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Penelope Fitzgerald: The Knox Brothers

My attempts to impose some kind of order and method on my reading never last, and the reason is usually that some stray impulse seizes me and I pick up a book that was not in line to be read, sometimes not even toward the end of that line but rather in the "someday" or even the "maybe someday" category. This book was one of those. I don't even remember why I picked it up, except that it was lying conspicuosly on the shelf out of place and on top of a stack. Probably I was looking for another book when this one caught my eye.

Anyway I didn't need to read very much before deciding to continue.

I didn't know that there were four Knox brothers and that they were all remarkably gifted. I think I had heard that Ronald had a brother who was an Anglican clergyman, but that was all. They were, from oldest to youngest, Edmund, Dillwyn, Wilfred, and Ronald. Edmund was a writer, chiefly satirical I think, and was associated for much of his life with Punch, including a stint as editor. Dillwyn was a classicist and, during the 20th century wars, a cryptographer. Wilfred was an Anglo-Catholic with a very strong commitment to the social justice efforts of the Church, a fairly rare combination I suspect, at least in that he didn't just talk social justice but also acted vigorously for it.

And Ronald--well, any Catholic who has an interest in that very rich vein of English Christianity that flowered from the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th knows who Ronald is. He, as I implied, was the reason I had any interest in this book at all, but the other three proved to be as interesting as he, in their general capacity as human beings rather than as a result of their fame.

But the reason I didn't put the book back on the shelf after browsing it for a bit had at least as much to do with the quality of the writing as with my interest in the Knoxes. It's a very well-crafted piece of literature in itself. I was vaguely aware that there is an English novelist named Penelope Fitzgerald, but had never read anything by her, and certainly had no idea that she was the niece of Ronald Knox: Edmund Knox was her father. She was a late bloomer as a writer--published in 1977 when she was 60, this was only her second book, and the novels came later.

I can't tell what Fitzgerald's own religious views are, but she is certainly both knowledgeable about and sympathetic toward those of her two committed uncles. The other uncle seems to have been agnostic if not atheist, and if there is any mention in the book of her father's religion it's not much emphasized. Their father was also an Anglican clergyman, eventually a bishop, but of very Evangelical convictions, and the Catholic sympathies of two of his sons were a great disappointment to him.

While they were growing up these two brothers had been about as close as age permitted, and Ronald's "going over" to Rome was as big a disappointment to his Anglo-Catholic brother as to their father. It meant not just a theological divergence but a rupture in the family, and was very painful to both. I admit that I previously had almost no sense of what Ronald Knox was like as a person, and the effect of this and many other aspects of his life naturally shed light on his work.

Fitzgerald is straightforward in her affection for all four brothers, and the book is a warm tribute. She keeps herself out of it as a character--apart from the foreword, I'm not sure that the word "I" occurs in the narrative. Only if you happened to notice that Edmund was the only one of the brothers to have a daughter would you realize that when it is related that Ronald said this or that "to his niece" it was said to the author of the book you're reading. Yet the whole thing is suffused with a personal warmth, as promised in the preface:

In this book I have done my best to tell the story of my father and his three brothers. All four of them were characteristically reticent about themselves, but, at the same time, most unwilling to let any moment pass without question. I have tried to take into account both their modesty and their love of truth, and to arrive at the kind of biography of which they would have approved.

When I was very young I took my uncles for granted, and it never occurred to me that everyone else in the world was not like them. Later on I found that this was not so, and eventually I began to want to make some kind of record of their distinctive attitude to life, which made it seem as though, in spite of their differences, they shared one sense of humour and one mind.

We, as well as they, are well served by her book. Recommended enthusiastically as a completely fascinating picture of a fascinating family, as well as the now-vanished culture they inhabited.

The Knox children lost their mother early, when Ronald was four. In discussing their father's need to remarry and the kind of woman whom he could marry, Fitzgerald notes that "She would have to be vicarage born and bred." A whole way of life, now presumably unknown to anyone living, is implied in that.

Addendum: I had totally forgotten and had to be reminded by Janet that Marianne had contributed a piece on Penelope Fitzgerald to the 52 Authors thing we did in 2015. It's really good. Click here.

Henry James On Rich Progressives

I'm reading The Portrait of a Lady (for the first time, and have no idea what is going to become of the heroine, so please don't put spoilers in the comments) and very much enjoying it. This passage has a striking contemporary relevance. Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, has come from America to visit her uncle, Mr. Touchett, an American who has spent much of his life acquiring a fortune in England. Since Mr. Touchett is portrayed as a pretty wise old fellow, I don't think it's too much to suppose that James agrees with him here. He's speaking to Isabel about the professed radical political views of a local aristocrat, Lord Warburton, and others like him.

"You see, when you come to the point it wouldn’t suit them to be taken at their word.”

“Of whom are you speaking?”

“Well, I mean Lord Warburton and his friends—the radicals of the upper class. Of course I only know the way it strikes me. They talk about the changes, but I don’t think they quite realise. You and I, you know, we know what it is to have lived under democratic institutions: I always thought them very comfortable, but I was used to them from the first. And then I ain’t a lord; you’re a lady, my dear, but I ain’t a lord. Now over here I don’t think it quite comes home to them. It’s a matter of every day and every hour, and I don’t think many of them would find it as pleasant as what they’ve got. Of course if they want to try, it’s their own business; but I expect they won’t try very hard.”

“Don’t you think they’re sincere?” Isabel asked.

“Well, they want to feel earnest,” Mr. Touchett allowed; “but it seems as if they took it out in theories mostly. Their radical views are a kind of amusement; they’ve got to have some amusement, and they might have coarser tastes than that. You see they’re very luxurious, and these progressive ideas are about their biggest luxury. They make them feel moral and yet don’t damage their position. They think a great deal of their position; don’t let one of them ever persuade you he doesn’t, for if you were to proceed on that basis you’d be pulled up very short.”

Two Killers

(Relatively minor SPOILERS)

When I learned, some time ago, that there is a movie based on Hemingway's short story "The Killers," I wanted to see it out of sheer curiosity. There really isn't very much to the story, and almost nothing happens. Two menacing men arrive in a small town. They menace people in a diner. They're in town to kill "the Swede." Nick Adams (this is one of the Nick Adams stories) goes to warn the Swede. The Swede says there's nothing he can do about it and waits for the men to come and kill him.

That's it, as far as the plot goes. There's a good deal more to the story, of course, but it's all character and atmosphere. There's not enough there to fill an hour or two of film time, so the movie, made in 1946 and starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, makes Hemingway's narrative a prelude to an entirely invented backstory. The Hemingway story is gotten out of the way in twenty minutes or so, and is really quite a good adaptation. By "good" I mean both that it's faithful to the original and that it's powerful in itself. 

The Swede (Lancaster) is done in as expected. Then it turns out that he left an insurance policy, and an investigator from the company is assigned the task of locating the beneficiary. In the course of that investigation he uncovers the complicated reasons for the killing. Not surprisingly, they involves gangsters and a femme fatale

It's classic film noir, so much so that when I checked In the Dark, a book about noir, to see if the movie is listed, I discovered that in fact it provides the cover photo. And if you like noir this is one you definitely need to see. It didn't displace Out of the Past as my favorite, but it's well up there in the ranks. I didn't recognize the names of the director and screenwriter, Robert Siodmak and Anthony Veiller, reportedly with some uncredited help from John Huston. It was the first big success for both Lancaster and Gardner. I can't offhand remember having seen the latter in anything else, and now I know why she was a major sex symbol. 

Having located the 1946 film on Netflix (DVD only), I was surprised to discover that there is a second version, made in 1964, and starring John Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager play the menacing gunmen. To my taste it's not nearly as good, but I found it interesting as a contrast and an indication of the way film sensibilities were changing. The cinematography is flashier and more elaborate. The violence starts almost immediately. There's much more spectacle: the hero is not a boxer, as in the 1946 film, but a racecar driver, which provides lots of opportunity for noisy action. There's more emphasis on the killers themselves, who are given a psychopathic edge. And Angie Dickinson is a beautiful woman but she doesn't have the smoldering allure of Ava Gardner. It's in color, which the 1946 one is not, and although I certainly have a great love for black-and-white I don't think color is the reason, or not the main reason, for the lack of atmosphere, for the movie seeming flat compared to the earlier one. 

There is one remarkable thing about it: Ronald Reagan plays the bad guy, and he's surprisingly effective. It was his last film role; two years later he would be governor of California. I'm surprised that more wasn't made of his portrayal of this evil character when he was president, considering that he was as deeply loathed as Donald Trump by the same sorts of people. But then in the 1980s we didn't have ready access to old movies.

Both films are available as a set from Criterion, and Netflix, as noted, has the set. Here are the trailers. 

Stewart Copeland on Charlie Watts

I've never been inclined to mourn celebrity deaths, especially in cases like that of Charlie Watts, who died this week at the age of 80 after a long and spectacularly successful career--and I hope his private life was equally successful. But I certainly don't feel any sense of personal loss.

And anyway I lost interest in the Rolling Stones sometime in the early '70s. I remember once, in probably the late '70s, picking up a copy of Rolling Stone magazine (no relation) and reading a review of whatever Stones album had just been released. The reviewer said that the album showed that the group was "still at the forefront of our culture," or something to that effect. Maybe he said "leading edge" or even "cutting edge," terms that were not as hackneyed then as they are now. I remember thinking "Which culture is that? The culture of super-rich hedonists?" It sure wasn't mine.

I liked those early (i.e. the '60s) Stones albums quite a lot, but haven't listened to them for many years. As a matter of fact, the only time I can remember hearing the Stones in the last forty years or so, apart from the occasional song on the radio, was maybe five to ten years ago when I noticed one of their recent releases in the library and checked it out just to see if they were doing anything interesting. And after one listen I concluded no, they weren't. I am somewhat curious about the blues album they released a few years ago--I can imagine that being quite good--but I haven't heard it.

Still, the eulogies about Watts reminded me of something I read way back when, probably ca. 1970. It was a remark by a jazz critic, and he was probably discussing the fact that Watts began as a jazz drummer: "Somebody makes the Rolling Stones swing, and it must be Charlie Watts." That intrigued me because I sort of knew what he meant, but sort of didn't. That is, I recognized that something about the Stones' rhythmic feel was different from that of other bands, but I didn't know what it was. The rhythms seemed looser than (for instance) the Beatles, almost relaxed in a way, but yet intense and driving. They don't "swing" in a jazz way, but...they do.

And that faint leftover curiosity was what prompted me to listen to this four-and-a-half-minute clip of another famous drummer, Stewart Copeland of The Police, commenting on Watts. It's interesting, and the technical bit seems to describe the thing I heard.

I think a lot of people have an image of drummers, especially rock drummers, as Neanderthals pounding on things. In my experience drummers tend to be quite bright. On some level they have to be, unless they literally are just pounding, to keep track of the multiple interlocking rhythmic threads they generally have going on. 

Speaking of drummers: I have a Kindle Fire, the Kindle which is cheaper because it forces you to see Amazon advertisements. Now and then it offers me a free Kindle book, and it's usually not something that interests me, and anyway I don't often read books on the Kindle or any other electronic device. So I usually ignore these offers. But when it offered me the memoir Inside Out by Pink Floyd's drummer Nick Mason, I was curious enough to take it.

The book turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable. Mason is a bright and witty guy, and the book is a straightforward account of Floyd's history, pretty well devoid of sensationalism, modest, very down to earth, with a particular focus on the sheer logistics of the elaborate stage shows for which the band was famous. Worth a look if the subject interests you.

Listening to a Book Vs. Reading It

There's an interesting article by Art Edwards in (at?) Quillette about the difference between reading a book and hearing it read: Listening to Literature—What We Gain and Lose with Audiobooks. It's rather long for online reading, but worthwhile if you're interested. The author wonders whether listening to a book really counts:

The one constant of my reading life is that I always want to read more. If audiobooks offered me nothing else, they offered me that.

Or did they? Was I reading these books? I didn’t know. A search online revealed a piece on the subject quoting Daniel Willingham, a psychologist from the University of Virginia and author of 2017’s The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads: “What you find is very high correlations of reading comprehension and listening comprehension.” In other words, one’s ability to listen well to an audiobook corresponds directly to one’s ability to read well—the issue is largely a matter of personal preference.

And preference is strongly affected by, so to speak, competence. The writer does most of his listening while driving, some of it involving long and fairly demanding non-fiction, and feels that he has understood these more or less as he would have done if he had read them. I could not do that. Not only would I not absorb the book, I would find the whole process unpleasant. I've often suspected myself of having a mild case of attention deficit disorder, though I think that would be an overly dramatic way of saying simply that my powers of concentration are low. (I think I'll just put the question of basic intelligence aside.) When I read something very complex, I have to make a more or less continual effort to keep my mind on it, even if I'm sitting on the couch at home with nothing and no one to distract me, and frequently have to re-read a sentence or a paragraph. It's a problem even with less demanding fiction, such as murder mysteries. 

And while driving? No, impossible, not to be considered. Of course I would not read some of the stuff this guy reads anyway. Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty? On the face of it, unreadable in any case, even if it were not 800 pages long. But twenty-five hours on twenty CDs, while driving? I would only do it for a substantial hourly wage and on the condition that no one would ever ask me to demonstrate that I had understood it. 

I can't help wondering if this fellow is a hazard on the highway when listening to such things. I find that any driving conditions much more demanding than continuing straight on a rural interstate with light traffic disrupt my listening. It's strictly fiction for me when driving, and it can't be very densely written. Even under the best conditions, it happens fairly often that I realize I've missed something--or, possibly even stronger evidence of distraction, am not sure whether I missed something or not--and have to back up for half a minute or so. But then, as I say, I'm easily distracted. 

Just a couple of weeks ago I was making one of my fairly frequent drives to north Alabama and back, a 350-mile trip that takes at least five and a half hours (each way). I had borrowed two audio books from the local library, The Saint Zita Society by Ruth Rendell and Sacred Clowns by Tony Hillerman. The latter was meant as a sort of fallback, something I knew I would enjoy, in case the former was unsatisfactory in some way. And that turned out to be the case. I started the Rendell book. It opens with a gathering of people and immediately introduces a half-dozen or so characters. I was already somewhat distracted by having had several errands to run before I hit the road, and made the mistake of starting the book before I was out on I-65. I immediately had trouble getting the characters straight, and switched to the Hillerman (not his best, by the way, but I enjoyed it, as always).

But apart from my own limitations as to what can be enjoyably listened to I certainly agree with the author that listening to a well-performed book can actually be a richer experience than reading it. I mentioned one such last fall, Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair (see this post). There have been a number of others: Lewis's "space trilogy," Brideshead Revisited, several of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, various English mysteries. You'll note the common thread of Englishness in all these. I'm not sure whether it's the gifts of the actors doing the reading, their ability to voice characters differently and effectively, or just the fact that they aren't reading in the colorless voice which is what I get when I read them in print. Mostly the former, I think. I can't offhand think of any American books read by Americans that gave me quite the same  striking coming-alive sense as the English ones.

On the other hand, as the Quillette writer also notes, a reader you don't like can spoil or at least get in the way of your enjoyment of a book. There was an element of that in my reaction to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. And on another recent trip I listened to a thriller by Lee Child (Night School), and although I found the book entertaining enough for the most part, the reader had some mannerisms that I found annoying enough to discourage me from choosing anything else by that author read by that reader. Though now that I think of it, it was also this book that caused me to write a brief blog post complaining about cringey sex scenes in novels.

Terry Eagleton: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

I have the local library to thank for my having read this invigorating little book. They took it out of circulation (or rather, no doubt, non-circulation) and put it on the giveaway shelf, and I, having heard a few things about Eagleton that sounded interesting, took possession of it. And I'm glad I did. The library will not be getting it back from me, as sometimes happens to books I've picked up as discards. It's now riddled with book darts marking passages I particularly liked.

TerryEagleton-ReasonFaithAndRevolution(The apparently torn place is printed on the cover.)

What I had heard about Eagleton had given me the impression that he's an interesting atheist, which is unusual. Most atheists have such a shallow, and often just plain wrong, understanding of theistic concepts, and the place and function of religion in the human psyche and civilization, that reading them is just an exercise in frustration. No one over the age of fifteen should ever think the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a clever and telling argument against belief in the Creator God. (See Wikipedia if you haven't heard of it. I will admit that "Pastafarian" is funny.)

But there are those whom I call deep atheists who do understand the questions and their significance, and are willing and able to work out the import of their atheism. Some of these have a great deal of insight and are not only worthy of respect, not only interesting to read, but actually illuminating about the beliefs they reject. Terry Eagleton is one of these.

On the basis of this book I'm not sure that he is technically an atheist, but he is an ex-Catholic who no longer believes, at least not in that specific faith, but does understand it. He's also a Marxist. From both points of view he challenges the thin secular technocracy which thinks it is pushing us along on the way to history's final destination. Which I suppose could be true, but not as they imagine it.

Here is Eagleton against the shallow atheists Dawkins and Hitchens:

Dawkins falsely considers that Christianity offers a rival view of the universe to science. Like the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in Breaking the Spell, he thinks it is a kind of bogus theory or pseudo-explanation of the world. In this sense, he is rather like someone who thinks that a novel is a botched piece of sociology, and who therefore can't see the point of it at all. Why bother with Robert Musil when you can read Max Weber?....

Christopher Hitchens makes much the same crass error, claiming in God Is Not Great that "thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important." But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.

And here he describes the profundity they don't see, and for that matter that many nominal Christians don't see:

For Christian teaching, God's love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law.... Here, then is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety...

The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal....

The prosperity gospel people are not the only ones who need to hear that; I can't say it strikes me as good news. It's not the whole story, obviously, but it is an important part, and one that most of us prefer not to face.

The latter part of the book focuses on the conflict between militant Islam and the secular West, and on the essential failure of the latter to grasp the powers of religion and culture, to think that exporting capitalism and democracy to the Islamic world would be both an easy and an effective way to resolve the conflict. To some extent it's a criticism of the various wars we've waged in the Middle East, and is less interesting to me, as the immediate importance of those arguments has receded in the political nervous breakdown that the United States, along with much of the rest of what we call "the West," is undergoing, 

Eagleton is primarily a literary critic. I don't go in much for contemporary criticism, having gotten off the literary bus just before it arrived at post-modernism, and not liking what I can see of that. But he's hostile to post-modernism, so perhaps I'd find his criticism worthwhile, too.

John Darnielle: Universal Harvester


John Darnielle, as you may know, is the principal in The Mountain Goats. In effect, he is the mountain goat, as the band seems to be (or at least to have been for some time), essentially a one-man project consisting of Darnielle and various accompanists. He's a brilliant (and astonishingly prolific) songwriter, and the great strength of his songwriting is in the lyrics. This is his second novel; I have not read the first, Wolf In White Van.

When a friend passed this book along to me after having read it himself and, if I understood him, not expecting to read it again, I wasn't sure that I would ever read it. Why not? Well, contemporary fiction is not my great interest, and I had low expectations, including the impression (of unknown origin) that it would be a whimsical, ironic, and gently humorous look at small and mundane things, somewhat along the lines of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone stories. I enjoyed those at the time, but the time was decades ago now, and I have not wanted to revisit them, and have no particular desire to read anything else of the sort. And--the strongest reason, I guess--the ability to write a good song is not necessarily accompanied by the ability to put words on a page effectively.

And I might well not have read Universal Harvester if the recent release of a new Mountain Goats album, Dark In Here, which I haven't heard, had not been the occasion of a conversation which resulted in my lending the book to someone else, and his reaction causing me to have a look at it myself.

I was not altogether mistaken in expecting something Keillor-esque. The story takes place in small towns in Iowa (their placement is significant, and a map is helpful). And the characters are small people, mostly young, limited in the scope of their knowledge and ambition. Set in the late '90s, it begins in a video rental store (the Video Hut) with a young man named Jeremy who is one of the two clerks who are the only staff apart from the owner. Jeremy is twenty-two years old and still suffering from the loss of his mother in an auto accident when he was sixteen. He lives with his still-grieving father; they get by, not knowing quite what to do with themselves. Jeremy is getting a little old to be working in a video store.

Much of the novel might be said with reasonable accuracy to be in Keillor mode. The people are portrayed with charm and a little irony, the ways of the place observed keenly, with a bit of humor and a distinct melancholy but no unkindness. But then it switches into another mode, a much darker one. Into the Video Hut one morning comes a girl named Stephanie, returning a tape, and hesitatingly, vaguely, telling Jeremy that something is wrong with it.

She didn't set her tape down; instead, she held it in her hand, chest-high, a little away from her body.

"There's something on this one" she said.

Jeremy thinks she's complaining about the movie (Targets, a 1968 movie in which Boris Karloff appeared, shortly before his death).

Stephanie looked a little blankly at Jeremy, measuring him, then said, "No, it's a great movie. I've seen it before.".... "It's the tape, there's something on it."

"I can credit your account," said Jeremy.

Stephanie put on her measuring face again and seemed to decide Jeremy wasn't going to understand. "No, it's fine," she said. "Never mind. Maybe tell Sarah Jane about it, though, OK?"

(Sarah Jane is the store's owner.) Jeremy puts the tape aside and forgets about it. A few days later another customer brings in another tape, with a similar complaint. Some days go by before anyone looks into the problem, but eventually Jeremy, Stephanie, and Sarah Jane have watched two of the tapes, separately or together, and what they find disturbs them. Spliced into the movies are bits of home video shot in what seems to be a barn or shed. In one case it's several minutes of nothing, just the empty place. Others involve mild violence, or near-violence: a hooded and silent figure doing odd, slightly demeaning things; a person or persons hidden under a tarp, seeming to struggle, and receiving several kicks.

More similarly modified tapes are discovered. Most of the interpolations aren't actually violent, but they're menacing, not only in their content but in their apparently random appearances in apparently random movies. Jeremy, Stephanie, and Sarah Jane begin to search for their source. Mixed with the deftly rendered personal stories and situations of these characters now is an element of dread: these scenes are real, and they do not seem to be staged, and they seem filled with dread, though nothing very dreadful actually happens in them.

So perhaps this is going to be a horror story, or a thriller. Then the tricksy stuff begins: the narrator intrudes on a scene to say that there is another version of it, in which this happens instead of that. Repeatedly the story walks up to what promises to be a revelation, then veers away to something else. There's a great deal--too much for my taste--of shifting around in time: something is about to happen, the scene shifts, and sometime later we learn something about the thing that was about to happen. All very cinematic--consciously so, I would guess, since movies are central to the story.

Eighty-four pages in, Part Two begins, and we are in the story of a woman who, a few days after Christmas in 1972, abandons her husband and young daughter to join a Christian cult. You'll note that there are now two instances of a lost mother.

The stories do come together, and I guess most of this back-and-forth, up-and-back movement lies in the general area of modern fictional technique. (Or is it post-modern?--I'm not competent to say.) But it becomes frustrating, in spite of the charm of the details, because (in addition to there being too much of it) too many questions remain unanswered. Or at least seem to. When I closed the book I felt annoyed that I still didn't know exactly what had happened. And then I wondered whether anything at all had happened: had I just experienced a far more sophisticated execution of the "it was all just a dream" trick that has always seemed to me a cheap one? I am not a fan of The Wizard of Oz.

Having pondered it a bit more, I think I do know what happened, though I'm not certain, and even if I'm right about the big picture there are still a good many puzzling details that I'm not pleased not to see cleared up. Moreover, I think one could construct an argument that is at least plausible that almost none of the narrative actually occurred. Ambiguity and subtlety are good things, but I think Universal Harvester may go a bit too far in those directions.

Still, I give it a qualified recommendation. There is much to enjoy, and a fair amount that is strongly moving. And perhaps you will catch on more quickly than I did; I was long ago forced to recognize that I can be somewhat thick. I'll give you one bit of advice: pay very close attention when the narrator says "I", or otherwise refers to him/her self.

In any case, there's no doubt that John Darnielle's gifts as a writer extend to fiction.

Miss Austen Makes a Refusal

Marianne gave us a sample of Jane Austen writing more or less casually to her sister: see this comment on the Emma post. Here's a somewhat more formal letter, from The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, a book which I bought back in the '70s and which has given me in enjoyment at least 100 times the worth of the original cover price of $1.75. 

From 1811 to 1820 the son of George III ruled as Prince Regent. Jane Austen sent him a copy of Emma, and his secretary replied, on behalf of the prince, that he had very much enjoyed it, and added that Austen might wish to dedicate a future work to the prince, and moreover that "any historical romance, illustrative of the history of the august House of Coburg, would just now be very interesting." It isn't clear (to me anyway) whether that suggestion came from the prince or the secretary. 

Austen replied:

To James Stainier Clarke, 1 April 1816
My dear Sir,

I am honoured by the Prince's thanks and very much obliged to yourself for the kind manner in which you mention the work.... You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could not more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

I remain, my dear Sir,
Your very much obliged and sincere friend,

J. Austen

A minor aspect of the amusement in this, for me at least, is that I regard Austen, as far as I know her, as having provided the prototype for the modern "romance" genre, the word of course having had a very different sense in Austen's time. This is not a criticism of her, but rather evidence that the general outline of that plot (if my limited acquaintance with it can be  validly generalized) has an archetypal sort of appeal: man and woman who initially dislike each other but by a gradual opening of the eyes are drawn together by various desirable qualities in each other (noble in Austen, probably often less so in our day). The preferred end is a wedding. This broad outline is as simple as that of the murder mystery, and seems to be as enduringly popular. 

Jane Austen: Emma

There's a remark somewhere in Swift's writings to the effect that there is no quality that is a virtue in men that is not also a virtue in women. I seem to recall that he specifically mentions courage. And I think I recall, though this may be my own addition, that he says that the virtues may manifest themselves differently. Women, for instance, through most of history have not as often been called upon to show straightforward physical courage as men have. (Though Swift's Stella, the woman to whom he was peculiarly attached in a way that seems to have been not exactly not romantic, once fired a pistol at a would-be housebreaker.) I can't remember whether she hit him or not. But courage in one form or another has been required of them. To tell the truth, I've often been surprised that women are generally eager to marry, considering that sex most likely will lead to pregnancy and childbirth--pretty fearful prospects to me. I don't know whether this is courage or just the triumph of instinct over caution. 

Anyway, I thought of Swift's remark when reading Emma, because among other things it traces the growth of self-knowledge on the part of Emma, and that requires a kind of courage. She's pretty much a spoiled brat, as the opening may be taken to imply:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

She believes she has a gift for managing other people's love lives, and when the exercise of that gift results in harm to the people she intended to help, she is obliged either to confront what she has done, and therefore her own failure, or to deny it. She is not culpably malicious or self-deceptive, and so she does confront these errors. In that she is assisted, or perhaps rather directed, by the blunt and commanding Mr. Knightley, a friend of the family--who, confirming my expectation when he first enters the scene, is wealthy, unmarried, and not too old. Knightley cares enough about Emma to want to see her flaws corrected; Emma respects him enough to listen. The denouement is every bit as surprising as that of Pride and Prejudice.

It is a very small world that Austen writes about, and the plot consists of small actions. Yet the essential virtues, vices, and conflicts of human life are fully present. That said, though, while I did very much enjoy reading this novel, it's pretty clear that Austen is not going to be one of my favorite novelists. Her world is just a little too small, the drama too subtle, to grip me in the way that, for instance, The Mill on the Floss does. Many pages consist of elaborate conversations and the aftermath of conversations in which minute shifts in personal relationships transpire and assume great importance. The phrase "novel of manners" is really quite accurately applicable: elaborate manners are the means by which relationships progress, succeeding or failing. As I often did in reading George Eliot recently, I found myself wondering whether anyone ever really talked in such lengthy and carefully artificed sentences. 

Here's a passage I marked, not so much because it illustrates the importance of manners in the novel, though it does, but because the significance of it initially escaped me. I had to re-read it and consider for a minute before the realization came. If you've read the book, you'll remember that Mrs. Elton is the rich, tacky, and somewhat malicious wife of the vicar. Mrs. Elton is talking to a young woman named Jane Fairfax, observed and partly overheard by Emma and a young gentleman, Frank Churchill:

...the voices of the ladies were drowned for a while, till another suspension brought Mrs. Elton's tones again distinctly forward.—Mr. Elton had just joined them, and his wife was exclaiming,

“Oh! you have found us out at last, have you, in our seclusion?—I was this moment telling Jane, I thought you would begin to be impatient for tidings of us.”

“Jane!”—repeated Frank Churchill, with a look of surprize and displeasure.—“That is easy—but Miss Fairfax does not disapprove it, I suppose.”

“How do you like Mrs. Elton?” said Emma in a whisper.

“Not at all.”

You may have been quicker than I to realize that Mrs. Elton's offense here is that she has taken a very questionable liberty in  using "Jane" instead of "Miss Fairfax." 

The Cross: Kristin Lavransdatter, Part 3

I had not gotten very far in this re-reading of Kristin before I was willing to pronounce it to be one of the world's great novels. Nothing that came after weakened that view, but rather strengthened it. This final volume of the trilogy brings Kristin's story to an end in a way that, for the sake of those who haven't read it, I'll leave undescribed, but which I found to be very powerful.

I had almost entirely forgotten the ending since my first reading thirty-plus years ago, so it was as if I was reading it for the first time. I mean, I wasn't just vague about the details, I had forgotten almost everything and retained only a vague impression. It will not be much of a spoiler if I say that the hard blows which have fallen throughout the novel, sometimes from fate and sometimes as a consequence of Kristin or Erlend's own behavior, continue here. I was surprised, almost shocked, by the intensity of it.  Nor will it surprise any reader that the end brings forth in Kristin the heroism that has always been an element even in her bad behavior.

A great novel should be a good story, and usually is, but it must be more than that to earn the "great." It must also have something profound to say, or to show, something that makes us feel that we are receiving an important truth about what it means to be human. It doesn't have to be explicit, much less abstract, as when Dostoevsky's characters philosophize--in fact as a rule it shouldn't be--but it has to be there,  

The important truth here has to do with our relationship to God, and so I was a little surprised to learn that Undset had not yet been received into the Catholic Church when she wrote Kristin. Obviously she had a very deep understanding of Christian faith--no, that's not the right way to put it: a deep understanding of the Christian way of viewing the world. And perhaps her biography would shed light on the timing of her conversion. I don't know much about her life other than what's given in various introductions to her work, but she had a presumably intense and undoubtedly difficult love affair and marriage which may have been an obstacle to her formally entering the Church--I mean a psychological and emotional as well as, perhaps, a canonical obstacle. Naturally one assumes that this relationship bears some similarities to that of Kristin and Erlend, and that therefore there is some significant amount of Undset in Kristin.

Is Kristin Lavransdatter a tragedy? It certainly follows the classical pattern in some fundamental ways: a noble character with some grave faults, especially those of pride and general self-will, leading to self-induced disaster. But it's too diffuse to have the single penetrating impact of true tragedy. And, more importantly, it contains too much hope. (Well, you could also say that it contains too much disaster; I guess a proper tragedy does not have a series of them.) It ends with too much hope, though a dull reader, a typical modern reader, may not see that. (From what I see a lot of typical modern readers don't see much beyond the very earthly love-and-marriage story.) And it's not the mere resolution that typical ends a tragedy, in which a sort of peace or at least equilibrium obtains when the principal characters are dead, because it points toward a greater restoration. 

We read--or at least I read--this novel thinking that we have some sense of what medieval life was like. Do we really? It's impossible to know, but the testimony of historians and archaeologists is that Undset was as accurate as it is possible to be in her facts.  But the book is modern in its technique, in its intimacy with the inner lives of the people involved, and of necessity Undset had to invent much if not all of that. Did people like these really think as Undset imagines them to have done? I'm sure she had ample grounds for thinking so, but I wonder.

I also wonder about the relationship between medieval and modern Scandinavia. For some reason "Norwegian" in the American context summons a stereotype of nice, quiet, rather bland and dull people. Political progressives point to Scandinavia as a place where reason and a nice secular liberal order prevail. How does one reconcile this image with the Vikings? Their age is a couple of centuries in the past at the time of Kristin, but violence is still part of the normal fabric of life. That was the case throughout Europe, of course, but the Norsemen had always been particularly ferocious. I wonder if the emergence of death metal music, originally in Norway, nakedly anti-Christian, anti-modern, and violent, is a sign of what might emerge in those lands once Christianity has been extinct for a few generations. 


But back to the book: I can't let go of the translation question. I agree that Archer's attempt at an antique effect is awkward at best, and not even historically appropriate.  But I'm not content with Nunnally's translation, either. According to the introduction to this volume, by Sherrill Harbison, a scholar of Scandinavian literature who surely knows what she's talking about, Undset

...struggled to find ways to give her text a tone of the past while still keeping the sound of natural speech. After much experimenting, she found the effect she wanted by limiting her vocabulary to words based on Old Norse roots, and by retaining Old Norse syntax--the order of subject and verb, arrangement of adjectives, and use of coordinating conjunctions.....[S]he creates a readable, natural-sounding prose with subtle reminiscences of Old Norse, more like a musical undertone than an imitation. 

The vigorousness of this style does not translate easily to English.... Translators must strike a balance between the falsely archaic and the falsely modern, while still trying to respect Undset's careful usage. Whereas it is easy to make the English sound too quaintly antique, it is also easy to "correct" Undset's evocative syntax, to flatten her rhythms and make language too modern and ungraceful.

I'm afraid that's exactly what happened. Not, I mean, that Nunnally intended to "correct" Undset, and of course I can't speak to the rhythms of Undset's prose--but Nunnally's reads like ordinary contemporary American English. The word "weight" keeps coming to mind: Harbison's description makes me think that Undset's prose has it, but Nunnally's does not. Maybe that's not Nunnally's fault, or only partly; maybe it's just the nature of the language of our time. But it's light, almost breezy in comparison to Archer. There's nothing much poetical, nothing much memorable, in it, and by that I don't mean that I think it should have some kind of ostentatious lyricism (which I don't like), but only that there should be something there which makes us re-read a sentence or a paragraph, not because we want to be sure we understood it fully or for any other, so to speak, practical reason, but because its language pleases and touches us.

I have an English translation of an earlier Undset novel, Gunnar's Daughter, in which the translator is not named. But unless the book has been translated more than once, it must be by Arthur Chater, whose name is on the currently available translation. The one I have has, as I recall, something like the qualities that Sherrill Harbison attributes to Undset's prose. It was Chater's translation of The Master of Hestviken that I read, and it has weight without the obtrusive archaisms of Archer. But, like Archer's, Chater's translation was made in the 1920s and '30s. 

Here's a comparison of a passage chosen at random. This is from the second volume, The Wife; Kristin is telling a story to a boy. Archer:

Kristin leaned back in her chair, grasping in her thin hands the carven beasts' heads at the arm-ends.

"That monk I named but now, he had been in England, too. And he used to tell that there is a place there where grow thornbushes that bloom with white blossoms each Christmas night. St. Joseph of Arimathea came to land in that country-side, when he fled before the heathen, and there he thrust his staff into the earth, and it took root and blossomed--he was the first that brought the Christian faith to Bretland. Glastonborg that place is called--I mind me now. Brother Edvin had seen those bushes himself.... 'Twas there in Glastonborg that he was buried, along with his Queen, that King Arthur that you will have heard tell of--he that was one of the Seven Champions of Christendom."


Kristin leaned back in her chair and wrapped her thin hands around the animal heads on the armrests.

"That monk I mentioned—he had also been to England. And he said there is a region where wild rosebushes grow that bloom with white blossoms on Christmas night. Saint Joseph of Arimathea put ashore in that area when he was fleeing from the heathens, and there he stuck his staff into the ground and it took root and flowered. He was the first to bring the Christian faith to Bretland. The name of the region is Glastonbury—now I remember. Brother Edvin had seen the bushes himself. King Arthur, whom you’ve no doubt heard stories of, was buried there in Glastonbury with his queen. He was one of the seven most noble defenders of Christendom."

And in the comments on my post on that volume Marianne also gave us a comparison, which you can read here. In both cases I prefer Archer. Still, I might recommend the Nunnally translation, depending partly on who was asking. It is easier to read, and more importantly it has those missing pages from Kristin's penitential visit to the shrine of St. Olav.

By the way, Nunnally's inclusion of passages said to be too sexually explicit for Archer, which of course arouses all sorts of tingles in the typical contemporary critic or reader, turns out to be a big nothing. The differences are pretty trivial, apparently consisting only of a few sentences. I would not have been able to identify the passages if I hadn't seen a review which quoted them side by side.

Also by the way: in a post on one of the earlier volumes (or was it in the comments?) I mentioned that I wondered about the significance of Fru Aashild, Erlend's worldly-wise aunt. I can't remember now where I read this, but one critic or reviewer suggests that she is the real-life or earthly counterpart, perhaps in a sense the embodiment, of the elf-maiden who appears to Kristin as a child, offering her the matrimonial crown. That makes a lot of sense.