  But the rest of the play is bigger, more ambitious.  More in line with my received view of Shaw, the one I carried around for years, not completely mistaken but badly incomplete.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

He cursed his love of metaphor - some Forster metaphors - (Untrue; but then, so is most information.)

He cursed his love of metaphor…  (Ch. 8)

Just one of many ways the reader is warned to suspect, or perhaps even despise, Cecil, the heroine’s fiancée and secondary obstacle to her marrying the right fellow.

The narrator, of course, the Forster figure, loves metaphor.  See that passage about violets I quoted yesterday.  Or watch the tourists in Florence:

… the ladies bought some hot chestnut paste out of a little shop, because it looked so typical.  It tasted partly of the paper in which it was wrapped, partly of hair oil, partly of the great unknown.  (Ch. 2)

She watched the tourists [see?], their noses as red as their Baedekers, so cold was Santa Croce.  (Ch. 2)

I guess it is just possible that the last metaphor is meant to be Lucy’s – someone has just run off with her guidebook, so it is on her mind.  The narrator, though, is generally extremely intrusive, constantly correcting his characters:

The men on the river were fishing.  (Untrue; but then, so is most information.)  (Ch. 2)

The first sentence is supplied to Lucy by the similarly intrusive lady novelist Miss Lavish; the parenthetical is the narrator’s.  I have no idea what the men on the river are doing.  I didn’t see them when I was in Florence.

He also loves to pour on the rhetoric, to empurple the scene – violets, etc. – as in this description of fairly ordinary curtains that are the light that they are not quite blocking:

A poet – none was present – might have quoted, “Life like a dome of many coloured glass,” or might have compared the curtains to sluice-gates, lowered against the intolerable tides of heaven.  Without was poured a sea of radiance; within, the glory, though visible, was tempered to the capacities of man.  (Ch. 8)

Pure narrator, a bit of a smart aleck.

I only thought the narrator really overdid it one, near the end of the novel as Lucy in some sense hits bottom.  “She gave up trying to understand herself” – she gave up on Bildung – “and joined the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words.”

They [soldiers in this army, meaning almost everyone] have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue…  They have sinned against Eros and against Pallas Athene, and not by any heavenly intervention, but by the ordinary course of nature, those allied deities will be avenged.  (Ch. 17)

This was the only time I shouted to the narrator “Get out of the way!”  I wanted to see Lucy, not this stuff.  The main sin against truth here is that the narrator appears to be serious.  The metaphor in the last line of the chapter is more chilling: “The night received her, as it had received Miss Bartlett thirty years before.”  But that is because I have spent all too much time with the narrow Miss Bartlett, and know fear that Lucy really could will herself – exile herself – into that life.

But this is a jolly book, full of Italy, full of life, and everything works out; even Miss Bartlett turns out to be more alive than she seems – she has, after all, been to Italy.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Room with a View in which Germanic English fall in love in Italy, "the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth"

Pan had been amongst them – not the great god Pan, who has been buried these two thousand years, but the little god Pan, who presides over social contretemps and unsuccessful picnics.  (Ch. 7)

That’s from E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908).  Max Beerbohm’s story “Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton,” in Seven Men (1919), includes a fine joke about the literary satyrs, with “their hoofs and their slanting eyes and their way of coming suddenly out of woods to wean quiet English villages from respectability.”  By the time Beerbohm is writing, they have become clichés.  Perhaps “become” is too generous.  When I first read Beerbohm, I understood the joke theoretically, but recently I have been reading more of the English literature of the faun, going back to Walter Pater.  They are all Paterians, aren’t they?  I’ll bet they are.  For example, although I did not mention it when I wrote about Robert Graves’s first book, it had at least one faun too many.

Paganism is infectious – more infectious than diphtheria or piety – and the Rector’s niece was taken to church protesting.  (Ch. 15)

The Forster narrator is often hilarious.  Victorian, and then Edwardian, respectability, is the enemy.  Why so uptight, you squares?

The sitting-room itself was blocked with books.

“Are these people great readers?” Freddy whispered.  “Are they that sort?”

“I fancy they know how to read – a rare accomplishment.  What have they got?  Byron.  Exactly.  A Shropshire Lad.  Never heard of it.  The Way of All Flesh.  Never heard of it.  Gibbon.  Hullo! dear George reads German.  Um – um – Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and so we go on.”  (Ch. 12)

The heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, is not a reader, certainly not of anything as preposterous as Nietzsche, but she is a serious amateur musician with her own Romantic Germanic tendencies.  The same character who has not heard of Housman or Butler attributes Lucy’s lapses from respectability – her “startled eyes,” say – to “’Too much Beethoven’” (Ch. 5).

Lucy and George are flung together by a pagan force more powerful than a faun – Italy, specifically Florence, and more specifically, the impulsive murders and endless violets of Tuscany.  The story of the novel is how the Englishness that surrounds Lucy interferes with the Italianness that will make her happy.

Again, although A Room with a View looks like a romance between two lively young English people who meet in Italy, they are the two German characters, the two who have experienced, George deliberately and Lucy intuitively, Bildung, thus preparing them for the radical aesthetic effects of Italy, like those violets:

From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam.  But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.  (Ch. 6)

Once the two characters drink from the well-head, nothing can be the same, right?  “He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves.”  I guess compared to some other treatments of the theme, I find Forster’s treatment of Italy and its Beauty superficial, but it is all in the same general realm.  And that specific scene could hardly be improved.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

part of the pattern in the great web of human doings - Hardy can't describe moss

In a way my favorite description in The Woodlanders is the one where Hardy’s narrator admits defeat:

Further on were other tufts of moss in islands divided by the shed leaves – variety upon variety, dark green and pale green; moss like little fir-trees, like plush, like malachite stars; like nothing on earth except moss.  (Ch. 42)

He piles on the metaphors, but in the end the moss overwhelms his baroque poeticism.

Hardy piles them onto his characters, too, not to describe their appearance but their – what? – their position in the universe.

In this room sat she who had been the maiden Grace Melbury till the finger of fate touched her and turned her to a wife.  (Ch. 25)

The scene to him was not the material environment of his person, but a tragic vision that travelled with him like an envelope.  (Ch. 32)

Several times the characters are moved into Norse mythology, as when Grace tries to attract the attention of the wood-God, Giles, while he is high up in a tree, “motionless and silent in that gloomy Niflheim or fog-land which involved him” (Ch. 13).  The tree is not lost in the fog – Giles is perfectly visible from below – but rather the character’s mind.

Thus the primary mechanism of the plot, the means of separating characters who should marry and pushing them towards those they should not, is a constant series of small misunderstandings.  “Grace had been wrong – very far wrong – in assuming that…” (Ch. 39), and it hardly matters what she is wrong about in this case.  The same line could be used throughout the novel, substituting other characters for Grace.  Characters do not quite see what they should, or see it and make the wrong interpretation.

I thought the strongest ethical argument to emerge from the novel – no idea if Hardy had it in mind – was the importance of allowing multiple interpretations of the behavior of other people.  Maybe even be generous.  The characters in The Woodlanders like to pick one possibility and cling to it.

And yet, looked at in a certain way, their lonely courses formed no detached design at all, but were part of the pattern in the great web of human doings then weaving in both hemispheres, from the White Sea to Cape Horn. (Ch. 3)

In the first chapter, the narrator even declares that the forest village sees “dramas of a grandeur and unity truly Sophoclean,” which now seems like over-promising.  The scale of The Woodlanders is human, compared to the cosmic horror of Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure, or even to the long reach of history as in The Mayor of Casterbridge.  The pagan relics and Roman ruins are not so visible among the trees.

In an 1895 Preface, Hardy claims that The Woodlanders is about “the question of matrimonial divergence, the immortal puzzle – given the man and woman, how to find a basis for their sexual relation.”  If that were the case, he could have handled it with a lot less fuss.

I’ll take a couple of days off for the holiday.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

excited thumbs now fleshless in the grave - the winter day emerged like a dead-born child - Hardy describes things

With The Woodlanders, I’ll skip the classic bad Hardy sentences, having made any point I might have back when I wrote about Tess of the d’Urbervilles, except for this wonderful specimen:

But to give the lie to her assertion she was seized with lachrymose twitches, that soon produced a dribbling face.  (Ch. 45)

Isn’t that something?  It is like a riddle.  I can see how a good Hardy reader develops a taste for these.  I may have developed a taste for them.

The descriptive passages in The Woodlanders have a strong flavor.  The narrator can sound nuts:

There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air, and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child…  Owls that had been catching mice in the outhouses, rabbits that had been eating the winter-greens in the gardens, and stoats that had been sucking the blood of the rabbits, discerning that their human neighbours were on the move discreetly withdrew from publicity, and were seen and heard no more from nightfall.  (Ch. 4)

The novel has barely begun, and the sun is rising like a dead baby.  Nothing in the story, at this early point, matches the bleak imagery of the narrator, nor is this specific foreshadowing.  It is the narrator seeing something that his characters cannot see. His paganism is les explicit than in The Return of the Native, less attached to the characters, however much one resembles a fruit-god, but is often present in the descriptions:

… slimy streams of green moisture, exuding from decayed holes caused by old amputations, ran down the bark of the oaks and elms, the rind below being coated with a lichenous wash as green as emerald.   They were stout-trunked trees, that never rocked their stems in the fiercest gale, responding to it entirely by crooking their limbs.  Wrinkled like an old crone's face, and antlered with dead branches that rose above the foliage of their summits, they were nevertheless still green – though yellow had invaded the leaves of other trees. (Ch. 27)

The trees are consistently interesting and strange.  Two exhausted women are lost in the woods at night, cold, so that they “clasped each other closely.”  Overhead, “the funereal tress rocked and chanted dirges unceasingly” (Ch. 33).  Again, the trees seem to know something that the characters do not.

It is not just the forest that is fun.  Look at these old playing cards

that had been lying by in a drawer ever since the time that Giles’s grandmother was alive.  Each card had a great stain in the middle of its back, produced by the touch of generations of damp and excited thumbs now fleshless in the grave; and the kings and queens wore a decayed expression of feature, as if they were rather an impecunious dethroned dynasty hiding in obscure slums than real regal characters.  (Ch. 10)

Which I suppose is closer to what they are.  Yes, yesterday I quoted a different passage invoked “a city slum.”  They are the only two in the novel.  I do not understand how they might be connected, and am puzzled by every mention of the city in this profoundly rural and sylvan novel, where the characters, plot, imagery, and language are all tangled in the depths of forest.

Monday, November 21, 2016

“She may shail, but she'll never wamble” - Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders

Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders (1887), is the book I recently read; my sixth Hardy novel, it means I have moved to the second tier of fame if not quality.  I thought it as good as the more famous Wessex novels that preceded it, like The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886).  What it does not have, perhaps, is a character as gigantic and alive as The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye or Casterbridge’s Henchard or Tess.  Maybe a bigger Hardy fan than I am has insight into this mystery.  I enjoyed The Woodlanders as much as any of the others, but enjoyment only goes so far.

The forest setting of The Woodlanders is as exciting and metaphorically rich as is at this point typical in Hardy.  It is not as ceaselessly strange as Egdon Heath in Native, but is otherwise as interesting.  It is pretty strange:

They went noiselessly over mats of starry moss, rustled through interspersed tracts of leaves, skirted trunks with spreading roots, whose mossed rinds made them like hands wearing green gloves; elbowed old elms and ashes with great forks, in which stood pools of water that overflowed on rainy days, and ran down their stems in green cascades.  On older trees still than these, huge lobes of fungi grew like lungs.  Here, as everywhere, the Unfulfilled Intention, which makes life what it is, was as obvious as it could be among the depraved crowds of a city slum.  (Ch. 7)

The moss, fungi, slugs – lotta slugs in this novel – and the strange sounds of the trees add weirdness to many of the best descriptive passages in the book.  I’ll do another post on the scenery, as good as any Hardy writing I remember.

Now that I have read six Hardy novels I finally see how he repeats himself, rearranging character and story elements in new combinations.  A forester, Giles Winterborne, takes on a Tess-like role, his luck constantly bad, fate always working against him, but merely fate, not Fate.  His bad luck is less cosmically meaningful than Tess’s.  Grace Melbury is like Native’s Eustacia Vye, educated out of her place in the landscape, educated away from Giles –

He rose upon her memory as the fruit-god and the wood-god in alternation; sometimes leafy, and smeared with green lichen, as she had seen him amongst the sappy boughs of the plantations; sometimes cider-stained and starred with apple-pips…  (Ch. 38)

– and towards something less leafy, specifically a demonic doctor.  They “meet cute” over an old lady’s severed head, which is pretty odd.  Much of the story of the novel is built out of the pull on Grace between the wood-god and the doctor.  As Grace’s parents say:

“Fancy her white hands getting redder every day, and her tongue losing its pretty up-country curl in talking, and her bounding walk becoming the regular Hintock shail and wamble!”

“She may shail, but she'll never wamble,” replied his wife, decisively.  (Ch. 11)

Exactly!  Much of the rest of the story comes from the doctor being a total hound dog, a story as old as any fruit-god.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Plainly this was the moment immediately before a disaster - a glance at the Italian journeys of W. G. Sebald and Yves Bonnefoy - I was thus flattered in my Gnostic tendencies

W. G. Sebald’s first novel, for some reason called Vertigo in English (1990, tr. Michael Hulse), describes a number of Italian journeys – those of Stendhal, Kafka, and a version of himself – that cross paths with Goethe in a number of ways.  Sebald deflects the comparison, declaring that in Venice he is reading not Goethe but

Grillparzer’s Italian Diary, written in 1819.  I had bought it in Vienna, because when I am travelling, I often feel as Grillparzer did on his journeys.  Nothing pleases me, any more than it did him; the sights I find infinitely disappointing, one and all; and I sometimes think that I would have done far better to stay at home with my maps and timetables.  (53-4)

The fantasy of Italy has a power that the actual place, full of murders and bad pizza and impending disaster, lacks or even violates.  See pp. 77-80 for details on all of that, one of my favorite passages in Sebald, where he includes a photograph of a receipt from the Pizzeria Verona, “which even from the outside made a disreputable impression,” as if to prove he were there, not to me, who thinks of Vertigo as fiction, but to himself “Plainly this was the moment immediately before a disaster” – that is some bad pizza – perhaps the disaster he foresaw a dozen pages earlier in Venice.  “For some time now I have been convinced that it is out of this din that the life is being born which will come after us and will spell our gradual destruction, just as we have been gradually destroying what was there long before us” (63).

Sebald is inverting Goethe, yet he finds himself “occupied more or less exclusively with my study of Pisanello, on whose account I had in fact decided to travel to Verona” (72).  There is no end to Bildung.  He describes a Pisanello fresco in detail.  “A landscape of a more northerly character rises (the word is suggested by the nature of the depiction) into a blue sky” (74).  Please see a recent post at Tony’s Reading List for more.

It is exactly that kind of landscape that Yves Bonnefoy uses in The Arrière-pays (1972, tr. Stephen Romer) to explain the title of his book, the “hinterland,” the “back country,” the strong sense, with him from his childhood, of the place that exists beyond wherever he is and whatever he knows.  In art, this place revealed itself first through the skies of Poussin, but eventually, once he travelled to Tuscany, through the detailed landscapes of 15th century Italian art. Or even before his Italian journey, described in Chapter III of The Arrière-pays, when he becomes lost in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Paolo Uccello.

His first surprise in Italy is that the surrealism of Chirico is real,

that what I’d taken in Chirico for an imaginary, even an impossible, world existed, in fact, on this earth, except that here it was renewed, re-centred, made real and habitable by an act of spirit as novel for me as my own being, memory, and destiny became at a stroke… (67, ellipses in original)

Perspective itself, as in Uccello’s paintings, is imbued with meaning – “I was thus flattered in my Gnostic tendencies” (67) – by its implication of a world beyond the flat canvas.  The real Italy replaces the imaginary, works in person replace reproductions, yet the result is only the removal of the imagined world to some other place.  Visiting Italy awakens a lifelong, intense interest in art yet is destructive, and simultaneously creative.  “All sophistry, of course, because I was considering art, which is an order with its own laws, as merely an epiphenomenon which would provide a clue” (76).

Everything works out in the end – the Seagull Books edition includes several later, related essays attesting to the fact – due to the passage of time and Bonnefoy’s eventual recognition of the limits of his Gnosticism, perhaps in large part due to the writing of this book.  How I would love to know if Sebald knew it.  They are kindred books.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Why not earlier? Why at such cost? - Goethe's Italian study abroad

For all of Goethe’s status, for all of his writing, all of his learning, Italian Journey is a chronicle of firsts.  His first view of the sea, for example, which occurs in Venice:

Now, at last, I have seen the sea with my own eyes and walked upon the beautiful threshing floor of the sand which it leaves behind when it ebbs. (96)

He collects shells and watches, “for hours” the “bizarre and graceful performance of” of the crabs as they try and fail to hunt limpets (100).

Goethe has his first encounter with a Roman ruin, and with a Palladio building, and with any number of other things he had only read about.

I have spent the day looking and looking.  It is the same in art as in life.   The deeper one penetrate, the broader grows the view.  (109)

The trip really is something like Goethe’s college study abroad in Italy, a German major with a minor in art history, except that he is a highly non-traditional student.

How different all this is from our saints, squatting on their stone brackets and piled one above the other in the Gothic style of decoration, or our pillars which look like tobacco pipes, our spiky little towers and our cast-iron flowers.  Thank God, I am done with all that junk for good and all.  (95)

And Goethe has only reached, at this point, Venice!  Italian Journey has a great deal of interest as a pure travel book, especially its middle third covering Naples and Sicily, but the intellectual core of the book is in the fifty pages about Goethe’s first visit to Rome.  Everything about the classical world, Renaissance art, and to some degree living Catholicism creates a tumult.  Every idea is shaken.

Everything in me is suddenly beginning to merge clearly.  Why not earlier?  Why at such a cost?  (173)

Goethe is described a crisis point in his own development, his Bildung.  “I am not here simply to have a good time, but to devote myself to the noble objects about me, to educate myself before I reach forty” (137).  In his own work, the ideas from Italian Journey are most clearly expressed in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-6), where Italy is given enormous symbolic power as the nearly mythical “land of flowering lemon trees,” as Christopher Middleton translates the “Mignon” poem – go to p. 28 of Italian Journey to see Goethe meet Mignon and the harpist in the flesh – the land of fulfilment, aesthetic, intellectual, and sexual.  German readers thus knew about all this twenty years before Italian Journey itself was published; thus we see versions of the idea appear in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixir (1815-6), for example.

The Goethean juxtaposition of Italy and the repressed north recurs many times, and not just in German literature.  It is amusing to read E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) in this context, with the heroine finally able to cast off her Victorian chains via the influence of lively Italian murders and violets.  It took longer for Goethe to free himself, and the result was replacing a pursuit of fulfillment with an embrace of renunciation – classicism in place of romanticism, realism in place of idealism, and on like that.  German literature would never be the same.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Introducing Goethe's Italian Journey by means of a throat-clearing introduction to the whole Goethe thing

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had had two previous opportunities to visit Italy.  He swerved away, though.  Italy was too symbolically powerful.  One of those opportunities was replaced with Goethe’s installation as the friend and right-hand man of the Duke of Weimar when Goethe was twenty-six and perhaps the most famous writer in Europe.  The Duke had recognized, through Goethe’s celebrity, his enormous cognitive abilities.  Sometimes I think he must have been the smartest person in literary history.  In literature, smarts only gets ya so far.

After his thirty-seventh birthday party in 1786, Goethe sneaks away to Italy, informing only the Duke.  He stays for a year and a half – a little more.  His account is in Italian Journey, published thirty years later in 1816 as a strange hybrid book of letters, diaries, memories, alterations, and elisions.  Why thirty years later?  Because, in the last twenty years of his life, Goethe was kind of emptying his desk into books.  Plus, he had been publishing his memoirs.

Goethe financed his extended leave of absence through the advance on an eight-volume collected edition of his works.  His published works, at this point, amounted to four volumes.  Four volumes would contain new work.  This is how enormous Goethe’s stature was – four volumes, unwritten, no problem.  Of course eventually Green Henry spends forty days reading a fifty-volume set of Goethe.  Long way to go.

I had been able to send the first four volumes to the publisher and was intending to send the last four.  Some of their contents were only outlines of works and even fragments, because to tell the truth, my naughty habit of beginning works, then losing interest and laying them aside, had grown worse with the years and all the other things I had to do. (Sep. 8, 1786, p. 34)

Thus Faust, Part I, which is mentioned in Italian Journey as something Goethe will finish up any minute now, does not appear in print for another twenty years.  Part II is published twenty-five years after that!

One irony is that the Italian journey kills Goethe’s literary production for almost a decade, until he meets Friedrich Schiller.  It takes him that long to absorb everything.  Goethe’s life often feels like he planned it with the knowledge that he would live to eighty-two.  Take a decade off of literature – no big deal.  There will still be fifty volumes by the end.  Skip two chances at Italy – no worry, he’ll go when the time is exactly right.

What is Goethe absorbing?  Classical and Renaissance art history.  The fact that art has a history, even.  Architecture, Christianity, the sea, a long growing season for plants, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  Sex – the great omission from Italian Journey is Goethe’s Roman girlfriend, a waitress and widow.  But he had written about her in the warm Roman Elegies (1795).

It is such a pain dealing with Goethe.  In the years before Wuthering Expectations, when I spent my time in the 18th century, I read maybe ten volumes of Green Henry’s fifty, and I have trouble writing about any given work of Goethe’s without addressing the enormous phenomenon of Goethe.

Tomorrow, then, I’ll just dive into the book.  Goethe’s study abroad in Italy.

Quotations are and will be from the Penguin Classics edition, translated by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer – mostly the latter, I think.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

or if people could buy ready-made children at a shop - Samuel Butler's comedy

Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh is the book.  Ernest Pontifex is badly treated by his father, a clergyman, his mother, a religious fanatic, and the brutal pointlessness of his school.  His vocation as an Anglican priest is meaningless, unconnected from anyone’s lived experience, so unconnected poor Ernest lands in prison.  His friend is a con man, his wife an alcoholic, his family cruel, his beliefs empty.  But everything works out all right.

Butler’s novel is a comedy in the tradition of Thackeray and Forster.  Their omniscient narrator – I am currently reading A Room with a View (1908) and enjoying the narrator enormously – is replaced by Ernest’s godfather, a character in the story with his own opinions on everything that are often not those of Ernest.  He is collaborating with Ernest to tell his story, so he knows everything Ernest knows, or pretends to, and also knows more.  Semi-omniscient, and a clever solution.  He is often sarcastic:

Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances.  (Ch. 6)

He is more often sarcastic about the opinions of others, like this mockery of Ernest’s father:

If [Ernest’s mother] could have given birth to a few full-grown clergymen in priest’s orders – of moderate views, but inclining rather to Evangelicalism, with comfortable livings and in all respects facsimiles of [Ernest’s father] himself – why, there might have been more sense in it; or if people could buy ready-made children at a shop of whatever age and sex they liked, instead of always having to make them at home and to begin at the beginning with them – that might do better, but as it was he did not like it.  (Ch. 20)

The reader who does not find that funny will not find much in this book funny.

This narrator does not have much to do with the physical world, but he is good with psychological metaphor.  This is a favorite – teenage Ernest has been not quite caught in a sin – will he confess all to his mother?:

Ernest, through sheer force of habit, of the sofa, and of the return of the associated ideas, was still so moved by the siren’s voice as to yearn to sail towards her, and fling himself into her arms, but it would not do; there were other associated ideas that returned also, and the mangled bones of too many murdered confessions were lying whitening round the skirts of his mother’s dress, to allow him any possibility to trust her further.  (Ch. 40)

The fact is that I don’t care much whether Victorian ideals and institutions are demolished.  That part of The Way of All Flesh has receded into history.  There is a passage early on where the narrator mocks the philistinism of Ernest’s grandfather, compared to Ernest’s (eventual) freedom from received ideas about art.  But by the time Butler is writing, anti-philistinism is also a received idea, the shot at the old-timers funny but cheap.  The Bildungsroman, though, and the great comedy of a son escaping from his father, even if it lands him in prison, are stories that have to be told again and again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Again I asked Ernest whether he minded my printing this. He winced - Samuel Butler grinds himself to a powder in The Way of All Flesh

Samuel Butler’s posthumous The Way of All Flesh (1903) became, by chance, a Victorian tombstone, a novel-long critique of Victorianism published just after the fact.  He wrote the novel in the 1870s and 1880s, amidst published books on Darwinism and religion, as well as his amusing satirical Utopian novel Erewhon (1872).

Butler was not really a novelist, though – more of a controversialist – so it must have been a surprise that he had such an accomplished novel in the drawer.  It is something of a family saga, a rare genre for Victorians, it has an unusual narrator, and is psychologically sharp.  Visually, the book does not do much.  The insights are social and personal.

It is a novel of ideas that attacks the Victorian family, church, and schools.  Cambridge comes off well, but not the education that “had been an attempt, not so much to keep him [Ernest, the protagonist] in blinkers as to gouge his eyes out altogether” (Ch. 61).  This is just before poor Ernest does something so dumb he goes to prison for six months.  Long, long, long ago I asked where the English prison novels were, since it was such a common theme in French fiction.  Here it is, not where I expected.

The first fifth of the novels covers Ernest Pontifex’s ancestors, as personally known to the elderly narrator.  Ernest’s great-grandfather is a kindly craftsman, an 18th century figure, his grandfather a vulgar merchant (“Yet when a man is very fond of his money it is not easy for him at all times to be very fond of his children also,” Ch. 5), his father a narrow and cruel Anglican priest.  “The clergyman is expected to be a kind of human Sunday” (Ch. 26).

Ernest is sensitive and artistic, loving music especially.  The principle of the central three-fifths of the novel is to grind Ernest down to powder, expunging all of the false Victorianism from him.  Father, school, and church are the first means of punishment, then prison and a noble but bad marriage.  Ernest emerges as a perfect – what – a perfect gadfly.  A perfect idealist, who publishes controversial books about Darwinism and religion.  My favorite bit of grinding is incidental, Ernest’s attendance at a comic burlesque of Macbeth: “’What rot Shakespeare is after this,’ he exclaimed, involuntarily” (Ch. 70).  Even Victorian bardolatry has to be purged to make the new man. In the last fifth he builds himself back up.

Autobiography, obviously, but with the clever addition of the narrator, who is writing up Ernest’s story with his permission, and even presence:

Again I asked Ernest whether he minded my printing this.  He winced, but said, “No, not if it helps you to tell your story: but don’t you think it is too long?” (Ch. 53)

The narrator, who freely expresses his opinions about everything, is the constant narratorial voice, which is a clever way to split the author between the narrator and protagonist, allowing more irony and tamping any self-pity.  Both are Butler, so neither are Butler, and they can disagree on things.

It's a good novel.  I can see how The Way of All Flesh, published when it was, felt like a necessary novel to many readers.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Poetry makes both better - Robert Graves, war poet

Robert Graves is an author I have barely read – until recently just his translation of The Golden Ass (1951) – but I have acquired the illusion that I know a lot about him because of all the magazine articles I have read about him.  Reviews of Graves biographies, and biographies of the many other famous people in his life, and who knows what else.  I knew that Graves had been severely injured in World War I – details in the memoir Good-Bye to All That (1928), which I have not read – but it had never sunk in that he got his start as a writer as a war poet.

His first two chapbooks, Over the Brazier and Goliath and David, are from 1916, the same year Graves suffered an injury at the Battle of the Somme.  Most of the poems appear again in his first book, Fairies and Fusiliers (1917).  That odd title is accurate, even in its ordering.  Poems about the experience men at war, gritty but ironic, slide over towards poems about a magic-tinged childhood, where if fairies and fauns are not quite real it is easy enough to imagine that they are.  Then the poems slide back to the trenches, simultaneously real but unreal.

The perfect example in a single poem is “Sorley’s Weather.”   Charles Sorley was a young poet killed in action in 1915.  His only book was published in 1916:

Sorley’s Weather

When outside the icy rain
  Comes leaping helter-skelter,
Shall I tie my restive brain
  Snugly under shelter?

Shall I make a gentle song
  Here in my firelit study,
When outside the winds blow strong
  And the lanes are muddy?

With old wine and drowsy meats
  Am I to fill my belly?
Shall I glutton here with Keats?
  Shall I drink with Shelley?

Tobacco’s pleasant, firelight’s good:
  Poetry makes both better.
Clay is wet and so is mud,
  Winter rains are wetter.

Yet rest there, Shelley, on the sill,
  For though the winds come frorely,
I’m away to the rain-blown hill
  And the ghost of Sorley.

The archaic “frorely” just means “coldly.”  The narrator is not a child, but he has written something close to a child’s poem about the comforts of reading poetry on a stormy night.  But the reader, the narrating reader, is also taken back to a different setting of mud, rain, and wind.  Perhaps the “rain-blown hill” in France is the reality of the speaker, and the study the fantasy.  They co-exist, somehow.

The next poem, “The Cottage,” repeats the idea more bluntly.  The poet is in a place where “Snug inside I sit and rhyme,” yet nothing, no weather or flowers or “magic keep me safe to rhyme,” since “Death is waiting by.”  The act of writing a poem during war is classically pastoral.  Death is in Arcadia, even; Death is everywhere.

Near the end of the collection, Graves again writes about reading poetry in “The Poet in the Nursery.”  He is a child, although a poet himself, “the youngest poet,” who finds a book “full of poetry” in a library while the “ancient poet” wrestles with his own work – “rhymes were beastly things and never there.”

The book was full of funny muddling mazes,
  Each rounded off into a lovely song,
And most extraordinary and monstrous phrases
  Knotted with rhymes like a slave-driver’s thong.
And metre twisting like a chain of daisies
  With great big splendid words a sentence long.

No hint of the war here.  Perhaps this celebration of the joy of poetry dates to some time before it.

This is, for all its necessary ugliness, a lovely book.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Dreams and gratuitous nudity in The Well at the World's End - And the wind in the willows is with us at last

My understanding is that William Morris is given credit for inventing the template of the heroic fantasy novel, they key to which is the understanding that the world of the novel is in some sense “real,” the only world the characters have, at least.   George MacDonald’s fantasies, like Phantastes (1858) and the great Lilith (1895) are explicitly dream-worlds, with characters from our “real” world visiting the fantasy world.  Two templates for fantasy – Middle Earth and Narnia – ready for later writers.

Thus my curiosity about Morris’s repeated update on the dreams of his hero.  Every three chapters Ralph goes to sleep.  Sometimes he is “troubled by no dreams of what was past or to come” (Bk. I, Ch. 24); other times he has symbolically loaded dreams, like the one about fish made “of gilded paper stuffed with wool” I mentioned yesterday.  Morris never has his knight dream of the dream world Morris created in News from Nowhere (1890), unfortunately.

The dreamy vagueness slips into the waking world.  Characters are vaguely defined, the landscape unfolds itself as needed, and the central plot, the quest for the Well at the World’s End, is continually treated by the hero as something not quite real.  Why is he searching for the Well, “which is but a word,” a rumor (Bk. II, Ch. 11)?  “’Maybe thou art seeking for what is not’” (Bk. II, Ch. 29), a Queen tells him, and he shares her doubts.  On the literal verge of the discovery of the Well, “it came into Ralph’s mind that this was naught but a mock, as if to bid the hapless seekers cast themselves down from the earth, and be done with it forever” (Bk. III, Ch. 20).

At this point, Ralph, of course, goes to sleep.  He “awoke from some foolish morning dream of Upmeads” (III, 21) and completes his quest.  A few pages later he dreams of home again, the dream no longer foolish.

The dream language gives The Well at the World’s End much of its symbolic weight, even if I have trouble saying what any of it might mean.  Another surprising pattern is the explicit sex and gratuitous nudity.  Temporally, this is still a Victorian novel, but holy cow.  The scene where Ralph defends his traveling companion, who is completely nude, from a bear attack, that was the gratuitous part.  When, after drinking from the Well, the couple bathes nude in the sea and reenacts the Garden of Eden – “and the deer of that place, both little and great, had no fear of man, but the hart and hind came to Ursula’s hand” etc. (III, 22) at least has some clear allegorical meaning.

Now I have a question.  Morris, a fine poet, includes only a couple of poems in the novel.  One of them has this stanza:

Come up, then up!
Leave board and cup,
And follow the gleam
Of the glittering stream
That leadeth the road
To the old abode,
High-walled and white
In the moon and night;
Where low lies the neighbor that drave us away
Sleep-sunk from his labour amidst of the hay.
No road for our riding is left us save one,
Where the hills’ brow is hiding the city undone,
And the wind in the willows is with us at last,
And the house of the billows is one and o’er-past.  (II, 34)

Is this the source of Kenneth Grahame’s title?  The internet has not been much help.  It fits.

Friday, November 11, 2016

the world was worse than he had looked to find it - on the road with William Morris's The Well at the World’s End

I still have Goethe’s Italian Journey to poke at for German Literature Month – look at all of that blogging – but I want to save it for a bit later.  So now what.

I never wrote about William Morris’s long 1896 fantasy novel The Well at the World’s End.  That’ll do.

The novel is an adventure story, a knight’s quest set in an imaginary world where magic exists.  The setting is medieval English, but not England.  Towns and people have English names – Ralph, Richard, Roger.  There is a single, long-established Christian church, with saints and so on.  Once there is even a mention of Rome.  But it takes the characters a year to reach the ocean, and they have to cross a mountain range with active volcanoes to get there.

The mechanics of the plot are those of a journey, not just a series of adventures, although there are those – “full of heroic exploits, peril and satisfying resolutions” says Classical Carousel, who recently zipped through the novel – but a great deal of attention to movement, transportation, and not so much landscape as geography.

The novel is one of the direct ancestors of The Lord of the Rings and ten thousand other heroic fantasy novels, but it was surprisingly not Morris, a visual artist of such distinction, who realized that the first page of a novel like this should feature a map.  So I made my own map, in my head.  Morris’s directions are quite clear.

The traveling mechanics are so important that numerous chapters – I’m going to guess a third of them – end with the characters going to sleep.

So he lay down in his bed and slept, and dreamed that he was fishing with an angle in a deep of Upmeads Water; and he caught many fish; but after a while whatsoever he caught was but of gilded paper stuffed with wool, and at last the water itself was gone, and he was casting his angle on a dry road.  (end of Bk. I, Ch. V)

That’s an especially good example.  Few are that good.  For a long chunk of the novel, Morris moved at the pace of three chapters = one day.  Chapters are short, so that’s fifteen to twenty pages.  Every day I would read one “day” of Ralph’s quest.  The pace felt entirely natural.  I fall into the same rhythm with travel books, finding some pace that allows time to pass, simulating the experience of the characters in the book.  Honestly, The Well at the World’s End mostly felt a lot more like a travel book, an account of exploration, than a heroic novel. Much of the pleasure, some of it vaguely uncanny, came from not knowing the map.  The idiot hero seems to know literally nothing of the territory outside of his tiny little home.  “And himseemed the world was worse than he had looked to find it” (Bk. I, Ch. XIV).

About “himseemed” – the entire novel is written in a slightly flat pastiche of Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) and The Faerie Queene (1590-6) and so on, updated to a late Victorian idiom.  It can be numbing in its consistency, much like I found Morris’s expert verse in The Earthly Paradise (1868-70).  I found it difficult to pull out really exceptional passages or images.  Everything just flows forward at a nice even pace – a combat in the woods, Ralph’s first sight of the ocean, a merchant caravan crossing a pass – all written in the same register.

Gee, now that I’m writing I feel that I have a million trivial observations about this novel.   More of the same tomorrow.  Time for bed.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Each of the guests was moved by the beauty of the scene - the art of Fontane

So now I will ignore everything I wrote yesterday and assume that we all actively enjoy fiction set in times and places when and where we not understand every detail; that we even prefer fiction full of things we – I – did not know, by itself one reason to read Theodor Fontane.

The title character of Schach von Wuthenow (1883) is a cavalry officer, a perfect gentleman, a Prussian ideal.  He is courting a woman older than himself, a great beauty, or perhaps her daughter, who lost her beauty to smallpox, although people still remember the effect she made at her debut.  The confusion of the situation causes trouble.  Prussia is small enough at this point, 1806 – this is real historical fiction – that the romantic problems of a cavalry officer are of interest to the King, who is a minor character.

Schach is one of those stories where everyone gets what they want, but in a horribly ironic way, like a perverse genie has given them a wish.  As Fontane novels go, it gets quite exciting near the end.  A nasty shocker.

Here the cavalry officers watch a sunset:

Each of the guests was moved by the beauty of the scene.  But the most beautiful sight was the numerous swans which, as everybody was looking up to the evening sky, were approaching in a long single file from the direction of Charlottenburg Park.  Other swans had already taken up a forward position.  It was obvious that the entire flotilla must have been attracted by something to have come so close to the villa, for as soon as they were level with it, they wheeled around military fashion to form an extension of the front line of those which, still and motionless with bills buried in their feathers, were riding at anchor, as it were.  Only the reeds were gently swaying behind their backs.  A long time went by in this way.  (p. 57)

Jenny Treibel (1892) is a dissection of Berlin class differences.  Tiny class differences.  The title character is a grocer’s daughter who almost married a professor but instead jumped to a merchant of higher distinction.  Can she possibly allow her weak-spined son to marry that professor’s daughter?  “’One might be able to get into a ducal family, but not into a bourgeois family,’” the professor says (289).

Terms as crude as upper or middle class are wholly inadequate.  Even geography matters – the Berlin merchant outranks the Hamburg merchant, who are such snobs because their business is international, so that the Hamburger “really believes seriously that we can’t distinguish between sole and turbot here, and is always using the English for lobster, and treats curry powder and soy sauce as the utmost secrets…” (241).  That is the title character, who can be awfully funny, not always intentionally.

The first half of the novel covers one day – a dinner party and another social gathering.  The next quarter is occupied with another party, a picnic, a good place for the marriage proposal that spurs such plot as the novel has.  The last chapter is a party scene, too, at a wedding.  Fontane is like Proust, here.  Most human activity worth documenting takes place at parties, or just before, or just after.

More Jenny Treibel – she is a married woman with adult children, and has just told the professor that although her life is wonderful of course she should have married him:

Schmidt nodded in agreement and then uttered a simple “Oh, Jenny…” with a tone in which he sought to express all the pain of a misspent life.  Which he did succeed in doing.  He listened to the sound of it and quietly congratulated himself that he had played his little part so well.  Jenny, despite all her cleverness, was still vain enough to believe in the “oh” of her former admirer.  (239)

Little insights, little ironies, little beauties.  And some bigger ones, too, but much of the art of Fontane is in moments like this one.