Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Booze Ain't Bad, Neither

They have an ugly website, but The Elliott Bay Book Company has a lovely store, where Mighty Reader and I spent some time wandering about this afternoon. My purchases:

Ghosts by Cesar Aria
The Reverberator by Henry James
Piano Stories by Felisberto Hernandez

So two from New Directions and one from Melville House, both fine small presses. Later, on the walk downhill toward downtown, we stopped at Sun Liquor for bottles of boutique gin and vodka. The bottles themselves are quite loverly.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Rest Is Marketing, Part Six by my count: the new edition of The Astrologer.

Just this. That's all. The new edition is very nice, I must say. Quite handsome. Force your local book shop to special order a copy for you.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Per's Progress: miscellaneous last thoughts on Pontoppidan's novel "Lucky Per"

I finished Henrik Pontoppidan's novel Lucky Per a couple of days ago, and I have put off writing a final post about the book because I did not want to interpret the novel; I wanted to find a way of discussing what's in it instead of just writing down what I think about it, because I was--for a variety of reasons--quite discomfited by the final chapters and my discomfiture distracted me from the novel itself. But I think I can finally write about what's on the page rather than how I feel about the book (a nice delusion, that; as if any of us can write merely about what the author has written without filtering it through ourselves). Anyway, I am going to give it a try.

Lucky Per is constructed of a number of overlapping and simultaneous structures. There is the bildungsroman, the life story of Peter Andreas Sidenius, son of a rural Danish priest, a boy who dreams of transforming Denmark. There is the social novel, where Pontoppidan displays and comments ironically on many of the social classes within Denmark in the late 19th century. There is the political novel, where Pontoppidan displays and comments ironically on many of the national characteristics of Europe outside of Denmark, including at many steps the Danish hatred of Germany and the growing European antisemitism. There is also the examination of the role of religion in an industrialized free-market society, the question of spiritual authority in the age of science. This last structure is possibly the most important one in the novel, as the question of faith is what creates the biggest changes in Per's life. All of these structures are held together by the powerful glue of irony.

The religious issues are examined in Lucky Per via a dialectic that starts on the first page and carries the narrative to the final scene. I am unsure if Pontoppidan presents what he thinks is a synthesis at the end of the book, or if he simply exhausts all the opposing ideas in play at the time he wrote the book. I will say that the ending of Lucky Per strikes me as bleak, for Per has attempted to reconcile the contradictions inherent in modern society and to find a balance between progress and faith and a universe of meaningful, directed causality, and he has failed. He can, by the time he's in his early 30s, believe in nothing. He finds himself a man who has rejected everything. A man who has rejected everything has no place in society. Society has no place for a man who has rejected everything. Per divorces his wife and abandons his three children, turns his back on everything he has known and all the plans he had for himself and Denmark, and goes to live in solitude along a rocky, wind-swept coastal highway where he works alone for twenty years and then dies of cancer.

I am not sure what Pontoppidan means by this, unless he is saying (and here I go, interpreting for you) that the problems of modern life cannot be reconciled, that we all have to take up positions that contain within them contradictions that can't withstand close examination, and that there is no way out of this modern situation except by isolating each of us, which will destroy society. Maybe. Like I say, the book is bleak, at least in my reading, though Per himself seems to think he has found a way to survive, if not a way to be happy and a useful member of society. He can have no family, he can have no dreams beyond his immediate labor and his next meal and his eventual death, which death he welcomes a la Wittgenstein (who, when at the age of 50 learned he had inoperable cancer, allegedly said, "Good!").

I'm getting lost in all this unresolved existential angst. Per becomes a Nietzschean, though not the Ubermensch Per strove to be in his youth. Let's back up a bit, I guess. Per comes from a repressive, conservative Lutheran home that he rejects early on and this rejection causes such friction between Per and his pastor father that Per is sent away to Copenhagen to study mathematics, for which the boy has an aptitude. At school in Copenhagen, hundreds of miles from his father, Per decides to become an engineer and creates a plan to build a system of canals across Jutland, connecting to a large free port he will build on the western coast. One of the ironies of Lucky Per is that Per has stolen the basic idea of this massive project; in his youth there was talk of dredging the river that runs through his hometown, to widen the mouth of the harbor and deepen the waters to allow larger vessels and thus increase the trade. Per has simply taken this idea and applied it to a larger territory. Because he is a prideful young man and cannot hide his arrogance, and because he cannot take criticism and so drops out of engineering college, Per will never realize his great project to industrialize rural Jutland. When the plan is taken over by unscrupulous investors and another engineer takes credit for the idea, Per is incensed but fails to remember that the idea was never his own to begin with.

Over the years, as Per attempts to become a powerful force to propel Denmark into the future, he comes into intimate contact with every level of society, but fails to find a place at any level. During his travels between social strata, Per also attempts to find some sort of personal philosophy upon which he can base his life. He is at peace with his engineering drawings, at least for a decade or so, and he feels no pressure upon him when he is alone in nature. In nature Per thinks he might see the hand of God, and so he tries to reconcile himself to some understanding of religion, and this dialectic zigzags alongside the dialectic concerned with power, money and technological progress. There are moments in both dialectics where it seems that Per has found synthesis, a place he can stop and declare himself on solid metaphysical ground. Alas, the contradictions which inhere in each of these metaphysics quickly are unearthed, and Per stumbles along once more, always the seeker, never to find what he seeks. A lot of the action of the novel is Per moving away from flawed points of view, one after another. The closest Per comes to stability is when he is about 30, married to the daughter of a liberal "free-thinking" parson, working on a drainage project in a farming district (a paltry version of his grand engineering scheme, but one which has immediate and clear positive results for real people), meanwhile skiving off for weekly theological debates with a sort of primal Christian pastor who is despised by Per's father-in-law. Here's a bit of one of those debates. The pastor, Pastor Fjaltring, speaks first here:
"I don't have any illustions. Our time has turned religion into marketplace wares and you can't blame people for looking for shops that sell the goods most cheaply."

Per felt obliged to defend his father-in-law's perspective. Without naming anyone, Pastor Fjaltring answered that a benign, half-patronizing or, perhaps, merely curious relation to the great question of life was, in his eyes, worse than no relation at all. "Faith is a passion and where that does not exist, it makes mere sport of God. To stir up a certain spiritual vigor artificially in the populace is so far from preparing the earthbound for a serious and sincere faith--or even for serious doubt--that, on the contrary, it destroys the seeds, which lie in the soul of every person, of a real relationship with God.[...] The hurried progress of the machine age carries over to the religious life. When people from all spheres are habituated to satisfying their needs with the least possible personal effort, they demand also, in the realm of belief, that faith be acquired without too much strain or too much time. And the preachers of God's word [...] generally do not have the will to resist that demand."
These conversations are the death-knell to Per's relationship with his father-in-law, who is just the sort of preacher Fjaltring describes. Per thinks, for a brief time, that he has found a spiritual guide in Pastor Fjaltring. That ends when Fjaltring is discovered dead in his home, having hanged himself out of despair at his wife's death. Per finds himself once more walking away from a metaphysic that cannot bear up under the strain of real life. This time, however, there are no more alternative ideas waiting for him to try out. There is nothing left, and as I said above, a man who believes nothing has no place in society. And so Per abandons everything, divorces his wife and goes off to live in a place too small to be even a village, where he will use up his remaining days, laboring and dying. Because he has nobody, Per writes his thoughts into a journal, which is discovered when the house is being cleared out after Per's funeral. The final pages of Lucky Per are largely a list of Per's final ideas about existence, a declaration of independence from metaphysics and society:
I am still a world conqueror. Every man's soul is an independent universe, his death the extinction of the universe in miniature.

This thought has been ascribed to Voltaire: If God did not exist, mankind would have invented Him. I find more truth in the reverse: If there really is a God, then we should seek to forget Him, to raise up men who will to do good for goodness' sake, not out of fear of punishment for their bad deeds.

We are surrounded, in life, by so many things that become our property by chance. One day we discover that we need a dresser. We go to the cabinetmaker and buy one that happens to be there. We examine it indifferently. Perhaps it's not to our taste, but at the moment we have decided to buy it; when it becomes our property, a secret transformation takes place in the relationship between us and this chest of drawers. Carefully we brush our hand over the polished surface and, with love and solicitude, keep watch when the movers carry it up the stairs; if we are forced, later in life, to part with it, it feels as if a piece of ourselves is missing. That is the mystery of possessions. Is it also of faith?
I don't know what Pontoppidan felt about any of this. I think there's a clear message against pride in Lucky Per, as demonstrated by Per's inability to realize his self-aggrandizing plans for the canals and harbor, and later by Jakobe turning her efforts and her fortune to a school for poor urban children, finding use to be more important than happiness. It's possible that, like Per, Pontoppidan sees the contradictions of the modern world to be impossible to reconcile. The novel's title in Danish is Lykke Per. "Lykke" means not only "lucky," but also "happy." Per is, in his own estimation, lucky. He is never happy. The title exposes one of Pontoppidan's many ironies in this book. I remain discomfited by the novel. That's probably what Pontoppidan intended.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Astrologers in the classroom

A pleasant surprise this morning, I find myself on the syllabus of Dr. Miriam Burstein's "Introduction to Literary Analysis" course. Rather, I find my novel The Astrologer on Dr Burstein's syllabus, which is much better for everyone concerned. Here's the course listing:
ENG 303.01 Introduction to Literary Analysis
CRN #5435
10:10 - 11:00 a.m. M W F
Dr. Miriam Burstein
Location: TBD

This course offers students a "toolkit" for close reading. We will work with multiple genres—poetry, fiction, drama, film—and practice the skills necessary for analyzing and appreciating each. Among other things, students will practice basic poetic scansion, learn what constitutes different genres, and develop a working knowledge of critical vocabulary. This is a hands-on course, not a lecture: students should come prepared for in-class discussion and regular exercises. Readings include extensive poetry selections; Shakespeare's Hamlet; Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius; and Scott G. F. Bailey's The Astrologer. Three essays, midterm, final, group oral presentation.
I am pleased and flattered that Dr Burstein is teaching the book. You wouldn't believe the number of readers who didn't see that it's a sideways version of "Hamlet." That's the last I'll say about that.

I suppose I should read that Updike novel someday. We seem to have two copies of it on the shelves. No, don't ask me how that happened. Meanwhile, publication of the second edition of The Astrologer is coming soon. It will be available (as a special order, at the very least) from any book shop with an Ingram account (which is at least every bookseller in America), or also from the usual online venues. When will that be, you ask. Soon oh soon, I say. No I don't have an actual date. Let's say two weeks or so. There will be some sort of change in the sidebar over there, and a page will magically appear on this blog to shill for the book. And then I won't talk about it any more.

Meanwhile, I am harrassing literary agents about another novel. We'll see how that goes. Also meanwhile, I have found another Pontoppidan novel in English. A middle-period Pontoppidan, and much shorter than Lucky Per, which I am close to finishing. Expect to see a final post about Lucky Per, a post I am thinking of calling "Per's Progress." That's telegraphing my punch, innit?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Setting and theme in Henrik Pontoppidan's Lucky Per

This is a subject about which someone could write a really good article. This is however not that article; this is nothing but a quick glance in the direction of an idea. That idea is that Henrik Pontoppidan has cleverly used setting as a structural device in his novel-of-ideas, Lucky Per. There are two main ways this is done: as expansions of the characters being examined at the moment (you know, the way setting is usually used in a novel), and ironic commentary about the philosophy Per is embracing at the moment. What's that mean? I will explain.

Per is more than once called a troll, a hill troll who has crawled from his cave to walk in the sun with men, but who is allergic to the full light of day. There are many other trolls in Lucky Per, but Per is the most important troll, or at least he's the central troll. Per's lodgings are of two sorts in the novel: either they are dark and primitive rooms with low ceilings, or they are cold and soulless hotel rooms. He is most at home, most productive and most himself in the dark caves for the majority of the narrative. Per's fiancee, Jakobe Salomon, lives in a Baroque palace, surrounded by gilt and marble and tile, bright reflections and crystal chandeliers and white linens and polished silver plate. Very old-money Europe, very anti-troll.

When Per is attempting to become one of the smart set, one of the powerful elite of Copenhagen, he tries hard to make himself at home in Jakobe's family mansion. The Salomons and their circle of friends are not comfortable around Per, who talks too much, too loudly, and primarily about himself and his shallow understanding of society and politics. Eventually Per travels around Europe and has some of the hard edges of his character rounded off and learns how to act in society. The better he can control himself and comport with the wealthy and the intelligentsia, the less attractive he finds the crystal and gilt and velvet. The longer Per travels across the Old World, the more the luxury hotel rooms oppress him. The only places he really feels at home when he's away from Denmark are wild places, the Alps and the forests, the open fields and the river valleys.

It is also worth noting that when Per travels to Copenhagen to seek his fortune, he quite literally brings rural Jutland with him in the form of his elaborate plans to create a canal system and a massive harbor. So there's Per in his dark little cave of a room at the back of a house near the harbor in cosmopolitan Copenhagen, laboring over plans to modernize and industrialize his hated rural place of origin so that he can move into a marble mansion and pull Denmark into the same league as rich and powerful European nations like Germany. All of these settings, rural and urban, pull in different directions against the ideas of progress in the form of investments, factories and liberal anti-religious education. There is a philosophical tug of war going on in Lucky Per. It seems that no matter which direction our hero is tugging, the background of the scene is tugging in the opposite direction.

Currently (I'm on about page 412 of 554) Per is in a lovely agrarian valley in Jutland, where he avoids his mother's funeral, his fiancee, a group of investors who want to back his engineering plans, his fiancee's married sister who wants to seduce him, and his soulless hotel room near the old Copenhagen market. Per keeps telling himself that he will borrow money from his hosts, wealthy titled landowners, for his planned trip to America. Per keeps putting that conversation off, as he puts off his departure for America and his marriage to Jakobe. The valley with its gentle river is beautiful and Per loves nothing so much as sitting in a rowboat, pretending to fish, listening to the water lapping at the shore. Jakobe, pregnant and waiting for Per in Copenhagen, worries that she will never see him again. Per thinks hardly at all of his fiancee (he has no idea she carries his child) and thinks too much about the local pastor's pretty daughter. The local pastor meanwhile has taken on Per as a conversion project, hoping to lead the young man away from both his prejudice against Lutheranism (built upon the severe and bleak preaching of Per's father), and his prejudice against Danish backwardness. This is a hard struggle, as Per is much more politically sophisticated than the pastor. But it is important to note the settings here, specifically the clean, bright and cheerful house of the pastor, so different from the dark cave of a parsonage in which Per grew up.

This is a pretty sloppy post and I'm not really illustrating any of this well. The thing is, there's a philosophical argument (or two or three) going on at the surface level of Lucky Per. Pages and pages of characters debating the relative merits of commerce and industry, of national pride, of the value of tradition versus the necessity of progress, and the question of religion (a positive force or a terrible repressive cage?). All of these fights take place within the principle action of the story, but at the same time Pontoppidan pulls against whatever point is being argued on the surface by having the background of the scene argue for something else. Did I say tug of war? The whole novel is a tug of war. The closer Per gets to whatever he wants at the moment, the harder the world surrounding him in the book pulls him away from the object of his desire. My bet is that the author sides with the ironic world that points in whatever direction Per is not traveling. The background acts as a Greek chorus, commenting and warning. I'm not sure I've quite seen this before in a novel, not this consistently. Here's a book where setting is a character, another voice in the room with the protagonist and his friends, talking past the invented people to speak directly to the reader, if the reader will listen.

(Also, this is my 700th post. Think of that. Huh, I say. Huh.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Kids these days: where are the youth going in Lucky Per?

I'm somewhere in the middle of Pontoppidan's Lucky Per, and a whole lot of stuff is happening. Per's grandiose plans (to widen several of Denmark's rivers and create a network of shipping canals in Jutland with a harbor on the western shore that will rival Hamburg) have begun to gain support in Copenhagen among a group of wealthy bankers and investors. Even Per's sworn enemy, the elderly and influential engineer who laughed at Per's ideas a few years earlier, has become an enthusiastic supporter, now that he's been named director of the project by the investment group. This grates against Per's pride, naturally, as do the continuous requests for Per to clarify and revise his original design. Per has spent the last year and a half or so traveling about the Continent, observing large engineering projects, reading philosophy and exposing himself to the glory of nature. Per's own enthusiasm for, his belief in the worth of, the project begins to wane.

Meanwhile, his early religious background has begun to resurface, a tendency that worries his fiancee, Jakobe. Jakobe and Per have agreed that religion is a falsehood, especially the Christian faith, and that it is life here on earth, the immediate existence and reality, that matters, and all thoughts of afterlife or sin or judgment are childish, a "slave mentality." Per might be waffling on his side of this agreement. It is unclear what Mr Pontoppidan thinks of all this. His characters enthuse about the need to imagine themselves as something greater than they are; this is how Denmark will find its way into the future. Religion is troll stuff, fit for the caverns but not for life as men living in the full sun. There are odd echoes of The Brothers Karamazov in the sustained arguments about Christianity in Lucky Per. Nothing so striking as the Grand Inquisitor scene, though. The Danish rebellion against religion is a lot like the Danish rebellion against rural life: these are the ancient shackles which hold the nation back, and youth must march bravely into the cities to confront reality, armed with science, machines, cigars and beer.

The young men who turn their backs upon tradition and the previous generations in Lucky Per are not the nihilists of Russian literature from a few decades earlier. Per Sidenius is not Bazarov (from Turgenev's Fathers and Sons). Bazarov believes in nothing, and wants to tear everything down because it's all built on lies, and when it's all gone, he has no interest at all in building anything new to replace it all. Russian nihilists, of course, are rebelling against the tyranny of the Tsar and feudalism as well as the perceived tyranny of the established church. Denmark's "20th-century men" are rebelling against a perceived provincialism, the idea of Denmark as a small and insignificant nation that will be swallowed up by progressive, industrialized Germany. The primary force, for example, behind the sudden interest in Per's canal/harbor plan is economic competition against Germany. Also, it must be said, the investment group backing Per is doing so because the royal family is backing a similar plan for a canal and harbor on Zealand, and none of the rising business class want that kind of power and influence to fall into the hands of the king and his cronies.

Denmark, then, especially Copenhagen's new money, starts to catch up with Per's vision of the country. Meanwhile Per wanders Europe, thinks about love and nature and God and eternity and his place in all of it, and concerns himself less and less with Denmark and Copenhagen's new money. It's hard to say where Per is going. I was going to lard this post up with excerpts, maybe the first page and a half of Chapter 14, but then I didn't. I might throw something up tomorrow if anyone is interested.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

I am naturally forgetting some books: another list

People have recently been putting up lists of authors and/or books on t'internet: books they wish they'd written, books they've read multiple times, authors they have not read, authors they feel they should read someday, and a few other listy type things. I am going to join the madness by posting here, for God knows what reason, a list of the books that are actually, at this very moment, stacked up in the boudoir in the official "to be read next" piles. I will attempt to also include as many of the other books I mean to read soon that are scattered about the house. I will not attempt to remember any of the unread books that have already found their way into the alphabetical-by-author-sorted shelves lining too many walls in too many rooms. Here we go:

Henry James The Awkward Age
Witold Gombrowicz Ferdyduke
Leonid Tsypkin The Bridge Over the Neroch
Vladimir Nabokov The Tragedy of Mr Morn
Samuel Beckett Krapp's Last Tape and Other Dramatic Writings
Henry James The Art of the Novel
Harold Bloom How to Read and Why
Colm Toibin The Empty Family
John Cameron The Astrologer
Alexandre Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo
Walter Scott Guy Mannering
Flannery O'Connor Everything That Rises Must Converge
Anton Chekhov Sakhalin Island
Herman Melville Typee
F. Scott Fitzgerald This Side of Paradise
Jim Murdoch Milligan and Murphy
Elie Wiesel Night
Joshua Mohr Some Things That Meant the World to Me
Leonid Tsypkin Summer in Baden-Baden
Ivan Goncharov Oblomov
Ben Jonson Three Comedies
Leonardo Sciascia The Wine-dark Sea
John Williams Stoner
Charles Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Gabriel Garcia Marquez Memories of My Melancholy Whores
William Faulkner Selected Short Stories
Albert Camus The Fall & Exile and the Kingdom
Herman Melville Pierre
Muriel Spark Memento Mori
Stendhal The Telegraph
Sam Savage The Cry of the Sloth
John Updike Gertrude and Claudius
Nathanael West Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust
Virginia Woolf The Voyage Out
Henry Fielding Tom Jones
V.S. Naipaul A House for Mr. Biswas
Thomas Carlyle A Carlyle Reader
Ralph Waldo Emerson The Portable Emerson
Thomas Bernhard Concrete
Benito Perez Galdos Our Friend Manso
John Hawkes The Blood Oranges
John Hawkes The Lime Twig

I am naturally forgetting some books. But that should give me a good start for the remains of this year. Eight remaining Shakespeare plays to read as well, and I will of course return to Chekhov's stories soon, and have I even thought about poetry yet? Plenty to do.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Last Greek: a fragmented overview of Pontoppidan's trolls

Peter Andreas "Per" Sidenius, the hero of Henrik Pontoppidan's novel Lucky Per, is one of Scandinavian literature's troll characters, a beast who crawls forth from a cave to live in the world of men. Pontoppidan maintains this troll image throughout the novel, interweaving it with the image of the "20th-century man," who is someone with no time for culture and polished manners and a good liberal arts education because he is instead obsessed with certain ideas of progress and dominance (over nature, over tradition, over other men and other nations, over the precise shape of the future, etc). Per has spent a good deal of energy over the first half of the book distancing himself from his rural priest of a father, who has just died believing himself reconciled with his wayward son. The wayward son, after the funeral, leaves behind a clear sign that no reconciliation has taken place.

There is a lot in this book about family and the relationship between "modern" sons and their "old fashioned" fathers. Which might explain why I'm re-reading Turgenev's Fathers and Sons while I'm reading Lucky Per.

One of Pontoppidan's clever tricks with this novel is the way Per views his own basic humanity (a reader might call it his basic sense of goodness) as a weakness, a poison in his blood that is part of the troll heritage he strives to put behind him. In solitary moments Per has deep feelings of love for a select few humans, feelings he must quash in order to maintain his "20th-century man" forward motion. For example, Per has managed to become engaged to Jakobe Salomon, oldest daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant in Copenhagen. Per originally pursued Jakobe for money only, but it becomes clear to him that he is in fact in love with her. This is something he will not plainly express to his fiancee.
"I want you to say it, at least one time, to hear how it sounds when my dearest tells me he loves me. Do it now, Per."

"But dear, I have really often told you that..."

"But you haven't said those words, Per[...] Listen, now--you just repeat my words so it will be a mutual acknowledgment: I"

"I," he repeated.


"No, this is really too stupid Jakobe," objected Per, red in the face and with his hand on her mouth.
Later, Per is alone in his dark trollish apartment, when he realizes he misses Jakobe and writes a letter to her:
"Perhaps in certain moments of discouragement I could complain about my fate that let me be born in a country where, long ago, a pastor's son named Adam married a parish clerk's daughter Eve and gradually filled the earth with these million Sideniuses. But when now I look back over the past years, I feel that a guardian angel has followed me through life and, although I have often been wayward and chased after false glitter, I am here now with the golden crown of triumph in my hand: you and your love.

I feel the need to hold you again in my thoughts and thank you before I go to sleep. What I could not, before, manage to say when I sat with you and you asked me to, I now will whisper to you in the still of the night: I love you!"

When, in a solemn mood, he read through the letter the next day, he thought it affected and burned it. He wrote her another letter, instead, in which he spoke mostly about his book. "The printing is taking a devil of a time..."
That should serve as a nice representation of Per's relationship to his own feelings, his fear of backsliding into a sentimental and weak troll.

The troll theme is carried by more characters than Per and by more settings than Per's hometown. Here is a bar in Copenhagen, a cave filled with trolls:
The cafe where he had now become an habitue and where he wasted more time and money than he could afford was called "The Pot." It was frequented by a bohemian clique known as "The Independents," consisting of younger, and singular older, beautiful souls, genuine talents who, nevertheless, had in some way become stalled, either never really maturing or growing old before their time.
The Independents are mostly trolls: Fritjof Jensen, a painter who looks like a Viking, a sick melancholic poet named Enevoldsen, a figure painter named Jorgen Hallager "with a bulldog face, inciter and anarchist, who wanted to overturn society, reform art, abolish academies, and hang all professors, but who supported himself legitimately as a retoucher for a photographer." There is also Reeballe,
a bow-legged, wig-wearing dwarf with one shining eye and one dim, whose long yellowing goat's beard hung over his always dirty shirt front--the inevitable target of all caricaturists in the city's humorous papers. He willfully circulated among the tables, often in a fairly drunken condition, with a chewed cigar stump in the corner of his mouth and with one or both hands tucked behind him in his waistband, darting here and there among people he didn't even know and mixing his nonsense into their conversations. He, also, wanted to reform the world, but in the classic spirit. His ideal was Socrates, with his standpoint of clear, sober knowledge. In moments when his mind was fully befogged, he liked to strike his breast and call himself "the last Greek."
There is of course also Lisbeth, the aging actress and artists' model, who has posed for all of the Pot's figure painters and sculptors, and slept with most of them, and who worries that she's losing her looks and livelihood. Hey, wait a minute. Where have I met these people before? Yes, in Fathers and Sons, and in some Gogol stories, but also in the London smart set passages from Lawrence's Women in Love, and in the streets and cafes of Chris Isherwood's Berlin Stories. Probably also at my own table when I spent time in dark cafes during my twenties, when I smoked Sobranies and ate psychedelic mushrooms and called myself a little undiscovered genius when I wasn't off practicing with my band. Ah, youth. Et cetera. Insert cliche image of a middle-aged man's laughter at himself.

I see I haven't really approached the "20th-century man" theme, with all its concerns over engineering, construction and money. Maybe next time. I confess to a sneaking suspicion that Pontoppidan is trying to tell me that we are all trolls at heart, and that maybe being a troll isn't so bad. We'll see what the second half of the novel implies.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"More could not be done for him," a Hans Christian Andersen amuse-bouche

And so the butterfly proposed to the mint at last.

But the mint stood stiff and still, and at last it said, "Friendship, but no more! I'm old, and you're old! We could live for each other very well, but get married--no! Let's not make fools of ourselves in our old age!"

And so the butterfly got no one at all. He had searched too long, and that is something one shouldn't do. The butterfly became a bachelor, as it is called.

It was late autumn with rain and drizzle. The wind sent shivers down the backs of the old willow trees so that they creaked. It wasn't good flying outside in summer clothes--you'd be in for an unpleasant surprise, as they say. But the butterfly didn't fly outside, either. He had accidentally gotten inside, where there was a fire in the stove, yes, just as hot as summer. He could survive. But "surviving isn't enough!" he said. "One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower!"

And he flew against the windowpane, was seen, admired, and stuck on a pin in the curio chest. More could not be done for him.
That's from "The Butterfly," by Hans Christian Andersen, Patricia Conroy translation. This is not the promised Pontoppidan excerpt post. I have interrupted Lucky Per off and on over the last couple of days to read Mr Andersen, and I wanted to put this snippet onto the blog because I might refer to it when I post some Pontoppidan stuff from Lucky Per very soon. It's the knowing fairy tale tone of voice I want to remember here. The breezy casual brutality.

"Only seven guineas. That--or thereabouts" a very intensely dull writing update

I have finished a detailed revision of my novel Go Home, Miss America. Very soon I will begin to query literary agents about representing the book. I have had agents before, so I know the drill, you boys. One must consider carefully how to pitch one's wares. The novel is maybe sort of a cross between Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda and Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. I can’t say that in a query letter. The novel is set partially at a major university. That’s probably not something to put into my query letter; "campus" novels (which this isn’t) are not in vogue. The novel asks existential questions about meaning in life. I can’t say that in a query letter, either. Readers want plot, not purpose. Tread lightly, yes? The novel’s protagonist is an educated young woman with sincere religious faith. I very likely can’t say that in a query letter. The novel is funny. I can say that in a query letter. There are goats. That’s probably safe, too. There’s sex and violence and profanity. Does that increase the marketability of the book? I’m certain that it does. Or it doesn’t. Anyway. It’s a pretty good novel, so we’ll see. Tomorrow I'll quote some witty and insightful Henrik Pontoppidan bits. You will enjoy that one.