Category Archives: 19th Century Literature

Feminine indulgence in extravagance of attire was the bane of London at that era.

The Doom of the Great City, by William Delisle Hay

I’m a little pounded at work presently, so while I don’t yet have time to properly write up Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing I do have time to write up one of the short novellas I’ve recently read.

This one is an absolute oddity. I’ve mentioned before the fondness the Victorians and Edwardians had for apocalyptic fiction. The Doom of the Great City is a classic example. It’s an account of the destruction of London by that great terror of the Victorian age – really bad smog.

I should mention that this novella was as best I can tell intended as utterly serious. The emphasis there is on the word intended…

DoomGreatCity

So, we open with a framing device – it’s the far future (the 1940s!) long after the fall of London. The narrator is now an old man surrounded by family, and he’s moved to write an account of the traumatic events he personally witnessed that led to the destruction of the world’s greatest metropolis. It’s a very common framing device in fiction of this period, and one that allows Hay to contrast his future idyll with the iniquities of London in 1880.

I am transported back to the land of my birth across the intervening ocean a land of chill and sour skies, where the sun has forgotten how to shine; a laud of frost and rain, of mist and snow. I am young, but I am scarcely hopeful, for I am oppressed with many cares; I live amid noise and bustle, amid a throng of idlers and workers, good men and bad, rich and poor; I work hard at employment that demands my best energies and absorbs my young strength, and that yields me but scant repayment; I dwell shut in by bricks and mortar, and crushed by stony hearts; I am one among many, a single toiler among the millions of London!!

The bulk of the novella spends its time setting the scene. The narrator is (was) a clerk, as they so often are in these books. He lives with his mother and sister and in the usual vein of Victorian fiction there’s a fairly detailed explanation of their salaries and sources of income as compared to their outgoings. They’re barely scraping by on a combined £150 a year, “little more than sufficient to provide us with the bare-necessities of existence, while every day things seemed to be growing dearer.”

I love London. The narrator, well:

It was the opinion I formed at the time, and the opinion I still continue to hold, that London was foul and rotten to the very core, and steeped in sin of every imaginable variety.

He’s not a fan. That’s where the unintentional comedy comes in. This isn’t an apocalyptic novel where disaster strikes an undeserving populace. This is much closer to a judgement of god or nature on a city that richly deserves everything that’s coming to it. Hay spends a great many pages discussing in remarkably enthusiastic detail everything that’s wrong with the city, starting from the narrator’s own line of work:

I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called “smart,” and “a sharp, sound, practical’ man,” who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in “fair business.” In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same.

I’ll add the larger passage that quote comes from at the end of this post for those who’re curious. It starts sanely enough as you can see above, but soon he’s on to lawyers, then the church, then doctors, the entertainment industry, the aristocracy, professors of art, women, it goes on for pages. It’s a breathless outpouring of disdain for pretty much every target in sight.

After a couple of pages or so of this (out of only fifty or so in total) even Hay/the narrator must break for breath:

Enough! Even a great-grandfather’s garrulity must be checked in its reminiscent flow.

Yes please.

Thankfully once the diatribe against the evils of the contemporary age is out of the way the story picks up some. The narrator is out of London visiting, and the next morning tries to head home only to find out there’s no transport back into town:

All traffic into and out of London was indeed suspended, or rather, had never commenced. No trains had come out from the London termini, no response had been received to signals or telegrams; while men who had started to walk into town had either never returned, or else had shortly retraced their footsteps, panting and half-strangled. Telegrams from other suburbs and outskirts of town brought intelligence of a precisely similar state of things existing in those localities. No one had come from London, no one had succeeded in entering it.

Soon it becomes evident that the unthinkable has happened. The London smog has become so bad as to suffocate all within it. The whole metropolis lies wreathed in dark and sooty fog, utterly desolate. Eventually the air starts to clear a little, and so the narrator becomes one of the first to push his way back into the city – fearing for his mother and sister who are still within.

What he finds is why the story is worth reading (to the extent it is). It’s a haunting evocation of an utterly lifeless city, eerily reduced to silence and stillness:

I traversed the foggy street, seeing objects but indistinctly at ten yards distance. I saw no living being, no faces at the shrouded windows, no passers by, no children playing in the gardens or the road; not even a sparrow fluttered past to convey to me the sense of companionship. And then the frightful, muffled stillness that seemed to hold me down in a nightmare trance; not a sound of traffic, no rattle of carriages and carts, no scream and rumble of trains, no clamour of children or costermongers, no distant hum of the midday city, no voice or whisper of a wind; not the rustling of a leaf, not the echo of a foot-fall, nothing to break the deathly stillness but the panting of my laboured chest and the beating of my trembling heart.

There’s nothing that really happens – everyone is dead after all. There is though a tremendous series of descriptions of the desolation, including some very effective set-pieces particularly including a description of a horse-drawn bus stilled with horses still in harness, driver belted in and passengers rich and poor contorted in their seats.

I did struggle a bit with the narrator’s pious cries of horror and sympathy given that most of the book is given over to lengthy descriptions of how awful London and its inhabitants are. It reminded me slightly of The Black Spider – in both texts there’s a sympathy for those who are damned which is distinctly at odds with the glee with which their sufferings are described. It all reminds me a bit of that old Medieval idea that the afterlives of the saved are made more pleasurable by their being able to watch the sufferings of the damned in hell.

Still, it’s short, it’s about 99p from Amazon (and no doubt legitimately free somewhere online without too much trouble), and it’s a lovely example of a now largely extinct genre – the Victorian/Edwardian industrial apocalypse. It’s not really an overlooked classic, but nor does it deserve to be wholly forgotten either.

Here’s the fuller version of that quote. It’s absolutely mad:

I will add of what I saw around me to incline me to the belief in the black enormity of London sin. I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called “smart,” and “a sharp, sound, practical’ man,” who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in “fair business.” In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same. The laws were good, though inordinately cumbrous, and lawyers administered them for their own advantage, and at the expense of their unhappy clients. The law was a terrible engine of justice, but its intricate machinery was clogged with rusty “precedents,” and could not be got to move without a liberal oiling in the shape of fees. Hence arose the saying, that the law had one interpretation for the rich, and another altogether for the poor. The medical profession was conducted upon similar principles; the doctor — if he knew how — would keep his patient ill in order to increase his fees, and making suffering and death his daily sport, traded upon them for his own profit. Clergymen and ministers of religion, whether belonging to the State Church or to independent bodies, made “the cure of souls” a means of livelihood; they quoted the maxim, “the labourer is worthy of his hire,” applying its point to themselves; they kept alive “religious feeling” among the masses by incessant and endless quarrels among themselves on points of dogma and doctrine, extorting money in the cause of “truth” from the public, and either keeping it themselves or squandering it in various foolish and useless ways. And they made one religion for the rich and another for the poor, as anyone might learn by comparing a sermon preached before a fashionable congregation with one delivered to paupers. The merest infraction of moral integrity in one of the humbler classes was visited as intolerable; among the rich and high-born sin flourished under the hallowing sanction of religion, and vice luxuriated in the shadow of the Church. Purity of life was a simple impossibility, and chastity of soul would have been sought for in vain amongst Londoners. Theatres, music-halls, and similar institutions, appealed to the most depraved appetites; people flocked to gaze admiringly at a fashionable courtesan and her attendant harlots, or thronged to listen to obscene and filthy songs, or to witness indecent exhibitions, especially if these involved the risk of life or limb to the performers. Money flowed into the treasuries when such were the inducements, and eager rivalry in their production was the inevitable consequence. Clergymen, aristocrats, and art professors joined in extolling the stage as “the educator of public taste,” while young girls crowded to enter the ballet as the proper road to a life of delightful immorality. The press groaned daily under the weight passing through it of novels which tinctured absolute crimes with poetry and romance, which clothed the worst sensuality in the white robes of innocence, and which taught and argued in favour of every vice. Serial journals adapted to every class, rested their claims to attention on the obscenity, scurrility, or blasphemy of their pages, disguised under a film of moral platitude. Such were some of the causes at work, here were some of their immediate results. Among the higher ranks of society immorality was so common as to excite but small attention; frequent divorce suits proved this; scandalous disclosures of high life were of common occurrence; they gratified the public taste while serving to show the deeper depths below. Pleasure-seeking being the only employment of the wealthy and governing class, they elevated it into a “cult,” and wearied with the tameness of mere harlotry, gluttony, and show, brought “art” to their aid and invented “aestheticism ” as a cloak for higher flights of sin. The men of the “upper ten thousand” were trained from their cradles for a life of sensuous enjoyment. They held themselves aloof from commoner clay as from an inferior race, and they looked upon inordinate luxury as their paramount right. In their code of honour the payment of just debts had no place, unless the debt were contracted by gambling among their fellows. The “golden youth” were banded together into social guilds, bearing imbecile insignia, and using mysterious passwords, whose vicious meaning only the initiate might know. They had peopled a whole suburb with the villas of their concubines, whom the stage and the streets had furnished, while their elders sought amusement from almost infantile charms. Strange and unnatural were the crazes and fashions that pervaded this society: wearied with dissipation carried to excess, they were ever seeking new varieties, new emotions, new vices; they worshipped beauty, but it was not the beauty of created Nature, but that of art — and such art! — that most enchanted them. Ladies were divided into two “mondes,” the proper and the improper, but it was by no means easy to define the exact limits of either grade. The Phrynes of the period held their court and received adoration from the men, though not recognised by their high-born sisters; yet these were eager to copy the manners, dress, and accomplishments of the courtesan, styling themselves “professional beauties,” or veiling their hyper-passionate sensibilities under the pseudonym of “intensity;” while matrimony, even among the most externally decorous, was as much a matter of business as downright mercenary prostitution. The members of this highest rank lived in the very perfection of luxuriousness; their mansions, equipages, and servants, all were on a scale of magnificence as great as could be compassed. Dresses and furniture were splendid and costly. They fared sumptuously every day. Poverty was carefully excluded from their view, and came not within their cognisance, and ultra-extravagance was commended from the pulpit as a means of wisely diffusing wealth, and as an “encouragement to trade.” It was said that the spendthrift vanities and caprices of the wealthy were a source of good, promoting industry, and developing arts and sciences among the workers; “wherefore,” said these reasoners, “lavish arid. profuse prodigality is the commendable duty of the rich, as thereby they foster trade and benefit those who minister to their enjoyment.” When such theories were generally received, it is needless to say that politicians were blind to comparisons drawn from the history of the latter days of Rome, of Venice, or of Bourbon France. And this state of things had, of course, its dire and disastrous effects upon all grades of society below. People of the next rank, whose wealth had been gained from other sources than that of passive hereditary accumulation, busied themselves in the endeavour to gain admission within the pale of “polite society;” they sought to imitate with exactness every eccentricity of the nobles, and courted ruin to effect their purpose. A step lower, and the same procedure was invested with the grotesque addition of “vulgarity.” This abstraction consisted mainly, as I conceived, in a lack of “refinement:” it meant a want of ease and inherent use in forms of speech, manners, and usages; it conveyed the idea of eagerness where cold indifference should have been felt ; or it displayed a sense of actual pleasure, where blasé and captious disdain ought only to have been manifested. Throughout the great masses of the middle class, so styled, there beat the mighty pulse of Loudon life. In this section was contained business and professional men of every degree and kind, from the wealthy banker, the opulent trader or manufacturer, and the sordid promoter of bubble companies, down to the struggling professional man, the actor, and the ignoble clerk. It was divided into a multiplicity of grades or strata, the lowest mingling with the vast democracy of labour below, the highest, by dint of golden passports, passing current among the aristocracy. It was in this division of the social system that the real life of the great city was mainly manifest; here were to be found the chief law-makers and the chief law-breakers; here was every vice most obnoxious to the senses; here, too, was to be found what was left of virtue and goodness. Down through the middle class filtered every evil of aristocratic birth, losing nothing in the process, we may be sure, save the semblance of polish and the grace of courtly elegance; while up from the lowest depths there constantly arose a stream of grosser, fouler moral putrescence, which it would be a libel on the brutes to term merely bestiality. Do not think there was no good In London; there was, much; but it was so encompassed and mixed with evil as to be barely recognisable; while the influences of exuberant vice were such as to warp the integrity of men’s ideas of what was right, to benumb their perceptions of moral turpitude, and to lower the standard of excellence to the very mud. Besides, I only set out to tell you something of the wickedness I saw and knew and felt in London; merely a brief epitome, such as might serve to sustain the view I propounded of the guilt of that city. Have I said enough, my grandchildren? But a few words more, and I pass to the dread narrative itself .

Phew! Just for reference, he’s still not finished, I just ran out of ability to cut and paste on my kindle.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, English Literature, Novellas, Post-Apocalypse Fiction

Is not general incivility the very essence of love?’

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

In a way, it’s a shame the opening sentence to Pride and Prejudice is so well known, because it really is one of the finest first lines in Literature. Right up there with “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”; “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”; and, of course, from my personal canon:  “The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.”

It’s a curious thing reading a book like Pride and Prejudice. Long before starting it I knew the characters and the plot. I knew quotes from it. I’d seen the TV miniseries. It’s part of the cultural air in the UK. Reading it seems almost redundant.It isn’t though, because however familiar it may be the actual book itself is superb.

32-pride-prejudice-redux

That’s not the cover on my copy. I just loved it for its utter vulgarity. Darcy would of course hate it.

My overriding prior impression of Pride and Prejudice was that it was essentially a romantic comedy. Well, it does contain romance and it is often funny, but it’s a much harder-nosed novel than that genre description would suggest.

Marriage is at the heart of Pride and Prejudice, but a very pragmatic view of marriage. The first marriage shown in the text is that of Elizabeth Bennett’s parents, which unlike the portrayal I’d seen in adaptations comes across here as loveless and lacking in any real affection. Mr Bennett is sarcastic and capricious (that’s nearly a quote of the text), and makes no real effort to take any meaningful part in the raising of his children. Mrs Bennett is ill educated and stupid (neither of which are her fault) and frequently vulgar and somewhat cruel (which is).

[Mr Bennett], captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.

Elizabeth Bennett is pretty and has wit. Jane Bennett is beautiful and of a pleasant temperament. The younger sisters, however, are much what you’d expect from parents such as Mr and Mrs Bennett and are in their various ways inconsiderate and foolish. That’s not surprising. Education for women at this time is minimal, and with indifferent parents that leaves nobody with any interest in developing whatever talents they might otherwise have had.

SPOILERS AHOY

The other marriages in Pride and Prejudice are more interesting. On one reading Charlotte Lucas settles, despairing of even the the idea of marrying for love and instead marryies the odious and oleaginous Mr Collins for the security of his position with Lady Catherine. Lydia marries Wickham again not for love, but from love of being in love. Elizabeth and Jane do marry men that they love, and everything points to their marriages being happy ones.

Look closer though and what becomes evident is not the importance of sympathy, but of class and money. Charlotte Lucas is 27, to Elizabeth and Jane’s 20 and 22. Soon she’ll be too old to have a good chance of marriage, but without it she either relies on whatever income her parents leave her or worse yet the uncertain life of the governess.

Charlotte herself was tolerably composed. She had gained her point, and had time to consider of it. Her reflections were in general satisfactory. Mr Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. – Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.

Lydia’s elopement with Wickham is potentially ruinous for the entire Bennett family, making even a bad marriage to him better than no marriage at all. What makes it a bad marriage though isn’t that there is no lasting affection between them (there’s no particular hint that Lydia would have found that with someone else), but that he has no means of supporting her. Once that is provided Lydia exits stage left.

Jane marries the man she loves, but he comes with a considerable fortune. Elizabeth marries the man she loves, but he comes with a very great fortune indeed. Economics underpins everything. This isn’t a novel about romance. It’s a novel about survival.

Mr Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion. His brother-in-law, Mr Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having “ten thousand a-year”.

Money then is central here. Just look at that paragraph above. Mr Bingley is the more approachable of the two men. He’s pleasant and easy to get on with. Mr Darcy is handsome, but he has nothing of Mr Bingley’s easy charm. What he does have though is ten thousand a-year.

What’s subversive about Pride and Prejudice is how it shows the overwhelming importance of money to contemporary English society. Mr Darcy is of course of a higher social class than Elizabeth Bennett – that’s much of what he initially holds against her (her base connections). That social position though cannot be separated from his economic one. That’s made particularly clear by the Bingleys. Mr Bingley’s sister Caroline has ambitions to marry Mr Darcy, and while she never has much prospect of success that’s not because he’s utterly beyond her social league (it can’t be, given he marries Elizabeth).

One of the first things we learn of Mr Bingley’s sisters (beyond their potential for rudeness and snobbery) is this:

They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.

Money here has bought class. Not instantly. This is not a culture where wealth brings instant social respectability (any more than my own is), but watered with time the compost of the Bingley’s wealth has flowered into a much higher station than their family would once have had.

There is of course an implication of social climbing in that quote above (associating with people of rank, suggesting that they are not themselves as yet of rank), but that is more a failing of the sisters than a consequence of the origins of their money. There is no suggestion that Mr Bingley is a social climber.

The greater the money, and the further back its origins, the greater the class.

Money too is responsible for the sisters’ education, which the Bennett’s so conspicuously lack. Money has bought the Bingley sisters their many accomplishments, and therefore their ability to take part in society. Everywhere you turn the theme of the centrality of money is underlined.

A happy marriage here is a marriage which brings security, and it’s money that grants security. For men the calculations are different, they have after all their own incomes and the opportunity if need be to work for a living (shameful as that would be for men of Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley’s class). For women though the opportunities for work are minimal, and poorly paid. It’s marriage, inheritance, or poverty. Elizabeth may privately regret Charlotte Lucas’s decision to marry Mr Collins, but nothing in the text suggests that Charlotte was actually wrong to do so.

I’m at risk though of making it sound serious, which it is of course but it wears its seriousness lightly (unlike poor Mary Bennett). Austen’s writing sparkles, and the book is filled with wit and beautifully (but never showily) crafted sentences. See for example Austen’s skewering of Lady Catherine, of whom “it could be said that nothing was beneath this great lady’s attention, which could furnish her with an occasion of dictating to others.”

Here Elizabeth finds herself confused by what seems to her a most pernicious coincidence:

MORE THAN ONCE did Elizabeth in her ramble within the park, unexpectedly meet Mr Darcy. She felt all the perverseness of the mischance that should bring him where no one else was brought; and, to prevent its ever happening again, took care to inform him at first, that it was a favourite haunt of hers. – How it could occur a second time, therefore, was very odd! Yet it did, and even a third.

For many readers what matters above all is character and story, and Pride and Prejudice has both in spades. Even though the outcome is never in doubt it’s hard not to cheer for Elizabeth. It would take a tougher reader than me not to feel sympathy for Jane, to cringe at Mr Collins, to want to give Lydia a good talking to and to wish Mr Wickham a fate far more in line with what he deserves than what he receives.

Below the major characters is a rich cast of minor ones, each well drawn and memorable. The story has enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, and the pages almost turn themselves. It’s an astonishingly easy read, particularly so when you consider it dates back to 1813.

I’ll be reading more Austen. Partly because I thought the relentless focus on the criticality of money both refreshing and fascinating. Also though I absolutely admit because, while I do genuinely love modernist fiction and challenging narrative structures, I’m still a sucker for that old standby of a good tale well told. This is a great tale, brilliantly told.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a poem by WH Auden, which I discovered care of Wikipedia:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Austen, Jane, English Literature

It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun and translated by Sverre Lyngstad

I’ve read few novels as unsparing as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Written in 1890 it follows the needless descent of a young writer into starvation and alienation. The novel doesn’t blink, doesn’t look away even for an instant. Put that way it can sound like a work of social critique, but it absolutely isn’t. It’s much more interesting than that.

hunger

The unnamed narrator lives in Kristiana, now known as Oslo. He survives by writing freelance newspaper pieces and pawning his few possessions bit by bit (down to the buttons on his coat). Increasingly though he’s too hungry to write, and the pawnshop gives less on each visit as he slowly works through anything he owns of any value. As time goes on he goes longer and longer without food, becomes more and more estranged from the society around him.

The book opens with him living in a dismal one room apartment, barely furnished. He’s not paid the rent in an age, and time is running out there. He has to leave, and when he packs it becomes quickly evident quite how poor he is:

I decided to buckle down at once and get going with my move. I took out my bundle, a red handkerchief that contained a couple of clean collars and some crumpled newspapers I had carried my bread home in, rolled up my blanket and pocketed my stack of white writing paper.

He finds his situation deeply embarrassing. The blanket isn’t even his, it’s a loan from a friend. As he wanders the streets desperately trying to fill the long days (“I couldn’t go to a café with empty pockets, and I didn’t know of any acquaintance I might look up at this time of day.”) he worries about how he seems to people, keen to maintain some minimum form of appearances:

Meanwhile the green blanket was an inconvenience to me; nor would it do to walk around with a parcel under one’s arm in plain sight of everybody. What would people think of me? So I wondered how to find a place where it could be left for safekeeping for a time. Then it occurred to me that I could go over to Semb’s and get it wrapped; that would make it look better right away, and there would be nothing to be ashamed of any more in carrying it. I entered the store and stated my errand to one of the clerks. He looked first at the blanket and then at me. It seemed to me he mentally shrugged his shoulders in contempt as he accepted the parcel. I felt offended. ‘Be careful, damn it!’ I cried. ‘There are two expensive glass vases inside. The parcel is going to Smyrna.’ That helped. It helped a lot. The man begged my pardon in every movement he made for not guessing right away there were important articles inside the blanket. When he had finished his wrapping, I thanked him for his help like someone who had sent precious objects to Smyrna before, and he even opened the door for me when I left.

The text follows his internal monologue, which moves from depression to euphoria as his brain fills alternately with despair or wild schemes that will restore his fortunes. Perhaps his next article will be bought by a publisher? Surely it will! He can feel now how well written it is, how subtle the thoughts and arguments in it are. Rereading it though, perhaps it’s worthless after all, and anyway he can’t finish it as the hunger causes his head to pound and blocks his focus.

Here there is no Cartesian dualism. The narrator is his body, and his body is hungry. His mind can turn away from food, but not indefinitely and as his hunger increases his character begins to erode. At first he is scrupulously honest, but how honest can one remain without food? It’s important to him to think of himself as an honourable man, but as his hunger grows so does his ability to self-justify his actions. Theft becomes a possibility, sharp dealing, the hunger eats away as much at his conscience as it does his strength. Always however, his hunger remains profoundly physical.

My hunger pains were excruciating and didn’t leave me for a moment. I swallowed my saliva again and again to take the edge off, and it seemed to help. I hadn’t had enough to eat for many, many weeks before this thing came up, and my strength had diminished considerably lately. When I had been lucky enough to get my hands on a five-krone bill by some manoeuvre or other, the money generally didn’t last me long enough for my health to be fully restored before a new hunger spell descended upon me. My back and shoulders had borne the brunt of it; I could stop that gnawing pain in my chest for a moment by coughing hard or by walking extremely bent over, but there was nothing I could do for my back and shoulders.

As the narrator’s plight continues his behaviour deteriorates. He begins to laugh when nothing is funny. Smashes his head against lampposts. Shouts meaninglessly but aggressively at strangers. He becomes paranoid. You’ve almost certainly seen people behaving like that in real life. Most of us cross the road to avoid them.

It’s easy to read this as an attack on the lack of a social welfare safety net, and of how society can ignore the artist. The thing is though, none of that is quite right. As you read it becomes apparent that there is a safety net, he’s just too proud to use it. At one point he’s locked up by the police, and in the morning they give bread to the homeless that they’ve imprisoned overnight for vagrancy. In his pride he pretends not to be homeless, to have been sleeping rough simply through drunkenness, so they don’t feed him.

Time and again he spurns possible help, too proud to accept it. His situation is terrible, but it’s not the fault of a society that will do nothing to aid its most vulnerable. That’s not what’s happening at all. Still, if it’s partly his fault (and it’s only partly, poverty itself begets poverty), does that make it less awful?

Hamsun here is making it hard for us to have the comfort of pity. One can’t read this and simply think, oh, isn’t all this shocking. Something should be done. Hamsun ultimately makes it clear that the narrator’s situation is fairly easily escaped, just not on the terms he sets for himself. That’s why I talked about the book being unblinking, what we’re examining here isn’t the society that the narrator falls between the cracks of, but his internal experience of his situation. His plans, justifications, thoughts, flights of emotion.

Hunger is famously semi-autobiographical, and because of that it’s easy too to assume that the narrator has talent as a writer since Hamsun himself does. If so, do we have a condemnation of how a bourgeois society ignores and devalues art? The text though is largely silent on how good the narrator actually is. He does write some decent pieces for some of the local newspapers, but nothing spectacular. He’s driven to write, but does that actually mean he’s good at it? Again the reader is denied the comfortable option, it becomes apparent that it’s the narrator’s idea of himself as a writer which is itself in part the source of his predicament.

Hunger then is an inward-facing novel. Time here passes not steadily, but psychologically. When the narrator has food a week can be disposed of in a sentence, then a single hungry half hour can take a page. The focus here is on the internal experience, things exists as they are perceived, not as they are in the world. Everything is seen through the prism of the narrator’s viewpoint.

The point of interest here is the process of thought, which is of course a process of language. In one scene the narrator imagines he’s created a new word, but he doesn’t yet know what it means. It’s an act of mania, and the text follows his ricocheting thoughts as they echo around his head. I’ve read plenty of novels which feature stream of consciousness, but few that capture it so accurately.

In a sense, Hunger is the collapse of 19th Century narrative fiction. The characteristics of the 19th Century novel, the detailed descriptions of the characters’ environment, the interest in social context, the godlike authorial perspective casting its gaze over a panoply of richly detailed fictional personalities, all of that is discarded here. Instead we have a descent into the self which results in the collapse of that self. The narrator is left without god, without society, without the values he called his own, ultimately even without language that he can rely on.

This edition of Hunger comes with a hugely perceptive foreword by Paul Auster. It’s well worth reading, and while it contains spoilers it’s fair to say that this isn’t really a book where knowing the ending matters. I could quote the entire foreword, and even were this not easily the best translation into English available I’d recommend this edition just to get hold of what Auster has to say. Auster describes Hunger as “existential art”, “a way of looking death in the face”, death “as the abrupt and absurd end of life.”

This is the essence of Modernism. It is the confronting of meaninglessness, an act which is intrinsically absurd since it is an attempt to bring meaning to meaninglessness, an attempt which by definition cannot succeed. At the end of his essay Auster evokes Beckett:

Hamsun’s character systematically unburdens himself of every belief in every system, and in the end, by means of the hunger he has inflicted upon himself, he arrives at nothing. There is nothing to keep him going – and yet he keeps on going. He walks straight into the twentieth century.

Of course, none of this occurs in a vacuum. I talked before about how this differs from 19th Century fiction, but that’s shorthand, because this is 19th Century fiction. It’s the strand of it though that was moving away from the dominant form of that time, and which would soon(ish) give rise to writers such as Joyce, Beckett, Woolf and indeed eventually Paul Auster. If you’ve any interest in any of them and haven’t read this, you’re in for a treat.

I’ll end with a word on translations. Get this one. There’s an 1899 translation by George Egerton which while accurate is censorious, removing the novel’s (admittedly few) erotic scenes and so fundamentally changing the tone of the book. There’s then a 1967 translation by American poet Robert Bly, which is I understand riddled with questionable interpretations, errors and outright changes. There’s a lengthy translator’s afterword here which explores the difficulties with the previous translations in forensic detail, but the upshot of it is that if you’re reading this in English then this is the copy you want.

Hunger sat on my to be read pile for some time. The prompt to finally read it came from this review by Emma of Book around the Corner. That’s the beauty of the blogosphere. What newspaper would have released a fresh review of a book from 1890, however well regarded? Emma did though, and her review inspired me and led to my discovering this extraordinary work. Blogs aren’t for me a replacement for newspaper reviews (though that’s a topic for a blog entry all its own), but they do provide something that increasingly the newspapers don’t. Breadth of coverage.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Hamsun, Knut, Modernist Fiction

Falander eyed her body as if calculating the cost

The Red Room, by August Strindberg and translated by Peter Graves

The Red Room is a 19th Century Swedish state of the nation novel. Put that way it doesn’t sound very enticing, but what’s odd is that it’s also one of the most topical novels I’ve read in a while and it has more to say about 21st Century Britain (and I suspect many other countries) than most contemporary British novels do.

In a way that’s a slightly depressing comment on current fiction. Perhaps the real point though is that for all the advances we’ve made in the last 130 years or so, we’re still the same people we ever were.

RedRoom

A young man named Arvid Falk quits the civil service to follow his dream of being a poet. He joins up with a group of artists and writers who meet most nights in the Red Room, a private dining area in a cheap café. Arvid dabbles in journalism to pay his way, while his brother Carl Nicolaus Falk grows rich from money-lending and investments.

Strindberg uses these characters to set his sights on the whole of Stockholm society: literature, theatre, journalism, business, corporate social responsibility programs (not that he uses that term obviously) the civil service, politics,  the works. Here’s Arvid commenting on what he found at his plum job with the civil service, which he’s just quit to the consternation of everyone he knows:

‘So I went in to the notary’s, where I found a supplies committee in session – as it had been for the last three weeks. The protonotary was in the chair and three clerks were taking the minutes. Samples sent in by suppliers were scattered all over the tables, at which all the unoccupied clerks, copyists and notaries were sitting. In spite of major differences of opinion they had settled on twenty reams of Lessebo paper and, after repeated test snips, forty-eight pairs of Gråtorp’s prize-winning scissors (a company in which the actuary owned twenty-five shares). Testing the steel pen-nibs had taken a whole week and the minutes recording the process had consumed two reams of paper. They had now come to the pen-knives and the committee was in the process of testing them on the black table-tops.’

Arvid despairs of the waste and stupidity he encounters in the civil service, but journalism and writing are no better. Publishers expect him to churn out cheap content at minimal rates and minimal research (the Guardian’s Comment is Free anyone?). The politicians he reports on are venal, the businessmen self-serving. To make matters worse, Stockholm is full of young men writing poetry about how unhappy they are. Nobody wants to read any of it.

The others in the Red Room include men of talent, but of the two painters in the group the best of them is out of fashion and ignored while the lesser does society portraits for which he’s applauded and well paid. In the main they’re desperately poor, regularly pawning their few possessions so they can afford their next meal. Stockholm is not a place that values its artists, not the ones who produce art for its own sake anyway.

Meanwhile, Arvid’s brother is an utterly dislikeable man who lends money to his friends more so he can exert power over them than for the paltry profits it affords him. His pretty young wife does good deeds in the community, but only because its fashionable. He has his company contribute to his wife’s charities, but only so long as everyone knows he’s doing it (and his contributions consist largely of risky stocks which he wants off his own books anyway).

Everywhere is cant, pandering and self-interest. Arvid is innocent, but he’s young and it’s noticeable that nobody here with any experience of life shares his early optimism.

Strindberg writes all this with zest and humour, and I found The Red Room a hugely enjoyable read. Satires aren’t always funny, but this one is and the anger doesn’t overwhelm the comedy.

There are a few problems though: the range of targets is so broad that the book becomes a bit patchy in places, characterisation isn’t particularly deep and there’s a slight feeling that the different sections of the book may have been stitched together from different sources (perhaps written at different times) so that stylistically it doesn’t all quite hang together.At 300 pages all in though the weaker sections don’t overstay their welcome and the whole is so good that I could easily forgive the occasional flaws.

I talked in my opening about how topical The Red Room still is. Here’s some examples:

The art critic was an old academic who had never held a brush but belonged to a brilliant society of artists called Minerva. This gave him the opportunity to describe works of art to the publci before they were even painted, thus saving his readers the trouble of coming to an opinion of their own. He was always kind to those he knew and never forgot any of them when reviewing an exhibition. His long-standing habit of writing nice things about them – how would he dare do otherwise? – and his ability to mention twenty works in half  column made his critics think of a game of Happy Families. He carefully refrained from mentioning younger artists, however, and thus the general public, not having heard any new names for a decade, began to despair for the future of art.

Replace art with literary fiction in that quote, and you pretty much have the state of broadsheet newspaper literary criticism in the UK today.

‘ … So what happened about the financial mess at Triton?’

‘They decided on an open vote that, in view of the company’s patriotic ideals and the national interest, the state should take over the bonds while the company winds up or goes into liquidation.’

‘That means the state propping up the house while the foundations are crumbling, just to give the directors time to get out!’

Governments using public cash to prop up failed private sector investments?  Senior executives taking legally questionable risks and then escaping all personal liability? Privatised profits and nationalised losses? Seems pretty current to me.

Then there’s the press:

‘Don’t you read the books you review?’

‘Who do you think’s got time to read books? Isn’t it enough that I write about them? I read the papers and that’s quite enough. Anyway, we lay into everything as a matter of principle!’

‘That’s surely a stupid principle?’

‘Nope! That way you get everyone who dislikes the author or is envious of him on your side. And that’s the majority. The neutrals prefer to read abuse anyway: the humble find it both comforting and edifying to read how thorny the path to fame can be. True?’

‘You can’t play with people’s destiny in that way.’

‘It;s good for them, both old and young. I know – I never got anything but abuse in my youth.’

‘But you’re misleading public opinion.’

‘The public doesn’t want good judgement, the public wants its passions satisfied. If I praise your enemy you wriggle like a worm and say I lack judgement, but if I praise your friend you say it’s good judgement.’

That quote above goes wider than just reviewing. In the US both MSNBC and Fox feed their viewers the news they want to hear, carefully avoiding any serious hint of other viewpoints. Newspaper readers (those who’re left) choose papers that reflect their politics, google sorts us into filter bubbles which on the one hand means search results genuinely are more relevant but on the other means we only see what we already expect to. The technology changes, but the problem Strindberg’s satirising in that quote above hasn’t changed at all.

As a rule of thumb books don’t become classics, or get translated, without good reason. A translated classic then tends to be a bit of a sure bet (though not always, some classics have huge academic or historical interest but make for lousy reads). It’s a little like foreign language film (if you’re an English speaker). Nobody goes to the trouble of making subtitles, importing and marketing some domestic turkey. They do it for the good stuff. The Red Room is the good stuff.

If you’ve ever had the faintest interest in Swedish literature this is the place to start (and Doctor Glas, which I’m reviewing soon, is the place to go to next). If not, and I didn’t, this is still a rewarding novel with a lot to say about the state we’re in, which sadly is much the same state as we’ve been in since long before my grandparents were born.

There’s a free version of The Red Room available on kindle, but I’d recommend buying this Norvik Press edition anyway. The Peter Graves translation is excellent, and well worth spending a little money on. There’s an excellent review of the free translation here at Bookaroundthecorner’s blog. It was Emma from that blog who persuaded me to read it. Thanks Emma.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Strindberg, August, Swedish Literature

a good passionate fit of crying.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

This is a tricky review to write. Partly because I don’t tend to enjoy writing negative reviews (I wrote a whole post on the topic, including why I think they’re useful, here). Mostly though because Wuthering Heights is widely agreed to be a stone-cold classic and is a book that a great many people absolutely love. I wanted to love it too. Unfortunately, I didn’t even think it worth finishing.

wuthering-heights-twilight-cover(1)

As an aside, when I first saw that cover I thought it shameful that Wuthering Heights was being sold by reference to Twilight. Having now read a fair chunk of the book though, I can sort of see the link.

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.

As the above quote suggests, we’re in gothic novel territory here. Remote, brooding locations. Stormy metaphoric weather. Strange households with dark secrets best not spoken of. To be fair, these are a few of my favourite things so I’ve no issue with any of that. I’d even go so far as to say that the opening sets up expectations nicely, making it clear that what’s to come isn’t going to be a matter of strict realism but rather a work of mood and emotion.

Where the book soon runs into difficulty however is a flabbiness of structure. It opens with a framing device, the remarkably irritating initial narrator coming to his new landlord’s home and discovering a household afflicted by the remnants of past misery and bitterness. Edith Wharton, nearly 70 years later, used much the same device (quite possibly influenced by Brontë) in her Ethan Frome, but Wharton is a much better writer. Her narrator doesn’t take over the tale, she gets to the actual story much more swiftly and her prose is vastly more elegant.

Wuthering Heights then cuts back to the childhood of the central characters (one could argue who those are to a degree, but however you cut it they include Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw). Heathcliff is a foundling, adopted by Catherine’s father and raised with her, not quite one of the family but not a servant either. He cuts across barriers of class, money, race and propriety. In a sense he’s almost more plot device than character, an interloper from beyond the social world the novel otherwise portrays, and thus a living challenge to that world’s order.

He is a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure; and rather morose.

Catherine, though as wild as Heathcliff by nature as a child, grows up to assume the place expected for her by society. She becomes a lady, gently spoken, refined and beautiful. In her heart she loves Heathcliff, but when the time comes for marriage she chooses a gently born neighbour as Heathcliff has no fortune and thus could not maintain her position.

I won’t say what happens, since there may be those reading this who don’t actually know the story, but it’s all very passionate and dramatic. How could it not be, when we have conflicts of nature and society, of expectation and desire? The problem though is the characters and the contrived nature of the plot.

A degree of contrivance is inevitable in a gothic novel. Here though it’s simply heavy handed. At one critical passage Heathcliff overhears Catherine talking about how she feels about him. He manages to hear the bit about why she doesn’t want to marry him (he’s broke), but not the lengthy exposition of how much she loves him. He then charges off in a fury and naturally never thinks to ask for clarification. It’s a device still used in literature and film today, the part heard conversation leading to misunderstanding and breakup, but it’s a terrible device and the perfect example of how characters here act as puppets to the plot rather than from any organic sense of character.

Wuthering Heights is a novel of grand passions. The difficulty is that the characters are vehicles, not people. It’s easy to write that two characters love each other. I can do it now: Bill and Hannah love each other. It doesn’t make it mean anything though. Bill and Hannah are in love because I’ve said they are, but I’ve established nothing about them that makes that love meaningful.

Reading Ethan Frome, I could see why Ethan felt trapped, why his cousin Mattie was so important to him. The characters felt real, their emotions grew out of their natures and their situations in ways that were organic and true. Ethan Frome isn’t really any less contrived than Wuthering Heights, but it feels like a story that could be told in no other way and so has the quality of Greek tragedy.

In Wuthering Heights characters act as the plot demands. Of course that’s also true of Ethan Frome, and most every other plot-heavy novel ever written, but in Wuthering Heights you can see the puppeteer’s hands moving the strings. I had no sense that Heathcliff and Catherine’s situation arose out of anything other than their being written to be in that situation. I had no sense that they had lives beyond the novel (which of course no character in any novel does, but then novels are beautiful lies which in most cases at least seek to make us forget we’re being lied to while we read them).

Perhaps I was just the wrong age for this book. Were I first encountering it as an adolescent I can see that I might relate to characters motivated by sweeps of emotion which overcome their reason. I might find Heathcliff romantic (with a lower case r, he’s obviously Romantic with an upper case R), and Catherine’s dilemma interesting. I’m not adolescent though, and I couldn’t believe in them or their problems.

I’ll end on a minor positive note. The following passage reminded me irresistibly of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. The two books have nothing in common, and the Hardy while I think more successful is much less ambitious than Wuthering Heights, but the Hardy is easy to love and anything that reminds me of it is welcome.

our pleasure was increased by the arrival of the Gimmerton band, mustering fifteen strong: a trumpet, a trombone, clarionets, bassoons, French horns, and a bass viol, besides singers. They go the rounds of all the respectable houses, and receive contributions every Christmas, and we esteemed it a first-rate treat to hear them.

There it is then, Wuthering Heights. I genuinely wanted to like it, and having compared it here so much to Ethan Frome which uses very similar devices I’m slightly frustrated that all I seem to say in the end is that I didn’t like it because I didn’t think it was very good. Unfortunately, that’s where I come out, I just didn’t think it was very well written. If you read this and you disagree, think I’ve utterly missed the point, whatever, please feel free to tell me where I went wrong in the comments.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Brontë, Emily, English Literature

a Muscovite in Harold’s cloak?

Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin and translated by Tom Beck

How does one review a work like Eugene Onegin? It’s not that I’m nervous writing about classics, but Russian novels in verse which are so important they created a genre? That’s a big ask. Nabokov wrote an entire commentary on the poem, and a famously literal translation. Where to start?

Well, if there’s a point to blogging it’s to record a personal reaction. I’m frankly not qualified to speak to any technical aspects of Eugene Onegin. It’s only because I looked it up on Wikipedia that I know it’s in something called iambic tetrameter (and then I had to look up what that was). This then will not be an academic critique; it won’t be an analysis of the poem and its place in Russian literature. This is simply my reaction to a book written around 180 years ago in a language I don’t speak and in a style I’m unfamiliar with. I’m already thinking about reading it again.

Back in 2010 I read Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, written in the second decade of the nineteenth Century. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t read it for its own merits. I read it because without it there wouldn’t be a Eugene Onegin. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is the bridge between the European romantic tradition and the later Russian concept of the “superflous man”. That makes it sound of mere historical interest, but Pushkin is far too good a writer for that. This is a delicious novel, still well worth reading.

Eugene himself is a young man about Moscow as the novel opens. He’s a womanising dandy waiting for a long-sick uncle to die so that he can inherit. Here’s how Pushkin introduces him:

3

Completing service long and faithful,
his father ended his career
and left his son debts by the plateful
from having given balls each year.
And yet my friend was saved from Hades
by his Madame, a Gallic lady;
and then Monsieur took on the lad,
a lively child but never bad.
Monsieur l’abbé, who hated quarrels,
thought learning ought to be a joy,
tried not to overwhelm the boy.
He didn’t bother him with morals,
and if annoyed, he didn’t bark,
but took Eugene to Letny Park.

4

When Eugene grew and first felt passion,
was plagued by love and hope and doubt,
they did what’s always been the fashion
and threw the wretched abbé out.
My friend was free from every pressure,
could live and act as was his pleasure,
so he was always finely dressed
in what was surely London’s best.
He spoke and wrote French to perfection,
bowed constantly, his hair well curled,
and when he danced he turned and twirled,
his light Mazurka no exception.
He didn’t have too long to wait
before the world thought he was great.

Eugene’s a dilettante. He spends his evenings at the theatre and at balls, his days at leisure. He has no need to work, and no enthusiasms beyond those custom would applaud. He has taste, or at least a sense of fashion. He is also, however, quite criminally bored:

37

Alas! His feelings were now cooling,
he wearied of the social round,
the constant flirting and the fooling
now seemed to him absurd, unsound.
Pursuing beauties now fatigued him,
betrayals, friends no more intrigued him,
nor guzzling beefsteaks, Strasbourg Pie,
champagne until the day you die,
dispensing piquant sayings, grimace,
and bicker, have an aching head
from everything you’ve done and said.
Although he was a fiery scapegrace,
he’d lost his love of having fun,
of sabre-fighting and the gun.

As Pushkin goes on to say, “Childe Harold-like, he was ill-humoured”. This is of course classic territory (what do you expect? It’s a classic). A bored young blade looking for some means to alleviate his ennui, even before Byron this wasn’t an unfamiliar character. Laclos would have recognised him. Coming just 15 years after Byron’s creation though the source is even more obvious. It’s a point which raises another question: if Harold was as many thought Byron’s thinly disguised autobiography, is Eugene actually Pushkin?

56
Oh flowers, love, you fields and meadows,
Oh idleness, yours is my soul;
I’m not Eugene, we’re different fellows,
that matters to me on the whole
in case some too sarcastic readers
or other bookish, slanderous creatures
should callously compare my quirks
with those of Byron and his works,
as if I were but merely scrawling
my effigy, just like that proud
fantast, as people put around
so shamelessly, (which I find galling),
as if we wrote of nothing else
but poems all about ourselves.

If I hadn’t thought of the question already it would be firmly in my mind after that denial. Pushkin’s well aware that readers will be looking at this wondering if it’s really about him. His narrator, who is of course also a character within the novel, loudly denies that he’s Eugene – “we’re different fellows”. The narrator’s a garrulous sort though, and he can’t resist throwing his own comments into the text, reflecting on how Eugene’s life reflects upon his own and generally digressing.

That split, between Eugene as protagonist and the narrator as meta-character, is what makes this so much fun. Eugene’s story is pretty straightforward. He leaves Moscow and goes to the country, where a young and innocent girl falls in love with him and where he becomes friends with a local poet. During his stay misunderstanding and lack of thought lead Eugene to commit to a duel which ends, as duels in Russian literature generally do, to tragic consequences. In case you don’t know the story I won’t say more, but knowing it wouldn’t harm the book any. Pushkin’s not aiming to surprise the reader with plot twists here.

While all this is happening the narrator is revealing his own character. His acerbic asides reveal his own past romantic misfortune, his loss of fashion and his world-weary cynicism. As with the Tales of Belkin what at first seems to be a framing device becomes as important as what it’s framing. Pushkin, on the strength of the two books I’ve read so far anyway, is an incredibly playful writer.

I’m conscious I’m quoting a lot in this review, but I’m keen that readers get a decent chance to see the style as it appears in Tom Beck’s translation. This isn’t a full stanza, but it’s a nice illustration of how the narrator (Pushkin within the fiction) lets his own character slip into the text:

He had a chaste and upright conscience,
which he quite guilelessly laid bare,
Onegin found that he could share
his friend’s naïve and heady nonsense,
emotions which, however true,
are not exactly all that new.

All this narrative dexterity is married to a rich vein of social commentary. Pushkin’s aim is as accurate as Onegin’s, and he turns it on Russian society, on earnest Romantic poets, on the superfluous men of Eugene’s generation, even on some public figures which (as the end-notes make clear) his contemporaries would have recognised. As so often country folk come out as better than anyone else, but then the myth of the pastoral idyll is always with us (and even that is shown here as stultifyingly dull).

This is the first time I’ve read Eugene Onegin, so I can’t compare Tom Beck’s translation to others. My impression is that a straight translation of Onegin is essentially impossible. The original poetry was innovative and unique, and translating it means making a choice between exactly how faithful you are to the exact meaning of the language and how faithful to the structure and style.

Tom Beck is a musician by training, and that shows here in a translation which emphasises flow over precision. It’s not that he writes his own text (I did compare the opening stanza as it appears in several translations and Beck isn’t rewriting as such), but he wants to keep the poem as a poem and since direct English equivalents of the original Russian words wouldn’t fit the sructure it’s fair to say there will be translations which hew more closely to the original meanings (Nabokov of course being the most striking example).

Meaning though is only part of being faithful. Beck preserves the feel of the poem, he preserves its rhythm and that too is a form of fidelity. Translating fiction is like interpreting music. Two orchestras performing the same piece will each give it their own stamp. Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky when performed by say the London Philharmonic becomes the London Philharmonic’s Alexander Nevsky by Prokofiev. It’s still Prokofiev, but it’s no longer purely Prokofiev.

Is this then a good translation? Well, yes, because I read it and enjoyed it and I felt the movement of it and left wanting to read more. Is it the best translation? Best for whom? Is it a worthwhile translation? Yes, because fidelity to structure is no less valid than fidelity to meaning. There were occasions when I found a rhyme jarred slightly (else and ourselves for example, above) or where I lost the rhythm for a moment and had to reenter the poem. After the first few pages though I found the verse as natural as prose, and if you’re to have any hope of reading a book like this that’s critical.

I’ve long been a fan of Dedalus Press, so when I saw they had their own version of Eugene Onegin I had to give it a try. I’m glad I did, and I hope others will too. This is a lively and fun book, tragic and witty and clever enough to leave many ambiguities unresolved (if the end of The Sense of an Ending left you frustrated this one really isn’t for you). Russian literature has a (undeserved) reputation for being heavy, depressing and difficult. Eugene Onegin is none of those things.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Pushkin, Alexander, Russian Literature, Superfluous Man

he was but the ruin of a man

Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

I read Ethan Frome on my kindle, and finished it on a sunny day. Part of it I read while walking down the street. It was dazzlingly bright and warm, hot even. I meant to buy a bottle of water on my way to the station, and suddenly realised I’d walked past the shop. Looking up I was momentarily surprised to find it wasn’t dark, wasn’t cold. That’s a cliché, but it’s still true.

My first Edith Wharton was Age of Innocence, and I absolutely recommend that as a first novel to try by her. It’s an incredible book. It naturally formed my image of her writing, and my impression is that it’s not too false an image – a novelist of blighted and frustrated lives choked by propriety and convention; of the constraints of the upper middle classes of late 19th Century New England and New York.

In a sense all that is true of Ethan Frome, save the class element (the characters here are mostly the rural poor). This though is a more gothic tale, eschewing strict realism for a mood of fear, horror, even loathing. As I read it I found it created a near overwhelming sense of dread, and all without a single supernatural element. The ingredients here are ice, isolation, long-held secrets, disfigurement, ruin and death.

The story comes with a framing device, where an unnamed narrator takes an interest in a poor farmer by name Ethan Frome. Frome is a solitary, lame figure crippled by some terrible accident. He is tacit, private, and people prefer not to speak of his misfortune. The narrator though is invited to Frome’s home to shelter from a storm, and from there is able to piece together Frome’s history.

“That’s my place,” said Frome, with a sideway jerk of his lame elbow; and in the distress and oppression of the scene I did not know what to answer. The snow had ceased, and a flash of watery sunlight exposed the house on the slope above us in all its plaintive ugliness. The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped from the porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their worn coat of paint, seemed to shiver in the wind that had risen with the ceasing of the snow.

Years before Ethan Frome was a young man married to an invalid wife, Zenobia. Zenobia had nursed Frome’s mother as that woman lay dying, and upon their marriage had promptly fallen ill herself. Ethan and Zenobia had little money but even so had taken responsibility for a destitute cousin of Zenobia’s, who now helps out around the home. Zenobia, “though doubtful of the girl’s efficiency, was tempted by the freedom to find fault without much risk of losing her”. 

The cousin is Mattie, a pretty girl full of all the life that Zenobia is lacking. Frome’s marriage is a pitiful thing, dogged by poverty and his wife’s constant complaints regarding ailments which appear more psychological than real. Mattie comes into this wasteland like a blaze of colour, red scarfed, red ribboned, and of course red lipped and cheeked.  She laughs, and her laughter is a miracle in Ethan’s life long burdened by illness and care.

Starkfield, Ethan’s home town, spends six months a year surrounded by snow and winter. It is a hard place with a puritan past. Red then is the colour of life, but it’s also in this context the colour of shame, perhaps even of adultery. Mattie’s life stands in vivid contrast to Starkfield itself, where the barren silence of Ethan’s home is echoed in the bleak landscape surrounding him, penetrating him. Ethan is frozen, early ambitions for education and escape long since abandoned. Mattie though gives hope of life.

They walked on in silence through the blackness of the hemlock-shaded lane, where Ethan’s saw-mill gloomed through the night, and out again into the comparative clearness of the fields. On the farther side of the hemlock belt the open country rolled away before them grey and lonely under the stars. Sometimes their way led them under the shade of an overhanging bank or through the thin obscurity of a clump of leafless trees. Here and there a farm-house stood far back among the fields, mute and cold as a grave-stone. The night was so still that they heard the frozen snow crackle under their feet. The crash of a loaded branch falling far off in the woods reverberated like a musket-shot, and once a fox barked, and Mattie shrank closer to Ethan, and quickened her steps.

I won’t reveal what happens, though this isn’t really a novel capable of spoilers (it opens with Ethan long crippled, and it’s swiftly obvious too what kind of accident crippled him). The key here is mood, description, the unfolding of a grim inevitability. The writing is absolutely beautiful. So much so that at times it’s almost a difficult read: wintry and steeped in despair. It’s that writing though which makes this so persuasive a book. The plot is arguably a little too neat, a little too deterministic (though Greek tragedies are deterministic and neat in that sense, which doesn’t diminish them any), but the writing makes it true.

The winter morning was as clear as crystal. The sunrise burned red in a pure sky, the shadows on the rim of the wood-lot were darkly blue, and beyond the white and scintillating fields patches of far-off forest hung like smoke.

Edith Wharton is a beautiful writer. It’s easy here to pull apart the elements, tear open the symbolism (images of death, a watchful cat, a red pickle dish which was given as wedding gift but never used, the book is crammed with symbolic elements), but in doing so you’d kill it in the way academic examinations of books can so easily kill them. This is a classic school text, and I’m glad I didn’t read it in school because sitting in a room with thirty other kids crawling between words and discussing layers of meaning suffocates a book. It’s useful, it’s how I learned myself to analyse literature and that’s a skill I value, but the price one pays for that skill is the ruin of the books one learns it with.

Ethan Frome is a slighter affair than The Age of Innocence, but it’s absolutely still worth reading. There’s an old debate about what makes fiction count as literary fiction, as opposed to some other kind. The answer of course is the prose. Few authors write even nearly as well as Edith Wharton.

“Now!” he cried. The sled started with a bound, and they flew on through the dusk, gathering smoothness and speed as they went, with the hollow night opening out below them and the air singing by like an organ.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, New England, Novellas, Wharton, Edith

‘Tis my belief she’s a very good woman at bottom.” “She’s terrible deep, then.”

Under the Greenwood Tree, by Thomas Hardy

Romcoms get a bad press. They’re often seen as nothing but megaplex filler, Saturday night entertainments for the undemanding. Mostly of course that’s true.

As with anything though there are exceptions. Steve Martin’s LA Story is for me a thoroughly likeable film that’s easily borne several viewings, even though I hate every English character in it (including the female romantic lead). It’s a romcom, but it’s a good romcom. They do exist.

Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree isn’t of course a romcom (it predates cinema for one thing). Except, well, it sort of is. Boy meets girl. The path of true love proves bumpy. Will the boy and girl end up together in the final reel/chapter? All this against a backdrop of the impact of social change in mid-19th Century Britain as seen through the declining fortunes of a traditional church choir, facing replacement by new technology in the form of the church organ.

Hardy is a writer with a formidable reputation, perhaps for many readers too formidable as his classic status can be offputting. Some years ago my wife persuaded me to read The Mayor of Casterbridge which she was convinced I would love, and as so often she was right. The Mayor of Casterbridge is, quite simply, brilliant and utterly deserving of the word classic (and, as is true of so many classics, it’s actually not a difficult book to read at all).

More recently Emma of Book Around the Corner and Guy of His Futile Preoccupations have both been singing Hardy’s praises, and their reviews made me want to give him another try. Where better than at the beginning, with Under the Greenwood Tree, his first Wessex novel?

And, even though I didn’t read this edition but because it’s the best cover for it I’ve seen, here’s how the Oxford World Classics version looks:

The clue to Under the Greenwood Tree lies in its subtitle, “A Rural Painting of the Dutch School”. To draw analogies from another media again this is a pastoral, a romanticised and somewhat nostalgic depiction of an imagined country life.

It’s easy when reading a nineteenth century novel today to think of it as being contemporary fiction of its time, but Under the Greenwood Tree isn’t. It was written in 1872, but is set in (as best I can tell) the 1840s and it deals with the passing of country traditions that at the time of writing must already have been lost for a generation. It’s not therefore, strictly speaking, a realist novel. What it is though is a delight.

The village of Mellstock, in Hardy’s fictional county of Wessex, has a new vicar and that means change. The old vicar, much loved by all, was a respectful man who didn’t bother you if you didn’t attend church and who would never have dreamt of visiting his parishioners as they went about their business. He kept to himself, and kept church for Sundays.

The new fellow, by contrast, is always calling on people to see how they are and making an effort to get to know his flock. That’s strange enough, but much worse is that he plans to abolish the ancient Mellstock Quire (choir) – a collection of locals who sit in the upper gallery in church and play music for the congregation, as well as going round at Christmas time to everyone’s homes and playing carols whether those inside want to hear them or not.

The quire by the way play string instruments, as god surely intended:

“I can well bring back to my mind,” said Mr. Penny, “what I said to poor Joseph Ryme (who took the treble part in Chalk-Newton Church for two-and- forty year) when they thought of having clar’nets there. ‘Joseph,’ I said, says I, ‘depend upon’t, if so be you have them tooting clar’nets you’ll spoil the whole set-out. Clar’nets were not made for the service of the Lard; you can see it by looking at ‘em,’ I said. And what came o’t? Why, souls, the parson set up a barrel-organ on his own account within two years o’ the time I spoke, and the old quire went to nothing.” “As far as look is concerned,” said the tranter, “I don’t for my part see that a fiddle is much nearer heaven than a clar’net. ‘Tis further off. There’s always a rakish, scampish twist about a fiddle’s looks that seems to say the Wicked One had a hand in making o’en; while angels be supposed to play clar’nets in heaven, or som’at like ‘em, if ye may believe picters.” “Robert Penny, you was in the right,” broke in the eldest Dewy. “They should ha’ stuck to strings. Your brass-man is a rafting dog–well and good; your reed-man is a dab at stirring ye–well and good; your drum-man is a rare bowel-shaker–good again. But I don’t care who hears me say it, nothing will spak to your heart wi’ the sweetness o’ the man of strings!” “Strings for ever!” said little Jimmy. “Strings alone would have held their ground against all the new comers in creation.” (“True, true!” said Bowman.) “But clarinets was death.” (“Death they was!” said Mr. Penny.) “And harmonions,” William continued in a louder voice, and getting excited by these signs of approval, “harmonions and barrel-organs” (“Ah!” and groans from Spinks) “be miserable–what shall I call ‘em?–miserable–” “Sinners,” suggested Jimmy, who made large strides like the men, and did not lag behind like the other little boys. “Miserable dumbledores!” “Right, William, and so they be–miserable dumbledores!” said the choir with unanimity.

At the same time, the village has a new schoolmistress, Miss Fancy Day, daughter to a wealthy local farmer. As the quire perform their annual Christmas carrolling one of its youngest members, Dick Dewy, sees her and falls immediately in love. She’s pretty, spirited, has some measure of refinement and is every inch the desirable catch. So desirable in fact that Dick isn’t the only one with an eye on her. There’s another farmer who has considerably more money and position than Dick, and who is therefore a better match, and that new vicar is in need of a wife too. Can Dick win Miss Day’s heart, and if so can he keep it? It doesn’t help that Miss Day turns out to be something of a flirt…

The romance is at the forefront of the novel, but the looming obsolescence of the choir is never far away either. Miss Day you see will be the new organist. The vicar and Miss Day are modern, forward looking, bringing new ideas and new fashions (some shocking – a hat in church!) to Mellstock. Against that what chance have a group of old men with their fading traditions and battered instruments?

Looking at what I’ve written what strikes me is how dark this novel could have been. It isn’t at all. The quire make their case for survival, but they understand that times change and they’re not resentful men. Dick has rivals better placed than him to win Miss Day, but he’s a sound lad and not daunted. Miss Day hasn’t perhaps the most constant of hearts, and is perhaps overprone to vanity, but there’s no real harm in her. This is an extraordinarily affectionate work in which there is drama, yes, but a very gentle drama. Things may change, are changing, but Mellstock will remain.

Part of what makes Under the Greenwood Tree such a joy is Hardy’s slyly humorous prose. Dick is a young man “consisting chiefly of a human skeleton and a smock-frock, who was very awkward in his movements, apparently on account of having grown so very fast that before he had had time to get used to his height he was higher.” After he falls in love with Miss Day:

It followed that, as the spring advanced, Dick walked abroad much more frequently than had hitherto been usual with him, and was continually finding that his nearest way to or from home lay by the road which skirted the garden of the school.

There’s some lovely character humour within the quire, as well as comic interplay between wives and husbands. I loved too a throwaway line when a man is late for his wedding due to some honey bees suddenly swarming – “Marrying a woman is a thing you can do at any moment; but a swarm o’ bees won’t come for the asking.” Everything is a chance for comedy, from the quire’s debate with the vicar as they argue for more time to a country dance where Dick desperately tries to get as many dances with Fancy as propriety permits (and certainly more than his main rival).

Finally, it almost goes without saying that Hardy is a master at portraying nature itself. The novel follows the seasons, from Winter through to Winter and on to Spring again (and if you’re reading this because you’ve been set this book at school and found this blog looking for something to crib off, do look at how Hardy uses seasonal and weather imagery to underline the progress of the plot and character emotions, easy marks). Here’s one final quote:

The last day of the story is dated just subsequent to that point in the development of the seasons when country people go to bed among nearly naked trees, are lulled to sleep by a fall of rain, and awake next morning among green ones; when the landscape appears embarrassed with the sudden weight and brilliancy of its leaves;

Isn’t that lovely? The whole book’s lovely, though with sufficient notes of melancholic ambiguity to prevent it becoming oversweet. If you find yourself, as I did when I picked this up, in need of a book that’s well written but in which nothing bad can truly happen (and however robust we may be, we all at times need a little escape) this couldn’t be a better choice. My wife (naturally), Emma, and Guy were all right. Hardy deserves reading.

Update: Emma of bookaroundthecorner posted a review of this the same day I did (unfortunately I accidentally deleted her pingback). Her review is, as ever, excellent and well worth reading – particularly for how it brings out the novel’s musical themes. Emma’s review is here.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, English Literature, Hardy, Thomas

a singular air of reluctance or compulsion

Three Ghost Stories, by Charles Dickens

I’ve always had a rather mixed view of Charles Dickens. He can create memorable characters, make a story rattle along, bring scenes to vivid life, but he’s also frequently maudlin and I’ve read more than one book by him that could have used a severe editorial pruning. When I reviewed Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger I described it as Dickensian, that wasn’t wholly a compliment.

A little while back though Sarah at A Rat in the Book Pile reviewed Dickens’ short story The Signal Man. It’s a story I already knew from a BBC Christmas adaptation, but Sarah made a good case for the original and I’m a sucker for a good ghost story. And after all, was there ever a better time and place for spooks than Victorian England?

One of the advantages of owning a kindle is easy access to classic fiction. I downloaded Three Ghost Stories, and recently wanting a lighter read thought it the perfect time to indulge in these frock-coated frights.

There are (as the title rather suggests) three stories in this collection. The Signal Man, The Haunted House and finally The Trial for Murder. Sarah was right. The Signal Man is a great short story.

The Signal Man draws on a classic piece of folklore, the premonitory haunting: a spirit which brings forewarning of death or calamity. A retired traveller comes across a railway cutting, “as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw”, and shouts a greeting to the signal man working down below. The signal man starts in fear, but eventually calls his visitor down to join him where he explains what it was that made him so frightened by a cheery greeting.

Here the visitor descends almost literally into the underworld:

On either side a dripping wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky: the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in which massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.

I won’t give too much away. The signal man thinks himself haunted by a figure that appears to him presaging disaster on his line – a rail crash, a terrible accident. Only he can see this figure, and so only he receives these dire and useless portents. What can you do with the knowledge that something awful will happen, but no knowledge of what exactly it will be?

Dickens leaves open the possibility of psychological explanation, but for me this worked best in a more literal fashion. Premonitory apparitions are a big feature of the folklore of the British isles. One example that springs to mind are washer women seen by travellers, who on greeting are discovered to be washing blood out of clothes and the sighting of whom foretells a death in the traveller’s own family. The signal man is cursed with valueless prophecy.

Of course the figure reappears. What disaster is it foretelling this time? For that you’ll need to read the story, and it’s worth reading because it’s an absolute gem and I agree with Sarah entirely that it shows none of the faults of Dickens’ longer works.

Where The Signal Man showed all Dickens’ strengths and none of his weaknesses, The Haunted House balanced the books by showing him at his worst. It starts promisingly enough, with a narrator whose “health required a temporary residence in the country” – doesn’t it always in these tales? There’s a nice bit of satire as the narrator travels by train to the house where the mystery will unfold and while travelling meets a spiritualist who boasts of his high connections in the unseen world:

There are seventeen thousand four hundred and seventy-nine spirits here, but you cannot see them. Pythagoras is here. He is not at liberty to mention it, but hopes you like travelling.” Galileo likewise had dropped in, with this scientific intelligence. “I am glad to see you, amico. Come sta? Water will freeze when it is cold enough. Addio!” In the course of the night, also, the following phenomena had occurred. Bishop Butler had insisted on spelling his name, “Bubler,” for which offence against orthography and good manners he had been dismissed as out of temper. John Milton (suspected of wilful mystification) had repudiated the authorship of Paradise Lost, and had introduced, as joint authors of that poem, two Unknown gentlemen, respectively named Grungers and Scadgingtone. And Prince Arthur, nephew of King John of England, had described himself as tolerably comfortable in the seventh circle, where he was learning to paint on velvet, under the direction of Mrs. Trimmer and Mary Queen of Scots.

When the story gets to the actual haunted house though it wanders off in endless and very laboured comic digressions, ultimately sputtering out in a dismally sentimental conclusion. One of the other advantages of the kindle is you can make notes directly against the text. At the end of this one I wrote “flabby and dull”, after deleting my initial comment which was a lot ruder.

Finally comes The Murder Trial, which is a predictable and uninteresting story of how a jury foreman finds himself the only man at a trial who can see the murder victim’s ghost, attending and influencing events. I don’t have any quotes from this one, the whole thing was too dull for any to stand out.

So, three ghost stories. The second story is terrible, the third just utterly mediocre, but the first wouldn’t be out of place in an MR James collection and when it comes to supernatural short stories there simply isn’t higher praise.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Horror Fiction

He was overcome by an immense sense of discouragement

With the Flow, by Joris-Karl Huysmans and translated by Andrew Brown

Guy Savage alerted me to Huysmans’ With the Flow. A bored clerk wanders the streets of Paris eating a series of dismal meals and generally having a miserable time. It’s a tremendous study of depression (melancholy) that somehow manages to be relentlessly glum and extremely funny at the same time.

The novella opens with M. Folantin taking a waiter’s recommendation as to which cheese is best. It’s the Roquefort, but when it comes Folantin is unsurprised to find that what’s on his plate appears to have been “cut out of a cake of Marseilles soap.”

He’s unsurprised because that’s how his life is. He’s a government clerk, but it’s not a job that pays well and his early hopes of rapid promotion have long since slumped. Folantin is intelligent and as a youth won scholastic prizes, but his family were poor and he is without connections. What place is there for him in this new Paris of wide boulevards in which the old neighbourhoods are being abolished?

Folantin eats his dinner, and drinks his wine that tastes of ink:

His feet frozen, squeezed into ankle boots that had started to warp in the deluge and the puddles, his cranium white-hot under the gas burner hissing over his head, M. Folantin had hardly touched his food, and even now his bad luck refused to let go of him; his fire faltered, his lamp grew sooty, his tobacco was damp and kept going out, staining the cigarette-paper with a stream of yellow juice.

Folantin is unmarried. He has no friends, because the friends he once had did marry, and as a bachelor he had less and less in common with them. He’s, well, not happy to be unmarried but he comforts himself that things would be even worse with a woman to support and to have to spend all his time with. He’s not a sociable sort. He doesn’t even use prostitutes anymore – his libido has flickered out. His only real human contact now is indifferent waiters and troublesome household staff:

… he had at least got rid of his housekeeper, Mme Chabanel, an old hag, six feet tall, with moustachioed lips and obscene eyes set into her face over her sagging jowls. She was a sort of camp-follower who ate like a horse and drank like a fish; she was a lousy cook, and over-familiar to an impossible degree. She would plonk the plates onto the table any old how, then sit down opposite her master, hoist up her skirts and chatter away, laughing and joking, her bonnet askew and her hands on her hips.

It was pointless to expect her to serve him properly; but M. Folantin would perhaps have put up with even this humiliating lack of ceremony, if the amazing old girl hadn’t stripped him of his possessions like a highway robber; flannel waistcoats and socks would vanish, old shoes would go missing, spirits would evaporate into thin air, and event he matches seemed to light themselves.

Widow Chabanel had been replaced by the concierge, who pummelled the bedclothes into shape with his fists, and made pets of the spiders, whose webs he looked after.

Huysmans loves his comic servants, but he does do them very well.

Folantin’s problem is money. He has just enough to support himself, but not enough to live at all well. He regularly changes restaurant hoping to find one he can afford which has halfway decent food, but it’s all disgusting. He gets meals delivered, but he’s so meek he’s taken advantage of by the delivery staff. Worst of all are Sundays when he doesn’t even have work to keep him occupied and must somehow eke out the long day’s nothing until the time comes for bed.

It all sounds grim. It is grim. Folantin bemoans his own lack of passion. He wishes he cared about women, the office, dominos or cards, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t care about anything except having a pleasantly quiet life and the hope of one day having a decent meal. He wishes he were religious, because they at least have the delusion (as he sees it) of another life to help console them for how awful this one is.

In modern terms Folantin is suffering from depression. Huysmans though is as ever just a hugely gifted comic writer (something he never seems to get credit as) and there’s a relentless quality to Folantin’s misfortunes that makes it impossible not to laugh. One shouldn’t, but I certainly did.

The irony is that if he had money Folantin would be another of Huysmans’ decadents – his bored nobles exploring the boundaries of experience. Folantin though can’t afford to be decadent. Decadence, like a decent steak, is reserved for those with money. Instead Folantin’s existence leads to chapters opening with the words:

One evening, as he was picking at eggs that smelt of pooh…

The Hesperus edition of With the Flow comes accompanied by an interesting little short story titled M. Bougran’s Retirement. M. Bougran is another clerk, but a more senior one. Not so senior though that he can protect his job when he finds himself made redundant to make way for some ministerial favourite.

Pensioned off M. Bougran finds himself completely at a loss. Work defined his existence, and without it he just doesn’t know what to do with himself. One day though he has a brilliant idea – if he can’t go to work anymore perhaps he can make it as if work were coming to him…

I won’t say more. Again it has that mix peculiar to Huysmans of desperation and comedy. The intricacies of civil service procedure and etiquette are beautifully observed (unsurprisingly, given Huysmans was a clerk himself) and it’s all incredibly easy to imagine. Huysmans has that great nineteenth century gift of crafting almost photographic pictures from words.

In one of the two forewords translator Andrew Brown talks of M. Bougran as a sort of anti-Bartleby and there’s some truth to that. M. Bougran would prefer to, but he is no longer required to. He is pointless, and perhaps always was. It’s a beautifully crafted little tragedy which sadly still remains fairly relevant today.

Ultimately neither of these are among Huysmans’ best works. There’s a reason they’re not as well known as The Damned or Against Nature, but they’re subtle and well written and Andrew Brown is as effective a translator as ever. It’s also all up to Hesperus’s usual high standards in terms of the actual physical quality of the book.

I’ll end with a slight note of caution. The two forewords, the Andrew Brown one and the other by Simon Callow, are both very good but they do contain spoilers. If you do decide to read this you might be better off reading the forewords after the two stories themselves.

As I wrote this I discovered that Guy has actually reviewed this too, which I hadn’t originally realised. His review is here.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Brown, Andrew (translator), French Literature, Huysmans, J.-K., Novellas