March 27, 2011 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy.
Reading next: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Art sometimes comes at you in waves, whether you choose it or not. More or less unintentionally, after the jolly laffs of You Know Me Al I’ve been spending the past few weeks with art like a series of hard slaps across the face, forehand and back, the skin rubbed raw. That image is one of the trademarks of the Japanese army in Masaki Kobayashi’s film trilogy The Human Condition.
Almost ten hours of pain, suffering, and moral anguish, it becomes, somewhere around the third of its six parts, hypnotic and all-consuming, thanks mostly to the astounding brilliance of its cinematography, editing, and formal composition, and the performance of the great Tatsuya Nakadai. That is, unless you find it completely unwatchable. Which is perfectly valid.
As for me, watching it while I was also reading Tolstoy — not just Tolstoy, late Tolstoy, prophet-howling-in-the-wilderness Tolstoy — left a sense of having my brain scrubbed thoroughly and left out to dry: unpleasant, perhaps, but necessary. The works share a directness and search for fundamental principles and truths that’s more or less absent from contemporary discourse. You can’t subsist on a steady diet of this stuff — at least I can’t — but you need some of it, or your soul dies.
As with Kobayashi’s film, Tolstoy is readable thanks to his formal genius and artistic integrity, through which he attempts to wake his audience to the insanity of so many societal conventions. And yet the works themselves are hardly transparent panes through which to show problems. Madness runs deep in each work, and in three consecutive Tolstoy stories I read, it was inescapable as text or as subtext.
“The Diary of a Madman,” a short work left unfinished, shows how a man comes to a kind of holy madness — the madness of Lear and mysticism — through three lonely confrontations with death and God. Tolstoy presents these experiences as uncanny, and they are, but they also felt familiar to me, a kind of universal:
A clean, whitewashed, square room. How tormenting it was to me, I remember, that this little room was precisely square. There was one window, with a curtain — red…. And anguish, anguish, such spiritual anguish as comes before vomiting, only spiritual. Eerie, frightening, it seems you’re frightened of death, but then you recollect, you think about life, and you’re frightened of your dying life. Somehow life and death merged into one. Something was tearing my soul to pieces and yet could not tear it. Once more I went and looked at the sleeping men, once more I tried to fall asleep, it was all that same terror — red, white, square.
The translation here is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and they convey the confusing rush of words, the crisis of this uncanny sensation of coming face to face with the point of your existence. It comes across as the kind of spiritual vomiting the narrator mentions. But there are those lucid details, in this incident and those that follow it, those sensory impressions, and that artful recapitulation of “red, white, square.”
I wonder if this story and the novellas “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonata” all function as entries in a madman’s diary on a metafictional level, as well. If Tolstoy was trying to rid his work of decadent description and layers of meaning and present experiences from soul to soul, he could not help himself: he was too much an artist. There is too much ambiguity in the ending of “Death of the Madman,” in the holy-foolishness or actual insanity of a character who gives away his possessions and claims to be afraid of nothing, and too much ambiguity in all of his stories. Thank God.
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is certainly a moving work of art on Tolstoy’s terms (as I understand them, which is surely rudimentary). I love the section near the end, when Ivan “lying face to the back of the sofa,” dying in “solitude… had lived only on imaginings of the past,” memories from his childhood of tastes, incidents, family. As he dies, at the end, we read the following:
He indicated his son to his wife with his eyes and said:
“Take him away… sorry… for you, too…” He also wanted to say “Forgive,” but said “Forgo,” and, no longer able to correct himself, waved his hand, knowing that the one who had to would understand.
Okay, fine. God will understand. But what about us, and what about his family, from which he feels so estranged? Did he want to say “Forgive” because he is forgiving them, or because he wants them to forgive him? And what are they to understand from “Forgo”? One last message of moral disapproval from him, telling them to give up their decadence? (It’s clear, from the beginning of the story at Ivan’s wake, that they do not.) The story is something of a tragedy, something of a comedy in the Dantean sense, thanks especially to that “Forgo.”
Finally, there’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which is a feverish nightmare. The nightmarish quality of the story comes in part from its narration by a murderer, Pozdnyshev, in a train compartment with the framing device’s first-person narrator, but it also stems from our (or at least my) confusion about Tolstoy’s stance towards Pozdnyshev, towards the narrator, towards the events of the story. It reminded me a bit of Dickens killing off Dora in David Copperfield: is Pozdnyshev speaking for Tolstoy in his justification for murdering his wife, a kind of wish-fulfillment like Dickens’?
Whatever the case may be, Tolstoy presents Pozdnyshev as driven insane by sexual jealousy, with or without justification, and Tolstoy seems to be arguing primarily against the basic human sexual impulse. This is so crazy that even at the time people were misreading the story as an attack on the institution of marriage. And yet, as a document of the inextricable complications of sex, love, marriage, feelings of “ownership,” it’s an enduring work of art. Into this work of art Tolstoy inserts another, the titular sonata, which Pozdnyshev calls “a fearful thing,” presenting a brief theory of art and especially music as neither “elevating” nor “abasing,” but “provoking.” He equates the artist with the hypnotist, fearing that “this hypnotist [artist] should be the first immoral man who comes along.” The stakes of art are high for Pozdnyshev, and it’s no stretch to see him as a surrogate for Tolstoy here. He takes on the voice of a man who loses his mind and kills his wife. He writes this story and shows us the murder occurring, using it to form a passionate argument against passion. Moral or immoral? Did Tolstoy create beautiful, ambiguous works of art in his right mind, or in spite of himself?
November 8, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Woman in White.
My wife, Jaime, has been telling me to read this book for years and years. Every time it comes up, she exclaims, “Count Fosco!” with this very particular mix of awe, terror, and delight. She always says Fosco’s one of her all-time favorite villains. So I knew something of what I was getting myself into.
But really, how do you prepare yourself for a morbidly obese Italian who looks like Napoleon and lets his pet white mice crawl all over his body, and seems to have his wife hypnotized and/or terrorized into being his mind-slave? Not knowing yet where Collins is taking all of this (well, maybe having some inkling, but not knowing), I can say that already Fosco seems like a brilliant creation, the sort of extravagantly anti-realistic grotesque that is strange enough (and, in this case, fat enough) to somehow become real, to the reader: to impose his big, fat, weird reality on the world. Like Napoleon, I suppose, or Hitler.
I’m sure there will be more opportunities to explore Fosco’s abundant oddity, but for now, let me just mention three things I’ve found most interesting, in the hundred or so pages since first meeting him.
1) Fosco seems to me to be a perfectly Victorian villain, in that his main tactics are an unfailing courtesy and an obsession with keeping up appearances of friendly society and warm familial bonds. At every turn, when Percival Glyde threatens to ruin their plot by flying off the handle (again), Fosco smooths things over by apologizing for his hotheaded friend, by sympathizing with Laura’s and Marian’s sense of decency and decorum, and by insinuating that he values discretion and leisure above all else; that he’s a gentleman, in other words, and how could anyone dispute a Count’s claim to that? You get the feeling that Fosco and Glyde will succeed (or come damned close) simply by Fosco’s smooth insistence on the impropriety of discussing the technicalities of life with ladies, and his being interesting enough to distract them from the matters at hand. He’s a jujitsu master, in other words: absorbing and redistributing moral violence. (Best Shakespearean comparison I can think of so far: part Lady Macbeth, part Iago.) I wonder whether Collins intended him as a gross exaggeration of the sorts of wretchedly artificial relationships the Victorian English seemed to maintain with each other. Part of me wonders whether he’s not Frederick Fairlie’s id unleashed and given agency.
2) Speaking of morality, one of the more fascinating set pieces so far takes place in the “boat-house” on Glyde’s estate, when the entire party takes a break from a long morning stroll and finds itself embroiled in a discussion of whether “crimes cause their own detection.” In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Fosco takes the “interesting” side of the argument against Marian and Laura, arguing for a kind of moral relativism: “Here, in England, there is one virtue. And there, in China, there is another virtue.” Of course this would not fly, with either the ladies or with Collins’s readers: England’s virtue was the virtue, surely, in the Victorian Empire, on which the sun never set!
You get the sense that Fosco knows the stakes are very low, and therefore reveals some of his true feelings about the pointlessness of virtue — managing to make himself more fascinating to the ladies in the process, with this fine little piece of braggadocio (familiar now as the mating call of the Transgressive Academic): “I am a bad man, Lady Glyde, am I not? I say what other people only think, and when all the rest of the world is in a conspiracy to accept the mask for the true face, mine is the rash hand that tears off the plump pasteboard, and shows the bare bones beneath.”
3) Finally: am I crazy, or is there a fairly blatant homosexual subtext between Glyde and Fosco? Laura’s confession to Marian seems to make clear that Glyde has never given her the slightest indication of his love or even lust for her; and in his “Man of Sentiment” episode, as Marian puts it, Fosco wears his dandiest clothes and indulges his aesthetic sense to the hilt, rhapsodizing on music, on the sunset, etc. His status as a decadent Italian, his weird relationships with exotic pets, his unusual relationship with his wife, and his avowed sympathy for the feminine; Glyde’s seemingly complete lack of interest in sex with his (much younger, beautiful, apparently willing, at least at first) wife, his invitation to Count and Madame Fosco to join him on his honeymoon, and his constant submission to Fosco’s wishes; are these markers intended by Collins to send a message of homosexuality, or am I projecting 21st-century reading on a 19th-century work? I always wonder, with Victorian novelists, how much of this sexual marking is conscious and how much is just submerged, or unconscious. Either way: there seem to be some rather intricate things going on in this book with sex and gender, and I’ll probably need to address them in the next post.
January 4, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.
As it turns out, Redburn and Chuzzlewit are interesting books to read back to back. Both give some sense of what it was like for emigrants on board a ship bound for America. Both tell of naive young men crossing the Atlantic with great hopes for their destination (Liverpool for Redburn, New York and then the frontier town of Eden for Martin Chuzzlewit and Mark Tapley). And both leave their protagonists disillusioned with the foreign lands that seemed so promising. (As a footnote: Dickens and Melville both wrote about spontaneous combustion — Dickens in Bleak House, Melville in Redburn.)
What’s interesting is how closely their paths and their impressions parallel each other on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Redburn finds an urban hell in Liverpool, with new buildings and roads shattering his hopes of following his father’s footsteps around the town and, more importantly, families dying in the streets, ignored by callous city folk. This explains why they’re willing to cram themselves onto an absurdly overcrowded ship to get to America. But Redburn also takes a “Delightful Ramble into the Country,” in Chapter 43. And he’s entertained by a lovely family, and falls in love with a young English maiden; but he’s also offended (hyperbolically so, for humorous effect) by the signs warning of “man-traps and spring-guns” in the countryside, threatening his passage. “In America I had never heard of the like,” he says. It’s an old country, and unfree.
Chuzzlewit and Tapley find their urban hell in New York, with its tobacco-spitting partisans and aristocrats without the traditional titles. They, too, escape to the countryside, seeking the “true” country of which they’ve read and dreamed, but the piece of land that Martin buys in a town called Eden — which appears to be a booming frontier town on paper — turns out to be a log cabin in a swamp. The poor emigrant family which Mark comforted on the voyage has also been swindled into purchasing in Eden; all of their children die in the unhealthy swamp air.
But really, in both cases, how could they be so deluded? The illusion of the new world/old world dichotomy is interesting here. Did Redburn really expect that the “old world” would stay old for him, all those years after his father’s death, when he’d come from a country constantly building and rebuilding itself? Did Martin really expect the “new world” to divorce itself immediately from old ways of thinking about class, race, and money?
Of course, Melville is more interested in the voyage itself than Dickens, for whom those weeks are a chance for some humorous seasickness, the introduction of a few tertiary characters and a little character development, and some scenery. In their differing treatments of the immigrant passengers, we can see how they differ as moralists. Dickens insists on modeling proper behavior: Mark Tapley keeps a stiff upper lip, helps to boost the moral of the poor passengers, and cooks and helps with the children on board. No one does these things on Redburn’s return journey, with the absurdly inflated number of 500 starving passengers: everyone is busy with their own duties, those in the first-class cabin cannot be bothered with the proles, and the immigrant quarters descend into a kind of atavistic, fetid tenement. Babies die. Plagues rage. Everyone just wants off the ship, and the narrator Melville/Redburn is left to bemoan the state of affairs on his own.
They’re both writing in the 1840s, from different perspectives, but to different audiences. Dickens wants his audience to help these people; he sees no reason why they should leave, why they cannot be helped in England, and Melville wants to help them as well, but he especially wants their humanity acknowledged when they reach America, and the difficulties they’ve already gone through understood. But both books were published in both England and America; Dickens’s audience dwarfed Melville’s, of course. And something of each of their concerns appears in their own, although I think Dickens was more aware of his obligation to educate and edify. Melville was more romantic about his business, even in Redburn, a fairly mercenary effort.