Friday, February 17, 2017

Yes, it was the same flesh - some War and Peace death

War and Peace is full of Tolstoy’s unoriginal ideas about history in essay form, and his original ideas about death in novel form.  Tolstoy is among the greatest writes about death – sudden or prolonged, in combat or illness, actual or threatened.

If you are bothered by learning about the deaths of characters in a book you have not read and with whom you have no associations whatsoever, skip this post, I guess.

A combat death, Petya Rostov.  His death in XIV.2. is preceded by his great musical dream, where a whetstone, horses, and snoring are somehow combined into a “harmonious orchestra playing some unknown, sweetly solemn hymn.”  Seven hundred pages, Tolstoy suggested that Petya’s sister is synesthetic; perhaps Petya is, too.  I mention the dream because it shows how intensely subjective the point of view has become.  Everything is interior.  To make the text work, I am identifying with Petya, whether he is observing other soldiers, sleeping, or riding into combat.

His charge alongside the Cossacks is chaotic, a breathless blur:

“Wait?...  Hurrah-ah-ah!” shouted Petya, and without pausing a moment galloped to the place whence came the sounds of firing and where the smoke was thickest.

A volley was heard, and some bullets whistled past, while others plashed against something. (ellipses in original).

Tolstoy plays a terrible trick here.  The “something” is or includes Petya, but for two more headlong sentences I do not know that the perspective has shifted to the other cavalrymen.  Something has gone wrong.  “Petya fell heavily to the ground.  The Cossacks saw…”  Now I know the truth.  What a masterful use of a perspective shift.

A number of the best death scenes are attached to Prince Andrew, over and over – he is thinking about death, he is wounded in combat, etc.  Here he is part of the hot, dusty retreat towards Moscow, before the battle of Borodino:

The dust always hung motionless above the buzz of talk that came from the resting troops.

That by itself is an interesting sentence, isn’t it?

As he crossed the dam Prince Andrew smelled the ooze and freshness of the pond.  He longed to get into that water, however dirty it might be, and he glanced round at the pool from whence came the sounds of shrieks and laughter.  The small, muddy, green pond had risen visibly more than a foot, flooding the dam, because it was full of the naked white bodies of soldiers with brick-red hands, necks, and faces, who were splashing about in it.  (X.5.)

Tolstoy emphasizes the “health” and pleasure of the soldiers (“joyfully wriggling his muscular figure and snorted with satisfaction”), but bathing himself Andrew can only imagine them as the corpses that many of them will soon be:

“Flesh, bodies, cannon fodder!” he thought, and he looked at his own naked body and shuddered, not from cold but from a sense of disgust and horror he did not himself understand, aroused by the sight of that immense number of bodies splashing about in the dirty pond.

Later, wounded, the bodies in the hospital remind Andrew of the bodies in the pond – “Yes, it was the same flesh” (X.37.).  All of 120 pages later, almost adjacent for this book.

Maybe it is a paradox of War and Peace, of much of Tolstoy, is how exhilarating so much of this material about death can be.  Or not a paradox – the reason is art.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

like a hare surrounded by hounds... he tried to continue reading - hunting wolves and hares in War and Peace

The prose in War and Peace is generally plain, often repetitive – more so in Russian than in the Maude translation – and rough.  Anna Karenina is more finely worked at the sentence level and its beauties depend more on the motifs that Tolstoy runs through the novel.  There are exceptions, though, like Book VII of War and Peace, the wolf hunt and the Christmas party, a couple of days in which two characters move into a state of sublimity.

In the entry there was a smell of fresh apples, and wolf and fox skins hung about.  (VII.7.)

It is a thickly described part of the book.  More smells.

Nicholas and Natasha Rostov are siblings, but Nicholas is quickly off in the cavalry, so they rarely meet.  Book VII, with everyone at the country estate, is where they finally get some scenes together.  Amusingly, they barely speak to each other.  They’re siblings; they communicate plenty.

They go hunting for about twenty pages – those poor wolves – and celebrate Christmas for about thirty.

The bare twigs in the garden were hung with transparent drops which fell on the freshly fallen leaves.  The earth in the kitchen garden looked wet and black and glistened like poppyseed and at a short distance merged into the dull, moist veil of mist…  There was a smell of decaying leaves and of dog.  Milka, a black-spotted, broad-haunched bitch with prominent black eyes. got up on seeing her master, stretched her hind legs, lay down like a hare, and then suddenly jumped up and licked him right on his nose and mustache.  (VII.3.)

Those fine similes are one evidence of the difference in this section.  In War and Peace, similes frequently describe the character or behavior of people, but rarely things.  “Though Daniel was not a big man, to see him in a room was like seeing a horse or a bear on the floor among the furniture and surroundings of human life.”  The hunt needs horses, dogs, landscapes, wolves, clothes; the later party food, music, costumes, folk customs, and it all has to be precise, and precision demands metaphor.

The wolf paused, turned its heavy forehead toward the dogs awkwardly, like a man suffering from the quinsy, and, still slightly swaying from side to side, gave a couple of leaps and with a swish of its tail disappeared into the skirt of the wood.  (VII.4.)

For the first time, I even get some precision about how the Rostovs are spending themselves into bankruptcy: “there were about a hundred and thirty dogs and twenty horsemen.”

Soon enough the dog Milka is in a race with some of the others after a lively hare.  The scene with the hare is a little hunt within the larger wolf hunt, a battle within the battle.  In a sense, much of the point of the hunt is to include a “battle” in the middle of the book, between the big early Austerlitz scenes and the later Borodino section.

Oddly, on the eve of Borodino, Pierre Bezukhov sees a “brown hare with white feet” on what will be the battlefield (X.23.).  A third hare, the hare that saved Russia, leads the Russian army to discover, and ambush, a French army (XIII.1.).  Much, much earlier, Nicholas Rostov, injured and losing his horse in his first combat, runs “with the feeling of a hare fleeing from the hounds” (II.14).  Pierre Bezukhov at one point “like a hare surrounded by hounds who lays back her ears and continues to crouch motionless before her enemies, he tried to continue reading” (IV.6.) – hilariously, here the battlefield is his study, and the enemy combatant his wife.  Yet this scene is also directly related to Pierre’s first experience of combat, a duel.

I wanted to look at the wolf hunt scene in part because it is extraordinarily good, but also because those hares make me wonder what else is in the novel that its size conceals from me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

This is how it happened - Les Misérables makes Tolstoy's thoughts swarm

From the “Chronology” of The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy (2002):

1863, February 23: reads Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – “Powerful”; “I went through my papers – a swarm of thought and a return, or an attempt to return to lyricism.  Lyricism is good.” (p. 10)

Leo Tolstoy was planning – actively writing – a historical epic about, eventually, the Napoleonic Wars that is meant to demonstrate an argument about the functioning of history.  Along comes a model by the “best nineteenth-century writer” (p. 31, quotation is a paraphrase of Tolstoy by the editor) that shows you can just plop your essays into the middle of the story.  The digressions account for maybe a third of the novel?  That’s fine.

I saw a strong “influence” of Les Misérables on War and Peace, but what do I mean by that?  (certainly not “lyricism”).  After all, “1863, June 2: ‘I’m reading Goethe, and thoughts swarm.’”  When you’re a genius like Tolstoy, that’s what your thoughts do.  Maybe I should be arguing for the influence of Elective Affinities on Tolstoy, too.  Now that I mention it – no, one at a time.  Much later, Tolstoy says that the influence of Hugo’s novel was “Enormous,” but that could mean anything.

I mean two things.  Not anything to do with battles.  Tolstoy had been a great war writer for a decade already.  The first influence is on the use and structure of the essayistic material.  I don’t think Tolstoy is nearly as good with this stuff as Hugo.  The French giant writes as a sage, so everything he writes is an expression of pure Hugoness.  Every aspect of the novel is suffused with hugolité.  Tolstoy write as if he is trying to invent social history or sociology or some other social science.  He struggles in the didactic sections.  Hugo does not.

If I remembered the arguments better – I have already forgotten Tolstoy’s, much less Hugo's – I might be able to see how or if Tolstoy adapts Hugo’s ideas about Napoleon and the chaos of the battlefield and the role of individuals in mass action and so on, but I don’t.  Instead, what felt like Hugo was Tolstoy’s use of epic similes as argument, such as the comparison of burned, looted, empty Moscow to a beehive (XI.11.) with a dead queen, a comparison that is clear immediately but goes on for a couple of pages, developing its own characters.

What really caught my attention, though, were moments in the narrative, not the essays, that sounded so much like Hugo, places where Tolstoy adapted Hugo’s signature devices, like the chapter ending revelations of identity: “This man was registered under the number 9430, and his name was Jean Valjean” (Hugo, III.3.).  Even the long, essayistic Waterloo section ends with one of these.  In Tolstoy:

That night another wounded man was driven down to Povarskaya…  Mavra Kuzminichna concluded that he was a very important man…  He was conveyed… [Etc.]

This wounded man was Prince Andrew Bolkonski.  (XI.8.)

Another example: simple transitional sentences, like Tolstoy is telling the story: “This is how it happened” (XI.9.).

Another is the use of a series of blunt, single-sentence paragraphs.

Yet another is the transformation of Pierre Bezukhov into Jean Valjean, including his superhuman strength, in the section where Pierre is out in Moscow rescuing little girls from fires.  “Pierre was in such a transport of rage that he remembered nothing and his strength increased tenfold” (XI.16.) – then he goes to prison!

Why are all of these quotations from Book XI?  Not just because that is where I started to write them down.  No, I think much of the Hugo flavor is concentrated in this book, which contains the evacuation, occupation, and destruction of Moscow.  No battles as such, no parties, no ordinary daily life, but rather nothing but extraordinary events, one after another.  It is the most melodramatic part of War and Peace, the most ordinarily novelistic, where Pierre’s thread becomes something of an adventure story.  Thus it is here that Tolstoy turns to a great master of this kind of novel, to the example that has been on his mind for a number of reasons.

That is my guess.  The problem points to the solution.  It is interesting to witness.

Tomorrow, 100% Tolstoy.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

busy whispering something gladsome and mysterious - Tolstoy moves the point of view

I wonder how many thinking parts there are in War and Peace.  The major characters all have scenes shown from their point of view, and long passages describing their private thoughts, but Tolstoy is, in this novel, also a master of the sudden shift and quick dip into the mind of anyone else.  The Cossacks (1863) is a good place to see him use the technique.  That character has a single, obvious protagonist, but when he goes to the Caucasus the point of view flits away from him, landing in a number of interesting places.

The cinematic analogy is strong, even if the camera can’t do much with a train of thought.  But it accompanies a character, flies up in the air, wanders around, finally returning to the doe-eyed fellow with whom it started.  It is curious how naturally we attach and detach the point of view from characters, even knowing perfectly well that we are watching an edited series of filmed sequences.

Tolstoy’s technique is similarly natural.  Much of the first of the fifteen volumes is spent at parties, with a couple dozen characters almost flung at me, the perspective freely wandering among them and back to Tolstoy.  At the Rostov’s the characters have paired off to go to dinner.  They are all new, or were when I first read the book.  Mostly the camera just looks at them, records them.  “Pierre spoke little but examined the new faces, and ate a great deal.”  Sometimes there is more interpretation.  “Sonya wore a company smile but was evidently tormented by jealousy.”  And sometimes, the point of view moves inward:

The German tutor was trying to remember all the dishes, wines, and kinds of dessert, in order to send a full description of the dinner to his people in Germany; and he felt greatly offended when the butler with a bottle wrapped in a napkin passed him by. He frowned, trying to appear as if he did not want any of that wine, but was mortified because no one would understand that it was not to quench his thirst or from greediness that he wanted it, but simply from a conscientious desire for knowledge.  (I.9.)

Good comedy from a character who is never mentioned again (occasionally a crowd of “tutors” is mentioned).  But I am only on page 65 of 1,351!  How do I know that this is the poor tutor’s only scene?  The Maudes cheat a bit early on, with footnotes like “Natasha Rostova, the most important female character in War and Peace” (I.5.).  So pay attention!  But for the novelist, everyone is available.  Everyone:

The Emperor’s horse started at the sudden cry. This horse that had carried the sovereign at reviews in Russia bore him also here on the field of Austerlitz, enduring the heedless blows of his left foot and pricking its ears at the sound of shots just as it had done on the Empress’ Field, not understanding the significance of the firing, nor of the nearness of the Emperor Francis’ black cob, nor of all that was being said, thought, and felt that day by its rider.  (III.13.)

Actually, maybe not everyone.  It is possible that Emperor Alexander is only observed, except in the sense that his interiority is the negative space of his horse’s, or vice versa.

The extreme example, near the novel’s end, closing a scene featuring ordinary soldiers around a campfire:

They all grew silent.  The stars, as if knowing that no one was looking at them, began to disport themselves in the dark sky: now flaring up, now vanishing, now trembling, they were busy whispering something gladsome and mysterious to each other.  (XV.3.)

War and Peace is for the most part written in a plain style.  Not always.

Monday, February 13, 2017

I am to blame, not he - Tolstoy's "complicated task" in War and Peace

I previously read War and Peace (1869) for a Tolstoy class, mixed undergraduate and graduate, mixed language – I was in the easy division, under- and English – twenty-six years ago, using the Norton Critical Edition of the Maude translation, the same book I just finished.

The professor, a Nabokov scholar, wanted the entire text available for class discussions, so we had double reading for the first third of the class – reading and discussing the novellas in The Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy while simultaneously reading War and Peace, then reading Anna Karenina while discussing War and Peace, and finally re-reading for our papers while discussing Anna Karenina.  The bare minimum reading load for a respectable literature class, yes?  That was a good class.

War and Peace is hardly the piece of worked-up art that Anna Karenina is, and how could it be?  It is so big.  That Leo Tolstoy could handle the mass of material as he did was his first achievement.  Many subsequent writers of historical fiction have written books – or series – of comparable, or greater, size and complexity, paralleling and criss-crossing the lives of a small (or large) number of characters across a big historical landscape, having them wander into “real” scenes populated by Napoleon Bonaparte and the equivalent.

Tolstoy only had the one example in front of him.  This was my single great “discovery” about War and Peace, the influence of Victor Hugo.  Save that for later.  The bigness of the book is a real achievement, and a real difficulty for me, since it is hard to remember so many details across so many pages.

Vladimir Nabokov called War and Peace “a rollicking historical novel written… specifically for the young” (1969 interview in Strong Opinions, p. 148 – he also says it’s “a little too long,” snort), which is dismissive but insightful.  The beauties of the novel – or, more accurately, my guess is that the beauties of War and Peace – do not depend so much on the kind complex motifs of which Anna Karenina is built, but on a more direct feeling for the reality of the characters, even on an identification with them.

As languagehat wrote in 2009, after he had completed the novel in Russian, “I get mad at Prince Andrei with the same sort of exasperated affection I direct at my own brothers, not with the distanced feeling of irritation I experience with, say, Proust’s Marcel.”  Oh, let’s not get into Marcel – that guy gets on my last nerve.  Maybe Tolstoy’s novel is best read with the immersive identification of childhood.  I am not just watching Natasha Rostov at her first ball or Nicholas Rostov at his first battle, but for a time I am Natasha, I am Nicholas.  Not that the identification is always that close.

Two characters, Nicholas and Prince Andrew Bolkonski, are if anything too empty, too generic, early in the novel, their characters kept a bit blank to allow me to more easily wander around the Battle of Austerlitz in their bodies, akin to the officer in Sevastopol Stories (1855) who gives me a semi-fictional tour of the besieged fortress.

[Prince Andrew] is monotonous, boring, and merely un homme comme il faut in the whole first part.  That is true, but I am to blame, not he.  I intend not only to depict characters, their actions, and their encounters, but also to work history in.  This greatly complicates my task, and I’m not succeeding at it, or so it seems.  (letter to the poet Anafasy Fet, 1866, p. 1361 of the Norton edition)

But this all gets fixed pretty fast.  All five main characters – or six, counting His Supreme Highness General Kutuzov? – are good company.  I never cared which thread of the story I was reading – was never eager to get back to someone else’s story – as long as it wasn’t a section featuring that blowhard amateur historian Leo Tolstoy.

I feel that given the bulk of the thing, I ought to be able to spend a month with War and Peace, but I think it will just be the rest of the week.  My notes say: point of view, Victor Hugo, the wolf hunt, death.

Friday, February 10, 2017

an artistic and tender finish - Hardy wraps up his fiction

How incomparably the immaterial dream dwarfed the grandest of substantial things, when here, between those three sublimities – the sky, the rock, and the ocean – the minute personality of this washer-girl filled his consciousness to its extremest boundary, and the stupendous inanimate scene shrank to a corner therein.  (II.viii.)

That’s not a bad single-sentence summary of The Well-Beloved from right in the middle of the novel, when the sculptor Pierston is at his most solipsistic.  This is when he is in his forties, pursuing the twenty-year-old daughter of the woman he jilted long ago.  The form of the novel shapes my response to his solipsism.  Hardy’s rocks and oceans feel as real as his characters; the washer-girl seems as real as Pierston.  More so, honestly.

Pierston idealizes women to the extent that he becomes the idealized, unrealistic character.  Early in the novel, Pierston confesses his pursuit of the imaginary Well-Beloved, who flits from woman to woman, to a more grounded friend, and is told that he is merely male and not that special.  “’You are like other men, only rather worse’” (I.vii.).  Just what I had been thinking!

Hardy routinely undercuts his protagonist.  Just after the quotation up top, the washer-girl openly tells him that she herself is pretty flighty (“’I have loved fifteen a’ready!’”) but that Pierston is “’handsome and gentlemanly’” but “’too old’” – “’But you asked me, sir!’ she expostulated.”

“I have paid the penalty!” he said sadly.  “Men of my sort always get the worst of it somehow.”  (II.xii.)

Meanwhile the rest of the novel demonstrates the exact opposite.

If Pierston is too old in his forties, Hardy needs some help to make the final section credible, when he is in his sixties pursuing the Well-Beloved in the form of the twenty-year-old daughter of the washer-girl, the granddaughter of the woman he jilted in the early chapters.  In a clever twist, the mother, ill and worn down, gets caught up in the romance of the novel.  She pressures her daughter to marry Pierston, thinking it will somehow make up for all of the various disappointments of the past forty years.

Rejecting the first Avice, the second had rejected him, and to rally the third with final achievement was an artistic and tender finish to which it was ungrateful in anybody to be blind.  (III.vi.)

These are the thoughts of that “second,” who rejected Pierston.  She is the one seduced by the artistic finish, the satisfying happy ending, because it makes a good story.  Luckily, her daughter, in line with the rest of the novel, is made of less dreamy stuff and is able to make her own ending.

Hardy returns to this idea at the novel’s end, in a kind of coda:

“That’s how people are – wanting to round off other people’s histories in the best machine-made conventional manner.”  (III.viii.)

Unsurprisingly, Hardy resists this temptation.  Remembering that The Well-Beloved is in some sense Hardy’s last published prose fiction, the last line looks like it serves more than one purpose:

At present he is sometimes mentioned as the “late Mr. Pierston” by gourd-like young art-critics and journalists; and his productions are alluded to as those of a man not without genius, whose powers were insufficiently recognized in his lifetime.

(“Gourd-like”?)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

She was indescribable - Thomas Hardy's The Well-Beloved

Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved was published twice, serially in 1892 and as a book, revised – much revised? – in 1897, placing it among his problematic late novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895).  By “problematic,” I mean the problem facing Hardy, his frustration with the form of the novel, which was proving incapable of doing some of the things he wanted it to do.  Like a number of his contemporaries, he wanted prose to do what poetry did.  Sometimes he succeeded, sometimes not.  Eventually, he realized it would be easier to just be the greatest living English poet.

But now he is still writing odd Shelley-steeped novels.

All now stood dazzlingly unique and white against the tinted sea, and the sun flashed on infinitely stratified walls of oolite,
                                      The melancholy ruins
                    Of cancelled cycles…
with a distinctiveness that called the eyes to it as strongly as any spectacle he had beheld afar. (I.i.)

A little bit of “Prometheus Unbound” there.  That rock, that sea, they’re part of the rugged, stony “Isle” of Portland, a Wessex setting handled with as much art as in Hardy’s better known books.

The canine gnawing audible on the Pebble-bank had been repeated ever since at each tide, but the pebbles remained undevoured…

…  he stood once again at the foot of the familiar steep whereon the houses at the entrance to the Isle were perched like grey pigeons on a roof-side.  (III.i.)

“Canine gnawing,” that’s good stuff, yes?  Hardy mines the setting for all of the thematic weight it can carry.  The protagonist is a sculptor, the son of a quarryman, a child of the famous Portland stone.  He escapes to London, to art, to the Academy, but is constantly pulled back to his childhood home by self-pity and girl trouble, specifically his notion that he falls in love not with individual women but with an abstract Well-Beloved who temporarily inhabits specific women.

Essentially she was perhaps of no tangible substance; a spirit, a dream, a frenzy, a conception, an aroma, an epitomized sex, a light of the eye, a parting of the lips.  God only knew what she really was; Pierston did not.  She was indescribable.  (I.ii.)

Embodiments in three women from his home, twenty years apart, Avice, her daughter, and her granddaughter, make up the story of the novel.  In his twenties, he is a dog; in his forties, pursuing the twenty-year-old daughter of an old flame, he is creepy; in his sixties, engaged to the granddaughter of the first Avice, he becomes merely pathetic, and thus learns something about loving individual people rather than idealized figures and abstract ideas.

The novel is a long critique of Pierston’s tendency towards abstraction and desire for perfection.  The idealistic artist is constantly pulled down into the messier form of the novel.  The governing idea, the three sections, twenty years apart, the small cast, make this a strange kind of novel.  A chamber piece.  A romance in the sense of a fantasy, although in a solid setting.

Eight years ago, I had read one of Hardy’s books.  Now I have read twelve of them, and The Well-Beloved is the first one where I thought: Boy I am glad I did not read this one first.  It helped to have read some of the books around it.

Tomorrow I will extend or justify or at least mess with a couple of these ideas.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

“I’m no critic, I only know what I like.” - emptying my bag of McTeague notes

“Of course,” she told the dentist, “I’m no critic, I only know what I like.”  She knew that she liked the “Ideal Heads,” lovely girls with flowing straw-colored hair and immense, upturned eyes.  These always had for title, “Reverie,” or “An Idyll,” or “Dreams of Love.”  (Ch. 10)

Frank Norris absorbed French fiction pretty thoroughly.  He mocks the bad taste of his characters.  He’s as bad as Flaubert.  Trina – that’s Trina, who marries McTeague, speaking – decorates their apartment with magazine illustrations that “inevitably” included “very alert fox terriers and very pretty moon-faced little girls” (Ch. 9).  Norris is so mean.

He also turns Trina into a cruel miser, borrowing now from Balzac, from Lost Illusions and Eugénie Grandet:

“Ah, the dear money, the dear money,” she would whisper, “I love you so!  All mine, every penny of it.” (Ch. 16)

“She even put the smaller gold pieces in her mouth, and jingled them there” – fantastic.  Norris understood Zola the way I do, that his fiction is a kind of baroque Romanticism disguised in drab.  Norris does not share Zola’s baroque descriptive tendencies, but his imagery is pretty good when he wants.  This is across the bay in Oakland:

At the station these [poles] were headed by an iron electric-light pole that, with its supports and outriggers, looked for all the world like a grasshopper on its hind legs…  Clouds of sea-gulls were forever rising and settling upon this mud bank; a wrecked and abandoned wharf crawled over it on tottering legs…  (Ch. 5)

As far as I know, these animated ruins do not have a strong thematic connection to anything else, but I may have missed something.  They do dimly link to a long theater scene that features the Kinetoscope, the earliest reference to motion pictures that I have seen in an American novel:

McTeague was awe-struck.

“Look at that horse move his head,” he cried excitedly, quite carried away.  “Look at that cable-car coming – and the man going across the street.  See, here comes a truck.”  (Ch. 6)

His future mother-in-law is on to the seductive deception of movies, though: “’I ain’t no fool; dot’s nuthun but a drick.’”  This terrific chapter, which is packed with theatrical entertainment, also includes a little boy who desperately needs to pee, something else I had not seen in earlier fiction.

“Owgooste, what is ut?” cried his mother, eyeing him with dawning suspicion; then suddenly, “What haf you done?  You haf ruin your new Vauntleroy gostume!”

Poor little August, constantly humiliated by Norris, stuffed into that Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, “very much too small for him.”

What else?  Ah, Frank Norris gives himself a cameo in his own novel, near the end (Ch. 20).  I needed the help of a footnote to know that.  Pretty funny.

I would not call McTeague a great novel, but it is full of amusing things.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

something else in life besides concertinas and steam beer - McTeague, Frank Norris's novel of Zola in San Francisco

Speaking of miserable, how about some time with Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899).  For once, the “Naturalism” label does me some good, since this novel is Zola in San Francisco.  It is mostly like L’Assommoir (1877), but there is a scene near the end where McTeague works in a mine, the noise of “which is like the breathing of an infinitely great monster, alive, palpitating” (Ch. 20), a description directly thieved from Germinal (1885).  A tip of the hat, there.  But there is a wedding feast so close to the one in L’Assommoir that the Norton Critical Edition includes the Zola scene for comparison.

It makes sense.  American readers without French could not read Zola’s most famous books, since they were considered obscene, so there was an opportunity for an American novelist to do his own version sans the smut but avec the violence, worse violence, even – this would become the standard American method of adapting French art.

Seriously, this thing turns into a Cormac McCarthy novel towards the end.  Or a Coen brothers movie.  To my memory, I had never read much about the novel itself, but I had read plenty about Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, the 1924 film adaptation, so there were several points where I thought “Uh oh, here it comes.”  And then, mostly, it didn’t.  But eventually it did.

McTeague is an unlicensed San Francisco dentist.  He is huge, able to pull teeth with his bare hands, and unintelligent, a “draught horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient” (Ch. 1).  His stupidity is a genuinely interesting part of the story.  There are a number of scenes which begin as comedy but turn into something more pathetic as McTeague proves unable to handle ordinary activities.  The scene in Chapter 6, for example, where he is almost too stupid to buy theater tickets in advance.  Or see Chapter 4, where the poor brute almost chokes to death on a billiard ball.

He learns there is “something else in life besides concertinas and steam beer” when he begins fixing the teeth of petite Trina.  “The male virile desire in him tardily awakened, aroused itself, strong and brutal” (Ch. 2).  Meanwhile, Trina is in some ways repulsed by McTeague but also turned on by his strength.  “McTeague had awakened the Woman” (Ch. 6), etc. – Norris has to resort to abstractions at points like this.

Reading these scenes soon after reading The Awakening, published the same year, was amusing?  Everyone is awakening!  Was the word showing up in magazines a lot or something?

The San Francisco setting is terrific, and strangely intact and recognizable.  Characters walk to the Cliff House or the Presidio; the cable car is in the same place; even McTeague’s dentist parlor, with its big gold tooth for a sign, is in more or less the right place, except now it is a saloon.

Monday, February 6, 2017

This nightmare was soon followed by another - Maxim Gorky's My Childhood

Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood (1913) is what a few years ago was called a misery memoir.  Maybe that trend is over.  Gorky’s book, the first of his trilogy of autobiographies, is, nevertheless, utterly miserable.

The book begins with the corpse of Gorky’s father.  Alexei Peshkov, the future Maxim Gorky, is four years old.  It ends with the death of his mother when Alexei is eleven.  In between, well, “[t]his nightmare was soon followed by another” (first line of Ch. 5).

The middles of the thirteen chapters were not necessarily so bad.  The ends, though, oh boy.  It was always a relief when no one ended up murdered:

I went to the window where, numb with misery, I stared down at the empty street. (last line of Ch. 6)

The house seemed to be a deep pit from which light and sound and feeling were absent, in which I lived a blind and almost lifeless existence.  (last line of Ch. 7)

Thus ended the first of a chain of friendships with the best people of my land.  (last line of Ch. 8)

And, lying on the oven ledge, I looked down on them and thought how squat and obese and repulsive all of them were.  (last line of Ch. 9)

Ah, I love that last one – that’s the chapter that ends with the brutal murder.

The strange thing is that Gorky emerges from this childhood as an optimist.  He has resiliency.  Much of this attitude comes from his grandmother, a wonderful character who is perpetually happy, sometimes with the aid of booze, no matter what life or her awful children or her brutal husband throw at her.  Some of this is religious belief – she always prays for the happiness of others, not herself – and some of it temperament, a temperament she shares with, or passes on, to her grandson.

Grandma, a terrific, imaginative storyteller, is describing the time she saw a pair of angels:

“How beautiful it was!  Oh, Alex, dear heart, things go well wherever God is, in heaven or here on earth.”

“But you can’t mean here in our house?”

“Praised be Our Lady!” said grandma, crossing herself, “everything goes well.”

I was bothered by this.  (Ch. 4)

This section with grandma becomes so happy that the chapter has too end with two catastrophes, a fire and a separate death.

I suppose I would call the grandfather a wonderful character, too, but he is more “wonderful” in the sense of making a good character in a novel.  In real life, he would be a person to avoid.  Much of the “plot” of this “novel” is about the deepening relationship between the bad grandfather and the smart, willful grandson as the family declines, one disaster at a time, from prosperous craftsmen (dyers) to beggars.

Gorky only resorts to editorial once, near the end of the memoir.  Why return to “such atrocious memoires of our bestial Russian life”?  Because along with “our animal self… grows a brilliant, creative, wholesome human type which encourages us to seek our regeneration, a future of peace and humane living for all” (last line of Ch. 12).

If My Childhood were a novel, this would sound false, but it is a memoir, and there are two more volumes.

I read Isidor Schneider’s translation.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

But nothing happens - premature celebration of the the 100th anniversary of Wilfred Owen becoming a great poet

Against my recent practice, I read an academic edition of The Poems of Wilfred Owen (1985, ed. Jon Stallworthy) rather than some version of how readers would have originally known him, like Poems (1920, ed. Siegfried Sassoon).  The difference is palpable.  The more or less chronological arrangement of the complete edition means that close to half of the book’s 200 pages is given to the minor poems of a talented imitator of Keats.  Most surprising is a twenty-page poetic version of “The Little Mermaid” (written 1912), the “Endymion” of Keats but using Hans Christian Andersen rather than Greek mythology.  It’s pretty good, for what it is.

The complete edition tells a story, then.  Young Keats, then a long gap while Owen is fighting in France, then the astounding, rapid development of a real successor to Keats, created – creativity is a mystery – by some combination of experience in combat, the discovery of a subject, the friendship and example of Sassoon, and perhaps most importantly the hospital stay that finally allowed him to write.  The speed at which this great poet appears is something to see.

Then the story ends with Poems as Owen’s first book, posthumous.  Poems is barely a book, only twenty-three short poems, but each one extraordinary.  There is no develop.  The great dead poet just pops out of the war.

Well, different books tell different stories.

Owen’s technical mastery had me – I don’t know.  It is, on the one hand, easy to be absorbed by subject, the pathos of the myriad deaths of Owen’s young men, but it is similarly easy to pause over a stanza’s language, savoring the pararhymes and searching for the assonance and so on, all of the effects that make the poem sound so good, read aloud or otherwise.

from Exposure

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deathly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew;
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
                But nothing happens.   (ll. 16-20)

The last line is a refrain.  I picked this stanza because it is transparent, the repeated “fl-“ and “w-“ words close together.  “Sudden successive… silence… shudders…  sidelong,” that last word somehow shifting into the “fl-“ cluster.  “Snow” and “renew” seem more like slant rhymes than pararhymes, but “silence / -chalance” is ingenious.  You vary the vowels, but keep the consonants, if you don’t want to look up “pararhyme” – “mood / mud,” “grinned / groaned”:

‘My Love!’ one moaned.  Love-languid seemed his mood,
Till slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
                 And the Bayonets’ long teeth grinned
                 Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned;
                And the Gas hissed.  (from “The Last Laugh,” ll. 11-15)

His imagery is as skilled as his versifying.  The air shudders, the flakes pause, the shells groan – wonderful stuff, at a distance, but by the time any but a few poets read these poems, it was at a distance.

I suppose the beginning of a poet’s Annus Mirabilis does not lend itself to anniversaries like a death, but 2017 – more like October or November, though, not now – is the hundredth anniversary of the creation of a great poet.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Robert Graves discreetly blends Love, Fear and Hate and Childish Toys in Country Sentiment

In 1920 Robert Graves was still a young poet, not the baffling omni-author he later became.  Country Sentiment was his third book, if I am counting correctly.  It is a mix of children’s verse, or children’s verse for adults, with some war poems.  In his previous books the two modes were jumbled together, but this time the war poems go in their own section, “Retrospect.”

The final poem is titled “A First Review”:

Love, Fear and Hate and Childish Toys
    Are here discreetly blent;
Admire, you ladies, read you boys,
            My Country Sentiment.

He is mocking me for reading his book.  Wait, I can’t skip the third stanza:

Then Tom, a hard and bloody chap,
    Though much beloved by me,
“Robert, have done with nursery pap,
    Write like a man,” says he.

Graves is mocking me by name!

But I would never such I thing.  I enjoy the nursery pap, although Walter de la Mare is better at it.  My only serious objection is to a “moon / June” rhyme in the first poem, “A Frosty Night.”  Was that not already a much-mocked pop song cliché in 1920?

That poem, like many in the book, are off-kilter dialogues between a parent and child, where one or another introduces an uncanny touch.  In “Dicky,” the poor boy in the title, walking home, encounters a dead man, walking about.  Dicky’s wise mother advises him to play it cool around the dead.

Do not sigh or fear, Dicky,
    How is it right
To grudge the dead their ghostly dark
    And wan moonlight?

Good advice, right?  Graves is always good with a ballad:

One moonlight night a ship drove in,
    A ghost ship from the west,
Drifting with bare mast and lone tiller,
    Like a mermaid drest
In long green weed and barnacles:
    She beached and came to rest.  (from “The Alice Jean”)

That is a good way to begin a story.  The story that follows is pretty good, living up to the beginning about as well as it can in our skeptical age.

The war poems, in effect, become a kind of children’s poem, or vice versa, another way to tell stories about the dead and the many ways they return.  The most explicit attempt is “Haunted,” a more generalized version of a story Graves retells in Good-Bye To All That (1929), when Graves and some fellow soldiers saw, they were sure, a comrade who had been recently killed:

I met you suddenly down the street,
Strangers assume your phantom faces,
You grin at me from daylight places,
Dead, long dead, I’m ashamed to greet
Dead men down the morning street.

The Robert Graves-to-be, the mythologist, occasionally appears, as in the sinister “Outlaws,” about the creepiest of the fairy folk, old gods shrunken by lack of worshippers:

Proud gods, humbled, sunk so low,
    Living with ghosts and ghouls,
And ghosts of ghosts and last year’s snow
   And dead toadstools.

Ideas to develop after Graves says good-bye to England and the war.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

If you call poetry a song - some of Jaroslav Seifert's singing

The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert (1998, tr. Ewald Osers and George Gibian) is 250 pages of genial company with the Czech national poet, a position inseparable from the troubles of his country, the multiple wars, invasions, and occupations.  Or the troubles of his city, really.  He is the great poet of Prague.

Day after day I gaze in gratitude
on Prague’s Castle
                         and on its Cathedral:
I cannot tear my eyes away
from that picture.
                       It is mine
and I also believe it is miraculous.  (from “View from Charles Bridge,” 1983)

Tourist Prague, even.  There is enough geography in the later poems that even a couple of days in Prague was a big help.

Seifert began as a proletarian poet.  “We wanted to ‘astound the bourgeoisie,’ but it seems we astounded them only mildly” (p. 226).  I detected a contemporary French flavor, which was confirmed in a biographical prose piece, although in a surprising way:

[Karel Teige] would read and immediately translate for us the poems of Apollinaire.  In this way we became acquainted not only with Alcools and Caligrammes, but also with the poems of Jacob, Cocteau, Cendrars, Reverdy, and other modern poets.  Vildrac’s beautiful Book of Love, which we had loved before that, receded into the background, because Cubism, Futurism, and Tzara’s Dada rushed towards us, thanks to Teige.  (228)

Thus Prague looks a little different in a poem from the 1920s than in the above poem:

The telescopes have gone blind from the horror
    of the universe
and the fantastic eyes of the spacemen
have been sucked out by death.  (from “Prague,” 1929)

The telescopes would have been new, and are still there.  Osers, the translator, gives most of the book to the poetry of Seifert’s seventies and eighties, when he began writing poems again after a silence of two decades, poems that circulated as samizdat.  The poems that won him a Nobel, I presume, like a long sequence titled “The Bombing of the Town of Kralupy” (1983) from Seifert’s war experiences:

I do not know if I may say at last
what crossed my mind
at the sight of the bodies
                       -- it was a shocking thought.

They lay there on the ground in tidy rows
like so many hares laid out
after a successful shoot.  (188)

Maybe hard to get this subject wrong.  A set of music poems are lighter, including tributes to Bach and Mozart:

Mozart is not buried in capricious Vienna.
His grave is in Prague
on the Petřin hillside.

The grave is by now half crumbled.
It’s been a lot of years!
And no one else knows about it.  (from “Nocturnal Divertimento,” 1983, p. 196)

Three great lifelong loves for Seifert – women, Prague, and poetry:

If you call poetry a song
–  and people often do –
then I’ve sung all my life.

And I marched with those who had nothing,
who lived from hand to mouth.
I was one of them.  (1967, p. 79)

It can be hard to hear the singing in Osers’s free verse translations, which he says is a good part of why the book includes so few poems from the more formal, lyrical poems of the 1920s.  Easy enough to spend some time with wise, friendly, lively Seifert, though.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

the adventures of innocence have so often been the material of fiction - more useful Henry James short stories

“The Two Faces” (1900) was helpful in decoding the obscurities of The Awkward Age.  It is written on similar principles, but is simpler and only fifteen pages long.

Mrs. Grantham introduces a young woman into society, purposefully dressing her to look like a fool, which means “many things – too many, and they appeared to be feathers, frills, excrescences of silk and lace.”  Mrs. Grantham commits this small act of minor cruelty as revenge on the woman’s husband, who is Mrs. Grantham’s ex-boyfriend.  The point of view is that of Mrs. Grantham’s current boyfriend, Sutton.  When he witnesses the revenge – when he sees the cruelty in Mrs. Grantham’s face and humiliation in the young woman’s – there we have “The Two Faces” – he decides to dump Mrs. Grantham.

That’s a version of the story, with some translation.  Most of what I wrote has to be inferred.  For example, all Sutton does at the end is leave the party early.  If I want that action to be meaningful, I have to do something with it.  None of the sexual connections with Mrs. Grantham are explicit.  They are barely even implicit.  But to interpret what is visible in the text – to have it make sense at all – I have to start filling the void.

I first read The Awkward Age as if James would eventually provide clues to resolve the novel’s ambiguities.  “The Two Faces,” easier to absorb, showed me more clearly how much was going to remain unstated.  It is not so much a technique to allow multiple possibilities of motive, but to demand the reader work harder, and take some risks, just to piece together the plot.  Without some reasonably big leaps, “The Two Faces” makes no sense.

I want to note one fun description of a secondary character, introduced for expository purposes:

She was stout, red, rich, mature, universal – a massive, much-fingered volume, alphabetical, wonderful, indexed, that opened of itself at the right place.

Look, there is one of those mystifying superlatives, “wonderful,” used in a way I don’t understand.

James was using his short stories of this period to work on a number of techniques.  “The Story in It” (1902) works in the opposite way, removing every shadow from a simple case of unrequited love and then wondering, per the title, whether there is a “’story’ in it.”  This meta-fictional question is asked in a story which mostly consists of an argument about the purpose of fiction, an essay in dialogue disguised as a short story.

“You mean that the adventures of innocence have so often been the material of fiction? Yes,” Voyt replied; “that’s exactly what the bored reader complains of.  He has asked for bread and been given a stone.  What is it but, with absolute directness, a question of interest, or, as people say, of the story.”

The random reader of The Anglo-American Magazine likely found this story incomprehensible, but for anyone following James, who at this point had completed The Ambassadors and was writing The Wings of the Dove, it is revealing.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

the commonness of failure and the strangeness of life - gentle James - "The Abasement of the Northmores" and "The Great Good Place"

“The Great Good Place” (1900) features a writer overwhelmed with his profession, not the writing itself but everything surrounding it, “the bristling hedge of letters” and the “newspapers too many – what could any creature want of so much news? - … each with its hand on the neck of the other, so that the row of their bodiless heads was like a series of decapitations.”  Decapitated heads that also have hands – weird.  Then of course there are the huge mounds of new books, “books from friends, books from enemies.”

The exhausted author, somehow transports himself to a rest cure, or a writer’s retreat, perhaps by means of a dream, perhaps not.  It is in England, it takes currency, it has a library – “He could bring a book from the library – he could bring two, he could bring three.”  That’s my favorite line.  The joy of three books!  I have experienced that.

The “story” is little more than a description of James’s Utopia.  “There, for a blessing, he could read and write; there, above all, he could do nothing – he could live.”  In the end the very idea of the Utopia proves to be a cure.

“The Abasement of the Northmores” is about writers, too – letter writers.  Lord Northmore has died, and his wife has put out a call for his letters.  The less famous, less important, better Warren Hope has also died.  Why does no one want to read his letters, wonders Mrs. Hope?  But she dutifully sends her husband’s correspondence with Northmore, extensive and surprisingly well organized, to his widow.  She keeps secret her own, earlier letters – she could have been Lady Northmore.

There is a twist, a sharp sting, but for the most part the story is warm and gentle, a story about how mourning becomes tangled with resentment.  Appreciate – mourn – Warren Hope more, the wife demands, and that mediocrity Lord Northmore less.  She has two kinds of grief to work through.  Fortunately – this is the twist – her husband has left her a little gift that helps with this exact problem.

When she got home indeed she at first only wept – wept for the commonness of failure and the strangeness of life.  Her tears perhaps brought her a sense of philosophy; it was all as broad as it was long.

I do not usually think of James, a ferocious ironist, as gentle, and “The Abasement of the Northmores” is as much a story of revenge as anything else, but still.  These two stories pair well.

Tomorrow, more Jamesian revenge.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

engrossed at times, to the exclusion of everything else, with the study of the short story - Henry James in 1900, and a bit later

She had other play for her pen, as well as, fortunately, other remuneration; a regular correspondence for a ‘prominent Boston paper,’ fitful connections with public sheets perhaps also, in cases, fitful, and a mind, above all, engrossed at times, to the exclusion of everything else, with the study of the short story.  (“Flickerbridge,” 1902)

After The Awkward Age (1899), Henry James turned to short fiction, publishing eleven stories in 1900, which I think is his record (compared to ten in 1892).  Then one in 1901 and two in 1902, as he turned his attention back to novels.  James used short fiction to work on ideas and techniques he would need for his masterpieces, and the run of The Wings of the Dove (1901), The Ambassadors (1902), and The Golden Bowl (1903), the defining works of the “late James” style, are where it turns out James is going.

I don’t know that any of the ten I have read from the period are themselves masterpieces, not compared to “The Beast in the Jungle” (1903).  I am trusting John Bayley, editor of Collected Stories: Volume 2 (1892-1910, Everyman’s Library) to make the right choices.  “The Abasement of the Northmores,” maybe, that one is unusually good.  But now that I have come to understand James’s experimental method, I am as interested in figuring out what James is trying to do as anything else.  I am reading the biography of his creativity.

So, what is new?  The stories are short.  These are not the forty and fifty page “tales,” but short stories, twenty pages or less.  A few characters, one action.

Stylistically, they are all over the place.  “The Two Faces” is a return to The Awkward Age, dialogue-heavy, the story depending entirely on my inference.  Several move towards the long, complex sentences of “late James,” full of second thoughts and shadings – as in my header from “Flickerbridge” –  but then “Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie” – what a title – is, for James, transparent, almost plain.  But it is, as the title suggests, also a return to a theme of twenty years earlier, the American girl in Europe, so the style is also twenty years old.  Maybe James salvaged it from the drawer.

Several stories star portrait painters.  Questions about writing, especially the creation of characters, are deflected onto painters.  In “The Beldonald Holbein,” the portrait painters do not even have to paint a portrait.  They change – possible ruin – a woman’s life just by saying she ought to be painted.

The two biggest surprises to me were “The Story in It,” which is poor stuff as a story but is really an essay in dialogue form about the purpose of fiction, and “The Great Good Place,” which is a genuine example of Utopian fantasy, and should be included in all anthologies of such works, if there are any.  A place of perfect rest for James.

I will dig in to these stories for a couple of days.  Any suggestions for others I ought to read are welcome.  “What, Bayley omitted ‘Broken Wings?’”  Or whatever.

Friday, January 27, 2017

too beautiful to let her read - writing other than dialogue in The Awkward Age

The enormous amount of dialogue in The Awkward Age emphasize everything that is not dialogue.  Much of it is gesture, action, or expression attached to dialogue:

The Duchess remained for a little rather grimly silent.

The Duchess handsomely stared.

… the Duchess echoed, fairly looking again around the room.

The Duchess was frank and jovial.

Again the Duchess had one of her pauses, which were indeed so frequent in her talks with this intimate that an auditor could sometimes wonder what particular form of relief they represented.

All of these are from a single page of Chapter 5.  Some kind of attitude is attached to four of her six lines of speech, ending in that elaborate, mystifying pause.  The dialogue is never presented straight for any length.  There is always more to interpret.

Much of the descriptive language is humorous.  Or I took it as such.  “Mitchy smiled at her till he was red” (Ch. 33).  That is not normal behavior.  The descriptions of people are generally hilarious:

Mr. Mitchett had so little intrinsic appearance that an observer would have felt indebted, as an aid to memory, to the rare prominence of his colourless eyes and the positive attention drawn to his chin by the precipitation of its retreat from detection.  (Ch. 7)

Mitchy is an extreme case, but throughout the book characters are described by the absence of characteristics, by their vagueness.

He had a pale, cold face, marked and made regular, made even in a manner handsome, by a hardness of line in which, oddly, there was no significance, no accent…  he suggested a stippled drawing by an inferior master…  with the air of having here and there in his person a bone or two more than his share…  (Ch. 6)

That’s Mr. Brookenham, the husband of the rhetorically brilliant queen of the novel.  The entire paragraph of his description is something else.  He is completely unsuited to for the verbal game played by his wife and her friends, so a good number of his lines of dialogue are often just “Oh.”  “’Oh!’ her husband replied” (Ch. 6).

Or another character, an important one: “He had indeed no presence, but he had somehow an effect” (Ch. 1).  James is unforgiving.  I will not be allowed to rest on my own imagination’s embodiment of the novel’s characters.  They have no embodiment outside of their speech, outside of the text.

The comic writing in The Awkward Age is strong.  This is the way to appreciate a view: “She had sunk down upon the bench almost with a sense of adventure, yet not too fluttered to wonder if it wouldn’t have been happy to bring a book; the charm of which precisely would have been in feeling everything about her too beautiful to let her read” (Ch. 16).

Or here’s Mitchy, again, who is admittedly one strange dude:

“’She said what they always say – that the effect I produce is, though at first upsetting, one that little by little they find it possible to get used to.  The world’s full of people who are getting used to me,” Mr. Mitchett concluded. (Ch. 7)

A line actually worthy of Wilde, there.  Mostly, reading The Awkward Age, I think, no wonder James bombed as a playwright.  But he got off some good lines.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

“I do say the most hideous things.” - The Awkward Age's talk

The story of The Awkward Age seemed a little thin to me.  Low stakes.  The mostly-dialogue method is inefficient.  It takes a lot of words, a lot more than usual, to get some pretty basic things, like characterization, or action, done.  Who cares whether Nanda escapes the corrupting influence of her mother?

Said another way: why tell this story this way?

She faltered still a little.  “I do say the most hideous things.  But we have said worse, haven’t we?”  (Ch. 21)

That is Mrs. Brookenham again.  Mrs. Brook is at the center of the circle of gossips and worse, the corrupters of morals who populate The Awkward Age.  Not just the center – she is their leader.  This groups of friends and otherwise are engaged in an elaborate and voluntary social game in which points are scored by means of superior rhetoric – wit, for example, which is why much of the dialogue sounds like Oscar Wilde – or more like Ronald Firbank – or other types of verbal felicity.

Mrs. Brook leads the circle because she is the superior rhetorician.  What appears to me as mannered gibberish is part of an elaborate ritual of social jousting.

The Duchess then glanced round the circle.  “You’re very odd people, all of you, and I don’t think you quite know how ridiculous you are.”  (Ch. 8)

Yes, exactly.  Exactly.  The most direct expression of this idea – aside from surprisingly frequently lines like “’I do so like your phrases’” (Ch. 21) – is this passage:

“Why, my moral beauty, my dear woman – if that’s what you mean by my genius – is precisely my curse.  What on earth is left for a man just rotten with goodness?  It renders necessary the kind of liking that renders unnecessary anything else.”

“Now that is cheap paradox!” Vanderbank patiently sighed.  “You’re down for a fine.”

It was with less of the patience perhaps that Mrs. Brook took this up.  “Yes, on that we are stiff.  Five pounds, please.”  (Ch. 22)

And the offender pulls out a five pound note!  As a penalty for sounding too much like Wilde!  Which is an established rule among these people!  Forget their affairs and their dirty French novels and so on, these are some danged odd birds.  I need the help not of literary criticism but anthropology.

The difficulties of the dialogues, then, are part of the dance, the competition.  Pronouns are made obscure on purpose, to elicit requests for clarification, a demerit.  Characters finish each other’s lines as ways to score points.  The compliments – magnificent, wonderful, splendid – which are mostly directed at Mrs. Brook, the champion, are concessions of defeat.  An odd variation near the end (“’You’re wild,’ she said simply – ‘you’re wild’”) is a way of saying that the “wild” character has broken some rules by being too intense and sincere.  His response: “He wonderfully glared.”  Poor guy is kind of the novel’s punching bag; I don’t blame him.

He shone at them brightly enough, and Mrs Brook, thoughtful, wistful, candid, took in for a moment the radiance. “And yet to think that after all it has been mere talk!” (Ch. 21)

I should have been watching for the word “talk.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

“The awful subject?” Mrs. Brook wailed - the subject of The Awkward Age - abject, horrid, unredeemed vileness from beginning to end

The “elderly” Mr. Longdon – “he would never again see fifty-five” – stumbles into a social circle that is centered around Mrs. Brookenham, the daughter of the woman he wanted to marry, long ago.  Mrs. Brook – lotta nicknames in this novel – Mrs. Brook’s daughter, Nanda, strongly reminds Longdon of his lost love.  Mrs. Brook’s circle of friends are “depraved,” mildly, or perhaps quite a lot.  Longdon determines to rescue Nanda from these horrible people before they ruin her.

This is more or less the story of The Awkward Age (1899).  Imagine that young Maisie, from the just slightly earlier What Maisie Knew (1897) has grown up a bit and found herself once again stuck in her mother’s disreputable world.  A lot of questionable people are wandering in and out of the house.  This chain of heroines – Maisie, the telegraph operator “In the Cage” (1898), the governess in “The Turn of the Screw” (1898) – make an interesting set.  Innocents among the corrupt.

One difficulty we are now likely to have with The Awkward Age is that the terms of the argument, how much a young woman might know about sexual matters, have changed so much that the central problem of the novel may have retreated into the Victorian fog.  Nanda is raised amidst fairly frank sexual talk and behavior.  Another young woman, Aggie, is protected, only fed “the small sweet biscuit of unobjectionable knowledge” (Book Fifth), and thus becomes depraved the instant she marries, running around on her hapless old husband on their honeymoon.  I mentioned a scene where two characters wrestle over a dirty French novel – that’s the young newlywed Aggie and her new boyfriend.  She sits on the book so he can’t get to it, yet pretty soon he has it.  Suggestive.  This is all just offstage, taking place just as the other characters wonder if they should be so frank in front of Nanda:

Vanderbank, for a minute and with a special short arrest, took in the circle.  “Should you call us ‘mixed’?  There’s only one girl.”  (Book Eighth)

That girl is Nanda.  Since Aggie is married, she is no longer a girl.  The logic of the sexual talk being appropriate if in front of only one girl escapes me, but I was in the state of this fellow:

“Mercy on us, what are you talking about?  That’s what I want to know!” Mr. Cashmore vivaciously declared. (a page earlier)

Everything shocking is so tightly coded that it was only the sudden concern about Nanda that made me understand that the rhetorically rarified conversation had moved onto dangerous ground.  This is the first climax of the novel, this discussion of whether a nineteen-year-old woman has read Zola’s Nana, or whatever the book is meant to be:

“She brought it only for me to read,” Tisha gravely interposed.

Mrs. Brook looked strange.  “Nanda recommended it?” [Mrs. Brook is Nanda’s mother]

“Oh no – the contrary.”  Tishy, as if scared by so much publicity, floundered a little.  “She only told me –“

“The awful subject?” Mrs. Brook wailed.

Mrs. Brook frequently wails.

Earlier in The Awkward Age, dirty French novels – different ones, though – are described as “particularly dreadful” because of their “morbid modernity”, but still (Mrs. Brook is speaking):

 “But for abject, horrid, unredeemed vileness from beginning to end –”

“So you read to the end?” Mr. Mitchett interposed.

“I read to see what you could possibly have sent such things to me for, and because so long as they were in my hands they were not in the hands of others.  Please to remember in future that the children are all over the place, and that Harold and Nanda have their nose in everything.” (Book Second)

Thus the horror, much later, possibly even sincere, that Nanda has actually read one of these books.  Harold, her brother, now he is hopeless, completely rotten, beyond rescue.

My reason for reading to the end of The Awkward Age is not so different than that of Mrs. Brook.  Maybe I have two more days on this strange novel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

“I sometimes think in effect you’re incapable of anything straightforward.” - The Awkward Age is difficult

“I sometimes think in effect you’re incapable of anything straightforward.”  (Ch. 31)

The Awkward Age (1899) is the most difficult Henry James text I have ever read, and I predict the hardest I will ever read.  It is a genuine avant-garde performance.  I think it is the most difficult 19th century novel I have read (edit and second thought: most difficult novel in prose).

The novel is primarily in the form of speech, mostly dialogues, as if it were an enormous play.  I would love to know what proportion of the text is between quotation marks.  But there is also some scene-setting, some descriptions of characters, quite a lot of speech inflection (“he almost musingly repeated,” Ch. 21), and occasional instructions to the reader from the narrator.  There is no interiority of thought whatsoever, so the novel is built on opposite principles from The Golden Bowl (1904).

It is something like William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) or J.R. (1975), decades earlier, and thankfully at half the length.  There is some action, including a climactic scene where characters wrestle over a dirty French novel, like Zola’s Nana.

Most of the scenes involve two characters gossiping about a third character, and her relations with a fourth.

“We discuss everything and every one – we’re always discussing each other.  I think we must be rather celebrated for it, and it’s a kind of trick – isn’t it? that’s catching.  But don’t you think it’s the most interesting kind of talk?”  (Ch. 12)

What a blessing it is that people now have television.

Characters constantly interrupt each other, finishing sentences or interjecting questions.  They deploy the vaguest possible nouns at every opportunity – “he,” “that,” “it.”  They frequently ask each other what they mean, which should help, but is often more confusing.

“Well,” said Vanderbank, “how did she put it?”

Mrs. Brook reflected – recovered it.  “’I like him awfully, but I’m not in the least his idea.’”

“His idea of what?”

“That’s just what I asked her.”  (Ch. 14)

Characters frequently compliment each other.  Maybe these are not compliments.  They frequently describe each other with complimentary language:

“He cares more for her,” he presently added, “even than we do.”

Mrs. Brook gazed away at the infinite of space.  “’We,’ my dear Van,” she at last returned, “is one of your own, real wonderful touches.”

[snip snip snip, but same page]

It was as if he could not at last but show himself really struck; yet what he exclaimed on was what might in truth most have impressed him.  “You are magnificent, really!”  (Ch. 21)

Even the narrator gets in the game.  “Mitchy was splendid” (Ch. 32), apparently meant to describe his manner of speaking.  For the most part, I have little idea what James means when he or his characters use such words.  A number of my notes are along the lines of “gibberish” or “what are they gibbering about.”  I was amused to discover that Edmund Wilson, a much more knowledgeable and serious reader of James than I am, called the characters “this disemboweled gibbering crew.”  I wish I had thought of “disemboweled.”

I want to spend a couple more days on this novel.  Its difficulties give me unusually good opportunities for large errors.