Monday, April 29, 2013

"Ha, ha, ha!" he cried with a gesture of astonishment: Dead Souls of La Mancha

Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, of which novel I've read very nearly almost four whole chapters (that is to say, about a third of the book), has revealed its primary literary influence: Don Quixote. This should be no surprise, since (as Dwight warned me somewhere or other), once you read Don Quixote, you start to see it in every other novel. That might be an overstatement, but Dead Souls, to get back to my more-or-less point, is certainly a picaresque novel. Chichikov, the protagonist, travels over rural Russia on his quest to purchase "dead souls," the title-of-ownership to serfs who have died but who remain on the tax rolls. It's a good deal for the seller, as you can't get a kopeck's worth of work from a dead serf but you still have to pay the tax on them until the next official census, and only the Tsar knows when that will be, God protect him. The question in everyone's mind, of course, is: just what is Chichikov doing with these dead souls, anyway?

Near the end of Chapter 4, Chichikov is asked this question by Nozdrev, a young drunken wastrel of a property owner, when the offer is made to buy up Nozdrev's dead souls. Chichikov offers up the explanations the reader has been mulling over (or at least the reasons I'd been mulling over), only to admit, in the face of Nozdrev's cross-examinations, that these reasons are not true. We do not learn yet why Chichikov is buying up the titles to dead serfs. But we do learn in Chapter 4, as I was saying some time ago, that Dead Souls is a picaresque novel in the vein of Don Quixote. The bulk of Chapter 4 is a character sketch of Nozdrev:

Nozdrev's face will be familiar to the reader, seeing that every one must have encountered many such. Fellows of the kind are known as "gay young sparks," and, even in their boyhood and school days, earn a reputation for being bons camarades (though with it all they come in for some hard knocks) for the reason that their faces evince an element of frankness, directness, and enterprise which enables them soon to make friends, and, almost before you have had time to look around, to start addressing you in the second person singular. Yet, while cementing such friendships for all eternity, almost always they begin quarrelling the same evening, since, throughout, they are a loquacious, dissipated, high-spirited, over-showy tribe. Indeed, at thirty-five Nozdrev was just what he had been an eighteen and twenty--he was just such a lover of fast living. Nor had his marriage in any way changed him, and the less so since his wife had soon departed to another world, and left behind her two children, whom he did not want, and who were therefore placed in the charge of a good-looking nursemaid.

Nozdrev is a comic character and we are treated to a tour of his entire estate, including his collection of dogs, horses and carriages. Nozdrev gambles compulsively, goes on buying sprees, tells tall tales about himself and simply covets everything around him. In other words, he is Gogol's archetypal Russian landowner.

"That is the boundary," said Nozdrev. "Everything that you see on this side of the post is mine, as well as the forest on the other side of it, and what lies beyond the forest."

"When did that forest become yours?" asked the brother-in-law. "It cannot be long since you purchased it, for it never used to be yours."

"Yes, it isn't long since I purchased it," said Nozdrev.

"How long?"

"How long? Why, I purchased it three days ago, and gave a pretty sum for it, as the devil knows!"

"Indeed? Why, three days ago you were at the fair?"

"Wiseacre! Cannot one be at a fair and buy land at the same time? Yes, I was at the fair, and my steward bought the land in my absence."

"Oh, your steward bought it." The brother-in-law seemed doubtful, and shook his head.

This is all good stuff. Not a word of it advances the plot, but it's unputdownable. A feudal society in decline, where the serf class openly disrespects the gentry, and the gentry are in general immoral, dishonest, obsessed with their position in society, and utterly unworthy of respect. Like I say, the Cervantes influence is all over this. Chichikov is not quite The Knight of the Sad Countenance, but Gogol's Russia bears more than a passing resemblance to Cervante's Spain. Just so, Gogol's novel bears more than a passing resemblance to Cervante's epic. If you aren't part of the readalong, why aren't you?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

stout individuals never take a back seat

I forgot that I am supposed to be reading Gogol. Yesterday I finished the volume of Chekhov stories I was reading, leaving the house today without a book (I do not count Aristotle or the MS of mine that I'm revising). Thank God I remembered about Gogol and picked up a copy of Dead Souls at lunch. I've read Chapter One and it's quite fine, very funny and it percolates right along. It's a short book, or at least like Chichikov it's neither too short nor too long, so I'll probably finish it only a few days past the end of April. I tend to run behind on these readalong things, you know. I am reading Bernard Guerney's 1943 translation that Nabokov admired. The following is from Hogarth's 1845 translation, because it's available on Project Gutenberg for my copy-and-paste pleasure:

In passing, I may say that in business matters fat men always prove superior to their leaner brethren; which is probably the reason why the latter are mostly to be found in the Political Police, or acting as mere ciphers whose existence is a purely hopeless, airy, trivial one. Again, stout individuals never take a back seat, but always a front one, and, wheresoever it be, they sit firmly, and with confidence, and decline to budge even though the seat crack and bend with their weight. For comeliness of exterior they care not a rap, and therefore a dress coat sits less easily on their figures than is the case with figures of leaner individuals. Yet invariably fat men amass the greater wealth. In three years' time a thin man will not have a single serf whom he has left unpledged; whereas--well, pray look at a fat man's fortunes, and what will you see? First of all a suburban villa, and then a larger suburban villa, and then a villa close to a town, and lastly a country estate which comprises every amenity! That is to say, having served both God and the State, the stout individual has won universal respect, and will end by retiring from business, reordering his mode of life, and becoming a Russian landowner--in other words, a fine gentleman who dispenses hospitality, lives in comfort and luxury, and is destined to leave his property to heirs who are purposing to squander the same on foreign travel.

The Guerney version is better, and maybe next week or tomorrow or this weekend or never at all, I'll do some compare and contrast work between translations. Unlikely, but possible.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

one husband the less in Russia

"An Avenger"
by Anton Chekhov

SHORTLY after finding his wife in flagrante delicto Fyodor Fyodorovitch Sigaev was standing in Schmuck and Co.‘s, the gunsmiths, selecting a suitable revolver. His countenance expressed wrath, grief, and unalterable determination.

“I know what I must do,” he was thinking. “The sanctities of the home are outraged, honour is trampled in the mud, vice is triumphant, and therefore as a citizen and a man of honour I must be their avenger. First, I will kill her and her lover and then myself.”

He had not yet chosen a revolver or killed anyone, but already in imagination he saw three bloodstained corpses, broken skulls, brains oozing from them, the commotion, the crowd of gaping spectators, the post-mortem. . . . With the malignant joy of an insulted man he pictured the horror of the relations and the public, the agony of the traitress, and was mentally reading leading articles on the destruction of the traditions of the home.

The shopman, a sprightly little Frenchified figure with rounded belly and white waistcoat, displayed the revolvers, and smiling respectfully and scraping with his little feet observed:

“. . . I would advise you, M’sieur, to take this superb revolver, the Smith and Wesson pattern, the last word in the science of firearms: triple-action, with ejector, kills at six hundred paces, central sight. Let me draw your attention, M’sieu, to the beauty of the finish. The most fashionable system, M’sieu. We sell a dozen every day for burglars, wolves, and lovers. Very correct and powerful action, hits at a great distance, and kills wife and lover with one bullet. As for suicide, M’sieu, I don’t know a better pattern.”

The shopman pulled and cocked the trigger, breathed on the barrel, took aim, and affected to be breathless with delight. Looking at his ecstatic countenance, one might have supposed that he would readily have put a bullet through his brains if he had only possessed a revolver of such a superb pattern as a Smith–Wesson.

“And what price?” asked Sigaev.

“Forty-five roubles, M’sieu.”

“Mm! . . . that’s too dear for me.”

“In that case, M’sieu, let me offer you another make, somewhat cheaper. Here, if you’ll kindly look, we have an immense choice, at all prices. . . . Here, for instance, this revolver of the Lefaucher pattern costs only eighteen roubles, but . . .” (the shopman pursed up his face contemptuously) “. . . but, M’sieu, it’s an old-fashioned make. They are only bought by hysterical ladies or the mentally deficient. To commit suicide or shoot one’s wife with a Lefaucher revolver is considered bad form nowadays. Smith–Wesson is the only pattern that’s correct style.”

“I don’t want to shoot myself or to kill anyone,” said Sigaev, lying sullenly. “I am buying it simply for a country cottage . . . to frighten away burglars. . . .”

“That’s not our business, what object you have in buying it.” The shopman smiled, dropping his eyes discreetly. “If we were to investigate the object in each case, M’sieu, we should have to close our shop. To frighten burglars Lefaucher is not a suitable pattern, M’sieu, for it goes off with a faint, muffled sound. I would suggest Mortimer’s, the so-called duelling pistol. . . .”

“Shouldn’t I challenge him to a duel?” flashed through Sigaev’s mind. “It’s doing him too much honour, though. . . . Beasts like that are killed like dogs. . . .”

The shopman, swaying gracefully and tripping to and fro on his little feet, still smiling and chattering, displayed before him a heap of revolvers. The most inviting and impressive of all was the Smith and Wesson’s. Sigaev picked up a pistol of that pattern, gazed blankly at it, and sank into brooding. His imagination pictured how he would blow out their brains, how blood would flow in streams over the rug and the parquet, how the traitress’s legs would twitch in her last agony. . . . But that was not enough for his indignant soul. The picture of blood, wailing, and horror did not satisfy him. He must think of something more terrible.

“I know! I’ll kill myself and him,” he thought, “but I’ll leave her alive. Let her pine away from the stings of conscience and the contempt of all surrounding her. For a sensitive nature like hers that will be far more agonizing than death.”

And he imagined his own funeral: he, the injured husband, lies in his coffin with a gentle smile on his lips, and she, pale, tortured by remorse, follows the coffin like a Niobe, not knowing where to hide herself to escape from the withering, contemptuous looks cast upon her by the indignant crowd.

“I see, M’sieu, that you like the Smith and Wesson make,” the shopman broke in upon his broodings. “If you think it too dear, very well, I’ll knock off five roubles. . . . But we have other makes, cheaper.”

The little Frenchified figure turned gracefully and took down another dozen cases of revolvers from the shelf.

“Here, M’sieu, price thirty roubles. That’s not expensive, especially as the rate of exchange has dropped terribly and the Customs duties are rising every hour. M’sieu, I vow I am a Conservative, but even I am beginning to murmur. Why, with the rate of exchange and the Customs tariff, only the rich can purchase firearms. There’s nothing left for the poor but Tula weapons and phosphorus matches, and Tula weapons are a misery! You may aim at your wife with a Tula revolver and shoot yourself through the shoulder-blade.”

Sigaev suddenly felt mortified and sorry that he would be dead, and would miss seeing the agonies of the traitress. Revenge is only sweet when one can see and taste its fruits, and what sense would there be in it if he were lying in his coffin, knowing nothing about it?

“Hadn’t I better do this?” he pondered. “I’ll kill him, then I’ll go to his funeral and look on, and after the funeral I’ll kill myself. They’d arrest me, though, before the funeral, and take away my pistol. . . . And so I’ll kill him, she shall remain alive, and I . . . for the time, I’ll not kill myself, but go and be arrested. I shall always have time to kill myself. There will be this advantage about being arrested, that at the preliminary investigation I shall have an opportunity of exposing to the authorities and to the public all the infamy of her conduct. If I kill myself she may, with her characteristic duplicity and impudence, throw all the blame on me, and society will justify her behaviour and will very likely laugh at me. . . . If I remain alive, then . . .”

A minute later he was thinking:

“Yes, if I kill myself I may be blamed and suspected of petty feeling. . . . Besides, why should I kill myself? That’s one thing. And for another, to shoot oneself is cowardly. And so I’ll kill him and let her live, and I’ll face my trial. I shall be tried, and she will be brought into court as a witness. . . . I can imagine her confusion, her disgrace when she is examined by my counsel! The sympathies of the court, of the Press, and of the public will certainly be with me.”

While he deliberated the shopman displayed his wares, and felt it incumbent upon him to entertain his customer.

“Here are English ones, a new pattern, only just received,” he prattled on. “But I warn you, M’sieu, all these systems pale beside the Smith and Wesson. The other day—as I dare say you have read—an officer bought from us a Smith and Wesson. He shot his wife’s lover, and-would you believe it?-the bullet passed through him, pierced the bronze lamp, then the piano, and ricochetted back from the piano, killing the lap-dog and bruising the wife. A magnificent record redounding to the honour of our firm! The officer is now under arrest. He will no doubt be convicted and sent to penal servitude. In the first place, our penal code is quite out of date; and, secondly, M’sieu, the sympathies of the court are always with the lover. Why is it? Very simple, M’sieu. The judges and the jury and the prosecutor and the counsel for the defence are all living with other men’s wives, and it’ll add to their comfort that there will be one husband the less in Russia. Society would be pleased if the Government were to send all the husbands to Sakhalin. Oh, M’sieu, you don’t know how it excites my indignation to see the corruption of morals nowadays. To love other men’s wives is as much the regular thing today as to smoke other men s cigarettes and to read other men’s books. Every year our trade gets worse and worse —it doesn’t mean that wives are more faithful, but that husbands resign themselves to their position and are afraid of the law and penal servitude.”

The shopman looked round and whispered: “And whose fault is it, M’sieu? The Government’s.”

“To go to Sakhalin for the sake of a pig like that—there’s no sense in that either,” Sigaev pondered. “If I go to penal servitude it will only give my wife an opportunity of marrying again and deceiving a second husband. She would triumph. . . . And so I will leave her alive, I won’t kill myself, him . . . I won’t kill either. I must think of something more sensible and more effective. I will punish them with my contempt, and will take divorce proceedings that will make a scandal.”

“Here, M’sieu, is another make,” said the shopman, taking down another dozen from the shelf. “Let me call your attention to the original mechanism of the lock.”

In view of his determination a revolver was now of no use to Sigaev, but the shopman, meanwhile, getting more and more enthusiastic, persisted in displaying his wares before him. The outraged husband began to feel ashamed that the shopman should be taking so much trouble on his account for nothing, that he should be smiling, wasting time, displaying enthusiasm for nothing.

“Very well, in that case,” he muttered, “I’ll look in again later on . . . or I’ll send someone.”

He didn’t see the expression of the shopman’s face, but to smooth over the awkwardness of the position a little he felt called upon to make some purchase. But what should he buy? He looked round the walls of the shop to pick out something inexpensive, and his eyes rested on a green net hanging near the door.

“That’s . . . what’s that?” he asked.

“That’s a net for catching quails.”

“And what price is it?”

“Eight roubles, M’sieu.”

“Wrap it up for me. . . .”

The outraged husband paid his eight roubles, took the net, and, feeling even more outraged, walked out of the shop.

(translation by the immortal Constance Garnett)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dead White Guys

"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible."

-- Vladimir Nabokov

Today is the birthday of Vladimir Nabokov. It's also probably the birthday of William Shakespeare. Happy 449th, Bill! This is also the anniversary of Shakespeare's death, as well as the death of Miguel de Cervantes. I've read books written by all of these guys, and we are very lucky they all lived and wrote for us.

Today is also the feast of St George, who never killed a dragon. The dragon story is very cool, though, and it's a pity we don't know the name of the 12th-century writer who came up with that one.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Tell me all. Tell me now. You'll die when you hear.

photo of a quilt hanging on the line in our back yard, by Mighty Reader

I have begun reading critical commentary on Finnegans Wake. That can't be a good thing. I had orginally planned to just experience the book as witness to Joyce's performance, but I find myself increasingly caught up in various annotations and interpretations, finding that there is very little agreement among the Joyce authorities. I like that lack of agreement. It reminds me of when I first started reading "Hamlet" criticism and found that there is a multiplicity of interpretations of every scene in that play. The best works of art, I tell you and not for the first time, resist our attempts at decoding. But I will not go out and buy any of the standard critical texts about Finnegans Wake. No, I won't. I'll just read the damned book, I will.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Clay and Mercury

Finnegans Wake is a book of approximate language, a prose that uses, I'm told, words from some 65 or so different languages to create Joyce's idiosyncratic tongue in which he tells his tale. There is no way, really, to state definitively what Joyce meant to convey with each and every sentence. We can guess, and there are a lot of scholarly books that take guesses at this or that aspect of the Wake's text, but I am doubtful that there is any person on Earth who could translate this book into English. I'm doubtful Joyce himself could have performed that feat. Even if it was possible to move backwards through the process of creating the Wake, to resurrect Joyce's original writings (assuming that his first thoughts were in 1920s Irish English), the story is one of a dream, told in dream language, a narrative of a dream dreamt not only by Anna Liva Plurabelle, mother of Ireland, but dreamt by James Joyce as well. Joyce, I am attempting to say in my clumsy manner, didn't know the meaning--didn't understand himself all aspects of the symbolism--of everything he put into his novel. Which is natural and likely the case for most good novels. Writers move instinctively from passage to passage, from idea to idea, and no matter how much time is spent revising and reshaping the material, there will remain in the book elements that the writer himself cannot decipher, cannot explain, but knows full well fit into the book and must not be removed. The writer himself has an incomplete, an approximate, understanding of his own novel.

And so there's this provisional state that all reasonably complex art finds itself in, incomprehensible in some ways to every viewer, though some of the ideas the artist puts into the art will be visible and understood by some audience members and not others (including the artist, as I claim). Which means that--no matter how much we writers are exhorted to be precise in our meanings and careful with our language--there will always be vagueness here and there, foggy patches through which we can't see, shadowy things going on in corners or even right in the middle of the stage, and writers will only be able to write about these things approximately, via analogy and metaphor and guesswork. Which is all very interesting to me but also quite vexing, because I want clay and often I have only been able to produce mercury with which to model my figures.

Anyway, here's Joyce describing Anna Livia Plurabelle, wife of HCE, mother of Shem and Shaun and Izzy, also the river Liffey, also possibly Ireland herself, when she first meets HCE. Joyce describes Anna Livia as a young woman catching the eyes of all the young men and the envy of the other women, and also, simultaneously, as the river:

First she let her hair fal and down it flussed to her feet its teviots winding coils. Then, mothernaked, she sampood herself with galawater and fraguant pistania mud, wupper and lauar, from crown to sole. Next she greesed the groove of her keel, warthes and wears and mole and itcher, with antifouling butterscatch and turfentide and serpenthyme and with leafmould she ushered round prunella isles and eslats dun, quincecunct, allover her little mary. Peeld gold of waxwork her jellybelly and her grains of incense anguille bronze. And after that she wove a garland for her hair. She pleated it. She plaited it. Of meadowgrass and riverflags, the bulrush and waterweed, and of fallen griefs of weeping willow. Then she made her bracelets and her anklets and her armlets and a jetty amulet for necklace of clicking cobbles and pattering pebbles and rumbledown rubble, richmond and rehr, of Irish rhunerhinerstones and shellmarble bangles. That done, a dawk of smut to her airy ey, Annushka Lutetiavitch Pufflovah, and the lellipos cream to her lippeleens and the pick of the paintbox for her pommettes, from strawbirry reds to extra violates, and she sendred her boudeloire maids to His Affluence, Ciliegia Grande and Kirschie Real, the two chirsines, with respecks from his missus, seepy and sewery, and a request might she passe of him for a minnikin. A call to pay and light a taper, in Brie-on-Arrosa, back in a sprizzling. The cock striking mine, the stalls bridely sign, there's Zambosy waiting for Me! She said she wouldn't be half her length away. Then, then, as soon as the lump his back was turned, with her mealiebag slang over her shulder, Anna Livia, oysterface, forth of her bassein came. 

The river is not a metaphor for Anna nor vice versa; she is the river, and so later, Joyce gives us some more of the same:

Well, arundgirond in a waveney lyne aringarouma she pattered and swung and sidled, dribbling her boulder through narrowa mosses, the diliskydrear on our drier side and the vilde vetchvine agin us, curara here, careero there, not knowing which medway or weser to strike it, edereider, making chattahoochee all to her ain chichiu, like Santa Claus at the cree of the pale and puny, nistling to hear for their tiny hearties, her arms encircling Isolabella, then running with reconciled Romas and Reims, on like a lech to be off like a dart, then bathing Dirty Hans' spatters with spittle, with a Christmas box apiece for aisch and iveryone of her childer, the birthday gifts they dreamt they gabe her, the spoiled she fleetly laid at our door! On the matt, by the pourch and inunder the cellar. The rivulets ran aflod to see, the glashaboys, the pollynooties. Out of the paunschaup on to the pyre. And they all about her, juvenile leads and ingenuinas, from the slime of their slums and artesaned wellings, rickets and riots, like the Smyly boys at their vicereine's levee. Vivi vienne, little Annchen! 

The way the language works in Finnegans Wake (or one of the ways language works in the Wake) is to accumulate, to pile up and up and slowly form images that reveal themselves to the reader. The more of this novel I read, the more of this novel I'm able to understand, or at least the more of it seems understandable while I'm reading it. It's something like attending a concert of unfamiliar music: I can, if I pay attention, figure out some of the organizational principles of the music, see some of what the composer is doing in the pieces, and maybe catch on to how the movements relate to each other across the length of the works. But when the music's over, I can only hum a few snatches of it to myself and vaguely recollect my transitory impressions of the performance. So here I am, presently awake, trying to remember what it's like to dream the dream of James Joyce, who is dreaming the dream of Anna Livia Plurabelle, the river Liffey, the land of Ireland.

Friday, April 19, 2013

He said that they were all genuine

Before many days had passed, I accosted the poet Homer, when we were
both disengaged, and asked him, among other things, where he came
from; it was still a burning question with us, I explained. He said he
was aware that some derived him from Chios, others from Smyrna, and
others again from Colophon; but in fact he was a Babylonian, generally
known not as Homer but as Tigranes; but when later in life he was
given as a homer or hostage to the Greeks, that name clung to him.
Another of my questions was about the so-called spurious books; had he
written them or not? He said that they were all genuine: so I now knew
what to think of the critics Zenodotus and Aristarchus and all their
lucubrations. Having got a categorical answer on that point, I tried
him next on his reason for starting the "Iliad" with the wrath of
Achilles. He said he had no exquisite reason; it just came into his
head that way.

--Lucian, True History

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

There was no point to it; but out he went, into the cold

I am reading Chekhov stories again. Once he is established as a writer, once he's moved away from the juvenile comic episodes that began his career, Chekhov almost never writes about the city. Mature Chekhov is by and large the writer of rural Russia. He give us not the parks, stone facades, bridges and canals of Peterburg, but instead writes almost obsessively of muddy roads, the steppe, immense sweeping storms, crews of peasants and crowded, dirty zemstvo hospitals; he writes of illiteracy and brigandry. Chekhov is not the writer of urban Russia. Even Chekhov's plays about wealthy people are set in the country, at remote estates where people are dull and useless and trapped in their wealthy useless dullness. Chekhov is muddy boots and bad food and vodka, riding in trains with cattle, sleeping on the floor in taverns, assaulted by the complaints of schoolteachers, mayors and retired officers.

Chekhov sits in a hotel room in Italy, dressed in a new summer suit. Shakespeare plays in Russian translations and a beginner's English textbook are spread over his writing desk. The view from his hotel window is all marble and terracotta light; the sounds of carriages and theater-goers drift up to him from the street below. Chekhov dips his pen in ink and begins to write a story about a widow and her dead husband's many dogs, all living together in a one-room shack fifty miles from the nearest railway station, some distance from the rutted, snowpiled road through the small forest which surrounds the shack. Chekhov sips a glass of wine, ashes an expensive cigarette his own doctor has forbidden, and considers how the widow has never been happy, has nothing to live for now and hardly any means to feed herself (let alone all the damned dogs), and he writes "There was a knock at the door of the shack." The widow must have someone to complain to, so Chekhov throws another unhappy soul into the storm, out there, far far out there on the remote Russian steppe, in a little forest near a trickling icy stream. The stranger's wagon has lost a wheel and he has no tools; he must borrow a hammer. He was driving out to look at hectares of fallow wheat fields lying beneath new-fallen snow. Why was he doing this? His employer had ordered him to. There was no point to it; but out he went, into the cold, and it began to snow and the road is bad and the wagon is old and now a wheel has come off the axle and does the widow have a hammer? The stranger has sausage, and vodka, and he eats them before the widow, not offering her anything. Her poverty, her misery, is invisible to him. He is deaf to her complaints.

Chekhov walks to the window, looks out at the late afternoon sky over Milan. He will have to move soon, before the weather becomes too hot and humid; it's bad for his lungs to be in Milan in late summer. Perhaps tonight he'll go to the opera. He is not fond of opera, but some Russians he knows from Moscow will be in attendance. The widow, he knows, will have no hammer. The stranger might strike her in anger; Chekhov has not decided. Either way, he will go back into the storm and repair his wagon wheel, there in the little forest, on the rutted road, on the lonely cold steppe, far from anywhere, deep in the imagination of Chekhov.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Cornerstones and Bookmobiles

What you see above is a screen shot from the Seattle Public Library's website, showing that the SPL system has chosen to put four copies of The Astrologer into their inventory, which is really very cool. When I was a lad, public libraries were where I found books to read. Young Bailey was a frequent visitor to the bookmobile and the school library as well. I have many fond memories of the bookmobile. I love our local SPL branch and I am convinced that public libraries are a hallmark of a civilized society. A cornerstone. A foundation. Choose your own metaphor, but libraries matter, and look, you: my novel is available through my city's library system. I am well pleased, and I leave you with some Whitman that is perhaps too much about being an author but does, at least, praise libraries:

SHUT not your doors to me, proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves, yet needed most, I bring;
Forth from the army, the war emerging—a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing—the drift of it everything;
A book separate, not link’d with the rest, nor felt by the intellect,
But you, ye untold latencies, will thrill to every page;
Through Space and Time fused in a chant, and the flowing, eternal Identity,
To Nature, encompassing these, encompassing God—to the joyous, electric All,
To the sense of Death—and accepting, exulting in Death, in its turn, the same as life,
The entrance of Man I sing.

Monday, April 15, 2013

I swear we're taller than we look here

Despite the odd foreshortening that makes our legs look shorter than they are in real life, this is my favorite photo of Michelle Davidson-Argyle and me, taken in my back yard amongst all the magnolia petals. Michelle and her husband drove out to Seattle late last week and spent a few days hanging out with us beneath the gray, visiting book stores and the UW campus, riding in amphibious assault vehicles, and eating a lot of seafood. Michelle is the author of all these books.

In other news, I am reading Chekhov again, which is absolutely lovely. I'm also still reading Finnegans Wake, which is lovely in a different way. By the end of this week I hope to have this round of revisions to my novel Go Home, Miss America complete. There will be, alas, at least one more round of revisions before I let any "industry professionals" have a look at the book. Next week, I think, I'll write Chapter One of Circus in the Dust, the sequel (sort of) to The Transcendental Detective.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Third Place Books, Thursday evening, April 11 2013

This is me becalming myself before the reading. Yes, that's a flask of single-malt I'm holding. I think of this as my Samuel Beckett photo.

Turnout was pretty good.

I signed a load of books, which pleased me and Third Place Books. They promise to order even more books, which I'll go back and sign. Third Place Books is incredibly author-friendly and I'm honored that my first event happened in their immense and beautiful store. I was also wise enough to use my 20% "featured author" discount to pick up copies of The Bridge Over the Neroch: And Other Works by Leonid Tsypkin, Appointment With Death by Agatha Christie, and The Tragedy of Mr Morn by Vladimir Nabokov.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Astrologers in the wild

This is another dull "the rest is marketing" post, apparently. It's not what I had planned to write about today, but that's very likely for the best because I confess myself cranky. There are plenty enough curmudgeons on the interwebs without my contributions. But look, you: there's my book at the University Book Store in Seattle! Standing on David Baldacci's head, as it were.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Candide trembled like a philosopher

I have come to realize that the literary touchstone for Franz Kafka's novel Amerika (or at least one literary touchstone) is Candide, and so at the 2/3 mark of Amerika I am pausing to re-read Mr Voltaire's little book. The similarities are right there, I am perversely pleased to discover: like Candide, Kafka's hero Karl is expelled from his happy German home for having an affair with a forbidden woman (Candide with Cunegund, daughter of the Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh; Karl with Johanna Brummer, his parents' maidservant); Candide falls prey to the duplicity of a couple of Prussian army officers who impress him into service; Karl falls prey to the duplicity of a couple of unemployed mechanics who impress him into service; Candide is set adrift into a picaresque novel, Karl is set adrift into a picaresque novel. No, the two stories don't map onto each other precisely, but if Kafka hadn't read Voltaire, I'll eat my hat. The tone of the stories (even though Kafka desired to write something Dickensian with Amerika) is similar, which I think is what really struck me this evening.

Here is Candide's fall with Cunegund:

One day, when Miss Cunegund went to take a walk in a little neighboring wood, which was called a park, she saw, through the bushes, the sage Doctor Pangloss giving a lecture in experimental physics to her mother's chambermaid, a little brown wench, very pretty, and very tractable. As Miss Cunegund had a great disposition for the sciences, she observed with the utmost attention the experiments which were repeated before her eyes; she perfectly well understood the force of the doctor's reasoning upon causes and effects. She retired greatly flurried, quite pensive, and filled with the desire of knowledge, imagining that she might be young Candide's sufficient reason and he hers.
    On her way back she happened to meet Candide; she blushed, he blushed also. She wished him a good morning in a faltering tone; he returned the salute, without knowing what he said. The next day, as they were rising from dinner, Cunegund and Candide slipped behind the screen. She dropped her handkerchief; the young man picked it up. She innocently took hold of his hand, and he as innocently kissed hers with a warmth, a sensibility, a grace--all very extraordinary--their lips met, their eyes sparkled, their knees trembled, their hands strayed. The Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh chanced to come by; he beheld the cause and effect, and, without hesitation, saluted Candide with some notable kicks on the breech and drove him out of doors. Miss Cunegund fainted away, and, as soon as she came to herself, the Baroness boxed her ears. 

Here is Franz's encounter with Johanna:

Karl had no feelings for Johanna Brummer. Hemmed in by a vanishing past, she sat in her kitchen beside the kitchen dresser, resting her elbows on top of it. She looked at him whenever he came to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water for his father or do some errand for his mother. Sometimes, awkwardly sitting sideways at the dresser, she would write a letter, drawing her inspiration from Karl's face. Sometimes she would sit with her hand over her eyes, heeding nothing that was said to her. Sometimes she would kneel in her tiny room next the kitchen and pray to a wooden crucifix; then Karl would feel shy if he passed by and caught a glimpse of her through the crack of the slightly open door. Sometimes she would bustle about her kitchen and recoil, laughing like a witch, if Karl came near her. Sometimes she would shut the kitchen door after Karl entered, and keep hold of the door handle until he had to beg to be let out. Sometimes she would bring him things which he did not want and press them silently into his hand. And once she called him "Karl" and, while he was still dumbfounded at this unusual familiarity, led him into her room, sighing and grimacing, and locked the door. Then she flung her arms round his neck, almost choking him, and while urging him to take off her clothes, she really took off his and laid him on her bed, as if she would never give him up to anyone and would tend and cherish him to the end of time. "Oh Karl, my Karl!" she cried; it was as if her eyes were devouring him, while his eyes saw nothing at all and he felt uncomfortable in all the warm bedclothes which she seemed to have piled up for him alone. Then she lay down by him and wanted some secret from him, but he could tell her none, and she showed anger, either in jest or in earnest, shook him, listened to his heart, offered her breast that he might listen to hers in turn, but could not bring him to do it, pressed her naked belly against his body, felt with her hand between his legs, so disgustingly that his head and neck started up from the pillows, then thrust her body several times against his--it was as if she were a part of himself, and for that reason, perhaps, he was seized with a terrible feeling of yearning. With the tears running down his cheeks he reached his own bed at last, after many entreaties from her to come again. That was all that had happened, and yet his uncle had managed to make a great song out of it.

Karl's inability to see when a woman is attracted to him doesn't end with Johanna, either. Karl is a bit of a dope like Candide is a bit of a dope, but they are innocents in different measure only with women; they both remain in awe of the ways of the wide world and are both earnest in their attempts to live upright lives.

I grant you that Candide follows the romantic conceit of Don Quixote, in that the protagonists of those books are in love with their women, where Karl is confused and indifferent towards Johanna. Amerika also lacks a Pangloss character, but I claim that the overall comic tone of both books is the same.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

the outlines of a cathedral loomed enormous in a dense haze

I have never been to Prague, but many people seem to imply that it’s a solemn sort of place. Mighty Reader reported years ago that when she was in Prague, nobody made any effort to speak to her, and she gave me the impression that Prague was a silent city of bridges and baroque buildings, and I imagine the shuffling of feet, the idling of car engines, the lapping of waters against marble banks and the inconsolable sound of a lone violin at twilight, the player and indeed the whole of the city lost in fog. I also imagine the calling of crows, Prague being the city of Kafka. Is my imaginary Praha anything at all like the real city? One doubts.

Kafka, from his home in Prague, wrote a fragmentary novel in 1912 about an imagined version of America. The novel was first published in 1927, after Kafka’s death, under the title Amerika, the title Kafka’s friend Max Brod chose. Kafka’s working title translates to something like “The Missing” or “The One Who Went Missing.” Brod’s choice is better, if you ask me.

Amerika is a comic novel, something you might not expect from the author of “The Metamorphosis” and “The Hunger Artist” and “In the Penal Colony.” Or, if you see Kafka as a comic writer (which I generally do), Amerika isn’t the sort of comedy you might expect. The two novels that keep cropping up in my head to compare themselves to Kafka’s book are both by Nabokov: Pnin and The Luzhin Defense. The tone is similar, as are the bafflement of the protagonist in regards to the world and the motivations of the supporting cast. Pnin, too (and Lolita for that matter) offers an imagined, metaphorical America, but Nabokov’s versions of America were at least written by a man who’d spent years in this country. Kafka’s “America” is formed from a few magazine articles he’d read and a great many imaginative leaps on the part of the author.

Many of Kafka’s protagonists are thinly-veiled stand-ins for Kafka himself. The version of the author making his way through Amerika is Karl Rossman, a fairly narrow-minded young man (a teenager, really) without much of an education or even a curiosity about the world, who has been banished to America after becoming involved in a bewildering (to Karl) scandal with a house maid. That may strike someone who’s never read Kafka as an improbable premise, but wait a few pages into the story until Karl meets—by sheer coincidence—his wealthy uncle Jacob, who has received a letter from the house maid imploring him to take an interest in Karl. Things proceed from there, in a Kafkaesque manner, with the hero buffeted by social forces he cannot decipher, in a foreign land.

Kafka’s America, oddly enough, also reminds me of the America to be found in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: everything is immense, and overbuilt, and loud and wasteful. A mansion with a large staff is mostly empty and in the process of being rebuilt, the electricity only having been run in one portion of the ground floor. A supply/distribution company’s eight-story corporate headquarters has a floor dedicated to technicians who listen in groups to business phone calls and afterwards compare transcriptions of the conversations in order to eliminate any possible errors. Uncle Jacob has ten separate offices in this building. Karl is given English lessons, riding lessons, and is soon to have piano lessons though his piano playing is poor enough that Uncle Jacob suggests that Karl might want to study the violin instead, or perhaps the French horn. New York is big and brash and while it’s absolutely fictional, it’s also true to life in a strange way, at least for me who has visited New York but never lived there very long. Kafka’s America, that is, seems fairly accurate so far, even if it is possibly merely nothing more than an anti-Prague. But here is Manhattan:

A narrow outside balcony ran along the whole length of Karl’s room. But what would have been at home the highest vantage point in town allowed him here little more than a view of one street, which ran perfectly straight between two rows of squarely chopped buildings and therefore seemed to be fleeing into the distance, where the outlines of a cathedral loomed enormous in a dense haze. From morning to evening and far into the dreaming night that street was the channel for a constant stream of traffic which, seen from above, looked like an inextricable confusion, forever newly improvised, of foreshortened human figures and the roofs of all kinds of vehicles, sending into the upper air another confusion, more riotous and complicated, of noises, dust and smells, all of it enveloped and penetrated by a flood of light which the multitudinous objects in the street scattered, carried off and again busily brought back, with an effect as palpable to the dazzled eye as if a glass roof stretched over the street were being violently smashed into fragments at every moment.

It’s that glass roof permanently being smashed that first reminded me of Nabokov, and something of the atmosphere of Amerika seems to permeate Invitation to a Beheading. Had Nabokov read Kafka? I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. Amerika is pleasing me so far. I’m reading the 1946 Willa and Edwin Muir translation that I bought used somewhere last year. Maybe in Canada.