Friday, November 26, 2021

Graeme Gibson's Five Legs (#MARM)

 "And just because they're Canadians you know, it doesn't mean they aren't any good." [128]

Five Legs was Graeme Gibson's debut work of fiction, first published by the Canadian independent House of Anansi in 1969. The back of my 2012 reissue suggests it was 'a breakthrough for Canadian experimental fiction.' The need for a breakthrough was certainly felt, and the main characters in the novel are all wondering what it means to be--is it even possible to be?--a Canadian artist.

The basic story is this: Lucan Crackell is an English professor at the University of Western Ontario, when one of his M.A. students, Martin Baillie is killed by a hit and run driver. Baillie had only just become engaged to Susan. Baillie hailed from Stratford, Ontario and the funeral will be there (an hour's drive from London normally). Crackell is planning to take two of Baillie's fellow students with him; at the last moment he's cadged into taking a third, Felix Oswald, as well. It's winter; there's a snowstorm with black ice and whiteout conditions, but they make it; the funeral happens, and Baillie's remains are put into the ground.

But that bald outline doesn't much give a sense. You did notice the word 'experimental' up there, right? The novel is told entirely in stream of consciousness and quoted speech. (The opening quote is a discussion among painters overheard by Crackell.) Of the six sections, the first three are in the consciousness of Lucan Crackell, the last three in that of Felix Oswald.

We wake up the morning of the funeral with Crackell and his wife Rose. The opening paragraph in its entirety:
"RRRINGGG! And aware suddenly of the day. Grey chills. Blessed Jesus what a night, what a terrible night. Like a mouth full of." [1]
There was a cast party the night before--Rose does makeup for a play--and Crackell is badly hungover. Rose, too, feels a bit nauseous, but Crackell is hoping in her case that's morning sickness and not alcohol. "Within her perfumed body grows my seed. Dear Heaven I hope it's true!" [37]

But otherwise Crackell's thoughts generally revolve around the past. He has three events which haunt him: the abuse he suffered from both boys and masters at his boarding school; his affair with Vera, who carried his child but would neither marry him nor have an abortion and moved to England--does he have a ten-year-old child running around in England?--; and, most relevantly for his current trip to Stratford, his dismissal from his job teaching there for public drunkenness. At times he feels his life is over: "And my life's ploughed under in this world; the seeds are dead." [35] 

I don't--or at least not any longer...--have much sympathy for people who feel their life is over at 30. 😉

Should he have gone to Europe? Would Vera have had him if he'd thrown it all over and followed? Quotes from T. S. Eliot run through Crackell's head; it's pretty clear Crackell once had artistic aspirations, and England is the place of writers--at least if you're a Canadian in the 60s. Now his aspirations don't much run past propagation.

Going to Europe's a motif. Martin Baillie was torn between two women: Susan and Valerie. It's Susan who wants him to finish his degree, settle down, teach; she has long, creepy conversations with Crackell about how Martin will settle down, won't he? Valerie would have run off to Europe with him; he could have lived cheaply and wrote. He'd decided on Susan--at least according to Susan--and then later that night was killed. Though Oswald believes this was true, and unfortunate.

Then we switch to Felix Oswald. While the jumble of thoughts in Crackell's head run to the events that sank him in the past, Oswald's run to fantasies in the present. Oswald, as Baillie's roommate, is pressed into service as a pallbearer. I suppose anyone who has ever served as a pallbearer has had fearful thoughts about what if I drop this thing; Oswald's run to comic excess and are aided by the ice and snow of the day.

There's a hostility between Oswald and Crackell. Crackell failed Oswald on an exam once, which led to Crackell hating Oswald, though not necessarily vice versa. (Which strikes me as absurd, but also quite true.) But it's the hostility of sameness. From one of the Felix Oswald sections, Oswald's thought: "He [Baillie] had a choice you see, just like I've, maybe even you [Crackell] had once." [218] The choice between escape and buckling down. Accepting responsibilities, if indeed that is what it is. Oswald, too, is writing:
"You're doing some writing." [This is Crackell to Oswald in an Oswald section.] Sudden pain and glaring. I...Nodding, and. It's crap, all crap he.
"Yeah." Ducking my head, thinking. I've been thinking. Uncertain and smiling.
"How's it going?" Who told him, shifting; how does he know?
"Well, uhm," it's...
"Difficult, yes...Particularly in Canada, it seems,..." [236]

Does Oswald escape, to Europe, assuming that is the answer? We don't learn, but the novel ends in an Oswald fantasy, "...then running ahead to the heat, he's running, skipping, free-sliding." [268]

The introduction, by Canadian cultural studies professor Sean Kane, says that the novel sold well when it first came out, even as well as a non-experimental Canadian novel might, but I had a hard time finding any contemporary reviews online. One quoted on the back of the book compares it to Pynchon, but that doesn't really seem convincing, despite those two alluring women whose names begin with V. Kane calls it "the first novel to bring the full artistry of literary modernism to Canada." Is that true? Only in 1969? I don't really know. 

But the use of stream of consciousness is the signal of literary modernism and, of course, the ancestor is Joyce, Ulysses in particular, and the consciousness of Leopold Bloom, and not Molly, in even more particular. (And certainly not Mrs. Dalloway.) "Couldn't, no I couldn't ugly thing disease I might." [187] Poking around in my copy of Ulysses, I can't entirely tell you why that reminds me of Joyce, though it does. But then this: "Tastes of urine, it does! I can always taste it." [223] There, I know. Just take a look at the start of chapter two in Ulysses.

While I couldn't find much in the way of contemporary reviews, the book is an important exemplar of Margaret Atwood's theses in Survival, her 'Guide to Canadian Literature,' of 1972. She notes the interest in what it means to be--to survive as--a Canadian artist, the theme I've highlighted, in one chapter, but she also looks at the relationship to wild animals and nature that's definitely there--the title comes from a deformed ox one of the characters sees--a theme I've basically glossed over...

From Survival I know (though I haven't read the novel myself) that Gibson's next novel in 1971 Communion continues the story of Felix Oswald.

In any case Gibson must not have been offended by her analysis because a year or two later he became Mr. Margaret Atwood, though in the mid-70s, it was perhaps not yet clear she was going to become the more famous author. They remained married until his death in 2019. Maybe ten years ago we saw the two of them here in Toronto at a small theater's production of a Molière play, where their very appearance generated an audible buzz. 

And is the reason I read the novel now for the Margaret Atwood Reading Month hosted at BuriedInPrint. And thanks to Marcie for hosting!






Saturday, November 20, 2021

Daphnis and Chloe (#NovNov)

"Love is a god, my children; he is young, beautiful, and winged; and so he enjoys youth, pursues beauty, and makes souls take wing. Zeus has not so much power as he has; he rules the elements; he rules the stars; he rules his fellow gods--"

François Gérard's Daphnis and Chloe

And Eros looks out for his favorites, and that includes Daphnis and Chloe. 

Daphnis and Chloe are probably better known through painting these days than through Longus' original novella, which is kind of a shame. (Though the paintings can be a lot of fun!) I found the above painting with a bunch of other Daphnis and Chloe paintings here. A nice selection, and by no means complete--it's easy to find more, including a series by Marc Chagall.

But Longus is the originator of the story. Nothing is known about him, though it's assumed he lived on Lesbos, where the story happens. He probably wrote it around 200 A.D. It's a work of great charm.

At the very beginning the narrator sees a painting:

"I saw the most beautiful sight I have ever seen, in a grove that was sacred to the Nymphs: a painting that told a story of love."  

The narrator asks around, learns the story in the painting, and decides to write it down as an offering to the gods.

You can see why this appealed to painters.

We know from the start that Daphnis and Chloe are special: the slave goatherd Lamon finds Daphnis when his goat keeps running off to a thicket. Lamon investigates and discovers his goat suckling the infant Daphnis; next to Daphnis are tokens that indicate he was well-born: a purple cloak and a tiny sword. Lamon and his wife Myrtale decide to adopt the boy, but hide the signs of noble parentage. The name they give him, Daphnis, indicates a rustic origin. (And hopefully hides his true parentage.)

Two years later something very similar happens with an infant girl, except that the nurturing animal is a ewe. Her tokens are golden sandals and anklets. She's raised by Dryas and Nape (pronounced with two syllables) who give her the equally rustic name Chloe.

Flash forward to when Daphnis is fifteen and Chloe thirteen. Both adoptive fathers have a dream (which they don't communicate to each other) that their wards are meant to be out of doors herding where they will each be touched by the arrow of Eros. And so Daphnis and Chloe are trained in the arts of their respective herding specialties. And so the two of them are out in the fields with their sheep and their goats--and each other. And so...they fall in love. It's Chloe who falls first; Daphnis stumbles into a pit-trap dug for a wolf, he's fine, but muddy, and with Chloe nearby takes off his clothes to wash up in a spring.

"And that thought was the beginning of love. She didn't know what was happening to her: she was a young girl brought up in the country and hadn't even heard of anyone speak of love... 'Now I feel ill, but I don't know what my illness is; I feel pain, although I've not been injured; I feel sad, although I've lost none of my sheep; I feel hot, although I'm sitting in deep shade. How many times I've been scratched by brambles and I've not wept! How many times I've been stung by bees, and I've not cried out!'"

She's lost none of her sheep! And still!

Don't worry: Daphnis' turn comes soon enough. 

Oh, there's threats to their love: Dorcon, the cowherd, falls for Chloe, tries to win her over, then win over her adoptive father, and then finally resorts to more violent means. Pirates raid the coast, stealing the livestock, but see Daphnis and decide he would be the better prize. Daphnis inadvertently starts a war between Mytilene and Methymna, the two main cities on Lesbos, and Chloe is captured and carried off. Gnathon, the hanger-on of the estate's owner, falls in lust with Daphnis and persuades that owner to give him Daphnis as his personal slave.

All resolved most satisfactorily. But you never really doubted that, did you? And that's what you wanted all along, wasn't it? 😉

Even the villains, so long as they're named--Dorcon and Gnathon and one or two others--are redeemed, in their way, in the end. Though some anonymous pirates do die.

Anyway, like I said, ridiculously charming.

There's some lit-crittery things I could possibly say, about ecphrasis, or how each of its four chapters corresponds to a season, suitable enough for an agricultural poem, or how it derives from the twin fountainheads of Theocritus and Greek new comedy (Menander, later echoed in Plautus and Terence, and then Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors), but nah...

Oh, and while I'm not perfectly sure I should admit this: but, without leaving the house. I could come up with five different translations, and only one of them I found online. I've been quoting from Christopher Gill's, which appears in Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon. I'd previously read the story (I'm pretty sure) in a translation by Moses Hadas in Three Greek Romances (1953). It's not bad:

"A god is Eros, my children, young and handsome and winged. Therefore does he take pleasure in youth, and he pursues beauty and he endows souls with wings. He possesses greater power than Zeus himself. He rules the elements; he rules the stars; he rules his fellow deities;..."

W. D. Lowe renders in 1908. (I have it in an Ayer reprint):

"Love, my children, is a god, youthful, handsome, winged; and so his pleasure is in youth, his chase is beauty, his task to wing man's soul. None has such power, not Zeus himself. He rules the elements, rules the stars and rules his fellow-gods..."

I rather like this, especially 'to wing man's souls'.

My older Loeb edition, with translation by Stephen Gaselee in 1916, gives:

"Love, my children, is a God, a young youth and very fair, and winged to fly. And therefore he delights in youth, follows beauty, and gives our fantasy her wings. His power's so vast that that of Jove is not so great. He governs in the elements, rules in the stars, and domineers even o'er the Gods that are his peers."

That old Loeb not only has 'young youth'--argh!--but also changes the name of Dorcon (bad enough, but accurate) to Dorco, which I'm afraid just makes me laugh. (Hey you, Dorko!) It's not completely crazy: a Roman would likely enough translate the original Greek of Dorcon to Dorco in Latin, but it *is* a just a wee bit unfortunate in English...

All these would appear to be out of print, though the Loeb series has a new version of Daphnis and Chloe with a translation by Jeffrey Henderson I haven't seen.

The novella is also available at Project Gutenberg, which is probably the easiest one to come by, in a translation by Rev. Rowland Smith:

"My young friends, he is a god, young, beautiful, and ever on the wing. He rejoices, therefore, in the company of youth, he is ever in search of beauty, and adds wings to the souls of those he favours. He has power far beyond that of Jove himself. He commands the elements, and he rules the stars, and even the gods themselves, who are otherwise his equals;..."

Whew...that's a lot of Love. 😉

Looking at my Greek text (I have one of those, too...) I see I was supposed to have read about a quarter of it in Greek for a class once upon a time. Based on some penciled-in vocabulary notes, it's possible I even did my homework...

Anyway, it's 50-70 pages depending on the edition, making it too short really to be a novel, but a little long for a short story, and so...


Also I've not managed to visit Greece yet this year:



"Apples do not give off such fragrance, nor do pears. But I'm frightened of kissing her. Her kiss stings my heart..."


Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Unknown Citizen

 


The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07/M/378, This Marble Monument Is Erected By The State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car, and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinion for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong we should certainly have heard.

-W. H. Auden

This could almost have been yesterday, except for the Instalment Plan, which lost out to credit cards, and five children, which would nowadays be a statistical anomaly, but Auden (1907-1973) wrote this in March of 1939. (Oh, and newspapers are going...)

This was the first Auden poem I ever knew, and for a long time while I remembered half the poem, I didn't know it was by him.