In Faery Realms

August 5, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished long ago: The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien.

Reading now: Mythologies, by William Butler Yeats.

The Third Policeman is one of those books that casts a kind of glamor as you’re reading it for the first time, making it impossible to recapture the mysterious feeling of experiencing its strange world.  As it happens, the book is less directly indebted to Irish mythology and history than O’Brien’s masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds.  But I’ve been reading Yeats’s compilation of Irish folklore and musings, and things like glamor are on my mind.

As different as Yeats and O’Brien seem to be, their books may both be read as explorations of the realm of Faery, which can also seem the realm of death, as well as the realm of both good-natured and menacing tricks.  As Yeats describes them, the “Good People” of Faery are everywhere just beyond our vision, capable of switching the bodies of those that seem dead to whisk them away to a better realm, or to steal a newborn or newlywed for their own revels, and good and evil are somewhat meaningless terms to them, their love and hate untrammeled by the moral ambiguity that mortals must always experience.

O’Brien’s book can also be read as a visit to a particularly dark and disturbing part of Faery, by a particularly unsavory individual.  In it, as in Yeats’s vision of Irish mythology, the twilight realms of death and Faery are always near:

It was some change that came upon me or upon the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable.  It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye…

Our narrator then finds himself face to face with what appears to be the man he had just helped to murder.  As in tales of Irish Faery kidnappings, the individual is uncannily changed from his former self:

But the eyes were horrible.  Looking at them I got the feeling that they were not genuine eyes at all but mechanical dummies animated by electricity or the like, with a tiny pinhole in the centre of the ‘pupil’ through which the real eye gazed out secretively and with great coldness.

O’Brien is the best writer I know for channeling the spirit of the Irish Sidhe, for he harnesses chaotic and mysterious plots to beautiful language and moments of joy and laughter.  The hilarious subplot in The Third Policeman of the bicycle-people, slowly becoming more and more centaur-like as they absorb more atoms of bicycle due to excessive riding, is a perfect example.  This is the kind of cock-and-bull story, and the kind of book, that rings both true and hilariously false, that brings together anarchic joy of making it up as you go along and a kind of commentary on humanity, on the limits of science, on our strange hybrid nature, machine and spirit and body all mixed up together.

Horse Breath in Dickens and Chekhov

February 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Anton Chekhov’s short stories.

Reading next: The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo.

Chekhov has been one of those huge gaps in my reading, so I’m glad to start filling it in with this Norton edition of short stories.  The early stuff is clearly inferior to the later stories from 1887 onward — partly, I learn from the supplementary texts here, because the early stories were written for hire for comic literary magazines under strict space limitations — but still better than anything most writers will ever put down, and apparently these stories are still more beloved in Russia than a lot of his later work.

Anyway, a reminder of Dickens stood out in one of my favorite early stories, “Misery” (from 1886).  In “Misery,” the sleigh driver Iona carries fares through a snowy night, struggling to tell anyone of the recent death of his son.  Finally, he unburdens himself to the mare who drives his sleigh back at the stable as she eats.  The final paragraph: “The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands.  Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.”

So what is it about the breath of horses, anyway?  As I posted here, in chapter 15 of David Copperfield the villainous Uriah Heep breathes into the nostrils of a pony, “as if he were putting some spell upon him.”   Obviously horses were everywhere in nineteenth-century Europe, and the relationship between the species must have been complex and close.   But is there some traditional significance attached to the breath of the horse in particular?  In both Dickens and Chekhov a similar emotional or moral significance seems to be carried by the animal’s breath: Uriah’s apparent attempt to replace the breath of the pony with his own seems to David (and to the reader) a malevolent act; we are led to infer the sweetness and “goodness” (in one sense or another) of the pony’s breath by the uneasiness and wickedness we sense in Uriah.

In “Misery,” feeling the breath of his mare on his hands breaks the dam inside of Iona, and he unburdens himself to her.  Iona is closer to this animal than to any of the people he met that night, who cannot be bothered to hear about his troubles; she becomes a kind of therapist, patiently listening as she eats the hay which is all he can afford to feed her (not having earned enough for oats).  There’s an intimacy in feeling the breath of an animal that can be matched by very few human interactions, a willingness to touch and interact that an animal can provide that few humans would (just imagine the warmth of that breath on your hands on a cold, snowy night — the kind of astounding sensory detail that indicates the mastery of Chekhov).  And the unctuous, obsequious Uriah would never dream of breathing on another person, whereas he forces his breath on the pony when he believes he’s alone — betraying, perhaps, his repressed desire to conquer (or, past that, become intimate with) other creatures.

Apparently horse’s breath was once thought of as a cure for whooping cough, continuing the positive associations, but I find little else about it on a cursory glance.  I want to do some more digging into folklore: horses have been talismanic animals throughout the history of many of the world’s cultures, of course.  Many of us today have never interacted with a horse — have never touched or ridden one, much lest felt or smelt its breath — but horses would have generated a whole world of associations for the nineteenth-century reader that are more or less lost to us now, when horses are mostly status symbols, convenient gambling tools, or nostalgic transportation in tourist cities.  There’s something in each of these stories that points to the symbiotic relationship of horses and humans that has been dismantled in the past century, kept alive mostly by guilds and hobbyists.  Now, of course, there are our pets — our dogs and cats, our ferrets and parrots.  We unburden ourselves to them.  We react to their mistreatment in ways that surpass our insensitivity to human-on-human violence — we feel the wrongness of taking out human frustrations and acting out human desires on animals in ways that often surpass our reactions to with human-on-human crime.

There’s something in us — or some of us, at any rate — that requires interaction with animals.  And I do think that Chekhov intended the ending of “Misery” to be both comically ironic and sad — that this inarticulate, lonely, poor peasant, out of place in the cruel city, can only find sympathy and relief from an animal who cannot understand him, not from the humans who shy away when he mentions his dead son — but there is also something tender and natural in this ending, in this kind of benediction that’s felt in the breath on Iona’s hands, in the thawing of the heart to which it leads.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 7 and 8

January 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Continuing my review of favorite passages from each chapter of DC:

Chapter 19:

I know that my juvenile experiences went for little or nothing then; and that life was more like a great fairy story, which I was just about to begin to read, than anything else.

A fascinating observation by David, here, as he reflects on his departure from school for what we now refer to as “real life.”  There have been many allusions to fairy tales throughout David’s telling of his childhood: ghosts, ogres, fairies, wicked stepparents, runaway children, much more.  And yet it’s now, when that childhood is over (at least in David’s own perception, at the time), that he explicitly compares his experience of life to those childhood stories.  Not to get too theoretical, but one of the recurring themes of David’s (fictional) autobiography is just this construction of identity and the narrative of life, and its pitfalls — the perception of experience as filtered through different kinds of stories when viewed at different times.

Chapter 20:

“Really!” said Miss Dartle.  “Well, I don’t know, now, when I have been better pleased than to hear that.  It’s so consoling!  It’s such a delight to know that, when they suffer, they don’t feel!  Sometimes I have been quite uneasy for that sort of people; but now I shall just dismiss the idea of them, altogether.  Live and learn.  I had my doubts, I confess, but now they’re cleared up.  I didn’t know, and now I do know; and that shows the advantage of asking — don’t it?”

Miss Dartle, “all edge” in Steerforth’s words, with her scarred lip and habit of framing everything as a question in which she can embed her own sarcastic answers, says this after Steerforth has explained his view of lower-class “common” people as less “sensitive,” and “not easily wounded.”  It’s an uncomfortable exchange for a reader now, and I’m sure it also was for Dickens’ contemporary readers, especially as Steerforth has heretofore been presented in a positive light, and Miss Dartle initially comes off as simply abrasive and unpleasant.  (I think it’s here that Dickens begins to darken Steerforth’s portrayal, and show the space between David’s infatuation with him and his actual character.)  It’s also an interesting passage in thinking about Dickens’ own portrayal of such lower-class characters, which sometimes suffers from the same sort of criticism that Miss Dartle brings up here.  I wonder if this was a self-critique of a sort, or if Dickens really did not think of himself as harboring any of this kind of condescension.

Chapter 21:

I believe there never existed in his station a more respectable-looking man.  He was taciturn, soft-footed, very quiet in his manner, deferential, observant, always at hand when wanted, and never near when not wanted; but his great claim to consideration was his respectability.  He had not a pliant face, he had rather a stiff neck, rather a tight smooth head with short hair clinging to it at the sides, a soft way of speaking, with a peculiar habit of whispering the letter S so distinctly, that he seemed to use it oftener than any other man; but every peculiarity that he had he made respectable.

Littimer, Steerforth’s “servant,” is hereby introduced (in part).  Dickens’ excessive use of the term “respectable” telegraphs (intentionally) that he means the opposite, that Littimer is not to be trusted — though I wonder how obvious this was to the Victorians, or if its obviousness is an effect of the following century’s thorough distrust of the supposedly trustworthy.  I enjoy the mention of Littimer’s use of “the letter S”; that Satanic sibilance also puts us on our guard against this respectable servant, the sort of figure that would be ignored as a matter of course in most fiction of the time.

Chapter 22:

“If either of you saw my ankles,” she said, when she was safely elevated, “say so, and I’ll go home and destroy myself.”

This from Miss Mowcher, a dwarf-hairdresser and social butterfly of sorts, who begins as an amusing grotesque and whom Dickens reveals later as an actual character.  This line just made me laugh out loud, and it’s also representative of her public face of excessive interest in social niceties and conventions.  I also enjoyed, in this chapter, David’s evocative return to his childhood home, then occupied by “a poor lunatic gentleman,” and I wonder if anything will come of that.

Chapter 23:

Littimer touched his hat in acknowledgment of my good opinion, and I felt about eight years old.  He touched it once more, wishing us a good journey; and we left him standing on the pavement, as respectable a mystery as any pyramid in Egypt.

Dickens succeeds in making David, unlike Oliver Twist or Martin Chuzzlewit or (to a lesser degree) Nicholas Nickleby, a fully formed character in his own right, rather than a virtuous cipher to whom interesting things happen.  His anxiety about his youth, for instance, which comes up in his lack of a need to shave at this time, and in his blind spot for Littimer’s respectability, which makes him feel even more like a child, and leads to his overlooking the oddity of Littimer having “business” to attend to on Steerforth’s behalf at Yarmouth — business that ends up being vague, at least as far as I’ve read so far, but definitely not respectable and seemingly akin to the activity of a pimp.

Chapter 24:

Somebody was leaning out of my bed-room window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face.  It was myself.  I was addressing myself as “Copperfield,” and saying, “Why did you try to smoke?  You might have known you couldn’t do it.”  Now, somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass.  That was I too.  I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair — only my hair, nothing else — looked drunk.

I love the drunken hair. This is a great chapter, showing David’s “First Dissipation” in having his own apartment, holding his first dinner with Steerforth and his friends, drinking and smoking too much, making an ass of himself at the theatre, sleeping a horrible drunken sleep, and ruing his activities the day after, wondering if he will go the way of the apartment’s previous tenant, a man who smoke and drunk himself to death.  Dickens at his best, the chapter’s a sensory feast both pleasurable and excessive, perfectly in tune with its content.

Notes on Moby-Dick’s Narrative Beginnings

April 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Moby-Dick and The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick.

A couple of short notes on the early sections of the book — things I hadn’t noticed before, or had forgotten:

-“The Counterpane” features an anecdote from Ishmael’s childhood, one of the few autobiographical hints we get about our ostensible narrator (“ostensible” since Ishmael largely drops out of the narrative in the middle of the book and becomes a floating, omniscience narrator before reemerging towards the end).  I’d forgotten how perfectly told, how subtly creepy and folkloric, this little tale is: of Ishmael sent to bed early in the afternoon of the summer solstice as punishment, by his stepmother — stepmother, mind you! — and dozing off in the sunlight to find, in the darkness, “a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine.”  It’s this perfect little short story; in fact, I seem to remember a similar story by Ray Bradbury, but can’t find it at the moment. This chapter, if it gets mentioned at all, gets mentioned mostly as the beginning of the affectionate bond between Ishmael and Queequeg.  But the gorgeous little excerpt of Ishmael’s perfectly horrible fairy-tale upbringing in early America is the most complicated thing about it.  Why is it here?  Ishmael tells the story to compare the feeling of holding that phantom hand with the feeling of waking with Queequeg’s “pagan arm” thrown over him.  But he tells us to remove the fear from his earlier feeling to understand how he feels under Queequeg’s arm.  Now, the fear is the most important thing about that earlier sensation, isn’t it?  Melville seemed to be simply compelled to tell this (autobiographical?) story, and to connect that uncanny sensation with the juxtaposition of Ishmael and Queequeg.  It’s the quintessence of American Weird, plain and simple.

-Father Mapple’s sermon in the Whaleman’s Chapel is rightly one of the most famous chapters in the book, and Howard Vincent examines it admirably.  However, he may have been a little straightforward in his treatment.  Vincent reads it as a warning, plain and simple, to hubristic Ahab.  And you certainly can read it that way.  But the sermon is also one of Melville’s closest approaches to Paradise Lost, I believe.  And like Milton’s great poem, it is profoundly ambiguous.  Just as easily as you can read it as a reproach of Ahab and foreshadowing of doom, you can read it as a defense of Ahab.  After all, doesn’t Mapple say that “Delight is to him — a far, far upward, and inward delight — who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self,” and “who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges”?  Isn’t Ahab more like the prophet Jonah should’ve been, insisting on the wrongness of the evil perpetrated upon him, than the coward Jonah was, who ran away from his duty and was swallowed for his trouble?  Is Mapple’s sermon an indictment of God, or of Ahab?

Various Nigerian Narratives, Part Two: Film Culture

February 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand.

Reading next: Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, and Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace.

Movies are everywhere in this book.  Just for one memorable example: when 10-year-old Elvis gets hooked on going to the latest Bollywood movies with his cousin Efua, he starts stealing the money his grandmother gives him to mail letters to her pen pals around the world.  But he needs to keep giving her responses so she doesn’t catch on, so “scenes from Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Gone with the Wind were rewritten to fit his letters.”  But movies — mostly American — are woven into casual dialogue, the thoughts of the characters, everyday life.

An important scene occurs at the movies in chapter thirteen, when the rebellious, enigmatic King of Beggars (yes, this book involves characters named Elvis, the King, and the Colonel) takes Elvis to the new theater to see a Yugoslavian art film entitled Love Film.  (Possibly this, but then it might not be a real film at all.)  He’s trying to show Elvis an “alternative” to the world of violence and self-interest that threatens to swallow him.  And Elvis loves the movie; he loves its first line, “People are important.”  This qualifies as a major breakthrough in a world as debased, as corrupted, as nightmarish, as his can be.

But the most interesting scene involving the movies comes in chapter fourteen.  Elvis, now thirteen, goes to “the local motor park, where silent westerns and Indian films with badly translated English subtitles were shown after dark.”  These, as it turns out, are “shown courtesy of an American tobacco company” which also gives out free cigarettes “irrespective of age.”  In this case, the film is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  It’s no glamorous spectacle, though: the screen’s a torn, dirty bedsheet and the old projector often eats films and jitters the picture from side to side, for which the crowd has learned to compensate by “sway[ing] from side to side while squinting off to the left.”

But this is not the best part.  The best part is that the films are made into a live performance, based on a kind of new folklore.  The projectionist narrates the action on the screen, creating a whole new story out of the images.  These narrations mostly involve the exploits of a mythological “John Wayne” and “Actor,” the principles in a recurring good-versus-evil storyline across many kinds of films.  As the narrator explains, “John Wayne acting as the villain in a film was Actor, and Clint Eastwood as sheriff was John Wayne.”

I have not yet been able to verify whether this is or was actual practice in Nigeria, but I strongly suspect it was.  It’s not even as simple as it seems, either.   Elvis walks into an argument between teenagers over whether John Wayne or Actor is superior — which is “the true hero.”  And Elvis prefers the figure of Actor, too, as “part villain, part hero,” and explains here:

Women preferred him to John Wayne and men wanted to be him.  His evil was caddish, not malicious, and Elvis knew that though most people dared not step out of the strict lines of this culture, they adored Actor.  He was the embodiment of the stored-up rebellions in their souls.

Actor, in other words, is a trickster to John Wayne’s ideal.  But the narration of the films also allows for audience participation, especially when the projectionist is drunk or annoying or misses something: here, the audience gets going on something and ends up arguing about which person on the screen is Actor and which is John Wayne.  (Particularly appropriate, actually, in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.)  That this is taking place in the late ’70s, during the emergence of the antihero (and even the black antihero — Shaft is referred to in this chapter) in American cinema, in the Nigeria of corrupt officials and in Elvis’s world with a drunk, abusive father and even worse uncle, makes perfect sense.  And of course, Actor is still alive and well (as one of the debaters argues, he cannot be killed): the Joker in The Dark Knight springs to mind as a prime example.

It Takes a Graveyard

February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

Reading next: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.

In the aughts Neil Gaiman went from being a sort of byword for coolness with the literary-fantasy crowd to being the Second Coming of Stephen King.  He’s another one-man industry, generating a remarkable amount of product in any different number of formats and genres.  Now, I’m exaggerating here: Gaiman’s output is not nearly as metronomic as King’s (who claimed to be retiring a few years back — remember that? — but simply could not stop himself from producing novels), nor is his work as repetitive, nor does Gaiman seem as loose as King at lending his ideas and characters out for brand-expansion and remakes and prequels and whatnot.  (Though he is a little more laissez-faire with comics, it would seem, and the idea of him allowing an American Gods comics series without his direct input is not that farfetched.)

But the comparison’s instructive, and I don’t mean to use it disparagingly.  I love Stephen King, warts and all.  He and Gaiman are very different writers.  The remarkable thing about King is the energy with which he still writes, the investment he still has in his work, the raw power of his narrative which can still be quite engrossing long after the (relatively few) patterns of Stephen King story have been established.  With Gaiman, the most remarkable thing has been the quality he’s maintained.  His prose and story construction are fine, his conceits are frequently brilliant, his characters are compelling and diverse, across and between genres and formats.  I don’t think Stephen King’s a hack, but with Gaiman you never even need to worry about mounting the defense.  It’s bloody obvious he’s not a hack.  He’s damned good.

It is impossible to imagine King writing something even remotely like The Graveyard Book: it’s just not in his range.  Nevertheless, part of me wouldn’t mind seeing the Stephen King version of the story, because I find myself longing a little for his approach here.  The book begins with an incredibly dramatic, startling event — the murder of a family and escape of the family’s toddler into the nearby graveyard, where he’s given the name Nobody and adopted by the ghosts of the dead and an undead “guardian.”  The event is presented elliptically, even rather lyrically (the shiny black shoes of the murderer, “the moon reflected in them, tiny and half full”), but is nonetheless gripping: it is right on the fault line between fairy tale and modern horror novel, this beginning.  Amazing, and quite ballsy, in a book for children or at least “young adults” that ended up winning the Newbery Medal.

The tone shifts once we’re in the graveyard, and the book essentially becomes a series of linked short stories about various events in the boy’s childhood, as he comes to know and is raised by the dead.  The murderer, “the man Jack,” drops out of the narrative, to reappear in the book’s second half.  Once you’re into the book, this shocking opening comes to seem a folkloric, almost whimsical origin story, a way to get the boy into the graveyard where he belongs.   But Jack comes up just often enough (including one big near miss) to maintain the reader’s sense that his part in the story is not done, while maintaining his aura of mysterious dread and power.  Again, ballsy, and quite an ambitious narrative structure: Gaiman is gambling that his stories, almost completely disconnected from the framing narrative of the toddler’s miraculous escape from gruesome death, will be entertaining enough to overcome the reader’s annoyance that he’s not getting back to what the deal is with this “man Jack.”

If this was a Stephen King novel, there would be no loosely connected vignettes.  The man Jack’s true nature, motivations, and activities would be given their own sections of narrative to keep the sense of a chase happening behind the scenes, interspersed with the chapters in which Nobody grows up and gets to know the graveyard’s inhabitants, whose back stories would be more fully developed (especially Silas, Nobody’s possibly vampiric guardian).  The book would also be 500 pages longer, and much less beautiful.

The key to understanding why this gap exists is another writer, a predecessor of both: Ray Bradbury.  Gaiman wrote a short story called “October in the Chair” (it’s in Fragile Things) that, in his words, served as a “dry run” for this book: he dedicated it to Bradbury.  The Graveyard Book‘s structure reminds me quite a lot of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s unbelievably gorgeous prose poem about growing up in the Midwest, a book I love beyond expression.  Its conceit, tone, and characters, on the other hand, seem a direct homage to Bradbury’s stories about the Elliott family of supernatural beings, another of my favorite Bradbury creations.  I’m thinking especially of “Homecoming,” maybe the best of those stories: young Timothy, the “abnormal” normal, human kid who doesn’t like the taste of blood and can’t fly or do much of anything to show off at the family reunion.  Here’s a paragraph of Timothy’s mother talking to him right at the end, before the final, gorgeous concluding sentences:

She came to touch her hand on his face.  “Son,” she said, “we love you.  Remember that.  We all love you.  No matter how different you are, no matter if you leave us one day.”  She kissed his cheek.  “And if and when you die, your bones will lie undisturbed, we’ll see to that.  You’ll lie at ease forever, and I’ll come visit every Allhallows Eve and tuck you in the more secure.”

There, as here, it takes a graveyard to raise a child.

Doing Good, Being Cruel: The Tenth Day

June 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Finished: The Decameron.

Travel, unfortunately, delayed this last post on Boccaccio, but I thought there was enough of interest on the tenth day to write a little something, however stale in my mind. (Besides, there’s no way the structuralist in me would allow a post on every day but the last.)

The stories on this last day, Panfilo’s, are largely a fun game of one-upsmanship: each teller tries to tell of the most munificent deed he can think of. Fortunes are awarded, wives bestowed, the “dead” returned to life. Many of these stories center on the deeds of the nobility or the enormously wealthy, and Filomena makes the excellent point that “Those people do well… who possess ample means and do all that is expected of them; but we ought neither to marvel thereat, nor laud them to the skies, as we should the person who is equally munificent but of whom, his means being slender, less is expected.”

The most interesting stories are the last, Panfilo’s and Dioneo’s. Panfilo’s is especially remarkable: it seems lifted from the Thousand and One Nights, and dramatizes the remarkably complex attitudes at the time toward Islam and the “East,” though I’m not sure whether Italians of the time would even think of it as such a thing other than directionally. It features Saladin, the Muslim ruler who recaptured Jerusalem and many other territories from the Christian crusaders. He travels to Europe in disguise as a merchant from Cyprus to scout his potential foes and is received very hospitably by a Messer Torello, whom he happens to unwittingly capture when the crusades actually begin. Saladin treats his servants very well and keeps Torello as his falconer; when Torello reveals his identity, Saladin does all in his power to restore him to his family and then some. I’m not an expert in medieval or Renaissance literature by any means, but the story seems remarkable to me for its depiction of respectful relationships between Christian and Muslim; it’s also remarkable in the Decameron for its use of magic, as Saladin’s magician whisks Torello back to Italy in one night to stop his wife’s marriage to another.

Then comes the last story, and this truly does seem a response to Emilia’s of the previous day, the wife-beating story. It is also remarkably cruel, especially for Dioneo. Gualtieri, a rich young man, succumbs to the pressure to marry and takes a very poor but virtuous wife, Griselda. After she gives birth to their child he “was seized with the strange desire to test Griselda’s patience, by subjecting her to constant provocation and making her life unbearable.” (The setup resonates, for me at least, with King Lear, in that it concerns a capricious ruler demanding ridiculous levels of deference for no good reason of his remarkably patient beloved.)

So, for about twelve years, he “pretends” to hate her and despise her low condition. He pretends to have their children killed (he really sends them off to stay with relatives). He ostensibly divorces her, forcing her to return to her impoverished family in only a shift. He pretends to have a new wife coming and wants Griselda to prepare his house and wait on her, since she’s a good cleaner and knows where everything is. Then, finally, being convinced that this girl (her own twelve-year-old daughter) is to be her husband’s new wife, Gualtieri says, basically, “Gotcha! It was just a goof.” And, one would hope, out comes Griselda’s machete. But no: she accepts it all, patient as ever (just like maddening Cordelia).

This is adapted by Boccaccio, I think, from a French folktale. And Chaucer uses it too, in the “Clerk’s Tale.” So you certainly have that sense of suspended reality, of humans acting inhuman to make a point about humanity. But it’s a pretty crappy point, here. Dioneo does, at least, end his story by acknowledging that Griselda’s trials were “cruel and unheard of,” and that it “perhaps would have served him [Gualtieri] right if he had chanced upon a wife, who, being driven from the house in her shift, had found some other man to shake her skin-coat for her, earning herself a fine new dress in the process.” Perhaps? Perhaps it would have served him right if Griselda came after him with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. She certainly should have screwed around, according to the logic of the previous 99 stories.

(Actually, since I’ve been Tarantino-riffing, thinking about Kill Bill is interesting in comparison to this story.  Imagine if Bill had reconciled with the Bride at their climactic meeting.)

I’m not sure how to take this, and especially how to read its correspondence with Emilia’s story of a less psychological torture. It would be comforting to me to imagine that he’s actually being deliberately over the top to point out the cruelty and absurdity both of his own story and of Emilia’s, but it seems unlikely. Somehow Love and torture coexist — and can actually depend on one another — in this universe. (I suppose for many, it is a less foreign concept than I’d like to believe.)

There are all kinds of interesting things to say about the conclusion and epilogue, too, but I have to stop. (Too much good stuff in Dog of the South to think about.)

Tales and Tellers: The Eighth Day

June 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Reading next: The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis.

Eight days in, and I’m still not sure what to think about Boccaccio’s orientation toward his work and his characters. Is he trying to create characters, in the ten patricians abandoning Florence? Or is he merely creating a pliable framework in which he can tell stories, dozens of them, of all shapes and sizes?

There have certainly been moments that indicated that Boccaccio was interested in the interaction of tale and teller, most obviously in the theme of Filostrato’s day. There’s also the songs sung at the end of each day, which are sometimes just pretty little lyrics but are sometimes self-consciously revealing of the singer’s desires or emotional state. At the end of this day Panfilo sings that “I with burning joy conceal/ A rapture I may not reveal.” Unlike Filostrato, flayed by his inability to hold his beloved, Panfilo seems to enjoy his love, even though he cannot express it in public and must keep it secret.

But on this day, at least, the stories are largely related only to one another: an incident or character in one provokes the next, with little apparent revelation of the teller’s character. Boccaccio, I suppose I’m trying to say, does not seem to care whether he’s consistent with the kinds of stories he has the ten tell, or whether the stories always seem appropriate to those telling them.

This more or less makes sense, I suppose, given Boccaccio’s times, his Humanist leanings away from the church but his still basically medieval world. There’s this strange tension between the literary world to come, of psychology and character, and that which had been before, of allegory, moral, formalism. (This is a little clearer, I think, in Chaucer, with his flesh-and-blood slices of society on a pilgrimage to Canterbury.) Interesting, then, that story about Giotto, with his move towards realistic human forms while still incorporating medieval techniques.

Fiammetta tells perhaps the most radical story yet, the eighth of the day. In it, a friendly neighbor, Spinelloccio, starts an affair with his neighbor Zeppa’s wife. Finding out about it, Zeppa takes his revenge by contriving to make love to Spinelloccio’s wife, on top of a trunk in which Spinelloccio’s hiding. And here’s how the story ends:

Spinelloccio now emerged from the chest, and without making too much fuss, he said:

‘Now we are quits, Zeppa. So let us remain friends, as you were saying just now to my wife. And since we have always shared everything in common except our wives, let us share them as well.’

Zeppa having consented to this proposal, all four breakfasted together in perfect amity. And from that day forth, each of the ladies had two husbands, and each of the men had two wives, nor did this arrangement ever give rise to any argument or dispute between them.

Before the ninth story it’s mentioned that the ladies discuss “the two Sienese and their wife-sharing.” That’s it! No mention of anyone offended, or blushing!

We also meet some recurring characters on the eighth day, the painters Calandrino, Bruno, and Buffalmacco, all real Florentines. Poor Calandrino! He’s come down through history (because of Boccaccio, or just because Boccaccio recorded his actual character?) as a naive simpleton, superstitious and capable of believing that a particular rock had made him invisible. The ten seem to love this crew, telling three stories about them on the eighth day and two more on the ninth. Boccaccio seems to use Calandrino as the fool who believes in folktales and thereby gets in trouble.

Head in a Pot, Heart on a Plate: The Fourth Day

June 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

We’re under the dominion of Filostrato, the tortured lover, on the fourth day, and he’s insistent that the stories told be tragedies: love ending unhappily, the more cruelly the better. It’s the most interesting day so far in the interaction of its ruler to the stories told, and in the interjection of the teller into his or her story.

The day starts off with a surprise: Boccaccio tells a story of his own, addressing himself to “dearest ladies” just as his ten often do in introducing their stories. He’s responding to critics of the earlier stories, and my cheapo edition doesn’t say anything about the dissemination of the text to explain why this step would have been taken in the middle of the work, or if this was likely a preemptive measure by Boccaccio responding to anticipated criticism (which seems plausible, given how raunchy things got on the third day). What’s remarkable is that Boccaccio is responding to the charge that he’s too fond of women (and, by extension, sex), unseemly in a man of his age. He is, he says, “secure in the knowledge that no reasonable person will deny that I and other men who love you are simply doing what is natural.” I’ll hope to find out more about this.

It’s an odd introduction to this day, in that, while Boccaccio remains defiant in his own voice, the stories Filostrato demands are brutal in their punishment of lovers. It is made clear that Filostrato is enamored of one of the women in the group, but feels spurned by them or unable to declare his feelings; through stories of tragic love, he seeks to “feel one or two dewdrops descend on the fire that rages within me.” He scolds Pampinea, the second storyteller, for daring to tell a mostly comic story in an attempt to lighten things up. (She’s defended by Boccaccio, in the introduction to her story: Pampinea, he says, knew that “her own feelings were a better guide than the king’s words to the mood of her companions.”) Everyone else — except Dioneo, of course — falls in line, telling the worst story they can think of. In terms of straightforward plot development, it’s the best use of the framing device so far: we search for clues to the object of Filostrato’s passion in the comments before and after stories, in his reactions to them, in the conclusion (when Filostrato sings a song and one of the ladies is said to blush).

In the tales themselves, things get really bad. These are very earthy, bloody stories, of people screwing around and getting killed for it. There’s a lot of dismemberment, a lot of body parts, culminating in Filostrato’s own story, the final tragedy of the day, in which a husband kills his wife’s lover (his former best friend), cuts out his heart, and serves it to her at supper.

Two of the more mysterious stories, the fifth and six, seem very much like folklore embellished by Boccaccio. Both pivot on dreams. Filomena’s story, the fifth, tells of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. Lisabetta’s brothers secretly kill Lorenzo for bedding her; he appears to her in a dream, telling her how he was killed and where he was buried. She digs up his body, cuts off his head, and puts it in a pot, using it as fertilizer for a basil plant watered by her tears. Her brothers discover this and take her beloved plant away from her. This, we are told, is the story behind a popular song about a villain stealing a pot of herbs. Okaaay.

Panfilo continues the dream motif, in a very strange way. He tells a strangely anticlimactic story in which two lovers both have a dream of impending doom. Andreuola dreams of she and her lover, Gabriotto, having sex in their usual place, a beautiful garden; but then — and I wonder how many different ways this has been translated — “she seemed to see a dark and terrible thing issuing from his body, the form of which she could not make out.” It somehow takes Gabriotto below the ground, never to return. As it turns out, Gabriotto had a dream the same night, in which he captures a doe. As it sleeps with its head upon his chest, “a coal-black greyhound appeared as if from nowhere, starving with hunger and quite terrifying to look upon.” The greyhound starts eating him, gnawing to his heart, “which it appeared to tear out and carry off in its jaws.”

I’m impressed by Boccaccio the horror writer. These are terrific depictions of dreams: I found the strange dark force from Gabriotto’s body, and this starving greyhound, remarkably effective images, things that ring the true tone of nightmare logic. But it’s weird what Panfilo does with them: the next time the lovers meet, Gabriotto dies from a taste of a poisoned sage plant, then Andreuola dies of the same cause in the process of defending herself from an accusation of murder. Turns out there was a giant poisonous toad at the root of this sage plant, poisoning it with his breath. Whaaa? Panfilo said that the dreams in this story would be prophetic, and they are, in the loose way of presaging death: but the sage-plant plot element seems weirdly out of place. There’s something very cryptic, emblematic, and folkloric in this story.

Things Get Weird Past Cathay

April 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Mandeville’s been in cartographic/touristic/historian mode for a while, but he really lets it all hang out near the end of the book. After he’s described the Mongol lands and China, he just starts repeating whatever he’s heard (or embellishing whatever he’s read, perhaps). A couple of choice examples from chapter 29:

Maybe the most famous cock-and-bull story here is the one which the editor speculates might be hearsay about Korea: “There there grows a kind of fruit as big as gourds, and when it is ripe men open it and find inside an animal of flesh and blood and bone, like a little lamb without wool. And the people of that land eat the animal, and the fruit too.” Even weirder, Mandeville gets all world-weary and says it’s no big deal, since in England they have trees whose fruits bear geese if they fall on water. Uh, yeah, sure.

An interesting apocalyptic story, too: according to Mandeville the Gog and Magog references in Revelation are to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, which are trapped in a mountainous land. When the Antichrist appears, a fox will dig a hole into this land from just outside the gates that were built by Alexander the Great to hold these Jews in, and since they don’t have foxes there they’ll be so intrigued that they will chase him and dig after him and thereby escape their prison. It’s got a very old, very Freudian, very ugly-early-medieval-folklore feel, this story.

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