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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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John Marston and Joshua Sylvester: Renaissance Rewriting

John Marston was one of the nastier Renaissance playwrights, and his lack of restraint eventually appears to have gotten him in so much trouble that he had to leave the stage altogether and enter the clergy. His play The Malcontent, which was probably performed in 1603 and then published in 1604, is a severe melodrama of a deposed Duke, Altofronto, grouchily plotting to regain his rulership by pretending to be a truth-telling counselor and misanthrope–named Malevole, just to make that point clear–and bringing out the worst tendencies of those in the court. They don’t need much encouragement, since the court’s “minion” Mendoza, who is sleeping with the current Duke’s wife, has plenty of Machiavellian plans of his own, and Altofronto/Malevole just needs to tap him to push him over the precipice. The expected “happy ending” is more reassuring than that of Measure by Measure, but even less convincing.

But there are two poetic, though somewhat out of place, soliloquys reflecting on the wretchedness of man that caught my attention. They have the typical gnarled flow of Marston’s prose, which seems to be closer to its Roman Silver Age antecedents than anyone else’s (Seneca was a huge influence at the time). And thanks to the notes of G. K. Hunter in my Revels edition, I see that both speeches were adapted from a single source: Joshua Sylvester’s translation of Du Bartas’ epic religious poems. Marston alters them both in style and tone, but he appropriates structure and imagery freely. The first invokes the title of the play and is a looser borrowing:

JOHN MARSTON, THE MALCONTENT III.ii

MALEVOLE
I cannot sleep ; my eyes’ ill-neighbouring lids
Will hold no fellowship. O thou pale sober night,
Thou that in sluggish fumes all sense dost steep ;
Thou that giv’st all the world full leave to play,
Unbend’st the feebled veins of sweaty labour!
The galley-slave, that all the toilsome day
Tugs at his oar against the stubborn wave,
Straining his rugged veins, snores fast ;
The stooping scythe-man, that doth barb the field.
Thou mak’st wink sure : in night all creatures sleep ;
Only the malcontent, that ‘gainst his fate
Repines and quarrels, — alas, he’s goodman tell-clock !
His sallow jaw-bones sink with wasting moan ;
Whilst others’ beds are down, his pillow’s stone.

DU BARTAS, THE FIRST DAY OF THE FIRST WEEK, tr. JOSHUA SYLVESTER

The Night is she, that with her sable wing,
In gloomy Darkness hushing every thing,
Through all the World dumb silence doth distill,
And wearied bones with quiet sleep doth fill.
Sweet Night, without Thee, without Thee, alas,
Our life were loathsome; even a Hell to pass.
……
He that, still stooping, tugs against the tide
His laden barge alongst a River’s side,
And filling shores with shouts, doth melt him quite ;
Upon his pallet resteth yet at Night.
He, that in summer, in extremest heat
Scorched all day in his own scalding sweat,
Shaves with keen Scythe, the glory and delight
Of motley meadows ; resteth yet at night,
……
Only the learned Sisters’ sacred Minions,
While silent Night under her sable pinions
Folds all the world, with painless pain they tread
A sacred path that to the Heavens doth lead.

Where he borrows images, Marston sharpens the prose: “The galley-slave…tugs at his oar against the stubborn wave” in Sylvester becomes “He that, still stooping, tugs against the tide” in Marston. “He that shaves with keen scythe the glory and delight of motley meadows” becomes “The stooping scythe-man that doth barb the field.” The drastic difference is that into Du Bartas’ picture of sleep’s respite from the cruel world, Marston injects the malcontent, “goodman tell-clock,” who can’t sleep. (I admit I don’t know what Sylvester is getting at with “painless pain.”)

The second speech is more unquestionably plagiaristic. It is delivered by Pietro, Malevole’s successor and target. Pietro, here, is describing to his wife Aurelia the terrible hell she’s brought to him by sleeping with Mendoza.

JOHN MARSTON, THE MALCONTENT IV.v

PIETRO
My cell ’tis, lady ; where, instead of masks,
Music, tilts, tourneys, and such courtlike shows,
The hollow murmur of the checkless winds
Shall groan again ; whilst the unquiet sea
Shakes the whole rock with foamy battery.
There usherless the air comes in and out :
The rheumy vault will force your eyes to weep,
Whilst you behold true desolation :
A rocky barrenness shall pierce your eyes.
Where all at once one reaches where he stands,
With brows the roof, both walls with both his hands.

DU BARTAS, THE FIRST DAY OF THE SECOND WEEK, tr. JOSHUA SYLVESTER

Who, Full Of wealth and honour’s blandishment,
Among great Lords his younger years hath spent ;
And quaffing deeply of the Court-delights,
Us’d nought but tilts, tourneys, and masks, & sights –
If in his age his Prince’s angry doom
With deep disgrace drive him to live at home
In homely cottage, where continually
The bitter smoke exhales abundantly
From his before-un-sorrow-drained brain
The brackish vapours of a silver rain :
Where usherless, both day and night, the North,
South, East and West winds enter and go forth,
Where round-about, the low-roofed broken walls
Instead of Arras hang with Spiders’ cauls,
Where all at once he reacheth as he stands.
With brows the roof, both walls with both his hands.

This Sylvester source passage is far harsher than the earlier, with knottier syntax to match. (“His before-un-sorrow-drained-brain” seems worthy of Marston. Or Robert Walser.) The context is a long simile for the expulsion from Eden, comparing it to a Prince who’s been reduced to living in poverty. Again, Marston roughs up Sylvester (Marston gets a “rheumy vault” out of Sylvester’s “homely cottage”), but Sylvester has already done half the work in making his prose so jagged. Marston had far less distance to go in adapting it into his style. The final image, of the inhabitant virtually trapped in a tiny room no taller nor wider than he is, is grim enough that Marston leaves it outright.

In both cases I prefer Marston for the sharper-edged and more visceral prose. Hunter cites an earlier critic from the 1930s using the passages as evidence of Marston’s lack of talent, so maybe we’ve finally caught up with Marston. (I think Eliot was a fan.)

Hunter points out that at least one other writer of the period, Thomas Tomkis, borrowed from the first Du Bartas passage. Hence one of the more common homilies of the Renaissance, lost in our originality-obsessed age: if you see a good image or a memorable theme, no matter how different the context to what you’re writing, don’t hesitate: steal it.

Barbara Comyns: The Vet’s Daughter

I have sort of an unwritten rule to avoid talking too much about beginnings of books, because I think people focus on them as an excuse for short attention spans. I’ll easily sacrifice the first sentence or the first chapter of a book in exchange for a solid structure and a real thematic coherence, but the trend today seems to be to favor the details over the whole, and what details are more likely to be appreciated than beginnings? Still, The Vet’s Daughter deserves mention for its first paragraph because its oddness is so representative of some of Comyns’ central tactics:

A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn kneecaps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, “You must excuse me,” and left this poor man among the privet hedges.

We don’t hear from the man again, and the narrator (a teenage girl named Alice, it turns out) is soon preoccupied by matters inside the vet’s house. The vet is her abusive, alcoholic father, and the story concerns itself with how she copes with him and his wretchedness, including his longstanding mistress, who moves in with them after Alice’s mother dies.

The book is more linear and “normal” than Comyns’ first published novel, Sisters by a River, but they both share an odd gothic quality and a firm, assertive young woman narrator. I think it’s the juxtaposition of those two things that gives Comyns her unique quality. It’s not typical to see such a matter-of-fact narrator facing such outsized characters. There’s no attempt to humanize the father; his monstrousness has its contradictions, but there’s no question, in either the narrator’s mind or the book’s conception, that he is a monster. Yet a girl facing such a character would typically be more passively receptive to her impressions (say, in a Hardy novel, or even in Charlotte Bronte), and Alice is not. She thinks and speaks.

And the first paragraph, even if it doesn’t have much to do plotwise with the rest of the book, sets this up. She engages with the man, perceives his nature, provides for him momentarily, and dispatches him. Even as her thoughts run along a distinct, parallel track, she naturalizes him as part of a landscape, regards his needs, and caters to him as she would to an animal. (It’s this attitude that allows the gothic quality to emerge in the outside world.) Before she meets him, her unspecified thoughts are already elsewhere, which is where she finds her liberation and her autonomy. The central conceit and tragedy of the book is the invasion of her private realm by the outside world; as is made clear, she can survive anything but that. Comyns was evidently luckier.

Dennis Potter: Blue Remembered Hills

I was thinking about this old tv play (available entirely on youtube, hooray) in connection with two other old French films about childhood that I recently saw, Naked Childhood and My Little Loves. As much as they do their best to deromanticize childhood, this one may have them beat, and not just because adults are playing the children. The French movies all have alienation in one way or another, but there’s not a lot of that here: these are younger kids before the age of introspection. And what a terrible age it is. In the absence of the cuteness of little kids (the actors are mostly rough-looking except for Helen Mirren, who looks somewhat gangly but mostly looks like Helen Mirren), what shows through?

First there is fear. The boys are adventure-mag and war-informed, but they have yet to grasp the size of the world and so they are quite scared that the war is very close to them and very real. When they aren’t playing little war games among themselves, they are quite terrified that they are all going to die at German hands, even in a remote forest in England. Many of their fathers are away and some are missing, and the children switch back between having no sense of the reality of it and being frightened by the Germans as bogeymen, the sort of monsters you’re repeatedly told aren’t real, except these are. That wrenching movement between the serious and the frivolous is what stays, and lord knows it’s a good thing that kids have it, because the bare fear looks horrific.

They do have one other positive mechanism, which is camaraderie. The boys and girls fight with each other, but when there is a threat, even an imagined one, the kids are suddenly all in it together, and they know that they are the protagonists and the evil Germans are the bad guys, so at least they’re all on the same side. This even extends, to a point, to the miserable outcast of the group, the boy called Donald Duck who is mercilessly teased and demeaned. When the war games are over, the rest of the kids indulge in some rampant cruelty–the third main motif–against Donald that ends up going very badly for him, and too late, the others realize that they crossed the line and they feel bad. Though they mostly make excuses for themselves, they do acknowledge a certain undebatable humanity on his part. It’s small consolation for Donald, but it does draw a certain line.

Poor Donald, though, since up until that point he has been an outcast and the only one really excluded from any compassion from the others. He blubbers and he is really, truly frightened, and so he is deprived of the any of the consolation of camaraderie, and he gets stuck in the fear. It’s not just loneliness, though the lack of support he feels from anyone else is palpably agonizing, but it’s also that by lacking that communal outlet to play together and have adventures, he is locked in one of the most miserable places that a person can be, before a child learns that they aren’t always going to be so completely helpless and alone. It’s wretched to watch.

The Books on the (Finnegans) Wake

I was asked today about contemporary reaction to Finnegans Wake when it was published, and I had to say that I didn’t think that there was much of one. Borges dismissed it as incomprehensible while asking for a guidebook for it, much as Stuart Gilbert had published one for Ulysses. Others genuflected and tried to forget about it as soon as they could. In the absence of any sort of key with which to decode the novel, most understandably could not be bothered. Edmund Wilson supposedly put the most effort in, though I have not read his review. Anyone have a copy?

It’s a sign of Joyce’s naivete, I suppose, that he didn’t foresee this. He was disappointed by the reception, but I can’t imagine what else he could have expected upon publishing a book that would take decades of effort by hundreds of people to begin to decode. Some have speculated that Joyce intended to make much supporting explanatory material available, as he did with Ulysses when he passed out chapter schemae to Gilbert et al., but that Joyce died before he could do so, two years after publication. I wonder, especially since a lot of Joyce’s explanations tended to be after the fact, as though he were interpreting, non-definitively and not without humor, his own work.

The essays by many famous and less famous names included in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (Work in Progress being the then-title of the Wake) are more interesting as a sort of Rorschach test for the authors involved than for the light they shed on the book. With the possible exception of Beckett, who probably knew a lot more about the book than the others, the efforts by William Carlos Williams, Eugene Jolas, and others attempt to describe Finnegans Wake based on selected fragments, and it’s as though they were looking at a one-inch square of Guernica.

Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson were the first to have a real go at it in A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, which features a great close reading of the opening sections, followed by a dubious but good-hearted attempt to extrapolate the rest of the book. I didn’t get much out of it, but Robinson and Campbell set the style for the two main types of criticism to follow, attempted summarization and word-by-word glossing. To quote David Pears: “Some fly, while others struggle to crawl.”

For a variety of reasons, I stayed within the Joycean tradition of criticism while reading the Wake, avoiding all theory-based and non-specialist approaches. Joyce scholars can be a somewhat hermetic and monomaniacal lot: many of the people below study Joyce exclusively and exhaustively. I can think of no better example than that of Adaline Glasheen, a New England teacher who put together The Census of Finnegans Wake, which attempts to list every personage named or alluded to in the Wake, alphabetically. She remarked:

I hold to my old opinion. Finnegans Wake is a model of a mysterious universe made mysterious by Joyce for the purpose of striking with polished irony at the hot vanity of divine and human wishes…Joyce himself told Arthur Power: what is clear and concise can’t deal with reality, for to be real is to be surrounded by mystery.

The unpretentious Glasheen liberally peppers the text with remarks such as, “I don’t know who this is.” From her husband’s biographical note:

Adaline was born in Evansville, Indiana, attended the public schools there. Adaline and her mother borrowed armloads of books weekly from the public library. They were both able to recall every detail of their reading. Good books, trash they read ’em all. This proved to be a great help in her Joyce work. After a year of two at the University of Indiana, she transferred to the University of Mississippi. Adaline was hired to coach football players in English lest they flunk out and thus do harm to the football team. She continued the reading habits of her childhood. Later she felt that Joyce, too, was a great reader of trash; hence her ability to spot references and allusions in Joyce. She received her B.A. at Ole Miss. She took her M.A. at George Washington University. While I was in the army she taught at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

Upon the birth of our daughter in 1946, Adaline was eager for a task which she could do in the few minutes between the incessant trivia of rearing a child. The ‘Joyce game’ enabled her to survive.

The advantage of the approach of such people that they tend to be rather open to heterodoxy and iconoclasm; the disadvantage can be a certain literalism and lack of generalization. Here then are the books that I found and my reactions to them. The James Joyce Scholars’ Collection is a great resource, as it contains some of the key works of Wake criticism in this tradition.

The Books at the Wake, William Atherton. Ultimately, I think this may be the best place to start. The Wake is inarguably loaded with tons of references to certain writers in particular: not just Vico, but Swift, Lewis Carroll, Blake, etc. Atherton goes author by author, which conveniently gives an overview of the continuities of the book (one of the more difficult things to grasp on encountering it) while not being beholden to one particular interpretation of it.

The Sigla of Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh. McHugh is one of the most intense Wake scholars, and in The Finnegans Wake Experience he describes moving to Ireland to better understand the book. This slim volume describes, with much reference to Joyce’s notebooks, how the many personages of the book combine into sigla, a dozen or so symbols around which Joyce constructed the book. (For example, HCE in all his various forms is a wicket-shaped “M”, and ALP in hers is a triangle.) Joyce’s sigla changed as he wrote the book, and there’s room for interpretation, but McHugh, like no other analyst, gives the impression of truly grasping the whole damn thing, even as it streams between his fingers. Only my inexpert opinion, but McHugh seemed to be most in tune with Finnegans Wake.

Annotations to Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh. Absolutely indispensible for writing a paper, but insanely frustrating to a newcomer. For those who haven’t seen it, this is an extensive gloss that maps page-by-page on to the original text with concise, sometimes cryptic notes. (You really have to see it to get the effect.) On first glance the Annotations are just as obscure as the Wake itself, but once I started catching recurrences of certain allusions, it becomes how impressively they match up with particular subjects and characters in the Wake. (For example, apparent Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll references occur absurdly often in any section associated with the daughter Issy.)

Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake, Clive Hart. As the title suggests, Hart’s book contrasts with McHugh’s in tracing linguistic, spatial, temporal, and referential structure through the book rather than focusing on character or narrative. As such, Hart attempts to describe the macro-structure of the Wake with a minimum of interpretation–which invariably turns out to be quite a lot. Hart is in a lot of contentious territory, but his knowledge is solid and his pace careful. I think of Hart’s book as consciously open-ended: even where I find his interpretations uncertain, they are always provocative and spur even more future questions.

More books on the Wake next time…

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude

Hardly a novel, and not a novella either, this short book has Hrabal straining beyond the reach of the light/serious allegory of I Served the King of England to something more personal and confused. It’s the story of Hanta, an old man who has worked for decades compacting waste paper, books especially, in his press, selecting a couple to take home with him and read. The beginning of the book describes his mostly solitary existence, the noises and sights of the press, and it’s beautifully personal and focused.

From there the book grows circular, since there is little to do but flesh out the situation. As Hanta says:

And so everything I see in this world, it all moves backward and forward at the same time, like a blacksmith’s bellows, like everything in my press, turning into its opposite at the command of red and green buttons, and that’s what makes the world go round.

Hanta finds that he is becoming obsolete. He has books stuck in his head, bits and pieces that repeat uncontrollably, but a new industrial machine is coming and he can’t stand to be taken away from his own little press. In the end he seals himself up in his house with his salvaged books, turns inward, and goes the way of Socrates and Seneca, as he puts it, chasing after a lost love who died in the war.

It’s tempting to draw all sorts of symbols out of the narrative, given the Communist backdrop and the frequent mention of all sorts of classical thinkers. But I resisted this because Hrabal isn’t one to let symbols dominate a fable. Just as the story of I Served the King of England illustrated the rise and fall and rise of a small man through his nearly myopic view, Too Loud a Solitude is worth seeing in its most immediate context.

There are two points to draw on. The first and most obvious is Hanta’s age. He has happy with his life, but his life is over just as the narrative begins. While the narrative dwells on how books survive in people’s minds, it’s not quite permanence. Hanta’s death and replacement by a greater industrial machine shunts him even more quickly into the solitude of the title. The books are his friends, occupying his house, but it’s a solipsistic sort of friendship. Hanta remembers bits and pieces of his books, but there is little to suggest that he has done much with them except use others’ words to reflect his own thoughts. He has processed the books as his press has.

(Which brings up a point I can’t answer: there is an English pun in the book, which I would guess is intentional, of the two meanings of the word “press.” In the book it is that which destroys books; it is also that which creates them. It is entirely suited to the narrative of metamorphosis and transubstantiation that creation and destruction are equated in this way. Is there a similar pun in the Czech?)

And that is the second point. Hanta is not an intellectual in the least; his view of books is explicitly non-academic and non-critical. He remembers little phrases and names the way we remember flavors of ice cream from childhood. He fixates sentimentally on some, like Lao Tse and Seneca, with a concerted arbitrariness. The books he saved from the press were chosen with great indeterminacy; his attachment to them is with no idolatry of their contents. Rather, he has completely internalized these books and converted them into part of his life. They have provided the social context in his later years that the social realm usually does. This, I believe, is the crux of the novel. How many people take in books so closely that they have no need to articulate their sense of the book–or moreover, cannot articulate it? How many people live with books like that?

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