Friday, January 31, 2014

A New York Bachelor: Photographs 1956-1965

I’ve written a published foreward. It’s to Robert Decker’s intriguing collection of found photographs, A New York Bachelor: Photographs, 1956-1965, and the book is available here. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

It Will Do: Carl Jonas Love Almqvist's Sara Videbeck

“It is said that a light veil hangs suspended before the future of Europe and prevents us from observing clearly the forms that beckon to us from within…” writes Swedish writer Carl Jonas Love Almqvist in his preface to his 1839 novel, Det går an; un tavla ur livet (translatable as “It will do,” “It can be done,” or “It’s acceptable”; “A picture from life,” though the English translation settles for the more pedestrian Sara Videbeck). With extraordinary explicitness and forward-thinking, Almqvist defines the writer’s role in trying to discern these mysterious new contours:

We must first learn to know people themselves, observe them in all their nooks and corners, listen to their innermost sighs, nor scorn to understand their tears of joy. In brief, what we need are true stories or sketches from life: examples, contributions, and experiences.

In other respects, though, Almqvist’s preface is remarkably opaque, and walks on eggshells around his radical subject: the liberation of sexuality. For readers with their antennae out, it’s hard to miss Almqvist’s euphemisms - “happiness,” “material interests,” “a glimpse of heaven on earth” - and the sexual imagery of the preface’s final lines abandons most, if not all, pretext. But Almqvist needn’t have obfuscated; Det går an dropped onto Sweden like a bomb, igniting a furor concerning marriage; helping add fuel to women’s rights efforts; inspiring later Swedish authors in their presentation of social material; even launching a new literary genre – Det går an literature – that challenged Almqvist’s ideas and occasionally reworked them to reveal his story as naïve or prurient male fantasy (conveniently, Almqvist appears to leave children out of his utopian picture of relationship). It also led to Almqvist himself being branded as a corruptor of youth and morals. The invaluable site has a fascinating short piece on the reception of Det går an.

Given Almqvist’s straightforward intentions, it’s hardly surprising that Det går an tethers itself to an equally straightforward plot, one traced by the journey of Sara Videbeck and an infatuated non-commissioned officer, Albert, as they meet and travel together, first by boat and then overland, from Stockholm to Videbeck’s home province of Västergötland, with Almqvist using their developing relationship to explore a range of issues in male/female relations. But Almqvist provides more than a simple polemic; Det går an succeeds as a richly imagined story touching on marriage, the position of women, the stratification of Swedish society (Almqvist cleverly uses the ship’s hierarchical accommodations to comment on Swedish class structure, even inserting a memorable depiction of the typical bourgeois family), and above all the impediments to individual happiness placed by tradition and convention. While foregoing the more daring literary acrobatics present in the one other Almqvist work I’ve read, his exhilarating 1834 "fugue,"  The Queen’s Tiara, in favor of a stricter focus on social concerns, Det går an nonetheless displays Almqvist’s idiosyncratic imagination; rich, realist description (one could duplicate the trip without a map; even the Yngve Frey’s departure hour is drawn from its actual schedule); astute psychological observation; incisive commentary on class and regional manners and differences; and wry humor, including - as in The Queen’s Tiara - the narrator’s occasional interruption of the narrative to comment upon the story or explain himself.

Videbeck, her chaperone aunt having comically missed the boat by seconds (as in The Queen’s Tiara, Almqvist revels in eliciting comic potential), is making her way home from a business trip. She forms a striking silhouette among the middle class passengers, and the slightly cartoonish Albert has a difficult time trying to pigeonhole her into a particular social stratum. Bemused and befuddled by Videbeck’s apparent non-conformity, Albert expresses his confusion by fussing irritably with the boat’s serving girls and displaying an obsession with cigars that might have caused Freud to reassess his famous caveat. But in Albert’s persistent attempts to get to know Sara, he is as deferential and awestruck as he is mystified by her uncompromising sense of herself.

Videbeck is a glazier, having taken over the business from her deceased father but prevented, by rigid guild rules, from continuing in the trade once her sick mother expires and takes along certain widow’s rights. Yet Videbeck is confident in her future, having invented an improved commercial glazier’s putty and also planning to open a shop where she can sell decorative glass boxes and mirrors. She describes her work using the confident, competent tones of a professional, even noting that she herself supervises special jobs as she cannot trust “the boys” – her employees – to be sensitive in manipulating the diamond. Videbeck also asserts her independence by insisting on paying her own way, even when Albert invites her to lunch. Further, she shows no sense of embarrassment about being on familiar terms in public with a young man she barely knows, culminating one night at a hotel where, with only a single room available, she suggests Albert share it with her.

As Albert and Sara’s relationship develops, the former begins to learn the vision Sara has for the ideal relationship, one born from witnessing the experience of her poor mother, driven nearly to suicide by an alcoholic husband.  When Albert suggests that as an unmarried woman, Sara will nonetheless be unprotected and vulnerable, she replies,

We shall see. On the contrary, if I had a husband as unsober and irritable as my mother’s was, I should be defenseless and miserable. No, I tell you, I shall get along just as I am.

To Albert’s credit, he rises to meet Videbeck’s calm assertiveness, emboldened rather than intimidated by her complexity:

Quite unexpectedly and boldly he answered: “I am just wondering whether any person has ever kissed that mouth.”

A quickly flitting smile was her only answer, and she looked away over the Mälar waters. In so doing, there was not the slightest coquettishness or glimmer of mischief discernible in her eye, but, on the other hand, nothing exactly romantic or dreamily divine. It was an intermediate something of an incomprehensible character. Not at all ugly, nor yet profoundly beautiful. It was of the kind concerning which we are wont to express ourselves with a happy countenance: ”Oh, it will do!”

At a subsequent hotel room, the narrator suggests that relations have become warmer than warm (in this delightfully subtle passage, the metaphorical text flies at such a high altitude that it may leave some readers behind), and all that remains is for the couple to find a form for their relationship going forward.

That form is apparently what caused Det går an to explode with such impact. Videbeck makes clear she has no interest in marriage (the narrator, with Almqvist’s trademark tongue-in-cheek drama, refers to it as “humanity’s greatest problem”), proposing instead an arrangement that will guarantee both her and Albert’s independence and the long-term vitality of their affection for one another. With gently ascending courage and respect for Sara Videbeck’s individuality, Albert - and Almqvist - step through that veil into the future. One can only hope to see more of this remarkable writer’s work translated into English.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Revisiting Jules Verne, Part II: The Golden Volcano

Rather disappointed by Jules Verne’s Master of the World (1904), I thought I’d give him another try. After all, Raymond Roussel had been so zealous about Verne as to forbid people in his presence from even mentioning the writer’s name lest it be sullied, and Verne’s clever linguistic games – presumably absent in English translation – had been an influence on the complex linguistic underpinnings of Roussel’s own narratives. I knew too that older translations into English of Verne’s works had a poor reputation, so perhaps the fault lay there. Skeptically, I embarked on his posthumous novel The Golden Volcano (1906) – its first complete English translation, issued in 2008.

The Golden Volcano helped revive for me - a bit - the spell I’d once experienced reading Verne. If not exactly a page-turner, the novel provided a moderately engrossing story of two Montreal cousins who inherit a Klondike gold mining claim and head west to see what it’s worth. Adventures ensue. Some of the trudging style from Master of the World persists here: Verne takes a full third of this 330 page book to describe, again in strictly linear narrative and encompassing granularity, the trip from Montreal to the mining claim outside the Klondike capital of Dawson City. A lot of numbers get bandied about in The Golden Volcano - claims, populations, monetary figures, geographical coordinates - amounting to a formidable display of research skills. I particularly liked a lengthy list of prices for commodities and services in Dawson City, culminating in reference to “an ordinary bath” costing $2.50, but a Russian bath costing $32.00 (that’s the one I would have wanted). But this informational accretion also weighs down the narrative, the quest for inclusiveness sometimes resulting in an awkward, Dan-Brown-style grafting of factual specifics onto the story. It’s reasonable to assume that Verne provides such meticulous detail - most of it employed in exposition leading up to his main story - partly to point out the fragility of human endeavors and the folly of greed, since all of that effort, as he illustrates at the end of the novel’s first part, can be wiped out by a sudden, indifferent act of nature.

But it’s clear too that Verne is attempting to transmit an enduring portrait of the hardship and human hysteria involved in the gold rush. I had expected adventure in Verne, but not such sweeping historical and social interest. With an attention to realistic portrayal that calls to mind Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, Verne vividly depicts the difficulties of the trek of thousands of fortune seekers to the remote gold fields of the Klondike, and the wretched conditions of the miners’ camps, boom towns, and perilous routes. While far more laconic than Dreiser (with whose descriptions a reader could have followed the route without need of map, compass or guide), Verne displays a similar attention to the downtrodden, most memorably in this instance, the women and children collapsing along the mountain passes or freezing to death in the towns and camps, completely unprepared for the ferocious Arctic winter.

The second part of the novel departs significantly from this naturalistic account. The cousins, possessing a crudely sketched map and a legend left them by a dying Frenchman (Franco-centrism seems to appear like a watermark in Verne’s books), head north to the Arctic sea in search of a legendary volcano of gold, and also into territory much more like the adventurous Verne that I’d remembered. One of the pleasures of reading Verne, despite his one-foot-in-front-of-the-other narrative style, lies in the fuzzy zone between realism and fantasy, most evident here in his cartoonish description of the volcano itself. Golden Mount, perched at the edge of the Arctic Ocean at the mouth of the MacKenzie river, rises straight from the tundra, with sides of “at least a 70 degree angle” and a flat plateau on top from which the travelers can gaze into a caldera “75-80 feet in circumference” (in other words, a mere 25 feet across), from which smoke belches and flames flicker. Verne’s understanding of geological processes seems comical; an earthquake strong enough to change the course of a river is felt an entire mile away, and the functioning of the volcano seems more akin to a case of nausea than to a geological process (Verne says as much when a character later compares an eruption to an emetic). But the conception is too appealing to dismiss - or would be to young readers, anyway - a volcano that “would throw out the gold-bearing substances, nuggets, and gold dust along with the lava and slag,” such that one could “simply gather them up.” Nifty. Verne seems to have understood what Hollywood special effects makers, decades later, would know so well: that verisimilitude is entirely dispensable if one can manage to induce a willing suspension of disbelief.

The characters in The Golden Volcano have limited psychological complexity, but the situations in which they find themselves provide enough mystery, suspense and rich historical detail to maintain a modicum of interest, and enough amusing creative touches (“Stop” – what a perfect name for a dog) to elicit a few smiles. If revisiting Verne may have been disappointing overall, I could nonetheless appreciate that I might well have loved these books - The Golden Volcano in particular - if I’d read them at the right age. That age gap intrigues me; after all, other books from childhood - Treasure Island, Captain Blood, Tove Jansson’s Moomin books – have held up well under rereading. Jules Verne’s magic, however, seemed to me relatively diminished. Maybe I’ve become relatively diminished. In any case, I found enough engagement on this second attempt to eventually try one of Verne’s works in the original French. After all, there’s an entire bookshop in Paris devoted to him, and perhaps those French readers, even those lacking Raymond Roussel’s fanaticism, are accessing something I am not. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Revisiting Jules Verne, Part I: Master of the World

I had assumed that my days of reading Jules Verne ended when I was about 12 years old. However, he’d been floating about in my head since I read of Raymond Roussel’s obsession with him, and a bout of insomnia one night prompted me to pull out an old, unread Airmont paperback of Master of the World featuring an overblown cover illustration of a man in an orange jumpsuit piloting what looked like a toilet.

I was surprised to find that the book took place in the U.S., and more surprised to find that it began in the Black Mountains of North Carolina, where I had spent much time during my youth (having somehow never noticed a volcano Verne places there).[i] The novel then ranges around the nation, from Wisconsin to Cape Cod, from Washington, D.C. to Kansas, from Niagara Falls to the Gulf of Mexico, following the appearances of a mysterious, superfast hybrid contraption, “The Terror.” “The Terror” ruffles the placid surface of American life and sends ripples of concern into the top echelons of the federal police. M. Strock, a police inspector, is assigned the task of investigating, partly due to his insatiable curiosity. In fact it’s this curiosity that helps drive the novel, since Strock is irresistibly drawn towards resolving the mystery even as he faces the danger of pursuing the megalomaniacal, self-described “Master of the World” revealed, in a series of letters, to be behind the events. At one point finding himself on the mysterious vehicle itself, Strock alternates between safety and curiosity: “…to escape without having learned anything of the Terror’s secrets would not have contented me at all.” Strock hunts down his prey across America while at the same time manifesting an inquisitiveness  about the mad genius’ futuristic invention that threatens to distract him from his aim.

Like his main character, Verne appears irrepressibly and contagiously curious about the future. This curiosity is evident in Verne’s trademark anticipatory enthusiasm for science: “So this machine fulfilled a four-fold use! It was at the same time automobile, boat, submarine and airship. Earth, sea and air – it could move through all three elements! And with what power! With what speed!” More interesting to me, Verne’s curiosity is also evident in Master of the World’s occasional, pointed commentaries concerning the United States, the character of its people and its future. Verne seems alternately fascinated and repelled by the new nation, predicting its ascendency to world power - “It goes without saying that America does things on a magnificent scale” - yet daunted by its steamrolling energy and rapaciousness, noting, in reference to an automobile race, that “the death of men is but a detail, not considered of great importance in that astonishing country of America.” A kind of fervor for exacting detail is also manifest in Verne’s keen attention to geographical particulars; were he alive today he’d certainly be gaga over Google Earth (and would likely have avoided the one glaring misstep in his otherwise careful research for Master of the World: placing a vast mountain lake some 40 miles west of Topeka, Kansas).

But having read Verne as a child, I was disappointed, reading him as an adult, to find what a dull writer he could be in this boyish boy's tale. In part, this stemmed from a linear narrative in which details amassed along the way as though Verne were afraid to move from Point A to Point B without stopping every five feet. It also arose from that most maddening fault a mystery writer can commit: letting the reader get ahead of the detective, such that the former spends tedious paragraphs, and sometimes pages, waiting for the latter to catch up to a conclusion already known from a single preceding sentence. I can also add that the book ended in a heated rush, as though Verne (perhaps having nodded off over his map of Kansas) had finally decided to call it a night and just slapped on an expedient ending borrowed from a previous novel (Robur, the Conqueror), a dissatisfying conclusion that saps the novel’s sense of mystery and implies serious memory lapses in his detective.

Reading Master of the World served as one of those curious experiences of getting to know an author again for the first time and having to revise one’s childhood impressions via an adult looking glass. I marveled that I could ever have found him so enthralling. The elements of the fantastic that had so enchanted me reading 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea so many years ago here seemed but mildly engaging, not quite enough to hold my interest for long. And while I could admire Verne’s forward thinking as well as his admirable model of a curiosity so intractable (at least as reflected in his narrator) as to place strong value in a high degree of risk-taking, I found it hard to muster much enthusiasm for Master of the World - as a novel, anyway. As a soporific, it worked wonders.

Tomorrow: a second attempt at Verne.

[i] However, The Great Eyrie, as described by Verne, bears a striking resemblance to Mount Pilot, further north in the state near the town of Mt. Airy, most famous as the model for Mayberry R.F.D. in the old Andy Griffith television series, a link I did not expect to find with Jules Verne.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Angharad Price: The Life of Rebecca Jones

Maesglasau Valley, Wales (source: Wikipedia)

Memories, like one’s dreams, may be most interesting to one’s self, which might explain my general lack of appreciation for the memoir. Or maybe it’s that the genre offers such a ready-made subject, calling to mind that canard about what it takes to be an English teacher: “Ever have a feeling? Write about it!” The potential for indulgence seems to exert tremendous gravitational pull, occasionally leading towards a gauzy, nostalgic recitation of sensations and events or, opposite direction, a wallow in the sordidness of one’s past (unforgettably limned by Adrian Mole diaries author Sue Townsend in her giving to an imagined book of this sort the title, A Girl Called Shit). Perhaps my distaste merely springs from my becoming a cynical old codger, scowling at the wasted years.

Or, just maybe, it’s that most writers of memoirs are not Angharad Price.

While reading Price’s The Life of Rebecca Jones, I thought of an acquaintance whose mentor in a creative writing program told that her uninteresting writing was less problematic than her uninteresting life, a charge I can’t imagine being leveled at Price. Her book did not entirely win me over to the memoir genre – it offers an abundance of nostalgia and inward turning towards the sharp sensations of childhood and home, and taken in isolation some of her simple sentences could seem as subtle as a brick (“They tell me the village is changing”) – but its signature strength rests with the author herself. Not everyone who sets out to write about the past can claim, like Price, to come from an uninterrupted chain of generations inhabiting the same valley for 1,000 years, an attribute that lends The Life of Rebecca Jones a depth and authority with regard to its backward glance that few writers could ever hope to summon, given what its narrator can rightfully claim about “continuance.”

To be fair, The Life of Rebecca Jones is actually not a memoir of Angharad Price; rather, it’s a hybrid memoir/novel, based loosely on one of Price’s relatives, a kind of first person narrative experiment in the autobiography of another, a questioning of what “self” can mean in a person - Price and the protagonist whose life she recounts - so profoundly anchored to history.

Written in Welsh in 2002 and published in English in 2012, The Life of Rebecca Jones begins and ends in the Cwm Maesglasau, the steeply walled valley where the Jones family first arrived in 1012. Beginning with her 1905 birth, Rebecca Jones traces, for the nearly 100 years of her life, events impacting her family: births and deaths, tragedies and glories, the frustrated hopes of a young woman weighed down by tradition and obligation, the occasional intrusions of the outside world into the secluded valley. This use of fictional memoir to filter an epoch through a character whose life it spans is has been done: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, G. B. Edwards’ The Life of Ebenezer LePage, and - closer in tone, period and thematic concerns to Price’s work - Sicilian writer Goliarda Sapienza’s colossal, semi-autobiographical novel, The Art of Joy (recently translated into English). Price’s economy of language and tight, frugal writing also align her to such concentrated evocations of family and place as Annie Ernaux’s moving, autobiographical novella, A Man’s Place.

Price’s book distinguishes itself not only by its claim to historical continuity, but also by the congenital blindness of three of Jones’ four brothers, dividing the family’s six children into a tragic symmetry. Many family chronicles could rest their entire weight upon a calamity of this magnitude, but it’s a testament to Price’s ingenuity that while she affectingly conveys the tremendous strength required of the family (all the brothers go on to remarkable careers), her narrative ranges beyond particular circumstance to encompass wider concerns: the power of place (readers are unlikely to forget Cwn Maesglasau as evoked by Price), the lives of rural women, the tension between individual aspirations and age-old traditions, and especially the pivotal role of language and literature supplied by a family line of poets, historians, bards of the earth and lovers of literature from Cwn Maesglasau and across Wales. Price firmly situates Rebecca Jones in the Welsh literary tradition – even providing a crash course illuminating some key figures – and some of the novel’s most memorable phrases come not from Rebecca’s own narrative but from the passages she recalls from time spent reading, memorizing literature, and listening to stories despite a life dominated by chores of the farm, sewing for extra income, and caring for her siblings, their children and her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother. The centrality of language is no cheap literary device, but like the brothers’ blindness, among the irrefutable facts of Jones’ life: a chest of treasured books handed down through generations; relations who were noted writers and thinkers; the critical significance of language even among those who, like Jones’ father Evan, eschewed books but reveled in stories. Even the book’s structure is shaped by excerpts from a 16th century book on animal husbandry written by Jones’ ancestor Hugh Jones that offer memorable, stylistically curious observations about the valley where, 500 years later, life remains in many ways unchanged.

The novel contains a handful of photographs of the Cym and of the family, leading one cover blurb to compare Price to W. B. Sebald. While it now seems axiomatic to invoke Sebald whenever a novelist uses photos, Price’s treatment of the past and her subtle interrogation of how photographs juggle with the truth make the comparison appropriate.

Only in the final pages of The Life of Rebecca Jones does the modern world truly begin to intrude, with its electrical turbines, telephones, jet planes, and the degradation of traditions into novelties: packaged, theme park representations of the past. While any number of books bemoan the losses incurred by modernization, few offer such a heavy counterbalance in terms of the volume of history at risk, so much of it, in Price’s case, intensely personal:

I know this way as I know myself, and there is no need to grope. I have walked this path almost daily for nearly a century. Perhaps I have become the path itself – my steps, at least – as the flow of water becomes a stream. I could walk this path even if I too were blind.

Price could have opted for a straightforward memoir, but by focusing on Rebecca Jones, whose world entwines her own, she captures what has been lost already in what has come down to her in a life both enriched and burdened by such continuity. As the custodian of this millennium of family history, what is Price to do amid the impingements of the modern world? The Life of Rebecca Jones, and its surprising, complicating ending, attempts a moving answer to that question. As an autobiographical experiment, it also, with a haunting, nagging persistence, calls into question the entire enterprise of the conventional memoir and of representing the past.