Gone to Ithaca with the Butterfly Man

April 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald.

Reading next: The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi.

The Emigrants is perfect, and as such it is hard to talk about, because it doesn’t need any help in making itself understood.  But it’s also irresistible to talk about it, because it is so beautiful, and there are so many avenues of inquiry to pursue.  There’s its profound and necessary engagement with the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany, and in the collective memory of the German people; there are its style and structure, the very long paragraphs and sentences which do not really seem long, but only unhurried, patient, quiet, melancholy, and the enigmatic, fragmentary epigrams and photographs that are Sebald’s trademark; there are the dreams, my God! the dreams, and the dazzling array of characters that flit into and back out of the narrative, and the globe-trotting settings that Sebald sketches so well; there is, in the background always, an exploration of nature and the environment, and its manipulation and abuse by humans, and its resilience and its danger, that bears some relationship to Werner Herzog’s films (though Sebald’s gentler, and less crazed about nature being murderous).

Most of all, for me, there are the intertwined themes of memory, time, truth, and fiction.  And let me start, in this post, by just enjoying one of the motifs that draw these things together so beautifully.  I speak of the “butterfly man,” Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov appears, in one way or another, in each of the four stories here.  In the first, a slide of the subject, Henry Selwyn, resembles “a photograph of Nabokov in the mountains above Gstaad that I had clipped from a Swiss magazine a few days before.”  Sebald then inserts the photo of Nabokov (which you can see in this fine blog post on Sebald and Nabokov), holding his butterfly net in his dowdy shorts.  Speak, Memory is certainly the work most directly referenced here, with its emphasis on the fictional motifs which Nabokov delighted in finding in his own life story, its use of photographs to bring memory back to life.

But if anything, Sebald out-tricks the old trickster himself.  In the second story, Speak, Memory itself appears, being read by Lucy Landau when she first meets Sebald’s teacher Paul Bereyter, who is resting and trying to come to grips with his “condition” of claustrophobia and possible mental illness.  This seems a remarkable coincidence, but not impossible; it is only the fact of its being the second mention of Nabokov that tips the reader off that something beyond fact is going beyond here.

In the third story, “Ambros Adelwarth,” Nabokov himself becomes a presence in the book, an irruption of the fictional in the form of a real person.  This one story, incidentally, is an epic in its own right, and one of the most memorable reading experiences of my life, in a scant 80 pages (including photographs).  The words epic and Nabokovian become unavoidable and inseparable after the following passage:

In the mirror of the hall stand he had stuck a visiting card with a message for me, and I have carried it with me ever since.  Have gone to Ithaca.  Yours ever — Ambrose.  It was a while before I understood what he meant by Ithaca….The sanatorium, which was run by a Professor Fahnstock, was in grounds that looked like a park.  I still remember, said Aunt Fini, standing with Uncle Adelwarth by his window one crystal-clear Indian Summer morning.  The air was coming in from outside and we were looking over the almost motionless trees towards a meadow that reminded me of the Altach marsh when a middle-aged man appeared, holding a white net on a pole in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps.  Uncle Adelwarth stared straight ahead, but he registered my bewilderment all the same, and said: It’s the butterfly man, you know.  He comes round here quite often.

Have gone to Ithaca.  In the context of Sebald’s tale of Adelwarth, the phrase resonates through many emotions, many meanings, many allusions.  When we first read the phrase (and see an image of the visiting card itself) it reminds us of the Odyssey: Ithaca is the long-awaited (or is it long-avoided?) homeland, and the homesickness that afflicts so many of the characters is foregrounded here.  But the deep loneliness of Ambros, and his evident feeling of homelessness, also leads one to believe that the Ithaca here may be an eternal home: the grave.  The sanatorium that Ithaca finally signifies partakes of both of these associations, especially as “home” (Germany) seems, as one character puts it, “some kind of insanity lodged in my head.”

But Ithaca is also home of Cornell University, where Nabokov taught for much of his life, so we are prepared for the appearance of the lepidopterist himself.  Its gorges and waterfalls provide the sublime landscape for the tragic demise of Ambros, the willful self-destruction of his submission to shock treatments.  At the end, he wears “armlets made of some satin-like material” and a “green eyeshade” to ease his headaches.  Dressed like a dealer in one of the gambling palaces he’d visited with his companion Cosmo, he is late for his last appointment because he is waiting for the “butterfly man.”

Nabokov makes his most important appearances in the last story, “Max Ferber.”  He “popped out of the bloody ground” to save Ferber from suicide in Switzerland.  And then he appears again, in the memoir of Ferber’s mother, Luisa Lanzberg, as a ten-year-old Russian boy, already chasing butterflies.  He sticks in Luisa’s memory when her beloved Fritz proposes to her:

…though everything else around me blurred, I saw that long-forgotten Russian boy as clearly as anything, leaping about the meadows with his butterfly net; I saw him as a messenger of joy, returning from that distant summer day to open his specimen box and release the most beautiful red admirals, peacock butterflies, brimstones and tortoiseshells to signal my final liberation.

A “messenger of joy.”  A beautiful, misguided phrase.  For the beauty of the first meeting of Luisa and Fritz is not a harbinger of joy and happiness: he is lost to her, and so is another beloved, and so, finally, is she herself, in the murder of the European Jewry.  And yet the joy existed: the joy was there, at the time, if inevitably lost to the irretrievable past, the past from which Germany has been cut off by the enormity of its guilt, from which its Jews have been cut off by the horror of their slaughter.  The indelible fictions that Nabokov prized above all others, those intricately patterned tapestries of language and image and metaphor, are the fictions of memory.  Beyond its status as fiction or memoir or autobiography, this book is a collection of memories, in all their messy, misremembered, pseudofictional glory.

Nabokov’s Mysterious Chess Problem

May 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: Speak, Memory.

Reading now: Gargantua, by Francois Rabelais.

One short note before leaving Nabokov for a while: there’s a baffling passage at the end of chapter 14 concerning a chess problem, which Nabokov imbues with strange import.  Anyone who’s read him knows to be on their guard for this sort of thing — he’s a trickster — so I went to MLA Bibliography and tried to look it up, but came up more or less empty.

And then I saw this.

Now, this is an anonymous piece, the original URL for which has been redirected to a list of porny sites, and which has been rescued and remounted by a plucky enthusiast.  But it’s a mind-blower, and it strikes me as fairly convincing, solving a lot of the mysteries I felt surrounding the riddle when I first read it: why the pawn is turned into a knight instead of a queen, the bizarre hints about censorship, the allusions to Alice in Wonderland that pop up here and there in the book.  (The fact that Nabokov translated that book into Russian may be one of the bits of evidence against this interpretation, but then again, the intensive engagement with the text that translation entails may have led Nabokov to his response via chess problem.)

I plan to delve into some biographies to see if this has already been covered, and the anonymous Internet posting is just rehashing previously established scholarship.  I’ll plan to update this post thereafter with what I find.

UPDATE, 5/15/11: A quick-and-dirty literature review shows that the major scholarly article about this chess problem is David Sheidlower’s “Reading Between the Lines and the Squares,” published in Modern Fiction Studies way back in 1979.  Sheidlower sees this problem as pointing towards the conclusion of the novel Bend Sinister, and makes a convincing case.  His argument also pegs the problem to the problem in Alice in Wonderland.  The Freudian interpretation of the anonymous online interpreter and Sheidlower’s interpretation seem to work at the problem from opposite angles: one uses the evidence in Bend Sinister to interpret the chess problem as an independent part of Nabokov’s overall oeuvre, the other sees the chess problem as primarily important for interpreting the meaning of Bend Sinister.

Nabokov’s notorious declared hatred of Freudian ideas and symbols may have been a case of protesting too much, or a stance that guides the reader toward an attempt to understand his own ideas about sex which differ from Freud’s.  (The end of Speak, Memory, with its allusions toward his and his wife’s vigilance in protecting their son from sexual predators, certainly does lead one to think that the topic was much on his mind.)  And I think he’d certainly be pleased at the idea of a problem that could be interpreted on narrative, thematic, and societal levels.

God Is a Dandy Roll

April 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov.

In honor of Nabokov’s birthday — or I guess I should say “Nabokov’s birthday (observed),” since, as he explains in his foreword, he was born on April 10 according to the Russian Old Style calendar, which translated to the 22nd in the 19th century, the 23rd in the 20th, and he was born in 1899, but his birthdays were observed beginning in 1900, so it’s a complicated mess — I’ll stick to a fairly simple unpacking of one of Vladimir’s more complicated metaphors in the first chapter.  It’s closer to what he would’ve wanted than an exegesis on any “such dull literary lore as autoplagiarism,” I suppose. Mostly I want the excuse to look at it a little more closely, to understand exactly what’s going on in it.

These extended metaphors are a kind of trademark with Nabokov; coming as they often do at the ends of chapters or their sections, they take on the status of bravura arias or crescendoes of thought and image.  (Ironic, those musical metaphors of my own, since Nabokov acknowledges that music doesn’t do a thing for him.)  There’s a real doozy at the end of chapter one, involving a memory of his father being tossed in the air, the angels painted on a grand church ceiling, and a Greek Catholic funeral service; I can’t even delve into this one yet.  At any rate, I think that these metaphors also function as a message to the reader that here lies the author’s real “message,” more than in any mere plot or character.  The play of word-images across memory, character, plot, meaning is what he’s after, the delight of taking a particular comparison as far as it will go to reveal (or conceal?) as much as it can.

So here, at the end of the second section of chapter one, is the metaphor under examination:

Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.

The paragraph, a very long one, which this sentence closes began with an exclamation over the dwarfing of the “cosmos” by “a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!” Exceedingly well crafted, this, as you’d expect from VN.  There’s an argument made here, an argument about the primacy of the importance of the human mind and imagination.  But the paragraph also introduces questions which will be taken up soon in the book, about the possibility or probability of God, or some creator at any rate.

Nabokov rejects “environment” and “heredity,” the 20th centuries’ prime adversaries or ingredients in the scientific argument over human behavior, as the “exact instrument” that made him himself.   Instead he shifts to metaphor to explain his thought, the kind of thing only a unique human being can do.  The “exact instrument” is an “anonymous roller” which presses an identifying watermark into a piece of “foolscap” paper — Nabokov’s life.  And this identifying mark can only be seen by holding it up to a lamp, art.

So the metaphor here is, obviously, of creating and exposing a watermark.  The “roller” in this metaphor could refer either to the  person, as “anonymous” would lead you to believe, or the machine which imparts the watermark, the dandy roll.

As the video makes obvious, this happens when paper is still not what we think of as paper, but a slurry of ingredients.

The other half of the metaphor is the exposure of this “unique” mark to light.  Art is the lamp that exposes the unique qualities of any individual, not only to the world, but to the individual him- or herself.  (I think of Bulgakov, and wonder if this is an oil lamp, or an electric bulb, and if electric, if the lamp is properly shaded.)  “Foolscap” is a nice Nabokovian touch, the most provocative and allusive word possible.  It refers to a large, distinctly European paper size, and this is significant considering Nabokov’s migration from Europe to America and back to Europe.  But of course it also refers to the jester’s cap and bells — and the name for the paper refers to the watermark with this design.  And Nabokov thereby ends the section on a resounding note of ambiguity and ambivalence, for if life is a sheet of foolscap, perhaps looking for our individual significance will lead us only to see that there’s no significance but the laughter (in the light, this time) of that anonymous roller, what- or whoever it might be.

A Nabokovian Reading of Ishmael

May 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Moby-Dick.

Everyone who’s read or even read about Moby-Dick knows that Ishmael is a weird entity, a hybrid of character, limited and omniscient narrator, and authorial representative.  He shows and tells us things he, as a character, could not possibly have seen or heard.  But he came across as even weirder than I remember on this reading, if only because I was able to pick up more of the details than on previous readings, my attention focused on the bigger picture of understanding the novel.

The possibility of reading Ishmael as a Nabokovian trickster-narrator occurred to me on this reading — the possibility of Ishmael as a deliberately duplicitous narrator, a figure who indicates the fictional nature of his own composition and implicates the real-life author, as well.  It’s a half-facetious argument: some of the explanation for Ishmael’s weirdness lies, I’m convinced, in Melville’s being carried away by his passionate composition and his insistence that his text say what he wanted to express, whether or not it meant betraying the verisimilitude of the narrative and the character.  And so his character is given some of Melville’s own backstory and some elaborate incidents of his own, is thrown into situations to move the story along whenever convenient, etc.  But some of this does seem, if not deliberate, at least playfully possible as a legitimate reading, thanks to Melville’s gift for compelling detail, instructive incident, and frequent allusion.

Along with the first line of the book, the famously ambiguous “Call me Ishmael” (“call” you that because it’s not your real name, and you want to protect your identity, or “call” you that because you’re really the author and are assuming a persona?), the linchpin for an argument like this is probably the mention of a Captain D’Wolf in chapter 45, “The Affadavit.”  Ishmael has “the honor of being a nephew of his,” we’re told, and has confirmed with D’Wolf the truth of the whaling incident just described.  Interesting, this sidelight into Ishmael’s family (one of two, the other being the incident in which Ishmael’s stepmother sends him to bed in the middle of the afternoon described in an earlier post), especially considering his self-image as an “orphan” and “outcast.”  But more interesting is the fact that this Captain D’Wolf really was Melville’s uncle: “Nor’west” John D’Wolf.  (See here: as you can see, this message is part of a website about the film Traces of the Trade, about the slave trade, in which the D’Wolf family was heavily involved.  Also interesting, if not quite on topic.)

And so, if you knew Melville personally, or knew the D’Wolfs — and they were a famous family, and America was a much smaller place, so this was not unlikely — this punches a hole right through the mask of the character Ishmael to reveal the face of the author Melville.  This historical, verifiable D’Wolf is not the uncle of any Ishmael: he’s Melville’s.  And we’re suddenly on the unstable ground of nonfiction v. “realist” fiction v. self-consciously unreliable fiction.  And it’s utterly delightful that this mention occurs in “The Affadavit” — this half-serious, half-joking document attesting to the truth of Ishmael’s assertions, in which he relates whaling incidents he’s read about and those he’s “personally known.”

The trickster nature of Ishmael pops up often, of course, in his relation of incidents in Ahab’s cabin, of thoughts and private soliloquies he could not have heard — his apparent transformation into a spirit or god, until his reincarnation as the survivor Ishmael in the Epilogue.  But charting the course of his life after the novel’s close through mentions in the book also destabilizes his characterization.  Mentions of Ishmael’s working as a “schoolmaster” (in the very first chapter) and of his obsessive research into whales and whaling (throughout the heart of the book) lead one to look back on the prefaces to the “Etymology” and “Extracts” and wonder if that “late consumptive usher” and “sub-sub-librarian” are not, in fact, Ishmael himself: if his painting them in such pathetic colors is not a sign of self-loathing or remorse for his wasted life.  But then there are also frequent allusions to the many other voyages he’s made on whalers and other ships, the ports he’s stopped at, the adventures he’s had, the wisdom he’s found.  “The Town-Ho’s Story” is but the most famous example: Ishmael recounting the story he heard during the Town-Ho‘s gam with the Pequod to his Spanish friends in Lima some years later.  There’s also the utterly remarkable incident chapter 102, “A Bower in the Arsacides,” as Ishmael is able to measure a whale’s skeleton which has been converted into an idol.  Here’s the astonishing passage I’d forgotten:

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.  But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing — at least, what untattooed parts might remain — I did not trouble myself with the odd inches…

I mean… wow.  Ishmael, so astounded by Queequeg’s cosmological tribal tattoos at the book’s onset, has become an illustrated man himself.  That he did not mention it earlier surely means that this occurred after the Pequod‘s voyage.

So, to summarize.  We are to believe that Ishmael the composer of Moby-Dick, the lone lucky survivor of the Pequod disaster, is not traumatized by this experience into sticking to the land at all, but instead goes back to the sea constantly, taking many more trips not only on merchant vessels, but on whalers.  He becomes just as obsessed with whales and the white whale especially as much as Ahab ever was; he is a very old, very weathered and wizened sailor, covered in tattoos as surely startling as Queequeg’s once were to him.  The book is written on his body, perhaps, just as Queequeg’s understanding of the universe is written on his.  The book is as much an exorcism of his whaling demons as it is a chapter of his life recollected in tranquility.

All of which is not necessarily Nabokovian, except for the ending.  Provocative statement for discussion and debate: Moby-Dick has the craziest, most ludicrous ending of any great book.  As the ship sinks rapidly in its awful vortex, Tashtego, drowning, all but his arms underwater, still manages to continue hammering a red flag to the mast, and catches the wing of a “sky-hawk” in between his hammer and the mast, bringing it down with the ship.  In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, Howard Vincent somewhat hilariously tries to defend this as “perhaps [Melville’s] masterpiece of style.”  Um, yeah.  Style does not change the fact that this scene is bat-shit insane, and always has been, even by Romantic standards.

Does the vortex scene ultimately destabilize Ishmael as a reliable narrator?  Does it convince us that he, the character who supposedly shipped on the Pequod and supposedly survived its wreck, is making it up, Pale Fire-style?  Has Ishmael the author (or, beyond him, a fictional “Melville”) been driven insane by his whale obsession and his cowardice, driven to compose an overheated narrative about a monster whale, a demonic captain, and his incredible survival of a massive shipwreck — of which he is, conveniently, the only survivor, the tale therefore unverifiable — supported by an overabundance of “evidence” from his many supposed voyages, his years of “wandering,” and his extensive research (but really from just a few printed sources)?

Well, no.  The greatness of Melville’s book does not lie in its destabilization of the author as authority or the intricate interplay between narrator and reader.  But it’s a testament to the expanse, the capacity, of this book, that it can absorb this sort of reading, too.  And it is fun to imagine the book in this alternate-universe sort of way, as a giant hoax, a massive documentation of an unstable mind.

City of Historians and Liars

November 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.

Reading next: Redburn, by Herman Melville.  (Really, this time.)

It’s oddly fitting that I should read Melville after finishing City of Saints and Madmen.  The book is influenced by Moby-Dick — I mean, the name of the fictional city is Ambergris — but, then, so are a lot of books.  What’s different here is how this book gave me some sense of how contemporary readers of Moby-Dick must have felt.  In a very different way than Melville’s masterpiece, VanderMeer’s book is  overstuffed, messy, encyclopedic, cryptic, digressive, formally and typographically adventurous, ambiguously narrated, obsessive about strange central metaphors and images.  In MD the central mystery and metaphor is the whale; here, it’s fungus (and also, perhaps, squid).  What you end up thinking is, Where the hell did that come from? It’s out of left field in the best way.

Labels and genres are beside the point here; this is interstitial/new fabulist/new weird/insert-buzzword-here fiction.  It is closest to fantasy in that it creates a world and populates it with a history, a mythology, a cast of characters; it’s also part of the charming subgenre of steampunk, for which I’ll admit I’m kind of a nerdlinger sucker.  What I was most impressed with, though, was the way that the book becomes about the subject of writing history; this is historiographical fiction of the highest order.

VanderMeer makes some obvious nods toward Nabokov, as well, and the unreliable narrator is the order of the day.  However, that’s not exactly groundbreaking.  What’s really interesting here is how the book is structured: there are four novellas followed by an “AppendiX” as long as the novellas put together, made up of bits and pieces shedding light on the writing of the novellas and the book as a whole.  Bibliography, genealogy, glossary, periodical, souvenir, bureaucratic memo: all are put to the service of literature.

Through it all, there’s an emphasis on the difficulty (impossibility?) of getting history right: of telling the story properly.  For instance, the second novella is “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek.”  There we learn that the primary source on Ambergris’s founding is the journal of one Samuel Tonsure, whose identity is more or less unknown.  Tonsure kept an apparently secret and frank journal, but also wrote a hagiographic history of the town’s founder, Cappan John Manzikert.  And we also learn that there are rumors that the secret journal is a forgery.  And Shriek is disgruntled about writing this guidebook/history for the general public anyway, and subverts the form by filling his text with digressive footnotes that overwhelm the body of the text with detail and equivocation and axe-grinding against rival historians whom he considers crackpots (and vice versa).  Alternate readings of events and the evidence they leave behind are everywhere in this book, and presentation is key, as we find out that works written in the third person are supposed to be autobiography, and even (maybe especially) bureaucrats, doctors, and bibliographers tell their “narratives” with hidden agendas, from the skewed perspective of the present.

As someone who deals with manuscripts and contemporary printed accounts, the creation of a fictional universe with an intentionally imprecise and unknowable history — one with the wires of its own creation exposed — is really interesting to me.  We in the world of archives and special collections libraries are always extolling the importance of students (and faculty, for that matter) learning the importance of “primary sources”: those original documents that can shed light on history from contemporary perspectives.  We often don’t get into the complexity of this importance: along with the assumed value of  primary sources as verifications of secondary accounts presented as “facts,” those sources also serve as important muddiers of waters that were presumed clear.  They’re messy, they almost always contain incomplete or inaccurate or irrelevant information, and they are dependent on the interpretation of flawed human beings who are prone to jumping to the conclusions they want to find based on the evidence they happen to see.

What’s coolest about this book, I think — and a lot of it’s cool: indigenous fungus-beings bent on revenge, squid-worship, ekphrastic descriptions of scary paintings, a legendary Wagnerian composer-politician, encoded stories within stories — what’s coolest, though, is the way that VanderMeer represents the messiness and deep, deep complexity of history, and the way it’s entangled with the creation of narrative.  Behind everything in this book there’s the uneasiness of the city-dwellers at the history within their midst: these “mushroom dwellers,” these “gray caps,” whose city was destroyed by colonizers.  Who live on their streets, who collect their trash, who seem to infiltrate people’s houses and snatch citizens away into their underground world.  History is all around the people of Ambergris, layer upon layer of it; it seems impossible to ever reach the heart of the truth of how things happened.

The MS Word Paperclip-Helper: Pure Evil?

August 24, 2008 § 2 Comments

Just finished: The Raw Shark Texts.

Reading next: Nosferatu in Love, by Jim Shepard.

Part three’s probably my favorite section of the book. It’s rad. We enter un-space through a hole in the back of a bookshelf in a closed bookstore (the entrance is behind the “H”s in the literature section, presumably including this book by Mr. Hall, a nice Nabokovian touch), and the journey ends at a giant labyrinth made of tunnels and rooms made entirely of paper and books inside which it “smelled like the pages of a second-hand Charles Dickens novel.” The tunnel forms the letters “ThERa.” (It’s the first letters of the book; there are also tunnels called Milos and Ios. All three are names of Greek islands, too, some Googling reveals.)

This whole complex is behind the walls of a “huge library,” presumably of a university (maybe Oxford or Cambridge?). Cool images, these: the wild, uncontrolled mass of words, fragments of printed matter and jotted notes and forgotten books, like the protective and protected subconscious of the published world.

But the most interesting and surprising section of part three is “The Story of Mycroft Ward.” Now, whatever Hall himself might say about this (and from what I’ve seen online, he’s coy about it, which seems to me a fairly absurd and, again, self-consciously Nabokovian thing to do — “What, me know anything about what my text is doing?”), this is obviously a continuation of the word-play initiated in the book’s title (Rorschach tests=Raw Shark Texts). Mycroft Ward is, in part, a knock on Microsoft (Mycroft Ward=Microsoft Word). It’s also a kick-ass story.

The story reminded me of Yates’s The Art of Memory. I love these gropings, both real and imagined, after the concept of computation, the possibilities of external and internal memory. Hall brilliantly ties his art of memory (“The Arrangement”) to the desires for immortality and “self-preservation,” its true root, and updates Yates by pushing his narrative into the computer age. It’s the scale of things that has made this age scary; the ease with which millions — billions? — of people have been led, and have acquiesced, to using the same “programs” for recording their thoughts, for searching for information, for saving their findings, for running their worlds.

All of which leads me to the question: is that paperclip with googly-eyes that is supposed to “help” you in Word an agent of Mycroft Ward? If you actually click on this thing (does anyone ever actually need this thing’s help, or do anything but disable it as quickly as possible?), do you wake up minutes later, confused and missing parts of your brain? Is the googly-eyed paperclip, in fact, pure evil?

Caging the Nightingale: The Fifth Day

June 13, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Where to begin with this day? Quite a bounty, these lovers’ happy endings.

I suppose we really must start with the fourth story, Filostrato’s. Abashed for bringing down the whole group with his demand for tales of woe and heartbreak, he tells the fifth day’s funniest and sunniest story. There are these young lovers, see, who hatch a plot to see each other at night: Caterina will convince her parents that her bed needs to be moved to the balcony because she is too hot to sleep in her room, and needs the song of the nightingale to soothe her. Ricciardo will climb up to be with her. It works, but they exhaust themselves to the point that they are not awoken by the dawn, and Caterina’s father comes to check on her. He finds her, asleep, holding… um… “that part of his person which in mixed company you ladies are too embarrassed to mention.” His nightingale, in the parlance of the story.

Boccaccio is remarkably consistent in his arguments that such sins of passion as premarital sex and adultery may be against God’s law, but they certainly don’t warrant the harsh punishments they are sometimes accorded. (However, Dioneo heaps scorn on the closeted homosexual in the final story of the day.) So in this story, the father accepts Ricciardo’s sin, provided he marry Caterina (which he gladly does). And, as Filostrato ends his tale, “he lived with her in peace and happiness, caging nightingales by the score, day and night, to his heart’s content.”

All of the day’s stories seem a reaction to the fourth day’s gloom, and represent a rumination on the relationship of Love and Fortune. Many of the stories are very similar in incident and character to the fourth day’s, but with a reversal of Fortune or a change of heart leading to a comedic rather than tragic ending. For instance, Emilia’s story, the second, reuses elements of Elissa’s story from the previous day (a Sicilian setting, a girl named Gostanza, piracy, the King of Tunis). But whereas in Elissa’s story the boy-pirate who’d fallen in love with Gostanza from afar saw her killed before they’d ever touched, in Emilia’s the girl is rescued by a stroke of wild luck and the boy-pirate is restored to her by Fortune, skill, and the generosity of the powerful.

Not that it’s all sunshine and lollipops. One of the book’s rare splashes of the truly supernatural comes in Filomena’s story, the eighth. It seems ancient and scary and somehow, strangely, Nabokovian, this story. A spurned lover, Nastagio, leaves the scene of his humiliation and goes wandering in the woods. Here he comes across an utterly terrified naked woman running from a “swarthy-looking knight, his face contorted with anger, who was riding a jet-black steed and brandishing a rapier…” When Nastagio interrupts the knight, he says his name is Guido degli Anastagi (Nastagio? Anastagi?); that he is dead, having killed himself in despair over the cruelty of the woman he is chasing, whom he loved; that she is also dead; that they are both in Hell; and that their punishment is to repeat this chase, over and over again, ending every Friday with Anastagi disembowelling his lover, feeding her heart to his hell-hounds, only to have her pop back up and start running again. This is kind of too brilliant for explication, the way so much of Dante is. (No one does the tortures of hell like fourteenth-century Italians!)

But here’s the kicker: Nastagio thinks it would be a swell idea to trick his beloved to coming out to the woods for a picnic, then forcing her to watch the weekly murder. Somehow this makes her change her ways and marry him. Filomena introduced the story to the “adorable ladies” as “an incentive for banishing all cruelty from your hearts.” Boccaccio definitely disapproves of those that try to stay out of love’s way altogether, but how much love does it show to force your beloved to see something like that?

These two love-days, the fourth and fifth, are fascinating on the idea of Love. I find myself wondering how much of my speculation on what Love means to Boccaccio is intentional on his part — is he self-consciously ruminating on its meaning? — and how much of it is my lack of knowledge of the world view of his time. I do think Boccaccio fashioned the stories of these two days to show us different facets of the concept of Love. But when he (and/or his translator) uses the word “love” the way we would commonly use “lust,” as he often does, referring to the satiation of purely physical desires, is he ironically indicating the lack of love in one’s selfish use of another human? Is he saying that he believes the physical and spiritual imperatives of love cannot be separated, or building a case for that argument? Is there really simply no division, in the Italian language of the time, between love and lust — no word to differentiate the two? And why does Boccaccio downplay the procreative aspect of sex so heavily? (There have been attempts to miscarry and panicky pregnant teens in the book, but fairly few, and mostly as convenient plot devices.) And there’s such a lack of religious fervor in this book: I don’t sense much interest on Boccaccio’s part in showing human love as an allegory of God’s love. Maybe it’s still coming, but it’s refreshing for a dilettante like me to see, in a medieval text, such a focus on how humans interact without the characters or the narrator always looking over their shoulder to see what Jesus would do.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m unsure of how unsure Boccaccio was about what Love is and what it means. Does he think he’s explaining or investigating? I wonder.

Dreamers and Wanderers

April 9, 2008 § 2 Comments

Just finished: The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

I could write on and on about this, and I hope I’ll have occasion to revisit it as I come across articles, reviews, and editions in the course of work and play. For now, one last post, on the last chapter/story, “The Wanderers.”

It might be my favorite, right up there with “Moon Lake.” It’s an elegiac story about the funeral of Katie Rainey, her burial by her daughter Virgie (the great piano player, the girl who dazzled Miss Eckhart and played the piano for the silent movies, indulging in improvisations to the annoyance of paying customers, now all grown up, but still a bit too much of an individual for Morgana).

The first section is this incredible re-entry to the mind of the elderly Miss Katie, with whom we started the book. She’s had a stroke, she gets confused. I have a bit of myth-identification-fatigue, but there seems an allusion back to Yeats’s “wandering Aengus,” who in Celtic mythology apparently had love-birds flying about his head: Katie “heard circling her ears like the swallows beginning, talk about lovers.” She mixes up her own self and her daughter, in the talk she hears in her house by the road. Katie’s death is one of the (many) masterful passages in this book, and it’s one of the greatest pages or so of writing in American literature that I’ve encountered. It’s this amazing celebration of fertility and womanhood and the culmination, maybe, of the Persephone life-in-death theme running through the whole work. It’d make a fantastic monologue; there are some recordings of Welty reading out there, but I don’t see any of this work.

She was thinking, Mistake. Never Virgie at all. It was me, the bride — with more than they guessed. Why, Virgie, go away, it was me.

She put her hand up and never knew what happened to it, her protest.

And that’s just the start. There’s so much more I could go into. Virgie takes a dip in the Big Black River at one point (the Big Black, the other body of water here: the Styx, maybe the Lethe, too).

In the middle of the river, whose downstream or upstream could not be told by a current, she lay on her stretched arm, not breathing, floating. Virgie had reached the point where in the next moment she might turn into something without feeling it shock her.

The story’s true climax comes after the funeral. My favorite paragraph in the whole book might be this one, of Virgie reminiscing about her return to town at the age of seventeen. It’s kind of a throwaway paragraph, but it gets something just right, and reminds me so much of a certain kind of eternal late afternoon in Nebraska summer (strange, for such a Southern book, but to some extent I suppose country places talk to each other):

For that journey, it was ripe afternoon, and all about her was that light in which the earth seems to come into its own, as if there would be no more days, only this day — when fields glow like deep pools and the expanding trees at their edges seem almost to open, like lilies, golden or dark. She had always loved that time of day, but now, alone, untouched now, she felt like dancing; knowing herself not really, in her essence, yet hurt; and thus happy. The chorus of crickets was as unprogressing and out of time as the twinkling of a star.

Just after that, when Virgie’s gone to bed, there’s a knock at the door. A strange old lady gives Virgie a “night-blooming cereus” flower, “naked, luminous, complicated.” The woman says the flower “won’t do the dead no good.” And she remembers Virgie playing the piano at the movie theater. And then she’s gone, and Virgie, terrified, throws the flower into the weeds.

So who’s this woman? At first I thought her the ghost of Katie. (Juba says she’s seen Katie’s ghost, the next day.) Then I thought her the ghost of Miss Eckhart. Now I just don’t know who she is. Right after this Virgie thinks of the river, the moon, the mist. It’s another perfect paragraph.

But so Virgie leaves town. She’s a quester, a wanderer. She remembers a picture in Miss Eckhart’s studio, of Perseus holding up Medusa’s head. Welty does fascinating things with this memory: Virgie remembers that the picture “sometimes blindly reflected the window by its darkness.” The picture, in other words, covered by glass, is dark enough that the light through the window appears in it. (Aside: this reminds me of the complicated play with windows in the poem “Pale Fire,” in the novel Pale Fire.) As well as itself echoing the myth of Perseus seeing Medusa in his brightly polished shield, it’s a wonderful chiaroscuro image in a story and a book full of them. And then there’s the fact that Virgie remembers the elaborate, bourgeois frame around it that was “Miss Eckhart’s pride,” and that “In that moment [the moment of her remembering?] Virgie had shorn it of its frame.” She chooses instead to remember simply the image of triumphant Perseus, his “vaunting.” This whole passage on Perseus and Medusa is really complicated, as Welty provides lays out a kind of mythological explication on Virgie’s behalf, and shows how the myth relates to her relationship to Miss Eckhart, to herself, to her talent. It’s a fascinating passage, it seems something near a statement of purpose for Welty (but I’m speaking out of turn here: I don’t know enough about her to say that, it may only reflect on Virgie, although it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way).

Nabokov’s Games

January 28, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov.

Okay, that’s a lie: I finished this a few days ago.  But, well, I was on the road while reading most of it and find it still on my mind.  Plus, while I could write my thoughts on the interesting view of history in Good Omens, or on that book’s kind of new-agey religion (and–beware!–I may just yet), I’m more compelled to get down the parts of Invitation that I want to think about more, before I forget them.

a) In the second paragraph of this book, Nabokov drops this perplexing little passage:

“So we are nearing the end.  The right-hand, still untasted part of the novel, which, during our delectable reading, we would lightly feel, mechanically testing whether there were still plenty left (and our fingers were always gladdened by the placid, faithful thickness) has suddenly, for no reason at all, become quite meager: a few minutes of quick reading, already downhill, and–O horrible!”

In retrospect, once you’re acclimated to Nabokov’s shifting in and out of first person (both singular and plural) to take us in and out of Cincinnatus’s mind (or at least mindset; N being N, he plays very tricky games with perspective and voice), you can pass this off as simply a metaphor for the death sentence just handed down: the novel is life, about to end.  But, see, it doesn’t read like that when you first experience it.  When I read it, I grasped the metaphor for C’s death, but it felt much more like an authorial interjection–a (here comes the M-word) metafictional device to make us feel as though we were reading the end of a much longer novel–a heap of phantom pages in our left hand, barely used to the feel of the physical book we’ve just started.  And it does seem, throughout this book, that the reading experience is very much on N’s mind.  C’s reading the newspapers in the morning, and the “ancient” magazines with their pictures of automobiles from the fortress library, for instance.  There must be some scholarship on this.   I need to look into it.

b) Two of Nabokov’s “Easter egg” stories-within-stories also caught my eye (minifictions, rather than meta-).   First, there’s the novel Quercus, a 3,000-page monster telling the story of an oak tree and, through that story, the historical events it may have been party to.  It’s pretty clear N hates this idea, even though C calls it the best his age has produced (backhanded praise, surely).  But, of course, N being N, I wonder if something else is going on here.  Why Quercus?

Then there’s  the photo album compiled by Pierre, called a “photo-horoscope,” a “series of photographs depicting the natural progression of a given person’s entire life.”  The album C looks through contains images of Emmie, the director’s young daughter, in various costumes and with appropriate makeup as she becomes a woman, until her “death” at age 40.  It’s another instance of the fakery of this world, but seems such a compelling one.

The crime of Cincinnatus

January 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov. Edition: Capricorn Books, 1965.

Invitation to a Beheading was originally published in its original Russian in Paris in the 1930s, under the pseudonym Sirin. It is nothing so much as a phantasmagoria; a nightmare with beautiful, dreamy interludes. It’s also a dystopia, although Nabokov would surely despise this categorization (in his 1959 Foreword to this edition, he encourages his readers to disregard the significance of the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions to the work, and heaps scorn on the “illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction” of Orwell).

Cincinnatus has “a certain peculiarity” which, so far as I can tell, is his crime, for which he is sentenced to death and locked away in a fortress to await his beheading (the date of which his guards refuse to reveal). The peculiarity is described:

“He was impervious to the rays of others, and therefore produced when off his guard a bizarre impression, as of a lone dark obstacle in this world of souls transparent to one another… In the midst of the excitement of a game his coevals would suddenly forsake him, as if they had sensed that his lucid gaze and the azure of his temples were but a crafty deception and that actually Cincinnatus was opaque…

“In the course of time the safe places became ever fewer: the solicitous sunshine of public concern penetrated everywhere, and the peephole in the door [of C’s cell] was placed in such a way that in the whole cell there was not a single point that the observer on the other side of the door could not pierce with his gaze.”

The crime of Cincinnatus is opacity. A reluctance to be utterly “transparent,” open with fellow citizens. Reserve might be a word for it; so might individuality. We, today, in the free world, are utterly basking in “the solicitous sunshine of public concern.”

This is no brilliant analysis, I’m afraid. But the crime struck me as a remarkably contemporary concern, and documenting it occurred to me as a lovingly ironic way to open this utterly public, utterly opaque discourse.

As a footnote: Mikhail Bulgakov, in his brilliant The Master and Margarita, allegorizes Stalin as the sun. Coincidental, surely, but interesting nonetheless.

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