Mrs. Sparsit’s Wet and Wild Adventure

December 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.

There’s a depth of emotion to the second half of the second book — the climax of the affair between Louisa and Harthouse — that is hard to locate, exactly.  The action is filtered through the nasty little eyes of peeping Mrs. Sparsit, until Louisa returns home and the emotion all spills out in the typical Dickensian fashion.  What Dickens seems to do in the chapters preceding this is work all of his emotion into the scenery and the metaphor.

In such a short book — and really, I’m beginning to near the end, and I feel like I’m just getting my bearings; I’m poorly calibrated for short Dickens — a chapter is spent on explaining “an idea in the nature of an allegorical fancy” that Mrs. Sparsit develops:

She erected in her mind a mighty Staircase, with a dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom; and down those stairs, from day to day and hour to hour, she saw Louisa coming.

It became the business of Mrs. Sparsit’s life, to look up her staircase, and to watch Louisa coming down….

The eleventh chapter is remarkable in a number of ways.  Mrs. Sparsit tails Louisa to her tryst with Harthouse, and there is this remarkable transition from the industry and bustle of the railway journey to the country house to a garden to a dark wood:

All the journey, immovable in the air though never left behind; plain to the dark eyes of her mind, as the electric wires which ruled a colossal strip of music-paper out of the evening sky, were plain to the dark eyes of her body; Mrs. Sparsit saw her staircase, with the figure coming down.

(Amazing, that.  The plain thing, here, is an imaginary “immovable” staircase.  It is compared to the plainness of a fanciful staff on the night sky, made of electric wires.  Dickens gives the lie to Fact and Progress once again.)

An overcast September evening, just at nightfall, saw beneath its drooping eyelid Mrs. Sparsit slide out of her carriage, pass down the wooden steps of the little station into a stony road, cross it into a green lane, and become hidden in a summer-growth of leaves and branches.  One or two late birds sleepily chirping in their nests, and a bat heavily crossing and recrossing her, and the reek of her own tread in the thick dust that felt like velvet, were all Mrs. Sparsit heard or saw until she very softly closed a gate.

She went up to the house, keeping within the shrubbery, and went round it, peeping between the leaves at the lower windows.  Most of them were open, as they usually were in such warm weather, but there were no lights yet, and all was silent.  She tried the garden with no better effect.  She thought of the wood, and stole towards it, heedless of long grass and briers: of worms, snails, and slugs, and all the creeping things that be….

She sees their interlude “by the felled tree” and Louisa’s struggle, “in the whirl of her own gratified malice, in the dread of being discovered, in the rapidly increasing noise of heavy rain among the leaves, and a thunderstorm rolling up.”  I love how this mention of the thunderstorm also comes upon the reader unsuspected, swept up like Mrs. Sparsit in the suspense of Louisa’s wooing by Harthouse.

Mrs. Sparsit saw her out of the wood, and saw her enter the house.  What to do next?  It rained now, in a sheet of water.  Mrs. Sparsit’s white stockings were of many colours, green predominating; prickly things were in her shoes; caterpillars slung themselves, in hammocks of their own making, from various parts of her dress; rills ran from her bonnet, and her Roman nose.  In such condition, Mrs. Sparsit stood hidden in the density of the shrubbery, considering what next?

The whole scene is so astonishing, and rushes so headlong, that you can miss that it’s a parody.  Dusk in the fecund forest by a tree surely felled by lightning, with a lover, as the sublime power of a thunderstorm descends?  This is Romance.  But it’s Mrs. Sparsit we experience it with, and see its ridiculousness.  (The key, perhaps, is that absurd bat that keeps crossing her path, and the strange phrasing of its introduction.  It jarred me out of the scene on my first reading.)  The passion is real, for Louisa, and yet Dickens shows how the stage is set, how the eyes are watching (including ours), how it would be a huge mistake to trade a life for a moment.  It’s ingenious.  And it manages to indulge us with the image of a sopping wet Mrs. Sparsit, to boot.

Perhaps it’s because I recently saw the new Anna Karenina film adaptation (which is wonderful), but I kept thinking of Tolstoy’s novel during these Louisa-Harthouse chapters, and wondering if they were an influence on his conception of the affair between Anna and Vronsky.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Double Number 19/20

January 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Finished: David Copperfield.

So at last, we’ve reached the end.  As Dickensian endings go, it’s not one of my favorites, though it’s certainly what you would expect from him, and I suppose it’s successful on his own terms.  Nevertheless, here are my favorite passages from the last number of DC:

Chapter 58:

I came, one evening before sunset, down into a valley, where I was to rest.  In the course of my descent to it, by the winding track along the mountain-side, from which I saw it shining far below, I think some long-unwonted sense of beauty and tranquillity, some softening influence awakened by its peace, moved faintly in my breast.  I remember pausing once, with a kind of sorrow that was not all oppressive, not quite despairing.  I remember almost hoping that some better change was possible within me.

This chapter, “Absence,” is mostly Dickens at his worst, and for being so full of emotion and despair it feels rather like he put a stamp on it and mailed it in.  Which is not to say that it’s not interesting or useful: it could function as a kind of paint-by-numbers of Victorian poses and cliches and sentimentality and unexamined truisms.  For instance, there’s this passage about Switzerland, in which David’s standard impression of the “sublimity and wonder” of his setting gives way to the moment in which “great Nature spoke to” him, though the power of mountain scenery at sunset and the sound of peasant-folk — shepherds — singing in the distance, just as if on their way to visit the baby Jesus.  You could do a lot worse for an examination of the decay of Romanticism into Victorian piety, or for a literary equivalent to the overwrought landscapes so popular at the time.  Nevertheless, there’s something insightful and true in the paragraph above, in David’s sense of the gradations of sorrow (or, as we might say now, depression) lightening, giving way to just the “possibility” that all might not be lost.  Then, of course, because this is Victorian England, “great Nature” (with capital N) speaks and David lays down on Swiss grass (who has ever done this, ever, ever, this laying down on grass overcome with emotion?) and bawls for the wife he secretly wished was dead all along.

Chapter 59:

A small sharp-looking lad, half-footboy and half-clerk, who was very much out of breath, but who looked at me as if he defied me to prove it legally, presented himself.

I’ll let this quick little sketch of Traddles’ servant stand in for the whole wonderful first part of the chapter, on David’s return to London and anxiety for the state of Traddles considering his living situation, leading to the delight of seeing him in domestic bliss (contrasted, despite its crowded and difficult nature, with the domestic squalor of David and Dora’s life — the difference, it is implied, being Traddles and Sophy not making the mistake of being too horny and getting married young, and therefore maintaining a balance of affection and dutiful service).  I love it when Dickens can’t help but invent a little character for those people he needs only to move the plot along — this footboy need not have do more than open a door, or not exist at all and just have Traddles open it in his impoverished state, but Dickens gives him this sharpness and protective reluctance and breathlessness of having (I’d guess) been playing with Sophy’s sisters.

Chapter 60:

When I returned, Mr. Wickfield had come home, from a garden he had, a couple of miles or so out of the town, where he now employed himself almost every day.  I found him as my aunt had described him.  We sat down to dinner, with some half-dozen little girls; and he seemed but the shadow of his handsome picture on the wall.

Not a terribly remarkable piece of prose, but what interested me about this passage was how much it reminded me of Tolstoy, who greatly admired Dickens.  That little detail about Wickfield, recovered from his Heep-encouraged alcoholism and dissipation, taking up gardening in the country, like Levin from Anna Karenina having his epiphany about the value of working the land.  Agnes, meanwhile, opening a girls’ school.  And the conversation that follows, in which Wickfield reflects on the wrongs he’s committed, the great love he’s received from Agnes, and the story of his own long-dead wife: all of it seems quite like something out of Tolstoy.  Actually, nearly all of this last number seems that way to me, especially in the Agnes-David plot.

Chapter 61:

After some conversation among these gentlemen, from which I might have supposed that there was nothing in the world to be legitimately taken into account but the supreme comfort of prisoners, at any expense, and nothing on the wide earth to be done outside prison-doors, we began our inspection.  It being then just dinner-time, we went, first into the great kitchen, where every prisoner’s dinner was in course being set out separately (to be handed to him in his cell), with the regularity and precision of clock-work.  I said aside, to Traddles, that I wondered whether it occurred to anybody, that there was a striking contrast between these plentiful repasts of choice quality, and the dinners, not to say of paupers, but of soldiers, sailors, laborers, the great bulk of the honest, working community; of whom not one man in five hundred ever dined half so well.  But I learned that the “system” required high living…

A fascinating set piece, this chapter, entitled “I Am Shown Two Interesting Penitents.”  It is one of Dickens’ standard curtain-call chapters, in which loose ends are wrapped up and popular secondary characters are given one last scene in which to take a bow.  But in this case, the chapter is almost completely detachable from the larger narrative, and concerns David and Traddles visiting a prison.  There are all sorts of interesting features here, but what’s most interesting to me is how Dickens, whose own father was in debtors’ prison for a while, clearly had not given much consideration to criminal incarceration, or the purposes of imprisonment, or the means of making prisons places for rehabilitation rather than holding pens of punishment and misery.  These were all hot topics in Victorian society, but Dickens, in this chapter, displays a kind of knee-jerk distaste for the whole subject that’s rather unlike him — insisting, instead, that too much effort is being expended on the behalf of criminals, when more should be spent on the poor and needy who have not committed crimes.  It is a punishment-based view of prison, in other words.  All the same, his eye does catch some of the absurdities and hypocrisies of the nascent prison industry.

Chapter 62:

We stood together in the same old-fashioned window at night, when the moon was shining; Agnes with her quiet eyes raised up to it; I following her glance.  Long miles of road then opened out before my mind; and, toiling on, I saw a ragged way-worn boy, forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own.

This is, in essence, The End.  Dickens always seems to end his plots before the end, then either gives more curtain calls or telescopes his vision to encapsulate a view of the rest of a life — like those synopses of what happened to characters at the end of movies.  Here, you can tell it’s the end by the use of three intra-chapter breaks — quite unusual in Dickens.  And it’s quite a fine “last” line, too, David viewing in the moon’s glow his own remarkable journey from hopeless orphan to winner of his true love’s heart.

Chapter 63:

“For Em’ly,” he said, as he put it in his breast.  “I promised, Mas’r Davy.”

A happily-ever-after chapter, with a clever little fairy-tale allusion at its beginning, and this sweetly sorrowful fairy-tale ending of eternal fidelity and redemption.  A reminder that Dickens could, occasionally, be understated.

Chapter 64:

Traddles’s house is one of the very houses — or it easily may have been — which he and Sophy used to parcel out, in their evening walks.  It is a large house; but Traddles keeps his papers in his dressing-room, and his boots with his papers; and he and Sophy squeeze themselves into upper rooms, reserving the best bed-rooms for the Beauty and the girls.

I love that turn of phrase, “his papers in his dressing-room, and his boots with his papers.”  In this last chapter, Dickens mixes the dark with the light, as always, giving us brief cautionary tales to go along with the happinesses of the main characters.  It’s interesting to me that he grew so fond of Traddles and his family that he gets nearly the last mention, and much longer than the brief sentences at the end about Agnes.  I would’ve sworn, upon first meeting him and reading about his strange habit of drawing skeletons everywhere, that he was just a tertiary comic character, invented to take abuse from Creakle and little else, perhaps showing up now and again later as a happy-go-lucky sad sack.  Shows what I know.

Winning a Bundle, Losing It All

February 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Gambler.

Dostoyevsky had a serious gambling problem.  This is not news.  Still, it’s incredible that a mind like his could seriously think that he would get rich playing roulette.  It’s so incredible, in fact, that Edward Wasiolek, in his introduction to this edition, makes a pretty convincing counter-argument: Dostoyevsky was a serious masochist, happy in life and in love only when miserable, and always played until he lost everything or nearly everything because, deep down, he wanted to lose.  What good is faith if it actually gets you something?  Fyodor’s soul probably wandered up to the Pearly Gates and then “accidentally” took the path back to purgatory.

All of which makes for great psychodrama in the novel’s climax.  Alexsei decides to gamble his meager savings to try to save his beloved Polina from the suave Frenchman, de Grieux, who has loaned Polina’s father 50,000 francs.  This swing for the fences is presented in startlingly romantic terms by Dostoyevsky:

Yes, sometimes the wildest idea, an idea which should seem utterly impossible, will become fixed in one’s mind so firmly that one finally begins to take it for something practicable… Even more than that: once such an idea is connected with a powerful, passionate desire, one may eventually take it for something fated, inevitable, predestined, for something that simply must be and is bound to happen!

And so Alexsei begins an “utterly impossible” run of luck.  This gambling to win the freedom of the beloved is reprised in Tom Tykwer’s 1998 film Run Lola Run; the pertinent scene is below:

There is a massive amount of tension and satisfaction built into scenes like this — the clear-cut conflict of man vs. fate, a bounce of the ball meaning the difference between love and misery, life and death.  The major difference between the two strokes of luck is that Alexsei’s run is much longer, and much more plausible (even though still highly implausible) than Lola’s: while she wins her entire necessary amount (100,000 marks) on two spins at 37:1 odds, he builds his stake surely, but incrementally, with losses and gains, until he rides red for a remarkable streak of 14 consecutive plays.  For Lola, roulette’s simply the quickest means to her end: she is desperate and needs money quickly, so she picks the number foremost in her mind and guides the ball to it through sheer will and intimidation.  On the other hand, Alexsei — and through him, Dostoyevsky — recounts his streak with loving detail, with a fond memory for how the plays developed and how the piles of money grew, recounting with a frenzied passion the euphoria of winning with massive amounts of money on the line.  It’s obvious, as he tells the story, that it’s not about Polina anymore: he’s in love with gambling.  He’s in love with the chase.  He’s an addict.

Interestingly, both Run Lola Run and The Gambler arguably undercut their romantic notions of the power of love and the intervention of fate or God into the casino’s operations.  Lola only gets to her trip to the casino after we’ve seen her quest fail and be restarted twice, leaving us to choose whether to believe in the “reality” of this version or to think of it all as a fantasy or delusion.  And Alexsei’s triumphant offering to Polina is rejected after their night together, leaving him to throw it all away with money-grubbing Blanche in Paris (a move which makes sense only if you believe he is consciously trying to get rid of his money) and become a sordid casino-haunter, working for gambling money when he must.  (But couldn’t that be construed as classically romantic in its own way?  The fallen man, rejected by his love, slumming around Europe, gambling just so he can feel something, either hope or despair?)

The Mysterious Muslim Babes of Spain

October 3, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

That title may seem like a transparent attempt to drum up some misguided traffic (in the grand tradition of my previous posts  “Blogging About Flogging” and “Tales of Ribaldry”), but it’s actually a fairly accurate representation of the key to the action in the framing narrative (really the largest frame within the frame about the manuscript’s later discovery — the first example of the play with time in the narrative, the looping back from the present/future into the past).  There really are mysterious Muslim babes here, presented as such, if not in so many words.  They’re exotically transgressive and objectified and, oh yeah, they may actually be part of a plot to convince our hero, Alphonse van Worden, to reject Christianity and accept Islam, or they may be  succubi.  Did I mention that these sisters, Emina and Zubeida, also claim to be van Worden’s cousins, of the famous Gomelez family, holders of the “secret of the Gomelez”?  It all gets very weird and, for the 1810s, pretty racy (there’s definitely three-way sex going on here, or at least the illusion of such).

So all of that seems like it’s straight out of Orientalism 101, and it surely is, but Potocki also complicates the expected narrative in interesting ways.  Though there are many apparently supernatural events  in which the sisters are (apparently) involved which lead us, the readers, to believe they are demons, van Worden refuses to believe it.  On the seventh day, the sisters are finally able to remove from van Worden’s neck the necklace holding a relic of the true cross; they then consummate their relationship and, in van Worden’s words, “my charming companions became my wives….  And I am led to conclude that my cousins played no real part in my dreams at the Venta Quemada.”  After the consummation, the Muslim Sheikh of the Gomelez appears; but Emina says to van Worden, “… listen carefully to what I am now saying to you.  Do not believe any ill that is spoken of us.  Do not even believe the evidence of your eyes.”

Van Worden bases all of his self-worth in his honor; he has accepted the girls as his wives (granted, after irresistable seduction and some trickery); and so, even when it seems evident to the reader that he is, in fact, at the mercy of either demons or a convoluted plot to win his soul for Islam, he continues to believe Emina’s words.  He believes they are his cousins.  And, as I’ll talk about later, the battle between reason and faith that develops in the text also undermines our own belief in the supernatural events we’ve apparently witnessed.

There’s also Potocki’s very interesting handling of van Worden; he is a rather opaque character.  We often do not receive from him the reactions to stories or events that we might expect; his morality is kept rather vague, except for its grounding in the maintenance of honor; in the middle of the book he retreats into the background, mostly just narrating the events between stories without comment.  His impressions of Islam, especially, are ambiguous.  Later introductions of Jewish, deistic, and other Islamic characters further muddy the waters: the question becomes, how are we the readers intended to react?  There are certainly crude slurs on the Jews and Muslims here — but they are also presented telling their own stories, often quite empathetic stories, and presented as worthy of our attention and interest.

Spain, as a land of Romance and mystery at the time Potocki was writing, plays a part here.  Reading a story set in Spain at the time Potocki was writing could alert the reader to the fact that the story would be fantastic and exotic — operating at a fictional level where some acceptance of and commerce with fictional Jews and Muslims could be permitted.  Also important is Potocki’s shuffling of genre: he’s very self-conscious about playing with the already trite genres his characters sometimes work in, very self-conscious at times of reminding us that we’re reading a novel, an entertainment trying to titillate, intrigue, excite, and amuse us.

Anyway, I clearly have some criticism to read.  In the meantime, the latest developments in my reading so far are the events of the 29th and 30th days.  Van Worden, to prove his bravery to a bunch of people he doesn’t know, goes into the “kingdom of the gnomes” underground.  Two “chthonic divinities” approach him in the dark, which turn out to be his cousins.  They further tempt him to convert, then they have some sex, and then van Worden wakes up alone in the tunnels under a mountain.  This turns out to be “the underground domain of the Cassar Gomelez,” where the secret is guarded by a “dervish” that van Worden meets.  He gives his word not to reveal the secret, and so we are left in the dark; but we do see “a golden tree representing the genealogy of the Gomelez.  The trunk split into two major branches, one of which, the Muslim Gomelez, seemed to unfold and flourish with all the force of a vigorous plant, while the other, representing the Christian Gomelez, was visibly withering and bristled with long and menacing pointed thorns.”

In this book of connections between stories and among different levels of stories, this episode reminded me of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the Principessa di Monte Salerno’s Story on the thirteenth day.  The Principessa shows her guest underground vaults containing automata made of jewels and precious metals, incredible lost treasures from the history of art, and many other wonders; but it turns out that she is a demonic ghost who, when alive, “publicly declared that she possessed paradise on earth” and renounced Christianity, and now haunts the ruins of her former paradise.  It was all an illusion.  I wonder what this all means for the fabulous underground lair van Worden visits; and I wonder if he wonders about that story, which he heard, and whether he’s meant to connect it to what he appears to be experiencing.

(As a footnote: these two episodes are strong reminders of Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, pretty much the most awesome work of criticism I’ve ever read, with its examination of grottoes, automata, speaking idols, and the submerged irrational in art, language, literature, culture.  I know I’ve plugged it before; I’m doing it again now.  Surprising she didn’t discuss this book, actually, although she does mention it once.)

The Lost Art of the Complex Narrative Metaphor

January 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

I’m reading this book at the behest of my wife, Jaime; we occasionally like to make each other read something we love that the other probably wouldn’t get around to.  She read it after a long string of 19th-century books featuring typically selfless heroine-martyr female characters and was blown away by the complexity of Lucy’s character and narration.  “You’ve got to watch yourself with Lucy Snowe,” she told me.  “She lies.”

Brontë really does do some strange, brilliant things with her narrator: things that remind me of Nabokov, and maybe even Laurence Sterne.  As those names suggest, the book can feel both archaic and modern, sometimes simultaneously.

For instance: the beginning of chapter four.  The first two paragraphs of this chapter employ a technique that’s more or less never used anymore: the use of an extended, complicated metaphor as a narrative device, pushing the plot along in a kind of encoded message just short of allegory.  You see this in Victorian literature frequently; I think it died out with modernism’s disdain for the flourishes and fillips of Victorian prose.

Lucy refuses to say much of anything about her family (or lack thereof?); it’s impossible to tell if her family has died, or is estranged, or abusive, or what, exactly.  Instead of telling us what happens in the eight years after the opening scenes, she assigns to us, the readers, a “conjecture” that she was happy to go home, and spins around this a metaphor of a “bark” floating along merrily in the sunshine.  “A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?”

So, okay, we’re already just playing along with Lucy, and already cannot say with any certainty what actually happened to her.  Then she says that, if that metaphor of the calmly floating boat was accurate, she “must somehow have fallen over-board, or that there must have been a wreck at last,” and talks of a “nightmare” along these lines of drowning; whether this is an actual nightmare or still a metaphoric nightmare of remembering something in those eight years is impossible to say.  Finally, “the ship was lost, the crew perished.”

Lucy moves us through eight years without actually telling us one thing that truly happened: instead, she employs a metaphor that she herself disputes the validity of.  It is impossible to say if the constituent parts of her metaphor (ship, steersman, storm, crew) function allegorically, standing for events and people in Lucy’s life, or are merely conveniences to capture the emotional landscape through which Lucy moves to the present of the novel.

This is brilliant.  We get a sense of what that time entailed, but more importantly, we get a strong sense of how powerfully Lucy wants to avoid confronting the details of that time; how deeply she feels it still and how distant she tries to keep it from her thoughts.  There is both expression and repression in the convolutions of metaphor.

She does it again in chapter 12, pages 124-25, provoked by a real storm this time.  (The Gothic and Romantic elements in the book are palpable here, and really quite ingenious, I think.)  This is another of my favorite passages in the book so far: Lucy looks at the moon on a calm night, and recalls how it looked “leaning back on azure, beside an old thorn at the top of an old field, in Old England,” during her childhood.  (What a brilliant turn of phrase — “leaning back on azure!”)  And it recalls her childhood to her.  Then we get what seems one of the key paragraphs in the book:

Oh, my childhood!  I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel.  About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future — such a future as mine — to be dead.  And in catalepsy and a dead trance, I studiously held the quick of my nature.

I mean… good Lord!  What are we to make of that?  What are we to feel towards this girl, and towards the older woman recalling that level of repressed despair and grief?  That level of repressed life? (Well, here’s what I felt: sympathy; horror; some level of queasy recognition.)

But Lucy goes on to recount a night of thunderstorms; she gets out on the roof and sits in the rain, wind, and lightning, feeling a kind of wild, Romantic kinship with nature.  She feels a “longing” for a release from her “present existence.”  In the midst of this scene of psychology projected onto nature, we get another, stunning, bruising extended metaphor:

This longing, and all of a similar kind, it was necessary to knock on the head; which I did, figuratively, after the manner of Jael to Sisera, driving a nail through their temples.  Unlike Sisera, they did not die: they were but transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench; then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill to its core.

She then returns to the calm night, watching the moon, but extends the metaphor of Jael and Sisera (from Judges 4): Jael, “the stern woman,” watches over her captive Sisera, captain of the Canaanites’ army, while waiting for her husband, Heber, but does not drive the nail through his temples; instead, “something like an angel — the Ideal!” soothes Sisera, just as Lucy feels hopeful in “the cool peace and dewy sweetness of the night.”

So there’s some serious sexual longing and repression going on here.  Lucy’s calm hopefulness is shattered by a love letter falling down to her secret resting place; and while she says (to herself and to us) that she “did not dream… for a moment” that it was for her, we feel for her; we know she let herself hope, at least for a moment.  We read between the lines of her complicated metaphor to the desperate loneliness and desire she feels.  It was no easy thing, being an unattached, “independent” woman (voluntarily or not); does Brontë invite us to feel sorry or elated for her, that she so often drove the nail into the temple of her desire?

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