Friday, January 31, 2014

My surprise and grief were inexpressible: Sindbad's Seven Voyages, etc

I am reading N.J. Dawood's 1954 translation of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, in the nice recent Penguin edition. I will be quoting here, however, from the 1884 Crosby & Nichols edition, which does not list the translator. The text is available online so it's easily cut-and-pastable. The prose in Dawood's edition is better than what I quote here, so you should buy that version if you are so inclined.

One of the pleasures of reading folk tales from around the world is seeing how many of the same stories or characters are found across cultures. In the section of 1001 Nights relating the tales of the seven voyages of Sindbad, Sindbad is accidentally abandoned on the island of the mythical roc, which is that impossibly large bird from Persian mythology. (The "seven voyages" are all disasters and shipwreck, though each ends with our hero finding his way back to Baghdad with great wealth.) On his third or fourth voyage, Sindbad is shipwrecked with his crew on a remote island. They take refuge in a great fortress where they meet an interesting character:
He was a tremendous black giant, as high as a tall palm-tree, with only one eye in the middle of his forehead, which looked as red as a burning coal; his teeth and nails were long and sharp, and his mouth resembled that of a horse. The sight of so frightful a figure rendered us immovable with horror. After surveying us for some time, he took me up by the nape of the neck, and felt my body as a butcher would his sheep. Finding me very thin, he bent down and took up another; at last, laying hands on our captain, who was fat, he thrust a long spit through him, and kindling a fire, he roasted and ate him. After which he retired to an adjoining room, where he slept, and snored all night like thunder. In the morning he got up, went out, and left us in his dwelling.
That's right, the ship captain was roasted on a spit. How will our plucky adventurers escape this horrible fate? Just how you'd think: one night while the giant sleeps, the sailors, at Sindbad's urging, heat the points of two of the giant's enormous iron spits and drive them into the monster's eyes, blinding him. The sailors flee the island on a hastily-built raft as the giant (and his wife, who appears out of nowhere) hurl immense rocks at them.

"That sounds familiar," I thought. In Sindbad's next voyage, he and his crew find themselves on an island where all of the crew save Sindbad are transformed into piglike animals, fattened up and killed for food. "Hey," I said, "I know that one, too." Both of those stories are from The Odyssey, of course. The Arabian Nights tales date from the middle ages, first collected in Persian in around 840 AD. So I will keep my eye out for other Greek influences as I read on. The story of Sindbad thrown into the communal tomb with his late wife's corpse appears to be a Persian original, and does not show our hero in a particularly heroic light, though now that I think about it, there might be a strong hint of the wily Odysseus in his self-serving survival tactics. Hard to say. 1001 Nights are not exactly morality plays; they're more an enumeration of the sins of mankind, warnings of the dangers of unfaithful servants and pretty women. Just like Elizabethan theater, then, right?

A lot of the stories are bawdy tales, and women don't come out well in most of them. There's also a good deal of racial bigotry, which is no surprise given the age of the stories.

Another pleasure of reading folktales is the view into ancient cultures' ideas about the natural world. Many old texts are part bestiary, and there are a lot of beasts in the 1001 Nights travelogue:
There is in this island the rhinoceros, a creature less than the elephant, but greater than the buffalo. It has a horn upon its nose about a cubit long, which is solid, and cleft in the middle ; there are upon it draughts representing the figures of men. The rhinoceros fights with the elephant, runs his horn into his belly, and carries him off upon his head ; but the blood and fat of the elephant run into his eyes, and make him blind. He falls to the ground, and what is very astonishing, the roc carries them both away in her claws, to be meat for her young ones.
I had no idea that rhinos and elephants were natural enemies. Thank God for the printed word.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

the love and thoughts of the workman: final thoughts on Bleak House

I hardly know whether to note under the head of ├Žsthetic or constructive law, this important principle, that masonry is always bad which appears to have arrested the attention of the architect more than absolute conditions of strength require. Nothing is more contemptible in any work than an appearance of the slightest desire on the part of the builder to direct attention to the way its stones are put together [...] Exhibited masonry is in most cases the expedient of architects who do not know how to fill up blank spaces, and many a building, which would have been decent enough if let alone, has been scrawled over with straight lines, on exactly the same principles, and with just the same amount of intelligence as a boy’s in scrawling his copy-book when he cannot write. The device was thought ingenious at one period of architectural history; St. Paul’s and Whitehall are covered with it, and it is in this I imagine that some of our modern architects suppose the great merit of those buildings to consist. There [...] is but one law upon the subject, and that is easily complied with, to avoid all affectation and all unnecessary expense, either in showing or concealing. Every one knows a building is built of separate stones; nobody will ever object to seeing that it is so, but nobody wants to count them. The divisions of a church are much like the divisions of a sermon; they are always right so long as they are necessary to edification, and always wrong when they are thrust upon the attention as divisions only. There may be neatness in carving when there is richness in feasting; but I have heard many a discourse, and seen many a church wall, in which it was all carving and no meat. [edits mine]
That's John Ruskin from The Stones of Venice, warning us away from making technique an end in itself. The literary equivalent to Ruskin's "all carving and no meat" might be what is called purple prose. Which brings us to Dickens, that being the conceit behind these recent posts. In Bleak House, Esther Summerson's narration is generally written in plain, functional language:
I was brought up, from my earliest remembrance--like some of the princesses in the fairy stories, only I was not charming--by my godmother. At least, I only knew her as such. She was a good, good woman! She went to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to lectures whenever there were lectures; and never missed. She was handsome; and if she had ever smiled, would have been (I used to think) like an angel--but she never smiled. She was always grave and strict. She was so very good herself, I thought, that the badness of other people made her frown all her life.
The other narrator--the Nameless Omniscient speaker--uses a more complex language, winding sentences around and going on flights of figurative fancy:
Like a dingy London bird among the birds at roost in these pleasant fields, where the sheep are all made into parchment, the goats into wigs, and the pasture into chaff, the lawyer, smoke-dried and faded, dwelling among mankind but not consorting with them, aged without experience of genial youth, and so long used to make his cramped nest in holes and corners of human nature that he has forgotten its broader and better range, comes sauntering home. In the oven made by the hot pavements and hot buildings, he has baked himself dryer than usual; and he has in his thirsty mind his mellowed port-wine half a century old.
Plenty of meat there to be carved. What about this, though:
All that prospect, which from the terrace looked so near, has moved solemnly away and changed--not the first nor the last of beautiful things that look so near and will so change--into a distant phantom. Light mists arise, and the dew falls, and all the sweet scents in the garden are heavy in the air. Now the woods settle into great masses as if they were each one profound tree. And now the moon rises to separate them, and to glimmer here and there in horizontal lines behind their stems, and to make the avenue a pavement of light among high cathedral arches fantastically broken.

Now the moon is high; and the great house, needing habitation more than ever, is like a body without life. Now it is even awful, stealing through it, to think of the live people who have slept in the solitary bedrooms, to say nothing of the dead. Now is the time for shadow, when every corner is a cavern and every downward step a pit, when the stained glass is reflected in pale and faded hues upon the floors, when anything and everything can be made of the heavy staircase beams excepting their own proper shapes, when the armour has dull lights upon it not easily to be distinguished from stealthy movement, and when barred helmets are frightfully suggestive of heads inside. But of all the shadows in Chesney Wold, the shadow in the long drawing-room upon my Lady's picture is the first to come, the last to be disturbed. At this hour and by this light it changes into threatening hands raised up and menacing the handsome face with every breath that stirs.
No, that's pitch perfect, too. I was looking for something that was too much, but Dickens--even when he's at his most baroque--is never too much. Certainly those 19th-century writers used a prose style that is generally thicker than today's English, especially the English written by American novelists. In his descriptive passages, Dickens' texture is richer and denser than anything that comes from my own pen, surely, but he's not speaking a foreign tongue from an exotic land, nor is he being showy (well, I'm sure there were plenty of moments when old Charles sat back from his work and smiled with pleasure and pride, and why not?). He's not merely being showy, is what I mean. John Ruskin also labored over his prose, to make it beautiful yes, but also to better carry his message to the reader. Possibly for Ruskin, there was little difference because Ruskin's message was that we should open ourselves to an appreciation of the many forms of beauty which surround us. So I'll let Ruskin have the last word:
...in decoration or beauty, it is less the actual loveliness of the thing produced, than the choice and invention concerned in the production, which are to delight us; the love and the thoughts of the workman more than his work: his work must always be imperfect, but his thoughts and affections may be true and deep.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"I write at the top of my page" Mona in the Desert, briefly

In the early afternoon we were heading north again, the sun bright behind my left shoulder glinting off the edge of the wing mirror and causing flecks of crushed quartz in the surface of the road to shimmer as if some pixie had come this way not long before us. On another day I might have thought it pretty. We passed a couple of kids changing a tire on the shoulder of the road, two young boys and a girl, high school age, the boys shirtless and dark brown. The girl wore a denim skirt, too short, and a black top with some heartthrob’s face screened across at the level of the girl's breasts. She leaned against the back of the car with a bottle of soda in one hand and a cigarette stolen from her mother's purse in the other, not watching the boys work. She did not look up as I drove past. One day Time will come with his sickle to play havoc with her rosy lips and cheeks. An hour or so later I pulled the car off the road near a stand of trees for a few minutes, badly needing to piss. Josephine didn't stir the whole time. She has no idea. I stood outside the car under the bright sun and the shining sky, looking at my wife through the tinted passenger-side window and I asked myself why nobody ever stopped us. Mona, the Triplets. All of us set adrift and wondering, never having learned how to mark up a map and plan the journey. The morning Josephine and I set off on this pilgrimage, I got a phone call from my mother. Have you heard anything from Ernie? I don't talk to him, Mom. We've never had much to say to each other. I write at the top of my page: maps, as the crow flies.

I won't suffer my reader to wade through 5,000 words about a Shakespeare play the bard never actually wrote, not today. Instead I interrupt my occasional posts about Dickens and Ruskin to note that I continue revisions on the novel Mona in the Desert, having decided last night to add a new chapter at the midpoint of the narrative, a chapter titled An Additional Brief Note Regarding the Author's Method, a snippet of which new chapter you have before you, above. Rough, I admit, but there will be many hours of revisions in the future, after I finish giving the narrative its new shape, whatever shape that will be. Things remain unclear just yet. I feel a bit like a drowning man is said to feel when I wade into this revision. But I remain excited by the book, which is a good sign, I suppose. The subsidiary plotlines are gaining strength and breadth and all of that. The book is getting longer. I have no idea how much of the stuff I'm throwing at the story will stick, and how much will be cut away in the next revision. I have no idea how long I'll be working on this book. Six months ago I would've told you that it was pretty well finished and complete. Six months ago, I would've been wrong about that.

Also, Mr Dickens has begun killing off his characters in Bleak House. Clearly he's heading now into the final stretch of the story.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"useful to myself, and interested, and attached to life again" Esther tells us about Esther

By and by my strength began to be restored. Instead of lying, with so strange a calmness, watching what was done for me, as if it were done for some one else whom I was quietly sorry for, I helped it a little, and so on to a little more and much more, until I became useful to myself, and interested, and attached to life again.

I'm about 65.5% of the way through Charles Dickens' 1852-ish novel Bleak House. It occurred to me yesterday that whenever Esther Summerson appears in a scene, that scene is narrated by Esther herself. In other words, we only have her word for how others behave in her company; we only know the opinion of Esther that other characters hold via Esther's reportage of their speech. Nobody else gets to talk about Esther (except for Guppy, who has her image engraved upon his heart, but of course Mr Guppy is essentially a stranger to Esther and only loves her for her beauty, while it lasts; and Lady Dedlock, who similarly doesn't know Esther in actuality). If this were a Nabokov novel, I might begin to get suspicious about all of this.

But it's not a Nabokov novel, it's a Dickens novel, and we take Esther for the person she presents herself to be. Mighty Reader pointed out yesterday that, while Esther is an actual round character--rare for a Dickens hero--she is still essentially passive. Things happen to her. Esther wants nothing but to be good, which is one of the themes of Bleak House to be sure, but like in the story of Mr Oliver Twist, the story happens around Esther Summerson. She suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, none of which she's caused. Again, that's one of the themes of the book so this is an observation rather than a complaint, you.

There is no personal villain in Bleak House, by which I mean there is no character who becomes the focus of Dickensian Evil and sets himself against the hero in person. This is no surprise because Dickens novels (at least the five and six-tenths Dickens novels I've read thus far) aren't structured around a conflict between hero and villain. Society, and the lazy selfish ills thereof, is the villain in Dickens, and it is here or there personified and victimizes a great many people of various levels of innocence. I don't know why I'm writing any of this; anyone who has read Dickens knows this. Bleak House isn't The Hunger Games or Harry Potter and the Side Order of Fries or whatever. Dickens wrote complex social novels and wrestled with the ongoing battle between Good and Evil. Dickens' novels, entertaining and sentimental as they are, also serve as a scourge upon England, a whip to drive the moneylenders from the temple. I think here of John Ruskin's fear for the future of England and I can see that he and Dickens both shared that fear. Both writers wished to wake England up to the truth. But Ruskin retreats into an imagined past and begs England to move backward with him into that fantasy (at least he does in his books on art and architecture; I will have to better familiarize myself with his essays on economics or hope someone will add an illustrative comment here). Dickens attempts to drive England into his imagined future. Both men, I'm pretty sure, failed. That failure in no way diminishes their separate accomplishments in the world of letters. Etc etc etc. I've gone well past my point so here I stop.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The king is dead, a rooster crows. An excerpt from "Mona in the Desert"

The following very long chunk of text is the first couple of pages of Chapter 14 from my work-in-progress, MONA IN THE DESERT. I'm not sure why I'm putting it up here except that, for a variety of reasons, this section amuses me. There is a lot of stuff going on in the novel at this point and this excerpt, while seemingly a mere digression by the narrator and unrelated to any of the action, is...well, important. But mostly amusing to me.

I have mentioned that I wrote a book treating of misreadings of Shakespeare. My editor and I agree that it’s a good book and I recommend it as often as I can, as I have strong opinions on the subject of Shakespeare. There are many readers—from casual fans to hoary old academics—who labor over the plays in search of clues to Shakespeare’s alleged involvement in conspiracies, adulteries and religious intrigues. Doctoral theses and mimeographed chapbooks in the thousands are produced by crackpot followers of various enthusiasms who claim, for example, that the allusions to Virgil in the big soliloquy in Act III of the Scottish play signify Shakespeare’s knowledge of the plot by Presbyterians to assassinate King James, a plot foiled only after the king sat through “Macbeth” and was thereby tipped off. My reader is assured that not only was there no such plot against the life of King James, the presence of Virgil’s fingerprints on Shakespeare’s blank verse is a sign of nothing more than the playwright having read The Aeneid’s siege of Latinum while drafting his own scenes that put Macbeth behind walls, in arms. The proposed real-life intrigues hinted at within Shakespeare’s pages are not there. Certainly Shakespeare’s prose is made richer by the inclusion of bits of stuff tangential to the plots and themes, but to follow these bits of spice off the pages and through either history books or the wake of some fantastic political hobby-horse is to be taken on a merry chase that leads nowhere. One can count all the mentions of gloves and fingers in the thirty-six canonical plays, and then divide that number by the fact that Shakespeare’s father was a glover, and one can then present the sum as evidence of whatever theory one likes. If you do this, however, your news is not true, and you run an enormous risk of exposing your enthusiastic foolishness to ridicule. Really it’s a terrific book that I wrote and I urge you to find a copy. The year my book came out, I met—at an academic conference in Wales—a professor of literature who presented a lecture in which he claimed that “Hamlet” was a puzzle, like one of Nabokov’s novels. His primary Nabokovian touchstone was Pale Fire, I recall. After the lecture I found the closest pub and midway through my first pint, the Welsh professor of literature pulled up the stool next to mine and demanded praise for his ideas. If you track down all the clues in Pale Fire, I told him, you learn only that the whole thing is a novel, a work of fiction written by a Russian author. The puzzle, I said, reveals its exterior, not a new and hidden knowledge. My colleague was speechless so I finished the pint, signaled the barman to pour another, and launched myself once more into the breach against the professor: If you read Shakespeare closely, I said, you come face to face with the ghost of a bright Englishman who had a strong imagination and a gift for language and character. There’s no hidden mystery; there’s no puzzle. Neither William Shakespeare nor Prince Hamlet is Charles Kinbote, I said, and Horatio is not Botkin neither. The genius of the work is right there in plain sight. There’s plenty enough to see, too much there already to try to make more of it, to fail to see the beauty of the plays already visible. The Welshman and I came briefly to blows after a few more pints and a good deal of shouting. I was not invited to the conference the next year, and there were some scathing reviews of my book in the months after my encounter with the professor.

It might be helpful to my reader, since I so frequently mention the work, if I briefly outline the plot of “Hamlet.” The play is a mystery story masquerading as typical Elizabethan revenge drama. The action opens at midnight, on a rampart outside the Danish castle at Elsinore. The king, who always appears dressed in shining armor, walks like a ghost through the play’s many nights, always gone at first light. The king is recently returned from one of his endless wars, soon to embark upon another. It is Christmastime, when families gather together, but the royal family hardly know one another. The king, the husband and father, is rarely at home. His wife and son know him mostly by his reputation. The king sees his own shadow cast upon a castle wall and makes that speech so admired by Carlyle, “Do I not shine, in crowned sovereignty, over you all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet strongest of rallying-signs, indestructible?”

Enter the queen with Horatio, the protagonist of the play, a bright young fellow who has been recommended to the queen as a suitable tutor to the crown prince, who is the Hamlet of the play’s title. Hamlet is also bright but he is an indifferent student, requiring assistance with his Latin and Greek. Horatio is introduced to the king and delivers a shocking aside to the audience. “This man, this king, who spent my childhood making war upon Europe’s crowned heads, hath left me fatherless, hath left my mother’s bed empty.” He utters a blasphemous oath, repelled by the sight of the old warrior embracing the queen. Then Horatio turns smiling to the royal couple, bows and scrapes as they exeunt, the king to prepare his generals for “a soon assault against warlike Norway.” Horatio stands alone onstage, in the very spot where we first saw the king. Now comes the first big soliloquy of the play, as Horatio swears to “sweep through this royal house like the angel of death. There will be no lamb’s blood on the lintel, no Passover. There will be an end, and nothing more. An end for all of them.” Horatio has come to Elsinore to destroy the royal family. It’s a chilling moment, the little man alone on the battlement, shaking a fist at the light that shines from the king’s chamber. We are unsure about this character but we feel perhaps that the king has at some point caused the death of Horatio’s father. We are wrong about that.

The play is a mess. Samuel Johnson was correct to note that Shakespeare showed no regard “to the unities of time and place.” It’s unclear how much time passes between scenes, or precisely where many scenes take place. Certainly the stable scene in Act III is a dream had by Hamlet, as Myers pointed out in his 1917 monograph.

Act II opens with a brief speech by the queen, the reading of a letter from the king, who is away at war again. The queen, in her loneliness, secretly takes comfort in the arms of Claudius, half-brother to the king. Meanwhile Horatio involves himself in the conspiracy of Fortinbras, a young nobleman whose ancestral lands in Polish Kashubia were seized by the king some years before the play opens. It is clear that Horatio and Fortinbras have met often with a group of revolutionaries led by Count Ulfeldt of Copenhagen. The revolutionaries, confusingly enough, refer to themselves as “the Swiss Guard.” Fortinbras thinks at first only to redeem the lost estates in Kashubia, but Horatio edges the young hothead into something farther. “Is this all you would do?” Horatio asks. “You would allow this thief to steal away and sit fat and happy unto old age upon this throne, while your legacy rots, untitled and unrecognized, under the common earth? Such other ambition, my lord, does not overtake you?” The meaning of this passage, of the word “legacy,” is made immediately clear when we learn—in the second of the play’s many surprises—that Horatio and Fortinbras are half-brothers. The next shock is delivered when Fortinbras refers to Prince Hamlet as “our younger third half,” or half-brother. The men are sons of the same man, though only Hamlet is legitimate, recognized by the king, the father of all three.

Shakespeare never explains this mystery, only intimating that Horatio and Fortinbras were sired during the king’s youth as he sallied forth to conquer new territories. Who is the mother of Horatio? Who is the mother of Fortinbras? We will never know. Harold Bloom calls this “the Horatio Puzzle,” and many solutions have been offered. I won’t bore my reader with excursions down those blind alleys.

In Act III, Horatio discovers the adultery between Claudius and Queen Gertrude. Horatio is fond of Claudius and his admiration only increases when he learns how the king is being cuckolded. Horatio dances with joy and then offers, in an elliptical speech—supposedly about styles of furniture and quite funny—to help Claudius get rid of the king. “For cannot the monarch’s brother fit into the throne?” He will offer to do it “with these very hands.” There is a delicious moment in this scene where Claudius removes a portrait of the king from a gilt frame, and then stands behind the empty frame to put himself in the king’s place.

Horatio also finds time to involve himself in the tempestuous relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. Remember that the tutor has sworn to destroy the whole royal family, no matter his just-concluded pact with Claudius. Horatio will ruin the love story because “the prince’s blood runs with the same poison as his father’s.” It is a lovely irony that Horatio fails to see this poison coursing through his own veins. I forget how he finds it out, but Horatio happens to know that Ophelia has been “used” by the king before young Hamlet got to her. Ophelia is, quoth Horatio, “polluted, a pretty sewer hole to receive the filthy seed of the filthy king and his filthy son.” We never learn Horatio’s opinion of his own mother. Indeed, she is not mentioned once in the play.

The identity and personality of the king is often asked after, however. The question, “Who is the king?” is posed twenty-seven times in the course of five acts, and is asked about three different men who all take up the same crown, one after another.

Act IV is when the bloodbath begins. In his essays about England, Voltaire said of Shakespeare that “there are such beautiful scenes, such great and at the same time so terrible pieces widespread in his monstrous farces which go by the name of tragedies.” The last hour of “Hamlet” is a collection of “great and terrible pieces.” The king returns, victorious, clad in shining armor, walking like a ghost through the castle after dark. Think of that brief scene where he encounters Horatio on the lonely rampart, and mistakes his bastard son for the prince. The monarch is intoxicated, having made “the king’s rouse” all night long with a cask of Rhenish. He is unsteady on his feet. Horatio pushes him off the high rampart, crying out, “I too have dreamt of my father, father!” The king is dead, a rooster crows. Claudius takes the crown for himself. Hamlet is set against his uncle and mother through Horatio’s sly innuendo, his actions and speech so similar to that of Iago that it’s already been too much commented upon to merit my further attention here. Horatio convinces the emotionally unstable Ophelia to break off her dalliance with Hamlet if he will not declare his love publically. The happy tutor whispers into his charge’s ear the truth about Ophelia and the late king. My reader will recall the white-hot scene in the chapel.
Oph: I was given no choice!
Ham: O, you wanton! You were better to let him kill you than to violate you.
Oph: Such words as these come easily to one standing aside the battle, my lord.
Ham: I have never forgone my own morals, lady.
Oph: Because like your father, you have none!
Ophelia is devastated by this turn of fortune. Her father, Lord Polonius, attempts to take Hamlet to task for abusing his daughter. For his pains, the old man gets a rapier through the guts. Ophelia, as we all know, goes extravagantly mad. Shakespeare is at his finest in Ophelia’s mad scenes, giving her colorful metaphors for the betrayal she cannot openly declare. She chats with the corpse of Polonius, who lies in state within the castle.
Oph: I cannot howsomever admit of it, that you are guilty of these warrants, father, and now gone forever. I know my lady is mistaken, certes; though she speaks kindly she wore blue to match her eyes and when my lady wears blue she doth mistake her of the facts. Long have I bethought myself to remind the queen to wrap in yellow or crimson when speaking to any purpose but I do forget me and so my lady is mistook and I must speak to her of the blue. Blue eyes, blue skies, the ocean blue and bluebirds too. They are mistaked and my eyes are green which puts me in the right and you have gone away. Ah, the columbine yet bloom, and none in blue. The columbine is always true.
At Polonius’ funeral, Ophelia ignores the priest and addresses Horatio throughout the burial.
Oph: He lies in the grave, as the moon lies in the west. She is all blue like the sky. The moon lies deceived, and doth deceive. I would the moon wore white, or yellow as butter bright. His beard is white as snow. All flaxen was his head. He is gone, he is gone, and we castaways moan ’neath a blue-clad moon. God have mercy on his soul, I pray God.
Act V is when the stage is cleared of most of the remaining cast. First, Polonius is buried by moonlight, as above noted. In quick succession Ophelia drowns herself, Gertrude is murdered by Horatio (he smothers her with a pillow in her closet and then juggles three rotten apples while extemporizing on the faded passions of middle-aged matriarchs), and then the revolutionaries lay siege to Elsinore. Hamlet walks the battlements at midnight to view the surrounding rebel army. He nearly stumbles upon Horatio in whispered conference with Fortinbras, but his half-brothers spot him first and hide in the shadows while the prince ponders, ponderously, suicide. Fortinbras enters the castle and kills Claudius in the throne room, and Hamlet is, at long last, knifed in the back by Horatio. Literally. Fortinbras becomes king of Denmark. Horatio becomes lord chamberlain. The king has been replaced by a false father (Claudius), who is replaced by an upstart bastard. The murderous Horatio, the engine of all the theatrical discontent, is transformed from servant to nobleman. Prince Hamlet, the youngest of the half-brothers, is the tragic hero of the piece. Why is it that youngest sons are forever given sympathetic treatment by mothers and playwrights? But there the play ends, the curtain falling on an abattoir. I have not even hinted at the subplot involving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Claudius (now king) sends Hamlet on a voyage to the Faroe Islands with those two murderous henchmen. Hamlet returns suddenly without them. “These good souls met God face-to-face in a stormy sea,” the prince reports. He wrings out his hat, spilling seawater onto the floor of the throne room and then declares that he must wash his hands.

I tell my reader all of this for two reasons: first, my book on Shakespeare deserves a wider audience than it’s had; second, I warn my reader against misinterpretation of this very text I’m writing now. The letter in my aunt’s handbag, for example, is not a metaphor for hidden knowledge. It’s nothing more than a letter from Roberto Jogales, though Desdemona O’Hurleighy thought of this letter, as she walked south along the highway in her tight blue dress, as a lethal weapon, capable of slaying Rubhiana Jogales if it came to that. My reader, I stress, should remain aware that the lethal weapon is just a love letter. Roberto frequently wrote love letters to Mona during their year-long courtship. My aunt didn’t save any of these letters; there is no locked trunk in a basement anywhere, filled with heartfelt correspondence. My mother, when she fled my father to live for a while with Sean on the ocean shore, left behind the vast collection of letters she and Ernie had written during his years abroad. When Ernie moved out of the house, my mother reports, his half of the collection went with him. He denies having taken them, and he goes a step farther. There were no letters, he told me a few years ago. That’s a family myth. You and your mother always tell stories about the past, but they’re only stories, Frankie. Half of the events you two talk about never even happened. I don’t press the matter with the old man.

Edited to add: I am tempted to delete all of this excerpt, because I find myself radically rewriting it already. It turns out--and this doesn't surprise me--that I hadn't yet figured out what I wanted to do with this idea, the idea of having my narrator give a pocket synopsis of "Hamlet" that actually describes a different story than the one Shakespeare tells. Now that I've actually stumbled upon what it is that I should be doing with this material, I see how I was striking at the wrong mark with the attempt above. This passage comes quite late in the narrative, and is intended to show the reader, more or less, what is going on in the narrative he's been reading. Which means that this "Hamlet" faux synopsis should point more strongly back toward the narrative of which it is a part, which is what I've been making it do. Is that all vague? Well, it will make sense in a hundred years or so when the book is actually, maybe, published. We'll see. Why does anyone read this blog anyway? Why do I write these pieces about books I write? I have no idea. It's a funny old world. Anyway, don't look for these passages in the final version of Mona in the Desert, because they won't be there, at least not in this form.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Stones of London (or, The Foundations of Bleak House)

John Ruskin says, in The Stones of Venice, volume I:
The foundation is to the wall what the paw is to an animal. It is a long foot, wider than the wall, on which the wall is to stand, and which keeps it from settling into the ground. It is most necessary that this great element of security should be visible to the eye, and therefore made a part of the structure above ground. Sometimes, indeed, it becomes incorporated with the entire foundation of the building, a vast table on which walls or piers are alike set: but even then, the eye, taught by the reason, requires some additional preparation or foot for the wall, and the building is felt to be imperfect without it. This foundation we shall call the Base of the wall.
Now, let the reader simply ask himself how, on such a surface, he would set about building a substantial wall, that should be able to bear weight and to stand for ages. He would assuredly look about for the largest stones he had at his disposal, and, rudely levelling the ground, he would lay these well together over a considerably larger width than he required the wall to be, in order to equalise the pressure of the wall over a large surface, and form its foot. On the top of these he would perhaps lay a second tier of large stones, or even the third, making the breadth somewhat less each time, so as to prepare for the pressure of the wall on the centre, and, naturally or necessarily, using somewhat smaller stones above than below (since we supposed him to look about for the largest first), and cutting them more neatly...and then begin the work of the wall veil itself, whether in bricks or stones.

I have supposed the preparation here to be for a large wall, because such a preparation will give us the best general type...The reader will find these members, though only of brick, in most of the considerable and independent walls in the suburbs of London.
Ruskin is talking about architecture, but he is also a writer, a long-form essayist, and he prepares the ground for his tall structures by laying the necessary groundwork, the foundation. This chapter on the bases of walls, for example, is the foundation for later chapters about walls and towers and spires and the reaching up, the pointing toward heaven, of great buildings and temples, etc.

You see where this immediately leads me to Dickens, and his foundation stones in Bleak House. Dickens, however, is not just building a single temple; he is building a whole city--and in one brilliant passage he quickly throws up Paris for us as well and then briskly rides away from that city, leaving it as a couple of gray mounds on the horizon--and so he will continually lay large stones in straight and curving lines away from where we now stand, in order to later erect great walls upon them as his story expands. The lawsuit Jarndyce and Jarndyce is of course the immense stonework which props up everything else in Dickens' Bleak House landscape, and there is something else, a hidden (so far) connection of blood relationships, upon which more walls are being erected, but those are all being raised in the distance and are indistinct, especially through the thick London fogs. Dickens is clever (or it's just that he sees it all at once, knows what the reader can't) and he builds his city all at once, in what appears an uncertain order, throwing gargoyles into the high air where they hang upon the corners of towers yet invisible to the reader. It's pretty cool, is what it is. The nameless omniscient narrator does the majority of the building, racing across courts and down streets, pulling whole neighborhoods into being in his wake. The other narrator, Esther, walks along the pavements more slowly, showing us the people moving through this fantastic landscape. Etc. I've worked this metaphor too long and said, perversely, less than I'd intended.

Here is the flight out of Paris from Bleak House:
...they rattle out of the yard of the Hotel Bristol in the Place Vendome and canter between the sun-and-shadow-chequered colonnade of the Rue de Rivoli and the garden of the ill-fated palace of a headless king and queen, off by the Place of Concord, and the Elysian Fields, and the Gate of the Star, out of Paris.

Sooth to say, they cannot go away too fast, for even here my Lady Dedlock has been bored to death. Concert, assembly, opera, theatre, drive, nothing is new to my Lady under the worn-out heavens. Only last Sunday, when poor wretches were gay--within the walls playing with children among the clipped trees and the statues in the Palace Garden; walking, a score abreast, in the Elysian Fields, made more Elysian by performing dogs and wooden horses; between whiles filtering (a few) through the gloomy Cathedral of Our Lady to say a word or two at the base of a pillar within flare of a rusty little gridiron-full of gusty little tapers; without the walls encompassing Paris with dancing, love-making, wine-drinking, tobacco-smoking, tomb-visiting, billiard card and domino playing, quack-doctoring, and much murderous refuse, animate and inanimate--only last Sunday, my Lady, in the desolation of Boredom and the clutch of Giant Despair, almost hated her own maid for being in spirits.

She cannot, therefore, go too fast from Paris. Weariness of soul lies before her, as it lies behind--her Ariel has put a girdle of it round the whole earth, and it cannot be unclasped--but the imperfect remedy is always to fly from the last place where it has been experienced. Fling Paris back into the distance, then, exchanging it for endless avenues and cross-avenues of wintry trees! And, when next beheld, let it be some leagues away, with the Gate of the Star a white speck glittering in the sun, and the city a mere mound in a plain--two dark square towers rising out of it, and light and shadow descending on it aslant, like the angels in Jacob's dream!

Friday, January 10, 2014

"but treat him kindly without any economical purpose, and all economical purposes will be answered" Ruskin on Dickens, briefly

Over on Umbagollah's blog Pykk, I have been indulged and allowed to chat about Ruskin, among other things. Umbagollah asks exceedingly interesting questions about what writers are doing on the page and in their heads. Anyway, I am indebted to the abovementioned Umbagollah at the blog Pykk for pointing me to the following, which is a footnote to an essay on economics in John Ruskin's Unto this Last, a footnote which concerns Dickens. I have snipped the first paragraph of the footnote, which reveals that Ruskin has read Bleak House, but my reader can rest assured that Ruskin did read that novel, and apparently a great many (maybe all) of Dickens' other novels. Which fact I find greatly interesting. But here's that footnote:
The essential value and truth of Dickens's writings have been unwisely lost sight of by many thoughtful persons, merely because he presents his truth with some colour of caricature. Unwisely, because Dickens's caricature, though often gross, is never mistaken. Allowing for his manner of telling them, the things he tells us are always true. I wish that he could think it right to limit his brilliant exaggeration to works written only for public amusement; and when he takes up a subject of high national importance, such as that which he handled in Hard Times, that he would use severer and more accurate analysis. The usefulness of that work (to my mind, in several respects, the greatest he has written) is with many persons seriously diminished because Mr. Bounderby is a dramatic monster, instead of a characteristic example of a worldly master; and Stephen Blackpool a dramatic perfection, instead of a characteristic example of an honest workman. But let us not lose the use of Dickens's wit and insight, because he chooses to speak in a circle of stage fire. He is entirely right in his main drift and purpose in every book he has written; and all of them, but especially Hard Times, should be studied with close and earnest care by persons interested in social questions. They will find much that is partial, and, because partial, apparently unjust; but if they examine all the evidence on the other side, which Dickens seems to overlook, it will appear, after all their trouble, that his view was the finally right one, grossly and sharply told.
Ruskin mistakes Dickens' intentions, thinking that Dickens writes either "for public amusement" or to address subjects of "importance." Dickens does the latter via the former; that was his art, yes? His great strength and great weakness all rolled into one. Nobody--I am apparently prepared to claim--has carried it off as well as Dickens has.

But John Ruskin was a serious guy, who despite having often lit a circle of fire about his own pronouncements and having often been carried aloft on wings of rhetorical fancy, he never (no, never) resorted to burlesque or caracature. Well, he may have; I've only read something like 2% of his output. See Pykk's blog for an amusing Ruskin anecdote about a Japanese tumbling act, where he resorts to the sort of reductionist tactics for which he chides Dickens.

Meanwhile, in Stones of Venice, Ruskin is telling his reader about the six divisions of architecture:

1. walls
2. piers (columns, etc.)
3. lintels or arches beneath roofs
4. roofs
5. doors and windows
6. buttresses

The last-mentioned item should rightly go before doors and windows, but blogger's text editor and I hate each other so I won't move it up the way I should. Mr Ruskin assures his reader that, once he has been educated in the principles behind the six divisions of architecture, the reader will know enough about building and design to make informed judgments about the rightness or wrongness (aesthetic rightness or wrongness, that is) of any building that hoves into view.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

"it is not easy to be accurate in an account of anything, however simple" Dickens and Ruskin, part 1, maybe

I begin the year with a Big Novel: Charles Dickens’ immense Bleak House, which I’ve never read. At the same time I’m reading John Ruskin’s immense The Stones of Venice, which is half a million words on art and architecture and how the Renaissance was a Very Bad Thing. Except I’m not reading that part (see below for why not). Dickens and Ruskin were both rabbiting away on these particular books in the first years of the 1850s, so I get to compare and contrast what two great English minds were doing at the same time. Both men were writing about the idea that England was rotting from within, though both saw different symptoms and different causes for alarum and offered different solutions (though not that different, not really, just different ways to get to the same basic solution). I’m not being deliberately vague; I’m just circling the ideas I might want to write about for the next few weeks. So much has already been written about Dickens and Ruskin, that whatever clever things that might pop into my head will likely be nothing new or worth writing down, even on a blog. You can learn more about these two books with fifteen minutes of googling than you’ll ever learn from me no matter how much I beazle and prolix about them here. But beazle and prolix I might anyway. We’ll see.

Bleak House has one of those brilliant Dickensian opening salvos: a long description of London during a thick fog (“fog” is Victorian London English for “coal smoke smog”). It’s just great stuff:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
What a nasty city London must’ve been for a long time. I assume all the great cities of Europe had coal smoke fog. The description goes on, and Dickens follows the fog into the Chancery where the legal machinery of London is grinding along, producing legal bills but few legal decisions, and eventually, in the fog-filled chambers of the court, we are introduced to the long-running suit of Jarndyce-and-Jarndyce, a lawsuit so old and complex that nobody on Earth understands it, a lawsuit that has collected and grown additional suits and countersuits the way a ship grows barnacles, so many that most of London’s inhabitants are now somehow touched by the affairs of Jarndyce-and-Jarndyce, the legal matter that will never be resolved. This is Dickens’ great formal device for the novel: the incomprehensible and unending lawsuit, the frame to hold the whole book together. The second great formal device is a reflection of the lawsuit: documents. There are letters or documents or papers of some sort in almost every scene, and letters or court documents or newspaper clippings or whathaveyou provide impetus for the plot movement. Very clever, Mr Dickens, and very postmodern.

Speaking of pomo, Dickens also provides two narrators: one of them unnamed, the implied author maybe, who writes with black humor in a brisk present tense voice; and the other is Esther, a character in the story, who writes in a first-person voice in past tense. Esther is a Good person, the noble Dickensian character I’ve been looking for, who is both noble and not a hollow prop around which the action turns. Dickens has solved the problem of the dull noble character by the method of making her a narrator. She must act, she must think, she must feel, in order to narrate the story of which she is a part. As Amateur Reader(Tom) promised, the solution Dickens found was simple. Well done again, Charles.

What of Ruskin? I am running out of room here, so I'll be brief. The version I am reading is not the 450,000-word original, because I could not lay my hands on it. I bought a 1960 abridgement, some 220 pages long, some 380,000 words cut away, of the original, wherein the editor (J.G. Links) seeks to present the bones, the main thrust of Ruskin’s ideas about architecture. I will have to find the unabridged 3-volume version if I want to read the 30,000-word essay on “Renaissance Pride” (and of course I do want to read that essay). Anyway, Ruskin is writing, as always, about how estrangement from beauty and a pure heart will destroy us. Dickens is writing about much the same thing. Dickens shows us the poor of London, scrabbling through rubbish in search of anything of use. Ruskin shows us the middle classes, who would enjoy giving money to the poor if only they were made aware that it is better to give than to receive. Ruskin wraps his ideas in a discussion of art, because art matters to him, but as usual he can’t avoid talking about right and wrong in terms of human activity in general. More about all of this, maybe, later this week or next week or whenever. Maybe. I’m reading these books, and other books, and I’m working on projects of my own which involve yet more books, and the more I think about it all, the more my head aches.