Nothing could be decently hated except eternity

The two young people moved away, other couples passed, less handsome, just as moving, each submerged in their transitory blindness. Don Fabrizio felt his heart thaw; his disgust gave way to compassion for all these ephemeral beings out to enjoy the tiny ray of light granted them between two shades, before the cradle, after the last spasms. How could one inveigh against those sure to die? It would be as vile as those fish-vendors insulting the condemned in the Piazza del Mercato sixty years before. Even the female monkeys on the poufs, even those old baboons of friends were poor wretches, condemned and touching as the cattle lowing through the city streets at night on the way to the slaughterhouse; to the ears of each of them would one day come that tinkle he had heard three hours earlier behind San Domenico. Nothing could be decently hated except eternity.

And then these people filling the rooms, all these faded women, all these stupid men, these two vainglorious sexes were part of his blood, part of himself; only they could really understand him, only with them could he be at his ease. “I may be more intelligent, I’m certainly more cultivated, but I come from the same stock as they, with them I must make common cause.”

He noticed Don Calogero talking to Giovanni Finale about a possible rise in the price of cheese and how in the hope of this beatific event his eyes had gone liquid and gentle. Don Fabrizio could slip away without remorse.

Till that moment accumulated irritation had given him energy; now with relaxed nerves he was overcome by tiredness; it was already two o’clock. He looked around for a place where he could sit down quietly, far from men, lovers and brothers, all right in their way, but always tiresome. He soon found it: the library, small, silent, lit, and empty. He sat down, then got up to drink some water which he found on a side table. “Only water is really good,” he thought like a true Sicilian; and did not dry the drops left on his lips. He sat down again; he liked the library and soon felt at his ease there; it put up no opposition to him because it was impersonal, as are rooms which are little used; Ponteleone was not a type to waste time in there. He began looking at a picture opposite him, a good copy of Greuze’s Death of the Just Man; the old man was expiring on his bed, amid welters of clean linen, surrounded by afflicted grandsons and granddaughters raising arms toward the ceiling. The girls were pretty, provoking, and the disorder of their clothes suggested sex more than sorrow; they, it was obvious at once, were the real subject of the picture, Even so, Don Fabrizio was surprised for a second at Diego always having this melancholy scene before his eyes; then he reassured himself by thinking that the other probably entered that room only once or twice a year.

Immediately afterward he asked himself if his own death would be like that; probably it would, apart from the sheets being less impeccable (he knew that the sheets of those in their death agony are always dirty with spittle, discharges, marks of medicine), and it was to be hoped that Concetta, Carolina, and his other womenfolk would be more decently clad. But the same, more or less. As always, the thought of his own death calmed him as much as that of others disturbed him; was it perhaps because, when all was said and done, his own death would in the first place mean that of the whole world?

From Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun.
 The Jean-Baptiste Greuze painting that Don Fabrizio refers to as Death of the Just Man is actually titled The Son Punished or The Father’s Curse and the Punished Son.

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Hide-and-seek; whips (From Lampedusa’s The Leopard)

….Then silence would fall again, except for the scuffle of rats in the ceilings above, or the rustle of some centuries-old and forgotten letter sent wandering by the wind over the floor: excuses for pleasant frights, for the reassuring contact of flesh with flesh. And with them always was Eros, malicious and tenacious, drawing the young couple into a game full of risk and fun. Both of them were still very near childhood, and they enjoyed the game in itself, enjoyed being followed, being lost, being found again; but when they touched each other their sharpened senses would overwhelm them, and his five fingers entwined in hers with that gesture dear to uncertain sensualists, the gentle rub of fingertips on the pale veins of the back of the hand, confusing their whole being, preluding more insinuating caresses.

Once she had hidden behind an enormous picture propped on the floor, and for a short time Arturo Corbera at the Siege of Antioch formed a protection for the girl’s hopeful anxiety; but when she was found, with her smile veined in cobwebs and her hands veiled in dust, she was clasped tight, and though she kept on saying again and again, “No, Tancredi, no,” her denial was in fact an invitation, for all he was doing was staring with his blue eyes into her green ones. One luminous cold morning she was trembling in a dress that was still summery; he squeezed her to him, to warm her, on a sofa covered in tattered silk, her odorous breath moved the hair on his forehead; they were moments ecstatic and painful, during which desire became torment, restraints upon it a delight.

The rooms in the abandoned apartments had neither a definite layout nor a name, and like the explorers of the New World, they would baptize the rooms they crossed with the names of their joint discoveries. A vast bedroom in whose alcove stood the ghost of a bed adorned with a canopy hung with skeleton ostrich feathers was remembered afterward as “the feather room”; a staircase with steps of smooth crumbling slate was called by Tancredi “the staircase of the lucky slip.” A number of times they really did not know where they were; all this twisting and turning, backing and following, and pauses full of murmuring contact, made them lose their way so that they had to lean out of some paneless window to gather from an angle of the courtyard or a view of the garden which wing of the palace they were in. But sometimes they could not find their way even so, as the window did not give on to one of the great courts but on to some inner yard, anonymous itself and never entered, marked only by the corpse of some cat or the usual little heap of spaghetti and tomato sauce either vomited or flung there; and from another window they would find themselves looking into the eyes of some pensioned-off old maidservant. One afternoon inside a cupboard they found four chimes, that music which delighted the affected simplicity of the eighteenth century. Three of these, buried in dust and cobwebs, remained mute; but the last, which was more recent and shut tighter into its dark wooden box, started up its cylinder of bristling copper and the little tongues of raised steel suddenly produced a delicate tune, all in clear, silvery tones: the famous Carnival of Venice; they rhymed their kisses with those notes of disillusioned gaiety; and when their embrace loosened they were surprised to notice that the notes had ceased for some time and that their action had left no other trace than a memory of ghostly music.

Once the surprise was of a different kind. In one of the rooms in the old guest wing they noticed a door hidden by a cupboard; the centuries-old lock soon gave way to fingers pleasantly entwined in forcing it: behind it a long narrow staircase wound up in gentle curves of pink marble steps. At the top was another door, open, and covered with thick but tattered padding; then came a charming but odd little apartment, of six small rooms gathered around a medium-sized drawing room, all, including the drawing room, with floors of whitest marble, sloping away slightly toward a small lateral gutter. On the low ceilings were some very unusual reliefs in colored stucco, fortunately made almost indecipherable by damp; on the walls were big surprised-looking mirrors, hung too low, one shattered by a blow almost in the middle, and each fitted with contorted rococo candle brackets. The windows gave on to a segregated court, a kind of blind and deaf well, which let in a gray light and had no other openings. In every room and even in the drawing room were wide, too wide sofas, showing nails with traces of silk that had been torn away; spotty armrests; on the fireplaces were delicate intricate little marble intaglios, naked figures in paroxysms but mutilated by so’ me furious hammer. The damp had marked the walls high up and also low down at a man’s height, where it had assumed strange shapes, an odd thickness, dark tints. Tancredi, disturbed, would not let Angelica touch a cupboard on the wall of the drawing room, which he shut up himself. It was deep but empty, except for a roll of dirty stuff standing upright in a corner; inside was a bundle of small whips, switches of bull’s muscle, some with silver handles, others wrapped halfway up in a charming old silk, white with little blue stripes, on which could be seen three rows of blackish marks, and metal instruments for inexplicable purposes. Tancredi was afraid of himself too. “Let’s go, my dear, there’s nothing interesting here.” They shut the door carefully, went down the stairs again in silence, and put the cupboard back where it was before; and all the rest of that day Tancredi’s kisses were very light, as if given in a dream and in expiation.

From Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun.

Three Books (Possibly Cult Novels)

 

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Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz. English translation by Carolyn French and Nina Karsov. Trade paperback by Yale University Press, 1994. Cover design by Lorenzo Ottaviani. I reviewed Trans-Atlantyk here.

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Steps by Jerzy Kosinski. Another Vintage Contemporaries edition, 1988. Cover design by Lorraine Louie; illustration by Chris Moore.

I reviewed Steps here.

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The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis. English translation by Edith Grossman. NYRB, 2002. Cover design by Katy Homans; cover photograph by Sally Mann.

Biblioklept reviews here, here, and here.

These three books may or may not be cult novels.

I’ve been thinking a bit about the term cult novel, a term which used to fascinate me in my twenties, but one which I’m beginning to suspect doesn’t really mean anything, or seems to have a different value, anyway, now.

I’ve been thinking about cult novels because I’m nearing the end of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s excellent excellent excellent 1958 novel The Leopard, which someone somewhere (who? where?) told me was a cult novel. I have no idea why The Leopard should be a cult novel. Where is its cult? By cult do we just mean “underread” or “underappreciated”?

It seems that the internet has dramatically changed what a cult novel might be/mean. (I wrote a bit about cult novels on this blog years ago, and I would expand the rough list I outlined were I to update that lousy post, which I won’t). The three books I picked today might be cult novels in the sense that they might be underappreciated/underread—although that statement strikes me as absurd somehow! (Steps won the National Book Award).

I guess a real cult novel would be a novel, or perhaps author, who inspires a cultishly devoted base of readers (is this what the kids call a fandom? Jesus Christ). And because of the internet, cults can be big now: Pynchon, Ballard, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, Philip K. Dick. Such writers and their novels have inspired obsessive fans. But the works of these novelists are hardly samizdat. Look at PK Dick—think of how much of his work, his writing, his ideas have seeped into mainstream culture? So is it cult then?

Or am I really just stuck on an older connotation of “cult,” of cult classic, I guess, which was just a way of saying odd + underappreciated + hard to find? Which is to say in modes both literal and figurative: Inaccessible

And so well then when I say that the internet has changed what a cult novel is/isn’t, I suppose I’m simply noting access—access to the material books, access to fellow readers, access to forums, access to analysis, etc. And I suppose that’s, uh, good.

I considered hammering out a list of cult novels here at the end of this pointless little riff, but it would be too long. Besides, I really have no idea what a cult novel is anymore. I threw the question out there on Twitter, asking for examples, and got a wonderful wild range of responses, but the best response came almost immediately:

Hurrah for more intense pocket universes than ever before.

Literary criticism (From Lampedusa’s The Leopard)

Now that Don Fabrizio felt serene again, he had gone back to his habit of evening reading. In autumn, after the Rosary, as it was now too dark to go out, the family would gather around the fire waiting for dinner, and the Prince, standing up, would read out to his family extracts from modern novels, exuding dignified benevolence from every pore. Those were years when novels were helping to form those literary myths which still dominate European minds today; but in Sicily, partly because of its traditional impermeability to anything new, partly because of the general ignorance of any language whatsoever, partly also, it must be said, because of a nagging and strict Bourbon censorship which worked through the Customs, no one had heard of Dickens, Eliot, Sand, Flaubert, or even Dumas. A couple of Balzac’s volumes had, through various subterfuges, it is true, reached the hands of Don Fabrizio, who had appointed himself family censor; he had read them and then lent them, in disgust, to a friend he didn’t like, saying that they were by a writer with a talent undoubtedly vigorous but also extravagant and “obsessed” (today he would have said “monomaniacal”): a hasty judgment, obviously, but not without a certain acuteness. The level of these readings was therefore somewhat low, conditioned as it was by respect for the virginal shyness of the girls, the religious scruples of the Princess, and the Prince’s own sense of dignity, which would have energetically refused to let his united family hear any “filth.”

From Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun.

 

A review of Lucia Berlin’s excellent short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women

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The 43 stories that comprise Lucia Berlin’s excellent collection A Manual for Cleaning Women braid together to reveal a rich, dirty, sad, joyous world—a world of emergency rooms and laundromats, fancy hotels and detox centers, jails and Catholic schools. Berlin’s stories jaunt through space and time: rough mining towns in Idaho; country clubs and cotillions in Santiago, Chile; heartbreak in New Mexico and New York; weirdness in Oakland and Berkeley; weirdness in Juarez and El Paso.

The center of this world—I’ll call it the Berlinverse, okay?—the center of the Berlinverse is Lucia Berlin herself. “Her life was rich and full of incident, and the material she took from it for her stories was colorful, dramatic and wide-ranging,” writes Lydia Davis in her foreword to Manual. (You can read Davis’s foreword at The New Yorker; it’s a far more convincing case for Berlin than I can manage here). Yes, Berlin’s life was crammed with incident—-so perhaps the strangest moment in A Manual for Cleaning Women is the three-page biography that appends the volume. The bio is strange in how un-strange it is, how it neatly lays out in a few paragraphs the information of Berlin’s life, information we already know as real, as true, from reading the preceding stories. She’s large, she contains multitudes.

Truth is a central theme in these stories. In “Here It Is Saturday,” a version of Berlin teaches fiction writing to prison inmates. She tells them, “you can lie and still tell the truth.” (As I describe the scenario for “Here It Is Saturday” I realize how hokey it sounds—I suppose there are lots of potentially-hokey moments in Berlin’s stories, yet her cruelty and humor deflate them).

In a crucial moment in the late short story “Silence,” the narrator tells us,

I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don’t actually ever lie.

The narrator of “Silence” is, of course, a version of Berlin—fictionalized, sure, a persona, yep, an exaggeration, maybe—but she’s utterly believable.

“Silence” is one of many stories that repeat aspects of Berlin’s biography—we get little Lu’s childhood, a father away at the big war, a drunkenly absent mother, a bad drunk grandfather. A Syrian friend betrayed. Nuns. A good drunk uncle. A hit and run. Am I rushing through it? Sorry. To read Berlin is to read this material again and again, in different ways, through different perspectives and filters. “Silence” is particularly interesting to me because it combines material from two earlier stories not collected in Manual: “Stars and Saints” and “The Musical Vanity Boxes,” both published in Black Sparrow Press’s 1990 collection Homesick. These earlier stories are sharper, rawer, and dirtier; the later story—and Berlin’s later stories in general—strike me as more refined. Wiser, perhaps, sussing grace from abject memory.

Berlin’s recollections of the different figures in her life drive these stories, and it’s fascinating to see how key memories erupt into different tales. Berlin’s narrator’s alcoholic grandfather, a famous Texan dentist, sometimes emerges as a sympathetic if grotesque comedic figure, only to appear elsewhere as an abusive monster. Cousin Bella Lynn is a comedic foil in “Sex Appeal,” but an important confidante in “Tiger Bites” (a story of a visit to an abortion provider in Juarez). Several stories center on sister Sally, dying of cancer.

Berlin’s narrator’s four sons (Berlin had four sons) are often in the margins of the stories, but when she mines material from them the results are painful and superb. I note “her sons” in the previous line, but what I really want to note is the friend of one of her sons, a boy she calls Jesse. He shows up in the short “Teenage Punk,” where he’s our narrator’s date to go look at some cranes in a ditch at sunrise. That’s pure Lucia Berlin—weird abject unnatural natural beauty.:

We crossed the log above the slow dark irrigation ditch, over to the clear ditch where we lay on our stomachs, silent as guerrillas. I know, I romanticize everything. It is true though that we lay there freezing for a long time in the fog. It wasn’t fog. Must have been mist from the ditch or maybe just the steam from our mouths.

That brief paragraph showcases much of her technique: Inflation-deflation-resolution-hesitation. The high, low, the in-between. Jesse shows up again in one of the volume’s lengthier (and more painful) tales, “Let Me See You Smile,” a story of police brutality, scandal, and alcoholism.

Most of the stories in Manual are in some way about alcoholism, with the ur-narrator’s mother’s alcoholism haunting the book. In the near-elegy “Panteón de Dolores,” the narrator finds her mother drunk and weeping. When she tries to comfort her mother, she’s rejected; the mother wails, “…the only romance in my life is a midget lamp salesman!” The narrator-daughter reflects, “this sounds funny now, but it wasn’t then when she was sobbing, sobbing, as if her heart would break.” Berlin often punctures her punchlines. In “Mama,” Berlin consoles her dying sister Sally by weaving a fictional ditty about their mother, a paragraph that ends, “She has never before known such happiness.” The story assuages some of her sister’s grief by transmuting it into a realization of love, but the narrator? — “Me…I have no mercy.”

And yet a search for some kind of mercy, some kind of grace propels so many of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women. The three-pager “Step,” set in a half-way house, details the residents watching a boxing match between Wilfred Benitez and Sugar Ray Leonard. The recovering (and not-so-recovering) drunks “weren’t asking Benitez to win, just to stay in the fight.” He stays in to the last round before touching his right knee to the canvas. Berlin’s stand-in whispers, “God, please help me.” In “Unmanageable,” the alcoholic narrator finds some measure of grace from others. First from the NyQuil-swilling drunks who share saltine crackers with her in a kind of communion as they wait, shaking, for the liquor store to open at six a.m. And then, from her children. Her oldest son hides her car keys from her.

The same sons are on the narrator’s mind at the end of “Her First Detox,” in which Berlin’s stand-in’s plan for the future takes the form of a shopping list. She’ll cook for her boys when she gets home:

Flour. Milk. Ajax. She only had wine vinegar at home, which, with Antabuse, could throw her into convulsions. She wrote cider vinegar on the list.

Berlin’s various viewpoint characters don’t always do the best job of taking care of themselves, but taking care of other people is nevertheless a preoccupation with the tales in Manual. “Lu” takes care of her dying father in “Phantom Pain”; there’s sick sister Sally; the four sons, of course; a heroin-addicted husband; assorted strays, sure; an old couple in failing health in “Friends”; and the disparate patients who wander in and out of these tales, into doctor’s offices, into emergency rooms, into detox clinics.

And the cleaning women. Caretakers too, of a sort. Laundromats and washing machines are motifs throughout A Manual for Cleaning Women, and it’s no surprise that “Ajax” made the shopping list from “Her First Detox” that I quoted above. An easy point of comparison for Berlin’s writing is the so-called “dirty realism” of Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, and Carson McCullers. But if Berlin’s realism is dirty, what are we to make of her concern with cleaning, with detox?

As a way of (non-)answering this question, here’s the entirety of the shortest tale in A Manual for Cleaning Women, “Macadam”:

When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.

I’d chew ice when the lemonade was finished, swaying with my grandmother on the porch swing. We gazed down upon the chain gang paving Upson Street. A foreman poured the macadam; the convicts stomped it down with a heavy rhythmic beat. The chains rang; the macadam made the sound of applause.

The three of us said the word often. My mother because she hated where we lived, in squalor, and at least now we would have a macadam street. My grandmother just so wanted things clean — it would hold down the dust. Red Texan dust that blew in with gray tailings from the smelter, sifting into dunes on the polished hall floor, onto her mahogany table.

I used to say macadam out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.

There’s so much in those four paragraphs. Berlin collapses geography and genealogy into ten sentences: daughter, mother, grandmother. Texas, “squalor,” convicts. A road—a new road. Berlin’s narrator converts crushed stone into caviar, then the ice left over after sweet lemonade—and then into the magic of a friend. There’s a lot of beauty in dirt.

I could go on and on about A Manual for Cleaning Women—about how its loose, sharp tales are far more precise than their jagged edges suggest, about its warmth, its depth, its shocking humor, its sadness, its insight. But all I really mean to say is: It’s great, it’s real, it’s true—read it.

A Manual for Cleaning Women is new in trade paperback from Picador. You can read the first story in the collection, “Angel’s Laundromat,” at Picador’s website.

 

 

Delany’s Dhalgren, Forrest’s Eden (Books acquired, 8.09.2016)

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Picked up Samuel Delany’s famous/infamous novel Dhalgren today. I had an Audible credit and used it to get the audiobook (35 hours!), but as always, I need to do a tandem thing.

The book is enormous. I also hate the generic “prestige” cover (with a quote from Jonathan Lethem, of course). Okay, “hate” is a bit strong a verb, but c’mon—I mean look at this “genre” cover for Delany’s novel Driftglass that was right by the used copy of Dhalgren I picked up:

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I also picked up Leon Forrest’s 1973 debut novel There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden on the recommendation of a dude I follow on Twitter who has the Good Taste. From Ralph Ellison’s introduction:

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A garden for the blind (From Lampedusa’s The Leopard)

With a wildly excited Bendicò bounding ahead of him he went down the short flight of steps into the garden. Enclosed between three walls and a side of the house, its seclusion gave it the air of a cemetery, accentuated by the parallel little mounds bounding the irrigation canals and looking like the graves of very tall, very thin giants. Plants were growing in thick disorder on the reddish clay, flowers sprouted in all directions, and the myrtle hedges seemed put there to prevent movement rather than guide it. At the end a statue of Flora speckled with yellow-black lichen exhibited her centuries-old charms with an air of resignation; on each side were benches holding quilted cushions, also of gray marble; and in a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to, exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.

But the garden, hemmed and almost squashed between these barriers, was exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy, and slightly putrid, like the aromatic liquids distilled from the relics of certain saints; the carnations superimposed their pungence on the formal fragrance of roses and the oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners; and somewhere beneath it all was a faint smell of mint mingling with a nursery whiff of acacia and the jammy one of myrtle; from a grove beyond the wall came an erotic waft of early orange blossom.

It was a garden for the blind: a constant offense to the eyes, a pleasure strong if somewhat crude to the nose. The Paul Neyron roses, whose cuttings he had himself bought in Paris, had degenerated; first stimulated and then enfeebled by the strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth, burned by apocalyptic Julies, they had changed into things like flesh-colored cabbages, obscene and distilling a dense, almost indecent, scent which no French horticulturist would have dared hope for. The Prince put one under his nose and seemed to be sniffing the thigh of a dancer from the Opera. Bendicò, to whom it was also proffered, drew back in disgust and hurried off in search of healthier sensations amid dead lizards and manure.

But the heavy scents of the garden brought on a gloomy train of thought for the Prince: “It smells all right here now; but a month ago… ”

He remembered the nausea diffused throughout the entire villa by certain sweetish odors before their cause was traced: the corpse of a young soldier of the Fifth Regiment of Sharpshooters who had been wounded in the skirmish with the rebels at San Lorenzo and come up there to die, all alone, under a lemon tree. They had found him lying face downward in the thick clover, his face covered in blood and vomit, his nails dug into the soil, crawling with ants; a pile of purplish intestines had formed a puddle under his bandoleer. Russo, the agent, had discovered this object, turned it over, covered its face with his red kerchief, thrust the guts back into the gaping stomach with some twigs, and then covered the wound with the blue flaps of the cloak; spitting continuously with disgust, meanwhile, not right on, but very near the body. And all this with meticulous care. “Those swine stink even when they’re dead.” It had been the only epitaph to that derelict death.

After other soldiers, looking bemused, had taken the body away (and yes, dragged it along by the shoulders to the cart so that the puppet’s stuffing fell out again), a De Profundis for the soul of the unknown youth was added to the evening Rosary; and now that the conscience of the ladies in the house seemed placated, the subject was never mentioned again.

The Prince went and scratched a little lichen off the feet of the Flora and then began to stroll up and down; the lowering sun threw an immense shadow of him over the gravelike flower beds.

From Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun.

Three Books

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. First edition mass market paperback from Ace Books, 1969. The marvelous Klimtish cover is by Leo & Diane Dillon. I wrote about the novel here.

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The Order of the Day by Marcio Souza. English translation by Thomas Colchie. First edition mass market trade paperback by Bard/Avon, 1986. No illustrator credited.

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Neuromancer by William Gibson. 1988 mass market trade paperback by Ace Books. Cover art by Richard Berry. A friend foisted this on me; I never gave it back, which was wrong. I don’t think I can overstate how important this book (and the following two in the so-called “Sprawl Trilogy”) were to me in the late nineties. In fact, Gibson was one of the first things I wrote about on this blog. (Don’t click on that link; the early days of this blog were Bad).

I finally break down and buy Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Book acquired August 1, 2016)

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Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls has been on my radar forever (or at least since its publication in the late nineties), but I’d resisted picking it up until earlier this week—maybe because of its awful, awful cover (good lord), or maybe because of that off-putting subtitle, which just seems to scream, Boomer mythologies!

But after watching William Friedkin’s Sorcerer a third time, I wanted to read about the film, and Biskind’s book was easy to find used and so well hey. Of course I skipped to the index, and found enough pages on Sorcerer to take the book home. I read those pages at home, right away, with mounting disappointment, or frustration, rather. Biskind’s dishy, bitchy style is annoying, (although I assuaged the bad prose by reading the whole thing, as best as I could, in a Robert Evans accent) and beyond the bad prose is a paucity of information about, like, the actual filmmaking behind Sorcerer. It might be interesting to some people that Friedkin was a total asshole to his girlfriend, but I guess I wanted to know about the work, y’know? At least there’s a whole bunch of stuff on Heaven’s Gate too.

So well anyway, I read the introduction to the book and I can see how it does seem promising, but there’s also something deeply frustrating about Biskind’s approach (from the outset, anyway)—he seems to want to valorize the Baby Boomers at every turn. He introduces the first wave of the heroes of his book at “white men born in the mid- to late ’30s” without a hint of irony, noting that the “second wave was made up of the early boomers.” Of course it’s the names of the heroes that attract the reader: Bogdanovich, Coppola, Nichols, Scorsese, Malick, De Palma, etc. (It’s also sort of fascinating that even in the late ’90s, Biskind, a few paragraphs later, parses the “new group of actors” he lauds (Nicholson, De Niro, Keitel, et al) from “the women,” the “new faces.” Yeesh). My guess is that I’ll pick at this book as I watch and/or re-watch the films of the decade it valorizes—the films of the ’70s—the films that it so boomerishly insists were The Last Great Golden Age of Film Never to Be Replicated Again, Nope, That’s All Folks.

Here’s the trailer for Friedkin’s Sorcerer (the soundtrack is by Tangerine Dream, who also scored Michael Mann’s 1981 film Thief. Mann is not indexed in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls):

 

 

I Will Send Rain (Book acquired, some time at the end of July, 2016)

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I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows is new in hardback from Henry Holt & Co. Their blurb:

Annie Bell can’t escape the dust. It’s in her hair, covering the windowsills, coating the animals in the barn, in the corners of her children’s dry, cracked lips. It’s 1934 and the Bell farm in Mulehead, Oklahoma is struggling as the earliest storms of The Dust Bowl descend. All around them the wheat harvests are drying out and people are packing up their belongings as storms lay waste to the Great Plains. As the Bells wait for the rains to come, Annie and each member of her family are pulled in different directions. Annie’s fragile young son, Fred, suffers from dust pneumonia; her headstrong daughter, Birdie, flush with first love, is choosing a dangerous path out of Mulehead; and Samuel, her husband, is plagued by disturbing dreams of rain.

As Annie, desperate for an escape of her own, flirts with the affections of an unlikely admirer, she must choose who she is going to become. With her warm storytelling and beautiful prose, Rae Meadows brings to life an unforgettable family that faces hardship with rare grit and determination. Rich in detail and epic in scope, I Will Send Rain is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, filled with hope, morality, and love.

Three Books

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A Test of Poetry by Louis Zukofsky. Trade paperback (cardstock cover) by Jargon/Corinth, 1964. A Test of Poetry is a fun companion piece to Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading.

I don’t usually post the back covers when I do these Three Books posts, but:

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The cover design is by Jargon Society poet/publisher Jonathan Williams. The book includes this note:

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Symbols of Transformation: Volume 1–An Analysis of the Prelude to a Case of Schizophrenia by C.G. Jung. English translation by Beatrice M. Hinkle. Harper Torchbook, cardstock, 1962. Cover design by Anita Walker. I read this book in 2004 or 2005. It is not really a book about psychoanalysis; it’s about interpretive mythology, I suppose. Or better yet, a poem with pictures.

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Composers of Tomorrow’s Music by David Ewen. Dodd, Mead & Company/Apollo Editions, 1971. No designer/illustrator credited. I bought this maybe 15 years ago from a guy selling books off a card table somewhere in the Garden District in New Orleans. Chapters on the usual suspects—Cage, Xenakis, Boulez, etc. Charles Ives.

As a rule, never work for friends (Lucia Berlin)

Linda’s today.

(Cleaning women: As a rule, never work for friends. Sooner or later they resent you because you know so much about them. Or else you’ll no longer like them, because you do.)

But Linda and Bob are good, old friends. I feel their warmth even though they aren’t there. Come and blueberry jelly on the sheets. Racing forms and cigarette butts in the bathroom. Notes from Bob to Linda: “Buy some smokes and take the car . . . dooh-dah doo-dah.” Drawings by Andrea with Love to Mom. Pizza crusts. I clean their coke mirror with Windex.

It is the only place I work that isn’t spotless to begin with. It’s filthy in fact. Every Wednesday I climb the stairs like Sisyphus into their living room where it always looks like they are in the middle of moving.

I don’t make much money with them because I don’t charge by the hour, no carfare. No lunch for sure. I really work hard. But I sit around a lot, stay very late. I smoke and read The New York Times, porno books, How to Build a Patio Roof. Mostly I just look out the window at the house next door, where we used to live. 2129 1/2 Russell Street. I look at the tree that grows wooden pears Ter used to shoot at. The wooden fence glistens with BBs. The BEKINS sign that lit our bed at night. I miss Ter and I smoke. You can’t hear the trains during the day.

From Lucia Berlin’s short story “A Manual for Cleaning Women.” Collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women.

I just finished Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma, which is mostly about the problems of aristocrats. Digging into Berlin’s lovely dirty stories feels like an antidote. Balzac said that Stendhal’s novel contained a book on every page; each paragraph in Berlin is like its own little film: “Come and blueberry jelly on the sheets. Racing forms and cigarette butts in the bathroom…Drawings by Andrea with Love to Mom. Pizza crusts. I clean their coke mirror with Windex.” Good lord. img_3120

Another short report from The Charterhouse of Parma

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Robert Andrew Parker’s ilustration to Ch. 4 of The Charterhouse of Parma

After many, many false starts, I’ve finished Stendhal’s 1839 cult classic The Charterhouse of Parma.  (I read Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).

I really, really wanted to quit around Ch. 25 (of 28). I’ll admit at times I broke a rule I’d made nearly two decades ago, now: I allowed my mind to wander. I thought of other things: A variation on a muffin recipe I was planning to make for my kids. A possible review of William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer. Lunch. What book I might read next as an antidote to Charterhouse.

The end of the novel is an utter slog. No duels, no escapes. Just courtly intrigues and courtly romances. And ironic sermons. Then, in the last chapter, a new character shows up! Some dandy named Gonzo! Out of nowhere! To move the plot along! (Stendhal pulls a similar stunt in the back half of the novel, when it first starts to really drag—he brings in a lunatic-bandit-poet-assassin named Ferrante).

And then—okay, maybe this is something close to a spoiler, but I don’t think so—and then, Stendhal seems to get bored with his novel. In the last chapter, he skips a few years in a few sentences (this, in a novel where every damn decision each character frets over goes on and on for paragraphs) and then kills everyone (not really. But really, sorta. I mean, the last chapter of The Charterhouse of Parma almost feels like season six of Game of Thrones, where the action is accelerated at a pace that seems to ironize all the previous scheming and plotting).

Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over 50-something days (I think I read that somewhere…I’ve yet to read Howard’s afterword to the novel, or Balzac’s study…I’ll save those for later, after I remember the best bits of the novel more fondly). But where was I? Oh, yeah: Stendhal supposedly dictated Charterhouse over a two-month period, and I get the feeling he was getting bored with it there at the end. Which is in some ways appropriate, as The Charterhouse of Parma is all about boredom. Phrases like “boring,” “bored,” and “boredom” pop up again and again. There’s something wonderfully modernist (or Modernist) about that.

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Robert Andrew Parker’s ilustration to Ch. 11 of The Charterhouse of Parma

Of course all that boredom is punctuated with moments of wonderful action—battles and duels! Indeed, Charterhouse never really surpasses its fourth chapter, a strikingly modern depiction of the Battle of Waterloo.

Stendhal is great at conveying action and violence while stripping it from Romantic illusions—and at the same time, he presents those Romantic illusions, making them ironic (again—this is probably one of the first Modern novels, and I’m sure someone has already said that somewhere, but hey).

Stendhal is also wonderfully adept at capturing a human mind thinking. Whether it’s the Machiavellian machinations of Count Mosca, or our (ever)greenhorn hero Fabrizio, or the real hero of Charterhouse, Fabrizio’s aunt Gina, Stendhal takes pains to show his characters thinking through their problems and schemes. Not only do the heroes and villains of The Charterhouse of Parma think, they think about what other characters will think (about what they have thought…). The novel in some ways is about metacognition. But thought about thought may be a product of boredom. And it often produces boredom.

Balzac was a great admirer of Charterhouse, as was Italo Calvino, and countless writers too. Indeed, the novel is, I suppose, a cult favorite for writers, which makes sense: Stendhal crowds each page with such psychological realism, such rich life, that every paragraph seems its own novel. I’ll admit that by page 400 or so I was exhausted though.

I’ve noted here a few times that Charterhouse is a “Modernist” novel; perhaps “proto-Modernist” is the term I need. (Again—I’m sure that countless lit critics have sussed over this; pardon my ignorant American ass). And yet Charterhouse also points back at the novels before it, the serialized novels, the epistolary novels, the romances and histories and etceteras of the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries. My favorite lines of the novel were often our ironic narrator’s brief asides like, “Doubtless the reader grows tired…” or “The conversation went on for hours more in trivial detail…” or “The letter went on for pages more after the same fashion…” (These aren’t actual quotes, dear reader, but I think I offer a fair paraphrase here). Stendhal’s modernism, or Modernism, or prot0-Modernism, or whatever, is his wily irony, his winking at the novel’s formal characteristics. My own failing, then, is to perhaps want more of this. As I wrote last time I riffed on it, what I suppose I want is a postmodern condensation of The Charterhouse of Parma, such as Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “Eugénie Grandet,” which parodied Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet. 

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How much of Balzac’s novel is lovingly leapt through right here?!

This wish of mine is of course my failure, not the novels.

The Charterhouse of Parma is undoubtedly an oddity, a work of genius, often thrilling, and often an utter slog. I suppose I’m glad that I finally finished it after so many years of trying, but I’m not sure if I got what I wanted out of it. The failure is mine.

I’ll close with the novel’s final line though, which I adore:

TO THE HAPPY FEW

 

Three Books

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The Holy Terrors by Jean Cocteau. Translated from the French by Rosamond Lehman. Trade paperback by New Directions (ninth printing). Illustrations throughout by Cocteau. The cover design by David Ford adapts one of Cocteau’s original illustrations. I wish I had read this book when I was much younger than when I did read this book.

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The Hospital Ship by Martin Bax. First edition trade paperback from New Directions. Cover illustration by Michael Foreman, cover design by Gertrude Huston. The Hospital Ship is a cult novel with a cult so small that I’m not sure it exists, exactly. I wrote about the novel here a few years back.

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The Lime Twig by John Hawkes. Trade paperback by New Directions (sixteenth printing). Cover by Rudolph de Harak. I still haven’t read The Lime Twig so I picked it up the other day. If I had read it I could say, “These books are black and white and read all over.” (Forgive me forgive me forgive me…).

Two Brazilian sci-fi books (Books acquired, 7.21.2016)

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Yesterday, I spent over an hour browsing old sci-fi paperbacks at my favorite book store. I posted some pics of ones I didn’t pick up.

I couldn’t resist these two though, books by Brazilian authors I’d never heard of—The Order of the Day, a novel by Marcio Souza, and Murilo Rubiao’s collection The Ex-Magician and Other Stories.

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The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway’s Tale of Doomed Polyamory

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?”

“No.”

“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?”

“You’re Catherine.”

“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]

A short report from The Charterhouse of Parma

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Have you read Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet?

I haven’t, but I’ve read the Wikipedia summary.

I’ve also read, several times, Donald Barthelme’s 1968 parody, “Eugénie Grandet,” which is very very funny.

Have you read  Stendhal’s 1839 novel The Charterhouse of Parma?

After repeated false starts, I seem to be finishing it up (I’m on Chapter 19 of 28 of Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).

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.