The Good Soldier Švejk is a picaresque novel of The Great War. Its title character is a Czech everyman, slow-witted, cunning, or most likely some combination of both, who wends his way very slowly from a Vienna bar to the Eastern Front, taking turns as the batman for a few people slightly more important than himself, and in prison for various misdemeanors and misunderstandings (and often for some combination of both). In episode after episode, nothing can really touch Švejk, though he rarely ends up any better off, either.
I tend to have what seems like more tolerance than average for picaresques; I rarely care too much about plot anyway, and my favorite picaresques have an overarching structure to their episodes that gives them form without subjecting them to many of the conventions of a more traditional novel-length plot. Švejk may be missing such a structure because it is unfinished, but in fact the way the episodes bounce around chaotically also serves one of the novels most important themes: the absurdity of pretty much everything. The war, certainly; also the Austro-Hungarian Empire; also its army and perhaps all armies; certainly the law and bureaucracy.
And the episodes tend in themselves toward the abusrd—especially when Švejk does have his run-ins with the law. Almost inevitably, Švejk displays to the authorities “the godlike composure of an innocent child,” “radiat[ing]” “unconcern and innocence…from the whole of his being”—and putting them right off their game. As Cecil Parrott notes in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition:
He is a complete match for any of the soldiers or N.C.O.s who are unlucky enogh to be his escorts. He is capable of reducing Lieutenant Dub to a state of speechlessness. At the same time he has a disarming way of attracting the admiration
Continue reading The marvelous misadventures of the good soldier Švejk
As much as I always love New Directions, it’s rare for me to actually read three of their titles in a row, as happened quite by chance with Robinson, Alphabetical Africa, and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry. Though I’d call B.S. Johnson’s novel the most avant-garde in the bunch, Abish is no stylistic slouch, and Alphabetical Africa is, say, the most Oulipian.
The formal conceit of the novel is that the first chapter contains only words beginning in ‘a’, the second only words beginning in ‘a’ or ‘b’, and so n, until the middle of the book, when all words are available, and then, chapter-by-chapter, begin disappearing from its lexicon in the reverse of the order they entered it (FILO, for the geeks out there).
Even for those willing to accept the premise that one can write a reasonable novel omitting the more common letter in the language (c.f., Georges Perec, La Disparition), this probably seems like it must inevitably seem nonnaturalistic and extremely formal. There’s no doubt that Alphabetical Africa isn’t a typical novel, but it is a novel—it distinctly tells a story, and fairly clearly—and the strategies Abish uses to fulfill his constraints are varied and successful. It opens thus:
Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement…anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation. Albert argumentatively answers at another apartment. Answers: ants are Ameisen. Are ants Ameisen?
“Ameisen” is the German for “ants.” While far from natural speech, this is also impressively well put together considering the words all start with one letter,
Continue reading Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish
I’m aiming to do a few “quick hit” type posts this week, both to help get back into the swing and to put off writing about The Good Soldier Švejk for a while (though I should be writing about Švejk immediately after my other war post, sigh).
Today’s I’ve got Robinson, Muriel Spark’s second novel, on the menu. It’s the story of a mid-twentieth-century plane crash of which there are three survivors, stranded on a desert island. Scratch that—the island is not desert, but inhabited by on Robinson (and named after him). Robinson is a man of some independent means who has chosen, for apparently religious reasons, to live basically as a hermit.
The narrator of the novel, January Marlow, is, like a major character in The Comforters, a convert to Catholicism, and though pragmatic is quite serious about the faith. There are Catholic, and specifically Catholic-among-the-English, subtexts to much of the novel. This is a feature of Spark’s writing I’m curious to see develop further as I go further into her novels chronologically, and I don’t have much to say about it at this point other than that Spark seems to me to be an overlooked “Catholic writer,” especially “Anglo-Catholic writer.” I don’t think many put her in the same camp as an Evelyn Waugh or a Graham Greene or a T.S. Eliot (or a Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy) in this respect, and I’ve been wondering more and more whether they shoud.
As for Robinson itself, it’s an exploration of the bounds of civil society and of trust, of religion and reasonableness, of coping mechanisms for both being alone and being among people, and of the changing behavior and even nature of human beings as they shift from a modern-sized society to a small—perhaps
Continue reading Robinson by Muriel Spark
At the beginning of this week, I discussed the morality of Middlemarch, and how the results that Rohan Maitzen was somewhat uncomfortable with rest on the problem that Eliot’s morality is not based on dessert. Today, I’ve got a book about exactly the opposite problem.
Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, a 1973 novel by British avant-garde writer B.S. Johnson, features a protagonist who applies the principles of accounting to everyday life. Not in the sense that he balances his checkbook every night, though; he’s balancing his moral accounts with the rest of the world. I should say that there are a lot of stylistic features of Christie Malry that I’m not going to write about, at least not right now, that are wonderful fun (and I have more Johnson sitting next to me as I type).
Christie’s “first reckoning” with the world gives a general idea of what he’s doing. In the debit column, he puts “aggravation[s],” like “unpleasantness of bank manager” (his boss), “restriction of movement due to Edwardian Office Block,” (referring to the fact that he had to walk around rather than through a particular building), and “bulb importuning” (referring to a flower bulb sales flier). Christie assigns monetary values to all these debits—values which are, as they must be, arbitrary, though they seem to have at least some relation to each other. Bulb importuning costs a lot less than his office supervisor’s lack of sympathy about the death of Christie’s mother. But they don’t seem to be related to any external scale.
Meanwhile, the credit column consists of “recompense” for these debits, some of which are actions by others (“small kindnesses from Joan”), but most of which are Christie taking action on his own in an attempt to balance the accounts: he scratches the facade
Continue reading Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson
So who cares about all these Raj orphans anyway? I mean, other than Jane Gardam and Rudyard Kipling?
They make an interesting subject around which to weave a plot and some character psychology, but their real significant, I think, is in their being what I called last week a “casualty of Empire.” They are a breed of tiny, utterly innocent soldier: damaged in service of the state, and therefore somewhat glorious, and in that service entirely by chance and through no fault of their own, like some unfortunate draftee. Filth grows up as the kid version of a Tommy shell-shocked from the trenches—never quite right, and perhaps deserving of a vague kind of respect, especially if he keeps his own stiff upper lip and continues, sideways, now that Empire is over, his own version of service to the Crown. Just as Pat Ingoldby told him:
“[T]hey didn’t moan because they had this safety net. The Empire. Wherever you went you wore the Crown, and wherever you went you could find your own kind. A club. There are still thousands round the world thinking they own it. It’s vaguely mixed up with Christian duty. Even now. Even here, at Home.”
So as Gardam weaves most of the 20th century around the coelocanth that is her special subject, there is always a feeling that he is not just a witness to history, not just a party to it, but his entire life is constructed by the fortunes of his “Home” country. His birth in a place like Malaya completely contingent on Empire. As is his journey Home and dreadful upbringing—and thus nearly his whole psychology. The choice of his wife is similarly contingent, between its relation to his psychology and the fact of Betty’s existence itself depending on Empire. And his
Continue reading “As a life, not bad. Marooned of course.”
Pastors and Masters has continued to prove difficult to write about. Usually when that happens I come up with some strategy for attack. Attack! Break it down, pull it apart, expose all the works inside, say something. I managed only the tinest bit of that in my post on its style.
Part of what stymies me is how much that style makes the novella about its characters. The characters are all excellent—utterly unusual and lifelike. But again, back to the style, the only way to really talk about them is by telling you nearly everything they say. I’m sure you have a picture of Mr Merry at this point; there is more, yes, but there’s not much more I can tell you without simply quoting the rest of his lines.
So in my reluctance to leave such a brilliant work with the mediocre one-post treatment, I will get to the other subject that interests me right now: work in Pastors and Masters. It turned out to be quite relevant to The Project.
The boys’ school is run by Nicholas Herrick, a seventy-year-old bachelor who has a degree and supports his 20-odd-years-younger sister, bachelorette Emily. He does so by running the school—but as I mentioned, all he does for the school is to read morning prayers to the boys.
He does one other extremely important thing: he holds a degree, and when it’s prize-giving day and the parents come, he gets to wear his academic gown. Mr Merry, the real schoolmaster, does not have this privilege, but he has something else. This something is continually alluded to by the Herricks and their friends, Mssrs Masson and Bumpus, fellow degree-holders who have remained in academia. But “[t]he quality of Mr Merry’s that gained him his bread was never alluded to
Continue reading “Dear Mr Merry! To support us all, so that people think it is Nicholas!”
Ivy Compton-Burnett’s first book, Dolores, was published in 1911. Her second, Pastors and Masters, did not appear until 1925—a gap of 14 years. In later life she considered Dolores a girlish effort only, not worth talking about. That is all I know about that novel. About Pastors and Masters, I know this: it is wild. It actually is, as The New Statesman described it, “astonishing, amazing. It is like nothing else in the world. It is a work of genius.” (Truthfully, that’s more gushy than I would be.)
The most distinctive thing about Pastors and Masters is its style. It is extremely dialogue-heavy; at times it can feel almost like reading a play. Compton-Burnett gives you lines, she gives you some stage directions, sometimes she gives you a tone of voice, a look—and she describes the characters in a brief but decisive way—but that’s it. And most of the conversations are among groups of people, or in rooms where many people are talking in smaller groups, dizzying the reader who must infer all the action or plot of the novella from snippets of stylized, socially acceptable Edwardian small talk.
The opening scene provides an example. Mr. Merry is the master of a school run by Nicholas Herrick. Herrick does nothing but read morning prayers; Merry is the one who deals with the boys all day long. His wife helps, and there are also a male and a female instructor employed by the school.
‘Well this is a nice thing! A nice thing this school-mastering! Up at seven, and in a room with a black fire… “I should have thought it might have occurred to one out of forty boys to poke it… and hard at work, before other men think it time to be awake! And while you are about
Continue reading ‘I am disgusted! I am more. I cannot tell you before ladies what I think of you.’
This will certainly be my most spoilerific Butcher’s Crossing post, so, fair warning.
I mentioned earlier in the week that Will Andrews had gone out to Butcher’s Crossing because a family friend was based there, working in the hide trade. This man, McDonald, is a trader and outfitter of buffalo-hunting trips. Most of the hunters in the town work for him, and he pays them for their skins before sending them back East, where they are in demand.
McDonald makes another connection to Melville, and to the book cited in the epigraph—The Confidence-Man. My best overview of that novel is here, but I am most interested in a particular character: the Missouri bachelor, Pitch.
Seen in one light, the Missouri bachelor could be Miller. Possibly modelled on James Feminore Cooper, he is a man of the West (or at least the Midwest). He is cool and calculating, and recognizes that the forces of nature are more often arrayed against man than not. But these are, I think, superficial resemblances, and it is at the end of Butcher’s Crossing that McDonald comes to channel him most.
The Missouri bachelor enters the scene of Melville’s riverboat of the damned after witnessing the confidence-man, here and herb-doctor, sell an old man one of his remedies. “Yarbs and natur will cure your incurable cough, you think,” he sneers to the old man.
“Think it will cure me?” coughed the miser in echo;  “why shouldn’t it? The medicine is nat’ral yarbs, pure yarbs; yarbs must cure me.”
“Because a thing is nat’ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?”
“Sure, you don’t think that natur, Dame Natur, will hurt a body, do you?”
“Natur is good
Continue reading McDonald and the Missouri bachelor
Trevor’s podcast gave me one idea that truly—and somewhat shockingly—had not occurred to me before at all: the idea of Miller as Ahab. The signs are all there, and there is no question of Ahab’s same extreme monomania in Miller’s pursuit of the buffalo in the valley. But the parallels to Moby-Dick are rather extensive.
First, we can start with Andrews. He may not leave home with quite the level of ennui expressed by Ishmael in his opening chapters, but he certainly abandons what he sees as stagnation in favor of adventure and growth. The West is an excellent replacement for the sea, beautiful and terrible as they both are, subjecting man to the wonders and brutality of nature. The pacing of the novel is also similar. It takes a long time to reach the valley—nearly half the novel passes before they set up camp there. And this pacing is fast compared to the length of time Miller has spent obsessing about this particular herd, his “one that got away.”
And this time, he will not let it get away—not one scrap. The party initially intends to stay for just a few weeks, perhaps a month, and be back safe at Butcher’s Crossing before winter sets in. But even the best “stands” of his life are not enough for Miller. When the weather begins to turn, the buffalo sense it and try to make their way out of the valley, to their winter feeding grounds. Despite the dangers of staying longer, Miller cannot allow this, and enlists Andrews and Schneider to help him prevent it. The group spends a day turning back stampede after stampede when the unthinkable happens: it begins to snow.
This is everything short of complete disaster for Miller, Andrews, Schneider and Charley. The first snowflakes waste
Continue reading The monomania of Miller
Will Andrews, the protagonist of Butcher’s Crossing, is a young man who heads West, leaving behind Harvard and everything else familiar to him to do so. He is one of the yarb-doctor’s “sick spirit[s],” sent “to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs.” Will the yarb-doctor make him an idiot?
He arrives in Butcher’s Crossing, a hide town in Kansas, looking for work—but not just any work. A family friend is ready to have him as a bookkeeper, but paperwork is just the sort of thing he has left the East to avoid. He wants nature; he wants to meet the hunters. Heedless of his friend’s warning, he does so, seeking out a man named Miller who is supposed to be the best of the bunch.
Miller easily convinces Andrews to fund and participate in, at best, a difficult trip. A decade earlier, Miller found in a high valley in Colorado and untouched herd of buffalo—one of the few remaining large herds, and still with luscious coats, which the plains buffalo now lack. It is a valley untouched by humans other than Miller, or at least it was ten years earlier, and Miller convinces Andrews, Miller’s companion Charley, and an experienced skinner, Schneider, to go along treasure-hunting. And thus begins Andrews strange experience of the West, and of work.
The work begins long before the party reaches the valley. Andrews discovers it is work simply to ride so long and so far—never has he spent more than a couple hours at a time before on horseback. He finds for the first time what it means to be bone-tired, and as they progress through Kansas to Colorado, what it means to be hungry, and viciously thirsty. The traveling alone is dangerous
Continue reading “[A]s the pain of his body increased, his mind seemed to detach itself from the pain, to rise above it, so that he could see himself and Miller more clearly than he had before.”