Thursday, July 4, 2019

trying to find a way of getting down

Why should I miss the dirty icicle in La Femme de Gilles, when I can still see “long, black snow-covered hedges” and that “heap of stones” Elisa sits on in the dark during chapter five? It’s not as if we lose her landscape. I don’t know, that page of acute seeing seems good enough for essays in class. “The woman she spots at the table represents Elisa as she was earlier that day, happy and ignorant,” you write, “but this aspect of herself is perishing, strangled to death by her dawning knowledge; this is why she ‘knows’ her and passes, a witness to murder …” At the moment this woman appears she is already a dead Elisa. The polyps on the trees in Octave Mirbeau’s Calvary, 1886, tr. Louis Rich, a book I never even finished, are at least alive: “I recall the park, its enormous trees, strangely twisted, eaten up by polypes [sic] and moss”? That was enough, so I closed the book. (A grackle is drinking from a puddle outside.)

Femme is so constructedly constructed, so smart, so architectural – and yet I finished it, which, as I admitted, is more than you can say for me and Mirbeau; I went through the steps, the fragments of news about the character’s alleged past, lined up and coming together, just as the shock hitting Elisa on the pages around the “dirty icicle” comes together too, in sections: this is a book that teaches you itself quite patiently. Bourdouxhe makes her tragedy like a curriculum. The ending she was planning towards was hanging over her the whole time, even when she was saying in chapter one, “Life is sweet.” As she wrote about Elisa dreaming over her tub “staying still for a moment, soaking in the softness” she was seething with purpose. By the end of this uninnocent chapter, with the husband fed on rice pudding and the little girls bathing in warm water, we’ve probably guessed that someone is going to die. The happy ending has already occurred and now we’re only left with the sad one. Who’s it going to be? Right now everyone is up for grabs. Will it be the husband? Will Bourdouxhe give us a surprise by dropping a roof tile on one of the girls? Was it Seven Little Australians that conditioned me to expect girls in books to die because something falls on them? Didn’t we lose a lot of Ruskin’s dashes; didn’t his editors change some of them into other punctuation, or am I guessing too much because John Lewis Bradley, the compiler of The Letters of John Ruskin to Lord and Lady Mount-Temple, 1966, tells you in the introduction that he is a responsible editor who retained them against reason? “Ruskin’s odd spellings and excessive use of dashes remain.” So, these ineffables or polyps or spasms or scriptless convulsions are still there, and no one can say they represent anything distinct.

I have been trying to find a way of getting down this week – it is so tempting – your promise of quiet – and I should indeed like so much to come – were it possible – But an infinite number of cobweb threads fasten me here – inexplicably – but not to be broken. The strongest being a dim thread indeed – leading I know not where through labyrinths of old times. I’ve just got into some depth about the Egyptian things – and if I leave my work ever so little the sand will all blow in upon me again.” (26th of September, 1864)

At this point in his life he is knotting himself up in the death-figure of Rose La Touche, another dash.

Monday, May 6, 2019

faraway eyes, then three-quarters

Walking down the street to the cinema with them she is still the mistress of the unknowing: “in spite of the weight of her [pregnant] belly Elisa had no difficulty in placing her feet steadily on the stones of the road.” In the house, just after she had taken the money in her hand, she found herself looking at “the things that made up her familiar world” with unusual attention, then the physical approach to her husband and sister is described as a movement of eyes: “slowly turning, at first only halfway, looking straight in front with faraway eyes, then three-quarters, then at last full face. She looked at them both.” So it’s not only her words that’re finding their way to something, it’s also her eyes: now in the street “she let her eyes range brightly over the houses as they passed them, looking first right then left, keenly registering everything that came into her vision. She noticed every dirty little icicle that shone in the rivulets against the pavement; she marked the exact point at which the halo round the streetlamps disappeared into the sky.” Nowhere else in the book does she notice like this. “Passing in front of a lit window she saw a woman leaning over a half-cleared table; she had time to observe her face, her hair, her mouth, her gestures, her life. In that one look, which had lasted merely the few seconds that it takes three walking figures to cross a rectangle of light, Elisa came to know that woman.” When she realises that her husband and her sister beside her “had no real knowledge of such things at all” she is proud she can see them.

I was going to go on like that but then I opened The Journals of Mary Butts, 2002, ed. Nathalie Blondel, and read this sentence in the entry for the twelfth of April, 1920: “Again the difficulty of writing down the most vivid experiences. They fade, & remain just below the surface. This pregnancy appears to be good for clairvoyance.” Mary Butts, I thought, would add something to my thoughts about Elisa’s acute seeing, so I stopped writing the post and read Butts’ autobiography, The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns, 1937 (I had the 1988 edition), and The Journals. No, though, aside from the mutual acknowledgement of the possibility of seeing with intensity there wasn’t anything to say about Butts and Madeleine Bourdouxhe except a series of negative differences. Butts presents her seeing as part of a lifelong cultivation of the numinous stemming from an original sensitivity to landscape, a willed and steady process that is always there, while Bourdouxhe pictures it hitting her character like a moment of shock. Here is Elisa, elevated, pleased, finding herself with new powers, while the reader waits for her to catch up, discovering themselves on a bridge. There they stand, hands full of the knowledge the author has given them, witnessing the character who comes closer. Elisa feels as if a peak has been achieved. (I‘ve just read Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. and a Hilda Hilst personage would not have made that much fuss about eating a cockroach.) No, no, thinks Bourdouxhe’s reader to Elisa, we are not there yet. Our realisations will crash together again in a moment. Then you will suffer.

Meanwhile, Butts is adding new information to her life of research.

Remember: Cocteau in bed; white light in a white room through blue shutters. Jean Desbordes & he in pyjamas blue like the dress of the Virgin. (February 1928)

Remember: The sea tonight when the sun was like a rose – it hardly ever is, but tonight like a huge Cornflower sinking in a mist. The rose path & blue-jade water shadows. The rocket-smoke erect in air, a cone upside down violet hedges below at Chapel Idny. (26 June 1932.)

Remember: As I came into this room about 10:30 – through the windows the sea & sky in the last light – inside jade & pearl. (8 June 1934)

Soon Elisa will have to do something, but you don’t know what: maybe she will be frightened and stunned, maybe she will make an accusation, maybe she will run away from home or commit suicide, though probably not yet because the book has barely started and what are we going to do without her? After she has reached us she will never see a dirty little icicle like that again. They will all vanish from the landscape. We don’t know it yet, but this is the kind of robbery that is approaching us. Butts, however, will not change her determination to see things and soon she will write “Remember” again with underlining; soon we will have from her the sea or a cliff or a tree or the light on a hedge.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

but she knew it wouldn’t be a sentence

On page fourteen of the Northwestern University Press edition of Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles, 1937, tr. Faith Evans, the femme Elisa has taken money out of her handbag when she realises that something is occurring; she doesn’t quite know what but her attention is heightened, she feels vague unease turn to anguish, “behind her back there was another world” and now she is going to approach that other world by saying “an essential sentence.”

She knew she was going to speak. She didn’t know what she would say, but she knew it wouldn’t be a sentence that dropped carelessly from her lips, but rather an essential sentence, a sentence of which she would be the perfect mistress.

When the author writes the sentence on the next page you see that Elisa is not in command of her expressiveness. She seems to be figuring out how her meaning should appear. The pressure between the importance of her words and the casualness she is working to impose on them comes out in the punctuation. Instead of announcing her new decision like a “perfect mistress” she hedges with, “I’ve been thinking … I think I’ll …”

“I’ve been thinking – it’s not tiring, going to the cinema … I think I’ll come with you after all, I’ll ask Marthe to look after the children.”

We’ve seen that the “thinking” she refers to was a sensuous surrender to felt knowledge (“She felt it to be so [...] this mysterious insight which seemed suddenly to have seized her by the throat”), rather than the modest intellectual casualness the spoken sentence suggests; see, she is evading the power of her listeners, her husband and her sister, she is struggling to keep the revelation of her perfect mistresshood from them, she falsely stresses her exhaustion (“it’s not tiring”) and her dependence (“I’ll ask Marthe”), in other words her servitude to physicality, at the same time that an instinct, invisible to them, has made her alone and strong in a middle-world, a not-there-yet, as she begins to approach them mentally in her concealment.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

at this point where we pause

Coming off Jean-Paul Richter last year into Heimito von Doderer’s The Merowingians, or, the Total Family, 1962, tr. Vinal Overing Binner, I thought at first that the book’s digressions were Richterian (spontaneous-seeming romanticisms) but as I went on I disagreed with myself. This was a machine, a machine-book, making itself through machine-understanding, by comprehending narrative as a machine that depended on the invention of a vital component to generate form. Once it had invented that component, whatever it was (Dr. Horn’s method of diagnosed repressed anger in his patients by observing the width of the angle between their feet), it allowed itself to create digressions around it (expanding a comment about “the reader’s fury” on page 347 by adding “whose foot angle, at this point where we pause in our questionable reporting, must have already reached an impressive degree”). So it fed like an animal on this machinery, and grew to whatever shape it needed to be to accommodate that digression: chapters odd lengths toward the end, etc, all justified by the machine (first half of the twentieth century he had lived through, Doderer, the age of Buster Keaton and Duchamp’s Large Glass, the machines).

The flesh of the characters becomes mechanical (representing its feelings not through ineffable Richter sighing but via reliable foot-angles) and anger can be switched off (when Dr. Horn leads the sufferers through a scientifically calibrated process that introduces them first to stamping music and then to a room filled with smashable ceramic statuettes). To turn the anger back on again (why? Because a completely cured citizenry would put the Dr Horns of the world out of business) you introduce simple irritations, such as artificial grit in the pockets or a bad manufactured smell. A quote from Doderer’s diary in Jorg Kreienbrock’s Malicious Objects, Anger Management, and the Question of Modern Literature, 2012, is helpful: “Anger caused by a small trifle (which objectively would not be more than a trigger, in French a déclic), like a breakfast ruined by an indolent waitress or other caricatures of domestic misfortune, functions as the inserted sparkplug for everything we have on our mind.” So there is something “on our mind,” in the author’s opinion, something that exists before the sparkplug. The flesh clicks on and off like a machine but it is not empty.

Why does he insist on anger? Why is that the form of expression he chooses for the otherwise unexpressed feelings? Thinking back on The Merowingians in the light of that quote you remember the constant slappings, the punches, the beatings, the incidental details like Richenza manifesting her reaction to the Count by kicking him through a door and “[giving] him such a working over that his gaunt face swelled like a pumpkin”; the number of characters who are dominated by rage, revenge, or violence (Childerich III, Schnippedilderich, Pippin, Horn's clients, the sisters Karla and Sonka who “exhibited a repellent and truly detestable savagery”, etc); the war at the end, the general resort to brutality. The perpetual selection of anger is the unsaid thing in the book. The déclic for the selection is writing. Before that there is a why with no answer. (Is the book is ever aware there is a why?)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

their yearnings unsung

Playing his piano, Norwid’s Chopin manifests the perfection that Poland is unable to realise; the completeness of Pericles, or of Orpheus on his lyre, a perfection that comes into the world through a physical effort that is superhuman but also tempered, attentive, “softly”:

… like when boys battle boys –
– The keys still resisting
The source of their yearnings unsung
They softly push back on their own.*

When he separates “one moment” from “one moment,” with his comma, Norwid gives the poem something that it doesn’t have anywhere else, an indissoluble capsule of time where one of the actions he imagines (the otherworldly spirit of perfection perpetually existing) can really belong. If “one moment” can live on its own then it has Pericles inside it. I am only writing this because the missing comma in that one translation still bothers me more than other one-word or one-punctuation mark things that have stopped me recently, like “nozzle” for a goat’s nose in William Carlos Williams’ The Desolate Field or the impression I had during page thirty-one of The Blue Octavo Notebooks, that the translators must have been happy when they found the right words for a cute and boring line Kafka copied from the Jewish monthly Der Jude on December 11th, 1917: “The Bible is a sanctum, the world, sputum.” Kafka, on his own, doesn’t write this sort of banality-cloaker. When he plays with repetition he does it to create a paradox by putting two or more things in tension. “We hold the world fast and complain that it is holding us.” But the partnership of “hold” and “holding” looks straightforward for the translators compared with sputum and sanctum, and my thoughts about the heroism on page thirty-one had nothing to do with what the line meant.

*tr. Jerome Rothenberg and Airie Galles

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

a great brooding-oven

Each century provides us with new things to conceal,
A territory that offers no purchase to the curious eye of affection,
Overgrown with loneliness, its ever denser leaves.

Günter Eich, Dreams, from Angina Days: Selected Poems, 2010, tr. Michael Hofmann

Now-a-days, when forests are burned to charcoal faster than they grow again, the only thing to be done is to warm the climate a good deal, and turn it into a great brooding-oven, kiln, and field-oven, so as to save the trouble, and obviate the necessity, of having stoves in the houses. And this has been in some measure attended to by careful Commissioners of Woods and Forests, who have cleared away the forests as much as they could, they being full of late winter. When one thinks how very beautifully modern Germany contrasts with that which Tacitus mapped, warmed as it is by the mere cutting down of the forests, we have little difficulty in feeling convinced that a time will come when, there being no more timber at all, we shall arrive at such a temperature that the atmosphere itself shall be our fur pelisse.

Jean-Paul Richter, Flower, Fruit and Thorn Pieces; or, the Wedded Life, Death, and Marriage of Firmian Stanislaus Siebenkaes, Parish Advocate in the Burgh of Kuhschnappel (a Genuine Thorn Piece), 1877, tr. Alexander Ewing

The last one for this year. Sorry, René Char. Sorry Déwé Gorodé.

Monday, December 31, 2018

they seem monotonous

Only the men remaining, able to breathe in peace, each on his own centre in integrated morning mood, the party held together by the ceremonial furnishings of the table and securely apart by the impermanent nature of the gathering.

Dorothy Richardson, Dimple Hill, 1938

Design (perhaps by definition) seems to guarantee outcome
Better yet
Each outcome is intermediary – the very purpose of pattern is to be reassuring
And yet, since they are saturated with psychial ‘pastness’
Patterns cannot claim limitless purity
Patterns amplify reality because they both modulate and prophesy our perception of them
Where at first they seem monotonous they soon become monstrous
Then is all organization portenteous and narrative

Lyn Hejinian, A Border Comedy, 1997