Forster and the Literary Forebears

When EM Forster lectured at Trinity College in 1927, he opened his series of lectures on the novel (collected in Aspects of the Novel) provocatively:

No English novelist is as great as Tolstoy-that is to say, has given so complete a picture of man’s life, both on its domestic and heroic side. No English novelist has explored man’s soul as deeply as Dostoyevsky. And no novelist anywhere has analysed the modern consciousness as successfully as Marcel Proust.

Any thoughtful reader will instinctively see the idolatry in Forster’s remarks, and wish to argue for the English novelist, but ninety years later his charges stand, certainly in respect of English novels. The major figures that come to mind, Conrad, Graham Greene, Woolf, perhaps Doris Lessing, certainly not Forster himself, don’t adequately counter his specific charges.

What of the third more sweeping remark? Can we now favourably compare Proust’s insight into  modern consciousness with Beckett, Kafka or Mann?

Back to Calvino

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

I know Michael Wood as the author of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge and Yeats and Violence, both works of literary criticism that I liked very much. Wood both selected the letters in this edition and writes the introduction, saying that the letters reveal not Calvino’s “real self” but his “plain self”: “We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity.” (Jonathan Galassi recently reviewed this book for NYRB).

Along with the second volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography, this collection of Calvino’s letters is one of my two most eagerly anticipated books of 2013. Leafing through the index I can see fairly extensive referencing of Barthes, Borges, Kafka, Primo Levi, and Elsa Morante, but also that pretty much every writer I have time for gets at least one mention.

Pursuing a reference to Dante, I came across a lengthy letter addressed to literary critic Mario Motta. I quote a tantalising section below which precedes comments about Kafka, Dante, Conrad, Chekhov and Hemingway

[..] I notice that I’ve started classifying historical figures, writers, cultural movements into “paradisiacal” or not, As happens with these juxtapositions invented on the spot (which also have their own auxiliary usefulness, as long as one doesn’t dwell too long on them), the system always works out: the “paradisiacal” ones are all those I systematically distrust, the “non-paradisiacal” are those from whom I believe I’ve gathered some concrete teaching.

How many paradises there are, for instance, in recent literature! What can be more “paradisiacal” than Surrealism? And psychoanalysis? And Gidean irresponsibility? But even more significant, it seems to me, is the fact that the most coveted myth in modern literature is a regressive paradise: memory. And what can one say about the gelid paradise of the Hermeticists: absence?

Of course, the letters have disarmed me and demand my immediate attention.

Invoking the Sanity Clause

Fiorello: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Fiorello: Well, I don’t know…
Driftwood: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!

The first film that the Marx Brothers made for MGM, A Night at the Opera is on my list of top-5 films. The scene above never fails to brighten my mood.

I am invoking the Sanity Clause on my participation in the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge. Thirteen books down, I am beyond Passionate. With the last novella, I reached my delight ceiling and this challenge began to feel less like fun and more like hard slog. For the rest of the month I’ll be cheerleading Frances in her continued attempt to read all 42 novellas in the series.

The thirteen books I read for the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge were:

  1. Benito Cereno by Herman Melville
  2. First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  3. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain
  4. The Duel by Joseph Conrad
  5. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  6. My Life by Chekhov
  7. Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson
  8. Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance by Sholem Aleichem
  9. The Devil by Tolstoy
  10. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  11. The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy
  12. The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl by Italo Svevo
  13. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley
Two of the thirteen I disliked, and two I thought first-rate. The others brought pleasure. There are some brilliant stories in the remaining twenty-nine novellas, which I look forward to reading at a more leisurely pace. For now, having digested thirteen new stories and many more memorable characters, I have binged on fiction. It is time for a little poetry, some diaries perhaps and non-fiction.

The Duel by Joseph Conrad

Originally published in a volume entitled A Set of Six Conrad prefaces The Duel with his inspiration for the story:

Its pedigree is extremely simple. It springs from a ten-line paragraph in a small provincial paper published in the South of France. That paragraph, occasioned by a duel with a fatal ending between two well-known Parisian personalities, referred for some reason or other to the “well-known fact of two officers in Napoleon’s Grand Army having fought a series of duels in the midst of great wars and on some futile pretext. The pretext was never disclosed. I had therefore to invent it; and I think that, given the character of the two officers which I had to invent too, I have made it sufficiently convincing by the mere force of its absurdity.

In the preface Conrad adds that his intention was to capture the “Spirit of the Epoch.” This is especially evident in Conrad’s depiction of the French flight from the failed invasion of Russia. His two protagonists, fighting for the first time side-by-side, are part of the “so-called sacred battalion-a battalion recruited from the officers of all arms who no had no longer any troops to lead.” The absurdity and horror of the epoch is powerfully rendered.

From the French peak at the Battle of Austerlitz to the destruction of France as a major power, Conrad’s two characters meet repeatedly to defend their honour. Until reading The Duel I was unaware that Conrad’s story is the basis for Ridley Scott’s wonderful film The Duellists, a film I must have watched on half a dozen separate occasions. Scott’s film joins the small list of titles that are every bit as good as the book. So good that I was unable to remove Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel’s portrayal of D’Hubert and Feraud from my reading of The Duel. Keitel’s evocation of the brooding Feraud is outstanding.

How could this story fail to enchant?  Conrad writing of two swashbuckling Hussars with the Napoleonic Wars as its milieu. Simply wonderful.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

Thoughts a Third of the Way into The Prime of Life

After twelve days I am a third of the way through the second volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography The Prime of Life. This 1973 Penguin edition is over 600 pages of small, closely set type, but I am reading slowly, fountain pen in hand scribbling page after page of notes. I have no urge to rush.

Once again, de Beauvoir applies her considerable intellect to observing herself as a young adult. The view is microscopic and unswerving. I love the way de Beauvoir tackles self as a perpetual project.

If the bad habits which I attributed to Chantal irked me so much, that was not so much through having observed them in Simone Labourdin as because I had slipped into them myself: during the past two or three years I had more than once yielded to the temptation of embellishing my life history with false items of information. Alone in Marseille, I had more or less purged myself of this weakness, though I still reproached myself for it.

There’s gossip: Sartre and de Beauvoir enjoyed dissecting the personalities of friends and acquaintances. There’s much discussion about literature: her love of Stendhal, of Proust and Conrad, and the excited discovery of the translated works of Faulkner, Kafka and Dos Passos. de Beauvoir also explains why she chose literature over philosophical writing:

[…] I did not regard myself as a philosopher: I was well aware that the ease with which I penetrated to the heart of a [philosophical] text stemmed, precisely, from my lack of originality. In this field a genuinely creative talent is so rare that queries as to why I did not attempt to join the élite are surely otiose: it would be more useful to explain how certain individuals are capable of getting results from that conscious venture into lunacy known as a ‘philosophical system’ . . . I wanted to communicate the element of originality in my own experience. In order to do this successfully I knew it was literature towards which I must orientate myself.

As an aside I came across this wonderful blog that explores “the mind, method and masterpieces of David Markson through the marginalia found on the pages of the books in his personal library.” This snippet made me hoot with laughter:

On which Markson placed a checkmark next to a paragraph discussing the sex life of Nelson Algren:

“My introduction stops here. I knew very little about Algren’s sex life (or about my own, for that matter). I subsequently learned from Deirdre Bair’s Simone de Beauvoir (Summit, 1990) that he helped Miss de Beauvoir achieve her first orgasm. (The only person I ever helped achieve a first orgasm was good old me.) In Iowa City, Algren would refer to her as ‘Madame Yak Yak’ because she had given their relationship so much publicity.”

—-

“Nelson Algren, not Sartre, gave Simone de Beauvoir her first orgasm.”

Wrote Markson on pg. 30 of Reader’s Block, utilizing the above information.

Not only did Simone de Beauvoir not achieve her first orgasm with Sartre, but she was also taller than him, as Markson explained in Vanishing Point:

“Simone de Beauvoir was one inch taller than Sartre.” (Pg. 133).

Though there is absolutely no evidence to conclude that these facts are at all related—and how or why would they be?—am I the only one tempted to draw some sort of ridiculous conclusion?

A Library of Imaginary Books

In The Library at Night Alberto Manguel writes:

I keep a list of books that I feel are missing from my library and that I hope one day to buy, and another, more wishful than useful, of books I’d like to have but I don’t even know exist. In the second list are A Universal History of Ghosts, A Description of Life in the Libraries of Greece and Rome, a third Dorothy L. Sayers detective novel completed by Jill Paton Walsh, Chesterton on Shakespeare, a Summary of Averroes on Aristotle, a literary cookbook that draws its recipes from fictional dictionaries of food, a translation of Caldéron’s Life is a Dream by Anne Michaels (whose style, I feel, would suit Caldéron’s admirably, a History of Gossip, the True and Uncensored Memoirs of a Publishing Life by Louise Dennys, a well-researched, well-written biography of Borges, an account of what exactly happened during Cervante’s captivity in Algiers, an as-yet-unpublished novel by Joseph Conrad, the diary of Kafka’s Milena.