The structure of Calasso’s book resembles that of the “brothel-museum” of which Baudelaire dreamt in the early hours of March 13, 1856, a Thursday – aThe structure of Calasso’s book resembles that of the “brothel-museum” of which Baudelaire dreamt in the early hours of March 13, 1856, a Thursday – a dream interrupted at 5am when his mistress, Jeanne Duval, moved a piece of furniture in another room. Baudelaire encounters a fellow poor man of letters with whom he splits a horse cab; they pursue an oneiric, nocturnal version of their daily routine, calling at editors’ offices to submit or solicit reviews, and to present their published books to possible patrons. Baudelaire stops the cab at a brothel and gets out to present his book (Les Fleurs du Mal was then in final preparation) to the madam. The brothel-museum is composed of “immense galleries, adjourning, poorly lit” – “like an erotic Piranesi,” Calasso adds – in which scattered girls and clients chat. Baudelaire is bashful of his bare feet and his penis hanging from his fly, and so studies the pictures on the walls: sketches of Egyptian ruins, birds with moving, “lively” eyes, and clinical photographs of deformed children born to prostitutes. At last he comes upon “a monster born in the house,” “pink and green,” who squats painfully upon a pedestal, with an elastic, snakelike appendage, starting from his nape, wound around his body. They chat – “he informs about his troubles and pains,” the greatest of which is the humiliation of dining at the same table with the prostitutes, the ropelike coil of his neck-tail at his side. "I awake," Baudelaire reported to his friend Asselineau, "tired, enfeebled, with aching bones, my back, legs and sides painful. I presume I had been sleeping in the monster's contorted position."
So, I got carried away there – but c’mon, that’s an awesome dream. La Folie Baudelaire is a series of galleries, some immense, others just closets – a grand bazaar or dilapidated palace of paragraph- to page-sized essays in which certain paintings, artifacts and texts are presented for explication – or rather for explication so insinuatingly subtle you think it the fruit of your own silent contemplation. But Calasso’s extensive arcades do have a center, and I think it’s this:
”Genius is none other than childhood formulated with precision.” It is possible to come across some of Baudelaire’s stunning definitions (and the art of definition was the one in which he excelled above all) obliquely or hidden in a corner, sometimes amalgamated almost inseparably with the writings of another (who is De Quincey here) or camouflaged in an occasional piece, composed reluctantly. Generally, they are not isolated phrases, with aphoristic pretensions, but fragments of phrases from which they must be detached so that their luminosity may expand. It is his way of protecting secrets: not concealing them behind esoteric barriers, but on the contrary, throwing them into a promiscuous ambience, where they can easily get lost, like a face in a crowd in a big city, thus going back to breathe their unnoticed and radiating life. Thus the cell that emits vibrations is not the verse and not even the phrase, but the suspended definition, which we can find anywhere, set in a chronicle or in a sonnet, in a digression or in a note…In all these fragments of phrases we recognize a perceptual constellation that had never crystallized before. They are juxtapositions of sensations, syntagmas, phantasms, single words, sentiments, ideas, that moved away from current schemas, but without damaging form too much.
Baudelaire’s case of a “clandestine metaphysics” glimpsed here and there in ephemeral feuilletons, of a “marginal and erotic” modernity infiltrating familiar forms without rupturing them (“the greatest exemplar of modern poetry in any language,” according to Eliot, also wrote sonnets so morphologically antique that when Aleksander Wat placed one before Czeslaw Milosz, alongside a seventeenth century sonnet, Milosz hesitated a moment before pronouncing which was Baudelaire's), provides the theme, a theme whose variations Calasso tracks in the circumambient painters and poets. Ingres extolled drawing and denigrated a concern for color, while being one of those most inventively bizarre and idiosyncratic colorists of all time; pompously lit candles at the academic shrines of “Raphael” and “Nature” while his pencil, said Paul Valéry, pursued ideal grace “to the point of monstrosity”:
…the spine never long and supple enough, the neck flexible enough, the thighs smooth enough, or all the curves of the body sufficiently beguiling to the eye, which envelopes and caresses more than it sees them. The Odalisque, with a hint of the plesiosaurus about her, makes one wonder what might have resulted from a carefully controlled selection, through the centuries, of a breed of woman specially designed for pleasure – as the English horse is bred for racing.
“Manet loved success, parties, the old masters, women,” writes Calasso, “but as soon as we look at his paintings everything becomes far more obscure and disturbing.” Degas, in Medieval War Scene and Interior, comes right up to traditional, legible genre painting, but withholds some crucial touches, so that the works permit no narrative, or permit any and all narrative – in Interior (obtusely re-titled The Rape by the painter’s close friends) Calasso says “meanings are opaque, sentiments obscure, the whole thing could fall only into that all-enveloping, brooding, formless genre that is life itself.” Degas obeyed tradition in his obsession with the female figure, but stubbornly – fetishistically – pursued the marginal, “the intermediate poses among the canonical ones,” the poses that have “no meaning and are only functional…and often not perceived even by those who make them” – the washerwoman yawning, the dancer stretching, the bather drying her toes. Degas’ Portrait of Edmund Duranty is one of my favorite paintings and I realized that I’ve loved it in Calasso’s terms – a known form imbued with strange perception; the coexistence of closely-drawn portraiture and pure coloristic abstraction; Degas translated Duranty’s books into that “new existence in a beyond of color” of which Rilke spoke, where they exist “without any previous memories.”
This is a vast and rich book, and I feel like a tool for emphasizing the schema. (Calasso has long been a writer I felt should read, now he's one I know I must; the jacket bio says La Folie Baudelaire is the "sixth panel" of a rambling work that I assume begins with The Ruin of Kasch...) Compensatory anecdotes:
—On the return leg of their louche tour of the fleshpots of Egypt, Flaubert and Du Camp sojourned in Istanbul. There they dined with the French ambassador, General Aupick, and his wife. Aupick felt obliged to talk shop with the two writers, and awkwardly, gruffly asked, “Has literature made any good recruits since you left Paris?” Flaubert stared blankly, probably trying to keep a straight face after “recruits.” Du Camp mumbled something about meeting this guy Baudelaire, “who will make a name for himself.” Embarrassed silence. Du Camp did not know that Baudelaire was the General’s disowned and disgraced stepson. Later, while the General and Flaubert were talking about something else, Madame Aupick timidly approached Du Camp, whispering, “He has talent, doesn’t he?”
—In Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio Baudelaire is famously marginal and book-absorbed in the hubbub of models, critics, pets, and assorted hangers-on. Photographic analysis has revealed that Courbet painted Jeanne Duval – “a black woman looking very coquettishly at herself in a mirror,” said Courbet – beside Baudelaire, but erased the image at Baudelaire’s insistence. A talismanic framed print – a detail of The Artist’s Studioof Baudelaire reading, a plate from a ruined 1930s book on Courbet I found for 50 cents – has hung on my wall for six years. I took it down – and immediately saw Jeanne’s ghostly face floating over Baudelaire’s. How have I missed it? Calasso says that 19th century French audiences – modernism’s first audience – didn’t see what they weren’t looking for.
There are ten stories in this collection but I’ll only mention the five I’m still thinking about, or plan to re-read soon.
"C. Musonius Rufus"
Like “MesThere are ten stories in this collection but I’ll only mention the five I’m still thinking about, or plan to re-read soon.
"C. Musonius Rufus"
Like “Mesoroposthonippidon” and “On Some Lines of Virgil” in Eclogues, this story features an insular band of urban scamps – mischievous, bounding, randy, sometimes thieving, unpretentiously accomplished, living for the day, for the sweet taste of filched fruit and chance couplings, with the superbity of jeunesse dorée or of the purest outcasts – gathered round an ascetic philosopher, a provocative skeptic, their elective mentor. Elective affinities of the classical city; families formed peripatetically, out of doors, in Athens around Diogenes, in Rome around Musonius Rufus, and in Bordeaux around the wholly fictional pataphysician Tullio. Rufus taught Epictetus, and others more obscure. Banished by Nero and condemned to a chain gang digging a canal to Corinth, Rufus recalls his students:
Nero would never find the cobbler who was one of my best disciples, old Marcus who had a true flair for Pythagorean poetry of things and a noble grasp of stoic wisdom. Nor would he stumble upon the Senator who keeps his philosophy to himself, or the slavewoman Dorcas, whose dignity of mind I would place beside that of Cicero. More than likely he would ferret out, such is my luck, the scamp Fabricius who follows me for my knuckly rhetoric, as he calls it, and who spends half his time in the gymnasia ogling backsides and pretty eyes and the other half pumping his seed onto the garret ceiling or alley walls or the tiles of the public baths. But the boy has a mind and a lovely imagination…and when Nero throws him in the jug, he’ll take it like a man.
Rufus had been exiled before, to the waterless island of Gyaros (a penal colony as late as the 1970s, under Greece’s rightist junta) where he saved the exiles by locating a spring. In the arduous work of clearing the spring and banking it against the sea, Davenport gives Rufus a little fictional help in the form of Caepoculous, whom Rufus knew
when he ran a little theater on the Via Scortilla where he was to be seen in a beaked mask, tail feathers on his butt, castanets on his fingers, dancing in the street to music played by boy drummers and a fat whore with a tambourine who was so heavy that she had to be carried in a litter by slaves with gilded eyelids.
"John Charles Tapner"
1855. Victor Hugo on the Channel Island of Guernsey, his third stop during nearly twenty years of exile from the France of Napoleon III. The merry band of disciples is Hugo’s own family – daughter, son, wife, mistress. They raise eyebrows with raucous parlor performances of Shakespeare (Hugo’s son was then translating the complete plays; his daughter makes the crossing clutching the volumes beneath her cape). Hugo inspects the cell and visits the grave of the hanged murderer Tapner, whose life Hugo had urged Victoria to spare. His oblique commentary on the misery of the cells – the mad, mazy scrawls, the shivering girl thief destined for Australia – is lost on his officious guide. The story begins charmingly:
The lantern held to his face showed which of the exiles in the weave of the waves was the one who insulted the Queen. Their longboat had touched into the shingle and they jumped from her prow, wet to the hips, to hand out women and boxes and trunks with hummocked tops. They’d come across from Jersey in a fog, calling on a tin trumpet that had one flat ugly note breaking into the music of the gannets and gulls, the bells of the buoys, and the ruckus of windwash rolling the ocean at half dawn.
“The Antiquities of Elis”
Davenport imagines Pausanias the Geographer (c. AD 110 – AD 180) on one of the journeys of religious and topographic observation that make up his Description of Greece. Like Yourcenar, Davenport is seldom more bewitching than when contemplating the persistence of temples, the decay and revival of rites. (When I saw the supposed Troy I was bored by the mostly buried stretches of chronologically contrasting walls; but was elated by the remains of the last, Roman town to occupy the site, with its still-visible coherence of temples, theaters, altars and gates.) This story compelled me to move straight on to Invisible Cities.
"Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier"
So far in my reading his most ambitious story, or poem, or, say, poetically suggestive narrative organized in stanzaic paragraphs; in any case, a high-modernist midden of archaic ideograms and revived or refigured myth, featuring: Fourier – or, a hallucination of the inhabitants of his utopia – wasps, the Dogon trickster Ogo, Gertrude Stein, Lartigue, the Wright Brothers, Leonardo, Joyce, Picasso, and plenty else.
In Professor James the nineteenth century had its great whoopee, saw all as the lyric prospect of a curve which we were about to take at full speed…
“A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg”
Here Davenport ventriloquises Robert Walser, on the 1908 balloon journey from “the lignite-rich hills of Saxony Anhalt to the desolate sands of the Baltic” Walser took with his publisher Cassirer. I really have nothing to say about this story beyond telling you that it is amazing, and, despite coming at the end of this extraordinary collection, nothing I could have anticipated. For a few days I was happily stuck in a loop of re-reading. I must read Jakob von Gunten soon. ...more
An inexhaustible little collection, in which three heavyweights, all war refugees – Simone Weil, Rachel Bespaloff, and Hermann Broch – seek the meaninAn inexhaustible little collection, in which three heavyweights, all war refugees – Simone Weil, Rachel Bespaloff, and Hermann Broch – seek the meaning of their own “dark times” in the verses of Homer.
For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as a historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and loveliest of mirrors.*
The three essays are coincident or directly responsive: Bespaloff knew of Weil’s, and Broch’s begins as an appreciation of Bespaloff’s. (The introduction also notes that Weil and Bespaloff rested in the same Swiss clinic, at different times, and that both were powerfully affected by an exhibition of Goya’s “Horrors of War” in Geneva in 1939.) If you have a taste for such mingling of intensities – and why would you not? – NYRB Classics also reprinted a collection of the letters Rilke, Tsvetaeva, and Pasternak exchanged in the summer of 1926.
Weil’s “essay” is barely prose; it’s an infinitely resonant philosophic poem – smithed and honed – to be read in a single rapt sitting, or not at all – on the spiritual deformations of war and slavery.
It is not the planning man, the man of strategy, the man acting on the resolution taken, who wins or loses battle; battles are fought and decided by men deprived of these faculties, men who have undergone a transformation, who have dropped either to the level of inert matter, which is pure passivity, or to the level of blind force, which is pure momentum.
After the pointed perfection of Weil’s “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” Bespaloff’s “On the Iliad” at first felt meandering, merely literary criticism; but then she meanders through the ethical systems of the West, considering Homer alongside the Old Testament prophets, Plato, and War and Peace:
Homer and Tolstoy have in common a virile love of war and a virile horror of it…
When Homer and Tolstoy want to illuminate the fatality inherent in force – the inevitable glide of the creative will into the automatism of violence, of conquest into terror, of courage into cruelty – they do not fall into invective and moral indignation. An image suffices them, a contrast that remains forever present in our memories.
At last there is Hermann Broch’s “The Style of the Mythical Age.” Broch intimidates me, certainly more than the other Central European philosophical fabulists – Kafka, Gombrowicz – I intend to tackle in the coming year, and who seem clever clowns next to Broch’s agon, what Hannah Arendt in Men in Dark Times called his “wearisome and unwearied search for an absolute,” a search whose synthetic seriousness made him scorn the “merely literary,” rue “the fate of being a poet in spite of oneself,” and demand that contemporary literature “pass through all the hells of l’art pour l’art” before it could aspire to the truly “ethical.” I don’t think I’m terminally belletristic, incorrigibly arrested in the hells of l’art pour l’art, or trivially enamored of bien ecrit, but Bespaloff’s and Broch’s philosophical vocabulary and effortless abstraction daunt me.
* The vast testimonial eloquence of the American Civil War is summed up in the Homeric remark of Union veteran and Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. : "But I do think that at present man is a predatory animal. I think that the sacredness of human life is a purely municipal ideal of no validity outside the jurisdiction. I believe that force…is the ultima ratio, and between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy except force. I may add what I no doubt have said often enough, that it seems to me that every society rests on the death of men."...more
Hard to rate, impossible to review – because I read it in two parts separated by a hiatus, two months during which I did not think of the book, duringHard to rate, impossible to review – because I read it in two parts separated by a hiatus, two months during which I did not think of the book, during which she passed out of me; because I was bored and baffled on one page, dumbstruck by visionary lyricism on the next; and because at times the whole concept seemed laughably ridiculous (I know now that Blood Meridian just doesn’t work for some people), though in spite of my titters I found her obsessions with the ego's phrase-making, with identity – now diffuse, now definite – compelling as ever. And Jinny is a great...character? apparition? vision? I will read this again but I can’t imagine when. A pattern of books or a path of inquiry or a mutation in my life will have me rushing back.
I love this :
St Paul's,the brooding hen with spread wings from whose shelter run omnibuses and streams of men and women at the rush hour. I thought how Louis would mount those steps in his neat suit with his cane in his hand and his angular, rather detached gait. With his Australian accent("My father, a banker at Brisbane") he would come, I thought, with greater respect to these old ceremonies than I do, who have heard the same lullabies for a thousand years. I am always impressed, as I enter, by the rubbed roses; the polished brasses; the flapping and the chanting, while one boy's voice wails round the dome like some lost and wandering dove. The recumbency and the peace of the dead impress me--warriors at rest under their old banners. Then I scoff at the floridity and absurdity of some scrolloping tomb; and the trumpets and the victories and the coats of arms and the certainty, so sonorously repeated, of resurrection, of eternal life. My wandering and inquisitive eye then shows me an awe-stricken child; a shuffling pensioner; or the obeisances of tired shop-girls burdened with heaven knows what strife in their poor thin breasts come to solace themselves in the rush hour. I stray and look and wonder, and sometimes, rather furtively, try to rise on the shaft of somebody else's prayer into the dome, out, beyond, wherever they go. But then like the lost and wailing dove, I find myself failing, fluttering, descending and perching upon some curious gargoyle, some battered nose or absurd tombstone, with humour,with wonder, and so again watch the sightseers with their Baedekers shuffling past, while the boy's voice soars in the dome and the organ now and then indulges in a moment of elephantine triumph.
Sorry, Ruttle, but you're due back at the library. Though I got over your weird anti-/philo-Semitic fetishism to see the charms of your rueful hangdogSorry, Ruttle, but you're due back at the library. Though I got over your weird anti-/philo-Semitic fetishism to see the charms of your rueful hangdog pose and occasionally stunning descriptive powers, I don't care enough about you, or your saucy, ungraspable, ever-receding mistress to renew (why don't you hang out with that Nazi more? Sure he's a Nazi, but trust me, man, he's by far the most interesting person you know). Perhaps we'll resume someday. I mean, I don't let just anyone ramble on for almost 250 pages. And it's not like there's a plot to forget. You'll be at the bar, waiting for Charlotte? Ok, maybe I'll meet you guys later. ...more
I really did think Borges unique in a genius that allowed him, in his nonfictions, to select a tidbit from a superannuated encyclopedia, extract an inI really did think Borges unique in a genius that allowed him, in his nonfictions, to select a tidbit from a superannuated encyclopedia, extract an incident from the most obscure chronicle—or, conversely, from the collective media memory of widely disseminated, easily recognizable historical caricatures—and, with a certain pace of retelling, a special pattern of emphasis, fashion a spare fable full of spectral images and unsettling suggestions. I was wrong. “Everything has been said: we shall add no new facet to the history of their château, and of their own lives. Yet let us venture to reinvestigate the known facts—they are often less so than is supposed.”
In a review of the Selected Stories that functioned as herald, Updike spoke of “a well-mediated complexity and multiplicity of plot, an intense claritIn a review of the Selected Stories that functioned as herald, Updike spoke of “a well-mediated complexity and multiplicity of plot, an intense clarity of phrase and image, an exceptional psychological searchingness and honesty,” “a grittiness…and a bold reach”—promises of pleasure I retained, and recalled over time, until circumstances (fatigue with the fiction I was reading, ambitious browsing in a store that carried a quantity of Munro) placed The Beggar Maid in hand. And it’s wonderful. These stories show a Woolf-like stylistic ambition: the point and swiftness of good prose, with a fineness of verbal texture, poetic sentences to savor. I love writers who try to prove Valéry wrong: you can walk and dance at the same time. To the Lighthouse just ascended a few rungs of the to-read.
Flo and Rose are stepmother and stepdaughter. In chronological order (though the stories do not really obey that order, they glimpse backwards and forwards, poignantly), the settings are: the Depression-poor rural Ontario town, (West) Hanratty, where Rose is a schoolgirl and Flo a storekeeper; university; a Vancouver suburb; “a town in the Kootenay Mountains”; professorial parties in Kingston; then back to Hanratty, and the melancholy stations of senescence (Flo’s), the Legion hall, the County Home. I preferred the six (of ten) stories set in Hanratty. Munro has a genius for the constitution of the small town: the jealousies, the watchfulness, the fine parsing of status; also, for even the most humdrum community’s violent sur-reality of rumor, legend, and whispered-over past infamies. The middle stories of Rose’s aimless, peripatetic, vaguely metropolitan career as a determinedly free spirit did less for me. I found her most interesting as a young woman first feeling her difference:
Flo was his idea of what a woman ought to be, Rose knew that, and indeed he often said it. A woman ought to be energetic, practical, clever at making and saving; she ought to be shrewd, good at bargaining and bossing and seeing through other people’s pretentions. At the same time she should be naïve intellectually, childlike, contemptuous of maps and long words and anything in books, full of charming jumbled notions, superstitions, traditional beliefs…
…So part of Rose’s disgrace was that she was female but mistakenly so, would not turn out to be the right kind of woman. But there was more to it. The real problem was that she combined and carried on what he must have thought of as the worst qualities in himself. All the things he had beaten down, successfully submerged, in himself, had surfaced again in her, and she was showing no will to combat them. She mooned and daydreamed, she was vain and eager to show off; her whole life was in her head. She had not inherited the thing he took pride in, and counted on—his skill with his hands, his thoroughness and conscientiousness at any work; in fact she was unusually clumsy, slapdash, ready to cut corners. The sight of her slopping around with her hands in the dishpan, her thoughts a thousand miles away, her rump already bigger than Flo’s, her hair wild and bushy; the sight of the large and indolent and self-absorbed fact of her, seemed to fill him with irritation, with melancholy, almost with disgust.
The themes of Rose’s adulthood—manners complicated by mobility, the composite self-creation of the “disowned [and] prayed for”—draw from Munro a treatment gentler and less emphatic than I think I like. But who knows, further reading of Munro, or rereading of The Beggar Maid, may disclose something subtler and more interesting, in this line, than grim Yates’ futile puppet strivers, or Edmund White’s self-inflicted autobiographical ironies. In the Rose-only stories I may have just missed Flo. Not because I think Flo "what a woman ought to be," but because she's just a great character. I like Munro's presentation of her grim hilarity, her store of lurid local anecdotes, her worldview peopled from the nickelodeon villainies and tabloid panics of the 1910s and 20s:
Flo said to watch for White Slavers. She said this was how they operated: an old woman, a motherly or grandmotherly sort, made friends while riding beside you on a bus or train. She offered you candy, which was drugged. Pretty soon you began to droop and mumble, were in no condition to speak for yourself. Oh, help, the woman said, my daughter (granddaughter) is sick, please somebody help me get her off so that she can recover in the fresh air. Up stepped a polite gentleman, pretending to be a stranger, offering assistance. Together, at the next stop, they hustled you off the train or bus, and that was the last the ordinary world saw of you. They kept you prisoner in the White Slave place (to which you had been transported drugged and bound so you wouldn’t even know where you were), until such time as you were thoroughly degraded and in despair, your insides torn up by drunken men and invested with vile disease, your mind destroyed by drugs, your hair and teeth fallen out. It took about three years, for you to get in this state. You wouldn’t want to go home, then, maybe couldn’t remember home, or find your way home if you did. So they let you out on the streets.
In The Hunters chastened prose is never more than a few steps from religious lyricism. Salter will begin a scene with the naming of parts, the spare pIn The Hunters chastened prose is never more than a few steps from religious lyricism. Salter will begin a scene with the naming of parts, the spare poetry of function, and wind it up with an epiphany, or talk of grace, or comparison of a preternaturally skilled MIG driver to “a heavy angel come down to test the valor of men.” It makes me think of the abrupt gaudiness of nose art on a sleek aluminum fuselage.
The Hunters (1956, rev. ed. 1997) is Salter’s first novel, published the year he resigned from the Air Force, chose writing over flying. The 1958 movie, with Robert Mitchum starring, goes with a blond love interest (the future Mrs. Sammy Davis Jr., May Britt) instead of the book’s Tokyo prostitutes, and tacks on a sequence in which Mitchum and the alcoholic husband of his love interest are shot down over North Korea; with pistols drawn, they must evade the Commie Hordes while Working Out Their Differences…pretty hilarious given the comparative inactivity, lulling routine and spacey contemplativeness of Salter’s novel. (The Hunters is the novel Joan Didion would have written, had she flown fighter jets in the Korean War.) I’ve read that the exacting Salter thinks Light Years (1975) his first fully achieved work; but still, The Hunters more than brings the goods:
You lived and died alone, especially in fighters. Fighters. Somehow, despite everything, that word had not become sterile. You slipped into the hollow cockpit and strapped and plugged yourself into the machine. The canopy ground shut and sealed you off. Your oxygen, your very breath, you carried with you into the chilled vacuum, in a steel bottle. If you wanted to speak, you used the radio. You were as isolated as a deep-sea diver, only you went up, into nothing, instead of down. You were accompanied. They flew with you in heraldic patterns and fought alongside you, sometime skillfully, always at least two ships together, but they were really of no help. You were alone. At the end, there was no one you could touch. You could call out to them, as he had heard someone call out one day going down, a pitiful, pleading “Oh, Jesus!” but they could touch you not.
They flew with you in heraldic patterns...man I love that! I did not want this novel to end. I'm looking forward to his memoir Burning the Days, especially the Korean chapters, as well as to everything he's written that I've not read. Salter at the controls:
A novel to read quickly, in a few long gulps. Reopening it each time, I needed at least 20 pages to recover the book’s subtle groove. Snatching a chapA novel to read quickly, in a few long gulps. Reopening it each time, I needed at least 20 pages to recover the book’s subtle groove. Snatching a chapter here or a few pages there didn’t work: the characters sounded trivial, their pillow talk and dinner chatter banal, infuriating. I had to let their days accumulate. And the writing can seem all-too hushed and solemn; but the imagery becomes inevitable, the rhythms right. I admire Salter for having the balls to write a novel requiring such immersion. A novel invisible—or worse, annoying—if looked at from the wrong angle. Lolita has a colleague. Nabokov’s novel is just the dirty book of popular fame unless one surrenders, at least initially, to Humbert’s charm, and lives in his voice long enough to notice Dolores Haze trembling and sobbing in the omissions and elisions. Without patience, and an ear for the noise of its time, one might mistake Light Years for dated chi-chi, back number “lifestyle porn,” a precious exercise. A commenter on a clip of Salter's Charlie Rose interview said of Light Years that he’d never read a novel that so earned its final image. Exactly; it's all about cumulativeness. Salter’s first novel The Hunters also ends with an image that unites everything, a “boats against the current” kind of crystal. I understand now why some people worship this guy.
NickD’s indictment needs no additional count, so I will only register this novel’s activation of a collegiate boredom, a tedium I associate with a curNickD’s indictment needs no additional count, so I will only register this novel’s activation of a collegiate boredom, a tedium I associate with a curricular corpus of films—mostly French, half-remembered, all untitled—in which chance couplings play out in an atmosphere of languorous tension and momentous triviality, silences and shrugged ouis. But, much like the boredom of those films, the boredom of Dean and Anne-Marie’s liaison (as distinct from the narrator’s other activities, inventions and observations) becomes, with the passage of chapters, tolerable, even at times habitable under the bracing formal cool of Salter’s writing. I like to think that the composer Ned Rorem, an admirer of A Sport and a Pastime, found in Salter’s style what he found in Debussy and Ravel—“a sound paradoxically opulent and lean," "sumptuous bones.” I also like that this novel, unlike, say, Guy Davenport’s Bordeaux-set “Some Lines of Virgil,” keeps aloof from sun-drenched sexual pastoral, the slicked and sweltering afternoon of the faun, and instead eroticizes a wintry drizzly France. Salter gives us an eroticism of refuge, of shelter—strangers driven into each other’s warmth:
It’s a bitter night. Flats of rain are passing. Heavy drops ring in the gutter outside their window, but they are in a dovecote, they are pigeons beneath the eaves. The rain is falling all around them. Deep in feathers, breathing softly, they lie. His sperm swims slowly inside her, oozing out between her legs.
This is the first book I’ve reviewed but not rated. Awareness of its longueurs and indifference to its lovers cannot cancel the afterglow of its style, or the faint itch to read it again.
As for the car, it's a curious thing--it's registered in the name of Pritchard, 16 bis rue Jardin, and they know him. He's off in Greece for the summer, they think, but they'll handle that, too. Perhaps. It's parked under the trees near the house and locked, but like an old man fading, it has already begun crumbling before one's eyes. The tires seem smooth. There are leaves fallen on the hood, the whitened roof. Around the wheels one can detect the first, faint discoloring of chrome. The leather inside, seen through windows which are themselves streaked blue, is dry and cracked. There it sits, this stilled machine, the electric clock on the dash ticking unheard, slowly draining the last of life. And one day the clock is wrong. The hands are frozen. It is ended.
Marc Fumaroli, possessor of such fragrant and antique titles as director of the Académie française, member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Marc Fumaroli, possessor of such fragrant and antique titles as director of the Académie française, member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and president of the Société des Amis du Louvre, presents the eighteenth century apex of French cultural dominance of Europe in much the same style and with much the same erudite density as Edmund Wilson presented the nineteenth century socialists–in To the Finland Station–and the diarists and memoirists of the American Civil War–in Patriotic Gore. We get brilliant and subtly overlapping group portraits; judicious but immersive selections from the primary writings (my favorite is a letter the Prince de Ligne posted from his jaunt across the Crimea in the company of Catherine the Great and Austria’s Joseph II, who was traveling incognito; Ligne admires the color coordination of the robes of Circassian tribesmen, regrets–nay, bewails–the sequestration of the local women, and transcribes the two sovereigns comparing assassination attempts, bitching about the Turks, and laughing at Georgie’s loss of his colonies); wide-ranging and idiosyncratic critical judgements (Fumaroli arch and droll, Wilson cantankerous and glowering); and there’s even a kinship of book design, Oxford UP for Wilson and NYRB Classics for Fumaroli opting for the narrow, densely-printed page, and many of them, for brick-sized compressions of portraiture and anecdote, loaves of historical nutriment.
From the court of Louis XIV sprang a polite, refined literature, brilliant, aristocratic–a trifle mannered, but accessible on that account to all the nobility of Europe, for the highest society, as one of our recent writers has fairly said, forms a single family in all Europe. (Pushkin)
And what a family! Banished Britons, including two generations of Stuart pretenders pitifully pensioned by Versailles, impotently intriguing in their little courts of exile. Rivalrous salons, fiercely possessive of the best talkers and thinkers–after Madame du Deffand’s niece carried off D’Alembert to found her own cenacle, the two women never again spoke. Walpole and Beckford, the gay dandies of England, alighting in the continent to gather art and curios for their pleasure domes back home, and in the process casually catching and neglecting the hearts of besotted grandes dames. Philosophes corresponding with the rulers of Berlin, Stockholm and St. Petersburg–with the cold courts of the grimly forested Nord. (In return for the financial and moral support she offered Voltaire and Diderot in their scrapes with French censors, Catherine received reams of pro-Russian propaganda, in which the aggressions of an expansionist foreign policy were commended as the marches of Reason and Tolerance.) I did wonder about the absence of Gibbon–Gibbon who wrote his first book in French, and who retired to Lausanne to complete the Decline and Fall–just as I wondered about the scarcity of Hume (Fumaroli merely mentions that the imprisoned Louis XVI had frequent resort to the account of the execution of Charles I in Hume's History of England), Hume whose extended sojourn in Paris created a vogue for portly, plainly dressed Protestant savants, a vogue from which Ambassador Franklin and the American cause would later benefit. But to wonder is not to complain. This is a beautiful, beautiful book, rich and stylish. Fumaroli allows us to believe we imagine the experience behind Hume’s remark that, after his triumph in the salons, he needed the ale houses and billiard rooms of Edinburgh as a respite from the “lusciousness” of Paris.
“The difficulty, [Irwin Shaw] had told me at one point, was that I was a lyric and he a narrative writer.” If to no other book of Salter’s, Shaw’s des“The difficulty, [Irwin Shaw] had told me at one point, was that I was a lyric and he a narrative writer.” If to no other book of Salter’s, Shaw’s description applies to Burning the Days, a loose, rambling “recollection” composed in fits and starts, accreted over many years. Salter’s glory is the anecdote, the stray, sketched memory, his way with a line.
The city was black and gleaming, wonderfully cold.
I think I will come to appreciate Burning the Days as I do Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony, as a rich deposit of scenes and memories, indifferently structured, a book I will re-read many times but never in sequence. I know I’ll return to the indelible opening, a cold Sunday taxi ride “through grim Sabbath neighborhoods” to visit his grandmother:
My father and I made these journeys together. My mother never came. Up the West Side of Manhattan along the river, vacant Sunday morning, looking out the window, the endless drab apartment buildings on one side and in the distance, gleaming, the new George Washington Bridge. Cigar smoke, fragrant and sickening, fled past the top of the glass window near my father as he sat musing, sometimes humming softly to himself. Over the driver’s radio came the impassioned words of the fervent anti-Semitic priest who broadcast every Sunday, Father Coughlin. His repeated fierce phrases beat against me. These were lean times.
Salter originally published “The Captain’s Wife” in Esquire in 1986, and at his editor’s insistence it became the germ of Burning the Days. I love the chapter for its account of drowsy, licentious, quasi-colonial postings, the diversions alcohol, gambling, and the seduction of other officers’ wives; a society defined equally by duty and dissolution.
In the Pacific the war had ended but its vast, shabby landscape remained. In Manila Bay the water was the color of rust from sunken ships. Unidentified masts and funnels were sticking above the surface. Manila was half destroyed; the tops were blown off the palm trees, the roads were ruined, the air filled with dust…Theft was an industry, deserters coming into barracks before dawn to steal what they could. There were incomplete rosters, slack discipline. Men were threatening to shoot officers who were too conscientious. On Okinawa a corporal was driving a nurse around to the black units in an unmarked ambulance. She lay on a bed in the back, naked from the waist down. She charged twenty dollars.
In a perverse delectation of delay I waited until the US release of The Stranger’s Child. In spells of impatience I would Google the UK reviews, and rIn a perverse delectation of delay I waited until the US release of The Stranger’s Child. In spells of impatience I would Google the UK reviews, and read them in a skimming, self-protective way, veering from spoilers, and keeping mostly to the opening and closing paragraphs of generalized acclaim. From review to review the memes were Brideshead Revisited (there’s an estate), Atonement (there’s a naïve young girl), and the extent of the novel’s ambition. I can say nothing about the alleged Waugh or McEwan parallels—but this novel is mightily ambitious. Hollinghurst hasn’t worked on this scale before. Even to the last pages he’s adding panels, drafting new figures and applying new glazes to the familiar colors of seemingly finished ones. The valid dissent—made best by Daniel Mendelsohn in the latest New York Review of Books—that the novel is decorous and undersexed and faintly reactionary—that Hollinghurst’s antiquarianism is now detached from, and no longer strictly in service of, his subversion—shouldn’t distract us from the technical expansion he has made, the enormous canvas he has filled.
Hollinghurst’s first two novels, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) and The Folding Star (1994), are contemporary benchmarks of the lyrical first-person—lush, atmospheric, and superbly modulated. The voice of Edward Manners in particular, narrator of The Folding Star, has a resonance, a reach, a verbal roominess that at times feels Humbert-like (his sexual obsession also Humbert-like). In The Spell (1997) Hollinghurst tried the lofty third person and an interwoven ensemble. I think I like The Spell more than most people—the style has a very bracing epigrammatic nip—but I did have some trouble distinguishing the four puppet-like principals, as they hopped in and out of each other’s beds. The novel seems a crude prototype of the masterfully organized The Line of Beauty, the members of that novel’s numerous cast (except Catherine) ample and finished and shown in the “full richness of their relation” (a Jamesian phrase I’m just making up as I type). I remember thinking: where does he go next? Well, he goes bigger. He doubles the number of characters, surveys England and its literary/sexual manners from 1913 to 2008, and mounts to a loftiness of narration just below that of the historian, while retaining all the domestic intimacy of a novelist of manners.
Hollinghurst reconciles the novelist and the historian, where their respective narrative styles of disclosure and insinuation conflict, in an episodic, even fragmentary structure, telling us how Things Change by showing us two families, and their lovers and servants and stalking biographers, as they live—heedlessly and free of portent—at widely spaced points in the twentieth century. These perches of alighting are the Georgian twilight of 1913, when gardens still spoke Tennyson; the voguish cynicism of 1926, grand rooms in Victorian piles “boxed in” the save on heating and hung with quasi-Cubist portraits, and whiskey and laughter in their mouths, and “archly suspicious” Stracheyesque superciliousness on their faces; a sleepy rural town in 1967, a landscape perhaps autobiographically dear to Hollinghurst, one of yearning and loneliness and cherished film stills of shirtless male stars; 1980, rain, machinations, rummaging in old memories; and 2008, where the dark strong room that once hid the gay love letters of 1913 is searched by the fitful light of an iPhone screen. I saw (heard?) Hollinghurst read last week. When asked from the audience about his historical research for the book, he replied that he kept research to a minimum—he wanted no frames or overtures, no cheesy inartistic portent, and simply wished to “plunge” the reader into the new strange place not knowing what year it was, or if they knew the people suddenly talking, and if not what relation these new people might have to the characters they did already know. The wars are fought, the headlines screech, the empire crumbles, the revelations shock…but off-stage. It is pertinent that Hollinghurst has translated Racine; he keeps the classical unities.
So…The Stranger’s Child is ambitious. But does he pull it off? I think so. And it comforts me to think that the boring parts are just rough models for the Proustian mega-novel he’ll drop on us in 2020. Hollinghurst also said after the grueling labor of The Line of Beauty, he started to write short stories, but the four or five he managed soon began to “twitch together” into this novel. It’s really up to each reader to decide which episode is the most accomplished, and which the weak link. James Wood, in The New Yorker, raves about the third, the 1967, which bored me, even as I appreciated its thematic centrality. 1967 introduced new characters who never became quite as compelling as the Valances and the Sawles, the original two families. My own preference for the 1913 and 1926 sections in conjunction (together they take up a little less than half of the novel) perhaps points to my suspicion that, like The Spell, The Stranger’s Child is a transitional work. Those ante- and immediately post-bellum episodes blew my mind, with their subtlety and sad wit, and each character’s lifelike blend of alteration and continuity—and recall that The Line of Beauty really only manages a single time shift, 1983 to 1986, and that among a smallish stable of characters. Where does he go next?
Ripellino was a poet, Slavicist, translator of the great Russian Symbolists and Silver Agers (Bely’s Petersburg into Italian! A transmutation as heroiRipellino was a poet, Slavicist, translator of the great Russian Symbolists and Silver Agers (Bely’s Petersburg into Italian! A transmutation as heroic as any of Ulysses, I hear tell), and a servant of Czech letters whose devotion extended, in one instance, to the patient chaperoning of Věra Linhartová during her cognac-confused dipsomaniacal descent on Rome. Ripellino lived in Prague for some years after WWII, became a student of its various hauntings and urban demonology, its “lugubrious aura of decay…smirk of eternal disillusionment,” and married a Czech woman. Denied visas after the Soviet crackdown in 1968, he joined the émigrés in a sympathetic semi-exile, and under an exilic gloom compounded of ill-health and nostalgia, “despair and second thoughts,” composed Magic Prague—wistful anatomy, elegiac bricolage, “itinerary of the wondrous”:
How then can I write an exhaustive, well-ordered treatise like a detached and haughty scholar, suppressing my uneasiness, my restlessness with a rigor mortis of methodology and the fruitless discussions of disheartened formalists? No, I will weave a capricious book, an agglomeration of wonders, anecdotes, eccentric acts, brief intermezzos and mad encores, and I will be gratified if, in contrast to so much of the printed flotsam and jetsam surrounding us, it is not dominated by boredom…I will fill these pages with scraps of pictures and daguerreotypes, old etchings, prints purloined from the bottoms of chests, réclames, illustrations out of old periodicals, horoscopes, passages from books on alchemy and travel books printed in Gothic script, undated ghost stories, album leaves and keys to dreams: curios of a vanished culture.
That Magic Prague is consistently passionate, that Ripellino never succumbs to boredom, is remarkable when one considers that most of the book is devoted not to Kafka or Hašek or Apollinaire—subjects of inherent interest—but to a vast corpus of forgotten crap, an unread library of “mawkish novelettes” harboring “all the lachrymose resources of the nineteenth century,” all “the hackneyed devices and trite horrors of late Romanticism.” (Some titles: Spawn of Satan, The Crucified Woman, The Cremator.) Ripellino boldly gambled that his summaries of “Prague horror-tale kitsch” would be fun to read, and profound. He’s obsessed with the mutation of motifs, the process by which Prague’s traumatic and macabre history, like St. Petersburg’s, gave rise to a demonic mythos—the golem legends, rabbinic esoterica, alchemist cabals, fabled dungeon languishers and eerily ecstatic religious statuary; the brooding, self-sequestered princes, the closed caste of intermarried executioners; the “monsters and infernalia,” storied massacres and famous ghosts that thrilled and nourished the Gothic romancers of middle Europe, as well as their assorted twentieth century progeny: Decadents excited by infamy and decay, Surrealist students of obscenity, a duo of Dadaist clowns. The Romantic agony is just one thematic cluster, one path through Magic Prague, but the morbidity of the nineteenth century occasions, I think, Ripellino’s most compelling insights into the way memory emerges from history, culture from circumstance, writing from life. In a representative passage, Ripellino examines the literary figuration of the Baroque churches and statuary propagandistically imposed on Prague by the forces of Catholic reaction after the Thirty Years’ War:
Lvovic ze Karásek transformed every church into a melancholy Panoptikum, dwelling on the decay of the altar flowers, the languor of the statues outlined by garments of glossy creased silk, the infirm penumbra of the sanctuaries and the White Mountain dirges. When the Decadents used churches to exalt the corruption of the flesh, the ecstasy of martyrdom and the rapture of sainthood, they were simply indulging in a predilection for the Baroque, a Prague constant…Karásek painted the mystery of Prague’s sanctuaries in even bleaker colors in the novel Gothická duše (A Gothic Soul). The hero, the last scion of a noble line with a long history of insanity, is a Rudolf-like hypochondriac. Fearing he too will go mad (he does in the end—and dies in a mental hospital), he retreats into solitude, his greatest delights the smell of incense and wilted flowers, the sight of “glass coffins containing embalmed cadavers atop the altars.” He also feels drawn to the Barnabites or Discalced Carmelites, who live like moles in the darkness of mystical reclusion. Their lugubrious cloister near the Castle was shrouded in wildly imaginative legends. People said that before taking vows each novice had to remove the ring from the shriveled hand of the terrifying mummy of the Blessed Electa at midnight. During mass the faithful heard the chanting voices of those buried alive coming from the bowels of the church and saw the flickering of troubled eyes behind its rusty gratings. “The altars rose like shapeless catafalques.” “Only the main altar, covered with candles beneath the image of St. Theresa, fervent in her devotion to Christ, shone like a great pyramid of liquefied gold, glowed like an immense castrum doloris.” The church deranges the Gothic Soul; it drives him mad. The by-then jejune motif of the haunted basilica acquires new vigor in the myth of a lifeless, funereal Prague.