Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence



Rabindranath Tagore, Gora (trans Sujit Mukheejee): There is much to say (and I've no doubt much has been said, though perhaps not in English letters) about the various social aspects to this novel: colonialism/nationalism, religion/traditionalism, caste (an -ism not quite racial), feminism, all interacting towards a fundamental understanding of the hierarchical obligations of individual, family, community and society. It also served me as introduction to the Bengali Renaissance through its foremost proponent (a family franchise), so far-sighted in liberal reform as to invite neglect, so much has it become unremarkable, preassumed, part of a general atmosphere, and at the same time overshadowed in world history by western social reform movements (which deferred consideration of its imperial subjects until much later). (Despite Meenakski Mukherjee's introductory remarks to the contrary, this aspect of the novel is predictably polemic, in its small-l liberal way. But the Sahitya Akademi edition provides excellent ancillary material for those, like me, unfamiliar with the milieu.) There is a particular brilliance in having Gora's birth at the time of the Sepoy Rebellion invoke another dominion of British Empire (J.G.Farrell led me here; now it rebounds). But the larger brilliance is in constructing a dialectic within the frame of the coming-of-age of the two protagonists, Gora and Binoy, and their romances with members of a Brahmo Samaj family. (Unusually for the time, the intercession of the distaff characters [and not just the objects of attraction] is decisive.) This is a delicate balance, sustained through the first half of Gora, but compromised thereafter by the exigencies of plot and purpose, leading to a tailing-off (not unlike e.g. V2 of Musil's The Man without Qualities, though plot wasn't a consideration) as the supporting cast retreats into unidimensionality, and to deus-ex-machinations. But I quibble: There is a deep irony that Gora should be the only major character to go beyond the environs of the urban educated class, and again in Binoy's high degree of sensitivity to polite constraint -- if anything, the novel's development follows that of Binoy most closely, but the denouement might be said to expose Gora as it does pasteboard (a self-conscious comment upon the novel?). But as the story does with its protagonists, Gora engages both the head and heart of the reader, and in approximately that order.

Addendum 31.7: A reader closer to this than I points out that the underpinnings of the story combine elements of both Vedic and Greek mythology -- in reflecting the Brahmo Samaj syncresis, it strongly mitigates my quibbling above (as do biographical aspects beyond my ken). As I learn more, I better appreciate the scale and scope of Rabindranath Tagore's (and his family's) accomplishments, and the influence, however muted, that persists.


An Open Letter to Myself

Dear me,

Some reading material bears close introspection:

John Williams' Stoner: A man of the land (both poor) finds his calling, and refuge, at University in English Literature. The hook is Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, setting the tone, as Stoner, a self-assessed indifferent student, scholar, and teacher, despite obstacles met with a detachment born of and shielding a love of his subject, still contributes marginally to the literature by bringing that love into another love, brief as Indian summer, an instructor with whom his affair intertwines her thesis. Dickstein's recent NYT re-review calls it 'the perfect novel' (no, but very very good -- the style and structure is spare but loaded, the erudition worn lightly has depth, and it is surely a page-turner), and points to (but doesn't link) Irving Howe's New Republic and C.P.Snow's Financial Times pieces (404), Dan Wakefield's profile/interview, and Steve Almond's appreciation. Williams' own assessment of his protagonist, from another late interview, is included in the nyrb intro:
"I think he's a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important ... The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner's sense of a job. Teaching to him is a job -- a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was ... It's the love of the thing that's essential. And if you love something, you're going to understand it. And if you understand it, you're going to learn a lot. The lack of that love defines a bad teacher ... You never know all the results of what you do. I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You've got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization."
This points towards a didactic aspect, but with a curious omission: For all that Stoner is defined as a teacher, none of his students merits more than passing mention. In the only extended classroom scene, only the aforementioned instructor (soon to be lover, auditing the seminar) and the interloping protégé of another professor (soon to be department chair, with whom Stoner will be at odds) are more than walk-ons. An experiment in pedagogy succeeds primarily in relieving an undue burden imposed by the department chair. It isn't that Stoner isn't diligent about his responsibilities to his students, just that these are subordinated to the institutional ramifications. This says something about both the institution of the University and the institution of the Hero. And, at another remove, that of the Novel.

But I've said enough about all that, especially since you've read it too. Sometimes your correspondent just needs to get these things out in the open (note those 'things' in the above quote). Coming a generation after Williams, I find myself at variance with him on many points -- things have changed. I have long resisted identifying vocation as defining self, perhaps because I have had no calling as such. Instead, I was fortunate to find a venue in which my analytical abilities (cf the précis bridging the chapbook and reading journal this became) were found useful, even valuable, and have made my own minor, incremental contributions to the profession I landed in. I bring the same kind of skills to my haphazard study of literature, a field in which no apologetics is necessary, pace Ray (repressing giggle); whether these are appropriately deployed is beyond me ("When all you've got is a jackhammer, everything looks like a street"). To my way of looking at things, writing remains an amateur profession (so too my reading); Nabokov was consummate in this regard (aside: from the latest NYRB: "... partake of the spirit not so much of the chess player, who naturally focuses on plausible lines of play, as of the chess problemist, who relishes positions that wouldn't normally arise. He shares with the problemist both the love of ingenuity for its own sake and a penchant for outlandish configurations." No, not him. Louis MacNeice, per Brad Leithauser [not online]). Literature is no less important a part of my life than the dayjob (though not as day-to-day, though over a goodly stretch it wasn't every day); blogging about it is subsidiary (wholly pwned). That it can also be a living, well, for a lucky few -- talent and motivation aren't sufficient, and what persists may never have made the author a dime -- but the institution makes for many middlemen, where the insufficient isn't even necessary, while some of the better middlemen operated outside its ambit (e.g., Wilson, Mencken). The institution certainly eases access to the literature, but, as Williams says at the end of the Wakefield piece, "You know, novels are `useless,' really, we don't have to have them, like food or shelter, but we make them anyway, and making those `useless' things, that's what separates us from the animals." It also provided the platform from which Williams (and co-NBA'73 winner John Barth, whose interpretations helped put me on to this mind-altering substance) could operate. To me, the NBCC campaign would have been better directed towards an institutional problem all along (and btw it's not just the publishers; these guys blog).

Enough for now. Don't be a stranger.

Very truly yours,

Yours truly

PS Also read Thomas Bernhard's The Voice Imitator (trans K.J.Northcott; excerpts): The review[s] a bit harsh relative to the scope, though it doesn't measure up to Merwin or Manganelli for example. One wonders whether the translator has written anything himself. (Probably does interpretations.)


Untied Nations

Danilo Kis, Hourglass (trans Ralph Manheim): A novel bookended between prologue and table of contents, a club sandwich interleaving travel scenes, notes of a madman, criminal investigation and a witness interrogated. The form owes something to Pinget, the title (perhaps more) to Bruno Schulz, but dissociation, disintegration, and magnification of petty slights in the midst of the grossest indignity of the modern age are Kis' own. Noah is given prominence, Shoah remains distant except in more particular emanations, as in a Jan '42 massacre:
The brain of Dr. Freud, the surgeon. A chunk of frozen, gelatinous pulp, perfectly intact, looking like a lamb's brain served whole (at the Danubius Restaurant in Vienna, 1930). The snow, trampled all about by heavy soldier's boots, seemed only slightly melted around the brain, whose convolutions, comparable to those of a walnut, and network of fine capillaries were clearly visible. The brain lay in the snow at the corner of Miletic Street and Greek School Street, and I Heard someone say to whom, that is, to whose skull, it had belonged. So this was the brain of Dr. Freud, the surgeon: a small snowy island between paths trampled into the snow, an intelligence torn from its cranial husk as a mollusc is torn from its emerald shell, a trembling, throbbing mass, lying in the snow as in a refrigerator. But (seeing as how I knew whom it belonged to) it was nothing like the brain an idiot in a glass container; it was the brain of a genius, preserved and protected in nature's incubator, so that inside (the incubator), freed from its corporeal shackles, a dark pearl might develop, the pearl of thought at last materialized, crystallized. from Notes of a Madman
No excerpt stands alone, and the sensibility is often closer to that of Victor Klemperer's diary, but this is all the more remarkable in its construction, per interview (cf. Hemon on Kis): the end is truly cumulative, everything leading to it necessarily and sufficiently.

Andrei Platonov, The Foundation Pit (trans Mirra Ginsburg): High expectations foundered as this really didn't get off the ground for me. There's a sharp divide between the lyrical and satirical in Platonov, and however brave (no, foolhardy) the latter, however clever its construction from the then regnant (google wants to know if I meant pregnant) slogans (with which I have only a passing familiarity; A Cheng's The Chess Master, while similarly infused with particulars of the Cultural Revolution, does not depend so heavily upon them) and from characters drawn from Russian literary history (but alas only as types), however clever the synecdoche represented by the provincial project, it remains pasteboard, flat however well articulated. Not to say it doesn't have its moments, and its scope exceeds its slender length, but in the end it just doesn't work, for me anyway.


My own private Zembla

My reading follows an odd course. Not by accident is this thing called "Stochastic Bookmark": my explorations of literature are not determined by any extant map, rather by what I happen upon by chance, and the notes I compile along the way are just what strike me as significant, though the observations may not be so valid statistically. So that these notes may serve others, I tread plod a narrow path between review and criticism, on the one hand giving some assessment while avoiding spoilers for those who haven't read the work in question, and on the other indicating some aspect that is not evident on the surface but which adds to an my appreciation of the text. Part of the task I set myself involves drawing connections to what else I've read, however tenuous, as was the case in my prior post; but sometimes these seem to imply a multifaceted network which, like a spiderweb, is both fragile and sturdy, deriving strength from a design invisible from a fly's-eye view. Still, I'm surprised by the unexpected segue, as occurred with my latest reading:

W.F.Hermans, Beyond Sleep (trans Ina Rilke): The C-R review provides the overview, but this shares a couple of points of reference with Ah Cheng's The Chess Master; one being chess of course, not just as an aside within the novel about prospects (in this case, of science) or lack thereof: "Everything will have been calculated by then. Winning at chess will be a question of memory." There is also the author's note regarding his revisions, a dozen years and 14 printings on:
"There are two sides to everything, and more than two to novels. Not for nothing is the story of Jesus told four times over in the Bible.
Writing a novel can in some respects be compared to playing chess. The difference is that writing is not a competition, A bad move on the part of one player is an advantage to the other. A weak passage in a novel is no use to anyone.
If a chess player thinks of a better move thirteen years after a particular game, it is too late."

Hermans might have profited from Nabokov's comparison to the chess problem, and the last bit disregards how chess theory moves forward with improvements upon prior practice, where a new, previously unanticipated move (a "theoretical novelty") is introduced to resuscitate abandoned lines of play. But this is all by the by.

The other shared orientation is explicit in The Chess Master, as one of only two citations of Western writing as the basis for story-telling within the story, Jack London's "Love of Life". While implicit within Beyond Sleep, it shares too much in common to be discounted (which I will not elaborate, per the constraints I mention above; I will assent to note, unrelatedly, the parallel to mountain climbing -- because it's there). Not that this suggests that these novels have much to do with each other, for, after all, a few pages before the first quote I pulled:

"One of the reasons why the range of subjects dealt with in novels is so limited is that authors want everybody to be able to follow exactly what is going on. Technical terms put readers off. Entire classes of trades and professions never make it into novels simply because it would be impossible to describe the reality without the use of technical jargon. Such occupations as do occur -- policeman, doctor, cowboy, sailor, spy -- are no more than caricatures in response to the delusional expectations of the intended lay readership."

Of course, I'm sure you'll understand if I decide to amend or re-edit this later on; as always, I reserve the right to recall the witness.


Merely very, very good

Life is too short for major minor poets, as it is for chess. (The latter, per Byron, Henry James [only one of him], in "Our Boys", a play holding the record for longest run in London for a long stretch.) A bit of a stretch here, I'll admit, for a double-headed post:

Poetry in short
Karl Shapiro, Selected Poems ('68 edition): A career that took many turnings; his best work, in the 40s and 50s, propelled him to the inner circle of the elite American poets, but the wheel turned again, neglecting him until recently (see Joseph Epstein on the occasion of LoA inclusion). He was able to satirize even his own standing (in "The Bourgeois Poet", for instance), but I found he took poetry itself as his subject too often. At his best, though, well worth remembering, as the following will attest:

Ballet Mécanique

The hand involves the wheel that weaves the hand
Without the kiss of kind; the digits flick,
The cranks obedient to no command
Raise on their iron shoulders the dead weight
For which no forges cheer. Nothing is late,
Nothing behind, excited, or too quick.
The arm involves the treadle and the wheel
Winds wakeless motion on a tireless reel.

The kiss of kind remembers wood and wool
To no cold purpose, anciently, afar;
The wheel forgets the hand that palpitates
The danceless power, and the power waits
Coiled in the tension tower for the pull
That freezes the burnt hand upon the bar.

The proximate referent is Fernand Léger (flick) and George Antheil (soundtrack, for percussion, 3 airplane props and 16 synchronized player-pianos [paging Wm.Gaddis]), unreconciled until quite recently. The apposite comment by fellow Baltimorean Pellicano on his conducting debut: "The difficulty is not getting lost [in the score], but being perfect in the hand."

Ah Cheng, The Chess Master (trans WJF Jenner): While Stefan Zweig's Schachnovelle remains the acme of gamewriting, this is a worthy contender (along with Kawabata's The Master of Go), and is of particular interest in merging modernity with tradition in both theme and composition (more thereon, not cited in a skewed intro). The Chinese form of the game, xiangqi (more), is probably played by more people than any other chess variant, including the Western version, but remains relatively unknown outside China; within this story it serves to transmit tradition, albeit in a debased form, across the Cultural Revolution, and to preserve Tao -- the author clearly gets the development of prodigy through early tactical wizardry to mature appreciation, which includes the proper appreciation for the modest place of chess in life. As per one of the taglines, how may melancholy be dispelled, save through chess?


Taking Readings on Exegetes of Our Vladimir

Inspired in part by Ray Davis' exemplary exercises at TheValve (to which, X-posted).
Nabokov Studies #10 arrived unexpectedly this week – I'd thought my subscription had run out – in appreciation, I'll go beyond the abstract (available at above link) to record my take on what's of interest in these articles, and perhaps illustrate why scholarship can matter to a lay reader.

Karshan, Thomas – December 1925: Nabokov Between Work and Play
Nabokov as belles-lettrist is underappreciated, eclipsed by the novelist, for whom the former phase provided pupal development. Here he shadowboxes a self-invented double, a competing concept of play, via the Breitensträter–Paolino pugilistics, and pairs this off against "A Guide to Berlin" on work as means as its own end; both bloody, both lovely. Karshan adumbrates the literary qualities of both essays, with Aykhenvald's "In Praise of Idleness" as catalyst, and Shlovsky in the background.

Waysband, Edward – An Intertextual Spiderweb in Nabokov’s “Cloud, Castle, Lake”
A slender thread on which to hang an article, ploughing an idle furrow, tying up a loose end from Christine Rydel's "Nabokov and Tiutchev" in Nabokov at Cornell, in which Tiutchev deepens the connection between CCL and Invitation to a Beheading. Waysband traces the tenuous strand of the trope through VN's early writing, and strains to connect this with the Tiutchevian interests of Tolstoy and Mandelshtam.

Connolly, Julian – Black and White and Dead All Over: Color Imagery in Nabokov’s Prose
Here the abstract lays it all out ... I can add no color, except to say this is more concordance than explanation.

Norman, Will – The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and the Modernist Impasse
The problem of turning, or at least incorporating, historical contingency into timeless art. RLSK is underrated; examining this aspect adds something to the assessment, but not what's essential. Still, it serves to temper the overaesthetic perspective of VN (and of Flaubert, Proust, and Joyce) to which some assessors are prone, and identifies the conventions of literary biography with which VN plays, which I think is more to the point.

Akikusa, Shun'ichiro – The Vanished Cane and the Revised Trick: A Solution for Nabokov’s “Lips to Lips”
The gem of this issue. The story-behind-the-story of compromised publication (about a subsidized Mary Sue) delayed its advent til VN was Englishing, due to parallels to then-contemporaneous events [1]. The problems of self-translation are compounded when one can't pronounce pronouns properly. Explicating what's made explicit in English rendering reveals what's implicit to the careful Russian reader and invisible to the oblivious, including the protagonist of this story, a proto-agonist to the Vane Sisters narrator. And the doubling in letters! speaking of self-translation ... and citing Nabokov scholar / story-within-a-story namesake Dolinin for pointing out the stick as connection with Despair ... and to make it even more meta, the essay itself is extended from the Japanese original, and one cannot but wonder whether the author is aware of his own literary otherworldliness.
[1] There is more literary fodder here, as "Lips to Lips" was recognized as payback to Chisla, wherein Sirin had been panned by a critic whose wife had attempted to influence VN's review of her own mediocre novel.

Mella, John – The Difference of a Sibilant: A Note on Pale Fire, Canto Three
An examination of modulation between comic and cosmic which itself fails to modulate, much less resonate.

Condren, Dustin – John Shade Shaving: Inspiration and Composition in a Selection from Pale Fire
I've never been satisfied with my understanding of Canto IV of "Pale Fire". Yes there's the mock heroic declamation, yes the toilette elaboration to the Canto II Rape of the Lock (A nymph came pirouetting, under white / Rotating petals, in a vernal rite / To kneel before an altar in a wood / Where various articles of toilet stood), yes even Carolyn Kunin's suggestion that the blood amid Our Cream alludes to Shade's stroke (I palpate / Through strawberry-and-cream the gory mess ... cf. my synapsis). So this was of particular interest, and so I'll go on about it. The last time I devoted to analysis, I concentrated on the poet/critic allusions via John & Sybil Shade, wholly neglecting Kinbote. Condren fills in -- Housman:Kinbote::Pope:Shade -- and particularly the bit from Housman's lecture "The Name and Nature of Poetry":

“Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual. A year or two ago, in common with others, I received from America a request that I would define poetry. I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us. One of these symptoms was described in connexion with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite: 'A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.' Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, `everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.’ The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach.”

Condren, while acknowledging Toker's noting the trio of responses (in responding to Rorty's Barber of Kasbeam), seems to miss a trick by not explicitly tying this to the 'triple ripple' Shade senses (such sensations consistent with Kunin's reading). But he more than makes up for it by pointing out the relevance of the oft-elided Biblical reference, Eliphaz in the Book of Job, and does some clever twisting of words with Eliphaz, as having IPH (Canto III) in the middle and Hazel wrapped around -- indeed, the Haunted Barn episode is the word made flash. But aside from bearding some of the sexual ramifications, the rest is just aftershave tonic.

Voronina, Olga – The Tale of Enchanted Hunters: Lolita in Victorian Context
An overwrought gilt frame, obscuring the picture and promising more than is delivered. Narrowing the context to the late Victorian and to Carroll and Ruskin overemphasizes the latter, while Poe receives only belated mention. What there is of merit here (which isn't trivial) is overwhelmed by data selectivity to fit the case, superimposed encoding, might haves becoming therefores, and dogs that don't bark. This one don't hunt.