Friday, February 28, 2014

"a not very reassuring expression" Henrik Pontoppidan's social realist novel Lucky Per, part one

"Do you remember from your Danish reader a legend about a hill troll who crept up through his hole to live among men, but sneezed frightfully every time the sun broke through the clouds?"
That's Peter Andreas Sidenius, the hero of Henrik Pontoppidan's 1898 social realist novel Lucky Per, describing himself to Jakobe Salomon. Peter (or "Per," as he calls himself) is one of the novel's many troll figures (there is also Per's father, a dour priest from a very long line of dour priests, and a drunken landscape painter, and God knows who else; I don't know my Danish troll stories). Per has crept up through his hole--that is, separated himself from his rural priestly family on Jutland--and moved to Copenhagen to study engineering (Per has an aptitude for mathematics) and to raise himself above his hill troll origins. Because Lucky Per is loosely erected on the bones of the Danish fairy tales "Lucky Peer" (Hans Christian Andersen) and "Clod-Hans" (traditional), Per Sidenius keeps stumbling backwards into higher circles of society, into patrons and wealthy established families, and into these groups Per wishes to ingratiate himself and fit in, if not actually dominate:
For the first time in his life, he met here people to whom he felt inferior. Even in conversations with the young girls and their friends, he needed to call on all kinds of artifice to cover up the lacks in his culture and hide the big holes in his knowledge. In secret, he tried, with as much speed as possible, to catch up with what he had missed in his general education.
I feel a great kinship here with poor Per, though I hope I am less clumsy socially than he is. Except that I'm not:
Gradually, as he overcame his social insecurity that had, until now, put a damper on his self-confidence, he began the annoying habit of talking incessantly, in any situation. After having read ten or so books of Dr Nathan and like-minded authors, he felt competent to range widely through an array of knowledge, supporting himself with provincial naivete, in every discussion about the great coming Age of Enlightenment.
Sort of like me on the internet. The "great coming Age" refers to Per's big plan, to build a series of canals across Jutland, to widen channels between the major Danish islands, to construct an immense harbor on the west coast of Jutland that will rival Hamburg, to promote industry, to build wave- and wind-powered generators in Kattegat Bay and transform all of rural Denmark into an industrial power. All of this, of course, to distance himself from his provincial priestly family and their gloomy religious outlook. Over time Per's plans become increasingly complex and far-reaching, and as the descriptions accumulate, it gets pretty hysterical.

But this is only a comic novel in the way that Dickens or Turgenev or Dostoyevsky wrote comic novels. There is a lot of serious business going on. Jakobe Salomon, one of the many daughters of the wealthy Jewish merchant Philip Salomon, takes a sort of liking to young Per after Ivan Salomon (Jakobe's brother) decides to be Per's secret patron. Per begins to spend a lot of time in Jakobe's company while he is attempting to woo her little sister Nanny:
He had the highest respect for Jakobe who, with such ease, could speak of an ancient Greek philosopher and the newest Bismarck policy without sounding like a bluestocking. In spite of a not very reassuring expression she at first directed towards him, and in spite of the fact that she did not often show him her most accessible side, he set a high value on talking to her about what she had been reading or was thinking of reading.
What Per doesn't know is that when Jakobe looks at him, she involuntarily sees a pair of Prussian lieutenants she encountered at a Berlin train station, where boxcars of Russian Jews who were being forcibly emigrated to America were detained. There is an ugly scene displaying European antisemitism, a scene to which Jakobe's mind flashes back in Per's company. Per, on his part, had no interest in--and even some considerable aversion to--friendship with Jewish families until it occurred to him that Nanny was flirting with him and that Nanny stood to inherit a great deal of money. Per is the hero, but he's not heroic. Troll, remember?

There's a lot of good stuff in this novel. It's also well-knit structurally, and characters and events are beginning (at page 150 or so of 554 large and dense pages) to swing back around to complicate the plot in a Dickensian sort of manner. Though this is not a Dickens novel. It is a very good novel so far, though, and it's a pity it's so little known and only recently translated into English (I'm reading Naomi Lebowitz' 2010 translation on Peter Lang Books). Thomas Mann thought quite highly of Lucky Per. I can see why.

Friday, February 21, 2014

"holding her smock high and exposing her white legs": Tolstoy's Cossacks

It was one of those wonderful evenings that occur only in the Caucasus. The sun had sunk behind the mountains but it was still light. The evening glow had spread over a third of the sky, and against its brilliancy the dull white immensity of the mountains was sharply defined. The air was rarefied, motionless, and full of sound. The shadow of the mountains reached for several miles over the steppe. The steppe, the opposite side of the river, and the roads, were all deserted. If very occasionally mounted men appeared, the Cossacks in the cordon and the Chechens in their aouls (villages) watched them with surprised curiosity and tried to guess who those questionable men could be. At nightfall people from fear of one another flock to their dwellings, and only birds and beasts fearless of man prowl in those deserted spaces. Talking merrily, the women who have been tying up the vines hurry away from the gardens before sunset. The vineyards, like all the surrounding district, are deserted, but the villages become very animated at that time of the evening. From all sides, walking, riding, or driving in their creaking carts, people move towards the village. Girls with their smocks tucked up and twigs in their hands run chatting merrily to the village gates to meet the cattle that are crowding together in a cloud of dust and mosquitoes which they bring with them from the steppe. The well-fed cows and buffaloes disperse at a run all over the streets and Cossack women in coloured beshmets go to and fro among them. You can hear their merry laughter and shrieks mingling with the lowing of the cattle. There an armed and mounted Cossack, on leave from the cordon, rides up to a hut and, leaning towards the window, knocks. In answer to the knock the handsome head of a young woman appears at the window and you can hear caressing, laughing voices. There a tattered Nogay labourer, with prominent cheekbones, brings a load of reeds from the steppes, turns his creaking cart into the Cossack captain's broad and clean courtyard, and lifts the yoke off the oxen that stand tossing their heads while he and his master shout to one another in Tartar. Past a puddle that reaches nearly across the street, a barefooted Cossack woman with a bundle of firewood on her back makes her laborious way by clinging to the fences, holding her smock high and exposing her white legs. A Cossack returning from shooting calls out in jest: 'Lift it higher, shameless thing!' and points his gun at her. The woman lets down her smock and drops the wood. An old Cossack, returning home from fishing with his trousers tucked up and his hairy grey chest uncovered, has a net across his shoulder containing silvery fish that are still struggling; and to take a short cut climbs over his neighbour's broken fence and gives a tug to his coat which has caught on the fence. There a woman is dragging a dry branch along and from round the corner comes the sound of an axe. Cossack children, spinning their tops wherever there is a smooth place in the street, are shrieking; women are climbing over fences to avoid going round. From every chimney rises the odorous kisyak smoke. From every homestead comes the sound of increased bustle, precursor to the stillness of night.
That's the first paragraph of Chapter V of Leo Tolstoy's 1863 novel Cossacks, in the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation (1890?), which was apparently approved by Tolstoy himself. Tolstoy is great at describing the hubbub of life in general, almost creating a Dickensian mood but without Dickens' highly ornamented prose. Dickens, too, would've added a subtext of social critique to his description of the village, where Tolstoy tries, I think, to simply report, to see it as it is and to think it fine. There is subtle social commentary in Cossacks, though not in passages like this. I'm almost always pleased when I read Tolstoy's short works.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"a remarkably repulsive story" by Henrik Pontoppidan: The Apothecary's Daughters

This is a remarkably repulsive story, which it would have been far better to leave in a language which would necessarily have kept the knowledge of it within narrow limits. Some of the dramas and tales which Scandinavia is giving us just now are not things to be grateful for.
That short and pithy review of Henrik Pontoppidan's short novel The Apothecary's Daughters is from The Spectator, published 12 April 1890, upon the publication of the first (and possibly only) English translation of the book. The translation, which seems quite fine to me, is by Gordius Nielsen. I might tell you that the story also seems quite fine to me, and has caused me great discomfort in that I'm having a difficult time finding more English translations of Pontoppidan's works. I would like to read more of his works.

Henrik Pontoppidan was a Danish writer (1857-1943) who shared the Nobel prize in literature with some guy named Karl Gjellerup in 1917. Reading Pontoppidan began for me as a bit of a joke when Amateur Reader announced his Year of Danish Literature. Also, a coworker of mine had read The Apothecary's Daughters in the original Danish and recommended it to me.

The novel(la) concerns the marriages and subsequent unhappiness of Betty and Kamma, the titular daughters. The apothecary, upon his retirement at age 60, moves to the country (in Jutland, it seems, but that's never made clear) where he plans to raise his teenaged daughters away from the corrupting influence of the city. The village where the innocent family lives is bounded on the landward side by two great estates, the lords of the estates being eligible bachelors, both around 40 years of age. Inevitably, the sisters marry the two lords, much to the consternation of the local families who've had their eyes upon these wealthy bachelors for decades.

Kamma, the elder daughter, discovers quickly that she has married a notorious adulterer "(quite a common milkmaid was openly spoken of)", and she leaves him in shame, moving back to her father's house. Her husband pleads with her to return but she refuses him and eventually he disappears and is never heard from again. Betty, the younger sister, has better luck, for a while. She marries Anton Daniel Frederick Drehling, a respectable member of the upper house of Parliament, who loves Betty madly and takes her on an extended honeymoon all over Europe. They return to the estate on Jutland when they discover that Betty is with child. She bears a son, but soon after Anton must return to Copenhagen to serve in Parliament. There he meets, quite by accident, a woman from his past, for whom he once suffered a burning passion. Things progress from there, in all the usual ironic and comic ways:
He began talking in an absent-minded manner about travels, the troubles of a travelling life, and about foreign countries. And as it now happened that they had visited the same places, and there seen the same things and met the same people, he entered almost against his will into lively conversation.

Mrs Condering possessed a peculiar curt, clear, often quite pertinent and, in talking about people, not unfrequently a light sarcastical manner of expressing herself, which involuntarily captivated her listeners. She appeared to have lived and seen a great deal more than most people; seemed equally intimate with Vienna high life, the seaside life along the Channel, and with the Parisian theatrical news. Gradually Anton was carried away by these old recollections of places and worlds which formerly had been so dear to him, so that he quite forgot his uneasiness.
In tone, the book is surprisingly similar to the tales of Gogol and Chekhov. Here's one of my favorite bits, about the apothecary going a-hunting ["Sancho Panza" refers to the assistant apothecary, a faithful servant named John]:
As soon as they had commenced to ramble out in the enclosed fields round the town, a peculiar commotion was invariably raised in its outskirts. Women looked out for their poultry; mothers gathered in their children; while at home, in the apothecary's shop, the little weak apothecary's wife shuddered in her roller chair, although she knew that Sancho Panza, according to her own express demand, was close by in case anything unusual should occur.

This uneasiness was all the more inexplicable as scarcely any destruction had ever been caused of any kind whatsoever; if we except once, when, by a pardonable oversight, the apothecary had had the ill luck to mangle a lady's old brown muff, which, together with some old hairy stuff, was laid out for an airing on a lawn behind the furrier's garden; and another time when a small shot, in a yet undiscovered manner, went astray into the calf of a passer-by. With these exceptions, nothing between heaven and earth had the least serious molestation to complain of.

But Apothecary Byberg's heart swelled every time that he, through his spectacles, noticed the flurry which the mere sight of his person on these occasion caused around him. He triumphantly enjoyed the sneaking fear with which dogs and cats slunk past him along the house walls, when, with manly steps and the gun barrel peeping up over his shoulder, he walked along the resounding flags of the street.
Pehaps The Apothecary's Daughters is a bit slight, and I must assume it's nothing at all like the later novels of Pontoppidan, which all look pretty good. If nothing else, it's piqued my interest in reading more from the author. I have requested the 2010 English translation of Lucky Per from the university library. Lucky Per is a 600-page social novel that allegedly moves through every stratum of Danish society. So that'll be interesting.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"I wish you would go upstairs, sir." Tragic pragmatism in Sons and Lovers

One day he picked up a copy of Lettres de mon Moulin from her work-bench.

"You read French, do you?" he cried.

Clara glanced round negligently. She was making an elastic stocking of heliotrope silk, turning the Spiral machine with slow, balanced regularity, occasionally bending down to see her work or to adjust the needles; then her magnificent neck, with its down and fine pencils of hair, shone white against the lavender, lustrous silk. She turned a few more rounds, and stopped.

"What did you say?" she asked, smiling sweetly.

Paul's eyes glittered at her insolent indifference to him.

"I did not know you read French," he said, very polite.

"Did you not?" she replied, with a faint, sarcastic smile.

"Rotten swank!" he said, but scarcely loud enough to be heard.

He shut his mouth angrily as he watched her. She seemed to scorn the work she mechanically produced; yet the hose she made were as nearly perfect as possible.

"You don't like Spiral work," he said.

"Oh, well, all work is work," she answered, as if she knew all about it.

He marvelled at her coldness. He had to do everything hotly. She must be something special.

"What would you prefer to do?" he asked.

She laughed at him indulgently, as she said, "There is so little likelihood of my ever being given a choice, that I haven't wasted time considering."

"Pah!" he said, contemptuous on his side now. "You only say that because you're too proud to own up what you want and can't get."

"You know me very well," she replied coldly.

"I know you think you're terrific great shakes, and that you live under the eternal insult of working in a factory."

He was very angry and very rude. She merely turned away from him in disdain. He walked whistling down the room, flirted and laughed with Hilda.

Later on he said to himself, "What was I so impudent to Clara for?" He was rather annoyed with himself, at the same time glad. "Serve her right; she stinks with silent pride," he said to himself angrily.

In the afternoon he came down. There was a certain weight on his heart which he wanted to remove. He thought to do it by offering her chocolates.

"Have one?" he said. "I bought a handful to sweeten me up."

To his great relief, she accepted. He sat on the work-bench beside her machine, twisting a piece of silk round his finger. She loved him for his quick, unexpected movements, like a young animal. His feet swung as he pondered. The sweets lay strewn on the bench. She bent over her machine, grinding rhythmically, then stooping to see the stocking that hung beneath, pulled down by the weight. He watched the handsome crouching of her back, and the apron-strings curling on the floor.

"There is always about you," he said, "a sort of waiting. Whatever I see you doing, you're not really there: you are waiting--like Penelope when she did her weaving." He could not help a spurt of wickedness. "I'll call you Penelope," he said.

"Would it make any difference?" she said, carefully removing one of her needles.

"That doesn't matter, so long as it pleases me. Here, I say, you seem to forget I'm your boss. It just occurs to me."

"And what does that mean?" she asked coolly.

"It means I've got a right to boss you."

"Is there anything you want to complain about?"

"Oh, I say, you needn't be nasty," he said angrily.

"I don't know what you want," she said, continuing her task.

"I want you to treat me nicely and respectfully."

"Call you 'sir', perhaps?" she asked quietly.

"Yes, call me 'sir'. I should love it."

"Then I wish you would go upstairs, sir."
This is a marvelous passage from Lawrence. Paul Morel has gotten Clara a job in a factory, making medical stockings. Before this, Clara was working in her mother's kitchen, carding lace for pennies. Paul is interested in Clara as a woman. Clara is not so interested in Paul as a man; she is older than he, separated from her husband, and Paul is still really just an adolescent in his behavior.

This scene continues several of the novel's important themes: the money-and-power theme, the ignored-suitor theme, the who-is-good-enough-for-whom theme, etc. A lot is happening here.

At work Paul plays the role of the man in charge, the provider. Paul at twenty-three still lives at home with his mother and father. The father, a collier, pays for the house and household expenses while Paul and his mother show him no respect, because he is unworthy of much respect within this fictional milieu. Paul has unknowingly inherited a good deal of intolerance, smugness and a prideful sense of entitlement from both of his parents. Clara took the job at the factory because she needs money, but she doesn't want to be obligated to Paul. She feels this obligation, and she resents it.

There is a young woman, Miriam, who is in love with Paul, but Paul and his mother agree that Miriam is unsuitable. They agree that Clara is suitable enough, though Paul's mother would rather her son marry a lady, to fulfill her dreams of raising the family (her side, anyway) back to a proper station in life. Mrs Morel has already argued the superiority of the middle class over "the common folk." Miriam, despite her French lessons, is of the common folk. Paul also knows that Miriam is rather too good and pure for the likes of him. He can't live up to her goodness, which wounds his pride and he hates her for it. Clara is divorced, or at least separated from her husband and therefore a fallen woman, thus below Paul morally. He can stoop down to her level, maybe. He wouldn't call it that, but there it is. There are many scenes before this one quoted, between Paul and Miriam, where Miriam kneels at Paul's feet. Paul is irritated by this even though he wants Clara to kneel at his feet now. There is also the image in the Paul-and-Miriam section of the constellation Orion and his dog (the constellation Canus Major, built around Sirius, the dog star). Paul thinks of these as "his and Miriam's" constellations. We can easily figure that Paul sees himself as Orion. Miriam--lucky Miriam--is the faithful dog. Orion has abandoned Sirius and now shops for a new pet. I am being very hard on Paul Morel, on David Lawrence who wants our sympathy for Paul.

Through all of this is an argument--mostly unspoken but there nonetheless (think of the marriages of Annie and William, for example)--that even if there is an Ideal Love out there for each of us, we will likely never meet this Ideal Love. We must instead give our love to someone we meet in real life, someone who stumbles into our own circle, someone who is less, perhaps, than our ideal and for whom we are also not the stuff of dreams. Love is choice, a difficult choice, a tragic pragmatism.

Monday, February 10, 2014

it was like: simile in D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers is a fairly long book, about 161,000 words. I guess that's not really an immense novel, but it's about twice the average 300-page volume we see these days. Not quite twice as long as the novels I write. A brief memorandum if you're Charles Dickens. But still, a pretty sizable pile of words, sentences, paragraphs. I was looking through the book today with an eye for patterns, repetition, etc, but what caught my eye instead was how often Lawrence uses similes in his writing. The word "like" is frequently used; I'll bet that there are at least 300 similes in this novel.

I have done no systematic checking of this, no statistical analysis of the text, but I think simile is the most common descriptive device used in Sons and Lovers. Lawrence employs it constantly, telling us what the world looks like, what people do, and who (and how) people are within. Lawrence makes great use of it when describing landscape:
the Derbyshire hills ridged across the crimson far away, like the black crest of a newt

or

seeing a big red moon lift itself up, slowly, between the waste road over the hilltop, steadily, like a great bird

or

They emerged into a wide yard, like a well, with buildings all round. It was littered with straw and boxes, and cardboard. The sunshine actually caught one crate whose straw was streaming on to the yard like gold. But elsewhere the place was like a pit.
That's almost one simile per sentence in the last example. A lot of other paragraphs are structured just like it. Once in a while you'll get a nice metaphor like this:
Paul was treated to dazzling descriptions of all kinds of flower-like ladies, most of whom lived like cut blooms in William's heart for a brief fortnight.
The images aren't sustained (William's women are not all flowers, for example) and the similes are localized, momentary outbursts:
with the birth of this third baby, her self no longer set towards him, helplessly, but was like a tide that scarcely rose, standing off from him

punishment which ate into his spirit like rust

it went through her like a flash of hot fire

she seemed so like a wet rag that would never dry

the father was like some ugly irritant to their souls

They passed the end of Nethermere, that was tossing its sunshine like petals lightly in its lap.
There is a lot in Sons and Lovers about flowers, and open water, and fire, but Lawrence didn't build large-scale networks of symbolism from his flower, water, and fire imagery. Lawrence's prose is always--no matter what the work (though I have only read two novels and a couple of short stories so what do I know?)--immediate and urgent, impatient even. Things accumulate, they pile up, they increase in intensity, but meaning and form are rarely united over the whole course of the work. The coal pits remain coal pits. Houses are houses, more or less comfortable. Lawrence inhabits the whole world of his novel, but he inhabits it like a man inhabits his wardrobe, putting on and taking off articles of clothing as the mood strikes; you may never see him wear the same hat twice, even when he's going to the same place or even when he's in the same mood. Lawrence has an infinitely varied wardrobe; he has no need for repetition. He invents every moment of his novel as he comes to it. This is an unsuccessful simile, not quite what I mean.

There are of course patterns in Sons and Lovers. There is the man-and-woman pattern, where couples form and are put under stress. There is the mother-and-child pattern. There is the striving-to-become pattern. These actions are repeated, examined, overlapped. Plot is patterned in Lawrence, but symbolism is not. Realizing this sort of makes me irritated with Lawrence. I'm not sure why that is. It seems like a defect to which I was blind until now. It's just another way of working, is all it is.

Friday, February 7, 2014

David Lawrence gets a job: Sons and Lovers, some thoughts

"What do you want to be?" his mother asked.

"Anything."

"That is no answer," said Mrs. Morel.

But it was quite truthfully the only answer he could give. His ambition, as far as this world's gear went, was quietly to earn his thirty or thirty-five shillings a week somewhere near home, and then, when his father died, have a cottage with his mother, paint and go out as he liked, and live happy ever after. That was his programme as far as doing things went. But he was proud within himself, measuring people against himself, and placing them, inexorably. And he thought that perhaps he might also make a painter, the real thing. But that he left alone.

"Then," said his mother, "you must look in the paper for the advertisements."

He looked at her. It seemed to him a bitter humiliation and an anguish to go through. But he said nothing. When he got up in the morning, his whole being was knotted up over this one thought:

"I've got to go and look for advertisements for a job."

It stood in front of the morning, that thought, killing all joy and even life, for him. His heart felt like a tight knot.
There is a lot about work, and labor, and money, in Sons and Lovers. Gertrude Morel is from a higher social station than her husband, Walter. She fell in love with him at a Christmas party, almost inexplicably, because he had a rich and beautiful laugh and because he danced well even though she never learned a step in her life. Walter is a simple and direct man; he works in a coal pit, hacking away at rock faces underground all the day long, he drinks in the evenings, he comes home to his wife, who is an alien to him, who bears him four children. While she is pregnant with her third child, Gertrude quarrels with Walter and he, drunk, pushes her our of the house and locks the door:
The moon was high and magnificent in the August night. Mrs. Morel, seared with passion, shivered to find herself out there in a great white light, that fell cold on her, and gave a shock to her inflamed soul. She stood for a few moments helplessly staring at the glistening great rhubarb leaves near the door. Then she got the air into her breast. She walked down the garden path, trembling in every limb, while the child boiled within her.
The language in the whole book is like that, a living thing almost, writhing on the page, precise and pointed. Forster said of Lawrence that, as a writer, he walks into your living room and breaks all the furniture. This is what Forster meant. "the child boiled within her," that's great stuff.

After a decade of marriage, Gertrude Morel begins to despise her husband, as do the children, and Walter withdraws from the family into a lonely life of coal mining, drinking, eating and sleeping. He makes his own breakfast, early in the mornings:
He went downstairs in his shirt and then struggled into his pit-trousers, which were left on the hearth to warm all night. There was always a fire, because Mrs. Morel raked. And the first sound in the house was the bang, bang of the poker against the raker, as Morel smashed the remainder of the coal to make the kettle, which was filled and left on the hob, finally boil. His cup and knife and fork, all he wanted except just the food, was laid ready on the table on a newspaper. Then he got his breakfast, made the tea, packed the bottom of the doors with rugs to shut out the draught, piled a big fire, and sat down to an hour of joy. He toasted his bacon on a fork and caught the drops of fat on his bread; then he put the rasher on his thick slice of bread, and cut off chunks with a clasp-knife, poured his tea into his saucer, and was happy. With his family about, meals were never so pleasant.
The family views him as the villain of the piece, but Lawrence can't quite bring himself as author to paint Walter as entirely evil. He is merely low, common, uneducated. He is, more or less, Lawrence's own father, as Lawrence grew up in a collier's rented house on the edge of the coal fields by Sherwood Forest.

Most of the novel, so far (I'm about a third, maybe, of the way through), is centered around Gertrude Morel's point of view. It's a great novel, a beautiful novel, and justly Lawrence's most famous. Lawrence paints a detailed portrait of life, his scenes full of household objects and the minutia of nature, the scents of flowers and the buzzing of insects all vivid but not sentimental, not "Nature" as a person, a force separate from humanity. The forces of nature run through everything, through every character, their forces pushing them along into collision with one another, and Lawrence makes much of tiny moments of solitude in his characters' lives. In the chapter I quote at the start of this post, Paul (the Morels' third child) is looking for a job. He goes off to look at advertisements in the newspaper but before he can force himself to read the employment pages, he sits in a corner of the public reading room and stares out the window, at sunflowers nodding over the top of a wall, at a brewer's wagon driven by a middle-aged man who looks, to Paul, less intelligent than the horse who pulls the wagon. Paul wishes he was stupid, wishes he could know nothing more of life than the desire to drive a brewer's wagon, wishes he was the horse, and so spared the task of finding a place he doesn't want in the world. And then Paul reads the advertisements, and writes his letters of application, and so takes a job working for a manufacturer of artificial limbs. "It seemed monstrous that a business could be run on wooden legs," he thinks. Lawrence's whole world here runs on wooden legs.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

a strange messy hash: dull writing update

I am working to get a MS in shape before I send off a bunch of query letters to literary agents. The MS in question is a book called Go Home, Miss America that I began writing in 2012. The formal structure of the book is two parallel narratives told in alternating chapters, each narrative having its own central character (either David Molloy or Catherine Lark). I began the book by writing about David Molloy; Catherine was intended as a foil character. Over the course of several revisions, it became clear that the primary story is actually Catherine's, and David is the foil character. The original organization of the novel puts David's chapters first (the odd-numbered chapters, beginning with Chapter 1), which makes it feel as if his story is the primary one. Last week I decided to open the book with Catherine instead, so I have switched the first ten chapters around so that they now begin with what was Chapter 2, and I've moved all of David's chapters back one place, if you know what I mean. Chapter 1 became Chapter 2, Chapter 2 became Chapter 1, and so on through Chapter 10. Now the book begins with the story of Catherine Lark and the David Molloy plot is clearly something that pushes against Catherine's story rather than vice versa. I think I've explained this plenty by now.

Currently I'm reading through the MS in its new form. None of the prose has changed, but it seems like a whole new book, which I find very interesting. It seems like a much better book, too, which I find very very interesting. I'm fiddling with the writing a bit, of course, but I have made a promise to myself that in general I'll just leave it alone rather than rewriting the whole damned thing yet again. I am a furious sort of rewriter, because I actually love revisions since that's where the good stuff is found, and I enjoy solving the various problems of long-form fiction. I am particularly pleased that the MS now begins and ends with Catherine's story, and that the opening page is populated by farm animals who have been named after saints while the closing pages are populated by saints looking at farm animals.

Anyway, it's like I've been presented with an entirely new story to read, and I think it's a pretty fine book. I was alarmed to discover a dangling modifier in the second sentence of what's now the first paragraph of Chapter 1. I have fixed that, don't you worry. Maybe next week I'll have fussed enough with this novel that I can finally start sending out those query letters. We'll see. I find that I'm not in any real hurry to start the process of contacting agents again. I try not to think about how much profanity is in Go Home, Miss America. There is a lot of profanity in the David Molloy chapters. Some of it is very colorful profanity, which amused me a great deal when I wrote it.

I also continue, here and there, or maybe it's now and then, to work on revisions to a novel called Mona in the Desert. That book is getting longer all the time, but I have promised myself that I won't add any more new chapters. It's time to settle in with the MS and work on what I have down on the page already. Mona is told out-of-order, the narrative worming its way through some sixty or so years of family history, looping and coiling around itself and the narrator's contradictory claims. I'm not sure about this one. Some days it seems like a brilliant book. Other days it seems like a strange messy hash of a novel. We'll see. There is plenty of work to be done yet on Mona in the Desert. I am in no hurry with this one, either.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"I will be content with a hundred dinars for each dead man" - More Arabian Nights

I continue to read tales from the Thousand and One Nights. This morning it's "The Tale of Jouder and His Brothers," which begins thusly:
There was once a merchant named Omar and he had three sons, the eldest of whom was called Salim, the second Selim and the third Jouder. He reared them all till they came to man's estate, but the youngest he loved more than his brothers, who, seeing this, waxed jealous of Jouder and hated him. Now their father was a man stricken in years, and when he saw that his two eldest sons hated their brother, he feared lest trouble should befall him from them after his death. So he assembled a company of his kinsfolk, together with divers men of learning and assessors of the Cadi's court, and letting bring all his money and stuff, said to them, 'O folk, divide ye this money and stuff into four parts, according to the law.' They did so, and he gave one part to each of his sons and kept the fourth himself, saying, "This was my good and I have divided it among them; and now they have no farther claim upon me nor upon each other; so, when I die, no difference shall arise between them, seeing that I have parted the inheritance among them in my lifetime; and this that I have kept shall be for my wife, their mother, wherewithal to provide for her subsistence [after my death].'

A little while after this he died, and neither of the two elder brothers was content with his share, but sought more of Jouder, saying, 'Our father's good is in thy hands.' So he appealed to the judges and those who had been present at the partition came and bore witness of that which they knew, wherefore the judge forbade them from each other; but Jouder and his brothers spent much money in bribes to him. After this, they left him awhile, but presently they began again to torment him and he again appealed to the magistrate, [who again gave judgment in his favour;] but all three once more lost much money in bribes. Nevertheless Salim and Selim forbore not to seek his hurt [and to carry the case] from court to court, losing, he and they, till they had given all their good for food to the oppressors and they became poor, all three. Then the two elder brothers went to their mother and took her money and beat her and laughed at her and drove her away. So she betook herself to her son Jouder and told him how his brothers had dealt with her and fell to cursing them. 'O my mother,' said he, 'do not curse them, for God will requite each of them his deed. See, I am become poor, and so are my brethren, for contention begetteth loss of good, and we have contended amain, I and they, before the judges, and it hath profited us nothing: nay, we have wasted all our father left us and are disgraced among the folk by reason of our testimony, [one against the other]. Shall I then contend with them anew on thine account and shall we appeal to the judges?
"Huh," I said. "That sounds familiar. Only this time it's not The Odyssey, it's Bleak House! Apparently the "lawsuit" plot has been around for a long time. Our old friend Anonymous only manages to get a couple of paragraphs out of it, where Dickens worked it for 600 pages. That's what we call progress.

Later on in the same story (which, like so many folktales and myths, is clearly a collection of short tales stitched together end-to-end to form a long entertainment), Jouder is paid 100 dinars to drown a Moor (at the Moor's request). The next day he's paid another 100 dinars to drown another Moor.
After awhile, his feet appeared above the water and Jouder said, 'He is dead and damned! So God will, may Moors come to me every day, and I will bind them and push them in and they shall die; and I will be content with a hundred dinars for each dead man.' Then he took the mule to the Jew, who exclaimed, on seeing him, 'The other is dead?' 'May thy head live!' answered Jouder, and the Jew said, 'This is the reward of the covetous.' Then he took the mule and gave Jouder a hundred dinars, with which he returned to his mother. 'O my son,' said she, 'whence hast thou this money?' So he told her and she said, 'Go not again to Lake Caroun, for I fear for thee from the Moors.' 'O my mother,' answered he, 'I do but cast them in by their own wish, and what am I to do? This craft brings me in a hundred dinars a day and I return speedily; wherefore, by Allah, I will not leave going to Lake Caroun, till the race of the Moors is cut off and not one of them is left.'
These quotes are all taken from Volume VI of the John Payne edition of 1901, available for mayhem online. In the N. J. Dawood translation I'm reading, it's quite a bit funnier. I laughed aloud on the bus, to the alarm of my seatmate.

Much as I'm enjoying these tales, I look forward to reading something long and sustained and more formally integrated. A novel, in other words.