Pale rider: Theodor Storm, The Dykemaster

Theodor Storm, The Dykemaster (first published in German as Der Schimmelreiter – The Rider on the White Horse (or ‘the Grey’) in 1888 in a literary journal. It was the last of his sequence of fifty novellas. Translated by Denis Jackson. Angel Books, London1996

Theodor Storm (1817-88) was born in Husum on the flat, windswept N. Frisian coast in western Schleswig – now part of Germany, but formerly a Danish duchy. Like the Netherlands, it’s land constantly threatened with flooding by the ‘wild North Sea’. Life for the farming communities there in the 19C was ‘an eternal struggle against its terrifying and destructive power’ (Translator’s Preface). That struggle is conveyed with starkly animistic imagery; at one point the stormy sea is described as

the line of foaming surf clawing its way further and further up the side of the dyke

Theodor Storm, Dykemaster coverIt’s a dark, supernatural tale of the rise of ambitious, vengeful Hauke Haien to Deichgraf or Dykemaster of the polder regions, responsible for the maintenance of the sea defences that protected the precarious, meagre fenland crops and pastures behind them. It’s a coastline where it’s not unusual for bloated corpses to be washed ashore after a storm.

A young man with vision, he sets about the construction of a revolutionary new kind of dyke – a scheme so innovative that it provokes the animosity of his narrow-minded, ignorant community – in which he’d never been popular.

His humble origins as the son of a poor smallholder are constantly held against him. But even as a child he’d seen that the traditional, ancient system of building and maintaining the dykes was inadequate: ‘The dykes must be changed!’ he’d cried when still a child.

The story is told in a complicated double-frame narrative, setting the events in a distant past to add to its sense of elemental potency that transcends its provincial setting. A traveller on a stormy night has a terrifying encounter on a dyke with a spectral rider on the eponymous ‘lean grey’: as this figure passes by –

a pair of burning eyes looked at me from a pallid face.

He’s told its story (its climax set appropriately at Hallowe’en) by the superstitious old men, principally an old schoolmaster, at the inn he shelters in. So far, all very MR James. But Storm’s tale is told with far more grit and passion. It reeks of the saltmarshes and wind-whipped North Sea, and contains savage images. Like the cat that’s brutally killed by Hauke in a rage (and whose pelt is later revealed as the covering for a footstool!), or the fierce legends of the region, principally the belief that for a newly built dyke to be strong and efficacious it’s necessary to throw into its foundations a living creature: “a child’s best of all; but when there’s none, a dog will do!” the dyke-builders callously claim.

Offshore is a system of mudflat-islands known as ‘hallig’, one of which, previously used for grazing sheep, but lately inundated by the relentless tides, is described with typically salty grimness:

So it came about that the hallig’s only visitors were gulls and other birds that fly along the shore, including occasional osprey; and from the dyke on moonlit evenings only thick or thin blankets of fog could be seen drifting over it. A few bleached bones of drowned sheep and the skeleton of a horse – no one quite understood how that came to be there – were also claimed to be recognisable when the moon shone on the hallig from the east.

That skeleton horse is to play a part in the terrifying ghost story that follows. Even more so is the story of the ‘satanic’ white horse of the title. Hauke at one point of extremity makes a terrible prayer that may or may not bring about the baneful dénouement.

As the Afterword by David A. Jackson points out, Storm’s is a fictional world ‘governed by transience, renunciation and death.’ It makes MR James seem like Enid Blyton.

I was alerted to this strange, haunting novella by a fellow blogger – I’m afraid I can’t remember who. I subsequently came across a terrific sequence of posts about this and other Storm novellas at Tom’s blog, Wuthering Expectations, which I’d commend to you.

There’s also a fascinating and highly informative Theodor Storm website, with photos, maps and other background materials that help bring the location to life.

Update a few hours after publishing this post: thanks to Tom at W. Expectations for his comment, identifying Lizzy Siddal and her blog. Here’s the link to her collection of posts on  T. Storm, including one with the translator, Denis Jackson, and stories of her own trips to Hulsum and N. Frisia.

Jan Morris, Venice

Cover of the Faber third rev. ed. of 'Venice', publ. 1993

Cover of the Faber third rev. ed. of ‘Venice’, publ. 1993

Jan Morris, Venice was first published in 1960 when she was James, but so timeless and largely unchanging is the fabric and spirit of Venice that the account isn’t particularly dated. On our visit there a week or so back, however, Mrs TD and I saw little of the animal and bird life she describes – apart from the ubiquitous pigeons and seagulls (noisy in the mornings, like sobbing babies). I did catch a glimpse of early swifts darting and screeching overhead. And a community of surprisingly well-nourished feral cats. An old lady was feeding them from a packet of biscuits. They lived in a peaceful central courtyard of the Ospedale San Giovanni e Paolo (San Zanipolo to the locals) – a magnificent Renaissance cloistered complex, including an art gallery, that still functions as a hospital, with its ER access a canalside quay for water ambulances!

Plaque outside Brodsky's house

Plaque outside a house where Joseph Brodsky stayed, near the Zattere. Meant to include it in yesterday’s post. He was buried in San Michele. Because he was a Jew, he wasn’t buried too close to Ezra Pound’s grave.

Morris describes the strutting equestrian statue of condottiere Colleoni in the square outside as ‘incomparable’. This Venetian notable died in 1484, leaving his entire fortune of ‘nearly half a million ducats to the state (which badly needed it) on condition that a statue was erected to him’ on that site. It’s that kind of well-researched detail, engagingly communicated, that makes this account of Venice so readable.

The Marías and Brodsky books I discussed yesterday were impressionistic sketches; this is a full-length biography and socio-cultural history of a city, of the kind Peter Ackroyd has produced more recently – almost a psychogeography. And there are charming personal touches braiding the narrative: Morris standing on her balcony gazing at the breathtaking views, but also pointing out, when the tide is low, that ‘the underpinnings of the Venetian houses are revealed in all their green and slimy secrecy.’ This is so typical of Venice: beautiful exteriors covering a sleaziness under the surface. But even the squalor is only superficial; there’s always something gorgeous if you look beyond.

View along the Grand Canal from Accademia bridge towards San Giorgio

View along the Grand Canal from Accademia bridge towards San Giorgio

She provides almost every detail and history you could desire of the city (its 450+ bridges, 107 churches) and in the archipelago of over 100 islands. As you see flying over the lagoon into Marco Polo airport, there are countless mudbanks and islets that come and go with the tides and currents. It was an uninviting swamp, and the city suffered decimations of population for centuries from the diseases harboured there, from plague (a hazard of the Levantine trade) and mosquito-transmitted malaria to cholera caused by poor water hygiene (that did for gloomy von Aschenbach in Death in Venice). Hence the prominence of San Rocco in the city’s five church dedications to him; they stole his relics, too, from France, for his protection against ‘bacterial demons’. I remember the Visconti neorealist film ‘Rocco and his Brothers’ – rather better as I recall than the more famous and morbid Bogarde vehicle with its picture-postcard superficiality.

A random sample of the Morris narrative tone in an extract from the opening page:

Here is a glowering octagonal fort, here a gaunt abandoned lighthouse. A mesh of nets patterns the walls of a fisherman’s islet, and a restless covey of boats nuzzles its water-gate. From the ramparts of an island barracks a listless soldier with his cap over his eyes waves half-heartedly out of his sentry-box. Two savage dogs bark and rage from a broken villa.

Not just hard facts dug out of histories and archives, then; human observations like the above make this book a pleasure to read.

Those cats in Zanipolo

Those cats in Zanipolo

She also gives a detailed account of the major islands, including Torcello, where the original settlers established a foothold in the 5C to escape the depredations of the invading Goths, Huns and other warlike tribes. This island prospered, then declined disastrously from the 12C, and is now returning to nature, its former glories weed-covered and plundered for materials to build its replacement, Venice itself.

Some highlights from a book densely packed with interesting details. How in 829 Venetian merchants, with typical audacity and cunning, stole the relics of St Mark from Alexandria. To keep the loot safe from prying Muslim eyes they hid them in a barrel of pickled pork. It was a city of policy, trade, chicanery and sharp practice (hence the plot of The Merchant of Venice). It’s a ‘shamelessly self-centred place’, redolent of ‘elderly narcissism’. It can adopt ‘a morose but calculating look’ full of ‘sly contempt’, with ‘a note of amorality’, ‘hard-boiled, sceptical and sophisticated’. But also courteous, ceremonious – ‘a very bourgeois city.’ Full of nosiness, gossip, sex, melancholy and intrigue.

It was also the city of Tintoretto, Titian and Goldoni – and Casanova. They even claim Othello as one of their own.

There’s a fascinating section on the Ghetto (and the cruel treatment of the Jews), and on the visitors from all over the world – not just the usuals like Shelley and Byron and his suicidal jilted girlfriend throwing herself into the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Mocenigro, the Brownings, George Eliot and her canal-bound suicidal husband, swaggering Hemingway and punctilious Ruskin. She shows how the city is cosmopolitan, enriched over the centuries by incomers from the orient, the Middle East (those Armenians and the Riva degli Schiavoni, named for the Slavs who brought cargo to the place that is still a thriving trading and ferry quay.) Oriental influences are seen everywhere, like the arabesque swirls in the windows.

I recall the Venetian style of the harbour at Chania in Crete. Forts in Cyprus. For Venice absorbed features from every culture it dealt with, but also disseminated its own.

There are some good jokes. Like Robert Benchley, who cabled home when he first arrived there: ‘Streets full of water. Please advise.’

In the section on the city’s influence elsewhere in the world, she says she saw a sign in London’s Little Venice: ‘Beware of the Doge.’

Some omissions: she mentions the church of the Madonna dell’Orto, but unlike Brodsky and Marías, says nothing about the Bellini portrait noted yesterday. There’s some reference to Ezra Pound, but not of his grave in the San Michele cemetery, or Olga Rudge.

The six-pronged prow of gondolas, with the curve above maybe representing the sweep of the arterial Grand Canal

The graceful six-pronged prow of gondolas, with the curve above maybe representing the sweep of the arterial Grand Canal. Sunlight, not lamplight

Finally, those gondolas again: even the etymology of the word is controversial. There’s the now discarded felze, or canopy, which concealed all kinds of illicity liasions (see previous posts). Is it true, as the gondoliers assert, that the six prongs on the prow – the ferro – represent the six sestieri, the curved beak at the top is the Doge’s hat/the Rialto bridge/several other theories? Whatever their origins (Roman, Egyptian or Turkish?), they are a magnificent sight,

curved, rampant and gleaming, riding side by side through the lamplight of the Grand Canal.

I’ll not forget the atmosphere of this extraordinary, beautiful, vibrant city. It probably sounds inane, but I hadn’t realised what an effect is gained by having no road traffic. No wonder Venice’s appellation is La Serenissima. It’s a serene city – the only sounds the lapping of the water, the cries of the gondoliers (and those seagulls) and the chugging engines of the innumerable boats supplying the produce for the wonderful markets – but also cleaning the canals, ferrying travellers and transporting the sick to the Ospedale.

There was a water fire-engine moored at the canalside, attending a blaze on Murano, with a chic uniformed fireman posing for the tourists’ cameras while his colleagues buzzed in and out of the burnt shell of the building a hundred metres away. He looked like a young Robert de Niro.

Brodsky and Marías on Venice

Joseph Brodsky, Watermark: An Essay on Venice. Penguin Classics, 2013. First published 1992.

Javier Marías, Venice: An Interior. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Penguin Books, 2016 [and part of the essay collection Between Eternities, 2017]. First published in Spanish, 1988.

Jan Morris, Venice. 3rd rev. ed. 1993; first published 1960 – next post

Brodsky, Marías and Morris book covers on VeniceMy previous two posts on Venice have touched on recommended Venice-based or –set reading; the Brodsky I read after my return from the recent visit with Mrs TD to celebrate her birthday – our first time in the city – and was inspired by this post by Karen at Kaggsysbookish Ramblings. She provides an excellent introduction and background to the Russian poet, and a perceptive review – so there’s not much more for me to add about his book here.

As she says, it’s a prose poem/meditation. I too found the strange visit to Ezra Pound’s former mistress, Olga Rudge (with Susan Sontag, of all people) a stand-out scene. There’s a beautiful anecdote about her first meeting with Stravinsky, at a violin recital she was giving (she was an outstanding concert violinist, which is how Pound first encountered her. She survived him by several decades and was buried beside him at San Michele).

He’s interesting on – and a little dismissive of — Pound as deluded politically; detention at St Elizabeth’s was ‘nothing to rave about’ in Russian eyes. The Cantos left him cold:

…the main error was an old one: questing after beauty. For someone with such a long record of residence in Italy, it was odd that he hadn’t realized that beauty can’t be targeted, that it is always a by-product of other, often very ordinary pursuits.

He listens to Sontag trying unsuccessfully to deflect Rudge from her lengthy whitewash job on her fascist-sympathising, anti-Semitic lover; having dealt with countless ‘old CP members’ it was a tune that rang a bell. They left the house and found themselves, significantly, on the Fondamenata degli Incurabili.

Brodsky’s love for the city and its ‘serene beauty’ is rapturously told – ‘this city is the eye’s beloved’ – though he’s not blind to its occasional decaying squalor, its decadence and artificiality and superficiality. I wasn’t so keen on the objectification of women, including his unreconstructed lusting over the beautiful (married) Veneziana who met him at the station on his first visit and introduced him to her city.

Among several enigmatic images (others include his repeated, interwoven references to chordates and fish-eye perception; tears, surfaces, reflections/water, beauty and time – and a woman with mustard-and-honey coloured eyes) is a strange description of the ‘wonderful’ Bellini tempera portrait of the Virgin and Child that was in the Madonna dell’Orto church in Cannaregio sestiere near the Ghetto (he couldn’t have mentioned its theft in 1993, after he was writing this essay).

Bellini, Madonna and Child

Bellini, Madonna and Child (Wikimedia Commons)

He was unable to enter the church one night to steal a look at it, and at

the inch-wide interval that separates [Mary’s] left palm from the Child’s sole. That inch –ah, much less! – is what separates love from eroticism.

This is Javier Marías: he refers to

…the beautiful Bellini Virgin depicting a lunatic Christ Child who looks as if he’s either going to choke to death at any moment or pounce on his extraordinary mother…

When I look at the image I think it’s this description that makes more sense.

In fact the Marías essay is in some ways the most interesting of the three texts discussed here and elsewhere (though it’s probably apparent from some of my earliest posts at TDays that he’s one of my favourite authors: list at the end). Morris is more of a comprehensive guidebook, but his is the most vivid.

He can be as poetic as Brodsky in his palpable love for the city – he visited it fourteen times between 1984-89 – but without the sometimes mannered obscurity. His description of night-time, when the inky darkness accentuates the city’s ‘stage-set’ dramatic quality, is beautifully evocative. He also identifies in a few succinct, vivid images the essence and soul of this compact city (in theory one could walk from end to end in just over an hour; in practice this is impossible because of the dead ends and distractions).

There’s what he identifies as its harmony and homogeneity, its seediness and ostentatious glamour, and, paradoxically, its fragmentation and articulation.

He’s particularly good (as his title suggests) on the interiority of Venetians’ lives (‘they don’t go out very much’). And he’s characteristically funny, too: his account of the glamorous women (and men), who seem to be ‘always on their way to some elegant party’ when they do venture out accords with what I saw. Nearly everyone is chic and on display:

Singers at the theatre sometimes complain that their voices cannot be heard above the rattle of jewellery and that their eyes are dazzled by the glint of gold in the darkness, because some ladies do rather over-adorn hands, ears and neck in their eagerness to outshine, well, themselves, principally.

At the beach on the Lido they’re dripping in jewels (even when they go for a swim) and dressed to the nines.

He gives an entertaining account of the love-hate relationship between the Venetians and the hordes of tourists. Each sestiere or district (there are six, as the name suggests) has its own distinct atmosphere and ‘idea’. Locals from one area are unlikely to venture beyond the end of their nearest canal, rarely straying into the tourist honeypots – and they’re snootily dismissive of any place else. The same thing or person seen in one sestiere appears different in another (he gives the example of a beggar who moves about the city, shifting shapes mysteriously). I find these perceptions more human than Brodsky’s rather cerebral musings.

Marías identifies the strange ways that distances between places on the island can’t be measured by space alone. That account of the Bellini was to demonstrate that even though it’s found just a stone’s throw from the Grand Canal, it seems ‘a thousand leagues away’.

Both he and Brodsky are dismissive of Visconti’s film Death in Venice. Both are good on the best perspective from which to admire the architecture: from the water. But they agree that only the tourists can afford the gondola. When my wife and I were there it was 80 euros for a half-hour ride. We adopted the practice of the locals: take a gondola traghetto across the Grand Canal for two euros. It only takes minutes but is a much better deal. Otherwise the vaporetto (with a tourist pass) is good value, but often crowded.

I could go on, but had better stop, but I must quote the closing lines of the Marías, in which he poetically relates the timeless beauty of Venice, as it impacted on him on revisiting the city twenty years after the first Spanish edition of this text in 1988, when its people and places might have been expected to be lost:

We probably only really lose what we forget or reject, what we prefer to erase and no longer wish to carry with us, what is no longer part of the life we tell ourselves.

Readers of his fiction will recognise that haunting allusiveness to the elasticity of time and experience, universalised.

Javier Marías texts posted about here include the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy

The Infatuations

Thus Bad Begins

and the essay collection Written Lives

Next time, as I’ve gone on too long here, I’ll return to the Jan Morris.

 

Sex and death in Venice: post 1

I started this post intending to discuss the three books about La Serenissima [see my picture] by Brodsky (thanks to Karen of Kaggsysbookishramblings blog for the recommendation), Marías and Morris. I became sidetracked – hence this is now an Aside-type post.

Venice has been so often painted, written and sung about, filmed and celebrated that I felt before my first visit there last week with Mrs TD (for her birthday) that I already knew the city; I was prepared to be disappointed. I wasn’t: it’s breathtaking.

For centuries it’s been associated with decadence, sin, dishonesty and deception, ruthless capitalism, danger, sickness and death. From The Merchant of Venice and Othello, Moor of Venice to Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (and the lush 1971 Visconti film with Dirk Bogarde) and Nicholas Roeg’s Du Maurier-derived 1973 film Don’t Look Now, it’s been the setting for all of the above. Don’t pursue the diminutive figure in a red cape beckoning you down a canalside alley cul-de-sac…

A few years ago, in a sequence of posts about Henry James, I wrote this on his 1888 novella The Aspern Papers, one of several by him with a Venetian setting.

Twitterfolk recommended some more Venice-set reading to prime us for our holiday; I posted back in December 2018 on Wilkie Collins’ so-so ghost story ‘The Haunted Hotel’

Photo from the 1880s by Carlo Naya, ‘Panorama da San Giorgio e gondola’; the Doge’s palace and the Campanile (which a few years later fell down) in the background.

Last month it was Hemingway’s rather unpleasant late novel Across the River and into the Seaduck-shooting and execrably written gondola sex with the 50-year-old protagonist-narrator and his fantasy teenage lover. This seems to take place under cover of the ‘felze’ – the curtained or solid canopy-cabin that used to be common on gondolas to maintain the privacy of the passengers. Gondolas today all seem to be open, like punts, with no such concealment.

This is where I start to digress. Hemingway’s Colonel’s gondola tryst with his seductive young Contessa reminded me of Byron, one of Venice’s greatest advocates (perhaps because he indulged in such unbridled debauchery there; Hemingway namechecks the poet in the narrative with approbation about his popularity in ‘this town’).

Soon after his wife Annabella finally left him, taking their newborn baby Augusta Ada (later Ada Lovelace, the pioneer mathematician to whom the notion of the computer is often ascribed) with her. He thought it expedient to leave England in 1816. He never returned.

I’ve written previously about the first parts of his trip, including the stay at the Villa Diodati with the Shelleys (her stepsister Claire Clairmont had thrown herself at him by this time. She was soon to be abandoned, as was their ill-fated daughter Allegra, who died aged five – a familiar pattern emerges). He travelled on to Milan, arriving in Venice in autumn 1816.

Byron's visit to San Lazzaro by Ivan Aivazovsky (1899)

Byron’s visit to San Lazzaro by Ivan Aivazovsky (1899). Gondola with ‘felze’ clearly seen

He was immediately smitten. He also threw himself vigorously into sexual profligacy. When not debauching, swimming or riding, he took to visiting the Mechitarist order of Armenian monks on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where he redeemed himself somewhat by learning (or trying to learn) Armenian, helping translate several of the order’s texts into English, and with the compilation of an Armenian grammar guide and Armenian-English dictionary. Unfortunately I didn’t get time to visit the exhibition at San Lazzaro on this aspect of his contribution to Venetian culture during my stay; maybe next time. [Jan Morris has a lovely account of this island monastery and the Byron connection at pp. 272 ff.; more on her book in a later post.]

After several passing references in earlier poems to Venetian matters, he wrote a Venice section in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1817) – where he informs us that unlike in the time of Goethe’s visit in 1786, the gondoliers no longer sang the words of Tasso and Ariosto to tunes of their own composing.

Beppo (1818) is set during the Venice carnevale; the garrulous narrator describes with gleeful ribaldry the potential for decadent sensuality during a gondola ride:

Didst ever see a Gondola? For fear

You should not, I’ll describe it you exactly:

‘Tis a long cover’d boat that’s common here,

Carved at the prow, built lightly but compactly,

Row’d by two rowers, each called Gondolier,

It glides along the water looking blackly,

Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,

Where none can make out what you say or do.

 

And up and down the long canals they go,
And under the Rialto shoot along,
By night and day, all paces, swift or slow,
And round the theatres, a sable throng,
They wait in their dusk livery of woe, –
But not to them do woeful things belong,
For sometimes they contain a deal of fun,
Like mourning coaches when the funeral’s done.

He celebrates in this poem the looser, more pragmatic morals of the Italians, especially in their liberal attitude towards adultery, which he compared favourably with the more hypocritically puritanical (as Byron saw it) English. He gave prominence in this poem to the figure of the cicisbeo or cavalier servente: a gentleman who’d escort and protect a married lady in society, with the collusion of her husband. This ‘escorting’ might also include a sexual element – the part that Byron found particularly exhilarating: here’s his account of Laura’s response when her husband goes missing on a voyage, feared dead:

And Laura waited long, and wept a little,
And thought of wearing weeds, as well she might;
She almost lost all appetite for victual,
And could not sleep with ease along at night;
She deem’d the window-frames and shutters brittle
Against a daring housebreaker or sprite,
And so she thought it prudent to connect her.
With a vice-husband, chiefly to protect her.

In June 1818 he moved into the Palazzo Mocenigo, beside the Grand Canal (the length of which he liked to swim, when he wasn’t doing so off the Lido).

Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova (Wikipedia image, public domain)

Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova (Wikipedia image, public domain)

I thought I’d taken a picture of this grand palazzo from a vaporetto, but on checking online I found I’d mistakenly framed the building next door. His ménage included fourteen servants, a menagerie including several dogs, monkeys and a fox. In his letters he loved to present a raffish image, claiming he’d bedded over 200 women and spent a fortune – such services didn’t come cheap in a city where sex was widely for sale. Shelley’s account of his friend’s amorous activities is less poetic; he claimed Byron made extensive use not of elegant courtesans but of the lowliest women in the city. Like John Addington Symonds and Frederick ‘Baron’ Rolfe in later years, he appears to have indulged in a squalid kind of sexual imperialism, not romantic trysts.

Here’s how he presented, with mock sobriety and restraint, in a famous letter of 1819 to his friend Douglas Kinnaird, what happened during this sojourn in the palazzo [link to online source, which contains the hyperlinks]:

I have been faithful in my honest liaison with Countess Guiccioli — and can assure you that She has never cost me directly or indirectly a sixpence — indeed the circumstances of herself and family render this no merit.  — I never offered her but one present — a broach of brilliants — and she sent it back to me with her own hair in it (I shall not say of what part but that is an Italian custom) and a note to say she was not in the habit of receiving presents of that value — but hoped I would not consider her sending it back as an affront — nor the value diminished by the enclosure. — I have not had a whore this half-year — confining myself to the strictest adultery.

The nineteen-year-old Contessa Teresa Guiccioli had only been married a year to a count in his late fifties (how Byron would have loved reading that Hemingway Venice novel with its similar liaison). She and Byron were to spend the next four years together in various Italian cities.

He composed the first cantos of his ‘Epic Satire’ Don Juan in Venice’s stimulating environment. When the first cantos (unsurprisingly) provoked as much opprobrium for their immorality and bawdiness as praise for their comic genius, he defended himself with characteristic flamboyance that same Kinnaird letter:

As to “Don Juan” — confess — confess — you dog and be candid that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing — it may be bawdy — but is it not good English?  It may be profligate — but is it not life, is it not the thing?  — Could any man have written it — who has not lived in the world? — and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a gondola? [my emphasis] against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis a vis? — on a table? — and under it?

Venice gondola BL 16CToday in my Twitter feed I came upon this lovely image from the British Library: what appears to be a double-prowed Venetian gondola in an image from a 1588 ‘friendship album’, publicising a free exhibition at the BL, Friendship Before Facebook, that’s running until May 12. Click the link to (hopefully) access the BL’s gif in which the felze cabin covering is cheekily removed to reveal the seduction taking place inside.

Clearly it would have been easy to conduct illicit dalliances in such a vessel. Like Madame Bovary in her curtained carriage – but on the canal waters with an indulgent gondolier turning a blind eye – and deaf ear – to what was going on inside the felze. (I’m indebted to Jan Morris’s fascinating account of gondolas for the Venetian terminology).

More on Venice next time.

One of my first posts here was about some lines from Beppo cited by TS Eliot (dining on ‘becaficas’) and Byron’s ingenious, audacious rhyming practices.

Previous posts on Don Juan here (where that notorious Kinnaird letter is again quoted) and here

Posts about Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, the visit with Byron by the Shelleys and Byron’s physician Polidori at the Villa Diodate (before Byron reached Venice), and related matters here

[All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Becoming insane: Patricia Highsmith, Little Tales of Misogyny

Patricia Highsmith, Little Tales of Misogyny. Virago Modern Classics, 2015.

There are 17 very short stories printed in a large font in this slim volume of just 135 pages, so they’re probably best described as flash fiction.

They were first published in German in Switzerland in 1975 with a title that translates as “Little Tales for Misogynists”, as Nicholas Lezard points out in his Guardian article about them. Rather than serving to teach misogynists a lesson, he suggests, ‘it’s something you might give a misogynist on his birthday’. Yes, “his”.

They do provide venomous but curiously affectless little accounts of some pretty horrible women. Their titles indicate that Highsmith takes mischievous aim at some stereotypical female figures in the patriarchy: The Coquette, The Female Novelist, The Dancer, The Invalid, The Middle-Class Housewife, and so on. Most of them behave despicably, and most come to a seemingly deserved or inevitable sticky end.

Highsmith Misogyny coverThe sheer nastiness of the protagonists and the calmly detached tone of the narrative voice that depicts their atrocities before despatching them make for some uncomfortable reading. What was Highsmith playing at? Ok, she’s famous for the twisted, psychopathic behaviour of some of her best-known characters in her full-length fiction, such as Ripley. Here she seems to be up to something different from those novels that induced Graham Greene to describe her as ‘the poet of apprehension’.

The stories read like fairy-tales or parables, with more in common with Kafka’s than Aesop’s, or Angela Carter’s with the feminism and metaphysics redacted. In the first story, for example, a young man ‘asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box – her left hand.’ It’s the insouciant irrelevance of that last phrase that causes such a tingle down the spine.

The young man not surprisingly goes mad, or ‘became insane’ as the narrator blithely puts it. The young woman visits him in the asylum ‘like a dutiful wife’. By now, it’s apparent that every time there’s one of those deceptively anodyne statements in the story, it’s going to be followed by something vicious – and it is here:

And like most wives, she had nothing to say. But she smiled prettily. His job provided a small pension now, which she was getting. Her stump was concealed in a muff.

The women in these stories behave like monstrous caricatures of the casually misogynistic male views and attitudes prevalent in the popular culture of the fifties and sixties – the ultra Don Drapers. Their men drool or despair and often, like the young man with the girl’s hand, ‘become insane’.

One way of reading the stories is to see that the women are in fact simply conforming to that male stereotype that’s been constructed for them. In Oona, the Jolly Cavewoman, for example, she’s described like a Playboy bunny:

She was round, round-bellied, round-shouldered, round-hipped, and always smiling, always jolly. That was why men liked her.

Really? What did men like about her – the curves, or the jolly smiles? Either way they’re shallow and stupid. Oona drives them crazy – literally. So whose fault is that?

Some of the women characters, however, are plain malicious. The Coquette, for example, lost her virginity when she was just ten years old. She ‘told her mother that she was raped.’ She had thus ‘sent a thirty-year-old man to prison.’ Yet she’d effectively seduced him, delighting in presenting herself as sexually provocative and alluring, and she takes pleasure in ruining his life – and his wife and daughter’s. When she pits two suitors who bore her against each other, they collude and kill her ‘with various blows about the head.’ There’s that weird tone again: it’s the detachment of a police report stripped bare of any moral stance.

The world, then, is a mean and nasty place, according to these stories. Men objectify women, who are restricted to roles as submissive, decorative housewives or sex objects. If  women strive for agency or fulfilment, like The Female Novelist, The Artist or The Dancer, they are either deluded or just randomly murdered. Feminists are as morally anaesthetised and unhinged as the Middle-Class Housewife; when they meet, there’s mayhem and death.

Are these just pitch-black comedies? There’s humour there for sure, as I hope the extracts I’ve given indicate – but it’s dark as night. Take the title alone of The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife. Shades there perhaps of Sue Bridewell’s objection to marriage in Jude the Obscure as being ‘licensed to be loved on the premises.’

Or there’s The Breeder: a woman who gives birth to 17 children in fewer years. Her husband’s friends make the expression ‘she gets pregnant every time he looks at her’ horribly literal. He has little option but to become insane. When the wife visits him in yet another asylum he suggests she stand on her head to reverse the process that seemed to instigate her fecundity. The story ends with another typically barbed banality in response to that:

“He’s mad,” Elaine said hopelessly to the intern, and calmly turned away.

It’s that blandly calm detachment and acceptance of the horrific that’s so chilling, conveyed by those two perfectly selected adverbs. Warped humour that’s not exactly funny, but insidious: it’s assumed that Elaine is quite right to have no hope.

On first reading I felt pleased that I didn’t inhabit this bizarre and unsettling distortion or moral inversion of the real world. Looking again at these narratives I’m inclined to think that maybe it’s not such a distortion. Like parables and some fairy-tales, ‘the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.’ In striving to rid ourselves of our daily cares we simply exacerbate them, just as attempts to interpret these tales become parables themselves.

‘Misogynists’ is probably a misnomer, then. They’re really subversive Little Tales of Misanthropy to cheer us all up.

I’ve posted on these other Highsmith titles:

Carol

Edith’s Diary

A Suspension of Mercy

 

Extracted by torment: Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941), Vera. Hesperus Press, 2015; first published 1921

John Middleton Murry, husband of Elizabeth von Arnim’s cousin Katherine Mansfield, consoled the author after Vera had attracted some bad reviews, by saying the reviewers had failed to understand a tragi-comedy that read like Wuthering Heights as written by Jane Austen. This dark, disturbing novel also presages a later novel about a woman who’d died in mysterious circumstances before the events in the novel take place: Rebecca.

My Hesperus Press paperback edition of Elizabeth von Arnim, VeraVera is about a naïve young woman who ‘was engulfed’ by the apparent grief-stricken affection of a man named Everard Wemyss. His wife Vera had recently died – in a way that increasingly suggests his pathological egotism and what we now call coercive control had led to her suicide. He comes upon young Lucy, grieving for her father who’d just died at their Cornwall holiday cottage, and she is smitten by what seems his tender empathy and sensitive soul. He takes advantage of her damaged emotional state and vulnerability.

She rapidly discovers that she’s made a terrible mistake. His domineering control of her and his household once they’re married is so obsessive as to become a nightmare for poor Lucy. Despite the best efforts of her caring Aunt Dot, Wemyss is able to dismiss all who try to mitigate his insistence on complete servitude in his young wife.

Like Torvald in A Doll’s House, he’s created a gilded cage for his little bird; like Nora’s patronising husband he repeatedly infantilises Lucy, calling her his ‘little girl’, his ‘baby’, while scolding her and criticising her for showing the least sign of spirit or rebellion. It becomes increasingly difficult to read such stuff – but it holds the attention like a slowly unfolding car-crash.

It’s not just his gaslighting, chauvinistic narcissism and cruel oppression that’s so disturbing. He seems to derive pleasure from her immature appearance and demeanour:

He adored her bobbed hair that gave her the appearance of a child or a very young boy…all he asked in a woman was devotion.

This is the spine-chilling moment, narrated from his sickening point of view, when he looks at Lucy entering the registry office where they are to be married and she is to become his latest trophy:

If only she would take off her hat, thought Wemyss, bursting with pride, so that the registrar could see how young she looked with her short hair – why perhaps the old boy might think she was too young to be married and start asking searching questions! What fun that would be.

There are moments of humour, as when Aunt Dot contemplates Wemyss’s tepid style of courting Lucy at her aunt’s house in London, and the only word she can find to describe his mode of ‘love-making’ (in the old fashioned sense) is ‘vegetarian’. He’s dismissive of Lucy’s family’s bohemian, spontaneous, cultivated and artistic ways: he’s a cold-blooded philistine and a prig. He’s a veritable Casaubon to Lucy’s Dorothea – but far more sinister.

It seems von Arnim wrote Vera in response to her own disastrous second marriage to Frank, second Earl Russell (brother of philosopher Bertrand). Her first husband was a domineering, typically Prussian Junker aristocrat, Graf von Arnim-Schlagentin. Among the tutors they employed for their children were EM Forster and Hugh Walpole: she moved in exalted circles, but showed less discernment in her choice of lovers – including, perhaps, the three years (1910-13) she spent as a mistress of HG Wells.

Rebecca West was understandably impressed by this novel; there’s a deeply felt awkwardness and growing sense of menacing claustrophobia, being stifled and threatened by this monstrous husband that Lucy experiences. Elizabeth von Arnim wrote to her daughter about Vera:

I’ll never write anything so good again. I daresay more popular…but not so really good. It was extracted from me by torment, so that I do not want to write so well again – not at such a price.

 

 

 

Laurence Leduc-Primeau, In the End…

Laurence Leduc-Primeau, In the End They Told Them All to Get Lost, translated by Natalia Hero, is published by QC Fiction of Québec this month – my thanks to them for this ARC.

It’s not their strongest title in what’s been so far an excellent series of prose fiction works translated from the French. Here’s a link to those I’ve posted on here so far.

My favourite to date is Eric Dupont’s Giller Prize shortlisted epic Songs for the Cold of Heart, which does what all fine fiction does: creates its own world and characters out of recognisable features and makes them new. This new title is a typically unconventional choice for the publishers: it’s essentially a long stream of fragments of the thoughts and impressions of the narrator, a young Canadian woman called Chloé who has ended up in a Spanish-speaking South American country, and is trying to make sense of her new, alien surroundings.

Leduc-Primeau, In the End cover‘My God, it’s humid’, she thinks early on. ‘How can you stand it?’ What marks out the narrative from the run of the mill is the originality of the narrative perspective: Chloé is here addressing her only friend – a stain on the wall she’s named Betty.

She complains about the endless noise, the ‘people who use their windows as ashtrays.’ The din gets inside her skull:

No wonder they say this town is the therapy capital of the world.

Everyone’s crazy here. That’s why I came.

Her housemates are a feckless lot. There’s a lot of debauchery and decadence, very little in the way of plot.

What sustains the reader’s interest is that fey, vulnerable voice of the narrator’s. She’s lonely, desperate for human connection, prepared to settle for exploitative sex if necessary. She doesn’t even speak the local language at first, but things improve when she becomes more fluent. She even gets a job as a theatre receptionist.

Still she finds the world around her difficult to interpret. It’s full of significance that almost always eludes her. She struggles to integrate her life and her heart.

As an account of a young woman’s attempt to coalesce with the world she inhabits it’s a daring, raw and engaging narrative. Its fragmentary nature is an apt reflection of her experience and sensibility.

The translator has done a fine job in rendering the rangy, demotic voice of this narrator: the prose never drags its heels. She does well to leave the frequent Spanish expressions in their original: this heightens the sense of Chloé’s exclusion from the language and the lives of others. Her growth is indicated by her starting to meditate on the semantics and structures of that Spanish language.

Thanks again to QC Fiction for making available to the anglophone world these works that deserve wider dissemination – every one in the series that I’ve read so far has been original and fresh.

Available April 15.

 

Venice, Tintoretto, and not a St Mary of Egypt

It’s the feast day (in most western calendars) of St Mary of Egypt, the penitent sinner about whom I’ve written here a few times, since she was the subject of my postgrad thesis.

I returned yesterday from a few days’ break with Mrs TD (it was her birthday) in Venice. I was surprised by how beautiful La Serenissima is. So many films, books and so on had made me feel like I knew what to expect. The reality took my breath away.

More perhaps on that trip next time. For now, a quick reminder that penitent Mary was, according to the original legend, so ashamed of her formally promiscuous life that she entered the Jordan desert and lived there in penitent solitude for 47 years. Her story was disseminated, according to the legend, by the monk Zosimas, who encountered her near the end of her life, and to whom she related the details of her extraordinary ascetic life.

I’d known that one of the relatively few painted representations of her in the early modern era was by the Venetian artist Tintoretto, aka Robusti (1518-94). Born Jacopo Comin, he acquired the first nickname because his father was a dyer (‘tintore’) – i.e. he’s ‘son of a dyer’. He won the commission from 1565 to produce the wall and ceiling paintings of the charitable foundation of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, eventually producing some 60 huge works. The interior of the building is so gloomy he adopted a technique that’s difficult to admire when seen in reproductions, but which enables the images to spring to life when seen in the half-light – the highlights seem to glow from within the artwork itself.

According to Vasari he won the gig in an underhand way. He and four other prominent local artists were invited to submit sketches for their projected designs. Our chap simply jumped the gun and painted the work in situ, gifting it to the foundation’s titular saint (patron of plague victims – a big deal in swampy Venice); their statutes forbade them from declining donations – so he carried on initially unpaid, and then, having started, was paid to finish. His competitors were furious.

Tintoretto's first portrait of a woman saint in the desert, reading and meditating

The man serving in the Scuola shop kindly gave me this postcard of the first portrait discussed here, after we’d discussed the identity of the figures in both pictures

In the Sala Terrena (ground floor hall), two female figures are depicted on facing walls. On the left wall a small female figure is depicted, glowing with that inner light I mentioned, a nimbus or halo around her head partly producing that glow. She leans on her left elbow, propping an open book, which she is reading, on her lap with her right. It’s a forest scene, wild and uninhabited. From medieval times the west considered ‘silva’ or forest the equivalent of eastern ‘desert’: both were devoid of human presence, and therefore intimidating and alien, hostile and fearful.

My photo of the tiny card doesn’t do the original justice: it must be three metres high.

The gnarled, twisted roots of the tree under which she reads and meditates highlight the serenity and concentration of the saintly figure: she’s oblivious of the wildness of her surroundings.

Tintoretto, Virgin or Mary of Egypt meditating

Virgin Mary or Mary of Egypt meditating, by Tintoretto

In the right-hand corner is the partner portrait. Here the seated woman has her back almost turned to the viewer. She too is sitting reading, though her gaze seems to have momentarily lifted from the book she holds in her lap, perhaps to ponder on the words she reads. There’s a stream beside her, and some buildings in the middle and further distance – maybe not quite the desert one might expect, but still a wild, inhospitable landscape.

Here’s the difficulty. According to the sources I consulted many years ago when doing my research, this second image was described as depicting Maria Egiziaca – Mary of Egypt. The Jacopo Tintoretto website today does the same. Even the leaflet the Scuola provided (in English) when I bought my entrance tickets lists these two paintings as of, respectively, Sts Mary Magdalene and Egyptian Mary.

But the same leaflet elsewhere gives a different story: both depict, in this alternative version, the Virgin Mary meditating, or else Mary Magdalene and St Elizabeth. The Scuola’s own website repeats this confusing inconsistency.

When I looked unsuccessfully for a postcard of the painting in the Scuola shop, the charming young man serving was dismissive: of course both pictures represented the Virgin. I pressed my point about the Egiziaca; no, he was adamant – it was proved, he said. The Virgin.

Cowed and crushed, I was about to slink away, when he called me back. He looked in his stock drawers by the counter, and found the postcard of the first image I’ve posted here: the alleged Magdalene. He didn’t have the not-Mary of Egypt. He gave it to me as a gift: must have seen how crushed I was.

Their website’s home page even reproduces the two images, and points out the ones currently on display are reproductions; Sky Arte HD has sponsored the restoration of these pictures: ‘The Reading Virgin’ and ‘The Virgin in Meditation’. After an exhibition in Venice in honour of the fifth centenary of the artist’s birth, the originals will be exhibited in the National Gallery in Washington.

I have to admit, there are none of the usual attributes of Egyptian Mary in this second portrait. She’s usually depicted holding the three round loaves that she bought to take with her into the desert, and with long, flowing hair – hence the similarity to the Magdalene in iconography – as I’ve said in previous posts, the two penitents are often only distinguishable by their distinctive attributes. Here she wears a sort of headscarf, holding a book, not loaves.

I’d like to think my Mary is, nevertheless, smouldering (and meditating) in the Hall of the Scuola Grande of San Rocco in central Venice.