Monday, May 31, 2021

Travels With A Donkey in the Cévennes (#CCSpin)

 "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go."

These days: if only!

R. L. Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is about a twelve-day trip he took through the mountains of southern France in September and October of 1878. 

That's already late in the year for the mountains, and Stevenson is told to expect cold weather, if not wolves and bandits. He takes a revolver. He designs a sleeping bag that will double as a sack to carry what he needs. And he acquires a donkey, Modestine, "a diminutive she-ass, not much bigger than a dog, the color of a mouse, with a kindly eye and a determined under-jaw."

The book is early in Stevenson's career, but not his first; he had previously written a book of travels The Inland Voyage and he identifies himself as a writer to people he meets. But he's more generally assumed to be a pedlar, though maybe of the higher sort: at one point he's taken for a dealer in brandy.

"In a little place called Le Monastier, in a pleasant highland valley fifteen miles from Le Puy, I spent about a month of fine days. Monastier is notable for the making of lace, for drunkenness, for freedom of language, and for unparalleled political dissension." The four factions of French politics in the 1800s are Bourbonists, Orleanists, partisans of the Napoleons, and Republicans. Le Monastier had them all. This is the start of his trip, where he commissions the sleeping bag of his own design and purchases Modestine. "At length she passed into my service for sixty-five francs and a glass of brandy."

Stevenson is raised a Scots Presbyterian of a moderately severe stripe, but has by this time lost his faith. He's discreet but honest about this loss with the people he meets and even with us readers in the text, but clear enough. Still religion interests him. Though he camps out as needed, he doesn't every night. One of his stops (the 26th of September) is the Trappist monastery Lady of the Snows: "I have rarely approached anything with more unaffected terror than the monastery of our Lady of the Snows. This it is to have a Protestant education." Nevertheless he quickly makes friends. "I was troubled besides in my mind as to etiquette. Durst I address a person who was under a vow of silence? Clearly not. But drawing near, I doffed my cap to him with a faraway superstitious reverence. He nodded back, and cheerfully addressed me. Was I going to the monastery?" An Irish deacon living at the monastery is thrilled to be delegated as Stevenson's guide: he's released from his vow of silence to play host and had had no occasion to speak English. (Though it would seem Stevenson's French is quite good.) 

But a couple of retreatants at the monastery try to convert him until he's finally forced to say they're being impolite, a little too pushy, when they immediately back off. 

Stevenson has done some reading in preparation for traveling the area. There's a legendary wolf of the area whose stories he's learned; of even more interest to him, the second half of his journey is in an area that's quite Protestant, and he's studied up on the history. The Camisards were French Huguenots whom Louis the XIVth tried to suppress in the early 1700s, and who took up armed rebellion with some success. Stevenson is full of their stories. (One of them involved a group of Protestants all stabbing a murderous Catholic Inquisitor, such that no one of them was responsible for the death, which reminded me of a certain Agatha Christie novel.) 

Phylloxera is destroying the grapevines of southern France at this time:
    "I could not at first make out what they were after, and asked one of the fellows to explain.
    'Making cider,' he said. 'Oui, c'est comme ça. Comme dans le nord!'"
The book has considerable charm; he's mildly ironic but forgiving about the people he meets. (Except for one man in Fouzilhac, who won't even give him directions; but that's OK, because these bad manners appal the people he meets in Fouzilhic. These would appear to be actual village names, now spelled slightly differently.) He's mildly ironic but forgiving as well about himself, about his inability to manage a donkey, or to load Modestine with the sleeping sack he commissioned.

I should say, I suppose, that while he's not cruel to Modestine by the standards of the time, he's certainly not enlightened by ours. In the end he sells her for thirty-five francs: "The pecuniary gain is not obvious, but I had bought freedom into the bargain." And even though he remembers her liking to eat out of his hand, Modestine's fate is no further to be thought of.
"The journey which this little book is to describe was very agreeable and fortunate for me. After an uncouth beginning, I had the best of luck to the end. But we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of the world,--all, too, travellers with a donkey;..."
A French hiking club now maintains the route for walkers. 

The book is also available from Gutenberg.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

The House

The House

Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow's walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.

-Richard Wilbur

I Googled a while looking for a picture of an appropriate house, but didn't have any luck. The picture is from Wilbur's book of poems for children Opposites.  

Richard Wilbur wrote this for his late wife Charlotte. It first appeared in The New Yorker in August of 2009, then was collected in his final volume, Anterooms, of 2010. He himself passed away in 2017.

Poem for a Thursday was originated by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. Her poem for today is here. Brona sometimes joins in and did today

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Alex Ross' Wagnerism

 "The philosopher is not free to dispense with Wagner."

-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner 

Wagnerism is the history of the reception of Richard Wagner and his music, and of the uses made of Wagner's music after his death. And, well, some of those uses weren't very nice. 

When the book was good, I thought it was very good, but it wasn't at all times. It's more encyclopedic than analytic, at times even gossipy. Did you know that Virginia Woolf went to a benefit costume ball as a Valkyrie in 1909? Me neither. Not sure that tells me much about Woolf, though it might say something about how ubiquitous Wagner was.

Years ago I read Ross' The Rest Is Noise, his history of twentieth century classical music, around when it came out in paperback. I really liked it, even though most of it went over my head. (And I'm pretty tall.) I don't know that much about serious music. A diminished seventh, you say--is that music, baseball, or planetary science? I wouldn't know one if it bit me on the ear. Still, sometimes I like a book that's too hard for me, it leaves me wanting to know more.

Because Wagnerism addresses Wagner's presence in literature and film--and politics--more than in music, this book worked differently for me. 

Ross' organization is a mix of chronological and by topic. The first figure Ross covers is Nietzsche, an early Wagner disciple, at least until he wasn't, and the most prominent. Ross gives himself 60 or so pages on Nietzsche, and is lucid and helpful. Nietzsche and Wagner is a topic on which books could be written--and have, with more than one of them by Nietzsche himself. Subsequent chapters are on French Wagnerians (Baudelaire was an early booster), British, American, Austrian, Russian, black (W.E.B. DuBois was a fan), gay, Jewish, feminist. Right-wing, but also left-wing. Well, everyone actually was listening to Wagner for a while.

When Ross gives himself space he's at his best. This includes his writing about Nietzsche and Baudelaire. There was interesting stuff on Joyce. Wagner is important to Thomas Mann, (less so to Heinrich) and Thomas Mann's attitude toward Wagner changes over the years. I was particularly interested in Ross' take on Mann's Joseph saga, which he reads as a direct challenge to Wagner's Ring Cycle: both tetralogies, both investigations of myth, but Mann dealt with Old Testament--that is, Jewish--subjects, which Wagner himself wouldn't touch. There was some good stuff there.

On the other hand Ross speculates that Wagner is behind Adrian Leverkühn, the hero of Mann's Doctor Faustus. But how can that be when *everyone* knows that Leverkühn is Nietzsche + Schönberg? 😉  There needed to be either more or less to that argument.

Ross is at his tip-top best on Willa Cather. He devotes an entire chapter to her, largely on The Song of the Lark, and she shows up in some of those other categories listed above as well. Very well worth reading if you care about Cather.

Wagner in World War II is the emotional heart of the book. Ross is at some pains to remind us that lots of people who did not like Naziism, were never going to like it, still liked Wagner. 

Wagner's politics were complicated and probably not well-thought-out. He got himself in serious trouble supporting the anti-monarchical revolutions of 1848 and it took him years to get out of that trouble. He was pretty seriously pacifist. He meant his anti-Semitism though, publishing a vile article first anonymously, and later doubling down by re-publishing it under his own name. One of the main reasons Nietzsche, not exactly known for his compassion, broke with Wagner was his abhorrence of Wagner's anti-Semitism.

Hitler's Wagner--and Hitler really did love Wagner--was not all of Wagner. But how big a chunk of the total Wagner was Hitler's Wagner? The jury's still out on that, even I would say, in Ross' mind.

There was trivia and some of the trivia was fun. I did not know that Laughing Cow cheese (La Vache Qui Rit) is actually a pun on the Valkyries of Wagner; some Frenchman in World War I making fun of the German propensity for Wagnerian code names. (The Siegfried Line, anyone?) Thomas Mann and Willa Cather played records and drank champagne at the Knopf's in 1943. What's Opera, Doc? makes an appearance, as well as other cartoons of the era. Though, for that matter, I read Broom Hilda at GoComics this morning; and Now I'm Very Angry Broom Hilda did not get a mention...are the cartoonist Russell Myers' backdrops influenced by Wagnerian set design? Think of those remote, fantastical geological outposts. (Though, of course, they have more to do with the Coconino County backdrops of Herriman's Krazy Kat.) Some of Ross' arguments/speculations are about on that level...
"Perhaps [George Bernard] Shaw hung back from direct engagement with Wagner because he wished to avoid placing himself in competition with the Meister." [439]
Is this that same Shaw who cheerfully bashed on Shakespeare?
"Cy Twombly listened intermittently to Wagner while working on his ten-painting cycle Fifty Days at Iliam..." [631]
I listen to Wagner intermittently, too, though in my case, the inters are pretty danged mittent. Are my posts therefore Wagnerian? Well, maybe they go on too long...

Ross ends with a brief history of his own listening to Wagner. He was not initially a fan, it seems, but then in his twenties got excited about Wagner. But wondered, should he?

Anyway, good when it was good, and very good when it was very good, as we say in the Department of Tautology. If anything in the subject interests you, it's quite readable and often astute. It didn't blow me away like his first book, though.

It's one of those pan-European books that might do for a lot of countries, but I'll stick to the basics and count it for Germany:

Sunday, May 16, 2021



It's time for Cathy's 20 Books of Summer challenge, where I pile up a bunch of books and then proceed to read something completely different...

Traditionally the candidate books get taken out into the backyard for their photo op:


Will these be the mysteries I read? We'll see! That's:

Ngaio Marsh/Swing, Brother, Swing
Ngaio Marsh/Dead Water
Patricia Moyes/Angel Death
Patricia Moyes/Night Ferry To Death

You've got to have some fluffy reading in summer, right?

The Other Reader

Alessandro Manzoni/The Betrothed

The Other Reader just finished this and is raving about it.

Classics Club

Honoré Balzac/Cousin Bette
R. L. Stevenson/The Black Arrow
George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
Henryk Sienkewicz/Quo Vadis

Four books off my Classics Club list. Will these be the ones? Right now I think so...


Halldór Laxness/Independent People
Ivo Andrić/Omar Pasha Latas
Sholom Aleichem/In The Storm

Cleo was recently reading Aleichem, which reminded me I owned one Aleichem I've never read.

That shades off into:

Women In Translation

I'm assuming August will be Women in Translation month again, so:

Dorthe Nors/Mirror, Shoulder, Signal
Ludmila Ulitskaya/Jacob's Ladder
Amélie Nothomb/Tokyo Fiancée


Ethan Michaeli/The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America

Other Candidates

Wait, that's only sixteen books! Well, I probably won't stick to even this list, but will there be Austen in August? I could be there. I've got a couple of other Chicago titles in mind. I recently read a review of the new translations (2!) of Machado de Assis' Bras Cubas and I have the old translation. (But couldn't find it for the picture.) My library doesn't have a circulating copy of this month's book for the Brian Moore read-along, but it does have the book for the next three months. Maybe those.

In any case, planning is such sweet sorrow. I'm sure I'll read something. It's blogging about twenty books in three months will be the real challenge. Will these be the books? Which look good to you? Which of these should I be sure not to miss? 

Thanks to Cathy for hosting again this year!

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

 "...I adhere to my determination of giving you my observations, as I travel through new scenes, whilst warmed with the impression they have made on me."

In the summer of 1795, Mary Wollstonecraft sailed from Hull, England for Scandinavia, making her first stop Gothenberg (Göteberg) in Sweden. 

By 1795 Wollstonecraft is an established author, with several important and popular books in her past, including Vindication of the Rights of Men (a response to Burke's attack on the French Revolution) and Vindication of the Rights of Women.

She travels with her older daughter, Fanny, and a French nurse. She mentions she has business reasons, though the text doesn't offer details. But it's also clear that it's an opportunity for a new book and while the 'you' of the letters, the 'you' of the quote above, is an actual person, it is also you, the reader.

But the original you is Gilbert Imlay, Fanny's father, who was capable of claiming to be married to Wollstonecraft without having done so, and had just left her for another woman. He was engaged in some dodgy commerce, likely trading confiscated Bourbon wealth for food, and the ship on which his goods were traveling had gone missing somewhere in Scandinavia. Wollstonecraft volunteers to go look, hoping to win Imlay back.

I liked this even better than Vindication of the Rights of Women. Vindication is, whether we've read it or not, a book we know--it's been that influential. And by and large (though, alas, not entirely) the grounds for debate have moved beyond it. This was more of a surprise. 
"Talk not of bastilles! To be born here, was to be bastilled by nature..." [of Sweden]

"...the Danes are the people who have made the fewest sacrifices to the graces." 

Of the three countries Norway is her clear favorite. Since the Other Reader is a quarter Norwegian, I was pleased to be able to report this. 

But it's not all snark--much as I enjoy a good snark. There's some fine nature writing, which leads her to meditate on our relative need for nature and civilization. 

"...the line of beauty requires some curves..."

She compares government and society in the three countries: at this time Sweden is going through a conservative, anti-Jacobin phase, and its finances are problematic because of a recent war against Russia and Denmark; Denmark is led by a Crown Prince who's an enlightened despot, which is (marginally) better than a plain despot; and Norway, nominally under Danish suzerainty, is suffering benign neglect, and its sturdy yeomanry little troubled by aristocrats. Anyway, that's what she says...

A map of her travels:

I read the book in the Oxford edition shown above, which has some nice additions: an introduction, the map, contemporary reviews, and several of the Wollstonecraft's original letters to Imlay. And notes. Glad to have them, though the description of England as 'impatient at the neutrality of Denmark' struck me as rather an odd phrasing. Not how the Danes thought of English actions when I was there. The book is also available from Gutenberg.

Then I read Sylvana Tomaselli's overview of Wollstonecraft, which came out from Princeton earlier this year. I think I would have preferred a more biographical approach, though this was quite good. Tomaselli organizes Wollstonecraft's thought by subject. Wollstonecraft is an important thinker, and one of the nice things about Letters is watching her think; still, for better or worse, she's a (successfully) practicing journalist, not an academic philosopher, and I'm not sure there's entirely a system there to be found. I'm suspicious of systems anyway. 

But it was fun to discover that Letters was Wollstonecraft's most successful book, rapidly translated into the Scandinavian languages. Coleridge was inspired by the book to plan a trip to Scandinavia, but like a lot of Coleridge's projects, it didn't come off. Likely he got no further than Porlock

The book works for a couple of my challenges this year:

"Adieu! I must trip up the rocks..."