Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Mark Williams, _Ireland's Immortal: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth_ (2)

THE SECOND HALF of Williams's book is about how Irish mythology was revived and in some ways re-fashioned in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly with nationalist intentions. The paintings one is likely to see on the covers of paperback collections of Celtic myth were typically produced in this era, which accounts for the Pre-Raphaelite/Gustave Moreau look a lot of them have.

Williams underscores that the revivers--W. B. Yeats foremost, but he had many fellow workers--tended to be Protestant. That is a little surprising--wouldn't the Celtic-identifying Irish be the likeliest to be interested in this material, not the Anglo-Irish? But it is not surprising at all, once Williams explains that it was the Protestant nationalists who were most eager to find an ancient basis for a distinctively Irish cultural identity that could somehow sideline the Catholic Church. Hence the variations on the Swinburnean "Thou hast triumphed, o pale Galilean" theme when these Protestant writers imagined Patrick and Catholicism suppressing the swiftness, strength, and beauty of the old gods.

Two more surprises, one a bit disappointing, the other delightful. I was sorry Williams didn't have more time for the most extensive of the old Irish mythological narratives, the Táin Bó Cúalinge. Williams himself seems to have regrets on this score: "I made it clear at the beginning of this study that it could not be exhaustive, and works that have been neglected (not least the Táin) press upon my conscience," he tells us on p. 490. I wish it had pressed a bit harder, sir. Why such short shrift for such a magnificent tale?

The delightful one was that Lady Gregory's versions of the legends get top marks. Many scholars of the Irish Literary Revival drift a little into condescending to her, aristocratic dabbler and wannabe, etc., but Williams notes, "It is greatly to Gregory's credit that she--the amateur folklorist and littérateur--could tolerate the basic idiosyncrasy of the god-peoples and so convey an accurate impression of the medieval material." Less focused than Yeats or AE on shaping the Tuatha de Danaan into awe-inspiring Wagnerian presences, Gregory did a better job of letting the sources speak for themselves, and in a way did them greater honor.



Thursday, July 12, 2018

Questions of Canon Slippage: Jonathan Franzen

SO, DID JONATHAN Franzen know, when the New York Times Magazine approached him about doing a cover story, that the story's angle was going to be that his coolness score had dropped significantly? Is that how they pitched it? "Well, Mr. Franzen, as we hardly need to tell you, you are no longer a leading candidate for Great American Novelist of your generation, and our readers would just like to know, how does that feel?" It seems that he hardly would have consented to the interview had he known its angle, but who knows? Maybe he had an Underground Man moment and just wanted to ride that rollercoaster of humiliation.

I would say that Franzen's stock started dropping all the way back in 2002, with his New Yorker essay "Mr. Difficult," a somewhat disparaging take on William Gaddis in particular and experimental, "difficult" fiction in general. From then on--or certainly from Ben Marcus's response in Harper's on--Franzen's stock among the folks who teach in or studied in or just hang around the orbit of any MFA writing program was in the sub-basement.

In the non-MFA, NYC part of the American literary scene, there was still high anticipation for the followup to The Corrections, much popping of corks when Freedom landed, cover of Time, that sort of thing. But Freedom was just not that interesting, really. For all the great early reviews, I don't think I met any ordinary readers who enjoyed it nearly as much as they had The Corrections.

"Farther Away," the New Yorker essay about birdwatching that morphed into a somewhat disparaging take on David Foster Wallace, pissed me off. At that point, he was off my list of people to read. When I saw stacks of Purity in the book store, I thought, "enhh." But I took a chance, and it's good. Better than Freedom, certainly. But many fewer bought it.

The obvious (to me) conclusion is that Purity's sales were off because Freedom was a dud, but the author of the NYT Magazine piece prefers to see it as a case of the zeitgeist kicking Franzen to the curb. The possibility that Purity's relatively low sales were as unrelated to its merits as the merits of Freedom were to its relatively high sales does not enter the discussion. She instead makes fun of his speech mannerisms and indulges in a little schadenfreude about his failures to get his novels televised. It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for the man.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Questions of Canon Slippage: Anthony Powell

I LIKED DANCE to the Music of Time when I read in the middle years of the eighties, and I knew at least a few other people who read and liked it (even though it was never a must-read on this side of the Atlantic), so I was surprised when Max Hastings's NYRB review of the new biography of Anthony Powell began by noting that while "Waugh reigns triumphant [...] enthusiastically devoured by the young," Waugh's contemporary Powell "if not forgotten, is scarcely read by people under sixty" and "his reputation [...] has slumped."

I would guess that more people in the USA read Waugh than read Powell, and always have, but I don't think their reputations have diverged so dramatically. The young people I know are unlikely to be familiar with either one, actually.

Hastings circles back around at the end of the piece to give Powell a silver medal: "His books are unlikely ever to be placed on the top shelf of twentieth-century literature, but they deserve to appear on the one below."

Fair enough--but that's where I would put Waugh's as well. In fact, if we look at the British novelists whose work was appearing in the same span as Powell's, say 1920 to 1980, would you put any of them on the top shelf? If Joyce, Proust, Mann, Woolf, Musil, Bely, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Garcia Marquez are on the top shelf for the 20th century, are you going to put Waugh up there as well? Or even Graham Greene? Or Doris Lessing? Muriel Spark? Christopher Isherwood? Penelope Fitzgerald? Kingsley Amis? Angus Wilson? Sybille Bedford? Anthony Burgess? I don't think so.

Henry Green...maybe. But apart from Henry Green, they're all second shelf, I'd say, and Powell fits in with them comfortably enough.

It was and is unfortunate (as Hastings points out) that Powell's sequence invited comparison to Proust's, a matchup in which Powell was badly, badly outgunned. Powell's novels hardly come off badly in comparison to Waugh's, though. Or Greene's, in my opinion.

As long as I'm indulging in shoot-from-the-hip opinion-mongering, I would go so far as to say that British novelists of 1980 to the present are better, as a group, stronger top-shelf candidates, than those of 1920 to 1980. Zadie Smith, Edward St. Aubyn, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Alan Hollinghurst, Rachel Cusk, Barnes, Amis, McEwan. I could even keep going. These are the good old days.



Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Mark Williams, _Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth_ (1)

MAYBE NOT EXACTLY what the cover (shamrock green with Celtic curlicues) would lead some to expect--that is, an Edith Hamilton-esque retelling of the myths. Instead, we have an historical survey  of the Tuatha De Danaan, the sídhe, Finn mac Cumhaill, and so on, in their literary representations, from the middle ages until the present.

Williams aims (and succeeds) at the kind of book achieved by James MacPherson in The Battle Cry of Freedom. The main narrative is scholarly and authoritative, but composed with the Intelligent General Reader (that possibly mythical beast) in mind, while Williams deals with the knotty controversies among his scholarly peers in the footnotes. These notes are conveniently placed right there at the foot of the page, reviving a practice fallen almost in disuse. Having the notes handy is very useful in this instance, as they tend to be more flavorful than the main text, which has a bit of the aridity that afflicts attempts to write the definitive account of anything.

Ireland's Immortals qualifies as a tome, clocking in a 500 pages exclusive of index, etc.. Part One, roughly the first half, deals with the primary sources of the mythology, which date from the middle ages up to the dawn of early modernity. About these, Williams makes two crucial points.

(1) Even the earliest surviving written accounts of these figures date from after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. The characters and the stories themselves are older than that, presumably, but the only writing system available to the early Irish, a system of notching wooden stakes, was not adapted for recording long narratives, so the stories were not recorded until Christianity and the alphabet arrived. This means that the hope of many later cultural nationalists--that the the myths contained some kind of extractable national essence, some well of pure Irishness undefiled, untainted by Christianity or Latinity--was doomed. Even the earliest surviving texts about these gods were written by people who no longer believed in them (but who nonetheless often found them fascinating). Same goes for the hope of some later Celticizing New Age folks who hoped to find traces of a reconstruct-able pagan religion from the myths.

(2) The later cultural nationalists also hoped that there would be some way to systematize this material, give its gods, goddesses, and heroes stable roles and attributes, as had happened with the Greek and Norse gods, thus creating a foundation for distinctively Irish art, music, literature. No such luck, Williams emphasizes. The primary sources, composed over a span of several centuries, are inconsistent to the point of outright contradiction, not even agreeing on so basic a premise as that these figures are gods, as in divinities, as opposed to mortals with a variety of superpowers, or a race of comely, gifted, long-lived beings like Tolkien's elves (the Tuatha de Danaan may well have been Tolkien's inspiration, Williams argues [475-76]).

Monday, July 9, 2018

Mihail Sebastian, _For Two Thousand Years_, trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh

CLASSIFIED AS A novel, but "similar in style and tone" to Sebastian's published journal for 1935-44 (which I have not read, but hope to). This covers an earlier period--early 1920s to early 1930s, I think. The unnamed narrator (if we can call him that--the episodes are mainly description and dialogue, and the book has no plot to speak of) is a young Romanian man at the university. His friends and acquaintances are if anything a bit more vividly presented than he presents himself; apparently they are portraits of other young Bucharest intellectuals of the 1920s, such as E. M. Cioran and Mircea Eliade.

The atmosphere is highly reminiscent of the journals of Robert Brasillach, or novels like Pierre Drieu la Rochelle's Gilles or Heimito von Doderer's The Demons: young, highly intellectual young men in European capitals during the interwar years, colliding like bumper cars, intoxicated with ideas, oscillating between enthusiasm and disdain, flirting with authoritarian ideas, convinced their generation is on the lip of an enormous upheaval.

Sometimes at the professor's course I feel like we're gathered together in a kind of ideological headquarters of an immense world war, waiting from hour to hour for telegrams about the catastrophe, dreaming of the new world that will be born from its ashes.

The abyss-opening difference is that Sebastian, or his proxy, is Jewish. However fascinating he finds nationalist authoritarianisms, he is, for them, irredeemably other. Not that he does not sometimes sound more anti-semitic than the anti-semites.

    I would criticize anti-Semitism above all, were it to permit me to judge it, for its lack of imagination: "freemasonry, usury, ritual killing."
    Is that all? How paltry!
    The most basic Jewish conscience, the most commonplace Jewish intelligence, will find within itself much graver sins, an immeasurably deeper darkness, incomparably more shattering catastrophes.
    All they have to use against us are stones, and sometimes guns. In our eternal struggle with ourselves, we have a subtle, slow-working but irremediable vitriol in our own hearts.

Anti-semitic violence breaks out frequently in For Two Thousand Years, and it is all the more horrifying knowing where it was going to go and what is was going to do a few years after the novel's publication in 1934. Wanting to know how Sebastian saw the rise of the Iron Guard is one reason why I hope to find a copy of Journal 1935-1944, but the other reason is that the writing is superbly good.


 







Monday, July 2, 2018

Julian Barnes, _The Noise of Time_

AT 197 PAGES, and small pages (7 and 1/2 inches by 5 inches) at that, The Noise of Time may actually clock in at a lower word count than the pages devoted to Shostakovich in William Vollmann's 2005 novel Europe Central. Shostakovich's life makes excellent novel material--a brilliant artistic talent living in a particularly fraught time in a particularly terrifying society, his story illuminates a number of the corners of art's relationship to power.  And fiction can simply slide past the tiresome accusation-and-apology ping-pong match that the biographical material on Shostakovich gravitates towards and imagine itself into Shostakovich himself.

But--if you have already read Europe Central, would this be worthwhile? I'd say yes. Barnes's version is more compact and construct, focusing on three moments when Shostakovich was caught in the crosshairs.

First, the period after his opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had been accused of being too formalist, out of touch with the people; Stalin himself disapproved, apparently, and Shostakovich lived from day to day, night to night, expecting to be hauled to the gulag.

Second, the flight back to Russia after a 1949 public appearance in New York City where he was called out and made to look like a stooge by Nicholas Nabokov (who made his own Cold War compromises, it sounds like).

Third, in 1960, his being strong-armed into joining the Communist Party in order to show the world that everything is dandy now that Stalin is gone.

Barnes's portrait is more intimate, more interior than Vollmann's, without the sense of unfolding history that was part of Vollmann's novel. Shostakovich's famous Leningrad Symphony goes unmentioned, for instance.  The texture of the two novels is quite different, Vollmann summoning up the swirl of a chaotic time in history, Barnes eavesdropping on the composer's thoughts when he is alone, in the wake of traumatic encounters.

The two novelists both seem sympathetic, though, and for similar reasons; both see Shostakovich as man who was doing his best to survive and keep writing music, not interested in martyrdom but not simply caving either, instead trying to placate whom he needed to placate while still finding ways to do work that mattered in constrained circumstances.


Frank Bidart, _Star Dust_

CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED COMICS, published by the Elliot Publishing Company between 1941 and 1962, were not popular among my friends, but I read bundles of them as a boy, because my parents were always willing to buy them for me. My first acquaintance with the Iliad was through Classics Illustrated, ditto Crime and Punishment, and later on I was grateful that, thanks to Classics Illustrated, I was familiar with the plots of several Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper titles without having had to shovel my way through the actual novels.

Thanks to Classics Illustrated, I was also primed for "The Third Hour of the Night," the third installment of a long poem Bidart has been engaged in for a while. The middle and much the longest section of "Third Hour" is in the voice of Benvenuto Cellini, an artist, courtier, and soldier of the Italian Renaissance, who wrote an occasionally truthful and consistently entertaining autobiography that in due course took comic-book form in Classics Illustrated # 38, "Adventures of Cellini." So I was already familiar with Cellini's encounters with patrons and rivals, and with the audacious, touch-and-go, but nearly disastrous but ultimately triumphant casting of his most famous work, a  bronze statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa--an image of which statue is on the cover of Bidart's collected poems, I see.

Gratified as I was to be already informed about the career of the poem's principal subject, I was mystified. Why Cellini? Well... all would have been clear had I started on page one, as a reader is supposed to, and not decided to read "Third Watch" first because I was so keen to see where it would go.

Star Dust has everything to do with making--the erotics of making ("Phenomenology of the Prick"), the political economy of making ("Young Marx"), making and 9/11 ("Curse"), but above all the sheer irresistible impulse and need to make. "Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves," declares the re-purposed Hamlet who speaks in "Advice to the Players," then declares again in italics, "Making is the mirror in which we see ourselves."

Cellini was not the most distinguished maker of the Italian Renaissance--the bar was high indeed in that place at that time--but he left behind the most developed account of how it feels to make things, with more information about what is going on within the maker than we have of any comparably accomplished figure of his time. Bidart's 33-page poetic distillation of that account surpasses even that of Classics Illustrated.