Thursday, August 18, 2016

John Williams, "Stoner"

Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.
Despite it's shortcomings, John Williams' 1965 novel Stoner has at its core a great strength: the love of literature, of poetry, of language, the love of engaging in depth with literature and its language, and even a love of the way that the central meaning to humanity of the arts is something that cannot, in the end, be fully expressed. I take it that the disappointments our protagonist William Stoner meets in life are a metaphor for the disappointment one experiences when one discovers that the greatest works of language leave us all essentially incoherent if we attempt to fully interpret and evaluate. We pursue that which we love, we pursue the idea of that which we love, and we never are able to possess or understand it. Or something like that.

I think this is all stated for the reader in a scene early on in the book, where Stoner, who has enrolled in an agronomic science program at the University of Missouri, finds himself entrapped within a survey of English literature, a course required of all students, a course that "troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done." Stoner has never been challenged before to find actual meaning in poetry: "the words he read were words on pages, and he could not see the use." The man teaching the course, Archer Sloane, reads out Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, which likens a man growing old to an ancient tree in the winter. It is not one of Shakespeare's more difficult sonnets, no, but it's new to Stoner as is, I think, the very idea of metaphor. Sloane calls on several students to say what the sonnet means, getting no response. Sloane calls on Stoner, who says nothing. Sloane recites the sonnet again, from memory, and asks Stoner to tell him what it means. Stoner thinks hard and sees, for the first time, that the sonnet is more than mere words on a page, that there is something beyond the surface of the language. Stoner vaguely connects the ideas of winter weather outside the classroom with the aging man who is a leafless old tree in the sonnet, but he does not know how to describe this connection; he is only aware that he has seen something new, and he can only say of Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet that "It means...it means." Stoner "could not finish what he had to say." The bell rings, Stoner follows his classmates outside, where he again sees the winter weather, sees humanity milling about, and he knows that somehow the world has changed, his perception of life is now different, though he can never express precisely in what way. The next year he declares as an English Literature major.

I have had this moment, this knowing that I'm experiencing something new and powerful and beautiful though I cannot begin to comprehend it, this moment followed by a desire to pursue the experience into real knowledge. I've had this moment with music, with art, with literature. This moment, I believe John Williams would have us believe, is a moment of falling in love.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

they did not know whom to blame

He was in the hospital from the middle of Lent till after Easter. When he was better, he remembered the dreams he had had while he was feverish and delirious. He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices.
From Epilogue, Chapter 2 in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Constance Garnett. 1866.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

throw the bones to any dog

"How to Bone a Text"

I
The fish of the text (as well as the text of the fish) is consumed, after which the backbone and the bones of the consonants are removed. Note well that with small children the first fish (text) is soft and pouffy (not puffy), composed exclusively from the delicate soulflesh of the vowels. With growth, the bones rooted in this flesh will become hard, harder, always haaaarder.
I submit that the natural softness of the language can still be saved in poetry.

II
-DO YOU TASTE ME, DEAR?
The words are tiny fish
with many consonant bones.
Permit me to clean them for a moment
before I melt in your mouth
- O OU A E E, EA?

III
This technique can successfully be applied
to prepared classic texts.
The boning process sets the flesh of the text to music
and gives it naturalness.
And so
"Who rides so late through night and wind,
it is the father with his child..."
becomes
" o i e o a e ou i a i,
i i e a e i i i ..."
Throw the extracted bones of the consonants
- Wh rds s lt thrgh nght nd wnd-
to any dog.

Auuuuuu
But listen!
Not a single bone
in a dog's voice.

"Technik zum Entgräten von Texten" by Georgi Gospodinov, translation from the German mine. No, this is not the La Regenta excerpt post I said I was going to write. I have mislaid my copy of the Alas novel.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Divine Madness: la idiota en casa y iglesia, by Leopoldo Alas

Leopoldo Alas' 1885 novel La Regenta concerns a thirty year-old woman, Ana Ozores, who was married at twenty to Victor, a retired judge more than twice her age. Ana and Victor live in the old well-to-do part of Vetusta, a venerable rural city that was long ago the capitol of the Kingdom of Asturias and is now undergoing a sort of urban renewal as the nouveau riche merchants build suburbs while the working classes lose respect for the nobility. Ana loves Victor as a friend and father figure, he being more-or-less impotent and far more interested in hunting and theater-going than in conjugal relations with his beautiful wife. Ana has been given, her whole life, to a religious mysticism which sometimes overwhelms her, blotting out everything except her devotion to God. After a decade of marriage, with Victor now about sixty, Ana falls under the sway of two other men: Fermin de Pas (canon theologian and vicar-general of the diocese) and Alvaro Mesia (self-styled Don Juan and minor league politician). De Pas becomes Ana's confessor and spiritual guide, while Mesia begins a slow and successful campaign to seduce Ana and become her lover. Victor is alerted to Ana's affair with Mesia, as is de Pas. Both the husband and the priest are furious with Ana, furious with Mesia. Victor challenges Mesia to a duel and is killed. Mesia flees to Madrid. De Pas ceases to be Ana's confessor and the novel ends with her, humiliated and alone, lying on the floor of the empty cathedral.

Most of the commentary I've read about La Regenta compares the book to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, because of the obvious surface similarities. La Regenta is also considered to be one of those big 19th-century social novels, as it involves (at various distances) characters from all of the social classes of Spain. The book is usually labeled a "realist novel," no doubt because many readers believe Alas was depicting Spain in a factual manner, keeping the action of the story in the empirical world. I will suggest that this way of looking at the novel is correct only when considering the surface of the book, and that La Regenta is far less like Madame Bovary than it is like another great 19th-century novel that operates on the level of the irrational while hiding behind a realist facade: Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot.

The surface plot, the attempted seduction of Ana by the priest de Pas and the successful seduction of Ana by the small-time politician Mesia, obscures but does not actually overwhelm the parallel plot of Ana attempting to lead a proper Christian life, by turns modeling herself on St Teresa of Avila, Thomas a Kempis, and Fermin de Pas. Most readers see this life of faith as background, as activity against which the adultery plot functions, but I believe that Ana's striving to live her faith properly is in fact the primary story, and the drawn out adultery plot is the social background to that story. After all, every woman in Vetusta is an adulteress; adultery, lechery, and deceit are the status quo and Ana's engaging in that status quo in no way sets her apart from any other woman in the text. What does set Ana apart is her saintliness, her sincere devotion to God. In fact, Ana is the only "good" woman in La Regenta (up to her fall into Mesia's bed); there are no normal women in Vetusta, no women who are not either saintly Ana or scheming vixens.

The spiritual plot of the novel can be traced from Ana's backstory (an innocent child who wrote ecstatic love poems to Christ, was falsely accused of having sex with a boy from her village and shipped off to live as a virtual prisoner with two stern embittered aunts), through Ana's more-or-less virginal marriage to Victor, through the episode of the young nun dying in the Vetustan convent situated next to a sewer outlet, through Ana's interest in Teresa of Avila, though Ana's spiritual counseling from de Pas (who attempts to guide her away from the contemplative life into a more active worldly life that has the outward show of religion but lacks real and meaningful faith), through Victor's brief flirtation with the writings of Thomas a Kempis, through Ana's public humiliation in support of de Pas, through Ana's sophistry in convincing herself that to become Mesia's lover is an act of propriety, to the final scene of the novel, where the cathedral empties as Ana enters, de Pas fleeing from her in horror, Ana collapsing on the floor and kissed during her blackout by the grotesque sexton. La Regenta is a very long book so I may have some of these events out of order.

I believe that Alas is presenting a saint trapped in the profane world, in much the same way that Dostoyevsky's The Idiot presents a Christ figure trapped in 19th-century Russia. Both Dostoyevsky's Myshkin and Alas' Ana seek purity and goodness, and both are tempted and fall. Myshkin is epileptic, Ana is subject to some kind of physical and mental collapses. Both Myshkin and Ana are human and flawed characters, but they are also both clearly morally far superior to everyone else in the novels they inhabit, raised by their authors onto pedestals from which these saints' fellow characters wish to topple them.

The theme of the cloister is important to Ana's story. For most of the book, Ana is homebound, alone with her faith and doubts. Early on in the book, a daughter of one of Vetusta's upper class citizens dies in a convent, victim of the unsanitary conditions there. The young nun had been placed in the convent at the suggestion of Fermin de Pas, the most influential priest in town. This episode foreshadows Ana's story (a devout woman whose world is controlled by selfish men is slowly poisoned by the toxic city in which she lives). Ana's strongest impulse is to remain cloistered, sleeping alone, meditating and praying and leaving the house only to attend mass and make her confession. She is most able to reconcile her life with her faith when she is alone, though her mysticism is viewed by her family and neighbors as a form of madness that must be cured. When Ana attempts to bring Victor back to an active religion, he reads The Imitation of Christ. The quoted lines from Kempis' book provide one of the central axes around which La Regenta turns:
Settle and order everything according to your own views and wishes, yet whether you like it or not you will always be made to suffer; you will always find a cross. Sometimes it will seem as if God has abandoned you, and sometimes you will be mortified by your neighbor; what is more, you will often be a burden to yourself.
Book III Chapter XX of Kempis' Imitation reminds us that "it is sweet to despise the world and to serve God," and the explicit use of Kempis reinforces Alas' cloister theme: Ana is better off away from the wicked world of Vetusta, and to turn her back on social obligations in order to face God is not necessarily madness. The problem, of course, is the toxic presence of Vetustan men intruding upon Ana's solitude.

In the Spain of the 1880s, the saintliness of Teresa of Avila was being hotly debated. Was she an enraptured mystic inspired by the Divine, or was she merely a hysterical young woman? Ramon Mainez wrote a book about the hysteria of Teresa, and sent a copy of it to Leopoldo Alas, who was a professor of Roman law and a well-known journalist and literary critic. Alas responded, "I remember that on one occasion Galdos and I spoke of the 'big deal' that could be made of Saint Teresa in an historical novel, in the best sense of the word. It's true. And he could write it, because he's able to understand so many mysteries of poetry and feeling that exist in Saint Teresa and her divine madness. Believe me, Mr Mainez, doctors can tell a lot about what was happening to Saint Teresa, but they cannot say everything."

La Regenta, like much of Dostoyevsky's work, is an angry book. Alas is disappointed in the Church, in civil society, in humanity. It is a great religious novel, is La Regenta, the gasping voice of a dying faith, maybe. My understanding is that Alas had, by the time he wrote the book, fallen away from the Church, and his disappointment seems to embrace even himself. Alas' unreliable and sarcastic narrator is no better than the citizens of Vetusta; he leers at Ana when she is naked and getting into bed, he revels in the blasphemies of the town's official atheist, he turns a blind eye everywhere and cheers on evil with as much enthusiasm as he cheers on goodness. Behind this sarcastic idiot stands Alas, shaking his head, thinking of Thomas a Kempis and the imitation of Christ, thinking of the mysteries of poetry and feeling that exist in Saint Teresa and her divine madness.

Later this week, maybe, I'll post some favorite excerpts from the book, mostly from the second half, probably.

Friday, July 1, 2016

the bare heels of my aunt

"About the Gravel of the Earth"

          ...and the sergeant bellowed: You are the gravel of the Earth. And when the gravel comes to the end, where shall the Express between Sofia and Burgas travel, bellowed the sergeant. After that he slapped one, two on the neck and again: Have no fear, he bellowed, the gravel will never come to an end...And it is likely it never came to an end.
          (Memoirs of the Meto Pioneers, in the train, shortly before Chirpan)

From the gravel between the rails I'm speaking
from the filthy stones under the train
from the rusty stones
from those things that forever remain beneath
from their lost landscapes
their worn edges
from those things which never
will be praised by anyone
from those things which the camera doesn't capture
from gravel, all full
of piss from the herd
from gravel
         from gravel
from gravel
         between the rails
and Grandfather has never seen the sea
from gravel
         from gravel
three packs of cigarettes for my father
from gravel
         from gravel
my mother cooked the summer down
behind the block into canning jars
from gravel
         from gravel
the bare heels of my aunt
every evening she ran away from the house
and on the rails climbed the ladder to Heaven
from gravel
         from gravel
from gravel
         between the rails

Another Georgi Gospodinov poem in my translation from the German, from his book Kleines morgendliches Verbrechen. I don't know the story of the Meto Pioneers. This little post is part of Thomas Hubner's Bulgarian Literature Month. The month is over in a couple of hours, so this is likely the last of these translations from Mr Gospodinov's fine little book.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

but who are those other two guys?

I am pleased to learn that Professor Miriam Burstein of SUNY Brockport is using The Astrologer as a course text again this fall:
ENG 303.02 Intro to Literary Analysis
MWF 12:20-1:10
Dr. Miriam Burstein

This course offers students a "toolkit" for close reading. We will work with multiple genres—poetry, fiction, drama, film—and practice the skills necessary for analyzing and appreciating each. Among other things, students will practice basic poetic scansion, learn what constitutes different genres, and develop a working knowledge of critical vocabulary. This is a hands-on course, not a lecture: students should come prepared for in-class discussion and regular exercises. Readings include extensive poetry selections; Shakespeare’s Hamlet; Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; and Scott G. F. Bailey’s The Astrologer. Three essays; exams; quizzes; oral presentation.
Regular exercise is always good. If I ever finish the current work-in-progress, and if I manage to find a publisher for it, people could teach it alongside Melville. As if anyone teaches Melville in this day and age.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

(who is playing around with the elevator?)

"Easy Ways"

For a week now
the black suits have lain ready,
liberated from mothballs.
The relatives grieve,
they grieve.
The departed is still alive,
yet about that he feels no guilt,
but even so he is ashamed,
experiencing the uneasiness of the guests
when the host accompanies them out
where they wait for the elevator to come.
And in this painful pause
(who is playing around with the elevator?)
the man brings the empty bottles back,
orders milk, clears up the room and tries to decide
if his mourning guests' slippers will stink.
Then the elevator finally comes,
roaring slowly nearer.
On the other side the day is so peacefully clear.
On the other side!
A person is a person then,
when he's on the other side!
From Kleines morgendliches Verbrechen, a book of poems by Georgi Gospodinov. Translation from the German mine. I am reading this book in the corners of my days, so short of time lately. I don't know quite why that is.