Arno Schmidt’s Leviathan

Last weekend I read the second of Arno Schmidt’s stories from the Collected Novellas. Entitled Leviathan or The Best of Worlds, this is a claustrophobic short story set during the Fall of Berlin. Presented as the diary of a dead German officer, the story recounts the attempted escape of a motley crew of soldiers and civilians on a steam train.

This being Schmidt, there is a lot more to the story than the high drama and love story that make up the surface reading. Read after Enthymesis, which I now gather (from poring over a Google-translated version of Arno Schmidt Stiftung) was issued with Leviathan and the following story, Gadir, as part of a triptych, the two stories assume a different texture, which I’m sure to reconsider after I read the last of the triptych.

In both cases what I’ve enjoyed most is trying to understand what Schmidt is attempting to say. Two reasonably short stories have sent me delving through reference books and web sites, and, autodidact that I am, taking some satisfaction from what I am learning and remembering along the way. I quite accept that this type of reading is a marginal taste. As Joyce wrote in The Dubliners: ““He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd, but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds.”

In Leviathan, as the train hurtles across Berlin, Schmidt’s narrator debates with an old man whether the universe is infinite or merely boundless. Without a working knowledge of Euclidean geometry, some of the nuances were lost on me, but I enjoyed picking through the philosophical and cosmological argument. If you’d care to recommend a decent layman’s book on the geometry of the universe, I’d be appreciative. Schmidt soon makes me aware of gaping holes in my understanding of cosmology.

Knowing that the two Schmidt stories are of a family makes it easier, to the extent anything is easy with Schmidt’s work, to grasp the references to the Book of Job; the argument that God is the creator of Leviathan and therefore responsible directly and indirectly for all moral evils. Enthymesis is then the projection of some or all of those evil attributes onto some person or thing below on earth, in this case within the Roman Empire or Nazi Germany. This reminds me that I’d like to read a decent translation of the Book of Job. Alfred Lord Tennyson called it “the greatest poem of ancient or modern times.” If you can recommend one that stands on its literary merits I’d be appreciative.

Arno Schmidt’s Enthymesis

This is a brief post on a short and complex story. Where does one begin with as singular a writer as Arno Schmidt? I chose to start with M. A. Orthofer’s very good dialogic introduction. Thus primed, I was ready to invest in Schmidt’s Collected Novellas, specifically the first of the collection, Enthymesis or H.I.H.Y.A. Schmidt’s story is twenty-one pages long. My notes run to six pages.

“Not by virtue of wisdom do poets create what they create,” write Plato in his Apology, “but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers , who also say many fine things but do not understand their meanings.”

Plato thought poets of all sorts inspired, not skilled, capable of little more than rousing empty emotions. Aristotle agreed that poetry arouses emotions but argued that poetry represents objects and actions in the world precisely as language represents ideas.

I suspect Schmidt was in Aristotle’s camp. In Enthymesis his narrator writes in his diary, “I have never understood what is supposed to so great about Plato; true, he does write elegantly at times, but his books are often page upon page of stylistic and philosophical banalities that one would hardly excuse from a schoolboy.” Schmidt’s narrator argues that Plato’s Republic is a proto-fascist state in which the masses are compelled to fight unjust wars that serve the interest of a ruling class.

It would be easy to glide through a surface-reading of Enthymesis but to do so would be to miss a richness of imagery and allusion so great that even DFW’s footnotes would scarcely do justice to all its complexity. Reading of Schmidt’s narrator denouncing Rome via Plato’s Republic, it is also useful to know that Enthymesis was the first story he wrote after the Second World War. The allusion is inescapable when writing of his narrator Philostratos leaving home for this expedition: “I’ll never forget that, how I stood before my books for the last time and looked through all the rooms, lost in thought; luckily there was still some schnapps in the locker, and my body did not torment me, I didn’t feel it, nor my light burden, and even the inferior part of my mind, the one that gives orders to this body draped shabbily over it, was separate from me.”

The NYT refers to the “obscurely entitled” Enthymesis: Or H.I.H.Y.A. and I can offer no accounting for a term that appears to refer to a Pauline doctrine taken from a passage in his Epistle to the Colossians.

Enthymesis is the diary of a disciple of Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-195 BC), one of a team of bematists sent out to calculate the distance between Syene and Alexandria in order to determine the circumference of the Earth. Tensions develop within the expeditionary team leaving the delirious narrator diarist Philostratos following a vision to a silver city in the African desert. Schmidt overlays that simple story with a layer of myth and dream, a condemnation of expansionist ideologies that undoubtedly references both the Roman Empire and Nazi Germany (and speaks to our present times), using exceedingly rich and beautiful language that will have the curious reader diving deeply into dictionaries, and reference books and sites.

Beyond that surface description of Enthymesis and my precursory rambling I’ll say no more. This story, though short, is too broad for an adequate treatment, to say nothing of my limitations. I cannot think of no better initiation to this powerfully erudite writer. I consider myself a neophyte of the cult.

Literature and Memory

“Narrative psychologists have pointed out that novels, with their conventionalised plot-lines and highly suggestive myths, provide powerful, often normative models for our own self-narration and interpretation of the past. Apparently, when interpreting our own experience, we constantly, and often unconsciously, draw on pre-existing narrative patterns as supplied by literature. Thus, by disseminating new interpretations of the past and new models of identity, fictions of memory may also influence how we, as readers, narrate our pasts and ourselves into existence.”

Birgit Neumann, The Literary Representation of Memory

M. A. Orthofer’s Arno Schmidt Introduction

MAOs_ArSch“If I have led one new reader to his work, I have done well.”

M. A. Orthofer fulfils his purpose and does not glory in what he has done in his introduction to Arno Schmidt and his work. I’m aware of Schmidt’s work from the Zetta Traum reading diary on one of my favourite blogs, and have been patiently awaiting an English translation.

Dialogue as a literary form has its genesis in the 5th and 4th century BCE culture of Athens. I gather it is a form often adopted by Schmidt, so no surprise that Orthofer choses to structure his introduction to Schmidt’s work in this form of discourse. Socrates chatted around the gyms and market-places of Athens.

In Orthofer’s case the literary dialogue takes place in an old-school pub with whiskey (‘wine: look elsewhere’). It is reflective, witty and superbly articulated, just the type of dialogue one always imagines but rarely discovers, but perhaps that is just in England. Although authoritative, the dialogue retains a slippery and playful tension, casual and erudite.

Orthofer, founder of the essential Complete Review blog has done well to lead this reader to Schmidt’s work. I’ll be dipping into Schmidt’s Collected Novellas, but that will be after sampling Julián Ríos’s work, a writer apparently influenced by Schmidt.

Hidden Art and Enchantment

Ovid is an excellent travelling companion; he endured, with good humour, my occasional lack of attention, but with wit and ferocity drew my concentration back to the page. His curiosity is a vital component of the sensibility required to compose a  long poem without a central hero or even a single topic beyond the idea of metamorphosis.

Truth and illusion are Ovid’s medium. But truth and illusion are ever slippery, especially in a world where the usual laws of nature are suspended. Illusion is always implicated in desire, with the risk of misunderstanding but in that risk there is the possibility of revealing truths.

At school we were required to learn the opening lines of the Second book of The Metamorphoses. I haven’t been able to source the particular translation but it’s likely that time has made different those lines I still recall. It is worth memorizing again those lines in which Ovid depicts the dazzling palace of Sol, the sun god:

“The soaring palace of the Sun, with all
its giant columns, was ablaze with gold
and bronze, as if aflame; its pediments
were crowned on high with polished ivory;
and glowing silver graced the double doors.”

Ivory’s beauty and value is recognised in the earliest Greek texts and mentioned in the Iliad and Odyssey to symbolise royal abundance. Ovid draws out its magical qualities in his highly metaphorical conception of the Pygmalion myth:

“Meanwhile, Pygmalion began to carve
in snow-white ivory, with wondrous art,
a female figure more exquisite than
a woman who was born could ever match.
That done, he falls in love with his own work.”

The Pygmalion story may be the finest Ovid wove in The Metamorphoses, a fable of truth and illusion as implicated in desire. In his story, the sensitive, lonely artist, unable to face the world becomes a recluse and falls in love with his own creation.

“The image seems, in truth, to be a girl;
one could have thought she was alive and keen
to stir, to move her limbs, had she not been
too timid: with his art, he’d hidden art.
He’s enchanted and, within his heart,
the likeness of a body now ignites
a flame.”

How much Ovid portrays within just a few lines. An absolute work of art displays no vestiges of art but is genuine and enchanting in its own right. Once a work of art is completed, its future is independent of its maker. In the alternative universe of The Metamorphoses, Pygmalion gets his girl:

At once, Pygmalion, at home again,
seeks out the image of the girl; he bends
over his couch; he kisses her. And when
it seems her lips are warm, he leans again
to kiss her; and he reaches with his hands
to touch her breasts. The ivory has lost
its hardness; now his fingers problem; grown soft,
the statue yields beneath his sculptors’s touch,
just as Hymettian wax beneath the sun
grows soft and, moulded by the thumb, takes on
so many varied shapes—in fact, becomes
more pliant as one plies it.”

I’m reminded of Ryszard Kapuściński’s Travels with Herodotus in which he writes “People sit around the fire and tell stories.” He continues:

“Later, these will be called legends and myths, but in the instant when they are first being related and heard, the tellers and the listeners believe in them as the holiest of truths, absolute reality.

They listen, the fire burns, someone adds more wood, the flames’ renewed warmth quickens thought, awakens the imagination. The spinning of tales is almost unimaginable without a fire crackling somewhere nearby, or without the darkness of a house illuminated by an oil lamp or a candle. The fire’s light attracts, unites, galvanizes attentions. The flame and community. The flame and history. The flame and memory.”

This is how I read Ovid and I like this drawing back to sit around the camp fire with such a bookish and witty story teller. Book Eleven will be my evening’s reading, no longer travelling but no less in need of such an excellent companion.

Ovid’s Envy

Ovid’s personification of Envy is powerfully vivid, animated with gesture, diet, sounds and colour. It is a remarkable portrait, painterly, even filmic. Its depiction of Envy evokes its malignant nature. This is from Allen Mandelbaum’s rather beautiful translation.

..There within,
she saw that Envy was intent upon
a meal of viper flesh, the meat that fed
her vice. Minerva turned aside her eyes.
But Envy sluggishly rose from the ground,
leaving the half-chewed dregs of serpents’ flesh
and coming forward with her faltering steps.
And when she saw the splendid goddess dressed
in gleaming armor, Envy moaned: her face
Contracted as she sighed. That face is wan,
that body shriveled; and her gaze is not
direct; her teeth are filled with filth and rot;
her breast is green with gall, and poison coats
her tongue. She never smiles except when some
sad sight brings her delight; she is denied
sweet sleep, for she is too preoccupied,
forever vigilant; when men succeed,
she is displeased – success means her defeat.
she gnaws at others and at her own self—
her never-ending, self-inflicted hell.

Not Destined to Dispel the Cloud

This weekend I was fortunate to find, and unable to resist, a two-volume Robert Riviere edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which I once read, but so long ago that all I recall is an atmosphere. I have a suspicion that Johnson is more read about than read, so I intend to take an opportunity to read my tercentenary edition of The Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson introduced and edited by his most recent biographer Peter Martin. 

It’s likely that I’ll read Martin’s Johnson, which presents Johnson as ‘”one of the most advanced liberals of his time”: a harsh critic of imperialism, a lifelong defender of the poor, a protofeminist and a scourge of aristocratic effrontery.’ Some time ago I read Walter Jackson Bate’s great biography of Johnson, so loved by Beckett that he implored Anne Atik to keep her copy. I’ve read a few of Johnson’s primary texts including his novel Rasseslas, and it takes no time at all to be swept up in the embrace of his wit and keen intelligence.

The following passage is extracted from his essay entitled The necessity and danger of looking into futurity, and should be framed and mounted above the desk of aspirant writers:

It may not be unfit for him who makes a new entrance into the lettered world, so far to suspect his own powers, as to believe that he may possibly deserve neglect; that nature may not have qualified him much to enlarge or embellish knowledge, nor sent him forth entitled by indisputable superiority to regulate the conduct of the rest of mankind; that, though, the world must be granted to be yet in ignorance, he is not destined to dispel the cloud, nor to shine out as one of the luminaries of life. For this suspicion, every catalogue of a library will furnish sufficient reason; as he will find it crowded with names of men who, though now forgotten, were once no less enterprising or confident than himself, equally pleased with their own productions, equally caressed by their patrons, and flattered by their friends.

Jane Bowles’s Plain Pleasures

Curiosity about Jane Bowles compelled me to track down a selection of her letters, which I intend to read in parallel with the short stories in the Collected Works.

The first of the short stories I read was Plain Pleasures, which escalates from a subtle tale of social reserve to what appears to be a story about rape. Like Kleist’s The Marquise of O, the rape is not represented directly. Bowles suggests it with a single sentence, immediately transforming a seemingly simple tale into what becomes a barbed, disturbing story.

Bowles takes the story from that single sentence not to a dark place, but to one of emotional and possibly sexual fulfilment. It is a sly work of considerable psychological complexity that, like Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies reveals a silence at its core.

Reading Plain Pleasures immediately makes sense of Joy Williams’s comment in the preface to this collection: ‘Reading Jane Bowles is making the acquaintance not with dread but with dread’s sister, perhaps—a grave, absurd disquietude.’

In The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson describes this story as a ‘quietly brutal, fourteen-page masterpiece’, a verdict to which I can only agree. Nelson adds of Bowles:

It isn’t so much that Bowles is out to tell us that the world is a cruel and cold place, and isn’t it a pity. Like many artists of cruelty, she is no philosopher. She is roaming a world of balloons, armed with a pin.

Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies

In a letter to her husband, Jane Bowles wrote, ‘Men are all outside, not interesting. They have no mystery. Women are profound and mysterious—and obscene.’ This conception of the world is the orbit of Jane Bowles’s only novel Two Serious Ladies.

It is a decidedly odd story, one that seduced me almost immediately as I fell under the spell of its highly mannered vocal inflections. Bowles’s two serious ladies refuse to settle for a life in which all is reduced to a state of acquiescence and uniformity. Bowles suggests two possible responses to a world her characters find profoundly alienating, to seek redemption through generosity and sacrifice, or withdrawal into happiness and sensual pleasure.

Written in 1943, Bowles’s story feels ahead of its time, bold in its treatment of sex as a calculated gesture rather than an erotic response or a significant human connection. I don’t know much about Bowles’s life, but that it is her only completed novel, and the striking similitude between the two serious ladies, suggests a distinctly autobiographical novel. To quote Julien Gracq, “I’m always happy when I have the impression of surprising the author hot in her tracks and as though about to move out.”

Obscure books—for some—are a kind of crossword puzzle

I loathe the day a manuscript is sent to the publisher, because on that day the people one has loved die; they become what they are—petrified, fossil organisms for others to study and collect. I get asked what I mean by this and that. But what I wrote is what I meant. If I wasn’t clear in the book, it shouldn’t be clear now.

I find that Americans, especially the kind of people who write and ask questions, have a strangely pragmatic view of what books are. Perhaps because of the miserable heresy that creative writing can be taught (‘creative’ is here a euphemism for ‘initiative’), they seem to believe that a writer always knows exactly what he’s doing. Obscure books, for them, are a kind of crossword puzzle. Somewhere, they feel, in some number of a paper they missed, all the answers have been given to all the clues.

They believe, in short, that a book is like a machine; that if you have the knack, you can take it to bits.

John Fowles, writing in 1966, an essay from Wormholes, written just before releasing The French Lieutenant’s Woman for fossilisation publication.

Man finds it easier to imitate

“Habit is everything, even in love,” says Vauvenargues, and you remember La Rochefoucauld’s maxim? “How many men would never have known love if they had never heard of love?” Are we not justified in asking: How many would never be jealous, if they did not hear jealousy spoken about, and had not persuaded themselves that it was imperative to be jealous?
Yes, convention is the great breeder of falsehood. How many are forced to play their life long a part strangely foreign to themselves? And how difficult it is to discern in ourselves a feeling not previously described, labelled, and present before us as a model! Man finds it easier to imitate everything than to invent anything. How many are content to live their lives warped by untruth, and find, none the less, in the very falsity of convention more comfort and less need for effort than in straightforward affirmation of their personal feelings! Such affirmation would require of them an effort of invention utterly beyond them.

Reading André Gide’s Dostoevsky I am reminded again to read Gide’s journals that I bought after reading of Sontag’s admiration. Like his subject, Gide possesses acute psychological insight.

Gide’s novel, Strait Is the Gate, which I read twice, is full of subtle truth. I still recall the mood the novel evoked in me. Incidentally, my edition of Strait Is the Gate was translated by Dorothy Bussy, sister of Lytton Strachey, whose letters to Gide are also rather amusing.

The Power of Memoirs from the House of the Dead

Sometimes I think I ought abstain from fiction, that my melancholic nature leaves me susceptible to fiction’s power to destabilise. Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of Dead is dangerous for its fiction is a thin disguise, its unfolding of oppression and monotony carries none of the nonsense of fiction. Sometimes I think I ought to read more fiction, that my melancholic nature leaves me susceptible to fiction’s power to disrupt and superimpose itself onto reality.

Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, translated by Jessie Coulson, is coldly objective. Its coolness and monotony saturated the ten days it has taken to slowly marinate in its journalistic spirit. ‘Freedom, a new life, resurrection from the dead . . . What a glorious moment!’ I feel the glorification, the lifting of a period of dull despondency.

In Memoirs from the House of the Dead are the bones of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Without the raw life of the zone—the house of the dead—neither of those glorious later novels are possible, both represent the poetic form of Dostoyevsky’s four years of existential hell as a convict.

I want to see a Tarkovsky interpretation of Memoirs from the House of the Deadonly that director could fully capture Dostoyevsky’s intense self-disgust but also the brutal honesty of the meaninglessness of life.

Dostoyevsky’s Chaos and Form

Reading Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead and some relevant parts of Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-59 brings into focus what I think I find most interesting in Dostoevsky’s novels. The narrative texture of Memoirs from the House of the Dead is very different from his other novels in that Dostoevsky avoids didacticism and narrates using what is almost a direct reportage style. Nowadays we’d classify it as fictionalised autobiography.

The flat narrative texture is far less forgiving and shows up the imperfections in Dostoevsky’s form to a greater degree than the other novels. It recalls the Beckett quote that I wrote about once before:

…there will be new form…and this new form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else…That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.

In a sense, Dostoevsky steals a march on Beckett’s 1961 comments by finding a form that accommodates his chaotic themes, characters, all the stuff he chucks into his narrative. Style and artistry are secondary to his psychological intuition. The insight that lies within Dostoevsky’s ideas and thoughts are what makes his novels so interesting, and so worthwhile to read and ponder.

Nabokov’s Tall Tales

There are footnotes that bewitch, excite and then leave you a happier person than you were before. I’m slowing down my reading of Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead by reading relevant parts of Frank’s Dostoyevsky, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-59.

In a footnote, Frank tells of a certain General I. A. Nabokov, great-great uncle of Vladimir Nabokov, who was commandant of the fortress in which Dostoevsky underwent solitary confinement after his 1848 arrest. According to Nabokov, his illustrious relative lent books to Dostoevsky, which Frank questions saying that no evidence exists for Nabokov’s fantasy that his ancestor loaned Dostoevsky books. Frank writes: ‘Perhaps all it means is that Dostoevsky borrowed books from the prison library.’

It is an amusing story because of Nabokov’s well-known disdain—in my view a philistine stance—for Dostoevsky and his fondness for parodying him.

Riddle of Life and Dostoyevsky Translation

Translators are modern day alchemists, trying to generate gold from gold without introducing impurity. Translate with absolute fidelity and lose the rhythm or retain the emotional power by using some versatility and inventiveness? One needs to be a writer of some talent, yet have bags of humility.

Before reading Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, also known as House of the Dead or Notes from a Dead House, I compared three translations side by side. The three sentences below are quite instructive, but, to be honest, the translated titles were almost sufficient to make the case. Jessie Coulson’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead is unquestionably the most aesthetically pleasing title; Constance Garnett’s House of the Dead is straightforward; Pevear and Volokhonsky choice of Notes from a Dead House seems pretty wretched to me: what is a ‘dead house’?

In the sentences below, P&V and Coulson chose ‘riddle of life’ versus Garnett’s more dour ‘problem of existence.’ I’m sure both work but answers in comments please if you know what Dostoyevsky meant, or maybe it becomes clear later in the book. I’ve only just started. Do I need to go to Siberia to solve the riddle of life? Or the problem of existence?

It’s the third sentence that stands out for me, where Coulson’s translation is the one with just the right amount of rhythm and pace. I’ll take ‘frivolous’ over ‘light-minded’ and ‘more levity.’ The P&V sentences sound clunkier in comparison.

I could draw out other examples but the decisive one for me was Coulson’s ‘The people were simple, untouched by liberal ideas …” compared to Garnett’s stiffer but fine ‘The inhabitants are simple folk and not of liberal views…” compared to P&V’s ‘People live simply, unprogressively.’ So I chose the Coulson, and I am inclined to reread The Brothers Karamazov in the Ignat Avsey translation sometime soon to balance the P&V interpretation I finished this week.

Jessie Coulson:

Those among them who are capable of solving the riddle of life almost all remain in Siberia and gladly take root there. The fruits they subsequently bear are sweet and abundant. The others, the frivolous ones, who cannot guess the answer to life’s riddle, soon grow weary of Siberia, and disheartened, ask themselves why they ever came there.

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky:

Those who are able to solve the riddle of life almost always stay in Siberia and delight in taking root there. Later on they bear sweet and and abundant fruit. But others, light-minded folk, unable to solve the riddle of life, soon weary of Siberia and ask themselves in anguish why on earth they ended up there.

Constance Garnett:

Those of them who are clever at solving the problem of existence almost always remain in Siberia, and eagerly take root there. Later on they bring forth sweet and abundant fruit. But others of more levity and no capacity for solving problems of existence soon weary of Siberia, and wonder regretfully why they came.