Friday, May 30, 2014

You should be ashamed for ruining the whole story like this! - Ludvig Holberg's meta-comedy

How about some 18th century Danish satire!  Followed by some meta-theater.  Readers would be fleeing Wuthering Expectations, if they had not already done so, years ago.  Satire is, to so many readers, death.  I do not know why.  I have guesses, all unflattering, so I will keep them to myself.

In Erasmus Montanus, or Rasmus Berg (1723), the target is book learnin’.  The subtitular character goes to Copenhagen to the university and returns transformed into the title character, spouting Latin and syllogisms, completely ruined by his education.  Since I was only 70% ruined by mine, I laughed and laughed.

JACOB:  Then what should I call Brother?

MONTANUS:  You shall address me as “Monsieur Montanus.”  That is my name in Copenhagen.

JACOB:  If I can only remember that.  Was it Monsewer Dromedarius?  (II.2.)

There are circumstances in life when one should not go for the cheap laugh, but writing a comedy is not one of them.

Just as I am ready to see the disputatious Erasmus Montanus punished for his idiocy, the play swivels.  The villagers do not just condemn his pretensions and uselessness, but his real knowledge – is the earth round, does it go around the sun, and so on.  Montanus is threatened with heresy, expulsion, and finally with the military draft.  Things are taking an ugly turn.  But this is a comedy, so everything turns out all right.  Crushed by the community, Rasmus Berg renounces everything, true or false, good or bad, allowing him to marry his girl and save his hide.  Curtain.

Wait a minute, what happened here?  Holberg’s satire still has some sting.

Ulysses von Ithacia; or A German Comedy (1723) satirizes the conventions of theater.  It is in some sense built around Homer, but in a ludicrous mishmash of Classical, Biblical, and Nordic names and themes.    The central character, Chilian, talks to the audience and recognizes that he is on stage, so he gets to handle every gag involving false beards, props, and the passage of time.

CHILIAN:  I hope m’Lord won’t mind if I ask him how old he was when he left home?

ULYSSES:  I was in my flowering years, not more than forty.

CHILIAN:  Let’s see, forty years at first, then ten years in the siege makes fifty, and twenty years on the trip home make seventy.  The good Dido must be a great lover of antiquities.  She could have her pick from among so many young men, but she’s so cool toward them and falls in love with an ancient, bearded man.

ULYSSES:  Listen, Chilian, I will not listen to such reasoning, thou must have added incorrectly.  (IV.1.)

When Ulysses’ men are turned into swine by Circe, Chilian “cures” them by beating the actors, who are on all fours.

THE SWINE:  [They stand up and become men again.]  As sure as we’re honorable men, you’ll pay for this beating, my good Monsieur Wegner.  You should be ashamed for ruining the whole story like this!  (IV.5.)

He is a blend of Groucho and Chico.  I was surprised by how much of the humor seemed almost Yiddish.

CHILIAN:  Are your streets fairly clean?

TROJAN:  They’re spotless in July, but the rest of the year we can hardly go out for fear of drowning in the mud, but that’s only eleven months of the year, they go quickly.  (II.2.)

Thus it was somehow not a surprise when the play ends with two Jewish moneylenders shutting down the production, stripping the costume right off of Ulysses in lieu of cash.

I will not promise that many people will find these plays as funny as I did, but still, three hundred years later, why should they be funny at all?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Jeppe of the Hill - 18th century Danish topsy-turvy land

What I am trying to do is avoid writing about Henrik Ibsen, so let’s look at one of his greatest influences, the 18th century Dano-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg.  “In the nineteenth century, Holberg’s comedies influenced Henrik Ibsen, who wrote that they were the only thing he never tired of reading.”  So says one of Holberg’s translators  (p. xxxii).*  Ibsen was one strange bird.  He would have seen plenty of Holberg plays a young fellow, though.

And they turn out to be, unsurprisingly, awfully good.  I was at first planning to read only Jeppe of the Hill; or, The Transformed Peasant (1722), Holberg’s most famous, most translated play, but many months ago a friendly commenter suggested I try Erasmus Montanus; or, Rasmus Berg (1723), and since Jeppe was pretty good, why not, and then Erasmus Berg turned out to be pretty good, and who would want to resist something titled Pernille’s Brief Experience as a Lady or The Burial of Danish Comedy?  Both of the latter are from 1727 – as you can see, Danish comedy was lived a jolly but short life.

Jeppe of the Hill uses the old, old story of the poor man who becomes, as the result of a prank, king for a day, or in Jeppe’s case baron for a few hours before he drinks himself into a stupor.  I most strongly associate the idea with Sancho Panza achieving his dream of governing an island in Don Quixote, but there are versions of the story going back to classical Sanskrit and Chinese.

JEPPE:  There’s no mistaking that I am Jeppe of the Hill; I know I’m a poor peasant, a serf, a scoundrel, a cuckold, a hungry louse, a maggot, a scum; how can I, at the same time, be an emperor and lord of a castle?  No, it’s only a dream…  Maybe I drank myself to death yesterday at Jacob Shoemaker’s.  Died and went straight to heaven.  Death must not be as hard to pass through as we imagine; I didn’t feel a thing.  (II.1.)

Jeppe turns out to be a great character, obviously great fun for an actor and audience, a drunken peasant stereotype who somehow is full of life even when he thinks he is dead.  After the baron and his minions have played the prank making Jeppe the baron, and then returning him to the dungheap {“I thought when I woke up again I’d find my fingers covered with gold rings, but they are (to be polite) encrusted with something else entirely,” IV.1.) they launch a second, even crueler prank, arresting him, condemning him to death, and even hanging him, which he takes in stride.

NILLE:  Oh my beloved husband, how can you talk when you’re dead?
JEPPE:  I don’t know that myself.  But listen, my sweet wife, run like wildfire and bring me eight pennies’ worth of brandy!  I’m thirstier now then when I was alive.  (V.1.)

She responds by beating him; that’s her answer to everything.  The baron restores Jeppe to life (“the court that sentenced you to death can also sentence you to life again”) and the topsy-turvy world to order.

For the brief period that Jeppe ruled, he becomes a revolutionary tyrant, threatening to hang everyone around him.  The baron, the prankster, who is obviously a dangerous lunatic himself, ends the play by wondering if he should have allowed the hangings.  “I believe, without reservation, that you [his servant] would have allowed yourself to be hanged rather than spoil this delightful joke” (V.6.)  How it took over two hundred years after this to get to the Marx Brothers and Duck Soup I do not understand.  Holberg was almost there.

*  Gerald S. Argetsinger and Sven H, Rossel,  Jeppe of the Hill and Other Comedies, 1990, Southern Illinois University Press. The source of all the quotations.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Don’t you remember, from children’s fairy tales? - Nabokov's Tragedy of Mr. Morn

Obviously, I read The Tragedy of Mr. Morn, the Vladimir Nabokov play that only appeared in English last year, for reasons of Nabokov completism.  It was written in 1923, before Nabokov had written any of his novels, but did not even appear in Russian until 1997.  Some pages at the end of Act IV have been lost.  The play is an imitation of, would you believe it, William Shakespeare.  What a ridiculous thing for a 23 year old author to attempt, whatever he might have created later in his life.

So The Tragedy of Mr. Morn is a minor work, obviously.  Nabokov’s later plays are also minor works.  They are quite good – funny, surprising, the usual Nabokovian stuff.  Mr. Morn is also good.  I was surprised.

The story is about the conflict between an revolutionary who has escaped his exile and the king, Mr. Morn, who is now sleeping with his wife.  The king always appears in a mask, so no one knows Morn is king.  Fairy tale business.  The men duel, somewhat abstractly, and Morn abdicates the throne, again secretly.  Another revolutionary, introduced as worn out and useless, uses this opportunity to overthrow the government and begin a reign of terror, itself overthrown in a counter-revolution, not that this solves Morn’s problem.  For a comedy, a lot of characters are murdered.  I know what the title says.  This is 1923; the rules have changed.  Calling your play a tragedy is the surest sign it is a comedy.

I do not think Nabokov was so openly political for another twenty years, when he wrote Bend Sinister (1947).  I mean concerned with the workings of politics; he often criticized the cruelties of the Soviet Union.  Not that the country in the play is exactly Russia (Dandilio is the representative of reason, more or less):

FOREIGNER [approaching]
                      I often heard your voice
in my childhood dreams…

DANDILIO:                               Really, I never
can remember who has dreamt me.  But
your smile I do remember.  I meant to ask you,
courteous traveler, where have you come from?

FOREIGNER:  I have come from the Twentieth Century, from
a northern country, called…

MIDIA:                                                  Which one is it?
I don’t know that one…

DANDILIO:                                How can you say that!
Don’t you remember, from children’s fairy tales?
Visions… bombs… churches… golden princes…
revolutionaries in raincoats… blizzards…

MIDIA:  But I thought it didn’t exist?

FOREIGNER:                                          Perhaps. I
entered a dream, but are you sure that I
have left the dream?... So be it.  I’ll believe
in your city.  Tomorrow I shall call it
a dream…  (Act I, Sc. 2, ll. 43-57)

This passage is more like Calderón de la Barca than Shakespeare.  Russia and St. Petersburg are the fairy tale in the fairy tale world of the play.  The ellipses are all Nabokov’s.  He goes absolutely bonkers with ellipses for some reason.

An experienced reader of Nabokov recognizes the “foreigner” as a strong candidate for identification with the author himself, visiting his dreamland, and the final scene reinforces this idea (“All this is a dream… the dream of a drunken poet…”).

Even stranger, though, to me, was the reference to a “northern country.”  In 1923, the word under [Whispers] is surely “Russia,” but how can a reader of Pale Fire (1962) not hear, softly, “Zembla, a distant northern land,” the last line of that novel?  Perhaps the Foreigner is not Nabokov but a Nabokov character from a book written forty years in the future.

I have no idea what a reader with slight knowledge of Nabokov would get out of this play.  Shouldn’t read it, I suppose.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Goethe's Roman Elegies - Most annoying to me, nights spent alone in my bed

Goethe is about as hard a figure for me to grasp as any truly major European writer.  I think this is part of why he has had not had a position in English literature commensurate to his stature in German, which is almost unfathomable.  What if the works of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Samuel Johnson had been produced by a single writer?  That gives an idea of Goethe’s place in German literature.

He wrote masterpieces  over the course of sixty (60!) years in numerous forms – first-rate novels, plays, lyric poems, epic poems, memoirs, and I forget what else.  But it is not just Goethe’s scale and scope that are so daunting.  Victor Hugo had a sixty year career and wrote successfully in many forms.  The difference is that every Hugo work is quickly and easily identifiable as Hugo’s – his books are drenched in eau de Hugo – while Goethe’s personality is more distant or detachable from many of his works.  So if it is not immediately obvious that The Sorrows of Young Werther (1773) and Faust, Part II (1832) are written by the same person, sure, they are sixty years apart.  But I do not think it is obvious that Faust, Part I (1808) and Elective Affinities (1809) share an author.  This is what I mean by “hard to grasp.”  The key word is “hard.”

This is all a preface to a glance at one of Goethe’s most charming, most immediately graspable works, the 1795 Roman Elegies, a series of poems in long-lined elegiac couplets about a sexual affair with a widowed waitress during the poet’s long stay in Rome.

One thing I find more annoying than anything else, but another
      Is abhorrent to me, so that each fibre revolts
At the thought of it merely. What are they? My friends, I’ll confess it:
      Most annoying to me, nights spent alone in my bed…
That is why in Faustina my happiness lies; she most gladly
      Shares my bed, and requites strictly my faith with her own.  (from XVIII)

How damning is the phrase “daring for its time”?  Poem XIVa is a prayer  to the classical Roman gods for protection against venereal disease and perhaps pregnancy.  Daring for its time.  “Always protect my own little garden, ward off, I implore you / Every evil from me.”

The widow presumably shares these concerns, and she also has her own history and worries, including the uncle who is her landlord and boss at the osteria.  She even has a personality, most charmingly in poem XV.  The affair is a secret from the uncle, so the poet is visiting Faustina at work, as a customer.

Raising her voice rather more than do ladies in Rome, she took up the
     Bottle, looking at me, poured, when the glass was not there,
Spilling wine on the table, and then with her delicate fingers
       Over the table-top drew circles in liquid, and loops.
With her own she entwined my name; and attentively always
     Those small fingers I watched, she well aware that I did.

Finally, she forms a “IV,” the hour the poet should sneak into her room.  The rest of the poem begs the sun to set quickly (“Eagerly seek the sea and plunge in”), although the poet actually passes the time writing this poem, abandoning it just after three in the morning, Amor taking precedence over the Muses.

Friday, May 23, 2014

They are swept by the wind, but their power endures - a bit of Goethe's West-Eastern Divan

Théophile Gautier begins his 1852 Enamels and Cameos by invoking Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan (1819), so I thought it was time to reread it, or at least as much as Michael Hamburger translated in Roman Elegies and Other Poems & Epigrams (in the 1996 Anvil Press edition, although the translations are also available elsewhere).

Gautier says he is writing his trifles in the face of the cannons of 1848, so that “stifled art might breathe again.”  Goethe began writing his poems in 1814, after twenty years of intermittent war.

North and West and South are breaking,
Thrones are bursting, kingdoms shaking:
Flee, then to the essential East…  (from “Hegira”)

Goethe is responding to the great German Persianists and Arabists who were working on Asian languages and literature and translating classical poets like Hafiz.  Goethe’s poems are not just about poems, but about translations.

Gingo Biloba

This tree’s leaf that from the East
To my garden’s been entrusted
Holds a secret sense, and grist
To a man intent on knowledge.
Is it one, this thing alive,
By and in itself divided,
Or two beings who connive
That as one the world shall see them?
Fitly now I can reveal
What the pondered question taught me;
In my songs do you not feel
That at once I’m one and double?

In an earlier poem, “Found” (1813), a transplanted flower stands in for the poem.

Then whole I dug it
Out of the loam
And to my garden
Carried it home…

Another poem as plant in the garden.  On the other hand, Goethe was a botanist – Goethe was too many things – so when he says the gingko biloba is a source of knowledge, he can also mean that literally.  By the way, I have no idea why Goethe spells it “gingo”; the translator is faithful to Goethe here.

I have no idea, really, what is original and what is borrowed from Hafiz and others, what conceits are simply conventions of Persian verse that Goethe stuffed into a German poem and Hamburger later bent into English.  In “On Laden Twigs,” the poems have become fruit.

The casing bursts, and joyful
Each one breaks loose from its trap;
So too my songs are dropping
Profusely into your lap.
That one is also, it turns out, kind of dirty.

Shield the eyes of any innocent youngsters nearby.

No longer on sheets of silk
Symmetrical rhymes I paint,
No longer frame them
In golden arabesques;
Imprinted on mobile dust
They are swept by the wind, but their power endures,
As far as the centre of the Earth,
Riveted, bound to the soil.  (from “Hatem to Zuleika”)

Then, after this wonderful conceit inverting the idea of writing poems on dust, the poem turns to Zuleika, the poet’s lover and the poem becomes mildly erotic (“And your limbs, too, roused from their languor, thrill”).

It is not true that all of the poems in West-Eastern Divan are about poetry and sex, but it is possible that they are nearly all about poetry.

Admit: the poets of the East
Are greater than we of the West.
But the one thing in which we leave them behind
Is detestation of our own kind.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A novel from the Faroe Islands - You needn’t be afraid of stomach troubles when you eat this one

When I was planning my way through the literatures of Denmark and Iceland I did not remember the Faroe Islands.  Now I have read a book from the Faroe Islands, the book, even, whatever that means, The Old Man and His Sons (1940) by Heðin Brú, translated from the Faroese by John F. West in 1970.  The author’s name, his penname, since his birth name is boringly Danish, is “pronounced (approximately) as Hay-in Broo,” West tells me (p. 165).

The novel begins with a long chapter describing a whale hunt:

A school of blackfish in Seyrvágs Fjord – two or three hundred small whales, swimming silently round in little groups, and longing to be back in the broad ocean again, for this is not the way they intended to go.  Man has turned them aside from deep-sea voyaging, to pen them into these narrow waters.  (Ch. 1, 7)

I just noticed we begin from the point of view of the whales, poor things.  People from all over the island descend on the village to kill whales.  Two of them are the old man Ketil and his idiot son Kálvur, eager to get their share of whale meat.  Brú’s novel is recognizably set in what we now call the developing world.  Most of the characters spend much of their time worrying about getting enough calories.  They are not starving by any means, not even hungry, but they are on the edge.  The plot of the book is driven by the otherwise sensible Ketil becoming, in a moment of temptation, too greedy for calories.

This first chapter is immensely interesting.  The whale hunt is a collective operation.  People share their boats, equipment, and labor, working as they think useful.  A central authority gathers and distributes the harvested meat, not according to need but to effort and expense, before auctioning off the bulk of it.  Ketil, a man of tradition, is bamboozled by the increasingly monetized economy.  Ah, I make the book sound so dull.  But that is the background, global economic modernism washing up in even this poor, distant place, confusing relations with neighbors and with the sons in the title.

Globalization can be played for comedy.  Ketil wants to give a gift to a Danish doctor who helped out his son.  He brings the doctor a gift: 

Ketil was puzzled at their reaction.  ‘Whatever’s the matter with them?’ he thought to himself.  ‘You needn’t be afraid of it,’ he assured them.  ‘This is a fresh whale kidney I’ve brought you, a really fine, big, fresh kidney.  You needn’t be afraid of stomach troubles when you eat this one – I’ll show you.’…  The doctor’s wife turned a little faint, and sat down on a chair.  (Ch. 1, 23, ellipses mine)

I wonder if the novel is read mostly by readers who have vowed to read a novel from every country in the world.  It’s quite a bit better than that, varied in incident and humorously ironic, but it is also a good choice for a literary world tour.  For me, certainly, I started with knowing nothing, or almost nothing, about how people live or lived on the Faroe Islands, and soon knew how they fished, how they buried their dead, how they thought about all things profound and trivial.  How these particular fictional people thought, at least.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Why is Mansfield Park Jane Austen’s worst book? - Put yourself in Miss Crawford's place, Fanny.

Oh, there are so many reasons.  The priggishness of the heroine, Fanny Price, for example; the priggishness of one of the male romantic leads, Edmund Bertram.  There are a couple of scenes where they lecture each other on the faulty sense of duty of other people (not each other, not themselves), where even I thought boy, you two deserve each other.  Just be warned that at least one of your children will get so fed up with your righteousness that he’ll run off to join the circus.

My title question often turns into something ruder – “Why do so many people read Mansfield Park so badly?”  Sarah Emsley argues that readers mistake a tragedy for a comedy.  I cannot accept this as the answer, since I, too, take the book as a comedy, primarily because it is written in a comic tone, excepting those dreary lectures mentioned just above.  I laugh all the way through;  I even laugh at Fanny’s alcohol problem (“Never had Fanny more wanted a cordial,” Ch. 46).

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single reader in possession of the wrong idea about a book is reluctant to let it go.  So readers convinced for some reason that Mansfield Park is a romance – meaning the kind of book about troubles of the heart we now label romances – often persist in the notion that it is that kind of romance even when the text fails to do the things romances commonly do.  In this sense, Mansfield Park is a mediocre romance novel.  It botches the proposal scene.  A lot of what might seem like the primary action occurs offstage at the end, communicated to Fanny by letter.

I see now, though, that much of the confusion is built into the novel by Austen, likely deliberately.  I have written as if it is obvious that Fanny Price is the heroine of Mansfield Park.  It would be perfectly reasonable for the reader not previously warned to assume that Mary Crawford was the primary heroine.  She is introduced early in the novel, in Chapter 4, the outside observer at Mansfield Park.  Fanny Price, the poor cousin, has by this point lived there for many years, so how can she be the outsider?

Fanny is quiet, Mary is loud.  Fanny is a prig, Mary is fun and funny, more fun and smarter than the other women at Mansfield Park.  She is self-centered and snobbish, but what is the novel for if not to correct those flaws?  If I have picked Mary as the heroine, I might wonder why the point of view shifts to Fanny Price so often, but Fanny is apparently going to be a foil to Mary, and anyway the point of view moves around a lot.  Fanny will provide the B-plot, in which she will likely learn to assert her strength of character against the family that has mistreated and misunderstood her.

I think it would be possible to carry this idea at least halfway through the novel.  Mary will end up marrying, by the way, Fanny’s sailor brother William, overcoming her snobbishness etc. in the name of love etc.  See Chapter 24, and follow the theme of the loaned horse.

Around this point, Mary Crawford drops away and Fanny’s point of view takes over to the extent that Austen moves Fanny to a new setting with entirely new characters, as if to make even the stubbornest reader admit that the book is now permanently and fully Fanny’s, and has therefore been Fanny’s story all along.  “You have shown yourself very, very different from anything that I had imagined,” as one of the character’s says to Fanny in Chapter 32.

I take all of this as a testament to Austen’s ingenuity at storytelling and structuring a novel, the way she keeps so many possibilities alive for so long, long enough for readers to make guesses and develop preferences, some of which will be disappointed.  Readers are perhaps not reading badly but instead really entering the spirit of the thing.

The title is from Chapter 16, completely out of context.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Why is Jane Austen so mean?

No, I am not going to write that piece, although there is a lot to it.  Someone else can write it.  Mrs. Norris, the horrible aunt in Mansfield Park, is perhaps Austen’s greatest monster, and Austen could hardly be more explicit that some of her characters are truly stupid, like Mr. Rushworth and Lady Bertram, so unimaginative that she names her pug Pug.  The 18th century satirical strain was still healthy in Austen.  It obviously suited her temperament.

Now, here we have, at the beginning of the novel, two well-to-do little girls learning to get along with their poor cousin Fanny:

They could not but hold her cheap on finding that she had but two sashes, and had never learned French; and when they perceived her to be little struck with the duet they were so good as to play, they could do no more than make her a generous present of some of their least valued toys, and leave her to herself, while they adjourned to whatever might be the favourite holiday sport of the moment, making artificial flowers or wasting gold paper.  (Ch. 2)

In case anyone thought Mary Delany’s papercraft flowers were a pure fluke.  It is the word “wasting” that jumps out.  It can belong to no one but the narrator.  She is even mean to little girls.  They know no better; they were badly raised.

The girls are likely up in their schoolroom, the East Room, that is later given to poor mouse Fanny Price when the girls are old enough to no longer want it:

Her plants, her books — of which she had been a collector from the first hour of her commanding a shilling—her writing-desk, and her works of charity and ingenuity, were all within her reach…  (Ch. 16)

Is it not well-known that Jane Austen had no such room and no such desk, that she wrote her novels to some extent in the very presence of her family?  Fanny is sorely treated by the exigencies of the plot, but Austen in recompense gives her this lovely fantasy room of her own.

The room was most dear to her, and she would not have changed its furniture for the handsomest in the house, though what had been originally plain had suffered all the ill-usage of children; and its greatest elegancies and ornaments were a faded footstool of Julia's work, too ill done for the drawing-room, three transparencies, made in a rage for transparencies, for the three lower panes of one window, where Tintern Abbey held its station between a cave in Italy and a moonlight lake in Cumberland, a collection of family profiles, thought unworthy of being anywhere else, over the mantelpiece, and by their side, and pinned against the wall, a small sketch of a ship sent four years ago from the Mediterranean by William, with H.M.S. Antwerp at the bottom, in letters as tall as the mainmast.

William is Fanny’s beloved brother who spends most of the novel drinking rum, eating salt horse, and sinking Napoleon’s navy.

Those transparencies are fascinating.  I should look them up somewhere, find out what they are.  Is it possible that Tintern Abbey and the Lake District are not expressions of interest in the poetry of Williams Wordsworth?  Fanny is a great reader of poetry, memorizing and quoting William Cowper and Walter Scott, so she is keeping up with recent stuff and is interested in Romantic poetry.  “Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself” (Ch. 40) – note that Fanny is perhaps a bit snobbish about fiction.  It is her shallow cousin Maria Bertram who alludes to Lawrence Sterne.

I have wandered from the 18th century into the 19th.  Sensibilities are changing, and so is literature.  I feel that I am rooting around in the components of what I find new in Mansfield Park.  But I do not really know.  I need expert help.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why is Mansfield Park so filthy?

The novel, not the park.  Just one setting, really, Fanny Price's parental home in Portsmouth.

I am still on the road from Austen to Flaubert.  This is a very narrow approach to Austen, yes, absolutely.  Indirect, too.  I am pretending that art progresses, which of course it does, but only in retrospect.  If I first pick a fixed point, say Madame Bovary, I can then cast back and look for writers who were already doing whatever it is that I think is unusual about the point of reference.

My position is that most innovations in literature are closer to discoveries than inventions.  The “innovation” was there all along.  The innovator has just emphasized it more.  I do not know about you, but I am a reader who can use the help.  It may have been there all along, but I did not see it until the innovator pointed it out.

So it is Flaubert who helps me see this sentence in Mansfield Park:

She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in a cloud of moving dust, and her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father's head, to the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebecca's hands had first produced it.  (Ch. 46)

If this were a Zola novel I would be treated to a three page symphony of filth, but Austen only occasionally reminds us how her heroine is repelled by the filth of her parents’ house.  Rebecca is their lone servant, either useless (according to Fanny’s mother) or making the best of a difficult situation.

[Fanny] was so little equal to Rebecca's puddings and Rebecca's hashes, brought to table, as they all were, with such accompaniments of half-cleaned plates, and not half-cleaned knives and forks, that she was very often constrained to defer her heartiest meal till she could send her brothers in the evening for biscuits and buns.  (Ch. 42)

The milk is especially good, isn’t it?  Disgusting, but well described.  It reminds me of a passage of opposite purpose from a few chapter earlier, with Fanny now outdoors, observing the Portsmouth ships:

It was really March; but it was April in its mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright sun, occasionally clouded for a minute; and everything looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever-varying hues of the sea, now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound, produced altogether such a combination of charms for Fanny, as made her gradually almost careless of the circumstances under which she felt them.  (Ch. 42)

Both the first and last passages could be compared to paintings, a domestic scene and a sea scene.  Both are in reality static, but both create a sense of motion.  In the filthy parlor, Fanny is looking around, the disgusting bits are bobbing in the milk, and even the bread is somehow noticeably changing.  Even the still items have active verbs attached to them – notched, wiped.  And in the sea scene it is all motion, dancing waves and shadows playing tag.

I wonder where Austen got this.  Her 18th century favorites, Samuel Richardson and Oliver Goldsmith and Fanny Burney and so on, they were not writing like this.  I have only read Evelina (1778); maybe Burney changed.  Lawrence Sterne, alluded to in Mansfield Park, was working on entirely different problems.  Gothic novelists had a certain instrumental interest in detailed settings but I doubt the quality of their prose.  I assume Austen was picking this up not from fiction but from poets like William Cowper (also in MP) and perhaps nature writers like Gilbert White.  I don’t know, but there they are, more passages like these in Mansfield Park than in any other Austen novel.

A different kind of Austen reader is now saying “You literary aesthetes with your light and shadow effects!  Who cares!  If you like that so much, just look out the window.  People, this book is about people!”

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why is Mansfield Park Jane Austen’s best book?

I’m going to use nothing but contentious, aggravating titles while writing about Mansfield Park.

This one has an easy answer, though: Mansfield Park is the best written Austen novel, and it is best written because it has the most stuff in it.  I knew a professor who had taken Vladimir Nabokov’s European Literature class many decades ago.  He remembered an exam question that asked the student to identify what two characters in Mansfield Park had had for breakfast.  Nabokov was asking students to remember this sentence from Chapter 29:

After seeing William to the last moment, Fanny walked back to the breakfast-room with a very saddened heart to grieve over the melancholy change; and there her uncle kindly left her to cry in peace, conceiving, perhaps, that the deserted chair of each young man might exercise her tender enthusiasm, and that the remaining cold pork bones and mustard in William's plate might but divide her feelings with the broken egg-shells in Mr. Crawford's.

Fanny is the heroine; William is her brother; Mr. Crawford is in pursuit of Fanny.

What a lot there is to like in this sentence.  Four characters are invoked, two of whom are not really there, made present by their breakfast, the remnants of a scene that is implied but not depicted.  No dialogue is necessary.  Note the change in point of view after the semi-colon; as with Flaubert, the point of view of Mansfield Park moves fluidly and sometimes quite subtly.  The scene is not really made visible – I have to fill in a lot to complete the still life, but that is imaginatively easy once Austen gives me the hooks.  Austen is writing like Flaubert, not Zola.  She is not going to describe everything.

But she describes a lot, far more than in the novels she had written previously (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey), and still quite a lot more than in the two she wrote subsequently (Emma and Persuasion), although the unfinished Sanditon fragment makes me wonder if Austen was going to try the more dense approach again – see the amazing Shandian butter-and-toast passage.

I do not just mean description, although Mansfield Park has most of Austen's finest descriptions, but rather that she has populated the world not just with people but with objects and places, and once she has done that much of the action and talk can be built around those objects.  Characters in Pride and Prejudice talk about each other; characters in Mansfield Park talk about apricots, cream cheeses, necklaces, whether the turkey needs to be cooked tonight, horses, who gets to sit in which seat of the carriage, and which child gets to play with the knife.  That last one does not sound safe.  And, setting aside the special case of the parodistic Northanger Abbey, there are more books, too - the plays; Fanny’s William Cowper quotations.

I will continue to write about Mansfield Park’s pleasing detail.  Feel free to remind me of examples from other Austen novels.  The toothpick-case from Sense and Sensibility, for example, or the pianoforte in Emma.  I do not think that Mansfield Park is more ethically complex nor that the portrayals of the characters are so different than in Austen’s other novels, but that the creation of a thicker fictional world, and the characters’ interaction with it, is itself a major artistic achievement.

An Austen reader might object, saying that he does not care about stuff in fiction, having plenty of that in his basement; that he hates Flaubert and is pained by the comparison; and that I have ignored everything that makes Mansfield Park so irritating.  Of course, I know, I read book blogs.  In that case, one of the others is likely Austen’s best book.

Mansfield Park was published on May 9, 1814, so this is the bicentennial and lots of people are reading the novel and writing about it.  Professional Mansfield Park expert Sarah Emsley is hosting an academic blog party with, eventually, many guest posts.  I hope someone is writing about those Cowper poems.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Grotesque Proust - exploded shells, board meetings, and kangaroos

Yes, grotesque, Proust is grotesque.  It’s the second book, isn’t it, that has the woman who laughs so hard she dislocates her jaw?  Proust’s humor is often of this nature.

The second climax or discovery from the end of Time Regained, after the series of memory-inducing sensory events, is a dramatic piece of grotesquerie.  The narrator has been absent from Paris for many years due to his illness.  When, in this scene, he finally returns to society he discovers that all of the glamorous celebrities of his youth have become hideous old people, unrecognizable.  The women have all remarried, so they do not even have the same names.  And if they have grown old, so has the narrator.

Does this seem like much of an insight, that time passes and people age, change, and die?  In context, though, the effect is profound.  I have been following these characters for thousands of pages with a certain picture or impression in mind, so it is difficult to suddenly change my idea – I share the narrator’s difficulty picturing a fat Odette.  The 1999 Raoul Ruiz film of Time Regained uses a camera trick – the familiar actors are suddenly replaced with elderly actors in the same clothes.

The narrator is talking to an actress first encountered back in the second book (she now “looked like a rose that has been sterilised”) who does not remember who the narrator is:

Then I told her who I was and at once, as though the sound of my name had broken a spell and I had lost the look of an arbutus tree or a kangaroo which age no doubt had given me, she recognised me…  (993)

Just for a moment, I imagine the actress wondering how a kangaroo got in to the party, and why no one else notices it.  The filmmaker for some reason did not film this idea.

The narrator bumps into another character – everyone is at this party:

…the significance of his physiognomy had been altered by a formidable monocle.  By introducing an element of machinery into Bloch’s face this monocle absolved it of all those difficult duties which a human face is normally called upon to discharge, such as being beautiful or expressing intelligence or kindliness or effort.  (996)

Now I am just enjoying a rummage through this final novel.  Here we have Proust describing women’s fashion during the war.  He is as savage as Karl Kraus:

… for instead of Egyptian ornaments recalling the campaign in Egypt, the fashion now was for rings or bracelets made out of fragments of exploded shells or copper bands from 75 millimetre ammunition, and for cigarette-lighters constructed out of two English pennies to which a soldier, in his dug-out, had succeeded in giving a patina so beautiful that the profile of Queen Victoria looked as if it had been drawn by the hand of Pisanello…  (744)

And here Proust is describing me:

And indeed, since they fail to assimilate what is truly nourishing in art, they need artistic pleasures all the time, they are victims of a morbid hunger which is never satisfied.  So they go to concert after concert to applaud the same work and think they have a duty to put in an appearance whenever it is performed just as other people think they have a duty to attend a board meeting or a funeral.  (928)

I would not call this kind of joke or description – Proust the satirist, savage Proust – frequent.  They are often hidden in other kinds of writing.  I am lulled into realism when suddenly there is a kangaroo or a mechanical head or Pisanello, all in surprising places.

What a writer.  I’ll read it all again someday, complaining the whole time, trying not to laugh too hard.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Finishing In Search of Lost Time - Proust and the Library of Babel (or, Proust and the Blog Post of Babble)

A week or so ago I finished Marcel Proust’s Time Regained (1927), which means I have read through the seven In Search of Lost Time novels twice.  This time it took me twelve years, just about the pace of the  original publication.  Twenty-five years ago, I read it all in about three weeks.  I doubt that was wise, but I had read Proust.  Even at this distance, Time Regained was recognizably a book I had read before.

I think the first volume of the series, Swann’s Way (1913), or really, to be honest, the first two hundred pages of it, the “Combray” section describing the narrator’s childhood, is one of the greatest masterpieces of fiction.  Many of the thousands of pages that follow are dull, ridiculous, and aggravating.  Much of the narrator’s aphoristic wisdom is nonsense, so bizarre that I could only laugh.  A lot of Proust is bizarre.  Six years ago languagehat read through Proust, and in his outstanding summary post he emphasizes how odd these books are.  The narrator is odd, the story is odd, the wild gaps in the story are odd.

All kinds of great stuff – characters, insights, metaphors, jokes – are mixed in with this.  What can you do; this is the price I pay: a hundred pages of obscure comments about society people; four pages of phony French etymologies; fifteen pages in which the Baron de Charlus, one of the great characters in fiction, “in the shrill little voice with which he sometimes spoke” (807) makes incomprehensible private jokes about the difference between the French and the Germans.  “I confessed to M. de Charlus that I did not quite understand what he meant” (808) – yes, exactly!

I said the first 200 pages are the best part of Search.  The second best part – setting aside some of the great recurring characters – is the last 200 pages.  Motivation for all flagging Proust reader stuck halfway through The Guermantes Way!

The narrator, Marcel, is in a heightened state of sensitivity.  At a party – everything happens at parties in Proust – he becomes receptive to a series of sensory impressions each of which triggers a memory of something from earlier in his life.  The famous madeleine scene from Swann’s Way, three thousand pages earlier, did the same thing, but the narrator did not understand the phenomenon at that point.  This time, he gets it, and realizes that he must write a novel about memory and time, a novel much like, but clearly different than, Proust’s novel, the one I just read.

Marcel’s novel will be a fictional refraction of his own life, just like Proust’s novel, the “real” one, scrambles Proust’s own life.  Thus the new novel, the fictional one, will end with that narrator, M.P., realizing that he must write his own semi-autobiographical novel about a doppelganger who writes his own etc. etc. about etc. etc. and onward forever.

Or else Marcel’s novel perfectly reverses all of Proust’s fictionalizing, so that his novel would be, in our world, the real Proust’s non-fiction autobiography.  The two books are distorted mirror images, fiction in their own “real” world, non-fiction in their fictional world, one of which is my “real” world.

Yep, this is what In Search of Lost Time is about in the end, the creation of a novel that is not the one I have been reading.  Kind of a twist ending.

I read the Andreas Mayor translation, the old grey paperback brick.  I barely quoted a word of it.  Tomorrow.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Not merely nothing to do, but nothing to learn - Dostoevsky defends the humanities

Soon we’ll conceive of a way to be born from ideas.  (II.10., 91)

This will sound archaic, I know, but I first encountered Dostoevsky in a Western Civilization course, where he was read alongside Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Sigmund Freud, just to stick with his contemporaries, more or less, as if there were some value in the illusion that every undergraduate in the liberal arts read a common set of authors of some importance and difficulty.  How naïve we all were back then.

What is the right way to live, that was the constant question.  Notes from Underground was ethics, not literature.   Every text not related to the history of science was reduced to ethics, or politics.  Maybe I am wrong; maybe even Galileo’s Starry Messenger was reduced to ethics, although I doubt anyone in class argued the side of the Catholic Church.

Of course, after two times two, there’s nothing left, not merely nothing to do, but nothing to learn.  (I.9., 25)

Only now do I see the subtlety of the inclusion of Notes from Underground in Western Civ.  Dostoevsky is attacking the foundation of the university, an attack on the value of reason.  His book is a counter-Enlightenment assault on Chernyshevsky’s radical Enlightenment.  The university, as it exists today, is an Enlightenment enterprise.

At that time, it’s still you speaking, new economic relations will be established, all ready-made, also calculated with mathematical precision, so that all possible questions will disappear in a single instant, simply because all possible answers will have been provided.  Then the crystal palace will be built.  (I.7., 18)

The “crystal palace” is from What Is to Be Done?, “Vera Pavlovna’s 4th Dream,” parts 8, 9, and 10, which depicts life in the rationalist utopia, where everyone lives, eats, and dances in communal structures of glass and aluminum which are lit by electricity and cleaned by child labor.*  And it is also an actual building, the home of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.  Humans turned into ants, says the Underground Man.  Dostoevsky had been horrified by the Crystal Palace and had written about it before Chernyshevsky used the metaphor.  Paradise for one, a nightmare for the other, and one more reason for Dostoevsky to be angry at Chernyshevsky.  Personally, I do not think Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is such a great threat, but I would probably be irritated, too, if someone stole and reversed my metaphor.

These days, I frequently come across attempts to defend or justify the humanities in higher education.  Dostoevsky’s implicit position, that the humanities are the home of the essential irrationality of humankind, is not likely to shake lose any grant money or tenure lines, even though he is right.

*  “More than half the children have remained inside to attend to the housework.  They do almost all the chores and enjoy their work very much.” (What Is To Be Done?, 4, xvi, 8, p. 371).  Proof, even more than the oceans turning to lemonade, that Fourierists were loons.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Quoting the Underground Man - it’s really better in books

I said I might do a post of Dostoevsky quotations.  Why not.  Notes from Underground is so quotable.  The voice of the narrator is so strong.

Now, then, what can a decent man talk about with the greatest pleasure?

Answer: about himself.

Well, then, I, too, will talk about myself. (I.1., 5)

Strong with irony.  One of the great critical debates over Notes has been about this narrator.  To what extent does he represent Dostoevsky?  Many critics, friends and enemies, have taken the book, especially its first third, as distilled Dostoevsky.

A novel needs a hero, whereas here all the traits of an anti-hero have been assembled deliberately; but the most important thing is that all this produces an extremely unpleasant impression because we’ve all become estranged from life, we’re all cripples, every one of us, more or less.  We’ve becomes so estranged that at times we feel some kind of revulsion for genuine “real life,” and therefore we can’t bear to be reminded of it.  Why, we’ve reached a point where we almost regard “real life” as hard work, as a job, and we’ve all agreed in private that it’s really better in books.  (II.10., 91)

This is from the last page, one of the texts declarations that the narrator is not Dostoevsky. This is where it really helps to know that Dostoevsky is parodying Chernyshevsky, and perhaps others, that the Underground Man is an extreme case.  “Soon we’ll conceive of a way to be born from ideas” (91).  None of which means that some pure Dostoevsky is not smuggled into the parody.

In short, man is made in a comical way, obviously there’s some sort of catch in all this.  But two times two makes four is an insufferable thing, nevertheless.  Two times two makes four – why, in my opinion, it’s mere insolence.  Two times two makes four stands there brazenly with its hands on its hips, blocking your path and spitting at you.  I agree that two times two makes four is a splendid thing, but if we’re going to lavish praise, then two times two makes five is sometimes also a very charming little thing.  (I.9., 24)

Dostoevsky and the Underground Man nod in agreement.  They both feel the need for a Counter-Enlightenment blast against Chernyshevky’s radical Enlightenment. ”I felt how they swarmed inside me, these contradictory elements” (I.1., 4).  I am usually an Enlightenment kind of fellow myself, but after a good dose of Chernyshevsky, I too begin revising my multiplication tables.

Although capable of sitting around quietly in the underground for some forty years, once he emerges into the light of day and bursts into speech, he talks on and on and on…  (I.10., 26)

Now I am identifying a little too closely with the Underground Man.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

I was ecstatic. I rejoiced and sang Italian arias. - the Underground Man in action

Has the What Is To Be Done? plus Notes from Underground sesquicentennial readalong been a success?  Most of the action in the past couple of days has been in the comments of a Scott Bailey post about tea sandwiches.  I take that as a success.  These are interesting books!

Scott has also put together a handy list of many of the parts of Chernyshevsky’s novel directly parodied by Dostoevsky.  I’m going to look at one of them, the sidewalk bumping scenes.  This is in no way original.  Marshall Berman devotes twenty pages of All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982) to these scenes.  My excuse is that I read that books twenty-five years ago and do not have it at hand.  If you do, skim this and read that.

In Part 3, chapter viii, one of Chernyshevsky’s robot men bumps shoulders on a St. Petersburg street  with a “portly gentleman.”

The gentleman, turning slightly toward Lopukhov, said, “What sort of swine are you, you pig!”  He was about to continue this edifying speech when Lopukhov turned to face him, seized the gentleman in a bear hug, and deposited him in the gutter very carefully.  He stood over him and said, “Don’t move or I’ll drag you out there where the mud is deeper.”  Two peasants came by, looked, and applauded.  (209)

The fat fellow is presumably the young tutor’s social superior in some obvious way.  Everyone is happy to see him get his comeuppance.  The revolution must be just around the corner.

Some parts of What Is To Be Done? seem to have enraged Dostoevsky, but this one must have made him laugh (those peasants).  It led to one of his all time great comic scenes.  It begins in a billiards parlor:

As soon as I set foot inside, some officer put me in my place.

I was standing next to the billiard table inadvertently blocking his way as he wanted to get by; he took hold of me by the shoulders and without a word of warning or explanation, moved me from where I was standing to another place, and he went past as if he hadn’t even noticed me.  I could have forgiven even a beating, but I could never forgive his moving me out of the way and entirely failing to notice me.  (II, 1, 34)

I can imagine Ralph Ellison reading this passage with great interest.

Unlike Chernyshevsky’s buff heroes, the Underground Man is “small and scrawny,” so he can only plot his revenge.  A duel, perhaps (duel fantasy follows, the first of two in the novel).  Or a satirical article in the newspaper (submitted; rejected).  He encounters the officer on the Nevsky Prospect, always stepping aside for his superiors, as does the narrator, as does everyone.

Then a most astounding idea suddenly dawned on me.  “What if,” I thought, “what if I were to meet him and…  not step aside?  Deliberately not step aside, even if it meant bumping into him: how would that be?”  The bold idea gradually took such a hold that it afforded me no peace.  I dreamt about it horribly, incessantly, and even went to Nevsky more frequently so that I could imagine more clearly how I would do it.  I was in ecstasy.  (37)

But what gloves should he wear, black or lemon-colored?  Is his shirt nice enough (no)?  And what about his old overcoat, with a raccoon collar?  Impossible.  The Underground Man goes into debt, humiliating himself before his boss, to buy a nicer collar.

Even this is not enough to give the Underground Man courage, but he finally does succeed.  “Naturally, I got the worst of it; he was stronger, but that wasn’t the point.”

I returned home feeling completely avenged for everything.  I was ecstatic.  I rejoiced and sang Italian arias.  (39)

All of this is in a single two-and-a-half page paragraph.  The “Italian arias” could not be improved upon.

Between Chernyshevsky and Dostoevsky there is a difference about how people behave, what they fundamentally are like, that is irreconcilable.  One pictures a world free of humiliations, a world of small, meaningful triumphs; the other says we create the former and imagine the latter.  One enjoys a fantasy of perfectibility; the other is horrified. 

You’re wrong about that, too - starting Notes from the Underground

Didn’t we all have fun with Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 What Is To Be Done?  And we have not even gotten to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s parodistic novella written a year later, Notes from the Underground, as it is commonly known, or Memoirs from a Mousehole as Nabokov charmingly calls it.  The little book otherwise lacks charm.  It begins with a thirty page rant by a madman, which is followed by sixty pages of a narrative of self-destruction and self-loathing culminating in a particularly vile act.  It is the finest of Dostoevsky’s comedies, I think, an early masterpiece of the comedy of humiliation.

Notes from the Underground also swallows What Is To Be Done? whole and transforms it into something new.  Knowing both books, it is beyond my capabilities to read one book independent of the other.  Dostoevsky is, obviously, the greater artist and thinker, but the books enrich each other.

Perhaps I should mention that just like the original Russian readers I have always read the books together.  Strike the part in italics for the truth, but I do know that Michael Katz’s 1989 edition of What Is To Be Done? was a brand new book when I bought and read it, which must have been just after I read Fathers and Sons and Dostoevsky and Nabokov’s Chernyshevsky-bashing The Gift.  I have been looking for a cluster of books like this ever since.  I did not understand at that point the extent to which Dostoevsky kept returning to the argument in his major novels, how characters with Chernyshevsky in their blood inhabit all of Dostoevsky’s major novels.

I have expressed skepticism and perhaps mockery of Dostoevsky’s art and ideas, but it is exciting to watch him at work.

The underground man, as I take him, is one of Chernyshevsky’s rational egoists intellectually, but is emotionally a bundle of neuroses, prejudices, and impulses (“caprices,” to use Chernyshevsky’s word).  He is a Chernyshevsky character with a human personality, with a soul.  It is like on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; you remember.  So Dostoevsky is attacking Chernyshevsky by taking his ideas to their illogical end.

This seems to be the heart of a century of critical debate about the novel, by the way.  Is the underground man mocking Chernyshevsky; does he agree with but also rebel against Chernyshevsky; or is he simply Dostoevsky’s mouthpiece?  I pick the middle option, the more subtle one.  In addition, is the underground man crazy, or really, how crazy is he, or more accurately, why is he so crazy?

You probably think, gentlemen, that I want to amuse you.  You’re wrong about that, too.  I’m not at all the cheerful fellow I seem to be, or that I may seem to be…  (I.2, 5)

Like Chernyshevsky’s narrator, the underground man argues with and mocks his imaginary readers.  Other images and scenes recur.  I will write about them.  Why else did I read these books if not to write about the parallel scenes where the protagonists bump into an officer on the street?

Maybe the next post will be all quotations, to balance this one.  Notes from the Underground is almost too quotable.  It is a distraction.

Page references to the Norton Critical Edition, Second Edition, translated by Michael Katz.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The theory is cold, but it teaches man how to procure warmth - warm Chernyshevsky

This one’ll be a hodgepodge.

Erik McDonald of XIX век has been reading What Is To Be Done? in Russian.  He knows more about the cluster of books surrounding this novel and Fathers and Sons than I ever will.  One of his posts compares most of the different English translations, discovering that only one of the old public domain translations is terrible.  Anyone reading this book right off of the internet, be sure you have the Benjamin R. Tucker translation.

I have neglected the first third of the novel, the more conventionally plotted part, probably because it is readable and contains characters who if not exactly recognizable as humans at least function as literary types, comic types, even.  Erik’s second post gives an example of how Chernyshevsky undermines his own clichés, in this case with an eavesdropping scene.  The heroine’s mother suspects her daughter and her male friend of amorous behavior, and is shocked to discover that the do nothing but talk about ideas.  “’The theory is cold, but it teaches man how to procure warmth’” (116) that kind of thing.

I hope Erik write more as he moves through the book.

Most of the final quarter of the novel, post-Rakhmetov, is quite dull, Chernyshevsky at his worst – that accounting chapter is an example, although I enjoyed its grotesquerie.  But there are still two long scenes that are among the best in the book, both openly political – had the censors just given up?  The first is “Vera Pavlovna’s Fourth Dream,” in which a fertility goddess singing Schiller songs reveals the post-revolutionary paradise, where work is leisure, love is easy, and wasteland has been transformed into garden.  This is pretty explicitly a return to the Garden of Eden.  The scene would not be much different if the characters had all been killed, if this were a vision of socialist heaven.

Almost everyone lives in aluminum and glass palaces cooled by fountains, lit by electricity.  People develop better singing voices  because “it’s healthy and very elegant.  As a result, the chest improves and the voice does too” (377).  Chernyshevsky is so odd.

The other good scene is the winter picnic, set back in the novel’s reality.  All of the characters, plus a new one, Chernyshevsky’s wife – she’s like a special guest star – sing and eat and play in anticipation of the new world that is soon to arrive.  Look, a genuinely good, novelistic  detail!  There ain’t many:

Within five minutes she’s charming Polozov, ordering the young men around, and drumming out a march or something on the table with the handles of two forks.  (438)

More of that, please!  But there is no more, the novel is ending, the Czar is overthrown, and the unjustly imprisoned first-time novelists are freed.

When I announced this preposterous readalong, I warned that What Is To Be Done? is a bad novel  by ordinary standards.  It had a series of extraordinary readers, though, who were able to find the complexity in Chernyshevsky’s book and make something out of it, whether in anger like Dostoevsky or fervor like Lenin or refined amusement like Nabokov.  I doubt the book has run out of such readers.

Not as long as Notes from the Underground is still read.  That’s where I’m going next.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The expulsion of the perspicacious reader by the triumphant narrator - Chernyshevsky and the censor

Now do you understand?  You still don’t?  You’re a fine one!  Not too bright, are you?  Well, then, I’ll have to spoon-feed you.  (4, xxxi, 310)

The narrator of Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? is berating his idiot reader, always referred to as “the perspicacious reader,” for failing to understand why the revolutionary Rakhmetov has been introduced into the novel in so much detail if he is only to be used in a single scene.

“How dare you speak to me so rudely?” exclaims the perspicacious reader, addressing himself to me.  “I’ll complain about you and I’ll spread the word that you’re an evil person!”  (310)

This is another chapter with a title: “A Conversation with the Perspicacious Reader Followed by His Expulsion.”

The novel is full of direct addresses to the reader, mostly insults and harangues.  Russians loved Tristram Shandy.  “I speak arrogantly to the vast majority of readers, but to them alone…”  (Preface, 48-9).  At first the joke seems to be that the perspicacious reader is the conventional reader of fiction, deft at outguessing conventional plots.  Since the first third of What Is To Be Done? makes use or is a parody of a conventional plot, a virtuous woman trying to avoid a loveless arranged marriage, the narrator enjoys mocking his own devices and mocking the reader who enjoys such clichés.  “As a novelist I very much regret that I  wrote several pages in which I stooped to the level of vaudeville”  (119), that sort of thing.  The perspicacious reader is not actually so perceptive, that’s the joke.

There’s something else going on, though.

I remind myself that Chernyshevsky was writing the novel from prison, that he was writing a novel because he was forbidden to write essays, and that any publication had to pass through two levels of Czarist censorship, a prison censor who might forbid a manuscript to leave the prison, and the regular censor who could forbid or alter what was published in magazines.  Occasionally I wondered if Chernyshevsky was literally writing in code.  I mean, “from 11 A.M. on Thursday to 9 P.M. on Sunday, a total of eighty-two hours,” what is that?  But I do not really think there is that kind of code.

The overthrow of the Czar obviously cannot be mentioned.  Rakhmetov spends a “quarter of his time” on reading and weight training, while “[t]he remainder he devoted to matters of concern to others or to no one in particular” (284).  Michael Katz identifies odd lines like this as a reference to revolutionary activity.  I quote another example yesterday, which said Rakhmetov had “vanished from Petersburg for the second and probably the last time” – what awkward phrasing.  But it is purposeful.  The next time Rakhmetov returns he will not have to vanish again.  He will bring the revolution with him.  “Probably.”

The Rakhmetov chapters are particularly coded, and it is only after them that, as I mentioned above, the narrator decides to “expel” his perspicacious reader.  I began to see this reader differently.  I imagined Chernyshevsky in his cell, writing his book, thinking – how could he not – of a single reader, the prison censor, or of a group of censors.  “’I’ll complain about you’” – to whom?  They are the readers who are supposed to be professionally perceptive, and they are the ones Chernyshevsky needs to deceive.  Or convert.  Or bore so much they rubber-stamp his text.  I don’t know.  Whatever he was doing, it worked.

This is another story the novel tells, the duel between the narrator and the censor.  I am likely over-interpreting half of it and failing to see the other half.  But paying attention to how the narrator mocks, goads, and subverts the censor makes the novel a lot more interesting, and even artful, in its way.