Henry James, ‘The Point of View’

A version of this piece was posted at the Mookse and Gripes website on 9 April.

Henry James wrote two stories in epistolary form: the first was ‘A Bundle of Letters’, published in the expat magazine The Parisian in 1879; the second was ‘The Point of View’, which appeared in 1882. James takes full of advantage in both tales of the scope for ironic presentation of the letter-writers’ antithetical impressions of travelling American and European characters, of the nations through which they pass, and of the people they encounter. He mischievously counterpoints their disparaging or effusive viewpoints with those of the characters they profile.

Several of the characters in these stories appear in both tales, as well as in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, about which I wrote here (on the Mookse and Gripes site, and at this blog here). The three stories tended to be published together, along with ‘An International Episode’ (about which I wrote here and here), representing as they did the ‘international theme’ that dominated James’s fiction for so long.

I shall focus on Aurora Church, who was chafing under the controlling grip of her mother in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’. Mrs Church anticipated this sequel by saying in the earlier story, when explaining to the young narrator why she preferred Europe to America, for herself and her daughter:

 ‘And I wish,’ she continued…’that I could give you our point of view. Don’t you wish, Aurora, that we could give him our point of view?’

‘Yes, mamma,’ said Aurora.

‘We consider ourselves very fortunate in our point of view…’

 

At the Pension Beaurepas in Geneva Aurora befriended her compatriot, the spendthrift Sophie Ruck. She found the hierarchical society and customs of Europe – that her mother so admired – cloying, and despaired of the maternal plan to find her an aristocratic European husband.

‘The Point of View’ consists of eight letters dated 1880. The first and last are by Aurora. In the opening letter she writes to another young American woman expat (in Paris) about her arrival at New York City on a transatlantic liner. Here we see the approach James took in both these epistolary tales: she presents her correspondent with her intimate, vivid impressions of the places she visits and the people she meets. She explains that she has finally persuaded her sceptical mother to allow her to come to America and has just three months in which to find a suitable (i.e. rich) husband.

Aurora is acrid about her mamma’s oppressive regime: she was ‘dreadfully severe’ on the voyage out to Europe when she was only five, and ‘is severe to this day; only I have become indifferent; I have been so pinched and pushed – morally speaking.’

Aurora in Europe craved and envied the freedom of ‘the American girl’. Now she has her chance. As her name suggests, she is at the dawn of a new life, or so she hopes.

Not surprisingly she is delighted to find herself delivered from the stifling confinements of Europe: ‘I have never had so much liberty in my life,’ she says. Mamma, equally unsurprisingly, is less sanguine, as Aurora explains with her customary blend of levity and asperity:

 She is not in a hurry to arrive; she says that great disillusions await us. I didn’t know that she had any illusions – she’s so stern, so philosophic. She is very serious.

 

Mamma had realised that the dowerless Aurora ‘should never marry in Europe’. We can see in such extracts the dry ironic humour of which these stories are full. The characters unwittingly reveal their weaknesses and partialities, their selfishness and prejudices.

In passing Aurora lets slip that ‘the poor little Rucks’ – including her erstwhile friend Sophie – ‘are bankrupt’. We never hear their fate, but must assume the worst. Aurora, who had only nurtured the friendship for her own ends, seems callously unperturbed.

She goes on to describe some of the other passengers, whose own ‘points of view’ we shall be privy to in subsequent letters. The Europeans largely find America brash, vulgar and over-indulgent towards its young people; the Americans’ views we shall see. As in the earlier ‘A Bundle of Letters’ there is much sardonic humour to enjoy as we see the writers’ contrasting or conflicting views of each other exposed in the acerbic confessional manner that a letter to an intimate friend or relative allows. James’s evident pleasure in matching the correspondents’ style to their character is infectious.

The main romantic interest in this story is embodied in Aurora’s suitors on the ship: the aesthete Louis Leverett (who also features in ‘A Bundle of Letters’, where once again he is attracted to an interestingly picturesque young woman, a flirtation which he languidly tires of) and the ‘roaring Yankee’, Marcellus Cockerell. (Their names are aptly chosen.) Each of these young men expresses in his letters the extreme opposite views of all things American and European, and as Aurora approvingly suggests to her friend, ‘They have a particular aversion to each other, and they are ready to fight about poor little me.’ But despite this coquettish pride, she’s also realistic:

 I am not crazy about either of them. They are very well for the deck of a ship, but I shouldn’t care about them in a salon; they are not at all distinguished. They think they are, but they are not…I should get dreadfully tired of passing my life with either…au fond they don’t quite believe in me.

 

This viewpoint is presented without comment, of course, given the epistolary nature of the story, and this is its distinctive feature. Aurora displays here the kind of incisive analytical detachment of the author himself, but he causes her to express herself so clinically (and accurately) that I find her attractively intelligent and percipient, but also (understandably) a little vain.

Still there is the usual Jamesian interest in the travails of a young woman engaged in the necessary pursuit of a husband capable of satisfying her own intelligence as well as the demands of a pressing social system in which she lacks autonomy. James has an extraordinary understanding of the contradictory innocence and dogmatism, exacting standards (her mother says Aurora is insistent she would marry no foreigner who was not ‘one of the first of the first’) and indulgent lassitude of such a vivacious young woman as Aurora, with her native American sensibilities influenced by the atrophied Europe in which she has been raised. She knows mamma expects her to marry no American whose ‘pecuniary situation’ fails to meet her expectations.

Leverett is a Jamesian Europhile. He detests being back in crudely democratic America, where all is monotonously plain, tepid and mediocre; Europe for him has exciting extremes of beauty and ugliness. James has him write in a louche, affected style to highlight his self-consciously aesthetic pose:

 I feel so undraped, so uncurtained, so uncushioned…A terrible crude glare is over everything; the earth looks peeled and excoriated; the raw heavens seem to bleed with the quick, hard light.

 

He would agree with Mrs Church’s dismissal of America as ‘the country of the many’; she adds in her letter –

 In this country the people have rights, but the person has none.

 

The American citizen, she complains to Mme Galopin, ‘is recognized as a voter, but he is not recognized as a gentleman – still less as a lady.’

 

But it’s James’s sly revelations about the intentions of Aurora’s two admirers that are so engaging in this story. Leverett is shown in his letter to be self-absorbed, and interested in Aurora mostly because she has the good taste (as he sees it) to listen to him attentively. He ungallantly concludes, as he decides to drop her, that she ‘almost understood’ him!

 

Cockerel, on the other hand, derides the very places and people of Europe that the Europhile correspondents admire. It’s this witty symmetry that is one of the main strengths of this admittedly rather slight story. Although he finds Aurora a ‘rather interesting girl’, his attentions are insincere – he knows he could never marry such an impoverished young woman; besides, as he confides to his sister in his letter, ‘She has been spoiled by Europe’ – a taint he would never be able to ignore.

 

Mrs Church confides in her letter that Aurora accuses her of giving her a ‘false education’ in Europe so that she is not considered marriage material: ‘No American will marry her, because she is too much a foreigner, and no foreigner will marry her, because she is too much of an American.’

 

James is careful to balance his characters’ barbed accounts, however. Cockerel, rudely dismissed by Leverett as a ‘strident savage’, sums up his homeland’s superiority to Europe:

 

We are more analytic, more discriminating, more familiar with realities. As for manners, there are bad manners everywhere, but an aristocracy is bad manners organized.

 

Read this story for these opinionated, stylized, often Wildean outpourings of epigrammatic bigotry and insight. In this group of related stories he strove to show nuanced gradations of viewpoint in his representatives of each nation. This didn’t prevent the first reviewers from finding this story distastefully unpatriotic towards America.

 

Read it too for Aurora’s final letter, which rounds off beautifully all that’s gone before. Here we see a glimpse of the profound sympathy James demonstrates for his young female characters. He had recently completed The Portrait of a Lady, which began to be serialized in 1880. That full-length novel is the masterpiece of his early period, a fully developed account of the ‘engaging young [American] woman’ whose choices are misguided, yet she persists in ‘affronting her destiny’. James’s concern is with the ways in which Isabel Archer continues the attempt, in a naughty world, to make her own choices and learn to live with the consequences, always striving for a kind of liberty.

 

There is much to admire also, however, in these thematically similar miniatures: Aurora is in some ways Isabel Archer without the windfall fortune. See what you make of Aurora’s apparent destiny at the end of ‘The Point of View’.

John Harvey on the Colour Black

Men in Black, Reaktion Books, London 1995

The Story of Black, Reaktion Books, London 2013

 Even when brilliant, rich, powerful women have worn magnificent black in the past, they have usually needed the pretext of mourning to do so. And what has seemed to me a curious point of interest for study is the way which, through time, the use of this colour – the colour that is without colour, without light, the colour of grief, of loss, of humility, of guilt, of shame – has been adopted in its use by men not as the colour of what they lack or have lost, but precisely as the signature of what they have: of standing, goods, mastery…It relates to the relations between people in society, and to the relations between men and women; and to the way in which people display externally what in some ways is a ‘dark’ interior of human motivation.

 

This is John Harvey in his introduction to the first of these two fascinating studies of the colour black. In Men in Black he goes on to examine how and why black became the default colour of dress for men, associated with the world of work and professional dignity, contrasting with women who tended to wear white (or various other hues from the colour spectrum) – often in ‘vicarious display by men’; most jobs were ‘closed to women’. The period of black dominance in clothing for men dates largely from the early nineteenth century until shortly after the First World War.

 But both black and white are colours of denial; and what they deny is colour.

Thereafter it became the colour of Chanel’s little dress. In the 1930s it represented for the fascists the ‘most complete and intense way of marking off a group of people from the polychrome ordinary mass’. Himmler, the head of Hitler’s terrifying SS, admired ‘the disciplinary principles on which the Jesuits were organized, and was called by Hitler his Ignatius Loyola.’ More recently it has become the colour of rebellion and youth, from bikers and beatniks to punks, goths and emos.

John Harvey, Men in BlackAlthough men have in the past of course worn all kinds of colours, these books trace the reasons for the shift to sombre black clothes, with a focus on the representation of black in art and literature. Baudelaire is quoted as saying of the frock-coat:

 ‘Is it not the inevitable uniform of our suffering age, carrying on its very shoulders, black and narrow, the mark of perpetual mourning? All of us are attending some funeral or other.’

He also remarked that ‘a uniform livery of grief is a proof of equality’; as Harvey points out, ‘For Baudelaire, black, like death itself, was a leveller.’

John Harvey, The Story of Black These are scholarly but lavishly illustrated works and furnished with copious academic notes, but as that opening extract I hope shows, the texts are written in highly engaging prose, with carefully modulated, elegant sentence structure and, despite the formidable erudition, an accessible style and enthusiastic tone that encourage the reader to devour the text greedily.

Both books are packed with well-researched detail. As Dr Harvey is a literary scholar there is not surprisingly an emphasis on the literary aspects of the significance of the colour black: there are long sections on Victorian literature in particular, with perceptive accounts of Dickens’ dark cities and their inhabitants, and, for example, the saturnine characters in Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot.

Last year I reviewed John Harvey’s excellent novel The Subject of a Portrait, which is about the relationships between John Ruskin, his young wife Effie Gray, and the artist Millais, with whom Effie fell in love. There are supplementary posts by Michael Flay here and by Dr Harvey himself here (where he discusses his novel in the light of the film ‘Effie Gray’, about this triangle of Victorian characters, that was about to be released at the time of the post). Ruskin believed that the Victorian climate was changing as a result of a malignant ‘plague-wind’ of darkness, and that this ‘moral gloom’ was connected with the pollution – real and metaphorical – of industry, and in turn with ‘blasphemy’, ‘iniquity’ and social injustice – and Empire. Victorian morality was founded upon inequality and fear, and on ‘a terrifying faith’. On p. 169 of Men in Black the Millais portrait of Ruskin that features on the cover of Harvey’s novel is again reproduced. This is what he says about it:

 Ruskin is keen but cold like the water, and indeed was himself so damaged by strains of the most intimate British asceticism that he was unable to be a husband to his wife…There are elements of personal pathology in Ruskin’s obsession with the plague-cloud, as possibly there are in Dickens’s darkness: but their pathologies were of their culture, involving as it were ethical injury, and sensitized them to a greater pathology.

 

Elegantly and eloquently expressed. I particularly like that phrase ‘ethical injury’: it sums up succinctly the personality of the enigmatic Ruskin.

I was surprised to discover in Men in Black that dandies like Beau Brummel tended to favour tight-fitting, well-cut black clothes rather than peacock displays, at least at night.

What I found so interesting about these two books is that they take a topic as mundane as the colour black – one which I for one had never really paid much heed to; it’s rather like what’s been said about Jane Austen’s novels: she doesn’t mention the domestic arrangements of the country houses in her fiction because the maids are taken for granted, invisible. That’s how I was with the colour black. These books have enlightened and enthused me.

In Men in Black we learn that dandyism ‘played with discipline, and self-discipline, and the style was, not surprisingly, popular with the military’ – Brummel had been a captain in the Hussars (what a splendid name), and Wellington was thought a dandy.

 Wellington in turn had to reprimand the officers of the Grenadier Guards for riding into battle, on a day of foul weather, with their umbrellas raised.

 

There are sections on black as the colour of ‘self-effacement’, especially in religious contexts – although Christian priests had originally tended to wear white. Nevertheless black gradually became the predominant colour of dress for ascetics, hermits, then monks, friars, Jesuits and priests:

 A perfection of self-denial may make one holy, a person to be heeded with reverence and awe: and black, as the colour of power over oneself, has come to be associated with impressive, intense inwardness.

 

Another felicitously expressed sentence.

Then black is associated with the melancholy lover, and with melancholy in general – the ‘black bile’ of the ancient lore of the bodily ‘humours’; Hamlet is a key figure here (‘a man whose black clothes, finally, are the dress of his dark ontology’) and Robert Burton’s encyclopedic Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621.

Black also became the colour favoured by merchants, especially Calvinist Protestants in the London business community; ‘pious asceticism’, as Weber suggests, is connected with capital. Also, perhaps, it was associated with trustworthiness, fair dealing: ‘Black is serious and means business’ –

 But black is a paradoxical colour, ostentatious through the show it makes of renouncing ostentation. The man in black can sidestep the social staircase because he seems to take his stand on a moral stair instead, and indeed to take the high ground precisely through humility.

 

Other areas explored by Harvey include black as a skin colour, and social/literary attitudes to ‘négritude’ – in Othello, for example. Devils (and the devil), of course, were also frequently depicted as black.

The extracts I have quoted are an indication of the elegant lucidity of Harvey’s writing, as well as of his capacity for conveying a great deal of information in a manner that is as rewarding as a well-written, pacy novel.

Men in Black concludes that the social significance of black is polysemous, ‘because all statements made by clothes are ambiguous, and even one colour will have different meanings’; but the dominant meaning of the widespread use of black could be that it

 is associated at once with intensity and with effacement: with importance, and with the putting on of impersonality. Alone or in ranks, the man in black is the agent of a serious power; and of a power claimed over women and the feminine. Black may be a shadow fallen on the feminine part of man.

 

I’ll conclude by stating that The Story of Black covers much of the same ground as the earlier book, but with very little repetition and a host of different material, and a closing section that looks at some developments in the world of art in the last few years. Both books belong to a series produced by Reaktion that use copious illustrations as the basis for historical analysis.

I’d recommend these texts to anyone with even a passing interest in literary, artistic/cultural, social, political or philosophical history.

Alfred Döblin, Alexanderplatz

Published in Germany as Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1929, this novel has been described as the German Ulysses – the style and content of which have clearly influenced it considerably. I found it a difficult but rewarding read. Each of the nine sections, called Books in this translation, begins with a terse summary of its contents; here’s part of the one for Book Two:

…this is no ordinary man, this Franz Biberkopf. I did not summon him to entertain us, but so that we might share his hard, true and enlightening existence.

Doblin, Alexanderplatz The plot and style have been admirably assessed in several places: I’d recommend Max’s typically perceptive account at Pechorin’s Journal here. He summarises the (rather basic) plot and themes: the downward trajectory of the life of Franz Biberkopf, ‘an erstwhile cement-and –transport-worker in Berlin’. At the novel’s opening he is released from Tegel Prison after serving a four-year sentence for the manslaughter of his girlfriend. He resolves to go straight – but the narrative relates his stuttering attempts, and ultimate failure, to do so.

After several menial jobs he falls in with gangsters, loses a limb in an act of treachery by his fellow burglars, and suffers more and more blows in his life.

As Max points out, the plot is exciting enough in its way, but it’s the high modernist portrayal of Berlin in the decadent last days of the Weimar Republic that’s its most compelling feature. That, and the style, something between middle period Joyce and the Dos Passos of USA: montage, collage, snippets of classical literature, popular songs, ads on billboards, anything that surrounds Franz in his peripatetic quests across and beyond the city.

It’s not a cheerful or easy read. Like Emma of Book Around the Corner I found it heavy going. Just as I started to weary of the fragmented style, however, the pace changed and my interest revived. So let’s take a look at the style. As Max has already commented on the fragmentation technique, I’d like to just add a couple of features that stood out for me.

First there’s the use of non sequitur:

 Aha, they are building an underground station, must be work to be had in Berlin. Another movie.

 

This is Franz’s stream of thought as he stands on a corner in front of a movie theatre. The scene of typical urban renewal sparks off thoughts of a possible job, but the movie intrudes and interrupts the flow. This is largely how we all experience our interior monologue, I’d have thought, and it works quite well, but tends to irritate me after several pages of it.

Tenses jump around for no apparent reason from past to present and back. Pages 41-42 contain a sequence of symbols for Trade and Commerce to Finance and Tax Office; these are reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s insertion of bizarre symbols in Tristram Shandy, and serve no particular purpose here, as far as I can see.

Those sections where I was most able to overcome my aversion to these narrative tics were the ones which dealt with the festering political situation in the city (Max mentions the anti-Semitism), but there’s also a stark portrayal of the extremes of nascent fascism/nationalism beginning to assert itself over socialism and communism. Here’s a taster, in a long scene in a Berlin theatre-cum-drinking den:

 The veteran whispered, his hand before his mouth, he belched: “Are you a German, honest and true? If you run with the Reds, you’re a traitor. He who is a traitor isn’t my friend.” He embraced Franz: “The Poles, the French, the fatherland for which we bled, that’s the nation’s gratitude.”

 

Soon after this Franz peddles ‘Nationalist pro-Nordic papers’:

He is not against the Jews, but he is for law and order. For law and order must reign in Paradise; which everyone should recognize. And the Steel Helmet, he’s seen those boys, and their leaders, too, that’s a great thing. [There follow sickening extracts of fascist rhetoric from the paper] In the Elsasser Strasse the other fellows laugh themselves sick when he makes his appearance in the café at noon, his Fascist armband discreetly tucked in his pocket; they pull it out.

Here it’s possible to see the other problem with the text, apart from its modernist liking for cinematic verbal metonymy: the clunky translation. It has to be said, given the fact that the novel is apparently filled with Berlin dialect and thieves’ argot, that translation must be a nightmare. This UK-published edition was translated by the American-born Eugen Jolas (died 1952), who uses a register that swings oddly from prohibition-era New Jersey to Edwardian English (‘What the deuce are those big boots?’ asks one character, implausibly).

I’ve found it hard to pin down what I ultimately made of this novel: it’s a considerable achievement, and certainly a notable addition to the canon of experimental modernist European fiction. But I can’t say hand on heart that I particularly enjoyed it. I’d be quick to concede that it’s probably more to do with my defects as a reader than those in the text.

Edition used: Secker and Warburg, London, 1974, first published by Martin Secker in 1931. Thanks to Cornwall Libraries for the loan of their copy.

Henry James, ‘The Pension Beaurepas’

This is a version of the piece to be posted next week on the Mookse and Gripes website

‘The Pension Beaurepas’ was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1879. In this story, James satirises two types of American abroad in the guise of two families staying at the Geneva pension run by the redoubtable Mme Beaurepas: the Ruck family from New York City, who represent the rich, uncultivated ‘new money’ families like Daisy Miller’s (Trevor Berrett wrote about her story at the Mookse and Gripes website here) – who show little enthusiasm for the history, culture or scenery of Europe, while demonstrating the principles of liberty, innocence and democracy. The other family are polar opposites to the Rucks: the Europeanised American Mrs Church and her daughter Aurora (and, incidentally, our narrator). Mrs Church had brought Aurora to Europe from their American home sixteen years earlier when the girl was only five.

The young, unnamed American narrator of the story explains at the start why he has come to stay at this pension:

I was not rich – on the contrary; and I had been told the Pension Beaurepas was cheap. I had, moreover, been told that a boarding-house is a capital place for the study of human nature. I had a fancy for a literary career.

Already we can see the subtle presentation of the familiarly ambiguous James narrator: an ingenuous, studious, slightly pompous young man very like himself, with his own literary-cultural hypersensitivity, and a propensity for close observation of his fellows, while at the same time demonstrating a reluctance to engage fully in the life he so attentively observes – a timidity seen in Winterbourne, the disengaged narrator of ‘Daisy Miller’ — and which culminates in a singularly unflattering (to him) episode at the end of this story to which I’ll return shortly.

The first strand in the plot reworks the King Lear theme in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot: Sophy and Mrs Ruck relentlessly spend Mr Ruck’s money, unaware that he has become bankrupt. In ‘An International Episode’, about which I wrote in the Mookse and Gripes last time here, also posted on this blog here Kitty Westgate, whose husband (a work-obsessed counterpart to “tragic” Mr Ruck) hardly appears in the narrative, so busy is he in his lucrative law business, says this:

An American woman who respects herself must buy something every day of her life. If she cannot do it herself, she must send out some member of her family for the purpose.

The narrator says of Mrs Ruck and Sophy, near the story’s end:

“Between them they are bleeding him to death.”

I shall focus here though on the second theme in the story: that of the American Girl. In ‘Daisy Miller’ she’s portrayed, through Daisy, as a charming mix of frankness and spontaneity,  brashness and vulgarity, but essentially, like all American girls, according to Winterbourne, “exceedingly innocent”, even when at her most coquettish and immodest.

Sophy is representative of the Daisy Miller type of feisty American girl. She is “a lively brunette” is the narrator’s initial impression, and “very pretty”, “decisive” and opinionated (like Daisy). When she learns that Aurora is “dying to go to America” but “her mother won’t let her”, she says indignantly:

“If I were you my mother would have to take me.”

The narrator is clearly more attracted to Aurora, who is a less dauntingly assertive, more retiring version of the American girl. She and her mother are described by a fellow guest as having “a tournure de princesse”, and it is as a kind of democratic princess that James usually portrays young American women.

Aurora has never been out of the house alone, and sadly describes herself as having been in Europe, with its social constraints for young women, “always”. She is desperately homesick and frustrated by her imperious mother’s control:

“American girls are so wonderfully frank. I can’t be frank, like that. I am always afraid.”

Our narrator perceives, as Sophy does, however, that her native spirit hasn’t been entirely quashed. She tells him, for example, with ingenuous “coquetry”, that her “figure was admired” in France –

But I was an innocent youth, and I only looked back at her, wondering. She was a great deal nicer than Miss Ruck, and yet Miss Ruck would not have said that.

The perceptive Mme Beaurepas tells the narrator that Mrs Church’s restless migration across Europe via its cheap boarding houses is because “She is trying to marry her daughter.” Whereas Daisy Miller and her family lacked the “culture” to catch an aristocratic and wealthy European husband and were “intellectually incapable of that conception”, Aurora simply lacks a “dot”, as she calls her dowry. What adds poignancy to Aurora’s position is that all she really longs for is the freedom she believes her compatriots enjoy. As the narrator says to her mother:

“…in America young girls have an easier lot. They have much more liberty.”

Mrs Church is not convinced that this is a desirable condition:

“We are very crude,” she softly observed…”There are two classes of minds, you know—those that hold back, and those that push forward. My daughter and I are not pushers, we move with little steps. We like the old, trodden paths; we like the old, old world…we like Europe, we prefer it.”

She calls upon Aurora to endorse her “point of view” – a phrase which was to become a key concept in James’s fiction, as we shall see – and the girl dutifully does so —

with a sort of inscrutable submissiveness. I wondered at it; it offered so strange a contrast to the mocking freedom of her tone the night before…

Geneva, Jardin Anglais wikiThis conflict of views comes to a crisis when Aurora and Sophy walk alone in the English Garden in Geneva. The narrator and a fellow boarder encounter them there, and are shocked to see them so “insufficiently chaperoned”.  Aurora’s rebellious spirit flashes out, in a speech very like Daisy’s when found in a similarly compromising situation with her Italian admirer:

“Which is most improper – to walk alone or to walk with gentlemen? I wish to do what is most improper.”

She explains that she is in a “false position”, and here is where she becomes less ingenuous than Daisy:

“I have to pretend to be a jeune fille. I am not a jeune fille; no American girl is a jeune fille; an American girl is an intelligent, responsible creature. I have to pretend to be very innocent, but I am not very innocent.”

“You don’t pretend to be very innocent; you pretend to be – what shall I call it? – very wise.

“That’s no pretence. I am wise.”

“You are not an American girl,” I ventured to observe…

“There’s my false position. I want to be an American girl, and I’m not.”

“Do you want me to tell you?” I went on. “An American girl wouldn’t talk as you are talking now…She wouldn’t reason out her conduct…”

“I see. She would be simpler. To do very simple things that are not at all simple – that is the American girl!”

She tells the young man she anticipates having “the most lovely time” in New York if the Rucks invite her there – because there at last she would have “absolute liberty”. Her mother adores “European society”, and Aurora knows she’ll be punished for the liberties she is taking at that moment with him – and her mother duly arrives and whisks her away in a closed cab.

Later Mrs Church tells the narrator that she disapproves of the Rucks and their uncultivated vulgarity. She intends to remove Aurora from the “pernicious influence” of “this deplorable family”.

The story ends with her doing just that. Before she fulfils her promise, however, Aurora has one final, revealing conversation with the narrator, to tell him that she and her mother leave for Dresden the next day. He suspects she has sought him out in the pension’s garden that evening to break this news, and he feels very sorry for her, and finds her “interesting” and “charming”. He realises this “insidiously mutinous, young creature was looking for a preserver.” For a moment this is a heroic role he finds tempting to play; he tells her he knows she desires the “liberty” taken for granted by other American girls. Her mother, she replies

“…has so perverted my mind that when I try to be natural I am necessarily immodest.”

She has said her piece, and now waits to see what he will do. As she turns to leave he has a momentary impulse to leave with “this yearning, straining young creature” and pass into “mysterious felicity”. But it doesn’t happen:

If I were only a hero of romance, I would offer, myself, to take her to America.

Like Winterbourne, however, he is unwilling to act decisively when faced with the prospect of a romantic relationship.

The story is, then, more of an example of what James later called “portraiture” – a sketch rather than a developed, textured story. But it is an interesting example of his developing portrayal of the consequences of the innocence of the American girl coming into contact with the decadence and hierarchical social rigidities and atrophied morality and customs of the Old World. He shows how both worlds have their attractions and charms, but both are flawed in their own ways.

We meet Aurora again in a story published soon after this one. Its title is the term employed crucially by Mrs Church in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, as noted earlier: it’s called ‘The Point of View’.

 

Henry James,’An International Episode’

HENRY JAMES: ‘AN INTERNATIONAL EPISODE’.

America certainly is very different from England’

There was an excellent piece on ‘Daisy Miller’ on the Mookse and Gripse site here in 2010; ‘An International Episode’ can be seen as a companion piece. It was published in the Dec. 1878 (a few months after ‘Daisy Miller’) and Jan. 1879 editions of Cornhill Magazine in England. Both stories have James’s famous ‘international theme’ – the collisions between the old world of Europe and the new of America. Both very young female American protagonists attract flawed admirers: Daisy (who seems to be in her late teens) is admired by the Europeanised American, Winterbourne while they are in Switzerland and Italy; and twenty-year-old Bessie Alden, who meets the English Lord Lambeth with his cousin Percy Beaumont when they are visiting America.

Daisy represented that type of ‘new American woman’ that James was to portray so often, but in a guise that was innocently flirtatious, bright, beguiling and woefully ignorant of the social mores, history and culture of Europe; the snobbish forces of the old world conspire to defeat her. Bessie, on the other hand, is more similar to Isabel Archer: she’s a Boston intellectual and democrat.

The plot hinges upon the visit paid to America on business by the somewhat cynical lawyer Percy Beaumont (a worldly denizen, as his name suggests, of the beau monde), accompanied by the rather ‘stupid’ but handsome Lambeth. They are treated with open-hearted frankness and hospitality by the New York lawyer, Westgate, who invites them to stay with his ‘tremendously pretty’ young wife Kitty and her younger sister Bessie at their seaside house in Newport.

Lambeth, on arriving in America, is keen to flirt with the local girls, who seem much more forward than their English counterparts. Percy, however, warns him not to, and, ‘like a clever man’,

had begun to perceive that the observation of American society demanded a readjustment of one’s standard.

This is the story’s central theme; Lambeth is too dim to heed the advice.

James makes Bessie as spirited as Daisy, but less frivolous, ‘tremendously literary’; Kitty describes her to Percy as ‘extremely shy’ and ‘a charming species of girl’:

She is not in the least a flirt; that isn’t at all her line…She is very simple – very serious…She is very cultivated, not at all like me – I am not in the least cultivated. She has studied immensely and read everything; she is what they call in Boston “thoughtful”.

Even Lambeth thinks: ‘If she was shy she carried it off very well’. James seems not fully to make up his mind whether Bessie is as reserved or naive as she seems.

Kitty frequently denigrates America, saying that unlike the English the Americans had ‘no leisure class’, no history or ‘ruins’. Bessie, for her part, is said to be ‘very fond of Englishmen. She thinks there is nothing like them’. Unlike her sister, or the uneducated Daisy, she has an idealistic, naive reverence for the history, traditions and culture of England; she even believes its scenery is less ‘rough’ than America’s – a misconception she has developed through her reading.  Percy is (perhaps with good reason) sceptical about her supposed reserve, and fears that she’s ‘A rum sort of girl for Lambeth to get hold of!’

She rebukes Lambeth, however, for failing to take his responsibilities as a ‘hereditary legislator’ seriously. She is uncritically admiring of England’s ancient traditions, but enough of a democrat to deplore its hierarchical political system and emphasise the responsibilities of its privileged and unelected aristocratic ruling class:

‘I should think it would be very grand,’ said Bessie Alden, ‘to possess simply by an accident of birth the right to make laws for a great nation…It must be a great privilege…very inspiring…I think it’s tremendous.’

But when Bessie grills Percy about his cousin’s ‘rank’, ‘position’ and family she thoroughly alarms him by musing aloud ‘with more simplicity than might have been expected in a clever girl’ that when his father died Lambeth would become the Duke of Bayswater. Percy warns Lambeth: ‘that girl means to try for you.’

I find it difficult to reconcile the portrayal of Bessie as a studious, shy ‘blue-stocking’ with this cynical view of Percy’s (we’re told he’s a much shrewder ‘observer’ than Lambeth) that she’s a disingenuous gold-digger, a typical American looking to marry into the aristocracy of England, and fulfil her dream of living in an historic castle.

The intriguing aspect of this story is the way James shows up the differences between the two cultures, bringing out the merits and deficiencies in both. He carefully shows the frankness, spontaneity, honesty and friendliness of Americans, but there’s an undertone of brashness and vulgarity, too, a feature merely hinted at in the narrative: the young Englishmen are introduced ‘to everybody’ in Newport, ‘entertained by everybody, intimate with everybody.’

These differences are brought into relief when Kitty and Bessie visit England the following year, where Bessie becomes increasingly enlightened about and disillusioned by English society, which is thrown into unflattering relief by contrast with the more liberal, generous American people we saw depicted in New York and Newport. In England the character of Kitty undergoes a curious change; we now see her as more perceptive and wise than she appeared in Newport, where she openly flirted with Percy, and was described ambivalently as ‘spontaneous…very frank and demonstrative’, left ‘to do about as she liked’ by her workaholic husband.

Bessie is starry-eyed, delighted to see all that she had read about in the poets and historians:

 She was very fond of the poets and historians, of the picturesque, of the past, of retrospect, of mementos and reverberations of greatness; so that on coming into the great English world, where strangeness and familiarity would go hand in hand, she was prepared for a multitude of fresh emotions.

She’s also inclined to interest herself in Lambeth again, embodying as he does

an unconscious part of the antiquity, the impressiveness, the picturesqueness of England; and poor Bessie Alden, like many a Yankee maiden, was terribly at the mercy of picturesqueness.

Bessie’s character too seems to have become less ambivalent now she’s in England: the hint of calculating hypocrisy that Percy detected in Newport disappears.

Kitty advises her not to expect too much of Lambeth now he is back in England, where there are a ‘thousand differences’. Bessie is ‘too simple’ and trusting, Kitty suggests; ‘you are not in your innocent little Boston…Newport is not London.’ Lambeth has to pay more heed to ‘consequences’ in London, she warns, astutely aware that his aristocratic family will consider ‘a little American girl’ like Bessie too vulgarly ‘eager’ in pursuing him to England: they will assume, she says, ‘that you followed him’ – that Bessie had ‘come after’ him.

When Bessie describes the English as a ‘great people’, her sister explains they had become great ‘by dropping you when you have ceased to be useful’.

Bessie stubbornly persists in her faith in English integrity, seeing in Lambeth a representative of the ‘nobility’ of that country both in title and character. ‘She liked him for his disposition’, and finds him the epitome of the ‘simple, candid, manly, healthy English temperament’; she also alludes to his ‘bravery’ (though our ironic narrator wryly adds that she had never seen this ‘tested’), his ‘honesty and gentlemanliness’; that she also admires his ‘good looks’ is an indication that this Boston ‘blue-stocking’ is also red-blooded. She naively and romantically views him as

a handsome young man endowed with such large opportunities – opportunities she hardly knew for what, but, as she supposed, for doing great things – for setting an example, for exerting an influence, for conferring happiness, for encouraging the arts. She had a kind of ideal of conduct for a young man who should find himself in this magnificent position, and she tried to adapt it to Lord Lambeth’s deportment, as you might attempt to fit a silhouette in cut paper upon a shadow projected upon a wall.

Sadly this silhouette ‘refused to coincide with his lordship’s image’; in the flesh ‘there was little of the hero’ in him, and at such times even she perceives ‘he seemed distinctly dull.’ She upbraids him as she had in Newport for failing to ‘address the House’ and fulfil his responsibilities as ‘an hereditary legislator’ who ‘ought to know a great many things.’ Lambeth ‘ought to have a great mind – a great character’, she insists; his response is telling: ‘Depend upon it, that’s a Yankee prejudice.’ She admits she finds him ‘disappointing.’ Her idealistic image of the young aristocrat is becoming tarnished.

Gradually Bessie also comes to see the snobbish ways of English society in all their hideousness: ‘I don’t like your precedence’, she tells Lambeth; ‘I think it’s odious’. She means the English hierarchy, and the expectation in social situations that those of higher rank should leave before lesser mortals:

‘It is not the going before me that I object to,’ said Bessie; it is their thinking that they have a right to do it – a right that I should recognise.’

‘…I have no doubt the thing is beastly, but it saves a lot of trouble.’

‘It makes a lot of trouble. It’s horrid!’ said Bessie.

‘But how would you have the first people go?’ asked Lord Lambeth. ‘They can’t go last.’

He’s too obtuse to understand her indignation. ‘No’, she concludes, ‘you have a lovely country…but your precedence is horrid.’ She is unable to induce him to condemn ‘this repulsive custom.’

After Bessie’s epiphany she is able to see English ways for what they really are; as a consequence she is obliged to refuse Lambeth’s offer of marriage. After his ‘protectors’ – his mother and sister – attempt to bully Bessie and her sister out of accepting his offer to stay at the family castle, she realises that their snobbish prejudice against her lack of aristocratic lineage is insufferable. Her only regret, at the story’s end, as she tells Kitty, is that by spurning the son the mother and sister ‘will think they petrified us.’

Bessie’s destiny, then, is very different from Daisy’s: this time it’s American integrity that is shown as superior to old world hypocrisy and callous intransigence. Although Bessie, in maintaining her democratic principles and high-minded Bostonian ethics, may not defeat the forces of hereditary snobbery, she at least shows how a person with a functioning social conscience should behave.

The Anatomy of a Moment: Javier Cercas.

I’ve not posted for a while, having been preoccupied with reading Leon Edel’s brilliant multi-volume Life of Henry James, (I’m intending writing more pieces on The Master’s stories) and rereading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 – another weighty tome –  in order to contribute (fitfully) to the lively discussion about this novel going on over at The Mookse and the Gripes website.

Meantime here’s note about something I read earlier this year, and wanted to recommend. I reviewed Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas here back in February, and found it similar in approach, in some ways, to W.G. Sebald’s, with its factual-documentary approach to real historical events, narrated with all the imaginative brio of a novel. In The Anatomy of a Moment Cercas has produced an extended piece of reportage, but once again it’s an exhilarating reading experience.

'Anatomy of a Moment'In meticulous detail – I must admit I skipped some of the more arcane background detail –  he reconstructs the events in the Chamber of Deputies – the Spanish parliament or Cortes in Madrid – during the investiture vote for Calvo Sotelo, the new prime minister, to replace Adolfo Suárez, on 23 February 1981. Suárez had presided for nearly five years, supervising the transition from the dictatorship of Franco as Spain edged nervously back towards democracy, with a precariously restored king Juan Carlos.

What happened next, at 6:23 pm, was broadcast on television – that ‘fabricator of unreality’ as Cercas calls it – around the world next day: Lieutentant Colonel Antonio Tejero, uniformed, brandishing a gun and wearing his shiny tricorne hat, entered the Chamber accompanied by members of his Civil Guard, armed with automatic weapons. Several volleys were fired into the ceiling. Cercas reconstructs this first dramatic ‘gesture’ with chilling authenticity: democracy seemed about to be still-born. A coup d’état, a ‘golpe de estado’ seemed to be taking place. For the Spaniards who watched the footage this was their Dallas 1963 moment.

Cercas structures the mass of material into five sections, with the focus on the three courageous ‘gestures’ of the three members of the Cortes who refused to comply with the trigger-happy golpistas’ shouted commands to lie down on the floor and do as they were told.

These three were Suárez himself, Gutiérrez Mellado, a former Francoist general who had in recent years changed political direction and served the nascent democracy, and Santiago Carillo, who led the recently legalised Communist Party.

Mellado and Carillo had been bitter enemies, on opposite sides as a consequence of the terrible Civil War forty years earlier. Their gesture of defiance united them.

The future of Spain’s democracy hung in the balance. The golpistas held their victims hostage for eighteen hours before surrendering. The tv footage was released next day. Although it only lasted some thirty minutes, its consequence was extraordinary.

I lived in San Sebastián in the Basque country a decade after these events. (At the time of the golpe the increasingly violent Basque independence struggle led by ETA was causing consternation in the Cortes and internationally; there were accusations of torture of suspected ETA prisoners by the Spanish authorities, and the political situation was close to boiling over.) Friends there told me that many of their families, on seeing the film of Tejero and his Civil Guards’ storming of the Cortes, loaded their cars and fled across the border into France a few kilometres away. The older ones who remembered the Civil War and most of those who’d experienced the loathed dictatorship ‘cuando Franco’ believed fascism was returning – and again the Basque people and its culture would be oppressed.

I found Cercas’ account of the build-up to these events, and the aftermath, fascinating. In his Prologue he relates how he’d tried a fictional approach, but failed. He describes Anatomy as a ‘humble testimony of a failure’, too:

Incapable of inventing what I know about 23 February, illuminating its reality with fiction, I have resigned myself to telling it. The pages that follow aim to endow this failure with a certain dignity.

He succeeds for the most part. It will not, he says, ‘entirely renounce being read as a history book’; it’s ‘not a novel’, but it ‘won’t entirely renounce being read as a novel’. It is delineated with some of the ‘symmetries of fiction’, he says later.

You don’t have to be interested in the baroque intricacies of Spanish politics to enjoy The Anatomy of a Moment; anyone who cares for and believes in the human struggle against the agencies of oppression will find it salutary.

Text used: Bloomsbury hardback edition published London, 2011, 403 pp. Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. First published in Spain 2009.

 

Spam lit revisited again, chastened

Another departure this time. Usually I draft quite carefully (though this may not be apparent to readers who’ve been here before) what I post. This one is coming out on a Friday night after my first full week back teaching, and a bottle of wine shared over dinner. Undrafted. (The post, not the wine.)

Since posting my last piece about spam lit I’ve realised I recently read this piece in the Paris Review by Dan Piepenbring on the very same topic: the potential for ‘automated comments’ generated by spammers’ algorithms to try to circumvent blogsite spam filters to be transformed into literary texts. I just looked back through my email inbox and saw the link: how can it be that I could write a whole post, having forgotten this article read only a few days before? Worrying.

Dan P calls such texts mostly ‘nauseous goulash’ at worst. He calls what I said previously about intervening with the original spam text to create something new ‘curating’ the spam. I like that.

He likens them also to high modernism: William Gaddis, William Carlos Williams: texts that look somehow…jumbled, incoherent, lacking in the usual semantic connections associated with everyday discourse. They have more in common with the tangential, illogical or contiguous associations of dreams or streams of consciousness. Let’s face it, as we move through our days perceiving the outer world, an inner monologue persists, collaging fragments from all over the place, splicing them with others to create a continuous multifarious, multistranded… this metaphor is becoming too mixed, but I hope the point is being made. We don’t usually move through our days with a single-thread thought-stream. As we talk we think of something else.

As we listen to someone talk, we think of something else: what to have for tea, did I walk the dog, should I grout the bathroom, am I happy…NLP is big on this.

George Eliot said that if we took into account all the data accessible to us at any one moment we’d be deafened by the squirrel’s heartbeat; so we partially filter out incoming data, and censor what comes out of our mouths or pens (or keyboards).

So spam lit can be a way of tapping into the fortuitous and pleasing combinations of language in a manner that isn’t possible through normal discourse channels.

I leave you today then with the chastened realisation that Dan P wrote far more cogently on the topic of spam lit than I did. Cheers.

 

The Literature Machine revisited: spam lit, Calvino, OULIPO and conceptual literature

I posted in August last year about Spam Poetry, and used some examples from my own WordPress spam repository as the basis for some ‘found poetry’. In my previous post I offered another example of my own, ‘Update: an excavated fragment’, based on the dialogue between a computer user and the machine’s interface.

I have become aware, since that post last year, that the phenomenon of ‘spam poetry’ is quite well attested – I didn’t invent it after all, though at the time I misguidedly thought I might have done. The rest of this post will provide more context.

 

In July of this year I posted about VOLVELLES: mechanical devices that might be called early ‘paper computers’, primitive expert systems or thinking machines, usually employed for calculating or generating information or texts. These can be traced back to the ancient east, but in the west to Ramon Lull (the Ars combinatoria), and later, Leibniz, Kircher, and so on.

Swift in Gulliver’s Travels may have been satirising Leibniz in his ‘permutational machine’ at the Academy of Lagado. Centos, bibliomancy and later literary techniques like cutup and permutational poetry can also trace their origins to such ‘literary machines’.

This is the title of the book of essays by Italo Calvino, about which I also posted in July this year, with a focus on ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’. In this essay Calvino considers the difference between the ‘random text generator’ and what might be called the Literary Machine: the procedure which bypasses individual human inspiration by using ‘combinatorial play’ to generate texts through the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions. French avant-garde groups like OULIPO have experimented with such methods for decades now, harking back to the Surrealists with their use of self-imposed constraints in the production of literary texts.

Which brings me back to my own ‘spam poems’ cited earlier. A little judicious searching online will readily take you to more detailed information on the following (Wikipedia, for example, has much more on this, with examples and links):

SPAM POETRY: here the involvement of an author in the production of literature, as Calvino speculated, has become discretionary. It works on similar principles to automatic writing (Yeats was an aficionado of this, with its mystical/supernatural overtones), which was also favoured by Freud and the Surrealists as a means of tapping spontaneously into the unconscious to produce ‘psychography’. Aleatoric writing is a related concept: writing produced on the principle of accidental or chance language choices.

A key concept in such text generation is what OULIPO called ‘clinamen’ (and a near-translation, ‘swerve’): an arcane term for the classical notion of ‘primordial anti-constraint’. Creation (of a text) is rendered possible, in an ordered, logical, rational universe, by the introduction of chance. Harry Mathews’ algorithm applied to Queneau’s cutup sonnet sequence would be an example of ‘coercing’ the potentiality of texts into existence. Language is exploited through the use of matrices, and computers make this process millions times quicker and more productive than old-style cut-and-paste.

Spam is usually created by computer programs which randomly copy extracts from internet texts (Burroughs and his predecessor, Brion Gysin, called this ‘paratext’), reassemble them and use them to try to smuggle marketing or other unsolicited messages through the filters of blogs and other websites. They try to trick the spam filters into thinking that the ‘text’ thus generated has been created by human hands, for the filters usually lack the sophistication to distinguish gibberish from texts which have semantic coherence.

In brief, I’d suggest, if you’re interested in pursuing this ‘mechanical literature’, you research similar ‘genres’:

FLARF: text produced by the anonymised and reshuffled errancies of various machine protocols (Wikipedia)

SPAM LIT: the site called UbuWeb (‘an anthology of conceptual writing’) has a wealth of useful examples, articles and links.

See also:

SPOETRY, WORD SALAD, GOOGLISM, INFORMATIONIST POETRY, THE L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E POETS (most in various ways use the detritus of the internet as a source for material for recombining or regenerating texts).

I’d have to conclude, however, that the literary results are decidedly uneven. There are occasional felicitous juxtapositions created through the use of these techniques (and I’d like to think there were some among the examples I produced myself, in which I intervened and selected from the morass of verbiage to create something rather more…orderly and, I hope, interesting). But much of it is doggerel.

Cees Nooteboom, The Foxes Come at Night. A review.

Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke: Maclehose Press, Quercus, London 2013; first published 2009

Work on the house continues, and we’ve had to travel extensively with work and for social commitments lately, so this will be a hastily-written piece.

I’ve admired the reviews of Jonathan Gibbs for some time, and his debut novel, Randall, was published last month by Galley Beggar Press and was well received. He’s quoted as saying, among the puffs for this book in the preliminary pages, that Nooteboom’s short novels ‘are exquisite toys for the broken-hearted’ – a phrase so impressive the publishers also stuck it on the front cover – ‘erudite tales that revolve around themes of loss and despair but are nevertheless playful.’ Critics have also described the Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn as hilariously funny; both are views I find it hard to share.

These are bleak little sketches about memory, yes, and lost love, but playful they’re surely not. That’s not to say that they aren’t sometimes witty and amusing, but mostly I found them moodily reflective, sad and nostalgic, with that tang of wistful ennui and anomie that’s so prevalent in the bleak fiction that traces its origins in the works of Hamsun and Kafka, continued through Beckett and most commonly found in continental European writers: Bernhard, Sebald, Krasznahorkai…

I bought this slim volume of eight stories in a curious bookshop at the foot of some medieval steps in Exeter; called Book Cycle, it claims to be Britain’s only ‘free bookshop’. You can select up to three books a day and pay what you think is fair. It’s a charity which distributes books in Africa.

I took my purchase to a pub on the Quays overlooking the swan-haunted river. As I ate lunch in bright sunshine I read the opening story, ‘Gondolas’. It’s typical of the collection: a middle-aged narrator, an Amsterdam art journalist, retraces his time in Venice forty years earlier. He finds the very pier where a passer-by took a photo of him and his much younger, teenage American girlfriend – a hippy with home-made tattoos and a penchant for astrology and the occult – the narrator dismissively calls this ‘childish babble’. The melancholy narrative is as much about the man himself now, however, as it is about the woman:

What that snapshot really conveyed, he reflected, more as a statement of fact than out of a sense of tragedy or self-pity, was that it was time he started thinking about his own exit.

 

Nooteboom in 2011: Wikimedia Commons

Nooteboom in 2011: Wikimedia Commons

Memory, mutability and mortality and related feelings of mourning or despair then are the central themes in these stories, usually sparked off by a picture: they are I suppose examples of a kind of ecphrasis, they are about observed life and its usually impenetrable significance, and our efforts to make sense of what are possibly meaningless events, but those events create absences for us which are troublesome when we recollect what they once represented. The idea of our ‘making our exit’ underpins most of the stories, while ‘trying to feel her absence’, as the narrator does here, running his fingers over the stones on the Venetian pier. The slow meditative voice and haunted tone are complemented by a tendency towards aphorism and poetic philosophising; usually this works well, but sometimes it can seem pretentious:

He was aware that every thought entering the mind under these circumstances would be a cliché, but these riddles had never been solved. By reality and perfection I mean the same thing…Death was a natural given, but it was accompanied by such abysmal sorrow at times that you were almost ready to descend into the abyss yourself, and thereby surrender to the perfect reality of the riddle.

That ‘abyss’ – the mystery at the heart of each individual’s life, and our inability to truly know each other – leads the narrators to ponder, and usually reject, the possibility of making sense of our stories. In ‘Paula’ and ‘Paula II’, for example, the first story about a group of bohemian gamblers is told from the point of view of Paula’s temporary lover; the second, strangely, is from her perspective in a sort of limbo beyond the grave. And it’s clear he knew almost nothing about her.

The ‘arsenal’ of memories begins in ‘Gondolas’, as in many of the stories, in the Mediterranean – the island of Hydra. The narrator doesn’t, on reflection, seem to have much liked this young woman with her banal taste in ‘sorcery’, her kitsch artistic sense (his own is more portentous: Piero della Francesca is mentioned) and dabbling in puerile versions of Buddhism. But his own sombre feelings are clearly very important: ‘Love was the need for love, that much at least he had understood.’

She left that summer to resume her life in the USA and he went on to become important in the world of art journalism. They corresponded, however, and when years later she told him she was very ill he went to visit her in California. The trip was not a success. Now that she’s died he has come on a kind of pilgrimage to the place where he first accosted her and began their affair. At the story’s end when he casts her letters into the water, it’s more with a sense of ridding himself of the memory of this unedifying part of his erotic-artistic life, than as a Keatsian elegy to a doomed lost love.

010Other stories are little more than vignettes or snapshots of revealing moments in a person’s life. A mismatched couple go to a cafe in Menorca (where they live) and see a man walk out on his wife after they quarrel and get fried by a lightning bolt in a thunderstorm. The symbolism in this story is a little heavy-handed.

‘Heinz’ is the longest story, and is another sparked off by contemplation of a picture. This is perhaps the most interesting in the collection: the alcoholic Dutch honorary vice consul on the Ligurian coast is richly drawn. It’s another story about the incipherability of a person’s life, yet we feel impelled to try to find out about it. The epigraph by Ivy Compton-Burnett is revealing of Nooteboom’s intentions:

We will not pretend that something has happened when nothing has.

The narrative is again melancholy and elegiac, muted and detached. The theme of drama is expounded upon here and elsewhere in the collection:

Drama in novels or films exists thanks to the denial of duration since it can be compressed into a few evenings of reading or an hour or two of viewing. Things happen in the real world which you can call dramas, and yet, if you want to turn them into art you have no choice but to converge and compress…Our chaos makes for stories lacking in form and clarity.

The stories are about more than nostalgia, then: they’re about the attempt to create art out of the apparently meaningless events we have witnessed and participated in. By narrating these events we perhaps mute the pain. Even though the narrator self-deprecatingly warns his reader not to expect the ‘unities’ or drama in this story; it is artless, with ‘no culmination, no dénouement’. Instead it’s about the incapacity of language to convey meaning or reality; we employ images, as films do, but we can’t shake the wish to

Take [y]our paltry little secrets with you when you depart this life and close the door behind you.

I suppose the stories sound, summarised like this, rather bleak and depressing – they’re not. The language is hypnotic and engaging, and the playfulness mentioned by Gibbs is apparent, now I think of it, in the Beckettian sense of feeling impelled to go on with the telling of the story even when it is hopeless to try to make anything meaningful out of it. Or so the narrators believe; as readers we are required to mistrust this pessimism, see the play beneath the stone surface. Thus in ‘Paula II’ the eponymous woman narrator (who is dead, she died in a hotel fire) observes her erstwhile lover’s ascetic, Zen monastic existence and remarks:

for someone still among the living you make a rather dead impression, as though you have taken an advance on your mortality.

 

Volvelles

My previous post was about Italo Calvino, and in particular his essay on the ‘literature machine’. If all writing is ‘simply a process of combination among given elements…merely the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions’, then it should be possible for a program or machine to play with the permutations and transformations in language in a kind of ‘combinatorial play’, and thus generate new texts.

Since writing that piece I’ve come across the concept of VOLVELLES.

A good detailed scholarly account of them and their historical evolution, with illustrated examples up to Led Zeppelin’s 1970 album cover artwork, is at Archbook: Architectures of the Book, by Michelle Gravelle, Anah Mustapha, and Coralee Leroux; here’s a more concise account from Wikipedia (hyperlinks and footnotes removed):

A volvelle or wheel chart is a type of slide chart, a paper construction with rotating parts. It is considered an early example of a paper analog computer. Volvelles have been produced to accommodate organization and calculation in many diverse subjects. Early examples of volvelles are found in the pages of [books on astronomy and astrology]. They can be traced back to ‘certain Arabic treatises on humoral medicine’ and to the Persian astronomer, Abu Rayhan Biruni (c. 1000)… The most ancient example of a simple volvelle was the pentagram from Hammurabi’s day that has become the symbol of witchcraft [the Venus volvelle].

Badische LandesBibliothek, Codex St Peter perg. 92, f. 11v

Badische LandesBibliothek, Codex St Peter perg. 92, f. 11v; Lull/Llull on the left

The father of Western ‘combinatory text generation’ is often said to be the Majorcan writer-philosopher and Franciscan, Ramon Llull (c. 1232-c. 1315; his name is usually anglicised to Lull), who is said to have used Arabic astrological lore – and the related device called a zairja – in forming his Ars combinatoria. An academic account of Lull’s Art and related arcane systems is given by Janet Zweig in her paper: ‘Ars combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art and the Computer’. She explains that Lull used letters of the alphabet as ‘symbolic notation for the Divine attributes; the letters are placed on revolving wheels and can then be mechanically combined with other data’ in order to ‘prove systematically the reality of universal Christian truths’. It is thus a ‘prototype of an expert system’ that requires ‘a user or “artista”, who can mobilize the structure to apply it to scientific questions’.

The 8vo website cites an essay on Lull’s ‘Thinking Machine’ by Borges, who featured in my last post on Calvino; he says that Lull’s terms are in need of updating, and 8vo adds:

In a sense that had already happened by the end of the 16th century: by Agrippa’s time, Lull’s combinatory art had already blended with poetic practices dating back the 4th century – centos comprised of cut and pasted fragments from poems and chance operations as with bibliomancy – and updating it to suit the latest tastes. Poetic ‘machines’ were used to piece together syllables into words, words into verse, proving that computer-generated poetry isn’t just a child of the 20th century.

On an ingenious site which is itself a kind of e-volvelle, requiring the reader to click squares on a grid to access the e-folios of text, Whitney Trettien (‘Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: an Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms’) has some arcane and fascinating additional data:

Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897), [can be] imagined as a metonym for his multivolume, combinatorial Book, Le Livre. A radical experiment in design and typography, Un coup de dés privileges form over content — or rather, form as content, such that blank spaces, typography and the material folds of the book, rather than semantics, generate what Mallarmé calls “prismatic subdivisions” of meaning on the page. This unusual use of the book’s architecture leaves the reader, rather than the writer, to cull and combine these scattered fragments of text through multimodal acts of association; thus the reader — Mallarmé prefers the word “operator,” etymologically linked to “work,” oeuvre, from the Latin opus — becomes an (inter)active participant in the poem’s construction. (Footnote omitted.) …Like the four hands floating around Harsdörffer’s Denckring — like manicules — like the reader’s hand spinning the discs — like the finger that points and clicks — the hand will cut up the hand that recombines. The coherent abstraction of a textual icon, dismembered from its body, reconnects through the process of an embodied hand that moves, spinning a web of combinations.

As William Burroughs wrote, cut-ups are “experimental in the sense of being something to do.”

This site has extensive and erudite sections on Permutational Poetry, like Mallarmé’s (or one could add the Fluxus artist Emmet Williams, cited by Zweig). Raymond Queneau, founder of Oulipo, as noted in my previous post, in 1961 published Cent mille milliards de poèmes; each page contained a rhymed sonnet. The separate lines of the pages could be peeled back and recombined into an almost infinite number of new poems, as the title indicates (online versions can easily be found). Members of Oulipo (and Alamo, which arose from it) used artificial constraints and generating systems to produce literary works – Zweig gives other more recent examples, such as Charles O. Hartman, who distinguishes between text generators which start with a corpus of vocabulary with no source text, and those which rearrange vocabulary from an existing text; she also cites manipulators of hypertext and the French group LAIRE and other ‘new media poets’.

From Lull's Ars magna

From Lull’s Ars magna

Leibniz’s Alphabet of Human Thoughts incorporates ‘his notion of a mathesis universalis — a method of generating, with mathematical certainty, the answer to any philosophical question’ (Trettien). In 1666, at the age of twenty, Leibniz defended his Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, in which he explores Ramon Llull’s ars magna, or his combinatorial art — a subject tackled by many thinkers of the period, including Johann Heinrich Alsted and Athanasius Kircher. Like Lull himself, Leibniz ‘explores the art of combination not simply as mechanical means for permuting discrete elements, but as system for logical discovery…Both poetry and philosophy become not product but process — a system, mechanized in a set of nesting paper wheels, whose very existence instantiates its combinatory possibilities (Trettien)’. In 1694 he produced the Stepped Reckoner: an early paper form of calculator.

Trettien’s section on Materiality of Letters provides a linguistic-historical perspective on the likes of Comenius, Kircher (especially his Polygraphia, 1663) up to the present day (Chomsky and co.)

From here it’s a short step to the Kabbalah, the symmetrical strings of DNA, carbon atoms, Big Bang cosmology and mathematical  Set Theory.

From the 18C on volvelles tended to be used less for mystical or universalist purposes, and more as systems for ‘symbolic logic, semantic invention or pure process and play’ (Zweig), as in musical dice games, or the ballet dancers with cards referred to by Trettien. ‘Music, with its abstract notation, lends itself directly to recombinancy’ ; John Cage in recent years produced recombined musical elements and computer-generated recombined written texts (Zweig again).

I Ching (Taopage website)

I Ching (Taopage website)

Zweig also points out that the I Ching is a divination system based on ‘a binary system and chance operations, developed in the first millennium BC.’

Zweig also cites the parody of such systematic engines in Gulliver’s Travels (pt 3, ch. 5), in which Gulliver visits the Academy at Lagado. Some 500 ‘projectors’ engage in all kinds of crackpot schemes, among which is an imaginary ‘permutational machine’ for improving ‘speculative knowledge’, whose inventor is possibly a caricature of Leibniz or Lull. The device consists of a frame holding blocks:

The Lagado Machine in the Grandville 1838 text of 'Gulliver's Travels' (from VoyagesMecaniques website)

The Lagado Machine in the Grandville 1838 text of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (from VoyagesMecaniques website)

It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”  (From website of LiteratureProject.com)

An online Lagado Engine based on Markov models (whatever they are) can be found here; it can be used to generate new text from old, just like the one Gulliver witnessed in 1726. The 8vo website points out that the ‘random babbling’ generated by such an engine is an early example of what came to be known as the Infinite Monkey theorem: “that a half-dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce the works of Shakespeare” – traced by Borges in his essay “The Total Library”. This website gives a clear and informative account of volvelles and the development of ‘paper computing’, with some excellent illustrations.

Search Twitter with #volvelle and plenty more examples pop up, like this from a 1490 astronomical calendar, probably made in London:

BL MS Egerton 848, f. 22 (from BL website)
BL MS Egerton 848, f. 22 (from BL website)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, among the many early printed examples readily found online, came this image (fortuitously, just now) from Lambeth Palace Library’s twitter feed (@lambpallib; website lambethpalacelibrary.org; this is the library and record office of the Archbishops of Canterbury/Church of England Record Centre): a volvelle from an edition of Cosmographicus (Antwerp, 1529), once owned by Abp Thomas Cranmer:

Lambeth Palace Library volvelle from 'Cosmographicus'

Lambeth Palace Library volvelle from ‘Cosmographicus’

Cosmographicus Liber (Cosmographia) by Petrus Apianus was first published in 1524. Apianus (1495-1552), a mathematician, printer and instrument maker, studied cosmography and mathematics in Leipzig and Vienna. This book, a layman’s introduction to the science of the time, had little original content and was based largely on Ptolemy. Among other subjects, it describes planetary motion and terrestrial geography, techniques for celestial navigation with mathematical instruments, telling time, and measuring distances. It contains many woodcut illustrations, including moveable stacked illustration plates called volvelles, which could be manipulated to make calculations. (The History and Future of the Book website has several more splendid colour illustrations from the book, including volvelles.) A first edition at the Smithsonian Institution Library can be consulted online at Archive.org here; it too has (monochrome) illustrations, eg at col. 63.

Humans have always yearned to create a systematic engine to facilitate our access to all knowledge; George Eliot’s desiccated scholar, Casaubon, is a salutary reminder that a Key to all Mythologies is a delusion; but that doesn’t stop us striving to produce a Literature Machine. As Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi story has it, when Tibetan monks compute the last of the 9 billion permutations of the names of God, the universe ends.

And there I’d better stop, for the permutational possibilities of this topic are surely infinite: we’ve gone from witchcraft, mystical-arcane computing and astrology to Led Zeppelin. Sometime soon I’d like to turn to another Calvino-related topic: the French group of avant-garde writers called Oulipo.

Unless stated otherwise, all images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons