Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Forward and backward: Writing in 2014

Writing in 2014: I have mostly worked on the new one, the work-in-progress called Antosha in Prague. It's a good novel, I think. A lot of fun to write and to read (hopefully). It's a collection of Chekhovesque stories about a fictional character named Antosha Chekhonte, who is loosely based on the Russian writer/playwright Anton Chekhov. You've heard of him. This is the list of story titles (with progress status) so far:

"The Connoisseur" (written)
"Defending His Dissertation" (written)
"Under the Limbs of the Silver Birches" (written)
"Setting a Broken Bone" (written)
"The Suitor" (written)
"Ivan Ivanovna" (written)
"The Father of the Family" (in progress)
"To My Hands Alone" (written)
"Dressing for the Opera" (written)
"Olivier Salad" (hypothetical)
"Bela" (hypothetical)
"The Storm" (outlined)
"Antosha in Prague" (written)
"Caspian Terns" (hypothetical)
"It's a long time since I drank champagne" (outlined)
"A White Sparrow" (outlined, half written)

I think I've got about 56,000 words of the first draft written now. If things continue to go the way they've been going (a vague statement, that), the completed first draft will be about 85,000 words long. So I'm a good way into the manuscript. A couple more months of work, to be sure, maybe as many as four or six months before the draft is written. I don't seem to be in a hurry.

Also this year I did some work on a novel called Go Home, Miss America. That novel is out on submission now to a couple of wee publishers. In the spring or summer of 2015 I will begin another revision to a novel called Mona in the Desert. I have a lot of notes for that revision. It will be a job of work, I think. There is a slender possibility that there will be time left at the end of 2015 for me to start in earnest on a new novel, which will probably be the one called Nowhere But North. That work may be delayed until 2016.

Last night I read Browning's poem "An Epistle," and now of course I want to write a long novel based on it. I won't, but still.

Monday, December 29, 2014

"O' the lazy sea her stream thrusts far amid" in the little city by the bay with Robert

Also, I am still reading a book of Robert Browning's shorter poems. "Caliban Upon Setebos" is very good. Browning reminds me that Caliban is one of Shakespeare's greatest inventions. Browning's Caliban is also quite fine: the poet got the tone and voice just right, and his primitive theology wholly believable. My favorite line comes right at the end, when a storm hits the island and Caliban fears that his musings have offended the god Setebos:
What, what? A curtain o'er the world at once!
Crickets stop hissing; not a bird—or, yes,
There scuds His raven, that hath told Him all!
It was fool's play, this prattling! Ha! The wind
Shoulders the pillared dust, death's house o' the move,
And fast invading fires begin! White blaze—
A tree's head snaps—and there, there, there, there, there,
His thunder follows!
"there, there, there, there, there" is wonderful, the rhythmic repetition of Caliban's sudden fear at the manifestation of the horrible deity. The poem is about what? superstition, maybe, explaining the divine in the lowly terms of humanity? filling the blank spots in our knowledge with the blind spots in our self knowledge? Great stuff.

Perhaps I'm attracted to this poem because it reflects similar ideas to the snippet from George Santayana that Umbagollah has posted over at Pykk:
from the describable qualities of things, we repeat the rationalistic fiction of turning the notions which we abstract from the observation of facts into the powers that give those facts character and being.
I've been thinking about these sorts of things a lot these days, of how we paint over the face of the universe with portraits of ourselves as a way of claiming to understand reality.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene'er I passed her" An early villain from Browning

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design: for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:" such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark"—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E'en then would be some stooping: and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me
Gosh, but Robert Browning could write villains well. The above is the poem "My Last Duchess," from Browning's 1842 collection Dramatic Lyrics. It's one of the Browning poems that everyone knows, if they know any Browning. It's also a good strong step in the direction of Count Guido Franceschini. In "Duchess" we have a speech from Alfonso II d'Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara, who is favorably settling marriage negotiations with the representative of the Count of Tyrol, Ferdinand II. The duke's last duchess, Lucrezia de' Medici, is no longer with us, and this speech explains why Duke Alfonso is in the market for a bride. The bride he seeks is Barbara, eighth daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I.

Alfonso is a real piece of work. "I choose never to stoop," he says. He could not bear Lucrezia's holding him as no more special than anything else on earth, giving the same smile to him that she gave to servants and cherries and sunsets, and so "I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together." The line "Looking as if she were alive" is a strong clue as to the duchess' fate, if you need the hint. The 16th century must've been a good market for gravediggers and undertakers in Italy.

Did I mention that I'm reading a book of Browning's shorter poems? I am. It's uneven, but when it's good, it's so good. Alfonso bragging of his last wife's murder to the brother of his bride-to-be is quite a display of chutzpah.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Books Read, 2014

Books! Books! I read a lot of books this year. I will attempt to say a few words about a few of them, as if I am delivering a eulogy, apparently. Though few of these books are dead despite the less-than-ideal physical condition of many of their authors. I digress.

Chekhov and Shakespeare are always a delight; I wish I'd read more Shakespeare but we saw a good number of plays performed so I don't feel deprived. We're seeing "Three Sisters" in January sometime, and that'll be swell I am sure. I continue to digress.

The Confessions of St Augustine was well worth reading again, after lo so many years. It was instructive to see how his initial difficulties with faith were based upon fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of God, rather than differences with actual Christian theology. He was repulsed by his imagined God that was nothing like the God of Christianity. One encounters this sort of unintentional straw-manning all the time.

I seem to have been heavily influenced this year by Tom at the Wuthering Expectations blog. Tom invited people to read along with him through the great Russian novel chain of Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevky's wacky What is to be Done?, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground. I kept going on past these books, reading The Devils (a lot of fun though less mad, perhaps, than it's made out to be) and finding some connections between all of this and Anton Chekhov's story "An Attack of Nerves." So I've had a good time with the old Russians this year. Next year I'll read Chekhov's nonfiction book about the prison colonies of Sakhalin Island. At that point I will have run out of Chekhov. Perhaps next year I'll finish reading all of Shakespeare's plays, too. I've read most of them by now. I think I have eight left. We'll see. Another digression.

Tom of Wuthering Expectations also read Robert Browning's masterpiece The Ring and the Book, and his posts led me to also read it, and I don't exaggerate when I say that it was a life-changing event. A long and difficult book in verse, full of all sorts of surprises and delights and horrors too, yes. Excellent.

This year I discovered Danish author Henrik Pontoppidan, and I read two of his novels including his long brilliant Lucky Per, which you should read if you can find it at a library (or if you can spare the $50 to buy a copy). I have an early Pontoppidan novel on the shelf at home, waiting to be read. Maybe in 2015. Lucky Per is great stuff.

I want to read more Latin/South American books in 2015, and more Japanese books, and more poetry. I also have a lot of Ruskin waiting in the wings to be read next year, which is good to know. Comforting. More French books, more African books. More of everything.

Mighty Reader and I have briefly discussed a simultaneous reading of Proust's In Search of Lost Time novels, tentatively over the summer. She read the whole thing a couple of years ago, and I've only read Swann's Way but have long meant to read all of it. The fly in the ointment of that plan is that we'd need to purchase a second set of the seven novels to accommodate two readers. Are we that mad? Maybe.

I continue to read mostly old books. I don't know quite why that is; I follow the scent of the reading and it leads me where it will. It's all discovery, and very little intent.

And now, the dull as dirt actual list:

William Shakespeare The Tragedy of Richard II
Angela Thirkell August Folly
Charles Dickens Bleak House
Michelle Argyle Catch
D.H. Lawrence Sons and Lovers
Henrik Pontoppidan The Apothecary's Daughters
Michelle Argyle Out of Tune
Leo Tolstoy Cossacks
Hans Christian Andersen Tales
Ivan Turgenev Fathers and Sons
Henrik Pontoppidan Lucky Per
Thomas Bernhard Concrete
John Ruskin The Stones of Venice (abr.)
St Augustine of Hippo Confessions
Reinhold Messner My Life at the Limit
Nikolai Chernyshevsky What is to be Done?
Rebecca West The Return of the Soldier
Cesar Aira Ghosts
Gabriel Garcia Marquez Memories of My Melancholy Whores
Benito Perez Galdos My Friend Manso
Angela Thirkell Summer Half
Fyodor Dostoevsky Notes From Underground
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Vol 9 (trans. Garnett)
Francois Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Vol 5 (trans. Garnett)
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Vol 2 (trans. Garnett)
Franz Kafka The Trial
John Cowper Powys Weymouth Sands
Iris Murdoch The Sea, The Sea
Harold Bloom The Anxiety of Influence
Yasunari Kawabata The Sound of the Mountain
Fyodor Dostoyevsky The Devils
Felisberto Hernandez Piano Stories
Michael Hearn (ed.) The Victorian Fairy Tale Book
Graham Greene The Heart of the Matter
Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, Ann Dunnigan, trans.
Anton Chekhov The Shooting Party
Angela Thirkell High Rising
Heinrich Boll Billiards at Half-Past Nine
Gabriel Garcia Marquez Collected Stories
Henri Troyat Daily Life in Russia Under the Last Tsar
Robert Browning The Ring and the Book
Benito Perez Galdos Nazarin
Saul Bellow Henderson the Rain King
Orhan Pamuk Snow
James Joyce Dubliners
Anton Chekhov Three Sisters
Knut Hamsun Mysteries
Elie Wiesel Night
E.T.A. Hoffmann The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr
Wilkie Collins The Woman in White
William Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet
Robert Browning The Shorter Poems*
John R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit*

There are some pretty good books in that list.

* As I write this post, I'm still reading these two books, but I assume I'll have finished both of them by the end of the month. They are short books and I have over a week, after all.

Friday, December 19, 2014

I Saw Lightning Fall: An Advent Ghosts Story

We waited, reading the heavens. He's coming, I said. Polly held my hand. We were protected by scarves, mittens, hats and overcoats. He's coming, Polly said. It was a moonless night: the million stars aflame within the black. I see the Mikky Way, Polly whispered. She was only four. She raised a hand and pointed to a dazzling movement of starlight high in the east. There he is! This racing glittering thing was followed by another, and then dozens burst forth, arcing swiftly down to strike against the earth. A host of burning white cities mushroomed into the Christmas sky.

[This is my contribution to Loren Eaton's annual "Advent Ghosts" shared storytelling event.]

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A drop of sweet sorrow within the fallen world: Romeo and Juliet

The Verona of "Romeo and Juliet" is a violent, pornographic world in which wealthy young men (and their servants) stalk the streets, armed with swords and spoiling for deadly combat to fan the flames of ancient feuds while making obscene puns with every breath, claiming that all men are lechers and all women are bawds. Their elders would end this long-running mafia-style warfare, and have even forbidden the combat, but they cannot control the sex-and-violence-obsessed wealthy young men. Fathers lock up their daughters, making them socially available only during chaperoned parties and church services. The prince of Verona and the working classes are all sick of these rich families, sick of them committing murders in the streets, sick of them treating the city as a debauched playground. But even the prince's own man runs with the Montague gang, bragging of sexual exploits and making endless filthy jokes. Verona is the Fallen World, a sinful world, a cynical world where innocence exists merely to be mocked and defiled. It is within this awful city of Verona that William Shakespeare has trapped the innocents named Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. They will attempt to live in a different Verona, a pure city hidden inside the depraved city. As the opening prologue tells us, they will fail.

Romeo begins the play as one of the disaffected violent young men, son of one of the merchant families who have grown to become more powerful, maybe, than the nobles who "rule" Verona. Romeo spends much of his time alone, brooding, as does his cousin Benvolio. They are bored young men, rich and without occupations; no wonder they roam Verona looking for sex and death. Romeo, however, will rebel against this disaffected lifestyle and stand away from his friends when he meets and falls in love with Juliet. Much critical ink has been spilled already about Juliet and Romeo's separateness from the decay around them, the poisonous air of Verona.

What's Shakespeare getting at here? I am tempted to read the play as a condemnation of the rising merchant class and the lowered respect given to the nobility. The prince would have order, if anyone listened to him. Count Paris would have Juliet for a wife, if that ratbastard merchant's son Romeo hadn't wooed her already. The priest would have us believe that words have meaning, that the word of the law and the word of God insist upon order, but the young men of Verona speak in puns and double-meaning because even language--even the intention behind any given thought--can be transgressed, violated. When we laugh at the jokes, are we implicating ourselves in the fall of civilization? Maybe that's all too much. Maybe Shakespeare just used what he found, and "Romeo and Juliet" was well-known to English audiences when Shakespeare took it up. Maybe the play's version of Verona is so foul because Shakespeare thought it was funny to write it that way, and the dislocation of Romeo and Juliet within that foul Verona exists only because the playwright wanted to preserve the possibility of sentimentality in telling the lovers' part of the tale.

Am I going to quote anything here? No, I am not going to quote anything here. I'm reading the Pelican edition, edited and with notes by Peter Holland.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

It's a Man's Man's Man's World

I'm quite far along with Wilkie Collins' 1860 sensationalist novel The Woman in White. Observations: titles and social graces will be routinely mistaken for good morals and trustworthiness; women are the victims and servants of men, who get things done; foreigners are not to be trusted (and the middle classes are the Strength of England); when a man recovers from a serious illness, he gains fortitude but when a woman recovers from a serious illness, she is left forever weakened; have I mentioned that foreigners ain't no damned good?

Count Fosco is a great invention, a truly magnificent character. Mr Fairlie is also delightful, and the more socially blinkered of the supporting cast are finely drawn and ironically comic. Good stuff, Wilkie. I'd like to have a look at the original case that inspired Woman in White. The plot twists and labyrinthine machinations of the villains could begin to strain credulity, but that's part of the fun. "No way, Collins! Who believes that?"

Here's a bit from Mr Fairlie's narrative:
Louis suddenly made his appearance with a card in his hand.

"Another Young Person?" I said. "I won't see her. In my state of health Young Persons disagree with me. Not at home."

"It is a gentleman this time, sir."

A gentleman of course made a difference. I looked at the card.

Gracious Heaven! my tiresome sister's foreign husband, Count Fosco.

Is it necessary to say what my first impression was when I looked at my visitor's card? Surely not! My sister having married a foreigner, there was but one impression that any man in his senses could possibly feel. Of course the Count had come to borrow money of me.

"Louis," I said, "do you think he would go away if you gave him five shillings?"

Friday, December 5, 2014

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

There in your hand is the paper that offers you perpetual choking mouthfuls of country breeze for four months' time: The Woman in White

I'm reading the 1950 Dolphin edition of Wilkie Collins' sensation novel The Woman in White. The paper in this edition is wonderful, really quite fine, but I come here to quote the sales copy on the back cover:
The curious narrative of The Woman in White is gradually unfolded through the diaries, letters and memoranda of several characters. Its plot was taken from a dilapidated volume of French criminal cases that Wilkie Collins found while browsing with Charles Dickens through a Paris bookstall.
Why, it's The Ring and the Book!

Well, maybe not quite. Browning's epic poem is a masterpiece; Collins' novel, while entertaining, is not a great book. A pretty good book and worth reading, yes, but not great. Like Dickens, Collins gives us instantly memorable minor characters but earnest and lifeless protagonists. I have no idea why these main characters are generally relegated to being story-telling devices rather than something more like humans, but that's the way of it. Man-shaped lenses, but not men, that's what Dickens and Collins wrote. Still and all, it's mostly delightful fluff and I'm pleased to finally be actually reading it.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thus, the Croyden publican buys the iron railing, to make himself more conspicuous to drunkards.

A quick trip to MacLeod's Book Shop in gorgeous Vancouver, BC, sends us home with another stack of books, including:

The Seven Lamps of Architecture
The Crown of Wild Olive
Munera Pulveris

all of which were written by John Ruskin, and all of which were purchased in handsome old editions (the last title in an 1872 printing, the first two in volumes printed within a couple of years after Ruskin's death in 1900). MacLeod's is the first shop in which I've been invited to browse "the Ruskin shelf," and where I was also invited to purchase (but did not) a five-volume set of Modern Painters ($250) and an autographed first-edition three-volume set of Stones of Venice ($2000). MacLeod also had an autographed pamphlet from 1880 or so, containing a couple of Ruskin's lectures on politics. We were sorely tempted by the Stones set but not enough this time. Perhaps next year, if MacLeod still has them. We always manage to drop a bundle of cash at MacLeod's whenever we visit Vancouver.

I also picked up John Cowper Powys' Wolf Solent in a decent trade paperback, and Fontane's Effie Briest as well as a couple of nonfiction titles for my own research use. No unfamiliar Chekhov showed itself, nor any interesting editions of other dead Russians.

Vancouver is a lovely and clean city, highly walkable. I am glad, however, that our traveling is done for the year.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

An unquestionable spirit and a beard neglected: E.T.A. Hoffman's Tomcat Murr

"It is usual for the orator at a funeral to give the mourners the entire life history of the dead person, with additions and asides in his praise, and a very good custom it is, for such a recital must arouse the revulsion born of boredom in even the most sorrowful listener, and according to the experience and pronouncements of expert psychologists, such revulsion is the best way of curing any sadness, so that the orator thus performs two duties at once: he shows proper honor to the dear departed, and he comforts the bereaved. We have examples, and they are very natural, of the most afflicted of mourners going away perfectly cheerful and happy after such an oration; he has got over the loss of the deceased in his delight at being released from the torment of the eulogy."
Is this how cats actually think? Who can say? The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (1822) is an autobiography. Whose autobiography? Why, E.T.A. Hoffmann's, of course. And a clever one it is. The book owes a great deal to Sterne's Tristram Shandy (a huge hit in 18th- and 19th-century Germany) and Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, as well as Voltaire's Candide and any number of satires being written around the beginning of the 19th century (and let's not forget the romances of Ludwig Tieck, author of Puss In Boots). Shakespeare is alluded to often. It's a book stuffed to the margins with other books (reminiscent of Don Quixote in that regard). That, which is pretty much a lot of stuff already, is only half of the narrative. The joke is that the pages of Tomcat Murr have been, at the printing house, accidentally interspersed with the pages of another book, the biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, which is a book written by Abraham Liscov, who incidentally is the owner of Tomcat Murr and who incidentally attempts to give Tomcat Murr to Kapellmeister Kreisler at one point early on in the narrative. So you can see that these narratives wind around each other. They also act as foils to one another, with the action mirrored in skewed ways. Which is a good reason for the complete title of the book to be The Life And Opinions Of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper.

Hoffmann's autobiography, that's what I was saying. Well, sort of. Ernst Theodor Wilhelm (Amadeaus) Hoffmann was born in 1776, studied law at university and became a low-level government official. He also studied music and composition, becoming a high-level amateur, which came in quite handy when his government job disappeared with Napoleon's conquest (Hoffmann, a Prussian living in Warsaw, refused to take the oath of loyalty to Bonaparte). After knocking around for a couple of years in Berlin and environs, Hoffmann got a gig as theater director in Bamberg, where he made his living as a musician and began to write and write and write and become the E.T.A. Hoffmann everyone's heard of. In Tomcat Murr, Hoffmann turns himself into three characters: the cat Murr, Kapellmeister Kreisler, and Master Abraham Liscov (itinerant organ builder, philosopher, and stage magician).

Each of these three characters is given a tragic romance plot, a broken vocational trajectory, and a lot of opportunity to talk about the relationship of art to life. As Hoffmann has cleverly split himself into three parts, he is able to present three perspectives on romance, labor, and art. This technique was already ancient in Hoffmann's time, but a well-used tool is never dull, or something like that.

Master Abraham's worldview is generally practical. He works with his hands and his imagination for a living, and has had a number of patrons and private customers. His one great love, a girl named Chiara, was abducted and exiled by Abraham's present patron. Yes, there is intrigue in the novel. There's also a bit of narrative slippage, as Abraham does not apparently know about the secrets kept from him, while simultaneously being the author of the story in which he is being deceived. Since (have I mentioned this yet?) Tomcat Murr is an unfinished novel (Hoffmann died not long after finishing the first two books of the story), there are a lot of loose ends and someone (not me) should finish the book. So perhaps Hoffmann had a plan to reveal how Abraham knows all the things he shouldn't know. I am digressing, I see. I blame Hoffmann.

Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler's life is remarkably similar to Hoffmann's life, if you forget that Hoffmann was a lawyer for the Prussian government. In any case, Kreisler writes many of the same musical works that Hoffmann writes, and has apparently the same relationship to music as Hoffmann had, which is a sort of irrational and mystical relationship of pain and ecstasy. Kreisler, like Hoffmann, had a hard time settling down in the real world, and was given to fits of excitement and lunacy of a sort. Neither Hoffmann nor Kreisler could keep his opinions to himself, and both were asked to resign from a couple of posts early on in their careers. Kreisler is in love with Julia, the daughter of a well-placed common woman who advises a prince (of a sort) on the upbringing of a hysterical young princess and a half-witted young prince. Julia is being aimed at the half-witted young prince, though she doesn't know this, nor does Kreisler. Kreisler is, more or less, the typical Romantic hero.
"As for my upbringing, it can be no surprise to anyone on earth if I am ill-bred, for my uncle didn't bring me up at all, but left me to the mercy of tutors who came to the house, since I didn't go to school, nor was any friendship with a boy of my own age permitted to disturb the solitude of the house where my bachelor uncle lived alone with one gloomy old manservant. I remember only three separate occasions when my uncle, a man calm and indifferent almost to the point of stolidity, made a brief sally into education, by boxing my ears, so that I actually had my ears boxed three times as a boy. Being so inclined to loquacity today, I could serve you up the tale of those three occasions as a romantic trio, but I will pick out only the central incident, since I know you want to hear about my musical studies more than anything else, and you will not be indifferent to the story of how I first composed music."
Tomcat Murr is a tomcat, and as such loves nothing more than Tomcat Murr, and why should he not, for he is the grandest tomcat to have ever lived, which makes him the grandest creature to have ever lived. He taught himself to read and write and understand German (and why not? Human children learn to speak German, and to read and write), and by the time Murr is a couple of years old, he's read a great deal of Abraham's library, and written a number of books himself (including my favorite, a play entitled "Cawdallor, King of Rats"). Murr has an intense but short-lived romance with a cat named Kitty, who leaves him for a muscular tabby with whom Murr later fights a duel, in the tradition of Prussian university fraternities.
"Heavens, O Heavens," I cried, "can this be love?" whereupon I became calmer, and decided, being an erudite youth, to get a proper understanding of the state I was in. Although it cost me some effort, I instantly began to study Ovid's De arte amandi and Manso's Art of Love, but none of the marks of a lover as cited in those works really seemed to apply to me. At last I suddenly remembered reading, in some play or other, that an unquestionable spirit and a beard neglected were sure signs of a man in love! I looked in a mirror. O Heaven, were my whiskers neglected! O Heaven, was my spirit unquestionable!
Kater, as you know, is the German word for both "tomcat" and "hangover." This long and unfocused post about The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr is my contribution to German Literature Month. I was hoping to do more, but I'm elbow-deep in Chekhoviania just now.

“I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.”

That Samuel Johnson quote is being used as an excuse to buy more books, of course. Last week Mighty Reader and I took a turn or two through Trip Taylor Bookseller in beautiful Boise, and I don't know about Mighty Reader, but I unloaded $60 in exchange for about forty pounds of books:

Spring Snow Yukio Mishima (thanks, TSA, for ripping the cover when you searched through our luggage)
Modern Painters John Ruskin (this accounts for most of the weight, as it is all five volumes of MP in one book, on glossy paper with lots of illustrations and color plates, very nice indeed)
Selected Poems Robert Browning (in one of those tiny pocket-sized editions from the late 19th-century)
19-Century Russian Plays F.D. Reeve (editor and translator)
The Confidence Man Herman Melville (in a wild and wacky cover)

I was tempted by many other books there, including the usual assortment of fine editions of books we already own, but I showed admirable restraint as I bore in mind airline baggage weight limits. Mighty Reader picked up her own stack of Hemingway et al that I'm not listing because I respect her privacy.

I've already started reading Mr Ruskin, but the rest of these will have to fight their way to the tops of the already-high stacks of unread books at Aurora Manor.

Also! When we got back from Boise, I found a copy of Jeff Sypeck's The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier waiting for me. It's in verse, what fun! I don't know when I'll read it. Possibly this coming weekend. It's short but, you know, it's in verse and there are footnotes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

We are well past the halfway point now, you boys. (a writing update)

This is what I have so far in the way of structure (that is to say, in the way of a table of contents and the status of those contents) for my current project, a novel-in-stories called Antosha in Prague:

"The Connoisseur" (written)
"Defending His Dissertation" (written)
"Under the Limbs of the Silver Birches" (written)
"Setting a Broken Bone" (written)
"The Suitor" (written)
"Ivan Ivanovna" (in progress)
"Kolya Must Rest Now" (hypothetical)
"In Sakhalin I Have No Family" (outlined)
"The Father of the Room" (outlined)
"Dressing for the Opera" (written)
"Bela" (hypothetical)
"The Storm" (outlined)
"Antosha in Prague" (written)
"Caspian Terns" (hypothetical)
"It's a long time since I drank champagne" (outlined)
"A White-Crowned Sparrow" (outlined, half written)

This book pleases me immensely, so far. I am toying with the idea of subplots that continue across the otherwise unconnected short stories. I know, not wholly original, but I've never done it before and anything that raises the degree of difficulty is a temptation. Usually I don't even think about subplots when I write a novel. I'm not sure any of my books has a subplot; that's probably why they tend to be short.

The story "The Storm" is going to be pretty long. It will be, if I can pull it off, something of a virtuoso performance (is one allowed to make that claim about one's own work?) involving interwoven allusions to plays and romances. I'm hoping it has a sort of late Dickensian atmosphere, too. As if Dickens had written both...well, never mind that for now. Anyway, the following is from the story "Setting a Broken Bone."
Doctor Chekhonte stepped forward and bowed, offering Dmitry his hand. Dmitry stared at the hand for a moment, and then shook his head and flapped his pale arms.

"Ah-hah, you would pluck one of my feathers for luck, Doctor, but ah-hah I’ll need them all soon. I am pleased to make your acquaintance."

"The honor is mine, Dmitry Nikiforovich," Doctor Chekhonte said. "I do not wish to take your feathers. I wish to shake your hand."

"Ah-hah." The patient drew himself up with dignity. "Men do that."

"I am a man, Dmitry Nikiforovich."

"And do I," the patient said, holding his arms out higher, turning his head to display his crested hair and peaked nose and chin, "look like a man to you?"

Doctor Lintvaryova stepped forward and put a hand gently on Dmitry’s left elbow. "You are a magnificent bird," she said. "Truly."

"Hence my nesting, Doctor. Did you learn nothing at your school?"

"I primarily studied humans," the doctor admitted. She took the patient’s pulse, which he allowed, apparently not seeing what she was doing. "My colleague Doctor Chekhonte, however, knows a great deal about birds."

"You are a zoologist? Ah-hah, that is quite flattering." Dmitry pursed his lips, kissing the cold air.

"I am not a zoologist," Chekhonte said.

"Surely not ah-hah a veterinarian?"

"I am a medical doctor, just like Doctor Lintvaryova. But I am familiar with the ways of birds."

"If you say you are a sportsman, I’ll peck out your eyes, Doctor."

Monday, November 17, 2014

the Uprising

Mighty Reader and I keep a wall calendar in our kitchen; we pick out a new one each year and they've tended lately to feature flowers and vegetables. Back in mid-October I looked ahead to make sure I'd marked the date of a symphony concert, and I saw written on the November calendar, on this date, the words "THE UPRISING!" in my own hand.

I turned to Mighty Reader. "Do you know what this means," I asked. "What's the uprising?"

Mighty Reader had no idea, nor did she remember when I wrote it on the calendar or why. We've done research to see if there is any sort of uprising predicted for today in literature or, maybe, in the Dr Who canonical works, and we have found nothing. Why did I write "the uprising!" on my calendar? What is significant about November 17, 2014? Yes, I know about the anniversaries of the Greek uprising of 1973 or whenever it was, and the Prague uprising, but what is scheduled, I demand to know, for today?

Perhaps it has to do with the restoration of the Myxolidian monarchy? After all, Mighty Reader and I live with Gradka, queen in exile of the kingdom of Mixo-Lydia, and perhaps she has been making Big Plans. Plans that, possibly, I overheard in my sleep and have written therefore a warning to myself on the kitchen calendar. On the whole, doubtful.

So it's a mystery. But there it is, written in my kitchen in my own handwriting, a notice/warning/call for general mobilization regarding the uprising. Be careful today, that's all I'm saying.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

His eccentric behavior: Knut Hamsun's "Mysteries"

To hell with the true interconnectedness of all things, it doesn't concern you anymore; you let out a roar at it and let things take their course.
That's from page 239 of the Penguin edition of Knut Hamsun's Mysteries (trans. Sverre Lyngstad). I am sorely tempted to call it a statement of the novel's theme.

I'm going to steal Pykk's idea and list other bloggers who've written about Mysteries:

Séamus at Vapour Trails
Jean at Howling Frog Books
Tom at Wuthering Expectations
Richard at Caravana de recuerdos
Pykk at Pykk

Those posts are all more worth reading than what immediately follows here, so off you go.

Mysteries (1892) is the tale of Johan Nagel, a stranger who steps off a boat into a small Norwegian town. The first paragraph of Mysteries declares Nagel to be "a singular character who shook the town by his eccentric behavior and then vanished as suddenly as he had come." This intriguing sentence is not exactly accurate; Nagel manages to bemuse and abuse a handful of the town's citizens, and then he throws himself into the bay to drown. Between his arrival and departure, Nagel gives away money, insults the important people of the town, lies and contradicts himself, confesses his lies, tells more lies, accuses strangers of crimes, drinks a very great deal and buys a great many drinks for others, lectures about literature and in general follows whatever whim catches him moment by moment.

Why? Nagel carries a vial of cyanide in his vest pocket, because he's certain that he'll end up resolving the existential problems by killing himself. The existential problems can be solved in no other way, there being, in Nagel's view, no guiding principles to life, no point to any of it and one act is just as good as another. Except, of course, that he doesn't really feel this way at all. He has come to this little town to do something, to carry out some grand meaningful act, though we never learn what that is, if indeed Nagel has anything specific in mind, which he probably doesn't.

Nagel seems like a madman. He acts like a madman, but he isn't a madman, unless you agree that any man who has become unpinned from all social fabrics is mad. Nagel is free to act however he likes, because all is vanities and when he looks around him, he is convinced that the world is mad. Not that he claims himself to be the Last Sane Man Standing or anything. No, it's all unclear because it's all unclear. Nagel is a sort of prophet of irrationality, and he attempts to celebrate irrationality but that fails to make him the least bit happy, once he sobers up. He attempts to find meaning in the doing of good works, in falling in love, in the glories of nature, but this happiness is transitory because it's both meaningless and desperate. There is no context within Nagel's metaphysics to allow happiness. His desperation increases as time goes on and his attempts to be Dionysian playboy, charitable saint, or judgmental literary critic all go awry and he's left with nothing but dissatisfaction, spiritual emptiness and that vial of cyanide.

Some of Nagel's doings resemble episodes from the Gospels, some of them seem to parody scenes from Cervantes, Shakespeare, or Dostoyevsky (though I might have that line of influence backwards; I'm a lazy scholar in that wise, I admit). At one point Nagel grabs a violin and plays an impromptu medley that affects everyone who hears it, but Nagel refuses to touch the instrument again. "It's all a fraud," he declares. Everything about Nagel is false, even when he's trying to be sincere, because there is nobody inside that yellow suit he wears; Nagel is a nullity trying to be a somebody while retaining his nullity. He's doomed to fail. There's a lot more to this book, but this is what I've chosen to write about.

I read Mysteries because Tom of Wuthering Expectations invited any and all to read it along with him. This post is my very-late-as-usual contribution to the readalong.

Friday, November 7, 2014

"a wind-propelled hat"

From the novel in progress, an excerpt from the title story, "Antosha in Prague."
Have Moscow and Petersburg burnt to the ground? Has there been an outbreak of Black Plague? Has my first play been revived only to fail with a great public outcry of disgust and I am now persona non grata even to my friends? Why do you not answer my letters? Today it is cold and a wind rushes violently down every street in Prague, as if the seasons are quarreling and winter has for the moment taken the upper hand from springtime. The sky is crowded with scruffs of lumpy gray clouds, like undercooked dumplings or boils full of pus. I’m told that rain is normal for spring here, just as it is everywhere in Europe, but it is unseasonably cold these last days, and in fact it hasn’t rained in nearly a fortnight. After breakfast I wrapped myself in my winter coat and walked through the Mala Strana, a tall hillside of parkland, fruit trees, abandoned hermits’ caves, and cultivated grape which rises up south of the old royal castle. There is a church and an ancient monastery at the summit of the hill, which you mount by following a winding stone pathway with many staircases and steep granite inclines, built centuries ago by peasants during a famine in exchange for rations of bread from the king’s stores. It was windy in the park, the trees rattling like an orchestra of skeletons. My hat was blown from my head and though I chased after it, it was lost over an old stone wall that seemed to materialize from nowhere. The wall was higher than I could climb over without a ladder. I must have looked like a madman, sprinting through the trees and waving my stick while shouting in Russian at a wind-propelled hat. It was an expensive hat, Alexey Sergeyevich. I shall have to visit the Jews and buy a replacement. Just this morning I wrote to the Actress and told her that I’m considering taking a different room in the hotel, because there is too much light from the street when I attempt to sleep. I’ve been out all day—it took me forever to find my way back to the hotel once I wandered from the park—and I stopped at a large restaurant a mile or so up the Moldau for supper and a lot of local wine. The food was nothing although the rolls were excellent. I won’t bore you with a critical review of the soup and fish, however. You see how tired I am: I was writing about my rooms here, and drifted off into complaints about a meal. Half an hour ago I returned to the hotel, picked up my key and found no letters at the front desk, and then I came up to my suite. After turning up the gaslight I was overcome by the most peculiar feeling that either the management has in fact put me and my luggage into a different room while I was outside being blown about like a kite, or else every stick of furniture, every wall hanging, every rug and vase, has been shifted in a clockwise direction around the rooms by a few inches. It strikes me as both radically different and obviously unchanged. I might say it’s as if the room itself has set its mind to oppose me in some manner. Yes, this sensation is impossible to describe yet it is nonetheless real. Perhaps they merely came in and polished the floors. Perhaps it’s merely that I drank too much Bohemian wine with supper. It’s nearly one o’clock and I must sleep. There is no light shining through the bedroom window, which is good. Write to me, Alexey Sergeyevich. Remember to suggest stories for Marx, the German.
--A Chekhonte

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Like snow falling on snow, there's not much to see

I get what Pamuk has done regarding the ideas of an unstable, unreliable self, the individual being a locus for external pressures filtered through self image and desire (and vice versa), and how political action is primarily (or perhaps entirely) an expression of self image and desire, and political action will change as self image and desire changes. All of civilization is in fact an expression of shifting, unstable and unreliable self image and desire, unpredictable even to the individual who acts, such an individual unable to see his changing public and private expressions of self. This is demonstrated quite well by Pamuk in his satirical passages and set pieces. I can see what's going on in Snow with those ideas.

What is less clear to me is what Pamuk has done with the sort of nested personalities of Ka and Orhan, especially at the end of the novel, with Orhan walking around in Ka's footsteps in Kars, meeting the people there who Ka met earlier, falling in love with Ipek and being rejected by her, etc. What's all that supposed to mean? What's it got to do with the first 400 pages of the novel? I can't tell you. It seems like an idea that was tacked on at the end of the book rather than something that is worked through the fabric of the whole narrative. These ideas of personalities being interpenetrating or interchangeable are not so much well-crafted and thought-out formal strategies as they are vague gestures in the general direction of formal strategies. It doesn't work, is what I'm saying.

There is much to admire in Snow, and there is alongside that admirable work a great deal of clumsy and juvenile characterization (see yesterday's bitter little post). I think Pamuk has tried in part to write Snow as a Kafka novel, and failed in the same way that most of Kafka's novels fail, artistically in terms of formal organization and in terms of character. I pause here to insist that I'm a big fan of Kafka's stories, though.

Snow is the second Pamuk novel I've read. About a decade ago I read My Name is Red and thought it quite fine, though it also has some of the same failures of characterization (though far fewer) that Snow suffers from. We've got about four or five more Pamuk novels on the shelf at home. I can't decide if I want to read another one. We'll see. Perversely, maybe, I think I'm going to read Kafka's The Castle next, to see if my memories of it are anything like accurate.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Yesterday We Introduced The So-Called Poet To The People Of Kars; Today We Report The Suspicions He Has Aroused In Our Readers"

Why do people come to fiction? For a variety of reasons, I'm sure. Most readers, I think, just want to while away an hour or two with a diverting story that takes them out of everyday life. Other readers, I have come to believe, enjoy the sorts of games novelists play with the mechanics of plot, symbolism, and language (formalist writers like Nabokov, for example). Me, I come to fiction primarily to deepen my experience of humanity, to encounter ideas about life that run counter to my own, maybe, but certainly show me what it's like to be someone other than me, which perversely enough always strengthens my feelings of kinship for my essentially unknowable fellow man. The search for humanity in its variety is why I come to fiction, mostly, or at least I can say that if there is no display of a deeply-felt humanity in a book, I am not engaged or much interested in reading it. Somehow all of that comes across as more vague and meaningless than it sounded in my head, and I'm not at all sure how to make it more clear, even to myself. Perhaps I don't know why I come to fiction.

One demand I make of fiction, I can at least claim (or I will at least claim tonight), is that the characters who people it exist within an illusion of the author's understanding of how people are in actual life. No, that sentence stinks. Nobody will know what I mean by it. What do I mean by it? Sometimes I encounter fictional characters who are so clumsily written that it seems to me that the writer has the barest inkling of what goes on inside the head of a real human being. Jonathan Franzen tops the list, but right behind him is (possibly heretically) Franz Kafka. Kafka's characters (at least in his longer fiction) seem to have been imagined by an impatient teenaged boy who has no concept of maturity. Now, you ask, what does that mean? This post is getting nowhere, because I am trying to be precise in my language but I find I'm not used to writing precisely about fictional people.

I start again. I'll skip the Kafka for now and get to the point. We all hope. I'm reading Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow, a novel which owes a great deal to Franz Kafka's The Castle, in terms of symbolism, setting, and mood. Ignore what I said about skipping the Kafka for now. The way the characters are written by Pamuk in Snow is quite similar to the way the characters are written in Kafka's The Trial, in terms of falseness and clumsy handling by the author. Oh, that's unkind, very unkind. But it's a growing problem I have with Snow, and the main reason I'll be glad to be shut of this book once I've made my way through the remaining ninety pages or so.
With every ounce of his strength, Ka escaped Z Demirkol’s gaze, turning his now streaming eyes to the tremulous snow-covered streetlamps of Atatürk Avenue—they were visible from where he was sitting, but he hadn’t noticed them until now.
That's just clumsy prose, picked at random from the novel. Like Kafka, Pamuk is constantly interrupting scenes to provide bits of unimportant information (it is obvious that anything Ka sees is visible from where he is; that he hadn't noticed them until this point is beside the point). Passages are constantly spoiled by these clumsy intrusions of the author to provide setting. But that's not what I meant to display.
As Ka would later write, it may have been now, as they were holding each other and weeping, that I˙pek discovered something for the first time: To live in indecision, to waver between defeat and a new life, offered as much pleasure as pain. The ease with which they could hold each other and cry this way made Ka love her all the more, but even in the bitter contentment of this tearful embrace a part of him was already calculating his next move and remained alert to the sounds from the street.


It seemed to him that I˙pek somehow knew he could see more than just beauty in the geometry of the snowflakes, but at the same time he knew this could not be so. Part of him knew she was not altogether happy to see his attention drawn elsewhere. Up to now he had been the pursuer, and his evident desire had made him feel uncomfortably vulnerable, so Ka was pleased to see the tables turned: From this he deduced that making love had gained him a slight advantage.
Some of that's just very bad writing. I don't get the impression that Pamuk is talking about homo sapiens at all. I get the feeling that interpersonal relationships are something Pamuk has read about somewhere, maybe in home health product catalogs, for example. I don't feel that these passages--this entire novel--have been written by a man who has had much personal contact with humanity.

There are good things in Snow, but those are generally the comic moments. When Ka is denounced as an enemy of the state in a front-page article of Kars' main newspaper, Ka is insulted that he's referred to as a "so-called poet" and the idea that his life is now in grave danger is of secondary importance. That's good stuff, as is a lot of the writing about the city and the landscape. Some of the set pieces are quite good indeed, and it all breaks down when we are asked to believe in this character named Ka, who becomes more like an adolescent described by an adolescent as the book progresses. Pamuk tells us fairly soon in Snow that Ka will be shot in the head by an Islamic assassin, and by the time this book is over I'm pretty sure I'll agree that the guy had it coming. If only it hadn't taken 430 pages, I imagine myself saying.

About the snowflake: Ka writes nineteen poems while he is in Kars. They come to him, he says, as from an outside source, as if the voice of God is dictating them to him. He arranges these poems in the shape of a snowflake, along three axes, placing himself (that is, placing a poem called "I, Ka") in the center of the axes. The snowflake is a representation of the conflicting forces that act upon an individual, causing him to shift and change his nature depending upon which forces are most strong at any given time. The center, the personality, is not fixed ("Ka knew very well that life was a meaningless string of random incidents."). This snowflake, and the graphic illustration of it midway through the novel, are not keys to the meaning of Snow. They're just more argy-bargy of Pamuk's, more unfocused stuff that adds nothing to this rag bag of ideas and flat characters shouting about politics while the so-called poet wanders past it all, indifferent to politics until someone with a greater interest in politics sees fit to smash out Ka's life with a bullet. That could be powerful stuff, if Ka and the political fanatics seemed the least bit real. Real people are not present in Snow. The snowflake, the representation of real people, is what we get, but we get neither the poems Ka has arranged in his snowflake pattern, or a real person to compare to the snowflake symbol. We are buried, bit by bit, by something that will leave nothing behind when it melts.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Man Fit to Play Atatürk: Orhan Pamuk's "Snow"

Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow (originally published in Turkey as Kar in 2002), is a strangely quiet, subdued and distant book. This despite the fact that it is filled with strong emotions from all points of the compass and almost unrelenting violence. All of that emotion and violence seems to be wrapped in snow, which falls endlessly during the narrative, hiding things, hindering motion, deadening sound. The novel's setting--the city of Kars, in Anatolia ("Kars" is very close to the Turkish word for "snow")--is caught in a heavy winter storm, the roads leading to anywhere else are all closed, and Pamuk's protagonist, a poet who goes by the name Ka, wanders through this snowy and dark decaying city, unsure where he's going while the city is caught in a very localized military coup. The military (and the local police and the state secret police and several powerful individuals) are attempting to break the rising influence of political Islam in Kars in the wake of a series of suicides committed by young Muslim college students who have been ordered to remove their head scarves or be expelled from school. These students are called the suicide girls, and they are either victims, heroes, or sinners, depending on who is speaking. The secular government has plastered the city with posters reading "Suicide is a sin," ironically invoking the commandments of the same Allah they officially ignore. Ka is in Kars with press credentials from a major Istanbul newspaper, on assignment to write about the local elections and the suicide girls. The news stories are an excuse for Ka, who has traveled all the way to Turkey from his self-imposed exile in Germany, to come to Kars and pitch extremely clumsy woo to I˙pek, a woman he's loved at a distance since their university days.

That's the premise of Snow: a minor poet who's lost contact with his muse returns to his homeland to find a wife, and a violent revolution he neither understands nor cares about threatens to interfere with his romance. Ka is mostly unaware that his own life is increasingly in danger as he refuses to take a side in the politics. He is concentrating on two other things: the favorable reception he's getting from the beautiful I˙pek, and the poems that keep coming to him in finished form, which he is constantly writing down in a notebook he carries everywhere. For Ka, at least on the surface, things are going well. Meanwhile, students, young unemployed men, entire families and shopkeepers are being rounded up and brutally tortured and executed by the provisional military government. Ka does his best to look away from the violence and the politics, concentrating instead on the underlying humanity of both the perpetrators and the victims.

And it's that choice on the part of Pamuk, to look away from the reality of the violence and the countless instances of individual suffering, that makes Snow such a distant book. Pamuk places layer after layer of insulation between the reader and the emotions of the story, so that it almost seems as if nothing is happening except a constant snowfall. I'm only halfway through the novel, so I don't know if that's an intentional effect. But the violence, the high emotion, all take place for essentially anonymous groups here, "the students," "the children," "the police," etc. Pamuk does characterizations extremely well, and whenever he pauses long enough to give us an individual portrait, the characters spring to life, full-blooded and clear, and they are all delightfully real, both sinners and saints. Pamuk reserves this individual reality for just a few characters, though. Mostly, the revolution is fought among cardboard cutouts, around which Ka and the narrative dodge, trudging along through snowdrifts.

I was struck right away by how much Pamuk's writing here reminds me of the writing of a lot of Japanese novelists, by which I mean it is restrained and maintains a regular and unhurried pace:
“It looks as if the army is up to something,” said Turgut Bey. To judge from his voice he was in a foul temper, unable to decide whether this was good or bad.

The table was in disarray. Someone had stubbed out a cigarette in an orange peel—most probably it was I˙pek. Ka remembered seeing Aunt Munire, a distant young relative of his father’s, doing the same thing when he was a child, and although she had never once forgotten to say madam when speaking to Ka’s mother, everyone despised her for her bad manners.

“They’ve just announced a curfew,” said Turgut Bey. “Tell us what happened at the theater.”

“I have no interest in politics,” said Ka.

Although everyone and especially I˙pek was aware that this was another voice inside him speaking, Ka still felt sorry.

All he wanted to do now was to sit quietly and look at I˙pek, but he knew it was out of the question; the house, ablaze with revolutionary fever, made him uncomfortable. It wasn’t just the bad memories of the military takeovers during his childhood; it was the fact that everyone was talking at once. Hande had fallen asleep in the corner. Kadife went back to the television screen that Ka refused to watch, and Turgut Bey seemed at once pleased and disturbed that these were interesting times.

For a while Ka sat next to I˙pek and held her hand; he asked her without success to come up to his room. When it became too painful to keep his distance, he went upstairs alone and hung his coat with great care on the hook behind the door. There was a familiar smell of wood in his room. As he lit the small lamp at the head of the bed, a wave of sleep passed over him; he could barely keep his eyes open; he felt himself floating, as if the whole room, the whole hotel, were floating with him. This is why the new poem, which he jotted down in his notebook line by line as it came to him, portrayed the bed, the hotel in which he lay, and the snowy city of Kars as a single divine unity.

The title he gave this poem was “The Night of the Revolution.” It began with his childhood memories of other coups, when the whole family would wake up to sit around the radio, listening to military marches; it went on to describe the holiday meals they’d had together. This was why he would later decide this poem was not about a coup at all.
This relaxed pace, this careful laying out of one event after another, is the way of the whole narrative (at least the first half of it). The descriptions of poems run all through the story, though none of the poems are actually quoted.

I should also mention that this book owes a good deal to Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Devils, which I luckily read this summer so I can recognize the similarity between these two tales of political madness in rural cities. Pamuk, deep in the middle of the book, is beginning to turn his incidents of political madness into parody. There is also the ongoing question of religious faith in Snow that runs through The Devils, though it is the wavering faith of Ka on display here, rather than that of one of the instigators of the political violence.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated." The failure of Bellow's Henderson the Rain King

Is there any point in my listing the many flaws of Saul Bellow's 1959 comic philosophical novel Henderson the Rain King? No, there is not.

But Henderson the Rain King, apparently Bellow's favorite of his own novels, is a flawed book. Not flawed in the way that every great work of art has flaws, where technique has yet to catch up to inflamed, all-consuming vision; Henderson is flawed by weaknesses in basic craft. The book is structured as a traditional three-act story arc, with Act 1 ending as the hero has failed his first attempt at a Quest and rides off into the wilderness with his faithful servant. Act 2 dramatizes the continuation of the Quest in a new strange unknown land, with the addition of a Wise Helper character who discusses philosophy with the hero, and points him in the direction of Renewal and Hope. Act 3 is the sacrifice of the Wise Helper and the Coming Into His Own of the hero, with a sentimental denouement and happy ending. Yes, Henderson is that sort of novel, Don Quixote crossed with 19th-century adventure literature as filtered through the mind of one of those American male writers from the 1950s whose works I don't really get. That's a hint, that last phrase there.

The first act is mostly terrific, the language boiling and joking bigger than life, the humor quite sharp and aimed by the hero (Henderson) mostly at himself, as the reader can see that Henderson's barbs for his wives (ex and present) and children and everyone else are misdirected, the character flaws mostly belonging all to Henderson.
But if I am to make sense to you people and explain why I went to Africa I must face up to the facts. I might as well start with the money. I am rich. From my old man I inherited three million dollars after taxes, but I thought myself a bum and had my reasons, the main reason being that I behaved like a bum. But privately when things got very bad I often looked into books to see whether I could find some helpful words, and one day I read, “The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.” This impressed me so deeply that I went around saying it to myself. But then I forgot which book it was. It was one of thousands left by my father, who had also written a number of them. And I searched through dozens of volumes but all that turned up was money, for my father had used currency for bookmarks—whatever he happened to have in his pockets—fives, tens, or twenties. Some of the discontinued bills of thirty years ago turned up, the big yellowbacks. For old times’ sake I was glad to see them and locking the library door to keep out the children I spent the afternoon on a ladder shaking out books and the money spun to the floor. But I never found that statement about forgiveness.
That is great stuff, on a lot of levels. The money falling out of his father's old books, which Henderson does not understand, is a brilliant image. There is a lot of brilliant imagery in the first act of Henderson the Rain King. The pages writhe with symbolism and shimmer with the energy of the prose. Then, when Henderson misguidedly blows up the water cistern at an African village, destroying the water supply and assuring the death of the village's cattle, Act 2 starts.

Act 2 is the long, long, interminably long, very quite long, too long middle of the novel. It's actually a fairly short novel, 330 pages or so in trade paperback, but it felt like an immensely long book while I was slogging my way through the pointless and clumsy story. Yes, I know, Nobel Prize and all of that. Don't get me started.

I'm not going to detail the failure of Act 2. Suffice it to say that the action is forced, not at all interesting, and is an excellent example of a writer taking the wrong path. Okay, hell, here's a sample of what I mean:
I wish to say at this place that the beauty of King Dahfu’s person prevailed with me as much as his words, if not more. His black skin shone as if with the moisture that gathers on plants when they reach their prime. His back was long and muscular. His high-rising lips were a strong red. Human perfections are short-lived, and we love them more than we should, maybe. But I couldn’t help it. The thing was involuntary. I felt a pang in my gums, where such things register themselves without my will and then I knew how I was affected by him.

"Yet you are right for the long run, and good exchanged for evil truly is the answer. I also subscribe, but it appears a long way off, for the human specie as a whole. Perhaps I am not the one to make a prediction, Sungo, but I think the noble will have its turn in the world."

I was swayed; I thrilled when I heard this. Christ! I would have given anything I had to hear another man say this to me. My heart was moved to such an extent that I felt my face stretch until it must have been as long as a city block. I was blazing with fever and mental excitement because of the loftiness of our conversation and I saw things not double or triple merely, but in countless outlines of wavering color, gold, red, green, umber, and so on, all flowing concentrically around each object. Sometimes Dahfu seemed to be three times his size, with the spectrum around him. Larger than life, he loomed over me and spoke with more than one voice. I gripped my legs through the green silk trousers of the Sungo and I am sure I must have been demented at that time. Slightly. I was really sent, and I mean it. The king treated me with classic African dignity, and this is one of the summits of human behavior. I don’t know where else people can be so dignified. Here, in the midst of darkness, in a small room in a hidden fold near the equator, in this same town where I had struggled along with the corpse on my back under the moon and the blue forests of heaven. Why, if a spider should get a stroke and suddenly begin to do a treatise on botany or something—a transfigured vermin, do you follow me? This is how I embraced the king’s words about nobility’s having its turn in the world.
Dahfu, king of a remote African tribe, is sitting with Henderson in a subterranean lion's den, lecturing on the possibility of man raising himself to a noble state by emulating noble animals, such as lions. The lion is, however, not a symbol for the sort of nobility that Dahfu thinks it is. That irony is clever, but alas the lion is not the symbol that Bellow thinks it is, either. And there is page after page of that "the king kept talking to me and I didn't know really what he was talking about, but it sure sounded smart and I felt swell while we chatted" stuff, about which I had no idea what to make, really. Is it comedy? Is Bellow really trying to talk about the nature of man? What what what? It went on and on and after a while it was merely something to endure with the hope of eventual freedom or at least some meaningful statements from the author.

I get the impression that Bellow thought his exotic and unrealistic Africa was so interesting, because so far from the experience of Americans, that it in itself could carry the bulk of the narrative. Unfortunately, the vagueness of what Bellow meant by all of this African action (it fails to work as comedy, as realism, as metaphor, as irony) leaves it just dull and in a lot of places clumsy, poorly-written filler.

What would've been more interesting would've been for Bellow to tell at length the story of Henderson at the carnival in his youth, and his relationship to the bear. The bear, briefly mentioned in Act 3, is the real hinge of the story arc, not the lion in the endless toiling drudgework of Act 2. The book ends with a scene of completely unearned emotion (as we say in the biz), but the images are quite pretty. Here's the final passage, which seals the cheating happy ending with a gorgeous kiss:
Laps and laps I galloped around the shining and riveted body of the plane, behind the fuel trucks. Dark faces were looking from within. The great beautiful propellers were still, all four of them. I guess I felt it was my turn now to move, and so went running—leaping, leaping, pounding, and tingling over the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence.
the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence is pretty good. But it was not worth the effort, alas, to get to that silence.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Book and the Ring, a parting word or two from Mr Browning

it is the glory and good of Art,
That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth

Regarding two books I'm reading that I probably won't post about:

Nazarin by Benito Perez Galdos
"He is not mad," said Sancho. "But he is venturesome."

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
"Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated."

Friday, October 17, 2014

Perversely 'neath the tower

So what exactly is The Ring and the Book? A very very long poem, but it's also similar to a novel in the way it develops, the story told over time with flashbacks and new information coming in each chapter. It's also similar to a theatrical drama, each "act" being a long dramatic monologue delivered by one of the central characters. That might be the best way to look at this thing. The story each of these characters tells is more or less the same story, and the individual variations and interpretations of that story are not important because of what we might learn of the crime and subsequent trial upon which the whole poem is based, but because of what we might learn of the characters who deliver these monologues. This is a work about people, not about jurisprudence.

I'm in the middle of Book X, the dramatic monologue delivered by Pope Innocent XII, and it's here where Browning finally really tips his hand. The subject of The Ring &cet is not the crime story, but rather it's the relationship of man to God, of how one chooses to live in the world. The Pope has judged against Guido, and will not overturn the court's death sentence. Why? Because Guido should've known better--no, did know better--than to place his greed and pride above the commandments of Christ:
Wherein I see a trial fair and fit
For one else too unfairly fenced about,
Set above sin, beyond his fellows here,
Guarded from the arch-tempter, all must fight,
By a great birth, traditionary name,
Diligent culture, choice companionship,
Above all, conversancy with the faith
Which puts forth for its base of doctrine just
"Man is born nowise to content himself
But please God." He accepted such a rule,
Recognised man’s obedience;
Guido is only able to appeal his case to the Pope because Guido has taken a few vows--he's a member of a minor religious order, a lay minister of a sort. The irony is that Guido is appealing to a man who sees through the hypocrisy of Guido's sham religious leanings, a Pope who condemns Guido for being a hypocrite:
Professed so much of priesthood as might sue
For priest’s-exemption where the layman sinned —
Got his arm frocked which, bare, the law would bruise.
Hence, at this moment, what’s his last resource,
His extreme stray and utmost stretch of hope
But that — convicted of such crime as law
Wipes not away save with a worldling’s blood —
Guido, the three-parts consecrate, may ’scape?
This is the man proves irreligiousest
Of all mankind, religion’s parasite!
This may forsooth plead dinned ear, jaded sense,
The vice o’ the watcher who bides near the bell,
Sleeps sound because the clock is vigilant,
And cares not whether it be shade or shine,
Doling out day and night to all men else!
Why was the choice o’ the man to niche himself
Perversely ’neath the tower where Time’s own tongue
Thus undertakes to sermonise the world?
Why, but because the solemn is safe too
Pope Innocent XII is an old man, 86 years, and he is tired. He doesn't look forward to writing the note that will affirm Guido's execution, but he knows he will do it. He puts off writing this little sentence, tells himself that he knows he might be mistaking the character of Guido but he's only got as much sense as God has given him and he's using that sense as well as he can and what else can he do? He thinks about sin, and goodness, and good Pompilia who was murdered by prideful, greedy Guido and the Pope transforms the dishonest, legalistic briefs of the lawyers into some kind of truth about real humans. He brings Guido and Pompilia back to life for the reader of the poem, working the same sort of magic Browning himself works for us. This might be my last post about The Ring and the Book. You'll be glad to hear that.

Monday, October 13, 2014

a shilling's worth

Cheap Art Is Bad Art

I am sorry to say, the great tendency of this age is to expend its genius in perishable art of this kind, as if it were a triumph to burn its thoughts away in bonfires. There is a vast quantity of intellect and of labour consumed annually in our cheap illustrated publications; you triumph in them; and you think it is so grand a thing to get so many woodcuts for a penny. Why, woodcuts, penny and all, are as much lost to you as if you had invested your money in gossamer. More lost, for the gossamer could only tickle your face, and glitter in your eyes; it could not catch your feet and trip you up: but the bad art can, and does; for you can't like good woodcuts as long as you look at the bad ones. If we were at this moment to come across a Titian woodcut, or a Durer woodcut, we should not like it—those of us at least who are accustomed to the cheap work of the day. We don't like, and can't like, that long; but when we are tired of one bad cheap thing, we throw it aside and buy another bad cheap thing; and, so keep looking at bad things all our lives. Now, the very men who do all that quick bad work for us are capable of doing perfect work. Only, perfect work can't be hurried, and therefore it can't be cheap beyond a certain point. But suppose you pay twelve times as much as you do now, and you have one woodcut for a shilling instead of twelve; and the one woodcut for a shilling is as good as art can be, so that you will never tire of looking at it; and is struck on good paper with good ink, so that you will never wear it out by handling it; while you are sick of your penny-each cuts by the end of the week, and have torn them mostly in half too. Isn't your shilling's worth the best bargain?
--John Ruskin, The Political Economy of Art, 1857

Friday, October 10, 2014

"One might wait years and never find the chance which now finds me!" Browning, at work and play

Where am I in The Ring and the Book? I'm in Book IX, I see, which means that I've finished Book VIII, the tale of Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis, the "protector of the poor," the lawyer Guido Franceschini has hired to defend him against multiple murder charges. Hyacinth is spending the day writing up his initial notes for the brief he'll submit to the court, lining up his arguments, marshalling some pithy and poetical Latin phrases. He tries to focus on the job at hand, which is a difficult task because it is the eighth birthday of his son, a boy the lawyer dotes upon, and all sorts of festivities and foodstuffs are planned for the evening. But Hyacinth is glad to have this case
Now, how good God is! How falls plumb to point
This murder, gives me Guido to defend
Now, of all days i’ the year, just when the boy
Verges on Virgil, reaches the right age
For some such illustration from his sire,
Stimulus to himself! One might wait years
And never find the chance which now finds me!
The fact is, there’s a blessing on the hearth,
A special providence for fatherhood!
Here's the opportunity to shine, to show his son How It's Done, a chance to face off against Johannes-Baptista Bottinius, the advocate for the prosecution and Dom Hyacinth's adversary. Hyacinth has a low opinion of Bottinius and Guido's case is a public stage whereon Hyacinth can show his brilliance at law and rhetoric, outfoxing and outarguing Bottinius, who will of course look a real fool when Hyacinth is done with him. Oh, what larks for our Protector of the Poor! Does it matter that Guido is guilty as charged? No, it does not, because Hyacinth will argue for an acquittal despite all the facts of the case. He plans to be brilliant and witty and dazzling and thus win the field. That Guido has actually admitted to hiring four armed thugs and with them butchering his estranged wife (and her adopted parents into the bargain) is beside the point. Dom Hyacinth will walk the court through the morality of the case, and show them their obligation to set the perpetrators free. This case can all be assembled in an afternoon, and then there will be birthday cake and roast porcupine and games for the children. This victory, in fact, will be dedicated to Hyacinth's son. So there, old Bottinius!
I defend Guido and his comrades — I!
Pray God, I keep me humble: not to me —
Non nobis, Domine, sed tibi laus!
How the fop chuckled when they made him Fisc!
We’ll beat you, my Bottinius, all for love,
All for our tribute to Cinotto’s day!
The heart of Hyacinth's defense is a complicated argument that says, essentially, that because Christ forbids the stoning of adulterous wives, and because Canon law forbids the divorcing of adulterous wives, and because Roman civil law forbids the slaying of adulterous wives, there is no legal recourse for poor Count Guido, an otherwise upstanding citizen who believes his wife has had an adulterous affair with a handsome young priest (and it doesn't matter if this belief is untrue, because Guido acted on his beliefs, as do we all and what choice have we?). The law leaves Guido no way to defend his honor! What's a dishonored nobleman to do? Friends, Romans, countrymen, et alia, there was nothing for it but for Guido to step beyond the bounds of the law, to do the work of the law in preserving civil order, to execute the bawd and her lying parents since nobody else was going to do it. Yes, gentlemen, Guido was forced to take this drastic step; you can't really blame him.
Why cite more? Enough
Is good as a feast —(unless a birthday-feast
For one’s Cinuccio: so, we’ll finish here)
My lords, we rather need defend ourselves
Inasmuch as for a twinkling of an eye
We hesitatingly appealed to law —
Rather than deny that, on mature advice,
We blushingly bethought us, bade revenge
Back to the simple proper private way
Of decent self-dealt gentlemanly death.
Judges, there is the law, and this beside,
The testimony! Look to it!
Hyacinth spends some time working out the best poetic language in which to couch his argument, which is important here because one of the three judges bases his decisions more upon the beauty of the language than on the facts of the case, but the law must be actually addressed because a second judge cares nothing for the prose style and everything for the form of the law if not the spirit of it. So Hyacinth must think this all through. "Virgil is little help to who writes prose." Cicero, though, is a great aid, we learn.

We also learn more facts about the case. Guido, it turns out, had a loaded pistol with him when he followed Pompilia's flight away from his castle. Malice aforethought. And those four henchmen, to whom Guido had promised payment in gold once the deed was done? They were, at the time of their arrest, planning the murder of Guido himself, Guido who it turns out had decided not to pay them after all. You might say that Guido is a dishonest old dog, but Dom Hyacinth will argue the opposite:
What fact could hope to make more manifest
Their rectitude, Guido’s integrity?
He, dreaming of no argument for death
Except the vengeance worthy noble hearts,
Would be to desecrate the deed forsooth,
Vulgarise vengeance, as defray its cost
By money dug out of the dirty earth,
Mere irritant, in Maro’s phrase, to ill?
What though he lured base hinds by lucre’s hope —
The only motive they could masticate,
Milk for babes, not stong meat which men require?
The deed done, those coarse hands were soiled enough,
He spared them the pollution of the pay.
Oh, wise Guido, to keep his henchmen so morally upright! All of this sideways logic is part of Hyacinth's overall tactic, "You perceive, the cards are all against us. Make a push, kick over table, as our gamesters do!" Hyacinth keeps kicking over the table, keeps claiming that the game is different from the one the court thought it was playing, and that the pieces were not set up on the board the way we supposed they were. He can't argue the law, or the evidence, but Dom Hyacinth can certainly argue. And he does. Great, great fun. The bit where he claims that Pompilia is dead because the Court didn't lock her up to protect her from her vengeful husband, that's good stuff.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

$410.63 as of June 30 2014

Writing fiction is the road to riches, kids.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

so many names for one poor child: more from The Ring and the Book

Even though the "testimony" of the three principal characters in The Ring and the Book is addressed directly to three judges, and even though these judges do not get to speak in the book, the reader is not put in the place of those judges and given the task of evaluating the testimony and deciding what is true. Browning takes it as given that the court eventually made the correct move, condemning Guido and his henchmen to death for the violent murder of Pompilia and her parents. A search for truth, or even a realization on the part of the reader that truth might be provisional, is a newfangled moral relativistic idea that is not part of Browning's project. What I think Browning is doing is giving life to his characters--the same thing he does in his other "ventriloqism" poems. Browning actually does more than bring life to these historical figures: he makes them individuals, with distinct voices; they are not puppets of the poet, mouthing mere ideas. That individual life, that unique soul walking the stage once again, is Browning's art. He says so, there in Book I. He might say it again in Book XII, but I've only skimmed a couple of passages of that and I must wait impatiently for my slowly reading self to make my way to the end of the book.

Today, though, I can see how Browning's characters are unique, alive, full of spirit. Here are the three principals, in order of appearance:

Count Guido Franceschini:
Softly, Sirs!
Will the Court of its charity teach poor me
Anxious to learn, of any way i’ the world,
Allowed by custom and convenience, save
This same which, taught from my youth up, I trod?
Take me along with you; where was the wrong step?
If what I gave in barter, style and state
And all that hangs to Franceschinihood,
Were worthless — why, society goes to ground,
Its rules are idiot’s-rambling. Honour of birth —
If that thing has no value, cannot buy
Something with value of another sort,
You’ve no reward nor punishment to give
I’ the giving or the taking honour; straight
Your social fabric, pinnacle to base,
Comes down a-clatter like a house of cards.
Guido maintains that tone throughout his speech, the tone of a nobleman done wrong, or at least misunderstood, a defense of his pride, his pride being a defense of his actions. If nobility--which is what he shares with the three men who sit as his judges--means nothing, if upholding the meaning of "nobility" means nothing, if nobles can be hoodwinked by the vulgar, then civilization must fall. Guido's argument is that to convict him is to bring ruin to the world itself. Guido imagines that the world is a mere reflection of Guido. Pride is the first sin, you know. Today is the feast day of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, the "Little Flower." Guido would've hated Thérèse.

Giuseppe Caponsacchi:
How shall holiest flesh
Engage to keep such vow inviolate,
How much less mine — I know myself too weak,
Unworthy! Choose a worthier stronger man!
Thus exclaimed Giuseppe before he took his priestly vows, because he knew himself to be a weak man, a nobleman also, a pampered son of pampered sons, not a man with a holy calling. He was advised not to worry, to put on cassock and collar and spend his days writing sonnets and entertaining wealthy noblewomen, enjoying the easy life and acting the public image of the church. Giuseppe lived this life, flirting and courting and dressing like a man of God, leading a harmless and empty existence. Then he met Pompilia, who he did not seduce; the holiness and purity of Pompilia seduced the priest, or rather touched his inner (dormant) sense of the holy, and Giuseppe loved her as a saint, as an angel, not as a woman. That is why he helped to free her from captivity in Guido's house. "In rushed new things, the old were rapt away; Alike abolished — the imprisonment Of the outside air, the inside weight o’ the world That pulled me down."
I am a priest
Duty to God is duty to her: I think
God, who created her, will save her too
I stand here guiltless in thought, word and deed,
To the point that I apprise you — in contempt
For all misapprehending ignorance
O’ the human heart, much more the mind of Christ —
That I assuredly did bow, was blessed
By the revelation of Pompilia. There!
Such is the final fact I fling you, Sirs,
To mouth and mumble and misinterpret: there!
"The priest’s in love," have it the vulgar way!
Unpriest me, rend the rags o’ the vestment, do —
Degrade deep, disenfranchise all you dare —
Remove me from the midst, no longer priest
And fit companion for the like of you —
For Pompilia — be advised,
Build churches, go pray! You will find me there,
I know, if you come — and you will come, I know.
Why, there’s a Judge weeping! Did not I say
You were good and true at bottom? You see the truth —
I am glad I helped you: she helped me just so.
Love, yes. Love of goodness, of innocence. Giuseppe will take whatever punishment is handed him, for God will judge him better than man, so be it, etc.

Pompilia Comparini:
I am just seventeen years and five months old,
And, if I lived one day more, three full weeks;
’Tis writ so in the church’s register,
Lorenzo in Lucina, all my names
At length, so many names for one poor child,
— Francesca Camilla Vittoria Angela
Pompilia Comparini — laughable!
Also ’tis writ that I was married there
Four years ago; and they will add, I hope,
When they insert my death, a word or two —
Omitting all about the mode of death —
This, in its place, this which one cares to know,
That I had been a mother of a son
Exactly two weeks.
She is simple, plainspoken, humble and honest. Browning would have us see in her a Christ figure, or at least a wounded saint, slandered and murdered but free of hate, bewildered at the violent mess life has become around her. We are, I think, intended to share Giuseppe's worshipful love of Pompilia, and perhaps Browning used these last two characters to show--indirectly--his love of Elizabeth, whose death left him, like Pompilia's priest, daily "awakening to the old solitary nothingness" in the absence of his beloved (he outlived her by 28 years). Maybe, and also beside the point of this rambling post.

I am not doing a good job showing how Guido, Giuseppe and Pompilia each breathes a different air, as it were. I keep getting distracted by the drama of the story, and by poetic turns of phrase. But these characters are distinct, remarkable, living beings. Honest.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

D. G. Myers

When Myers asked me last April when I was going to send him a review copy of The Astrologer, I felt like a real novelist for the first time. The Astrologer must be the worst novel Myers has ever recommended to people, but I will be forever struck by the interest he showed in new authors, and in books nobody had heard of. No one will be surprised when I say that I met him first through an online disagreement. Myers was a strong personality and he'd argue with anyone if he thought the topic important enough. So my first exposure to him was through internet scraps, scraps which for me quickly became exercises in overcoming fear; during any exchange with him, I was aware that Myers was the adult in the room and I should think carefully before I typed, even when I was calling him wrong-headed. "Respect me enough to argue with me," he said (or something very like that) on Twitter. Myers respected others enough to argue with them; if he addressed you, he thought you were smart enough to evaluate the opinions being batted around, yours and his both. I'm another one of those folks who knew Myers primarily through his blog, and while his taste in fiction did not greatly overlap mine, I find that his opinions on the cultural and personal worth of fiction and the duty of writers to "write well" (by which he meant to write with absolute honesty) have changed me, hopefully into a better reader and writer. His life touched mine but briefly, mine his but barely. And yet. Go with God, David Myers.

Monday, September 29, 2014

"that by merely writing you down, you would obtain some sort of independent life"

I first saw her—is this the way to go on? She had a large bouquet of white and yellow flowers in her arms. A flower begins to die immediately upon being cut away from its roots and usually a bouquet of daffodils or roses reminds me of some kind of portable mortuary, a colorful bundle of corpses bound for the temporary crypt of a vase and then, eventually, the rubbish heap. There is nothing romantic in flowers, which are the sexual organs of plants and therefore a species of public obscenity. She had a large bouquet of fresh spring flowers in her arms, and though she moved quite assertively through the crowd, she protected the flowers as if she carried a fragile newborn child.

Many pedestrians on the Charles Bridge carry bouquets of flowers, especially this time of year when women yearn to bring color and life into houses and apartments which have lain cold and dark all winter long. Florists do a brisk business in the spring; that is easily proved. Why it is that I took notice of this particular woman is unclear.

Perhaps—no, I am only attempting to tell the lies a writer tells in order to appear clever. She is beautiful and wore a yellow coat, which caught my eye before the flowers, which seemed at first to be an extension of her coat, or she—her whole body—an extension of the flowers. We begin to die immediately upon being cut free of our mothers. A body is a kind of portable mortuary, bound for crypts called school, university, the office, marriage, death. These are not original observations, and I make them only in retrospect. For the past three weeks I was not thinking of mortuaries or how a fragile newborn child eventually finds his way to the rubbish heap. The sunlight was thick and glowed heavily on her yellow coat and her armload of fresh spring flowers. There must have been fifty feet of bridge span and three hundred people between us, but my eye somehow picked her from the crowd. Her hat was dark gray and the brim was turned up over her left ear. She had jet black hair, glossy and falling to her shoulders. It interests me that I saw how beautiful she was even at that distance among so many other strangers, since her features could not have been clear to me, and the sun shone down hard, the brilliance distorting and blurring the world. Nonetheless she is a beautiful woman, which I confirmed later. She was weaving her way east through the midday throng, going in the same direction I was, and so without any evil purpose I was entitled to follow her across the bridge, past one after another of the famous bronze monsters our Christian masters have erected over the Moldau. She did not look up at the statues, her attention given entirely over to the protection of her flowers. Her left ear, when I was close to her, looked like a soft pink blossom, a tulip perhaps but my knowledge of flowers is quite limited. The delicate petals of her ear beckoned to me and I trailed in her wake, paying little mind to the passersby.
from "Antosha in Prague," a story from a book in progress

Friday, September 26, 2014

"Da reisst dem Hans die Geduld" (oder) Deutsch Literatur Monat im Internet!

November, I see, is going to be German literature month in some corners of the internet. What larks! What will I read? I have no idea! I'm already reading a bunch of Grimm's "household tales," both auf Englisch and in the original Deutsch. By November, I might be in the thick of Helles und Dunkles, a collection of short stories published by Ginn & Co. in 1948 that includes some Stefan Zweig. Again, all in the original Deutsch, in dark Gothic script, with a handy lexikon at the back. What else, though? Will I read Joseph Roth? Will I revisit the "Danzig trilogy?" I can't say. But something, surely.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

That old Romantic poetry trope

Sometimes, but not too often, I read literary criticism related to texts I'm actually reading. For example, I'm reading Robert Browning's epic poem thing The Ring and the Book, and I have trolled around JSTOR to find Truth and "The Ring and the Book:" A Negative View by L. J. Swingle, in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 6, No. 3/4, An Issue Commemorative of the Centennial of the Publication of "The Ring and the Book" (Autumn-Winter, 1968), pp. 259-269.

It's an interesting set of claims about Browning's poem, is this article. I don't know who L. J. Swingle is/was, aside from someone with a lot of Romantic poetry criticism publication credits, and I think a faculty appointment (at least at one time) at the University of Kentucky. Credentials aside, Swingle seems to have made a pretty intelligent reading of The Ring and the Book and makes a pretty good case that Browning's aims in the poem were not epistemological, but were rather ontological. That is, Ring is not (contrary to the great bulk of 20th-century interpretation of the poem) about how truth is subjective, but it is instead about how existence is fleeting and the great strength of art is the ability to bring back to life persons and events that have passed into the shadow world of things forgotten. I accidentally quoted Browning saying that very thing in a prior post about the poem. So being rather than truth is Browning's concern here. The quality of having been real is what matters about his characters, not what they might try to convince us of. Browning has already told us, in Book I, what is true, who is lying and who is not. There is no question of the truth--objective truth it is, too--for the author of the poem. There is no question to be answered at all. Browning is bringing people to life, showing us how life passes and is forgotten, and reminding us that we too, etc. That old Romantic poetry trope, you see?

Do I quote more of the poem to illustrate Swingle's claims, or do I just let you find the article on your own, you imaginary persons who are interested in this argument? Well, I'll just hit "publish" and move on.