Sebald’s “Winter Poem”

December 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished: Hard Times.

Now reading: Misfortune, by Wesley Stace; Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, by W. G. Sebald.

I finished Hard Times deeply sad to see it go.  In a lot of ways, it’s the book that best displays the genius of Dickens, by being non-Dickensian: the salient features are there, but in their compressed state it’s hardly the same thing at all.  I was most sad that there wasn’t more of Sleary’s Circus, precisely the kind of secondary feature that Dickens would’ve explored in more depth and delight if this were a longer novel in monthly parts, as he did the Crummles troupe in Nicholas Nickleby, or the entertainers in The Old Curiosity Shop.  

Because it was so short, I’m reading the Victorian pastiche of Wesley Stace’s Misfortune, which is off to a fine start.  We have already had a preternaturally gifted, homeless balladeer named Pharaoh; a foundling; and a haunted “Gothick” manse called Love Hall (inhabited by the Loveall, no s in the plural, thank you very much).  Oh, and there’s a governess-turned-librarian named Anonyma, who is building a fine collection of bibliographical literature in Love Hall’s Octagonal Library.  (This private-librarian-to-the-rich-and-famous gig happens to be my partner’s dream career path for me.)  She’s already explained the making of parchment and the process of manuscript illumination to her young charges much more accurately than you normally see in contemporary novels.  This makes me happy.

Finally, I’m reading Sebald’s poems (translated by Iain Galbraith), which are ambiguous, melancholy, and beautiful.  The short poem below is not as simple as it seems, not as comforting; nothing ever is with Sebald.  He had in mind, I think, Herod’s massacre of innocents, and those Jewish children hidden in Flanders and elsewhere to avoid a much later massacre.  Nevertheless, as we deal with our own massacre of innocents here in the U.S., this poem did present itself as a worthy site for meditation, and a balm.

Winter Poem

The valley resounds
With the sound of the stars
With the vast stillness
Over snow and forest.

The cows are in their byre.
God is in his heaven.
Child Jesus in Flanders.
Believe and be saved.
The Three Wise Men
Are walking the earth.

Dickens, Beckett, Domesticity, and Modernism

February 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

Finished: Malone Dies and The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett; Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.

Reading now: A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds, by Mac Wellman.

Reading next: Dubliners, by James Joyce.

It is an exaggeration, but an interesting one, to say that modernist literature is a reaction to Dickens.  In his massive popularity (and desire to be and remain popular), his embrace of transparent plot and familiar character, his omnipresent sentimentality, and his fastidious avoidance of any mention of sex, he represents a nicely dialectical figure for the modernist authors. From Henry James to Woolf and Joyce, the modernists found Dickens ridiculous and bourgeois.

Read the Victorian fabulist/realist master Dickens in close proximity to the modernist/postmodernist master Samuel Beckett and you can feel like these two men inhabited completely different universes, completely different ways of experiencing and translating the experience of being in the world.  But as I was reading Malone Dies, I found myself thinking of Dickens, and seeing the text as a kind of unwitting reply to one of the dominant themes in his work (as in much of Victorian literature): belief in domestic bliss, in the comforts of home.

It was the story of the Lamberts, especially, that brought this to mind.  All of Malone Dies — and, to a lesser degree, all of Molloy, and to a greater and more overt degree, all of The Unnamable — is self-conscious of the creation of fictions and exposure of the mechanisms by which narrative is produced.  The Lamberts are one of the many attempts by Malone to distract himself, to tell a story, this one about a farming family for whom the young creation of Malone named Saposcat is boarding.  Malone introduces the family by saying, “There was the man, the woman, and two children, a boy and a girl.  There at least is something that admits of no controversy.”  But this quick, self-consciously “normal” nuclear family is immediately made weird: “Big Lambert” has married his “young cousin.”  Nothing all that weird about that, according to Victorian/Dickensian mores; after all, there is the bizarre (to us) engagement of Esther and Jarndyce in Bleak House.  But Lambert has also been married two or three times before, with children from these past marriages now grown.  And Lambert is a butcher, of both animals and his family, with an omnipresent threat of violence hanging over his wife and children.  Beckett also brings sex to the foreground of the domestic situation, in the crudest possible terms.

Sapo’s place in the family is as the hard-working unfortunate lad, the Copperfield of the narrative.  But Mrs. Lambert is no kind caregiver; instead, she often pauses in her hard work to give voice to “angry unanswerable questions, such as, What’s the use?”  And Sapo cannot stay with the family, but flees.  There are faint, faint echoes of Copperfield’s trek to Betsey Trotwood’s house in Saposcat’s journey.  But the quality of despair in Saposcat’s journey is so very different than in Copperfield’s irrepressible optimism:

My bed at night was under another haystack, where I rested comfortably, after having washed my blistered feet in a stream, and dressed them as well as I was able, with some cool leaves.  When I took the road again next morning, I found that it lay through a succession of hopgrounds and orchards…. I thought it all extremely beautiful, and made up my mind to sleep among the hops that night: imagining some cheerful companionship in the long perspectives of poles, with the graceful leaves twining around them.  -David Copperfield, chapter 13

But the face of Sapo as he stumbled away, now in the shadow of the venerable trees he could not name, now in the brightness of the waving meadow, so erratic was his course, the face of Sapo was always grave, or rather expressionless.  And when he halted it was not the better to think, or the closer to pore upon his dream, but simply because the voice had ceased that told him to go on.  Then with his pale eyes he stared down at the earth, blind to its beauty, and to its utility, and to the little wild many-coloured flowers happy among the crops and weeds. -Malone Dies

Beyond that, Beckett (through Malone) continually points to how “traditional” narratives are constructed, with such asides by Malone to himself as, “That’s it, reminisce” and hesitant corrections of the course of the narrative.  It does seem that Beckett and Dickens would find in each other perspectives on the world that the other could not possibly countenance.  The experience of the twentieth century makes it hard for any of us to fully participate in the Dickensian comedy, as much as we love and aspire to it.  Beckett could not write the family as a utopia any more than Dickens could imagine an irredeemably dystopian and solitary world.

Fosco’s Theory of Relativity

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.

A Fop and an Androgyne

November 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

Hypocrisy and Irony

December 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Before reading this book, I’d never thought of irony as a form of hypocrisy.  But hypocrisy is one of the major themes of this book, and Dickens handles his most hypocritical characters with such a huge helping of irony that I couldn’t help but make the connection.

It’s most obvious with Seth Pecksniff, who really is eminently loathesome. Pecksniff is a hypocrite of the highest order: he pretends even to himself and his family that his motives are pure, his intentions godly, his actions just.  When we first meet him, Dickens already dislikes him enough to show him in a bit of slapstick: the wind slams the door of his house in his face, pushing him down the stairs.  However, he’s introduced as “a moral man: a grave man, a man of noble sentiments and speech.”

Dickens more or less sticks to his strategy of having his narrator superficially present Pecksniff as an honorable man (so far, at least, halfway through the book), although calling someone moral  “especially in his conversation and correspondence” is a rather funny way of calling someone moral.  He lets the man’s actions and demeanor do the dirty work for him.  (Finally, 350 pages in, he resorts to a footnote to differentiate Pecksniff’s convoluted self-justification from “the Author’s” own beliefs; this is, I believe, the first time the narrator repudiates Pecksniff without using irony.)

Dickens wrote Chuzzlewit after visiting America for the first time, and his disillusionment with the New World seems to be the driving force behind the entire book.  The overwhelming hypocrisy of a “free” country justifying slavery to itself appalled Dickens.  (So did the lack of clean tablecloths, proper manners, and party politics, apparently, and Dickens does occasionally harp on these points in the American sections of the book.  It seems rather petty of him.)

On the other hand, the book also has its anti-hypocrites: whereas Pecksniff and Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague put on airs whenever possible, Tom Pinch and Mark Tapley serve and are never satisfied with their service, never sure they’re doing enough for those they consider as doing them a good turn (who have typically wronged them).  Tapley, especially, is a model anti-hypocrite: he seeks opportunities for “credit” for being “jolly.”  Of course, it’s no credit to one’s character to be jolly when things are going well, so he comforts himself in the worst of situations by reminding himself that his good spirits and service to others (especially the selfish, oblivious Martin Chuzzlewit) will finally give him the opportunity to stand out in a world which seems mostly happy, to him.  Both Pinch and Tapley think the best of others, or at least act as though they expect the best of others.

Dickens’s ironic descriptions of his characters and situations fascinate me in all of his books — that droll, frequently indignant, quintessentially Victorian voice, laying all that’s improper to delicate waste — but especially here, when attacking the very tactics he seems to employ.  I always wonder how much Dickens really did think it best not to say the worst of what we think of others, even when dealing with his own creations, and how much he simply knew his audience well enough to know they’d eat up these tactics.  Of course, Dickens is never one to play close to the vest, not really: his sympathies and antipathies are always clear, reading just below the surface, and he takes his vengeance mostly through incident, often brutal or deadly.  He is somehow a remarkably subtle and remarkably broad and obvious author, simultaneously; and it seems to me that his irony, especially his ironic stance toward his characters, is one of the things that keep me reading him.

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