Monday, June 30, 2014

Being used to puddles - the puddle theme in L'Assommoir

Zola, in L’Assommoir, uses arbitrarily chosen objects within the world of the novel to create elaborate patterns that reinforce or undermine or comment upon the surface meaning of the story.  The objects are not necessarily symbolic in whatever sense critics use that word, although they may become symbolic in some way to one or more of the characters.  Or the characters may not notice them at all; only the author and the more attentive readers can see the pattern.

Zola learned to do this from Gustave Flaubert.  I wrote about the technique in the context of Madame Bovary a couple of years ago.   I do not know if anyone believed what I wrote, since it is contrary to a lot of ideas about what fiction should do.


To the right of the water tanks the steam engine’s slim smokestack exhaled puffs of white smoke in a strong, steady rhythm.

Being used to puddles, Gervaise did not bother to tuck up her skirts before making her way through the doorway, which was cluttered with jars of bleaching water.  (Ch. 1, 18-19)

Gervaise has entered a laundry, that is all that is happening here, but Zola has now introduced, right next to each other, the Puddle Theme and the Steam Engine Theme.  I should probably only follow one of them in this post.  Puddles it is.  A few pages later, the Puddle Theme is expanded into the Colored Puddle Theme:

When she was through, she went over to a trestle and hung upon it all her things, which began to drip bluish puddles onto the floor.  (I, 24)

What is this besides ordinary, and kinda dull, detail about a Parisian laundry?  Why even notice it?

In the next chapter, Gervaise first enters the tenement where she will spend most of the rest of the novel.

Down the center of this entranceway, which was paved like the street, a rivulet of pink-dyed water was flowing.  (Ch. 2, 51)

To get through the entranceway she had to jump over a wide puddle that had drained from the dye shop [thus, the pink].  This time the puddle was blue, the deep blue of a summer sky; and in it reflections from the concierge’s small night lamp sparkled like stars.  (Ch. 2, 71)

Maybe a reader remembers the blue puddles from the laundry, maybe not.  At this point, I was looking for them, although I do not think I caught them all.  Here is another, from Chapter 6, the chapter that greatly develops the novel’s romantic subplot, a great positive moment in Gervaise’s life:

Over a puddle of muddy water that barred the way two planks had been thrown.  She finally ventured onto the planks, then turned to the left,…  (Ch. 6, 183)

One of the things she sees on the other side of that puddle is a big steam engine; also a man who “could feel within himself as much damn power as a steam engine” (189).

Now, the end.  Gervaise has hit bottom.

She had to step over a black stream, the overflow from the dyers, that went streaming and cutting its muddy way through the whiteness of the snow.  Black was the proper color to go with her thoughts.  The lovely soft pinks and blues of other days had flowed far away!  (Ch. 12, 466)

A number of other themes have been pulled together, as I would expect in a climactic scene.  I believe I see  a difference from Flaubert here: Zola actually reminds his readers of (some) of the earlier colored puddles.  Flaubert is a harsher master.  I’m supposed to be paying that kind of attention.  And in fact, under the tutelage of Flaubert and Nabokov and a few other writers, I have trained myself to at least try to keep up with this kind of patterning, which, frankly, is awfully hard to do the first time through a novel, and often leads to a lot of dead ends and red herrings.

Not the puddles, though.  For the re-read, someday, I will track down the ones I missed, and the near puddles and slant puddles.  I have a crackpot idea about Gervaise’s sensitivity to color.  I need another trip through the novel to support (or discard) this idea.

Ah, this is the fun stuff.  The posts will all be downhill from here.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A pair of heavy pliers, drawing the wire through the holes of a drawplate held in the vise - Zola describes work

How is L’Assommoir written?  It is the seventh of the twenty interconnected Rougon-Macquart novels, of which I have read only, I remind myself, numbers two and three, The Kill and The Belly of ParisL’Assommoir is in many ways written quite differently than those two books.

Zola has modified his list-making.  The earlier novels sometimes felt like catalogues, with their long lists of descriptions of carriages, dresses, furniture, plants, and cheeses.  The best-written catalogues in the history of mail-order retail, I mean, but the problem, more ethical than aesthetic, is that the lists are too easily detachable.  They lack meaning.  They are effective as brilliantly thick scene-setting, but they crowd out character, story, and action.  These baroque sensory passages threaten to become the point of the book.

This is hardly a problem for me.  I love this stuff.  I refer you to the magnificent Symphony of Cheeses in The Belly of Paris, a masterpiece of description in a novel that has barely more than a wisp of a story and was written for its baroquely rich descriptions, as well as – I am arguing with myself – a powerful metaphor that will be of great importance in L’Assommoir.  But few readers think of the elaboration of a metaphor as a meaningful story.  I mean the “fat versus thin” theme.  I want to save that for a later post.

L’Assommoir has no lack of story, the rise and sad fall of Gervaise Macquart the laundress, and no lack of meaning, ethical and even sociological.

Good Lord, all I have said so far is “no lists.”  Yet L’Assommoir has plenty of description.  Zola is more careful to keep descriptions within the range of the characters, usually Gervaise.  It is not exactly her language, but an intensification of what she sees, as when she visits the gold-wire makers who will becomes her relatives by marriage.

… Gervaise was all a-flutter, stirred particularly by the notion that she was entering a place full of gold…  At last, however, her eyes focused upon Mme. Lorilleux, a short, stout redhead who was pulling on a black wire with all the strength of her short arms, aided by a pair of heavy pliers, drawing the wire through the holes of a drawplate held in the vise.  Lorilleux, also short of stature but slimmer than his wife, was seated before his workbench, toiling away as lively as a monkey, holding in tiny pincers something so minute that it was lost between his knotty fingers.  He was the first to raise his head, a skull on which only a few straggling hairs were left, with a long, drawn face the pale yellow of old wax.  (Ch. 2, 63)

The passage is obviously full of descriptive language, and it is not the only one that describes the Lorilleux’s work as low-level goldsmiths.  A long paragraph soon follows, for example, describing how Lorilleux makes gold chains.  Work, the concern of the working-class poor of L’Assommoir has replaced the long lists of stuff that obsess the rich of The Kill and the shopkeepers and market-women of The Belly of Paris.

Goldsmithing, roofing, metal work, laundering, and ironing – I think that is the list of occupations that are described fastidiously by Zola.  The last one was a special trial.  Heaven help me, I thought, he is going on for pages about ironing.  What could be more dull?

Paper flower-making.  I forgot that one.  “Just one motion of picking up a narrow strip of green paper, a swift rolling of the paper around the brass wire, a drop of paste at the top to hold it, and there it was, a sprig of fresh and delicate greenery, ready to grace a lady’s bosom” (Ch. 11, 400).  Zola does not give so much detail about flower-making, though, because the relevant character never learns the trade well.

Gervaise is, for many years, a truly great ironer, so Zola gives me more information than I could have possibly wanted about ironing, because the character cares about it.  Whether I care or not is of no interest.  Zola sticks to his characters.

OK, this is one way L’Assommoir is written.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

L'Assommoir - a summary - Three years rolled away.

Here’s how you can tell how long I plan to write about L’Assommoir – I’m actually going to try to summarize it.

Gervaise Macquart is at a low point when the novel begins.  She is a teenage laundress from the provinces, mother of two sons, just now abandoned by her no-good parasite of a boyfriend, who has run off with another woman.  The catfight at the climax of the chapter is between the insulted Gervaise and that woman’s sister.  Later in the book, the sister takes in the parasite, who literally eats through everything she owns and then in turn abandons her.  He is a fine minor character, Lantier the sponge.

Gervaise, though, buckles down, working hard, saving money, marrying a reliable man, or at least a reasonable bet.  Their wedding, which fills Chapter 3 in one long, continuous scene, is a heck of a thing, perhaps now the standard by which I will judge future Zola novels.  Gervaise opens her own laundry shop, eventually employing three people, and despite some bad luck achieves a fair amount of success for a fair amount of time (“Three years rolled away,” Ch. 5, p. 179), culminating in the gluttonous birthday party – “orgies of cooking, feasts from which you came away round as a ball, your belly stuffed with a week’s supply” – in Chapter 7, right in the center of the novel.  Then everything unravels, but again, slowly.  It takes two chapters, for example, for the laundry business to fall apart.  L’Assommoir really only becomes a study of poverty in its last quarter, the last four chapters, where Zola grinds Gervaise down, step by step, as if through a hierarchy of poverty and misery.

The arc of the book, then, is about as simple as possible.  Start with nothing, work up to the possibility of some sort of escape, then tear away everything – money, family, health, dignity, even the streets she knows – piece by piece.

Once I map it out, I can see how symmetrical the arc is.  Chapter 7, the big feast, is the middle.  Chapter 6: the parasite returns; Chapter 8: Gervaise is back in bed with the parasite.  Chapter 5: Gervaise opens the shop; Chapter 9, she closes it.  Chapter 4: the husband starts drinking; Chapter 10, Gervaise turns to booze.  Chapter 3 is the wedding; Chapter 11 – now this is a curious one – this chapter is all about Gervaise’s daughter from that marriage, now a teenager herself, and is in effect a prequel to Nana, written three years later.  I will leave Chapters 2 and 12 and 1 and 13 as an exercise for the reader.

I did not pay enough attention to know if time passes symmetrically, but given Nana’s age at different points, it must be pretty close to balanced.

Maybe I should have made a table or some kind of diagram with arrows.  Use your imagination!

Now, I hope everyone remembers all this as I break the novel into pieces.  I hope I remember it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

L'Assommoir - Zola's comic, boozy tragedy - it would be lots of fun if her chemise split open

The Child was only one of two 19th century French novels about child abuse I read recently.  The other is Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir, published in 1877, just a year before the otherwise quite different Vallès novel.  Perhaps Zola’s success offered Vallès encouragement: don’t hold anything back.  People have read worse.  They already read about the little saint who is beaten to death by her drunken, psychopathic father in Chapter 12.  Dickens would work the scene for pathos; Zola goes for horror.

Strangely, given such scenes, given the miserable ends of many of the characters, L’Assommoir is for most of its length a comic novel.  The novel is at heart a comic form and what novel proves the point more than this one.  The first chapter, just to pick one of many possible examples, ends with a catfight in a laundry, with two women fighting over a man, pouring water on each other, tearing their clothes, like in some smutty sex comedy. 

A big fellow with a thick neck, he was laughing and enjoying himself hugely because of the glimpses of pink skin the two women were baring to view.  The little blonde was plump as a partridge; it would be lots of fun if her chemise split open.  (Ch. 1, 33)

Hey, there’s some of that free indirect narration we all enjoy so much.  Zola is reminding me that he is not going to be bound by petty conventions like good taste.

Finding drawers underneath, she reached her hand into the opening and ripped them off, exposing Virginie’s naked thighs and naked behind.  Then, raising her paddle, she began to pound away, just as she had pounded the wash in days gone by, back at Plassans, on the bank of the Viorne, when she was working for the laundress who did the washing for the garrison.  The hard wood sank into the soft flesh with a watery thud, each smack leaving a streak of red mottling the white skin.  (Ch. 1, 34)

What smutty pulp novel have I stumbled into here?  But Zola has a serious purpose, likely more serious than in any of the other Zola novels I have read, the corpse-squishing noir of Thérèse Raquin (1867), or the luxury goods catalog of The Kill (1871), or the gourmet provisioner’s window of The Belly of Paris (1873).  That last one barely had a story at all.

L’Assommoir is, I think, the first Zola novel that is fundamentally about the life of the poor, in this case the working poor of Paris.  They work and booze, marry no-good husbands and raise no-good children, strive for better but after one hard blow too many give up the chase.  Zola can hardly revisit the long, detailed inventories of furniture and dresses and carriages from The Kill since these people hardly have anything.  He does revisit the food of The Belly of Paris, though, along with one of that novel’s arguments.  L’Assommoir is a greasy, sugary book, and that's before we get to the hard liquor.

I read one of the older of the modern, complete translations, the 1962 Atwood H. Townsend version.  He kept the French title, which is a tricky one in English.  It is the name of a bar in the book, but it is also a type of bar, one that distills its own spirits, and I do not believe there is an English word to capture this.  A good alternative title would be The Dive, which captures both the nature of the bar and the ultimately tragic arc of the novel.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Vallès & The Child's style and humor - When exposed to the light of day, it glints like a saucepan!

I think of 19th century prose style as elaborate, based on just a few writers, I know – Flaubert, Zola, Gautier, Nerval, Hugo, and so on, writers who can really pour it on when they want, who can twist and elaborate with the best in literature.  How strange to read a contemporary of baroque Zola write like this:

What’s this something that my uncle said was at the bottom of my bag?

Ten francs!

Since they come from him, I can accept them…

I’m rich all of a sudden! (129)

This is the signature style of The Child:  frequent ellipses, short lines, single-sentence paragraphs, and incessant exclamation points.  Not every other sentence, like here, but close.  A Victor Hugo signature is a long, intricate paragraph followed by one of a single line, maybe just a word or two, the trick of a preacher or dictator.  Jules Vallès is of course just falling into the imitation of a little kid.

Here the kid, in detention and forgotten, finds a copy of Robinson Crusoe, which he reads in an intense burst:

Hunger takes over: I’m absolutely ravenous.

Am I  going to be reduced to eating the rats in the hold of the classroom?  How can I make a fire?  I’m thirsty, too.  No bananas!  Ah, he had fresh limes!  And to think how I adore lemonade!

Click!  Clack!  Someone’s fiddling at the keyhole.

Is it Man Friday?  Or the savages?  (96)

No, it is merely the embarrassed teacher who had forgotten him for so many hours.  Those extra-wide breaks between paragraphs are from the text.  Chapters are chopped to fragments, even within a scene, as here.

Not that Vallès has not picked up some tricks from Flaubert or the Goncourt brothers or whomever he was reading.  The adult writer takes over to describe a bakery:

The owners are standing behind the counter weighing the round loaves and they too are wearing coats that are whitish or the color of rye.  In addition to the round loaves, there are cakes in the windows: brioches looking like plump noses or tarts like crumpled bits of tissue paper.  (32)

The novel has plenty of little rewards.

I should mention something about the humor of the book.  There is plenty, despite the poor narrator’s frequent beatings.  Much of it – most, maybe – comes from his mother, an updated, lively version of the miserly French peasant, social-climbing yet suspicious of everything outside here little sphere.  When her son wins a school prize, she is certainly not going to buy him a coat for the ceremony.

She rummages around in a large wardrobe that contains her wedding dress, some umbrella covers, remnants of skirts, odd scraps of silk.
Finally she scratches herself on a garish piece of material, so filelike in quality that it scrapes your fingers when you touch it.  When exposed to  the light of day, it glints like a saucepan!  A really lovely material inherited from my grandmother and which cost a “mint of money.”  (38)

And the coat is not the end of it, as the poor kid has to suffer through buttons, and a hat, and white stirrup pants “like a device for a clubfoot.” 

“MY SON,” announced my mother triumphantly, pushing me forward when we arrived at the entrance.  (40)

Maybe it’s not Mel Brooks, all right.  But the mother is a fine character.

Monday, June 23, 2014

My second is full of surprise and tears - a grim return from vacation with Jules Vallès's comic novel The Child

The book I’ll start with, now that I am back from vacation, is The Child by Jules Vallès (1878), a brutal childhood memoir with the names changed to make it a novel, “one of the funniest in French literature,” according to the back cover copy on the salmon-colored NYRB edition (2005), translated by Douglas Parmée, but then come self-serving blurbs by Émile Zola (“a book composed of the most exact, the most poignant human documents”) and Maurice Barrés (“He is the man who liberates us from the family, who liberates us from our father and our mother” etc.) that suggest, or warn, that as funniest novels go this one may not actually be all that funny, and may even be a little bit on the grim side.

Sorry, I’ve been away for awhile, and needed to stretch a little.  Anyway, The Child is an abuse novel:

I didn’t try to kill my father.  He would have liked to cripple me.  He kept screaming, “I’ll break every bone in your body!”

Oh no, you won’t!  You’re not going to break anybody’s bones.  I’m not going to hit you but you aren’t going to lay a single finger on me!  It’s too late, I’m too big now and too grown up.


Not so funny, but this is something like the emotional climax of the book, when the author, writing thirty years after the fact, abandons irony to reveal the continuing pain of his abuse by his father, a schoolteacher with a neurotic respect for the discipline of his profession, and his mother, a peasant with a cruel streak.

So my earliest memory starts with a beating; my second is full of surprise and tears.  (6)

I have gone back to the beginning of the novel.  The author moves from the author’s childhood in rural, scenic Le Puy-en-Velay to an eventual escape to Paris, where he becomes a well-known radical journalist.  In between, paradise is a stay in the countryside with his uncle, and hell is studying Latin and Greek, useless, all useless, while his parents alternately punish him.

My mother often comes down to pinch my ears and give me a clout.  It’s for my own good, so the more she slaps me, the more I’m convinced that she’s a good mother and I’m an ungrateful brat.  (12)

The book is dedicated “To all those who were bored stiff at school or reduced to tears at home, who in childhood were bullied by their teachers or thrashed by their parents” (3).  It is a fine member of the lively French anti-school genre, stretching back, at least, to Rousseau’s Émile and continuing today with Daniel Pennac.  And a lot of it of course is funny.  What a poor start I have made.  Tomorrow I will try to undo some of the damage.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Quintessence of Shaw's Ibsenism - the unbearable face of the truth

I will be on vacation for a while, returning, with luck, next Thursday, so I will wrap up Ibsen with George Bernard Shaw’s brilliant little book The Quintessence of Ibsenism.  The publication history is complex:  lectures at the Fabian Society in 1890, a book in 1891 – and thus missing Ibsen’s last four plays, and revisions or I think really additions in 1913 and 1922.

Writing about Ibsen, I have included fewer quotations than usual.  I am mimicking Shaw, who uses almost none, maybe just a fragment slipped in occasionally.  He covers each play from Brand through When We Dead Awaken in a few pages – as few as a single page sometimes – that summarize the story, pull out a conclusion or two, and link the play backwards and forwards.

I have referred to Shaw’s summaries many times recently.  They were at first a bit baffling.  I would think, I just read this play, this is not how things happened.  But I was wrong.  Shaw does not tell the story that happens onstage, but rather the story that occurs in the fictional world of the play.  He dismantles all of the revelations about past behavior and straightens them out into a conventional linear plot.  If there is a secret from ten years ago that we do not learn about until it is explosively revealed in Act V, Shaw has moved it to the beginning of the story, to when it “really” “happened.”

As a result, in the six pages that summarize Hedda Gabler, four of them cover events before the curtain rises.  The play we see is all in one long (two page) paragraph.  The Master Builder is even more extreme.  Four short lines cover the onstage action.  Here are two of them:

The play begins ten years after the climbing of the tower…  This time he really does break his neck; and so the story ends.

Enough technical business.  It is a commonplace to say that Shaw tries to bend Ibsen into Shaw, but when the book was first published Shaw was not exactly Shaw.  He had not had a play produced, and was best known as a music critic.  He emphasizes the reformist side of Ibsen, and has no interest in the visionary side, or more likely thinks they are the same thing.  The Socialist paradise would be on earth.  Shaw has read the plays, so he is careful not to push too hard for specific Ibsenian reforms, but rather embracing the long-running and subtle Ibsenian attack on what Shaw perversely calls “idealists.”  What is Shaw if not an idealist, but no, the idealists are those who “will be terrified beyond measure at the proclamation of their hidden thought – at the presence of the traitor among the conspirators of silence – at the rending of the beautiful veil they and their poets have woven to hide the unbearable face of the truth” (“Ideals and Idealists”).  Ibsen’s plays are then are a powerful assault on false conventions, some legal, some traditional, but many more psychological.

Shaw’s book begins with some of the more hysterical attacks on Ibsen by English reviewers (“Bestial, cynical, disgusting, poisonous, sickly, delirious, indecent, loathsome” etc.) and ends with a call for an Ibsen theater along the lines of Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth.  “But I think Ibsen has proved the right of the drama to take scriptural rank, and his own right to canonical rank as one of the major prophets of the modern Bible.”  However excessive that rhetoric, however unrealistic the idea, all I had to do to agree with Shaw was read Ibsen’s plays one after the other.

Monday, June 9, 2014

And then something came and pulled him away. It was an undertow, they said - Ibsen sure is weird

I did not mean to march through Ibsen’s plays in four packs, but it has not worked out so badly.  Here are the last four: The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1899).  These plays were clearly meant to cap the long sequence begun in 1877 with Pillars of Society, and in some clear ways they reach back to Brand in 1866.  Both Brand and When We Dead Awaken end with apocalyptic avalanches, for example, this time atop the “peak of promise” where “all the powers of light will look kindly on us.  And those of darkness, too.”

IRENE:  Yes, through all, all the mist – and then up to the topmost peak of the tower that gleams in the sunrise.  (Act III)

Then, whammo!

Three of the plays end with catastrophe on the heights -  a tower, a mountain – while Little Eyolf mixes sea and mountain imagery in ways I do not understand.  Boy, that is a strange one.  A couple has a nine year-old child who is handicapped because he fell off a table while his parents were having sex.  Then, at the end of the first act, the boy drowns offstage while his parents, onstage, watch in horror.  No wonder this play is seldom performed.  It might be too awful to watch.  The subsequent collapse of the marriage takes up the rest of this painful play.

It is possible that Eyolf does not drown, but is rather carried away by the Pied Piper-like Rat-Wife.

EYOLF: Do they drown then?

RAT-WIFE: Every last one. (More softly.)  And then they have it as still and as nice and dark as they ever could wish for – little beauties.  Down there they sleep such a sweet, long sleep – all of them that people hate and persecute.  (Act I)

I had not planned to read all twelve late Ibsen plays when I started on them.  Some are certainly better than others, by ordinary aesthetic standards and, I do not doubt, by standards of performance.  The Master Builder seems like it is almost obviously the best.  Little Eyolf is too static and has an ending that is either thumpingly earnest or corrosively self-parodic.  But it was easily worth reading.  The Rat-Wife alone, and a description of a drowned or drowning Eyolf (see post title) that a horror writer would envy, and then steal.  They have all been worth reading.

I had planned, but will not write, a post about Ibsen’s humor.  He is often quite funny, although I can see how a director or actor could make choices to downplay or emphasize the absurdity of certain scenes or passages.  John Gabriel Borkman has a poet whose foot is run over by a sleigh.  Breaks his umbrella, too.  Ghosts has a pastor who is so shocked by what seems to me like fairly common human misbehavior that an actor would have to struggle not to be funny.  When We Dead Awaken has a ludicrous he-man hunter (“Bears by preference, ma’am”)  who sweeps a woman away with his overwhelming manliness.  Funny.

Look at Ibsen’s contemporaries, the ones from this late period.  Strindberg’s dream plays, Jarry’s chaotic Ubu, Wedekind’s Young Adult play Spring Awakening.  Ibsen fits right in with these anarchists.  Chekhov, Schnitzler, and Shaw, all helped along to one degree or another by Ibsen, are the calm, reasonable ones.

Shaw, I think I’ll turn to Shaw tomorrow and wrap this up.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ah, what an uplifting story! - the middle 4 Ibsen plays - sea trolls and suicides

The next thing that happens is that Ibsen, after writing four plays in a row about the terrible costs of living a life full of secrets and lies, comes up with The Wild Duck (1884), in which a brave truth-teller damages or destroys the lives of everyone around him, either because they cannot act on the truth, or because they take it so seriously that they do act.  The Wild Duck is undeniably, even by me, a tragedy, a shocker, but the way Ibsen punches a hole through the surface of his previous plays is hilarious.

This is just the sort of thing that leads people to cook up twelve-play interpretive schemes.  If nothing else, the later plays should add some nuances to interpretations of the earlier ones.  Maybe the exact nature or purpose of truth-telling matters. for example.

The other things that encourage schematism are the clear symmetries built into the plays.  George Bernard Shaw and Brian Johnston break them into clusters of four.  After the social realism of the first four, Ghosts and so on, the next set – The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm (1886), The Lady by the Sea (1888), and Hedda Gabler (1890) – certainly take a strange turn.  The plays get weirder, and the trolls start to appear, or perhaps start to reveal themselves more clearly.

For example, Ellida, the title character of The Lady from the Sea, has a strange affinity for the wild sea which life on a fjord, part of the sea, yes?, cannot assuage.  She is specifically identified as a mermaid.  She fell in love with a wild sailor, who, just after murdering a man, marries Ellida in a pagan ceremony, throwing wedding rings into the sea.  He never returns, and she eventually marries a doctor and leaves the untamed sea for the calm fjord.

The play begins with Ellida in crisis, yearning for the sea.  She has lost a child, and her marriage is failing, so when her first “husband” reappears to claim her I actually thought that he was imaginary, an expression of her inner turmoil.  The sailor, who has magic powers and appears to be some kind of sea troll, is real, though – “real,” I mean.  What is strange about the play is how what seems like it should be the symbolic background of the play is in fact the foreground, the source of the action, like in a fairy tale.

ELLIDA:  Once you’ve really become a land animal, then there’s no going back again – into the sea.  Or the life that belongs to the sea, either.  (Act V)

Obviously, this is symbolically laden, yet within the play itself it is pretty close to literal.

Ibsen is recasting A Doll House in The Lady from the Sea.  Ellida might walk out on her husband much like Nora did, but her husband does not duplicate Nora’s husband’s mistakes.  Nora considers suicide, and once I start looking for these patterns, it seems possible that the sea troll is offering not love but death, escape by suicide.  And in fact, it is this middle set of four plays that are full of suicides, five or six in four plays.  Rosmersholm introduces the bizarre and disturbing idea of people demanding suicide of others, as proof of loyalty and love, which is utterly insane, unless the person making the demand is, like the sailor, or Hedda Gabler, a troll.

My title is again from Pillars of Society.

MRS. RUMMEL:  Ah, what an uplifting story!

MRS. HOLT:  And – so moral!

MRS. BERNICK:  A book like that really does make you think.  (Act I)

Friday, June 6, 2014

I did it for the betterment of society - Ibsen's first four Realist plays

After Pillars of Society comes A Doll House (1879), in which Ibsen definitively invents the realistic play.  Whether he meant to do it, or whether the play takes on a different meaning in the context of his other plays, the deed was done.  A model was now available for other writers to put ordinary people and controversial social issues on the stage in a particular way, and they used it.

The dolls and doll house are used again in The Master Builder (1892).

Next comes Ghosts (1881), which is in some sense about inherited syphilis, all too relevant for its time, although the disease and its symptoms are also the manifestations and thus symbols of all of the other corruption and lies within the family of the characters, especially in the philandering father, another version of the hypocritical center of Pillars of Society.  It is a direct sequel to A Doll House, too – in that play, the wife leaves a bad marriage, while in this one  the wife stays, but with nightmarish consequences.

If any play set Ibsen’s reputation in England, it was this one.  Viewers had to form clubs and have private performances in order to get around obscenity laws.  Shaw, in The Quintessence of Ibsenism, prints two pages of newspaper abuse of Ghosts in order to scourge his enemies.  “Most loathsome of all Ibsen’s plays…  garbage and offal,” like that.  Two highly entertaining pages.

The arson in Ghosts is reused in The Master Builder.  I should stop doing this, but it is almost possible to dismantle any given play in the sequence and distribute its parts among the eleven others.  I won’t go into the strange things Ibsen is doing with the passage of time, either, or with all of the strongly foregrounded symbolism.  While inventing Realism, Ibsen was simultaneously inventing Expressionism.  At some point while reading Ibsen, Eugene O’Neill began to make a lot more sense to me.

The fourth play is An Enemy of the People (1882), which after the intensity of Ghosts is thankfully a comedy of sorts.  Dr. Stockmann discovers that the municipal baths, a great tourist attraction, are contaminated with industrial runoff and sewage.  The pillars of society strike back, though, isolating the brave truth-teller, in part because the town’s commercial and political interests are powerful hypocrites, but also because Stockmann’s scientific certainty has so inflated his ego as to make him unbearable. 

DR. STOCKMANN (lowering his voice).  Shh, don’t talk about it yet – but I’ve made a great discovery.

MRS. STOCKMANN.  What, again?

DR. STOCKMANN.  Yes, why not!  (Gathers them around him and speaks confidentially.)  And the essence of it, you see, is that the strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone.

MRS. STOCKMANN (smiling and shaking her head).  Oh, Thomas, Thomas -!

PETRA [their idealistic daughter] (buoyantly, gripping his hands).  Father! 

These are the last lines of the play, which ends like a bad sitcom.  Has Stockmann triumphed somehow, or is he about to be destroyed, perhaps just as the curtain falls and the laugh track fades.  I feel even queasier here than at the end of Pillars of Society, where the hypocrite claims to have reformed in the name of the Truth, but who is fool enough to believe him?  The tragic ending of Ghosts is almost unbearable, but these seemingly happier endings are not so easy to take, either.

The title is from Act I of Pillars of Society.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

I lay tossing and turning all night, half asleep, dreaming I was chased by a hideous walrus. - Ibsen's Pillars of Society

I’ll try to stick with a single play here, Pillars of Society (1877), the first of the so-called “Realist” plays.

Karsten Bernick is the pillar, here, the owner of a prosperous shipping company who is about to go into the railroad business as part of an insider trading scheme.  A paragon of moral rectitude in public, he is also thoroughly corrupt.  He has an illegitimate daughter, Dina.  He successfully spread rumors that his brother-in-law, who had just left for America, was the actual father.  He tossed in, to protect his own financial sleight of hand, another rumor that the brother-in-law had robbed Bernick’s firm.  In a dramatic scene, he wrestles with the idea of murdering said brother-in-law, to keep him from spilling the beans, by the novel means of improper ship repairs.  So, incidentally, the entire crew  and any other passengers will be killed, too.  The result of his moral agony is: yes, let the unsafe ship sail.

Several points.  First, Bernick could easily be portrayed as a sociopath, but that is not Ibsen’s game, although I support any reader, director or actor who remains suspicious.

Second, once the ship launches, by means of other plotty stuff unknown to Bernick, both his daughter Dina and his beloved young son are likely on it, too.  I thought the subsequent scenes were genuinely tense – just how horribly ironic is the ending of this play going to be?

Third, Dina is running off with the brother-in-law, who, remember, is thought by almost everyone to be her father, so we have a shadow or parody of an incest plot.  Dina is a great character, however minor.  This is Shaw: she “wants to get to America because she hears that people there are not good; for she is heartily tired of good people” (from the “Pillars of Society” chapter in The Quintessence of Ibsenism).  Ibsen is terrific with his women.  He may have more “types” of women in his imagination than of men, which is unusual.

Fourth, the murder scheme, and the son on the doomed ship, and various secrets that are revealed by, for example, old letters, may seem overtly theatrical, artificial and even a bit ridiculous.  Is it ever.  Pillars of Society is a well-made play.  On stage, we see the moment when everything goes smash.  I will try to stop being so amused that this tense and unlikely contraption acquired the label of “realism.”

I think Pillars is one of the two or three weakest of the final twelve plays, actually, although I now have no doubt that they are all worth reading.  It does have my single favorite line from any of them. 

MRS. BERNICK:  Didn’t you sleep well last night?

HILMAR:  No, I slept miserably.  I took a walk last evening for my constitution and wound up at the club, reading an account about an expedition to the North Pole.  There’s something exhilarating about human beings battling the elements.

MRS. RUMMEL:  But it obviously didn’t agree with you, Mr. Tønnesen.

HILMAR:  No, it upset me.  I lay tossing and turning all night, half asleep, dreaming I was chased by a hideous walrus.  (Act I, p. 20)

I am going to go on and on in the next few posts about Ibsen’s repetitions and variations; it is his greatest artistic failing that this is all we ever hear about this walrus.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

We have to stand firm against all this experimentation that a restless age would like to foist on us - Ibsen systems

Yes, that’s the spirit!  What is most curious about Henrik Ibsen’s last twelve plays, from Pillars of Society (1877) through When We Dead Awaken (1899), and including his big chart-toppers like A Doll House (1879), Ghosts (1881), and Hedda Gabler (1890) is the temptation to treat them as a single big work, a thousand page avant garde novel in prose dialogue.  Ibsenists, beginning with George Bernard Shaw in 1891, insist that the plays need to be performed and seen in order, as with Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle.  Has this ever been done?  I did not even read the plays in chronological order, but rather in an order something like most to least famous.

I am certain, as a result, to be hopelessly confused about who appeared and what happened in which play.  Apologies in advance.

Ibsen scholar Brian Johnston has done the most audacious work, building the case that “the twelve plays constituted a single tripartite Cycle whose subject was modern humanity undergoing (in Hegelian terms) a journey of spiritual recollection,” and when he says “Hegelian,” he means it: each play is built around a stage of history as found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit.  Johnston took the unusual and admirable step of converting his books and research into a website, Ibsen Voyages, which I have used frequently.  It is full of valuable criticism and information even for the reader who finds the Hegel business laughable on its face.  I am unequipped to evaluate the argument, but am thrilled that it exists, a visionary critic’s mad work on a visionary playwright.

And like I said, the impulse is so common.  George Bernard Shaw finds a sustained ironic assault on bourgeois hypocrisy (“idealism,” he calls it), all detailed with verve in The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891).  Robert Brustein makes Ibsen the founder of the Theatre of Revolt (The Theatre of Revolt, 1964).  Hey Henrik, what are you rebelling against?  Whatta ya got?  “The great task of our time is to blow up all existing institutions – to destroy” – this is from an 1883 description of Ibsen expressing his views at a party, found in footnote 1 on page 38 of Brustein.

Here is the temptation, really.  Less subtle followers of Shaw, or really anyone who reads or sees the play, knows that A Doll House is an early feminist protest against the inequities, legal and social, or marriage.  Thus, Ibsen invents realist theater.  Prose, an ordinary family, a social issue reformed, at least for the audience.  Yet in later plays the actions of the heroine are rerun with different outcomes – she considers suicide; later characters do more than consider; she triumphantly leaves her husband; a later trapped wife stays with hers (admittedly, her alternative is not necessarily freedom but life with a sea troll).  If we think of plot as part of the author’s argument, and in doom-laden plays like these it has to be, allowing multiple outcomes in analogous situations undermines the argument of the earlier plots.

It is almost as if Ibsen invents realistic, socially engaged theater in the first four of the twelve plays, and then, once it is an existing institution, feels the need to blow it up. A grand scheme allows the critic to at least blow up received ideas about the plays.

Luckily, I do not understand Ibsen well enough to have developed any grand scheme of my own, so from this point I will just rummage through the plays themselves.  But they do hook back into each other and I will not resist following the connections, no matter how confusing.

For consistency and sanity, all quotations from these plays will be from Rolf Fjelde’s translations, with page numbers referring to The Complete Major Prose Plays (1978), Farrar Straus Giroux.  The post;s title is from Pillars of Society, Act I, p. 17.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Who shall conquer, the Emperor or the Galilean? - Henrik Ibsen's dialectic

Seven Ibsen posts, and then I go on vacation.

To review: after writing twenty failed plays, Henrik Ibsen left Norway for Italy, where he was somehow inspired to write a pair of verse play masterpieces, Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867).  His next play was a comedy I have not read, followed by the gigantic ten act Emperor and Galilean (1873).  After this came the twelve-play cycle, Hedda Gabler and Ghosts and so on, that permanently altered theater worldwide.  “Realism” and all of that business.

For now, Emperor and Galilean (1873), Henrik Ibsen’s in-between masterpiece.  Ten acts, several dozen characters, a nine hour running time.  The play is so rarely done that the London National Theater called its 2011 production the play’s “premiere.”  I assume they meant “English-language.”  I assume there were other qualifiers.  I assume it was chopped down to a less preposterous length.  I did not have to sit still for so long to enjoy Emperor and Galilean, since I did not watch the play but read it in Brian Johnston’s 1999 translation.

The emperor in the title is Julian the Apostate (reigned 360-3); the Galilean is Christ.  In the first five acts, “Caesar’s Apostasy,” Julian is not yet emperor.  He is torn between the old pagan gods and Christianity, now the official faith of the Roman Empire.  Or, no, he wants to synthesize them.  Emperor and Galilean is, I think, the most explicitly Hegelian literary text I have ever read.  Meanwhile, at the more usual dramatic level, Julian, whose entire family has been murdered by the current Emperor, manages to survive and even triumph.

In Part Two, Julian has become Emperor himself.  Although he first advocates tolerance, he becomes increasingly repressive against the Christians, perhaps inflamed by their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs.  Rather than synthesizing the two faiths, Julian simply becomes the enemy of the Galilean, and in the end is destroyed by Christ, or his hubris and fate, a good Classical ending for a play, or perhaps by the inevitable workings of the Hegelian dialectic.

JULIAN:  Who shall conquer, the Emperor or the Galilean?
MAXIMUS:  Both the Emperor and the Galilean will disappear.
JULIAN:  Disappear-?  Both-?
MAXIMUS:  Both.  In our time or in centuries to come, I don’t know.  But it will happen when the right one appears.  (Two, Act III, p. 155)

For thematic picturesqueness, this scene is set in the ruins of a temple of Apollo (“Isn’t the whole world a heap of ruins,” 154).  The conversation continues:

JULIAN:  Emperor-God and God-Emperor.   Emperor of the realm of the Spirit and God of the realm of the Flesh.
MAXIMUS:  That is the third empire, Julian!  (p. 156)

I am making Emperor and Galilean sound like the most boring play ever written.  It is not, although it is certainly not the most thrilling.  There are battles, betrayals, mad scenes, prophecies – plenty of drama.  One great character, Julian.  “He is the most complex dramatic character ever created” says Brian Johnston (xvii).  Now that sounds like special pleading.  I dunno.

I wanted to make sure we are all clear on the use of Hegel, that’s all.  Please note another, perhaps more interesting dialectic.  Pastor Brand, the austere Christian, is set against Peer Gynt, the life-filled troll.  Christian thesis, pagan antithesis.  Julian should be the synthesis, but fails, as any human likely would.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Burial of Danish Comedy - and its birth

One more Holberg post, if just to get at the mystery of why and how his 18th century Danish comedies exist.

The rough story, which I am pulling from the Argetsinger and Rossel selection of Holberg’s plays, is as follows.  A French entrepreneur opened a comic theater in Copenhagen, population 100,000 or so, that performed French and German plays.  He quickly found that however sophisticated the Copenhagen audience, he desperately needed Danish-language plays to keep the theater alive.  He commissioned quick translations, of Molière, for example, and cast about for original plays in Danish.

Enter Ludvig Holberg, a 38 year old professor of Roman literature who had just had a bit of success with a long verse satire blending Juvenal and Don Quixote, which I would guess is close to  unreasonable now, but have I ever been wrong about that sort of thing.  This does not, to me, sound like much of a qualification to write comedies for the stage, but it turned out that Holberg had a genius for the form.  He knocked out roughly five comedies a year for five years until a series of catastrophes, including a terrible 1728 fire that destroyed much of Copenhagen, shut down the theater for good.

Holberg stole like a genius: plots, characters, jokes.  I see Molière and Italian comedies as the main sources of the ones I have read, as if I know so much about early modern theater to know about Holberg’s sources.  But in a play like The Christmas Party (1724) or Pernille’s Brief Experience as a Lady (1727), the characters can be directly matched to their commedia dell’arte predecessors – this one is Harlequin, this one Pantalone, and so on.

What is new is the old story and characters in a not just a new setting but a thickly described one, so that in The Christmas Party the usual plot about a wife and her lover fooling the husband is given a background of Epiphany candles, rice puddings, Christmas games and gifts, and a little boy costumed as a ram.  Holberg is putting in his plays some of the strengths of the modern novel, which in some sense has not been invented yet, or perhaps was just invented by Daniel Defoe a few years earlier.  I am contrasting Holberg with his contemporary Marivaux, who was moving Italian comedies in the opposite direction, reducing them to a state of light, elegant, but almost abstract perfection.

Fires aside, Holberg’s theater was ultimately done in by money.  Even his brilliance was not enough.  The book I have used ends with a six page play, The Burial of Danish Comedy (1727).  The skit begins with an actor calculating his debts:

HENRICH:  “Chicken soup, for six pennies, boiled beef with horseradish for seven pennies, sauerkraut with pork for five pennies, buckwheat porridge boiled in milk for three pennies, three rolls and six mugs of beer,”  That’s true.  I ate well that day.  There’s no other advantage to these days of fasting.  (Sc. 1)

Henrich and the other actors learn some bad news.  “The interminably sick is the assuredly dead”  (Sc. 3) – Comedy has died, leaving nothing but debts to the actors.  What will they do, how can they find other employment? 

MADEMOISELLE HIORT:  We’ve offended everyone: officers, doctors, lawyers, pewterers, marquises, barons, barbers!

HENRICH:  That’s certainly true.  I haven’t dared to get a shave since we played that comedy about Master Gert.  (Sc. 4, “Master Gert” not translated, unfortunately)

The actors form a procession ahead of the corpse of Comedy, who is in a wheelbarrow.  They march around the stage three times before lowering the wheelbarrow through the trap door.  We live in a crueler age now, so if I were staging this I would ump the corpse in, headfirst.  “HENRICH jumps into the grave, full of sorrow, as though he will never survive the Comedy.”  This was actually performed, on February 25, 1727.

The company eventually  reformed again, but it was back to Roman literature and metaphysics for Holberg.  He had founded Danish literature.