Snakes, T. Hardy, flâneuses and disobedience – recent reading

Work and other commitments have kept me from posting much lately. Time to start catching up on recent reading – and some other things that have interested me lately.

First, before the books, a word that popped up in my OED word of the day email a while back:

OPHIOLATRY: the worship or reverence of snakes. From the Greek ophios – serpent, plus the usual suffix meaning, well, worship. I consulted the OED online (as always, thanks to them for allowing free access via library card number): the first citation is from Cotton Mather in 1723.

Other dictionary sites provide related words, including ophiolite – serpentine, but sadly that’s obsolete. I don’t suppose we use ‘serpentine’ too often, either – apart from the name of the lake in a London park. Also ophidian – having the nature or character of snakes. Ophidiophobia dates from 1914, and seems a much more sensible word: why would anyone want to worship snakes? Much more likely, surely, to fear them.

There are so many examples in the English language of two different words denoting the same thing, often deriving from Latin (considered the elegant variant) and Old English (less prestigious). Isn’t it great that we can refer to snakes or serpents? Both have that wonderful hissing sibilant, appropriately. Serpent was originally used for any ‘creeping thing’; OED says it’s from the Latin, and had that meaning (examples include ‘louse’). Snake comes from earthier Old English, and therefore has a longer history. OED’s first citations are from the 11C. But the two seem to have been used interchangeably. Then there’s this 15C quotation from Lydgate: Whos vertu is al venym to distroye,..Of dragoun, serpent, adder & of snake. He seems to consider these as different kinds of dangerous crawling reptiles (or ‘limbless vertebrates’ as the OED calls them) – or it’s just the typical ‘elegant variation’ that was popular with contemporary authors.

Now for the books.

Elizabeth Lowry: The Chosen. Riverrun, 296 pp. Published 2022. A competent fictional account of Thomas Hardy’s explosion of grief when his wife of over thirty years, Emma (Gifford), died in 1912. They were both in their seventies. They’d been estranged for twenty years, living mostly in different parts of the ugly house that Hardy designed himself (Max Gate, Dorchester – that was Emma’s view, anyway; I’ve seen it, and it’s not handsome), and hardly talking to each other.

Lowry evokes well the chilly atmosphere of this forbidding house, and the marriage that atrophied inside it. When TH discovers Emma’s diaries and reads what she’d been going through, married to a man totally preoccupied with his writing, he’s horrified and stricken with guilt at how cruel and cold he’d been. Remorse overwhelms him. This prepares the scene for the outpouring of the great elegiac poems he then wrote about her. In them he restored her to life, reimagined as the young girl she was when they met at St Juliot in north Cornwall.

I can’t say I was deeply moved by this novel, despite the interesting story. It was overwritten, the style too mannered. Colm Toibin does a much better job with his novels about the writers Henry James (I read The Master pre-blog) and Thomas Mann (link to my recent post on this HERE). Paula McLain’s boisterous novel about Hemingway’s life with his first wife Hadley in Paris in the 1920s is undemanding but good fun. I wrote one of my earliest posts about it (link HERE). This reminds me: that was in 2013, so my tenth blogging anniversary will be in April this year!

Lauren Elkin: Flâneuse: Women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (Vintage, 2017; 20161). The title says it all: this is a scholarly, lucidly written study and history of the literature of women who haunted the streets of those cities and wrote about their experience of them. Of course, it’s a deliberate challenge to the well-known 19C literary figure, the flâneur (usual examples include Baudelaire, Poe and Dickens) – almost always male and middle-class. The sections on Paris and London are the best: Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys figure largely here.

But this book is partly an irritatingly self-regarding autobiography. There’s too much intrusive gush about the author’s love life. This is a shame, because there’s some really interesting, well-researched stuff in here, good literary analysis and author profiles. I could have done without all the navel-gazing, though.

There’s a link HERE to some of my previous posts on the subject (Walter Benjamin, Iain Sinclair, etc.)

Naomi Alderman, Disobedience (Penguin, 2018; 20161). This was an early example of what has become something of a literary (and filmed) genre: the woman who flees an ultra-orthodox Jewish community and struggles to find herself in the outside, secular world. It raises interesting and tricky questions about female rebellion against a male-dominated culture, and what it really takes to be…disobedient.

Still got a few more titles. More on them next time.

The spider in the corner: André Breton, Nadja

André Breton, Nadja. Translated by Richard Howard for the American Grove Press edition of 1960, and by Penguin when they added this title to their Modern Classics series in 1999.

I’ve found this a particularly difficult post to write. Magnolias and daffodils are blooming and spring is on the way. More important than troublesome books, perhaps.

Nadja has some fine passages that make rewarding reading. But it’s a morally bankrupt book, I feel. I know I should be assessing it from an objectively literary or artistic perspective. But there it is: it’s beyond my control. This is a blog, not an academic journal.

André Breton, 'Nadja': PMC cover Nadja’s opening paragraphs set the tone of strangeness and authority that resonate through much of the book (I can’t call it a novel or romance – a generic problem which the Breton biographer Mark Polizzotti discusses in his informative Introduction). If anything it’s an unreliable autobiography. The narrator bears AB’s name and many of his views, though of course it would be naïve to take this at face value: he’s a literary construct.

He begins with an attempt to set out the answer to the question with which the narrative begins: ‘Who am I?’ His first response is to suggest he is whom he ‘haunts’. He plays a ‘ghostly part, evidently referring to what I have ceased to be in order to be who I am.’ He goes on:

Hardly distorted in this sense, the word suggests that what I regard as the objective, more or less deliberate manifestations of my existence are merely the premises, within the limits of this existence, of an activity whose true extent is quite unknown to me. My image of the “ghost”, including everything conventional about its appearance as well as its blind submission to certain contingencies of time and place, is particularly significant for me as the finite representation of a torment that may be eternal.

These looping, intricate sentences have a poetic-philosophical potency that is both weird and elusive while at the same time existentially dramatic. That final phrase is tremendous. Artful.

He goes on to suggest he is ‘doomed’ to try and learn just a fragment of what he has forgotten –

an idea of irreparable loss, of punishment, of a fall whose lack of moral basis is, as I see it, indisputable…I strive, in relation to other men, to discover the nature, if not the necessity, of my difference from them.

This is typical of the plaintive quest for truth and identity that the book presents – but I’ve quoted them at length because, for me, these extracts also show where I have a problem with it. It’s all about HIM. And ‘men’. Women play a secondary role in the surrealist world Breton constructs.

Perhaps I’m reading this wrongly; it’s not an easy text to understand. Breton is surely trying hard not to be coherent, comprehensible or to create a conventional, linear narrative. As he says later on, the psychological novel with its empiricist basis is, for him, dead. He has no interest in the nature of bourgeois reality; his focus is on himself and his own experience.

This is all very interesting, for a while. But I found it palled – and there are 60 pages of it before Nadja herself appears. 60 pages full of the dropping of names of his important avant-garde friends, from Aragon to Picasso. The influence of Huysmans is acknowledged (not a good sign).

When Nadja does appear the narrator clearly suspects she might be a prostitute. Only French male intellectuals can be flâneurs in Paris (as Lauren Elkin has recently demonstrated in her challenge to this assumption, Flâneuse, reviewed in the Guardian HERE.)

 

He immediately invites her for a drink in a café, the first of many assignations (bizarre trysts) over a ten-day period. He’s clearly infatuated, fascinated by ‘the soul in limbo’ as she describes herself, this proto-beatnik with the kohl-rimmed, fern-coloured eyes and the sultry (inauthentic) Russian name, who clings on to existence by smuggling cocaine, and possibly selling herself.

He clearly tells her he’s a writer, for she makes him promise to bring her some of his books when they arrange to meet next day. He urges her not to read them:

Life is other than what one writes.

She leaves him glowing with self-satisfaction, for she confides that the quality about him that touched her most was his ‘simplicity’ (his italics). Really?! All this is transparently disingenuous and pompous of him.

As their strange liaison develops she reveals disturbing details about her past, and is evidently a troubled soul. She speaks in sphinx-like aphorisms and paradoxical, portentous riddles (‘I am the thought on the bath in the room without mirrors’): the very essence of surrealism. Breton is beside himself: she’s his dream woman, for she symbolises…him and all his beliefs.

But as her frail hold on sanity becomes more apparent, and her haunted eccentricity becomes increasingly extreme, he realises he’s mistaken incipient insanity for the embodiment of a surrealist’s rejection of rationality. Even her surrealist drawings, reproduced in this text in blotchy monochrome (a technique Sebald was to make more interesting use of), he chooses to see as preternatural signs of her role for him as Muse. Freud would no doubt interpret them differently.

It’s at this point that Breton finally lost me. Even by their second meeting he’s writing ‘it is apparent that she is at my mercy’. Yes, he loves that she seems ‘so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares for so little, but so marvellously, for life’. She’s a ‘Melusina’ spirit, in his eyes. That’s how he chooses to see her at first, rather than as the psychologically vulnerable young woman (she was 24; Nadja is based on a real-life person) he comes to recognise. Which is when he rejects her.

This renunciation comes as no surprise. Soon after meeting her he writes:

How does she regard me, how does she judge me? It is unforgivable of me to go on seeing her if I do not love her. Don’t I love her? When I am near her I am nearer things which are near her.

His egotism excuses for him every exploitative moment he spends with her. He discusses her with his wife and friends. Nadja is not autobiography, but I find the way he portrays his callous treatment of this damaged young woman inexcusable (‘unforgivable’). Not a particularly valid literary response, but one I can’t avoid.

He took her to be ‘a free genius, something like one of those spirits of the air, which certain magical practices momentarily permit us to entertain but which we can never overcome.’ Ominous that he doesn’t say ‘love’, but ‘overcome’. She’s important to him only as long as she inspires him, and ‘takes [him] for a god’, ‘thinks of [him] as the sun’, her ‘master’. Being adored by a gorgeous, abandoned waif is a tremendous aphrodisiac, and he gorges on it.

Towards the end his guard drops, and guilt begins to show:

perhaps I have not been adequate to what she offered me.

 

What did she offer? ‘Only love in the sense I understand it – mysterious, improbable, unique, bewildering…’ Soon after this adolescent self-analysis he declares baldly:

I was told, several months ago, that Nadja was mad.

So all of this has been written retrospectively, in the knowledge that she was becoming insane. What pushed her over the edge? It’s hard to resist the conclusion that it was his inability to return her love. He used her, and when she gave him her essence he took it and then rejected her. It’s all very well spend much of the last 30-odd pages of the book fulminating against the profession of psychiatry (Breton had medical-psychiatric training), denouncing the kinds of sanitarium to which Nadja has been committed (and where he never visited her, though his friends did); this doesn’t exculpate him. This is his heartless response to news of her incarceration:

…I do not suppose there can be much difference for Nadja between the inside of a sanitarium and the outside.

He’s making a cheap surrealist jibe against the relative madness of bourgeois society: Nadja has become nothing more than a convenient tool to facilitate the construction of his private aesthetic-political manifesto.

His denial of Nadja was the ultimate expression of this smug and callous character. I just hope it wasn’t the real André Breton, and he chose to create this monster for some kind of surreal literary exercise.

This is the same character who earlier wrote about writing Nadja in the Manoir d’Ango as he liked, ‘where I was able to hunt owls as well.’ When I first read this I thought it a surreal joke (there’s an equally good one about ‘the spider in the corner’). When I got to the book’s end that sentence took on a different significance; he’s using Nadja’s mental implosion as another aspect of inspiration, pulling fragments of her shattered psyche out of the wreckage and making them into beautiful literary objects. I can’t countenance that, no matter how beautiful they are.

But I’m willing to acknowledge that all of this might be a wilful misreading of a surreal text as if it were written by one of those empiricists Breton hated – you know, charlatans like Flaubert.

Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, colportage and flâneurs

A divagation away from book reviews today, inspired by my leafing through an old notebook and seeing an item from 6 years ago: notes on a review of Beatrice Hanssen’s study (published by Bloomsbury now) of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (my copy of the text in English, trans. Howard Eiland, Kevin McLaughlin; The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass and London, 1999). This is the fascinating proto-postmodern montage of notes and essays started in 1927 and left unfinished at Benjamin’s mysterious death (suicide to escape Nazi arrest as he tried to cross the Pyrenees into Spain) in 1940, representing his musings on the 19C ‘passages’ or arcades of Haussmannised Paris, ranging from ‘physiognomy of a flâneur’ to peregrinations through the city’s streets, with Marxist aphorisms and quotations from a huge range of obscure texts interspersed.Benjamin Arcades cover

Some time ago I wrote a post about Leopardi’s similar project of collected texts, Zibaldone (link HERE), likening it to other florilegia such as that by Chamfort.

There are some striking phrases in the review, arising from the text of The Arcades: ‘The Historian as Chiffonier’; ‘Politics of Loitering’; ‘Peregrinations through Paris’; ‘anamnestic intoxication’. This adjective sent me to the online OED (thank you, Cornwall Library Service, for making it available to cardholders for free; it’s a magnificent resource): ‘the recalling of things past; recollection; reminiscence < Greek ἀνάμνησις remembrance, n. of action < ἀναμνα stem of ἀναμιμνήσκειν to remember, < ἀνά back + μνα call to mind, < μένος mind.

Then there’s ‘The Colportage Phenomenon of Space’; a ‘colporteur’, says OED, is

A hawker of books, newspapers, etc. esp. (in English use) one employed by a society to travel about and sell or distribute Bibles and religious writings.

 The etymology is curious: ‘French agent-noun < colporter, apparently < col neck + porter to carry’, referring to the practice of carrying a tray or box (of books) held by a strap round the neck.

When I first looked this up in a print dictionary, probably Chambers, I noted this entry nearby: colpopoiesis: surgical construction of an artificial vagina. There’s no entry for this word in OED, but a quick Google search took me to an online medical definition, derived from the Greek for vagina plus ‘poeisis’ – making (as in poet as ‘makar’ (Scots) or maker.

 Strange how one word leads to another.