Wednesday, November 27, 2013

he had to endure the knowledge that he wasn’t finding out the clue to the strangeness. - a critical agenda for Seiobo There Below - Bernhard, Pynchon, and the Italian crossword puzzle

The first big joke, and it’s a good one, in László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below comes at the very beginning of Chapter 2, pp. 17-19, where the dismayed reader is presented with an entire crossword puzzle.  In Italian.  The humor comes from imagining the scowls and obscenities of prospective Krasznahorkai specialists, especially those without Italian.  If they are lucky the puzzle will turn out to be a red herring, for example a parodic gesture at the idea of a puzzle novel.

The translator Ottilie Mulzet, in interviews, and many reviewers have overgeneralized when describing Seiobo.  They perhaps have to.  Is Krasznahorkai writing about the presence or absence of the sacred in the world, whatever “the sacred” is, or the way the sense of the sacred affects a small and particular sort of person – prophets, visionaries, and martyrs?  Is he describing the way art works, or the way it works on a few sensitive seekers?  I have observed a temptation with Krasznahorkai criticism to move to metaphysics too quickly, when the argument is more at the level of psychology.  Krasznahorkai himself may believe otherwise, but that is not relevant.

Take the architect and amateur expert on Baroque music who stars in the novel’s funniest chapter (377, “Private Passion”).  He is giving a lecture on Bach to eight innocent souls in a small town Hungarian library.  He is incoherent and threatening, his audience finds him incomprehensible, and he is a grotesque, obese and absurd (“because everyone sensed how these trousers were continuously, ceaselessly sliding downward across those three thick folds of fat, down toward the thighs,” etc., with these long sentences, always etc., 345), all of which is humorous in one way or the other.  Then there is this:

… it must be in that very moment when the Baroque resounds in music, because we should have ended there, at the pinnacle, and not have allowed everything to happen just as it might, and then to lie, to blurt out these morbid lies and learn how to enthuse over such music as this Mozart or that Beethoven or over whatever it was all those ever more modest talents, those ever more commonplace figures, were able to conjure up out of our hats…  not even to mention the most repulsive of all, this imperial criminal named Wagner and his zealous supporters, let’s not even mention it, because if I even just think about it – the lecturer shook his head, giving expression to his disbelief – it is not shame that overcomes me, nor the consciousness of degradation, but rather a dark desire for murder, because…  (355)

Well, we get the idea, and in fact at this point Krasznahorkai wanders over to the stunned audience (“completely drained, not daring to escape, their hopes that at one point there might be a normal end to this lecture long since extinguished”), none of whom realize that they are being treated to a perfect chapter-long parody of Thomas Bernhard.  Which is too bad for them, because it is hilarious.

The speaker is totally consumed by Baroque music to the point of derangement.  He finally leaves in tears, not singing but shouting the music of Bach.  The chapter is a comic triumph.

It comes fairly late in the book, where it left me with the terrible realization that if this chapter was a parody of another author, than any – or all – of the other chapters might also be parodies, perhaps of Hungarian authors I have never even heard of, or worse, of authors I know well but failed to recognize.  Which chapter is the Sebald parody?  The last chapter begins with a parody of the first sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow – is the whole chapter a Pynchon parody?  Pynchon appears in the epigraph, too, which mangles the Thelonious Monk quotation Pynchon used as the epigraph to his 2006 Against the Day.  The jokes gets tangled.

This is worse than the Italian crossword puzzle.  What really makes me suspicious is that in this novel that is about nothing but the power and intricacy of all sorts of art, there is no example of prose fiction.  What if Krasznahorkai somehow wove his argument about fiction into his own fiction?

Good luck to everyone toiling in the Krasznahorkai mine.  I am eager to see what you dig up.

The post’s title is on p. 116.  It is not especially out of context here.

Now, a holiday, when I need my skillet green bean casserole recipe.  Back to usual business – Dickens, Turgenev – starting Monday.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

who can say what is essential and what isn’t - Seiobo There Below - Krasznahorkai's defense of the picturesque

If it took me so long to read the latest László Krasznahorkai book, Seiobo There Below (2008), it was because the novel has, based on the numbering, 2,584 chapters.  Only seventeen of them are actually printed in the book, but I felt I should give the implied chapters their due.  I am actually still reading the novel, in theory, and feel that I am almost to chapter 4,181, which would be the next printed chapter if the book had one more.  The numbers are part of a Fibonacci sequence.  This is so important that every reviewer mentions it, as I have, although none of them do anything with it, like I did.

Seventeen chapters, each about a work of art, its creation or presence.  Five paintings, five sculptures, four structures, plus Noh acting, Baroque music, and, just once, writing, a memoir. Almost all religious art.  Probably all religious, actually.  As I have said so often, whenever writers want to deal with art in general they go to visual art fourteen times out of seventeen.  Another count: six stories about Japanese art, three about Italian Renaissance painting, two Classical works, etc.  Japan, Venice, Barcelona, Athens, Hungary, etc.  People trying to figure out this book will make lots of grids, or maybe diagrams with arrows pointing from chapter to chapter.

The basic idea of the book is that art in its sublime aspect is destructive.  It is an encounter with the gods.  Mere mortals will not emerge intact.  Creators come off better than viewers, since they apparently learn to channel most of the destructive forces away from themselves.

I have been browsing reviews.  There have been a lot of good ones, like the one in The American Reader by Jonathan Kyle Sturgeon which follows references to Hell into the Schopenhauer-like idea that these little glimpses through art of the sublime, however annihilating, are precious chances of an escape from the Hell that is my ordinary life.  Krasznahorkai makes the point subtly:  “HELL REALLY EXISTS” (Ch. 5, “Christo Morto,” p. 96).  Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Sturgeon notes, in a point I somehow feel he stole from me, also prominently features a Christo Morto painting.

… for there is a domain, that of death, the dreadful weight of the earth pressing in from all sides which has entombed them, and which in time shall  devour us as well, to close it in upon itself, to bury, to consume even our memories, beyond all that is eternal.  (last line, p. 451)

The three previous Krasznahorkai novels that have made it into English have all been nightmare novels, with rural Hungary or New York City turned into Hell, so it is no surprise that the nightmare exists wherever Krasznahorkai’s fiction wanders, in the Louvre or the Acropolis or anywhere.  Take water with when you visit the Acropolis in the summer.  And don’t go at noon.  In fact, maybe pick another season for Athens.  That is a good Krasznahorkai travel tip.  See Chapter 8, “Up on the Acropolis.”

Seiobo There Below can be taken as a strong defense of the picturesque and of aesthetic distance.  Art is dangerous.  Stay behind the yellow line.

There are important ways in which everything I said above is wrong, by which I mean that at least one story presents an exception to every point.  That will require another diagram.

Seiobo There Below is a significant work of art in its own right, and if I have seemed to be mocking it, my excuse is that I have had trouble finding a reviewer who has noticed its ridiculous side, the inevitable partner of the sublime.  Krasznahorkai can be funny.  I am going to write about that tomorrow, in a post that will likely be of great aid to future Krasznahorkai scholars.

The translator, doing heroic work, is Ottilie Mulzet.  The post’s title is from Chapter 3, p. 86.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Alphonse Allais and his pal Captain Cap, touring the bars of Montmartre - with a bonus mint julep recipe, sort of

Captain Cap: His Adventures, His Ideas, His Drinks is a 1902 collection of the French humorist Alphonse Allais.  I had assumed that the humor had lost its flavor and that the book was useful as a period piece.  I was right about the latter but wrong about the former.

Allais, like any good humorist, needed a shtick – he needed a bundle of them – and Captain Cap has a great one.  Most pieces are encounters on the streets and bars of Montmartre with Captain Cap himself, who always has a new scheme, a new gadget, a new lie, and a new drink.

Early on, for example, over mint juleps, Cap describes his discovery of a cold cut mine in Quebec:  Meat-Land.  An explanation is given for the creation of such a mine that is almost plausible to those familiar with the principles of French cooking.

The cold cut mine has to be the finest creation in the book, from the Surrealist point of view, but it has lots of rivals, from the Kangacycle to the scheme to fill the French Catacombs with Arctic foxes to the Grandiose Billiards Club:

It looked as if the rain had not decided not to fall, so I proposed to Captain Cap that we play a game of billiards, simply, I added, to kill time.

“Alas!” Cap replied, “it is not we who kill time, but time that kills us!”

“Just to make it pass, then.”

“Alas!” Cap repeated, “it is not we who make time pass, but time that makes us pass.”

We could have continued quite a while with this system, so I thought it best not to insist.  (165)

In a bit of scene-setting later on the same page, Allais says he “should inform the reader, of there is still time, that the scene took place in the little white café on Blue Street – far preferable, in my opinion, to the little blue café on White Street).”

Allais has more than one arrow-through-the-head in his shtick quiver, is what I am trying to demonstrate here.

I need to get to the drinks.  The translator has helpfully catalogued all of them in an appendix.  Some of the drinks have dated where the jokes have not, like the various flips – try to find a bartender to serve you a drink with a raw egg in it.  And other drinks were once more, hmm, flexible:

The mint julep is excellent, when you can get fresh mint: crush four sprigs of the plant with a teaspoon of sugar, add a glass of cognac, fill with crushed ice, add a jigger of yellow Chartreuse, top off with water, and stir well.  Soak a spring of mint in lemon juice, and put it in the center of the glass.  Add seasonal fruits, and pour over it, without stirring, a dash of rum.  Sprinkle with sugar.  Drink with a straw. (333)

Seasonal fruits?  Yellow Chartreuse, are you insane?  And this is if anything less bizarre to me than the cocktails involving port.  Captain Cap adds port to lemonade.  How tastes change, in literature, jokes, and booze.

So this is an educational book, is what I am saying.  A period piece in the best sense.

Doug Skinner, who fortunately comments at Wuthering Expectations on occasion, is the translator.  He has enhanced the original with his own illustrations.  “Nobody said translation was easy,” Skinner notes (p. 245).

Congratulations and many thanks, Mr. Skinner!  Captain Cap is a fine contribution to English letters and Franco-American drinking. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Some people might lose their faith by looking at that painting! - Dostoevsky looks at paintings

The Idiot is a murder story, a mystery story investigating a homicide, the death of this man:

Image from Wikipedia. The Hans Holbein painting is in Basel, where Dostoevsky saw it many times.  A copy of it hangs in a house where, in the novel, a murder will take place.

‘That painting!’ the prince exclaimed suddenly, under the impact of a sudden thought.  ‘That painting! Some people might lose their faith by looking at that painting!’  (II, 4)

Or gain their faith, depending on what they make of Christ shown so clearly as human.  The image is foreshadowing, although given Dostoevsky’s improvisation, at the point the painting first appears, a third of the way through the novel, it is fair to ask:  foreshadowing of what?  The author will figure that out by the end of the novel.

This Holbein painting pulls us back into Part I of the novel, the single day in two hundred pages in which the holy fool Prince Myshkin is reintroduced to Russia after a long stay in Switzerland, where he too got to know the Holbein.  He mentions another Holbein, a Madonna in Dresden, but this is merely a hint of the motif.  The strongest connection is to another Basel painting, not specified by Myshkin, that portrays the moment before an execution.  Myshkin then describes, in a two page paragraph, a painting he imagines on that subject, “’exactly a minute before death,’” although his description includes the prison, the awakening and transport of the condemned man and his thoughts along the way before he gets to the scaffold, the guillotine, and the priest.

“Paint the scaffold so that only the last stair can be seen clearly and closely; the condemned man has stepped on it: his head, white as paper, the priest holding out the cross, the man extending his blue lips and staring – and knowing everything.  The cross and the head – that is the painting, the face of the priest, of the executioner, of his two assistants and a few heads and eyes from below – all that may be painted on a tertiary level, as it were, in a mist, as a background…  That’s what the painting should be like.”  (I, 6, ellipses in original)

This is told to a trio of beautiful young women Myshkin has just met.  He is a little awkward as a conversationalist.  You should see the story he tells next, in Part I, Chapter 6, in a single uninterrupted twelve page paragraph.

Strangely, eighty pages into the novel, this is the second time Myshkin has described the moment before an execution.  He first does so in the second chapter, again, using a long single paragraph.

“When you put your head right under the guillotine and hear it sliding above your head, it’s that quarter of a second that’s most terrible of all.  This isn’t my imagination, you know, many people have said the same thing…  Take a soldier and put him right in front of a cannon in a battle and fire it at him, and he’ll go on hoping, but read out a certain death sentence to that same soldier, and he’ll go mad, or start to weep.  Who can say that human nature is able to endure such a thing without going mad?  Why such mockery – ugly, superfluous, futile?  Perhaps the man exists to whom this sentence has been read out, has been allowed to suffer, and then has been told: ‘Off you go, you’ve been pardoned.’  A man like that could tell us, perhaps.  Such suffering and terror were what Christ spoke of.  (I,2, ellipses mine)

I quoted that passage at some length because it is so clearly related to Dostoevsky’s own experience in 1849, when his own execution by firing squad was commuted moments before the guns went off.

And what comes up just a few pages later?  A painting, of course – the painting of a character who will, by the end of the novel seven hundred pages later, be murdered.

I am in a sense constructing a better novel out of pieces of the book Dostoevsky actually wrote, but the pieces all are right there, put in place by the author for anyone to use.
Special unpaid, heartfelt advertising:  If you are in Munich, you can (and should) eat at Prinz Myshkin, a first-rate vegetarian restaurant.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"We have all stewed to mush, all, all of us!" - The Idiot's six murders

Prince Myshkin is alone in one of the finest scenes in The Idiot, Part II, Chapter 5, in which he wanders around St. Petersburg, thinking.  Just walking and thinking.  “He was in a tormented state of tension and anxiety, and at the same time he felt an extraordinary need for solitude.”  His author gives it to him.

The scene is written as a stream of consciousness, a technique Dostoevksy was inventing from scratch:  Myshkin looks at shop windows, wonders if someone is following him (yes), thinks deep thoughts, worries about his epilepsy, reviews recent events, which must have been useful for those who read the novel as a serial – it was useful for me, too – all in the apparently random but psychologically plausible order that characterizes good stream of consciousness writing.

Now he wanted to ascertain without fail whether he had really stood, only five minutes ago, perhaps, in front of the window of this shop, or whether he had imagined it, got something mixed up.  Did this shop and these things in its window really exist?  For he did feel in a particularly ill state of mind today, almost the same state of mind that had affected him before at the beginning of the fits that had accompanied his earlier illness?

And in fact an epileptic fit is approaching.  It ends the chapter:

Then suddenly something seemed to open before him: an extraordinary inner light illumined his soul.  This moment lasted for half a second, perhaps; but he clearly and consciously remembered the beginning, the very first sound of his terrible howl, that tore from his breast of its own accord and which he could not stop by any effort.

Also, at this exact moment, someone is trying to stab the prince.  He had been thinking about murder during his wandering fugue:

Though really, what am I saying? (the prince continued to muse).  He didn’t murder those creatures, those six people, did he?  I seem to be getting things mixed up… how strange this is!  My head seems to be spinning…  (ellipses in original)

It is in this passage that Dostoevsky introduces one of the curiosities of the novel, which is actually one of its unifying devices, that murders occur in sets of six.  The reference, a footnote tells me, is to a genuine 1868 case where a student murdered a family of six, which helps to a certain extent to give a reasonable explanation to some of the associations of murder and the number six – the characters have all been reading about the crime in the newspaper, so it is on their mind, just as it is on Dostoevsky’s.

It does not explain why murder is discussed so often, and in such inappropriate settings.  And some of the allusions are distinct.  Here Lebedev, the same fellow who giggled and sneezed rather than answering a direct question, begins to tell (at Myshkin’s birthday party!) a bizarre parable about medieval cannibalism:

One such cannibal, approaching old age, announced of his own accord and without any compulsion that throughout his long and poverty-stricken life he had killed and eaten personally and in the deepest secret sixty monks and several lay infants – about six of them, but no more, that is, very few compared to the number of clerics he had eaten.  (III, 4)

This is part of an elaborate drunken nonsensical argument about the spread of railroads – “We have all stewed to mush, all, all of us!”  Which makes us easier to eat, I presume.

Forty pages later, but still at the same party, another character fantasizes about murdering ten people, which is perhaps a mistake of Dostoevsky’s but I think instead a deliberate escalation of the body count.  With all of this talk, murdering six is no longer a sufficient example of evil.

The murder theme is an example of the artfulness of Dostoevsky.  I will follow it in one last post tomorrow.

Friday, November 22, 2013

We’re eccentrics… we ought all to be displayed under glass - The Idiot's characters - I've never been able to stand poetry

“Exceedingly strange people!” thought Prince Shch., for perhaps the hundredth time since he had begun to associate with them, but… he liked these strange people.  (III, 2, ellipses in original)

Dostoevsky’s characters often seem to comment on the novel they are in.  A little past the halfway point, “hundredth time” was about right for me, too.

Dostoevsky, in his late novels, under constraints I would not wish on any artist, abandons or never attempts much of what makes fiction artful.  What does he keep?

Speech.  Dostoevsky the playwright.  The bulk of The Idiot is speech.  Dialogue, arguments, harangues, manifestos, cacophonies.  The famous Dostoevskian polyphony exists in a more primitive form in The Idiot than in The Brothers Karamazov, but there is plenty of room for views that are clearly not Dostoevsky’s own, wrong ideas presented with as much conviction and rhetorical sophistication as right.  This, if anything, accounts for the proliferation of Dostoevsky’s ideas and aesthetic.  Dostoevsky practically begs you to disagree with his ideas about Russian nationalism and the primacy of the Orthodox Church, even to ignore them.

But more practically, Dostoevsky seems to believe that character is mostly revealed through speech.  That is where he spends his time.

“Lord, what nonsense I’m talking!  Pah!  We’re eccentrics… we ought all to be displayed under glass, me first for an entrance fee of ten copecks.”  (III, 1, ellipses in original)

This is Lizaveta Prokofyevna, mother of one of Prince Myshkin’s possible wives, and one of the novel’s best minor characters.  She is nothing but talk, often bewildered and ridiculous talk.  She is another of the novel’s idiots (the novel is on the side of the idiots):

“What poem is it?  Recite it, I’m sure you know it!  I absolutely insist on knowing this poem.  I’ve never been able to stand poetry, it’s as though I’d had a premonition.  For God’s sake – Prince, have patience, it seems that you and I will have to endure this together,” she addressed Prince Lev Nikolayevich [Myshkin].  (II, 6)

The Christ-like Myshkin and the novel’s other fools are secretly in solidarity against earthly suffering.  Not so secret in this passage, I guess, since she openly says it.

As good as so many of the minor characters are, it is Prince Myshkin who really matters.  Meant to be a saint, he could become an ikon, not a character but an image, perfectly meek, perfectly forgiving.  Dostoevsky humanizes him, though, with a number of small touches, most effectively his sense of humor.  Midway through the novel there is a rare moment of action, during which Myshkin tangles with an officer.  A minor character offers to be Myshkin’s second:

“So you’re talking about a duel, too!” the prince suddenly began to laugh, to Keller’s extreme surprise.  He laughed mightily.  Keller, who had really almost been on tenterhooks until he had obtained satisfaction, offering himself as a second, almost took offence as he beheld the prince’s merry laughter.  (III, 3)

I was also laughing mightily, enjoying Myshkin’s genuinely Christ-like response.  Risking death for pride – how ridiculous, how funny.  Myshkin’s laughter is always meaningful.

One more example, from another minor character, one who plays a big role in the first quarter of the novel but gets lost later, a victim of Dostoevsky’s muddle.  He is given this moment, though:

When Varya was out of the way, Ganya took the note from the table, kissed it, clicked his tongue and performed an entrechat.  (IV, 2)

One wonders what little marvels Dostoevsky might have imagined if he had let his characters be alone more often, if they were not constantly talking.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I promise myself that I won’t correct a single line of this manuscript - in which I allow myself a post of complaining about Dostoevsky

A ratio of one post of complaints  to three or four of appreciation seems allowable for any book, much less a big Dostoevsky novel.  By any sane aesthetic standard, Dostoevsky’s books are such messes.  The Idiot is the messiest I know.  So this will be my single post of whining, after which I will restrain myself to backhanded compliments.

Dostoevsky’s method is the key here, the method I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, where he makes elaborate notes for the novel which he ignores while pacing back and forth, dictating the novel.  Up against a brutal deadline, the results are sent off to the magazine with almost no revision.

The Idiot is the first long novel written this way, and it shows.  Dostoevsky botches some basic  novelistic components.  Characters and storylines are introduced, pumped up, and then forgotten for hundreds of pages.  New characters and plotlines crush the momentum of old ones.   

He  is especially bad with transitions between scenes.  The first of the novel's four parts takes place in a single day, so in a sense has no transitions.  It is light, rapid, energetic, logical in its own crazy way, a wild ride for the first two hundred pages in the Penguin edition, composed, I read somewhere, in a single twenty-two day burst.  But Dostoevsky founders when he switches to Part II and has to shuffle the characters around and let six months pass.  After this point whenever he switches sections or subjects he has to spend some pages clearing his throat before moving on to something better.  Readers of Wuthering Expectations should recognize the phenomenon.

Sometimes it is best for the narrator to confine himself to a simple exposition of events.  This is how we shall proceed with the rest of our account of the present catastrophe with the general; for no matter how hard we may try, we are confronted by the decided necessity of allotting to this secondary character in our story rather more attention and space than we had hitherto proposed.  (IV, 3)


A simple way to say this is that The Idiot is a heck of a first draft.  If only we had the second draft.  If only Dostoevsky had had time to say to his assistant “I was just thinking aloud there – you can cut that bit.”  By The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has learned a lot about working within his crazy method.

Dostoevsky has a minimal visual imagination.  A huge part of the aesthetic power of fiction is unavailable to him.  He cannot even imitate his idol Nikolai Gogol.  Dostoevsky does not see the scene he is writing.  Or he sees a bare stage and a set of actors.  His strength is animating those actors.  Dostoevsky was a great actor.  But I am not writing about his strengths now.

 “’It seems to me that I have just written something terribly stupid; but I don’t have the time to correct it, as I said; what is more, I promise myself that I won’t correct a single line of this manuscript, even if I notice that I contradict myself every five lines’” – this is not the narrator but a character speaking, in Part III, Chapter 5.  But Dostoevsky does, in fact, correct and revise.  He does it in the next novel.  And the next and the next, until he really does run out of time.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

That is impossible, that’s all nonsense! - a look at Dostoevsky's The Idiot - "Did you receive my hedgehog?"

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, serialized from 1868 to 1869.  I want to start with two scenes, so mostly just some quotes today.  David McDuff’s 2004 Penguin translation is doing the hard work.

The plot:  Prince Myshkin, young, saint-like, even Christ-like, returns to Russia after a long illness, where he accidentally falls into someone else’s preposterous soap opera.  Myshkin’s superhuman insight into character and limitless capacity for forgiveness affect some of the soap operatives positively and drives others to madness.  Much of the story somehow becomes a contest between two women who want to marry the prince, or do not want to marry him, depending on where each woman is in her wild mood swing.

The Idiot is a novel of great scenes, but the plot is not so good.  Crime and Punishment is a much better thriller.

Aglaya is one of the women, the saner of the two, who sometimes wants to marry the prince  In this scene we are nearing the end of the novel:

It was at this very moment that Aglaya entered calmly and grandly, made a ceremonious bow to the prince, and solemnly took the most conspicuous place at the circular table.  She gave the prince a questioning look.  Everyone realized that the resolution of all their bewilderment had begun.

‘Did you receive my hedgehog?’ she asked firmly and almost angrily.

‘Yes, I did,’ replied the prince, blushing and with sinking heart.  (IV, 5)

I love that “bewilderment” line.  Dostoevsky’s fiction is full of lines that sound like self-commentary.  Be honest, after that line, what were you expecting?  “Did you receive my hedgehog?”  Oh, you were?  Well, I was not, even though the hedgehog had been delivered only four pages earlier.  A boy, Kolya, had bought a hedgehog and an axe from someone on the street who happened to have those two items in his possession.  Aglaya buys the hedgehog in order to send it to the prince.  No idea where the axe goes.  

Kolya agreed with delight, and promised that he would deliver it, but at once began to ply her with questions in return:  ‘What does a present of a hedgehog mean?’

Good question.  I will someday answer it, in what will become my best-known essay on Russian literature, "The Hedgehog and the Axe."

Now this is from hundreds of pages earlier.  Prince Myshkin is interrogating Lebedev, a toady, about some plotty stuff:

Lebedev began to cringe and grovel.

‘I’ve waited all day to ask you one question; just answer with the truth for once in your life, right from the first word: did you play any part in that carriage business yesterday?’

Lebedev again began to cringe, giggled, rubbed his hands, and even, at last sneezed several times, but was still unable to bring himself to say anything.

‘I see that you did.’  (Pt. II, Ch. 11)

And Lebedev is one of the novel’s sane characters!  Cunning, thoroughly selfish, and capricious, but rational.  The argument ends thusly (it is important to remember that the prince is almost inhumanly meek and forgiving):

‘Be quiet, be quiet!’ the prince shouted violently, red all over with indignation, and perhaps also with shame.  ‘That is impossible, that’s all nonsense!  You’ve thought it all up yourself, or madmen like you have.’

This is why I was reading and writing about nonsense – to prepare me for a week or so of writing about Dostoevsky.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Conventional signs and the absolute blank - some nonsense aesthetics (guest starring Swinburne and Morgenstern)

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
    Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
    A map they could all understand.
“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
    Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
    “They are merely conventional signs!
“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
    But we’ve got out brave captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “That he’s bought us the best –
    A perfect and absolute blank!”   (Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark,” Fit the Second)

The nonsense poems I have been reading are not so far, looked at kind of cockeyed, from the early modern descendants of Petrarch I was writing about last week.  Elizabethan sonneteers were working under narrow constraints, rewarded for ingenuity as much as, or more than, meaning.  It was at times hard to see the difference between dozens of tiny variations on an entirely conventional idea and the absence of any idea at all.  “They are merely conventional signs!”

The two orders of poetry also share a common ancestor in the classical pastoral poetry tradition.  Thus ends today’s sermon in literary history.

It is not that nonsense and its cousins are not meaningful.  The Alice novels are as deep as I want them to be, rare examples of fiction with something to say about metaphysics.  But there is a side of nonsense that directly addresses the possibility of meaning, that tries to see how close it can get to the blank map.

I have been paging through The Faber Book of Nonsense Verse (1979), ed. Geoffrey Grigson, where I came upon a cluster of Christian Morgenstern poems including “The Great Lalulā,” of which I present the final stanza:

Simarar kos malzpempu
silzuzanlunkrei (;)!
Marjomar dos: Quempu Lempu
Siri Suri Sei [ ]!
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!

Well said.  All punctuation in the original.  Morgenstern is often described as untranslatable for some reason.

The poem is selective in its chaos, keeping rhyme, meter, sound and, what else, alphabetical characters, although I bet it was originally published in Gothic script.

Algernon Swinburne achieves a similar effect with English words and grammar in “Nephelidia”:

From the depth of the dreamy decline of the dawn
        through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine,
    Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower that
        flickers with fear of the flies as they float,

A page and a half of this, frankly very hard to read for more than a few lines at a time.  It constantly seems to approach meaning, but that is hardly the point.  Wonderful stuff, and just a smidge over from the way Swinburne often sounds in his serious – I hate to call them serious – poems.

Little children seem to figure all of this out without any help, the fun of turning everything, including language, upside down.  In a comment to yesterday’s Carroll post, Jenny from Reading the End praised the sheer joyfulness of Carroll’s nonsense.  He shares that sense of play with all of the nonsense and light verse writers, the delight created by the discovery that an unrelated jumble of words, placed together in a particular order, have turned into something marvelous even without meaning a thing, which is itself meaningful.  And thus I have invented aesthetics.  A little late.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Lewis Carroll's nonsense - Exactly and perfectly true.

Lewis Carroll is the hard one for me to write about.  When I read the Alice books last year, I had no interest in writing about them, although I had no qualms about using out of context quotations to support unrelated arguments.  And I have called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland the Greatest Novel of the 19th Century, and sometimes even meant it.  It is a defensible position.

I have also called the “Pig and Pepper” chapter the high point of Western civilization, and the “Turtle Soup” poem from the “Lobster-Quadrille” chapter the greatest of the century, or of the English language, maybe, but I was joking.

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
    Beau---ootiful Soo---oop!
    Beau---ootiful Soo---oop!
Soo---oop of the e---e---evening,
    Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

Etc.  Joking to a certain extent.  “’Chorus again!’ cried the Gryphon,” who has critical judgment much like mine.

Adam Roberts, novelist and Victorianist, has been teaching the Alice books.  He said he had trouble finding critical distance from them.  He overcame the problem with a series of essays so good I dread linking to them, since few will return here.  The one where Roberts deduces the shape of the missing third book of the Alice trilogy, Carroll’s Paradiso, using the principle that two points form a line, is something to see.

Carroll’s nonsense is so sensible.  It often has rules and logic, just the wrong rules and bad logic.  Thus the incessant riddles, puzzles, and even math.  Mathematics is to Carroll both utterly logical and a marvelous game.

As one Snark hunter explains to another:

“Taking Three as the subject to reason about –
    A convenient number to state –
We add Seven, and Ten, and then multiply out
    By One Thousand diminished by Eight.
The result we proceed to divide, as you see,
    By Nine Hundred and Ninety and Two:
Then subtract Seventeen, and the number must be
   Exactly and perfectly true.”  (“The Hunting of the Snark” (1876), Fit the Fifth)

Or 3 = 3, or 3 x (a set of calculations equaling 1) = 3.  But in verse.  Every word is true, the calculation accurate, yet the result is nonsense.  Logical, accurate nonsense.

Miguel of St. Orberose wrote about, and posted generous excerpts from, Carroll’s 1869 book Phantasmagoria and Other Poems, a collection more like Gilbert than Lear, satirizing ghost stories, amateur photography (in Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” measure for some reason), and fashionable poetic attitudes.  In “Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur,” a novice poet asks advice of an expert:

“For instance, if I wished, Sir
    Of mutton-pies to tell,
Should I say ‘dreams of fleecy flocks
    Pent in a wheaten cell’?”
“Why, yes,” the old man said: “that phrase
    Would answer very well.”

In other words, plenty of nonsense lies elsewhere, in the poems of other people, not Carroll.

Chorus again!  Everyone, sing along!  Careful with ending of the third line.

Beautiful Soup! Who cares for fish,
Game, or any other dish?
Who would not give all else for two p
ennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
    Beau---ootiful Soo---oop!
    Beau---ootiful Soo---oop!
Soo---oop of the e---e---evening,
    Beautiful, beauti---FUL SOUP!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

And I am a doggerel bard - some Bab Ballads

W. S. Gilbert hardly used any nonsense at all, so it is entirely appropriate to include him in Nonsense Week.  He used it once in a while.

Of Agib, who amid Tartaric scenes,
Wrote a lot of ballet-music in his teens:
    His gentle spirit rolls
    In the melody of souls –
Which is pretty, but I don’t know what it means.  (“The Story of Prince Agib”)

For many people that describes poetry, not just its nonsensical version, but never mind that.

In the early 1860s, young Gilbert discovered a talent for light verse and crude illustration, and thus became a regular contributor to a magazine with the oppressive title of Fun.  His poems were collected as The Bab Ballads in 1869 and rearranged and reprinted many times.  This is all over a decade before he began his theatrical collaborations with the composer Arthur Sullivan.  Long before he was part of Gilbert and Sullivan, he was Bab.

Gilbert was more of a satirist than Edward Lear, a creator of characters who were types and behaved ridiculously yet within their social role.

"Your mind is not as blank
    As that of HOPLEY PORTER,
Who holds a curate's rank
    At Assesmilk-cum-Worter.

"He plays the airy flute,
    And looks depressed and blighted,
Doves round about him 'toot,'
    And lambkins dance delighted.

"He labours more than you
    At worsted work, and frames it;
In old maids' albums, too,
    Sticks seaweed — yes, and names it!"  (“The Rival Curates”)

The curates are rivals in mildness.  I can imagine the Monty Python game show – “Welcome to England’s Mildest Curate.”  Gilbert  blows up his types to absurd proportions.  He is not so interested in wordplay.  I am comparing him to Thomas Hood, the previous generation’s master of light verse, who used far more puns and punchlines than Gilbert, more jokes.  Although Hood had his share, Gilbert is more violent, with lots of jolly beheadings, murders, and cannibalism.

Last year, during Ghost Week, I put up a bit of a Gilbert poem, “The Ghost to His Ladye Love,” that I thought was splendidly imaginative.  Few reach that height.  “Emily, John, James, and I: A Derby Legend” comes close, ordinary in content but ingenious in form:

EMILY JANE was a nursery maid –
    JAMES was a bold Life Guard,
And JOHN was a constable, poorly paid
    (And I am a doggerel bard).

A very good girl was EMILY JANE,
    JIMMY was good and true,
And JOHN was a very good man in the main
   (And I am a good man, too).

Rivals for EMMIE were JOHNNY and JAMES,
    Though EMILY liked them both;
She couldn't tell which had the strongest claims
    (And I couldn't take my oath).

Every fourth line is a parenthetical from the narrator, the most intrusive of all intrusive narrators, who even intrudes on the action at a crucial moment.

Gilbert is a bit hard to excerpt, I realize to my regret, since his poems are almost all narrative and almost all a couple of pages long.  Much of the Fun, honestly, is just seeing how he turns this silly stuff into verse.

I have borrowed the illustrations from this Gilbert and Sullivan archive.  They are arranged as they struck my fancy, aside from the curate with the sheep.  My text is the complete, exhausting 1980 Belknap Press edition.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Some Edward Lear - When they screamed in the nest, he screamed out with the rest

César Aira makes a perfect transition to mid-Victorian nonsense.  Samples from the Golden Age of Nonsense.  Three authors – Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and W. S. Gilbert – are surely enough for a Golden Age.

I am using the word “nonsense” loosely.  Nonsense is only one of Carroll’s many modes, and Gilbert’s Bab Ballads are only rarely nonsensical.  Only Lear provides his nonsense uncut with satire or riddles.  Nonsense and nothing but.

Lear’s 1846 A Book of Nonsense, a collection of 112 illustrated limericks, one after the other, hypnotic and numbing consumed in bulk, stood by itself for 25 years, when in 1871 Lear published Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets – a no-nonsense title, isn’t it? – which was soon followed (1872 and 1877) by two more little books with similar contents.  More limericks, of course:

                There was an old person of Crowle,
                Who lived in the nest of an owl;
                When they screamed in the nest, he screamed out with the rest,
                That depressing old person of Crowle.

But also, thankfully, longer, varied poems like “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” a brilliant bit of nonsense cookery (“Serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of window as fast as possible”), a couple of story-like texts, and the startling botanies:

                                                    Piggiawiggia Pyramidalis

I find the latter have, like the limericks, a cumulative effect.  I also find that I ask myself questions like “Why am I laughing at this?” and “Why is this funny?”  There is sometimes so little to Lear.  The Nonsense Cookery has recognizable jokes of an absurdist type.  The cartoons are obviously essential.  I can imagine that owlish fellow screaming, and his screams make him even more owlish, so I laugh.  Something like that.

Lear is a bit easier to dissect in prose.  A bit of "The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went around the World":

‘It does not quite look like a human being,’ said Violet, doubtfully; nor could they make out what it really was, till the Quangle-Wangle (who had previously been round the world), exclaimed softly in a loud voice, ‘It is the Co-operative Cauliflower!’

And so in truth it was, and they soon found that what they had taken for an immense wig was in reality the top of the cauliflower, and that he had no feet at all, being able to walk tolerably well with a fluctuating and graceful movement on a single cabbage stalk, an accomplishment which naturally saved him the expense of stockings and shoes.

I will defer on jokes, but it seems that the last one does nothing, a cute joke for the kiddies, but that otherwise we see three fundamental types of nonsense here.  The reversal “softly in a loud voice” is an undermining of the meaning of words.  The business about using the stalk to walk misapplies rhetoric.  And the Co-operative Cauliflower itself is freely inventive, but a peculiar kind of invention where the game is to defeat every imaginative expectation of the reader, no matter how unreasonable.

As you can see, my goal for the week is to kill all of the fun in these writers.

The episode ends, by the way, with a remarkable and sublime sight.  The Cauliflower “suddenly arose, and in a somewhat plumdomphious manner hurried off towards the setting sun…  he finally disappeared on the brink of the western sky in a crystal cloud of sudorific sand.”

I borrowed Lear’s illustrations from the fluctuating and graceful

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

There are many things a novel does not say - The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira

November and December 2013 is the perfect time to sample the Argentinean Literature of Doom, says Ricardo de la Caravana de Recuerdos.  Why, I do not know, but I did it, enjoying one of last year’s César Aira translations, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, originally published in 1998.

The title is well-chosen.  It warns readers of the contents – CAUTION: Contains meta-fiction.  The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira turns out to be about fiction.  The Miracle Cure is fiction.  Dr. Aira is César Aira.  Or all of this is a trick to encourage such a surface interpretation by a shallow reader like me.  The other César Aira translation from last year, the 2002 Varamo, was also about the fiction of César Aira.

I know there are readers who loathe this sort of thing, who are instantly bored by it.  In this case, fair warning, I say.

Dr. Aira performs Miracle Cures.  He is fifty, though, and thinking that it is time to finally write a book about his methods, published in installments of “four or eight” pages, “no more than that” (42), amounting to “the penning of an Encyclopedia of all things from all times” (39).  In other word, one of my favorite literary curiosities, the omnibook.

Dr. Aira’s method is not that of César Aira, but it is related.  He has thousands of manuscript pages which he plans to assemble into a collage.

He could start anywhere; no introduction was necessary because the subject was already well defined in the collective imagination…  The same thing was happening here: life, death, illness – there’s nobody who doesn’t know what they’re all about, which would allow him to create small, delightful variations that would seem like inventions even if they weren’t (thereby sparing the author the exorbitant effort of inventing a new story).  (37-8)

In the first chapter, Dr. Aira is asked to perform a cure but refuses.  In the second, he theorizes about his cures, as above.  In the third and final, he is asked to perform a cure and does.  So Aira does not cheat on this aspect of his conceit, as I suspected he might, since given his method he may well have launched the novel without knowing exactly where he was going.

The Miracle Cure applies the omnibook to reality, something like an application of the memory palaces of Giordano Bruno, and not so far from the central conceit of John Crowley’s Aegypt books, and of course akin to this and that infinite bit of Borges.  It is even more like an application of the power cosmic by the Silver Surfer or Thanos, the ludicrous yet god-like space-faring characters from Marvel Comics.  Aira scholars should figure out which comic books he read.  Here is a Spanish reviewer who is way ahead of me: “without doubt,” he says, Aira grew up with the bizarre and inventive comics of the DC Silver Age, which explains a lot.

There are many things a novel does not say, and this absence makes it possible for action to take place within its restricted universe.  Hence, the novel is also an antecedent of Miracles, precisely because the events the novel recounts can happen as a result of what it excludes.  (67)

Each Cure destroys and then replaces the universe.  This is the most Doom-like part of the Miracle Cures.

I have avoided describing the first chapter because it is the funniest piece of extended Aira I have yet read, wonderful Monty Python stuff.  The metafiction-hating reader could enjoy it and skip the rest of the book.

Katherine Silver translated this one.  Fun gig.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Michael Drayton's Idea - time calls me to relate \ My tedious travels

Michael Drayton, a contemporary of Samuel Daniel, skipped the anagram.  He did not hide the Ideal behind Delia or the idea behind Délie, but addressed his sonnet sequence directly to “Idea.”  Oddly, or perhaps this is the ironic point, Drayton’s sonnets often feel more like they could be addressed to an actual woman than the poems of Daniel or Scève.  He is best known – I think this is true – for the sonnet “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part” (1619), which I glanced at almost six years ago.  It’s a stunner.  As good as Shakespeare.  And even with the turn to allegorical figures in the last six lines, it has the erotic charge of a great love poem.

Unlike this one, also from the 1619 Idea:

Like an adventurous seafarer am I,
Who hath some long and dang’rous voyage been,
And called to tell of his discovery,
How far he sailed, what countries he had seen,
Proceeding from the port whence he put forth,
Shows by his compass how his course he steered,
When east, when west, when south, and when by north,
As how the pole to ev’ry place was reared;
What capes he doubled, of what continent,
The gulfs and straits that strangely he had passed,
Where most becalmed, where with foul weather spent,
And on what rocks in peril to be cast.
Thus in my love, time calls me to relate
My tedious travels, and oft varying fate.

The conceit completely takes over.  Taking the “I” as something real, we see in the first line that he is life a seafarer, after which the next the next eleven lines describe not the real “I” but the purely metaphorical seafarer.  Since “I” is like the seafarer, by logic the poem is simultaneously describing “I,” but who does not lose that thread by the twelfth line?

Drayton is more direct than Daniel, but the elaborate, playful extension of the metaphor is the purpose of the poem, which in the closing couplet turns out to be not a love poem but a poem about writing love poems.

Look at the seventh line, “When east,” etc.  As prose, as argument, it is filler – we know how a compass works – but it is pleasant to say aloud and pleasant to read in its surroundings, where ordinary ideas become poetry.

Drayton thinks, and therefore is.  One cannot have an Idea without “I”:

Nothing but No and I, and I and No,
How fals it out so strangely you reply?
I tell yee (Faire) ile not be answered so,
With this affronting No, denying I.
I say, I Love, you sleightly answere I:
I say, You Love, you peule me out a No:
I say, I Die, you Eccho me with I:
Save mee I Crie, you sigh me out a No;
Must Woe and I, have naught but No and I?
No I, am I, if I no more can have;
Answere no more, with Silence make reply,
And let me take my selfe what I doe crave,
    Let No and I, with I and you be so:
    Then answere No and I, and I and No.

This, from 1594, is an unusually rapid sonnet, mostly monosyllables, when read aloud verging on nonsense.  Adding quotation marks helps sort it out.  The poem is as usual more learned than it looks – the “Eccho” line refers to Philip Sidney’s echo poem “Fair rocks, goodly rivers, sweet woods…” at the very least.  But at heart it is a joyful manipulation of words, poetry as pure play.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Samuel Daniel's Delia - beyond his power to a farre happier flight

The fact is that we have been corrupted by Shakespeare and the Romantic poets into thinking that early modern poems are artistic forms for emotion and personal expression rather than entries in an erudition contest meant to express neo-Platonic humanist commonplaces in as intricate a way as possible.  Shakespeare is to blame because his sonnets can be read as if they were Romantic or Modernist or whatever you want – they really are extraordinary – but anyone who has turned to his “Venus and Adonis” or “The Phoenix and the Turtle” know that he had submitted some poems to the prestige competition, too.

Samuel Daniel was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, a member of the circle of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke.  His 1592 sonnet sequence, fifty poems long, modeled on Petrarch’s Canzoniere, is titled Delia.  If Maurice Scève’s Délie is also L’Idée then Delia is also Ideal.  There is some speculation that Daniel’s poems are addressed to Mary Sidney, herself a fine poet, but, come on, “Ideal,” we know how this game is played.

All of this of course takes place during the Great English Sonnet Craze inspired by Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, two hundred years after Petrarch had died.  England was a backwater.

Sonnet XLV
    Care- charmer sleepe, sonne of the Sable night,
Brother to death, in silent darknes borne:
Relieue my languish, and restore the light,
With darke forgetting of my cares returne.
    And let the day be time enough to morne,
The shipwrack of my ill-aduentred youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wayle theyr scorne,
Without the torment of the nights vnturth.
    Cease dreames, th’ymagery of our day desires,
To modell foorth the passions of the morrow:
Neuer let rysing Sunne approue you lyers,
To adde more griefe to aggrauat my sorrow.
      Still let me sleepe, imbracing clowdes in vaine;
      And never wake, to feele the dayes disdayne.

Delia is in the background here, the cause of the poet’s sorrow.  The call for sleep as a relief from suffering, and the congruity between sleep and death, are ancient ideas, hackneyed even.  I am not sure that there is a single original idea in Daniel.  He is, rather, an expert at poetic adornment.  He is likely as much read now for the 1603 essay A Defence of Ryme, an argument for ornament, constraint, and form: “Ryme is no impediment to his conceit, but rather giues him wings to mount and carries him, not out of his course, but as it were beyond his power to a farre happier flight” (138).  Our imagination is “an vnformed Chaos without fashion, without day.”  Poetry extracts beauty from chaos.

So if I find little in this poem besides the musical pleasure of “Relieve my languish and restore the light” or the last couplet, where the dream imagery becomes more interesting (“embracing clouds”), I have found plenty.

In a poem titled “To the Reader,” Daniel makes the usual claim for immortality:

    I know I shalbe read, among the rest
So long as men speake english, and so long
As verse and vertue shalbe in request
Or grace to honest industry belong  (4, ll. 59-63)

He did not predict he would be read a lot.

I have been using the old University of Chicago Press edition of Poems and A Defence of Ryme, ed. Arthur Colby Sprague,  as my text.  Who knows what hideous errors I have introduced in my transcription.  In Defence of Standard Spelling, Daniel should have written that essay, too.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Maurice Scève's Délie - Its deep, & divine excellence \ So stunned my Soul

The Góngora post went all right.  I’ll try another tough one, the Délie of Maurice Scève, a collection of poems published in 1544 in the most pleasant city in France, Lyon, then the innovative center of French publishing.  The poems are mostly dizains, ten lines of ten syllables each, little poetic boxes, 449 of the little suckers.  There exists an unpublished doctoral dissertation that translates them all, but otherwise, to remain sane, everyone picks out favorites.

My choice this time was Emblems of Desire, the 2003 translation by Richard Sieburth, reissued in 2007 by Archipelago Books.  The poems were originally accompanied by allegorical emblems, and Sieburth includes a number of them (please sample them at the Archipelago site – click “Extras”) along with the sixty or so poems he translates.  I will ignore those.  What is more tedious than early modern emblems.

Poems  aside, Scève is most famous as the discoverer of the tomb of Petrarch’s Laura, a phony publicity stunt, but relevant here since Délie is although not a sonnet sequence an imitation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere.  Délie is Scève’s Laura, his poetic love object, but rearrange the letters to L’Idée, “the idea”, to get a better idea of what is going on.

I lived at liberty in the April of my life,
My youth exempt from every care,
When my eye, unschooled in strife,
Was caught by that presence fair
Which by its deep, & divine excellence
So stunned my Soul, & common sense
That the cruel archer of her eyes
Took my freedom as his prize:
And from that day on, without cease,
In her beauty lies my death, & life. (6)

And then this goes on for hundreds of poems, with minute variations in imagery and ironic effect, mostly lamenting the absence of this idea or possibly woman.  The poems are hardly as elaborate as Góngora, but that cruel archer is a buried classical reference, although an easy one, and “April of my life” is a clear reference to a Petrarch poem – clear once Sieburth points it out in a footnote, I mean.

One by one, they do not necessarily seem like much, and I would not argue for a cumulative effect, either.  Rather the art of Délie lies in the subtle emotional shifts as words and images are repeated and varied.  And this with a selection, and in translation!  But with Sieburth’s help I can piece it together.

Here is a dizain that does stand on its own.  Again, Scève is riffing on Petrarch, a poem where the poet says he is like a ship that is adrift.  Scève makes a big change:

Like a corpse adrift on the open Sea,
Plaything of Winds, & pastime of Waves,
I floated astray in this bitter Abyss,
Buoyed by the ground-swells of my woes.
    Then, O Hope, you who arise
From the vain mirages of my mind,
In the name of her, you wake me
From the deeps in which I died:
And my ears staggered by this sound,
I was at a loss to fathom who I was.  (164)

Sieburth includes the early modern French, which is something to see:

Commes corps mort vagant en haulte Mer,
Esbat des Ventz, & passetemps des Vndes,
I’errois flottant parmy ce Gouffre amer,
Ou mes soucys enflent vagues profondes.

And so on, easier to convert than early modern English, certainly.

So, more early modern puzzle poetry, but a different kind of puzzle, and one, for the poor sap stuck with English, missing eighty percent of its pieces.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Luis de Góngora's Solitudes, perhaps forming letters on the pellucid paper of the heavens

Today I revisit to an old favorite of Wuthering Expectations, the baroque genius of the Spanish Golden Age, Luis de Góngora.  I last mentioned him here when a fragment of Los Soledades, in English The Solitudes (ca. 1613), appeared in The Hudson Review, newly translated by Edith Grossman.  I finally got around to reading the whole thing, a Penguin Classics edition from 2011.

A “shipwrecked youth, one scorned and desolate,” washes ashore.  He comes across goat herds who are having a party for a wedding.  That covers the first canto or solitude.  In the second, the castaway joins a group of fishermen who take him to an island, where he meets more fisherman, and some comely fisherwomen.  Then they all go bird watching.  Apparently two more solitudes were apparently planned but never written.

This sounds like nothing.  It is close to nothing.  All that matters is the elaboration, the imagery, the metaphors, and the complex classical references.

And so they all passed by, and in good order
as at the equinox we see furrowing
    through oceans of open air
    not flights of galley ships
    but flocks of swift-sailing cranes,
moons perhaps waxing, perhaps on the wane
    their most distant extremes,
perhaps forming letters on the pellucid
   paper of the heavens with
   the quill feathers of their flight.  (601-610)

“They” are just the shepherds, walking in formation, like ships, no, cranes; the cranes are like the moon in certain aspects.  In the most fanciful touch, Góngora writes, quill in hand, that the metaphorical birds may also be writing with their quills, which almost logically transforms the sky from water (“oceans of open air”) to paper.

The entire poem is written in this fashion.  Rabbits are “ignorant of fulminating lead (del plomo fulminante, 281-2),” meaning bullets, “the saliva of mute stars” (293) is dew, the Atlantic Ocean is

                      Fortune’s theater,
    the voracious, the profound
    graveyard thirstily drinking
from goblets of fir all that the New World
– I mean the tributes from the Americas –
pays in mausoleums of short-lived spume.  (394-9)

Góngora thought this was so obscure he had to explain it.  Sometimes he gives the answer to the riddle, other times not.  Turning a ship into a goblet is nuts, unless you are thinking at the right mythological scale.

The range of reference in The Solitudes is the greatest mystery to me.  I recognize, broadly, Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses are the source of many of the transformative substitutions so necessary for Góngoran metaphor.  But I have no idea how much actual outside text is woven into the poem, how many images or phrases or key words are borrowed from Horace or Petrarch or earlier Spanish poets known to me by name if I am lucky.

The whole thing is an elaborate, sophisticated 400 year old poetic riddle.  The reward for solving a piece of it is a little burst of delight.  How kind of Edith Grossman to help us marvel at this preposterous object.

I hope Grossman continues translating Golden Age poetry.  She cannot be doing it for the money.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The thinking-dreaming-recall-chant of Allan Gurganus

D. G. Myers wrote a review of Local Souls, the new Allan Gurganus book, that was so convincing I actually read the book, a rare thing for new American books, although less rare, I see as I check my notes, for books recommended by Myers (e.g., Christopher Beha, Dana Spiotta, Jean Thompson).  Please see Myers for a proper review.  I just want to make some notes.

Local Souls contains three novellas set in the same little North Carolina town.  The main thing they have in common, the main virtue of the book, is voice, each narrator’s exuberant, excessive blare of words:

Honestly, if it had been left to us, all Mabrys would yet sit fly-swatting on some hot rental porch midfield.  We three would still be right out there rocking tonight, comforted by roosting chickens’ late-day placement squabbling, studying someone else’s tobacco acreage.  Such land’s main beauty was the horizon where – for our inexpensive sidelined entertainment – an entire sun set nightly.  (245)

This almost counts as plain style for Gurganus.  No italics, no puns.  But “an entire sun” – the book is stuffed with that kind of thing.  It can be too much; it can be great.

I am always attracted to first person narration that identifies what it is – writing, speech, or what?  Authors have done so many clever things with the idea.  But frankly most first person narration is meant to be an amalgam of thought, speech, and wordlessness turned into words unknown outside of fiction.  No one speaks like that, or writes like that, or thinks like that, not for as long as it takes to tell this story, but the first person convention is so useful and easy to accept that we happily ignore the logistics.  Gurganus perfectly names the mode:

During my whole life I’ve never said so much at once as in this thinking-dreaming-recall-chant, last thing.  (338)

In context, as that narrator’s story nears its end, this is even almost logical – all is made clear – but that label should be used more generally.  “Thinking-dreaming-recall-chant” covers a lot of first person fiction.

Myers puts Gurganus in what is now a long tradition of small town fiction following Sherwood Anderson.  You might think from the title that Gurganus is also invoking Dead Souls.  in some small sense.  The protagonist of the first novella, “Fear Not,” loves Chekhov and gets a degree in Russian literature.  “Given her unsettled girlhood, the Russians’ sense of Fate had spoken to her early” (51), but her unsettling begins with witnessing her father’s decapitation by motorboat engine and gets worse from there.  That’s Southern Gothic, not Chekhov (“eventfulness in fiction did not bother her”).

Now, here’s a stretch.  The hilarious second novella is titled “Saints Have Mothers,” narrated by the mother of the saint.  The final story is also about a saint, a too-perfect town doctor.  Gustave Flaubert’s Trois Contes (1877) is a collection of three novellas about saints.  I had not thought of that first heroine as any kind of saint, but now I wonder.  There is scene where she is costumed as angel, shouting “Fear not”!  There are scenes where she receives premonitory visions.  Maybe not such a stretch.

Myers says the last story, “Decoy,” is “worth the price of the entire collection.”  I had planned to write about that one, not this other stuff.  It is about the destructive power of art.  Duck decoys, in this case.  Never make art, whatever you do.

Thanks for the tip, Prof. Myers.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Alexander Herzen is saved by statistics

The section of My Past and Thoughts about Alexander Herzen’s childhood, I covered that, more or less, just great, and I brushed against the romance that ends the novel, Herzen’s love affair and marriage conducted against what should have been the insuperable obstacle of his political exile.

There is a short piece of that section that shows the downside of a memoir being written like a novel.  Herzen has, or moves toward, an affair with a married woman – this is before he realize how important his cousin, his future wife, is to him – the story of which is told in a series of clichés borrowed from a Balzac novel.  From Balzac if I’m lucky.  Probably something much worse. 

I embraced her and pressed her firmly to my breast.

‘My dear… but go!’  (II.21, 326)

And on that like, although not for too long.  The scene is a curiosity in a book that is otherwise well-written.  Herzen’s imagination fails him, so he finds help where he can.

Most original is Herzen’s account of his arrest, his time in prison, and his exile, written at the distance of twenty years.  At the university Herzen and his friends become radicalized anti-Czarists, opponents of the oppressive Nicholas I.  Their opposition is more intellectual than revolutionary, but that is more than enough to get them into trouble – followed by the secret police, arrested for trivial or false infractions, imprisoned without trial for months (nine months in Herzen’s case), and punished with capricious sentences.  Herzen’s was exile to Russia’s border, not quite to Siberia but as close as possible, to serve as a clerk under a provincial petty tyrant.

The exile was as bad as Herzen had feared.  He was saved by statistics, and by mindless bureaucratic imperatives.

The Ministry of Home Affairs had at that time a craze for statistics: it had given orders for committees to be formed everywhere, and had issued programmes which could hardly have been carried out even in Belgium or Switzerland; at the same time there were all sorts of elaborate tables with maxima and minima, with averages and various deductions from the totals for periods of ten years (made up on evidence which had not been collected for a year before!), with moral remarks and meteorological observations.

All, of course, unfunded.  Herzen turns out to be a master of bureaucratic nonsense, able to quickly write up meaningless statistical gibberish from scratch that is learned enough to sound important but vague enough to avoid trouble.

This passage, however timeless, is a relatively trivial example of the way Herzen uses his own story to address his political concerns.  His own troubles are always small stuff against the other crimes of the autocratic Nicholas and his allies – executions, torture, corruption.

What monstrous crimes are buried in the archives of the wicked, immoral reign of Nicholas!  We are used to them, they were committed every day, committed as though nothing was wrong, unnoticed, lost in the terrible distance, noiselessly sunk in the silent sloughs of officialdom or kept back by the censorship of the police?

Herzen is writing from London, in voluntary exile.  The next volume of the memoirs will tell me how he made that decision.  There should be a lot of good writing along the way.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Herzen writes characters - the chapter on his father - "For people he had an open, undisguised contempt – for everyone."

Herzen’s father was a living example of Turgenev’s literary creation, the Superfluous Man, educated and Westernized to a point that alienated him from his own country (“they [these types of men] were a sort of intellectual superfluity and were lost in artificial life,” 75).  Perhaps.  A page later:

For people he had an open, undisguised contempt – for everyone.  Never under any circumstances did he count upon anybody…  He was convinced beforehand that every man is capable of any evil act; and that, if he does not commit it, it is either that he has no need to, or that the opportunity does not present itself… (76)

One wonders to what extent Russian superfluity was cultural and to what extent it was temperamental.  His relations with other people are characterized by “[m]ockery, irony, cold, caustic, utter contempt” (77) which make him a trial to be around but an outstanding literary character, as Herzen demonstrates in Part I, Chapter 5 (“My Father”) of My Past and Thoughts, perhaps the finest example in this first volume of the memoirs of Herzen’s literary abilities.

The father spends his day according to a rigid schedule, in open combat with his servants who are robbing him at every opportunity, and with his guests, who he thinks are idiots, and to a lesser degree, thankfully, with his family.  Herzen’s chapter recreates the household of his youth in all its coldness and inflexibility which he presents as, from a distance, comic.  He often resembles, to my surprise, Proust, as in this description of an occasional guest:

Pimenov’s chief peculiarity lay not in his having once published books that no one ever read, but in the fact that if he began laughing he could not stop, and his laughter would grow into fits of whopping-cough, with explosions and dull rolls of thunder.  He knew this and therefore, when he had a presentiment that something laughable was coming, began little by little to take measures; he brought out a pocket-handkerchief, looked at this watch, buttoned up his coat, hid his face in his hands and, when the crisis came, stood up, turned to the wall, leaned against it and writhed in agony for half an hour or more, then, crimson and exhausted by the paroxysm, he would sit down mopping the perspiration from his bald head, though the fit would keep seizing him again for long afterwards.  (87)

Given this, Herzen’s father cannot resist provoking Pimenov to laughter as much as possible, for his own amusement.

Pimenov could be one of the Mme Verdurin’s circle.  That is the side of Proust I am thinking of, the woman who dislocates her jaw from laughing too hard.

Herzen writes that it was only during his imprisonment and exile that he understood there was anything more to his father, by which time it was too late – “his callous heart did not crave for reconciliation; so he remained on hostile terms with everyone on earth” (91).  Or almost everyone.  Herzen ends the marvelous chapter with a glimpse of his elderly father in “his study where, sitting in a hard, uncomfortable, deep armchair, surrounded by his dogs, he was playing all alone with my three-year-old son,” perhaps giving him a “rest from the incessant agitation, conflict, and vexation in which he had kept himself, as his dying hand touched the cradle.”

Friday, November 1, 2013

Alexander Herzen's memoirs, some introductory fuss

Alexander Herzen almost makes me want to break my guideline against encyclopedism.*  Meaning the bio and political views and the historical importance, summarizing introductory material or Wikipedia.  But you by definition have the internet yourself, so what is the point, and even though I have been reading his memoir which is about Herzen himself of course I have no interest in writing about Herzen himself but rather about Herzen’s book, something else entirely.

And anyway I have only read a third of the memoir, or a quarter, so what do I know.

The title of the memoir, My Past and Thoughts, is accurate.  Some of it is about Herzen’s past; some of it about his thoughts.  In this volume, the titles of two of the three parts summarize the story:  “Nursery and University 1812-1834”; “Prison and Exile 1834-1838.”  The third part is about his wife, her childhood, their romance, and eventual elopement.  She died just at the time he began working on this material and is treated with great love and tenderness.  The last part is a bit like a romance novel.

Each section is a fine example of its genre, actually.  The first section, the childhood memoir, is one just one of four major examples from Russia in the 1850s (some of which are fiction):  Sergei Aksakov’s A Russian Schoolboy and Years of Childhood,** Leo Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, and the “Oblomov’sDream” section from Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov.  What was going on in Russia in the 1850s?  Why so much interest in the subject?  I have no idea.

Herzen’s memoirs are often compared to the novelists who were his contemporaries, to Turgenev and Tolstoy.  At the level of the scene, the comparison is accurate, and with some of the character writing, too.  I will save the characters for tomorrow.  And the scenes.  And the politics, and the writing, and everything else, I guess.

It’s a great memoir.  I plan to read the whole thing.  It is close to 1,500 pages, that is all, so I will take breaks when the opportunity presents itself.

* I do enjoy encyclopedism about the text.  Herzen wrote his memoir, along with lots of other journalism and commentary, in pieces in the 1850s for the Russian émigré magazines in London.  The articles were turned into a multi-volume memoir published between 1861 and 1866.  Constance Garnett brought My Past and Thoughts into English in six volumes from 1924 to 1927.  She was not human.  Her translation was revised and annotated by Humphrey Higgens in 1968.  This is the edition I read.  Amusingly, it has four layers of footnotes (Higgens, the Soviet editors, Garnett, and Herzen).  The edition includes a long, useful essay by Isaiah Berlin that I assume is more or less the piece that is in Russian Thinkers.  I should check.

**  I used the same conceit when I wrote about Aksakov.  Eh, who will ever know.