Sunday, January 19, 2014

Four books of love and anger: Bang, Crane, Nesi

•Herman Bang:Tina, translated from the Danish by Paul Christophersen (London and Dover N.H.: The Athlone Press, 1984, ISBN 0-485-11254-X)
•Stephen Crane: Maggie: a girl of the streets; The Red badge of courage (in Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry, The Library of America, 1984, ISBN 0-940450-17-8)
•Edoardo Nesi: Story of my people, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar (New York: Other Press, 2012, ISBN 978-159051354-9)
FOUR BOOKS HAVING one fundamental thing in common: they’re about individuals seen in communities. A chance discovery while looking up something else on Wikipedia brought Herman Bang to my attention, and a good thing too: Tina is one of the most affecting novels I’ve ever read. Set in Slesvig, on the island of Als, off the southeast corner of Jutland, it portrays villagers during the horrible events of the Dano-German war of 1864, when Denmark lost that area known to Germany as Schleswig-Holstein.

Herman Bang (1857-1912), who wrote as a journalist and critic in the second half of the 19th century, was reasonably well known to his public but has been little read in English. (The Danish Wikipedia page presents him as an "author, journalist, columnist, essayist, stage director, presenter, lecturer and critic".) He published a half dozen novels, of which Tina (published as Tine in the original Danish in 1889) is the third. Claude Monet is said to have remarked that Tina, which he read in French translation, was an Impressionist novel, the best of any he knew, and the description is apt — if it makes you rethink just what constitutes Impressionism, who better to lead you to this than Monet?

Bang’s prose style is a little dry, lapidary, extraordinarily visual: you see virtually every hill, road, room, character in the novel. It is also incredibly frugal: the book is, in English, 174 pages long, though every corner of the events, the characters, the settings is fully presented, and you feel as if you’d lived through these tumultuous days and their deceptively tranquil context with every nerve.

The central character, whose name is the novel’s title, is young, modest, intelligent; an observer; a young woman, preoccupied with her aging parents, aware of and to an extent intrigued by the greater world beyond her rural village, a schoolteacher immersed in the sleepy village life. There’s something Ibsenish about her, but she is not angry or sullen: one of Bang’s gifts is his sympathetic portrayal of what others might turn into tragedy as, instead, simple resigned reality.

For me, beyond the events and the characters, it is the social distribution within the village that the author particularly illuminates. Almost every layer of class is presented, sympathetically, as occupying position beyond any question of fairness or egalitarianism. No one is resentful; each person has a role, a position. Bang’s presentation of the justice and the social practicality of this distribution is touching and tender, and if his characterization, in measured accounts of conversation and of internal thought, made me think of Henry James, his depiction of Tina and others of her class brought Gertrude Stein’s Three lives to mind.

The English translation, by Paul Christophersen, seems to have been made at least thirty years ago, and is hard to find. The original Danish is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg, and a quick glance at it suggests the translation is reasonably accurate but presented to quite a different effect, the original laconic short sentences and paragraphs formed into a more conventional narrative style. Even so, this slender novel was a perfect pendant to the recently read I Promessi Sposi, and is likely to prove as memorable.
TINA TOOK ME NEXT to a re-reading of Stephen Crane (1871-1900), who I haven't looked at in sixty years or so. Something I read somewhere suggested the battle descriptions in the Danish novel resonated with those in Crane's masterpiece, and I can see the point, but it's misleading. The two authors have completely different agendas, as different as their national mentalities. Contemporaries, they were both prodigies; they both worked in journalism, fiction, and poetry; and they both developed styles that stood between naturalism and an arresting sort of objective lyricism.

Crane, in fact, is thought to have inspired such Objectivist poets as William Carlos Williams, a fellow New Jerseyite, as well as such novelists as Ernest Hemingway; Herman Bang's poetic style makes me think more of the quieter phenomenalism of, say, Francis Ponge. Why is this? It is the difference between a European (and particularly a cisalpine european) mentality and an American one: the European is more noncommittal and readier to look back toward historical precedent; the American is more urgently expressive and inventive. Tina may make me think of Three Lives, but in style and method it reaches back to Jane Austen; Crane looks forward toward Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

Another thing: Bang was born into a village mentality; Crane quite definitely into a city one. Rural Denmark in the 1860s, war or no war, was a very different situation than urban New Jersey-New York in the 1870s. The difference between the authors is represented by the difference between their heroines: Tina is quietly competent, thoughtful, relatively secure in her self-awareness; Maggie is insecure, reactive, apparently inept. If they come to the same end, they arrive at it for very different social reasons.

Maggie doesn't read nearly as well as Tina today, in my opinion, but it's a fascinating look into the formative period of Crane's career, recording the dialect and slang of the Lower East Side of the 1890s and probing the effect of poverty and other social insecurities on the lives of his characters — who are otherwise not introduced nearly as sympathetically or in such detail as you'll find in Tina.The Red Badge of Courage, though, holds up quite well. Crane writes like a poet as often as he does like a novelist; his sentence structure and vocabulary are often studied and shaped; his physical descriptions are often arresting, if perhaps a bit mannered:
In the eastern sky there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun; and against it, black and patternlike, loomed the gigantic figure of the colonel on a gigantic horse.
The moon had been lighted and hung in a treetop.
The white-topped wagons strained and stumbled in their exertions like fat sheep.
and, famously,
The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.
Much of the time Crane's hero is portrayed in interior monologue though seen objectively, from an observant narrator's viewpoint:
It seemed to the youth that he saw everything. Each blade of the green grass was bold and clear. He thought that he was aware of every change in the thin, transparent vapor that floated idly in sheets… And the men of the regiment, with their starting eyes and sweating faces, running madly, or falling, as if thrown headlong, to queer, heaped-up corpses — all were comprehended.
The book is justly celebrated as the great Civil War novel, and to my mind it has the requirement of every great war novel: it portrays the absurdity, the injustice, the uselessness of war — and the possibility that it can be fascinating. While its horrors are evident among fallen soldiers, its effect on civilian life are rarely present — another contrast with Tina. Nor does Crane look at political or social history, the causes and consequences of war or that particular war. He is concerned with its impact on his maturing central figure.
EDOARDO NESI IS AN Italian novelist, born in 1964 into a well-to-do industrial family, owners and operators of textile mills in Prato. His entry in the Italian Wikipedia lists eleven titles he has published, beginning in 1995, but Story of my people is the only one I have seen. (It appeared as Storia della mia gente. La rabbia e l'amore della mia vita da industriale di provincia (Milano: Bompiani Overlook, 2010) and immediately won the significant Strega Prize.)

The book is part memoir, part socioeconomic criticism, for Italy's textile industry fell victim to globalization in the early years of this century, and in 2004 Nesi sold the family industry, founded by his grandfather and great-uncle in the 1920s. He was never really an industrialist himself; he always wanted to write; he was drawn to literature and to American culture; but he'd stepped into the direction of the firm — Lanificio T.O. Nesi & Figli S.p.A. — when it became his generation's turn, sharing it with his cousin Alvaro.

Story of my people easily and efficiently gives all this background, the facts set out clearly and objectively, and the context too: the great Italian art-and-industry of textile design and weaving, whose history reaches back centuries. The implications of Nesi's book, however, go much further. Between the lines the reader intuits the social justice and meaning of artisanal, family-owned, community-minded industry and commerce. The loss of the "values," the world really, associated and expressed by such an economy — necessarily local, however distant its sources and customers — is poignant, probably even tragic.

This justifies and explains the subtitle of the Italian edition: Anger and love in my life as provincial industrialist. Nesi's writing is understated, colloquial, reasonable. It reminds me of the style of a curiously similar book, Gianfranco Baruchello's How to imagine: a narrative on art and agriculture, (New York: McPherson & Co., 1983), co-written with the American Henry Martin. Baruchello, a painter and conceptualist influenced by Marcel Duchamp, turned to what you might call agricultural conceptualism on the outskirts of Rome in 1973, as How to Imagine and later Why Duchamp explains. There's something about the folksy, clear, patient, reasoning, yet principled and even partisan writing in both Baruchello and Nesi that I find immensely persuasive.

But Baruchello withdraws from the decadent and probably soon failing context of avant-garde art in the 1970s to find solace in local sustainability, guerrilla though its action may be; and Nesi has turned from Story of my people to political engagement, elected last year to the Chamber of Deputies as a representative of Tuscany.

Why, apart from the curiosities of their surnames, have I grouped Bang, Crane, and Nesi? The three books have a tenderly regretful note in common, a regret born of the fault they find with their socio-historical milieu — anger, muted or implied, at the failure of their time to pursue the humanitarian values they once loved. Some may suggest that nostalgia is the common thread, but I don't think so. I have to believe that the function of these books, of their authors' writing, is to get the reader to thinking about the aspects of human social living that have been eroding, and the possibility of returning many of them to viability even in the greatly more dense and complex world we have created for ourselves. The material of Crane's books represents the cataclysmic moment between past and future; we will certainly have to endure such cataclysms on our way to a more sustainable life on earth — if in fact it is not already too late, as I have just read at The Nation.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Einstein on the Beach


The Chatelet production of the Wilson-Glass opera Einstein on the Beach can be seen in its entirety — four and a half hours — streaming on line:

Many thanks to Daniel Wolf for bringing this to my attention.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Manzoni: I Promessi sposi

Alessandro Manzoni: I Promessi sposi, translated as The Betrothed by Bruce Penman. Penquin Books, 1986.
CHRISTMAS WEEK is for reading, as far as i’m concerned, and last month I gave that week to a book I’ve long meant to get to, Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi sposi.

What a book! On the first level simply a long, somewhat rambling historical novel about Milan and its surroundings in the seventeenth century, written two hundred years later, the book — virtually Manzoni’s only extended prose work — admirably integrates historical scholarship, personal observation of character and place, and political philosophy.

The “promised spouses” (the Italian formula for “affianced”) of the title, Renzo and Lucia, are peasants living in a village on Lake Como, near Lecco. Their marriage is prevented by one of the local nobles who has his own designs on Lucia. After a failed attempt to circumvent that, the couple separate: Renzo goes to Milan, is caught up in bread riots resulting from poverty and drought, and escapes to his cousin in Bergamo; Lucia takes refuge in a convent, is abducted…

But enough of plot: I do hope you’ll read the novel, and part of its interest of course is in the suspense. Only a small part, though: those reading the book as a romantic historical novel about a pair of lovers may lose patience with what I think is its true subject-matter, and its intricate interest and importance.
Manzoni begins with a foreword it would be wrong to skip, opening in flowery archaic language purportedly quoting an ancient author:
History may truly be defined as a famous War against Time; for she doth take from him the Years that he had made Prisoner, or rather utterly slain, and doth call them back into Life, and pass them i Review, and set them again in Order of Battle.
After a page of this sort of stuff, set in italics, the author lays down his ancient text and speaks for himself, noting that History too often loses sight of the ordinary men and women who lived through the eras historians deign to consider. He notes, too, the turgid style of the original, alternating between lofty rhetoric and crude dialect. He gives up reading the thing, but quickly thinks
“Why not take the sequence of fact contained in this manuscript,” I thought, “and merely alter the language?” There were no logical objections to this idea, and I decided to follow it. And that is the origin of this present work, explained with a simplicity to match the importance of the book itself.
So immediately Manzoni’s book takes up a number of contexts:
• it was written in 1820-1825 about events of 1620-1630, nearly two centuries earlier (and I read it in 2013, nearly two centuries later)
• It attempts to re-introduce the common man into a context generally restricted to elevated historical figures
• it attends to appropriate language and style

And underneath these evident and acknowledged contexts there is another agenda, not particularly well hidden. The book’s action takes place in a politically eventful moment, when Milan and its duchy are controlled by Spain; Bergamo is part of the Venetian Republic; Austria is threatening from the north and northeast; and France has designs on Monferrato in neighboring Piemonte. Furthermore, the action involves the closing years of the long wars between Catholics and Protestants. And, most importantly, the close of the feudal era when lawlessness and exploitation was an accepted aspect of daily life, and the poor but generally honest and respectable contadini and villager was at the mercy of the rich, powerful “nobleman” in his castle on the hill, and his band of thugs and stooges — the “bravos” who do his dirty work.

I was drawn into the book first by Manzoni’s marvelous description of its physical setting, the mountains and riverbanks to the south and east of Lecco, country not that different from terrain I’ve spent weeks walking in, fifty or a hundred miles to the west., A poor man, Renzo walks when he must go from Lecco to Milan, from Milan to Bergamo. The parish priest rides a mule; ladies are carried in litters; noblemen ride coaches. In every case the tempo is quite different from ours in the 21st century, and climate, physical nature, and observation of the faces and characters of those one meets are taken more slowly, more contemplatively, and therefore more objectively, at a pace giving time to correct immediate impression, prejudice, and>'

The book should be read at a similar pace, I think; and should be considered while reading and afterward, letting the book bloom in the mind, responding to our time and its own, as a good wine is allowed to bloom in the glass and the mouth, and afterward in sensual memory.

The characters in the novel are memorable and attractive, even the villains — stock characters, all of them (young lovers, parish priest and his housekeeper, Cardinal, ruffians, evil nobles), but individuated through description and dialogue. The settings are evoked sometimes through meticulous description, sometimes arresting observation — the Milan cathedral, for example, seen from miles away, at a time when the city was still contained within its walls.

The historical events are exciting and resonant: war, famine, plague, all recounted with both mesmerizing immediacy and resonance that inescapably suggests World War II, the Balkan wars, today’s events in Africa and the Middle East.

And then there’s the language. Manzoni published the novel in 1827, but within a dozen years revised it out of its original dialect of Italian into the Tuscan dialect centered on Florence — thereby cementing that dialect as standard contemporary Italian. The revision seems to involve mostly simply substitutions of vocabulary, with a few additions or clarifications of text, and virtually no cutting.

I haven't yet found what exactly the dialect of the original version is called: it's not Piemontino, though it shares with that dialect certain leanings toward French. "Equal," for example, is eguale in the first version, uguale in the revision. I know this because I found a fascinating edition of the novel online, a facsimile (not e-text or digitized text) of an edition (Milano: Domenico Briola, 1888) of the revised version, with the original text inserted in smaller size between the lines.

Years ago I bought a fine copy of an old edition of I Promessi sposi, and it turns out to have an interesting history of its own. It was published at Firenze in 1845 by Felice Le Monnier, who based the text on the 1832 edition by David Passigli e soc.. Le Monnier was noted for his contempt for author's rights, and merely pirated the Passigli edition, heedless of Manzoni's subsequent revision into the definitive text. Manzoni sued and was eventually awarded a substantial award. I don't know how large the 1845 edition was, or how the copy I have came to whatever used-book store I bought it in — though a recent New Yorker article on such matters does give me some pause.

I read Penman's translation with both the Le Monnier and the interlinear edition at hand, comparing often enough to get the distinct impression that this is a fine translation, idiomatic in English, respectful to the original style, and faithful to the text.

Some have characterized the book as a romantic epic, along the lines of Tolstoy's War and Peace — a book I'm embarrassed to say I haven't (yet) read.  It would be wrong, though, and perhaps disappointing, to think of it as primarily a narrative about the betrothed Renzo and Lucia: instead, it is — as another reader suggested the other day — an epic, a narrative description of the general state of the soul of a nation. I'm hard pressed to think of another prose example, and I wonder if Manzoni weren't channelling such older epics as Aeneid or Chanson de Roland or Orlando furioso. Whatever, I Promessi sposi is essentially Italian; it speaks from an honest and good heart; it is ample, intelligent, poetic, philosophical, evocative, good-humored, and inventive, and I consider it one of the greatest novels I have ever read.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014


Next day's play, back home:


Also from Cuba, this menu: tuna, pork paté, bean soup…

(Zulu nods.)

…corn — take four ears, Dane. 


Nope. Don't like that junk. 


Don't like corn? What, can't give corn room? Take tuna, then. Four cans. 


Open four cans, chop kale — don't cook them, mind! Let's take them over…

ZULU (chanting)

They stay here, fast with fury, lean with love,

Afar from Goa's sand they ever rove

With foul lung, shut eyes, blue lips, mean claw,

None sees that emir, king, even that shah

Iran sent with pale hope, with fair thin face,

Part hope, part fear, part sent well high, part base.

Even them boys that Cuba sent feel well

Upon fast part from Goa's inky Hell.


Poet! Well come here, Zulu! Let's clap, gang, 

Fair rime, that foul pros ever said they sang.  

DANE (hops with FINN: slow jive time)

Uggh. Stop, Finn, lest your toes turn down with mine… look away, boys… drop, fast, when Zulu says that oboe ends…


What oboe, Dane? They hear dogs bark, with keen ears, ever pert. What oboe tune hear thou, fine zany Dane? What wood wind sang from over that long vale?

DANE (fury with TONY)

When they take bird meat, song will stop fast. Keep back!

(Fast fade)

Monday, January 06, 2014

News from Lumaire

ON THE WAY BACK from our Christmas holiday in Portland I finally got in touch with Charles Lumaire, who I've known until now only through occasional correspondence. (Snail-mail: he steadily refuses modern technology.)

For a few months, since returning from France last July, I've been toying with the idea of publishing his series of translations of short narratives written in French by the elusive Jean Coqt, apparently a Franco-American who settled in Grenoble or its environs sometime after the end of World War II — perhaps a veteran of that war; I'm not sure.

(One of the attractions of the Coqt-Lumaire project in fact is the obscurity of Coqt, whose improbable surname raises suspicion that he may be nothing more than an invention of the almost equally elusive Lumaire.)

I enjoyed conversation with Lumaire, a slightly goofy, complacent fellow, perhaps sixty years old, a bachelor who lives with his nervous, intelligent white poodle. I can't explain the affinity I felt for him: we have nothing in common beyond our first names and our fondness for the writing of Gertrude Stein.

We spent a couple of hours over a glass of wine in a pleasant little sandwich-shop in Eugene, and he sent me off with a sample of his own writing — apparently excerpted from an adventure yarn he's working at, called, tentatively, Near Peru.

It's very different from the two installments he's given me of his Coqt translation, which I hope to publish either here or elsewhere in this new year.

Should we take Lumaire's writing seriously? Dunno. It makes me think of Abish, though he reaches, more likely, toward the Mathews model. In any case, here he goes:

"ONCE," TONY SAID, "nine guys flew back from Cuba; then they were here: Scot, Dane, Finn, five wops, Zulu.

"They knew hope; they knew fear more. They said many fell. Wops have seen many fall: snow, rain, sand, bogs."

Alps were hard ― sere, Scot said. Finn took more time with that:

"Were Alps ever hard! Most boys find home flat, calm, snug. Alps seem like Mars."

Dark Zulu, brow knit, fell into rage.

"Puny guys! Girl!" (Howl.)

"Look here: when Girl naps, boys swim away, fast. Then lope back home over sand." Eyes shut, Zulu adds: "Also, wops stay back with girl."

"Let's stop over here." Tony said. "When they come with boys, we'll bark like dogs. What goes with tuna?"

"Buns," Dane said. "Warm herb teas," Finn adds.

"Thin been soop," said Zulu.

(That calm, cool, easy frog Jean Coqt isn't with them, lest the next day's pale moon fade dead away.)

.  .  .  .

Look, Finn! What evil gale wind blew that foul ship upon that hard dark rock? Warn Tony! Fast! Yell, Finn!

Tony sees. "Haul away, Zulu! Hard port! Left, fool! Left side, hard! Haul away!"

.  .  .  .

Whew. What next?

Day's work over, cold moon rose over pale blue seas. Soft wind blew: then, dead calm. Zulu naps. Won't wops wake with waxy wine, when warm? Wink, Jean Coqt, thou cold, cool, cozy frog! They need your calm mind here!

Further from Lunaire here, perhaps, as he deigns to send it to me…