Sunday, April 24, 2016

He Knew He Was Right

"I do not know that in any literary effort I ever fell more completely short of my own intention than in this story."

That's Anthony Trollope, writing in his autobiography about his 1867 novel He Knew He Was Right. Given how prolific Trollope was, that's surely sufficient reason to stay away from it, right? I'm here to tell you otherwise.

Here's how Trollope frames his failed intention:
It was my purpose to create sympathy for the unfortunate man who, while endeavouring to do his duty to all around him, should be led constantly astray by his unwillingness to submit his own judgment to the opinion of others. The man is made to be unfortunate enough, and the evil which he does is apparent. So far I did not fail, but the sympathy has not been created yet. I look upon the story as being nearly altogether bad. It is redeemed by certain scenes in the house and vicinity of an old maid in Exeter. But a novel which in its main parts is bad cannot, in truth, be redeemed by the vitality of subordinate characters.
He's right--to a point. Louis Trevelyan, the gentleman whose prideful obstinacy and jealousy of his wife (whom he puts away from him over unfounded fears of infidelity) set the events of the book in motion, never garners more than our incidental sympathy. He is almost bereft of compelling qualities or congeniality, and the changes his character undergoes are all significantly for the worse: stubbornness becomes mania as self-inflicted emotional wounds become septic. Yet even as we can't quite sympathize with him, his decline nonetheless manages to take on a genuinely tragic hue. There's an fatal inexorability to the novel that feels more like the work of Hardy than Trollope, and it generates its own fascination, fascination that adheres to Trevelyan. Trollope may have failed to achieve his specific goal, but that goal seems secondary, inessential, when considered alongside the story he ended up telling.

Even leaving aside Trevelyan, however, the book is worth reading, if for no other reason than to remind yourself that no male Victorian novelist wrote about women with anything like the seriousness, care, and honesty of Trollope. And while Trevelyan may not command our sympathy, the women who orbit him--his estranged wife, her sister, and some friends--certainly do. More than anything else, He Knew He Was Right is an examination, and indictment, of the place of women in Victorian society, and of the severe limits that placed on their choices.

I'll share just a couple of examples. This one comes soon after an intelligent and attractive, but poor, young woman has realized that she'll soon be asked for her hand by a young clergyman . . . who could not be more dull, and whom everyone assumes she'll accept:
Was it then really written in the book of the Fates that she, Dorothy Stanbury was to become Mrs. Gibson? Poor Dorothy began to feel that she was called upon to exercise an amount of thought and personal decision to which she had not been accustomed. Hitherto, in the things which she had done, or left undone, she had received instructions which she could obey. . . . But when she was told that she was to marry Mr. Gibson, it did seem to her to be necessary to do something more than obey. Did she love Mr. Gibson? She tried hard to teach herself to think that she might learn to love him. He was a nice-looking man enough, with sandy hair, and a head rather bald, with thin lips, and a narrow nose, who certainly did preach drawling sermons; but of whom everybody said that he was a very excellent clergyman. He had a house and an income, and all Exeter had long since decided that he was a man who would certainly marry. He was one of those men of whom it may be said that they have no possible claim to remain unmarried. He was fair game, and unless he surrendered himself to be bagged before long, would subject himself to just and loud complaint. The Misses Frenches had been aware of him, and had thought to make sure of him among them. . . . That Dorothy herself should have any doubt as to accepting Mr. Gibson, was an idea that never occurred to them. But Dorothy had her doubts. When she came to think of it, she remembered that she had never as yet spoken a word to Mr. Gibson, beyond such trifling remarks as are made over a tea-table. She might learn to love him, but she did not think that she loved him as yet.
For as much as Trollope deploys the metaphor of the hunt with the Gibson as the game, he also lets Dorothy feel the panic of the hunted as well. This, he says, is what it feels like to be cut out from the herd by the eye of the predator--and, worse, to be told you mustn't fight it.

Later, Trollope gets even more explicit about the limitations placed on women. Nora, a young woman who has decided to marry a man of limited means, finds herself looking for a home to bridge the brief gap between when her parents are departing England for their colonial home and when her future husband will likely be able to welcome her into his. This causes no end of consternation, as one option after another turns out to be unworkable. Finally, in a discussion with her parents and sisters, Nora is fed up:
"If papa will allow me something ever so small, and will trust me, I will live alone in lodgings," said Nora.

"It is the maddest thing I ever heard," said Sir Marmaduke.

"Who would take care of you, Nora?" asked Lady Rowley.

"And who would walk about with you?" said Lucy.

"I don't see how it would be possible to live alone like that," said Sophie.

"Nobody would take care of me, and nobody would walk about with me, and I could live alone very well," said Nora. "I don't see why a young woman is to be supposed to be so absolutely helpless as all that comes to."
Nora's response is so simple, so sensible, that reading it today is almost painful. Of course she could do what she says--everything we know about her to that point has established her independence and strength. But . . . nice girls don't do that. They can't.

As much as anything else I've read in a long time, that scene sent me into the past, recent and distant both. I remember being 18, then 22, and the excitement that came with striking out on my own. And I remember the rush of freedom that came with realizing that I could pay my bills myself by working in a shop. Imagine knowing deep in your bones that you could do those things . . . and being bluntly forbidden. Then think on the vast, incalculable waste to intellectual, cultural, and economic life of a society that controls and relegates women like that. A century and a half on, from the viewpoint of our still imperfect society, it's staggering--and it's too Trollope's credit that he saw it, and built a novel around it.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Trollope and the day job

The 930 pages of Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right contain a lot of letters. It was a letter-writing culture, after all, and, given the option, what author who cares about plot wouldn't make as much use of the convenience of letters as possible?

With Trollope, though, we can always amuse ourselves by thinking that there might be more going on. Trollope, after all, spent years working for the post office. And in this novel, he tips the knowledgeable reader a quick wink:
Miss Stanbury carried her letter all the way to the chief post-office in the city, having no faith whatever in those little subsidiary receiving houses which are established in different parts of the city. As for the iron pillar boxes which had been erected of late years for the receipt of letters, one of which,--a most hateful thing to her,--stood almost close to her own front door, she had not the faintest belief that any letter put into one of them would ever reach its destination. She could not understand why people should not walk with their letters to a respectable post-office instead of chucking them into an iron stump,--as she called it,--out in the street with nobody to look after it. Positive orders had been given that no letter from her house should ever be put into the iron post.
Trollope, famously, invented that hated pillar box.

T. S. Eliot, meanwhile, did Miss Stanbury one better--this story comes from The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, related by William Empson:
There was a party (I forget everybody else in the room) where Eliot broke into some chatter about a letter being misunderstood. "Ah, letters," he said, rather as if they were some rare kind of bird. "I had to look into the question of letters at one time. I found that the mistake . . . that most people make . . . about letters, is that after writing their letters, carefully they go out, and look for a pillar-box. I found that it is very much better, after giving one's attention to composing a letter, to . . . pop it into the fire." This kind of thing was a little unnerving, because one did not know how tragically it ought to be taken; it was clearly not to be taken as a flippancy.
Letters never sent would do fine for a novel, but I suspect Eliot's method is a bit too arid for actual life.

Friday, April 01, 2016

On Widmerpool and Ted Cruz

Those of you who are my Twitter friends may have already seen this--and at least some of it is rooted in writing I've done here already--but I thought it was nonetheless worth sharing a Twitter essay I embarked on the other night, prompted by New York Times columnist Russ Douthat's comparison of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz to Anthony Powell's character Kenneth Widmerpool. I'll be curious to hear what you folks think of the linkage.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Journeying with Maqroll

The past week has seemed determined to demonstrate all the fickleness of Chicago spring weather: from a visually impressive but ultimately ineffective snowstorm Thursday night to bright sun and shirtsleeve weather this morning . . . which was overtaken midday by drizzly rains that, in a reverse of the cold rains of autumn, brought up from the pavements and easements not the smell of must and decay but of dirt in its richness. Chaucer was right:
When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March's drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.
I will be doing just that soon, heading off on an intercontinental voyage. And the combination of the unsettled weather and the impending trip sent me today to a book I'd long kept in reserve: the last novella by Alvaro Mutis relating the adventures of Maqroll the Gaviero. I've read 600 pages of stories about Maqroll, and I would gladly read 600, or even 6,000, more. Alas, all that is left unread is this final story, 100 pages of world-weary, fatalistic, foredoomed, yet beautiful, engaging, even magical travels. I've written about Maqroll before--if you've not read him, this post is probably the closest I've come to a good introduction. Here's how I put it on first reading Mutis's stories nearly eight years ago:
I have spent the weekend under Alvaro Mutis's spell. Some ingredients are familiar from other sources: the demimonde of the world's merchant marine; the shady, half-glimpsed characters in Conrad who gather around Marlowe as he tells another tale; the dirty dealings we'd discover if Signor Ferrari allowed us into the back room at the Blue Parrot; the ever-present ladies, lovely and dark, and their ever-present secrets; all washed with a stately imperturbability reminiscent of Borges. Other components are less familiar: inland seas and towns and rivers and wharves and estuaries that we will never see in reality, whose names-- festooned with diacritics and full of meaning for the multilingual--are redolent with mystery and, more important, distance. In Maqroll's desultory, disastrous adventures, Mutis offers us the drama of Indiana Jones and the splendor of the Arabian Nights--but tarnished by reality, screened through a personality and an odd semi-realism that translates the exoticism of those tales into the ennui of a world that is winding down.
Tonight's story, Triptych on Sea and Land, begins promisingly, with the narrator running into a friend who has recently run into Maqroll (whom he knew of from the narrator's books):
With the first glass of rum the conversation began to flow between these two old veterans of life's adventures and narrow escapes, and the ancient craft of human tenderness.
Maqroll starts to talk of the cats of Istanbul (which, as any visitor to that city can tell you, are one of its most distinctive features):
"The cats of Istanbul," explained the Gaviero, "possess absolute wisdom. They exercise complete control over the life of the city, but they are so prudent and secretive that the inhabitants are still not aware of the fact."
Maqroll tells of two cats he sees every time he arrives in Istanbul, who answer to the names he has given them:
It would take too long to enumerate all the hidden corners these two friends have revealed to me, but each is intimately related to the history of Byzantium. I can tell you some of them: the place where Andronicus Commnenus was tortured, where the last emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, fell dead; the house in which Empress Zoe was possessed by a Saxon who had been ordered to put out her eyes; the site where the monks of the Holy Trinity defined the doctrine that cannot be named and cut out one another's tongues so the secret would never be revealed; where Constantine Copronymus spent a night of penance for having harbored impure desires for his mother's body; where German mercenaries took the secret vow that bound them to their gods; the mooring of the first Venetian trireme that brought the algid plagues. And I could list many other places that shelter the hidden soul of the city and were shown to me by my two feline companions.
That passage hints at one of the essential pleasures of the Maqroll stories: the Gaviero and his companions tell their stories in such a way as to suggest that for every story we hear, there are countless more still to be told. Everything and every person in Mutis's world is worn and hard-traveled; each of those miles would offer up a story if only we had time to listen to them all.

I was thinking along those lines after reading the passage above, so I was pleased to find an echo of it later when I flipped to Francisco Goldman's introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Mutis's tales, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. Goldman writes:
All of Alvaro's friends know that he speaks of Maqroll the Gaviero as of a living person, whom he sometimes has news of, sometimes not. "He accompanies me," Mutis told me last year, "but we are no longer side by side, but face to face. So Maqroll doesn't surprise me too much, but he does torment me and keep me company. He is more and more himself, and less my creation, because of course, as I write novels, I load him up with experiences of actions and places which I don't know but which he of course does. And so he has become a person with whom I must be cautious."
What better companion could I have for the final days before a long journey?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Virginia Woolf takes criticism from E. M. Forster

I've read a lot of Virginia Woolf's letters and essays, but until this week I'd not spent any time with her diary. Now, having done so even to the smallest extent, I see that I'll have to make time to read through those many volumes eventually, too. Woolf is such an astute thinker and clear writer that almost any topic becomes interesting when it crosses her attention; merely flipping through what's available on Google Book Search (drawing on my typical keywords for that activity: lost, bookshelves, nonsense, drunk, hungover, party, forgotten) brought up a number of memorable passages.

The one I'll share today is from the end of October, 1919, right after the publication of her second novel, Night and Day. On October 30, she writes a bit about the response from friends and relatives:
If I could treat myself professionally as a subject for analysis I could make an interesting story of the past few days, of my vicissitudes about N. and D. After Clive’s letter came Nessa’s--unstinted praise; on top of that Lytton’s: enthusiastic praise; a grand triumph, a classic; and so on. Violet’s sentence of eulogy followed; and then, yesterday morning, this line from Morgan [Forster] “I like it less than The Voyage Out.” Though he spoke also of great admiration nand had read in haste and proposed re-reading, this rubbed out all the pleasure of the rest. Yes, but to continue. About 3 in the afternoon I felt happier and easier on account of his blame than on account of the others’ praise--as if one were in the human atmosphere again, after a blissful roll among elastic clouds and cushiony downs. Yet I suppose I value Morgan’s opinion as much as any.
I'm interested by her turn to a metaphor when she talks of taking Forster's criticism on board: it brought her down to earth, where we belong, but she won't pretend that being in the clouds hadn't been "blissful."

By the next day, she had already come to terms with it:
The doubt about Morgan and N. and D. Is removed; I understand why he likes it less than V.O.; and, in understanding, see that it is not a criticism to discourage. Perhaps intelligent criticism never is.
She goes on to lay out her understanding of his criticism: Night and Day is too formal for him, and "none of the characters . . . is lovable." Forster, she writes, "requires, a far greater degree of lovability in the characters." It's a need that a reader can sense animating Forster's own work--he generally seems to want us not just to care about, but to like his characters.

In coming to terms with his criticism, Woolf acknowledges both its validity and its fundamental inappropriateness: Forster had looked for a different book than what she'd written. But, a critic herself and an incredibly perceptive reader, Woolf refuses to let herself dismiss Forster wholly; you sense that this thought will stay lodged somewhere in her creative brain, the grain of sand that might later help form a pearl. She concludes the entry, not with condemnation, but with praise:
Morgan has the artist’s mind; he says the simple things that clever people don’t say; I find him the best of critics for that reason.
Few writers have ever read as well as Woolf; I wonder how many took criticism like as well as this?

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Let's wallow in the overripe and baroque for a bit, shall we?

At the library the other day in search of a volume of Aubrey Beardsley's letters, I stumbled across a book on Aubrey from 1928 by a friend and near-contemporary, Haldane McFall. The title page, below, will give you a sense of the lush production of this volume, redolent of an earlier, more bountiful age of publishing.



I'm sure I won't do anything more than dip into the book--for what genre holds up less well than instant biography? But I thought you might appreciate the breathless, dramatic tone of McFall's foreword nonetheless. Here's how he opens the book:
About the mid-July of 1894, a bust of Keats had been unveiled in Hampstead Church--the gift of the American admirers of the dead poet, who had been born to a livery-stable keeper at the Swan and Hoop on the Pavement at Finsbury a hundred years gone by--and there had foregathered within the church on the hill for the occasion the literary and artistic world of the 'nineties. As the congregation came pouring pitof the church doors, a slender, gaunt young man broke away from the throng, and, hurrying across the graveyard, stumbled and lurched awkwardly over the green mounds of the sleeping dead. This stooping, dandified being was evidently intent on taking a short-cut out of God's acre. There was something strangely fantastic in the ungainly efforts at a dignified wayfaring over the mound-encumbered ground by the loose-limbed, lank figure so immaculately dressed in black cut-away coat and silk hat, who carried his lemon-yellow kid gloves in his long white hands, his lean wrist showing naked beyond his cuffs, his pallid, cadaverous face grimly set on avoiding falling over the embarrassing mounds that tripped his feet. He took off his hat to some lady who called to him, showing his "tortoiseshell" coloured hair, smoothed down and plastered over his forehead in a "quiff" almost to his eyes--then he stumbled on again. He stooped and stumbled so much and so awkwardly amongst the sleeping dead that I judged him short-sighted; but was mistaken--he was fighting for breath. It was Aubrey Beardsley.
Not a bad way to begin a biography, no?

The decadent atmosphere of the '90s emerges more clearly in the prose of the end of the foreword:
We ought to realise that even as Beardsley, by light of his candles, wrought his art, the skeleton leered like an evil ghoul out of the shadows of his room. . . . Beardsley knew he was a doomed man even on the threshold of manhood; and he strove with feverish intensity to get a lifetime into each twelve-month. He knew that for him there would be few to-morrows--he knew that he had little to which to look forward, and had best live his life to-day. And he lived it like one possessed.


The letters, meanwhile, seem, on quick perusal, to be mostly depressing: Beardsley refers constantly to his coughs and hemorrhages, to the extent that you find yourself giving thanks for the tuberculosis vaccine. But once in a while there's a detail that calls the era to life, like this one, from a letter to Andre Raffalovich of March 18, 1897:
You have never told me, dear Andre, of the progress of your hand, and how long black silk bandages were necessary.
What was the injury? Did it heal? Who knows? But what better image of the darker, night-time life of the 1890s could we have than that of an injured hand bandaged not with cotton or wool, but with pure black silk?

Monday, February 29, 2016

London, fog, cities, winter's melancholy

I spent some time Sunday flipping through Cyril Connolly's journals, which offered up some nicely Twitter-length stray thoughts:
Idleness only a coarse name for my infinite capacity for living in the present.

Never has there existed so large a mass of floating appreciation willing to be mis-directed as to-day.

Told Noel I exist only to celebrate my sense of guilt.

What kind of cure is writing? Give me the disease any day.

Abroad at least I am interesting to myself, in London I wasn't even that.

To love life is to have the curiosity to search for the occasions when life is lovable—or rather the enterprise to create them. In London they are damn few.
It's those last two that bring me here tonight. Connolly had a grumpily schizophrenic relationship to London. To take but the most extreme example, here is a diary entry from 1928:
One cannot really love London. It is disappointing in every way. A foggy, dead-alive city, like a dying ant-heap.
A mere month later, however, the city's Cupid had struck again:
A wild month, intoxication of London as before.
{For more on this front, you can check out this old post.}

The reference to fog led me to pull down from my shelves a recent book that I'd only flipped through: Christine L. Corton's London Fog: The Biography. Sadly, Connolly doesn't make the index, but Corton does have some interesting observations about how writers of his period saw the fog:
In the Victorian era London fog had been linked to crime, immorality, transgression, and despair, but the association of fog with death in the minds of so many writers in the interwar years is notable.
You can see how both conceptions worked for their eras--the Victorians worried about the upheavals of urbanization and the constantly denied proximity of the desperate poor, while the interwar writers, even those young enough to have escaped service in World War I, were shadowed by its vast losses. One veteran, Corton writes, said that "walking through no-man's land was like walking through a fog." She quotes Henry Green, from Party-Going:
Humming, he likened what he saw to being dead and thought of himself as a ghost driving through streets of the living, this darkness or that veil between him and what he saw a difference between being alive and death.
Even now, however, long after the fog has been conquered (though the air of the Thames Valley remains noticeably lacking in freshness), London in the wrong season--in the drizzly heart of winter--can be a gloomy, dispiriting place. But is the problem peculiar to London, or is it a quality of cities in general, when we approach them at the wrong season of the calendar or the heart? Here's Connolly again, from his journal for 1928:
(1) Always to express your depression in appropriate surroundings--e. g. to avoid London whose gloom is squalid, and which, consequently, squalidifies and degrades the form of depression by introducing an element of despair and futility not proper to the natural melancholy of a historic sense linked by self-dramatisation with a love of beauty. In general, if the surroundings are depressing, feel depressed--the chief cure for depression, drink, is unreliable, it removes the symptoms without curing, it staunches a mood rather than heals it, a piece of premature midwifery instead of letting nature take its way--often too, it intensifies the gloom.

(2) The other cure, people, is equally unreliable. People with a greater vitality than one's own will jar, unless they are so well known that one is not ashamed to be dumb among them--or else so exhilarating to one's snobbery that one forgets everything else in the desire to shine (see drunkenness). People especially with sad voices, sex repressions, or little ambition are usually more depressing than soothing to a melancholy man--contrive instead to make surroundings suit your mood, when the melancholy vanishes as gently as a boil under a hot poultice.
Here at the Leap Day whimper-end of winter, what are cities but people and squalor? A month from now, when grass is peeking green and trees are budding, the city--London, Chicago, New York, wherever--will seem a wonderful place, Dr. Johnson's own patented cure for melancholy. But today, even the even-keeled among us could be forgiven for feeling a bit of the undertow Connolly describes so well.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

2666 on stage

Roberto Bolaño's posthumously published novel 2666 is more than 900 pages long, and it's broken up into five individual books that are only tangentially interrelated. In a sense, each of the five books is a standalone novel, though some characters—and, more importantly, many themes—recur. And, like nearly all Bolaño's works, it adamantly refuses to resolve neatly, either at the level of the individual book or as a complete novel. When I reviewed it for the Seminary Coop bookstore back in 2008, I wrote,
We close the book wrung out, strained, confused. And what are we left with? What, after all, is this novel? On the one hand it is, as I’ve described above, an investigation of violence, and specifically of male violence, bound up as it often is with another primal force, sex; it is about the hiding places we offer for savagery within our societies and ourselves, the veneer of civilization that only hides the horror because we are complicit in its deceit. And, like The Savage Detectives, it is about the tenuousness of human life—about how the only thing we can be sure of is that all those we love will some day disappear, and whether it’s into the wider world or into the void we may never even learn.
How could this giant, deliberately shaggy mess of a book possibly be staged? That was the question Robert Falls and Seth Bockley took upon themselves when the Goodman Theatre committed to making the attempt, and the result, playing now, is, if imperfect, nonetheless an astonishing piece of theater, one that does honor to the book and to the essence of Bolaño's bleak, horror-filled, yet powerfully vibrant vision. The staging is inventive, the performances remarkable, and the whole an unforgettable night of theater.

To squeeze 900 pages into even the five-and-a-half hours the play runs of course requires pruning and alteration, and much is lost. Some of the losses are simply a result of the shift in form: the most compelling of the novel's five books, "The Part About Amalfitano," which offers an excruciating close look at the mind of an academic and father who is slowly losing his sanity—and fighting tenaciously to hold onto it long enough to get his reckless teenage daughter to safety away from the violence of their hometown of Santa Teresa—can only be approximated onstage. Even remarkable performances by Henry Godinez as Amalfitano and Alejandra Escalante as his daughter can't overcome the fact that in shifting from prose to stage necessarily costs their story a level of intimacy and access.

Other losses are understandable, if nonetheless painful. The greatest of those for me was the removal of the more cryptic, hermetic aspect of Bolaño's story. The novel is full of references—to nightmares, shipwrecks, deserts, and, especially, to the unexplained mystical year of 2666 toward which all things seem in some vague way to be tending, perhaps catastrophically—that tie it in overt and oblique ways to the rest of Bolaño's oeuvre, and give the violence that suffuses the book a near-mythological, fatalistic tinge. Though the staging does a remarkable job of replicating that atmosphere of inescapable doom, I missed the more mystical element, such a fundamental part of Bolaño's obscure cosmography.

At the same time, the staging of the novel improves it in unexpected ways. The most straightforward comes with the third book, "The Part about Fate." It's the least successful in the novel, primarily, I suspect, because it deals with two things—crime fiction and African American culture—that are in themselves incredibly potent and distinctive, and Bolaño seems less sure-footed with both than he is, say, with tales of Mexican bohemians or the tropes of horror. But on stage, that book comes to life, told through a mix of film footage (some of it flat-out frightening) and live action. Whereas African American reporter-turned-unexpected-detective Oscar Fate never quite convinces on the page, when we see him portrayed on stage by Eric Lynch, we buy him completely. And from there, we begin to buy the framework of his obsessive, wayward investigation.

More impressive than that, however, was the way that the compression of the story for the stage—the fact that it's experienced in less than six hours rather than in the week or more of reading the novel—enabled me to see linkages and themes and recurrences that had previously passed me by. I thought I knew the novel well, but as I watched the play, I felt that, perhaps for the first time, I was beginning to understand how Bolaño intended the pieces to fit together, how he meant for his ideas to ripple through the whole, reflecting and amplifying one another as the contexts changed. And it was an effect that was enhanced by the standard theater technique of having actors double roles. Seeing the same face and body in a wholly different situation, acting and talking differently but confronting remarkably similar problems of human violence and death, in scene after scene had a powerful effect.

I can't imagine going into the show having not read the book. But for someone who has, and to whom Bolaño's work speaks, I can't imagine missing it. I came out of it, well, like I came out of the novel: wrung out, strained, confused. But also exhilarated, and incredibly glad people had been willing to take a dare this big, and that I'd been there to watch it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some half-formed thoughts on Virginia Wool on Lord Chesterfield and the eighteenth century

In 1927, Virginia Woolf wrote a short essay on Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son. If you're not familiar with the letters, here's a thumbnail: they consist of a witty, elegantly conversational program of instruction in how to become a gentleman and be successful, largely through social graces and dissembling. Here, for example, is Chesterfield at his most amusingly detailed:
In your person you must be accurately clean; and your teeth,hands, and nails, should be superlatively so; a dirty mouth has real ill consequences to the owner, for it infallibly causes the decay, as well as the intolerable pain of the teeth, and it is very offensive to his acquaintance, for it will most inevitably stink. I insist, therefore, that you wash your teeth the first thing you do every morning, with a soft sponge and swarm water, for four or five minutes; and then wash your mouth five or six times. Mouton, whom I desire you will send for upon your arrival at Paris, will give you an opiate, and a liquor to be used sometimes. Nothing looks more ordinary, vulgar, and illiberal, than dirty hands, and ugly, uneven, and ragged nails: I do not suspect you of that shocking, awkward trick, of biting yours; but that is not enough: you must keep the ends of them smooth and clean, not tipped with black, as the ordinary people's always are. The ends of your nails should be small segments of circles, which, by a very little care in the cutting, they are very easily brought to; every time that you wipe your hands, rub the skin round your nails backward, that it may not grow up, and shorten your nails too much.
And here he is in a slightly more abstract mode:
There are people who indulge themselves in a sort of lying, which they reckon innocent, and which in one sense is so; for it hurts nobody but themselves. This sort of lying is the spurious offspring of vanity, begotten upon folly: these people deal in the marvellous; they have seen some things that never existed; they have seen other things which they never really saw, though they did exist, only because they were thought worth seeing. Has anything remarkable been said or done in any place, or in any company, they immediately present and declare themselves eye or ear witnesses of it. They have done feats themselves, unattempted, or at least unperformed by others. They are always the heroes of their own fables; and think that they gain consideration, or at least present attention, by it. Whereas, in truth, all they get is ridicule and contempt, not without a good degree of distrust: for one must naturally conclude, that he who will tell any lie from idle vanity, will not scruple telling a greater for interest. Had I really seen anything so very extraordinary as to be almost incredible, I would keep it to myself, rather than by telling it give anybody room to doubt, for one minute, of my veracity.
Woolf's essay, like nearly all her essays on other writers, is generous, perceptive, and even, by the end, deeply empathetic as she imagines Lord Chesterfield's unexpressed disappointment that his son's career turned out noway so glittering as he'd foreseen. But what caught my attention particularly today was her early setting of the scene. I'll quote it at length because its internal development is so nicely linked, sentence by sentence:
When Lord Mahon edited the letters of Lord Chesterfield he thought it necessary to warn the intending reader that they are “by no means fitted for early or indiscriminate perusal”. Only “those people whose understandings are fixed and whose principles are matured” can, so his Lordship said, read them with impunity. But that was in 1845. And 1845 looks a little distant now. It seems to us now the age of enormous houses without any bathrooms. Men smoke in the kitchen after the cook has gone to bed. Albums lie upon drawing-room tables. The curtains are very thick and the women are very pure. But the eighteenth century also has undergone a change. To us in 1930 it looks less strange, less remote than those early Victorian years. Its civilisation seems more rational and more complete than the civilisation of Lord Mahon and his contemporaries. Then at any rate a small group of highly educated people lived up to their ideals. If the world was smaller it was also more compact; it knew its own mind; it had its own standards. Its poetry is affected by the same security. When we read the Rape of the Lock we seem to find ourselves in an age so settled and so circumscribed that masterpieces were possible. Then, we say to ourselves, a poet could address himself whole-heartedly to his task and keep his mind upon it, so that the little boxes on a lady’s dressing-table are fixed among the solid possessions of our imaginations. A game at cards or a summer’s boating party upon the Thames has power to suggest the same beauty and the same sense of things vanishing that we receive from poems aimed directly at our deepest emotions. And just as the poet could spend all his powers upon a pair of scissors and a lock of hair, so too, secure in his world and its values, the aristocrat could lay down precise laws for the education of his son. In that world also there was a certainty, a security that we are now without. What with one thing and another times have changed. We can now read Lord Chesterfield’s letters without blushing, or, if we do blush, we blush in the twentieth century at passages that caused Lord Mahon no discomfort whatever.
There's unquestionably some kicking against the Victorians—her parents' generation, still around and in the way—here, with which I can to some extent sympathize. When I view her preference for the eighteenth century in that context, I think I understand it better: we see our immediate predecessors' blind spots and hypocrisy up close and writ large, and—crucially—far more clearly than they do. Earlier ancestors, on the other hand . . . well, our relation to them is more gentle, less vexed. We see their failings at just enough distance that we forgive them; we wish they had known better, and we tell ourselves we somehow would have had we been in that position, but none of it presses against us and our own attempts to establish identity and correct the world with the same force that more recent generations' mistakes do.

What's particularly interesting in this passage today, however, isn't even so much the generational conflict (though the struggle between Bloomsbury and the lingering Victorians is never not interesting) as Woolf's statements of the present day's uncertainty. The eighteenth century was "settled and circumscribed." "Masterpieces were possible." "It knew its own mind; it had its own standards." There was security and certainty, "a security that we are now without."

Though I would be willing to grant that there may be a kernel of truth here—any era that produces epics and rediscovers the Greeks seems more likely to be solid than one marked by World War I—at the same time, that's not the impression I've ever had of the eighteenth century. Cyril Connolly called the first half of it "a transitional age full of a certain beautiful clumsiness"; I think of it as an era of a slight, but important opening up, at least in the world of letters, with all the insecurity that would almost necessarily accompany it. Samuel Johnson is my touchstone here: a truly self-made man who found a place for himself in the burgeoning world of print, which demanded (and, at least to an extent, rewarded) a constant supply of new material. The picture you get of that world from Johnson's writings—and even from Boswell's own journal, as despite coming from money and position he approached life as if it were an act of creation and he needed to make his own way—is of a far from settled civilization. Johnson was certain of one thing, heaven, and he proclaimed with certainty on many others, but his own career and its restless inquiry suggest a complicated world that Woolf's description of a self-satisfied, static era doesn't really support.

At the same time, isn't it always the case that the present feels unsettled, usually in an unprecedented way? Don't we feel that now? The golden age was never so golden as we remember; in fact, there was never a golden age at all. Yet knowing that never seems to make the ground beneath our feet feel any more solid.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Crane, and Christmas at Brede

There's so much I could share from Leon Edel's Henry James: A Life--and in fact, if you follow me on Twitter, you'll find plenty gleaned from it over the past ten days--but today I'll stick to two bits. The first is brief: a parody by Virginia Woolf of Henry James in conversation:
My dear Virginia, they tell me, they tell me, they tell me, that you--as indeed being your father's daughter, your grandfather's grandchild, the descendant, descendant of a century--of a century--of quill pen and ink, ink, in pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me ahmmmm, that you, that you, that you write in short.
Wonderful, isn't it? As my Twitter friend Marly Youmans points out, however, it would be interesting to see a similar parody by James of Woolf's conversation. Though we know her lively personal voice from her letters, journals, and even her essays, I don't have a great sense of what she was like in conversation, to say nothing of what her conversation with this representative of an older generation, a friend of her parents, would be like.

The second story is more extended, a tale of amateur theatricals and drafty, possibly haunted manors. It occurs in December of 1899, when Stephen Crane, deep into the process of dying of tuberculosis, had recently moved to Brede House with his paramour, Cora Taylor. The move was not a good idea:
At Brede, Crane too sat daily in the tower, trying to write tales in order to provide money for the improvident Cora. James was fascinated--and pained--by the spectacle of the Cranes. They were living out his tales--about old english houses in need of repair let to Americans; about ambitious American women with a "past"; about talented writers struggling to do the successful thing in order to dress their wives and pay for food and rent. The situation at Brede had also a touch of the eerie, as in James's ghostly tales. There was a legend that Brede had an ogre, a consumer of children; he had ultimately been done to death with a wooden saw. There were said to be underground passages which served generations of smugglers. But aside from its ghosts, its drafts, its creaking boards, its tree-consuming fireplaces, Brede was clearly the last place in the world for a malaria-ridden consumptive to spend a cold damp English winter. Wells remembered Crane as "profoundly weary and ill." Cora Crane did not notice--what everyone else saw--that he was destined to be very soon one of the ghostliest of Brede's ghosts.
That passage is worth sharing for its details (the ogre! secret passages!), but also for the sense it gives of Edel's approach to that sort of detail, and his ability to weave it into effective, even novelistic prose. I can imagine a less confident biographer hovering over that last line, considering removing the reference to ghosts; it stayed, and it makes the paragraph.

From there, Edel shares the story of the near-disastrous theatricals:
H. G. Wells has told the story of the great Christmas-week party Cora organized to welcome the year 1900. The guests were asked to bring their own bedding. There were few furnished bedrooms in Brede House and Cora created a dormitory for the ladies and another for the men. There was an acute shortage of toilets. Crane tried to organize American-style poker games which his English guests did not take seriously. On Christmas Eve a play was given in the local school house written in part by Crane, who asked James, Conrad, Wells, Gissing, and others to add a few words to the script, making it the most "authored" play of the century. It was about the Brede ghost--the child-eating ogre who was sawed in half. . . . The party had a painful finale at just about the hour when Henry James, in nearby Lamb House, was invoking the "gruesome" year of 1900 in his letter to Rhoda Broughton. [Ed.: "This dreadful gruesome new year, so monstrously numbered."] Eight miles away Cora was waking up Wells. Crane had just had a lung hemorrhage. Wells's final memory of the party was a ride into the drizzle at dawn on a bicycle in search of a doctor.
In his recent biography of Crane, Paul Sorrentino offers a bit more detail about the play and the party:
The principal, and only, performance of the play--titled The Ghost--took place [in the Brede schoolhouse] on December 28. Newspaper reviews suggesting it was an original musical comedy written by distinguished authors prompted Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a leading actor-manager in English theater, to inquire whether it might be performed after A Midsummer Night's Dream at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. [A. E. W.] Mason quickly told him no.

On the evening of December 29, a three-day celebration climaxed with a gala ball replete with elegant waltzes, a "quadrille of the Lancers," a country barn dance, and a game devised by H. G. Wells that consisted of racing on broomsticks. The guests reveled late every night throughout their stay, then would feast the next morning on a brunch of bacon, eggs, sweet potatoes, and beer. The weather, unfortunately, was not cooperative. Snow, severe thunderstorms, and icy roads prevented many local residents from seeing The Ghost and made travel to Brede Place hazardous. The omnibus transporting guests often got stuck in the mud, forcing them to get out and push. Crane himself seemed out of sorts. When he tried to teach some of the men poker, they chatted idly instead of paying close attention to the rules. "In any decent saloon in America," he complained, "you'd be shot for talking like that at poker." Abruptly he left, sulking. During the ball, he sat silently in a corner of the huge fireplace in the hall, bewildered by the frenetic pace of his life. He knew he was dying. After everyone had gone to bed, he tried unsuccessfully to hide from Cora the fact that he had just had a severe lung hemorrhage. Distraught, she awakened Wells, who, having once been diagnosed with tuberculosis, understood the gravity of the situation and cycled seven miles in freezing rain to bring the local physician, Dr. Ernest B. Skinner.
What I'm not entirely clear on is how much sense the other guests had of Crane's condition. Surely at least those who were close to him knew he was tubercular, but did they realize more than Cora how far along he was? Either way, it's hard to escape a Masque of the Red Death sort of feel when you read about the party. Crane would be dead before six months were out.

And so is James, again, now that I've turned the last page and closed Edel's book. In a world where Colm Toibin has so brilliantly, empathetically imagined James's inner life, Edel's biography feels perhaps less revelatory than it should. The necessary opacity of the honest biographer's art can't quite match up to a brilliantly rendered fictional account, so we leave Edel's book feeling we know James less well than we expected. That, however, is an unfair critique, and one that will fade with time as my memories of Edel's facts and Toibin's fiction quietly meld. Edel did achieve the remarkable: he helped us to know a man who let very few people know him, let us get close to a man who preferred to keep us at a pen's distance.