Thursday, July 21, 2016

not to be too serious upon it

Writing suffer because in Moon Lake everything that might be like a digression is preemptively overruled or ruled, that is, dominated, by the plot. It does not allow itself to recognise the plants as an impediment, and it blends them in and ends them and goes on as if everything had a reasonable purpose. If I had to define “middlebrow” in the pejorative sense then that would be one consideration. And some things that get qualified as Middlebrow would be disqualified by that qualifier; they are not middle by my calculations, they are only mild, not blind. When I read Wallace Fowlie’s translations of Rimbaud next to John Ashbery’s then I see that Fowlie has decreased the poet’s hysteria by changing his punctuation. And there is a moment in vol. I, letter 20, of The History of Sir Charles Grandison, Samuel Richardson, 1753, that comes like a flash into the story. Up to this point, the men and women in the book have been speaking to one another regularly in civilised rooms, the epistolary sometimes-narrator, Harriet Byron, being wooed by the men and telling them straightly that their requests are hopeless because she is not in love with them. “I have never yet seen the man who is to be my husband,” she says. They have been using the phrase “your hand” in its symbolic matrimonial sense, when the tense decorum is shocked by one of the suitors taking Byron’s actual hand and pressing his teeth into it. The word “hand” acquires a retrospective build-up of pressure which can only be recognised by that release.

Why, Mr. Greville, I do most sincerely declare to you, as to a neighbour and well-wisher, that I never, yet, have seen the man to whom I can think of giving my hand.

Yes, you have! By heaven you have (snatching my hand): You shall give it to me!—And the strange wretch pressed it so hard to his mouth, that he made prints upon it with his teeth.

Oh! cried I, withdrawing my hand, surprized, and my face, as I could feel, all in a glow.

And oh! said he, mimicking (and snatching my other hand, as I would have run from him) and patting it, speaking thro' his closed teeth, You may be glad you have a hand left. By my soul, I could eat you.


I rushed into the company in the next room. He followed me with an air altogether unconcerned, and begged to look at my hand; whispering to Mrs. Reeves; by Jupiter, said he, I had like to have eaten up your lovely cousin. I was beginning with her hand.

I was more offended with this instance of his assurance and unconcern, than with the freedom itself; because that had the appearance of his usual gaiety with it. I thought it best, however, not to be too serious upon it.

Then there is this strange sentence.

But the next time he gets me by himself, he shall eat up both my hands.

In what sense is she saying that? Is she reporting Greville’s lines again, or is this her? What does she mean by “hand” in that sentence and what does she mean by “eat”? Why does it come after the assurance that she is not going to “get too serious upon” his behaviour? Richardson allows her to say it in any sense you choose to understand: it has come out weirdly and the weirdness is allowed to stand without being softened.

Monday, July 18, 2016


The End of the World, Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame, Blaise Cendrars, 1919
Three Fantasies, John Cowper Powys, 1985
Vathek, William Beckford, 1786
The Sundial, Shirley Jackson, 1958
Something by Nathalie Seurat
The Lost Ones, Samuel Beckett, 1971
Topology of a Phantom City, Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1977

Topology of a Phantom City, Alain Robbe-Grille, 1977
Justine, the Marquis de Sade, 1791
Bound to Violence, Yambo Ouologuem, 1971
The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia, Sarah Fielding, 1757
Clarissa, Samuel Richardson, 1748
The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein, 1925

The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein, 1925
Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, Marguerite Young, 1965
Rhode Island Notebook, Gabriel Gudding, 2007

Rhode Island Notebook, Gabriel Gudding, 2007
Speech! Speech!, Geoffrey Hill, 2000
Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife), Christina Stead, 1976

Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife), Christina Stead, 1976
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726

A Season in Hell, Arthur Rimbaud, 1873. [suggested by Scott GF Bailey]

Thursday, July 14, 2016

those whose shoots grow

When you look at the post about book lists at Babbling Books again you are in despair because in the interim you have seen the Feminista's 100 Great 20th Century English-language Works of Fiction by Women, and noticed To Kill a Mockingbird, which, as you know, is only there because everyone had to read it under duress in high school, so that this is one of the few books by women, or in fact by anybody, that anyone who voted for this list has ever known or can remember. You think of lists as bad records of failures. Why did Giorgio Bassani say that Francesca Duranti’s 1984 book The House on Moon Lake, tr. Stephen Sartarelli, reminded him of “the same beloved, familiar, infallible fictional pathways discovered by Henry James”? He must have remembered that stories in James tend to consist of people haunting one another, The Turn of the Screw making it overt by introducing the notion of ghosts, which foregrounds, by default, the author’s usual implied verb. At the end of Moon Lake Duranti has inserted a supernatural woman who promises to sell the lead male a collection of letters and then retains him inside her house by means of some enigmatic power. So the constellation of ideas, woman, house, man, mystery, letters, haunting might make you think of The Aspern Papers. But the intention is different; the presentation is blunt, the book does not seem convinced of its own paranoia, the haunting is deserved in a way that appears clear (the lead male does not want to spend his time with real women so he gets an unreal one), and honestly the most weird mystery in the entire Moon Lake appears at the end of chapter fourteen, when this man is trying to work his way through a stumbling block in a book that he is writing and the thought of the word voluble sends the text off on botany, a subject it has never been interested in before. “Voluble. The word’s ambiguity entranced him. Botanists define voluble plants as those whose shoots grow upward in a twining spiral – each species in its own way, the dextrorse twining only in a clockwise direction, the sinistrorse always in a counterclockwise direction; they are plants that …“ etc. These plants enter the book more or less of their own volition. Once they have appeared then the man considers birds and following this he realises that he is going to create a female character with the qualities of owls and lilies. It is as if Duranti has tried to think of the least likely source of inspiration that a book-writing human being could possibly have but she does not enjoy her imagination’s own convoluted strangeness: it is a functional object that she now drops. If Bruno Schulz had written this, I thought, he would know what he had done. He would allow the book to suffer fully from its bewitchment.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

wide the arms

Two lines in Mary Oliver that bother me particularly are “when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse | to buy me, and snaps the purse shut,” from When Death Comes, which I found in the New Poems 1991-1992 section of her New and Selected Poems: Volume One, 1992. The second line does not need to exist because the act of purchasing is already implied by the removal of the coins from the purse, and the notion that dying can be represented by the textual description of an open object such as door, coffin, or tomb being closed, has been used so often that by now it is contained inside the word “death” as a matter of course. When Geoffrey Hill uses ‘signal’ twice, close together, in Holbein, 2007, the second usage both echoes the first and also expands it beyond the figure who is “spreading | wide the arms as a signal.” That figure takes on an additional identity: he is dissolved into motions that are universal to the point of being inhuman. The scene is an execution; he is also being removed by the language. A certain power of choice has been abstracted from his behaviour and he is communised. The words “In fact it’s” in the lines “In fact it’s all | signals” are the language of someone who is making an assertion that may be baseless: “in fact” is what can be used in place of an explanation and the contracted “it’s” suggests that this is being said quickly, perhaps even carelessly or with a sudden, unstudied ease, enlightenment, or despair. So this “In fact” is the poet signalling a flavour of possible insincerity, surprise, or laziness in the voice that is not or not quite his.

The voice has also been produced in isolation from any suggestion of human flesh, which differentiates it from the crowd-voice that Dickens mimics or echoes (& plucks up & drops) in Epsom. Everyone that Dickens ever heard speak, you say, is dead. When Oliver Lawson Dick edited John Aubrey for a 1949 edition of Brief Lives he rearranged the details of Edward Herbert’s entry chronologically so that Herbert’s death was positioned at the end of the section, and the description of his home, Castle Montgomery, near the beginning. When an edition is not so reshaped then the castle is at the end of the entry, not participating in the movement of narrative through Herbert’s life, leaving the reader to make out of it whatever they can, and the entry begins with the man almost dead: start: dying. Aubrey repeats gossip, as everyone points out.

Monday, June 27, 2016


Reading the Dickens portion of the Epsom article, you notice that he is not stimulated by horses or by racing but by the spectacle of human mass. “Never, to be sure, were there so many carriages, so many fours, so many twos, so many ones, so many horsemen, so many people who have come down by ‘rail,’ so many fine ladies in so many broughams, so many Fortnum and Mason hampers, so much ice and champagne!” There is the wonderful moment when the writing pretends to be the crowd so that it can describe the crowd’s actions compressively; but what is it saying – it is not the crowd – it has something to say about the crowd – it does not only observe the crowd – it wears the crowd’s voice -- the people watching the race are saying “What is the matter?” and there is an omniscient party that shows itself to witnesses with the words, “Another roar,” –

Amidst the hum of voices, a bell rings. What’s that? What’s the matter? They are clearing the course. Never mind. Try the pigeon-pie. A roar. What’s the matter? It’s only the dog upon the course. Is that all? Glass of wine. Another roar. What’s that? It is only the man who wants to cross the course, and is intercepted, and brought back. Is that all? I wonder whether it is always the same man and the same dog, year after year!

and, as a complete aside, the other Dickens races that I can think of at this moment, in the Old Curiosity Shop, 1841, are all narrated in that omniscient roar voice, and everything there is different: the glad crowd of Epsom in “so many carriages, so many fours” is, in Shop, a group of selfishnesses who neglect the desires of the poor entertainers and flower-sellers such as Nell (“Now, all the variety of human riddles who propound themselves on race courses, come about the carriage to be guessed,” says Epsom, meaning the same kind of poor people), the adventurers who travel with the girl and her grandfather to the track are sinister; the child, with a bad feeling, leaves in a way that feels like an escape from danger, and decides that she enjoys being alone in a churchyard where death and solitude are the keynotes; they are both forms of peace, it seems, which she will attain, Nell will, eventually, her life being motion and harassment. You note that Epsom is about motion and pleasure: “And now, Heavens! all the hampers fly wide open and the green Downs burst into a blossom of lobster salad!” A woman who has been tending the grave of her husband for more than half a century tells the little girl a story.

Then growing garrulous upon a theme which was new to one listener though it were but a child, she told her how she had wept and moaned and prayed to die herself, when this happened; and how when she first came to that place, a young creature strong in love and grief, she had hoped that her heart was breaking as it seemed to be. But that time passed by, and although she continued to be sad when she came there, still she could bear to come, and so went on until it was pain no longer, but a solemn pleasure, and a duty she had learned to like. And now that five-and-fifty years were gone, she spoke of the dead man as if he had been her son or grandson, with a kind of pity for his youth, growing out of her own old age, and an exalting of his strength and manly beauty as compared with her own weakness and decay; and yet she spoke about him as her husband too, and thinking of herself in connexion with him, as she used to be and not as she was now, talked of their meeting in another world, as if he were dead but yesterday, and she, separated from her former self, were thinking of the happiness of that comely girl who seemed to have died with him.

Proustian convolution. You notice that Dickens puts her outside herself, so that she is like David Copperfield watching his own red eyes in the mirror ("If ever child were stricken with sincere grief, I was. But I remember that this importance was a kind of satisfaction to me," in Copperfield), she wants her impressions and her body to coincide, “she hoped her heart was breaking as it seemed to be” (wishing, like Nell, for death) but her growing physical, ageing weakness means the separation and confusing of one and the other, and if this anecdote had flowed open (instead of being closed at the end into a story) then there is the possibility that she might have split into more and more people as she went on: so, then, eventually -- eventually, you see -- she could have been every Dickens character (in secret); she could represent the lady in the carriage who gives Nell a coin, the gypsy with the silvery voice at Derby Day in Epsom, the ventriloquist, the lobster salad in the Fortnum and Masons hampers, Mr Micawber, and all of the horses. Probably that is true, and this woman is all of Dickens’ characters, but how would I know, I’m not an expert.

Friday, June 17, 2016

homage to those who insist on being found

The characters who can see that Andoche Finot is “the evident son of a hat-maker“ don’t need him to know anything about hats. If he had been the son of a shoe-maker then nothing would have had to change in the book besides the word “hat,” and the son of a table-maker or a butcher would have done equally well because the others don’t need him to know about tables or meat. “Son of a perfumer” would have been a problem since there are already people in the book working on perfumes and then Balzac would have had to align him with the existing perfume-universe in some way, which would have been a waste of time, the plot not needing another perfume person. It already has more than the average number of perfumers for a work of fiction. You can also say that it has more than the average number of sons of hat-makers, because most books have none. There is a certain character in the same author's Sarrasine, 1830, who, if he had been able to look “from head to foot” like precisely what he was, would have made it impossible for Balzac to write the story. As I am reading the introduction by Susan Bernofsky and Christine Burgin to the recent translation of Robert Walser’s essays about art I learn that the writer once managed to get himself fired from a secretarial position by sending “highly inappropriate business letters” to clients of the Berliner Secession. Immediately I assume that he found it essential. The displaced and abandoned title character in Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, 1832, does not need people to see that he is Colonel Chabert so much as he needs them to see that he is not someone who would pretend to be Colonel Chabert. There is one person who recognised him flawlessly and against her own desires but she is also unfortunately the human being who most benefits from him not being Colonel Chabert, and so she undermines him, knowing what he is but not wanting anyone else to know. Several theatre-workers in Sarrasine prefer to keep a certain true identity secret too, for their own enrichment -- emotional rather than financial: now that they have caused the sculptor Ernest-Jean Sarrasine to think that he is something that he is not, they are able to laugh and nourish themselves on that fun misapprehension. Chabert’s wife likewise derives satisfaction from her husband not being himself. The knowledge that Finot sends shining out of his appearance is not harmful to him because no one in The Rise and Fall of César Birotteau is going to cripple a man with the information that his father makes hats. But he is not going to benefit from it either. So his ability to look like the son of a hat-maker is not useful to him in any way that the reader can see. The crowd of characters in other Balzac books who travel from the provinces to the city because they want to be successful and envied do not want people to look at them and know that they are the sons of villager individuals. Think that I am the offspring of someone other than my parents: that is their wish and their hope. If Finot had been one of those characters then his skill would have been a liability that he would have had to overcome by being rich. “No one likes to pay homage to those who insist on being found noteworthy,” writes Walser in his essay on Manet’s Olympia, but money is strong, says Balzac, as he makes his characters wrestle the strongman, money. Some of them will lose the fight voluntarily. The author is thrilled by those freaks. César Birotteau himself wants to pay his debts honestly. His wife and daughter are the same way; his impoverishment has made them act out what they are, says Balzac: they are quiet, resolute, strong, upright, attractive, etc. Ferdinand du Tillet, the one who has decided to destroy César by taking away his livelihood, is being true to himself when he behaves cruelly, we are told; he is a destructive, vindictive person. But he is not happy at the end, even though he has been himself. People respect this brave Birotteau. Du Tillet is uneasy. Meanwhile Colonel Chabert realises that he has the opportunity to resume his identity but he is not willing to put up with the personal warfare he will have to go through to get it. He is enraged; he produces a dramatic spasm, he gives up on the possibility of money. His creator is deeply moved by what he has done. Ernest-Jean Sarrasine, seeing that he is thwarted and realising that he is not able to be what he thought he was, threatens to commit murder, and is murdered. Chabert dies, Birotteau dies, Finot leaves the story one way or another; Walser died in the snow. It is safer to be one of the series of ventriloquists that Charles Dickens imagined at subsequent Derby Days in the Epsom article he co-authored for Household Words in 1851.* They had an eternal appearance, “the sickly-looking ventriloquist with an anxious face (and always with a wife in a shawl) teaches the alphabet to the puppet pupil, whom he takes out of his pocket.” He doesn’t have to be the same individual every time, only the same evident self.

* Reprinted in Charles Dickens' Uncollected Writings from Household Words 1850 - 1859, vol. I, 1969, ed. Harry Stone

Thursday, June 9, 2016

arms, legs, bones, and other trash

“Furthermore, the mutilated bodies of Jacob Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Joseph Reinhardt, Antoine, and James Smith were still unburied and scattered around the tents and Tamsen was not of a mind to clear up the mess.”

“Mutilated body parts of arms, legs, bones, and other trash were prevalent in the cabins and on the grounds, but Eddy and Foster had just been through their own tragedy, and refused to clean up the mess.”

Richard F. Kaufman’s Saving the Donner Party: and Forlorn Hope, 2014

Who expected Tamsen Donner to tidy mangled corpses? Who were William Eddy and Charles Foster defying? “Mess” and “_____ up” were both incongruous, as were the words “from head to toe the evident son of a hat-maker” in a sentence from Balzac’s Rise and Fall of César Birotteau, 1837, tr. Katherine Wormeley. “A stout, chubby-faced fellow of medium height, from head to foot the evident son of a hat-maker, with round features whose shrewdness was hidden under a restrained and subdued manner, suddenly appeared,” he says, without telling you what might have made the man look distinctly “from head to toe” like something as totally precise as the son of a hat-maker. The son of a hat-maker is mystical here: what does it do to signal its presence? How does it overcome and supersede the ordinary qualities that Balzac actually lists? He has decided without anything else that this character not only is “Andoche Finot, son of a hat-maker in the Rue du Coq“ but also phenomenally resembles himself. Finot is dazzling, like the sun seen in its idea. All characters could be introduced like that in all books. For a moment the imaginary figure is in his pure form, untouched by story, and it is downhill from here. In Kaufman the people are impurified, they are not what they are, they are as petty as someone who won't pick up their socks; they are detached or split, they are in more than one place. “One does not often see a lamp and an angel united in the same body,” writes Lautreamont, tr. Guy Wernham, Les Chants de Maldoror, 1868, as the lamp in a sentence develops an angel’s wings and torso. Maldoror licks the angel’s face until the skin is gangrenous. The incongruity here is in the word “often.”