Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains

Blood on the Tracks:

Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

The literary output of the former Czechoslovakia (which in 1993 was split into the Czech and Slovak Republics) is as tumultuous and as politically colored as was the ever-metamorphosing and almost constantly occupied state itself. Its capital, Prague, is most known in the literary world for being Franz Kafka’s birthplace, when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia declared independence, but in 1939 it was divided when Germany annexed the Sudetenland and then attacked eastward. Kafka, along with most of the Prague intelligentsia of the time, was a German-speaking Jew, and he would have been murdered in Auschwitz along with his sisters and the rest of the city’s educated class had he not died young, in 1924. After World War II, Czechoslovakia then came under the rule of communism and was dominated by Soviet influence until 1989. As a result of all this subjugation, the country’s literature suffered greatly, especially under communism, which favored Social Realism and devalued autonomous artistic and personal expression. Worldwide, the most famous Czech-language writer is Milan Kundera, who’s known for fusing the political with the personal and the sexual in his works, but the writer who first started to break away from dogma and into the realm of true art was Bohumil Hrabal, and his breakthrough novel was 1965’s Closely Watched Trains.

While Hrabal’s and Kundera’s work is still very much tethered to their country’s shifting political environments—in Hrabal’s case because he had to work under communism and in Kundera’s case because he often wrote in opposition to it from exile in France—they both focused more on the art of their novels than on their politics. Hrabal wrote The Legend of Cain, the original version of Closely Watched Trains, in 1949, but because of the political climate of the time, it remained shelved until he revised it for publication a decade and a half later. In the opinion of some of Hrabal’s avant-garde contemporaries, the published version is somewhat less shocking (but better written) than the original, and his revision may have helped it pass the censors, who were easing their restrictions at the time, but its anti-Nazi politics probably helped as well, the novel’s subject matter illustrating that politics were unavoidable as part of twentieth-century Czech life, whether you were specifically writing for the current regime or not.

A scene from the 1966 film version of Closely Watched Trains 
The novel’s young protagonist, Miloš, has just gotten out of an asylum after slashing his wrists and returns to work at the local train station, where that night he ends up taking part in the sabotage of a trainload of Nazi munitions. Through a dazzling array of flashbacks and varying narrative techniques, the reader learns that Miloš tried to kill himself after a sexual tryst that failed because of premature ejaculation, and as Miloš’ first-person thoughts meander through the current day and through his and his family’s and his town’s past, the novel paints a kaleidoscopic picture of a world that’s at turns—and often at once—disgustingly ugly and almost unbearably beautiful. The isolated point of view that Hrabal creates through Miloš’ reflections allows for a deeply personal vision of a world whose natural and human elements can combine in his head into the most lovely and terrible combinations. Hrabal is fascinated with human cruelty toward animals—and toward fellow humans, the distinction between the two often breaking down as Miloš watches and contemplates the suffering of all sentient existence—and some of this novel’s scenes are horrifically painful. Miloš’ connection to the pain in every living eye allows him to look at the retreating Nazis with the same sympathy that he views the slaughtered animals, but while his final actions distinguish him as a kind of hero, they also show him to be as capable of steely inhumanity as everyone else, illustrating that among the vast array of humanity’s possibilities for action in the world, “inhumanity” is in fact a misnomer, because only human beings can act with inhumanity.

One of the great achievements of this novel is that its pathos is balanced with wonderful humor and vitality, its cast of characters revolving around each other with romance, longing, absurdity, vanity, hilarious deviance, and a healthy (and/or perhaps unhealthy) dose of sexuality. Perhaps meant to be comic, the novel’s correlation between virility and political action can be somewhat troubling, though, both to male and female readers—to the former because the idea that men must rise to action is confining, and to the latter because serving as ciphers for male ability is insulting. Hrabal was an enormous literary influence on the younger Kundera, and in Kundera’s works—which often revel in the humiliation of women while the male characters partake in masculine philosophizing and political action—this tendency is sometimes taken to extremes. But in Closely Watched Trains, both men and women take active militant roles, making this novel much more intertwined and ambiguous in its gender assignments than any of the works of the somewhat wayward disciple. Perhaps further tempering Miloš’ “heroic” sexual/political salvation, the ironic relativities of his tragic ups and downs serve as reminders of the absurd—but often absurdly necessary—follies that both men and women partake in during war.

A young Bohumil Hrabal
Although the world of politics—including sexual politics—is inextricable from any kind of reality that Hrabal could have experienced or written about, this novel was embraced by the public and the literati alike as an emancipation from mere message and as a triumph for artistry. Torrents of blood course through every arterial passage of Closely Watched Trains—political blood, sexual blood, animal and human blood—but mostly its blood is the blood of art taking on a sanguine life of its own.

—David Wiley

James Joyce’s Exiles

Cunning Stunts:

James Joyce’s Exiles

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Of all of James Joyce’s abundant gifts as a writer, narrative drama was his least developed, and perhaps his least innate. His focus on inner dramas—emotional, artistic, sexual, spiritual, etc.—relegated mere storytelling to the sidelines of his work, perhaps as an overt strategy but perhaps also because Joyce’s relentless self-consciousness caused him to write in labyrinthine circles and paralyzed his ability to move a narrative forward (note that the closest he comes in his entire body of work to telling a story that focuses on an actual event is the sketch collected in Dubliners that’s merely entitled “An Encounter”). This bodes poorly for anyone looking for drama in Joyce’s one play, Exiles, but as always with Joyce, there are other reasons to read this work. Unfortunately, the reasons aren’t intrinsic to the play’s artistic value, but instead mostly consist in examining Joyce’s mindset, his artistic and personal direction at the time—he was at a crossroads between A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses—and his literary intentionality, all of which help us understand some of the more complex and thorny shades of his more important works.

Joyce idolized Henrik Ibsen, and Exiles is a very clear attempt at an Ibsenian portrayal of the realistic dramas of family life, an approach that in the Norwegian playwright’s time was revolutionary and that had a inestimable impact on Joyce’s decision to focus on “ordinary” heroes, such as Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom, rather than on “heroic” heroes, such as Bloom’s mirror-opposite inspiration, Odysseus. While Ibsen’s plays scandalized viewers with the reality of their goings-on, however, Exiles instead attempts to scandalize with its ideas, its emotional interiors, its backgrounds, and its attempted revision of family life. None of this actually works in the way that Joyce hoped, because his attempt at furthering Ibsen’s approach simply fails as drama, and what actually scandalizes is the unpleasant view of Joyce’s frame of mind that this play reveals to readers of his novels and stories.

Although dazzling and innovative in terms of prose in form, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is actually a pretty abysmal novel, partially because its story is paper-thin, but perhaps more so because its main character, Stephen Dedalus—Joyce’s literary surrogate self—is a pretentious prick whose artistic aims seem to be caused more by negative reaction than by a positive interest in creativity. Dedalus claims that he will (defensively) employ “silence, exile, and cunning” to “forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race.” It’s nearly intolerable. But then, completed and published six years later, a miracle appeared: Ulysses. And one of the great leaps forward for Joyce is that he decided to split his surrogate self into two characters—into Dedalus and Bloom, a surrogate father and son (for Joyce and for each other) who allow for extraordinary reflection and growth and healing. The idea that Joyce may have had this intention all along is a comforting one for readers who are turned off by Dedalus’ initial idiocy. But Exiles’ Joyce-surrogate, Richard Rowan, extends the egotism of the original Dedalus to outrageous lengths and forces us to revise our view of Joyce’s trajectory—and of Joyce himself.

A vision of the life Joyce could have taken but didn’t, Exiles depicts the return of writer Richard Rowan and his family to Ireland, where Richard’s friends Beatrice and Robert re-enter their lives, with Richard’s wife, Bertha, serving as a crux for the psycho-sexual power-play between the reunited characters. Playing upon a similarly conjectured alternate version of another great exiled writer, Dante Alighieri, Joyce loads his play with heavy-handed symbolism and symmetries—and, more pointedly, asymmetries that explore what could have happened if he (or Dante) would have returned to his native city. As with Dante, Richard’s muse during exile is named Beatrice—with the last name of Justice, which in the Paradiso Dante’s Beatrice partially symbolized, the pilgrim-poet putting words in her mouth that “teach” him that justice held primacy over compassion as the universal law—but unlike in Dante’s case, Richard’s Beatrice is still living and upon return is no longer the crucial figure in his personal drama. Richard and his family have been living abroad in Italy—mirroring both Dante’s exiled wanderings and Joyce’s own self-exile—for nine years (the Dantean number that symbolized Beatrice), and the play comprises three acts, like the three books of the Commedia. These may all just be the typical Joycean overload of literary correlation and allusion, and some of it’s just a play on elements that Joyce had on hand, such as the serendipitous last name of his own cousin, Elizabeth Justice, but the idea of returning rather than forging forward, as Dante did and Joyce would continue to do, is an intriguing one. Or it would be if Exiles hadn’t gone so awry.

Dante and Beatrice
Focusing on the human elements of life rather than on a “high fantasy” like the one that Dante constructs as his ideal, Exiles shifts its attention away from the non-idealized Beatrice and toward the very real Bertha (as a contrast, Dante’s wife, Gemma, is never once mentioned in all of his works—nor is her existence even alluded to, unless she’s the “Donna Gentile” of La Vita Nuova, which isn’t likely). In having Richard make this shift, Joyce embraces in artistic form the very real love that he has for his common-law wife, Nora, whom in Italy he’d truly come to adore and accept as his life-partner. In turning his face to reality this way, though—especially toward carnal reality—Joyce composes a grotesque vision of an artist constructing a world around himself that’s as fantastically egotistical as anything Dante ever imagined. Richard’s friend Robert has his sights on Bertha, but rather than making this play dramatize a standard love-triangle competition, Joyce has Richard encourage the pairing because it will further his aim of creating a new order, where traditional rules no longer apply, but where Richard is both lord and sacrificed lamb and Bertha’s sexuality is his crucifix.

This inverted take on sexual possession is as absurdly macho as the outdated caveman battle that Richard deems to be beneath his ostensibly enlightened emancipation from any kind of old order—an emancipation that in fact ties him as much to his fellow sexual slaves as it does them to him. In his real, non-literary life, Joyce entertained similar ideas about the specter of infidelity, especially on Nora’s part, but he seems to have been unsuccessful in making their relationship break with all convention in the way that he strove for in all other aspects of his life and art. Richard is therefore an imagined vision of a complete new order: “the uncreated conscience of [his] race”. What’s profoundly disappointing is that none of this is meant to be satiric or even ironic, as Joyce’s own handwritten notes further illustrate (notes that were discovered in Paris after Joyce fled the advancing Nazis and that are appended to the Penguin edition of the play). Even Vladimir Nabokov’s intensely painful Lolita knows to mock the self-crucifying parts of itself—“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”—but but despite its self-consciousness, Joyce’s ludicrous pseudo-drama isn’t even self-aware enough to be funny, on purpose or even accidentally.

Perhaps Exiles’ only redeeming aspect—other than as a key that unlocks an unpleasant door into Joyce and his work—is that neither Richard nor the reader/audience are privy to what actually happens between Robert and Bertha. Part of this is simply a literary trick, comparable but vastly inferior to the question of whether Stephen Dedalus’ brothel-experiences actually happened in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and part of it is Richard’s even more self-centered insistence on Bertha’s “freedom,” keeping himself purposefully blind while still dictating the terms of his blindness. Richard’s cunning manipulation of her silence keeps them all in the exile that he requires, and this literary stunt may be the one innovation that holds the play together. It’s a thoroughly repulsive togetherness, though, and it’s largely been ignored by the dramatic and critical world. Almost nobody has seen, read, or written about this play, and so even though its tangle of thorns is useful to Joycean masochists, perhaps Joyce simply should have left the world of the stage silent.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ivan Turgenev’s First Love

The Quiet Storm:

Ivan Turgenev’s First Love

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

The Russian novelist, short story writer, and playwright Ivan Turgenev was a master of subtle sensationalism. His most famous novel, the 1862 Fathers and Sons, introduced a shocking nihilist character named Bazarov to a scandalized literary scene while simultaneously crafting a nuanced and even understated depiction of the rift between old and new Russian values that was both wholly particular to the time and universally recognizable in its portrayal of human change. His first major work, the autobiographical Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, which was collected in book form in 1852, comprised dispassionate depictions of peasant life in a fully realistic and unsensational manner while exposing the abuses and iniquities of feudalism, leading (in part) to his house arrest and forming part of the impetus for the abolition of serfdom in Russia. Turgenev’s works were both revolutionary and restrained, and his realism was embraced by the larger European public—having much in common with that of his good friend Gustave Flaubert—but were unpopular and even considered un-Russian in his home country, which he largely abandoned for Germany and France but which was always the permanent native residence for his fiction.

Ilya Repin’s portrait of Ivan Turgenev, 1874
Often nostalgic for his youth and his homeland, Turgenev’s literary balance nonetheless tempered his works with a lack of sentimentality that makes them perhaps even more effective and touching, and in few instances is this delicate equilibrium more rewardingly bittersweet than in his 1860 novella, First Love. Reputedly basing the book on his own childhood memories, which could easily have lead to maudlinity, Turgenev instead layers his approach with levels of thoughtfulness that allow the reader to step back while at the same time being drawn into its profoundly moving story. The book begins during the calm aftermath of a dinner party when three middle-aged men decide to discuss their first loves. The first two present quick and uncomplicated tales, leaving the third, Vladimir, to provide the real entertainment. Vladimir demurs at first, claiming that he can’t tell a story well and that it’ll come out wrong if he tries, but he offers to write it all down and share it with them later, to which the group reluctantly agrees. Reconvening two weeks later, he then reads them his narrative. Vladimir’s story takes up the rest of the book, without a return to the older men, and this opening half-frame serves as a perfectly tiered device that gives a slight distancing perspective, while the story itself pulls the reader in and quickly becomes (and remains) primary, creating an extraordinary emotional and artistic counterpoint.

Marcus Stone’s Love at First Sight, 1980
As a youth of sixteen, Vladimir and his family spent the summer in the country while he was halfheartedly preparing to enter the University. There was little love in the family—his father was aloof and indifferent to him, and his mother was almost always preoccupied and anxious—and so Vladimir took to roaming the grounds alone. His family’s house had small lodges on either side of it, and soon an impoverished princess moves into one of them with her daughter, and the first time he sees the daughter, Zinaida, Vladimir becomes transfixed with sensations that he’d never before experienced. Flanked by four obsequious suitors, Zinaida mocks Vladimir from across the garden fence, but he immediately does everything he can do to become acquainted with her.

Gaining admittance to Zinaida’s circle through her mother, an avaricious and grotesque woman who’s obsessed with her lost fortunes—and who it becomes apparent is not above using Zinaida to attract moneyed and influential men to the house—Vladimir soon becomes as entranced by the free-spirited but often capricious and cruel daughter as are the rest of her suitors. Constantly examining his nascent emotions, Vladimir never quite knows what’s happening to him or understands the nature of the world that he’s entered, although the reader, prompted by the adumbrations of the older man’s narrative, slowly pieces it together around him, and so the book both operates on the primal level of the young Vladimir’s confused searchings and maintains the more sophisticated levels of his world’s true flux.

Alexei Harlamov’s Summertime, unknown date
When Vladimir finally discovers what’s actually happening and then sees and hears about the tragic aftermath, the book is truly heartbreaking—as well as sobering, in many facets of the word. As a contrast, the sturm und drang of Goethe’s early novella The Sorrows of Young Werther (which seriously embarrassed the more mature Goethe) never relents in its obsessive myopia. First Love allows the reader to feel the true storm and stress of all of Vladimir’s passions, but it also lovingly and patiently paints a rich panorama of the world around him, often pausing and dwelling on the varieties of experience and perception and simple existence that compose a realistic (if intensely felt) life.

The sobering realizations that Vladimir receives at the end of the book resound backward and forward through the composed tale as well as through the life of the man soberly composing it for his friends, and the result is a book of profoundly nuanced reflections. A true gem—at less than 100 pages—this multi-faceted novella contains a lifetime of luster and shadow and refraction, and in its reversal of wild Romanticism, its pages somehow manage to contain a fully inverted literary cliche: the storm within the calm.

—David Wiley

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain

Creative History


What’s the Matter with Britain?

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s

The History of the Kings of Britain

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

There are but 3 matters that no man should be without,
That of France, of Britain, and of great Rome.
—Jean Bodel, Chanson de Saisnes (12th century)

Of all of the “Matter of Britain”—the accumulated myths and histories about the founding and rule of Great Britain, a mass of literature and beliefs that, like the Matter of France and the Matter of Rome, provided much of the source material for medieval literature—perhaps no single text is more fancifully fabricated than Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain. The first non-Welsh work to chronicle the life of the legendary King Arthur, and presented to the public as a history (in Latin) rather than as a romance or an epic, it’s the most influential artifact—or artifiction—of the whole Matter, forming a very particular British self-conception that seems to remain to the present day. Serving in part as a nationalistic, imperialistic, and even racial/cultural propaganda-piece, The History of the Kings of Britain attempted to define who the Britons were—and weren’t—and elevated British national identity to nearly Biblical proportions. Historians in Geoffrey’s own century (the twelfth century) dismissed the chronicle as almost complete invention, but the book’s immense popularity and influence has never waned in the face of mere facts. Its wishful history prevailed over historical record in the collective popular and political consciousness in the same way that our own country’s outlandish myths have often overshadowed many of our more complex and difficult truths, and the result in both cases has been a partially self-imposed mask that delights many but that dissembles much more than it actually resembles.

Part of the book’s fascination today is that in addition to its Arthurial precedent, it contains the first record of King Leir (Lear), and Cymbeline as well, either directly influencing Shakespeare or having its substance passed to him through Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This post-hoc view through Shakespearean eyes does nothing to explain its original enduring appeal, of course, and so one of the book’s many pleasures now is in examining its falseness and trying to parse the fraying threads of its fantastical tapestry. Although he draws and reshapes material from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and from The History of the Britons, which was attributed to Nennius, Geoffrey claims that his chronicle is in fact a direct translation of “a certain very ancient book written in the British language” (meaning Welsh). This outright falsehood on the book’s first page was meant to give his book serious credibility, but even just a few pages in, it becomes difficult to believe that anyone could have ever believed its wild refashionings of the world’s various successions of events. Belief is a very tricky thing, however. Besides, the book is so enjoyable to the credulous and incredulous alike that it may be best to view the whole thing as being beyond belief.

Geoffrey of Monmouth
Attempting to equate Britain with Rome—and ultimately to elevate Britain above it—Geoffrey constructs a founding myth in which Brutus, an invented great-grandson of Aeneas, leads a group of Trojan exiles to the island of Albion, which he renames Britain, after himself. Clearly mirroring Rome’s founding myth, Geoffrey’s narrative tries to weave itself into the threads of Vergil’s Aeneid, but the timelines of Aeneas’ progeny are jumbled and implausible and fit poorly into the framework of the myths that he’s attempting to employ. Also: Aeneas is entirely mythic. No matter, though, because all the battles with the new country’s native giants amuse and distract and create a primordial vision of an undiscovered country that it pleases the reader to see “settled” and “civilized.”

A large part of Geoffrey’s intention in creating his specific view of Britishness arose from a desire to ingratiate himself to the current political establishment and to align that establishment with the long sweep of “history” contained in his narrative. After establishing Britain as a kind of twin to Rome, Geoffrey chronicles its subsequent subjugation to Rome, its eventual emancipation from Rome, its entirely fictitious sack of Rome by victorious Britons, the subsequent golden-era heights of Arthurian rule, and then the ultimate “downfall” of Britain under relentless Saxon invasion, ending the chronicle in the late seventh century. Geoffrey published his book in 1136, just a few generations after the Norman conquest of England, and in his re-woven order of things, this Norse/French conquest tacitly serves as a reestablishment of the true Britons rather than as an invasion. As part of their own centuries-earlier conquests, the Britons had settled a colony called Armorica in the area of France that’s now called Brittany, and when Geoffrey picks an arbitrary time to put a clean end to his chronicle, the British royalty heads to exile in Armorica. So in his imagination, the Norman invasion is actually a return.

Merlin and Arthur, from a manuscript of
The History of the Kings of Britain
Part of how he arranges this is by having Merlin prophesy all these events in an oblique and long-winded vision that Geoffrey originally planned to write as a separate book but that he decided to interpolate into his chronicle. The parts of the book concerning Arthur and Merlin are central to its thrust, both because of their popularity and because of how Geoffrey reconciled their imagined floruit with the regime of his own time. Using several Biblical devices, he tries to outdo Rome once again by having the new Britain implicitly mirror the Jerusalem of the Second Temple. Although Merlin’s bizarre utterances are more reminiscent of the nonsensical hallucinations recorded in the book of Revelation (whose style of vision Dante would put to much better and more focused use in his Commedia), they also emulate the way that the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures ostensibly foresaw Jerusalem’s fall, exile, and rebirth. And more to the point, Geoffrey manipulates his text in the same way that the Biblical Redactor arranged the past to fit what would happen afterward.

Like the Israelites, whose travails were explained in the Bible to be the result of their repeated failure to walk in the ways of the Lord, the Britons fell (according to Geoffrey) because of their leaders’ wicked ways. And just as the Davidic line of rule remained alive in the Babylonian exile with a promise to return (according to the Biblical Redactor), so did the Arthurian line in Armorica. Thus with the Normans ruling Britain in Geoffrey’s time, the renaissance promised at the end of his chronicle has come, making Britain not just the new Rome of the chronicle’s time but a kind of new Jerusalem as well.

Geoffrey of Monmouth
With almost completely out-of-hand synchronization to the Bible and to a wildly revised Roman timeline, Geoffrey’s book is creative history at both its best and worst. The History of the Kings of Britain is a wonderfully rich and entertaining historical tapestry that’s also a craftily woven web of lies, and as with the self-aggrandizing propaganda of all previous and subsequent empire states, its facade forms the graven image of what seems to be quite a substantial Matter. But it’s a Matter that’s in no way a matter of fact.

—David Wiley