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 trimmed here, had we 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.”