Monday, December 24, 2007
Saturday, December 22, 2007
A Christmas Carol, Chapter 3
Have a good holiday.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Longest book: Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon
Most time with one author: Balzac. Before ths year, I had read 2 of the 91 works in the Comédie Humaine. Now I've read 27. After Balzac, Thomas Carlyle, God help me.
Most pleasant surprise: Eugénie Grandet. I expected Balzac to be a clumsy first-drafter. Often, too often, I was right (see, or don't, The Chouans). Eugénie Grandet is a lovely exception, the greatest Balzac novel I've encountered, by which I mean the best written. See the first description of the Grandet parlor for an example. But also, the most complete story, rich characters, a ending that reaches for the sublime and may achieve it.
Most pleasant non-surprises: The grisly, magnificent, and insane Death's Jest-Book, by Thomas Lovell-Beddoes. The grisly, magnificent, and somewhat less insane Notre Dame de Paris, by Victor Hugo. Both examples of 19th century writers wrestling with the ideas and styles of earlier times, and achieving something new.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
It's the season for best-of-the-year lists. In 200 years, almost everything on them will be forgotten, except by a few scholars, perhaps.
What were the great works of 1807? Heinrich von Kleist's wonderful retelling of Amphitryon is from this year. So is Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality", I think, and George Crabbe's The Parish Register - sad how Crabbe is neglected now. And best of all (all but Kleist), Ugo Foscolo's melancholy long poem On Sepulchres. Mme de Staël's Corinne still has some readers, although I'm not one of them, as does Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare.
This does not seem like much to me. But say I am forgetting one good book or poem for every one I remember. After 200 years, the winnowing process is severe, unforgiving. Heartless. I'm not cheating too much by going back 200 years. Neither 1817, a good year for young English Romantic poets, nor 1827, with Manzoni's fantastic The Betrothed, are exactly brimming with great books. 1837 thickens up considerably (Dickens, Balzac, Hawthorne, de Musset, Carlyle, Emerson, Büchner). Spread the canon out over years, and you generally get a couple of great books a year, a handful of more marginal books, and, presumably, a shelf of good books with no more readers.
The painting is Turner's "Sun Rising in Vapour", exhibited at the 1807 salon, now in the London National Gallery.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Whoever had the first had the idea to put a giant pop-up book on stage, and then use it as a mini-stage for marionettes, was some sort of genius. A charming, intimate effect. After the performance, the audience is invited onstage, and can play around with the puppets themselves.
If you find yourself in Chicago before January 20, try to see this show.
* Anyone bogged down in Tolstoy's historical lectures in War and Peace can shift some of the blame to the architecture chapter of Notre Dame de Paris.
Friday, December 14, 2007
I feel I am; - I only know I am,
And plod upon the earth, as dull and void:
Earth's prison chilled my body with its dram
Of dullness, and my soaring thoughts destroyed,
I fled to solitudes from passions dream,
But strife persued - I only know, I am,
I was a being created in the race
Of men disdaining bounds of place and time:-
A spirit that could travel o'er the space
Of earth and heaven, - like a thought sublime,
Tracing creation, like my maker, free, -
A soul unshackled - like eternity,
Spurning earth's vain and soul debasing thrall
But now I only know I am, - that's all.
There's a more famous "I Am" poem on a similar theme, available from this useful book review of a recent Clare biography. It's inevitably tempting to read these poems with pity, as a symptom of Clare's illness. But the condition described seems universal to me, and the result, the fundamental sense of identity, profound.
Clare the rustic nature poet has seemed like a minor poet to many critics, although not to me. But the "I Am" poems, and a number of others from his long life in the asylum, seem to me to obviously be the work of a major writer, ranking with Keats and Shelley.
I've been using the thick Oxford Major Works, because I own a copy, but the recent "I Am": The Selected Poetry of John Clare might be a better choice for most readers who want to spend some time with Clare.
* What is the connection between English poets of the 18th and 19th century and mental illness? The casualty list is horrifying - Cowper, Collins, Smart. Less severely, Swift, Johnson, Blake. A strange phenomenon.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
from Rustic Fishing
On sunday mornings freed from hard employ
How oft I mark the young mischevous boy
With anxious haste his poles and lines provide
For make shifts oft crookd pins to threadings ty'd
And delve his knife with wishes ever warm
In rotten dunghills for the grub and worm
The harmless treachery of his hooks to bait
[a decription of the brook, inlcuding a morehen's nest]
There bent in hopfull musings on the brink
They watch their floating corks that seldom sink
Save when a warey roach or silver bream
Nibbles the worm as passing up the stream
Just urging expectations hopes astray
To view the dodging cork then slip away
[the weather changes, girls walk by, the boys play round in the stream, night falls]
Who then like school boys that at truant play
In sloomy fear lounge on their homward way
And inly trembling as they gain the town
To meet chastisement from a parents frown
Where hazel twigs in readiness prepard
For their long abscence brings a mete reward
These poems of rural life can be sentimental, or trivial. Maybe this one is. I like the specificity of the fishhooks improvised from pins, the "sloomy fear", the "treachery" of the hooks. The joy of the wasted day.
The header quotation is from "The Harvest Morning", Major Works, p. 13
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Who lives where beggars rarley speed?
And leads a humdrum life indeed
As none beside herself would lead?
Who lives where noises never cease
And what wi' hogs and ducks and geese
Can never have a minutes peace?
Who when the baby's all besh-t
To please its mamma kisses it?
And vows no Rose on earth's so sweet?
But when her mistress is'n't nigh
Who swears and wishes it would die
And pinches it to make it cry?
For tho in stature mighty small
And near as thick as thou art tall
That hand made thee that made us all,
And tho thy nose hooks down too much
And prophesies thy chin to touch
I'm not so nice to look at such,
No no about thy nose and chin
Its hooking out or bending in
I never heed nor care a pin,
And tho thy skin is brown and ruff
And form'd by nature hard and tuff
All suiteth me! So that's enough,
Major Works, pp. 59-62.
Lest I overstate the idea that Clare was just a nature poet, here's something else entirely. This poem is actually a parody of William Cowper's * sweet, gentle "To Mary" - same stanza form, very different Mary. Same true love.
Clare's spelling is often eccentric and his punctuation often missing entirely. I've been editing as I see fit, although I think I left this one alone.
* Cowper's neglect is outrageous. I don't think there's been a collection in print for years. A week of Cowper poems is in order.
Saturday, December 8, 2007
How fresh the air, the birds how busy now.
In every walk if I but peep I find
Nests newly made or finished all and lined
With hair and thistle down, and in the bough
Of little awthorn huddled up in green,
The leaves still thickening as the spring gets age,
The Pinks quite round and snug and closely laid,
And linnets of materials loose and rough,
And still hedge sparrow moping in the shade,
Near the hedge bottom leaves of homely stuff,
Dead grass and mosses green, an hermitage
For secresy and shelter rightly made,
And beautiful it is to walk beside
The lanes and hedges where their homes abide.
Oxford Major Works, pp. 207-8
John Clare wrote dozens of poems about bird nests. "The Ravens Nest", "The Moorehens Nest", "The Sky Lark Leaving Her Nest", "The Yellowhammers Nest". The one I include here is unusual for covering multiple types of nests. But the details about nesting materials and the plants that house the nests are typical - this is the sort of thing Clare always includes.
Clare knew what nests were for. Most of his nest poems include descriptions of the eggs, too:
from The Woodlarks Nest
As safe as secresy her six eggs lie
Mottled with dusky spots unseen by passers by
from Hedge Sparrow
Its eggs in number five of greenish blue
Bright beautiful and glossy shining shells
Then there are "Hares at Play", "The Badger", "The Tame Badger", on and on. They are all little natural histories, by a perceptive and experienced observer.
These poems generally do have some sort of point - as in the last lines of "Birds Nests" above, about man's coexistence with the natural world, and the poet's pleasure in knowing the birds and nests are around him. The knowledgable detail, though, is what always amazes me, more than the moral. Some twentieth century poets would try to recapture this real attention to nature - A. R. Ammons book Uplands is an example. I don't know of anyone who was more successful than Clare.
My understanding is that Clare scholars have teamed up with English naturalists to comb through these poems, and that Clare's knowledge is first rate. He only knew his little corner of Northamptonshire, but he knew it all, birds, animals, insects, and eels.
The header is also from The Woodlarks Nest, pp. 235-6
A while ago I posted this poem. I don't exactly remember why, except that it's excellent. It's untitled, but often referred to as "The Mouse's Nest":
I found a ball of grass among the hay
And proged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied somthing stirred
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheats
With all her young ones hanging at her teats.
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood.
Then the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water oer the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.
The narrator sees something curious. He investigates. Then he looks away. That's the poem.
Clare was a real naturalist ("the knapweed bunches"), interested in really observing nature and describing it accurately. Romantic Poets get too much credit for being poets of nature. Wordsworth was, to some degree, and William Cullen Bryant, but they are both much more interested in grander effects - the sublime, the spirit in nature, that sort of thing. Man in nature. Coleridge, Byron, Shelley - were they really interested in nature at all?
Clare worked on a much smaller scale: the ordinary life of people around him, the behavior of birds and animals, plants and seasons. This particular poem, especially the last couplet, has gotten a lot of attention because its objectivity is so stark. The poet tells you a lot about what he sees, and just a little bit about what he thinks - the mother and babies look "so odd and so grotesque." But then what? Is there some moral lesson?
If so, he keeps it to himself. What is the poet thinking in the last two lines, when his attention seems to turn from the mouse to the landscape, to the nearly dry stream and the glittering cesspools? What is the reader thinking? A very modern effect.
The quote in the header is from the end of a letter, p. 477 of the Oxford Major Works.
Friday, December 7, 2007
The Charterhouse of Parma is probably most famous for its scenes set at Waterloo. They served as an important example for later battlefield novelists, especially Tolstoy.
What a surprise then, that Waterloo takes place in Chapters 3 and 4, at the very beginning of the novel, and that Fabrizio, the protagonist, is not even a soldier, but a 17-year old Italian with a purchased hussar uniform. This was a brilliant move by Stendhal. Because Fabrizio knows nothing, and barely speaks French, the battle can be depicted in a fresh and unusual way. We never leave Fabrizio's point of view, confused as it is. He's even drunk part of the time, after buying a bottle of brandy because he wants the other soldiers to like him.
We're back to style. Scott gets close to this sort of "objective" style in some of his battle scenes, but he is never this pure. He also wants us to know the terrain, the positions of the armies, all of the usual stuff. Stendhal throws all of that away. We just get drunk Fabrizio, who doesn't know how to load a rifle, hoping for a glimpse of Napoleon.
Any readers of War and Peace will find these two chapters interesting.
Any current readers of W&P who are reading this are thinking: Oh sure. I'll get right on that. Anything else I should read? Buddenbrooks? The Oxford English Dictionary? Thanks for the helpful suggestion.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
"This Minister, despite his frivolous manner and his brilliant remarks, did not possess a soul à la française; he was not able to forget his griefs and grievances. When his pillow revealed a thorn, he was compelled to snap it off, and blunt its point against his own throbbing limbs. (I apologize for this paragraph, translated from the Italian)."
The Charterhouse of Parma, Modern Library, p. 96.
This is an entire paragraph. The first sentence is the sort of French character versus Italian character stuff Stendhal likes. The second sentence is bizarre and barely comprehensible. The third sentence is a classic Stendhalian joke.
A classic Stendhalian joke is one no one else gets. His entire book On Love is in this genre.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
A Hero for Our Time, Lermontov
Poor Folk and The Double, Fyodor Dostoevsky
The challenge is to read 4 Russian-related works within a year. Most people are using it as a goad to read War and Peace and Karamazov and other tomes. I'm providing an alternative example.
The challenges are a curious part of book blog subculture. Another way for people to organize their reading. Book bloggers are not the sorts of people who pick up whatever book is around. They're list-makers.
Also posted at the Russian Reading Challenge.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
"Jones was a little staggered by the blow which came somewhat unexpectedly; but presently recovering himself he also drew, and though he understood nothing of Fencing, prest on so boldly upon Fitzpatrick, that he beat down his Guard, and sheathed one half of his Sword in the Body of the said Gentleman, who had no sooner recevied it, than he stept backwards, dropt the Point of his Sword, and leaning upon it, cried, 'I have Satisfaction enough: I am a dead Man.'"
A single complex-compound sentence. If everything moved along at this rate, Tom Jones would not be a 700 page book.
Yesterday’s post on the duel in Nicholas Nickleby reminds me of two things.
First, that there is a sort of dueling scene in Chapter 2 of The Pickwick Papers, which is derailed just before the shooting begins. Just an adventure for Mr. Winkle, nothing serious.
Second, a scene of transportation to prison is much like the journey to a duel or execution. Here is Mr. Pickwick, in Chapter 50, being taken to debtors’ prison for failing to pay a dishonorable bill:
“The hackney coach jolted along Fleet Street, as hackney coaches usually do. The horses ‘went better,’ the driver said, when they had anything before them, (they must have gone at a most extraordinary pace when there was nothing,) and so the vehicle kept behind a cart; when the cart stopped, it stopped; and when the cart went on again, it did the same. Mr. Pickwick sat opposite the tipstaff; and the tipstaff sat with his hat between his knees, whistling a tune, and looking out of the coach window.”
Pickwick might be at his lowest point in the entire novel. What is he thinking? Dickens doesn’t tell us, but instead creates a new character who we will never see again after this page.
Monday, December 3, 2007
Dueling scenes bring out the best in many writers, for understandable reasons. The stark contrast between perfect health and imminent (voluntary, generally pointless) death leads most writers to heighten the perceptiveness of the chracters and the precision of the prose. Execution scenes often work the same way.
Pierre's duel in War and Peace is probably the peak of the genre, but the Russian tradition is rich. Eugene Onegin, A Hero for Our Time (and both Pushkin and Lermontov were themselves killed in really stupid duels), Chekhov's A Duel. Probaby many more.
A certain form of dueling persisted in Germany longer than almost anywhere. Fontane's Effi Briest includes a brilliant dueling scene, the tragedy in that case being that the duelist fully understands that the duel is a horrible mistake, a failure of character.
French writers travesty duels. The hero of Balzac's The Wild Ass's Skin has, or thinks he has, a magic talisman, so he fires not only without aiming but without even looking in the direction of his opponent. The duels in Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin are simply ridiculous, perfectly in keeping with the character of that novel.
The most famous duelists in America are politicians - Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson. I feel like I must be forgetting some crucial literary example. Please remind me.
Anyway, here's Dickens. The duelist is on his way to the duel:
"Now the noise of the wheels resolved itself into some wild tune in which he could recognize scraps of airs he knew, and now there was nothing in his ears but a stunning and bewildering sound like rushing water. But his companion rallied him on being so silent, and they talked and laughed boisterously. When they stopped he was a little surprised to find himself in the act of smoking, but on reflection he remembered when and where he had taken the cigar."
This is all good, but imagine that Dickens had left out the final phrase, had just stopped at the last comma. The story would carry on in the exact same way, and nothing important would be lost, except the most poignant detail in the passage.
Friday, November 30, 2007
Fanny Price, the protagonist of Mansfield Park, is not much of a heroine. She is almost always in an environment where she has no direct or indirect influence on events. She suffers, she endures, she is pathetic. Her greatest moment of weakness is allowing herself to be drafted into the Bertrams' play. Her greatest triumph is declining Henry Crawford's marriage proposal, on the grounds that he is immoral.
All of this happens before the last third of the novel, when Fanny returns home to her poor, vulgar Portsmouth family. The change of setting allows us to see how deeply Fanny has changed. She may still be passive, but is no longer pathetic. There has been enormous inner growth of character.
If you feel too sorry for Fanny, you can be her friend. Here is her Myspace page. Be warned, it plays music.
Anyway, I like Fanny well enough, despite her drinking problem ("Never had Fanny more wanted a cordial.” Vol. III Ch. 15). But I don't read Mansfield Park for Fanny.
The horrible Mrs. Norris, so generous with other people's money, is bragging about her late husband to the man who now has his living:
"It was only the spring twelvemonth before Mr. Norris's death, that we put in the apricot against the stable wall, which is now grown such a noble tree, and getting to such perfection, sir," addressing herself then to Dr. Grant.
"The tree thrives well beyond a doubt, madam," replied Dr. Grant. "The soil is good: and I never pass it without regretting, that the fruit should be so little worth the trouble of gathering."
"Sir it is a moor park, we bought it as a moor park, and it cost us - that is, it was a present from Sir Thomas, but I saw the bill, and I know it cost seven shillings, and was charged as a moor park."
"You were imposed on, ma'am," replied Dr. Grant; "these potatoes have as much the flavor of a moor park apricot, as the fruit from that tree. It is an insipid fruit at the best; but a good apricot is eatable, which none from my garden are." Vol I Ch. 6.
There is nothing much like this in Austen's earlier novels. Descriptive details or physical objects of any sort are extremely rare. When they do occur, they are often of a conventional nature. See Elizabeth's visit to Darcy's estate - it could be cribbed from a guidebook.
Fanny's beloved brother has just left, as has Mr. Crawford, who her fool of an uncle thinks Fanny loves:
After seeing William to the last moment, Fanny walked back to the breakfast-room with a very saddened heart to grieve over the melancholy change; and there her uncle kindly left her to cry in peace, conceiving perhaps that the deserted chair of each young man might exercise her tender enthusiasm, and that the remaining cold pork bones and mustard in William's plate, might but divide her feelings with the broken egg-shells in Mr. Crawford's. She sat and cried con amore as her uncle intended, but it was con amore fraternal and no other. William was gone, and she now felt as if she had wasted half his visit in idle cares and selfish solicitudes unconnected with him. Vol. II, Ch. 11.
These cold pork bones and flavorless apricots are to me very high instances of Austen's art - they supply artful detail to the scene, but also fill out characters in ways that make simple description seem very clumsy. Mansfield Park is full of this sort of thing - the entire episode by the ha-ha is another example, where the exact locations of the chracters are crucial to really understanding the scene. In Sense and Sensibility, people are mostly just in rooms together.
There is more literature in Mansfield Park than in Austen's other novels. The play is an actual play, by Elizabeth Inchbald. Fanny quotes Scott and Sterne and mentions William Cowper. Just more of Austen filling in the scene. When do the Bennets or Dashwoods ever mention what they read? Maybe the parody novels - Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey - have more of this stuff than I recognize.
I think Austen's artistry makes a huge leap in the decade gap bewteen the writing of the first three novels and the last three. Maybe not her art of creating characters - she never recreates Elizabeth Bennet - but her prose is richer and she's becomes more observant.
The next time I read Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, I'll see if I can prove myself wrong.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, is something along the lines of the most likable fictional person in history.* This is the source of Austen's unusual popularity, this is what all of her chick lit followers want to recreate.
Elizabeth's older sister Jane is prettier.** Her bookish younger sister Mary is smarter, though a fool ("Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how"). Elizabeth is witty, generous, kind, observant - all the sorts of things we wish we were. And if we don't identify ourselves with her, we know she'd be a great friend.
I hope this does not sound like some sortof mockery. It's not. Lots of writers - most great writers - create characters just as full and alive. Austen's own characters are among them. But how many of her readers love Austen for pathetic Fanny in Mansfield Park, or prickly Emma, or even sensible, self-sacrificing Anne Elliot? I like Elizabeth more, myself. "Most likable fictional person" - that's my own opinion, not an attempt to describe the opinion of others.
My problem here is that I either do not understand or do not respect her achievement, as large as it is. Compare Elizabeth to her predecessors, to Burney's Evelina or Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe, or Austens own Dashwoods. Something new is going on here, a real advance in fictional characterization. Or compare Austen to Scott or (early) Dickens, who can toss off brilliant minor characters by the fistful, but have enormous trouble creating interesting central characters.
Anyway, I don't fiction read to meet new friends. Tomorrow I will try to describe what I do look for, using Mansfield Park, which I think is a much greater artistic work than Pride and Prejudice. But it's much less loved, and doesn't have the likes of Elizabeth Bennet. I'm not sure any other novel does.
* Other candidates are welcome, since my ignorance is vast. And anyone who finds Jo from Little Women more likable, or Effi Briest, or David Copperfield, or Oskar Matzerath, should firmly stick with that position.
** Jane is very likable, too. So is Darcy, once he overcomes his pride (or is it prejudice?). The difference is, we love Elizabeth as soon as we meet her.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
An anonymous commenter spurs me to undo, or at least contradict, yesterday's misAustenic rantings.
English professor Paula Marantz Cohen has written three novels, two of them with Jane Austen in the title. In one respect, this is savvy marketing, bait for the Austen cult. But it is also truth in advertising. Cohen boldly steals Austen's plots, plunking them down in her own contemporary American, Jewish milieu. Because the plot is the least important part of any good novel,* this saves her a lot of time and energy.
Jane Austen in Scarsdale, or Love, Death, and the SATs is the latest one. The plot is that of Persuasion, cleverly moved to Westchester County, but the interest of the book is really in the subtitle. The Anne Elliot stand-in is head guidance counsellor at a wealthy school, and much of the book is satire about the lunatic competition by students and parents to get into top colleges. None of this has any relation to Jane Austen, and it is the best thing in the book.
Much Ado About Jesse Kaplan, which hangs off of Shakespeare rather than Austen, has an identical structure. There's a plot that is actually about Shakespeare sonnets - the heroine's mother begins to think that she is Shakespeare's Dark Lady - but the most fun lies in the insanity of preparing for an upper-class bat mitzvah. The caterer, the DJ, I don't remember what else. Really funny stuff.
Jane Austen in Boca is unread by me at this point. This one is Pride and Prejudice amongst Florida retirees.
Cohen is funny, the literary business is unobtrusive (in the Scarsdale book, anyway) but gives the story a little more juice, and the change of setting and character does not stomp on the original. Cohen understands Austen's moral setting - she updates rather than upends.
I think these are the only "chick lit" novels I've ever read.
Light reading should not mean the end of critical thinking.
*Outrageous and certainly wrong. The thickness of the paper is obviously less important than the plot. Upon reflection, I may come up with other examples.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
- a series of mysteries in which the detective is Jane Austen, now in its ninth volume. Ninth!
- a series of mysteries in which the detectives are Darcy and Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice, now in its third (!) volume.
- a series of romances, one for each of Darcy and Elizabeth's five daughters. Five, just like the Bennet sisters, ain't that clever. I don't know if the youngest two are complete idiots, just like the Bennet sisters.
Maybe I should link to these. They're easy enough to find, though, for the morbidly curious.
I understand how a mystery involving Jane Austen could be a hoot. But nine of them - nine verges on the soul-deadening. The Elizabeth & Darcy mysteries are even worse. I don't see how any of these books are really for fans of Jane Austen. They're travesties, ghastly parodies. They don't repeat or revisit the pleasures of the books, but instead mock them.
There are more - Pride and Prejudice from Darcy's point of view, and various attempts at finishing Sanditon. I have a little more sympathy here. A gifted writer could potentially do something interesting here, along the line of Jean Rhys in The Wide Sargasso Sea. Sanditon in particular is a sad case. It is lovely and funny as a fragment, and would certainly have been as good as Austen's other books, so the temptation to finish it is not in and of itself a desecration. I have some doubts about the results.
Somewhere here is a failure of education. The reader of a Jane Austen mystery really wants more Jane Austen, so he settles for a feeble imitation. What he ought to do is expand his reading a bit, to Gaskell or Trollope or The Heart of Midlothian. Or follow Austen back to her sources, like Ann Radcliffe, or favorites, like Richardson.** Anyone who has been tempted by a Darcy and Elizabeth mystery should not just add Fanny Burney’s Evelina to their NetBoox queue, but should put it on the very top.
I think many Austen fans, perhaps most, actually do read like this. But there's another group that does not, who don't know how to explore in their reading, how to follow one book to another. Someone failed them somewhere.
Feel free to ignore everything the grump says - except do read Evelina!
* The author of the Darcy and Elizabeth mysteries previously wrote Dungeons and Dragons novels. Hack, hack, hack.
** Austen's favorite book was Sir Charles Grandison.
Monday, November 26, 2007
If there were a sweeps week for literature blogs, which for all I know there is, that’s when I would post about Jane Austen.
When you see “the Faulkner industry” or “the Pynchon industry” or what have you, someone is making fun of academics and their monographs. But the Jane Austen industry is an actual consumer goods industry, of books, of course, and movies, and books based on books, and, as I saw recently, a board game. I don’t know of any porcelain figurines or scarves or umbrellas like Pamela and Oliver Twist inspired, but who knows and why not?
Austen is a best-selling author today. If you added together the sales of various editions to see it, Pride and Prejudice would be on the bestseller lists most years, even without a movie or TV tie-in. And unlike most old fogies, Austen’s books are read outside of the classroom. No other older writer enjoy so many current, and dedicated, readers. Maybe some children’s books can compete – The Wizard of Oz, Anne of Green Gables. Maybe.*
Some of this drives me crazy. The movies that misunderstand the Austen’s values, moral and esthetic. The sequels and prequels and miscellaneous hackwork. More on this later as I sort my thoughts, or organize my peeves. Unless I decide I'm just being a grump and drop the whole thing.
About that board game. It is basically Trivial Pursuit, with questions about either Austen’s books or Regency England. At the end the winner has “gotten married.” A lot of people dismiss Austen because they think her only subject is getting a young woman past various obstacles to a superior marriage. Many of her biggest fans love her for the same reason. Another thing to drive me crazy. This may be her only plot, but it is certainly not her only subject – pride and vanity, humility, the difficulties of communication, dependence and independence, the world around her. Not weddings, always a trivial part of the novels. Not marriage, at least not of young people. Of old fools, yes.
You can read Austen's books, even love her books, without giving a damn about who marries who in the end. A reader interested in literary art will want to change "can" to "should".
*Little Women? The Alice books? Huckleberry Finn? All in some sense kids’ books now. And I don’t think any of them come close to selling as many copies as P&P. Other examples are welcome.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
James Wood is my favorite critic working today. He has his limits - what great critic does not - but he always offers original insights. The New Yorker wisely hired him this summer. What took them so long?
His latest piece is on the new War and Peace translation, a subject I will soon be sick of. Wood is typically excellent on Tolstoy's voice, a complicated subject in War and Peace due to the inset essays about the meaning and nature of history. There, Tolstoy could hardly be more obtrusive, while in the narrative sections he often comes close to vanishing. The narrative sometimes seems to contradict the essays. To which Tolstoy should the reader listen?
I suppose a new reader of War and Peace should save this piece for later. Wood discusses books seriously - he assumes that you're not reading the book for the soap opera.
Wood says that Tolstoy first envisioned the book as a domestic saga in the manner of Trollope, set in 1856, called All's Well That Ends Well. Great leaps of rethinking led to the final product. To understand 1856, one must understand the Decemberist conspiracy of 1825. To understand 1825, one must understand Napoleon and 1812. And so on. The puzzle is how Tolstoy put a stop to this retogression and actually wrote a novel.
I'm going to try to post a version of this at the Russian Reading Challenge as well.
"Colonel Boardman, the engineer of the Mill-Dam, is now here, after about a fortnight’s absence. A plain, country-squire looking man with a figure but with rather a ponderous brow; a rough complexion; a gait, and general rigidity of manner, something like a schoolmaster. He originated in a country-town, and is a self-educated man. As he walked down the gravel-walk, to day, after dinner, he took up a scythe, which one of the mowers had left in the sward, and began to mow, with quite a scientific swing. On the coming of the mower, he laid it down, perhaps a little ashamed of his amusement."
The American Notebooks, Centenary edition, pp. 54-5.
Hawthrone is still in Augusta, Maine. This passage would not look out of place in Turgenev or Tolstoy. Or Flaubert. Well-observed and insightful. Now if I can only find its equivalent in Hawthorne's own stories.
Monday, November 19, 2007
'Mr. Schaeffer shaving himself, yesterday morning. He was in excellent spirits, and could not keep his tongue or body still, more than long enough to make two or three consecutive strokes at his beard. Then would he turn, flourishes his razor and grimacing joyously , enacting strange antics, breaking out into scraps and verses of drinking songs – “A boire! A boire!” &c – then laughing heartily and crying “Vive la gaiete!” – then resuming his task, looking into the glass with grave face, on which, however, a grin would soon break out anew; and all his antics would be repeated with variations. He turned his foolery to philosophy, by observing that mirth contributed to goodness of heart, and to make us love our fellow-creatures.'
The American Notebooks, Centenary Edition, p. 49
The context, if it matters, is that Hawthorne is visiting a college friend in Augusta, Maine. Mr. Schaeffer is the friend's French roommate.
In a Dickens novel, this would be typically brilliant sketch. In a Balzac novel, this would be one of the good bits. It would not be out of place in either. The temporary attempts at seriousness about his shaving are the best touch.
Friday, November 16, 2007
Test question: What book did you most dislike in this course? What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to?
This question was a regular feature on the Western Civ-equivalent final of a Columbia prof, or so I read in a classic Harpers article, "Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students", by Mark Edmundson, available here as a PDF.
Great questions. Maybe I'll write more about them later. But right now, the issue is that I most dislike the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I have the confidence to say that some of them are terrible - the four under the heading "Legends of the Province-House", for example. Ugh, ugh. Very much period pieces, at minimum.
But there are others where the problem is with my understanding, certainly with my sympathy, possibly with my character. "The Minister's Black Veil", "Roger Malvin's Burial", "Young Goodman Brown" - these are real works of art, coherent, purposeful. So why do I dislike them?
The Amateur Reader knows enough to turn to the professionals for assistance. My intellectual flaw is something other than refusing to ask for help. If anyone wandering by would like to suggest a book or essay on Hawthorne or his stories it would be much appreciated.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
"A common fellow, a carpenter, who, on the strength of political partizanship, asked Bridge's assistance in cutting out great letters from play-bills &c, in order to print Martin Van Buren Forever, on a flag; - but Bridge refused. 'Let every man skin his own skunks,' says he."
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The American Notebooks, Centenary edition p. 36.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Neurotic Reader finishes his books. The wisdom of letting a book go unfinished is not one which he has yet acquired. Perhaps in his maturity. For now, though, I just keep chewing away. I'll have the Dickens done in two or three weeks.
This makes it sound like a chore, when Nicholas Nickleby is, of course, a delight. Why would I want it to be shorter?* Or, much shorter - later, Dickens will have learned more about tightening up the narrative.
Nicholas Nickleby was originally serialized, not in a magazine but on its own, like a comic book. You could go to the bookseller every month and buy the next installment. There were 2o sections, although I think the last one was a "double issue". So the contemporary reader who treated it like Harry Potter and read it the instant it was published read the book over the course of 18 months.
War and Peace was published over the course of 4 or 5 years, In Search of Lost Time over 14 years, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire over 12 years. Looked at that way, a month or two (or nine, for me, with the Gibbon) with a book does not seem so long.
* Also, some of the business where Nicholas is with the theater troop could be cut. Not the part about the performing pony.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
There’s something strange about the tone of a lot of Romantic German fiction, something I do not know how to describe well. Sometimes it’s a sort of gentleness or serenity, even amidst the strangest events. I’m thinking of Adalbert Stifter here, or Goethe’s Elective Affinities, or some of Hoffmann’s fantasias. They all take place in a version of the real world that has been shifted, so that everything is just a little off. We are used to this in fantasy and horror stories, but in realistic stories many readers don’t know what to do. That’s a guess.
A few German Romantics are really difficult to understand. The poets Novalis and Hölderlin, for example, or part 2 of Faust. Strangely, these really hard works are often as easy to find in English as more straightforward books by Storm or Keller or many others.
None of this explains the case of Fontane, who writes in a similar style to Flaubert and Turgenev. Effi Briest ought to be as well-known as Madame Bovary. Or how about Heinrich von Kleist, hard to take, but very much a modern writer.
I may be wrong. Penguin Classics keeps a number of these writers in print, which means that someone, somewhere is teaching them. Fontane, Hoffmann, Mörike, just recently a selection of Heine’s prose. Keeping up the good fight.
Compare the status (in America) of 19th century German literature with that of Russian literature. With some trepidation, I’m joining an internet reading challenge for Russian literature. Everyone want to use it as a goad to start or finish War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, that sort of thing. In a German challenge, the focus would be very different – some Goethe, sure, but more Mann, Musil, and Grass, not so much Green Henry or Wilhelm Meister.
Monday, November 12, 2007
Marcel Brion’s Schumann and the Romantic Age (1956) is mostly about Robert Schumann, his life and work. The book is well written, and Schumann’s life makes for a first-rate story – his fight to marry Clara, the madness that destroyed him, his continual creative struggle.
But then there’s the Romantic Age, meaning the world of Liszt and Chopin, but also Romantic literature – German literature. This book about music is also an essay on a body of work that is unfortunately obscure and difficult to access. The first chapter is basically about Schumann’s early reading – Hoffmann, Tieck, Goethe, and huge quantities of Jean Paul. A later chapter gives us a quick history of lieder, where the ties to German poetry are obvious.
For some reason, this group of writers has never quite found favor in England or America. As a result, translations are rare or non-existent, even of some major works. Brion, discussing Schumann’s one opera (Genoveva, never performed anymore), says that he had to choose between two different treatments of the saint’s life, one by Ludwig Tieck and the other by Friedrich Hebbel, one gentle, the other tragic. Both sound very interesting. Good luck to the reader without German.
What is frustrating is that the stories and poems I have been able to track down are inevitably interesting, and often brilliant. Tieck’s story Blonde Eckbert is a dream-like masterpiece. Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl, about a man who sells his shadow, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine, about the perils of marrying a water spirit, are almost as good. Then there’s Schumann’s favorite, Jean Paul, Laurence Sterne’s great disciple.
There are exceptions – Goethe, Kleist, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, even as difficult a writer as Hölderlin are fairly easily available. But why is it so hard to find a translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”, an enormously famous story thanks to Tchaikovsky? Why has his great novel The Devil’s Elixir been out of print since the 1960s?
These writers have had their champions – Carlyle, Poe, Ford Madox Ford. They translated, they advocated, they became frustrated, in the last regard much like me.
Friday, November 9, 2007
I didn’t mean to make this Poe week. Let’s finish it up.
I mentioned earlier that in his early career Poe had written a few great poems. Looking them over again, I’m ready to reduce “a few” to “one.” What was it I saw in “Lenore”? More good ones would come later – “The Raven”, “The Bells”, “Annabel Lee”. Here’s the early little masterpiece:
The City in the Sea
Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently -
Gleams up the pinnacles far and free -
Up domes - up spires - up kingly halls -
Up fanes - up Babylon-like walls -
Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers
Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers -
Up many and many a marvellous shrine
Whose wreathed friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in air,
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.
There open fanes and gaping graves
Yawn level with the luminous waves;
But not the riches there that lie
In each idol's diamond eye -
Not the gaily-jewelled dead
Tempt the waters from their bed;
For no ripples curl, alas!
Along that wilderness of glass -
No swellings tell that winds may be
Upon some far-off happier sea -
No heavings hint that winds have been
On seas less hideously serene.
But lo, a stir is in the air!
The wave - there is a movement there!
As if the towers had thrust aside,
In slightly sinking, the dull tide -
As if their tops had feebly given
A void within the filmy Heaven.
The waves have now a redder glow -
The hours are breathing faint and low -
And when, amid no earthly moans,
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence.
Just a work of imagination, beautiful for its own sake, if you like this sort of thing. “The viol, the violet, and the vine.” Strange and original. Why does Death live in an underwater city? How can the graves be level with the waves? What is going on at the end – some hint of apocalypse? The poem is full of suggestive images and ideas, all suggesting something greater, whether it is actually there or not. One definition of the sublime.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
Poe would have liked to be a famous poet, but he made his living as a magazine writer, especially as a book reviewer. He became known as the Tomahawk Man because of his vicious reviews. Here’s a sample, from a review of The History of the Navy of the United States of America by James Fenimore Cooper:
“A flashy succession of ill-conceived and miserably executed literary productions, each more silly than its predecessor, and wherein the only thing noticeable was the peevishness of the writer, the only thing amusing his self-conceit – had taught the public to suspect even a radical taint in the intellect, an absolute and irreparable moral leprosy, rendering it a question whether he ever would or could again accomplish any thing which should be worthy the attention of people not positively rabid.”
This is from a positive review!
I wish I had more of these excerpts handy. Except when he is correcting the writer’s grammar, Poe is pretty good. He was intentionally creating the modern book review, focused on the actual book, not the political party of the author or some theoretical aesthetic stance.
There’s a good passage in Lost Illusions about the old system, in Paris, at least, where Lucien writes (anonymously) influential good and bad reviews of the same book, without having read it.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Poe was first able to match his voice and subject in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by parodying real accounts of survival and adventure. His next insight, or accidental discovery, was that it was the nature of the subject that really mattered – it was the horrifying, unbelievable story that was well matched to his style.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) is where this discovery takes place, the earliest of his 8 or 9 most famous stories. Our nervous, stiff narrator visits his nervous, hysterical childhood friend, Roderick Usher, at his isolated Scottish mansion. Terrible things are suggested, terrible things occur. The narrator escapes to tell us about them. That’s the story, really. Poe’s stories have been so thoroughly ransacked by movies and horror stories that a modern reader may not find the results so shocking. I think it’s still effective, despite that, and sometimes despite Poe.
Here’s another example of Poe at his worst:
“I have said that the sole effect of my somewhat childish experiment – that of looking down within the tarn – had been to deepen the first singular impression. There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition – for why should I not so term it? – served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis.”
This is a long way from what I consider good writing, but there is some psychological effectiveness. Who would talk about being frightened in this way? What horrible trauma must this man have suffered to tell the story like this? What is he repressing?
In the end, the narrator turns to watch the mansion collapse into the lake. Here the action blends with the psychological state of the narrator:
“While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened – there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind – the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight – my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder – there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters – and the deep and dark tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the ‘House of Usher.’”
Some of this is ridiculous, too ("orb of the satellite"="moon"). But a lot of it is quite good, tense and effective (“deep and dark”, “sullenly and silently”). Whatever has destroyed the House of Usher has also damaged the mind of the narrator.
Why was it so difficult for Poe to find the right subject for his style? Why was his voice so fixed? Most – all? – great writers face the same problem, although many of them seem to work out the voice/subject synthesis simultaneously. The subject shapes the style, and vice versa, and by the time the reader sees the book the fit already seems natural, even obvious. With Poe’s history of publication, we can see the style develop in the service of nonsense and trivia, and then, surprisingly, find a home.
Monday, November 5, 2007
By 1838, Poe had been writing for 10 years without much success. He had developed a style that was convoluted, fussy, pedantic, and sometimes irritating. It turned out to work well in book reviews.
Not in the short stories he had been writing, though. Poe had tried all sorts of stories, including a surprising number of comic stories. Period pieces, almost all of them. The style Poe had developed was not suited to the material he was using. But with the story “MS Found in a Bottle”, and then The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe figured out or stumbled upon a type of story that suited his voice.
“MS Found in a Bottle” is the story of a shipwreck victim who finds himself on a ghost ship heading towards the Antarctic. Arthur Gordon Pym reworks the same material, with a mutiny, a plague ship, cannibalism, an undiscovered Antarctic island filled with savages and ancient secrets. Both are first person accounts, the narrator reporting on the strange things he encountered. Both break off at the same point, just as something really bizarre and mysterious happens.
In retrospect, this is the beginning of horror fiction. But Poe found his way into this sort of story by parodying another genre, the “true story” of survival and exploration. Pym owes a lot, for example, to the account of the 1,000 mile boat journey, with almost no food or water, of Captain Bligh and his crew after the Bounty mutiny, and to the similar boat trip of Owen Chase after an enraged whale sank his ship. Probably also to plenty of other accounts I don’t know. Add to this the accounts of exploration. Since Pym ends up in the Antarctic region, Captain Cook’s journey is specifically mentioned.
Poe borrows some subject matter and details from these books. But his real innovation was to borrow the voice. Horrible things happen to Chase and Bligh, but the accounts they wrote are very cool-headed. They can be emotional – sentimental or discouraged, for example - at certain points, but mostly they are professional. Captain Cook writes in the same way. So does Mungo Park, wandering around West Africa.
There are two things gong on here. First, the authors tell us so many things that are hard to believe that they have to adopt a tone that reinforces their trustworthiness. Second, these are the stories of the survivors. They made it home, so they can afford to just give us their version of the facts. If the people who did not make it home told us their story, they might not be so calm.
So Pym, who experiences all sorts of really horrible things, relates them to us in this detached, prolix manner - that’s how we get the scientific description of penguins nests, a chapter or two after he eats one of his fellow shipwreck survivors. But in this case, the events are so incredible that the cool manner of describing them actually increases the sense of horror. You wonder if the narrator is traumatized, or insane. How can he be so calm?
This destabilization is made worse by parts of the story that otherwise make no sense. Pym is hiding in the stowage of the ship, at risk of dying of thirst and the fumes, when he has a dream that he is in the Sahara, where he is attacked by a lion. He awakens to find his Newfoundland dog licking him. There is no reason his dog should be on the ship, and the explanation given later is preposterous. Read a certain way, this is incompetent storytelling. If we are allowed to doubt the narrator, it’s something else.
Poe had a bad ear for prose and a fussy voice that he did not know how to change. With Arthur Gordon Pym, he for the first time was able to adapt the material to the voice. It's his first great success, badly written in some ways, a strange triumph in others.
I remember Harold Bloom writing something like this, although I am probably paraphrasing. "In the canon" means he is still worth reading, and rereading. "Worst writer" means style. It means this:
"There can be no doubt, either, that the same result would ensue in the case of tobacco, while undergoing its usual course of fermentation, were it not for the interstices consequent upon the rotundity of the hogsheads."
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Chapter 6.
This is from a short novel that involves a stowaway, a mutiny, cannibalism, a ghostly plague ship, attacks by savages on uncharted islands, and so on. But also pedantic digressions on the stowage of tobacco and the arrangement of penguin nests:
"At each intersection of these paths the nest of an albatross is constructed, and a penguin's nest in the centre of each square - thus every penguin is surrounded by four albatrosses, and each albatross by a like number of penguins." Ch. 14.
There's about three pages describing birds. This is part of an interlude in the book where nothing happens.
I could put up dozens more awkward or silly sentences, but I'll stop. This is actually a good novel, but easy to ridicule.
Before Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe had been writing for about 10 years - poems, short stories, and book reviews. I don't think he had much to show for it. One decent story out of dozens ("MS Found in a Bottle", recycled in Pym), a few good poems (one great one, "The City in the Sea"), and a budding career as the most notorious book reviewer in America, the Tomahawk Man.
Rereading Arthur Gordon Pym, I now think this is where Poe really comes into his own as a writer. Tomorrow I'll see if I can show how he does it.
Friday, November 2, 2007
I don't know why the editors of Russia in 1839 included this picture. Custine went to the giant commercial fair in Nijni Novgorod, but he never mentions any dancing goats or heavy metal bears
He does see an elephant. Retuning from the fair to Moscow, his coach moving at the typical Russian speed (as fast as the whip can make the horses go), he comes across, just on the highway in the middle of nowhere, a fully decorated Indian elephant, accompanied by a sort of caravan with camels, horses, and their riders. Custine's horses are spooked and he's nearly killed. The elephant turns out to be a gift from the Shah of Persia, on its way to St. Petersburg. How much time must the whole trip, walking the elephant from Persia to the Baltic, have taken? 6 months? How much did it cost.
This trip would be a good subject for a short story, about the Iranian elephant keeper and his trip to St. Petersburg. Or it could be a 500 page novel from the point of view of the elephant. Whatever.
Thursday, November 1, 2007
So I've read the poems in the 1839 book. I posted one yesterday. I want to read more of his poems, but I need a Selected Poems, to which I don't have access. 900 is too many. Almost all religious poems, too.
In 1838, age 26, Very discovered that he was the Second Coming of Christ. He spent a few months in a mental institution, but since he was lucid and peaceful, he did not have to stay there. For a while, he wandered around New England, visiting his Transcendentalist friends, failing to convert any disciples to himself. Then he became a recluse, for almost 40 years. The whole time, he wrote poems, poems, poems. Almost all religious, even the nature poems, even the political poems.
Leafing through the 900, here are some titles: "On the Nebraska Bill", "The Congress of Peace at Brussels", "Do Nations ever become Insane?" Help. He lived long enough to go from "The First Telegraphic Message" to "The Telephone" . I've grazed a little, enough to know that there's a lot to like here.
Here's one of his explicitly religious poems, typically gentle:
The Prayer of Jabez
The prayer of Jabez, too, should be our prayer:
"Keep me from evil, that it may not grieve."
How hard the sight of wrong and ill to bear,
When we cannot the sufferers relieve!
The child of sorrow, he for others' woe,
As if it were his own, did deeply feel;
Though he had naught of riches to bestow,
Nor power their wrongs and miseries to heal.
God heard his prayer, and answered his request;
And by his sympathy did help impart
Unto the poor, the suffereing, and opprest,
That healed their wounds and robbed them of their smart;
Nor suffered cruel deeds, nor words unkind,
To grieve his heart, or rankle in his mind.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Still, still my eye will gaze long fixed on thee,
Till I forget that I am called a man,
And at thy side fast-rooted seem to be,
And the breeze comes my cheek with thine to fan.
Upon this craggy hill our life shall pass,
A life of summer days and summer joys,
Nodding our honey-bells mid pliant grass
In which the bee half hid his time employs;
And here we’ll drink with thirsty pores the rain,
And turn dew-sprinkled to the rising sun,
And look when in the flaming west again
His orb across the heaven its path has run;
Here left in darkness on the rocky steep,
My weary eyes shall close like folding flowers in sleep.
This is a strange poem. The poet looks at the columbine long enough and in such a way that he actually thinks he is a flower. This is a version of Emerson, immersed in Nature, becoming a transparent eyeball.
But here, look at the widening sensual range - the eye comes first, but then he feels the breeze, he nods his honey-bell and the bee comes, he drinks the rain and feels the dew and sun. A more complete sensory experience, even though one might think the sensual possibilities of a flower would be quite limited.
And then the eye returns at the end, as the poet remembers that he is a person not a flower - his eyes close "like" the petals. It's all just a metaphor, no matter how intensely experienced.
Note how the return to reality is reflected in the bumpiness of the last line. The first 13 lines of the sonnet have 10 syllables, but the last line has 12 (counting "flowers" as one syllable), to jar the poet back to himself.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
R. W. Emerson, "Intellect", p. 421 of the Library of America edition.
Is this true? One thing you have to train yourself to do in order to read philosophy is to put that question on hold. If you stop whenver a premise is untrue, you would not get very far with a large share of philosophers.
Anyway, I don't think it's true. Some people are wiser than others, actually wiser, not just more artful. Some of us are not very wise at all.
Say I modify the statement a little. "Between equally wise persons, the difference is in art." That could be more euphonious. But now it looks true to me. The manner of expression of ideas or wisdom forms a crucial part of their effectiveness or impact. I may have made the sentiment too utilitarian for Emerson's taste, but I feel like I'm moving toward what he really meant.
That's why I'm writing here - working on the "art" side. Maybe it will lead to actual wisdom. Maybe it will only help me appear more wise. Maybe it's just vanity. I'll keep trying.
Monday, October 29, 2007
Similarly, Marx and Malthus made some terribly wrong predictions, which has undermined their authority among a lot of people. In the case of Marx, I am tempted to say, good. Anyway, other thinkers have pulled out the more valuable ideas. Malthus's mistakes certainly led to a lot of insights by later demographers and economists.
So predictions don't matter that much. The search for authority is a distraction from taking ideas seriously. Still, this is a good shocker from the Marquis de Custine:
"If ever they should succeed in creating a real revolution among the Russian people, massacre would be performed with the regularity that marks the evolutions of a regiment. Villages would change into barracks, and organized murder would stalk forth armed from the cottages, form in line, and advance in order…"
The Empire of the Tsar, p. 293.
Friday, October 26, 2007
The logical place to end my tour of poetry in translation is in Spain, but I don’t know much about 19th century Spanish poetry. Just some names – Becquer, Ruben Dario – subjects for future research. So here’s a 19th century translation of a 15th century Spanish poet.
Jorge Manrique (1440-79) is remembered for one great poem, “Las Coplas a la muerte de su padre”, “Couplets on the death of his father.” Manrique’s father was a knight who died in combat against the Moors (this is before 1492 – still the age of chivalry and crusading in Spain). The son’s poem is an elegy, but also a way to ask what makes life meaningful. Here’s how it begins:
O let the soul her slumbers break,
Let thought be quickened, and awake;
Awake to see
How soon this life is past and gone,
And death comes softly stealing on,
Swiftly our pleasures glide away,
Our hearts recall the distant day
With many sighs;
The moments that are speeding fast
We heed not, but the past,—the past,
More highly prize.
Onward its course the present keeps,
Onward the constant current sweeps,
Till life is done;
And, did we judge of time aright,
The past and future in their flight
Would be as one.
There is some relationship here with humanist ideas that I do not usually associate with Spain. The last stanza contains a sophisticated idea about the difference between the future and the past – why do we think of them so differently?
O World! so few the years we live,
Would that the life which thou dost give
Were life indeed!
Alas! thy sorrows fall so fast,
Our happiest hour is when at last
The soul is freed.
Our days are covered o'er with grief,
And sorrows neither few nor brief
Veil all in gloom;
Left desolate of real good,
Within this cheerless solitude
No pleasures bloom.
Thy pilgrimage begins in tears,
And ends in bitter doubts and fears,
Or dark despair;
Midway so many toils appear,
That he who lingers longest here
Knows most of care.
Manrique presents this dark view of life to argue with it, providing a list of examples from Spanish history of heores who lived and died in meaningful ways. He ends the list with his father:
He left no well-filled treasury,
He heaped no pile of riches high,
Nor massive plate;
He fought the Moors, and, in their fall,C
ity and tower and castled wall
Were his estate.
Here’s his end, and the end of the poem:
As thus the dying warrior prayed,
Without one gathering mist or shade
Upon his mind;
Encircled by his family,
Watched by affection's gentle eye
So soft and kind;
His soul to Him, who gave it, rose;
God lead it to its long repose,
Its glorious rest!
And, though the warrior's sun has set,
Its light shall linger round us yet,
Bright, radiant, blest.
The last line is perfect. This translation was done by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, young Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, in 1833, before he had published his own poems. The reputation of Longfellow, once one of the most popular poets of the 19th century, is not very high now. I don’t know his poems well enough to know why. But he was a superb translator of poetry, one of the best.
Manrique’s Coplas are one of the few works of any sort that I’ve read in two languages. Longfellow keeps the same form and meter. He changes the rhyme scheme a little (he uses AAB/CCB, while the original is ABC/ABC). He poeticizes some prosaic bits, and rearranges the order of sentences. He omits three stanzas. To me, the mood, the feel is just like the original.
Longfellow’s version is a masterpiece. I don’t know why it shouldn’t be as famous as Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat”. Too late for that now, I suppose. Longfellow also made marvelous translations of poems of Dante, Michelangelo, Goethe. I think they are models of poetic translation. Maybe a Longfellow revival is due.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Eugene Onegin, Canto I, Stanza XXIV
Porcelain and bronzes on the table,
with amber pipes from Tsaregrad;
such crystalled scents as best are able
to drive the swooning senses mad;
with combs, and steel utensils serving
as files, and scissors straight and curving,
brushes on thirty different scales;
brushes for teeth, brushes for nails.
Rousseau (forgive a short distraction)
could not conceive how solemn Grimm
dared clean his nails in front of him,
the brilliant crackpot: this reaction
shows freedom’s advocate, that strong
champion of rights, as in the wrong.
Some of this is just a list, but a list that reveals the dandy’s vanity (the crack at Rousseau digs at a different sort of vanity). No surprise that Pushkin also proved to be a great fiction writer. Here’s another list, about Onegin’s country house, which he has just inherited. Here’s what he faces:
Canto II, Stanza III
The rustic sage, in that apartment,
forty years long would criticize
his housekeeper and her department,
look through the pane, and squash the flies.
Oak-floored, and simple as a stable:
two cupboards, one divan, a table,
no trace of ink, no spots, no stains.
And of the cupboards, one contains
a book of household calculations,
the other, jugs of applejack,
fruit liqueurs and an Almanack
for 1808: his obligations
had left the squire no time to look
at any other sort of book.
The boredom will obviously be crushing. Note the writer’s indictment, slipped in – “no trace of ink.” Onegin flirts with a local girl, who falls in love with him. He rejects her, and one of the consequences in an idiotic duel. Here’s the aftermath, a different kind of Pushkin:
Canto VI, Stanza XXXV
Giving his pistol-butt a squeezing,
Evgeny looks at Lensky, chilled
at heart by grim remorse’s freezing.
‘Well, what?’ the neighbor says, ‘he’s killed.’
Killed!... At this frightful word a-quiver,
Onegin turns, and with a shiver
summons his people. On the sleigh
with care Zaretsky stows away
the frozen corpse, drives off, and homing
vanishes with his load of dread.
The horses, as they sense the dead,
have snorted, reared, and whitely foaming
have drenched the steel bit as they go
and flown like arrows from a bow.
A nice mix of reporting and metaphorical language. Just the right mood. It’s hard to read this without wondering about Pushkin’s own death in an idiotic duel not too many years later.
Maybe I will write more about Pushkin later. He’s such a varied writer. I’ve read most of what he wrote, or at least most of what’s in English. All of his prose, his tragedy “Boris Godunov”, a substantial share of his poetry. But he’s like Hugo in this way - hard to grasp whole.
All of the stanzas I mentioned here are from the Charles Johnston translation. Who knows how this compares to the original. It’s lively, light, poetic. One hopes it’s also accurate, and sounds more or less like Pushkin.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Hugo wrote poems about man and nature, the usual Romantic stuff. He also wrote a lot of poems about his children:
My Two Daughters
Twilight now with cool
shadows falling on the day
as two girls, one a swan,
one a dove, sisters, each
beautiful and both content,
sit on the threshold of the garden
in sweetness, at peace, when
above them white carnations –
their slender stalks set in a marble urn –
are taken by the wind,
lean trembling in the shade,
resembling a flight of butterflies
held there for a moment,
In French this is a ten line poem with regular end rhymes. Here, the translator has abandoned the original form and made Hugo into a free versifier. He keeps the images, the metaphors, the mood. I notice that the line “Voyez, la grande soeur et la petite soeur” (“Look, the big sister and the little sister”, I think) has completely disappeared. Translators have a lot of power.
Here’s a different side of Hugo:
The Turks were here. Ruin. Grief.
Chios, island of vines,
now a charred reef –
Chios, once shaded with blossom,
Chios, whose tides advancing
mirrored great woods, slopes, palaces,
sometimes at dusk a chorus
of young girls dancing.
All is deserted. Save
near blackened walls where
one blue-eyed child, a Greek boy, sits
head bowed in shame. He has
for shelter, for support one
like him in the havoc forgotten.
Will you smile again if I give you
a fair bird of the forests
singing more sweetly than the flute
more gaily than the cymbals?
What can I give you – flower, sleek fruit,
wondrous bird? The child then,
the Greek boys with blue eyes, said, ‘Friend,
‘give me some powder and some shot.’
That’s still a little shocking, I think, even though the politics of Greek independence are lost in the past.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Intimation of Spring
Now again the earth with new
Long-familiar fragrance brings
Its sweet presage, and the spring’s
Sky-borne banner flutters blue.
Violets wake today
Dreaming their time is near.
-Oh listen: soft harp-music far away!
Spring, yes, I have heard you
Coming, you are here!
If this is not beautiful in some way, there is not much else to it. The range of senses is important – the fragrance, then the color of the sky, then the music. Some of the most beautiful poems in the language, Germans say. They say that about a lot of their poets, actually, but mostly because it’s so often true.
A Huntsman’s Song
Daintily a bird’s claw prints the snows
As upon the mountain heights it goes:
Daintily my darling’s little hand
Writes to greet me in a far-off land.
High the heron soars into the blue
Where no shot nor arrow can pursue:
And a thousand times so swift and high
To their goal the thoughts of true love fly.
Two ideas skillfully linked together, moving from the specific (claw and hand) to the more abstract (soaring heron, thought of love). But lest we think Mörike is just a charming nature poet:
Unannounced, one evening, in came a visitor:
‘I have the honour to be your critic, sir.’
At once he took the lamp in his hand
And my shadow on the wall for a time he scanned,
From close, from a distance. ‘Young man, you must admit:
Your nose – now please, just take a sideways look at it;
That nose is an excrescence, by your leave.’
- What? Now, by God, I do believe
You’re right! Just fancy! How could one suppose,
Never in my life did I suppose,
That my face possessed so monstrous a nose!
The man said a few other things as well;
What they were, truly I now can’t tell;
He expected a confession, I don’t doubt.
Then he got up to go; I lighted him out.
And when the two of us reached the stair,
My high spirits were such that then and there
A parting present from me he got:
Just a little kick on a posterior spot –
Oh, my goodness me, what a tumbling,
What a totter and a clatter and a rumbling!
I never have seen, I do declare,
Never in my life, I do declare,
A man get so quickly to the bottom of a stair!
Meine Frau and I once saw Thomas Hampson sing the Hugo Wolf setting of this song with great energy, including some vigorous kicking.
The translations are from the Penguin edition. The German is on facing pages, to keep the translator honest. Even to the Ignorant Reader, the German is useful. In “Good Riddance” for example, the “tumbling,/… rumbling” line is “ein Gerumpel,/ Ein Gepurzel, ein Gehumpel!” which is surely in the same spirit.
Monday, October 22, 2007
Belli (1791-1863) was a Roman poet of the early 19th century. His subject was Rome, its corrupt Popes and Cardinals, its coutesans, its daily life. He was a satirist, in a long Roman tradition:
The Coffee-house Philosopher
Human beings in ths world are the same
As coffee-beans before the espresso machine:
First one, and then another, a steady stream,
All of ‘em going alike to one sure fate.
Often they change places, and often the big bean
Presses against and crushes the little bean,
And they all crowd each other at the entrance gate
Of iron that grinds them down into a powder.
And so in this way men live, soft or hard,
Mixed together by the hand of God
That stirs them round and round and round in circles;
And, gently or roughly, everyone moves, draws breath
Without ever understanding why and falls
Down to the bottom through the throat of death.
It’s hard for me to imagine what Rome was like at this time, directly ruled by the Pope, administered by Cardinals, policed by the Papal police. Repressive, backwards, a mix of palaces, hovels, and ancient ruins, teeming year round with religious and artistic tourists. Belli gives us a glimpse of this world:
Yaaa! whadaya mean, business? nobody’s dying:
A bit o’ bad air, and it’s gone already:
Everyone’s so attached to this stinking life…
Go, follow the gravedigger’s trade with love – who’s grateful?
O my poor black smock! there, growing mouldy.
An’ if things go on like this here, and the Lord
Don’t inspire some of those smart quacks
- The gravedigging profession is washed up!
The one swell year we had was in ‘Seventeen.
Then, in this square, it was really the good life
The dead filling up the carts like falling snow!
Well, that’s enough; who knows…? Yesterday Joe
Said a gravedigger friend had written him
That there’s a ray of hope from this cholera.
Belli wrote in all sorts of forms, but it’s his sonnets that have gotten the most attention, I think because they are generally about more universal scenes or ideas. Some of them are comical retellings of the stories of Noah or Abraham or Mary and Martha. Some are attacks on the Pope or some lecherous Cardinal. The two “Saint Strumpet of Piazza Montanara” sonnets are brilliant, about a true Christian, but highly obscene. But the depictions of ordinary life are the best, I think. Here’s Rome at Easter:
Tour of the Delicatessens
Of all the delicatessens where they put on
Great shows for the Easter of the Egg,
That of Biascio at the Pantheon
Is the best in Rome this year. There’s big
Columns of round cheeses, that would be
A hundred, to reckon low, support an alcove
Embroidered with sausages, and you should see
The animals in fancy forms! Above,
Among others, way up, there’s a Moses of lamb
Holding a club in the air just like a cop,
On the peak of a tall mountain of ham;
And under him, to get your appetite up,
There’s a Christ and a Madonna made of pastry
Within a lovely grotto of salami.
Belli was a dialect (Romansesco) writer, which adds one more obstacle to translation, as if there were not enough already. These translations are all by Harold Norse, a young Beat poet. On the back cover of my book, he actually says “This keeps me free from schools (beat or square)”, but only a Beat would say that. Norse is an interesting guy in his own right, and has recently (in his old age) gotten some attention as an important gay poet. I recently read someone criticize Norse as having translated Belli into Brooklynese. Well, that’s one solution to the dialect problem. And look at the sophisticated off-rhymes in “The Coffee-house Philosopher” – same/machine/stream, hard/God, circles/falls. He’s does rhyme “bean” with “bean”, which is less sophisticated. If someone has done better with Belli, I’d love to read him.
Friday, October 19, 2007
"To make a great nation is infallibly to create an architecture."
That's buried in the middle of a paragraph, when it should either begin or end one. Plus, I'm not sure it's true. His point is that the architecture of St. Petersburg is all borrowed from other countries, is not an authentic expression of the Russian culture. He's probably right about that.
Maxim de la Rochefoucauld and Nicolas de Chamfort are two of the greatest aphorists in history. Pascal and Voltaire weren't bad either. They make it look so easy. But they didn't bury their gems in 600 page tomes.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
You first parents of the human race that ruined yourself for an apple, what might you have done for a truffled turkey? But in your earthly paradise you had no cooks, no fine confectioners.
I weep for you!
Jean Antheleme Brillat Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, 1825, Chapter XXVII.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Journals, April 15-16, 1839
I keep a sort of memorandum book, just jotting down the events of the day. Most days are pretty empty. I was inspired in some way by reading James Boswell's journals (the first volume, The London Journal, is a delightful masterpiece), but I don't include much real writing like he had. I assume I am keeping this for some future version of myself. That's what Emerson is really getting at here.
"The landlord of the Bell - whose magnificent porcelain jars of truffled turkeys are exported to the uttermost ends of the earth -..."
Lost Illusions, p. 623 (Modern Library)
The novel is set in 1822. What might sealed, shipped meat have been like at that time?
The internet leads me to this supposed Rossini quote:
"I have wept three times in my life. Once when my first opera failed. Once again, the first time I heard Paganini play the violin. And once when a truffled turkey fell overboard at a boating picnic."
Would it kill someone to put a citation on this? Anyway, I would not mind a porcelain jar of truffled turkey for Christmas.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Sometimes gaps appear in the history of literature. The most notorious is in English drama. Shakespeare and his contemporaries produced an amazing, varied body of work, comedy, tragedy, all sorts of hybrids. The dramatic tradition was strong enough to survive a 20 year closing of the theaters, partly by borrowing new energy from the French and Spanish theater. But for some reason, the great plays begin to disappear. The bizarre, intense "Venice Preserved" by Thomas Otway is considered the last great tragedy (until the 20th century), from 1682. Comedy took longer to expire. "The Beggar's Opera", Goldsmith, Sheridan - the 18th century had some great comedies. But then that was it, for 100 years, until Gilbert and Sullivan.
What makes this puzzling is that the English theater itself was active and healthy. Plenty of good actors, too. And plenty of plays, thousands of plays. But none of them are performed anymore, and only a few read for their poetry (Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, for example, all wrote plays - Coleridge even had a hit). The same goes for the American theater, which didn't produce a decent play until the 20th century, and not for lack of trying.
I've just come across a new puzzling gap. Where are the great 19th century English short stories? They are not, for example, in anthologies of English literature. The list of great American short story writers, all much anthologized, includes Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Bierce, Crane, Jewett, Chesnutt, Twain, Wharton - a fair share of the best American writers, and a list that spans the century.
But in England? By the 1890s, Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle are writing short stories, soon to be followed by Maugham, Joyce, Lawrence - big names. Before that? The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, in entries for Trollope, Eliot, and Dickens, vaguely mentions the existence of short stories, often at the very end of a long entry. "The Christmas Carol" is a famous exception, maybe Dickens' other Christmas stories, as well.
The puzzle is twofold. First, the number of American short story writers seems connected to the explosion of magazine publishing in the early 19th century. But England was experiencing the exact same phenomenon. The early essayists like Hazlitt and Lamb were all magazine writers. Dickens, too.
Second, anthologists need short stories. You can't fit many novels into your Anthology of American Literature, but you can still represent every writer you want with a short story. Anthologies of English literature typically completely omit Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, Hardy, the whole crew.
Are the short stories of Dickens (Eliot, etc.) really not worth reading? I find that hard to believe. So I'm adding a note to my "To Read" list - I'll find out for myself.
Monday, October 15, 2007
"Musical Eyes. I think sometimes that my lack of Musical ear, is made good to me through my eyes. That which others hear, I see. All the soothing plaintive brisk or romantic moods which corresponding melodies waken in them, I find in the carpet of the wood, in the margin of the pond, in the shade of the hemlock grove, or in the infinite variety & rapid dance of the treetops as I hurry along."
Signet Classics Selected Writings of RWE, p. 83
Friday, October 12, 2007
A Balzac party scene means indigestible speeches about whatever Balzac is worked up about, often with some sort of satirical intent, I guess. This one is about journalism. Journalists are cynical betrayers of all that is good in art and life, and publishers are even worse. OK. Now, on with the actual novel.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Michel de Montaigne is the master of the form. His style is genial and conversational. Many of his successors imitate this manner in some way – Addison and Steele, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Joseph Epstein. Plutarch, 1,000 years earlier, is similar. None of these writers are as profound as Montaigne can be, not remotely in some cases. But they all feel like they would make good friends. Or good dinner companions at least.
Is this necessary for a great essayist? Francis Bacon’s essays are more like instructional pamphlets, little lectures. Thomas DeQuincey is a brilliant showoff, and I would think he would be a trial at dinner. Emerson wants to be Montaigne’s successor, and match him in moral seriousness (which I think he does). His concerns seem very private, though. He presents a certain view of the world that is original, but perhaps too much his own. Or maybe he is the sort of intense friend who always wants to discuss serious things and gets mad when you just want to make fun of Tom Cruise. Very rewarding to meet once every couple of weeks over lunch, but too strong a presence to see every day.
I should try to dig into one of his essays more carefully. They’re worth the effore, but the effort is very real.
And all of this is flummoxed a bit by the essay I just read, “Prudence”, which begins “What right have I to write on Prudence, whereof I have little, and that of the negative sort?” which is just the sort friendly stuff I’m talking about.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
John Galt is a Scottish novelist, active in the 1820s. His novel The Entail is superb, and The Provost is almost as good. I want to write more about Galt later, but here I just want to express my resentment at the misappropriation of his name on this idiotic anniversary.
"The tall fellow came up with her cape and settled it on her shoulders as the admirers surged forward and the rest of us stood and stretched and began putting on our coats. All of us but one. Still waving his arm, Jaspers finally cried out, Miss Rand! Miss Rand! The room went quiet and she looked at Jaspers and he asked the question he’d been dying to ask. She jerked her head back as if she’d been slapped. All the dark-dressed men and women turned on him in utter loathing – a court of ravens about to eat the eyes out of the whey-faced, homesick boy with his chewed-up fingernails and puppyish need to be in on everything, who in his need had asked Ayn Rand the very question I had been itching to ask and probably would’ve if she hadn’t skunked me for mentioning Hemingway.
Who is John Galt?"
Tobias Wolff, Old School, pp. 87-8.
The Marquis Astolphe de Custine was an interesting fellow. His grandfather was one of the greatest Revolutionary generals, behind Lafayette, which did not save him from the guillotine. Custine's father also died on the guillotine. His mother barely escaped it, and was famous as a sort of Revolutionary martyr. Mme de Stael’s novel Delphine is named after her. Custine himself was a friend of Heine, Balzac, and the rest of literary Paris.
Custine made a 3 month trip to Russia that was in some sense inspired by the publication of the first volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. A comparison between the two writers is inescapable, but what damage it does to Custine. Tocqueville was a brilliant thinker, gifted at generalizing. A real social scientist. If Democracy in America is not the most exciting book to read today, it is because many of Tocqueville’s insights have been so thoroughly absorbed by modern political science and sociology.
Custine, by contrast, oh boy. Custine is an entirely conventional thinker, with no original ideas at all. Which does not stop him from constantly interrupting himself with the meaning of this and that aspect of Russia. The edition I am reading is abridged by about 15%. There’s another edition available that cuts the book down to 50%. I should have gone with that one.
Because Russia in 1839 is a very interesting book when read as a conventional travel book, an account of anecdotes and adventures in a strange place. Democracy in America has virtually no conventional travel writing, but is a book of ideas. Custine, not having enough ideas, tells a lot of good stories.
Custine is a sour traveler. He hates Russia and everything about it. This can be tiresome, but also fun. A few years earlier, Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (short version: Americans have no manners) had been a huge hit in England. Custine’s book has a similar character. On one page he criticizes Russian flower arranging (“the flowers are not placed in such a manner as may render the interior of the apartment more agreeable, but so as to attract admiration from without”), then two pages later he attacks Russian furniture-moving (“the roads and bridges crowded with carriages, drowskas, and carts engaged in the removal of furniture, all the different kinds of which are heaped together with a slovenliness and disorder natural to the Slavonian race”). There is attention to detail in his dislike.
Arriving at his inn, Custine, exhausted, throws himself on the sofa, where he rests for three minutes before the bugs become unbearable. The innkeeper tells him every sofa in Russia is like that, of course you don’t sleep on the sofa. From then on, Custine sleeps with a bowl of water under each leg of his bed.
Russia in 1839 has been popular to readers interested in the Cold War as a way to see which aspects of Soviet culture were really just Russian. For example, Custine can’t enter the country until just the right official arrives, which doesn’t stop a dozen other officials from going through his baggage. Then he is assigned a completely inescapable “guide” for his entire trip. Sounds familiar.
The edition I am reading includes a woodcut of a bear playing a sort of heavy metal guitar. I have not gotten to that part yet, I guess.