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A Subversive Activity – Reading
In an earlier post I mentioned that I had, via Christopher Hitchens’ essays And Yet…, discovered Henrich Heine (whom I had never heard of) and Edmund Wilson (I had been aware of him thru Gore Vidal so re-discovered). Well, I have now spent more time with HH and can report that that guy (1797-1856) was a cinematic writer, one who in turns can inspire one to pen and to despair (at one’s own feeble efforts). We have the handy word master to apply to folks like that.
Florentine Nights, I’d heard of it only vaguely. The narrator returns again and again to visit a dying young woman, pale, bed-ridden and delicate. To persuade her to follow doctor’s orders to lie as still as possible, he tells her stories which he presents as from his own life. This is the device he uses to tie the tales together in what might otherwise be a collection of short stories. In another, Ideas – Book Le Grand, he addresses the reader as Madame at the beginning of each chapter, as if talking with or writing to a friend. It eventually evolves to an homage to Napoleon which, like Beethoven’s Emporer’s Concerto, he came later to repent.
Heine was famous in his time and quite successful. As I’ve found reading early writers like Dickens, Rousseau, Voltaire, I’m amazed at how unexpectedly modern they seem. And how so many phrases and sayings I took to be of recent vintage either originated with these writers or were commonplace in their time. I picture the life around them, what was going on: in the U.S., relations with Native Americans were approaching genocide, slavery was perfectly legal, the barbarity in the western U.S. toward animal, vegetable and mineral was pretty much unlimited, women couldn’t vote, petty and not so petty wars raged between the great European powers, England, France, Germany… the French Revolution, Napoleon’s megalomania (and forced spreading of egalite and liberte).
The ruthless cruelty of colonialism was in full swing and… well, plumbing was pretty primitive. But on the other hand, there was Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Ingres, David, Gros, Delecroix, Manet, Goya, Darwin,… and Morse Code, Electricity, … and Heine, who has been compared to the literary giant Goethe whose book Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship was listed by Schopenhauer as one of the four greatest novels ever written, high praise indeed and heady company.
BTW, claims for the greatest novel have also been made for George Eliot’s, Middlemarch. I’ve only tasted it but can vouch for the superb writing. But back to Heine – what attracted me was Hitchens describing him as a wit. I was in the mood for some laughs. A chuckle is a healthy thing for the ol’ bod. Well, that was there all right, a bit Mark Twain-ish maybe. It could be that it doesn’t translate well but I found David Sedaris a lot funnier, and Twain of course is the master.
Edmund Wilson’s, To the Finland Station, is a survey, from 1930, of left thinking up to that time, from Michelet to Marx and Lenin. The hysteria conducted by the 1% toward this view, threatened as they were by its call for sharing, attempts to make damned sure that the average person won’t go there in their reading or thinking. But Wilson is a remarkable intellectual so fears not thought. You don’t have to agree with every paragraph but this is a good place to explore the seriousness of that historical movement.
His Axel’s Castle explores imaginative literature from 1870 – 1930, Yeats, Paul Valery, T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce (Ulysses was Joyce’s latest book, Finnegan’s Wake not yet published), Gertrude Stein and Rimbaud. It is probably my own defect but Yeats bored me silly, I skipped Valery and most of T. S. Eliot, pausing at The Waste Land (odd for a songwriter and poet to say but poetry tends to not entertain me). My interest in the book was primarily Proust and Joyce who Wilson seems to think have written the most momentous fiction.
I read a lot of crime fiction. It fits nicely with my energy level when I get around to books late in the night. But when I have dipped into Proust, and Dickens for that matter, I’ve been rewarded with some spectacular writing (and now Heine added to that list). Joyce is all right but doesn’t knock my socks off. I find in Wilson’s analysis that Ulysses was written to parallel the Illiad, a structural device which even Wilson admits is sometimes a cumbersome stretch. My own experience reading Finnegan’s Wake reminded me of improvised Jazz. I’d read somewhere that the book was filled with references to Greek mythology and cross-cultural references to befuddle even the most extreme cross-word puzzle enthusiasts but, since this doesn’t describe me, I found that by thinking of it as improvised jazz and letting it wash over me as I read, it made a kind of sense – a non-literal sense, like the musical idiom where rhythmic riffs are what are important. I must admit to a limited reading (like with the prolific John Foster Wallace I can only take so much in a sitting) but I intend to re-visit some day.
Joyce’s disciple and secretary (I guess that means assistant, typer… whatever) was the subsequently famous fellow Irish-er, Samuel Becket. I spent some time in Paris (1970) and after some battering experiences trying to speak French to Parisians I retreated to reading it, translating Becket to English. Anyway, I then got interested in Becket and read his Murphy, Mallone Dies, The Unnameable, Watt and saw some of his plays performed in Atlanta by the great Del Hamilton… I was much more taken with him, for a time, than Joyce.
Interesting that Edmund Wilson disses the only woman in his list, more or less claiming that Stein burned herself out after a couple early books. I was curious about Gertrude, supporter of Picasso and Hemingway, as to how she survived, as a Jew in occupied France. I found that the wealthy U.S. citizen retreated to her country place in Vichy. But the question remains, why wasn’t she sent to the camps? Or why didn’t she, of means, flee? Turns out she was under the protection of an influencial Nazi officer who checked in regularly to make sure she was not rounded up. But that says little about her writing. She interested me as a cultural influence but her writing did not grab me. Like why does one piano player enchant while another, also impressively skilled, leave you cold? I dunno.
Dylan mentions in his song, Tangled Up in Blue, the subject of Wilson’s last portrait, the gifted iconoclast Authur Rimbaud. He’s almost as famous as Dylan himself but all his poetry was written in a brief three years after which he abandoned the effort and chased money and, more importantly I guess, experience. I can appreciate the contemplation of being that poetry generally pursues but I find in Dylan, reflecting here my philistinism once again, all the poetry I need (aside from my own, and maybe Robert Bly and Joe Ruesing). This would earn me the mockery of Gore Vidal I know but what can I say, it just doesn’t do it for me.
My own reflections don’t seem to do it for others either so it isn’t like this is an egotistic stance. As John Lennon said, Whatever gets you through the night, is alright. And, in further self-defense, quoting the great Popeye, I yam what I yam. I didn’t even know what a literary critic was until 1974. Edmund Wilson is one of the stand-outs in that arena, his writing and insights a reward, even after all these years, for the lover of intellect.
Illustration & writing, Tom Ferguson