Saturday, December 31, 2016

Read in 2016, to a point

Read in 2016, a partial reconstruction up to mid-October

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

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.


  1. Interesting final line, where the long, level line of clay is reflected in the unbroken phrasing, and the more difficult emergence is highly broken.

    "There is nothing new under the sun." Nevertheless, there will never be another human being who can make your book. So please do make it.


    1. You can really see the influence Ruskin had on Proust, those long sentences, the care used with the rhythms and flow. I love "into the smoke and dead-fallen air of battle."

      The pursuit of a pub deal is wearing me down, I must admit, but yours is a very encouraging and useful comment. Thank you.
  2. Good on you for diving into Ruskin. He intimidates the heck out of me. Always has. He's a huge figure in European and American medievalism and its connection to literature, the arts and crafts movement, architectural history...and I just can't wrap my little monkey brain around the vastness of his thought.

    ...and yet even if you're unknowingly echoing Ruskin, what you're saying is worth saying again, in your own way.


    1. Ruskin is fabulous. I've read The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the first couple of volumes of Modern Painters, a chunk of The Stones of Venice, random essays and bits of Praeterita and other oddments from him. He was one brainy guy, that's certain. I'm just now getting around to his social commentary (not that his writing on art and architecture isn't social commentary).

      As I said to Marly, I'm just getting exhausted. Also, the more words I write, the less value I see in them, and the less sure I am of what I'm saying. I no longer believe that I'm smart enough to really understand the claims I make through my novels, and that's a problem.
    2. Just tell the story and let go of the claims--they'll either be there clearly anyway because an intrinsic part of the tale or else will cast a useful shadow that will tinge the story. If that makes any sense.... (Rather the way that things that are cut out of a story are still there in some way because they connect to other things that are still there.)

      And ignore the publishing for a while. It's bad for all of us, thinking about those things. Too easy to get discouraged. Lack of a black swan or lead book status at a big house (which is also a black swan) is no right measure of what you do.
    3. Well, yes, I should know all of that. And it's too early to really worry about what the book says and how it says it, as I'm still drafting and I know that, if I manage to finish this behemoth (for me, anyway), I will change many things in the revision process.

      I've been putting a lot of effort into queries and contests this year, and paying too much attention to mainstream publishing. I'm starting to think more about publishing on my own. For now, I should just think again about writing, yes.
    4. Jeff, if the "vastness" seems intimidating, have you tried Praeterita? Memoir and storytelling -- shouldn't be intimidating -- and longing, a sort of self-silliness, and rambunctious pride and defiance: "of my father's ancestors I know nothing, nor of my mother's more than that my maternal grandmother was the landlady of the Old King's Head in Market Street, Croydon; and I wish she were alive again, and I could paint her Simone Memmi's King's Head, for a sign."
    5. Yes, Praeterita, good idea, especially the first part, Ruskin's childhood.

      Scott, a pro now, will want to try The Queen of the Air.
    6. I suppose what intimidates me about Ruskin is that I'm looking at him in an attempt to understand his influence on British and American medievalism, the arts and crafts aesthetic, and trends in architecture—but what I find is part of such a full and interconnected system of thought that I wonder if I can really "know" Ruskin....especially since his thought developed over time. It's a problem I always have when I approach a big, influential author for the first time, but few others have been quite as prolific, and I'm at a stage in my life where I no longer feel I have infinite time. (Friends of mine inherited a set of his complete works—more than 30 volumes!) But perhaps I'll start with Praeterita. I appreciate the suggestion.
    7. Would it help to know that he's also very fallible, very blind, and very silly? There's a massive, innocent stupidity in Ruskin that his subsequent reputation tends to sideline. It's his willingness to let this stupidity out -- to not protect himself -- that allows him to seem wiser, in the end, than the other people (I've tried reading some of them) that use words like "noble" and "good," as he did -- but they protect themselves; they try to look noble themselves. Ruskin talked about nobility like a man who knew he would never have it. The others assume it's in them before they start.
  3. Something from Samuel Beckett, a man who knew a thing or two about words on pages and beyond:

    You must go on.

    I can't go on.

    You must go on.

    I'll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any - until they find me, until they say me. (Strange pain, strange sin!) You must go on. Perhaps it's done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.)

    It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don't know, I'll never know: in the silence you don't know.

    You must go on.


    1. I don't know about that must, though. I begin to think that living morally is more important than writing moral fiction. And "Krapp's Last Tape" is a frightening portrait of an aged writer without readers. Who is Krapp talking to? Nobody but himself. What he has to say is true and beautiful, maybe, but he speaks into a vacuum. So I don't know. I can go on and keep my damn mouth shut. There would be nothing wrong in that.
    2. I know you are not quoting "Krapp," but that play keeps entering my thoughts and I know you're familiar with it, since you performed it in college.

      Also, where is your blog? It seems to have gone missing.
    3. Correction:

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.


  1. Ah, this is great, and just what I needed.

    I think the interactions with Madame Bovary go way below the surface, but besides that... maybe I'll try to write about some of the ambivalence about Ana's mysticism.


    1. Flaubert, certainly stylewise, craftwise, yes. Undoubtedly. Bovary is far more highly organized, much tighter in construction, though.
    2. That's the Zola influence, the big setpiece chapters, how Zola organizes his novels. Easier to do than what Flaubert does.
    3. I haven't read Zola, so I take your word for it. I can see some Flaubertian patterning at work in La Regenta, if that's what you mean, interconnecting symbols, echoes, foreshadowing, etc. But there sure is a lot of other stuff in the way, huge messes of stuff rolling around.

      I'm happy you suggested this book. A good time, exhausting and rewarding.
    4. Zola can be a little mechanical - a novel with five chapters and five big scenes; seven chapters, seven big scenes.

      I assume some patterning is there in Alas, but I sure couldn't see it. Some equivalent of MB's horse theme.

      It really is an exhausting book. I found The Idiot to be exhausting, too.
    5. I've been avoiding reading the various posts on La Regenta till I had finished the novel myself.

      I find interesting your idea that the narrator's voice s not necessarily Alas' voice. And that the narrator is a "sarcastic idiot", and that Alas disapproves of him.

      Like Tom, I too found this novel exhausting, and, looking back, this is very possibly, at least in part, because of the narrator's constant sarcasm. But whether the narrator is an "idiot", I'm not entirely sure.

      I couldn't really figure out whether Ana's spiritual aspirations were real, and are frustrated by a society, and even by a church, that doesn't take such things seriously; or whether these aspirations are merely foolish, and doomed to be frustrated anyway because they try to reach towards what does not exist. I think your interpretation goes towards the first option, and you're probably right; but I can't resist this nagging feeling at the back of my mind that Alas, like Flaubert, really did believe in nothing, and saw spiritual aspirations, like all other human activities, as ultimately foolish and pointless.
  2. I've recently finished 'La R' in response to Tom's suggestion on his blog; I agree it's an exhausting read, and was inclined to let it go without comment. Now that Tom has started posting about it, however, and having read this perceptive and thought-provoking post - thanks for both - I might try to put some thoughts of my own together.


    1. I never feel obligated to write about books I've read, and let the books make the decision (blog/not blog) for me. I thought I'd let La Regenta go but the saint subtext kept nagging at me, and then I made the connection to The Idiot and had to write something.
  3. It is a difficult book to write about because there is so much in it (although that didn't keep me from trying). I'll agree it's an angry book, and while Alas doesn't hide his anger he does make it entertaining through many of the devices you point out. Fortunately he's an exception to Walker Percy's comment that it's hard to write a good protest novel...the angrier you are, the worse it will probably be (I'm paraphrasing). I'm so glad you posted your thoughts. I love Alas' response to Ramon Mainez's book.

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

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

from seat 26F at 30,000 feet

Mighty Reader and I have been away, to Our Nation's Capitol and to The City That Never Sleeps. I finished Treasure Island in a studio apartment in beautiful Capitol Heights and began reading a collection of Abraham Lincoln's letters. In beautiful Brooklyn I purchased a copy of Clarice Lispector's Near to the Wild Heart, which I have not begun to read yet. There were a number of Lispector novels on the shelf at Greenlight Bookstore, and of course I bought the one with the James Joyce reference in the title. My attorney, Salvatore, had read the novel long ago and could not vouch for it, which I also took as a sign. Salvatore and I bonded over the complete stories of John Cheever a million-and-a-half years ago.

While in DC and NYC, Mighty Reader and I gazed long at several Vermeers and Turners. I appreciate a Vermeer, but I find that I am increasingly smitten with the works of Mr Turner, especially his later paintings when he moved away from figurative art and focused on light and color. Though I am a sucker for his maritime subjects once he got past the Dutch influence of ships tossed by a storm. The thing about Mr Turner, though (and I've said this before), is that he teaches the viewer that the sky is the largest part of any landscape, that the works of Nature and of Man are tiny things at the feet of the heavens, nearly invisible from the great heights of the clouds.

We took in a show in Brooklyn: the Anbessa Orchestra in concert (a gig in the tiny tiny tiny backroom of Barbes, a sweet little club that Mr and Mrs Salvatore could vouch for). The Anbessa Orchestra plays a sort of 1960-70s Ethiopian horn-based pop music. Very nice indeed.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Published by Erasmus in Belgium

If you do not find a remedy to these evils it is a vain thing to boast of your severity in punishing theft, which, though it may have the appearance of justice, yet in itself is neither just nor convenient; for if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this but that you first make thieves and then punish them?
2016 is, in case you were unaware, the 500th anniversary of the first publication of Thomas More's Utopia. I have an interest in utopian literature. There's quite a bit of good scholarship around utopian literature, it turns out. There is a slight possibility that one day I'll write a novel called An Atlas of Utopias (the title is stolen from George Woodcock's 1980 review of the book Utopian Thought in the Western World by Frank and Fritzie Manuel; Woodcock notes that "The utopia is in fact the literary genre in which the difference between creative imagination and plausible invention is most clearly exemplified," which seems true enough).

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

to the bottom of the earth: a progress report

Lammerson looked up, blinked into the light and then he stretched out his arm toward the immense map which stood to his right and cried, "Antarctica!" Five hundred souls shivered and held their breath at Lammerson’s feet. Lammerson tossed his head, his eyes flashing, his gapped teeth bared.

"The bottom of the Earth," Lammerson said. His Norwegian accent was a thick liquid, undulating around sharp points of consonant, a growling music that would’ve been comical in a smaller man but from Lammerson it seemed to sound forth out of another world, a world of danger and mystery.

"I have trod the ice of Antarctica on four separate expeditions, more than any other man alive. I know Antarctica well: her mountains, her blizzards, her plains of broken snowpack, her vastness, and her deadliness."

Lammerson spoke for nearly an hour, now and then leaping to the map to point out where his adventures had taken place.

"Here we first laid anchor along the shores of the Southern Ocean, more than a thousand miles below New Zealand. We marched to the southeast, parallel to this line of high coastal mountains that curve like a great archer’s bow and lead nearly to the Pole. East of the range, shown here in light blue, is a great sea, an enormous bay hundreds of miles wide that is covered over with thick plates of pack ice pressed up against the continent by the ocean currents. We pulled our sleds out onto the frozen bay and saw how it was not flat, as we’d thought from the ship, but was broken and buckled, immense slabs of dense white ice the width of villages, the height of cathedrals, all laying one atop and alongside the other, a vast waste that shone hard in the sun, blinding us nearly at mid-day, uninhabited by any man since the creation of the world. On this bay we spotted dark seals and giant penguins, which we tracked, hunted, killed and ate. The seals and penguins also live out beyond the edge of the land here, on great sheets of sea ice that float freely, encircling Antarctica in a magnificent halo. The orca, those huge fish who swim all of the earth’s cold oceans, even into the fjords of Norway, hunt beneath the sea ice, leaping up between the floes to snatch unwary seals and families of penguins. Antarctica is no pastoral and sleeping land, ladies and gentlemen. Antarctica is violently in motion, day in and day out. The pack ice filling the bay seems at first to be a solid and unchanging mass, a sculpture carved by God in millennia long past, but it is not. The sea moves beneath the ice to push and pull the surface, and we learned to our sadness that we trod over unstable ground.

"We dragged our sleds, making our way from the ship’s anchorage here, crossing the bay in this direction. At times we were forced to leap across narrow chasms whose bottoms we could not see. On the third day we reached the foot of what we’d taken to be a granite cliff. It was instead a high wall of ice, forced up from the surrounding slabs by Nature, its head rising a hundred feet into the air. My friend Lars, well-known in Oslo as a mountaineer, said he would climb the face of this gigantic slab and take photographs from the top. We could see that such a climb was possible, as the cliff was composed of long striations of blue and white ice, a natural ladder much like crushed breccia or weathered gneiss, almost a steep staircase, ladies and gentlemen. A trivial climb for an experienced mountaineer such as Lars. With his ice axe and hobnailed boots he made his way up quite easily, fifty or sixty feet above us, and then we felt the world shifting, the pack ice shrugging beneath our weight. Lars called out to us and then the face of the ice cliff collapsed; its many layers of blue and white tumbled down from the top to the bottom. Those of us below scrambled away and as I looked back I saw Lars disappear under countless tons of ice and snow that poured down upon him, a great wave of shale-like fragments the size of houses. We dug for an hour but found no sign of Lars. The next day we made our way off the ice and set foot on the continent itself."

Lammerson shook his head and walked back to the lectern, where he shrugged, adjusted his cuffs and tugged absently on the gold medal hung at his throat. He drank a glass of water and turned his attention back to the large map.
I'm foolishly still writing the first draft of yet another novel, a thing called Nowhere But North. At this point, according to my design document, I'm about 40% of the way through the work. At this rate, I'll need a year to finish the draft. I am writing this book very slowly as compared to my previous first drafts. There is a huge amount of research reading to do, as well as certain interesting formal considerations that slow me down. Structure is tricky in this one, and I'm not writing it in the order that the material will be presented in the narrative. The above excerpt will eventually be found about a third of the way into the novel. I've already written the final chapter of the book. Next I'll write two middle sections, and then three beginning sections, and then one long scene that ties all of the sections together, running like a ribbon around/between nine longer pieces. It will all be clear on the trail, as the saying goes.

Also, the usual caveats about the text above being a rough draft all apply.

Monday, March 28, 2016

leave the gun, take a book

Because, despite the Leviathan of Amazon, there are bookstores everywhere I go, I keep finding myself buying books. Just in the last week I've picked up Walter Pater's Maurius the Epicurean, Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, and three or four others I can't even bring to mind. So many books, so little time. Also, I am nearly finished with Dana's Two Years Before the Mast; I admit I've begun skimming to get past the last few months of Dana's time on the California coast. Despite the skimming, it's a worthwhile book to read. You can see how it influenced Jack London, Melville, etc. You can even see, if you crack open one of Bill Tilman's sailing books (Mischief Goes South, for example), the continuing influence of Dana's book. How does one write about the details of sailing a ship? The way Richard Henry Dana wrote. You could take pages from Three Years and swap them with pages from Mischief Goes South and do no damage to the books (though the sailing experts would wonder how a three-masted brig briefly became a sloop and vice versa).

Also, I'm eating home-baked gingerbread. It's not prosphora, but it's delicious. Khristos voskrene, brothers and sisters. If you think God wants you to murder infidels, you are mistaken.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Open to "Hamlet," the Ophelia-spurned scene

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, more commonly referred to as the First Folio, is considered one of the most important books in the world.

Anyone within striking distance of Seattle should go see it, at the Seattle Public Library downtown branch. As well as being a reference in footnotes to modern editions, it's a real book! Also, a copy of the Third Folio. No quartos, alas.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Pedro Páramo and the other dead

This town is filled with echoes. It's like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone's behind you, stepping in your footsteps.
If the dead could speak, what would they say? To whom would they say it?

Pedro is Peter, the rock, the stone. Páramo is a moor, a wasteland. So the title character, the title of this novella, is something like "the stone in the wasteland." I get the impression that Rulfo is implying an inversion of St Peter, the rock upon which the church is built, for Pedro Páramo is the rock upon which the tale is told, and also the rock upon which the characters are dashed and destroyed. There are also historical forces at work, at the edges of the story, piercing the action toward the end in the form of revolutionary armies, but I lack the knowledge of Mexican history to know what those forces mean. I'm left looking at the humanity of the characters and the forms of expressions, the early stirrings of magical realism, that Rulfo puts into Pedro Páramo. Which is plenty enough to think about.
The sky was filled with fat stars, swollen from the long night. The moon had risen briefly and then slipped out of sight. It was one of those sad moons that no one looks at or pays attention to. It had hung there a while, misshapen, not shedding any light, and then gone to hide behind the hills.
The Páramo family is a dynasty of almost feudal landowners somewhere in rural Mexico, the family seat being a hacienda called Media Luna*, outside the town of Comala**. The Páramo patriarchs more or less own Comala and the surrounding ranches, taking what they want by intimidation, corrupt legal dealings, and murder. The Páramo men take whatever women they want, fathering who knows how many illegitimate children, ruining lives as if by instinct.

Rulfo lets the dead of Comala narrate their own stories, in short episodes that build a sort of branching viny picture of the dead town. The first speaker is Juan Preciado, who makes a promise to his dying mother to make a pilgrimage to Comala, to find Pedro Páramo. Páramo is Juan's father. Juan's mother claims to have been Páramo's legal wife before she left him forever. Juan makes the long journey to Comala to discover that everyone in the town has died, that it is populated now only by ghosts whose deaths have brought them neither peace nor rest. Juan learns, in fact, that he himself is one of the dead. Pedro Páramo is a book of the dead speaking to the dead. If you are reading the book, you too may be one of the dead.
I am lying in the same bed where my mother died so long ago; on the same mattress, beneath the same black wool coverlet she wrapped us in to sleep. I slept beside her, her little girl, in the special place she made for me in her arms. I think I can still feel the calm rhythm of her breathing; the palpitations and sighs that soothed my sleep... I think I feel the pain of her death... But that isn't true. Here I lie, flat on my back, hoping to forget my loneliness by remembering those times. Because I am not here just for a while. And I am not in my mother's bed but in a black box like the ones for burying the dead. Because I am dead. I sense where I am, but I can think...
This is all clearly metaphorical speech on the part of Rulfo, maybe a claim that Mexico--or at least parts of rural Mexico--have died due to the violence and greed of someone, I don't know who. I can sense the power behind all of this surrealism, the anger and sadness of Rulfo, but I can't really understand the center of it. Which is fine, because we can all understand the anger and sadness of the world's losers, right? My inability to know the subtleties of Rulfo's argument don't necessarily blind me to either his artistic strengths or his portrayal of suffering.

This is after all a book about suffering. It's Lent as I write this, so I am allowing myself to think about how my people believe that suffering can lead to grace. In Rulfo's ghost town of Comala, suffering leads to nothing but an awareness of one's pain, pain beyond endurance, eternal despair that can never be forgotten. The dry stone in the middle of the wasteland.

* "half moon" (but which half?)

** My Spanish fails me with comala, and the best I can figure is that it's a portmanteau of coma and mala. Someone help me with that one.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

the author's sense of doubt: a report on Max Frisch

A few evenings ago I finished reading Max Frisch's 1957 novel Homo faber; ein Bericht. The novel is the tale of Walter Faber, an engineer employed by UNESCO to build hydroelectric dams and other things in third-world countries, who discovers that the world is not a rational and carefully-built machine, and neither is his own life. Yes, that's a good way of putting it, I think. The irony is that Faber himself has never been rational; he's been blindly selfish, objectifying everyone around him; he is given to outbursts of irrationality (on a flight from New York to Mexico City, Faber's plane suffers engine trouble; he lectures his fellow passengers on the safety of airplanes--and as an engineer he knows something about this--but he himself suffers a panic attack; in fact, during an earlier short layover in Texas, Faber collapsed in the men's room and then hid in a broom closet to avoid getting back on the plane) and continually misunderstands the simplest emotions of those around him.

This is by now fairly familiar comic territory, the aging man who has no understanding of real life, whose blindness about himself leads him to carry on with much younger women (he ages, of course, but his romantic targets are always young women and, to Faber, signs of aging are signs of ugliness). Faber makes declarations about the women ("she knows of course that I won't ever marry, and she accepts that") that are usually inaccurate and he disingenuously declares that he "has no idea what she meant--sometimes she talks as if she is crazy" when a woman accuses him of selfishness. We all, I think, know this character, and Frisch's protagonist is well drawn and entertaining, even if painfully so.

The plot of Homo faber is a network of coincidence, an almost Kafkaesque carnival of absurdity where Faber keeps running into people from his past, and through his blundering he wreaks havoc in their lives. The comic novel is generally tragic, you know, the failure of the clown to find happiness in a world whose rules he cannot understand. Walter Faber is a traditional clown character in this respect. Home faber is a traditional comedy in this respect, a fine book full of irony and pathos, until about 3/4 of the way through when Max Frisch, our intrepid author, unfortunately loses his way.

This is the point in the book where the story really ends, where the timelines all collapse, where Frisch has reached the end of his comic sympathy for the engineer-clown Walter Faber. The tragedies are deadly and perverse, and even Faber is emotionally affected, shaken to a core he didn't know he had. This is also fairly familiar territory in a novel, a common spot in which an author will find himself 75% of the way through a story. In the fiction business we call this the end of the second act, the hero's lowest point, the point-of-no-return, etc. This is also the point in Homo faber where the narrative transforms and Faber's dry delivery of the "facts" dissolves into figurative language, sometimes overwhelmed by passages of powerful beauty where author Max Frisch has pushed fictional Walter Faber to the side and picked up the pen himself:
I will never forget how she sat on this rock, her eyes closed, how she stayed silent, letting the sun shine on her. She was happy, she said, and I'll never forget: the sea that became visibly darker, blue, purple, the sea of Corinth and the other, the Attic sea, the red color of the fields, the olives, verdigris, their long morning shadows on the red earth, the first heat and Sabeth, her arms around me, as if I have given her everything, the sea and the sun and everything, and I'll never forget how Sabeth sang!
There is a later passage, describing a summer thunderstorm in Havana, that is equally rich and beautiful, equally not in the voice of our man Faber. Another passage later where Faber rides a passenger plane over the Alps and describes the mountains, the glaciers and the valleys and the clouds, the black shadow of the plane rippling across the ice and snow ("like a bat!"). Reviewers of the novel when it first came out pointed to these passages as a triumph of prose writing but a failure of the novelist's art, a cheating escape from the prison of the first-person narrator. I think those reviewers were correct about that. I think that Frisch got to this point in the narrative and had no idea where to go next, and you feel the author's sense of doubt on every page as he stumbles forward, throwing pages from Faber's diary at us alongside Faber's retelling of his physical/emotional/vocational collapse alongside the updates on his health (stomach cancer). It is a mess.

Perhaps Frisch knew exactly what he was doing. I would like to think he did, and that my desire for Homo faber to be a more unified--or at least less uneven--work is my own shortcoming as a lazy reader. I tend to believe that a sudden shift in style/approach at the end of a novel is a sure sign that the author had no idea what to do with his material in order to bring things to a close, and has panicked.

There is a lot to admire in Homo faber despite the awry ending pages. The passages where Frisch lets go of Faber's limitations and lets himself write beautifully are very fine, well worth reading. The bulk of the book, the tragedy of the clown, is very good indeed. I feel like I'm giving a report but I don't mean to be. I really wanted to talk about the fracturing of the narrative caused by the author's mistrust of his own creation, which in itself was worth seeing, was instructive.


  1. Faber means maker, same as Smith, so Homo faber would be maker-man, yes?


    1. Yes, that's right! Walter Faber narrows life down to single characteristics, for example claiming that men are essentially their jobs and nothing more, that a civilization is its technology, etc. He denies most of life, denies the value of experiences. Facts and machines, that's what he wants to know. Meanwhile, he's having a psychic breakdown.
  2. it sounds like faber wanted to write a book of contrasts, describing selfishness and relating that to a wider, more universal truth of some sort; but he maybe just got disoriented about the transition...


    1. Certainly you can mix comedy and tragedy, certainly you can contrast ideas, but the change in the narrative is quite abrupt, as if Frisch forgot what book he was writing. The last fifty pages aren't the most important thing about the book, though. I seem to be making too much of it in this post, and other readers will read it differently than I did. Still, I have my suspicions about what was going on in the fashioning of the novel.
  3. Frisch, not faber; darn. i got disoriented...


    1. The names of people you don't know can often look identical.
  4. Reminds me of the arguments about Huckleberry Finn...

    I do like to assume that authors know what they are doing, and that a book has an integrity, if only I can find it. Of course, writers hope for the same kindness in regards to their own paper children.


    1. This was one of those posts where I put together a long argument and then discovered that I think my argument is wrong. Which is useful, at least.
    2. Unusual for a person to admit such a thing... no doubt good for you!
    3. The older I get, the more often I find myself starting to make pronouncements and then realizing that no, I don't believe what I'm saying at all. Hopefully that means I'm questioning my unexamined opinions more often.
  5. i don't think there's any "wrong", just interestingly different wasys of looking at it. the world would be pretty boring if everybody thought just like me...