Author Brian Hall is known for his diverse subject matter. His 2003 novel I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Companyis a fictionalized account of Lewis and Clark, and his 2008 novel The Fall of Frost re-imagines Robert Frost’s personal life and inner world. Hall’s writing has received significant praise over the years; his 1997 coming-of-age novel The Saskiad has been translated into twelve languages.
This year Hall collaborated with composer Mary Lorson for a rather unusual endeavor: setting James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to music. Part of the Waywords and Meansigns project, Hall and Lorson were tasked with creating an unabridged musical version of the Wake’s famous eighth chapter. The chapter presents a dialogue between two women, who are in turn juxtaposed with Dublin’s Liffey river and one of the book’s main characters, Anna Livia Plurabelle. (You can hear their chapter in the embedded audio player below.)
Derek Pyle, who runs Waywords and Meansigns, spoke with Brian Hall about a number of topics ranging from the experience of wrestling with Joyce’s text to the process of writing and researching novels.
Derek Pyle: You worked with Mary Lorson for the Waywords and Meansigns project. What was your collaborative process like?
Brian Hall: We decided that I would record the voice track first, before she did anything else. I’ve never recorded any reading before, so we practice recorded the thing twice, just to get me used to it. That way I could get used to just how thorny it is to read at a relatively quick pace, to manage to spit out all of these weird words one after another. You have to practice quite a lot so you can get through a sentence and make it sound somewhat natural.
I assured Mary right at the beginning that the final mix and music, all of that would be entirely up to her and I wasn’t going to interfere. I made some suggestions, just throwing out ideas — I know [classical music] pretty well, and she was interested in drawing on that, so I mentioned a few things that could be related.
Derek Pyle: At times your voice has a call and response feel — it was her tinkering that created this effect?
Brian Hall: The chapter is clearly some kind of a dialogue, but a lot of it is not really clear which voice is which. I was looking online and nobody really agrees on how the voices divide. I made my own version of the back and forth, just by highlighting the younger voice, and I gave Mary a copy of this marked up version of the text.
When I read it in the studio in Toronto, it was all on one track. As I read, every time I went to the younger voice I pitched my voice a little bit higher. So with the pitch between the two voices, and my printed version, which had highlighted the young woman’s lines, Mary could tell pretty easily which was which. She put the voices on two different tracks, one on the left speaker, one on the right speaker, and did everything that we hear. It really gives a much better feel.
Derek Pyle: It’s such a full landscape of sound, with the river running through the conversation. What were some of the other underlying conceptual elements guiding your reading?
Brian Hall: Because I tend to gather books, I already had the Tindall guide to Finnegans Wake and I also had the Roland McHugh Annotations to Finnegans Wake. I read through both the Tindall and the McHugh related to this chapter, to see whatever there was — things that I couldn’t figure out on my own.
Since Joyce uses — I can’t remember the figure — 140 different river names, McHugh notes pretty much every time there’s a river name. He doesn’t say which country it’s in, so I marked all of this up and then for all the river names I looked them up on Google Maps.
I wanted to find out what country the rivers are in, because you don’t really have a sense how to pronounce it unless you know what language it’s in. When you’re reading [the Wake] out loud you want to straddle, as much as possible, the different possible pronunciations of these multilingual words.
But I don’t really know how Joyce pronounced some of those words. He may have had a Dublin-English version of it. A lot of it is total guesswork but it was really fun, although a fair amount of work — with a text like this you basically have stuff all over the page, with arrows trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing.
Derek Pyle: What was your engagement with Joyce prior to this undertaking?
Brian Hall: By the time I got out of college I had read most of Joyce except Finnegans Wake. I cheated a bit — I took a course on Ulysses and I ran out of time in the course, the way you do in college, and I ended up only reading about half of Ulysses. I wrote a paper on the part that I had read, to hide the fact that I hadn’t read the whole thing.
When I was forty, I went back and read the entire Ulysses, and like loads of writers I was pretty fascinated. Large parts of it are some of the most interesting stuff written in the 20th century, I think.
But it’s true for a lot of great work, one of the things that makes them so fascinating — as you approach them as a critical reader and as a writer yourself, it makes sense that there are things that you don’t entirely agree with. There are parts of Ulysses which I think go farther down the formalistic path than is really helpful. I never much liked the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter, the one that goes through the history of the English language.
I think a lot of Ulysses, as great as it is, it’s a little longer than ideal. But you know, it’s a fabulous monumental work. When people pick it as like, if you’re forced to choose the greatest novels of the 20th century, I’m certainly not surprised that a lot of people pick Ulysses.
Portrait of the Artist I’ve probably read three or four times. Dubliners you of course get in high school and I read it again in my forties. I read Stephen Hero at one point because I was curious to see the earlier version of Portrait of the Artist.
But Finnegans Wake was the big thing that I had never gotten around to. I actually have you to thank — it really was an opportunity for me to do something I’d wanted to do, which is to take a closer look at one part of the Wake. I always wondered how to what extent I would appreciate what his goals are in Finnegans Wake.
Derek Pyle: How would you articulate Joyce’s goals?
I can only speak of the Liffey chapter, but I think he goes further down the path of playing with language, to the point where it starts to become a question of diminishing returns. I want to stress how much I enjoyed reading it out loud — it is a fascinating word fest he’s done.
But he has the idea that [the chapter] is going to be about rivers — about a river, the Liffey. He has what I think are loads of great ideas about how to do this, where Liffey and Livia are basically the same. The way he describes the places where the Liffey runs and the kinds of landscape it runs through — he does it in such a way that pretty much every moment is both about the river but also about this sort of mythical female figure, Livia. I think a lot of that is really great.
Then there’s this other side of Joyce — and this is the part where I as an artist part ways with him — since he’s doing a thing about the river, he decides to incorporate into the chapter the names of like 140 rivers from around the world. I think that layer just gets in the way; I can’t see that it adds much.
Who am I, of course — I’m just me and he’s James Joyce. If I were his childhood friend and he took any advice from me, I would say “hey Jim, maybe that one layer…”
Derek Pyle: As a writer reading Joyce, is there any way his works have influenced your own craft in terms of techniques to use, or even to avoid?
The generally broad idea of stream of consciousness narration, which of course takes many forms, but he was obviously one of the big fat originators of it. That’s had a big effect on the way I write. I believe very strongly that prose should take whatever form it needs to take, to properly convey the way a person is thinking.
All of my writing, except for my first novel, is in close third person. But I think the writer whose style of stream of consciousness influenced me somewhat more than Joyce — but of course she herself was influenced by Joyce and vice versa — was Virginia Woolf. Her approach in Mrs. Dalloway is the way I tend to write when I’m trying to convey the moment of thought in one of my character’s minds.
I think a big problem with a lot of literary writing today is that a lot of writers consistently stick to a polished lyrical style. I guess it’s out of the idea that beautiful writing is always beautiful, so why not write beautifully. My temperament or whatever, my reading of that, it’s not psychologically acute writing because it doesn’t reflect emotional turmoil.
If you’re describing a character who is very upset or angry or confused, or if the character is not very literate — I think the prose should always try to reflect the content, and that means loads of good prose is not beautiful.
You know Joyce, a lot of his stuff is of course beautiful in its own way, but you get to the “Sirens” chapter in Ulysses and you have this overture section at the beginning. It’s just totally fractured. He’s not trying something beautiful there, he’s trying something much more interesting.
Derek Pyle: Whether it’s Woolf or Joyce, did you take a research approach into looking at technique, breaking down how and why does this work?
Brian Hall: I haven’t sat down and analyzed it. Stuff that I read that really excites me, I just assume it’s working its way into how I think about writing. I do lots of research for my novels, but it’s not related to stylistic stuff.
The novel I’m working on right now, the main character is an astronomer. My sense is, if you’re going to write a novel where the main character is an astronomer, you really should know a lot about astronomy. It’s not like you need lectures in there about astronomy, but just in the background of your mind, you should know a lot because that’s how your character will look at the world.
It helps if you like to do research for its own sake, because then you don’t have the temptation to try to shoehorn too much into the novel. It doesn’t feel like a waste to me if I have twenty times more material than I actually put into the book. I love research, so I don’t regret that at all.
Derek Pyle: Anything else you want to add? Biblioklept interviews usually end with the question ‘have you ever stolen a book?’
Brian Hall: I’ll say this. I really detest copyright law in general and in the U.S. in particular and these organizations like creative commons — what you’re doing with this whole project, where stuff is put online for people to freely download, I just think it’s great.
My understanding of the original idea of copyright law, for one thing it only lasted for sixteen years when it was first proposed by Jefferson. The idea was to keep people from competing in the market with the original thing.
But when you take something, and you change it dramatically by adding things — I ran into this with my Frost book. I ended up not being able to quote certain Frost poems because of supposed copyright problems. That’s a real perversion of the original idea of copyright protection. What I was doing in the Frost book would in no conceivable way cut into the sales of volumes of poetry by Frost.
I personally sympathize with people who are alive and remember Frost and are uncomfortable with the idea of a novelist like me coming along and writing a very personal novel about Frost. I don’t think it’s ridiculous that they don’t like it. But if it weren’t for the ridiculously extended copyright laws in this country, there wouldn’t be a problem. I’d be allowed to do what I do, they could be unhappy about it the way that I’m unhappy about lots of things, and you know, we would just move on.
Oh, and to answer your question, I’ve never stolen a book.
I went to the bookstore this afternoon, looking to maybe find something I hadn’t read by my favorite author Garth Marenghi, or at least to pick up something from the so-called Bizarro fiction genre. I wound up spending about 75 minutes perusing old sci-fi and fantasy titles, occasionally taking a pic or two. I love old sci-fi covers (Daw covers in particular); looking at so many this afternoon, I noticed that certain prestige-style covers that attempted to “transcend genre” (e.g. certain editions by authors like William Gibson and Neil Gaiman) actually end up looking really dated and generic. Anyway, I hadn’t initially intended to do a post, and what I’m presenting here is hardly representative as a sample (there are literally tens of thousands of sci-fi books in the store). At a certain point I got dizzy.
I’m sure that there are some really great blogs out there that do this sort of thing properly—take real care with scans and bother to credit artists and designers properly. Forgive me. Forgive the bad lighting and my fat thumbs. I’ve included some details from the book covers too. So, as promised by my title: It’s Friday; here’s a lazy post of some old book covers.
Cabu by John Robert Russell. There were a couple of Russell titles with unreal covers.
The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs is the only book in this post that I’ve actually read.
Masters of Time by A.E. Van Vogt. This seems like a very special book.
In general, I dislike reviews that frontload context—get to the book, right? So here’s a short review of Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden: it is stranger than most of what Hemingway wrote, by turns pleasant, uncomfortable, bewildering, and beautiful. And readable. It’s very, very readable. Young people (or older folks; let’s not be prejudiced) working their way through Hemingway shouldn’t put The Garden of Eden on the back-burner in favor of his more famous works, and anyone who might have written off Hemingway as unreflective macho bravado should take a look at some of the strange gender games this novel has to offer. So, that’s a recommendation, okay?
Now on to that context, which I think is important here. See, The Garden of Eden is one of those unfinished novels that get published posthumously, put together by editors and publishers and other book folk, who play a larger role than we like to admit in the finished books we get from living authors anyway. For various reasons, cultural, historical, etc., we seem to favor the idea of the Singular Artistic Genius who sculpts beauty and truth out of raw Platonic forms that only he or she can access (poor tortured soul). The reality of how our books get to us is a much messier affair, and editors and publishers and even literary studies departments in universities have a large hand in this process, one we tend to ignore in favor of the charms of a Singular Artistic Genius. There’s a fascinating process there, but also a troubling one. Editing issues complicate our ideals of (quite literally) stable authority—is this what the author intended?, we ask (New Critics be damned!). David Foster Wallace and Michael Pietsch, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, Franz Kafka and Max Brod, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley . . . not to mention Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, The Bible, Homer, etc. etc. etc. But you’re here to read about The Garden of Eden, right gentle reader? Mea culpa. I’ve been blathering away. Let me turn the reins over to the estimable talents of E.L. Doctorow, who offers the following context in his 1986 review of the book in The New York Times—
Since Hemingway’s death in 1961, his estate and his publishers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, have been catching up to him, issuing the work which, for one reason or another, he did not publish during his lifetime. He held back ”A Moveable Feast” out of concern for the feelings of the people in it who might still be alive. But for the novel ”Islands in the Stream” he seems to have had editorial misgivings. Even more deeply in this category is ”The Garden of Eden,” which he began in 1946 and worked on intermittently in the last 15 years of his life and left unfinished. It is a highly readable story, if not possibly the book he envisioned. As published it is composed of 30 short chapters running to about 70,000 words. A publisher’s note advises that ”some cuts” have been made in the manuscript, but according to Mr. Baker’s biography, at one point a revised manuscript of the work ran to 48 chapters and 200,000 words, so the publisher’s note is disingenuous. In an interview with The New York Times last December, a Scribners editor admitted to taking out a subplot in rough draft that he felt had not been integrated into the ”main body” of the text, but this cut reduced the book’s length by two-thirds.
So, yeah. The version we have of The Garden of Eden is heavily cut, and also likely heavily arranged. But that’s what editors do, and this is the book we have (for now, anyway—it seems like on the year of its 25th anniversary of publication, and the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death that Scribner should work toward putting out an unedited scholarly edition) — so I’ll talk about that book a bit.
The Garden of Eden tells the story of a few months in the lives of a young newlywed couple, David Bourne, an emerging novelist, and his wife Catherine, a trust fund baby flitting about Europe. The novel is set primarily on the French Riviera, in the thin sliver of high years between the two big wars. David and Catherine spend most of their days in this Edenic setting eating fine food and making love and swimming and riding bikes and fishing. And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. Lots of drinking. It all sounds quite beautiful—h0w about a taste?
On this morning there was brioche and red raspberry preserve and the eggs were boiled and there was a pat of butter that melted as they stirred them and salted them lightly and ground pepper over them in the cups. They were big eggs and fresh and the girl’s were not cooked quite as long as the young man’s. He remembered that easily and he he was happy with his which he diced up with the spoon and ate with only the flow of the butter to moisten them and the fresh early morning texture and the bite of the coarsely ground pepper grains and the hot coffee and the chickory-fragrant bowl of café au lait.
Hemingway’s technique throughout the novel is to present the phenomenological contours of a heady world. It’s lovely to ride along with David and Catherine, rich and free and beautiful.
Their new life together is hardly charmed, however. See, Catherine gets a haircut—
Her hair was cropped as short as a boy’s. It was cut with no compromises. It was brushed back, heavy as always, but the sides were cut short and the ears that grew close to her head were clear and the tawny line of her hair was cropped close to her head and smooth and sweeping back. She turned her head and lifted her breasts and said, “Kiss me please.” . . .
“You see, she said. “That’s the surprise. I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything.”
“Sit here by me,” he said. “What do you want, brother.”
David’s playful response—calling his wife “brother”—covers up some of his shock and fear, but it also points to his underlying curiosity and gender confusion. And indeed, Catherine’s new haircut licenses her to “do anything and anything and anything” — beginning with some strange bed games that night—
He had shut his eyes and he could feel the long light weight of her on him and her breasts pressing against him and her lips on his. He lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”
“You are changing,” she said. “Oh you are. You are. Yes you are and you’re my girl Catherine. Will you change and be my girl and let me take you?”
“No. I’m Peter. You’re my wonderful Catherine. You’re my beautiful, lovely Catherine. You were so good to change. Oh thank you, Catherine, so much. Please understand. Please know and understand. I’m going to make love to you forever.”
David, partial stand-in for Hemingway, transforms into a girl who feels “something” during sex with Catherine (or, ahem, Peter)—note that that “something” has no clear referent. As their gender inverting games continue (much to David’s horror), Hemingway’s usually concrete language retreats to vague proforms without referents, “it”s without antecedents; his usually precise diction dissolves in these scenes, much as the Bournes’ marriage dissolves each time Catherine escalates the gender inversion. David gives her the nickname “Devil,” as if she were both Eve and Serpent in their Garden. Catherine’s transformations continue as she cuts her hair back even more, and sunbathes all the time so that she can be as dark as possible. She dyes her hair a silver blonde and makes David get his hair cut and dyed the same.
The bizarre behavior (shades of Scott and Zelda?) culminates in Catherine introducing another woman into the marriage. Marita falls in love with both David and Catherine, but her lesbian sex with Catherine only accelerates the latter’s encroaching insanity. David is initially radically ambivalent to the ménage à trois proposed by his wife; he has the good sense to see that a three-way marriage is ultimately untenable and that his wife is going crazy. He vacillates between hostility and love for the two women, but eventually finds a support system in Marita as it becomes increasingly apparent (to all three) that Catherine is depressed and mentally unstable, enraged that David has ceased to write about the pair’s honeymoon adventures on the Riviera. Catherine has been bankrolling David; jealous of good reviews from his last novel, she insists that he write only their story, but David would rather write “the hardest story” he knows—the story of his childhood in East Africa with his father, a big game hunter.
In some of the most extraordinary passages of The Garden of Eden, David writes himself into his boyhood existence, trailing a bull elephant with his father through a jungle trek. David has spotted the elephant by moonlight, prompting his father and his father’s fellow tracker and gun bearer Juma to hunt the old beast. As they trail the animal, David begins to realize how horrible the hunt is, how cruel it is to kill the animal for sport. The passages are somewhat perplexing given Hemingway’s reputation as a hunter. Indeed, this is one of the major features of The Garden of Eden: it repeatedly confounds or complicates our ideas about Hemingway the man’s man, Hemingway the writer, Hemingway the hunter. David describes the wounded, dying elephant—
They found him anchored, in such suffering and despair that he could no longer move. He had crashed through the heavy cover where he had been feeding and crossed a path of open forest and David and his father had run along the heavily splashed blood trail. Then the elephant had gone on into thick forest and David had seen him ahead standing gray and huge against the trunk of a tree. David could only see his stern and then his father moved ahead of him and he followed and they came alongside the elephant as though he was a ship and David saw the blood coming from his flanks and running down his sides and then his father raised his rifle and fired and the elephant turned his head with the great tusks moving heavy and slow and looked at them and when his father fired the second barrel the elephant seemed to sway like a felled tree and came smashing down toward them. But he was not dead. He had been anchored and now he was down with his shoulder broken. He did not move but his eye was alive and looked at David. He had very long eyelashes and his eye was the most alive thing David had ever seen.
David succeeds in writing this “hard” story, and the passages are remarkable in their authenticity—David’s story is a good story, the highlight of the book perhaps; it’s not just Hemingway telling us that David wrote a great story, we actually get to experience the story itself as well as the grueling process by which it was made. Hemingway and his surrogate David show us—make us experience—how difficult writing really is, and then share the fruit of that labor with us. These scenes raise the stakes of The Garden of Eden, revealing how serious David is when he remarks (repeatedly) that the writing is the most important thing—that it outweighs love, it surpasses his marriage. These realizations freight the climax of the novel all the more heavily, but I will avoid anymore spoilers.
The Garden of Eden has some obvious flaws. Marita is underdeveloped at best for such an important character, and her love for David and Catherine remains unexplored, and in fact barely remarked upon. The biggest problem with the book is its conclusion, which feels too pat, too obvious for such a strange, amorphous book. It is here that the presence of an editorial hand seems clearest, to the extent that I wonder if the short little chapter that concludes the novel wasn’t cobbled together from a few stray sentences throughout the manuscript. But The Garden of Eden, despite some shortcomings, is a book well worth reading. The novel complicates not just Hemingway’s reputation, but also our sense of Hemingway’s sense of himself. Recommended.
[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in August of 2011]
I brought up Eugénie Grandet(Balzac’s) to bring up “Eugénie Grandet” (Barthelme’s). Stendhal’s (1830’s French) novel Charterhouse keeps reminding me of Barthelme’s (1960’s American) short story “Eugénie Grandet,” which is, as I’ve said, a parody of Honoré de Balzac’s (1830’s French) novel Eugénie Grandet. Balzac and Stendhal are pre-Modernists (which is to say they were modernists, I suppose). Donald Barthelme wanted to be a big em Modernist; his postmodernism was inadvertent. By which I mean— “postmodernism” is just a description (a description of a description really, but let me not navelgaze).
Well and so: I find myself often bored with The Charterhouse of Parma and wishing for a condensation, for a Donald Barthelme number that will magically boil down all its best bits into a loving parody that retains its themes and storylines (while simultaneously critiquing them)—a parody served with an au jus of the novel’s rich flavor.
My frequent boredom with the novel—and, let me insert here, betwixt beloved dashes, that one of my (many) favorite things about Charterhouse is that it is about boredom! that phrases like “boredom,” boring,” and “bored” repeat repeatedly throughout it! I fucking love that! And Stendhal, the pre-Modernist (which is to say “modernist”), wants the reader to feel some of the boredom of court intrigue (which is not always intriguing). The marvelous ironic earnest narrator so frequently frequents phrases like, “The reader will no doubt tire of this conversation, which went on for like two fucking hours” (not a direct quote, although the word “fuck” shows up a few times in Howard’s translation. How fucking Modern!)—okay—
My frequent boredom with the novel is actually not so frequent. It’s more like a chapter to chapter affair. I love pretty much every moment that Stendhal keeps the lens on his naive hero, the intrepid nobleman Fabrizio del Dongo. In love with (the idea of) Napoleon (and his aunt, sorta), a revolutionist (not really), a big ell Liberal (nope), Fabrizio is a charismatic (and callow) hero, and his chapters shuttle along with marvelous quixotic ironic energy. It’s picaresque stuff. (Fabrizio reminds me of another hero I love, Candide). Fabrizio runs away from home to join Napoleon’s army! Fabrizio is threatened with arrest! Fabrizio is sorta exiled! Fabrizio fucks around in Naples! Fabrizio joins the priesthood! Fabrizio might love love his aunt! Fabrizio fights a duel! Fabrizio kills a man! (Not the duel dude). Fabrizio is on the run (again)! Fabrizio goes to jail! Fabrizio falls in love!
When it’s not doing the picaresque adventure story/quixotic romance thing (which is to say, like half the time) Charterhouse is a novel of courtly intrigues and political machinations (I think our boy Balzac called it the new The Prince). One of the greatest strengths of Charterhouse is its depictions of psychology, or consciousness-in-motion (which is to say Modernism, (or pre-modernism)). Stendhal takes us through his characters’ thinking…but that can sometimes be dull, I’ll admit. (Except when it’s not). Let me turn over this riff to Italo Calvino, briefly, who clearly does not think the novel dull, ever—but I like his description here of the books operatic “dramatic centre.” From his essay “Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse“:
All this in the petty world of court and society intrigue, between a prince haunted by fear for having hanged two patriots and the ‘fiscal général’ (justice minister) Rassi who is the incarnation (perhaps for the first time in a character in a novel) of a bureaucratic mediocrity which also has something terrifying in it. And here the conflict is, in line with Stendhal’s intentions, between this image of the backward Europe of Metternich and the absolute nature of those passions which brook no bounds and which were the last refuge for the noble ideals of an age that had been overcome.
The dramatic centre of the book is like an opera (and opera had been the first medium which had helped the music-mad Stendhal to understand Italy) but in The Charterhouse the atmosphere (luckily) is not that of tragic opera but rather (as Paul Valéry discovered) of operetta. The tyrannical rule is squalid but hesitant and clumsy (much worse had really taken place at Modena) and the passions are powerful but work by a rather basic mechanism. (Just one character, Count Mosca, possesses any psychological complexity, a calculating character but one who is also desperate, possessive and nihilistic.)
I disagree with Calvino here. Mosca is an interesting character (at times), but hardly the only one with any psychological complexity. Stendhal is always showing us the gears ticking clicking wheeling churning in his characters’ minds—Fabrizio’s Auntie Gina in particular. (Ahem. Excuse me–The Duchessa).
But Duchess Aunt Gina is a big character, perhaps the secret star of Charterhouse, really, and I’m getting read to wrap this thing up. So I’ll offer a brief example rather from (what I assume is ultimately) a minor character, sweet Clélia Conti. Here she is, in the chapter I finished today, puzzling through the puzzle of fickle Fabrizio, who’s imprisoned in her dad’s tower and has fallen for her:
Fabrizio was fickle; in Naples, he had had the reputation of charming mistresses quite readily. Despite all the reserve imposed upon the role of a young lady, ever since she had become a Canoness and had gone to court, Clélia, without ever asking questions but by listening attentively, had managed to learn the reputations of the young men who had, one after the next, sought her hand in marriage; well then, Fabrizio, compared to all the others, was the one who was least trustworthy in affairs of the heart. He was in prison, he was bored, he paid court to the one woman he could speak to—what could be simpler? What, indeed, more common? And this is what plunged Clélia into despair.
Clélia’s despair is earned; her introspection is adroit (even as it is tender). Perhaps the wonderful trick of Charterhouse is that Stendhal shows us a Fabrizio who cannot see (that he cannot see) that he is fickle, that Clélia’s take on his character is probably accurate—he’s just bored! (Again, I’ve not read to the end). Yes: What, indeed, could be more common? And one of my favorite things about Charterhouse is not just that our dear narrator renders that (common) despair in real and emotional and psychological (which is to say, um Modern) terms for us—but also that our narrator takes a sweetly ironic tone about the whole business.
Or maybe it’s not sweetly ironic—but I wouldn’t know. I have to read it post-Barthelme, through a post-postmodern lens. I’m not otherwise equipped.
I am bored of Hell, Henri Barbusse’s 1908 novel of voyeurism.
Maybe I should blame the 1966 English translation (from the French) by Robert Baldick, which often feels stuffily stuffy for a book about “childbirth, first love, marriage, adultery, lesbianism, illness, religion and death” (as our dear translator puts it in his brief preface). Maybe I should blame it on Baldick, but that seems rash and wrong, and I have no basis of comparison, do I?
So I blame it on myself, this boredom of Hell.
Why write then? Why not write it off, rather, which is to say, do not write—I don’t know.
I’m bored with Hell and there are half a dozen novels I’ve recently read (or am reading) that I should commend, recommend, attempt to write about—but here I am bored of Hell, and writing about it. Maybe it’s—and the it here refers to writing about Hell, a book I confesss a boredom of—maybe it’s because I’ve allowed myself over the last few days to good lord skim the goddamned infernal thing, not skimming for a replenishing sustenance, but rather looking for the juicy fat bits, the best bits, in the same way a teenaged version of myself skimmed Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin in a powerful sweat.
(I was a teenage cliché).
Maybe it’s that the best bits of Hell weren’t juicy enough. (In this novel, an unnamed narrator espies all sorts of sensual (and nonsensual) shenanigans through a small hole in his hotel room). Or maybe the juicy bits were juicy, but the translation dried them out. So many of the sentences made me want to close the book. But it’s unfair for me to write this, I suppose, without offering a sample. Here, from early in the novel, is an excerpt that did make me want to keep going:
The mouth is something naked in the naked face. The mouth, which is red with blood, which is forever bleeding, is comparable to the heart: it is a wound, and it is almost a wound to see a woman’s mouth.
And I begin trembling before this woman who is opening a little and bleeding from a smile. The divan yields warmly to the embrace of her broad hips; her finely-made knees are close together, and the whole of the centre of her body is in the shape of a heart.
…Half-lying on the divan, she stretches out her feet towards the fire, lifting her skirt slightly with both hands, and this movement uncovers her black-stockinged legs.
And my flesh cries out…
Those last ellipses were mine. Did you want more? I did, I admit. And yet after 50 pages, I grew bored. The voyeurism was boring—sprawling. Perhaps I’m lazy. Perhaps I want my voyeurism condensed. Maybe…weirder. I don’t know. Reader, I skimmed. I skimmed, like I said, for morsels—but also to the end, the the final chapter, to the final exquisite not boring paragraph, which I’ll share with you now before “I have done,” as the narrator states in this final section. Promised paragraph:
I believe that confronting the human heart and the human mind, which are composed of imperishable longings, there is only the mirage of what they long for. I believe that around us there is only one word on all sides, one immense word which reveals our solitude and extinguishes our radiance: Nothing! I believe that the word does not point to our insignificance or our unhappiness, but on the contrary to our fulfillment and our divinity, since everything is in ourselves.