Friday, August 30, 2013

Death of a Naturalist


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney, Copyright 1966

This is not my favorite Seamus Heaney poem, but it's the one that always comes first to mind whenever I think of him. Adieu, Mr Heaney.

Monday, August 26, 2013

"Beauty and Pity"

I continue to work on a first draft of The Hanging Man, though I’m interrupting that work briefly to go over a couple of passages of Go Home, Miss America before sending it off to some people. Not really editing or revising, so much as clarifying a few things in early chapters. Also to write a synopsis, which work I don’t enjoy much. I also find myself making notes about Mona in the Desert, which I plan to revise beginning this winter. So, lots to do. I have failed to even mention the 12-foot wooden fence we'll be building next weekend.

Meanwhile, I’m finishing up a re-read of Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, which is a collection of his lecture notes that some nice editor (Fredson Bowers) has arranged into more-or-less coherent fashion as essays. I’m in the final section, about Joyce’s Ulysses. While I appreciate Nabokov’s ideas about style and structure, and I agree mostly with his comment that a good reader reads primarily with his spine—that is to say, gets a tingling sensation in his nervous system when he encounters creative acts of style and structure in literature and understands that a good book is much more than its surface—I find again that there’s something missing in Nabokov’s analyses of these great works. Literature is more than Nabokov seems to admit it is, because Nabokov seems to disallow any talk of unconscious work by the author, by which I mean Nabokov pretends that all of the patterns we see in a novel are deliberate works of the writer, and that any network of symbols or themes that we might see that was not seen by the author himself is just a figment of our imaginations. That seems wrongheaded, but I blame Nabokov’s distaste for all things Freudian for this blind spot. Artists work with their intuition and instincts as much as they do with their intellect, but intuition and instinct have no place in Nabokovian analysis. “Beauty and pity,” yes, but all of it consciously placed there by the writer. Once again I can’t help but feel that Vladimir was afraid of the deep inner workings of his own mind. And none of this is quite what I mean. I'll have to think a little more about what I think Nabokov is missing, but I do believe he's looking at literature through a window he kept deliberately narrowed. He was a funny guy, that Vladimir Nabokov. I know, I know: you want specifics, something more than "Nabokov seems to..." so that I'm making some sort of solid claims of my own here. But I'm not trying to have an argument with VN; I'm trying to work out for myself what the use of literature is. Why do I read? Why in God's name do I write? Why do I write these particular books? Et cetera. Nabokov is only peripherally important to that.

But that’s all by the way. Lectures on Literature is a fine book, presenting a well thought-out method of (one particular way) to look at literature. Read it, ignore the limits Nabokov places on literature, and learn about style and structure.

I’m also continuing Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, which is a foolish romp but quite entertaining and well written, at least the first part. Doctor Rabelais wrote five books in this series over twenty-odd years, so who knows what happens as it continues? It’s a comic narrative with no real central idea to hold it together, so it’s something I can read a couple of chapters of and then set aside and return to it whenever; a cliffhanger it’s not. Because there is no real story being told in G&P, I find myself casting about for something else to read alongside it after I finish up the Nabokov. I don’t know what that’s going to be.

Also, this weekend Mighty Reader and I saw this barred owl about a mile from our house:

Monday, August 19, 2013

"You female lechers in the plain countries have no such tails." Melville reads Rabelais

I'm about fifty or sixty pages into the home defense weapon that is the Franklin Library edition of Francois Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, a hoot and a half in five books written between 1532 and 1564. It's delightful and obscene and socially penetrating and all that good stuff. It's Tristram Shandy and the Ubu plays. It's Don Quixote. It's the comedies of the Elizabethan stage. It's a great many things. I will give you an extended example. In chapter ten of Book One ("Of that which is signified by the colours white and blue"), we find this passage:

Read the ancient, both Greek and Latin histories, and you shall find that the town of Alba (the first pattern of Rome) was founded and so named by reason of a white sow that was seen there. You shall likewise find in those stories, that when any man, after he had vanquished his enemies, was by decree of the senate to enter into Rome triumphantly, he usually rode in a chariot drawn by white horses: which in the ovation triumph was also the custom; for by no sign or colour would they so significantly express the joy of their coming as by the white. You shall there also find, how Pericles, the general of the Athenians, would needs have that part of his army unto whose lot befell the white beans, to spend the whole day in mirth, pleasure, and ease, whilst the rest were a-fighting. A thousand other examples and places could I allege to this purpose, but that it is not here where I should do it. 

By understanding hereof, you may resolve one problem, which Alexander Aphrodiseus hath accounted unanswerable: why the lion, who with his only cry and roaring affrights all beasts, dreads and feareth only a white cock? For, as Proclus saith, Libro de Sacrificio et Magia, it is because the presence of the virtue of the sun, which is the organ and promptuary of all terrestrial and sidereal light, doth more symbolize and agree with a white cock, as well in regard of that colour, as of his property and specifical quality, than with a lion. He saith, furthermore, that devils have been often seen in the shape of lions, which at the sight of a white cock have presently vanished. This is the cause why Galli or Gallices (so are the Frenchmen called, because they are naturally white as milk, which the Greeks call Gala,) do willingly wear in their caps white feathers, for by nature they are of a candid disposition, merry, kind, gracious, and well-beloved, and for their cognizance and arms have the whitest flower of any, the Flower de luce or Lily.

"Huh," says I, "that sounds familiar."  Up I leap from our comfortable sofa and fetch down a volume from the bookshelves in the bedroom (where we keep fiction M-R), in which I find the following passage:

Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title "Lord of the White Elephants" above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things--the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honour; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great-white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.

That is, of course, from "The Whiteness of the Whale," Chapter 42 of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

"Aha!" I cried, "I knew I'd seen it somewhere," and then naturally I thought I was on to something, some new Melvillian discovery, that Herman had read Rabelais, and from him he had taken not only the idea of a chapter on whiteness, not only some of the very imagery used in that chapter, but also the formal idea of a digressive novel that mixes essays about alleged facts with a dramatic narrative. Also, the Rabelais has an immense white baby of some evil. Yes, I rubbed my hands together and congratulated myself on my contribution-to-be to American letters. Then I spent a couple of minutes reading the introduction to my copy of Moby-Dick, wherein I learned that this was very old news, and possibly it's because a few years ago I read this introduction that I'm now reading Gargantua and Pantagruel. So the joke's on me.

Still, this is one of the reasons why I so love reading the classics. You get to see how the genetic material of literature is passed on, mutates, survives the ages and finds new bodies in which to live and reproduce. It also bucks me up, because I can't help but put whatever I'm reading into whatever I'm writing.

I have noticed that this post is getting a lot of hits. Is there some sudden interest in Melville in public schools, maybe? I have no idea. But for those interested in more Melvilleana, you could do a lot worse than reading these 40 posts and all the articles linked thereto. That will give you something interesting to do for your three-day weekend.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"This fortress built by Nature for herself," Basil said, looking into the gray distance

Last night Mighty Reader and I watched the 1942 Sherlock Holmes film "The Secret Weapon." I can't resist a Professor Moriarty story, you know. Though he seems a bit of a dope, so vain and easily manipulated by Holmes. The film ends with Holmes giving a bit of John Of Gaunt's speech from Act II of "Richard II." Very stirring. But that's not why I'm writing this post. I'm writing to note somewhere for my own records that I have reached the halfway point in the first draft of my own detective story, The Hanging Man. It seems to be working so far. At the end of Chapter Six, Patience Quince runs into the street to pursue her prime suspect. I've also worked a Flannery O'Connor reference into this chapter, which will recur at the end of Chapter Seven. What larks, Pip. What larks indeed. The draft is running longer than I expected. I figured I'd have about 30,000 words down at this point, but it's over 40,000. I don't know what's going on with that. Possibly I've learned to write in a less compressed prose style. Possibly I'm just digressing more. Possibly the chapters are more complex than my outline makes them look and it's just taking me longer to get from point A to point B than I'd planned. I don't know and it doesn't really matter. I merely remark upon the phenomenon. I also notice that I've abandoned chapter titles. I may add them later; chapter titles are fun, and are frequently an aid to misdirection of the reader, which is always important in a detective novel.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review of The Astrologer at The Reading Life

Over on his great blog The Reading Life, Mel U has reviewed The Astrologer. Go read his review of my novel, and then stick around to read the immense number of posts Mel has written about a wide swath of literature. Fans of Irish poetry and prose will be especially rewarded there.

Monday, August 12, 2013

"It is not large, but it is comfortable": an excerpt from "The Hanging Man"

“How friendly, how friendly,” Dominic said. “I believe I will show Mademoiselle Quince to my office, if you can bear the parting, Madame.”

“Go, Dominic. I will repress my sorrow, I assure you.” Constance turned away to stare at a calendar hung on the wall opposite the loveseat. The calendar was over a year out of date.

“Come with me.” Dominic led Patience past Constance and Henri, through a set of swinging doors into a narrow, dark hallway that ran the length of the house. The sound of a clarinet, playing broken scales and then snatches of an angular tango, echoed behind a closed door somewhere. Hammering and sawing could be heard, distant shouting of obscene French words, water running briefly in the kitchen down the hallway to Patience’s left, and then for a moment the whole house fell silent and the coarse blowing of the wind slipped along the roof, rasping overhead, and then the noises of the house resumed, the clarinet playing a drunken march, slipping from key to key.

“My office is this way,” Dominic said. “It is not large, but it is comfortable.” He pushed open a door at the end of the hallway and waved Patience in ahead of him. She slipped into the room and stood beside the door, her back to the wall and her purse held ready in both hands. It was quite dark in the office.

“A moment, Detective.” Dominic crossed the room in the dark, stumbling noisily against furniture as he made his way to light a green-shaded banker’s lamp which sat atop his desk, which was an enormous walnut piece that filled half of the office. Dominic squeezed around the desk to a large oak swivel chair with heavy arms. He waved toward an overstuffed chair opposite the desk.

“Make yourself comfortable, Mademoiselle.”

Patience sat in the offered chair, sinking into the cushions. She leaned forward from its embrace, her back straight, and crossed her right leg over her left. After a moment while Dominic arranged two stemmed glasses and a bottle of wine on his desk, Patience removed her fedora and placed it on the corner of Dominic’s desk, beside the banker’s lamp.

Behind Dominic, the wall was lined with tall wooden cabinets, cardboard labels pasted to the many drawers. Atop the cabinets were many layers of papers, receipts, handbills and invoices piled in overlapping heaps. A smaller heap of papers rose up on the right-hand side of Dominic’s desk. All around Patience, behind her chair and pushed against the walls, were cardboard boxes, full of even more papers and assorted forms. On the walls Patience saw, as her eyes adjusted to the encircling shadows, large posters in rich colors advertising Parisian circuses: the Cirque d’Hiver, the Cirque Medrano, the Nouveau Cirque which had gone out of business a decade ago, the Cirque M├ętropole and behind Dominic, high over his head, hung a green and gray horse and rider under the banner of the Hippodrome de la Place Clichy, which place had not existed since Patience was a very young girl, but about which she had once heard a spectacular story from Inspector Moran, a story involving a sword-swallower, a trio of clowns, a dealer in stolen firearms and the locked office of a pawn shop.

“I apologize for the clutter,” Dominic said, pulling the cork from the bottle of wine. “You have no idea what an administrative nightmare it is to manage a traveling show.”

“That is true,” Patience said. She lit a cigarette.

“It will only become worse, Mademoiselle. I am increasingly ensnared by the American government. The licenses, the vehicle fees, the tax upon ticket sales, the permitting to use vacant lots, the cost of permits for a parade on the day of the show, the bad weather, the poor stands and twelve million unemployed men who cannot afford to entertain their children—it is all conspiring to murder me, Detective. And it will only grow less manageable in the coming years when I will be required to collect and remit the new Social Security tax atop the wages I pay. The wages are already too high, and now there is a call for unions, and a minimum wage for showmen. What am I to do? I am a generous employer. Here you are.”

From Chapter Three of The Hanging Man, a work in progress. The usual caveats about this being a first draft, etc.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Not possible! That Jarry? I took him for a servant."

Late in Andre Gide's novel The Counterfeiters, in a chapter titled "The Argonaut's Dinner," we stumble across a familiar literary figure:

Passavant had sent for three fresh glasses, which he filled with kummel. They all four drank Olivier's health. The bottle was almost empty, and as Sarah was astonished to see the crystals remaining at the bottom, Passavant tried to dislodge them with a straw. A strange kind of clown, with a befloured face, a black beady eye, and hair plastered down on his head like a skullcap, came up.

"You won't do it," he said, munching out each one of his syllables with an effort which was obviously assumed. "Pass me the bottle. I'll smash it."

He seized it, broke it with a blow against the window ledge, and presenting the bottom of the bottle to Sarah:

"With a few of these little sharp-edged polyhedra, the charming young lady will easily induce a perforation of her gizzard."

"Who is that pierrot?" she asked Passavant, who had made her sit down and was sitting beside her.

"It's Alfred Jarry, the author of Ubu Roi. The Argonauts have dubbed him a genius because the public have just damned his play. All the same, it's the most interesting thing that's been put on the stage for a long time."

"I like Ubu Roi very much," said Sarah, "and I'm delighted to see Jarry. I had heard he was always drunk."

"I should think he must be tonight. I saw him drink two glasses of neat absinthe at dinner. He doesn't seem any the worse for it. Won't you have a cigarette? One has to smoke oneself so as not to be smothered by other people's smoke."

He bent towards her to give her a light. She crunched a few of the crystals.

"Why! It's nothing but sugar candy," she said, a little disappointed. "I was hoping it was going to be something strong."

The hijinks continue at this drunken party of the Paris avant-garde literati, as Jarry pulls out a loaded pistol and later, one poet challenges another to a duel. The recent debut of Jarry's play dates the novel's setting for us, and we know we are in 1896.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Theater and Its Double

I tell myself, day after day, that I am going to write about Andre Gide's 1925 novel The Counterfeiters, the book I'm reading just now. I'm about 80% of the way through the novel and so far there has been the barest mention of what will become a subplot about counterfeit coins. I confess that I thought this book was a crime novel, a caper, as it were. I remember reading about it in E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, but I couldn't remember what Forster said about it. Last night I had a look at the relevant pages of Forster's book, and I see that he admired Gide's craft--The Counterfeiters might be called a piece of conceptual art--but in the end called the book a failure because there is, in Forster's opinion, more concept than content, maybe. The novel is too self-conscious of its status as artwork and not trying hard enough to be a story. What in God's name, you are wondering, is Bailey talking about?

The Counterfeiters is a story without a central point of view. There is the presumed author, who may be Andre Gide, and there are his characters--from the middle class, the upper middle class and a few members of the nobility in Paris, in the late 19th Century (Gide never gives a date but there are deliberate clues in the narrative as to when the events occur). The characters are based on real people, but the presumed author lets us know in asides scattered through the book that these book people are invented. One of the invented book people is Edouard, a novelist. Edouard is writing a novel, or at least planning a novel, called The Counterfeiters. Edouard's novel takes as its central point the tension between truth and falseness in life, the deceptions and self-deceptions people engage in contrasted with the reality (such as it is) of their lives. Edouard is a character in a novel called The Counterfeiters, a novel that takes as its central point the tension between truth and falseness in life, etc. The bulk of the novel written by Andre Gide consists of the journals of Edouard, which are primarily notes about the characters who will appear in Edouard's novel. He carries on a running critique of his characters. The presumed author of The Counterfeiters, the novel in which Edouard appears, also carries on a running critique of his characters. The presumed narrator of The Counterfeiters reminds his readers that his characters are imaginary but asks us to play along with the game of pretending that they are real people, because he is fond of his creations, even the wicked ones. The author of the fictional novel The Counterfeiters, Edouard, reminds himself that the people he writes about are real, and he must see them as they really are no matter how they disappoint him.

All of this is pretty seamless and amusing and the Gide novel, The Counterfeiters, is a good penetrating analysis of a certain section of middle class society and a certain type of educated person overly concerned with appearances and probably self-absorbed. Edouard, the observer of everyone around him, mostly limits his observations to how the actions of other influence his feelings about the relationships he has with these others--in other words, how their actions make him feel about himself. I'm sure that was deliberate on Gide's part, and nicely subtle.

This book does not have a central "story problem," a "what will happen next," or a "how will this situation resolve" driving the action. One of Forster's objections to The Counterfeiters is that Gide supplies characters, and while these characters interact and their movements create intersecting patterns, there is no plot, per se. There is no grand story of causation in this novel. Forster sees that as a failure. Forster, I might opine, needed to get out more. I should not have read his comments about Gide's novel last night, because now I feel the urge to rebut Forster, and there's no point in that. Forster is dead, and Modernism has had its day, put its stamp (or not) on whatever the modern novel is, and now we're in some sort of post-post-postmodern era where once again we're told the novel is dead, plus ca change etc. I find myself rambling.

The Counterfeiters is sort of a picaresque novel, a sort of Don Quixote of the educated classes, but with the Don Quixote character replaced by a Cervantes character doing research for a book about a knight errant. The Counterfeiters is a sort of Tristram Shandy without the bawdy humor (but with a lot more sex), a lot of movement toward a story but no real story. It reads like a novel, though. I assume that, if I'd read it in 1927 when the first English translation was published, it would strike me as more avant-garde than it seems today. Forster's claim that Gide's lack of a central point of view is essentially a literary conceit, a self-conscious attempt to be different and new, just shows that Forster never read Dostoyevski. I wish I'd stop going on about Forster. Forster isn't part of this. The Counterfeiters is a good book. What I meant to say is that The Counterfeiters is making quite an impression on me as I write the first draft of The Hanging Man, a novel about a detective who investigates the death of an unknown man at Wilburton Kansas in 1935. Character, I think. The pattern of intersections, I tell myself. The hanging man is already dead; he's a fixed point around which the little town of Wilburton is allowed to revolve. The detective walks through this and disrupts the patterns; I write it all down.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Me and Jonathan

Last night I dreamed that Jonathan Franzen was traveling around America doing presentations in the living rooms of suburban white people, at hosted affairs much like Tupperware(tm) parties. Franzen lay on his hosts' sofas and made a sales pitch for cake (sold by the slice) and ice cream (sold by the scoop), and possibly t-shirts as well. He took credit cards as well as cash. Franzen was unshaven, wore a dirty white undershirt, and had put on a considerable amount of weight. The cake looked really good, but the ice cream was melting all over the sofa.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Drive-by photo posting Friday.

The Astrologer on the "new fiction" shelf at the Seattle Public Library.

Next week, I swear, there will be an excerpt from the work-in-progress novel, and I also intend to write something about Andre Gide's excellent 1925 novel The Counterfeiters. I'm looking at as many French novels from the 20s as I can, and if they include criminal activity, so much the better.