"There are lots of cats in Paris and in France and they can do what they like"

I was very pleased one day when the wife of the local doctor, he and she are fond of digging a bit and here when you dig a bit, beside making things grow, there is Roman, and Gallo-Roman, and even earlier things to be found. Well one day we were out in the car and she said one day when the work men were first cutting this road through there on that ledge were the ancestors, lots of their bones. It is always there life and death death and life and the earth and it is never anything to be remembered or even talked about, and that is the reason the French do not make much lyrical poetry. They do not get away from the earth enough to look at it, they paint it, but they do not poetise it.
Stein, in her short book Paris France says very little about Paris, and speaks mostly of France in terms of difference, how the French are unlike anyone else, or--more accurately--seemed to be like or unlike Gertrude Stein. Sometimes Stein talks about how much the French are like everyone else, though.
It could be a puzzle why the intellectuals in every country are always wanting a form of government which would inevitably treat them badly, purge them so to speak before anybody else is purged. It has always happened from the French revolution to to-day. It would be a puzzle this if it were not that it is true that the world is round and that space is illimitable unlimited. I suppose it is that that makes the intellectual so anxious for a regimenting government which they could so ill endure.
Stein is writing during WW II, which she and her companion Alice spent in the French countryside, away from Paris. Paris France is mostly a book about rural France during the early years of WW II.
Helen and her dog William were out every day and almost every evening and they always saw some one. They knew a boy named Emil who was a big boy with very large eyes and a dog named Ellen. Ellen the dog had been born in the country against which they were fighting. Emil looked at his dog and wondered if he could love him. The dog loved Emil but could Emil love him.

As Helen and her dog William came along Emil's dog Ellen was sniffing along the side of the road in the sand and finally went sniffing up the bank. Helen's dog William went sniffing too. Perhaps there was game there, very likely because in war time men did not go shooting nobody hunted any thing only dogs and cats hunted in war-time, Emil the boy with large eyes sighed about this. He said dogs hunt in war-time but they do not get much, anybody could see two or three dogs going together to hunt and waiting to see if anybody saw them because in peace-time of course they could not go hunting. Then Emil said but cats in peace-time or in war-time, they sit and watch and prey. It was getting darker and beginning to rain and Helen went one way and Emil went another way and each one of their dogs went with the one who owned him.
Paris France is not much like Hemingway's A Movable Feast. Stein's France is not a movable feast, it is an art exhibit with a distracted but chatty curator. It is not filling, but it does make one hungry.


A French cat, outside Giverny, September 2015. Photo: Mighty Reader

33 comments:

  1. "the French do not make much lyrical poetry" - !!! What on earth could Stein mean by that?
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    1. I know! This book is full of odd pronouncements like that. Her formal education was mostly in the sciences, so Paris France is a sort of reportage, an odd book of observations and odder conclusions. Highly entertaining stuff. Stein seemed to believe that the natural art of France was either painting, cooking, or hat-making.

      Now that I think about it, the novel Three Lives is also a sort of reportage, with commentary along the way. I'll have to read The Autobiography of Alice B Tolkas, which is supposed to be a lot more about Paris than this book.

      It's also possible that Stein was referring particularly to the French of the 1930s.
  2. So. Do you think she's onto something about intellectuals? (You don't have to answer, of course, and maybe shouldn't.)
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    1. I'm less sure than ever that I know what an "intellectual" is!
    2. Agreed. And a good way to change the subject. Though you wade in elsewhere!
  3. that's a cogent point, what she said about intellectualism; she takes a broad view which is well brought out in the above quotes. she's also right, i think about the lyrical poetry bit; french artists were under the hand of the academy until the mid 18th c. and only gradually started to surface out of that classical attitude when moliere began poking fun at them, among others. and even then, the most famous poets, verlaine, baudelaire etc., were not lyrical, but socialistic, one might say, not in the sense that wordsworth and co. were, anyway. modern french poetry, in the 30's, was leading up to dadaism, cocteau, and farther out into extremist deconstructural philosophies(although, come to think of it, jongleur poetry before the 12 c. was nicely lyrical). anyhoo, i'll have to read some of her; i like the way she thinks...
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    1. I don't know anything about French poetry, really, so I'll let others argue that point. Most of the poetry I know (aside from, say, The Divine Comedy) was writ in English.

      I will say that when I was in college, cutting a youthful revolutionary figure, my revolutionary friends and I were all attracted to the sort of rigid and dogmatic government forms that would have crushed us. We also didn't see at the time that a stable government based on liberty cannot coexist with revolutionaries. When ma femme and I were in Paris last fall, walking through the Musee Carnavalet--the museum of the French Revolution--we saw proof all around that revolutionaries rarely survive even successful revolutions. The Musee Carnavalet is a blood-chilling experience, once you get past the "history of Paris" rooms and Proust's bedroom set.
  4. That is a great museum.

    I have no idea what M. means by "socialistic." Baudelaire, Verlaine, etc. (a large and varied etc.) were, by ordinary definition, lyric poets. They are among the world's greatest lyric poets. And then there is Victor Hugo.

    The point about intellectual support for tyranny is appalling in context. "[F]rom the French Revolution to " - no, not to "to-day." This time, the French were conquered by Nazis, which is not what the "intellectuals" wanted. Perhaps Stein is speaking for herself there.
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    1. I think Stein had only a vague idea of what fascism was. Her idea of a bad government, if one takes her at her word in this book, is one that taxes you too much or fails to protect you from an outside enemy. Nothing else about a government matters much. She says late in the book that the third republic seems an okay thing.

      I get the feeling that the whole of Paris France is an impression, a put-on, a bit of Browning-like ventriloquism, Stein doing a character who looks past any particular individual suffering and sees only abstractions and millinery. I think that was one of the things she was working on in her art.

      Baudelaire, what little I've read of him, strikes me as sort of Gothic and Victorian, actually. Or Germanic Sturm und Drang, even. But I do mean that "little." I am really ignorant of French poetry.
    2. I also think Stein didn't believe, when she was writing Paris France, that the Germans would actually make it all the way to Paris, that France would fall to the Nazis. She ends the book with a declaration that England and France "will do what they must do" to protect civilization, and she wants them "to do what they're going to do." I am unsure how much of her naivete is affectation.
    3. it's been my understanding that "lyricism" has an element of natural transcendentalism in it; most descriptions of 19. c. to 20 c. french poetry describe it as "decadent" which take to indicate a kind of fatalistic egoism. no??
  5. Oh I see, the book is from much earlier than I had thought. From the first year of the war. Published the day Paris fell, no kidding.

    Baudelaire definitely has a Gothic side, with his vampires and corpses and so on.
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  6. I do not use "lyrical" in that way. I mean "song-like," "emotionally expressive," something like that. Lyrical as opposed to epic or dramatic, for example. Verlaine was a Decadent who wrote lyric poems. I mean, Debussy set 'em to music.

    I guess I don't know what "natural transcendentalism" means, either. Do you have a critic in mind who uses this language? "[M]ost descriptions" seems impossibly strong. Again - Victor Hugo.
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    1. Yes, approaching song, usually first person and tinged with feeling. But it's curious that what we refer to as lyric poetry now is often not a bit songlike (and is in fact usually strongly prosaic and commonplace), nor does it often show feeling. And yet we're still caught in the net of the short poem, for the most part.
    2. Oh so true. And whenever I see a reviewer describe a novel's prose as "lyrical," I think "Sing a few bars for me, will ya?"
    3. hard for me to adopt a lawyerly approach to literature. i've read a lot and my comments reflect an overview rather than specific details. sorry if this is not acceptable...
    4. Not remotely lawyerly but rather an attempt to use common vocabulary so we can understand each other.
  7. I have no idea if this link really works for anyone else, but this section of Christopher Prendergast's Nineteenth-century French Poetry (the section headed "Voice") gives a good idea of how I use the terms "lyric" and "lyricism."
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  8. Everything I've read by Stein (not much) and about Stein (a bit more) leads me to the half-baked conclusion that people tend to make much too much of dear Gertrude; perhaps only her influence upon and friendship with (?) Ernest Hemingway matters. In another 100 years, Stein will be little more than a footnote in literary history, but Hemingway will remain as a shining star. Of course, I could be quite wrong. Still, I've enjoyed reading your posting and the comments, and I wish I could have added something more sensible to the conversation.
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    1. I'm not sure who is "making too much" of Stein. Certainly Paris France was less about Paris than I wanted it to be; I was hoping for something like Hemingway's A Movable Feast, but that was my fault, not Stein's. I'm not going to claim that Hemingway was "better" than Stein, either, because I don't believe those sorts of comparisons have any worth. Everything I've read by Stein has been well worth reading. In Movable Feast, Hemingway goes to some lengths to express his admiration of Stein's writing, his debt to her as a writer, and his thanks for the help she gave him with his career. Maybe implying that Hemingway is more important than Stein is like saying that your skin is more important than your spine, because nobody ever looks at your spine.

      Hemingway's books are full of crackpotted and self-absorbed ideas about humanity, you know. "Here is how people are not me," he would say. And then he'd say it again. He could be quite mean-spirited. So they are both flawed shining stars, both Ernie and Gertie. Her writing certainly matters. I plan on reading a lot more of it. I know that you aren't attracted to high modernism the way I am, though. Which is fine.
    2. I am even less attracted to cant. Stein's writing, to my mind, is just that. But so are the words of so many others.
    3. Happily, none of us is bounded by the tastes of others, so you are of course free to dislike Stein's work while I am free to like it. So it all works out for all of us.
  9. personally, hemingway is a bit objectionable. he liked to kill things and had weird ideas about being real. plus i thought it was kind of cowardly to shoot himself and leave his family in the lurch. don't think much of his writing, either...
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    1. I like Hemingway's books and stories. I almost never think of writers as real people, so how they lived rarely influences my opinion of their work. He may have been an absolute monster (I don't know), but A Farewell to Arms is a beautiful masterpiece. I'm okay with both things being true.
    2. i don't believe an author can write without including himself in his work. that's why i said the book represents the writer in a rather intimate way. style conveys personality just like music indicates the inner nature of the composer. compare poe with gibbon, for instance, or steinbeck with faulkner. each has his/her own road to travel as we all do and detours are not possible...
    3. I mostly agree since writing is a human act performed by distinct humans, but I don't think I want to try believing that I can "know" an artist through his art in any meaningful sense. At the end of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin writes like a man terrified of the future, but whas he a man terrified of the future, or was he working out an idea, an idea he thought was important but did not necessarily frighten him, and the fear was a rhetorical device? I don't know. The book is what matters, and the "author" is just another fiction, part of the book. In my opinion you can't really reverse-engineer an author from a book with much more success than you can reverse-engineer an architect from a building. It seems like you can, because a novel or a poem is a form of speech, but so is acting on stage. A novelist pretends to be a person who writes novels, and then sits down and performs the act of writing a novel. Not all novels are written like that, certainly, but I don't really believe that art is a direct lens into the soul of the artist or anything like that. I don't really believe that Hemingway believed all his claims about the world, nor did Wolfe, nor Chaucer, nor Shakespeare, nor Nabokov, nor Tolstoy. No, I don't believe that. I also know that I'm not really talking about the author being part of the book the way you are. I guess really what I'm saying is that there are books I like and books I don't like, and the opinions and personality of the author are beside the point if it's a good book, a well-written book, even if the book is filled with ideas I can't stand. We live in the fallen world and everyone's a sinner. What can you do?
    4. i don't know about engineering, but the little ruskin i've read has indicated to me, even before i knew it, that he was disturbed in some way about something and it was not much of a surprise to learn that he became relatively insane in his later years. "knowing" is not an accurate term except in the sciences; i learned certain things about you by reading the first page of your book; it was a bit too bloodthirsty for me, so i couldn't continue with it, but it gave me an indication of the scope of your awareness, one might say. i'm not judging it, i'm just saying that i "know" something about you that i didn't know before i read that page...
    5. Interesting, but I'm thinking of your "tower of Babel" comment on RT's blog. In writing my novel, then, I didn't know what I was trying to say nor how to say it, and you reading it didn't know what I meant. A typically comic Beckettian experience. I actually find that scenario to be fairly attractive because I think it's mostly true.

      The first page of The Astrologer:

      Gustavus had lost a great deal of blood. The spots and trails of crimson that stained the surface of the frozen lake all came from his wounds and he was now sluggish and dragged his left foot. Even I could see that he would not survive the contest, that his heart would soon beat its last. Gustavus’s opponent—Christian son of Rorik, king of Denmark—was unharmed. He laughed and swung his great sword as if it weighed no more than the leg of a roasted goose, as if the last hour of bashing and being bashed had taken no toll on him whatever. This was most vexing to me. I had cast the king’s horoscope the night before and the heavens had declared some great misfortune was his destiny on this day. I looked for a lucky turn for Gustavus; it was not too late for the Earl of Jutland to strike a fatal blow against the king.

      I let my eyes be drawn down to the patterns formed by the blood on the ice. It is a star chart, I thought. The king stands in Orion while Gustavus drags his wounded foot through Cassiopeia and spits a mouthful of blood onto the Pleiades. I wondered if Gustavus had any regrets. If he did, he did not have time to think of them. Christian son of Rorik swung his sword in a bright, deadly arc that Gustavus could barely arrest. The king’s blade rebounded at a sharp angle and struck a glancing blow against Gustavus’s right shoulder.
      Something came spinning across the ice, hitting my left boot. It was one of the buckles from Gustavus’s cuirass, fashioned from steel and brass in the shape of a rampant bear. The bear’s head had been struck off.


      SPOILERS: I haven't looked at the text for a couple of years. I'm struck by how I worked the main themes and images into this scene: the novel begins and ends with a violent man-to-man battle, this first one surrounded by ice and the final one surrounded by fire. I love that sort of bookending of events. The ease with which the king kills Gustavus is echoed later by the ease with which the astrologer assassinates the king. The battle takes place atop the narrator's imagined star chart, the warriors blind to it, the constellations pure fancy in the astrologer's mind. The bear-shaped buckle is echoed in a later scene where the king kills a bear. Good stuff.

      "too bloodthirsty"? Have you never seen Shakespeare?

      The original first page of the novel was all about the Elba River. My agent called it "immobile" or something.
    6. you're right: maybe i shouldn't be reading literature. all i can say is that with age i've gotten more and more inimical to egregious cruelty, violence and, yes, blood. maybe i should go live in a cave somewhere away from humans. except that many good ethical traits are still to be found in humanity; jane austen isn't very bloody; she's only one quite a number of authors who've manage to convey sometimes quite complex messages in a calm, peaceful manner about the saving qualities in people and the things that raise them above, granted, the tooth and claw of nature. still, if humanity is to survive as a race, i think they will have to become a bit meeker than they are... and smarter!
    7. I agree with quite a bit of that, but I don't know about "saving qualities." I'm writing more along the lines of Chekhov, telling the reader that he is living badly, and should stop.
    8. Did I say you shouldn't be reading literature? Everyone's so tetchy today.
    9. no, i said it, being self critical to a degree...

"You are too bitter to your countrywoman"

I've been reading Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," a play with which I was unfamiliar, because it's not one that gets performed much or, I think, read widely (that is to say, assigned as reading from EngLit profs). I have no idea why this is not one of Shakespeare's best known or most performed works. It's a masterpiece, a thing of genius, one of the best plays I've ever read.

I was vaguely aware of the existence of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde but I assumed it was a medieval story put into new clothes by Chaucer; I had no idea it was an addition to Homer's Iliad. Which means that I had no idea Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" was a sharp parody of Homer, a criticism of stereotypical ideas about ancient Greece, an indictment of heroism worthy of Euripides. Great stuff, I am telling you.

Where to start? How about with the basis of the war, a woman named Helen? Shakespeare's Helen is not the most beautiful woman in Greece, or in Troy, and nobody, neither Trojan nor (with the exception of Menelaus) Greek, actually considers her worth fighting over. Here is Diomedes, a Greek general, to Paris, who stole Helen:
She's bitter to her country: hear me, Paris:
For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight,
A Trojan hath been slain: since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Trojans suffer'd death.
High praise indeed, eh? Paris' response is that the Greeks only talk that way about Helen because they are attempting to be wily: wanting the Trojans to think Helen worthless and give her up. But in an earlier scene, Priam and some of his sons do seriously discuss giving Helen back. Hector, Priam's eldest son (and Paris' big brother), says:
Let Helen go:
Since the first sword was drawn about this question,
Every tithe soul, 'mongst many thousand dismes,
Hath been as dear as Helen; I mean, of ours:
If we have lost so many tenths of ours,
To guard a thing not ours nor worth to us,
Had it our name, the value of one ten,
What merit's in that reason which denies
The yielding of her up?
Nobody but Paris and Menelaus values the woman, yet on the war goes, because it's an affair of honor. Neither side will yield because questions of machismo, and nothing more, are at stake. The Trojans and the Greeks are alike in that they are petty and prideful; they are alike in that they treat women as tokens to be passed from man to man; they are alike in that they will only go to war when battle will increase their personal esteem. There is no statecraft going on, but plenty of politicking. Honor is nonexistent; pride is what matters, pride and the esteem of others. Ulysses goads Achilles into action by having everyone important ignore him. Ulysses goads Ajax into fighting Hector by implying that Achilles might be a better warrior, though of course Ulysses would never think such a thing; it's those other Greeks who say that. Ajax is a dummy, a big stupid brute, but at heart so are the rest of the heroes in this story. They all just want to kill people and be admired for it. The following exchange between Aeneas and Diomedes, enemies come together under a flag of truce for a moment, should demonstrate the sort of guys-will-be-guys, look-how-cool-I-am mindset of the mighty warriors:
AENEAS:
Health to you, valiant sir,
During all question of the gentle truce;
But when I meet you arm'd, as black defiance
As heart can think or courage execute.

DIOMEDES:
The one and other Diomed embraces.
Our bloods are now in calm; and, so long, health!
But when contention and occasion meet,
By Jove, I'll play the hunter for thy life
With all my force, pursuit and policy.

AENEAS:
And thou shalt hunt a lion, that will fly
With his face backward. In humane gentleness,
Welcome to Troy! now, by Anchises' life,
Welcome, indeed! By Venus' hand I swear,
No man alive can love in such a sort
The thing he means to kill more excellently.

DIOMEDES:
We sympathize: Jove, let AEneas live,
If to my sword his fate be not the glory,
A thousand complete courses of the sun!
But, in mine emulous honour, let him die,
With every joint a wound, and that to-morrow!

AENEAS:
We know each other well.

DIOMEDES:
We do; and long to know each other worse.

PARIS:
This is the most despiteful gentle greeting,
The noblest hateful love, that e'er I heard of.
Paris gets the punch line at the end. The joke is even bigger than this exchange: Paris never leaves Troy to fight; he spends most of his time in Helen's bed. Everyone comments on it constantly, nobody is at all surprised, even when Helen turns out to be a shallow little strumpet, nothing so like the goddess we might expect. I am delighted that "Troilus and Cressida" turns out to be so very very good. I should not be surprised; it's a later play, written in 1603 or so, after "Hamlet." I think the plays from this period are Shakespeare's best, or at least I think that he was doing his best large-scale thinking during the early 17th century. Or I mean something along those lines.

11 comments:

  1. The answer to you beginning "why" is that the play is too hard. It is reserved for Advanced Shakespeare Studies.

    Chaucer's poem is, unsurprisingly, excellent, with a particularly sublime ending.
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    1. I guess. It seems pretty straightforward to me. But I suppose the parodic elements would be lost on a reader who doesn't know The Iliad.

      I loved the ending speech, I must say. "What's this dishonorable courtly society lead to? Sexually-transmitted diseases. Don't blame the pimps. The end."
  2. Yes, I think there is too much to teach around the play. Few undergraduates will have any of the background.

    My understanding is that the best guess is that this play was written for a small, courtly audience, not for Shakespeare's usual popular theater. It is possible that Shakespeare's text, as opposed to a rewritten version, was not staged until the 20th century.

    Chaucer's approach is quite different.
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    1. O the callow youth of today.

      I read that this was written to be performed for law students, a small and not courtly audience. There are some legal jokes and law term puns, but you also see that in the gravedigger scene of "Hamlet," so who knows? The original edition of the play claimed that it had never been performed. Or maybe that was the second edition, a couple of years later; I forget.

      We may have the Chaucer around the house. I'll have to go exploring.
    2. Law students, that's right, I have read that, too.
  3. Even as I dash hither and thither between bed and bath in the tropics -- take note of my posting today at Beyond Eastrod -- I will follow your lead by revisiting Shakespeare's play; in fact, as I hear the Porter knocking at the door (which I hope is not Death's door, but symptoms suggest the possibility), I think I ought to revisit many of Shakespeare's plays. Thanks for the Rx and catalyst.
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    1. You can never go wrong with Shakespeare. Take care of yourself down there in Costa Rica, Tim.
  4. how can i say this: i dislike this play. pandarus is irritating and cressida is not very bright. troilus is a dolt. i understand that estimation of literary worth shoudn't be based on personal prejudices but in some cases(this one) a nontechnical approach may convey more that an analysis. no wonder that it is considered one of william's more inferior efforts.
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    1. Pandarus is supposed to be irritating, lecherous, short-sighted. Cressida is supposed to be shallow (she is another version of Helen), and Troilus is supposed to be blind to her real personality, caught up in his image of himself as a courtly knight (he is another version of both Menelaus and Paris). The Greek generals have the same faults (Ulysses is a shifty back-room pimping politician just like Pandarus). The Trojan heroes the same sort of collection of dolts in armor (Hector treats warfare as a game, a sport, taking a break in the final battle to sit and cool down, during which foolish moment he is cut down by Achilles' Myrmidons, who then spread the word that Achillies himself killed Hector). These are the points of the play, which makes it a superior play, Shakespeare's biting commentary on heroes and idealized love. If you make the heroes into typical Greek heroes, you have Homer's Iliad, which Shakespeare is telling us is a pack of propaganda. Agamemnon frets and struts, signifying nothing, etc. Maybe I enjoyed this play so much because I read Thucydides a couple of months ago. Shakespeare's Greeks are very much like Sophocles' Greeks in "Ajax." No, this is a great play, a real masterpiece.
  5. I'm so glad you like this play: for a long time, I was wondering whether i was the only one! It gets my vote for Shakespeare's most underrated work.

    But it will never achieve much popularity. It's the most bitter of his plays, the most angry. There's a battle in the final act, but nothing is resolved: the battle is still raging at the end. And the final lines are given to the loathsome Pandarus, who bequeaths his "diseases" to us, the audience. We are given the elements of a tragedy, but denied a catharsis.

    Troilus strikes me as not too far from a Renaissance prince. He is, at the start, a lovelorn young man, yearning for the woman beyond his reach. And, like Hamlet, he is very much an idealist, shocked by the failure of those around him to live up to his ideals. When Hector suggests ending the pointless war and returning Helen, it is Troilus who opposes: they have to fight on, he insists, for the sake of honour. Of course, his idealism is very badly crushed, and he never quite recovers. But even this idealism is not, perhaps, quite as it seems. When news comes that he and Cressida must be parted, his sole concern is not what will befall Cressida in the enemy camp, but, rather, that Cressida must not betray him. And it is a shocked response on Cressida's part at this point that he doesn't really love her at all: what he loves is not the person, but the "concept" of love, the "concept" of honour.

    I think this is a tremendous play!
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    1. I guess I can understand the 18th-century aversion to this play, with Shakespeare mocking the classical Greeks, who all of Europe claimed as the bedrock of European culture. But it's a masterpiece, really a great work. Because nobody ever mentions it except as "one of the other plays WS wrote," I assumed it was going to be marginal, but it's one of the best things he wrote, and my excitement just got stronger and stronger as I read the thing. (I read it when I did because we'd been watching the BBC miniseries of Olivia Manning's "Fortunes of War," and a production of "Troilus and Cressida" is mounted in Bucharest just before the German army rolls in. "I didn't know Shakespeare wrote a play about Troy," I said.)

      But you're probably right, it's too bitter and angry a play for the world, too hard an edge to Shakespeare's humor. Pandarus is truly repulsive; the placement of his speech at the end of the play makes it seem as if it is he who carries away the victory, the victory of debauchery, the victory of meaninglessness.

      I do think WS was continuing in "Troilus" ideas he began to work with in "Hamlet," about honor and idealism. No character in "Troilus" combines idealism with sensitive intelligence in the manner of Prince Hamlet, though. Even Hector succumbs to his own pride. What a brilliant, brilliant play.

"Ich weiß schon selber, was ich tu"

For some weeks now I've been slowly reading Lena: unser Dorf in der Krieg by Kaethe Recheis. I am still a fairly slow reader of German-language texts, but I persevere. Lena is an award-winning novel of World War II from the perspective of a young girl named Lena, in rural Austria. Her little village is in the middle of farm country, Linz being the closest real city nearby. The book opens with the Anschluss, Hitler's invitation for Austria to join the Reich. There was a vote, in case you were unaware, Austria being allowed to choose if they would remain independent or if they'd "rejoin" their German homeland. I don't understand the politics of the day, and 10 year-old Lena doesn't either, so all I know is that some Austrians were pro-Nazi and pro-Anschluss, and others were not, and in Lena's village emotions ran high before the election. Emotions ran even higher after the vote: Hitler sent squads of Nazis into Austria to manage the election:
"Er kränkt sich so sehr", erklärte uns Tante Steffi. "Nicht einmal das Kreuz haben sie ihn selbst hinzeichnen lassen. Die Hand haben sie ihm dabei geführt. Und so was nennt sich eine Wahl!" Ihre Stimme wurde dabei immer lauter, immer zorniger. "Draußen auf der Straße sind die SA-Leute gestanden, und drin im Gemeindeamt war es nicht besser. Alle Nazis aus dem Dorf waren da und haben zugeschaut, was wir wählen. "Das müsst ihr euch ankreuzen", hat der Perwanger gesagt und auf den großen Kreis gezeigt. "Ich weiß schon selber, was ich tu", hat der Großvater geantwortet. Und dann hat er die zwei Kreise lange angeschaut, und der Perwanger hat um seine 100 % Ja-Stimmen zu zittern angefangen. Da hat er die Hand vom Großvater genommen und ein Kreuz auf das Ja gemacht und gesagt, alten Leuten, die schlechte Augen hätten, müsse man helfen. Und dabei weiß jeder im Dorf, dass der Großvater keine Brille braucht!" "Reg dich nicht auf, Steffi", sagte der Großvater. "Sind doch alles Lumpen! Ich geh' jetzt in den Garten." "Es war keine freie Wahl!" sagte meine Mutter. Mein Vater sagte gar nichts.
Which is to say, the Nazi election marshalls "helped" everyone to vote in favor of the Anschluss. No ballots were cast privately. There was a 100% "yes" vote in the election. Red and black flags festooned the town the next day, hurrah for democracy!

As you can imagine, things get progressively worse as the years go by. Young men are conscripted into the Wehrmacht and there begins a series of empty-casket funerals in the local church as reports begin to come in from the various fronts. The Jews, the mentally ill, the gypsies, and the vagrants are rounded up by SS squads, and taken to a "hospital" where they soon die of sudden mysterious illnesses. A pillar of smoke rises above the "hospital." "They are burning the mentally ill," young Lena thinks. The village is rife with informants, and citizens who voice anti-Nazi views are snatched up by the SS and sent to Vienna or Dachau. Recheis is a wise author, interrupting all of this paranoia and terror with comic episodes and nature writing, which she does well, and there is also the continuous maturing of Lena over the years to take focus away from the horror of the Nazi rule now and then. But with maturity comes a greater realization of consequences. In one of the most moving parts of the novel, Lena has visited a neighbor, Rosa, an invalid teen girl who has been a Nazi supporter from the start of the novel. Lena becomes angry at Rosa and blurts out that it would be a terrible thing if Hitler were to win the war and eliminate freedom from the entire world. "Where did you hear this?" Rosa demands. "The chaplain said so," Lena answers, and immediately regrets having said anything. Soon after this conversation, the chaplain is arrested by the SS and taken away to Vienna. Lena is certain that her "betrayal" of the chaplain has led to his arrest, and she is torn apart by her guilt. After getting out of school (in Linz) the next day, Lena walks to a high bridge over the Danube, where she stands between carved figures of the Nibelungen and looks down at the waters rushing past. There is a lot of traffic on the bridge but nobody notices the remorseful young girl considering suicide. It's a great scene, Lena deliberately building emotional distance from herself as she tries to will her body off the bridge. Perhaps life in a repressive state is like that.

This novel, I suppose it's a young-adult novel as we say these days, has won all sorts of awards in the German-speaking world. I'm surprised it hasn't been translated into English.

14 comments:

  1. I am envious of your German reading abilities; my foreign language skills hit the skids during my third year of Latin, and I can now barely manage 10% of Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.
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    1. Ja, verstehe, aber welches 10 Prozent?

      Yes, I can slowly make my way through a book written for adolescents. Not much to envy there. I studied Latin when I was a boy, and I've lost most of it. I tell myself I will break out the Henle someday.

      Where has your blog got to?
    2. That blog -- the product of a feckless, forgetful, and fearful soul -- remains after numerous offs-and-ons: http://beyondeastrodredux.blogspot.com/
      More about the 3Fs in a future posting at Beyond Eastrod.
      As for my Latin, my teacher, Mrs. Brandfas (die-hard fan of Pittsburgh Pirates and Roberto Clemente) would be disappointed in my poor retention; we memorized and recited long sections of CC in classes.
  2. powerful stuff. i hope the donald doesn't ever get elected.
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    1. If Trump were king, every day would be exciting.
  3. The Nibelungenbrücke, the bridge upon which Lena stands in the above-described scene, was actually built by Hitler, as a monument to himself. So that's a nice bit of irony.
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  4. Isn't there a new publisher on the scene specializing in translations? You should send them a note about this book. It's timely, it's young adult, it's got a young female protagonist. If only she had superpowers . . . Also, I'd be ever so grateful if you'd do an English translation of the bridge scene for me.
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    1. Is there? Who? Europa Editions does mostly translations, but this might be too "young" for them, not edgy enough despite the murders and betrayals and the black-market slaughterhouses.

      I'll work on the translation of the bridge scene. Remind me later. Speaking of English translations, I like the look of this.
    2. After class I didn't meet up with Christoph and Willi, and instead went to the Danube. I walked through the small, angular streets which led to the main square, now known as Adolf-Hitler Platz. I walked past the Plague Column. A tram rolled noisily over the square, the passengers hanging in clumps like grapes on the running boards.

      To both sides of the bridge stood the giant stone figures of Nibelung who had moved to the East long ago, Kriemhild and Siegfried, who stood guard on the bridge high above the current. In school and in the Hitler Youth they explained to us about the valor of the Nibelungen, and said that we should be equally brave for the Fuhrer. The stone Kriemhild and the stone Siegfried couldn't protest against the fact that they had become heroes of the Third Reich.

      I stood still in the middle of the bridge, kept my schoolbag next to me and propped my arms on the iron railing. The water broke against the bridge piling, foaming and gurgling, the waves capped with white crowns. I could see the many whirlpools, that pushed and pushed into so-called funnels. A horse-drawn wagon rolled past, then a truck with a crackling, noisy engine. People hurried over the bridge. Everyone went in haste, nobody cared that I was standing at the railing. Whoever jumped from the bridge would be dragged into the river depths by the whirlpools and cast out along the river bank. Whoever was dead could no longer reproach himself, would no longer feel any guilt.
    3. excellent! if none of your many other occupations don't pan out, try translating!
  5. The Anschluss was scheduled to foreclose on a plebiscite that the chancellor, Schusnigg, proposed to hold.

    About the middle of The Leopard, there is a village that also votes unanimously in a plebiscite. In this case, the officials spare themselves the trouble of supervising the ballot, and simply report the numbers they want.
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    1. They may as well have done that in Austria. I haven't read The Leopard, but I'm assuming the vote you refer to was in the South Tyrol? You see how I assume The Leopard must be about Italy.
    2. The plebiscite in The Leopard takes place in a small town or village in Sicily. The question is whether the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies shall unite itself with the Republic of Italy. This would have been 1861, I think.