Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe [Interim]

Romain Rolland won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915, and according to the Nobel Prize biography Jean-Christophe is his masterpiece. Nowadays he seems rather forgotten.

Jean-Christophe Krafft is born to a musical family in a small principality on the German side of the Rhine before German unification. It's the story of how he became a composer. A Kunstlerroman.

The work came out in French over the years 1904-1912 in ten short volumes; the entire work was translated into English by 1913 by Gilbert Cannan and not, as far as I can tell, since.

This is an interim post because those ten novels add up to 1600 pages in my one volume edition. I've finished the first three novels, about 400 pages, and I thought I'd note what I have so far.

The story begins with our hero in his cradle and goes on from there. It's a very linear novel. Jean-Christophe's grandfather Jean Michel Krafft is the Kapellmeister (head musician for the court) in this unnamed principality; his father Melchior is a talented but dissipated violinist who marries Louisa, a gentle woman but beneath him socially. Their eldest child is Jean-Christophe, though there are two brothers to come. When our hero is in his early teens, his grandfather dies of old age, and his father dies of alcohol, leaving the family nothing but debts. Jean-Christophe becomes the breadwinner, playing in the principality's orchestra and giving music lessons.

The novel is, as I say, very linear; it describes one of Jean-Christophe's relationships after another; it moves forward in time without jumps forward or back; the currently most significant relationship is given its space and then doesn't return. There's his mother, his grandfather, his father. His uncle on his mother's side provides him a sense of spirituality and of music as it relates to the average person. There's Otto, his first real friend: his family's poverty, his need to work, and his own hauteur/shyness combine to make friendship difficult for Jean-Christophe, and his friendship with Otto is intense until it's over. Then his first two girlfriends: with the first nothing happens and then she dies; the carnality of the second relationship is disapproved by all, eventually including Jean-Christophe himself. The first three books take him to the end of his adolescence.

My thoughts so far. 1.) Rolland really is obscure these days. For a Nobel Prize winner, his Wikipedia biography is pretty short. I took a look at the French version and it wasn't much longer. The French have so many Nobel Prize laureates in literature they may feel they can just ignore a couple of them. The Toronto Public Library basically has no circulating Rolland, though a number of his books are available for stack usage at the main reference library.

2.) His relationship with Otto is much more intense and much more individualized than is his relationship with either of the two girls. Though they get somewhat fuller portraits, they can still be boiled down to the ethereal and the earthly, at least in Jean-Christophe's life. His friendship with Otto is more complex and it's destroyed when Jean-Chistophe hears a rumor (started by his younger brother) that the relationship between the two of them is homosexual. It isn't, but the thought that others might think so is enough to make Jean-Christophe so unpleasantly conscious of their friendship it ends soon after. This made me wonder if Rolland himself were homosexual. The Interwebs were inconclusive, but kind of said yes. The evidence may be thin because Rolland felt he had to keep it that way, I don't know.

This made me wonder about 3.) what did Thomas Mann think about Romain Rolland? If indeed Rolland was a somewhat closeted homosexual, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, who wrote a long novel about a young man becoming a composer, it seems to me Mann could hardly escape having an opinion. Comparing Doctor Faustus with this novel would be fruitful I suspect, but that's another post. But conveniently I happen to have Mann's selected diaries in English here at home. (Have I mentioned I may have a problem with book purchases?) It even has an index so I didn't have to reread it. On two occasions Mann mentions dismissively articles about Rolland's Jean-Christophe and his own Buddenbrooks. But then in an entry on June 17, 1933, he writes:
Last night I dreamed Rolland had died, and that I was delivering a very earnest eulogy beside his coffin, furious about German crimes.
It was a few years until Mann started Doctor Faustus, so make of that what you will. Rolland was a famous pacifist and pan-Europeanist.

Also without leaving the house I could look up James Gibbons Huneker.  Huneker was once (early 1900s) a well-known American critic with a strong interest in both music and avant-garde European literature of the time. (What can I say? There was a phase. A bunch of his books were in some used bookstore I frequented.) I figured he had to have an opinion on Rolland. And he did, but it was only a passing sideswipe. Rolland's prose was 'mucilaginous.' Ouch. A little unfair, but judging only from translation, which I'm sure Huneker was not, it may not be entirely so...

Anywho. That's a start, but that's all for now.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Beginning: Cynthea Masson's The Flaw In The Stone


Genevre had merely wanted time alone to contemplate matters. Within months, she would turn thirty, thus reaching her Day of Decision. Like all in the Flaw dimension -- whether rebel alchemists or outside world scribes -- she would formally announce her choice on that day.

...is the beginning of Cynthea Masson's The Flaw In The Stone.

This second volume of a planned trilogy has just come out. I raced, very enjoyably, through the first volume The Alchemists' Council last week. There's a conflict between the Alchemist's Council and the Rebel branch that has philosophical overtones about free will: Masson is, according to the author bio, a professor with an interest medieval mysticism as well as the work of Joss Whedon. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among other things.)

The first volume took a while to get going--fantasy trilogies need time to explain themselves before starting, it seems, though that wasn't true of Lord of the Rings. This one looks like it will get going a little faster.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. They're predicting freezing rain tonight. Good thing I've got a good book!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

La Rochefoucauld's Maxims

Maxims, epigrams, aphorisms, call them what you like: little polished bits of prose that stand by themselves. I've been thinking about them lately.

So what do I think? 1.) That in a collection they can reveal character, 2.) that aphoristic writers tend to repeat themselves over a collection; you might not have said what you had to say perfectly the first time so try again, 3.) that the character type best revealed by aphorisms have changed over the years, 4.) that Nietzsche represents a major point of inflection, 5.) that the attempt to present an argument in fragments, rather than written-through, feels very modern.

Last year I read a collection of aphorisms by the French/Romanian pessimist E. M. Cioran. When you feel that life is going to hell in a hand-basket, the inability to write anything longer than a paragraph feels like the right form: "If disgust for the world conferred sanctity in itself, I fail to see how I could avoid canonization."

I read somewhere that Sarah Manguso's 300 Arguments was an attempt to present a character by the use of aphorisms, so I read that. Though it was not quite what I was looking for, it was very good. "The word fragment is often misused to describe anything smaller than a breadbox, but an eight-hundred page book is no more complete than a ten-line poem. That's confusing size with integrity. An ant is not a fragment of an elephant, except orthographically."

The Portugese poet Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet was one of the best things I read last year. Pessoa may not have intended it to be a book of fragmentary aphorisms, but that's the way it is for us. "I'm astounded whenever I finish something. Astounded and distressed. My perfectionist instinct should inhibit me from finishing; it should inhibit me from even beginning."

In Christopher Miller's Sudden Noises From Inanimate Objects, a very amusing novel, the narrator plans to write a book of aphorisms. None of the aphorisms from his putative book show up, but he does write this: "Life is a gift, and like most gifts it isn't what you would have picked out for yourself, but you have to act pleased with it."

As for the Duc de la Rochefoucauld. His Maxims (1665) is not very modern, but he was writing during the reign of Louis XIV of France, the Sun-King. One wouldn't expect him to be. But he stands at or very near the head of the aphoristic writing tradition. It's easy to imagine him delivering his witty and cynical bon mots in the company of other men dressed like the dapper gentleman on the cover of my edition. Like, for example, maxim #93: "Old men love to give good advice to console themselves for not being able to set bad examples."

I could say more, but then, I shouldn't go on and on, should I?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Patricia Wentworth's Eternity Ring

Eternity Ring is a Miss Silver mystery by Patricia Wentworth that came out in 1950. That's about the middle of the Miss Silver series and the characters are well-established. Wentworth is a pro and it shows.

A while back I saw a blog post--I forget where now--in which the author had read a couple of Miss Silver mysteries with indifferent results, and wondered if she/he had been reading the right ones. I thought I should have an answer to the question since I've read a bunch, but didn't. When I started this one, I thought this is the one. This is where to start. But then I decided maybe not. Still it's pretty good.

For those not in the know, Miss Silver is a former governess who has become a professional detective, though a good number of her cases come through personal acquaintance, rather than professional engagement. She has a friend in Scotland Yard--convenient for any English detective--hers is named Frank Abbott and it's he who brings her into this case. Abbott admires Miss Silver and her quiet way of detecting; his boss, Chief Inspector Lamb, is less certain, and a bit of an old stick about women in professional roles, and tends to bluster, but even he has to admit Miss Silver gets results.

The characters are the strongest aspect of this novel. Abbott, Lamb, Miss Silver herself are all handled well and amusingly. Wentworth is a good hand at sketching characters and the various suspects and victims are also well-drawn in this one.

The plot, though, was less successful. A French woman had all her wealth (in diamonds) stolen by an English soldier during the fall of France in 1940; after the war she comes to England to find the culprit. She succeeds, only to become the first victim. A second woman saw something, deduces who the murderer must have been, and she's also killed for her pains. So far, so good. But...

[Spoiler-y]

...the main problem is this: there are three possible suspects. But one of them is the romantic lead, and Patricia Wentworth is not the writer to have her romantic lead also be the killer. A second suspect is a chauffeur, and we all know that Golden Age detective novels can't have a servant as the killer. In any case he's too louche to be the killer; it would simply be too satisfying if he did it. So from quite early on, it's obvious who the actual murderer was.

Also Wentworth violates Chekhov's rule about the gun: a gun over the fireplace in the first act must be fired in the third. The novel starts with a woman who listens in on the party line phone, but she never learns anything during the course of the novel. The whole way through I expected her to be the second or the third victim, and when I got to the end and she wasn't, I felt cheated.

[End spoiler-y]

Needless to say, Miss Silver solves it, with a touch of suspense at the end. It was fun, but I'm still deciding which Miss Silver novel I would recommend as a place to start.

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Gold. Where. Set in a small village. Half the mysteries I read could probably qualify for that category, but might as well use it!


Friday, April 6, 2018

Matt Cohen's The Bookseller

A couple of blocks from my house there are a series of signs in a parkette about Matt Cohen, the Canadian novelist who died young-ish of cancer in 1999. One of the signs gives his biography; it tells us he won awards, that he helped found the Writers' Union of Canada, that he was chair of the literary committee of the Toronto Arts Council, and that he lived within a few blocks of these signs for 'most of his writing life.'

The other signs have quotes from three of his books; one of those books quoted is The Bookseller.

The Bookseller is the story of Paul Silvers, who narrates and becomes the titular bookseller. Paul grows up the younger of two sons in a lower-income broken home; his mother left his father, perhaps because of his father's haplessness, and Paul's older brother Henry does what he can to help Paul weather the difficult times. Mostly Henry teaches Paul to box, and to shoot pool, but though Paul never becomes more than ok at those two activities, he's still pretty attached to his older brother.

Henry gets married, buys a garage, and looks to be making good; Paul works in a used bookstore, has a girlfriend Judith he becomes obsessive about, and starts following her on a downward path toward heroin addiction. Eventually Paul leaves Toronto for Kingston, Ontario to clear himself of Judith's baleful influence. When he returns, Henry's situation has deteriorated and Judith has straightened herself up; there's a complicated, but well-plotted, denouement.

It was interesting seeing a novel set almost entirely in my current neighborhood. Paul mentions several times that he lives near the Wing On Funeral Home. When I first moved to Toronto twenty years ago, the Wing On Funeral Home was still operational; since then the building has been taken over by the University of Toronto's main campus for the 'Architecture Commons.' Whatever that is.

Paul Silvers' friend Leonard works the press at a small publisher. There used to be two small publishers in this neighborhood, The House of Anansi and Couch House Books; one or the other or both were no doubt models for the fictional press mentioned in the novel. Couch House Books is still there. It's just four or five blocks from where I live; I don't think I'd ever walked by until today because it faces on to an alley (a laneway in Canadian-speak) and I'd just never had reason to go down that alley. But Paul ends up there in the middle of the night at one point to get Leonard's help.

It's a classic Toronto coach house that no doubt once held a carriage and horses. You can't tell from my picture, but now it's full of books in the window, and you can see an old-fashioned press in the
background if you peer in.

It's interesting seeing a novel set where you live. I've read other Toronto fiction, Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride for example, but nothing has been quite as local as this was for me. I grew up in Chicago, and I think of that as more a town where novels occur, but still the Chicago novels I read were mostly set elsewhere in the city: James T. Farrell's masterpiece Studs Lonigan takes place on the south side; Nelson Algren's Frankie Machine (The Man With The Golden Arm) lives on the northwest side; the climactic murder of Richard Wright's Native Son takes place in Hyde Park. (I did live in Hyde Park for about six months at one point, but still that's not my part of Chicago.) I always thought of Hurstwood in Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie as working at Berghoff's downtown, a restaurant my family would go to, but that may have been wishful thinking. It wasn't until I saw David Mamet's American Buffalo on stage that I thought, this is my town, this is the Chicago I know, the north side near the lake, but not the expensive high-rises right on the lake. (It's a great play. Before David Mamet became so crotchety.)

As for The Bookseller it was pretty good, I thought, but maybe not perfect. It started very well, and really, it ended well, too. Cohen's handling of time left me a little confused, but maybe I wasn't reading it as closely as I could have. The outer frame of the novel takes place in the early 90s, I guess, around when it was written. (It came out in 1993.) At that point Paul Silvers is married to Judith and they've settled down. But it flashes back to a couple of different times in his troubled 20s and also to his teenage years. It wasn't always clear to me where we were.

That may have been my fault. The bigger problem was Constable Detective Nicko Ross, a corrupt, but still self-righteous cop, who stands at the center of the plot. He just wasn't very convincing. He walked in out of some genre novel, or maybe more likely a movie, say L.A. Confidential or Training Day. And if he'd been played by Kevin Spacey or Denzel Washington, it could have seemed more convincing, but as it was, I don't think Cohen pulled it off. Worse, Ross was at the center of things; he had to be convincing for this to be an entire success. Oh, well. "The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." So says Randall Jarrell.

For a more professional photographer's view of my neighborhood, see the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. (Which is quite enjoyable in its own right. Wasn't everybody just a little in love with Michael Cera?) That movie is almost entirely filmed within a mile of where I live; one day I was walking home and the street was filled with artificial snow in front of the local Pizza Pizza (which I definitely don't recommend.) Though I didn't realize it at the time, they were filming Scott Pilgrim.

I'd read another Matt Cohen; in fact, a local Little Library box had his The Spanish Doctor with a blurb by Alberto Manguel on the cover, so I have one at hand. Maybe even soon.


Book Beginning: Patricia Wentworth's Eternity Ring


Maggie Bell stretched out a hand and picked up the telephone. It was a thin, bony hand with jutting knuckles and it moved with a jerk. Maggie did everything in jerks. She was twenty-nine years old, but she had not grown or developed very much since she had had what was always alluded to with some family pride as her "accident." A car had knocked her down in the village street when she was twelve.

...is the beginning of Patricia Wentworth's Eternity Ring. (1950)

Patricia Wentworth writes well about spinsters or those that are doomed to become them. Nowadays such a character would be treated differently, of course. In fact, it's likely enough Maggie will be either the murderer or the victim. This is a terrible generalization, but I feel like I've read enough Miss Silver mysteries to get away with it; I was briefly worried I was about to finish the whole series, but I see there's still a couple I haven't read. Whew.

Anyway, I liked the opening, but I was prepared to like it.

From page 2, a bonus quote:

Miss Cicely brought her real nice books, and not the improving kind neither. Maggie had a sharp eye for being improved, and an impenetrable armor against it.

That makes Maggie seem much more likeable, at least to me...

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. It's snowing here in Toronto. Good day to curl up with a mystery!



Wednesday, April 4, 2018

George Eliot's Silas Marner


"Nay, nay," said Silas, "you're i' the right, Mrs. Winthrop--you're i' the right. There's good i' this world--I've a feeling o' that now; and it makes a man feel as there's a good more nor he can see, i' spite o' the trouble and the wickedness."
--from Chapter XVI

George Eliot's Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe (1861) is the story of Silas Marner, who comes from a Dissenter community in an industrial city in the north of England. Falsely accused of theft, with evidence planted by the man he thought his best friend, he leaves his home and his church to become a recluse and a non-believer and eventually a miser in a town where nobody knows him. He's set to let this real injustice ruin his entire life. Then two events come one upon the other and change that life for him. The gold he'd piled up as a miser is stolen, and a dissolute woman dies on a cold night and her infant daughter crawls to Marner's hearth to keep warm. It's a classic.

You probably don't need me to tell you that. (But if you do, let me say it again: it's a classic! It deserves it!) Though I didn't, you may very well have read it in high school: it's George Eliot and it's short. The fact that people first read it in high school, when the language still seemed antique-y and the dialect difficult, poisoned it for some; but if not, then it's just a delightful story, with a few well-thought out twists. A crime story and love story both.

And it is such a classic that I don't know that I have much to say, or that I dare say much. I reread Middlemarch not too long ago, and I thought to myself, why haven't I read all of George Eliot? After all there is this bunch of green books on my shelves, bought back when I was youthful and had more ambition toward diligence: I bought complete editions when I could find them. (Though Felix Holt somehow went missing from mine.) I still have Romola and Adam Bede and a couple of the minor works to go from this one. (More unread George Eliot. Lucky me!)

Otherwise I have just two things to note: 1.) Silas Marner is in some ways a dry run for Middlemarch. Simpler, yes, and perhaps more sentimental. But it also makes an attempt to present a cross section of a small society, the local gentry, the bourgeois middle class, and the poor. That's like Middlemarch and different from The Mill On The Floss. The nature of a proper marriage is a question in this, and in Middlemarch, and the plot is also driven by a crime in the past that has ramifications in the present. (Bulstrode in Middlemarch, that of Dunstan Cass here.)

And 2.) It made me cry. It's not every book that does that.