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.

No comments: