Monday, October 27, 2014

"Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated." The failure of Bellow's Henderson the Rain King

Is there any point in my listing the many flaws of Saul Bellow's 1959 comic philosophical novel Henderson the Rain King? No, there is not.

But Henderson the Rain King, apparently Bellow's favorite of his own novels, is a flawed book. Not flawed in the way that every great work of art has flaws, where technique has yet to catch up to inflamed, all-consuming vision; Henderson is flawed by weaknesses in basic craft. The book is structured as a traditional three-act story arc, with Act 1 ending as the hero has failed his first attempt at a Quest and rides off into the wilderness with his faithful servant. Act 2 dramatizes the continuation of the Quest in a new strange unknown land, with the addition of a Wise Helper character who discusses philosophy with the hero, and points him in the direction of Renewal and Hope. Act 3 is the sacrifice of the Wise Helper and the Coming Into His Own of the hero, with a sentimental denouement and happy ending. Yes, Henderson is that sort of novel, Don Quixote crossed with 19th-century adventure literature as filtered through the mind of one of those American male writers from the 1950s whose works I don't really get. That's a hint, that last phrase there.

The first act is mostly terrific, the language boiling and joking bigger than life, the humor quite sharp and aimed by the hero (Henderson) mostly at himself, as the reader can see that Henderson's barbs for his wives (ex and present) and children and everyone else are misdirected, the character flaws mostly belonging all to Henderson.
But if I am to make sense to you people and explain why I went to Africa I must face up to the facts. I might as well start with the money. I am rich. From my old man I inherited three million dollars after taxes, but I thought myself a bum and had my reasons, the main reason being that I behaved like a bum. But privately when things got very bad I often looked into books to see whether I could find some helpful words, and one day I read, “The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.” This impressed me so deeply that I went around saying it to myself. But then I forgot which book it was. It was one of thousands left by my father, who had also written a number of them. And I searched through dozens of volumes but all that turned up was money, for my father had used currency for bookmarks—whatever he happened to have in his pockets—fives, tens, or twenties. Some of the discontinued bills of thirty years ago turned up, the big yellowbacks. For old times’ sake I was glad to see them and locking the library door to keep out the children I spent the afternoon on a ladder shaking out books and the money spun to the floor. But I never found that statement about forgiveness.
That is great stuff, on a lot of levels. The money falling out of his father's old books, which Henderson does not understand, is a brilliant image. There is a lot of brilliant imagery in the first act of Henderson the Rain King. The pages writhe with symbolism and shimmer with the energy of the prose. Then, when Henderson misguidedly blows up the water cistern at an African village, destroying the water supply and assuring the death of the village's cattle, Act 2 starts.

Act 2 is the long, long, interminably long, very quite long, too long middle of the novel. It's actually a fairly short novel, 330 pages or so in trade paperback, but it felt like an immensely long book while I was slogging my way through the pointless and clumsy story. Yes, I know, Nobel Prize and all of that. Don't get me started.

I'm not going to detail the failure of Act 2. Suffice it to say that the action is forced, not at all interesting, and is an excellent example of a writer taking the wrong path. Okay, hell, here's a sample of what I mean:
I wish to say at this place that the beauty of King Dahfu’s person prevailed with me as much as his words, if not more. His black skin shone as if with the moisture that gathers on plants when they reach their prime. His back was long and muscular. His high-rising lips were a strong red. Human perfections are short-lived, and we love them more than we should, maybe. But I couldn’t help it. The thing was involuntary. I felt a pang in my gums, where such things register themselves without my will and then I knew how I was affected by him.

"Yet you are right for the long run, and good exchanged for evil truly is the answer. I also subscribe, but it appears a long way off, for the human specie as a whole. Perhaps I am not the one to make a prediction, Sungo, but I think the noble will have its turn in the world."

I was swayed; I thrilled when I heard this. Christ! I would have given anything I had to hear another man say this to me. My heart was moved to such an extent that I felt my face stretch until it must have been as long as a city block. I was blazing with fever and mental excitement because of the loftiness of our conversation and I saw things not double or triple merely, but in countless outlines of wavering color, gold, red, green, umber, and so on, all flowing concentrically around each object. Sometimes Dahfu seemed to be three times his size, with the spectrum around him. Larger than life, he loomed over me and spoke with more than one voice. I gripped my legs through the green silk trousers of the Sungo and I am sure I must have been demented at that time. Slightly. I was really sent, and I mean it. The king treated me with classic African dignity, and this is one of the summits of human behavior. I don’t know where else people can be so dignified. Here, in the midst of darkness, in a small room in a hidden fold near the equator, in this same town where I had struggled along with the corpse on my back under the moon and the blue forests of heaven. Why, if a spider should get a stroke and suddenly begin to do a treatise on botany or something—a transfigured vermin, do you follow me? This is how I embraced the king’s words about nobility’s having its turn in the world.
Dahfu, king of a remote African tribe, is sitting with Henderson in a subterranean lion's den, lecturing on the possibility of man raising himself to a noble state by emulating noble animals, such as lions. The lion is, however, not a symbol for the sort of nobility that Dahfu thinks it is. That irony is clever, but alas the lion is not the symbol that Bellow thinks it is, either. And there is page after page of that "the king kept talking to me and I didn't know really what he was talking about, but it sure sounded smart and I felt swell while we chatted" stuff, about which I had no idea what to make, really. Is it comedy? Is Bellow really trying to talk about the nature of man? What what what? It went on and on and after a while it was merely something to endure with the hope of eventual freedom or at least some meaningful statements from the author.

I get the impression that Bellow thought his exotic and unrealistic Africa was so interesting, because so far from the experience of Americans, that it in itself could carry the bulk of the narrative. Unfortunately, the vagueness of what Bellow meant by all of this African action (it fails to work as comedy, as realism, as metaphor, as irony) leaves it just dull and in a lot of places clumsy, poorly-written filler.

What would've been more interesting would've been for Bellow to tell at length the story of Henderson at the carnival in his youth, and his relationship to the bear. The bear, briefly mentioned in Act 3, is the real hinge of the story arc, not the lion in the endless toiling drudgework of Act 2. The book ends with a scene of completely unearned emotion (as we say in the biz), but the images are quite pretty. Here's the final passage, which seals the cheating happy ending with a gorgeous kiss:
Laps and laps I galloped around the shining and riveted body of the plane, behind the fuel trucks. Dark faces were looking from within. The great beautiful propellers were still, all four of them. I guess I felt it was my turn now to move, and so went running—leaping, leaping, pounding, and tingling over the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence.
the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence is pretty good. But it was not worth the effort, alas, to get to that silence.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Book and the Ring, a parting word or two from Mr Browning

it is the glory and good of Art,
That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth

Regarding two books I'm reading that I probably won't post about:

Nazarin by Benito Perez Galdos
"He is not mad," said Sancho. "But he is venturesome."

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
"Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated."

Friday, October 17, 2014

Perversely 'neath the tower

So what exactly is The Ring and the Book? A very very long poem, but it's also similar to a novel in the way it develops, the story told over time with flashbacks and new information coming in each chapter. It's also similar to a theatrical drama, each "act" being a long dramatic monologue delivered by one of the central characters. That might be the best way to look at this thing. The story each of these characters tells is more or less the same story, and the individual variations and interpretations of that story are not important because of what we might learn of the crime and subsequent trial upon which the whole poem is based, but because of what we might learn of the characters who deliver these monologues. This is a work about people, not about jurisprudence.

I'm in the middle of Book X, the dramatic monologue delivered by Pope Innocent XII, and it's here where Browning finally really tips his hand. The subject of The Ring &cet is not the crime story, but rather it's the relationship of man to God, of how one chooses to live in the world. The Pope has judged against Guido, and will not overturn the court's death sentence. Why? Because Guido should've known better--no, did know better--than to place his greed and pride above the commandments of Christ:
Wherein I see a trial fair and fit
For one else too unfairly fenced about,
Set above sin, beyond his fellows here,
Guarded from the arch-tempter, all must fight,
By a great birth, traditionary name,
Diligent culture, choice companionship,
Above all, conversancy with the faith
Which puts forth for its base of doctrine just
"Man is born nowise to content himself
But please God." He accepted such a rule,
Recognised man’s obedience;
Guido is only able to appeal his case to the Pope because Guido has taken a few vows--he's a member of a minor religious order, a lay minister of a sort. The irony is that Guido is appealing to a man who sees through the hypocrisy of Guido's sham religious leanings, a Pope who condemns Guido for being a hypocrite:
Professed so much of priesthood as might sue
For priest’s-exemption where the layman sinned —
Got his arm frocked which, bare, the law would bruise.
Hence, at this moment, what’s his last resource,
His extreme stray and utmost stretch of hope
But that — convicted of such crime as law
Wipes not away save with a worldling’s blood —
Guido, the three-parts consecrate, may ’scape?
[...]
This is the man proves irreligiousest
Of all mankind, religion’s parasite!
This may forsooth plead dinned ear, jaded sense,
The vice o’ the watcher who bides near the bell,
Sleeps sound because the clock is vigilant,
And cares not whether it be shade or shine,
Doling out day and night to all men else!
Why was the choice o’ the man to niche himself
Perversely ’neath the tower where Time’s own tongue
Thus undertakes to sermonise the world?
Why, but because the solemn is safe too
Pope Innocent XII is an old man, 86 years, and he is tired. He doesn't look forward to writing the note that will affirm Guido's execution, but he knows he will do it. He puts off writing this little sentence, tells himself that he knows he might be mistaking the character of Guido but he's only got as much sense as God has given him and he's using that sense as well as he can and what else can he do? He thinks about sin, and goodness, and good Pompilia who was murdered by prideful, greedy Guido and the Pope transforms the dishonest, legalistic briefs of the lawyers into some kind of truth about real humans. He brings Guido and Pompilia back to life for the reader of the poem, working the same sort of magic Browning himself works for us. This might be my last post about The Ring and the Book. You'll be glad to hear that.

Monday, October 13, 2014

a shilling's worth

Cheap Art Is Bad Art

I am sorry to say, the great tendency of this age is to expend its genius in perishable art of this kind, as if it were a triumph to burn its thoughts away in bonfires. There is a vast quantity of intellect and of labour consumed annually in our cheap illustrated publications; you triumph in them; and you think it is so grand a thing to get so many woodcuts for a penny. Why, woodcuts, penny and all, are as much lost to you as if you had invested your money in gossamer. More lost, for the gossamer could only tickle your face, and glitter in your eyes; it could not catch your feet and trip you up: but the bad art can, and does; for you can't like good woodcuts as long as you look at the bad ones. If we were at this moment to come across a Titian woodcut, or a Durer woodcut, we should not like it—those of us at least who are accustomed to the cheap work of the day. We don't like, and can't like, that long; but when we are tired of one bad cheap thing, we throw it aside and buy another bad cheap thing; and, so keep looking at bad things all our lives. Now, the very men who do all that quick bad work for us are capable of doing perfect work. Only, perfect work can't be hurried, and therefore it can't be cheap beyond a certain point. But suppose you pay twelve times as much as you do now, and you have one woodcut for a shilling instead of twelve; and the one woodcut for a shilling is as good as art can be, so that you will never tire of looking at it; and is struck on good paper with good ink, so that you will never wear it out by handling it; while you are sick of your penny-each cuts by the end of the week, and have torn them mostly in half too. Isn't your shilling's worth the best bargain?
--John Ruskin, The Political Economy of Art, 1857

Friday, October 10, 2014

"One might wait years and never find the chance which now finds me!" Browning, at work and play

Where am I in The Ring and the Book? I'm in Book IX, I see, which means that I've finished Book VIII, the tale of Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis, the "protector of the poor," the lawyer Guido Franceschini has hired to defend him against multiple murder charges. Hyacinth is spending the day writing up his initial notes for the brief he'll submit to the court, lining up his arguments, marshalling some pithy and poetical Latin phrases. He tries to focus on the job at hand, which is a difficult task because it is the eighth birthday of his son, a boy the lawyer dotes upon, and all sorts of festivities and foodstuffs are planned for the evening. But Hyacinth is glad to have this case
Now, how good God is! How falls plumb to point
This murder, gives me Guido to defend
Now, of all days i’ the year, just when the boy
Verges on Virgil, reaches the right age
For some such illustration from his sire,
Stimulus to himself! One might wait years
And never find the chance which now finds me!
The fact is, there’s a blessing on the hearth,
A special providence for fatherhood!
Here's the opportunity to shine, to show his son How It's Done, a chance to face off against Johannes-Baptista Bottinius, the advocate for the prosecution and Dom Hyacinth's adversary. Hyacinth has a low opinion of Bottinius and Guido's case is a public stage whereon Hyacinth can show his brilliance at law and rhetoric, outfoxing and outarguing Bottinius, who will of course look a real fool when Hyacinth is done with him. Oh, what larks for our Protector of the Poor! Does it matter that Guido is guilty as charged? No, it does not, because Hyacinth will argue for an acquittal despite all the facts of the case. He plans to be brilliant and witty and dazzling and thus win the field. That Guido has actually admitted to hiring four armed thugs and with them butchering his estranged wife (and her adopted parents into the bargain) is beside the point. Dom Hyacinth will walk the court through the morality of the case, and show them their obligation to set the perpetrators free. This case can all be assembled in an afternoon, and then there will be birthday cake and roast porcupine and games for the children. This victory, in fact, will be dedicated to Hyacinth's son. So there, old Bottinius!
I defend Guido and his comrades — I!
Pray God, I keep me humble: not to me —
Non nobis, Domine, sed tibi laus!
How the fop chuckled when they made him Fisc!
We’ll beat you, my Bottinius, all for love,
All for our tribute to Cinotto’s day!
The heart of Hyacinth's defense is a complicated argument that says, essentially, that because Christ forbids the stoning of adulterous wives, and because Canon law forbids the divorcing of adulterous wives, and because Roman civil law forbids the slaying of adulterous wives, there is no legal recourse for poor Count Guido, an otherwise upstanding citizen who believes his wife has had an adulterous affair with a handsome young priest (and it doesn't matter if this belief is untrue, because Guido acted on his beliefs, as do we all and what choice have we?). The law leaves Guido no way to defend his honor! What's a dishonored nobleman to do? Friends, Romans, countrymen, et alia, there was nothing for it but for Guido to step beyond the bounds of the law, to do the work of the law in preserving civil order, to execute the bawd and her lying parents since nobody else was going to do it. Yes, gentlemen, Guido was forced to take this drastic step; you can't really blame him.
Why cite more? Enough
Is good as a feast —(unless a birthday-feast
For one’s Cinuccio: so, we’ll finish here)
My lords, we rather need defend ourselves
Inasmuch as for a twinkling of an eye
We hesitatingly appealed to law —
Rather than deny that, on mature advice,
We blushingly bethought us, bade revenge
Back to the simple proper private way
Of decent self-dealt gentlemanly death.
Judges, there is the law, and this beside,
The testimony! Look to it!
Hyacinth spends some time working out the best poetic language in which to couch his argument, which is important here because one of the three judges bases his decisions more upon the beauty of the language than on the facts of the case, but the law must be actually addressed because a second judge cares nothing for the prose style and everything for the form of the law if not the spirit of it. So Hyacinth must think this all through. "Virgil is little help to who writes prose." Cicero, though, is a great aid, we learn.

We also learn more facts about the case. Guido, it turns out, had a loaded pistol with him when he followed Pompilia's flight away from his castle. Malice aforethought. And those four henchmen, to whom Guido had promised payment in gold once the deed was done? They were, at the time of their arrest, planning the murder of Guido himself, Guido who it turns out had decided not to pay them after all. You might say that Guido is a dishonest old dog, but Dom Hyacinth will argue the opposite:
What fact could hope to make more manifest
Their rectitude, Guido’s integrity?
[...]
He, dreaming of no argument for death
Except the vengeance worthy noble hearts,
Would be to desecrate the deed forsooth,
Vulgarise vengeance, as defray its cost
By money dug out of the dirty earth,
Mere irritant, in Maro’s phrase, to ill?
What though he lured base hinds by lucre’s hope —
The only motive they could masticate,
Milk for babes, not stong meat which men require?
The deed done, those coarse hands were soiled enough,
He spared them the pollution of the pay.
Oh, wise Guido, to keep his henchmen so morally upright! All of this sideways logic is part of Hyacinth's overall tactic, "You perceive, the cards are all against us. Make a push, kick over table, as our gamesters do!" Hyacinth keeps kicking over the table, keeps claiming that the game is different from the one the court thought it was playing, and that the pieces were not set up on the board the way we supposed they were. He can't argue the law, or the evidence, but Dom Hyacinth can certainly argue. And he does. Great, great fun. The bit where he claims that Pompilia is dead because the Court didn't lock her up to protect her from her vengeful husband, that's good stuff.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

$410.63 as of June 30 2014

Writing fiction is the road to riches, kids.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

so many names for one poor child: more from The Ring and the Book

Even though the "testimony" of the three principal characters in The Ring and the Book is addressed directly to three judges, and even though these judges do not get to speak in the book, the reader is not put in the place of those judges and given the task of evaluating the testimony and deciding what is true. Browning takes it as given that the court eventually made the correct move, condemning Guido and his henchmen to death for the violent murder of Pompilia and her parents. A search for truth, or even a realization on the part of the reader that truth might be provisional, is a newfangled moral relativistic idea that is not part of Browning's project. What I think Browning is doing is giving life to his characters--the same thing he does in his other "ventriloqism" poems. Browning actually does more than bring life to these historical figures: he makes them individuals, with distinct voices; they are not puppets of the poet, mouthing mere ideas. That individual life, that unique soul walking the stage once again, is Browning's art. He says so, there in Book I. He might say it again in Book XII, but I've only skimmed a couple of passages of that and I must wait impatiently for my slowly reading self to make my way to the end of the book.

Today, though, I can see how Browning's characters are unique, alive, full of spirit. Here are the three principals, in order of appearance:

Count Guido Franceschini:
Softly, Sirs!
Will the Court of its charity teach poor me
Anxious to learn, of any way i’ the world,
Allowed by custom and convenience, save
This same which, taught from my youth up, I trod?
Take me along with you; where was the wrong step?
If what I gave in barter, style and state
And all that hangs to Franceschinihood,
Were worthless — why, society goes to ground,
Its rules are idiot’s-rambling. Honour of birth —
If that thing has no value, cannot buy
Something with value of another sort,
You’ve no reward nor punishment to give
I’ the giving or the taking honour; straight
Your social fabric, pinnacle to base,
Comes down a-clatter like a house of cards.
Guido maintains that tone throughout his speech, the tone of a nobleman done wrong, or at least misunderstood, a defense of his pride, his pride being a defense of his actions. If nobility--which is what he shares with the three men who sit as his judges--means nothing, if upholding the meaning of "nobility" means nothing, if nobles can be hoodwinked by the vulgar, then civilization must fall. Guido's argument is that to convict him is to bring ruin to the world itself. Guido imagines that the world is a mere reflection of Guido. Pride is the first sin, you know. Today is the feast day of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, the "Little Flower." Guido would've hated Thérèse.

Giuseppe Caponsacchi:
How shall holiest flesh
Engage to keep such vow inviolate,
How much less mine — I know myself too weak,
Unworthy! Choose a worthier stronger man!
Thus exclaimed Giuseppe before he took his priestly vows, because he knew himself to be a weak man, a nobleman also, a pampered son of pampered sons, not a man with a holy calling. He was advised not to worry, to put on cassock and collar and spend his days writing sonnets and entertaining wealthy noblewomen, enjoying the easy life and acting the public image of the church. Giuseppe lived this life, flirting and courting and dressing like a man of God, leading a harmless and empty existence. Then he met Pompilia, who he did not seduce; the holiness and purity of Pompilia seduced the priest, or rather touched his inner (dormant) sense of the holy, and Giuseppe loved her as a saint, as an angel, not as a woman. That is why he helped to free her from captivity in Guido's house. "In rushed new things, the old were rapt away; Alike abolished — the imprisonment Of the outside air, the inside weight o’ the world That pulled me down."
I am a priest
Duty to God is duty to her: I think
God, who created her, will save her too
[...]
I stand here guiltless in thought, word and deed,
To the point that I apprise you — in contempt
For all misapprehending ignorance
O’ the human heart, much more the mind of Christ —
That I assuredly did bow, was blessed
By the revelation of Pompilia. There!
Such is the final fact I fling you, Sirs,
To mouth and mumble and misinterpret: there!
"The priest’s in love," have it the vulgar way!
Unpriest me, rend the rags o’ the vestment, do —
Degrade deep, disenfranchise all you dare —
Remove me from the midst, no longer priest
And fit companion for the like of you —
For Pompilia — be advised,
Build churches, go pray! You will find me there,
I know, if you come — and you will come, I know.
Why, there’s a Judge weeping! Did not I say
You were good and true at bottom? You see the truth —
I am glad I helped you: she helped me just so.
Love, yes. Love of goodness, of innocence. Giuseppe will take whatever punishment is handed him, for God will judge him better than man, so be it, etc.

Pompilia Comparini:
I am just seventeen years and five months old,
And, if I lived one day more, three full weeks;
’Tis writ so in the church’s register,
Lorenzo in Lucina, all my names
At length, so many names for one poor child,
— Francesca Camilla Vittoria Angela
Pompilia Comparini — laughable!
Also ’tis writ that I was married there
Four years ago; and they will add, I hope,
When they insert my death, a word or two —
Omitting all about the mode of death —
This, in its place, this which one cares to know,
That I had been a mother of a son
Exactly two weeks.
She is simple, plainspoken, humble and honest. Browning would have us see in her a Christ figure, or at least a wounded saint, slandered and murdered but free of hate, bewildered at the violent mess life has become around her. We are, I think, intended to share Giuseppe's worshipful love of Pompilia, and perhaps Browning used these last two characters to show--indirectly--his love of Elizabeth, whose death left him, like Pompilia's priest, daily "awakening to the old solitary nothingness" in the absence of his beloved (he outlived her by 28 years). Maybe, and also beside the point of this rambling post.

I am not doing a good job showing how Guido, Giuseppe and Pompilia each breathes a different air, as it were. I keep getting distracted by the drama of the story, and by poetic turns of phrase. But these characters are distinct, remarkable, living beings. Honest.