“A Note on Realism” — Robert Louis Stevenson

“A Note on Realism” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Style is the invariable mark of any master; and for the student who does not aspire so high as to be numbered with the giants, it is still the one quality in which he may improve himself at will.  Passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour, are allotted in the hour of birth, and can be neither learned nor simulated.  But the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have, the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end—these, which taken together constitute technical perfection, are to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage.  What to put in and what to leave out; whether some particular fact be organically necessary or purely ornamental; whether, if it be purely ornamental, it may not weaken or obscure the general design; and finally, whether, if we decide to use it, we should do so grossly and notably, or in some conventional disguise: are questions of plastic style continually rearising.  And the sphinx that patrols the highways of executive art has no more unanswerable riddle to propound.

In literature (from which I must draw my instances) the great change of the past century has been effected by the admission of detail.  It was inaugurated by the romantic Scott; and at length, by the semi-romantic Balzac and his more or less wholly unromantic followers, bound like a duty on the novelist.  For some time it signified and expressed a more ample contemplation of the conditions of man’s life; but it has recently (at least in France) fallen into a merely technical and decorative stage, which it is, perhaps, still too harsh to call survival.  With a movement of alarm, the wiser or more timid begin to fall a little back from these extremities; they begin to aspire after a more naked, narrative articulation; after the succinct, the dignified, and the poetic; and as a means to this, after a general lightening of this baggage of detail.  After Scott we beheld the starveling story—once, in the hands of Voltaire, as abstract as a parable—begin to be pampered upon facts.  The introduction of these details developed a particular ability of hand; and that ability, childishly indulged, has led to the works that now amaze us on a railway journey.  A man of the unquestionable force of M. Zola spends himself on technical successes.  To afford a popular flavour and attract the mob, he adds a steady current of what I may be allowed to call the rancid.  That is exciting to the moralist; but what more particularly interests the artist is this tendency of the extreme of detail, when followed as a principle, to degenerate into merefeux-de-joie of literary tricking.  The other day even M. Daudet was to be heard babbling of audible colours and visible sounds. Continue reading

Robert Hughes’s Goya Biography (Book Acquired, 9.21.2012)

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I’d been wanting to read a biography of Goya for some time now. For a few years now, his art has come occupy a strange space in the back of my subconscious mind—all the pain and violence and horror of it. Maybe it’s all the Roberto Bolaño I’ve been reading. I’m convinced that if you want to understand Bolaño it helps to have Goya as a visual referent. Also, I cut up an oversized Italian collection of color prints from Goya to hang in my office, so they’re always kinda in my visual field.

Anyway, last week I went  by my favorite local used bookstore to pick up a copy of W.G. Sebald’s After Nature that they’d kindly ordered for me and went through the biographies as well to find something on Goya. There were at least half a dozen, but the recently deceased Robert Hughes’s was the most beautiful and most recent, and its opening captivated me: In the first chapter, Hughes describes how a near-fatal car crash in 1999 unlocked the Goya study that he’d been wanting to write for years. The scene unfolds as a bizarre prolonged fever dream, a horrifying narrative informed by Goya’s asylums and bullfights, with the strange layer of modern airport slathered on top.

I’ve read the first 150 pages since then. Hughes’s writing is crisp and the text is rich; Hughes builds a slow case, arguing against Goya’s reputation as a radical but also highlighting the artist’s powers of pathos (not to mention his skill, both raw and refined). Hughes had me hooked with the following paragraph, which could also stand in as a simple description of a decsonstructionist theory of identity:

Goya was in some ways the greatest of all delineators of madness, because he was unrivaled in his ability to locate it among the common presences of human life, to see it as a natural par t of man’s (and woman’s) condition, not as an intrusion of the divine or the demonic from above or below. Madness does not come from outside into a stable and virtuous normality. That, Goya knew in his excruciating sanity, was nonsense. There is no perfect stability of the human condition, only approximations of it, sometimes fragile because created by culture. Part of his creed, indeed the very core of his nature as an artist, was Terence’s “Nihil humanum a me alienum puto,” “I think nothing human alien to me.” This was part of Goya’s immense humanity, a range of sympathy, almost literally, “co-suffering,” rivaling that of Dickens or Tolstoy.

A Peasant with an Evil Eye — Ilya Repin

Paul Alexis Reading a Manuscript to Emile Zola — Paul Cezanne

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams Is a Perfect Novella

With blunt grace, Denis Johnson navigates the line between realism and the American frontier myth in his perfect novella Train Dreams. In a slim 116 pages, Johnson communicates one man’s life story with a depth and breadth that actually lives up to the book’s blurb’s claim to be an “epic in miniature.”  I read it in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally laughing aloud at Johnson’s wry humor, several times moved by the pathos of the narrative, and more than once stunned at the subtle, balanced perfection of Johnson’s prose, which inheres from sentence to paragraph to resonate throughout the structure of the book.

The opening lines hooked me:

In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.

Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.

The matter-of-fact violence here complicates everything that follows in many ways, because Grainier it turns out is pretty much that rare thing, a good man, a simple man who tries to make a life in the Idaho Panhandle at the beginning of the 20th century. The rest of the book sees him trying—perhaps not consciously—to somehow amend for the strange near-lynching he abetted.

Grainier works as a day laborer, felling the great forests of the American northwest so that a network of trains can connect the country. Johnson resists the urge to overstate the obvious motifs of expansion and modernity here, instead expressing depictions of America’s industrial growth at a more personal, even psychological level:

Grainier’s experience on the Eleven-Mile Cutoff made him hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.

Grainier’s hard work keeps him from his wife and infant daughter, and the separation eventually becomes more severe after a natural calamity, but I won’t dwell on that in this review, because I think the less you know about Train Dreams going in the better. Still, it can’t hurt to share a lovely passage that describes Grainier’s courtship with the woman who would become his wife:

The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.

The passage highlights Johnson’s power to move from realism into the metaphysical and back, and it’s this precise navigation of naturalism and the ways that naturalism can tip the human spirit into supernatural experiences that makes Train Dreams such a strong little book. In the strange trajectory of his life, Grainier will be visited by a ghost and a wolf-child, will take flight in a biplane and transport a man shot by a dog, will be tempted by a pageant of pulchritude and discover, most unwittingly, that he is a hermit in the woods. In Johnson’s careful crafting, these events are not material for a grotesque picaresque or a litany of bizarre absurdities, but rather a beautiful, resonant poem-story, a miniature history of America.

Train Dreams is an excellent starting place for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, and the book will rest at home on a shelf with Steinbeck’s naturalist evocations or Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I have no idea why the folks at FS&G waited almost a decade to publish it (Train Dreams was originally published in a 2002 issue of The Paris Review), but I’m glad they did, and I’m glad the book is out now in trade paperback from Picador, where it should gain a wider audience. Very highly recommended.

Martin Scorsese on Realism and Artifice in Film

Ethical Realism (and Grim Decadence) in Hans Fallada’s Wolf Among Wolves

On the heels of last year’s hugely successful first-time-in-English publication of Every Man Dies Alone, the good folks at Melville House have issued another of Hans Fallada’s epic novels, Wolf Among Wolves. Set during Germany’s 1923 economic collapse, Wolf centers on Wolfgang Pagel, a former soldier and itinerant gambler languishing in the corruption of Weimar Berlin.The beginning of the novel focuses on a single summer day in Berlin; Fallada’s naturalist, realist eye paradoxically puts all the minutiae of this world under a microscope even as it expands to capture a holistic vision of life in morally-decadent, post-war Germany. The effect is both devastating and enlightening. It is epic realism, the condensation of the everyday existence of an alien world. Another paradox–behind Fallada’s omniscient, steady, neutral narrative, so plain and descriptive and frank, there lies another voice, a moral, ethical voice that prompts Pagel to transcend the wolf-eat-wolf world. Indeed, Fallada presents a vision of moral cooperation in a world dominated by self-interest. Here’s a passage describing some of Berlin’s heady post-war decadence:

But the girls were the worst. They strolled about calling, whispering, taking people’s arms, running alongside men, laughing. Some girls exposed their bodies in a way that was revolting. A market of flesh–white flesh bloated with drink, and lean dark flesh which seemed to have been burned up by spirits. But worst of all were the entirely shameless, the almost sexless: the morphine addicts with their contracted pupils, the cocaine sniffers with their white noses, and the cocaine addicts with high-pitched voices and irrepressibly twitching faces. They wriggled, they jiggled their flesh in low-cut or cunningly-slashed blouses, and when they made room for you or went round a corner they picked up their skirts (which, even so, didn’t reach their knees), exhibiting between stockings and drawers a strip of pale flesh and a green or pink garter. They exchanged remarks about passing men, bawled obscenities to each other across the street, and their greedy eyes searched among the slowly drifting crowd for foreigners who might be expected to have foreign currency in their pockets.

Melville House’s edition of Wolf Among Wolves is the first unabridged English translation ever–scholars Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs have restored  passages originally omitted in Philip Owens’s contemporaneous translation.In his insightful afterward, Carstensen addresses why certain passages were not included in Owens’s original translation, pointing out that most omitted passages showed an inclination toward fairy-tale or mythic structures, aesthetics that “contradict the claim to naturalistic representation” one expects in Fallada’s work. By preserving the occasional “almost surreal mode of perception” omitted in the original, Carstensen argues that:

In short, the fully reconstructed text, with its enhanced inconsistency, provides the reader with insight into a literary aesthetics that is unique among the novels of German modernism: Fallada combines realist prose and ethical concerns with a narrative technique that renders ambiguous what is supposedly a semi-documentary representation, shaped by his very own experiences in the country.

We’re eating up Wolf Among Wolves right now, and will have a full review in time); for now, we recommend you pick it up for some good summer reading.