A descent from Kyoto into hell

Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

I first encountered the work of Ryunosuke Akutagawa as an undergraduate at Bristol University. I used to go every week to see a subtitled foreign film, put on I think by the film studies department. This was my introduction to world cinema.

The first sequence of films I saw included some classics of Japanese cinema, mostly by the brilliant director Akira Kurosawa.

One of the first of these films – and one that impressed me so much I can still play back key scenes in my mind decades later – was ‘Rashomon’. It was much later that I learned it was based on two stories by Akugatawa. These are the first in the Penguin Classics collection: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories.

Akutagawa cover ‘Rashomon’, the first of these, is based on a 12th-century tale, and was first published in 1915 when Akutagawa was a 23-year-old student. It’s set in the crumbling gatehouse at the southern entrance to Kyoto and the avenue leading to the imperial palace during the dying days of the Heian period. The tale is set at the decaying end of the era, and the once-magnificent gate is in ruins. Only the scruffy servant, who has a weird encounter among the corpses that are abandoned in the roof chamber, survives in the film, which preserves the rain-soaked setting but not the dark, cynical tale itself.

‘In a Bamboo Grove’, the second story, provides the main influence on Kurosawa’s 1950 film, which is also told from multiple points of view, each of them adding a twist, and warping the reader’s perspective of ‘reality’. None of the conflicting accounts is entirely reliable, and all are cynically self-serving.

The other four in this group of early Akutagawa stories, grouped under the heading ‘A World in Decay’ by the translator, Jay Rubin, are also re-tellings of medieval Japanese folktales. The best is ‘Hell Screen’, about an artist’s Faustian obsession with creating the perfect representation of reality in his work.

The second section, ‘Under the Sword’, begins with two stories set in the early seventeenth century, when the Tokugawa government began to change its policy of tolerance towards the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who’d begun arriving in Japan in 1549. Like Martin Scorsese’s new film, ‘Silence’, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo (which was also filmed in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda in Japanese), ‘O-Gin’ portrays the regime’s increasingly violent persecution of Christians.

Portrait of the young Akutagawa

Portrait of the young Akutagawa via WikiMedia Commons

Akutagawa’s stories are dominated by the moral and cultural convulsions he and his country were experiencing as a result of the modernising, westernising tendencies of the early twentieth century in Japan.

The final group is called ‘Akutagawa’s Own Story’. These stories were written in the period of increasing mental instability (he feared that he would inherit his late mother’s madness) that culminated in his untimely suicide at the age of thirty-five.

Here Akutagawa changed his literary approach dramatically. It’s a series of fragmentary cathartic semi-autobiographical narratives, scrupulously depicting mundane, even trivial surroundings and a protagonist-narrator whose world and sanity, like his narrative, is fragmenting and distorting like a nightmare Expressionist montage film sequence. The technique and neurotic, introspective content are familiar to any reader of the angst-ridden works by the likes of Knut Hamsun, Dostoevsky, Strindberg (both of whom have works mentioned in the final story) and Kafka.

‘The Life of a Stupid Man’, the penultimate story, contains 51 loosely linked fragments. Section 49, “A Stuffed Swan”, ends with these chillingly reflexive words:

Once he had finished writing “The Life of a Stupid Man”, he happened to see a stuffed swan in a secondhand shop. It stood with its head held high, but its wings were yellowed and moth-eaten. As he thought about his life, he felt both tears and mockery welling up inside him. All that lay before him was madness or suicide. He walked down the darkening street alone, determined now to wait for the destiny that would come to annihilate him.

The final story, ‘Spinning Gears’, which was first published posthumously, shows this disintegrating persona finally descending into hell. It’s deeply disturbing, as the narrator struggles to write while tormented by visions of his dead mother, and terrifying hallucinations of the eponymous spinning gears. The fifth of its six sections begins, with characteristic bleakness:

Now the light of the sun became a source of agony for me. A mole indeed, I lowered the blinds and kept electric lights burning as I forged on with my story.

The narrator flees from a bar, where he’d drunk a whiskey to try to ease his malaise, and feels the desire, ‘like Raskolnikov’, to confess ‘everything [he] had done.’ His nerves are in tatters. The desolate ending leaves the reader feeling much the same.

This is an uneven collection: as Haruki Murakami says in his introduction, the best stories are outstandingly good. The less successful ones are still worth a look.

And if you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film, I’d urge you to seek one out. Then read these stories.

Grant Rintoul wrote a fine post on Akutagawa’s story ‘Hell Screen’ recently as part of his story-a-day-for-Advent project at his 1stReading’s blog: link HERE

Seduce her for me: Ana’s fate sealed in ‘La Regenta’

Alas, La Regenta – final post

Ana’s plight has often been likened to Mme Bovary’s. It’s not hard to find striking similarities; here she remembers feeling angrily frustrated by her incarceration as a child by her carers:

‘What a stupid life!’ thought Ana…she believed that she had sacrificed herself to self-imposed duties…’The monotony and dullness of this existence…this sacrifice, this struggle, is greater than any adventure in the world.’…It was as if there were thistles in her soul. [p. 71, ch. 3]

The part inside quotation marks exemplifies Alas’ technique of ‘estilo latente’ or free indirect style; not exactly Ana’s thoughts, but very close.

Immediately after these rebellious, troubled thoughts she visualises her tempter, Alvaro Mesía, ‘the President of the Gentlemen’s Club, wrapped in a high-collared scarlet cape, singing under Rosina’s balcony’. Clothes and accessories play a major symbolic role in the novel; here it’s the romantic garb of the hero as player in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, then ‘in a close-fitting white top-coat, greeting her as King Amadeus used to greet people’. Fermín, Mesía’s rival for Ana’s affections, is always described as clothed in his clerical ‘mozetta’ and ‘rochet’ or long soutane – but he longs to stride out in secular trousers like…a real man, not an asexual priest.

Such erotic fantasies vie in Ana’s mind with conflicting mystical-religious images and thoughts. She’s also dreaming here of having a baby – which will not be provided by Víctor, her husband, the ex-judge, as they have no sexual relations. She’ll need someone virile like Mesía (or Fermín, the canon theologian, secretly in love with her – and whom she sees – mostly – as a spiritual father, not potential lover) to provide her with a child. But she also longs for sex in its own right: this scene is erotically charged with descriptions of her semi-naked state in bed:

…her form, of a modern Venus, provocative and voluptuous, was both revealed and exaggerated by the coloured blanket of fine-spun wool, drawn close about her. [p. 70]

 As her spirits flag, Ana feels ‘the aridity and tension which were tormenting her’ turn into ‘disconsolate grief’. She stops feeling ‘wicked’ and returns to thoughts of sacrifice and sublimity. Mesía’s alluring, romantic image fades and is replaced by that of her elderly, foolish husband, pictured in her imagination as the antithesis of the dashing, handsome Mesía, signified again by apparel and appearance:

a tartan dressing-gown, a green smoking-cap of velvet with gold braid and a tassel, a white moustache and a white goatee, two bushy grizzled eyebrows…[pp. 71-72]

 This ‘respectable and familiar figure’ was ‘the burthen of her sacrifice’; he clearly doesn’t stand a chance against Mesía’s campaign to storm Ana’s sexual defences – especially as he goes on to make Mesía his bosom buddy, encourages him to entertain his wife.

Víctor’s ill-judged patronage of his rival reaches a climax in ch. 26 when Ana, recalling a woman she’d seen in Saragossa ‘dressed as a penitent, walking barefoot’ behind the image of ‘the dead Christ’ in a Holy Week procession, emulates this act of ‘spiritual fidelity’, dressed ‘in purple’, a ‘spectacle’ which she knows will scandalise the narrow-minded Vetustans. Would it be ‘brazen’, she wonders, or the act of a ‘bluestocking George Sand’ – yet another dramatic metafictional image.

Obdulia, whose overt sensuality truly is brazen, looks on ‘pale with emotion and dying of envy.’ This was, she thinks, characteristically, ‘the perfect ideal of coquetry.’ Her appearance once again reveals her character:

Her own naked shoulders, her ivory arms acting as a background for clinging embroidered lace, her back with its vertiginous curves, her bosom, high and strong, exuberant and tempting, had never attracted in this way or in anything like this way the attention and admiration of an entire town, however much she displayed them in ballrooms, theatres, promenades – and processions. [p. 590]

Ana’s ‘two bare feet’ cause more of an erotic sensation in the town than all of Obdulia’s flaunted flesh. She knows she can’t match this ‘cachet’, possessed by ‘admiring envy’ and a kind of ‘crazy, brutal lust’ – in a charge of eroticism she felt ‘a vague desire – to – to – to be a man’. Ana’s sexual appeal transcends gender. And her naked feet ‘were the nakedness of her whole body and soul’ – a kind of sexual synecdoche.

This scene fills several astonishing pages. Mesía, when the statue of the Virgin passes him,  is afraid: that image of ‘infinite pain’ contrasts tellingly with his own thoughts, ‘all profanation and lust’: even he is frightened. He realises Ana is performing a great ‘act of madness’ for Fermín, his currently triumphant spiritual rival, dressed in his habitual ‘rochet, a mote and a cope’, but ‘was going to perform other greater ones for her lover, for Mesía.’

Fermín experiences a similar epiphany to Mesía’s: ‘what little of the clergyman he had left in his soul was disappearing…He was the shell of a priest.’

Here’s the climax of the scene:

‘She’s looking most extraordinarily beautiful!’ the ladies in the balconies of the court-house were saying.

‘Extraordinarily beautiful!’

‘It takes some courage, though.’

‘But then she’s a regular saint.’

‘I think she’s dying the death,’ said Obdulia…She looks like plaster.’

‘I think she’s dying of shame,’ said Visita…

‘Going barefoot was an atrocious thing to do. She’ll be a week in bed with her feet torn to tatters’ [said Doña Rufina].

We see the whole spectrum of town also voicing or showing their cynical, lascivious responses to Ana’s egregious display, until:

The religious masses admired the lady’s humility, without any objections or reservations. ‘That really was what you’d call imitating Christ. Walking along, just like any ordinary person…going barefoot all around the town! She was a saint!’

 The working classes of Vetusta bewilder and appal the bourgeoisie and aristocracy of the city, and serve, as here, with their vulgar but honest vitality and comparative integrity, to show up the hypocrisy of their social betters.

Víctor, Ana’s husband, is horrified by her gesture, and says to Mesía, not knowing about his supposed friend’s intended treachery:

‘Sooner than this, I would prefer to see her in the arms of a lover! Yes, a thousand times yes,’ he continued, ‘find me a lover for her, seduce her for me, anything rather than seeing her in the arms of fanaticism!’…’You can count upon my firm friendship, Don Víctor – a friend in need…[says Mesía, p. 597]

This is one of the most remarkable set pieces in the novel. From this point Ana’s fate is sealed, Víctor’s cuckolding unwittingly given his own blessing, and Mesía can’t believe his luck. By prostrating herself symbolically before the town in an act of fanatical religiosity, Ana has inadvertently confirmed the gossip and opinion, as far as the upper classes are cynically concerned, that she is just as sexually available as the rest of their scheming womenfolk.

Her attempt to find religion and resist venality, as Tom has shown in his posts at Wuthering Expectations blog, is doomed in this toxic city.

 

 

 

A cold and calculating egotism: La Regenta, by Leopoldo Alas

Leopoldo Alas, La Regenta

La Regenta cover

The cover painting on my Penguin edition is an early Picasso: rather striking

 In his first posts on this huge novel, first published in Spain in 1885, and which I read in the John Rutherford translation in Penguin Classics, Tom at Wuthering Heights summarised the plot and began some thoughts about its structure, theme and merits (it was his ‘readalong’ for July). In the second of his posts he linked to a highly perceptive piece by Scott Bailey, which suggests that the adultery theme, influenced by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, is not, as most commentators suggest, the primary one. It’s Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, he argues, that’s the important plot template, as seen in Ana’s struggle with her conflicting impulses towards mystical saintliness and spirituality, on the one hand, and venality and sexuality on the other.

I find this a compelling argument, and will not try to add to it here – except to make a case for parallels with another great 19C novel of spiritually stifling and hypocritically amoral provincial life: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I haven’t thought this through yet, but Scott’s discussion of the significance of St Teresa in La Regenta stirred up memories of the portrayal of Dorothea Brooke as a Midland St Teresa. There are congruent themes, too, of the hypocrisy and corruption of business and of scabrous bourgeois society (and, to a lesser extent, the Church – more critically exposed in the character of the spiritually arid but outrageously vain, pedantic clergyman, Casaubon. Ana’s elderly husband Víctor is less obnoxious, but equally asexual, foolish in his own way, but less forbiddingly unpleasant than Casaubon). I wouldn’t want to push the analogies too far, but my memory of this novel raises several other similarities with the Alas: struggles of faith with Mammon in particular, of the (usually doomed) quest for personal fulfilment in a ‘toxic’, vulgar, secular world that’s ostensibly religious (though Dorothea’s fate is less gruesome than Ana’s).

I don’t know if Alas had read Eliot…

So I’ll leave that thought for now. Instead I’ll look at some representative passages from the text to explore Alas’ style and manner of conveying character, themes and subject matter.

Let’s start with character. Here’s one of the first of many (MANY!) set-piece portraits of one of the huge cast, in this case one of the three major players: Don Fermín De Pas, vicar-general and canon theologian of the cathedral church of Vetusta (an archaic Spanish word for ‘antiquated’ – an unsubtle sign for the conservative, backward-looking provinciality of the city), which is clearly based on the Oviedo in Asturias in which Alas spent much of his adult life (as an academic lawyer and journalist-critic; La Regenta was his first novel, written at the age of 37).

A pair of bell-ringer street urchins had observed him in the street below from their church tower vantage-point. As the man passes by, they admire his legs:

This was real class! Not one stain! The feet were like a lady’s; the hose was purple, like a bishop’s; and each shoe was a work of painstaking craftsmanship in the finest leather, displaying a simple yet elegant silver buckle which looked very splendid against the colour of the stocking. (ch. 1, p. 26)

 Here, in this first character portrait of the novel, the narrative technique is apparent. The opening words, without quotation marks, are clearly the thoughts of the working-class boy – it’s what Rutherford in his introduction calls estilo latente, better known now as free indirect style, and usually associated with Flaubert. Elsewhere in the novel Alas has longer, more nuanced ‘sympathetic projection’ passages in which he does flag up the device with quotation marks. This makes for a disconcerting layer of complexity as the viewpoints shift back and forth frequently between characters and the ironical narrator, often many times within a short space (Rutherford gives examples and explores them). It serves to dramatise the layers of motive in these flawed, hypocritical characters.

There’s humour in this extract, too. The urchin is most impressed by the cleanness of the canon’s appearance; he would of course be mud-spattered or dusty and unwashed himself, and his naivety enables Alas to switch to a more knowing voice in the rest of the paragraph.

Although the comparison with a lady’s feet focalises largely on the boy’s viewpoint, the detail now starts to veer away from his to a voice more akin to that of the worldly, satirical-ironic narrator (more deeply cynical, I suspect, than Alas himself). That long third sentence has a more sophisticated vocabulary than the boy’s, and it introduces us to the more darkly critical, overtly critical portrait of de Pas that follows:

The post-boy was right, De Pas did not use cosmetics.

The denial is a comically transparent indication of the canon’s excessive attention to his appearance, his barely-concealed sensuality that we later learn culminates in his falling passionately in love with the eponymous judge’s wife, Ana. His hypocrisy is drawn, perhaps not always very subtly, but with great gusto, to our attention from the outset. It’s a fundamental factor in the two parallel plots mentioned above. De Pas fails Ana as a spiritual father and mentor, and precipitates her fall into the arms of the handsome Mesía – to whom I hope to turn in a later post.

Let’s complete this exploration of De Pas in this extract.

The most striking thing about the canon theologian’s eyes, which were green with speckles that looked like grains of snuff, was that they seemed as soft, smooth and clammy as lichen; but sometimes a piercing gleam would shoot out from them – an unpleasant surprise, like finding a needle in a feather pillow. Few people could bear that look.

This is fine character sketching, and the comparisons to snuff and lichen are suitably repellent. That De Pas has such a formidable gaze is intended to show how secular and unexpectedly masculine he is for a senior cleric: qualities that conflict with his desire to appear a loving spiritual pastor to his (largely female, adoring) flock.

My problem with Alas is that he doesn’t stop there; the narrative camera pans down his head to his nose, lips then chin, in a mammoth paragraph that almost fills the page of (tiny) print. In case we’ve missed the point – obvious enough, surely – the narrator concludes:

[he had] an expression of prudence verging on cowardly hypocrisy and revealing a cold and calculating egotism. It could be avowed with confidence that those lips guarded like a treasure the supreme word, that word which is never spoken. [We then get more description! His jowl, head, powerful neck…]

Rutherford’s introduction quite aptly compares the indirect style favoured by Alas with Jane Austen’s. But she would rarely ‘tell’ us (rather than show) a character’s nature with such prolix descriptive detail and narrative comment.

That mysterious bit about the ‘supreme word’, though, is terrific and sinister, summing up brilliantly the duplicitous, manipulative ambition of this muscular priest, oozing barely repressed sexuality and male energy.

The paragraph ends by saying that he is physically (and unclerically) ‘robust’ (he’s only 35, and later demonstrates his strength is superior to his rival for Ana’s affection in a way that humiliates Mesía and confirms him as a bitter enemy), comparable with ‘the sprucest gadabout in town’.

He has been set up for us, then, perhaps at too great length, but with flashes of fine writing, as a hypocritical representative of a corrupt church, who’s had sexual dalliances with married ladies in the past, and lusts after Ana in a most unspiritual way (which he disguises with decreasing efficacy as the novel progresses). De Pas is thus a fitting rival to the equally egotistical sexual predator, Mesía, who represents the secular world in his role as serially cynical ‘middle class seducer’ of the ladies of Vetusta.

They’re as odious as each other in their pursuit of sexual and social dominance.

More extracts for discussion next time, with perhaps a glance at another influential text (possibly): Dangerous Liaisons. Meanwhile I’d recommend you take a look at Tom’s three posts so far on La Regenta, and Scott Bailey’s. Links at the start of this post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pessoa, Tabucchi and Swift

I recently spent a few days in Lisbon, and felt completely at home in this charming city, with its steep hills accessed via picturesque, antiquated funiculars and creaky yellow trams.

Pessoa PMC cover When back in Cornwall I thought I’d read some Lisbon-set literature, so turned to my two copies (duplicated by mistake some time ago) of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet: the PMC paperback, with its striking monochrome cover photo, edited and translated by Richard Zenith, and one from Serpent’s Tail, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

Unfortunately I started to flag after a few dozen pages, and gave up less than halfway through. It’s interesting, but an unremittingly bleak accumulation of short, fragmentary passages, rather like a depressive diary, about the sad, lonely life of a clerk in Lisbon in the period 1910 to the 1930s (the narrator is one of Pessoa’s ‘heteronyms’: Bernardo Soares, also a menial clerk in the Baixa commercial district of Lisbon). The MS was found in the form of hundreds of sheets of paper in a trunk in Pessoa’s apartment after his death at the age of 47; most of it was unpublished in his disappointed lifetime. The two versions I dipped into differed considerably in length and content; any edition represents the best guesses of the editor as to how to sequence and present the randomly stashed fragments in the trunk. The PMC edition was double the length of the other, including excellent notes and appendixes – and hence contains twice the quantity of unhappy Soares’s musings on the futility of (his) existence. Not an uplifting read, though there are moments of lyric grace. Here are some samples from early in the Serpent’s Tail edition:

The Serpent's Tail edition

The Serpent’s Tail edition

I reject life because it is a prison sentence, I reject dreams as being a vulgar form of escape. [entry 17]

 

By day I am nothing, by night I am myself. [23]

 

Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life. These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it’s because I have nothing to say. [25]

 

Both objectively and subjectively speaking, I’m sick of myself. I’m sick of everything, and of everything about everything. [33]

So I turned to two other novels: Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (which has nothing to do with Lisbon) and Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira Maintains.

Cover of my Scribner's hardback copy of Mothering Sunday

Cover of my Scribner’s hardback copy of Mothering Sunday

 I bought the Swift after reading several positive reviews: it didn’t disappoint. The first half of this short novel – it’s only 132 pages long — is one of the most erotic passages I’ve read in a work of fiction, but it’s beautiful, not pornographic; the scene in which Jane watches her lover dress while she lies naked on his bed is breathtaking. Like William Boyd in some of his recent novels, Swift has a female narrator, and really convinces with the voice he constructs, and the experiences she relates.

From the outset we know that the young housemaid, a foundling given the name Jane Fairchild by the orphanage in which she grew up, in service in a 1920s country estate, will have to learn to survive her passionate affair with this young heir of a neighbouring estate: he’s about to marry an heiress, so this passionate liaison with Jane is doomed. But all is narrated from the perspective of the Jane’s recalling these events from the end of her very long life years later, after she’s become a best-selling novelist.

The second part of the novel I found less satisfying. Maybe fiction is better when dealing with adversity.

Caspar ignores Tabucchi, considering it perhaps a little highbrow

Caspar ignores Tabucchi, considering it perhaps a little highbrow

Tabucchi was an Italian academic who taught Portuguese studies; Pereira Maintains is the story (again a long novella or short novel) of an overweight Lisbon journalist who writes the culture pages for a second-rate Lisbon paper in 1938 under the fascist regime of Salazar. He’s still grieving for his wife, who died some time earlier – he talks to her photograph more than he does any living person, spending his time alone in his flat or eating endless omelettes and drinking sugary lemonade in his favourite restaurant. In temperament he resembles Pessoa’s existentially anguished Soares.

Into his life comes a radical leftist who writes obituaries of notable radical-artistic figures, which Pereira pays for but consigns to the bin: he’s too timorous to risk printing them in this era of oppression and state censorship. Gradually he comes to learn the importance of commitment and action; being a passive critic of a corrupt and brutal system isn’t enough.

It’s a slow-burning narrative written in a curiously deadpan, detached style. In effect it’s a transcript or testimonial, presumably conveyed by a court reporter who relates dispassionately what Pereira ‘maintains’. The refrain of the title, repeated at the end of every chapter, and frequently within each one, became intrusive and even tiresome, for me.

Pereira Maintains is perhaps more of a curiosity than a modern classic, but the final few chapters build to an intriguing and exciting climax, as we are left unsure which which course of action (or inaction) Pereira will choose as the vicious political system, in which he has lived with placid submissiveness for so long, breaks violently into his complacent world.

I can’t quote from the text because the copy I read was borrowed from a work colleague who’d bought it in a Lisbon bookshop while visiting the city, coincidentally, at the same time as me. I hadn’t known she was going there. I read the book in a few days and returned it to its owner. My picture shows a visiting friend’s natty little schnauzer, Caspar, snoozing on my bed as I took a break from reading.

 

 

Glory and littleness: Robert Walser’s ‘Jakob von Gunten’

On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion…the unmistakeable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings. W. G. Sebald, A Place in the Country (2013), reviewed by me here.

Here is a section from my post on Sebald’s posthumously published collection of essays that dealt with Walser:

The essay on the isolated ‘outsider’ Walser is a poignant mini-masterpiece.  This ‘most unattached of all solitary poets’ is portrayed with delicate, loving sensitivity; we see the ‘precariousness’ of Walser’s existence, his loneliness and ‘virginal innocence’.  At the core of this ‘ragged soul’ was an ‘absence’ that was the source of his ‘unique strangeness’.   Although he was always ‘beset by shadows’, his writings are ‘illumined…with the most genial light’, striving towards ‘weightless[ness]’ in an attempt to ‘obliterate himself’.  He ‘almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself’, he was ‘a clairvoyant of the small’, his thoughts were ‘honed on the tiniest details’ but they became increasingly incomprehensible as his sanity faded, and he tended to ‘get lost in the clouds’ and dissolve into the ‘ephemeral’, into ‘thin air’, heading for the darkness of insanity and a solitary death in the snow one Christmas Day.

 

Robert Walser (1878-1956) grew up in the Swiss border town of Biel. His work was admired by Kafka, Musil, Hesse and Walter Benjamin – a group of artists who no doubt found similar themes to their own in his existentially anguished ‘outsider’ narratives, concealed under a deceptively slight, charming and eccentrically naïve exterior.

Jakob v G Walser cover Jakob von Gunten (first published in German in 1909, translated in 1969 and with an introduction by Christopher Middleton, reissued by NYRB Classics in 1999) seems inspired by Walser’s own experience. It tells the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who runs away from what he feels is a stifling bourgeois home to join a training academy in Berlin for aspiring servants, the Benjamenta Institute, named after its principal, Herr Benjamenta. Walser had attended a similar school in Berlin in 1905, followed by a period of employment as a butler in a castle in Silesia.

The teaching is mostly conducted by the principal’s sister, Lisa. There’s only one class, and the teaching consists largely of rote-learning from a tract called ‘How Should a Boy Behave’; ‘we are not taught anything’, Jakob explains with bland transparency. There appear to be other teaching staff, but they are either absent or asleep – a typically enigmatic situation: it’s difficult to tell throughout this hazy narrative how much is fantasy, dream or some kind of intuited reality as perceived by the eponymous first-person narrator; he writes in an early journal entry:

Sometimes my whole stay here seems like an incomprehensible dream

There’s little in the way of plot. The novel is constructed as a journal, with short, disconnected entries in which Jakob puts down his thoughts, dreams, reflections on the mundane events of the day with his classmates, several of whom recur in different situations. He forms intensely close and bizarrely fluctuating relationships with them (and with everyone else), at times speaking of them as if they were adored intimates, at others with arrogant disdain. Paradoxically, Jakob claims to admire the compliance of the other boys with this unconventional school regime, while at the same time exhibiting tendencies of rebellion and feelings of scornful superiority. By the end, however, he expresses gratitude to the school for transforming him into ‘an ordinary person’, happy to become ‘lost and forgotten somewhere else in life’, a cipher: ‘I don’t want to think of anything.’ Later he says: ‘You’ve no idea what bliss, what grandeur there is in yearning, in waiting.’

He develops a schoolboy crush on Fräulein Lisa, which doesn’t end well, while her brother the principal appears to fall heavily for Jakob. The school’s pupils gradually leave, and there is a sense of inevitable closure by the end of the novel, and we’re left unsure whether the protagonist is set to embark on a life-enhancing adventure with his partner. Or else it’s like Don Quixote riding off into the Mancha with Sancho Panza, a deluded escape from a crushingly banal life of servitude – or a flight into madness.

This is a strange and challenging novel. It can become so superficially inconsequential that I was tempted to put it aside, and then something arresting and strange happens (often inside Jakob’s head, as far as I can tell), and I carried on reading. It gets under the skin despite the apparently inconsequential surface. As Christopher Middleton says poetically in his introduction:

The stylistic invention ranges between maximum abruptness and beautifully timed arabesque dottiness.

With his obsessive narrative accumulations of fantastic mingled with quotidian minuscule details, Walser as a writer resembles the ‘primitive’ style of that other psychically troubled artist, Richard Dadd, rather more than Douanier Rousseau, with whom he is more usually compared. ‘Is this a morgue, or is it a celestial house of joy?’, Jakob muses at one point, in a typically polar opposition.

I’ll finish with an extract to try to illustrate the novel’s unique quality. It will have to be quite long in order to demonstrate these curious qualities in the prose:

What singular oddities we are. Our hair is always neatly and smoothly combed and brushed, and everyone has to cut his own parting up there in the world on his head…That’s how it should be. Partings are also in the rule-book. And because we all look so charmingly barbered and parted, we all look alike, which would be a huge joke for any writer, for example, if he came on a visit to study us in our glory and littleness. This writer had better stay at home. Writers are just windbags who only want to study, make pictures and observations. To live is what matters, then the observation happens of its own accord. Our Fräulein Benjamenta would in any case let fly at such a wandering writer, blown in upon us by rain or snow, with such force that he would fall to the floor at the unfriendliness of the welcome. Then the instructress, who loves to be an autocrat, would say to us, perhaps, “Boys, help the gentleman to pick himself up.” And then we pupils of the Benjamenta Institute would show the uninvited guest the whereabouts of the door. And the morsel of inquisitive authordom would disappear again. No, these are just imaginings. Our visitors are gentlemen who want to engage us boys in their service, not people with quills behind their ears.

Robert Walser

Walser in 1890 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1929 Walser had some kind of mental breakdown (he attempted suicide maybe more than once) and entered the first of the psychiatric clinics in which he was to spend the rest of his life. When he was placed in the Herisau sanatorium in 1933, he stopped writing and spent most of his time on solitary walks.

 

‘The evil in the air was corrupting everybody’: Gamel Woolsey, ‘Death’s Other Kingdom’

When I was studying Spanish at school back in the late 60s, my teacher, who then seemed to me an old man, but who was probably younger than I am now, used to beguile us all with his misty-eyed reminiscences of his youthful days in 30s Spain, which seemed to be spent bathing in icy mountain pools and eating delicious peasant food in country inns. Gamel Woolsey’s autobiographical account of her experiences of the outbreak of Civil War in Andalucía in 1936, and in particular the beginning of the attacks on Malaga, belongs to that same era, when the pastoral tranquillity of the country was shattered irrevocably.

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

Published in 1939, Death’s Other Kingdom is a lyrical and deeply personal record of her feelings and perceptions as the rugged but idyllic village life she shared in Churriana, just outside Malaga (now absorbed into its post-tourist-resort urban sprawl) with her husband, the Hispanist author Gerald Brenan, turned into a nightmare the morning she woke to the news of Malaga burning ‘under a pall of smoke’.

The opening chapter beautifully evokes that pre-war idyll:

It was the most beautiful day of the summer…The sky at dawn was cloudless and the ‘pink band’ of the tropics, the band of rosy light which ascends the sky from the horizon at twilight, rose to the zenith and faded into the growing light. Then the sun rose suddenly with a leap into the air: the long hot southern day had begun.

 It’s a world of placid serenity, when the Brenans did little more, in the summer heat, than ‘bask in the day like lizards, in the shade of the high white garden wall’ which surrounded their big old house with its walls ‘four feet thick’, and its huge garden, ‘gay with bright flowers, immaculate and cool in any weather.’

She describes the place with sensual, poetic fervor:

I always loved waking in Spain. The sun fell in stripes from the slatted shutters on the red and white diamonded tiles of the floor. Noises from the street below floated up; the pattering feet of the milk goats sounded like rain drops…

 More sounds rise up: the ‘melancholy call’ of the fish sellers ‘their hampers full of fresh fish just coming up from the sea on their lean donkeys’ — Sardinas and boqueronis – ‘the food of the poor, the cheapest of fishes.’ Then come the cries of the vendors of ‘grapes fresh and plump’, tomatoes and ‘pimientos gordos’, ‘melons, lettuces and plums, squashes, peaches and pumpkins were passing, a perfect harvest festival going by on donkeys.’

This is the dominant tone of the book: Woolsey’s profound sympathy for village life and the desperately poor rural inhabitants of these remote mountain and coastal pueblos. There are affectionately vivid portraits throughout the book of the Brenans’ domestic staff: Enrique, ‘a gentle, charming young man’, their passionate gardener, and his mother María the ‘severe’ and crotchety but ‘devoted’ cook-housekeeper and her daughter, a ‘melancholy widow’ called Pilar, whose brief experience of romance is cruelly and violently ended, leaving her in sad solitude again.

Woolsey evokes a now largely vanished rural Andalucia:

For a village in Spain is a unity; its inhabitants are like members of a clan, they have a close and indissoluble bond. ‘My village’ is constantly in the mouth of a Spanish countryman. It is more than ‘my country’.

 The villagers view with deep suspicion anyone from a different village, no matter how close; as for the nearby town of Malaga – it’s seen as the abode of evil people.

But when Malaga is set on fire and the air-raids begin, the peace is shattered. Lorries thunder by constantly:

The young men wave their pistols and throw up their clenched fists in a gesture of triumph.

 All is confusion. The ‘Revolution from the Right’ is countered by a ‘Revolution of the Left’. Rumours fly rapidly. Everyone is fearful, most especially of ‘El Tercio’ – the seasoned Foreign Legion ‘worthy of Lucifer’, and its most feared contingent, the Moors, the expectation of whose arrival ‘ran like a cold wave of horror through the countryside’. Patrols enter the house and the countryside looking for enemies. Arrests and imprisonments are commonplace, and summary executions and brutal reprisals from both sides terrify the people. Former friends become mistrustful enemies. Irreparable fissions form in the village’s life. The Brenans are protected from the worst atrocities by their foreignness – Gerald flies a Union Jack over the house and this acts like a lucky charm. But many of their neighbours and friends are less fortunate.

There are vivid descriptions of their visits to Malaga to see for themselves the terrible destruction wrought by the newly erupted Civil War. There are rueful touches of humour: they meet an Englishman in Malaga who regales them with tales of the night the houses around him were torched:

But I suppose it seems worse for British subjects to lose their luggage than lesser races their lives.

 

Most of the narrative relates with grim impartiality the catastrophic impact of the war on the people. A kind of madness grips the civilians, who indulge their ‘uglier instincts’ and take malicious pleasure in spreading stories of atrocities. It’s the ‘pornography of violence’ as she memorably puts it. ‘Hate is the other side of fear’, she suggests, ‘and it was horrible to see and feel this hate-fear rising around us like a menacing sea.’ The people are gripped by the ‘suspicion and bitterness’ that ‘thrive on fear’; ‘the distrust of Spaniards for other Spaniards is bottomless’.

The strangest section of the book is devoted to the Brenans’ providing refuge in their house to the aristocratic family from whom they’d bought it. Well-known supporters of the Falangists, they were in mortal danger if they stayed on in their own estate near the airport, so they accept the offer of a hiding place for their entire family and retinue. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous gesture of generosity, and would have cost the Brenans their lives, foreigners or not, if their guests had been found by the vengeful workers who searched for them and any other Franco supporters. Our sympathies are hardly engaged when Don Carlos, the head of the family, dances with glee on the Brenans’ rooftop as he watches Malaga burn in a fascist air-raid.

Gamel Woolsey (1895-1968) was an interesting character. Born Elizabeth Gammell (her mother’s maiden name; she later shortened it to Gamel and dropped her first name) Woolsey to a wealthy South Carolina plantation owning family, she was brought up with a sense of morality and virtue that are so apparent in this memoir. Her aunt was the author of the Katy books, Susan Coolidge, whose real name was Sarah Chauncey Woolsey.

She had an affair with a member of the literary Powys family, Llewelyn, whom she followed  to England in 1929, settling in Dorset to be near him. There she met Brenan (1894-1987), and left for Spain with him where they settled as man and wife. He had been a member of the Bloomsbury group, and had been romantically involved with Dora Carrington; Gamel was pursued by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Leftist in politics, Brenan had served as one of the youngest British officers in WWI. His terrible experiences there explain some of his responses to the brutal behaviour of some of their Spanish neighbours when the Civil War broke out, and his determination to help the oppressed, whatever their politics or religion.

In Spain they were visited by a stream of eminent artists, including Virginia Woolf, the Partridges (Frances wrote the Introduction to my Virago edition of DOK), Hemingway and V.S. Pritchett.

The book’s title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s Dante-influenced poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925):

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom

Remember us – if at all – not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men…

 ‘Death’s other kingdom’ is one of three of death’s kingdoms in the poem, and it relates to that heavenly zone entered by those who have left behind a state of spiritual nothingness (in hell or purgatory) and entered into an enlightened state of knowledge where they are capable of seeing the inner truth. The hollow men are those who fail to reach such heights. Eliot was one of Gamel’s favourite poets (she was primarily a poet herself, though she published very little verse or prose in her lifetime), and the line’s significance for her memoir is apt: it could signify the higher truth to which she felt those who experienced war should aspire, rather than the hypocrisy, lies and deception that so many around her (the hollow men) wallowed in when hostilities broke out, who lost sight of their morals and values.

 

Alfred Hayes, Salinger and Bananafish

Work has been all-consuming so far this term, so although I’ve found time to do some reading – most recently and notably Alfred Hayes’ taut, harsh little novel of 1958, My Face for the World to See, published in their usual handsome covers by those splendid folk at NYRB (I can’t write about it here because I impulsively lent it to someone, and would want to quote from Hayes’ style: he can write). I’ve just started Kate Atkinson’s sequel to Life After Life (2013), A God in Ruins, but doubt I’ll write about it here as I didn’t much care for the first one, interesting as it was in parts; I found it what I think film buffs call too ‘high concept’ in structure and content. Why read it? It was lent to me, so would be churlish not to. The sequel is more of the same thing, if the first 70 pages that I’ve read are anything to go by. Entertaining enough, though.

I just listened to the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘A Good Read’ – which I included in Pt 3 of my list of recommended podcast-programmes back in the summer and enjoyed the discussion by Julia Blackburn, whose choice this book was (good taste), and David Morrissey, of JD Salinger’s short story collection For Esmé — With Love and Squalor. (Link to the programme HERE.) I posted about this book in the early days of my blog, so thought it wouldn’t be amiss if I recycled part of it here now, in the hope that, if you missed it first time round, you might feel inspired to give this early Salinger a try. It’s sublime. Here’s an extract:

Most of the stories in this collection concern war and its effects on individuals, and the traumatised memories of post-war Americans.  Even when its presence isn’t directly felt, the war has created in the characters in the stories a damaged, questing quality; as we saw in Franny and Zooey, most of them seek solace in oriental mysticism.

Some (usually children) find enlightenment; others are thwarted.  The opening epigraph to the book is the famous Zen koan – what is the sound of one hand clapping?  This serves as the theme of the collection: how to transcend or deal with mundane reality when in contact with the dulling, deadening effect of what Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and members of the Glass family in other stories call ‘phoniness’.

The opening story, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ sets the tone with the story of Seymour Glass’s suicide in 1948 while on holiday at a Florida beach hotel with his shallow bourgeoise wife Muriel.  In the opening section there’s Salinger’s usual technique on show: Muriel chats distractedly on the phone with her mother – there’s minimal authorial intrusion or commentary.  This is typical of Salinger’s fiction: characters talking.  In this way he shows us their foibles, weaknesses and strengths without having to tell us what’s going on.

In the story’s second section we see Seymour, about whose mental health Muriel’s mother had been expressing (not very sympathetically) concern to her daughter, chatting on the beach with a small girl called Sybil.  Unlike the women’s selfish talk, Seymour shows himself as sensitive and charmed by Sybil’s innocent prattle.  He teases her gently about the fictitious titular fish, telling her they eat so much they get too bloated to escape from the holes they enter on the seabed, causing their own deaths.  The shocking denouement echoes this jolly, innocent narrative, told to amuse and entertain the girl, in a chilling, existentially tortured way.

The whole post can be read by clicking HERE, and there are links there to the other Salinger titles I’ve posted about. Do read him if you haven’t already.

 

Giacomo Leopardi, ‘Zibaldone’, Kerouac and Jackson Pollock

 

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone

My copy

My copy

One of the 19C’s most radical and challenging thinkers and poets (his Canti and moral works influenced Walter Benjamin and Beckett), Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) for most of his writing career kept adding entries to an immense notebook, whose Italian title translates as ‘hodgepodge’, miscellany or commonplace book – in previous posts I’ve considered similar ‘Florilegia’ and Chrestomathies (by the likes of Chamfort). Here he recorded his thoughts, impressions, philosophical musings and aphoristic responses to his reading (not just in Italian, but Latin, Greek, Hebrew and other European languages) initially in his isolated house in a village in the Marche, and subsequently elsewhere in Italy. There’s an excellent Introduction by the editors, which provides an illuminating account of his life and work, and the social-political-cultural world in which he operated. It’s also placed in the context of the ars excerpendi: the 16-17C techniques of ‘filing and rationally organising knowledge in catalogues and indexes.’ The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin, with its ‘convolutes’, is a similar enterprise.

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino. Translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon et al.  Penguin Books, hardback (2013)

1900 Florence edition

In this Introduction there’s a fascinating account of how the MS, hidden away until the turn of the 19-20C, came to light and began to appear in Italian editions, but failed to make much of an impression, so extraordinary and original was its content, so wide-ranging in subject-matter – which tended towards a rejection of high-Romantic idealism and optimism in favour of a more nihilistic world view.

Filling more than 4,500 pp in MS, and 2,502 in this handsome Penguin edition (it’s printed on ultra-thin paper), its focus is the 16-year period 1817-1832, although much of it was completed by 1823, when Leopardi was just 25. It’s the product of his egregious erudition and polymath mind, which was enabled to develop in his aristocratic father’s extensive library, and later in the literary-philosophical Italy of his day.

It would be virtually impossible to ‘review’ this enormous repository of random allusions and dialogues with other texts. Here I shall mention just one entry that recently took my fancy. It’s a book to be dipped into, rather than read in a linear way. One could imagine it lending itself to bibliomancy. I may well revisit it in this way another time (and perhaps the Benjamin text, too, another favourite of mine).

The section that caught my attention appears on p. 88 of this edition, numbered 94-95 by the editors. Here Leopardi is discussing the advantages of being polyglot: it ‘affords some greater facility and clarity on the way we formulate our thoughts, for it is through language that we think’:

Now, perhaps no language has enough words and phrases to correspond to and express all the infinite subtleties of thought. The knowledge of several languages and the ability, therefore, to express in one language what cannot be said in another…makes it easier for us to articulate our thoughts and to understand ourselves, and to apply the word to the idea, which, without that application, would remain confused in our mind.

This is a sentiment of profound good sense, though many would disagree. He goes on to say he has experienced this phenomenon frequently:

…and it can be seen in these same thoughts, written with the flow of the pen, where I have fixed my ideas with Greek, French, Latin words, according to how for me they responded more precisely to the thing, and came most quickly to mind.

Leopardi,_Giacomo_(1798-1837)_-_ritr._A_Ferrazzi,_Recanati,_casa_LeopardiThe editors’ note to this section (the emphasis is mine) points out that Leopardi makes clear here that he writes his diary a penna corrente – ‘with the flow of the pen’, or senza studio. I find these expressions particularly felicitous – and perfect examples of what he said earlier about the ability of one language to fix an idea more concisely and expressively than another: ‘a penne corrente’ is so much more satisfying a concept than the prosaic English translation ‘quickly’; ‘senza studio’ more mellifluous than ‘unreflectingly’.

It is in this spirit that I’ve written some of my blog posts, including this one (and the previous post on Fred Titmus and Liz Taylor), whereas I usually draft them – though it probably doesn’t seem that way to readers – with great care.

I recently attended an academic conference at Birkbeck College, University of London, on the subject of ‘action writing’: the improvised free-form style favoured by Jack Kerouac and others of his generation, pioneered in music by the jazz musicians of the preceding years, and by Jackson Pollock’s ‘action painting’. How intriguing to find in the Zibaldone an advocate of this Zen attitude to artistic creation…

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino. Translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon et al.

Penguin Books, hardback (2013)

 

Vision animates: John Harvey, ‘The Poetics of Sight’

John Harvey, The Poetics of Sight. Peter Lang, Bern, 2015. Paperback, 309pp. (Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts, 25)

I have recently written here about the excellent literary-cultural studies by John Harvey of the colour black and here about clothes. Last year I included several pieces on his novel about Ruskin, Millais and Effie Gray, The Subject of a Portrait.

Harvey Poetics bk cover Lang siteThe Poetics of Sight is ‘an intermittent history of culture’s “visual turn” through the last four hundred years’, during which time the subject of sight itself has become, until quite recent years, of primary literary and artistic concern. This book is mostly about the visual life of poetry and prose fiction and ‘about the poetic life of pictures’. Writing within the tradition of comparing pictures with poetry – ‘Ut pictura poesis’ – that stretches ‘from Horace to Hagstrum’, Dr Harvey focuses on the hitherto relatively neglected ‘human sense of sight’ in this debate, and in particular on the concept of the ‘visual metaphor’.

 

In his Introduction he mentions how memories (like dream images) are often ‘momentary and fragmentary’ – the Proustian epiphanies of memory evoked initially by that novelist’s famous childhood madeleines, but then more revealingly by paintings and visual representations in the sequence of novels.

Neuroscientists point out, Dr Harvey explains, how our way of seeing isn’t static but ‘saccadic’: our eyes dart here and there over what we perceive in order to create and maintain an understanding of what it is: this enables us to identify what we see. This is a consequence of evolution – it’s of great advantage to a predator (or predator’s target) to be able to distinguish quickly and accurately what’s dangerous from what’s edible.

In a short review I can’t possibly do justice to the detailed and scrupulous consideration Harvey gives to a wide range of visual and literary artefacts; his analysis, to give just one example, of Titian’s paintings of Venus – two of the nine colour plates in the book; there are 36 monochrome illustrations — is inspiring – though I’d recommend accessing the images online: it’s helpful to be able to zoom in on the details he assesses.

He begins with a chapter on Shakespeare’s ‘visual imaginings’ and the pictures by artists inspired by the plays. Then he turns to the uneven art of Blake, with its ‘element of wilful deprivation’ which is ‘a challenge to taste at any time’ as he strove to ‘keep his vision pure and Eternal’– but which is, at its best, sublime, like Blake’s best poetry.

Here we encounter one of the most interesting recurring themes in the book: the role of the metaphor in art. It is part of Blake’s extraordinary and eccentric genius that he ‘makes the poetic part of visual art stronger and easier to see.’

In his next chapter Harvey carefully examines the ‘migrations of satire’s scurrilous muse [wonderful phrase!] back and forth between visual and verbal art’, with attention to such figures as Gillray and Cruikshank, Pope and Dryden. Here too the ‘slow historic change’ involved the ‘visual or the pictorial “turn”’ that satire took over the centuries, in line with the growing fashion for the ‘picturesque’. When the fashion for satiric verse died out, it re-emerged in the novel, and subsequently in film.

For me the most interesting sections of the book are those which deal with the novel (and there’s a superbly perceptive chapter on ‘metaphor and modernism’, and the ‘double metaphor’ of visual representation in the flat two-dimensional plane of a painting or photo).

The early novelists ‘saw no reason to tarry over a sight unless it was remarkable, and in reading them one’s auditory imagination is at least as busy as one’s visual imagination.’

It’s only in the early nineteenth century that the novel ‘opens its eyes and aspires to a continuous visualization.’ Harvey shows how Austen pays little attention to the visual compared with Dickens, Thackeray and the high Victorian novelists, about whom he writes with subtlety, authority and insight: he moves from fictional landscapes in words to the importance of portraits on the walls of fictional characters’ houses – initially those of the aristocracy, then increasingly in those of the bourgeoisie. The wealthy figure in the portrait intimidated its viewer with its complacently land-owning gaze.

Dr Harvey has published extensively on the illustrations in Victorian literary works, and it is not surprising that he is particularly strong on this topic here – Dickens’s illustrators’ achievements, for example, are explored for their symbiotic relationship with the narrative. But it’s not an academic study for its own sake: he is able to show how they reflect the growing interest of novelists in the concept of watching and seeing, and of related themes like clairvoyance and blindness, light and dark (literal and metaphorical):

Because Dickens’s feeling is more laden his visual details work as emotional metaphors.

George Eliot, we see, is acutely sensitive to the ‘the physique’ and the body of her characters, a visual awareness he calls ‘the classic optics of the novel.’

The modernists became uneasy with this highly realist visual approach, both in painting and its sister art, literature. The move from impressionism through to abstract expressionism is traced alongside the novel’s development, which began to show more affinities with the metonymy of photography and film than with painting (‘I am a camera’), with movement, a ‘visual dynamic’ found, for example, in Harvey’s analysis of Virginia Woolf’s work, where the ‘point of view’

dances from consciousness to consciousness in an almost cinematic way, swooping and zooming, tracking one person till they pass another when all the individuals are themselves in motion, while also slipping rapidly between outward sight and inner picturings.

As I did with his other non-fiction works, I particularly liked Harvey’s ability to argue his case in lucid, elegant prose, as I hope the extracts I have briefly quoted so far indicate. Notice his wittily revealing (nuanced, not ostentatious) use of visual metaphors in his exposition (the novel ‘opens its eyes’; POV ‘dances’; Dickens’s ‘laden’ feeling), for example. And there’s his usual mastery of prose rhythm and the well-turned sentence to express his argument with considered authority.  His scholarship is judiciously deployed.

He’s especially good at showing how writers ‘examine the nature of memory and time’; this resulted in the most recent generations of writers favouring the present tense. Given our tendency in real life to look with ‘fugitive, almost subliminal glimpses’ at the world around us, in literature this results in ‘durable, examinable’ public forms. The Poetics of Sight doesn’t explore the short stories of Raymond Carver, but I find this American writer is a master of the narrative of glimpses, the sideways look or oblique point of view, what in this book is called ‘fiction’s long tradition of indirect visualization.’

I’d be interested to see a lengthier account by Dr Harvey of Henry James’s place in this discussion of art and literature: there are a few tantalising glimpses that whet the appetite for more.

For now, I commend this book to you: it’ll change the way you read.

 

Mine was a review copy sent by the publishers, from whose website the image of the book’s cover is taken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Calumnies and persecutions’: Denis Diderot, ‘The Nun’

‘The cloistered life is that of a fanatic or a hypocrite.’

I’ve reached that happy time of year when my teaching commitments are almost over and I have some space in which to read and write. Having posted already this week on John Harvey’s social-cultural-philosophical study Clothes I felt inspired to join that doughty band of bloggers (like Kaggsysbookishramblings – her excellent blog is HERE) who post more prolifically than I can manage, yet are able to maintain admirably high standards of entertaining, well-written posts on their scarily voracious reading (where do they find the time?!) – don’t know if I can reach their level, but here goes with a second post this week.

thumb_IMG_2796_1024Denis Diderot’s (sort of) epistolary novel La Religieuse was first published in 1796, but started as early as 1760 (more on that later) which I read in the Penguin Classics version The Nun, translated by Leonard Tancock. I seem to recall buying it after reading Malcolm Bradbury’s final novel, To the Hermitage, published shortly before he died (too young at just 68) – a delightfully irreverent but highly intelligent response to the life and work of Diderot, and in particular of his sojourn at the St Petersburg court of tsarina Catherine II, who had invited him to curate her library and art works at what is now the Hermitage museum. There’s a review here from the online journal Études Anglaises. I enjoyed it when I read it over ten years ago. In the light of the TBR20 movement started by Eva Stalker I resolved finally to pick up The Nun and remove it from my pile of unread books (the TBR pile as it’s called on the Interweb).

The main difficulty was, I didn’t really enjoy the novel that much.

It began as a hoax. Diderot (1713-84) was the archetypal Enlightenment philosophe, a

First edition of Encyclopédie, 1751

First edition of Encyclopédie, 1751

scientific materialist and polymath humanist with strongly anti-Catholic views, which are apparent throughout this novel. He was most famous as the main editor of the Encyclopédie – a vast ‘dictionnaire raisonné’ of all human knowledge at the time, which began to appear in 1751.

 

One of his circle of Paris friends of eminent thinkers and writers was the Marquis de Croismare, who had recently retired from the capital to his country estate in Normandy. Diderot missed his affable company, so in order to lure him back to the city he made use of a scandalously notorious incident of 1758; a nun had petitioned the Marquis to intervene on her behalf in her attempt to revoke her religious vows and leave the convent (to which she’d been condemned against her will by her parents) for the outside world.

Diderot started writing to the Marquis a sequence of letters in the name of another such desperate nun, Suzanne Simonin. Adopting this fictitious persona he constructed a scenario in which she’d escaped from the miserable cruelty of her convent, to which she too had been condemned by her parents.

The plan went wrong. Instead of the desired outcome – the return of the Marquis to Paris to facilitate Suzanne’s liberation – he offered her asylum and a job on his country estate, and stayed put. Eventually Diderot had to send letters to the Marquis telling him ‘Suzanne’ had died. Later, over a period of years, he worked the original material into a full-length novel, but it wasn’t published in its final form until after his death in 1796, and of course after the Revolution which some of his works had contributed towards fermenting.

The Nun takes the form of a curious hybrid: letters addressed to the Marquis petitioning his support (paid employment and asylum), but also a sort of autobiography or memoir in which Suzanne describes her cruel banishment to cloistered incarceration by her heartless parents, followed by her experiences in the religious houses to which she was confined.

It’s not all gothic gloom; at first she is treated with loving kindness by a saintly Mother Superior. When she dies, it all goes horribly wrong. The new Superior is jealously tyrannical in her persecution of her predecessor’s former favourites. Convents are portrayed here as unholy hotbeds of hypocrisy, corruption and persecution, with an unhealthy atmosphere that generates madness, idolatry (or fear) of superiors, bullying, calumnies and febrile sexual depravity. Just look at the cover image above…

Suzanne takes her vows in a weird sort of fugue trance – a characteristically unconvincing scene. Her later attempts to renounce the veil are met with cruel vengefulness: she’s systematically exposed to mental and physical torture, solitary confinement and ostracism. She often contemplates suicide.

Unfortunately I found the prose indigestible. I’m sure the translator did a good job, but 18C French can be pretty stodgy. And the relentlessly victimised Suzanne has a voice that generally comes across as inconsistent and implausibly literary. Here she is on the opening page, explaining her purpose in writing:

…I have made up my mind to overcome my pride and reluctance and embark on these recollections in which I shall describe part of my misfortunes without talent or artifice, with the ingenuousness of a girl of my age and with my natural candour.

 

Like so many gothic narratives of swooning female victims in menacing cloistered environments (there’s a touch of Clarissa’s influence there, too, perhaps; Richardson’s novel was published in 1748), there’s an unsavoury prurience apparent. The narrator’s constant reminders of her youth, innocence and natural piety become tiresomely strident, and the mistreatment she endures with either stoical submissiveness or passive resistance becomes a catalogue of sado-masochism verging on torture porn that the underlying socio-political message fails to justify.

After one particularly vicious campaign against her, for example, Suzanne reveals her wounds to her superiors; she then melodramatically addresses her putative aristocratic reader –

I can hear you, Sir, and most of those who read these memoirs, saying: ‘So many horrors, so varied and so continuous! A series of such calculated atrocities in religious souls! It defies all probability!’

 

Quite so. And just who are we meant to understand constitute her readers? Not just the Marquis, then, but ‘memoir’ readers. It doesn’t add up.

I have a similar problem with the sexual aspects of Suzanne’s revelations. At one stage she’s accused of what is clearly signalled as masturbation and lesbianism, but her coyly euphemistic account overbalances into unintentional humour:

I was credited with intentions I dare not mention, and unnatural desires to which they attributed the obvious disarray of the young nun [who had just fled screaming from her]. Of course I am not a man, and I don’t know what can be imagined about one woman and another, still less about one woman alone, but as my bed had no curtains, and people came in and out of my room at all hours, what can I say, Sir? For all their circumspect behaviour, their modest eyes and the chastity of their talk, these women must be very corrupt at heart – anyway they know that you can commit indecent acts alone, which I don’t know, and so I have never quite understood what they accused me of…

 Really? You either know or you don’t. This is equivocation that begins to resemble the genre of a bawdy Carry On film.

Credibility is strained even more when her last Superior engages in a series of intimate

Portrait of Diderot by Greuze, 1767. Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Diderot by Greuze, 1767. Wikimedia Commons

Sapphic trysts with her that culminate in what is clearly orgasm – which again Suzanne claims she doesn’t understand (‘I jumped up, thinking she had fainted…’) She thinks her Superior was simply taken ill!

This novel has a certain amount of interest as a blast from the Age of Reason against clerical hypocrisy, but as a novel it fails to satisfy.

Next time – before too long, I hope – I intend to return to the topic of the TBR pile. This attempt wasn’t entirely rewarding.