Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Novel reading

I have been writing a book that is not about Goethe. It has a rather personal subject, and I hesitate, for the moment, to detail here what it is about. Suffice it to say that it was a book I was working on before Rick died. After his death, I put it aside and went back to it about over a year ago, since it was something he wanted me to finish. Which I now have done, and, if I find representation for it, I will say more. Thus, it is not that Goethe has not been on my mind, but that Goethe takes a lot of concentration. Moreover, now that I am done with "the book," I can return to Goethe fully.

In the meantime, however, some thoughts on Goethe that were provoked by some recent novel reading. For some years I have been the leader of a book group. I am in the enviable position of being paid to read novels that I probably would never have otherwise read. And since I make the selections, I try to find novels that are critically and literarily interesting. Thus, I comb the important book reviews e.g., the TLS, the London Review of Books. I even go through the New York Times Book Review, which is a pretty sad review. Or maybe the NYTBR simply reflects the sad state of literary publishing. Lots of novels are being published, but who can stand another novel about a dysfunctional American family? Here are the books my group read this "term" (we have a fall term and a spring one):

Karl Ove Knausgaard, “My Struggle,” book 1
Kamel Daoud, The Mersault Investigation”
Miranda July, “The First Bad Man: A Novel”
Joseph O’Neill, “The Dog”
Paul Kingsnorth, “The Wake”
Haruki Murakami, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and the Years of Pilgrimage”
Maylis de Kerangal, “Birth of a Bridge”
 Kazuo Ishiguro, “The Buried Giant”

All of these went over well, except for "The Wake." Hardly anyone went beyond the first page. Well, it is written in what the author Paul Kingsnorth calls a "shadow language," which suggests Old English. (Go to the Amazon listing and take a look.) It take a little getting used to, and frankly I only read half. I listened to the whole thing on Audible, however, and it was quite understandable, particularly if you know German.

Haruki Murakami by Lucas Eme A
It was the Murakami novel that got me to thinking about Goethe. In fact, I think Murakami was thinking of Goethe, too. First of all, the "years of pilgrimage" in the title refers to the title of a work by Franz Lizst entitled Années de pèlerinage, which itself refers to Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters novels. The protagonist of Murakami's novel, Tsukuru Tazaki, has a friend who has a recording of the pianist Lazar Berman playing this work by Lizst, and when Tsukuru hears the recording he is reminded of a friend from his youth, herself a pianist, who used played one of the suites. (I recommend listening to Berman's rendition. Truly beautiful. Then, read all the comments by the enthusiastic readers of Murakami's novel who have also listened to the recording.)

Murakami's novels often revolve around young men who are "lost," so to speak, trying to find their way in the world, somewhat like Wilhelm Meister. But what really cinched the Goethe connection for me were several scenes in which Tsukuru receives something like "life lessons" from chance encounters with strangers or hears stories of people who stand for something more than themselves. For instance, the friend with the Lazar Berman recording tells of an experience his father had when still a university student. He worked one winter in a spa in northern Japan, where he met a jazz pianist who had only a month left to live. He had no disease; he did not plan to commit suicide; but he had received a "death token" from someone. The only way to avoid dying was to pass the token on to someone else, but he didn't plan to do that. As he says, "I've been thinking for a long time that I'd like to die as soon as possible." When asked how the death token can be passed on, he replies. "It's easy. The other person just has to understand what I'm saying, accept it, give their complete consent, and agree to take the token. Then the transfer is complete. ... It isn't some kind of bureaucratic thing."

When asked how to "pick" someone, he says that you look for a person's color: "Each individual has their own color, which shines faintly around the contours of their body. Like a halo. Or a backlight. I'm able to see those colors clearly." This ability to see colors is not something one is born with; you get it only in exchange for accepting immanent death.

There is a lot more like this in this novel and in other Murakami's stories and novels. There is always a mixture of realism with something approaching allegory. Again, as in Goethe's "fiction."

Sir Gawain
Kazuo Ishigoro's novel takes place in England in the 6th or 7th century, in which Britons and Saxons have long lived together, sometimes indistinguishably. Yet this peaceful co-existence has been achieved at a terrible price, in earlier times by King Arthur, and the peace has lasted because people's memories of the slaughter have been extinguished by a mist that covers the land. But the dragon Querig, who is the source of the mist and the loss of memory, is on her last legs, and the old animosities between Britons and Saxons will revive with her death, with the prospect of genocidal wars. One of the last incidents in the novel is a challenge between an ancient and rusting (literally, his armor) Gawain and a character identified only as "the warrior," who represents the growth of Saxon power.

The novel combines fairytale, fantasy, and myth to explore what I think must have been the impetus for Ishiguro's treatment, namely, the revival of ancient animosities after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, especially in the Balkans. Tea Ohbrecht, in her novel The Tiger's Wife, did something similar. Alongside fabular tales of the Deathless Man, Darisa the Bear, and the Tiger's Wife are events from the headlines, all illustrating the complexities of Balkan history,  especially the long-held suspicions, superstitions, and violence that pervade the region. Obreht, like Ishigoro, shows that strong leaders –– Tito, King Arthur –– might be able to guarantee peace for a while among people of different ethnicities, but the violence from such historical animosities can never be totally extinguished, as long as we have memories. What Neil Gaiman writes of The Buried Giant in his review expresses what I think a lot of us feel about Goethe's late novels:  it is "a novel that is easy to admire, to respect, and to enjoy, but difficult to love. Still, The Buried Giant does what important books do: it remains in the mind long after it has been read, refusing to leave, forcing one to turn it over and over." And no matter how many times one reads it, "it guards its secrets and its world close."

Picture credit: Society 6

Monday, May 9, 2016

Faust and the abence of tranquility

Charles James Fox by Karl Anton Hickel
I have previously mentioned (see here) that Goethe comes up in all manner of contexts. I suppose it is for this reason that this blog has, since 2008, attracted almost a quarter of a million "hits." All kinds of people are interested in Goethe. So it was that I came across Goethe in an article by the scholar Jeffrey Hart, entitled "Burke and Radical Freedom." It appeared originally in volume 29 of The Review of Politics (1967).

Edmund Burke found himself at odds with former allies and friends in 1791, for instance, Charles James Fox, over the French Revolution. Burke was by then well known as an advocate of political reform, urging, for instance, moderation and conciliation toward the American colonies. He was a friend of Dr. Johnson. As Hart notes, Jeremy Bentham had read and written approving notes on Burke's essays on reform. And as Hart writes, the Revolution did not change Burke's principles, "but the deep transformation of the world [that he saw occurring] cast him into an entirely different role."

Hart makes the interesting observation that men like Fox were not equipped intellectually to understand what the French Revolution portended. "They were men of generous spirit, they wished well to the people of France." Fox himself could scarcely be called a hard-line revolutionary. He was "a sympathetic and colorful character. He was fat, he gambled for enormous sums in the front window of Brooks', he stabled a string of racehorses, he kept a mistress." Like all men of this sort, he was possessed of "all the Dickensian virtues –– the very creatures, indeed, of the old order."

According to Hart, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France did not go after Revolution because of its violence or because it threatened the peace of Europe, which were "derivative" things. Burke instead foresaw a "'revolution of doctrine and theoretic dogma,' by emotions which ... would render impossible any stable condition of society," leading to what he called permanent revolution.

Now, to Faust. According to Hart, the attitudes and doctrines informing the Revolution made tranquility impossible. As Burke wrote: in demands for a mythical freedom, a state of nature in the mode of Rousseau, "no agreement is binding; these [demands] admit no temperament and no compromise; anything withheld is so much fraud and injustice." For Burke, there were intellectual and literary voyeurs of revolution, men who delight in agitation, temperaments for whom it "'is a war or a revolution or nothing.'"

Clearly, Burke did not know Goethe's Faust, but Hart now writes: "There are those who, finally, agree with Goethe that the achievement of tranquility represents the defeat of the human spirit. Faust, that symbol of much, at least, in the modern temper, is never to say to the moment, 'Verweile doch, du bist schön.' Only a perpetual dissatisfaction, for the Faustian spirit, is truly human. Faust represents the deep antiontologicality which is ... one feature of the modern mind –– its hatred of what is, of the given, its impatience with what it regards as 'irrational differences of nationality, social class, race or sex (modernity is coeducational, as indeed, was Faust)."

The Faustian spirit?
Well, there are some things here with which one could quibble. First off, Hart seems to be equating Goethe with his Faustian character. (For Goethe's conservative reaction to the French Revolution, see the essay by Hans Vaget, "Goethe the Novelist: On the Coherence of His Fiction," in the 1983 volume Goethe's Narrative Fiction: The Irvine Goethe Symposium.)  I also don't get the part about Faust being "coeducational," but maybe someone can explain that to me. And "deep antiontologicality"? Still, Faust might indeed be regarded as the embodiment of a modern revulsion against tranquility.

A book by Nils Reschke, “Zeit der Umendung”: Lektoren der Revolution in Goethes Roman "Die Wahlverwandtschaften" (2007), posits Burke's Reflections as an "intertext" in Goethe's novel. Matt Erlin's review of Reschke appeared in volume 16 of Goethe Yearbook.

On an interpretation of Faust ("The Restless Spirit") via the drawings of William Blake, go to the Poetry in Translation site, which presents a "scene by scene study."

Picture Credit: Yale Center for British Art

Monday, May 2, 2016

"Best Books You Never Finished"

An Ideal Bookshelf

The title of this post is part of a Books With Spines series sponsored by the National Association of Scholars. Readers were asked to submit titles of best books they never finished. Today I got an email announcing the selections. The usual culprits were on the list: Moby Dick; The Confidence Man (Melville is obviously hard going); The Life of Johnson; Swann's Way. They would have been on my list, too, although I once did try to read The Confidence Man. I made no suggestions, as there are simply too many best books I haven't read! (I have finished Kristen Lavransdatter, however, which is also on the list. It was during a long graduate school weekend, a time when I seem to have had more time to read than I do today.)

Also on the list was Goethe's Italian Journey. This is the comment by the person who suggested it:

 "Goethe's appeal, like Pushkin's, does not travel well into English and in particular the sensibility of the English speaking world. Where Anthony Daniel's travel writing is always vivid moving, politically and existentially intense, Goethe's trip to Italy reads like the diary of a tourist to whom nothing interesting or out of the ordinary ever happens."

I understand the sentiments of people who don't read German, but who in the heck is Anthony Daniel? Is he an undiscovered 18th-century writer?

I don't think I agree with what is said about Pushkin, although maybe it is the poetry that is meant here.

Picture credit: Jane Mount