November 2019

Henry James, Joseph O’Neill, Cavafy/Mendelsohn, Elizabeth Bowen’s Stories

¶ To begin with a housekeeping note: although, as planned, I shall continue to post entries here until early January, there will be no more “daily” to the blog. For better or worse, my heart has moved on, and what it has moved on to is what it started out from (online, at least): a Web site. In what remains of my time here, I’m going to try to find out what that will look like. (7 November)

¶ The American, by Henry James. I had read this several times, but not recently. I remembered a heartbreaking love story, with a heartbreaking dueling story on the side, and, once I got past the introductory chapters, I found it hard to go on, because I knew what was coming and I found myself in no hurry to experience it. Well, I thought I knew. Then, in a sort of whoosh, it all came and went, that knot of heartbreaking events — and I still had more than a hundred pages to go. This would have made me reconsider the novel if I had not already started doing so. 

The dueling story is real enough, involving a “meeting” about as senseless as any American could be expected to imagine. But the love story? Of course, the title begs you to imagine characters who are not American, and James really might be faulted for not having completed it, as, for example, calling it The American in St Germain. What does, what can Christopher Newman, a young, self-made, rich, and in every way healthy American from Nowhere understand of the noblesse de l’épée into which he proposes to marry? Surely he is an innocent abroad. But then, is he really? He has a strange way of talking about his lady love, and from what James tells us of the gentleman’s state of mind, it cannot be written off as the uncouthness of a Westerner. There is no question that Newman regards Claire de Cintré, the beautiful and self-contained widow who lives with her frightful mother in an ancient Left-Bank hôtel in the Rue de l’Université, as a pearl without price. The question is this: is the “pearl” part metaphorical? Or are we talking commodities? While the word “love” comes up precisely once in what you would have thought was its rightful position, Mme de Cintré is more likely to be presented to us — and I shan’t quote — as exactly what Newman was looking for. The perfect wife, the ideal mother of his children, &c &c. Something is missing, no? And when Newman’s project of marrying the noblewoman collapses, as it must, the sore feeling that lasts longest is that of “a good fellow done wrong” — the germ, you might say, of a second duel. In a subtle way (but not too subtle) James takes a classic love story and subverts it at every point. When you become aware of this, you see that not only do few of his characters know anything about the others, but they don’t much care, either. Even the idealized Mme de Cintré reveals that what she insists upon is true: she is not what Newman takes her to be. If she is a damsel in distress, she has accustomed herself to it; she does not burn for freedom. She wails, in the concluding interview, that she was made for peace and quiet, not for bravado and strife. 

The American also promises to be overtly Gothic. Heavens, there was a murder, complete with testimony from the victim! This is what occupies the last third of the book. Will Newman use what he has learned to humiliate the dreadful old marquise and her bespoke toad of son? The possibility is exciting, and James wrings it dry. The evidence is consigned to the flames. So The American is not Gothic after all. (One can hear Claire’s worldly but genuinely charming sister-in-law tut-tutting.) Although we are assured that Newman quits Paris never to return, there are indications that he will otherwise make a full recovery. Maybe next time he will actually fall in love. 

I picked up The American half expecting a romantic weepie. At least I got the other half — Henry James at his early best. (7 November)

Joseph O’Neill, “The Flier.” This very amusing story — is it just me, or is “amusing” becoming less and less a synonym for “funny”? — presents me with a quandary. Either its meaning its sufficiently occult to satisfy the thirstiest taste for conspiracy, or O’Neill is simply playing with jacks, writing Kafka for laughs. A middle-aged man, already suffering, perhaps (?), from another illness, develops a mortifying tendency to fly. His wife and friends need to see it not so much to believe it as to understand what he’s talking about. I’m not sure I ever did, but even that was amusing. More amusing: applying for insurance. (I wasn’t kidding about Kafka.) It makes sense that a tale about flying would have tangents, and this one’s concerns a lesbian couple’s breakup, complete with a gun and 911. Do you really want to figure it out? (8 November)

Cavafy/Mendelsohn. “As for the style, it is by now a commonplace that Cavafy’s language, because it generally shuns conventional poetic devices — image, simile, metaphor, specialized diction — is tantamount to prose.” So Edward Mendelsohn writes in the Introduction to his translations of Cavafy’s Collected Poems. Mendelsohn, it is clear, does not concede the last point. We are assured that he has done his best to render certain touchstones of Cavafy’s prosody in English — his rhythms, for example, or the offset in his verse of two vocabularies, the literary katharevousa and the everyday demotic.  Well and good. But English is a cold fish. Only a sonorous and intelligent mind can bring it to life; in the mouth of a thoughtless person, poetry in English is dull as felt. Poets writing in English know this. Their poetry is accordingly somewhat odd. It presents emotional connections in language (not mere words) and avoids surface beauty. It is intellectually sensuous. 

You might think that this would make Cavafy, with his light-handed references to the obscurities of Hellenism, a hit in translation, and it does — but not as poetry. Opening Collected Poems at random, I find “He Came to Read…” The poem reads like Proust, if Proust were capable of checking his melancholy. The visitor has opened

… two or three books: historians and poets,
But he’d barely read for ten minutes,
when he put them aside. 

“He,” we then learn, is a “very handsome” young man of “twenty-three,” and he lays the books aside in order to gratify a more carnal “fever of desire.” The vignette is scrupulous and sweet. The particulars of desire are encapsulated in the negative; we’re told only that the youth is untroubled “by foolish shame about the form of its enjoyment.” Without this discreet ending, though — which as good as laughs, “Don’t get your hopes up; what happened next is none of your business!” — the poem might serve very well as the opening of a pornographic interlude, because there is nothing about it to detain us. I expect there is more to it in Greek, although I can’t say what it is. What it might be is vocabulary that reminds the Greek reader, as Mendelsohn’s English doesn’t, and, I suspect, can’t, of the distance between the constellations of wanting to read interesting books and wanting to make love, from the abstract to the concrete, and the hopelessness, in the flush of being beautiful, of trying to prefer to be interesting. Would not an English poet write about himself rather than his lover?  

Even translated into English, of course, Cavafy makes a lot of memorable statements. 

And now what’s to become of us without barbarians, 
Those people were a solution of a sort. 
— (“Waiting for the Barbarians”)

But any poetry is strictly accidental. (11 November)

Elizabeth Bowen’s Stories. Perhaps because I am deep into writing the reading draft of an essay (or fable) that I’ve been working for six months, or maybe because, in the immortal words of postcard artist Ken Brown, the Moon is in Klutz, my reading has been very disorganized. I start things but can’t finish them; everything becomes too upsetting. For example, Viktor Klemperer’s LTI (The Language of the Third Reich) — no need to explain. Or Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog, which I’m re-reading. I know how it comes out, but what’s really painful is the narrator’s bravado: although he knows that his ship is sinking, he pretends rather loudly to have everything under control, or at least to have good ideas for getting things under control. (Those disclaimer stamps! I may have to have one of them made, just for fun.) Martin Hägglund’s This Life has bogged down, as I was afraid it might, in the contrast of Marxism and capitalism; I’m not sure that Hägglund  knows what capitalism is. (Does anyone? Can someone please explain to me why capitalism is thought to require — require, for its very respiration — “growth”? I asked a Wall Street friend, and his answer was “inflation.” I could only raise my eyebrows (we were on the phone) and reflect that things are very much worse than I thought, if that’s what Wall Street has to say.)  

Thank heaven, then, for the stories of Elizabeth Bowen. In the Everyman collection, each one runs about ten pages, give or take. (“The Disinherited,” at forty, is an outlier. I’ve decided to read the stories gathered under the heading, “The Thirties,” and then to set the tome aside for awhile, partly to move on but mostly to save treats for later.) The tales tend to be upsetting, too, but I’ve usually reached the end before discomfort sets in. John Banville, in his needlessly biographical introduction, claims that Bowen is not only one of the best short-story writers but possibly the best, and I’m inclined to agree, even if Banville offers nothing in the way of demonstrations.  Aside from a steadfast control of tone — you never doubt that the person behind the wheel is an extremely capable driver — the stories vary as much as might be expected for stories written in the same language during the same high-seasoned decade. (Depression into war, and can we please talk about something else?) If not immediately, then within a page or two a strange situation arises, and then lingers, not without menace, until, shortly but not too shortly before the end, the story takes a turn. “Twist” was the word that came to mind when I caught on to the pattern,  but that’s too (merely) clever, while “surprise” is far too violent. However quiet, though, the turn is unmistakable, and it settles everything, at least so far as the reader’s understanding goes.  It also fixes the story in the mind. 

Two of my favorite stories involve girls. In “Maria,” a girl and a curate, already hostile, actually come to blows. In “The Easter Egg Party,” a girl shatters decorum by complaining that she wants to go home. In each case, I knew that something had to happen, but what did happen, finally, went beyond my expectations, while nevertheless remaining perfectly credible, even, in retrospect, likely. 

Elizabeth Bowen’s stories are as moody, if you like, as William Trevor’s. But in addition to being shorter (or seeming so), they are all infernal machines, little horror shows lacking nothing but actual horrors. The one story in this group that openly flirts with horror, “The Cat Jumps,” exploits Bowen’s genius to the point of sheer terror. But it ends with a laugh. (17 November) 

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