Mines of Nonfiction, Veins of Fiction

April 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

Finished a while ago: The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald, and The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi (translated by Raymond Rosenthal).

Reading now: Selected Writings, by Lady Gregory.

Reading next: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, by Mark Leyner.

Wish I’d had the time to write about Levi via Sebald before now, when those thoughts have fossilized.  But the serendipity of having Levi on my shelf to read right after Sebald was so nice that I wanted to record the delight, however briefly.

Both of these books are about the central trauma of the twentieth century, the Holocaust — or more accurately, about the complicated ramifications of that trauma, ramifications which we are still living with, still trying our best to ignore.  (I’ve been reading a bit about Palestine lately.)  There is Adorno’s famous quote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”; no artists have agreed (more or less by definition, else they would not be artists), and I don’t even know if Adorno’s beef was with prettification or adornment (pun intended) of bare fact, or untruth, or entertainment imperatives, or appropriation of survivors’ and perpetrators’ experiences, or if he meant the word “barbaric” more literally as a comment on Civilization.

Sebald and Levi each embed fiction in their nonfiction.  In “Nickel,” one of the more memorable sections of Levi’s memoir, he recounts his attempts as a chemist to extract and enrich the small percentage of nickel found in the rock extracted from an Italian mine.  During his time in these “asbestos-filled solitudes,” he feels the desire to write fiction for the first time since childhood, and composes two fascinating tales of lead and mercury, alchemical fables of a particularly poetic, gorgeous sort.  He includes both in the middle of his memoir, and introduces them as follows:

They have had a troubled fate, almost as troubled as my own: they have suffered bombings and escapes, I had given them up for lost, and I found them recently while going through papers forgotten for decades.  I did not want to abandon them: the reader will find them in the succeeding pages, inserted, like a prisoner’s dream of escape, between these tales of militant chemistry.

“I did not want to abandon them”: Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, had thought his fictional creations lost in the ravages of the war and its aftermath, but rediscovers them and inserts them “like a prisoner’s dream of escape” in his memoir.  Whether this loss and rediscovery is literal or metaphorical is an interesting question — did Levi really not know they were among his papers, or not know how to use them, in his years of working through his wartime experience?  Are these tales even to be understood as actual historical documents — are they fictional fictions (not truly written by Levi at the time, but fictions created later to reflect on his experience at this time, with a “nonfictional” frame of having been discovered later) or nonfictional fictions (actual historical documents rediscovered by Levi)? The kind of question that must be answered by resort to archival research.

Levi recollects the violence done to the land by the mining process, and admits that he “did not realize” that the end result of his work, were he successful, would have been to support the war effort of the Germans and Italians who would attempt to murder him and all his people.  And yet there are these tales “like a prisoner’s dream of escape”: already he felt a prisoner in his country, in his self, dreaming of islands and magical transformations.

Nickel mine in Canada.

It strikes me that, in creating The Emigrants, Sebald the writer acts somewhat like the reverse of Levi the chemist: he creates a mine of sorts, threading his nonfiction through with veins of fictional ore.  He creates a whole, an act of healing.  The fiction enriches reality, and is not to be so easily extracted, or at all.  It is to be understood as part and parcel of its context: history, consciousness, life.

Chekhov’s Burkin Tales

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: Chekhov’s Short Stories.

As you may know, and as I have come to learn about myself, one of my great and abiding literary loves if for the story cycle, or story-suite: short stories brought together by a framing device of some sort.  The Thousand and One Nights, Decameron, Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Don Quixote: I love tales within tales, the ease with which one can flow into another, interrupt another, comment on another.  Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine or Martian Chronicles are good examples of the short-story collection as novel, the framing device enriching each individual story and making the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Another good example is Pushkin’s Belkin tales, which I read and loved in college.  It’s a fairly weak framing device, but the tales were so great, and I loved the conceit of each of them being told to the same listener by a different teller, deepening the context and mystery of the stories.  And here, in Chekhov, I was reminded of the Belkin tales by a kind of novella of three short stories, which appears to be known now as the “little trilogy” among Chekhovians but which I think of as the Burkin tales: “The Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries,” and “About Love.”

In the case of Chekhov’s trilogy, the frame is not a matter of just introducing the tales, but rather an integral part of them.  In each of them there is a tale within a tale, but each is about the telling of a tale as much as it is a delivery mechanism for the internal tale (which was more the case for Pushkin, or even Boccaccio or Potocki, I dare say).  The frame features Burkin, a high school teacher, and Ivan Ivanich Chimsha-Himalaisky, a veterinarian, out on a hunting expedition; in “The Man in a Case,” they take shelter for the night in a shed, and Burkin tells a quintessentially Russian tale about a pedantic “teacher of Greek” (is there any other kind?) who lives his life “in a shell,” terrified of change or passion, only to retreat to his bed forever after being pushed down a flight of stairs by his beloved’s brother.  It reeks of Gogol, in its descriptions of this encased man, always bundled up in one way or another, and of Kafka in its description of a man scared of his own shadow.  And then there’s the frame, and its surprising effect on Ivan, and his desire to tell a related story while Burkin wants to go to sleep, leaving Ivan to stay up smoking his pipe.

“Gooseberries” is an exquisite story, masterfully crafted, and perfectly divided between frame and interior.  Rain begins to fall just as Ivan is about to begin telling Burkin the story he didn’t tell the night before, and they take shelter at the house of their friend Alekhin.  There are these astounding scenes of the rain, the house, these astonishing juxtapositions of squalor and beauty:

The mill was working, and the noise made by its sails drowned the sound of the rain; the whole dam trembled.  Horses, soaking wet, were standing near some of the carts, their heads drooping, and people were moving about with sacks over their heads and shoulders.  It was wet, muddy, bleak, and the water looked cold and sinister.  Ivan Ivanich and Burkin were already experiencing the misery of dampness, dirt, physical discomfort, their boots were caked with mud…

It was a large two-story house.  Alekhin occupied the ground floor, two rooms with vaulted ceilings and tiny windows… They were poorly furnished, and smelled of rye-bread, cheap vodka, and harness….

The beauteous Pelagea, looking very soft and delicate, brought them towels and soap, and Alekhin and his guests set off for the bathing-house….

Ivan Ivanich emerged from the shed, splashed noisily into the water, and began swimming beneath the rain, spreading his arms wide, making waves all round him, and the white water-lilies rocked on the waves he made.  He swam into the very middle of the river and then dived, a moment later came up at another place and swam further, diving constantly, and trying to touch the bottom.  “Ah, my God,” he kept exclaiming in his enjoyment.  “Ah, my God…”

That image, of this provincial vet swimming ecstatically in a rainstorm, is unforgettable.  And then, back inside, in the richly appointed part of the house, with a fire burning, Ivan tells his tale of his brother Nikolai, obsessed with owning a country estate with gooseberry bushes.  Nikolai is trapped in his own sort of “case,” his view of the perfection of country life; and when Ivan visits him, and Nikolai presents a dish full of gooseberries, he weeps over their perfection when Ivan says they are “hard and sour.”  He can see the pomposity and falsehood of Nikolai playing the country squire, and gives us this passage:

There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, catastrophe will overtake him — sickness, poverty, loss — just as he now neither sees nor hears the misfortune of others.

This image of a “man with a hammer” — another interpretation of the hammer in the hammer-and-sickle to come in the Bolshevik Revolution, no?  When the story is over, it “satisfied neither Burkin nor Alekhin… It would have been much more interesting to hear about elegant people, lovely women.”  In the end, Ivan asks for “mercy on us, sinners.”

The next day, in “About Love,” at a lunch of “pies, crayfish, and mutton cutlets” (aside: nothing seems more foreign to me than descriptions of meals in Russian novels, and one of the overlooked delights of many books is a glimpse at the mystery of how other people eat), Alekhin tells a story about himself, and an illicit love affair.  Again, it is a man constrained, encased — in this case, by his obedience to societal standards of how one treats another man’s wife, even if one happens to be passionately in love with that wife.  When Alekhin finally reveals his love for her just as she is leaving him, he “understood that when you love you must either, in your reasonings about that love, start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their accepted meaning, or you must not reason at all.”

It’s a terribly sad, beautiful story, and it ends with another kind of flat disconnect between listeners and teller, with Burkin and Ivan thinking of how beautiful Alekhin’s beloved was, whom they had both met.  And yet there’s perfection in this round-robin of three tales, and in their presentation.  Each tells a story, to others who hear his own story buried inside of it.  True communication always passes through a film of consciousness, and true comprehension of another’s meaning is well-nigh impossible.  I don’t know if that’s what Chekhov was trying to say, but it does seem to be a recurring theme in the stories in this volume.


Life Stories

October 4, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

Life is a matter of listening as much as doing; a matter of stories as much as events.  Is this a message (a moral?) I’m imposing on the work, or is it intentionally buried in its structure?  I suspect it’s the former, but Potocki seems to have been so sensitive to his eccentric work’s effects on his readers that I’m not entirely sure.

One reason I suggest this is the recurring theme of stories that reflect upon and/or interpret the events in one or more of their framing narratives.  A straightforward example is “The Story of Thibaud de la Jacquiére,” on the tenth day.  Van Worden, wondering whether his “adorable and adoring” cousins might actually be “sprites,” “witches,” or “vampires” who are playing tricks on him, reads the story in a 17th-century collection of German tales.  A kind of erotic prodigal-son story, it involves a young man seducing a beautiful stranger, only to find her transformed into Beelzebub as they have sex.  He wakes up on top of a corpse in a garbage dump, then repents with his last breath.

This kind of correspondence between levels of narrative makes you think something’s up: is the whole thing going to end up being a dream, or some kind of farfetched plot to teach van Worden a lesson, or are there actual supernatural forces at work, or what?  In fact, even van Worden seems to sense that something’s up, since after reading he only “almost” comes to believe that his cousins are demons.  This might be a poor example for the point I set out to make, actually, since it’s a little too pat; there are other stories which seem to comment on van Worden’s couching of all virtue in honor, or on the plot developments with the haunted (?) Venta Quemada.  In fact, there’s a possible counter to the story of Thibaud: the Gypsy Chief’s adventures with the Knight of Toledo, a libertine who repents after an apparent supernatural experience, only to find it was actually an extraordinary set of coincidences that scared him so; he leaves his excessively monastic penance, instead doing good and revealing his virtuous character.

The story of Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief, was what brought this possible moral to mind for me.  This one story is actually the bulk of the book: appearing, frequently interrupted, from the twelfth to the 62nd day, containing many further layers of story.  Pandesowna’s life story contains many incidents, to be sure, but much of it is composed of the stories of others: Pandesowna listening, in other words.  What moves his own story forward is his and others’ reactions to narratives, the stories of others and  the emotions they provoke.  And this infects the top level of the narrative’s reality: van Worden and the others await the continuation of the chief’s story just as he awaits the stories of those he hears, and many days pass in which nothing happens but the group waiting for Pandesowna to continue his tale.  (There’s more than a little of the Thousand and One Nights in this day-to-day interruption and continuation of the narrative.)  Is the work actually a moral progress whereby van Worden comes to see that virtue is not only a matter of honor, but of empathy, as well?

I think perhaps I’m not doing this aspect of the work justice: it’s a rather beautiful effect, the way it points out (in its plot- and genre-besotted way) how much it matters to think and care about the stories you read and hear, the people you meet, to weigh them judiciously without rashly judging (after all, I don’t know yet whether or not Emina and Zubeida actually are demons, and neither does van Worden).  One of the great meta-themes and justifications of literature, as many people have said, is this vicarious living of many lives, fictional or not.  But I digress.  I hope I can work this in some more in my subsequent posts on the book.

Guidelines for Literary Traveling Companions

September 30, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki.

Have I mentioned before how important it is to pick a good book for traveling?  Going all the way to Seattle last week (thanks, Spiff!), with a side trip to Vancouver, I really thought hard about what I wanted to take.  I tend to better remember books that I read while traveling — something about the sensory connection of a fresh setting around the page, I think — so I want to pick something I’ll actually want to remember. I came up with this, and if I do say so myself, it was a great choice.  Here’s what I look for in a travel book:

Plot-driven.  You need something that can both take you away from the horror of being trapped in a metal tube miles above the earth for hours and give you a pleasurable read in a coffee shop while everyone else is working (if you’re traveling for pleasure rather than work, anyway).  This book involves demons, cabbalists, possibly haunted inns in the mountains of Spain, bandits, life stories, etc., etc.  It’s plot-tastic.

Episodic.  Partly this is just personal taste, but I also think episodic narratives nicely mirror the experience of traveling on vacation: a variety of incidents, different settings, small experiences.  Plus I tend to get bored with just one book while on vacation, so it’s nice to read a shortish episode and then move on to another book for a while.  TMFIS is divided into 66 days, and those days are further subdivided into stories and stories within stories.

Comedic elements.  No one wants too much angst while traveling, or on vacation.  It doesn’t have to be a laff riot, but a little humor helps.  Potocki has a somewhat peculiar, but very definite, sense of humor; much of this, as I’ll discuss later, is rather complexly self-referential.  There’s some broad humor in the plot itself, as well.

Long — epic, even. Because when else are you going to get around to it?  TMFIS is a doorstop: over 600 densely-printed pages.

Long-awaited.  Something I’ve meant to read for a long time; often a classic nicely fits this bill.  I’ve been drooling over TMFIS for years.

Easy to transport, no big deal to damage. Cheap, easily replaced paperbacks are good.  Expensive first editions, not so much.  What I’ve got here is a Penguin Classics edition which got beat to hell on the trip, but survived.

So I picked a real winner this time.  Judging by these criteria, Don Quixote is probably the all-time champion of vacation lit.  I took Tom Jones to Denmark and that was also great, although not quite as episodic as I might have liked.  This is also full of stories within stories, all within plot-based and form-based framing structures.  Enough to make me swoon.

Speaking of DQ, Potocki clearly loved it, and the book often reads like an amalgam of Boccaccio and Cervantes, with some Ann Radcliffe thrown in (the Gothic was so hot in the 1810s!)  The framing device is strongly reminiscent of Cervantes, with the supposed manuscript of the title being found in a box some 40 years after its apparent writing, then dictated to its finder from its original Spanish into French.  A transcript of a spoken translation of a manuscript of unknown credibility: way to destabilize the text, Jan!  (There’s all kinds of weirdness around Potocki’s own manuscript and the publication of the book, too, which I won’t go into, but which is equally fascinating and destabilizing.)

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