Friday, July 28, 2017

Thanks for everything - leaving the 19th century

With a deep sigh of relief, the traveler turned back to France.  There he felt safe.  (Education, Ch. XXXI)

The Education of Henry Adams (1907) would be, I thought as I was reading it, the perfect last book to write about at Wuthering Expectations.  It is more or less exactly about the disintegration of the 19th century in the 20th, a memoir of change, of obsolescence.

So I am using it this week as a source of context-free quotations that I find hilarious.  There are many more that I am not going to use.  What a great book!

Today, finishing Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), I have completed my non-neurotic chronological reading of Western literature through 1909; Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge awaits in 1910, based on a list I made twenty years ago and have fussed with and expanded ever since.  Any such list is capricious and arbitrary, but everything I have read has been displayed in public for the past ten years, so it should be clear enough that I have not been all that capricious.  It has been a little more substantial than a push through some “100 Greatest” list.   In the sense of dragging my eyes a single time across the pages of well-known books, I have covered a lot.  I make no claim beyond that.  Real experts do not read like this.

I keep the list in a spreadsheet.  No, you cannot have it.  It is essential, for your education, that you make your own.  I mean, if you are tempted by this kind of thing.

My 19th century Humiliations, the most famous 19th century books I have not read, are now, I don’t know, The Last of the Mohicans, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, The House of the Dead, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  I should read a Maupassant novel some time, right?  We could extend this list.

As happy as I am to extend the long 19th century to November 11, 1918, if I were not going to France I would still face this problem a year from now – I am moving away from the 19th century.  My chronological drift has taken me far from the 1830s, where I happened to be back in 2007. I am, aside from the usual re-reading, more curious about what is going on in the 1910s and 1920s.  My real Humiliations are The Magic Mountain, The Age of Innocence, Sons and Lovers, and The Master and Margarita.  I want to revisit some writers I have not read for a long time, maybe decades – Kafka, Faulkner, Woolf.  Heck, I am more interested in finally trying The Tale of Genji or The Dream of the Red Chamber than reading my fifteenth Trollope novel, as much as I would enjoy it.

None of this will happen now, or for a long time.  Instead, I will go to France.  I do not want to guess how much reading I will do, much less what reading, or what I will do with it, or what I will want to read, or write, once I return.

What an adventure!

As a final note, I want to thank everyone who had the energy to leave a comment or correction, here or elsewhere.  I have learned so much from other readers.  This is my selfish, but selflessly selfish, reason for writing Wuthering Expectation.  On paper, all of my factual errors, bad arguments, and conceptual mistakes sit there uncorrected; they are repeated, magnified, and ideas shrivel.  Not on the blog. The conversation with all of you has been so helpful.  I am a better writer than I was ten years ago, and a better reader, and a lot of the credit goes to everyone who took the time, and fought Blogspot, and said something.  Thank you so much.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

without understanding a single consecutive page - advice for book bloggers

Henry Adams is for some reason reading Poincaré’s La Science et l’Hypothèse,

which purported to be relatively readable.  Trusting in its external appearance, the traveler timidly bought it, and greedily devoured it, without understanding a single consecutive page, but catching here and there a period that startled him to the depths of his ignorance…  (Education, Ch. XXXI)

This may be my favorite kind of reading, not so far from my experience reading Henry Adams.  It is rarer than it used to be, but plenty frequent.  “What is this?”  The move from not-knowing to knowing can be a deep, difficult pleasure.

I think many readers are searching for repetitions of youthful pleasures, perhaps from the moment they really fell in love with reading.  Which books will have something that repeats the pleasures of that intense scene in Jane Eyre or The Return of the King?  Not many, but what a search it will be.  I suppose I am doing something similar, even if the great experience was decoding Pale Fire’s index or thinking through the infinite loops of “The Library of Babel” rather than identifying with a character.  Some readers get this pleasure from philosophy, or theory, codes I have never cracked.  That set goes to graduate school in literature, something I never had the imagination to contemplate.

Eventually I discovered that the study of literary history is itself a giant puzzle to solve, and that texts that are not themselves puzzles, and are perhaps even terrible as art, are pieces of a larger puzzle, and that the puzzle thus has an endless number of pieces and no solution, which on a table-top would be frustrating but as an intellectual pursuit is perfect.  What fun.

Having accumulated nearly a decade of bloggy wisdom, my advice to new bloggers has not moved beyond “Know thyself,” useful fairly generally.  I knew I needed a strong schedule, I knew I would not take free books, I knew I would write short, although I swelled over time, I knew I was not so interested in “reviews” as such.  But when I started Wuthering Expectations I had been reading seriously for twenty years or more.  Twenty years is two thousand books read, which is twice as many as I had read ten years before.  I cannot imagine starting a literature blog in my twenties.  I have great admiration for the confidence of anyone who does – they, you, are right to do it.

I should have included more posts that were just lists.  People love lists.  I know they love lists; I love lists.  I am suspicious of them as criticism.  They have kind of poisoned popular music writing – ranking every Beatles song is the kind of writing that gets clicks, I guess.  But this is a blog, so relax a little, right?  D. G. Myers was good with lists.  I remember a commenter asking him what database he was using to pick his Top 5 I-don’t-remember-what novels.  “My brain!” he snapped.

I don’t know.  I read a lot of good criticism in magazines, but it was missing something.  I am not sure what.  May be just me.  Literary criticism was missing me.  And now it has had a fair amount of me.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

no beginning, middle or end - the professor who taught me literary history and literary anti-history

At some point it occurred to me that I might get an English degree.  I began taking survey classes to see what they were like, and because they were fun.  Read Shakespeare, watch Shakespeare, talk about Shakespeare.  All right!

But the life-changers were British Literature I and British Literature II, both taught right out of the Norton anthologies (5th edition), and both taught by the same professor, Chester Sullivan.

Sullivan was an Arkansas novelist and expert on Southern literature.  I have read his two most recent novels, Answered Prayers (1992) and Rattlesnakes in the Rock Chalk (2012); they are so specific to Lawrence, Kansas that I am not sure I could recommend them widely.  Micro-regionalism.  I loved the novels and pray that he does not need twenty years to finish the next one.

Why Sullivan was teaching Brit Lit survey classes I do not know.  Another prof had suddenly quit?  He lost a bet?  Later I took a “Southern Fiction” class from him.  That was a good class, too, but not the revelation of those surveys.

British Literature I was taught chronologically, moving steadily through the Norton anthology, hitting high points (Beowulf, Chaucer, Marlowe, Johnson) with more eccentric choices sprinkled in.  I remember the “Courtier” section of the Hoby translation of Castiglione’s The Ladder of Love to be especially baffling.  But as in Tom Lorenz’s “Innovative Fiction” class, the great question, over and over, was “What is this?”  It was in some sense a traditional “coverage” course that I took at the exact time I was ready for coverage.

I would not have used the term at the time, and chronology is, heaven knows, only one of many organizational principles, but it was in this course where I learned that literature is not just a collection of texts but a field of knowledge.  I have studied it as such ever since.

But it was Brit Lit II that was the real eye-opener.  The Norton anthology again, and for the first couple of weeks, we “covered” the Romantic poets.  I remember, after working through “To a Skylark” line by line, Sullivan saying (imagine a languid Arkansas accent) “I never cared much for Shelley,” and we turned to – I don’t know what – something else, something different, something we had not read in advance.  For the rest of the class, we ransacked the anthology.  In a single class – it was a three-hour night class – we would wander all over the book, jumping across writers and periods, from plays to poems to stories.  Much of this was planned in advance, since my table of contents is full of cryptic markings that I vaguely remember relating to assigned reading.  But often it was not.  “Let’s try page 2,483”:

A Martian Sends a Postcard Home

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.  (ll. 1-4, Craig Raine, 1979)

Yes, exactly, the Martian is describing my Caxton, my Norton.  I wish I could remember if we, or Sullivan, read the poem aloud or if we all read it silently before diving in.

The class felt free, like we were playing with two hundred years of British literature.  Sullivan approached each text as if he were reading it for the first time, as if he were asking the same questions that we all were.  I now see his this as an act.  It worked on me.

It took me a while, and a lot of reading, to synthesize the classes, to combine the literary history approach of the first with the leaps of the second.  Henry Adams, writing about his discovery of fine art, laments that “Once drawn into it, one had small chance of escape, for it had no centre or circumference, no beginning, middle or end, no origin, no object and no conceivable result as education” (Ch. XIV, “Dilettantism”).  Right again, Henry!  I eventually discovered on my own that the same approaches were useful for painting, film, music, everything.  I eventually discovered on my own that the more I knew about the history of a field, the more fun it was to play with it.  Eventually I had the confidence to have my fun in public, here.

Thank you, Chester Sullivan.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Education begins - a note about a professor and class that led me here

As yet he knew nothing.  Education had not begun.  (The Education of Henry Adams, Ch. 4)

Those are the last lines of the chapter titled “Harvard College.”  Henry Adams has just graduated.  No offense meant to Harvard, but I did better than Adams at the University of Kansas.  I have long wanted to write about a couple of professors I had in college who led me to where I am, and now seems to be the time.

Tom Lorenz taught creative writing and was a novelist.  His two books are Guys Like Us, a comedy about amateur softball in Chicago, and Serious Living, which goes somewhere deeper.  They are both excellent.  I do not believe he has published a third.  While finishing the second, he was thinking about the third, wondering if he should try something more, let’s say, innovative; thus, in the spring 1988 semester he taught a freshman honors seminar titled “Innovative Fiction” which changed my life.

Like I knew any of this.  I signed up for a class with an interesting title.

The syllabus (caveat to everything here – “as I remember it”) was: Madame Bovary, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Metamorphosis, The Sound and the Fury, Ficciones, Pale Fire, and Cosmicomics.  I suppose I had read Faulkner before, maybe “Barn Burning,” but nobody else.  I had not heard of several of the authors, or their names had no associations at all.

Later Lorenz told me that he had picked The Sound and the Fury because someone had told him (or he had read?) that it was unteachable.  I cannot imagine a better motive.

My responses to the texts were something like, in order: “I don’t get it,” “wait, what is this?,” “wait, what is this?,” “this is awesome,” “awesome,” “awesome,” “awesome.”  Look, "awesome" was a popular word among young people at the time.

Perhaps because Lorenz was a novelist, we rarely interpreted the book or came up with a “reading,” so much as we asked and answered, again and again, for a book or passage or detail, the “What is this?” question.  “What is this?” can be a hard question, worth a lot of work.  And these are books where the answer to that question is directly tied to style, so much of the discussion was less about meaning than style, or about how style can be made inseparable from meaning.  Why tell the story like this?

Honestly, I had had no idea that the body of work labeled “literature” contained such things as these books.  I could barely believe it.  Why had no one told me before?  Well, never mind, Tom Lorenz told me.

Within a couple of years, I had read much of what was available by all of these writers, including Flaubert, who was upgraded to “awesome.”  These writers led me to all sorts of precursors, disciples, and fellow let’s still call them innovators.  Education had begun.

I was not so interested in older books, not yet.  That’s tomorrow’s professor.

Thank you, Professor Lorenz.

Monday, July 24, 2017

I’m going to France – so the long wind-up begins

I’m going for a long time, I mean, for ten months or so.  I’m going in a week.  What an adventure!  But it means this other adventure will have to adapt.  To end, in an important sense.  The tenth anniversary of Wuthering Expectations would be at the end of September, so I appreciate the pleasing, non-neurotic irregularity of changing now.

A decade ago when I embarked on this folly, I knew – oh, I knew so many things – I knew that I needed a strong structure to keep myself going.  Few things in life are easier than not writing a blog post.  Thus the idea of writing something every workday, something, something.  And I think I have done it, five days a week, excepting vacations and holidays and, to my memory, one day.

I won’t miss giving up that.

It is time to consider other kinds of writing: other lengths, venues, subjects, forms.  France will give me a chance to play around, perhaps even, who knows, to think.  Perhaps I will convert the website into an early film blog, or the glutton blog I have always dreamed of.  Whatever I do, I will put it here, somehow.  Why not?

I have no preconceptions.  No idea what I will write, or how much, or for that matter – more importantly, right? – what I will read, or how much.  The funny thing is that my reading will be more English-language than ever, since my French is too poor to read much – my hope is that I can convert my bad A2 French into decent A2 French – and the hardest books to find in France will be anything in English translation.  But I will have Conrad’s Under Western Eyes for the airplane, and I’ll have the internet, and France has libraries, good ones.  And bookstores, oh what bookstores, although the last thing I should do in France is buy books.

I do plan to be at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, and the Quais du Polar in Lyon in April, not to buy books, but just to see them.  They should be interesting, yes?  I can file dispatches, pretending I am a bookish reporter.

Henry Adams wrote about himself in The Education (1907) “that what he valued most was Motion, and that what attracted his mind was Change” (Ch. XV).  Me too, mostly, and I will be getting plenty of that.

I had the idea, once, that I would wind up Wuthering Expectations with a series on Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader (1992) – please see Book around the Corner, off to the right somewhere, and down a bit, for all ten rights – which was appealing in part because #10 is “The right to be quiet.”  But I’m not going to be quiet, so that won’t work.

But this five posts a week nonsense has to go, except for this week, the last one.  Four to go.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Jürgen Osterhammel's enormous global history of the 19th century, read by me, breezily discussed here

Jürgen Osterhammel is a German historian at the University of Konstanz, a specialist in Chinese history and globalization.  His 2009 The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century is a massive synthesis of the state of the field – the fields, history and the social sciences – on every big topic: cities, frontiers, imperial systems, etc.  Those are chapter titles.  The book is 1,500 pages in German.  Princeton published it in 2014, in the heroic translation of Patrick Camiller, in a mere 1,167 pages, not by omitting anything but by making the pages irritatingly large.

The bibliography and notes are of course enormous.  I may not quote from the book, which is written crisply enough but is not exactly written in the prose of Gibbon, but I am tempted to quote the bibliography.  It is, on its own, full of riches.

Osterhammel is an expert on China, and is himself German, and here we see much of the value of this particular massive history: as much attention as Great Britain and the United States get, inevitably, neither nation is the center of the history.  There are always competing centers.  I found this, by itself, informative.  If things are organized a certain way in the United States – and I likely knew that they were – they were organized some other way entirely in Qing China, Meiji Japan, and the Dutch East Indies.

Ironically, Princeton UP has published the book in a series titled “America in the World.”  Osterhammel has said that he barely knew anything about U.S. history before conceiving this book.  I would never have guessed.  His claim may be highly relative.

Osterhammel organizes the book in a German fashion.  My impression is that in the U.S., it is thought to be essential that the argument of a book be put up front, maybe even first.  Here is the surprising claim I am making.  Here is why you should keep reading.  Osterhammel begins with a hundred pages of methodology and definitions.  I am not sure he even has much of an argument, except that many particular claims look different in a global context, and many older global claims fall apart upon comparative inspection.  He just assumes that his book is worth reading.

Actually, this book may not be worth reading, exactly, not as such.  It is perhaps foolishness to read it through, although in fairness to myself I have been chipping away at it since 2014.  Any individual section can be read on its own.  Which sections would I particularly recommend to readers most interested in literature?  “V. Living Standards: Risk and Security in Material Life,” “VI. Cities: European Models and Worldwide Creativity,” and maybe “XVI. Knowledge: Growth, Concentration, Distribution.”  These fill in a massive amount of context around many 19th century novels.  I mean, the discussion of monetary policy, gold and silver standards, is exactly as fascinating in Osterhammel as in anyone else’s account, but thankfully has little to do with any novel anyone ever wrote that is worth reading.

The chapter on “Cities” I find almost baffling.  Every claim has to be tested against every major city, and heck if that is not what he does.  How did he keep track of it all?  How did he research it?  That bibliography.

Anyways, what a book.  Between the Sante and Osterhammel books I have been cramming myself with information.  Will I remember any of it, any at all?  Who knows.

Friday, July 21, 2017

criminals, prostitutes, weirdos - Luc Sante's The Other Paris

The other Paris in Luc Sante’s The Other Paris (2015) is that of the criminals, flaneurs, ragpickers, prostitutes, anarchists, saloon singers, and weirdos.  But it is something much more specific, a history that re-creates the Paris in Sante’s head, which comes into existence sometime after Napoleon, is under constant threat by Haussmann and other urban renewers, and is finally destroyed in the 1960s by Andre Malraux.  The book, to my surprise and delight, spends half its time in the 19th century.

Sante’s book is a history, and his Paris is real but it is constructed out of books, out of literature, out of Baudelaire and Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842-43) and super-criminal Eugène François Vidocq’s Memoirs (1828).  Les Halles, the giant food market, last seen at Wuthering Expectations in Zola's The Belly of Paris, is Sante’s great symbol of this other Paris, or at least it’s destruction, “replaced by a hellish subterranean shopping mall that is nowadays topped by that urbanist cure-all, an espace vert,” symbolizes the end of the subject of his book (10).  Sante builds his Paris out of images, too, with one or two on every page, magazine illustrations, sheet music, and numerous postcards, street scenes from circa 1910.

The craze for suburban tree house bistros, based on Swiss Family Robinson.  Gangs – les apaches – whose members tattooed lines on their throats to guide the guillotine.  The saga of the anarchist Bonnot Gang (“It was the world’s first getaway car”).  Look at this list of occupations, documented by the flaneur Privat d’Anglemont, who may not be completely accurate, but still:

Madame Thibaudeau swept jewelers’ shops for no pay so that she could recuperate gold dust.  Madame Vanard, widow of a perfumer, was a zesteuse: she picked up lemon rinds from the stalls of lemonadiers and sold the zest to the makers of Curacao, syrups, and essences.  Old Monsieur Beaufils bought nightingales, canaries, and finches and, after educating them in song for six to eight weeks, resold them for four times what he paid. (99)

Then come stories about a man who kept a fifty-two goat dairy on the sixth floor of his apartment building, and the woman who farmed ants, selling the eggs to pharmacies and the zoo (“for pheasant chow”).

And those are just the ordinary occupations.  Prostitution gets its own chapter (“The Business”), as do professional criminals and singers.  Edith Piaf, as far as this book is concerned, is the professionalized end of a long, sordid, wild tradition.  “It was certainly not her fault that when she died, Paris was on the verge of becoming the trade name ‘Paris’” (190).

What a thrill to get to know a city this way; Sante has done it with New York City and Paris.  A disadvantage, in a sense, of The Other Paris, is that it is so hard to map the book onto the existing Paris.  He is writing about exactly the buildings, streets, and people that are least likely to have been saved.

I would like to read a book about another other Paris, the one that does exist today.  Is there such a book in English?  It would almost have to be by a writer of a younger generation, and a different ethnicity.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Galsworthy at the summit of his efflorescence - there are things which are things

For some reason I had the idea that John Galsworthy’s prose was on the heavy side.  I had had the same idea about Arnold Bennett, but The Old Wives’ Tale was pretty springy, overall.  Rhetorically trimmer than Thackeray or Trollope.  Galsworthy’s first paragraph, much edited here, had me worried:

Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage. But whosoever of these favoured persons has possessed the gift of psychological analysis (a talent without monetary value and properly ignored by the Forsytes), has witnessed a spectacle, not only delightful in itself, but illustrative of an obscure human problem. In plainer words [uh huh]…. He is like one who, having watched a tree grow from its planting—a paragon of tenacity, insulation, and success, amidst the deaths of a hundred other plants less fibrous, sappy, and persistent—one day will see it flourishing with bland, full foliage, in an almost repugnant prosperity, at the summit of its efflorescence. (ellipses mine)

To me, this is heavy.  But it is only, thank goodness, a rhetorical flight, a bit of pompousness to get me in the right mood to meet his characters, many of whom are themselves heavy, rhetorically and in one case physically.  Knocking characters against each other, hopping among points of view, Galsworthy is nimble, faun-like.

Is there a faun in the novel itself?  I am now about convinced that in English novels of this period they are mandated:

The bracken grove of irretrievable delights, of golden minutes in the long marriage of heaven and earth!  The bracken grove, sacred to stags, to strange tree-stump fauns leaping around the silver whiteness of a birch-tree nymph at summer dusk. (3.1)

This classical encomium to a grove is concealing, or I suppose in its way, revealing, the illicit sexual activity of two characters.  It is another of the narrator’s rhetorical flights.  The previous couple of chapters are written in short sentences, short paragraphs, much dialogue, and precisely employed descriptive language, as with this carriage ride:

A faint odour of glue from the heated horses clung in the thick air; the coachman and groom, rigid and unbending, exchanged stealthy murmurs on the box, without ever turning their heads.  (2.13)

The glue and “stealthy” strike me as particularly good.

In a 1922 preface, Galsworthy writes that The Forsyte Saga “is no scientific study of a period; it is rather an intimate incarnation of the disturbance that Beauty effects in the lives of men.”  He means “men” literally, but “Beauty” is curious.  “Incarnation” is curious.  Most of the Forsyte men are art collectors of some kind – one owns, or thinks he owns, a Turner! – concerned with money but beneath that, secretly, aware of something else.

There are moments, too, when, in a picture-gallery, a work, noted by the casual spectator as ‘* * * Titian* - remarkably fine,’ breaks through the defences of some Forsyte better lunched perhaps than his fellows, and holds him spellbound in a kind of ecstasy.  There are things, he feels – there are things her which – well, which are things…  He did not desire this glimpse of what lay under the three stars of his catalogue…  God forbid that he should admit for a moment that there are such things!  Once admit that, and where was he?  One paid a shilling for entrance, and another for the programme.  (2.9, ellipses mine)

Setting the mockery aside, this is the strange heart of The Man of Property, the sorting of the various Forsytes by their sense of the things that are things, and the tragedy that occurs when the thing that is a thing is not a thing, but a person.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

not individually, but as a family - so many Forsytes

John Galsworthy must introduce more characters in fewer pages than – well – it seems like a lot.  The first chapter of The Man of Property is a party for the announcement of June Forsyte’s engagement to the poor architect Philip Bosinney, an event that leads, eventually, to tragedy.  The Forsytes are suspicious from the beginning.  “The Forsytes were resentful of something, not individually, but as a family… as a family, they appeared to have an instinct of being in contact with some strange and unsafe thing” (1.1).  For all the good is does them.

The important thing is that there are so many Forsytes, ten siblings, age 65 to 86, with twenty-one children among them.  Poor June is the eldest grandchild.  Not all of these people are important, and not all are introduced in the first chapter, but then the third chapter is also a Forsyte party, and so is the fifth, by which time almost everyone is at least mentioned.  The family tree as the beginning of the Oxford paperback is so useful.  And the novel is only 282 pages long; it may have fewer characters than, I don’t know, Bleak House, although it may not, but they are really crammed in there.

Galsworthy is so good with minor characters, whether recurring or one-scene wonders, that he has no qualms about introducing more of them, friends of the family and so on, all the way to the end of the book.  In a great running gag, one of the ten siblings, Timothy, is often mentioned but never appears.  I began to wonder if he was not a figment.

Mrs Small, Aunt Hester and their cat were left once more alone, the sound of a door closing in the distance announced the approach of Timothy.  (2.7)

Then the scene ends with Timothy still offstage, unseen.  When he finally appears, I felt a shock – the line “It was Timothy” gets and deserves its own paragraph, even if the whole thing is an anti-climax worthy of Ford Madox Ford.

For the first third of the novel I wondered if it had a story.  Maybe Galsworthy was content just moving his puppets around, describing their houses and possessions, much like Soames Forsyte enjoys the paintings he collects but hides from everyone.  “Without a habitat a Forsyte is inconceivable – he would be like a novel without a plot, which is well-known to be an anomaly” (1.8).  In the tradition of Trollope and Thackeray, I think I mentioned.  And then in the second third, a story begins to appear, based around a Forsyte’s habitat, the consequences of Soames hiring the unsafe Bosinney to build him and his wife, who does not love him, and never did, a nice house in the country.

There is a B-plot, a happier one, about Old Jolyon reconnecting with his estranged son.  The second chapter of the novel is a pure comedy piece, “Old Jolyon Goes to the Opera,” full of passages like this:

The greatest opera-goer of his day!  There was no opera now!   That fellow Wagner had ruined everything; no melody left, nor any voices to sing it.  Ah! the wonderful singers!  Gone!  He sat watching the old scenes acted, a numb felling at his heart.  (1.2)

But his story really is a comedy, in the old sense, with a rising action, so Old Jolyon starts low and ends high.  Not everyone is so lucky.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

innumerable transactions concerned with property of all sorts - John Galsworthy's The Man of Property

For the purposes of these posts, I am going to pretend that there is no such thing as The Forsyte Saga.  No Nobel prize, no BBC series.  Just a single short novel, The Man of Property (1906), from an author not exactly young but early in his career.  It would be another twelve years before Galsworthy thought to write a short story about one of the characters, and two after that before the Saga was conceived.

So for a long time there is just this one novel.  It is in the “way we live now” genre, or I guess the “way we lived then,” since it is set in 1886.  Like Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1908, which begins in the 1860s) and Forster’s A Room with a View (1908, contemporary, in a sense), Galsworthy is laying into those stuffy, narrow, prudish, prejudiced Victorians, people not like him.

Like those books, The Man of Property is in the mode of Thackeray and Trollope, with a forceful, opinionated narrator, unafraid of saying something perhaps even a bit cruel about his characters.

Old Jolyon had remained standing while the strong, silent man was speaking.  The speech awoke an echo in all hearts, voicing, as it did, the worship of strong men, the movement against generosity, which had at that time commenced among the saner members of the community. (2.5, emphasis mine)

Although in this case Galsworthy is not exactly criticizing his character, though, but rather his extras (the scene is a stockholders' meeting).  Old Jolyon is, despite his emotional limits, some of them severe, a man of generosity, who loves children.  Even if specific Forsytes are all right, Forsyteism is satirized.  How much of this is too much?  I don’t know.  Francie Forsyte has made a name for herself as a songwriter – examples are given, including music, which is impressive – but in a weak moment she wrote a “sincere work,” a violin sonata.  “They felt at once that it would not sell.”

It was rubbish, but – annoying! the sort of rubbish that wouldn’t sell.  As every Forsyte knows, rubbish that sells is not rubbish at all – far from it.  (2.7)

Forsyteism is commercial, practical, and tenacious.  It is not, in an interesting twist, exactly Philistine.  It has an aesthetic.  Maybe I will push that idea to another post.

The title is employed ironically in a number of ways, falling most heavily on Soames Forsyte, a lawyer with a beautiful wife who does not love him.  He is the main “man of property” in the book.

And those countless Forsytes, who, in the course of innumerable transactions concerned with property of all sorts (from wives to water rights), had occasion for the services of a safe man, found it both reposeful and profitable to confide in Soames.  (2.5)

The Man of Property is a comedy that turns serious, that darkens, much like Howards End (1910) or Vanity Fair (1848), or for that matter The Way We Live Now (1875).  The tragedy of the novel lies in the presence of the word “wives” between those parentheses.  I do not suppose the novel has many readers now who would argue the point, but it is useful – chilling – to see Galsworthy work through a case in such sad detail.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

the convenience of any artless theory - The Golden Bowl's discriminations against the obvious

I’m working backwards.  Volume One of The Golden Bowl is “The Prince,” ending with a thirty-page book club discussion.  Then comes “The Princess,” full of Maggie Verver’s intense, interior perceptions, ethical doubts, intuitive leaps, all of that late James stuff.  It is focused and exhausting, but at least I think I know what I am reading.  The first section, even setting the book club aside, moves around.  The point of view can be anywhere; years pass between sections; characters marry; children are born – well, one vague child.

James is teaching me, in the first volume, how to read the second.  But I am still not sure how to read the first.

Full of discriminations against the obvious, she had yet to accept a flagrant appearance and to make the best of misleading signs.  (1.2)

That is an early description of the Jamesian Mrs. Assingham, and looks like some kind of instruction, but whether I am supposed to do it or its opposite I am not sure.  I’ll pull another of these:

This error would be his not availing himself to the utmost of the convenience of any artless theory of his constitution, or of Charlotte’s, that might prevail there.  (3.6)

Do I really know what this means, even in context?  No.  But I am pretty sure that the Prince is giving up too quickly.  “That artless theories could and did prevail was a fact he had ended by accepting, under copious evidence, as definite and ultimate…” – this sounds like, in Jamesian aesthetics, an error on top of an error.

Maybe these quotes are just gibberish.  Sometimes I wonder.  “Miss Verver had told him he spoke English too well – it was his only fault, and he hadn’t been able to speak worse even to oblige her” (1.1)

But then there are the first couple of pages of the novel, in which the Prince goes for a walk in London, which he loves, a piece of flaneurish writing that I wish had gone on for thirty pages.  He is girl-watching:

…  when one of his arrests had proceeded from possibilities in faces shaded, as they passed him on the pavement, by huge beribboned hats, or more delicately tinted still under the tense silk of parasols held at perverse angles in waiting victorias.  (1.1)

The Prince is all jittery because he has just become engaged and is having doubts.  His restlessness launches the novel.

Like Maggie, he thinks, and speaks, in metaphors:

‘I’m like a chicken, at best, chopped up and smothered in sauce; cooked down as a crème de volaille, with half the parts left out.  (1.1)

Delicious.  He imagines that his wife is made of diamonds:

‘One would have been scratched by diamonds – doubtless the neatest way if one was to be scratched at all – but one would have been more or less reduced to a hash.’ (2.1)

He reads Poe(!), specifically

the story of the shipwrecked Gordon Pym, who, drifting in a small boat further toward the North Pole – or was it the South? – than any one had ever done, found at a given moment before him a thickness of white air that was like a dazzling curtain if light, concealing as darkness conceals, yet of the colour of milk or of snow.  There were moments when he felt his own boat move upon some such mystery.  (1.1)

Someday I will read The Golden Bowl novel again.  I prepare for that day by assembling a cabinet of the book’s curiosities.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Characters in The Golden Bowl discuss The Golden Bowl - very helpful

The heroine of The Golden Bowl enacts the style of the novel in her story, which is a good trick, but Henry James has a second one nearly as good.  He adds, to the quartet at the center of the book, an outside observer couple, Fanny and Bob Assingham.  Fanny is both tangled in the story and an outsider; Bob merely watches.  The couples are given long scenes in which they discuss the novel.

I mean, they discuss the characters, who are their friends.  But they have enough distance, Bob especially, that they sound little different than if they were discussing the novel.  It is as if they are reading The Golden Bowl together, perhaps aloud to each other before bed, and then talking over the events of the last chapter.  Fanny is, honestly, a better, more attentive reader of James, but Bob is a different kind of reader, so they do well together.

Chapters 3.10 and 3.11 are the clearest place to see this effect – this is the pre-bedtime scene.  The chapters end the longish first “half” of the novel, dead center in the book, before Maggie’s detailed interiority takes over.  The Assinghams sum up the first 270 pages with some efficiency, work through the relevant issues, and speculate on what will happen in the next 270.

The main reason The Golden Bowl did not seem especially difficult to me was that James frequently follows substantial passages of meticulous ambiguity and obscurity with much more clear explanations, often in dialogue, of the novel’s events.  He catches me right up with what I missed, and confirms what I caught.

Fanny, in the reality of the novel, is the confidante of a number of characters, so she is a privileged position, always knowing things that other characters do not.  In other words, she is in the position that I, the reader, am in.  But Bob is even more like me.  These people are less real to him than they are to his wife.

The Colonel took it in. “Then she’s a little heroine.”

That sort of thing.

Martha Nussbaum has two essays on The Golden Bowl in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990).  One is on the moral seriousness of Maggie Verver’s struggle – on the moral seriousness of the novel as such – while the second is in large part about the Assinghams.  Nussbaum makes one error when she describes them as “perform[ing] the function, more or less, of a Greek tragic chorus” – less, definitely less.  They are novel readers.

Bob is the non-Jamesian, “a man devoted to rules and to general conceptions” and has trouble with “nuance and idiosyncrasy” (157-8).  His wife chose this novel for their bedtime reading.  Bob, when it is his turn, will pick the Galsworthy novel I am currently reading.  “Fanny, on the other hand, takes fine-tuned perception to a dangerously rootless extreme.”  She is too Jamesian.  “She delights in the complexity of these particulars for its own sake, without sufficiently feeling the pull of a moral obligation to any” (158).  After they discuss the book, they both understand it better.  Discuss their friends, understand them.  They complement each other.  Their scenes are arguments for the value of talking about books.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"They thought of everything but that I might think." - The Golden Bowl on how to read The Golden Bowl

The Golden Bowl is a quartet novel, with two couples and an adulterous affair.  The second turn of the screw is that the wife and husband of the adulterers are father and daughter, and are unusually close.  The daughter, Maggie Verver, marries an Italian prince, Amerigo, and it is not that the marriage is a failure but that even after her marriage she never separates herself from her father.  To help her have her own life, her father, Adam, marries a young beauty, Charlotte.  But Charlotte, unknown to the Ververs, used to be Amerigo’s girlfriend!  This could lead to trouble.  A little melodrama, even.  Well, some parody of melodrama.

I suppose the novel is largely about Maggie’s moral growth.  She is not just innocent, but possibly even too good, too unwilling to cause pain to anyone.  She learns to cause pain.

Maggie is given much of the second half of the novel.  Her story gets moving when she discovers the affair, or thinks she does.

‘It’s your nature to think too much,’ Fanny Assingham a trifle coarsely risked.

This but quickened however in the Princess the act she reprobated.  ‘That may be.  But if I hadn’t thought -!’

‘You wouldn’t, you mean, have been where you are?’

‘Yes, because they on their side thought of everything but that.  They thought of everything but that I might think.’  (6.1)

Maggie’s thought is that of not just a Henry James character but a Henry James reader.  Hey, look, I have gotten to my point.  Maggie discovers her husband’s and stepmother’s affair, or at least its possibility, not through eavesdropping or a stray letter or some other melodramatic contrivance, but through close observation and analysis of the people around her.  “It fell for retrospect into a succession of moments that were watchable still,” “the fruit, positively, of recognitions and perceptions already active” (stitching together two distant lines of 4.1).  The long section describing Maggie’s process of observing and thinking, the beginning of her half of the novel, is packed with lines that I would like to use here:

The great decorated surface had remained consistently impenetrable and inscrutable.  At present however, to her considering mind, it was as if she had ceased merely to circle and to scan the elevation, ceased so vaguely, so quite helplessly to stare and wonder: she had caught herself distinctly in the act of pausing, then in that of lingering, and finally in that of stepping unprecedentedly near.  (again, 4.1)

That is practically an instruction for the baffled reader of The Golden Bowl.  Maggie is modeling the process of reading a late Henry James novel.  Every little nuance in the faces and tones of the people around her is a source of discovery.  The true stories can be understood by observing the absence of evidence – silences are more important than speech, the avoided glance more important than the meeting of the eyes.

The other way that Maggie becomes like James, and like a good Jamesian reader, is that she thinks metaphorically.  The “situation” was “the very centre of the garden of her life,” or like “some strange tall tower of ivory, or perhaps rather some wonderful beautiful but outlandish pagoda,” or “a Mahometan mosque.”  She is always coming up with new ones, while developing the old ones.  Maggie “tried to deal with herself for a space only as a silken-coated spaniel.” The spaniel has a “generalizing bark,” which is amusing.  Her stepmother is in a cage, or perhaps in a French prison during the Terror – James has returned to the metaphor that so puzzled me in The Wings of the Dove.

Since all of this is, for a long chunk of the novel, internal, all thought, there is the possibility that Maggie – or the reader – is completely wrong about what is going on, or who knows what is going on, or who knows what other people know about what is going on – the second half of the novel is recursive.  This is not exactly the story James tells, but it is implicit, ready for Ford Madox Ford to write it in The Good Soldier.

Maggie’s “discovery” section is just about the ideal fit between James’s late style and the matter it represents.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Henry James brings it out roundly - The Golden Bowl, the nerve-wearing stuff first

Sometimes I start a round of posts on a big book with my complaints.  Let’s do that again.  It works.  The book is The Golden Bowl (1904).  These are hardly even complaints.  It is just an attempt to see straight.

I am near the end of the book.  Two of the characters are having an all too typical conversation about two of the other characters.  There are only six characters total, and no one ever talks about one of them, so the number of combinations is limited.  What exactly are they talking about?  For my purpose here it does not matter:

‘Well then -?’

‘Well then you think he must have told her?  Why exactly what I mean,’ said Maggie, ‘is that he will have done nothing of the sort; will, as I say, have maintained the contrary.’

Fanny Assingham weighed it.  ‘Under her direct appeal for the truth?’

‘Under her direct appeal for the truth.’

‘Her appeal to his honour?’

“Her appeal to his honour.  That’s my point.’

Fanny Assingham braved it.  ‘For the truth as from him to her?’

‘From him to any one.’

Mrs Assingham’s face lighted.  ‘He’ll simply, he’ll insistently have lied?’

Maggie brought it out roundly.  ‘He’ll simply, insistently have lied.’  (5.1)

Then the two women hug.  This passage has two and a half of the four aspects of late James that most get on my nerves.  First, the conversations built out of repetitions; second, the baffling directions to the actors – I even tried, aloud, to bring out the last line roundly, but I have not the slightest idea if I succeeded; and third, and it is just hinted at here, what I call, in honor of Daffy Duck, the incessant “pronoun trouble,” the constant confusion, by the speakers, within their own conversations, of exactly which “he” or “her” is under discussion, again in a novel where it is only a few people exist.  The fourth nerve-wearer, not in this example (although there is one a few paragraphs earlier) is the use of adjectives like “splendid,” “magnificent,” and “immense” to describe people as if the words have some well-defined meaning.

Yes, these are all tics of dialogue.  That’s where I had to brace myself for James’s mannerisms, and those of his characters.  To James, these are assuredly not mannerisms but central, well-worked aspects of his style, essentially his, part of who he is.  True Jamesians presumably love them all.  And I have perhaps even understood some of them, sometimes, like the ingenious way James developed the seemingly empty word “wonderful” in The Ambassadors.  Or for that matter, look at the jokey use of “immense” in this description of the guests at a dinner party: “a large, bright, dull, murmurous, mild-eyed, middle-aged dinner, involving for the most part very bland, though very exalted, immensely announceable and hierarchically placeable couples” (3.6)  “[I]mmensely announceable” is immensely deflating.

This is a long way of saying that Henry James, by this late point, writes like himself and no one else and that his characters live in Henry James novels and behave accordingly.  So I am not so much complaining as acknowledging fixed facts.  All right, so sometimes James’s dialogue drives me crazy.  Now, on to the rest of the book.

Monday, July 10, 2017

soup plates like crow's nests - Jean Giono's Blue Boy

The Horseman on the Roof (1951) was so unusually good that I tried another Jean Giono novel, Blue Boy (1932, tr. Katherine A. Clarke), one of those autobiographical numbers, only barely a novel in form or content.  Little Jean is let’s say ten or so when the novel starts, which would put it in 1905.  Giono is exactly the same age, within two days, of his fellow Provencal writer Marcel Pagnol, so the autobiographical stories of his Provence childhood are contemporary.

Giono lives up in the hills, and his father is an anarchist cobbler, and his Provence is not as tourist-friendly as Pagnol’s.  Lots of death, especially, from disease, accident, suicide.  Jean is sent to a village for his health just in time to witness a kind of suicide epidemic, an infectious melancholia.  Not that Pagnol’s Provence is all sunshine and lavender.

Blue Boy is full of the bold, even over-written descriptive imagery that so impressed me in Horseman:

A maze of little streets twisted in a net about the church, just beneath the campanile.  It seethed like the veins in an ash leaf: it was blacker than the night, it smelled of stink and the stable.  There were odors of bread and dried fagots.  The dull sounds of stamping could be heard behind the walls.  A small window bled great globs of light that splotched the pools of liquid dung.

“The oven,” said my father.  “They are making the bread.”  (Ch. 3, p. 41)

Now that is some vigorous translation.  Globs, splotched, dung.  And it turns out to be bread.  Life over here; filth and disease and death over there – but almost right here – is perhaps the argument of the novel.

Jean is at the animal fair, where

… the inns cooked great cauldrons of beef stew, and when it was one of those dry winter days with open sky, hard and round beneath the sun like granite stones in the river bed, the stew was served outdoors on long trestle tables.  All the animal dealers lined up by class or by villages and they began to mop up the gravy with hunks of bread.  They stood before the bench, they took the dipper and poured dippersful of stew into deep dishes.  For they were given soup plates, broad and deep, like crows’ nests.  And so, from the very beginning of the afternoon, when they all settled down, in the sun, to digesting and belching in their moustaches, an odor more terrible than that of the penned-in creatures rose to terrify the fleeing birds, and then the sky became still as death.  (VI, 94)

There, that has many of the novels motifs in one place.  Bread, death, bad smells, birds.  Perfect.  This stew is not the food for which tourists visit Provence, but I am not exactly kidding about Giono’s novels, even with their cholera and suicides, being tourist books.  It is a place that gets astounding numbers of visitors; here are books that show aspect of it that cannot be seen now.  They are hidden to outsiders, or they are gone forever, except in books.  Good books, luckily.

If some other book blogger would systematically work through the available Giono in English, that would be quite useful – thanks in advance.

Monday, July 3, 2017

for my joy in the tooth of the wheel - a glance at Lorca's poems

The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca (New Directions, 1955) was an early overview of the poems of Lorca in English, not just a look at the poet but at how he was being translated.  It is translated by many hands.  Here is Langston Hughes, doing one of the Gypsy Ballads (1928):

from Ballad of One Doomed to Die

Learn to cross your hands,
to taste the cold air
of metals and of cliffs
because within two months
you’ll lie down shrouded.

The echoes of Lorca’s murder that now ring through his poems is almost irritating.  The “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias” (1935), which is about the death of a bullfighter, is almost unreadable.  “The rest was death, and death alone.”  It is a poem of great power in English and beauty in Spanish, and is not about Lorca’s murder a year later.

The variety of Lorca, in a career that lasted fifteen years, is hard to understand.  Long and small, formal and crazy, traditional and new – at some point he mastered everything.  Little fragmented imagistic lines:

The sea
smiles from far off.
Teeth of foam,
lips of sky.  (from “Ballad of the Water of the Sea,” 1921, tr. Lloyd Mallan)

Or big wild yawping:

Not for one moment, beautiful aged Walt Whitman,
have I failed to see your beard full of butterflies,
nor your shoulders of corduroy worn out by the moon,
nor your thighs of virginal Apollo,
nor your voice like a pillar of ashes:
ancient and beautiful as the mist…  (from “Ode to Walt Whitman,” 1930, tr. Stephen Spender and J. L. Gili)

Not that there is no continuity.  They’re both seashore poems.  Lorca’s years in New York City produced what looks to me like his biggest leap, though, towards (or perhaps against) Whitman and his boldest, least comprehensible imagery:

from Fable and Round of the Three Friends

I saw them despoil themselves, sobbing and singing,
for a hen’s egg,
for a night that displayed its tobacco-leaf skeleton,
for my woe full of faces and piercing moon splinters,
for my joy in the tooth of the wheel and the lash of the whip,
for my breast shaken with doves,
for my derelict dying, with a single mistaken bypasser.  (tr. Ben Belitt)

This is the Lorca invoked by so many American Beat poets.  They thought they knew what he meant.  I’m happier with Lorca the singer, the balladeer, but I hardly know his poems.

I read the 2005 edition of Selected Poems, which includes an unusually personal introduction by W. S. Merwin, who says that his undergraduate encounter with a single Lorca poem was the life-changing cause of his discovery of 1) translation and 2) “Modern poetry began for me, not in English at all, but in Spanish, which I scarcely knew, in the poems of Lorca, and even more specifically in one book of his, the Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads), which Lorca had finished in the year I was born” (xi).

All right, that was some Spanish literature for Spanish Literature Month.  Now with the holiday and a little trip I’m done for the week.  Maybe I’ll have The Golden Bowl done when I get back.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

a sort of intoxication with his own identity - Thomas Mann and his dog

The last three novellas in Death in Venice and Other Stories form a “bourgeois trilogy.”  Thomas Mann, white-collar professional, an ordinary Municher with kids, a dog, and Italian beach vacations.  The most recent story, “Mario and the Magician” (1929), just uses the narrator and his family as a point of view.  Since the story is about a powerful hypnotist and his perhaps final melodramatic performance, I do not understand the need for this particular set of characters, but perhaps they were just at hand.   If Mann is going to send some Germans to Italy, why not make them a lot like those in “Disorder and Early Sorrow” (1925).

That one really is about the Mann-like family, with a college professor, a couple of teenagers who throw a party, and some littler kids who get to tag along, with tragic, in a very limited little kid sense, consequences.  That’s the “Early Sorrow.”  The “Disorder” is partly personal to the professor, partly a description of the party and its crazy jazz records, and partly the chaos of Weimar Germany – “the salary Cornelius draws as professor of history – a million marks.”  Pretty interesting.

Maybe the whole thing is a parable about Weimar.  I hope not.  But that Italian hypnotist in “Mario the Magician” is in some sense Mussolini.  What do I know.

“A Man and His Dog” (1918) is not a parable, is it?  A symbolic whatnot about the war?  What makes this novella or memoir the most guacamolesque piece of Mann’s, enjoyed by readers who otherwise have little patience with Mann’s symbolizing, is that it genuinely appears to be about Mann’s “short-haired German pointer” Bashan.  It is a great piece of dog writing.  Over seventy pages it is inevitably digressive, but the digressions are mostly about the dog, and the exception is a long description of the woods where the dog likes to hunt.

The story is warm, lightly humorous, a deep act of sympathy and imagination that gives the dog a lot of character without compromising his doggishness.  Maybe that’s the parable – maybe it’s about the core fictional act, the creation of a character who is not the author.  Bashan is very much himself.

And what do I say to him?  Mostly his own name, the two syllables which are of the utmost personal interest because they refer to himself and have an electric effect upon his whole being.  I rouse and stimulate his sense of his own ego by impressing upon him – varying my tone and emphasis – that he is Bashan and that Bashan is his name.  By continuing this for a while I can actually produce in him a state of ecstasy, a sort of intoxication with his own identity, so that he begins to whirl round on himself and send up loud exultant barks to heaven out of the weight of dignity that lies on his chest.

Maybe the hypnotist is not Mussolini but the author, making his characters do anything he wants.  Or maybe the hypnotist is his opposite – he suppresses his victims’ identities, while the author creates them and sets them loose on the world.

A writer can do a lot with a walk with a dog.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

single words of the sentences shaped in his disordered brain - some progress with Thomas Mann

I last read Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, the Vintage International collection of Thomas Mann’s novellas, when I was an undergraduate.  I read it with outstanding – perhaps even perfect – incomprehension.  Have I made any progress in thirty years?

Mann’s humor is still opaque to me.  “Felix Krull” (written 1911, pub. 1936) is a parody of autobiography, a parody of Goethe’s specifically, so even having read a lot more, including Goethe’s four-volume autobiography, I cannot hear the tone.  It is recognizably comic, with a pompous fool for a narrator; if only I found it funny.  The story is full of the grotesques that inhabit Mann’s early fiction – Felix’s obese father, for one, or this actor:

All this I might have borne.  But not the pimples with which Müller-Rosé’s back, chest, shoulders, and upper arms were thickly strewn.  They were horrible pimples, red-rimmed, suppurating, some of them even bleeding; even today I cannot repress a shudder at the thought of them.  I find that our capacity for disgust is in direct proportion to our capacity for enjoyment, to our eagerness for the pleasures which this world can give.

I believe that long ago I took this all more literally.  I suppose I attributed banal insight that the actor so sublime on stage is much less so up close and without his artificial aids, or the last bit of supposed wisdom, obviously false, to Mann himself.  But no, it’s a parody, meant to be funny, even.  All right.  At least I can see that now.

“Death in Venice” is the perfect chaser to The Horseman on the Roof, the 1832 cholera epidemic followed by the last gasp of cholera.  An esteemed writer, quite a bit older and narrower than Mann himself, vacations in Venice, where he totally crushes on a beautiful fourteen-year-old Polish boy staying in his hotel.  He becomes a stalker, harmless but creepy; meanwhile, here comes the cholera.  The whole thing is a riff on Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872), a struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, with the embrace of the Dionysian spirit meaning both ecstasy and death.

There he sat, the master; this was he who had found a way to reconcile art and honours; who had written The Abject, in a style of classic purity renounced bohemianism and all its works, all sympathy with the abyss and the troubled depths of the outcast human soul…  His eyelids were closed, there was only a swift, sidelong glint of the eyeballs now and again, something between a question and a leer; while the rouged and flabby mouth uttered single words of the sentences shaped in his disordered brain by the fantastic logic that governs our dreams.

A paragraph of such sentences follows, dream-stuff that I do not really understand (“’And now, Phaedrus, I will go’”), but more importantly I see that the author, “the master,” is or becomes another grotesque.  He is a parody, the ideas attributed to him not to be taken so seriously.  The one thing I have learned.

Now, here is something I still do not understand.  It is on the next-to-last page:

A camera on a tripod stood at the edge of the water, apparently abandoned; its black cloth snapped in the freshening wind.

There has not been a photography theme in the story, nor another camera.  It is on the beach that is a major setting.  “Here you go,” says Mann, “a symbol – enjoy!”  It is so detached from everything else.  Maybe it symbolizes death.

I don’t know how this looks to you, but to me it looks like progress.  Tomorrow I’ll look at “A Man and His Dog,” the most guacamolesque story in the collection.  Guacamolesque is my new favorite word.  It is French.

These are all T. H. Lowe-Porter translations, by the way.  They are dated in places.  A lot of “hither” and “thither” in “Death in Venice.”

Thursday, June 29, 2017

He saw a countryside without cholera or revolution, but he found it sad - how, Giono asks, should a man live?

But did they know what he had turned to in the meantime?  Victor Hugo – no more, no less.  (Ch. 13, 396)

It had been niggling at me, as I read The Horseman on the Roof, that original as the novel was it did, in places, sound a lot like someone.  Its imagery was a blend of a long French tradition, from Flaubert through the Surrealists, and its hero was straight out of The Charterhouse of Parma, but – well, see above.  In the penultimate chapter, Angelo and Pauline, on the edge of the cholera outbreak, are caught in a rain storm, and accept the hospitality of a doctor, a theorizing loudmouth.  Our hero and heroine, stupefied by a fire, and wine, and good food, are stupefied – “[Angelo] could well imagine how with a little stew at the right moment all the heroes and heroines of Ariosto could be brought down to earth and reality” (394) – and just let the doctor talk, on and on.  Artistically, the chapter seems like the novels one dud.

But it confirmed my idea that Giono had been thinking about Hugo.

In short, it was a depressing meal for both of them, but not for their host, who kept quoting Victor Hugo on the slightest pretext.  (398)

It is in effect the only digressive chapter in the novel, the only time Giono allows a detached voice to take over, even if the voice is nominally that of a character.  I wonder what the character has been reading.  If the time of the story is 1832, Hugo is famous enough as the author of Notre-Dame de Paris, Hernani, and several books of poems, but for Giono’s readers the name must invoke later novels directly relevant to this novel, like the man-against-nature Toilers of the Sea or Les Misérables.  Cholera-stricken Provence is full of miserables, and Angelo is something of a Jean Valjean figure, trying to find a way to turn his impulse for heroism, his ethics of heroism, into something that is actually useful.

The Hugo-spouting doctor is the last of a series of role models that Angelo encounters.  The first was also a doctor, the “little Frenchman” who sacrifices himself in a hopeless search for the one victim who can be saved.  The most dramatic is a gigantic nun who wanders Manosque, cleaning corpses, restoring dignity.  Angelo joins her, unsure if there is any value at all to the activity, but at least it is action.  (The most charming role model is the cat who joins Angelo during his exile on the roofs of Manosque).

It is as if Giono needs a role model of his own, for his fiction, a writer for whom Angelo’s struggles with heroism would make sense, even if the non-naturalistic way that Angelo debates himself often sounds more – surely is – the product of Giono’s time.

“Does the freedom of one’s country,” he asked himself, “count less than honor, for example, or all the trouble I’ve taken to keep alive?”

He saw a countryside without cholera or revolution, but he found it sad.  (Ch. 11, 300)

The Horseman on the Roof is an easy book to recommend, artful and exciting, and probably not just for tourists going to Provence, although they need it more than anyone.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

it was impossible to recognize anything familiar - Jean Giono makes it strange

The Horseman on the Roof is full of magnificent, original imagery of the Provence landscape.  The story is about Angelo, the horseman, trying to avoid quarantines, murderous mobs, thieves, and cholera, the latter the cause of all of the former.  Meanwhile, earth abides.  Perhaps there is irony here.  Giono’s numerous, repulsive descriptions of death by disease are not exactly clinical, but nor are they voyeuristic.  Death by disease is part of nature.  The novel is full of nature.

The light, crushed to a fine irritant dust, rubbed its sandpaper over the drowsy horse and rider, and over the little trees, which it gradually spirited away into worn air, whose coarse texture quivered, mingling smears of greasy yellow with dull ochers, with great slabs of chalk wherein it was impossible to recognize anything familiar.  (Ch. 1, p. 14)

The book, the imagistic side of it, is an exercise in “make it strange,” the human world made strange by the cholera, the natural world distorted by the heat.  The next sentences:

The slopes poured down into the valley the stale reek of everything that had died within the vast radius of these pale hills.  Tree stumps and skins; ants’ nests; little cages of ribs the size of a fist; skeletons of snakes like broken chains of silver; patches of slaughtered flies like handfuls of dried currants; dead hedgehogs whose bones looked like chestnuts in their burrs; vicious shreds of wild boars strewn over wide threshing-floors of agony; trees devoured from head to foot, stuffed with sawdust to the tips of their branches, which the thick air kept standing; carcasses of buzzards fallen into the boughs of oaks on which the sun beat down; or the sharp stink of the heated sap along the hawthorn trunks.

This is some mix of close observation and hallucination.  Provence is consumed by death before the cholera comes (it comes in the next paragraph).  “The heat reached [Avignon] the same day, and its first blasts crumbled the sickliest trees” (16).  Then comes the nightmare in the Orange train station I quoted yesterday, and a series of other horrors.

Nature turns against man.  Angelo is sleeping on the roofs of the town of Manosque, Jean Giono’s home, in order to escape the plague and give the novel a title:

His eyes had been shut for an uncertain length of time when he felt himself being slapped by downy little paws, struck painfully about the temples, and claws raking through his hair as if someone were trying to plow it up.

He was covered with swallows, which were pecking at him.

They thought he was a corpse, as was entirely likely.  Even more horrifying is a later passage in which the butterflies, “yellow, red and black, white ones spotted with red, and huge ones, almost as big as sparrows,” become a menace, or at least, in this world, feel like one.

They had invaded and covered the road; they floated between the horses’ legs.  Their colors, endlessly darting, tired the eyes, induced a kind of vertigo.  They were soon mingled with swarms of blue flies and wasps, whose heavy humming urged sleep in spite of the morning.  (Ch. 11, 312)

Later, though, viewed from above, “[t]he butterflies sparkled like sand” (332).

The great beauty of Giono’s descriptive writing is thoroughly mediated, ironicized, and distorted.  The historical event, the epidemic, allows Giono to use the landscape in which he spent his whole life without the usual sentimentality.  The result is the perfect book for Provence tourists with a sense of history and irony.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jean Giono's The Horseman on the Roof - ill suited to any romanticism

Thinking ahead to a likely visit to Provence, I read what must be the best possible book for Provence tourists, Jean Giono’s The Horseman on the Roof (1951, tr. Jonathan Griffin).  An Italian nobleman is passing through Provence for some reason.  He has the bad luck, although in a sense his luck is better than that of many, to be there when the Asiatic cholera of 1832 breaks out, killing about a hundred thousand people in France on this pass.  Giono describes, in repulsive detail, I would guess about ten thousand of those deaths as Angelo rides and fights his way to – well, not safety but rather more comprehensible dangers.

I am quoting historian Jürgen Osterhammel’s passage on cholera from The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (2009, tr. Patrick Camiller, p. 190):

Its symptomatology underlined its horrifying nature: it appeared suddenly and could theoretically strike anyone, leading with plague-like probability (more than 50 percent of cases) to death in a time that might be as short as a few hours.  Unlike smallpox, which causes a high fever, cholera is always described as a “cold” illness; unlike tuberculosis or “consumption,” it is ill suited to any romanticism.

The Horseman on the Roof is a historical post-apocalyptic novel, not a genre I know well.  It is as unflinchingly disgusting as the visual post-apocalyptic works I have seen, meaning comic books like The Walking Dead and Y the Last Man that seem to want their artists to draw every drop of escaped human fluid.  How much time do today’s comic book artists practice drawing viscera?   I would love to read a comparison of Giono’s novel and The Road.  Here is a sample that is horrifying but not so disgusting:

At Orange station the passengers in a train from Lyon began to pound as hard as they could on their carriage doors to get someone to come and let them out.  They were dying of thirst; many had vomited and were writhing with colic.  The engine-driver came along with the keys, but after opening two of the doors he could not open the third: he went away and rested his forehead on a railing; after a time he fell against it.  (Ch. 1, p. 16)

How handy for certain kinds of plotting to have a disease that makes characters drop dead on the spot.  The perverse thing is that The Horseman on the Roof, although constructed on a pile of blue corpses, is at heart 1) a complex and artful depiction of the Provence landscape and 2) a work of deep humanism.  Angelo, the Italian horseman, is deeply, existentially, concerned with heroism, with honor and glory, which makes him a plausible man of his time, but also with serious questions about how to live that are more those of a French writer of 1951, or of today.  How to do good.

I will make some attempt to pursue those ideas in my next couple of posts.

The 1995 Jean-Paul Rappeneau film, and how else could it function, tones down the horror quite a lot and turns the story into more of a Dumas-like adventure.  Much of the pleasure of the film is spending time gazing upon two actors who were among the best-looking humans on earth; too much body horror would spoil the effect.  I likely remember the movie poorly.  That was over twenty years ago.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

so long as we do not interfere with the traffic - Kipling rides "With the Night Mail"

The real masterpiece of Actions and Reactions, I thought, was “With the Night Mail,” a science fiction story about a mail run from London to Quebec in a lighter-than-air craft powered by a magic ray.  The narrator is a journalist along for the ride; the text is his article, written, apparently, for some kind of aircraft trade journal.  Commenter Katy yesterday called the story “steampunk as written by John McPhee,” which is just right.  We learn everything we wanted to know about oranges or Wyoming geology or futuristic aircraft – more than we want, honestly – as told by the men who grow oranges or geologize in Wyoming or operate those dirigibles.  Unlike the diligent McPhee, Kipling just makes it all up.

The eye detects no joint in her skin plating save the sweeping hair-crack of the bow-rudder – Magniac's rudder that assured us the dominion of the unstable air and left its inventor penniless and half-blind.  It is calculated to Castelli's "gull-wing" curve.  Raise a few feet of that all but invisible plate three-eighths of an inch and she will yaw five miles to port or starboard ere she is under control again.

Etc., etc., sure, why not.  Kipling approaches the unreadable.  This is his feat of technical heroism akin to the great pilots and engineers about whom he writes.  Just as they approach disaster during storms and so on, Kipling approaches pure gibberish.  The art is two-fold, at least; first, continuous touches like that bit about the fate of the inventor – imagery, character moments, little ingenuities.  Little handholds to delight the baffled reader. Then second, his total commitment to his concept, to the fantasy world he has created, a commitment rare, in my experience, among science fiction writers, who are seldom quite so unfriendly to their poor readers.

This commitment is clearest once the future story has ended but the actual story continues with a series of announcements, advertisements, a book review, and an advice column.  Although the spirit is comic, none of the extra material is exactly meant to be a joke.  It is all part of the commitment, part of Kipling’s unwillingness to leave the world he has invented.  He is like Tolkien working up Elvish.

Is this meant to be a joke?  (I am back in the “article,” the main text):

She is responsible only to the Aërial Board of Control – the A. B. C. of which Tim speaks so flippantly.  But that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons of both sexes, controls this planet.  “Transportation is Civilization,” our motto runs.  Theoretically, we do what we please so long as we do not interfere with the traffic and all it implies.  Practically, the A. B. C. confirms or annuls all international arrangements and, to judge from its last report, finds our tolerant, humorous, lazy little planet only too ready to shift the whole burden of private administration on its shoulders.

“With the Night Mail” is not just science fiction but Utopian fiction, with a rather specialized Utopia appealing to writers who think the engineers should run things.  What looks like a conceptual, idea- driven piece is in fact pure self-expression.  Kipling creates a world in which he would like to live and then lives in it for a bit.  He is – or would become? – sufficiently aware of the dangers of his Utopia that a few years later he would write a sequel upending the whole thing.

One odd feature of the story is the use of mail delivery as the epitome of technocratic heroism, but I have just read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little first novel, Night Flight (1931), which is specifically about the heroism of nighttime mail runs by early aviators, and boy does Saint-Exupéry mean it, so Kipling was not being idiosyncratic but prescient.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

empty, but still magnificent - Kipling's Actions and Reactions

Rudyard Kipling’s Actions and Reactions (1909) is the weakest of his short story collections that I have read, and I think that I just have three more to go.  It is nevertheless fascinating, often most so when it is most wrong-headed.  Complete mastery, ingenious and artful, applied to exasperating material.  This book is the most wrong-headed Kipling I have read; maybe that is what I mean.

The perfect example is “The Mother Hive.”  The second paragraph:

A young bee crawled up the greasy trampled alighting-board.  “Excuse me,” she began, “but it’s my first honey-flight.  Could you kindly tell me if this is my –”

Yes, this story is about and from the point of view of a bee hive.  It is being invaded by parasitic wasps.  The characters are various bees and wasps.  It is an allegory.  A political allegory.  The parasites, who introduce Reforms, are Liberals, the weak-minded bees Tories, or something like that.  The story ends in apocalypse, as a bee-keeper smokes everyone out and destroys the hive.  The natural history, the bee-keeping stuff, is fantastic:

…  two-inch deep honey-magazines, empty, but still magnificent, the whole gummed and glued into twisted scrap-work, awry on the wires; half-cells, beginnings abandoned, or grandiose, weak-walled, composite cells pieced out with rubbish and capped with dirt.

Kipling had recently become interested in bee-keeping.  If anyone has earned the right to animal allegories, it is author of Just-So Stories, but this one makes no sense.  What is the parasitic wax-moth supposed to do?  It is her nature to invade bee hives.  She can do nothing else.  Maybe that is Kipling’s point.

Two stories are not allegories but parables of imperialism, as usual complicating my ideas about Kipling’s ideas without making me any less – I would not normally say appalled, but “Little Foxes” is appalling.  The new English governor of the new English colony of – something near Ethiopia; this is all made up – discovers that his new country has foxes.

The Great River Gihon, well used to the moods of kings, slid between his mile-wide banks toward the sea, while the Governor praised God in a loud and searching cry never before heard by the river.

The poor fox “could not understand the loud cry which the Governor has cried.”  He cannot guess what is about to hit him.  The English proceed to organize the entire country on an English fox-hunting basis.  In many ways it works.  There is an insight here about the value of the rule of law, however arbitrary its basis.  Kipling may well have meant for me to find this story appalling.  I am not sure.  The main plot as such is just one of Kipling’s prank plots, thin stuff.

“A Deal in Cotton” is a narratorial masterpiece, with an Englishman describing a colonial African incident that he does not fully understand, because he was feverish when it happened, and his Indian servant re-telling the story in a way that contains its own elisions, with a let’s call it “true” story emerging out of the combination; it is more or less about competing kinds of imperial rule.  The game here, the skill, is in the omission of information.  No one was better at that game, not even Henry James.

What else.  “Garm – a Hostage” is a perfect dog story, and “The House Surgeon” is a perfect ghost story.  My doubt is if they are anything else, not that they need to be.  I have avoided mentioning the single story that seemed to me like a narrow, frustrating, surprising masterpiece, “With the Night Mail,” a science fantasy that is also perhaps nothing else.  I want to save it for tomorrow.

Technically, Actions and Reactions is almost beyond belief.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Paris Peasant - Louis Aragon wanders around - A laudable error. But a delectable folly.

Paris Peasant, Louis Aragon, 1926, translated by Simon Watson Taylor.  A Surrealist novel, in some sense, although I do not understand what use there might be in calling this a novel.  The book contains a short preface that I did not understand; a hundred-page tour of the shops in a covered passage, destroyed just after Aragon wrote the piece, that is a classic of Paris flaneuring; another bit of wandering in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, this time at night, and accompanied by André Breton; and a final manifesto-like piece that I did not understand.

The root of Surrealism (“offspring of frenzy and darkness,” p. 65 of the 1994 Exact Change edition) is realism, right?  Aragon is at one of the hairdressers in the Passage de l’Opera.  He is rhapsodizing on the subject of blond hair:

What is blonder than the froth of moss?  I have often though I saw champagne on the floor of forests.  And chanterelles!  And agaric!  Darting hares!  The moons of fingernails!  The colour pink!  The blood of plants!  The eyes of bitches!  Memory: memory is truly blond.  (p. 40)

Twaddle, perhaps, but glorious twaddle, imaginatively free twaddle.  Aragon has provided himself with a form that is both rigid – a passage, a straight line – and endlessly free and digressive, with room for poems and a little play (“Man Converses with His Faculties”) and essays on anything.  Plus lots of signage and typography, which I suppose I could scan.  Maybe it’s on the internet somewhere.  The drink menu of the Certa café is reproduced.  There is a Dada Cocktail for four francs.  Aragon did not pick the Passage de l’Opera at random – it is packed with Surreal history, “the last traces of the Dada movement” (92):

What memories, what revulsions linger around these hash houses: the man eating in this one has the impression he is chewing the table rather than a steak, and becomes irritated by his common, noisy table companions, ugly, stupid girls, and a gentleman flaunting his second-rate subconscious and the whole unedifying mess of his lamentable existence; while, in another one, a man wobbles on his chair’s badly squared legs, and concentrates his impatience and his rancours upon the broken clock…  The whole scene – sweaty walls, people, stodgy food – is like a smear of candle grease.  (92-3)

The book is well written and well observed when Aragon wants it to be.  A classic of urban writing.  A classic of looking around.

What was I up to?  Let me put it like this: I thought I was prodding metaphysics forward an inch or two.  A laudable error.  But a delectable folly.  (184-5)

Not so far, really, from how I think about art.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Do you think it just to call me into existence - Conrad Aiken's puppets argue their case

After a long absence, I always feel like I have to remind myself how to write, so I will burn off this piece by writing about Conrad Aiken, useful for practice since almost no one cares about Aiken.

The last two books of his that I read were Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents in His History (1921) and Priapus and the Pool (1922) – I know, what titles, yeesh.  But both are books as such, not collections of the poems of the moment, and thus unrepresented in Aiken's Selected Poems not because their contents are inferior but because the poems need the company of the rest of the book.

Aiken, since his earliest poems, had a tendency to turn his female characters into an abstract, idealized, Woman, which is perhaps not a problem from the point of view of accuracy, representing the all too real psychology of his male characters, and presumably himself, but is nonetheless tiresome.  I know it is too much to ask, physician, to heal thyself, but at least critique thyself.  Well, in these two books Aiken critiques himself.

Priapus and the Pool employs a symbolic male/female symbolic dichotomy that is not so original – lust versus love, restless motion versus stable depth, like that – but the directness of the confrontation has some interest.  The most curious effect is in the poems in which the voice is ambiguous, where the speaker could be either Priapus or the pool, with the meaning of the poem changing accordingly.  Unfortunately, the diction is high Romantic, or perhaps Symbolist, and any quotations will make Aiken look ridiculous.  I wonder if he had been reading D. H. Lawrence.

Punch: The Immortal Liar, though – this one is different.  The title character is the marionette.  His wife is the much-abused Judy.  Did he hurl her down the stairs, or was she driven to suicide by his abuse and philandering with Polly Prim?  Punch is a trickster figure, and a mix of Faust and Mephistopheles, with a Walpurgisnacht section.  Is he the devil or merely a puppet?

The great surprise for me was the end of the poem, the epilogue “Mountebank Feels the Strings of His Heart,” where poor Judy speaks for herself:

                                  “Listen! you puller of strings!
Do you think it just to call me into existence, –
To give me a name, – and give me so little beside? . . .
To Polly you give her laughter, to Punch his illusions, –
To me you give nothing but death!”  (ellipses in original)

The puppeteer, the poet, has an answer:

“I too am a puppet.  And as you are a symbol for me
(As Punch is, and Sheba – bright symbols of intricate meanings,
Atoms of soul – who move, and are moved, by me – )
So I am a symbol, a puppet drawn out upon strings,
Helpless, well-coloured, with a fixed and unchanging expression…”  (ellipses mine – The Biblical Sheba replaces Goethe’s Helen)

The poet then, for a stanza, exercises his power and makes Judy “real” for a moment.

                                                     I desire to see you
Under a pear-tree – (we’ll say that the tree is in blossom –)
A warm day of sunlight, and laughing, - at nothing whatever!...
A green hill’s behind you; a cloud like a dome tops the hill;
A poplar tree, like a vain girl, leans over a mirror
Trying on silver, then green, perplexed, but in pleasure;
And you there, alone in the sunlight, watch bees in the pear-tree,
Dipping the leaves; and you laugh – for no reason whatever!  (ellipses in original)

This meta-fictional gift is the most beautiful scene I have found in Aiken so far.  How sad that the puppeteer, the poet, finds no solace in it, for despite his imaginative efforts his puppets “lay huddled together / Arms over heads, contorted”:

Inscrutable, silent, terrific, like those made eternal
Who stare, without thought, at a motionless world without meaning.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

five posts on Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale crammed into one

I returned for two days, and will now wander off somewhere else, so no writing for all of next week.  Two days, one to whine and one to glance at my vacation reading, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) by Arnold Bennett.

In ordinary circumstances, I would have taken many notes and written about the book for a week, but no note-taking while on vacation and see above.

Constance and Sophia are sisters.  Their life as teens takes up a quarter of the novel.  The sisters separate, Constance staying home, Sophia ending up in Paris, where she lives through the grisly Siege of the city.  Eventually, they reunite.  Eventually, they die.

This summary could be made by anyone who has read not the novel but simply the table of contents.  An innovation of Bennett’s is that the sisters’ stories are not interwoven but told separately, the stay-at-home first, the Parisian second.  It feels less like reading a six hundred-page novel than four separate hundred and fifty-page novellas, sequels but with a branching path in the middle.

Bennett was a great student of the French novel, of Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, and Zola, but there is little in the voice or technique of the novel that he could not have learned from William Thackeray.  Bennett’s narrator, in his incessant light irony, reminded me of the narrator of Vanity Fair more than that of Germinal.  He describes more furniture and clothing than Thackeray ever did.  That is like Zola.  And some of the Parisian scenes, especially the scenes around the 1870 war, come close to imitations of Zola.

The Old Wives’ Tale is a domestic novel, with intrusions of melodrama, so even the Siege of Paris chapter is about ordinary life during the crisis, albeit ordinary life as experienced and even determined by a strong-willed, upright Victorian woman.  The novel, the French part, at times resembles a mix of L’Assommoir and Cold Comfort Farm, with the industrious Sophia determined to reform the corruptions of Zola’s ethos – of Paris.  And heck if she doesn’t succeed.  Some of this stuff is pretty funny.  Bennett’s comedy is generally pretty strong.

Reading an earlier Bennett novel set in roughly the same place, Anna of the Five Towns (1902), seraillon wrote “[i]t’s as though Bennett has refused to let go of the dominant form of the late 19th century novel,” and The Old Wives’ Tale has the same feeling of continuity.  Anyone comfortable with the English Victorian novel ought to be happy with Bennett, as with Forster or Wells.  It is not yet 1910, when everything changed.  Bennett, like his contemporaries, critiques the values of earlier Victorians, but gently, mostly.  The long scope of the novel, which begins in the 1840s and ends in the 20th century, creates much of Bennett’s irony.  Sophia may have lived the more dramatic life, but back in the five towns every little change – like a store putting up a sign – is a source of drama.

The metaphysics of the novel is grounded and pessimistic, authentically Naturalist.  People follow their temperaments.  They change, and yet they do not, cannot.  Thus the strategic decision to start the novel when the sisters are teens, more or less formed, skipping their childhood.

This looks like my notes for the five-part, quotation-packed series of posts I am not going to write.  Oh well.  Strongly recommended to anyone with a basic sympathy for the form of the long Victorian novel.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

shamed by French bookstore displays

I was not going to write my usual praise of French bookstores, or, really, my lament about American bookstores, not this time, but near the end of my trip to France I was driven into embarrassment, as we can see on the left.

What we see here is part of the display of the works of Georges Perec, as found in the Decitre bookstore in Lyon – not the giant Decitre but the one at the mall.  The occasion is the release of the Pléiade edition of the works of Perec in two gigantic volumes, a stamp of Official High Status.

Lyon is a big city, but I found similar displays in the windows of two bookstores in Vichy, a town of 25,000, although a spa town that gets thousands of visitors.  But visitors who want to buy expensive editions of fifty-year-old avant-garde novels?  Yes, to some degree, apparently.

The great touch is the cardboard Perec holding a gigantic copy of his Pléiade “album,” or I guess really a tiny cardboard Perec holding a regular sized “album.”  A publisher designed, printed, and sent around this special display.  A bookstore employee punched it out and assembled it.  I saw it in the windows of many bookstores.  There were also posters.  I am trying to compare the marketing effort to that which will accompany, say, the Library of America editions of Don DeLillo, who was born in the same year as Perec.  Heck, the Philip Roth books did not get this kind of promotion.  Again, I remind myself, this particular photo is from the bookstore at the shopping mall.

French bookstores are legally protected in a number of ways, but this is really a difference of culture.  The ban on price discounting does not cause bookstores to give so much space to an author like Perec.  Does it actually sell books?

We, in the United States, do not treat our artists as well as we should.  Not that little cardboard figures are such good treatment in and of themselves.  Still.  To the right is one of Lyon’s many building-sized murals, this one devoted to writers and books and Lyon's history as a center of early modern publishing.  It’s culture, culture, culture.

Disclosure: I have never read a book by Perec.  It is the principle of the thing that galls.