It was I who killed the official’s old widow and her sister Lizaveta with an axe…

July 28, 2011

I read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment when I was in the ninth grade, and I loved it.  Heaven knows what I understood of it.  Generations later, I have tried to read again all those novels that I devoured then – Karamazov, Demons, Idiots – and I could get nowhere.  I found Dostoyevsky’s style repellant and impenetrable, with the exception of Notes from Underground, which has always been a favorite.  Maybe it was the translation.

I am more than half through the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of this novel, and I am amazed at the novelty of the book, its outrageous inventiveness.  The phrase I find myself coming back to is avant garde.  It seems so, even now, after 140 years – fresh, challenging, bizarre, and direct.  Compared to this, Dostoyevksy’s contemporary ‘realists’ such as Dickens (whom he loved), Turgenev (whom he loathed) and Flaubert (I don’t know what opinions of each other they entertained, but Flaubert and Turgenev were fast friends) seem almost pedestrian.  The point of view shifts, the mood varies wildly, the characters often seem to speak to the reader directly, and there is no sense of a cool, omniscient consciousness directing the action.  More like real life?

The novel observes a lot of the conventions of 19th century realism:  the place and person names obscured with a hyphen as if to protect the identities of the real people; the fully realized portraits of the city, its classes, and the grit of everyday life – but it seems profoundly stagey, literally as if a play, not a novel, which makes it seem unrealistic at the same time.  Characters enter, declaim, moan, howl, rave, and exit.  So much of the action takes place in crowded rooms.  People are forever making decisions, talking, arguing, and falling into reverie on stairs, going up and going down.

Unusual also is the recounting of dreams:  they are utterly credible, in a way that I associate with writing of the 20th century only.  Earlier writers tend towards romantic notions of what the dormant mind produces – Raskolnikov’s are completely believable, especially the first in which he imagines following a man, a man who knows his crime, a man who stops, turns, and waves to him from across the street, saying nothing.

Finally, Dostoyevsky gets the jump on all the existentialist notions that would become trite in generations to come.  Listen to this deliciously funny, dark, exchange as Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov discuss the afterlife and eternity:

“We keep imagining eternity as an idea that cannot be grasped, something vast, vast!  But why must it be vast?  Instead of all that, imagine suddenly that there will be one little room there, something like a village bathhouse, covered with soot, with spiders in all the corners, and that’s the whole of eternity.  I sometimes fancy something of the sort.”

“But surely, surely you can imagine something more just and comforting than that!” Raskolnikov cried out with painful feeling.

“More just?  Who knows, perhaps that is just- and, you know, if I had my way, it’s certainly how I would do it!”  Svidrigailov answered, smiling vaguely.

How many episodes of the Twilight Zone, how many adolescent rock lyrics, what pile of scripts and plays start with notions like this?

With the climate of political extremism being what it is these days, I think I just might get myself a copy of The Demons next.

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Surreal Times

June 15, 2011

Always happy to see surrealism plastered across the front page of mainstream media!  Whoddathunkit?  The debut of Un Chien Andalou was greeted with a near riot.  Luis Bunuel is laughing…


The Deadly Dream – Limping Man

May 6, 2011

I grew up watching Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt.  Loved that sound of bubbling on the soundtrack, and those nasty run-ins with Moray Eels!  So, when The Deadly Dream, a TV movie, came out in 1971, I had to watch.  Even at the age of 14, I knew it was junk, but my friends and I found it amusing, and my nascent interest in surrealism was tickled by the premise of the confusion of reality and the dream.  I caught up with Lloyd Bridges again in The Limping Man (1953) the double-feature on my DVD of The Scar.

Bridges plays a man returning to England to pick up with his war-time love after being stateside for six years.  She’s a real dreamboat, and an actress to boot, but she  doesn’t meet him at the airport as planned.  As he walks from the plane, the man behind him asks for a light, they pause, and a sniper shoots the man dead!  The corpse has a picture of Bridge’s lady friend on him, but that comes out later.

The film is a passable suspense story that seems ripped off from The 39 Steps, Hitchcock’s films in general, and The Third Man.  Stylistically, it’s no great shakes, although I liked the sequence of shots below, as Bridges runs after a man he believes is implicated with the shooting.  A little bit of noir-expressionism on the London riverside.

  

I enjoy films that show the seedy side of life in London in the 50s (Dance with a Stranger, Night and the City), and there was some of that here.  The ending of the film is so unexpected and so outrageous, I didn’t know whether to laugh or smash my video screen.   This is one case where I will keep completely mum so you can make your own unbiased judgment if you watch it!


Flying in a Dream

December 1, 2010

flying-dream

I began to walk down a steep path, winding like a serpent amidst the forest: at first in a light, elastic step; later, passing into a brisk, happy run which became gradually faster, until it resembled a gliding descent on skis.  I could regulate my speed at will and change course by light movements of my body.

This passage is from the end of a chapter called “Cinnamon Shops” in a book of fiction by Bruno Schulz called The Street of Crocodiles.  (Originally, it was titled, Cinnamon Shops).  I have this dream sometimes, and it’s always very pleasant and positive.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a description that so well captures the feeling and nature of my imaginary whooshing down the street.

Labels such as surrealist, magic realist, symbolist, etc. don’t do justice to the depth of feeling, the poetic atmosphere, and the richness of imagery and situation that Schulz creates in his stories.   His father gives a metaphysical exposition of the significance of tailors’ dummies; he keeps an aviary in an attic room, and believes he can fly with the birds; a puppy named Nimrod; a glimpse of Pan incarnated in the person of a homeless wonderer surprised in an overgrown garden… I read on.

I don’t know how I found out about Bruno Schulz, or how I missed him all these years.  I may have first seen one of his prints – made on scratched glass – from his suite called Idolatry.

  

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion of a chapter called The Gale.  Father is lost in the storm.  Two men go out to get him, but don’t get far.  An aunt visits, has an altercation with a fowl, and shrinks to nothing!

Wrapped in great bearskins, they weighted their pockets with flat-irons and kitchen mortars for ballast, to prevent them from being swept away by the gale.  Cautiously, the door was opened, leading into the night.  Barely had the shop assistant and my brother taken their first step into the darkness, their overcoats swelling, when the night swallowed them whole on the threshold of the house.  The gale washed away all trace of their departure in an instant.  Even the lanterns they had taken with them were nowhere to be seen through the window. 

Once it had engulfed them, the gale abated for a moment.  Adela and Mother tried again to light a fire in the range.  Ash and soot blew out through the tiny door, and their matches were extinguished.  We stood by the entrance and listened, seeming to hear amid the gale’s laments all manner of voices, persuasions, exhortations and gossip.  We thought we could hear Father, astray in the gale, calling for help, or my brother and Teodor chatting lightheartedly, just outside the door.  So convincing were the gale’s deceptions that Adela flung the door open–and in fact we did catch sight of Teodor and my brother, struggling into view out of the gale, in which they were immersed shoulder high.

They fell breathless into the hallway, struggling to fasten the door behind them.  For a moment it was all they could do to press themselves against the door, so powerfully was the gale assaulting the entrance.  But at last the bolt was shot home, and the wind hastened away. 

They spoke incoherently about the night and the gale.  Their furs, impregnated by the wind, now smelt of air.  They fluttered their eyelids in the brightness, and their eyes, still full of the night, bled darkness with every beat of their lids.  They had not been able to reach the shop.  They had lost their way, and barely managed to find their way back.  The town had been unrecognisable, so disarranged were all the streets.

Mother suspected that they were lying.  That whole scene, in fact, gave the impression that throughout that whole quarter of an hour they had been standing by the window, and gone nowhere at all.  Or perhaps there really was no town or market square any more, and the night and the gale had merely surrounded our house with dark coulisses, full of howling, whistling and groans.  Perhaps there were no such enormous and doleful expanses as the gale had suggested to us.  Perhaps there were no such lamentable labyrinths, such many-windowed passageways and corridors, played by the gale like long, black flutes.  We became increasingly convinced that the whole storm was merely the quixotism of the night, imitating tragical immensities in the narrower space of coulisses, acting out the cosmic homelessness and orphanhood of a gale. 

More and more often now, the door to our hallway was opened to admit guests, grey and muffled in cloaks.  A breathless neighbour or acquaintance would struggle out of his scarf and overcoat and exclaim in gasps, in a breathless voice, discontinuous, incoherent and fantastically magnified words which unreliably exaggerated the immensity of the night outside.  We all sat in the brightly lit kitchen.  Beyond the hearth of the range, beyond the wide black hood of the chimney, a few steps led to the attic door. 

On those stairs sat Teodor, the elder shop assistant, listening intently as the attic rang throughout with the gale.  He could hear in the gale’s pauses how the bellows of the attic’s ribs arranged themselves into folds, how the roof grew limp, and sagged like enormous lungs whose breath has escaped them, and how it drew breath once more, rising up into palisades of rafters, growing like a Gothic vault, spreading out into a forest of beams, filled with a hundredfold echo, how it reverberated like the box of an enormous double bass.  But later, we forgot about the gale.  Adela was pounding cinnamon in a chiming mortar.  Aunt Perazja had come to visit.  Small, mobile and thrifty, the lace of her black shawl tied around her head, she began to bustle about the kitchen, lending a hand to Adela, who had plucked a cockerel.  Aunt Perazja lit a handful of papers under the hood of the chimney, and broad sheets of flame rose up from them, into the air, into the black abyss.  Adela, holding the cockerel by its neck, lifted it over the flames in order to burn off its few remaining feathers.  Suddenly, the cockerel beat its wings in the fire, crowed, and was consumed.  Aunt Perazja began to shake, to curse and shout abuses.  Shaking with vexation, she shook her fists at Adela and Mother.  I had no idea what had so upset her, but she worked herself up in her anger into an ever rising state of frenzy–she became one great cluster of gesticulations and execrations.  It seemed that she would gesticulate herself to pieces in that paroxysm of vexation, divide, and disperse in all directions, into a hundred spiders, and branch out across the floor in a black, twinkling burst like the paths of crazy cockroaches.  But instead, she began to grow rapidly smaller, to contract, trembling more and more and pouring out profanities.  Suddenly hunched and small, she tottered to the corner of the kitchen where the firewood was stacked.  Cursing and coughing, she began to rummage fervidly among the resounding wood, until she found two thin yellow splinters.  She seized them, her hands fluttering with agitation, and measured them against her legs.  She mounted them like stilts, and proceeded to walk around on those yellow crutches, clattering over the floorboards, running faster and faster, back and forth in an oblique line across the floor.  Then she ran up onto a pine bench, hobbling along its clattering planks, and from there onto a shelf of plates, a resounding wooden shelf running the whole length of the kitchen wall.  She ran along it, her knees propelling her stiltlike crutches, finally–somewhere in the corner, growing smaller and smaller–to blacken and curl up like shrivelled, charred paper, smouldering into a flake of ash, crumbling into dust and nothingness. 

We all stood helpless before that raging fury of vexation that had consumed and digested itself.  We looked with sympathy on the sad course of that paroxysm, and returned to our everyday tasks somewhat relieved when that woeful process had come to its natural end. 

Adela once more clattered her mortar, pounding the cinnamon, whilst Mother continued her interrupted conversation, and Teodor, the elder shop assistant, listening to the attic’s prophesies, pulled comical grimaces, raising high his eyebrows and chuckling to himself. 

Translated by John Curran Davis – Draft of September 2010 www.schulzian.net


Meanwhile, back with the strife of love in a dream…

March 29, 2010

Our trusty Poliphilo has met up with his beloved Polia and is led hither and yon by her.  He can barely restrain himself when he sits beside her:  She is so beautiful, so celestially dazzling that his blood is inflamed, he is short of breath, and all he can imagine is throwing himself on her, moving his hands over her breasts, unlacing those delightful red leather slippers with the blue silk laces and half-moon ornaments, and…  Yes, that’s the level of detail he goes into as he sings her praises – he loves her clothes, and every square inch of alabaster glowing skin they conceal.  Which does he love more?  It’s not always clear.  But, he does restrain himself, and she directs him towards some absolutely fascinating classical ruins that he must go see.  How could he resist?  Antique architecture makes his heart beat (and his manhood grow rigid?) as much as Polia’s goddess-like forehead does.

Amidst all the broken architecture are numerous urns and plaques with incriptions in Latin telling of the woes encountered by lovers cursed by fortune.  Included among them is a married couple that died on their wedding night, before consummating their love, when their house collapsed, crushing them to death in each other’s arms.  None of these sorry tales – mostly involving spurned or lost lovers who take their own lives – cools Poliphilio’s love.

The images below show a massive architectural ensemble that Mr. P. finds and describes in great detail.  I was reminded of this painting by Cosima Tura, one of my favorites, that is in the National Gallery in London.  Tura was from Ferrara, midway between Venice, where Colonna, the author the Hypnerotomachia, lived, and Florence.  He painted this at the same time that Hypnerotomachia was being written, but years before it was printed and published in the famous Aldus edition in Venice.    Click on the images to see enlargements.


Hypnerotomachia Poliphili/Santa Maria sopra Minerva

February 13, 2010

The only gothic church in Rome is Santa Maria sopra Minerva, so called because it was erected on top of an ancient Roman temple of the goddess Minerva.  In the plaza in front, there is a statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk created by the great baroque artist, Bernini.   Why is it carrying an obelisk?

1999 marked the 500th anniversary of the initial publication of Hypnerototmachia Poliphili and also marked the first complete English translation of the work, in which this woodcut features.   It’s not surprising that Bernini would have been influenced by the book – every other educated European post-1499 was.

The publication of the original book is itself a landmark event, producing one of the most sought after pieces of icunabula, examples of the infancy of book printing, from the Latin for swaddling clothes.  It was printed by Aldus in Venice, and integrated the woodcut illustrations with the text, which itself was often displayed in novel configurations, e.g. pyramidal layouts on the page.

The text itself is written in Italian, despite the author’s preoccupation with the culture of antiquity – such humanists usually wrote their scholarly stuff in Latin.  But this is no scholarly text, and the author was no ivory tower intellectual.  He was a priest of no good repute and the language, according to the translator’s introduction, is arcane, filled with bizarre neologisms, and with words that even educated readers of the day would have found bewildering.

Its title translates roughly as The strife of love in a dream, and it seems like an extended wet dream of an overheated imagination.  Whether the erotic longing is for a woman or for architecture is not always clear – at least not as far as I have read so far.  No doubt  as I read further in this antique stream of consciousness but that associations with Bomarzo will be present.


Iguan-erot

January 10, 2010

Iguan-erot:  (noun) Images of women with lizards, primarily iguanas, intended to produce erotic arousal or laughter.  [Derived from iguana + erot(ic);  “Among the most bizarre manifestations of displaced erotic force is … R. von Craft-Dubbing, Psychopathis Sexualis, 1901]