Thursday, December 29, 2016

builds strong bones and teeth

While reading a book of Dylan Thomas' letters, I came across one from 1951 or so, written to Marguerite Caetani, publisher of the Italian literary journal Bottega Oscura. Thomas is, as usual, begging for money, offering Caetani the first rights to a "play for voices" called, provisionally, "Llareggub", which is obviously a fake Welsh place name and also "bugger all" spelled backwards. Thomas offered the as-yet-incomplete play to Caetani for £100. I'm not sure he got the money, and I am sure the play actually went to the BBC rather than to Italy. That is not the point. The point is that Thomas describes the play to Caetani in a long breathless and inspired paragraph, clearly in love with the idea and possibly making some of it up in the heat of the moment. The description of the play in Thomas' begging letter made me want to not only read Llareggub, but to write my own version of it. Yes, I said, that's a grand idea, a sort of "Our Town" influenced by Proust's ideas of memory and Joyce's ideas of character and language and the further influence of whatever American writers have seeped into my bones, with no doubt a larding of Shakespeare for good measure. I feel that I could do something with those ideas, that there are many possibilities to be discovered within the work. By now I've read the first part of "Under Milk Wood" (the name Thomas eventually settled on for the play) and it seems pretty terrific. I see that a couple of films have been made of it. I am particularly interested in the first version, with Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor. Why would I not be? I digress.

Anyway, this is an attractive idea despite the fact that it's highly unoriginal of me. I would of course not write a play; the novel seems to be the form that's chosen me. And I've sworn off writing novels after I complete the current work in progress. And yet. It is an attractive idea that looks interesting in all the right ways. I know a small town on the Colorado plains that I could take as a model. Of course "Under Milk Wood" is quite well known (there's a statue of Captain Cat in Swansea) and I'm like a man in a rowboat washing ashore on Coney Island and thinking he's discovered the New World, despite the millions of people already living in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Books read, etc., 2016 edition

No messing around in 2016; here's the list:

Stendahl The Red and the Black
Robert F. Scott Antarctic Diary
Michael Smith Tom Crean: Unsung Hero
Eliot Bliss Saraband
Anton Chekhov The Bishop and Other Stories
Arthur Conan Doyle His Last Bow
JRR Tolkien "Leaf By Niggle"
JRR Tolkien "Farmer Giles of Ham"
William Shakespeare "Troilus and Cressida"
Gertrude Stein Paris France
Kaethe Recheis Lena: Unser Dorf in der Krieg
Ursula K. Le Guin A Wizard of Earthsea
Ursula K. Le Guin The Tombs of Atuan
Ursula K. Le Guin The Farthest Shore
E. B. White Here is New York
Max Frisch Homo faber: ein Bericht
Juan Rulfo Pedro Páramo
Anton Chekhov The Party and Other Stories
Francis Beaumont "The Knight of the Burning Pestle"
Magda Szabó The Door
Anton Chekhov The Story of a Nobody
Richard Henry Dana Two Years Before the Mast
Robert Louis Stevenson Treasure Island
George Orwell Down and Out in Paris and London
H.W. Tilman Mischief Goes South
Thomas More Utopia
Abraham Lincoln Selected Speeches and Writings
Anton Chekhov "Three Years"
H.W. Tilman Mischief in Patagonia
Ernest G. Draper Lectures in Navigation
Agatha Christie Cat Among the Pigeons
William Faulkner Selected Short Stories
Kino: The Poetry of Nikola Vaptsarov
Gertrude Stein The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Frank Kermode The Classic
Georgi Gospodinov The Physics of Sorrow
Roland Barthes Mythologies
Anton Chekhov Selected Stories (P&V, trans.)
Arthur Rimbaud A Season in Hell
Leopoldo Alas La Regenta
Anton Chekhov The Prank
Nathanael West Miss Lonelyhearts
Apsley Cherry-Garrard The Worst Journey in the World
T.H. White The Once and Future King
John Williams Stoner
Sigmund Freud Civilization and its Discontents
Isak Dinesen Seven Gothic Tales
Marcel Proust Swann's Way
Beowulf (Burton Raffel, trans.)
Charlotte Smith Elegiac Sonnets and Other Poems
John Ruskin The Crown of Wild Olive
Charlotte Smith "The Emigrants"
Georgi Gospodinov Kleines morgendliches Verbrechen
Georges Bataille The Blue of Noon
Charlotte Smith Beachy Head & other poems
Marcel Proust Within a Budding Grove
Simon McCartney The Bond
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Chase, Nickerson, et al. The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale
Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas "Under Milk Wood"

No rhyme or reason to my reading this year, though there was a lot of interest in Antarctica and sailing ships. And in long books: I am currently 2 1/2 volumes into Marcel Proust's Remembrances of Times Past or whatever you wish to call it, and by now it feels less like reading a novel than like meeting an acquaintance for lunch almost every day to hear him reminisce about his life. Which is a fine thing. It continues to be a good book, each volume better than the last.

I didn't read nearly as much poetry or Shakespeare as I wanted to this year, and I find myself re-reading more these days, making less room for things as-yet unread. I have observed that this is a natural pattern in aging readers, so I think I'm on schedule. The half-remembered classics of my youth have been getting my attention, which explains Beowulf and The Once and Future King. Next year I might read Mallory and The Long Ships, both new to me but logical steps from the immediately-aforementioned books. Perhaps next year I'll stop using so many hyphenated words, too.

I'm not sure if I'll continue reading the letters of dead writers. The Dylan Thomas book I've about finished is quite frustrating: one wants to reach back in time and give the little Welsh brat a good wallop.

More successful, for me as a reader, was the collection of speeches and letters from Abraham Lincoln. I picked it up in March, I believe, at the gift shop inside the Lincoln Memorial. Certainly I have my opinions about some of the possibly unconstitutional actions of Lincoln during his administration, but I feel much more kindly toward old Abraham than I used to do. Him being a yankee and all. Eye-opening, funny, moving, etc. Way better than what I imagine Eat, Pray, Love to be like.

Also in nonfiction, I enjoyed Simon McCartney's The Bond. It is the memoir of a retired elite mountain climber who valued friendship over personal glory. You don't find much of that in the sporting world, so this story is a refreshing change of tone. The book won the 2016 Jon Whyte Award at the Banff Mountain Book Competition, and also the 2016 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. If you want, you can read my short review of it here. I'm all about human decency in late 2016.

Speaking of which, I report that as I sit typing this post, I have not quite finished drafting the novel I began this year, a thing called Nowhere But North that's part creation myth, part Henry James romance, and part Melville. Possibly the only novel I have written that I will claim is an actual work of art. Clearly unpublishable, but hopefully in early 2017 I'll finish the first draft and then set the book aside while I revise the novel I wrote last year (was it last year?), a Bildungsroman in stories, letters, and a stageplay, called Antosha! I hope to flog that novel to agents and publishers sometime in mid-2017. Fingers crossed, etc. Antosha! might be less unpublishable than other books of mine.

This year I shopped around a novel called Mona in the Desert, a beautiful novel about family, divorce, memory, and literary criticism. It's still with a couple of small presses for consideration, so we'll see. In a world where carpenters get resurrected, etc. I also sent out an older novel, Go Home, Miss America, to a few select publishers. At least one of them is actually reading the MS, so who can say what will happen?

For no real reason I mention that I'm working on Vittorio Monti's little salon piece Csardas, an exciting bit of fluff that is nowhere as difficult as it looks, and Wolfgang Mozart's lovely violin concerto in G major, which is much more difficult than it looks, like every bit of Mozart's music. The violin is a very satisfying hobby; every technical solution is also an artistic solution, much the way it is with writing fiction.

Next year: Shakespeare's "history" plays! More poetry! More German-language fiction! More Chekhov again! More obscure 20th-century English women! More Proust! More Euripides! No Antarctic nonfiction! No age-of-sail books! More Bulgakov! Dumas! Woolf! Hugo! Murdoch! Goethe! Boll! et innumerabilis alios!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

in a single room, in three acts without denouement

I have noticed lately that the novels I write generally involve travel, and a great deal of it. I seem to somehow have gotten stuck in the habit of writing literal journeys:
  • The Jack of Hearts Remembers Me is a classic American road trip taken by a pair of evangelists (one of whom is mad, and the other might be imaginary).
  • The Astrologer is a voyage-within-a-voyage, as plucky Soren Andersmann sails off to the island of Hven during a royal trip to Kronberg castle in Elsinore.
  • Cocke & Bull's protagonists flee from Joppa, Maryland to the Great Dismal Swamp in the Carolinas, trekking through the Cumberland along the way. And then back to Joppa.
  • The Transcendental Detective is an episode during Patience Quince's peregrinations in America while avoiding her lover, whom Patience has left behind in Algiers.
  • Go Home, Miss America involves travel from Seattle, Washington to the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is also a lot of movement within Seattle, much wandering around the city.
  • The Hanging Man is yet another episode of Patience Quince in America, this time a side quest while her train is delayed by dust storms in Kansas. There's some good stuff about trains, and a lot of walking around. Also someone is pursued by a bear, as the bear is itself pursued.
  • Mona in the Desert tells of two parallel pilgrimages to Albuquerque, New Mexico: one in 1950, the other sometime vaguely in the 1990s.
  • Antosha! drags its characters all over Mother Russia and then to Italy, Switzerland, Bohemia, and America.
  • Nowhere But North is a long voyage from Manhattan to the South Pole. A wide variety of vehicles are involved.
I'm not sure what this says about me, but one thing I do not do is write stories of people sitting quietly while they muse about life or whatever. I seem to create odysseys, or at least the sort of noisy ramshackle flying about that one finds in Dostoyevsky.

Certainly the voyage, the hero's journey thing, is a useful framework (thematically/metaphorically and narrative-structure-wise) for a large scale work of fiction, and certainly the idea of motion is natural enough to this writer, who has had uncountable addresses over the decades. Still, I find it curious and possibly alarming (and no doubt very telling to someone--not me--with the appropriate amount of critical distance) that there is so much moving around in everything I write. I just thought of the two most recent short stories I wrote, and both of them involve a character walking along a city street having strange encounters.

Perhaps this is all because I have a fantasy of home being a place where nothing happens, where there are no adventures, where all is stable and at peace. My characters are none of them at home because they are none of them at peace, so I cannot allow them to remain at rest. Home is not an option for my poor protagonists, or at best it is very remote. Perhaps I have a secret wish to be one of the stodgier residents of Hobbiton.

I've just remembered that this is the sort of cursory analysis of my writing that I do when I'm wrapping up a first draft. I am, you see, close to the end of the first draft of my Antarctica novel, and as usual I'm wondering what I think I'm doing, writing all of these novels, wondering again if I keep writing the same story again and again, dressing up the same small set of characters in different costumes and sending them off on the same journey but having repainted the canvas backdrops and shuffled the props. Maybe. I don't know. I would like my next novel, should there be one, to be the tale of someone or someones who manifestly refuse to leave home. Like a Beckett story, maybe, all taking place in a single room.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Three Things/Free Things

First: I am always gladdened when Dr Miriam Burstein mentions my novel The Astrologer on her blog. My gratitude to Dr Burstein for teaching my book is eternal. Her year in books post today lists The Astrologer as "Novel with which my students had the most fun." Fun, you see? Fun. Color me pleased, and go read the post because the whole list is entertaining and informative.

Second: Speaking of fun novels, I have decided to give away digital copies of a book I wrote a few years ago, called The Transcendental Detective. It features an eccentric detective in the grand tradition of eccentric detectives, with the difference that Patience Quince scoffs at the idea of evidence. As I've said here before, The Transcendental Detective is not really a detective story so much as it's a collection of Chekhovian character sketches through which a tipsy police officer wanders in search of a murderer. Click the appropriate blue link above (you can find it, I know you can) and download a PDF. It is free because I love you, whoever you are.

Third: Just at lunch today, I finished the first draft of the third long section of the current novel-in-progress Nowhere But North. I've so far written about 90,000 words of this book, and I have another 5-10K words to go, introductory and connective scenes that tie the big sections together. Hopefully I'll be done with that business by the end of the year. I offer no links nor free anything related to this third item.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Marcel's swimming trunks I was coming by myself past the Casino on my way back to the hotel, I had the sensation of being watched by somebody who was not far off. I turned my head and saw a man of about forty, very tall and rather stout, with a very dark moustache, who, nervously slapping the leg of his trousers with a switch, kept fastened upon me a pair of eyes dilated with observation. Every now and then those eyes were shot through by a look of intense activity such as the sight of a person whom they do not know excites only in men to whom, for whatever reason, it suggests thoughts that would not occur to anyone else—madmen, for instance, or spies. He trained upon me a supreme stare at once bold, prudent, rapid and profound, like a last shot which one fires at an enemy at the moment when one turns to flee, and, after first looking all round him, suddenly adopting an absent and lofty air, by an abrupt revolution of his whole body turned to examine a playbill on the wall in the reading of which he became absorbed, while he hummed a tune and fingered the moss-rose in his buttonhole. He drew from his pocket a note-book in which he appeared to be taking down the title of the performance that was announced, looked two or three times at his watch, pulled down over his eyes a black straw hat the brim of which he extended with his hand held out over it like a visor, as though to see whether some one were at last coming, made the perfunctory gesture of annoyance by which people mean to shew that they have waited long enough, although they never make it when they are really waiting, then pushing back his hat and exposing a scalp cropped close except at the sides where he allowed a pair of waved 'pigeon's-wings' to grow quite long, he emitted the loud panting breath that people give who are not feeling too hot but would like it to be thought that they were. He gave me the impression of a 'hotel crook' who had been watching my grandmother and myself for some days, and while he was planning to rob us had just discovered that I had surprised him in the act of spying; to put me off the scent, perhaps he was seeking only, by his new attitude, to express boredom and detachment, but it was with an exaggeration so aggressive that his object appeared to be—at least as much as the dissipating of the suspicions that I must have had of him—to avenge a humiliation which quite unconsciously I must have inflicted on him, to give me the idea not so much that he had not seen me as that I was an object of too little importance to attract his attention. He threw back his shoulders with an air of bravado, bit his lips, pushed up his moustache, and in the lens of his eyes made an adjustment of something that was indifferent, harsh, almost insulting. So effectively that the singularity of his expression made me take him at one moment for a thief and at another for a lunatic.
This is our first glimpse of the Baron de Charlus, in a marvelous kinetic, comic description. De Charlus is uncomfortable being observed observing. The feeling young Marcel has that de Charlus is a lunatic is reinforced by subsequent events:
I lingered a few moments still, then went upstairs, and was greatly surprised when, a little later, having heard a knock at my bedroom door and asked who was there, I heard the voice of M. de Charlus saying dryly:

"It is Charlus. May I come in, sir? Sir," he began again in the same tone as soon as he had shut the door, "my nephew was saying just now that you were apt to be worried at night before going to sleep, and also that you were an admirer of Bergotte's books. As I had one here in my luggage which you probably do not know, I have brought it to help you to while away these moments in which you are not comfortable."

I thanked M. de Charlus with some warmth and told him that, on the contrary, I had been afraid that what Saint-Loup had said to him about my discomfort when night came would have made me appear in his eyes more stupid even than I was.

"No; why?" he answered, in a gentler voice. "You have not, perhaps, any personal merit; so few of us have! But for a time at least you have youth, and that is always a charm. Besides, sir, the greatest folly of all is to laugh at or to condemn in others what one does not happen oneself to feel. I love the night, and you tell me that you are afraid of it. I love the scent of roses, and I have a friend whom it throws into a fever. Do you suppose that I think, for that reason, that he is inferior to me? I try to understand everything and I take care to condemn nothing. After all, you must not be too sorry for yourself; I do not say that these moods of depression are not painful, I know that one can be made to suffer by things which the world would not understand. But at least you have placed your affection wisely, in your grandmother. You see a great deal of her. And besides, that is a legitimate affection, I mean one that is repaid. There are so many of which one cannot say that."

He began walking up and down the room, looking at one thing, taking up another. I had the impression that he had something to tell me, and could not find the right words to express it.

"I have another volume of Bergotte here; I will fetch it for you," he went on, and rang the bell. Presently a page came. "Go and find me your head waiter. He is the only person here who is capable of obeying an order intelligently," said M. de Charlus stiffly. "Monsieur Aimé, sir?" asked the page. "I cannot tell you his name; yes, I remember now, I did hear him called Aimé. Run along, I am in a hurry." "He won't be a minute, sir, I saw him downstairs just now," said the page, anxious to appear efficient. There was an interval of silence. The page returned. "Sir, M. Aimé has gone to bed. But I can take your message." "No, you have only to get him out of bed." "But I can't do that, sir; he doesn't sleep here." "Then you can leave us alone." "But, sir," I said when the page had gone, "you are too kind; one volume of Bergotte will be quite enough." "That is just what I was thinking." M. de Charlus walked up and down the room. Several minutes passed in this way, then after a prolonged hesitation, and several false starts, he swung sharply round and, his voice once more stinging, flung at me: "Good night, sir!" and left the room. After all the lofty sentiments which I had heard him express that evening, next day, which was the day of his departure, on the beach, before noon, when I was on my way down to bathe, and M. de Charlus had come across to tell me that my grandmother was waiting for me to join her as soon as I left the water, I was greatly surprised to hear him say, pinching my neck as he spoke, with a familiarity and a laugh that were frankly vulgar:

"But he doesn't give a damn for his old grandmother, does he, eh? Little rascal!"

"What, sir! I adore her!"

"Sir," he said, stepping back a pace, and with a glacial air, "you are still young; you should profit by your youth to learn two things; first, to refrain from expressing sentiments that are too natural not to be taken for granted; and secondly not to dash into speech to reply to things that are said to you before you have penetrated their meaning. If you had taken this precaution a moment ago you would have saved yourself the appearance of speaking at cross-purposes like a deaf man, thereby adding a second absurdity to that of having anchors embroidered on your bathing-dress. I have lent you a book by Bergotte which I require. See that it is brought to me within the next hour by that head waiter with the silly and inappropriate name, who, I suppose, is not in bed at this time of day. You make me see that I was premature in speaking to you last night of the charms of youth; I should have done you a better service had I pointed out to you its thoughtlessness, its inconsequence, and its want of comprehension. I hope, sir, that this little douche will be no less salutary to you than your bathe. But don't let me keep you standing: you may catch cold. Good day, sir."
I love that whole passage, and the entire long episode of de Charlus at Balbec. It's not merely de Charlus' queeny misogynist homosexuality that made me think immediately of Charles Kinbote, it's also--maybe especially--the over the top theatricality of de Charlus' lunacy, his easily-wounded pride and lashing out. I do not think I am wrong in claiming that Nabokov was influenced by this character of Proust's.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Nothing to see

On Friday afternoon I was walking down the hill from the dry cleaner, thinking as one does about Aquinas and his five arguments for the existence of God. Naturally enough I rolled around the idea of first cause, which led to thinking about the originating moment of existence, which in turn led to an attempt to imagine the moment before the Creation. At that point, dear reader, my eyes crossed and my head began to swim because I found it impossible and greatly disorienting to try imagining nothingness, the complete absence of the natural universe. It felt like a very lonely place, because in order to imagine Nothing, I had to also imagine myself attempting to observe this Nothing, so there we were: Nothing and me. Which is not, of course, Nothing, because in Nothing there is neither observer nor observed, and trying to imagine that gave me a bitch of a headache. Luckily, by then I'd reached my front door and was able to hang up my dry cleaning and brew a pot of coffee, which I drank in the garden while the cat sat on the arm of a nearby Adirondack chair and ignored me as best as she could.

Yesterday morning I was walking from the train station to my office and I looked up at the sky, noting with some satisfaction that the clouds were behaving in a less threatening manner, retreating upward from my fair city and breaking apart here and there to display a deep blue heaven edged with sunlit cumulus fluff, very pretty indeed. Lower down, near the horizon, all was still a mix of gray and silver, layer upon layer of nimbus and wet. Not for the first time I thought that if the sky were fixed, like a landscape, like a mountain range or an archipelago, we'd long ago have given names to the geography of the sky and written myths about the gods and mortals suspended up there. There's Bartleby's Wall, we'd think, or The Medusa's Hair, and when the moon passed behind a cloud bank we'd remember the stories of the inhabitants of the far side of those clouds, people who dance in moonlight, wisps of cloud raised by their rhythmic feet. The development of high-altitude aircraft would mean detailed maps of these unseen regions and subsequent disappointment over the absence of floating palaces and villages. "There's nothing up there," we'd say.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

as the pressure ridges collapsed

Today at lunch I finished drafting the penultimate big section of the novel-in-progress I'm calling Nowhere But North. The draft is now about 82,000 words long, and I figure I've got about 15,000 more words to add to that number. I don't know what those words will be yet, but I have a couple of pages of notes to help me along. The book seems okay so far, and I think it will be the best thing I've written, which is what I always think of my latest novel. I might have the first draft completed by Christmas, which would be nice. The section I just wrote and the section to come are both quite tense, and I wouldn't mind relaxing. Nor would I mind having the time to concentrate on reading and not writing for a while.

Although not writing is not really on the agenda, because when the draft of Nowhere is completed, I will set it aside and set to work revising the thing I wrote last year or whenever it was, a novel-in-stories called Antosha!, preparatory to sending that off to agents and publishers nationwide for their rejecting pleasures. I will repeat the process in 2018 with the by-then-revised-and-rewritten Nowhere But North and then, by God, I will have done with being a novelist. I'm getting long in the tooth for this game, you boys. Conventional wisdom advises a writer against making such announcements publicly, but what do I care about conventional wisdom?

Anyway, I have been away for a week in beautiful Banff Alberta, at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival with Mighty Reader. I climbed Mount Tunnel, or Tunnel Mountain, whichever you prefer. As did thousands of other tourists, walking up the switchback path, some of them with little kids, others with tiny yappy dogs on leashes. It's not a technical climb, as the professionals say. I'd thought that I'd finish this latest section of Nowhere in Banff, and even kidded myself that I'd have time to write the whole remaining expanse of novel, but it turned out that I was easily distracted by festival events, the World Series (go Cubs!), the Bow River and all manner of very nice weather that called me away from my pen and paper and out into the world. It was my first visit to Banff. I wouldn't mind going back. Mighty Reader and I are quite fond of Canada, so it's nice we live so close. Though of course it's good to be back home. The cat claims to have missed us, which is heartwarming.

View of Bow River valley from Tunnel Mountain. Photo by Mighty Reader

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Vive la france

But the characteristic feature of the silly phase through which I was passing—a phase by no means irresponsive, indeed highly fertile—is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us then to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we are barely conscious of tranquillity. There is hardly one of the actions which we performed in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to erase from our memory. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but youth was the only time in which we learned anything.
From À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs by Marcel Proust, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff

On the train this morning, while I was settling in and taking my copy of Proust from my backpack, I noticed that the woman sitting next to me was reading Les Misérables. Everyone else seemed to be looking at cell phones.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

paying out a long braided steel cable

The next morning, the Lady Grace encountered the ice pack. It was as if they had run aground in the night on the shores of a broken white wasteland, or had discovered an archipelago of floating islands, a few fathoms thick, blanketed with snow and streaked with muddy yellow at the waterline. The ice pack shifted, rising here and dropping there with the currents and the action of the slow waves. This shattered wasteland covered the hundreds of miles ahead of the Lady Grace, crazed ice hard and blinding bright in the daylight, the seams between the separate floes black as if great quantities of ink had been poured out by the hand of Heaven. The Lady Grace followed these dark seams south, into the pack. It was, as the whalers of Grytviken had warned, much farther north than usual, especially at the start of summer. But it was loose pack, and under reduced sail the Lady Grace pushed her way easily through the gaps in the frozen archipelago, sometimes running half a mile or more in open water.

Jernagen and Weir had set up their scientific gear on the quarterdeck. Weir lowered his dredge over the taffrail, paying out a long braided steel cable, hoping to find something new swimming in the deep cold water. Jernagen measured the air and water temperatures, the geomagnetic variances, the mineral content of the ice and the water, and the spectrum of the sunlight. Weir netted petrels, fulmar gulls and dreamed of dissecting Emperor penguins. He photographed crabeater seals, killer whales, humpback whales, and Finner whales. He found shrimp and jellyfish in his dredge, a thousand feet below the ship's keel. Jernagen and Weir sat on the deck with their heads close together, scribbling notes in their journals, smiling and breathing each other's pipe smoke.
This post is just a reminder to myself that yesterday, after a break of a month, I began again to work on the draft of the novel I'm calling Nowhere But North. I've written about 70,000 words of that draft, and have about 25,000 still to write. I think it will be a pretty good book. Currently, I realized at lunch today, I am entering that phase of first draft writing when I have pretty much abandoned ideas of propriety, which is to say that as far as what and how I write, anything goes. This is how it always is, having mentally collapsed under the pressure of the work, I decide that every idea--no matter how absurd--is probably a pretty good idea and should be allowed its place in the book. Three quarters of the way through and I've become punchy. The above-quoted excerpt is not an example of the absurd which creeps into the novel.

Friday, October 7, 2016

there have been great changes

like a kaleidoscope which is every now and then given a turn, society arranges successively in different orders elements which one would have supposed to be immovable, and composes a fresh pattern. Before I had made my first Communion, ladies on the "right side" in politics had had the stupefaction of meeting, while paying calls, a smart Jewess. These new arrangements of the kaleidoscope are produced by what a philosopher would call a "change of criterion." The Dreyfus case brought about another, at a period rather later than that in which I began to go to Mme. Swann's, and the kaleidoscope scattered once again its little scraps of color. Everything Jewish, even the smart lady herself, fell out of the pattern, and various obscure nationalities appeared in its place. The most brilliant drawing-room in Paris was that of a Prince who was an Austrian and ultra-Catholic. If instead of the Dreyfus case there had come a war with Germany, the base of the kaleidoscope would have been turned in the other direction, and its pattern reversed. The Jews having shewn, to the general astonishment, that they were patriots also, would have kept their position, and no one would have cared to go any more, or even to admit that he had ever gone to the Austrian Prince's. All this does not, however, prevent the people who move in it from imagining, whenever society is stationary for the moment, that no further change will occur, just as in spite of having witnessed the birth of the telephone they decline to believe in the aeroplane. Meanwhile the philosophers of journalism are at work, castigating the preceding epoch, and not only the kind of pleasures in which it indulged, which seem to them to be the last word in corruption, but even the work of its artists and philosophers, which have no longer the least value in their eyes, as though they were indissolubly linked to the successive moods of fashionable frivolity. The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been "great changes."
from A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs by Marcel Proust (C. K. Scott Moncrieff, trans.).

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

some astonished condition of soul

...if you address any average modern English company as believing in an Eternal life, and endeavour to draw any conclusions, from this assumed belief, as to their present business, they will forthwith tell you that what you say is very beautiful, but it is not practical. If, on the contrary, you frankly address them as unbelievers in Eternal life, and try to draw any consequences from that unbelief,--they immediately hold you for an accursed person, and shake off the dust from their feet at you. And the more I thought over what I had got to say, the less I found I could say it, without some reference to this intangible or intractable part of the subject. It made all the difference, in asserting any principle of war, whether one assumed that a discharge of artillery would merely knead down a certain quantity of red clay into a level line, as in a brick field; or whether, out of every separately Christian-named portion of the ruinous heap, there went out, into the smoke and dead-fallen air of battle, some astonished condition of soul, unwillingly released.
I have been reading a collection of Ruskin's lectures on political economy (The Crown of Wild Olives) and discover that in it Ruskin covers a great deal of the ground I have been tramping through in my work-in-progress novel Nowhere But North. I find myself wondering why I am writing my novel, unknowingly paraphrasing Ruskin a hundred and twelve years or whatever after his death. Mighty Reader might point out that I'm not exactly writing my novel; I seem to have stalled at 70,000 words, unwilling to go forward.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

within a toxi-alimentary dyspnoea grove

As my chokings had persisted long after any congestion remained that could account for them, my parents asked for a consultation with Professor Cottard. It is not enough that a physician who is called in to treat cases of this sort should be learned. Brought face to face with symptoms which may or may not be those of three or four different complaints, it is in the long run his instinct, his eye that must decide with which, despite the more or less similar appearance of them all, he has to deal. This mysterious gift does not imply any superiority in the other departments of the intellect, and a creature of the utmost vulgarity, who admires the worst pictures, the worst music, in whose mind there is nothing out of the common, may perfectly well possess it. In my case, what was physically evident might equally well have been due to nervous spasms, to the first stages of tuberculosis, to asthma, to a toxi-alimentary dyspnoea with renal insufficiency, to chronic bronchitis, or to a complex state into which more than one of these factors entered. Now, nervous spasms required to be treated firmly, and discouraged, tuberculosis with infinite care and with a 'feeding-up' process which would have been bad for an arthritic condition such as asthma, and might indeed have been dangerous in a case of toxi-alimentary dyspnoea, this last calling for a strict diet which, in return, would be fatal to a tuberculous patient. But Cottard's hesitations were brief and his prescriptions imperious. "Purges; violent and drastic purges; milk for some days, nothing but milk. No meat. No alcohol." My mother murmured that I needed, all the same, to be 'built up,' that my nerves were already weak, that drenching me like a horse and restricting my diet would make me worse. I could see in Cottard's eyes, as uneasy as though he were afraid of missing a train, that he was asking himself whether he had not allowed his natural good-humour to appear. He was trying to think whether he had remembered to put on his mask of coldness, as one looks for a mirror to see whether one has not forgotten to tie one's tie. In his uncertainty, and, so as, whatever he had done, to put things right, he replied brutally: "I am not in the habit of repeating my instructions. Give me a pen. Now remember, milk! Later on, when we have got the crises and the agrypnia by the throat, I should like you to take a little clear soup, and then a little broth, but always with milk; au lait! You'll enjoy that, since Spain is all the rage just now; olé, olé!" His pupils knew this joke well, for he made it at the hospital whenever he had to put a heart or liver case on a milk diet. "After that, you will gradually return to your normal life. But whenever there is any coughing or choking—purges, injections, bed, milk!" He listened with icy calm, and without uttering a word, to my mother's final objections, and as he left us without having condescended to explain the reasons for this course of treatment, my parents concluded that it had no bearing on my case, and would weaken me to no purpose, and so they did not make me try it. Naturally they sought to conceal their disobedience from the Professor, and to succeed in this avoided all the houses in which he was likely to be found. Then, as my health became worse, they decided to make me follow out Cottard's prescriptions to the letter; in three days my 'rattle' and cough had ceased, I could breathe freely. Whereupon we realised that Cottard, while finding, as he told us later on, that I was distinctly asthmatic, and still more inclined to 'imagine things,' had seen that what was really the matter with me at the moment was intoxication, and that by loosening my liver and washing out my kidneys he would get rid of the congestion of my bronchial tubes and thus give me back my breath, my sleep and my strength. And we realised that this imbecile was a clinical genius.
from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust, Moncrieff translation.

Monday, September 12, 2016

"I am greedier than any of you"

    Meanwhile M. Verdurin, after first asking Swann's permission to light his pipe ("No ceremony here, you understand; we're all pals!"), went and begged the young musician to sit down at the piano.
    "Leave him alone; don't bother him; he hasn't come here to be tormented," cried Mme. Verdurin. "I won't have him tormented."
    "But why on earth should it bother him?" rejoined M. Verdurin. "I'm sure M. Swann has never heard the sonata in F sharp which we discovered; he is going to play us the pianoforte arrangement."
    "No, no, no, not my sonata!" she screamed, "I don't want to be made to cry until I get a cold in the head, and neuralgia all down my face, like last time; thanks very much, I don't intend to repeat that performance; you are all very kind and considerate; it is easy to see that none of you will have to stay in bed, for a week."
    This little scene, which was re-enacted as often as the young pianist sat down to play, never failed to delight the audience, as though each of them were witnessing it for the first time, as a proof of the seductive originality of the 'Mistress' as she was styled, and of the acute sensitiveness of her musical 'ear.' Those nearest to her would attract the attention of the rest, who were smoking or playing cards at the other end of the room, by their cries of 'Hear, hear!' which, as in Parliamentary debates, shewed that something worth listening to was being said. And next day they would commiserate with those who had been prevented from coming that evening, and would assure them that the 'little scene' had never been so amusingly done.
    "Well, all right, then," said M. Verdurin, "he can play just the andante."
    "Just the andante! How you do go on," cried his wife. "As if it weren't 'just the andante' that breaks every bone in my body. The 'Master' is really too priceless! Just as though, 'in the Ninth,' he said 'we need only have the finale,' or 'just the overture' of the Meistersinger."
    The Doctor, however, urged Mme. Verdurin to let the pianist play, not because he supposed her to be malingering when she spoke of the distressing effects that music always had upon her, for he recognised the existence of certain neurasthenic states—but from his habit, common to many doctors, of at once relaxing the strict letter of a prescription as soon as it appeared to jeopardise, what seemed to him far more important, the success of some social gathering at which he was present, and of which the patient whom he had urged for once to forget her dyspepsia or headache formed an essential factor.
    "You won't be ill this time, you'll find," he told her, seeking at the same time to subdue her mind by the magnetism of his gaze. "And, if you are ill, we will cure you."
    "Will you, really?" Mme. Verdurin spoke as though, with so great a favour in store for her, there was nothing for it but to capitulate. Perhaps, too, by dint of saying that she was going to be ill, she had worked herself into a state in which she forgot, occasionally, that it was all only a 'little scene,' and regarded things, quite sincerely, from an invalid's point of view. For it may often be remarked that invalids grow weary of having the frequency of their attacks depend always on their own prudence in avoiding them, and like to let themselves think that they are free to do everything that they most enjoy doing, although they are always ill after doing it, provided only that they place themselves in the hands of a higher authority which, without putting them to the least inconvenience, can and will, by uttering a word or by administering a tabloid, set them once again upon their feet.
    Odette had gone to sit on a tapestry-covered sofa near the piano, saying to Mme. Verdurin, "I have my own little corner, haven't I?"
    And Mme. Verdurin, seeing Swann by himself upon a chair, made him get up. "You're not at all comfortable there; go along and sit by Odette; you can make room for M. Swann there, can't you, Odette?"
    "What charming Beauvais!" said Swann, stopping to admire the sofa before he sat down on it, and wishing to be polite.
    "I am glad you appreciate my sofa," replied Mme. Verdurin, "and I warn you that if you expect ever to see another like it you may as well abandon the idea at once. They never made any more like it. And these little chairs, too, are perfect marvels. You can look at them in a moment. The emblems in each of the bronze mouldings correspond to the subject of the tapestry on the chair; you know, you combine amusement with instruction when you look at them;—I can promise you a delightful time, I assure you. Just look at the little border around the edges; here, look, the little vine on a red background in this one, the Bear and the Grapes. Isn't it well drawn? What do you say? I think they knew a thing or two about design! Doesn't it make your mouth water, this vine? My husband makes out that I am not fond of fruit, because I eat less than he does. But not a bit of it, I am greedier than any of you, but I have no need to fill my mouth with them when I can feed on them with my eyes. What are you all laughing at now, pray? Ask the Doctor; he will tell you that those grapes act on me like a regular purge. Some people go to Fontainebleau for cures; I take my own little Beauvais cure here. But, M. Swann, you mustn't run away without feeling the little bronze mouldings on the backs. Isn't it an exquisite surface? No, no, not with your whole hand like that; feel them properly!"
    "If Mme. Verdurin is going to start playing about with her bronzes," said the painter, "we shan't get any music to-night."
From Swann in Love. When I read these scenes, I think that I've seen this party before, and then I remember the gatherings with the Veneers and the Podsnaps in Our Mutual Friend, though the Podsnaps are more like Marcel's family than they are like the Verderins, so bound by custom. They are all judgmental, though, in their own ways. Swann in Love is a funny book, hysterically so in places, even if Proust can be as mean spirited as the characters he lampoons.

I have also just noticed the theme of invalids who construct and maintain their own infirmities, a recurring motif of Swann's Way. Everyone in Proust's world is an invalid, suffering under imaginary disabilities.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Action and flowers and pink sugar

She makes an obscene gesture at him; he mistakes the color of her eyes. That's young Marcel's first encounter with Gilberte Swann, a brief scene that nicely encapsulates not only Marcel and Gilberte's entire later relationship, but also the relationship of Gilberte's parents. It is also, I might say, a rendering in miniature of the entire six-volume In Search of Lost Time. One thing I didn't notice upon my first reading of Swann's Way a decade ago is the way Proust keeps working in foreshadowing, the way the layers of early memory are indeed overlapped and in some respects interchangeable with later events, the way certain character types appear and reappear to interact with Marcel in similar ways. It's almost as if the idea of past is meaningless, as if Proust was not only writing In Search of Lost Time but also Finnegans Wake, which circles around and neither begins nor ends, every event becoming every other event in history, if you look at it from the correct angle. Really a remarkable book. Full of action, too. Action and flowers and pink sugar. And Proust's comic characters are excellently drawn (and I pause to realize that all of his characters are comic, even the tragic ones, which is the way I like my clowns to be written).

Monday, August 29, 2016

26.2 miles with Marcel; I will bring bottled water

In the summer of 2006, I think, I read Marcel Proust's novel Swann's Way. Most of that reading was done in a porch swing during very pleasant weather. I don't remember what edition/translation I read, but when I finished "Place Names," I thought, "Now that was an interesting book. I assume I'll read the other five volumes someday." A decade passed, alarmingly quickly, and I did not read any of the subsequent books of In Search of Lost Time though I read some of Proust's shorter works here and there, now and then. Mostly then. Mighty Reader, in the meanwhile, kept reading and finished In Search of Lost Time as well as, I think, everything else of Proust's that has been translated into English (except for that novel that is apparently a sort of short rough draft of ISoLT). Anyway, this unfinished business has remained a nagging voice in my pre-conscious mind, and last fall, or maybe last winter, Mighty Reader and I declared that we would spend the summer of 2016 performing A Duet in Search of Time to Read, which is to say, a two-person readalong of ISoLT.

Summer of 2016 is, as we can all see, mostly past us, at least in the Northern Hemisphere of Planet Earth. However, the time finally almost seems ripe for this event. As soon as Mighty Reader finishes her Jasper Fforde re-read and I finish that Dinesen book which I can probably put aside until 2017 anyway as it's just not sending me, we will be off and running for our marathon Proust read. I don't know why I am telling you any of this. Do you care if I read Proust? No, you do not, just as I was only vaguely yet politely interested to hear about your own reading of Proust, those of you who have done. But still, here I am, typing away. Where was I?

For the Proust marathon, I will be reading this set, which Mighty Reader so kindly gave me on my recent birthday. Mighty Reader will be employing a variety of translations, just like the last time she read the complete In Search of Lost Time.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

John Williams, "Stoner"

Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.
Despite it's shortcomings, John Williams' 1965 novel Stoner has at its core a great strength: the love of literature, of poetry, of language, the love of engaging in depth with literature and its language, and even a love of the way that the central meaning to humanity of the arts is something that cannot, in the end, be fully expressed. I take it that the disappointments our protagonist William Stoner meets in life are a metaphor for the disappointment one experiences when one discovers that the greatest works of language leave us all essentially incoherent if we attempt to fully interpret and evaluate. We pursue that which we love, we pursue the idea of that which we love, and we never are able to possess or understand it. Or something like that.

I think this is all stated for the reader in a scene early on in the book, where Stoner, who has enrolled in an agronomic science program at the University of Missouri, finds himself entrapped within a survey of English literature, a course required of all students, a course that "troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done." Stoner has never been challenged before to find actual meaning in poetry: "the words he read were words on pages, and he could not see the use." The man teaching the course, Archer Sloane, reads out Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, which likens a man growing old to an ancient tree in the winter. It is not one of Shakespeare's more difficult sonnets, no, but it's new to Stoner as is, I think, the very idea of metaphor. Sloane calls on several students to say what the sonnet means, getting no response. Sloane calls on Stoner, who says nothing. Sloane recites the sonnet again, from memory, and asks Stoner to tell him what it means. Stoner thinks hard and sees, for the first time, that the sonnet is more than mere words on a page, that there is something beyond the surface of the language. Stoner vaguely connects the ideas of winter weather outside the classroom with the aging man who is a leafless old tree in the sonnet, but he does not know how to describe this connection; he is only aware that he has seen something new, and he can only say of Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet that "It means." Stoner "could not finish what he had to say." The bell rings, Stoner follows his classmates outside, where he again sees the winter weather, sees humanity milling about, and he knows that somehow the world has changed, his perception of life is now different, though he can never express precisely in what way. The next year he declares as an English Literature major.

I have had this moment, this knowing that I'm experiencing something new and powerful and beautiful though I cannot begin to comprehend it, this moment followed by a desire to pursue the experience into real knowledge. I've had this moment with music, with art, with literature. This moment, I believe John Williams would have us believe, is a moment of falling in love.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

they did not know whom to blame

He was in the hospital from the middle of Lent till after Easter. When he was better, he remembered the dreams he had had while he was feverish and delirious. He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices.
From Epilogue, Chapter 2 in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Constance Garnett. 1866.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

throw the bones to any dog

"How to Bone a Text"

The fish of the text (as well as the text of the fish) is consumed, after which the backbone and the bones of the consonants are removed. Note well that with small children the first fish (text) is soft and pouffy (not puffy), composed exclusively from the delicate soulflesh of the vowels. With growth, the bones rooted in this flesh will become hard, harder, always haaaarder.
I submit that the natural softness of the language can still be saved in poetry.

The words are tiny fish
with many consonant bones.
Permit me to clean them for a moment
before I melt in your mouth
- O OU A E E, EA?

This technique can successfully be applied
to prepared classic texts.
The boning process sets the flesh of the text to music
and gives it naturalness.
And so
"Who rides so late through night and wind,
it is the father with his child..."
" o i e o a e ou i a i,
i i e a e i i i ..."
Throw the extracted bones of the consonants
- Wh rds s lt thrgh nght nd wnd-
to any dog.

But listen!
Not a single bone
in a dog's voice.

"Technik zum Entgräten von Texten" by Georgi Gospodinov, translation from the German mine. No, this is not the La Regenta excerpt post I said I was going to write. I have mislaid my copy of the Alas novel.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Divine Madness: la idiota en casa y iglesia, by Leopoldo Alas

Leopoldo Alas' 1885 novel La Regenta concerns a thirty year-old woman, Ana Ozores, who was married at twenty to Victor, a retired judge more than twice her age. Ana and Victor live in the old well-to-do part of Vetusta, a venerable rural city that was long ago the capitol of the Kingdom of Asturias and is now undergoing a sort of urban renewal as the nouveau riche merchants build suburbs while the working classes lose respect for the nobility. Ana loves Victor as a friend and father figure, he being more-or-less impotent and far more interested in hunting and theater-going than in conjugal relations with his beautiful wife. Ana has been given, her whole life, to a religious mysticism which sometimes overwhelms her, blotting out everything except her devotion to God. After a decade of marriage, with Victor now about sixty, Ana falls under the sway of two other men: Fermin de Pas (canon theologian and vicar-general of the diocese) and Alvaro Mesia (self-styled Don Juan and minor league politician). De Pas becomes Ana's confessor and spiritual guide, while Mesia begins a slow and successful campaign to seduce Ana and become her lover. Victor is alerted to Ana's affair with Mesia, as is de Pas. Both the husband and the priest are furious with Ana, furious with Mesia. Victor challenges Mesia to a duel and is killed. Mesia flees to Madrid. De Pas ceases to be Ana's confessor and the novel ends with her, humiliated and alone, lying on the floor of the empty cathedral.

Most of the commentary I've read about La Regenta compares the book to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, because of the obvious surface similarities. La Regenta is also considered to be one of those big 19th-century social novels, as it involves (at various distances) characters from all of the social classes of Spain. The book is usually labeled a "realist novel," no doubt because many readers believe Alas was depicting Spain in a factual manner, keeping the action of the story in the empirical world. I will suggest that this way of looking at the novel is correct only when considering the surface of the book, and that La Regenta is far less like Madame Bovary than it is like another great 19th-century novel that operates on the level of the irrational while hiding behind a realist facade: Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot.

The surface plot, the attempted seduction of Ana by the priest de Pas and the successful seduction of Ana by the small-time politician Mesia, obscures but does not actually overwhelm the parallel plot of Ana attempting to lead a proper Christian life, by turns modeling herself on St Teresa of Avila, Thomas a Kempis, and Fermin de Pas. Most readers see this life of faith as background, as activity against which the adultery plot functions, but I believe that Ana's striving to live her faith properly is in fact the primary story, and the drawn out adultery plot is the social background to that story. After all, every woman in Vetusta is an adulteress; adultery, lechery, and deceit are the status quo and Ana's engaging in that status quo in no way sets her apart from any other woman in the text. What does set Ana apart is her saintliness, her sincere devotion to God. In fact, Ana is the only "good" woman in La Regenta (up to her fall into Mesia's bed); there are no normal women in Vetusta, no women who are not either saintly Ana or scheming vixens.

The spiritual plot of the novel can be traced from Ana's backstory (an innocent child who wrote ecstatic love poems to Christ, was falsely accused of having sex with a boy from her village and shipped off to live as a virtual prisoner with two stern embittered aunts), through Ana's more-or-less virginal marriage to Victor, through the episode of the young nun dying in the Vetustan convent situated next to a sewer outlet, through Ana's interest in Teresa of Avila, though Ana's spiritual counseling from de Pas (who attempts to guide her away from the contemplative life into a more active worldly life that has the outward show of religion but lacks real and meaningful faith), through Victor's brief flirtation with the writings of Thomas a Kempis, through Ana's public humiliation in support of de Pas, through Ana's sophistry in convincing herself that to become Mesia's lover is an act of propriety, to the final scene of the novel, where the cathedral empties as Ana enters, de Pas fleeing from her in horror, Ana collapsing on the floor and kissed during her blackout by the grotesque sexton. La Regenta is a very long book so I may have some of these events out of order.

I believe that Alas is presenting a saint trapped in the profane world, in much the same way that Dostoyevsky's The Idiot presents a Christ figure trapped in 19th-century Russia. Both Dostoyevsky's Myshkin and Alas' Ana seek purity and goodness, and both are tempted and fall. Myshkin is epileptic, Ana is subject to some kind of physical and mental collapses. Both Myshkin and Ana are human and flawed characters, but they are also both clearly morally far superior to everyone else in the novels they inhabit, raised by their authors onto pedestals from which these saints' fellow characters wish to topple them.

The theme of the cloister is important to Ana's story. For most of the book, Ana is homebound, alone with her faith and doubts. Early on in the book, a daughter of one of Vetusta's upper class citizens dies in a convent, victim of the unsanitary conditions there. The young nun had been placed in the convent at the suggestion of Fermin de Pas, the most influential priest in town. This episode foreshadows Ana's story (a devout woman whose world is controlled by selfish men is slowly poisoned by the toxic city in which she lives). Ana's strongest impulse is to remain cloistered, sleeping alone, meditating and praying and leaving the house only to attend mass and make her confession. She is most able to reconcile her life with her faith when she is alone, though her mysticism is viewed by her family and neighbors as a form of madness that must be cured. When Ana attempts to bring Victor back to an active religion, he reads The Imitation of Christ. The quoted lines from Kempis' book provide one of the central axes around which La Regenta turns:
Settle and order everything according to your own views and wishes, yet whether you like it or not you will always be made to suffer; you will always find a cross. Sometimes it will seem as if God has abandoned you, and sometimes you will be mortified by your neighbor; what is more, you will often be a burden to yourself.
Book III Chapter XX of Kempis' Imitation reminds us that "it is sweet to despise the world and to serve God," and the explicit use of Kempis reinforces Alas' cloister theme: Ana is better off away from the wicked world of Vetusta, and to turn her back on social obligations in order to face God is not necessarily madness. The problem, of course, is the toxic presence of Vetustan men intruding upon Ana's solitude.

In the Spain of the 1880s, the saintliness of Teresa of Avila was being hotly debated. Was she an enraptured mystic inspired by the Divine, or was she merely a hysterical young woman? Ramon Mainez wrote a book about the hysteria of Teresa, and sent a copy of it to Leopoldo Alas, who was a professor of Roman law and a well-known journalist and literary critic. Alas responded, "I remember that on one occasion Galdos and I spoke of the 'big deal' that could be made of Saint Teresa in an historical novel, in the best sense of the word. It's true. And he could write it, because he's able to understand so many mysteries of poetry and feeling that exist in Saint Teresa and her divine madness. Believe me, Mr Mainez, doctors can tell a lot about what was happening to Saint Teresa, but they cannot say everything."

La Regenta, like much of Dostoyevsky's work, is an angry book. Alas is disappointed in the Church, in civil society, in humanity. It is a great religious novel, is La Regenta, the gasping voice of a dying faith, maybe. My understanding is that Alas had, by the time he wrote the book, fallen away from the Church, and his disappointment seems to embrace even himself. Alas' unreliable and sarcastic narrator is no better than the citizens of Vetusta; he leers at Ana when she is naked and getting into bed, he revels in the blasphemies of the town's official atheist, he turns a blind eye everywhere and cheers on evil with as much enthusiasm as he cheers on goodness. Behind this sarcastic idiot stands Alas, shaking his head, thinking of Thomas a Kempis and the imitation of Christ, thinking of the mysteries of poetry and feeling that exist in Saint Teresa and her divine madness.

Later this week, maybe, I'll post some favorite excerpts from the book, mostly from the second half, probably.

Friday, July 1, 2016

the bare heels of my aunt

"About the Gravel of the Earth"

          ...and the sergeant bellowed: You are the gravel of the Earth. And when the gravel comes to the end, where shall the Express between Sofia and Burgas travel, bellowed the sergeant. After that he slapped one, two on the neck and again: Have no fear, he bellowed, the gravel will never come to an end...And it is likely it never came to an end.
          (Memoirs of the Meto Pioneers, in the train, shortly before Chirpan)

From the gravel between the rails I'm speaking
from the filthy stones under the train
from the rusty stones
from those things that forever remain beneath
from their lost landscapes
their worn edges
from those things which never
will be praised by anyone
from those things which the camera doesn't capture
from gravel, all full
of piss from the herd
from gravel
         from gravel
from gravel
         between the rails
and Grandfather has never seen the sea
from gravel
         from gravel
three packs of cigarettes for my father
from gravel
         from gravel
my mother cooked the summer down
behind the block into canning jars
from gravel
         from gravel
the bare heels of my aunt
every evening she ran away from the house
and on the rails climbed the ladder to Heaven
from gravel
         from gravel
from gravel
         between the rails

Another Georgi Gospodinov poem in my translation from the German, from his book Kleines morgendliches Verbrechen. I don't know the story of the Meto Pioneers. This little post is part of Thomas Hubner's Bulgarian Literature Month. The month is over in a couple of hours, so this is likely the last of these translations from Mr Gospodinov's fine little book.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

but who are those other two guys?

I am pleased to learn that Professor Miriam Burstein of SUNY Brockport is using The Astrologer as a course text again this fall:
ENG 303.02 Intro to Literary Analysis
MWF 12:20-1:10
Dr. Miriam Burstein

This course offers students a "toolkit" for close reading. We will work with multiple genres—poetry, fiction, drama, film—and practice the skills necessary for analyzing and appreciating each. Among other things, students will practice basic poetic scansion, learn what constitutes different genres, and develop a working knowledge of critical vocabulary. This is a hands-on course, not a lecture: students should come prepared for in-class discussion and regular exercises. Readings include extensive poetry selections; Shakespeare’s Hamlet; Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; and Scott G. F. Bailey’s The Astrologer. Three essays; exams; quizzes; oral presentation.
Regular exercise is always good. If I ever finish the current work-in-progress, and if I manage to find a publisher for it, people could teach it alongside Melville. As if anyone teaches Melville in this day and age.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

(who is playing around with the elevator?)

"Easy Ways"

For a week now
the black suits have lain ready,
liberated from mothballs.
The relatives grieve,
they grieve.
The departed is still alive,
yet about that he feels no guilt,
but even so he is ashamed,
experiencing the uneasiness of the guests
when the host accompanies them out
where they wait for the elevator to come.
And in this painful pause
(who is playing around with the elevator?)
the man brings the empty bottles back,
orders milk, clears up the room and tries to decide
if his mourning guests' slippers will stink.
Then the elevator finally comes,
roaring slowly nearer.
On the other side the day is so peacefully clear.
On the other side!
A person is a person then,
when he's on the other side!
From Kleines morgendliches Verbrechen, a book of poems by Georgi Gospodinov. Translation from the German mine. I am reading this book in the corners of my days, so short of time lately. I don't know quite why that is.

Monday, June 27, 2016

What people!

At Oreanda they sat on a seat not far from the church, looked down at the sea, and were silent. Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist; white clouds stood motionless on the mountain-tops. The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings—the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky—Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence.

What savage manners, what people! What senseless nights, what uninteresting, uneventful days! The rage for card-playing, the gluttony, the drunkenness, the continual talk always about the same thing. Useless pursuits and conversations always about the same things absorb the better part of one's time, the better part of one's strength, and in the end there is left a life grovelling and curtailed, worthless and trivial, and there is no escaping or getting away from it—just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.

He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his "lower race," his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.
Three non-sequential paragraphs from Anton Chekhov's "The Lady With the Little Dog," translated by Constance Garnett. And this from Chekhov's "The Bishop":
After an hour or so of hemorrhage the bishop looked much thinner, paler, and wasted; his face looked wrinkled, his eyes looked bigger, and he seemed older, shorter, and it seemed to him that he was thinner, weaker, more insignificant than any one, that everything that had been had retreated far, far away and would never go on again or be repeated.

"How good," he thought, "how good!"

Monday, June 20, 2016

not the It that you think about

"Eleven Definitions"

came from somewhere or other
(don't remember the starting point)
must arrive
(forget where)
and now just travels around

is not the It that you think about
is the nothing in the room that
makes you turn abruptly around

is so small with a small "i"
with soft ears and warm paws
no one has seen it yet
and that is the proof
of its existence

is the force with which
the leaf falls from the tree
into the water pail

and muddies the heavens

is also the repose
in which the force collects itself
and clears up the heavens

between two leaves

there is something in common
between beetles and roses
and that is

is in the turning of the "t"
or between the "i" and the "t"
or the devil knows where

but the devil doesn't know either

you believe it is God
yet God
would be written immensely

you say it is death
yet have your words been heard
by death?
once I tasted him
he was hard and sour
had to spend the whole evening spitting

it is dwindling and brittle
you name it and it dies
you catch it and it goes away
and melts into emptiness

(the successful attempt)
From Kleines morgentliches Verbrechen by Georgi Gospodinov, in my translation from the German. This is the first poem in the book, which I assume is a sort of "setting the tone" piece, a claim being staked, a flag planted on the beach, etc. A Modernist declaration about Modernist poetry, maybe. Anyway, Gospodinov's book of poems is full of things like that, in contemporary language. Some of the poems are very short:
God is altogether
red and plump
God is a tomato.

There's nothing offensive in that
to either party.
That one was a little harder to push into English, because German sentence-building rules are not the same as English sentence-building rules. Syntax, that's the word I was looking for. Different syntaxes, what fun. Anyway, I'm reading Bulgarian poems in a German edition as part of Bulgarian Literature Month. I don't know from poetry, but I am certainly enjoying Gospodinov's poems. Make of that what you will. I think I'll translate some more of them in the coming days. We'll see. Time is short, work is busy, I am lazy, et your own cetera.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

in the back row with James and Leopold

He saw the priest stow the communion cup away, well in, and kneel an instant before it, showing a large grey bootsole from under the lace affair he had on. Suppose he lost the pin of his. He wouldn't know what to do to. Bald spot behind. Letters on his back: I.N.R.I? No: I.H.S. Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in.

Meet one Sunday after the rosary. Do not deny my request. Turn up with a veil and black bag. Dusk and the light behind her. She might be here with a ribbon round her neck and do the other thing all the same on the sly. Their character. That fellow that turned queen's evidence on the invincibles he used to receive the, Carey was his name, the communion every morning. This very church. Peter Carey, yes. No, Peter Claver I am thinking of. Denis Carey. And just imagine that. Wife and six children at home. And plotting that murder all the time. Those crawthumpers, now that's a good name for them, there's always something shiftylooking about them. They're not straight men of business either. O, no, she's not here: the flower: no, no. By the way, did I tear up that envelope? Yes: under the bridge.

The priest was rinsing out the chalice: then he tossed off the dregs smartly. Wine. Makes it more aristocratic than for example if he drank what they are used to Guinness's porter or some temperance beverage Wheatley's Dublin hop bitters or Cantrell and Cochrane's ginger ale (aromatic). Doesn't give them any of it: shew wine: only the other. Cold comfort. Pious fraud but quite right: otherwise they'd have one old booser worse than another coming along, cadging for a drink. Queer the whole atmosphere of the. Quite right. Perfectly right that is.

Mr Bloom looked back towards the choir. Not going to be any music. Pity. Who has the organ here I wonder? Old Glynn he knew how to make that instrument talk, the vibrato: fifty pounds a year they say he had in Gardiner street. Molly was in fine voice that day, the Stabat Mater of Rossini. Father Bernard Vaughan's sermon first. Christ or Pilate? Christ, but don't keep us all night over it. Music they wanted. Footdrill stopped. Could hear a pin drop. I told her to pitch her voice against that corner. I could feel the thrill in the air, the full, the people looking up:
Happy Bloomsday, all.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"While alive, he had hay fever. Now he was lying there, piled with flowers"

The first idea is that memory is a labyrinth. Then the book becomes a labyrinth, language becomes a labyrinth, history a labyrinth, all life a labyrinth. Nothing is straightforward, and everywhere you turn looks like the dead end of sorrow, because all light, all love, all that is good, is trapped within this labyrinth. The images pile up: of mazes, of burrows, of tunnels, of ants leaving the anthill to be trampled by an unfeeling child who is god, of Minotaur torn from his mother's breast to be thrown into the maze where he will be murdered by a foreigner aided by Minotaur's half-sister. Are we all Minotaur, then? Half man/half beast trapped in a labyrinth, waiting for our killer to appear?
That which has not been told, just like that which has not happened--because they're of the same order--possesses all possibilities, countless variations on how they could happen or be told.

Alas, the story is linear and you have to get rid of the detours every time, wall up the side corridors. The classical narrative is an annulling of the possibilities that rain down on you from all sides. Before you fix its boundaries, the world is full of parallel versions and corridors. All possible outcomes potter about only in hesitation and indecisiveness. And quantum physics, filed with indeterminacy and uncertainty, has proved this.

I try to leave space for other versions to happen, cavities in the story, more corridors, voices and rooms, unclosed-off stories, as well as secrets that we will not pry into...
Georgi Gospodinov wrote The Physics of Sorrow in response to a 2010 Economist article which declared Bulgaria to be "the saddest place in the world." Physics is less a story than a catalogue--one of the conceits of the novel is that Gospodinov is collecting material for a time capsule that will be like Noah's Ark, holding an example of every form of Bulgarian life/experience--of the sorrows of Bulgaria. We read Gospodinov's memories, and the memories of his family, and the memories of people he meets by chance. The narrator at one point begins buying anecdotes from strangers, all to be included in the time capsule of the novel. The narrator becomes obsessed with quantum physics, attempting to reverse the flow of time, to bring the dead back to life, to undo all the sorrows endured during history. He gives up this experiment when he realizes that moments of horror, even when lived backwards, remain horrific and who could put someone through such pain a second time?
Our history and literature textbooks--we got a kick out of adding finishing touches to the painfully familiar photographs inside. A mustache and a pirate's skull cap on top of the general secretary of the communist party's head, which was as round and bald as an egg. And on the poet-revolutionary Hristo Botev's heroic face--may the gods of literature forgive me!--I drew round, John Lennon-style glasses. The glasses completely transformed the fearsome Botev into a slightly bewildered, bearded hippie of Bulgarian revolutions, which are as a rule unsuccessful.
The threads, the long straight passages that at first look like the central movement of the novel (the story of Gospodinov's grandfather, the story of the Cretan Minotaur) get lost as the narrative moves into the labyrinth and the narrator follows side passages, stumbles in the darkness and finds heaps of hidden and abandoned sorrow. Once in a while he makes his way to the main passages again, but he leaves them after a few uncertain steps and takes us back into the depths of the labyrinth. We don't know where we are going, but after all there is nowhere to go but further into the infinite twisting paths. But at least the labyrinth contains everything: not just sadness, but love and humor and beauty are also buried in the darkness.
Brezhnev died the very next year.[...] I was twelve and had kissed a girl for the first time the day before, albeit in the dark during a game of spin-the-bottle at a birthday party. First kiss, first death.

That marked the beginning of the end. Soviet general secretaries started dying off every year or two.[...] In fact, the whole period I was in puberty can be briefly described through the prism of the complex political context of the '80s.
First kiss (with a girl).
Brezhnev dies.
Second kiss (different girl).
Chernenko dies.
Third kiss...
Andropov dies.
Am I killing them?
First fumbling sex in the park.
To return to the Noah's Ark image: in the midst of all this sorrow Gospodinov has given us a dove in the form of the protagonist's young daughter, who is a ray of light in the labyrinth, and possibly a guide out of the dark. The Ark matters because it is designed to outlast the present, to wash up on some future Ararat at the dawn of a new world. Will the dove return with an olive branch? It is too early to tell.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

"the struggle, as they say, is epic" (the poetry of Nikola Vaptsarov)

Had Bulgarian poet Nikola Vaptsarov (1909-1942) lived in America, a few generations later, he might have been a protest singer. Had he been a member of my circle in the 1980s, Vaptsarov would've formed a punk rock band. Writing songs is, in general, how young men of my day interacted with the poetic impulse, only later in life getting down to reading actual poetry. In Bulgaria, however (at least according to Georgi Gospodinov's foreword to Kino: the poetry of Nikola Vaptsarov), today's intellectuals grew up reading and quoting poetry, especially that of Vaptsarov, seeing him not necessarily as a communist revolutionary hero but as a young man full of life and passion, reading him broadly against Bulgarian daily life. That's how, more or less, I tried to read this short book of poems.
Today I want
                    to write
                               a poem
breathing like
verse for these new times
with the thrill
                   of that lofty
that had traveled the globe
              from pole to pole.

("Romance" trans. Bilyana Kourtasheva)
I admit that I was mostly unsuccessful the first time through. Vaptsarov's poems sometimes read a lot like the song lyrics my roommate Tom was writing in the 80s for his psychedelic agitprop band Shades of Persuasion, though of course without all of Tom's allusions to moping about girls.
I set off in the morning,
                                 The road to the plant
is crowded
                with overalled
We're one in heart,
                            we're one in mind,
and yet
I don't feel I belong here.

("Land" trans. Kalina Filipova)
Vaptsarov did, in fact, call many of his poems "songs." Most of his poems are political statements about the workers' struggle, anti-fascist or anti-capitalist rallying cries, but every poem has its moment, and it is for those moments, according to Gospodinov, that Vaptsarov is read today. The universal, less strictly left political moments. When I read the collection a second time, I found many attractive things among the rhetoric of revolution.
Do you remember
the sea and the machines,
the hold, all filled
with sticky dusk?
High above us,
high up in the skies
                            the wings of gulls
miraculously fluttered still.
The sky still sparkled as if with mica
and it was still
                     as blue and vast as ever,
and slowly every evening
the sails of ships were lost
                          from our sight
and masts receded in the mist.

("Letter" trans. Kalina Filipova)
"Kino" is the best of the rallying cries, possibly because Vaptsarov steps away from his usual images of smoke, blood and sweat for a moment to take in a film.
Outside, the noise,
the glittering adverts,
and the poster declaring
A Human Drama.
Outside, the noise,
money clutched
in my sweating palm.
"Kino" is an indictment of Western cinema and advertising as empty diversion from the realities of cold hard life.
Is this the way
we really meet--
in limousines?
Our love is born
from toil,
between the smoke,
the soot,
and the machines.
This is the real human drama.

(trans. Bilyana Kourtasheva)
My favorite poem is the short item Vaptsarov wrote to his wife as he sat in a cell awaiting execution by firing squad at the hands of the pro-Nazi government. Vaptsarov had been involved in anti-government sabotage plots with the Bulgarian communists who wished to bring down the fascists and align Bulgaria with the Allies, especially the USSR. The poet was 32 years old.
Sometimes I'll come home in your dreams,
And sit and watch you as you sleep.
Just leave the door upon the latch,
Then in the darkness I will keep

My soft and silent bedside watch,
An unexpected guest, and when
My eyes have drunk their fill of you,
I'll kiss you, then I'll go again.

("Valediction" trans. Kalina Filipova)
I don't know a great deal about poetry, especially 20th-century poetry, but from what little I've read I am ready to claim that I can (maybe) see, from Vaptsarov's work, that he was caught up in the same wave of Modernism as other European poets during that time: see the fractured formal structures, the typographical play with line breaks, the shifting rhythms and general looseness of the poems. Tom over at Wuthering Expectations has been posting about Soviet poets and I tentatively claim to see similarities between Vaptsarov and Mayakovsky. Better and more experienced readers will likely know better. I can't see what I haven't seen, right?
You come home
to the bone.
The boat gapes empty.
Two silvery fish alone
glow on the stern in the dark.
Even if Christ himself
were to descend now
what could he do
with two little fishes?

("A Fisherman's Life" trans. Kalina Filipova)
My shallow reading of Kino: the poetry of Nikola Vaptsarov is part of Thomas Hübner's Bulgarian Literature Month extravaganza. I'm going to be reading Georgi Gospodinov's novel The Physics of Sorrow next. All three books I purchased for Bulgarian Lit Month have a Gospodinov connection; I was not aware of that when I bought them. Titles, covers, I thought. What did I know about authors?
I know where I belong in life
and I
won't easily surrender,
just like that.
I will die an honest worker's death
if I shall die
in our fight
for freedom and for bread.

("The Intellectual Stoker's Song" trans. Evgenia Pancheva)
You can read Vaptsarov's poems here or here, though I prefer the translations in the edition I read, published by tiny Smokestack Books in the People's Republic of Britain.
No, it's not a good time for poetry,
For the ringing joy of a rhyme.
How can a poem ever reach the heart
Through such heavy armor?

("No, it's not a good time for poetry" trans. Kalina Filipova)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

"finally in a violent altercation"

It was about a week later that Florence Bradley asked us to go with her to see the second performance of the Sacre du Printemps. The russian ballet had just given the first performance of it and it had made a terrible uproar. All Paris was excited about it. Florence Bradley had gotten three tickets in a box, the box held four, and asked us to go with her. In the meantime there had been a letter from Mabel Dodge introducing Carl Van Vechten, a young New York journalist. Gertrude Stein invited him to dine the following Saturday evening.

We went early to the russian ballet, these were the early great days of the russian ballet with Nijinsky as the great dancer. And a great dancer he was. Dancing excites me tremendously and it is a thing I know a great deal about. I have seen three very great dancers. My geniuses seem to run in threes, but that is not my fault, it happens to be a fact. The three really great dancers I have seen are the Argentina, Isadora Duncan and Nijinsky. Like the three geniuses I have known they are each one of a different nationality.

The performance began. No sooner had it commenced when the excitement began. The scene now so well known with its brilliantly coloured background now not at all extraordinary, outraged the Paris audience. No sooner did the music begin and the dancing than they began to hiss. The defenders began to applaud. We could hear nothing, as a matter of fact I never did hear any of the music of the Sacre du Printemps because it was the only time I ever saw it and one literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music. The dancing was very fine and that we could see although our attention was constantly distracted by a man in the box next to us flourishing his cane, and finally in a violent altercation with an enthusiast in the box next to him, his cane came down and smashed the opera hat the other had just put on in defiance. It was all incredibly fierce.
From The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, 1933. Stein and Toklas met everyone, saw everything, in Paris from 1907-1932. Mighty Reader wondered if Marcel Proust had read about or possibly even witnessed that opera hat being smashed.

Monday, May 23, 2016

they had not yet gone greek

It was just about this time that Raymond Duncan, the brother of Isadora, rented an atelier in the rue de Fleurus. Raymond had just come back from his first trip to Greece and had brought back with him a greek girl and greek clothes. Raymond had known Gertrude Stein's elder brother and his wife in San Francisco. At that time Raymond was acting as advance agent for Emma Nevada who had also with her Pablo Casals the violincellist, at that time quite unknown. The Duncan family had been then at the Omar Khayyam stage, they had not yet gone greek. They had after that gone italian renaissance, but now Raymond had gone completely greek and this included a greek girl. Isadora lost interest in him, she found the girl too modern a greek. At any rate Raymond was at this time without any money at all and his wife was enceinte. Gertrude Stein gave him coal and a chair for Penelope to sit in, the rest sat on packing cases. They had another friend who helped them, Kathleen Bruce, a very beautiful, very athletic English girl, a kind of sculptress, she later married and became the widow of the discoverer of the South Pole, Scott. She had at that time no money to speak of either and she used to bring a half portion of her dinner every evening for Penelope. Finally Penelope had her baby, it was named Raymond because when Gertrude Stein's brother and Raymond Duncan went to register it they had not thought of a name. Now he is against his will called Menalkas but he might be gratified if he knew that legally he is Raymond. However that is another matter.
What jumped out at me, of course, is the phrase "became the widow of the discoverer of the South Pole." Stein here refers to Robert Falcon Scott, the explorer who led the first English party to the south pole. Scott and his men reached the pole some two weeks, I think, after Roald Amundsen and his men planted the Norwegian flag there. Scott and his party died during the march back from the pole to their waiting ship. He'd kept a diary of the expedition, and his final entry read, "For God's sake, look after our people." Scott's people were Kathleen and Peter, their son. The British government had made no provisions for survivors of polar expedition members and Scott worried that his family would be penniless. Kathleen Scott did not end up penniless, however. She married a politician who was eventually made baron.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Thoughts on Chekhov's "Three Years"

His imagination had been busy picturing his Moscow rooms

The plot: Alexey Laptev, son of a millionaire merchant, is visiting his sister Nina in a provincial town. Nina is dying of cancer despite the treatments of her doctor, Sergey Byelavin. Alexey meanwhile is smitten with Yulia, the doctor's daughter. Yulia is 21; Alexey is 45. They barely know each other and when Alexey impulsively proposes marriage, Yulia rejects him. Yulia knows she doesn't love Alexey, but the next day she accepts his proposal, as she dreams of Moscow and getting out of her father's house. After they marry, Alexey takes Yulia to Moscow where she meets the rest of the Laptev family: Fyodor, the father and founder of the successful business, and Alexey's brother, who is also called Fyodor. Fyodor Sr has a strong religious inclination, which Yulia shares, and she is taken wholeheartedly into the family. Still, she does not love Alexey and this makes him miserable. At the same time, Alexey's mournful passion for Yulia oppresses her. Yulia is embraced by Alexey's circle and she spends much of her time with Alexey's male friends. Alexey, in turn, spends too much time with his previous lover, Polina Razsudin, a poor music teacher. Alexey turned away from Polina despite how much they have in common because she is unattractive and earnest, while Yulia is pretty and vivacious. Back in the provincial town, Nina dies of cancer while her husband, Grigory Panaurov, continues to live with another woman and the children he has fathered on her. The children of Panaurov and Nina go to Moscow to live with Yulia and Alexey. A year or so goes by and Yulia gives birth to a daughter, Olga. Though Yulia still doesn't love Alexey, she seems content with motherhood and spends a great deal of time at the family dacha, avoiding her husband. It is there that Olga contracts diphtheria and dies. Alexey and Yulia spend even less time together now. Alexey's brother Fyodor is showing signs of the madness that will eventually put him into an asylum, and Alexey's father, who is quite old and going blind, is of almost no use to the business. Alexey spends his time traveling and involving himself in charitable schemes, but against his will he eventually finds himself running the family business. One night Yulia and Alexey speak openly of their feelings, their misery. He blames his unhappiness on her lack of love for him, she accuses him of having shaken her from her religious faith. Yulia visits the nearly-blind Fyodor Sr and tries to get him to forgive his enemies and repent. He ignores her lecture, yet she is moved by his condition and takes on the role of his nursemaid, transferring her and Alexey's household into the home of Fyodor. She investigates the conditions of the workers at the mercantile and begins to demand changes to better the workers' lives. Alexey dreams of escape, of youth, of a different life while Yulia resigns herself to caring for Fyodor Sr and Nina's children; she also sets herself up as a sort of mother figure for the workers at the business. She declares to Alexey, after not having seen him for a week, that she loves him. He is unmoved, which disappoints Yulia. One of Alexey's friends, Yartsev, arrives for a visit. Alexey sees the happiness in the eyes of Yulia and Yartsev as they greet one another as old friends, and he wonders what the rest of his life will be like.

Every man ought to remember what he is

"Three Years" is a theme and variations: the theme is self-delusion and falsehood, the variations take the form of fantasies and lies. Almost every character lives in an imaginary reality, blinding himself to the truth. Almost every page has an example of someone either lying to himself or to someone else. The story opens with Alexey waiting outside a church, idling until the service ends when he hopes to see Yulia. While he waits, Alexey thinks not of where he is and what he's doing, but of his rooms in Moscow, his Moscow friends, and his valet Pyotr. He remembers discussing with his friends that love was an obsession and nothing more, that passion was only physical attraction. One of the ironies of "Three Years" is that Alexey's love for Yulia is mere physical attraction, for he doesn't know her at all and during the course of the story he never gets to know her. But in that provincial town where Nina is dying, Alexey sees Yulia--so much prettier than Polina, Alexey's lover in Moscow--and he is convinced that he is in real, passionate, deeply meaningful love.

The fantasies of every character are introduced: Yulia's father "was a very huffy man, prone to take offence, and always ready to suspect that people did not believe in him." Nina, suffering from her husband's betrayal, declares untruthfully that she is at peace with the ill done her, that "I've grown calmer--it doesn't weigh on my heart." Nina's husband, an unsuccessful and insignificant civil servant, complains about the doctor's abilities and feigns concern for Nina, but only as a way to talk about himself ("he had a theory of his own about the circulation of the blood, about chemistry, about astronomy").

Alexey has no reason to be in love with Yulia, but works hard to convince himself that he does. "She never carries on a conversation with me--I don't know her; but when I'm beside her I feel she's a striking, exceptional creature, full of intelligence and lofty aspirations." Alexey, of course, imagines himself married to such a woman, and projects those qualities upon Yulia. Mostly, though, he likes her look: "She dresses in the Moscow style, and I love her for that--love, love, love her."

Yulia does not appreciate Alexey's proposal of marriage. "He did not attract her; he looked like a shopman; he was not interesting; she could not have answered him except with a refusal, and yet she felt uncomfortable, as though she had done wrong." The wrong is the turning aside of an opportunity to get out of the provinces, to get away from her difficult father, and live in Moscow. "It was true he was a man she did not love, and to marry him would bean renouncing forever her dreams, her conceptions of happiness in married life..." but "there were no eligible young men in town." Yulia builds a shaky argument that Alexey, living in Moscow, would provide Yulia entry into a sophisticated world, and besides, "perhaps what was meant in the Bible was love for one's husband as one's neighbor, respect for him, charity." There is no reason to believe Yulia believes this latter claim. Alexey is her one chance to get out of the country and into Moscow society, and she takes it. She "told herself that to refuse an honorable, good man who loved her [...] especially when marrying him would make it possible for her to change her mode of life, her cheerless, monotonous, idle life in which youth was passing with no prospect of anything better in the future [...] was madness." And so she accepts his offer of marriage. Each of them is attempting to fulfill a fantasy about love and marriage, and each of them is immediately saddened by the knowledge that the fantasy isn't coming true.
The very name "Yulia" had a vulgar sound. He imagined how he and his Yulia would stand at their wedding, in reality complete strangers to one another, without a trace of feeling on her side, just as though their marriage had been made by a professional matchmaker.

He felt himself in a false position right up to the wedding. His love grew more intense every day, and Yulia seemed to him a poetic and exalted creature, but all the same [...] the truth was that he was buying her and she was selling herself.
The wedding takes place in September. Alexey finally enters the church, to buy his bride.

She had no coppers in her pocket now--nothing but rubles

I was going to list all of the examples of self-delusion, falseness and fantasies in "Three Years," but it would be essentially just typing out the bulk of the story. Here are a few:
In spite of acute pain she still imagined that she was getting better.

He believed that he had a subtle, aesthetic temperament, and he always had leanings toward art. He neither sang nor played on any musical instrument, and was absolutely without an ear for music, but he attended all the concerts [...] Kostya delivered a regular monologue: he fancied that he was very successful in imitating Ermolova.

It seemed to him that he would be glad if his wife were to deceive him that night with his best friend [...] and now he had a passionate longing for her really to be unfaithful to him. He longed to find her in another man's arms, and to be rid of this nightmare forever.

"I'm a decent, honest man [...] I have not been always quite straightforward with women, but in my relations with the Russian government I've always been a gentleman."

If a woman protested he always interpreted it as a sign that he had made an impression on her and attracted her.

He fancied that he had a good deal of taste, and that if he had studied he might have made a good painter.

He spoke very circumstantially and convincingly, displaying an unusual talent for speaking at length and in a serious tone about what had been known to everyone long before.

In the evening she dressed a little more smartly and went to the evening service. But there were only poor people in the church, and her splendid fur coat and hat made no impression. And it seemed to her that there was some change in the church as well as in herself [...] now she only waited for the service to be over.
"waiting for the service to be over" is a good description of what the lives of Alexey and Yulia become. They are unhappy and see no way to become happy. Each blames the other for the misery, for the marriage. Over time they grow accustomed, not to life together, but to defeat.
Yulia Segeyevna had grown used to her sorrow, and had left off going to the lodge to cry.

"I feel as though our life is already over, and that a grey half-life is beginning for us. [...] However that may be, one has to give up all thoughts of happiness. There is none. I never have had any, and I suppose it doesn't exist at all. I was happy once in my life, though, when I sat at night under your parasol. Do you remember how you left your parasol at Nina's?" he asked, turning to his wife. "I was in love with you then, and I remember I spent all night sitting under your parasol, and was perfectly blissful." Near the book-case in the study stood a mahogany chest with bronze fittings where Laptev kept various useless things, including the parasol. He took it out and handed it to his wife.
There is no movement away from this sense of defeat during the final few pages of the story. There is movement around it as Alexey and Yulia finally begin to accept that the life they have is the life they have. "My father is blind, my brother is in the asylum, my nieces are only children. I hate the business; I should be glad to go away, but there's no one to take my place, as you know."
He moved into the middle of the yard and, unbuttoning his shirt over his chest, looked at the moon, and it seemed to him that he would order the gate to be unlocked, and would go out and never come back again. His heart ached sweetly with the foretaste of freedom; he laughed joyously, and pictured how exquisite, poetical, and even holy, life might be...But still he did not go away, and kept asking himself: "What keeps me here?" [...] It was clear that he was prevented from leaving by the habit of bondage, of servitude...

...he thought that he had perhaps another thirteen, another thirty years of life before him...And what would he have to live through in that time? What is in store for us in the future? And he thought: "Let us live, and we shall see."
Each of them, Alexey and Yulia, somehow returns to the circumstances they wished to escape: Alexey works in the mercantile where he spent his youth, and Yulia is taking care of a selfish and difficult father. Aside from that bookending of plot, the ending of "Three Years" is very similar to other Chekhov stories ("The Steppe", "The Duel", and "The Lady with the Little Dog") where people are disappointed and confused by life, and are faced at the end with the prospect of having to continue to figure out life in the unknown future, but perhaps now disabused of some of their delusions.

We are talking of the hundreds of talented mediocre writers

Chekhov wrote "Three Years" in 1895, during an important period of his artistic development. The year earlier he had consciously thrown off the influence of Tolstoy and ended a brief time of attempting to write didactic and morally-edifying stories. On March 27, 1894, Chekhov wrote to his publisher Alexei Suvorin, that
Tolstoyan morality has ceased to influence me; in the depths of my soul I feel rather hostile to it. [...] There was a time when I was strongly affected by Tolstoy's philosophy; it possessed me for six or seven years and I was affected not so much by his fundamental ideas--with which I was already familiar--than by the way in which he expressed them, his very reasonableness, and no doubt a species of hypnotism peculiar to him. But now something inside me protests against it: reason and justice tell me that there is more love for mankind in electricity and steam than there is in chastity and abstaining from meat. [...] What it amounts to is that whichever way I look at it Tolstoy has simply passed on, he is no longer in my heart [...] It is as though we have all been infatuated, but now we have recovered from our infatuation and are seeking new objects for our passions.
Erik McDonald at XIX век pointed in a recent post to a passage in "Three Years" where literature is being discussed:
"A work of art is only significant and valuable when there are some serious social problems contained in its central idea," said Kostya, looking wrathfully at Yartsev. "If there is in the work a protest against serfdom, or the author takes up arms against the vulgarity of aristocratic society, the work is significant and valuable. The novels that are taken up with 'Ach!' and 'Och!' and 'she loved him, while he ceased to love her,' I tell you, are worthless, and damn them all, I say!"

"I agree with you, Konstantin Ivanovitch," said Yulia Sergeyevna. "One describes a love scene; another, a betrayal; and the third, meeting again after separation. Are there no other subjects? Why, there are many people sick, unhappy, harassed by poverty, to whom reading all that must be distasteful."

It was disagreeable to Laptev to hear his wife, not yet twenty-two, speaking so seriously and coldly about love. He understood why this was so.
Why this was so is, apparently, because Yulia has been reading Tolstoy, for these are Tolstoyan arguments about the moral responsibilities of Art (see Tolstoy's critique of Shakespeare for details). Chekhov, through the character Yartsev, responds to Tolstoy's demand that art be limited to that which is instructive:
"If poetry does not solve questions that seem so important," said Yartsev, "you should turn to works on technical subjects, criminal law, or finance, read scientific pamphlets. What need is there to discuss in Romeo and Juliet liberty of speech, or the disinfecting of prisons, instead of love, when you can find all that in special articles and textbooks?"
Chekhov, then, takes a few pages of this long story to argue from the distance against his former idol. When Chekhov began to publish his stories with Suvorin, he was freed from the length constraints of the popular newspapers and comic magazines, and he could stretch out, digress, push the narrative sideways into themes not directly related to the central action of the story. Chekhov's long stories are closer to what we think of as novellas now, and given time (and better health) there is good reason to believe Chekhov would've eventually written a proper novel, as he possessed, by the mid-1890s, the technical skills to write pieces of that length.

I explain all that by my being a slave, the grandson of a serf

The other great digression in "Three Years" has to do with the family business, the successful mercantile founded by Fyodor Laptev. This business, and the way in which Alexey was raised in the warehouse as a child, is described in detail.
The entrance to the warehouse was in the yard, where it was always dark, and smelt of matting and where the dray horses where always stamping their hooves on the asphalt. A very humble-looking door, studded with iron, led from the yard into a room with walls discolored by damp and scrawled over with charcoal, lighted up by a narrow window covered by an iron grating...
The details are signposts of misery: "a prison window", "a narrow stone staircase," "perpetual darkness," "piles of boxes and bales," and "no one would have believed that a million was being made out of such trash." Alexey, as I've said, was a stockboy in the business when he was a child.
Every trifling detail reminded him of the past, when he used to be flogged and put on Lenten fare; he knew that even now boys were thrashed and punched in the face till their noses bled, and that when those boys grew up they would beat others. And before he had been five minutes in the warehouse, he always felt as though he were being scolded or punched in the face.

A boy with a cropped head, wearing a gray blouse, handed Laptev a glass of tea without a saucer; not long afterwards another boy, passing by, stumbled over a box, and almost fell down, and Makeitchev's face looked suddenly spiteful and ferocious like a wild beast's and he shouted at him, "Keep on your feet!"

Nothing was directly forbidden, and so the clerks never knew what was allowed, and what was not. [...] Every morning the old man scanned them all suspiciously, and tried to detect any smell of vodka about them. "Now then, breathe," he would say. Every clerk was obliged to go to early service, and to stand in church in such a position that the old man could see them all. The fasts were strictly observed. [...] The old man adored himself; from what he said it always appeared that he had made his wife and all her relations happy, that he had been munificent to his children, and a benefactor to his clerks and employees, and that everyone in the street an all his acquaintances remembered him in their prayers. Whatever he did was always right, and if things went wrong with people it was because they did not take his advice; without his advice nothing could succeed. In church he stood in the foremost place, and even made observations to the priests, if in his opinion they were not conducting the service properly, and believed that this was pleasing to God because God loved him.
What is being described here is more than just Fyodor Laptev and the Laptev warehouse: this is a description of Pavel Egorovich Chekhov, the father of Anton Chekhov, who ran a small shop in the provincial town of Taganrog. This is a description of Anton Chekhov's life as a boy. Pavel beat his children, worked them as slaves in his store, put on great long shows of religious piety at home and in the local church, and eventually went bankrupt and fled to Moscow, where his son Anton supported him for the rest of his life. "Three Years" is, I see, Chekhov's opportunity to symbolically slay his real and spiritual fathers. The irony is that the brutal merchant father in "Three Years" is a success, a millionaire, where Chekhov's father was a tremendous failure who spent years hiding from his creditors as his teenage son sent him money while going to school and working several jobs. The fictional merchant father is lectured on forgiveness, and declares that "forgiveness is impossible in our business."

This all sounds bleak, and "Three Years" is an unhappy story. Chekhov said, in a letter to a young writer, that "all you need for a story is a man, a woman, and a reason for them to be unhappy." Certainly "Three Years" meets those criteria. Yet somehow Chekhov leaves the reader with a feeling of hope. Perhaps he manages that by having the supporting cast awash in optimism. In the words of Yartsev, a chemist friend of Alexey,
I don't in the least want to become anything special, to create something great. I simply want to live, to dream, to hope, to be in the midst of everything....Life is short, my dear fellow, and one must make the most of everything.

EDIT: Erik McDonald has written a response to this post, well worth reading.

All material quoted here is from Constance Garnett's translation, but I am also quite fond of the version by Ann Dunnigan.