Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Karl Kraus, war writer - his misused language beautifies a misused life

Karl Kraus has become a World War I writer.  It is a strange fate.  The prophet was right, so his prophecy swallowed him.  Clichéd, thoughtless language really did lead to the apocalypse, or at least an apocalypse, a war that quickly became an inescapable nightmare.  The crazy guy with the “World Is Ending” sign was right.  At least metaphorically right.

Also relevant is that much of Kraus’s best writing is in one way or another about the war.  The two decades of writing leading up to it becomes background for The Last Days of Mankind.  Such are the vicissitudes of masterpieces.

Kraus’s first major response to the world war, an article he read in November 1914 and published in December, is titled “In These Great Times,” a horrible phrase taken from the newspapers, a phrase that is easy to mock:

… the times measure themselves and are astonished at how great they have become overnight.  But they have probably always been great, and I simply did not notice it.  Thus it was an optical fault of mine to perceive them as small.  (80)

I had planned to chew through this article for a post or two, but upon review I have discovered that it is so think and knotted, as rhetorically complex as Thomas Carlyle, that I am mostly baffled.  The argument is built of paradoxes:

Let him who has something to say come forward and be silent!  (71)

Perhaps the obscurity of detail helped keep Kraus out of prison.  He was the only major German-language writer to speak out against the war.  Hofmannsthal, Rilke, Hauptmann, Thomas Mann – all wrote and spoke enthusiastically in favor of the German and Austrian cause, at least for a time.  Arthur Schnitzler was wiser; he followed Kraus’s advice and was silent.  Only Kraus spoke in opposition, although the nature of his opposition changed and broadened as the costs of the war grew.

The main target remained the same, though.  Kraus’s greatest enemies were other writers, especially journalists (the line in quotations marks is from Antony and Cleopatra, a messenger’s response to Cleopatra’s anger over bad news.):

“Gracious madam, I that do bring the news made not the match.”  But the reporter does make the match, sets the house on fire, and turns the horrors he fabricates into truth.  Through decades of practice he has produced in mankind that degree of unimaginativeness which enables it to wage a war of extermination against itself…  he has the reflected glory of heroic qualities at his disposal, and his misused language beautifies a misused life – as though eternity had saved its apex for the age in which a reporter lives. (76)

The cause of war – or at least this war – is unimaginativeness, which is caused by misused language.  This is a writer’s argument, a literary argument.  How many people could possibly find it convincing?  But it is not a paradox to Kraus, at least, and his anger at the press and the poets is real enough.

“In These Great Times” can be found in the 1976 Carcanet collection In These Great Times, ed. and trans. Harry Zohn.  The forthcoming Penguin Classics Kraus anthology is titled In This Great Time and Other Writings, so I will bet you one silver dollar that the essay will be in that book too.

Monday, April 29, 2013

I must wait until my writings are outdated - it's Karl Kraus week!

A wiser, more experienced writer,  for instance a professional critic, would have no qualms introducing a week about Viennese satirist and scold Karl Kraus by lightly rewriting the introductory piece I wrote a month ago.  A fool and an amateur, I will just point to it.  The Jonathan Franzen book about Karl Kraus is still on Amazon, evidence but not proof that it is not a prank.

I hear noises which others don’t hear and which disturb for me the music of the spheres, which others don’t hear either.

Today I will borrow some of Kraus’s aphorisms to help describe him.  They are all taken from Karl Kraus, Hermann Broch, Elias Canetti, Robert Walser: Selected Short Writings (Continuum, 2006), pp. 24-33.  For some reason the entire Kraus section is available, at least in the United States, via Google Books.

Kraus was a satirist and cultural critic.  I suppose today we would call him a media critic, since he spent so much time attacking journalism, (“No ideas and the ability to express them – that’s a journalist”).  His weapons include parody, scorn, and even reason, but his main form of attack is accurate quotation.  Kinda hitting below the belt.  His work is filled with lines borrowed from advertising, politicians, and newspapers, sometimes ironically repurposed, sometimes devastating when presented as flatly as possible.

I do not know the work of H. L. Mencken so well, but he might be thought of as an American cousin of Kraus, an enemy of cant, propaganda, and officialese.  This sounds like Mencken, doesn’t it?

The devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make people worse.

Well, it sounds like any number of curmudgeons.  Kraus is a classic Austrian curmudgeon, perhaps the first great one.

My public and I understand each other very well: it does not hear what I say, and I do not say what it would like to hear.

Both Kraus’s topicality and his emphasis on language have caused problems for translators.  Some – perhaps much – of Kraus’s writing is probably not worth the necessary compromises, although I would like to see some careful, scholarly, independently wealthy translator prove me wrong.  Regardless, enough good pieces can be and have been translated to provide Caravana de Recuerdos and me with plenty of material.

My readers believe that I write just for the day because I write about the day.  So I must wait until my writings are outdated.  Then they may possibly achieve timelessness.

Kraus wrote one long piece, The Last Days of Mankind, nominally a play, a savage, complex treatment of World War I that is said to be 800 pages long.  About a quarter is available in a 1974 English version, and even that mangled fragment is a masterpiece.  Perhaps the best-selling Franzen book will inspire someone to finish it.

The dog sniffs first, then lifts his leg.  One cannot well object to this lack of originality.  But that the writer reads first, before he writes, is pitiful.

Hey, careful with the teeth, there, Karl!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

He found a splendid subject for a painting - what The Belly of Paris is about

Of course I emphasize the aesthetic argument of The Belly of Paris, since that is what I usually do, but I do not believe that I overemphasize it.  Gustave Flaubert is still alive and writing in 1873, and this is a novel by a disciple.

My suspicion is that The Belly of Paris is written primarily for passages like the ones I have been writing about, that the plot and characters and so on serving as frames and picture-hanging wire.

He would rejoin them on the opposite side of the street, where he found a splendid subject for a painting: the stallkeepers under their big faded umbrellas, red, blue, and mauve, which, mounted on poles, formed little humps of colour throughout the market, catching the fiery glow of the setting sun, before it faded away over the carrots and turnips.  One vendor, an old woman of about a hundred, was sheltering three scrawny lettuces under a battered umbrella of pink silk.  (171)

I wonder if this is stolen from an actual painting, a Murillo or something like that.

Frankly, I have trouble taking Zola seriously on any subject but art.  I have only read three Zola novels, and none of those the right novels, which I think by reputation would be Nana and Germinal, so I know I am missing a lot.

Zola was a great champion of the poor, or so I understand, but none of these novels have been about the poor.  The Kill is about the nouveau riche, Thérèse Raquin and The Belly of Paris about bourgeois shopkeepers.  L’Assommoir is about poor people, isn’t it – that one comes four years after Belly, and it’s then another eight years to Germinal.  I am just saying that you would not think of Zola as any sort of crusader based on the three books I have read.

The Belly of Paris is also a novel about politics, with a plot about a group of radicals planning to overthrow Louis Napoleon’s government, which is portrayed as, essentially, a police state.  This part of the story features an outstanding twist which would have made Kafka laugh, and the resolution of the story is good, too, with the women of Les Halles, the shopkeepers, at open war with the radicals, using the strongest weapon they have, which turns out to be gossip.  I am only giving away a surprise to readers unfamiliar with French history.  In 1858 a plan for revolution can only fizzle or dissolve; it will not explode.

I do not doubt Zola’s contempt for Louis Napoleon’s oppressive government or for the fat, complacent bourgeois.  Apparently fearing I will miss the point, he gives the painter a monologue about the Battle of the Fat and the Thin, “two hostile groups, one of which devours the other and grows fat and sleek and endlessly enjoys itself” (191).  The book has eighty pages left, but the ending is no longer in doubt, even setting aside the fact that the revolutionaries are complete fools.

My suspicion, based on what I know about the author but to some degree sniffed out from some of the ambivalences in this novel, is that Zola was aware that he was one of the Fat – thus the loving descriptions of food, the marvelous excess of the writing – but had a novelist’s sympathy for the Thin.  But I am likely just projecting, since I am also one of the Fat.

Friday, April 26, 2013

That was my masterpiece. The best thing I’ve ever done. - the art of The Belly of Paris

The painter, Claude Lantier, young and ambitious, is the character who does not belong in The Belly of Paris, who is an outsider to Les Halles.  He is what is now called a point-of-view character, someone who can offer his eyes to the book’s reader, like a pair of binoculars.  Whenever Zola wants to go for a stroll through Les Halles he drops the painter into the novel as a guide.  Lantier is the one who sees like Zola sees.

But he never felt the elbows digging into him, he stood in ecstasy before the lungs and lights that hung from the auction hooks.  He often explained to Cadine and Marjolin that there was no sight more beautiful than this.  The lights were a tender rose-pink, deepening gradually and turning at the lower edges to a bright crimson.  Claude compared them to watered satin, finding no other term to describe the silken softness of the flowing lengths of flesh which fell in folds like the caught-up skirts of a dancer.  (164-5)

And Zola is not quite done with Lantier’s rapture, but that seems like enough.  Plus I have become distracted by metaphor – “ox hearts as solid as church bells,” “yellow sauerkraut that looked like old lace.”  Zola uses this kind of language throughout the novel, whether or not the painter is present.  It is only the painter, though, who approaches the world with the same sort of appreciative aesthetic distance as the narrator.

His reward is a scene that rivals the Symphony of Cheeses.  He describes what happened when his aunt lets him decorate the window of her charcuterie:

“I had plenty of strong colours to work with – the red of the tongues, the yellow of the hams, the blue of the paper shavings, the pink of the things that had been cut into, the green of the sprigs of heather, and the black puddings – a magnificent black, which I’ve never managed to produce on my palette.  And, of course, the caul, the sausages, the andouilles, and the crumbed trotters gave me a very subtle range of greys.  With all that I created a real work of art.”  (187)

The resulting portrait-in-foodstuffs is crowned by “a huge turkey with a white breast, marbled under its skin by the black truffles,” “magnificent, like  a huge belly,” and also “primitive and ironic.”  This is the first truffled turkey I have encountered since I started Wuthering Expectations, which is exciting.  The aunt “thought the turkey was so obscene that she threw me out.”

“Never mind!  That was my masterpiece.  The best thing I’ve ever done.”  (188)

The word "I" might refer to more than one person, only one of them fictional.  Thirteen years later, Lantier will star in his own novel, The Masterpiece, in which he likely surpasses the sausage shop window in some way or another.   I assume the later novel works quite differently than The Belly of Paris, that as Lantier becomes the object of study another character will have to step into the role of observer and tour guide.  Who will tell me which passages are particularly good?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Zola is a big show-off - Claude stopped in his tracks, uttering little cries of admiration

The belly of Paris is a farmers market, Les Halles, built in the 1850s as one of the many massive and rapid changes to the city from which Zola gets so much juice.  The Belly of Paris is set in 1858 or so, fifteen years before its publication, when the modern glass and iron building is novel, when the society that forms around and within it is new.  The structure was gargantuan, worthy of the city of Rabelais.

In a fit of insanity, urban planners tore it down in 1971 and replaced it with a sterile park and tony, useless underground shopping mall.  This in a country with the gastronomic heritage of France.  Perhaps they will rebuild it someday.  In a spirit of full disclosure, you are reading someone who, when in Europe, will go to a market every day if possible.

Florent, “remarkably long and as thin as a rake” (4), has escaped from Devil’s Island and made his way back to France where – I have to interrupt and mount one of my many colorful hobbyhorses.  Here we have another of the strangely plentiful French novels with a protagonist who has escaped from prison.  At least he is not super strong.  Although other characters in the novel are super strong ("He likes to do a strong-man act; he's got a magnificent physique," 20).  I do not get it.

So the thin, starving Florent is deposited in Les Halles.  He was imprisoned for political crimes (so this is a novel of 1848 and thus also a novel of 1871), and eventually becomes tangled up in politics again, giving the novel something of a story.  The Fat consume the Thin.  Honestly, a third of the way in I had no idea what the story as such was going to be, nor did I care much, nor, based on the wandering way he tells it did Zola.  He was busy with other things.

Boy, as I leaf through the first chapter, I feel like I could quote almost anything.  It is a long, continuous scene that takes the character to and around the market, showing it off to Florent and to me, and showing Zola off in the process.

On the footpath in the Rue Rambuteau there were some enormous piles of cauliflowers, stacked symmetrically like cannon balls.  Their soft white flesh spread out like huge roses in the midst of their thick green leaves, and they looked rather like bridal bouquets displayed on giant flower stalls.  Claude stopped in his tracks, uttering little cries of admiration.  (17)

Claude is me, reading this chapter.  By the way, does “giant flower stalls” sound weird?  “[A]lignés dans des jardinières colossales”?  The translation is British, so perhaps “stalls” sound fine in British English.

Remind me to return to Claude.  He is a painter, and likely an extrusive element in the novel, an unnecessary representative of Art, but he also supplies a scene as impressive and insane as the Symphony of Cheeses.

…  the opening to the Rue Rambuteau was blocked by a barricade of orange pumpkins in two rows, sprawling at their ease and swelling out their bellies.  Here and there gleamed the varnished golden-brown of a basket of onions, the blood-red of a heap of tomatoes, the soft yellow of a display of cucumbers, and the deep mauve of aubergines; while large black radishes, laid down in funereal carpets, formed dark patches in the brilliance of the early morning.

Claude clapped his hands at the sight.  (26)

Maybe, given this kind of passage, the painter is the omniscient narrator.  And maybe, given a revolutionary plot, there is some foreshadowing here – cannon balls, street barricades, “blood-red,” “funereal carpets.”  True, there is, but every reader and I know that there weren’t no revolution in 1858.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Zola's musical cheeses - They all seemed to stink together, in a foul cacophony

For the next three or four days, I am writing about Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris (1873), the third of the twenty Rougon-Macquart novels and coincidentally the third Zola novel I have read.  There is enough that I am tempted to begin generalizing about Zola, and I am sure that would lead to some entertaining and bizarre errors, but instead I will jump straight to the good stuff, the cheese, the musical cheese:

As they were all rather short of breath by this time, it was the camembert they could smell.  This cheese, with its gamy odour, had overpowered the milder smells of the marolles and the limbourg; its power was remarkable.  (213)

Actually, that is not the good stuff, just set up – here it comes:

Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flute-like note, came from the parmesan, while the bries came into play with their soft, musty smell, the gentle sound, so to speak, of a damp tambourine.  The livarot launched into an overwhelming reprise, and the géromé kept up the symphony with a sustained high note.

A couple of pages earlier there is a long paragraph that simply lists the cheeses in the market stall, like “some Dutch cheeses suggesting decapitated heads smeared in dried blood and hard as skull” and roqueforts that “had a princely air, their fat faces veined in blue and yellow, like the victims of some shameful disease common to rich people who have eaten too many truffles” (211), and though some of the cheeses add “its own shrill note” none of them are otherwise described as musical.  They just stink.

But as the sun and wind change, the cheeses begins to sing:

They all seemed to stink together, in a foul cacophony: from the oppressiveness of the heavy Dutch cheeses and the gruyères to the sharp alkaline note of the olivet.  From the cantal, Cheshire, and goat’s milk came the sound of a bassoon, punctuated by the sudden, sharp notes of the neufchâtels, the troyes, and the mont-d’ors.  Then the smells went wild and became completely jumbled, the port-salut, limbourg, géromé, marolles, livarot, and pont-l'évèque combining into a great explosion of smells.  The stench rose and spread, no longer a collection of individual smells, but a huge, sickening mixture.  It seemed for a moment that it was the vile words of Madame Lecoeur and Mademoiselle Saget that had produced this dreadful odour.  (215-6)

Readers not distracted by the cheese may have noticed that the last metaphor is actually related to characters and thus potentially to some sort of story.  The novel also has those, but I may just devote the rest of the week to descriptions of food.

Sometimes I see people say that food writing makes them hungry, but I am a well-fed fellow, so it just makes me gluttonous.  Zola’s scene reminded me of La Maison Jean d’Alos, a cheese shop of genius in Bordeaux (thankfully climate-controlled).  You cannot tell, but my copying of those passages was interrupted several times so I could look at cheese.

Maybe tomorrow I should write about the blood pudding.  It is less seductive.

I have returned to Zola as part of the Zoladdiction event.

Monday, April 22, 2013

One should feel at ease on these amorous occasions - an early French influence on James Joyce, and also Schnitzler

Another precursor of stream-of-consciousness writing, this time suggested to me by Doug Skinner, distinguished translator of 19th century French more-than-curiosities.  I do not really care who invented the technique, or believe that any one writer did invent it, but I enjoy seeing how creative people think.

The text at hand is Edouard Dujardin’s 1887 novella Les lauriers sont coupés, translated by Stuart Gilbert and published by New Directions in 1938 under the title We’ll to the Woods No More.  A dandyish Paris law student is attempting to keep an actress; she is attempting to fleece him while sleeping with him as little as possible.

The stream-of-consciousness device allows the pursuit of a couple of good psychological ideas.  First, to what extent is the student aware he is being robbed.  Moments of awareness flare up but are suppressed by his libido or ego.  Second, he can work on a conscious scheme at odds with his mostly unconscious desires.  He will supply money but refuse to sleep with the actress, thus a) demonstrating his superiority and indifference, and / or b) causing the actress to give in to him.  Of course, the slightest sign of sexual interest from the actress causes the entire scheme to collapse, since he wants sex far more than the rather abstract pleasure of being above it all.

If the student sounds a bit shallow, so was Lieutenant Gustl.  The interior monologue is an especially good tool for working with unreflective simpletons.  These nitwits certainly could not write their own stories.  They would have trouble sitting still for ten minutes.  No, that is not the problem with Dujardin’s writing.  This is:

Here’s the soup, piping hot; waiter might splash some, better keep an eye on him.  All’s well; let’s begin.  Too hot, this soup; wait, try again.  Not half bad.  I lunched a bit too late, no appetite left.  All the same I must eat some dinner.  Soup finished.  (22)

Dujardin only rarely does anything too interesting with his new toy.  Perhaps he lacks the psychological insight of Schnitzler or Joyce, who both read and praised Dujardin.  He has trouble with any direction of thought besides straight ahead.  I will not say that Dujardin is unrealistic in his depiction of thought – I happily accept that in this story this dim fellow thinks exactly the thoughts presented – but I am reading with the knowledge of what Woolf and Faulkner would have done with the same material.  They would not, in order to fill the reader in on the past history of the love affair, have to resort to a long scene in which the student reads  his old love letters.  They would have the past constantly intrude, flashes of remembered dialogue or emotion, a gesture or a color briefly freeing a fragment of a memory.

Dujardin just kind of motors along.  He sometimes achieves some pleasing Romantic poetic effects, and he can be funny:

…in any case, she will refuse to accept my note.  There, I tear it up; in two pieces; tear across; four pieces; again; that makes eight.  Again; no, imposs.  It won’t do to drop these bits of card on the floor; someone might pick them up; better try chewing them.  Ugh!  Horrible taste.  Drop them then…  (27)

More importantly, most importantly, is this scene, which I will edit for length but not content:

…  better take my precautions while I am alone; must be nearly six hours since that lavatory in the Boulevard Sébastopol; the privy here is on the left of the hall; one should feel at ease on these amorous occasions…  good business, the light’s on; door’s ajar; remember gentlemen are requested to adjust; for this relief ------ and very needful it was…  (132-3, ellipses mine but not those dashes)

So lucky and discerning French readers got to witness this character relieve himself over thirty years before shocked English readers accompanied Leopold Bloom to the toilet in Ulysses.  Now here is an innovation worth pursuing back to its source.

Not this week, though, since tomorrow I will move a ways up the French literary digestive tract.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What can’t they be? - every Rilke poem refers to every other Rilke poem

New Poems, the first book, begins with a paradox, a statue that communicates without words, a description that is entirely negative – “nothing in his head \ could obstruct the splendor of all poems \ from striking us,” “there is still no shadow in his gaze,” “and only later from his eyebrows’ arches \\ will the rose garden lift up tall-stemmed.”  “Early Apollo” is about an object and describes an object, while seeming to be and do neither.  Come to think of it Rilke never actually says the Apollo is a statue, although that is an obvious interpretation.  Apollo’s mouth “is still quiet, never-used, and gleaming…  as though its song were being infused in him.”

That bit at the end could apply to most of the New Poems.  The object “speaks” even when it cannot.  The poem itself is an object, a new object.

In the 1907 book the blooms from Apollo’s eyebrows have been cut and arranged in a bowl.  “The Bowl of Roses” is a strange poem, beginning with boys fighting (“like an animal attacked by bees”), actors, and “raging horses” before the flowers appear, “this full bowl of roses \ which is unforgettable.”  Like the blue hydrangea inspected forty poems ago, the roses move

with such tiny angles of vibration
that they’d remain invisible, if their rays
did not fan out into the universe.

and have blooms that “blissfully unfolded.”  The poem turns into a defense of metaphor, of the core of the book: “What can’t they be…  And aren’t all that way: simply self-containing (Sich-enthalten).”  The object of the poems (and also the poems) are simultaneously uniquely themselves and at the same time everything.  “It now lies carefree in these open roses,” the poem ends.  I am not sure to what “it” refers.  Whatever has been the point of New Poems, perhaps.

Once Rilke had written the carefully constructed, ordered, and inter-connected  New Poems he did something strange.  He immediately rewrote the book.  More plainly, another burst of inspiration struck, “forty poems in August 1907 alone, followed by another forty-six in the summer of 1908” says Edward Snow.  He did not just write more poems in the same style, but a collection that subtly comments on the first book.  I only have the slightest sense of the complexity of the associations among and between the poems of these two books.

“Early Apollo” concentrated on the statue’s head and face.  The “Archaic Torso of Apollo” that begins New Poems: The Other Part (1908) has no head (“We never knew his head”), yet somehow it still smiles and “surges” and “burst[s] forth from all its contours \ like a star.” The poem has a startling ending that must be one of Rilke’s best known lines: “You must change your life.”  Who, me?

The second collection does not end with more roses, although both books are full of roses, but with another sculpture (probably), “Buddha in Glory” for whom “this entire world out to all the stars \ is your fruit-flesh,” making the object both vegetable and stone.   Unless this Buddha is based on a painting.  Or is simply meant to be the person.  Anyway he or it is also bursting like the Apollo and his rays are expanding like the roses.

And from outside a radiance assists it,

for high above, your suns in full splendor
have wheeled blazingly around.
Yet already there’s begun inside you
what lasts beyond the suns.

Again, the “it” is tricky, and by the end of the poems so is “you,” which may well be the same “you” who must change your life, which seems to be changing already.

I have not even mentioned the poems written in sequence.  It would be nice to revisit these poems within the lifespan of Wuthering Expectations.  They are a little too complex for whatever I have been trying to do with them this week.

The translations have all been from the Edward Snow New Poems and New Poems: The Other Part.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Suddenly emotion seems to flare - Rilke studies a hydrangea

Rilke’s two volumes of News Poems (1907 and 1908) are worth reading by themselves, as books.  I always say this, I know.  Stephen Mitchell includes a couple dozen greatest hits, and the 2009 Edward Snow collection has seventy or so poems, but Snow also translated the complete texts, published in 1984 and 1987, respectively.

So I will try to say something about how these books work, which will also give an idea of how the poems work.

The titles of the poems reveal Rilke’s concept.  Animals (“The Panther,” “The Gazelle,” “The Unicorn”).  Objects (“The Lute,” “The Carousel,” “The Bowl of Roses”).  Works of art, buildings, places, restaurants (“The Olive Garden”), actions (“Corpse-Washing”), people, and even stories (“Alcestis”).  One of those animals suggests a complication, that many more poems are about artworks than is first apparent.  The scene described in that poem is likely from a painting or tapestry:

But its gaze, intercepted by no object,
cast images far into space
and brought a blue legend-cycle to a close.

The poem is full of descriptive colors (white, ivory, rose-gray), but that use of blue is clue that the poet is describing an object, not an imagined image.

Rilke’s colors frequently show up in odd yet apt places.  “The Carousel” speeds into “A red, a green, a gray sent past” as the animals become blurs.

Blue Hydrangea” is all color, the color of a flower and its leaves.

These leaves are like the last green
in the paint pots – dried up, dull, and rough,
behind  the flowered umbels whose blue
is not their own, but mirrored from afar.

They reflect it tear-stained, vaguely,
as if deep down they hoped to lose it;
and as with old blue writing paper
there’s yellow in them, violet and gray;

Washed out as on a child’s pinafore,
things that are finished with, no longer worn:
the way one feels a small life’s brevity.

But suddenly emotion seems to flare
in one of the umbels, and one sees
a moving blue as it takes joy in green.  (Snow, 2009 version)

This poem is almost typical of New Poems.  The focus is on something outside of the poet.  The poem is objective, taking that perilous word in a philosophical sense.  But although the poet spends most of his effort in an attempt to capture a particular subtle color effect, the interaction between the colors of the leaves and the blooms, the poem is not merely descriptive.  An emotional state is attributed to the blooms (or the leaves?) – they “hoped,” “deep down” to lose the mirrored blue.  How sad.  But then the flowers “take joy” in the color of the leaves.

The poem is obviously then also subjective, about the self (or an imagined self), but hidden behind or displaced into the object, with the poet going so far as to distance himself even from what is clearly a personal response not to the plant but to a metaphor describing it, the worn pinafore, a pure artifact of the poem – “one feels” and “one sees” (“wie fühlt man,” “man sieht”).

Of course, as I saw in “The Spanish Dancer,” the originality of the metaphors can almost be taken for granted.  So one thing New Poems does is what “Blue Hydrangea” does, over and over, but with a variety of objects.

That gets me closer to yet nowhere near a sense of how New Poems works as a book, how the poems connect to each other.  And I am running behind for the week.  Another try tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rilke's "Spanish Dance" - two naked arms uncoil, aroused and rattling.

Spanish Dancer (Spanische Tänzerin)

As in the hand a sulfur match flares white
and sends out flicking tongues on every side
before it bursts into flame –: in that ring
of crowded onlookers, hot, eager, and precise
her round dance begins to dart and spread.

 And all at once it is entirely flame.

 With a glance she sets her hair ablaze
and whirls suddenly with daring art
her slender dress into this fiery rapture,
from which, like snakes awakened,
two naked arms uncoil, aroused and rattling.

 And then: as if she felt the fire grow tight,
she gathers it all up and casts it off
disdainfully, and watches with imperious
command: it lies there raging on the ground
and still flares up and won’t surrender –.
But unwavering, assured, and with a sweet
welcoming smile she lifts her face
and stamps it out with rock-hard little feet.

This Rilke poem from New Poems (1907) is outstanding in Edward Snow’s 2009 version and even better in German, which is one reason I wanted to look at it.  Another is that it deflates my received idea of Rilke.  Where is the oracle delivering messages from the angels?  Where is the aestheticized sage, the spiritual seeker?  Instead, I see a poet attending, or remembering, a flamenco performance and making it strange and exciting, possibly more exciting to read than to see.  I confess I find it hard to distinguish among flamenco dances.

The translator is able to salvage a few rhymes and works in some good slant rhymes, but the original rhymes throughout – the New Poems always rhyme – and in many lines Snow stays close to the meter.  The sense is mostly intact, with reasonable replacements when necessary.  Snow surpasses the Stephen Mitchell version and an older version of his own.

Some losses even I can see – “hot, eager, and precise” is actually “hastig, hell und heiß,” more like “harsh, bright, and hot.”  Do you think Snow was trying to rhyme the English with the German?  How odd.

Some correspondences are lucky enough to survive.  English and German share the word flamenco, so the flame works as well as die Flamme in punning on the name of the dance.  The word “flamenco” is never used, and without the title I wonder if I would be able to solve the puzzle, if “flame” would be a sufficient clue.  But there is also the dress, and the noise of the castanets (“rattling \ klappernd”).  Stephen Mitchell makes the logical leap and turns the dancer’s arms into rattlesnakes.  The titles do a lot of work in the New Poems, many of which would otherwise be riddle poems.

The snakey arms are good, as are the shifting uses of fire, moving from the match to the dance to the dancer’s hair and dress before it takes life as part of the act, a sort of mime, perhaps intended by the dancer, perhaps only present in the imagination of the poet who is interpreting the dance.  The poet is the match that supplies the flame.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rainer Maria Rilke throat-clearing - tomorrow, how about I look at a Rilke poem, huh?

Rainer Maria Rilke may be as un-Austrian an Austrian writer as I take a run at this year.  He was born in Prague and moved around his entire life.  He is more of a Paris writer than an Austrian writer, and he is associated more closely with Munich, Switzerland, Italy and even Russia than with Vienna.  Like his early influence Heinrich Heine, he was a citizen of – not the world – of continental Europe.  But he did attend the same military boarding school that Robert Musil dissected in The Confusions of Young Törless, and circa 1910 he experienced what now seems to me like the watermark event of the Austrian writer, a Crisis of Artistic Purpose.

Led to Rilke by Thomas Pynchon, I read Stephen Mitchell’s Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (1982) a long, long time ago.  I now have a clearer idea of what I got out of Rilke then – nothing.  Or at least not much more than that Rilke’s late poems were full of angels, that he was some kind of spiritual seeker (which I am not), and that he had a decade plus crisis during which he prepared himself for the angels or muses or a specific arrangement of neurons to reveal to him his greatest work, the Duino Elegies (1923).

While waiting, Rilke published two volumes of poems, numerous individual poems, worked on a daunting variety of translations (such as Michelangelo Buonarotti and Paul Valéry), and wrote hundreds of unpublished poems.  This is all aside from a constant stream of extraordinary letters.  But these poems were not the right poems, not the Duino Elegies.  “[S]heer mythologizing” is how Edward Snow, Rilke’s indefatigable translator, describes the “crisis” (The Poetry of Rilke, 2009, p. 657).

Two points, though.  The first is that the story climaxes in February 1922 when a solitary Rilke is overcome with another of his many recurring bursts of creativity and produces not just the Duino Elegies but The Sonnets to Orpheus, “letting the stream of sonnets wash over me like a deluge” (Rilke quoted by Snow, 647).  So here we have a vatic mode of poetic creativity likely not available to many poets, although how they have tried.

My second point is that along with living in the right surroundings, knowing the right people, and attaining the ideal degree of solitude, Rilke prepared himself for the arrival of the poetic gods by working, by an absolutely exhausting amount of writing that dates back to his teens.  I am the one who is exhausted, not Rilke.  This is not the image of Rilke I had been carrying around: Rilke as one of Europe’s most prolific major poets.

The other “crisis” in Rilke’s career, the other noisy silence, is at the beginning and is the creation of Rilke’s translators and critics.  “The Book of Hours (1905) is one of the strongest inaugural works in all of modern poetry,” writes Snow (p. 623), but he is having a little joke since it is Rilke’s eighth book of poems, the first dating back to 1894 when  Rilke was nineteen.  Snow begins his 600 pages of translations there in 1905; Stephen Mitchell did the same thing.  Competent but derivative is the common judgment, young Rilke working through his German and later French Symbolist influences before encountering Russia and Rodin and Cézanne and Lou Andreas-Salomé.

I suppose this is accurate.  What I am sure of is that by the 1907 New Poems, Rilke was publishing poetry that would have provided most poets ideas and problems for a lifetime of work.  For a few days I will pretend that it is 1908 and I have never heard of the Duino Elegies or The Sonnets to OrpheusNew Poems and New Poems: The Other Part (1908) should give me enough to do. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dorothy Baker writes about jazz - he pushed his hand across his forehead and said whew, or one of those happy exhausted sounds

Now this one is a bit of a stumper.  Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn (1938) is the First Jazz Novel (not exactly a long shelf of books), and more importantly a great jazz novel, which may or may not make it a great novel.  Is it?  I don’t know.  I liked the jazz writing so much that I have no idea what a non-jazz lover would make of the book.  Baker gets 1920s jazz so right.

Rick watched the hands the way a kitten watches a jumpy reflection on a carpet.  And when ‘Dead Man’ was played out, he pushed his hand across his forehead and said whew, or one of those happy exhausted sounds.  The three instrumentalists up front turned around for approbation from Rick, and got it, not from anything he said, but just from the look on his face.  (50)

That was me, sometimes, reading Baker.  Whew!

Rick Martin is a self-taught prodigy, a badly supervised white Los Angeles kid who hears the world in a funny way and is lucky enough to stumble upon a piano, although when he gets the chance he switches to  trumpet which “seems like it’s closer up to your head somehow” (81).  He practices, and hangs around with black musicians who – another stroke of luck – later become major figures (there they are playing up above, young and hungry).  Rick becomes a pro, and eventually a star.  Rise and fall, that old one.  Luckily Baker knew to tell most of the story in big, detailed scenes, with the transitions and dull stuff occupying the blank pages between chapters.

A lot of that detail is musical.  I have never before read a novel with so much writing about playing, about practicing, the mechanics of music. 

And then there were three, all three good and drunk but still able to play.  They folded up the music and did a home-made job.  They’d start something, play three choruses of it, ease down as if to break it off, and then one of them would take it again, just for a final run, and at the end of that one somebody else would get an idea and pick it up again.  Perpetual motion.  When they finally got it stopped, they’d just sit there and laugh like mad until they started to play again.  (99)

The descriptions of music are inevitably, since the tools, words, are so unmusical, some combination of metaphor and pinpoint gestures and sheer breathlessness.

Daniel Jordan in a white tuxedo pounding the prettiest set of drums in existence.  A dazzling sight.  His eyes were turned obliquely upward and he chewed his lower lip all the while he played; then he’d knock out a beauty and turn his eyes down, startled, as if he’d surprised even himself with that one.  (118)

I have seen that, I have heard it.  Not very often, but I have.

For the reader who does not care about jazz, Baker’s novel also has artful things to say about:

1. Race.  Rick Martin is a white kid who plunges into a black world, the only place where he can find people who think about music the way he does.  But the move is not exactly easy.  A long scene, early in the book, where he attends a black drummer’s funeral should be better known.

2.  Creativity.  Perhaps an exploration of the creative impulse of a jazz musician also has some relation to that of other artists.  Novelists, even.  At times, I thought that might be the case.  The novel has an odd narrator who drops a hint or two sometimes.  Normally, this would be an idea I would like to pursue, but in this case I am so impressed by the writing about jazz that I have trouble seeing that it might be about anything else as well.  But it probably is.

Maybe someone who does not care about jazz but has read the novel will stop by and fill me in.  Gary Giddins, himself a great jazz writer of the critical variety, provides the NYRB Classics with an Afterword so good that I avoided everything in it.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Gardening, cannon-braiding, editing, "magnificence and rats," advice from R. W. Emerson and James Wood

Anybody do any gardening this weekend?  I thought not!  As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in The Conduct of Life:

The genius of reading and of gardening are antagonistic, like resinous and vitreous electricity.  One is concentrative in sparks and shocks: the other is diffuse strength; so that each disqualifies its workman for the other’s duties.  (“Wealth”)

It is possible that Emerson is simply a prankster, and that some of his sentences are the equivalent of that time Charles Baudelaire dyed his hair green.  He just wants to see me sputter.  Or he is having some other kind of fun:

What would painter do, or what would poet or saint, but for crucifixions and hells?  And evermore in the world is this marvellous balance of beauty and disgust, magnificence and rats.

That is from the puzzlingly titled “Considerations by the Way.”  There is no denying that the last line is a good’un, and it would be well worth writing an entire diffusive essay just to use it.

Now this, from the same essay, is untrue in a different way, one useful to book bloggers:

Life brings to each his task, and, whatever art you select, algebra, planting, architecture, poems, commerce, politics,—all are attainable, even to the miraculous triumphs, on the same terms, of selecting that for which you are apt;—begin at the beginning, proceed in order, step by step.  ’Tis as easy to twist iron anchors, and braid cannons, as to braid straw, to boil granite as to boil water, if you take all the steps in order.

And literary criticism, in either its amateur or professional form, is much easier than braiding cannons.  It has fewer steps.  Read, think, write.  The pros re-write, or are at least re-written, as Robert Silvers, the founding editor of the New York Review of Books describes in this recent interview:

Aside from Barbara [Epstein], Lizzie [Hardwick] was the major influence.  I would send her reviews and she would say, “Oh, yes, this piece is very good. It just needs a little work.”  And then she would send it back half as long, with paragraph after paragraph cut or compressed.  She had no patience at all for what you would call tired language.

I have a great deal of use and therefore patience for tired language.  It is especially valuable when I am tired or in a hurry or lazy.  I am sometimes tempted to submit a piece somewhere for this single reason, that professional editing would be educational, that it would improve my writing.  Wake it up a little.

Otherwise, I have been unable to see an advantage of more formal publication.  This is James Wood, from a recent interview with Jonathan McAloon (longer version here):

Now my advice would be, try to write longer pieces wherever you can.  One thing that’s changed since I was freelancing is there’s space online to do that kind of thing.  You don’t get paid for it, largely, but there’s the chance to do something at length.

It is possible that Open Letters Monthly, say, would jump at a chance to publish a 9,000 word article on Adalbert Stifter and Austrian literary culture. Sorry, I need to double-check – three weeks = 15 days x 600 words a day.  Yes, so I wrote close to 10,000 words in a fifteen part series on that subject, likely the best thing I am going to write all year.

My great early book blogging insight, my correction to Wood, was that there is no reason to publish the longer piece as a single unit, that I can work with the understandable impatience of the online reader, and that there are in fact enormous benefits from letting readers see the cannon-braiding in progress.  Book blog readers are so knowledgeable and helpful.  They challenge my worst ideas and introduce me to new ones.  Taken as a whole, my pieces rarely end up where I had planned, partly due to the assistance I receive.  I am edited in public; the corrections appear the next day, or year.  This editing does not reduce my word count, and my bad ideas are not politely expunged, but rather remain visible as one of the many steps towards boiled granite.  But it works, in its own way it works.

Boiled granite is useful somehow, yes?  That is why Emerson mentioned it?

Friday, April 12, 2013

I am a ridiculous man - another "fantastic" Dostoevsky story

The 1876 Dostoevsky story “A Gentle Creature” has a subtitle, “A Fantastic Story,” although most people would likely identify it as realistic.  Dostoevsky gave the same subtitle to a story he wrote the next year, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”  Most of the story is devoted to the dream, but Dostoevsky identified the method of “A Gentle Creature” as “fantastic,” The presence of the imaginary stenographer, not the content.  Something similar is true for “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”  The most unlikely part of the story is its telling.

This time, the narrator is something closer to a madman, or so he says:

I am a ridiculous man.  They call me a madman now.  That would be a distinct rise in my social position were it not that they still regard me as being as ridiculous as ever.  (tr. David Magarshack)

As the story begins, the narrator faces a familiar philosophical problem, a solipsistic variation on Berkley and Schopenhauer:

I suddenly felt that it made no difference to me whether the world existed or whether nothing existed anywhere at all.  I began to be acutely conscious that nothing existed in my own lifetime. (italics Dostoevsky’s)

The ridiculous man hints at some kind of guilt or failure that he would like to erase by erasing all of existence, which will happen if he kills himself.  A pistol at hand, the narrator falls asleep and has the dream that fills the rest of the story.

The dreamer’s manner of suicide, and even the results, have some surprising correspondences with Vladimir Nabokov’s 1930 novella The Eye.  I will just file that away for future use.  The pistol recurs from "A Gentle Creature," as seen in this fantastic (in the sense of "awful good") dramatized scene from "A Gentle Creature" featured by XIX vek (full disclosure: post contains kind words about Wuthering Expectations, and the link is therefore self-serving - but the clip is impressive!).

I am not convinced that the core of the dream itself is so interesting.  The dead man flies through space – actually, the space journey is at least a curiosity – to an Earth where Man never Fell, never having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge:

They were at peace with themselves.  They did not strive to gain knowledge of life as we strive to understand it because their lives were full.

And so on like that.  As a Utopian fantasy, it is all too vague to be of much value.  The dreamer himself, bringing knowledge into this world, is finally the cause of the Fall, and soon people are wearing clothes, speaking different languages, writing laws, and founding religions.  The ridiculous man awakens with a new sense of meaning and purpose.  He becomes a preacher, admittedly one who “do[es] get muddled and confused and that if I am getting muddled and confused now, what will be later on?”  The answer to that question is The Brothers Karamazov, which Dostoevsky will write in a year or two.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dostoevsky's stream-of-something-or-other - oh God, that’s not it at all

Now look, I am a day behind, and all because of dithering, because of wanting to follow twelve threads at once when all I can really handle is three, which is not bad, really, I should be happy with three.  I was also distracted by the amazing and long story, told by Eric Naiman in the new TLS, of the time Dickens and Dostoevsky met.  They never did meet – Dickens biographers, it turns out, are suckers – but the saga of rogue academic hoaxer A. D. Harvey is something to see.

The thread I want to follow here is “precursors of stream of consciousness writing.”  Arthur Schnitzler identified Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1876 story “A Gentle Creature” as one of the sparks of his own “Lieutenant Gustl.”  The story is from late in Dostoevsky’s life, and therefore awkward, bizarre, ethically dubious, and easily worth reading.

Dostoevsky includes a preface defending or explaining the form of the story.  A man’s wife has killed herself and he is “talking to himself, telling the whole story, trying to explain it to himself.”  The reader should imagine a stenographer taking it all down in shorthand “(after which I should have edited it),” which is absurd (“fantastic”).  Dostoevsky points to Victor Hugo’s The Last Days of a Condemned Man (1829), in which “a man sentenced to death is able (and has the time) to keep a diary not only on his last day, but also during his last hour and, literally, his last minute,” as an ancestor of “A Gentle Creature.”

This is a bit of the beginning of the story, which really is indistinguishable from later stream-of-consciousness writing:

She is now in the sitting-room, on a table.  Two card tables put together side by side.  They will bring the coffin tomorrow.  A white coffin.  White gros-de-Naples.  However that’s not what…  I keep on walking and walking.  Trying to explain the whole thing to myself.  (ellipses in original)

The narrative gels and is told more conventionally as the widower, a pawnbroker and disgraced officer, recounts his history with his wife – how they met, how he essentially bullied her into marriage (although he thought of it as a kindness), how their marriage progressed and disintegrated.

And – and, in addition, I suddenly saw a smile on her face, a mistrustful, silent, evil smile.  Well, it was with that smile that I brought her into my house.  It was true, of course, that she had nowhere else to go…  (end of Ch. III, ellipses in original)

The end of that chapter is directly echoed – no, quoted, why not say quoted – at the end of Part I of Lolita.  The wife here is sixteen.  I am just making a note of this for future reference.

For my immediate purpose, what is interesting is the little hiccup (“And – and”) and similar interruptions of the ordinary narrative, where the story with all of its usual trappings like dialogue and transitions between scenes collapses:

But what’s the matter with me?  If I go on like this I shall never be able to gather everything to a point.  Quick, quick – oh God, that’s not it at all.  (end of Ch. I)

What is interesting here, though, is that I am clearly not eavesdropping on the character’s thoughts, but on his own incoherent response to his thoughts.  As in a Shakespearean monologue, the pawnbroker, in telling his story, overhears himself and thus, by the end, either learns the truth about his wife and marriage (about himself, really) or is forced to reveal the truth he always knew – I am not sure which – so Dostoevsky’s sputtering method appropriately directs my attention to the story’s meaning.  I can imagine Arthur Schnitzler wondering if it would be possible to pull off a conceptually purer story that represented the thoughts behind the speech, that abolished the fantastic stenographer and instead granted the reader telepathy.  It turned out he could.

I read the David Magarshack translation found in Great Short Works of Dostoevsky.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Alone with the gods on their thrones - Emerson's "Illusions"

Emerson’s essays are hard to remember because they are illogical.  His arguments often make no sense and are thus hard to follow.  This is not exactly a complaint, but rather the identification of  a difficulty.  Intuition, metaphor, wild leaps, misdirection, and irony are all acceptable tools for the essayist.  Emerson’s predecessors are Montaigne and Plutarch, not Kant and Descartes.

The pieces were all performances, or versions of performances, lectures before they were essays.  Given my troubles with the texts, I find it so difficult to imagine what Emerson’s audiences got out of one of his talks, but he was a successful and even popular speaker.  His essays are road-tested.  I find it helpful to imagine what the actor did with his lines.

The shortest essay in The Conduct of Life is “Illusions,” only nine pages ignoring the usual introductory poem, which is likely a mistake.  The first page, uncharacteristically, is given over to a scene, Emerson’s visit to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, where he is particularly impressed by the “theatrical trick” of a room with a ceiling that, in the dark, uncannily resemble a starry night sky.  The photo at this National Park Service site gives the barest idea of what Emerson saw.  But now Emerson has a hook – “Our conversation with Nature is not just what it seems…  The senses interfere everywhere…” – and more importantly only eight more pages, so perhaps I have a better chance of keeping up with the argument.

Which is that all is illusion, a by-product of perception, or that not all is illusion but good luck sorting the real from the rest, or that – I think this is it – that the world is real and we are responsible for what appears to be its illusory nature.  The illusion is the illusion.  “All is riddle, and the key to the riddle is another riddle.”

The world rolls, the din of life is never hushed.  In London, in Paris, in Boston, in San Francisco, the carnival, the masquerade is at its height.  Nobody drops his domino.  The unities, the fictions of the piece it would be an impertinence to break.

So in this case illusions are social.  In others they are imaginative (“What a debt if [a child’s] to imaginative books!”).  Some are perhaps necessary, instinctual defense mechanisms.

We are not very much to blame for our bad marriages.  We live amid hallucinations, and this especial trap is laid to trip up our feet with, and all are tripped up first or last.

That first line is wild, but I believe it contains a euphemism.  The examples pile up, some likely, others questionable.  Very little of this is argued except by means of association.  The reader, or listener, must make it fit, if he can:

There is no chance, and no anarchy, in the universe.  All is system and gradation.  Every god is there sitting in his sphere…  On the instant, and incessantly, fall snow-storms of illusions…  And when, by and by, for an instant, the air clears, and the cloud lifts a little, there are the gods still sitting around him on their thrones, – they alone with him alone.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Sucked oranges, metaphysical varioloids, hugs in Texas - the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The fact is that I will never remember what is in these Ralph Waldo Emerson essays.  They slip through the brain, which in my case is admittedly rather spongy.  Sponges drain.  The book at issue is The Conduct of Life (1860), a late one.  Emerson was in his fifties.  The essays are titled “Wealth,” “Power,” like that.  Blunt yet somehow unmemorable.

When I write about a book, when I simply type out lines, they are more likely to stick.  I will try that.  I will work on the fourth essay, “Culture.”

In the distemper known to physicians as chorea, the patient sometimes turns round, and continues to spin slowly in one spot.  Is egotism a metaphysical varioloid of this malady?  The man runs round a ring formed by his own talent, falls into an admiration of it, and loses relation to the world.  It is a tendency in all minds.  (1015-6, page numbers referring to the Library of America Essays and Lectures)

One might distinguish between those who read Emerson with pleasure and those who cannot by their involuntary response to “metaphysical varioloid” – do you smack your lips or roll your eyes?

How about this one, which I will have to snip a bit:

In Boston, the question of life is the names of some eight or ten men.  Have you seen Mr. Allston, Doctor Channing, Mr. Adams, Mr. Webster, [etc.]?  Then you may as well die.  In New York, the question is of some other eight, or ten, or twenty.  Have you seen a few lawyers, merchants, and brokers, - two or three scholars, two or three capitalists, two or three editors of newspapers?  New York is a sucked orange.  (1017)

That seems strangely relevant, even if we have expanded the cultural list of what we must experience, and then die.

Some people read Emerson for his wisdom, which is surely overrated, and is in no way applicable to me or to Wuthering Expectations:

Though they talk of the object before them, they are thinking of themselves, and their vanity is laying little traps for you admiration.  (1017)

In no way applicable.  This is not bad, though, where Emerson gives some advice on education, advocating a long leash, so to speak:

He is infatuated for weeks with Halo 4 and Minecraft; but presently will find out, as you did, that when he rises from the game too long played, he is vacant and forlorn, and despises himself.  Thenceforward it takes place with other things, and has its due weight in his experience.  (1021)

Substitute “whist and chess” in the appropriate place for the actual quotation.  Whist and chess!  Perhaps some of our plagues of the moment are not so new.

I should find something about books. 

So, if in traveling in the dreary wildernesses of Arkansas or Texas, we should observe on the next seat a man reading Horace, or Martial, or Calderon, we should wish to hug him.  (1030)

Exactly, exactly.  Emerson does not say that I actually hug him.  Yes, he was a wise man.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The new Leonid Tsypkin book - we're lucky to have it

Leonid Tsypkin’s novel Summer in Baden-Baden was so good I knew that there was more to the writer.  He had to have written more, and worse, to have become skillful enough to create that kind of carefully made masterpiece.  But given the history of the book, written by a doctor, smuggled out of the Soviet Union, published in obscurity – although it found its way into the right hands eventually – I never expected to see anything else.

There was more, though, some of it similarly good, now collected in The Bridge over the Neroch and Other Works (2013, New Directions), translated by Jamey Gambrell, two novellas and some stories written between 1972 and 1978.  Were any of these texts published before, in Russia, or anywhere?  Did Tsypkin keep them in his desk, or bury them in the yard?  I have no idea.  The introduction says nothing about their history.

A couple of the stories are close to writer’s exercises.  I had expected more like those, but  at least three of the pieces are superb:  “Ave Maria,” the account of a funeral of an extraordinary woman; “The Bridge over the Neroch,” a family saga in which flight from the invading Nazis is not even the most dramatic part; and “Norartakir,” about a couple on vacation in Armenia.

All of the stories would be worth writing about.  They are all colored by the dinginess of Soviet life.  “Norartakir” is especially interesting in this regard, since the vacationers, the husband a professor and the wife a high-ranking civil servant, are if not exactly nomenklatura have money and clout.  They are also Jewish, and the story is largely about the inescapable strain of being Jewish in the Soviet Union.  This passage follows a stunning visionary sequence that blends Noah’s family on Ararat (the backdrop of the vacation), Christ’s crucifixion, pogroms, and the Holocaust, when Boris Lvovich awakens in his hotel room to the sound of airplanes:

Pilots in helmets, with impassive white faces, verified their course by the plane’s instruments – everything was correct, southwest – and in an hour, or perhaps even less, the airplanes would land in a foreign airport, also plunged in darkness, and from their bellies, weapons and tanks with five-pointed stars would roll out and crates with guided missiles would be unloaded, and swarthy, curly-haired people who looked something like Boris Lvovich, would use these missiles to kill people who looked exactly like Boris Lvovich.  (150)

Tsypkin is careful to omit certain words:  Israel, Yom Kippur War, Jewish.  Yet they are constantly evoked.

The narrator of “Ave Maria” is Jewish, too, so his discomfort with the Orthodox funeral runs through the story.  I just want to give a glimpse of Tsypkin’s prose, but he writes such long sentences.  Well, I’ll break them:

… he crossed himself, but a bit shamefully, as though he were zipping his fly; they all crossed themselves that way…

…  meanwhile the priests, standing near the coffin of the dead woman as though they were an honor guard, took turns reading the requiem, and in the interludes between the reading the choir sang, but a certain thread had already been lost, and one of the priests actually kept swinging the censer in the direction of the churchgoers, as though tossing a paper ball on a piece of elastic.

… a cloud of incense that looked like smoke from the explosion of an anti-aircraft gun now floated in the place where they had just been standing…

And on like that.  Tsypkin was such a good writer.  What good fortune to be able to read more of him.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The marionettes grow uneasy - clever Schnitzler plays

Schnitzler is a clever writer, interested in cleverness.  He has a conceptual streak in his creativity.  I am still plenty ignorant, but I have read enough Schnitzler to piece together a timeline, and I can even make out a Clever Period, much of it documented in Paracelsus & Other One-Act Plays (tr. G. J. Weinberger, Ariadne Press, 1995), but also covering “Lieutenant Gustl” and of course La Ronde (written in 1897), which is the best example.

La Ronde is about sex but the structure could be used for almost anything.  The ten interlocking, circular scenes each have a pair of characters who are sexual partners, with one character moving on to the next scene and partner, but the structure could be used for doctors and patients, or salesmen and customers, or any situation where people are likely to be found in pairs.  The number of scenes could be reduced or increased as inspiration or resources require, and even the sexual story can easily be updated and rearranged.  Presumably some recent playwright has, for example, made some of the encounters homosexual.

La Ronde as written is good, but the genuine cleverness of the flexible gimmick is more noticeable, and perhaps even more important.

The series of one-act plays Schnitzler wrote between 1898 and 1910 are mostly what would now be called “high concept.”  The Green Cockatoo (1899) is set in a French dive where slumming nobility come to eavesdrop on criminals and lowlifes, except that the criminals are actors and it is all just a performance, and the nobles know it is a performance, so this is really a play-within-a-play with the fictional audience sitting onstage.  The play takes place on July 14, 1789, so we know that something “real” will intrude on the show.

A couple of plays are stylized commedia dell’arte mime plays.  A trio are not puppet plays, as I had guessed from their titles, but rather riffs on puppet plays.  In The Puppeteer (1903) a man who thinks that he is the puppeteer discovers that he is the puppet.  The Gallant Cassian (1904) reprises the idea but as farce and nonsense, with a lot of instantaneous changes in luck and love, a pointless duel, and a woman who hurls herself from a window but is saved when the title character leaps after her and catches her in the air.  Why not, they are all just puppets.  This is the end (Martin lost the duel):

MARTIN plays the flute  It is bitter to die alone when one was still loved, well-to-do, and full of the most splendid hopes a quarter hour before.  Truly, it is a bad joke, and I’m actually not at all in the mood to play the flute.  Lets it fall and dies.

Most amazing is The Great Puppet Show (1906) which features an onstage carnival and another play-within-etc., an entire puppet theater and its audience, who constantly comment on the action.  I assume that the marionettes are meant to be played by humans, with paint on their faces and strings tied to their arms.  Or maybe not.  In the comic high point, a member of the “real” audience, perhaps sitting right next to me

Stands up and yells out loud  This is a fraud!  The people on stage all look over, the marionettes grow uneasy, and some of them look out from the sides of the marionette theater.

THE GENTLEMAN IN THE AUDIENCE  A fraud!  I won’t fall for that!...  that’s not worthy of a serious theater!...

DIRECTOR  on the apron My dear sir!

AUTHOR  also near the front, wringing his hands

THE GENTLEMAN  going further forward  I won’t let myself be cheated out of the ending!...  To the orchestra section  it’s obvious that the author couldn’t think of an ending… (ellipses in original, except for that last set)

The “real” audience member is invited to join the onstage audience, but he retreats in confusion.

I am not saying these Schnitzler plays are as complex as the best Pirandello, but anyone interested in clever meta-theater would enjoy these plays and should give Schnitzler some credit.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"Lieutenant Gustl" - Arthur Schnitzler innovates

Arthur Schnitzler’s longish story “Lieutenant Gustl” (1900) is commonly considered the first pure piece of stream-of-consciousness fiction, meaning that all of the usual information of the story, the plot, characters, setting, and so on, with one crucial exception, is provided somewhere in the supposed thoughts of the title character.

No cheating, then – no narrator, no background, nothing that would not be part of the thoughts of this character at this moment.  So an extra degree of cleverness is required to turn the mental chaos into a coherent story with all of the usual features.

The exception is the first thing I see, the title, which at least suggests the possibility that the lines that begin the story belong to a fellow named Gustl with the title of lieutenant:

How much longer is this thing going to last?  Let’s see what time it is… perhaps I shouldn’t look at my watch at a serious concert like this.  But no one will see me.  If anyone does, I’ll know he’s paying just as little attention as I am.  In that case I certainly won’t be embarrassed…  (251, ellipses all in the original)

A time, a place, a little bit of insight into the shallow ego of the character.  I might question  the coherence of the sentences – “perhaps I shouldn’t”? – and wonder about those ellipses but it is easy enough to go along with the conceit, to accept that the text does not reproduce but at least resembles thought.

Gustl looks at his program, looks for pretty girls, and lets slip that “day after tomorrow I might be dead as a corpse” (252).  He does not have a great talent for metaphor, this guy.  Since it is a Schnitzler story about an army officer, a duel is as a matter of course part of the story.  How Schnitzler hated dueling.

But then I, like the character, am surprised.  Gustl is a jerk in the coat-check line and is quietly reprimanded, insulted, by a baker who is clearly used to dealing with hothead officers.  A duel with a lowly baker is out of the question, so there is only one way to erase the stain on Gustl’s honor.

Most of the remaining two-thirds of the story consists of Gustl wandering around central Vienna planning his suicide, his thoughts flitting to his mother, his career, women he has known or not (“A window is being opened up there. – Pretty creature. – Well I would at least put on a shawl or something when I go to an open window,” 271).  I was constantly reminded of Mrs. Dalloway, since Schnitzler anticipates so many of Woolf’s technical flourishes.

I doubt that Woolf or Joyce or Dorothy Richardson had any idea what Schnitzler had done.  I doubt Schnitzler had any idea.  Woolf et. al . were looking for solutions to a more general artistic problem of the representation of consciousness.  Schnitzler was looking for a novelty hit (and also a way to follow the thinking, such as it is, of this particular nitwit).  The great clue is the nimble twist ending.  Under the innovative wrapping, “Lieutenant Gustl” is a first-rate Maupassant story.

Schnitzler would write a longer and more complex stream-of-consciousness novella, Fraulein Else, but that was not until 1924.  It is curious to see what would later, in English, be thought of as an important breakthrough in literary technique treated by Schnitzler as one more demonstration of his cleverness.  “One more” meaning: more clever Schnitzler tomorrow.

Quotations from the version in the German Library Plays and Stories of Arthur Schnitzler, tr. Richard L. Simon and Caroline Wellbery, Continuum, 1982.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Robert Walser quivers and startles with worldly life - Walser in Berlin

Robert Walser granted me a little break from Vienna with the newspaper sketches collected in Berlin Stories (1907-17, tr. mostly by Susan Bernofsky).  Walser was a young writer from the provinces let loose in the big city, and he sounds like it.  He walks and wanders all over the city, inside and out, and finds it all astounding.

Trevor Mookse wrote a piece a year ago that emphasized Walser’s energy.  I should avoid using any of his quotations.  He picks out the 1907 “Friedrichstrasse,” a fantasy about a street, which begins:

Up above is a narrow strip of sky, and the smooth dark ground below looks as if it’s been polished by human destinies.  The buildings to either side rise boldly, daintily, and fantastically into architectural heights.  The air quivers and startles with worldly life.  (9)

In that last sentence, please, as I did in the title, replace “The air” with “Robert Walser.”  I have some doubts about “polished by human destinies,” and some more about “architectural heights.”  What is on this street?  “[G]aping chasms… indescribable contradictions,” “countless heads,” the “siren Pleasure,” “foolishness.”  Walser could be spinning this thread about any busy street anywhere with little difference, and in fact writers around Europe were publishing similar Baudelaire-inspired flights in newspapers all over Europe.

Walser’s Berlin does not often have much Berlin in it, is what I am saying.  They are impressions of the city.  Peter Altenberg’s sketches, to pick a contemporary example, tell me more about Vienna.  Not necessarily a lot more.  Paris Spleen is not so informative about Paris, either.

If I just knew these pieces I would not know how strange Walser’s writing could be; knowing Walser’s strangeness the pieces perhaps seem stranger than they really are.  Or perhaps they are really are strange, perhaps my knowledge makes them strange.

The last quarter of the book contains pieces written after Walser had left Berlin, from 1914 to 1917, and whether the result of distance or some other stylistic change they become more concentrated and specific in their strangeness.  They become more like the Walser I admired from stories like “The Walk” and so on, all from roughly the same time.  Sebald’s Walser, as seen at the end of “Frau Scheer,” about a horrible German landlady, a subject of inexhaustible interest:

I still remember one New Year’s Eve when I stood together with Frau Scheer at the open window.  Everything outdoors was swathed in thick fog.  We were listening to the New Year’s bells.  The following autumn she fell ill, and the doctors recommended an operation… [I will snip her plainly described death and will]  As for myself, I soon left town.  I felt the urge to revisit my distant homeland, the sight of which I’d had to do without for so many years.  (133)

Strangest of all, the last story, “A Homecoming in the Snow” from 1917, although nominally about Walser’s return, following that “urge,” from Berlin to Switzerland for Christmas, feels like it could have been written about Walser’s own death in the Christmas snow in 1956.

I was not wearing a coat.  I considered the snow itself a splendidly warm coat.

Soon I would hear the language of my parents, brothers, and sisters being spoken once more, and I would set foot again upon the dear soil of my native land. (139)

Of course Jochen Greven, the Walser scholar who made and ordered the selections in Berlin Stories, did this on purpose, but still.  Strange, strange.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The music of an ocean of mud - an invitation to read Karl Kraus before - well, see below

An invitation: please join Richard of Caravanas de Recuerdos and me as we read a selection of the works of the angry Austrian satirist Karl Kraus.  We are shooting for the end of April.  I mean I am shooting etc.

Why do you want to join us?  Many reasons.

1.  Strictly speaking the selections selected add up to about thirty (30) pages.  They are all available at Google books as part of the euphoniously titled Karl Kraus, Hermann Broch, Elias Canetti, Robert Walser: Selected Short Writings (Continuum, 2006).  Three of Kraus’s short newspaper pieces, a couple of scenes from his enormous semi-play The Last Days of Mankind (1919), and ten pages of aphorisms.  How we all love reading page after page of aphorisms.

Kraus is available in English in many forms, and I am reading a bit beyond those thirty pages.  I strongly recommend that anyone remotely curious take a look at the piece titled “Tourist Trips to Hell,” which is pure Kraus compressed into a few pages.

2.  Pure Kraus is intense.  He was the great one-man critic of his time, mostly writing in the 922 issues of his self-published newspaper, Die Fackel (“The Torch”), mostly writing the entire contents of the paper.  His special concern was language, particularly the ways it was abused by advertising and bureaucracy.

Let my style capture all the sounds of my time.  This should make it an annoyance to my contemporaries, but later generations should hold it to their ears like a seashell in which there is the music of an ocean of mud.

As part of his devotion to language, Kraus also performed one-man readings of entire plays – Schiller, Goethe, Shakespeare – acting only by voice and expression, or sang complete Offenbach operettas, “dancing” “with the fingers of his hand” (see Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind, 1975, p. 257).

I find Kraus quite funny, but his attempt to preserve language and culture was serious.  The first world war drove him to new heights of expression; the rise of Hitler silenced him.  “If proof was needed for the authenticity of Karl Kraus’s satirical work, it was provided by his knowledge that satire was defeated” (Heller, 259).

3.  Apparently Jonathan Franzen’s next book is about Karl KrausThe Kraus Project is the title.  The book appears to consist of Franzen’s translations of Kraus mixed with his essays about Kraus.  When I first saw the book I thought Amazon had been hacked by a prankster.  The translations are described as “definitive,” so screw you, previous (and future) translators, and Franzen “annotates them spectacularly,” a unique feat in the history of annotation.  The annotations also “soar[] over today’s cultural landscape.”  I believe I just mentioned that Kraus was particularly concerned with language, as corrupted by, for example, advertising? 

Regardless, it appears that the book is genuine, and that Franzen perhaps thinks of himself as something of a Karl Kraus for our time, a prophet of the coming apocalypse, this time brought on by environmental destruction, social media, and Amazon.com.

As Kraus says, “Artists have a right to be modest and a duty to be vain.”

In September, a lot of book reviewers will be doing some cramming on Kraus, so this is your chance to get the jump on them.