A Fop and an Androgyne

November 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.

This is the first of Wilkie Collins that I’ve read, and I must say I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy the writing itself; I expected something more sensationally and less imaginatively written, whereas it has been (at least so far) quite strong.  In the early going, I’m most intrigued by a couple of characters whose parts I’m unsure of in the overall narrative:

-Frederick Fairlie, who seems a great type of villain: the foppish, indifferent hypochondriac.  Constantly using his supposedly fragile nerves and health as an excuse to get rid of people, and to have nothing to do with things he cares nothing about, he is revealed as a monster of solipsism.  He refuses to leave his room for any reason, and takes no considerations into account other than what will mostly quickly get him rid of whoever is bothering him.  He sets guidelines for when and how his niece Laura will be allowed to visit him before and after her wedding, imploring that she visit him “without tears!” to avoid upsetting his disposition.  Fairlie reminds me very much of Des Esseintes from Against Nature, here presented from the normal societal perspective on the worthlessness of such a self-centered aesthete.  I’ll be interested to see what’s done with him.  He’s a caricature as so many characters in Victorian novels are, but he’s one that’s particularly well done and interesting, I think, and one that can also strike close to home: that consideration for one’s own comfort whatever the consequence for others is a source of constant struggle, isn’t it?

-Marian Holcombe, who seems as though she may actually be our protagonist, or at least should be.  While Fairlie is presented as effeminate and delicate, Holcombe is given a statuesque body, a homely face, and any number of masculine sympathies and markers as something of an intermediary between the sexes.  Collins seems to set her up as a kind of sexless combination of what he sees as the best of each sex: the compassion, familial concern, and lively wit of the female, and the level-headedness and responsibility of the male.  And yet she is a strong defender of her sister Laura’s right to choose her husband, and to back out of a marriage that certainly promises to be loveless; she certainly sees the woman’s point of view.  Marian seems kind of fascinating, and I’m interested to see what Collins does with her, as well: does she become the authorial surrogate, interjecting Collins’s own views into the plot?  Or is she allowed to take a more active role, perhaps in solving the mystery of Anne Catherick?

I note that we get to know Marian much better than we get to know Laura, the object of so much attention but so little substantive description.  In combination with the ominous marriage agreement allowing (the wonderfully named) Percival Glyde to take her money in the event of her death before her 21st birthday, the lack of depth to Laura’s character makes me wonder if she’s not long for the narrative.  Not that it’s all that uncommon for a Victorian novelist to keep a young woman pure by sketching her as good and pure and beautiful without an ounce of actual character.  Marian’s too interesting to be loved, it would seem.

Choice, Control, and Constraint

March 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Against Nature.

In chapter 11 Des Esseintes is inspired by his sick-room reading of Dickens to undertake a journey to London.  He hates how isolated he’s become and desires a trip into the world, and he wants to compare his imaginative creation of London as it is presented in Dickens with the real thing.  This chapter’s great: Des  Esseintes makes the trip into Paris, which turns out to be rainy and subdued, and has a gigantic English/French meal at a tavern.  There are these passages of Des Esseintes imagining himself to be in London already — Paris as London, the nerve! — and at last, he decides the real thing could never match his image of it, and goes back home.  In chapter 12, as happy to be home as if he actually had been gone for months, he lovingly handles and reviews his book collection.  This chapter’s also interesting from a bibliophilic perspective, as Des Esseintes reveals that he actually has his favorite books specially typeset, printed, and bound for him in one-copy editions to his specifications.

This revelation — Des Esseintes’s mania for controlling all aspects of his beloved books’ appearance, at exorbitant expense — got me thinking about the relationship among the three C’s in this post’s title.  As I said in the last post, Huysmans spends much of this book talking about taste, which is a function of choice: Des Esseintes is obsessed with maintaining and explaining (to himself, if to no one else) his choices in literature, art, decoration, companionship.  But so much of this taste — all taste, really, but especially in the case of this decadent eccentric — is really about control: about exerting the control he lacks over his poor health and personal relationships (or lack thereof).  And the desire for control leads to constraint — to a wildly proscribed life, a decision to shut out the world and create an artificially superior one, an individual-sized universe.

These C’s have been the focus of most of the books I’ve been reading lately: Villette, with its constrained governess exerting the control over her narrative which she so often lacks over her life and loves; Schreber’s Memoirs, with its pathological display of choosing to believe in the universe which places Schreber at its center, in control of the fate of the world; VALIS, with its overarching intelligence invading an individual’s consciousness, questioning the very concepts of free will, control, reality.

Huysmans also puts me very much in mind of Georges Perec’s masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual (especially the Bartlebooth plot), and other works of the OuLiPo group.  Constraint is the raison d’etre of this group, and I’ve always thought of the group as freeing the artist by limiting the impossible, limitless choices of language — and as a rather existential expression of the human condition, a duplication in artworks of the non-negotiable constraints we all face in life.

I recognize a lot of myself in Des Esseintes, even with his massive wealth, outdated ennui, and colossal perversity.  I have his tendency toward hermeticism, toward cloistering in the home and mind.  I’ve never thought of this as a desire to exert control over a scary world, but perhaps it is.  What about Des Esseintes — is ennui camouflage for fear?  Does the world-weariness of the fin de siécle actually stem from fear that the world was simply getting too big, with too many options, too many freedoms, too many possibilities?

Decadent Surreality

March 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Against Nature, by J.-K. Huysmans.

This is regarded as the key text of the Decadent movement which is best known by the works of Oscar Wilde.  It is quite easily the most foppish book I’ve ever read: Literature Dandified.  So far, at least, it is quite persistent in its celebration of “taste,” its abhorrence of the mob, and its ugly streak of misogyny.

There are manifestos strewn here and there throughout the first four chapters, but the root of them all seems to be this, from chapter two:

The main thing is to know how to set about it, to be able to concentrate your attention on a single detail, to forget yourself sufficiently to bring about the desired hallucination and so substitute the vision of a reality for the reality itself.

As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius.

Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes….

So our “hero,” Des Esseintes, decides to isolate himself in a villa on a hill outside of Paris.  He spends his time alone, keeping vampire hours, contemplating the furnishings he’s chosen, his art collection, his book collection (and his walls are bound like books, in “orange morocco”), his perverse fancies and desires.  It’s amazing how much it reminds me of surrealism, and both Huysmans and Des Esseintes seem to be longing for just such a movement.

For instance, chapter four is devoted to Des Esseintes’ attempt to bring out “the silvery glints running across the weft of the wool” of an Oriental rug, by placing on it a “huge tortoise.”  However, the brown of the shell does not have the effect he anticipated — so he has it gilt.  Even this gilt does not prove to be enough, however, so he has a design of precious stones set onto the shell, simulating a Japanese drawing of flowers.  Leading to the image of an aesthetic turtle lumbering across a gorgeous rug.  (The turtle dies, of course: “it had not been able to bear the dazzling luxury imposed upon it.”)

This incident reminds me of nothing so much as Raymond Roussel: there are similar set pieces in Impressions of Africa.  It also reminds me of some of the OuLiPo writers, Harry Mathews especially, and Perec.  It’s also an extended example of the dominant metaphoric motif in the book: things from nature — insects, plants, weather — are compared to items in Des Esseintes’ artificial world, and, by the alchemy of metaphor, somehow transformed into them.

I love this stuff: so far, Against Nature is mostly description, metaphor, incident for the sake of striking image, and pure belletristic language.  There have been chapters devoted to an alternate history of Latin literature and linguistics, the aforementioned turtle chapter, and an ekphrastic chapter on two artworks by Gustave Moreau featuring Salome.

However, it is amazing how the book disregards both any concern about money and any feeling for people — in general, really, but especially those without taste, which really seems to be everyone but Des Esseintes.  There seems to be a pull back towards feudalism and a push forward towards fascism in the work.  Acting on the desire to be left alone, the hermetic, Decadent ideal, leads to those who would get into everyone’s business running the world.

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