Monday, August 3, 2020

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (1936)

Love among American ex-pats in Paris during the Twenties.


Classics Review: Nightwood is a long lament for a lost love. A love triangle leads to suffering (as they do) for all concerned. Nora was in love with Robin who left her for (that cow) Jenny and now they've gone off to America: "Robin was an amputation that Nora could not renounce." Commentary on everyone and everything is provided in lengthy Joycean monologues by Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O'Connor, who is not a doctor but is both man and woman. Although the story is set in Paris in the Twenties, everyone is miserable, grotesque, and hopeless, at least as seen through this cry of anguish from the grieving, in denial, and so very sad Nora (which was also Joyce's wife's name): "In death Robin would belong to her." This tragedy, however, is cloaked in the guise of a sometimes impenetrable, modernist tour de force worthy of Woolf or Joyce. It's not plot or logic driven; the plot could be condensed to about 45 pages or so. Mostly Nightwood is a book to dive into and try to stay afloat. Let it operate on a less conscious or rational level. Fortunately it's a short book which makes this possible. I'm not sure it would be a feasible reading experience if this book went on for 500 pages. The novel generally and the monologues of the Doctor particularly contain ornate, rococo-meets-Gothic language that reminded me of the enameled prose of Anaïs Nin. Also that of Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, and Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Notable company. Fans of Nightwood include William Burroughs, Dylan Thomas, and of course T.S. Eliot (who wrote the Introduction for this edition). Although hailed as an early masterpiece of lesbian literature, it makes the life of lesbians sound miserable and desperate, although no characters in the book have a good time of it. In Barnes' view human existence is suffering. Or perhaps her experience was none too happy; in later years she adamantly refused to be labeled a lesbian. The story centers on Robin, of whom we learn little (we never get her point of view), the lover of a number of  women and men. The reader never learns why she is so irresistible, only that she seems a blank slate on which various characters project themselves. "She always lets her pets die. She is so fond of them, and then she neglects them, the way that animals neglect themselves." On the other hand, there's the peripheral character of the Doctor who serves as the Greek chorus and of whom we know too much. Periodically he gives out with both humor and wisdom: "The only people who really know anything about medical science are the nurses, and they never tell; they'd get slapped if they did." The reader is inundated with his point of view which gives Barnes the opportunity to spread her Joycean wings. An odd, one of a kind novel, a tragedy of obsession, and really the whole of her reputation. At one point Barnes, in the voice of the Doctor states what is at the center of Nightwood: "You are always writing to Robin. Nothing will curb it. You've made her a legend." Later the Doctor says, "So love, when it has gone, taking time with it, leaves a memory of its weight." Nora replies, "She is myself. What am I to do?"  [4★]

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes by Philip Herring (1995)

A biography of the eccentric author of
Nightwood.

Nonfiction Review: Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes is disjointed and inconsistent, as is its subject. A decidedly unconventional and unenviable childhood led to an equally eccentric life. Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) could've given Tara Westover a run for her money and written the Educated of her day. Her life reads like, and became, a novel. Although prolific for a short period, today she's really known for one book, Nightwood, her novel about love in Paris during the Twenties. Despite a prickly personality she had many famous friends including James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Peggy Guggenheim, and Dag Hammarskjöld. Joyce gave Barnes the proof sheets of Ulysses, specially bound. Later she had famous fans such as Carson McCullers, Anäis Nin, Malcolm Lowry. She was an integral member of the American ex-pats in Paris, and from a single novel she created a lasting if cultish reputation. Djuna provided me a wealth of valuable information about the writer, her most famous work, and her acquaintances. I learned of a difficult childhood, an idiosyncratic personality, and the immensely autobiographical nature of Nightwood. Although that book is considered a landmark of gay literature, Barnes adamantly denied that she was a lesbian. I gained many insights, but at the end I was left with the feeling that this biography didn't really do her justice. There seemed to be gaps, the chronology was wonky, and there was just too much extraneous information. There are two primary pitfalls which biographers may encounter. One is the idea that the biographer is as important as the subject and so end up writing as much about themselves as who they're writing about. That's memoir, not biography. Get over your self-centered self. The biographer should be invisible except in the most necessary instances. The second is that after having done massive research for the book some biographers feel obligated to put all that hard work on the page, every bit of it, no matter how irrelevant, inconsequential, or insipid. Philip Herring misses the first trap, but falls resoundingly into the latter. There's too much pointless detail that adds nothing to the life of Djuna Barnes and simply distracts from the story we want to read. Too many pages devoted to events which and people who had only the most tangential connection to Barnes. Why detract from a life that stands on its own. Djuna could've been short, focused, and powerful, and would've been all the better for that. This is a good introduction, but somehow I suspect we're still waiting for the definitive biography of Djuna Barnes.  [3★]

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

A young woman meets a wealthy older man with a magnificent home and a mysterious past.


Classics Review: Rebecca is a modern fairy tale, a variation of the story of an orphaned farm girl ("poor nameless wife"), a dashing prince, and a ghost. Daphne du Maurier (1907-89) wrote many novels but this is the one that made her name and for which she's remembered. Foreshadowed in the famous first line, the great house Manderley is the center of the story, as if poor nameless wife was venturing into a labyrinth, into the Beast's castle, into darkness. As in the best fairy tales, the story mixes romance, mystery, and self discovery. Beautifully told, Rebecca is perfect in tone and construction in the same way as The Remains of the Day. One can quibble about plot points and characters, but it's perfect in the telling. Captured, the reader is drawn into and becomes part of the story. One may grow impatient with poor nameless wife's insecurity, but that flaw is understood and recognized. We identify with her naive and unworldly vision at twenty-one. Trapped by her virtual wicked stepmother, we learn she has a "lovely and unusual name" and then is magically swept off by a man twice her age to become a de Winter, "of winter." As we live in her mind we see through her eyes, her jealousy, and her wild, untamable imagination (a latter-day Catherine Morland). Her transformation is told in language that's at times archaic, but is also rich, descriptive, vivid: "There were petals at my feet too, brown and sodden, bearing their scent upon them still, and a richer, older scent as well, the smell of deep moss and bitter earth, the stems of bracken, and the twisted roots of trees." A Gothic novel, a relative of Jane Eyre (1847), Rebecca is as much experience and atmosphere as story. I never want to be too cynical to enjoy this book.  [5★]

Monday, July 20, 2020

Journey Into the Past by Stefan Zweig (1976)

A young man is separated from the woman he loves by work and war.

Book Review: Journey into the Past seems more a short story than a novella. The pages fly past and the plot is simple while the emotions are deep. This is a romantic (in all senses of the word) story that turns on what happens when two people discover their love just as they separate. While apart, they and the world alter drastically. The author asks: can love remain unchanged? Published posthumously, in Journey Into the Past, as always Stefan Zweig plumbs our feelings, captures our hearts, and touches the soul. Full of longing, the plot heads speedily and directly to the only possible conclusion. But Zweig shatters the story with a chilling description of a Nazi march through the streets of Heidelberg. Just as the two lovers seek to recapture what they once had, so Zweig looks back on the world he had lost. The reader can only emerge as disturbed as the protagonist. Although his writing might bend toward melodrama, become overly passionate, and always contain a subterranean obsession, it was never as simple as it seemed on first reading. Journey Into the Past is an exercise in nostalgia and regret, told with tender care.  [3½★]

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Henry and June by Anais Nin (1986)

The unexpurgated (but heavily edited) diary of Anaïs Nin, 1931-32, in which she meets Henry Miller and his wife June.

Nonfiction Review: Henry and June is one of the few well-known works by notorious diarist Anaïs Nin (1903-77), and was made into a 1990 film with Uma Thurman. Subtitled "from A Journal of Love," it's the first in that series (followed by Incest (1992), Fire (1987), and Nearer the Moon (1996)). Unlike Faulkner with his South or Toni Morrison on race, Nin found the subject of her oeuvre closer to home: herself. She was both canvas and painting. Nin found her life sufficient for examination and expression and her obsessive narcissism is mesmerizing. In Henry and June Nin, three or four lovers, a husband, and her analyst flirt, tease, manipulate, play games, prevaricate, agonize; they may or may not have sex throughout the book. And she gets a nose job. It all reads much like fiction. We witness Nin grow into her sexuality from near ignorance to eager participant. The reader begins to pity her husband who brings home the bacon while living in uneasy ignorance of her daily meanderings: "I really believe that if I were not a writer, not a creator, not an experimenter, I might have been a very faithful wife." June soon leaves the country and is mostly offstage, but lingers as a hovering presence beguiling both Nin and Miller as they pursue their affair together in her absence. We learn about Henry Miller and his writing (Tropic of Cancer is to be published) and she reflects on her own "enameled" fiction: "I wanted to go on in that abstract, intense way, but could anyone bear it ... for me there was meaning in those brocaded phrases." What's unclear to me is how this book was written, published years after her death. Seemingly, some unknown person (the introduction is in passive voice) went through Nin's unredacted diaries and removed everything quotidian leaving only the material relating to the title couple. Some editor found a way to continue to milk the infamous diaries. Regardless, Nin makes her life as interesting as possible, for the sake of her journal if nothing else. In Henry and June the reader just goes along for the ride.  [4★]

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Confusion by Stefan Zweig (1927)

A scholarly project draws a college student into the life of an inspirational professor and his wife.

Book Review: Confusion is a dated but worthy story of its time. Apparently the German title of this novella is more literally "Confusion of Feelings," but the single word title here is modern and evocative. Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) pours on the passion in his moving style to bring the reader into a heady mix of emotion, thought, and sensation. A side effect of his intense writing is that it can touch on melodrama and the sentimental, especially to contemporary ears. For me that's not a detriment. I'd rather have more emotion and feeling than less. And Zweig adds wry wisdom amidst it all: when the student confesses that he'd wasted his first term the professor comforts him saying, "Well, music has rests as well as notes." Published in 1927, the story has dated, but not the meaning and it must've been progressive for its time (at least from an American perspective). The reader sees and understands much more than our naive narrator Roland, a college student who's repeatedly told he's a mere child. I'm curious whether he seemed as innocent to readers of that time or if it's just today's worldly and cynical eyes that know too much. Confusion embodies the magic and lure of learning and literature and scorns the small minded prejudice of those who don't get it. Even as I see easy sentiment, obvious signaling, and simple psychology, I still enjoy the warm bath of Zweig's writing. As always, Anthea Bell does a flawless translation into English. Confusion isn't his best or my favorite of his work, but it's still Zweig, and that's a good thing.  [3½★]

Friday, July 17, 2020

old song: The Red Moon Anthology 2017 ed. by Jim Kacian, et al. (2018)

The Red Moon Anthology of English-language haiku 2017.

Poetry Review: old song is the 2017 installment of this annual, quality anthology by Red Moon Press, that's been published since 1996. Every year a few thousand haiku nominated from around the world are winnowed down and selected for inclusion in this collection. Alert: few if any are of the traditional 5/7/5 syllable-counting exercise we learned in grade school. What is most striking is the wide diversity contained in these pages. Haiku from the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Canada, Australia, China, Sweden, Ireland, Japan, India, Ukraine, Montenegro, Slovenia, Turkey, and the U.S. are included in just the first 50 pages. Even more diverse is the subject matter within, the perspectives are endless. These are genuine efforts to capture some aspect of life and the world in three lines or less. Some of the haiku are light,

   yoga class
   my corpse pose
   draws a fly

some are personal,

   soft rain ...
   the way the oncologist
   says "we"

there's the political,

   syrian truce
   first snow falling on
   a roofless town

and some seek to capture some eternal truth in a moment,

   priest's handshake
   leaves that still cling
   to the tree

With the best haiku various interpretations are equally possible. I'm not a member of the haiku community, but somewhere, sometime ago, thanks to Basho, Peter Pauper Press, and R.H. Blyth I became seriously enamored of the form as a way to capture or illuminate a moment. It's very individual, private, intimate, mine. Haiku is not for everyone, but for those who find it and reach some level of understanding it can become a comforting part of life. Other than the wholly conventional forms, whatever Platonic ideal one has of haiku can be found here with some guaranteed to resonate. My personal vision of the form is very restricted, but even I found work by like-minded people inside. By my, or perhaps your, definition not all of pieces in old song are haiku. Some are simply abbreviated poems. But that's just fine; I like short poems. In addition to this treasury (to be treasured) of haiku, there are a number of "linked forms" in which the haiku is incorporated into a short narrative to striking effect. There's also scholarly, thoughtful and erudite essays on the form that simultaneously proclaim: (1) this is an adult pastime, not child's play; and (2) there's a whole world of haiku out there for the solitary watcher scribbling short poems in a pocket notebook (or on your phone) while being in and of the world. Even if the essays may seem a bit too much, they will still welcome you into a dimension where haiku writing is a part of life. When one begins to see the world through a haiku prism, that vision becomes a third eye, therapy, or a new voice for song. For anyone who writes, loves, or is curious about haiku, short poems, moments of enlightenment or wry chuckles, old song is a perfect place to begin. All the previously published editions are still available from Red Moon Press (they can be addicting).  [4★]