pseudopodium
. . . Brontë

. . .

Oh great (by way of Robot Wisdom). I just recently got over the appearance about five years ago of a "historical novel but it's really the truth, it's just that I don't want to be bothered with proving any of my ridiculous delusions" dedicated to the theory that Henry Adams killed his wife, Clover Hooper Adams, during her oh-so-convenient suicidal depression. And now there's another one, this time dedicated to the theory that Charlotte Brontë was a criminal mastermind who successfully poisoned Emily Brontë, Anne Brontë, and Branwell Brontë, only to be poisoned in turn by her new husband.

Probably because Charlotte Brontë revealed herself in her writing (unlike Emily Brontë) with a singularly honest viciousness (unlike Anne Brontë), she's often been targeted by simpleminded vulgarizers. In Hollywood's Devotion, Charlotte the flighty fluffy flirt (!) was contrasted unfavorably to the Sensible Sister, Emily (!), played sensibly well by Ida Lupino. In her group biography of the Brontë family, Juliet Barker almost managed to obscure the wonderful thoroughness of her research by the equally wonderful anti-Charlotte chip on her shoulder, going so far as to bury pro-Charlotte evidence in the footnotes.

Was Charlotte Brontë a nice person? She'd be the first to describe in exacting detail why she wasn't. On the other hand, it's hard to find any contemporary reactions worse than bemused acknowledgment that she was too hard on others and still harder on herself.

I don't know who makes a sillier murderer, Charlotte Brontë, whose most unlikable trait was her stranglehold on moral superiority, or husband Whatsisname, whose only noticeable humor was phlegm. I do know that the silliest aspect of the whole business is the BBC reporter's swallowing this Yorkshire pudding whole. Let it be a warning to all of us: self-knowledge is a dangerous thing, at least when combined with self-expression.

. . .

In (guarded) praise of irony

A couple months back, a reviewer of that Dave Eggers book wrote something about how she'd never seen such emotional material treated ironically.

That's very sad (sad ha-ha, not sad strange), because the only possible excuse for irony is emotion, and too much of it. "The world is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel"; and irony's all that's been left to the softhearted analytical human being since Socrates at the latest. That's why stupid irony is exactly the same thing as unfeeling irony.

:) I regretfully admit that there's plenty of stupid irony around these days, probably because irony is the easiest thing to fake, its "Oh, I didn't really mean that" an easy refuge for the cowardly fool.

But beware, brother, beware: to don a suit of armor when you're just planning to wash dishes or go shopping is to invite great expense. If not injury. If not both (e.g., "Seinfeld"). Use only as a last resort; believe me, you'll get to the last resort soon enough.

I also admit that at first (or at disgusted and exhausted) glance, irony seems utterly antithetical to art ("art" being best described as "No, I meant to do that").

The trick is to stand firmly behind your transparently hollow words and (except of course when evading legal action) cheerfully admit to fully believing each and every empty idiocy you've recorded.

If you can call that a trick.

For those who have been made self-conscious of hubris in the mere act of expression, irony is pert near unavoidable. Thus, most of the women writers on my shelves are masters of the form in all its moods, from Behn and Austen through Bowles and Barnes to Russ and Fowler, criminy, Brontë & Brontë & Brontë & Olive Moore & Patricia Highsmith & Flannery O'Connor & Edith Wharton, it gets kind of creepy, doesn't it? Thus also the tactic's popularity with such resigned-to-failure types as Stendhal and Flaubert, Romantic rapscallions like Byron and Pushkin, and most sane twenty-somethings.

Here, for example, we actually witness the most beautiful of Nature's tender miracles, the birth of an ironist:

"It is wonderful -- stupendous to consider, how a man who in his own mind is cool, witty, unaffected and high-toned, will disgust and mortify himself by every word he utters or act he does, when he steps out of his skin defenses." -- Henry Adams, age 25
So don't let anyone tell you that irony isn't hip anymore. It's as hip as it ever was.

. . .

Make the voices stop

At a similar literary salon about, oh, maybe seven or eight years ago, the favorite first lines game was played, and I quickly realized that I didn't have any.

Partly that's because so much of my favorite writing occurred before the late-twentieth-century vogue for hooky opening sentences; partly it's because I dislike that vogue, which will seem as eccentically simplistic to future readers as an earlier era's focus on moments of moral sublimity seems to us. Grabbing the reader by her arm and yanking seems a rude way to initiate a conversation, and when I remember particularly enthralling beginnings, I remember their structural effects rather than the wording of sentence one: the early and peculiar disappearance of Madame Bovary's initial narrator, for example. (Back at that salon, the only opening line I could recall right off was a condensed version of the Bovary gambit, as played by Beckett in Mercier and Camier: "The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time." The rest of the book being I-less.)

On the other extremity, I'm a sucker for endings that snap close with a satisfying click, and I recall (and re-read) a good many last lines, with special fondness for those whose persistent startle ripples backward through the entire work, restructuring it retrospectively into something far richer than one had even dared to hope for as one kicked joyfully up surfacewards holding one's perfectly timed-to-the-last-page breath.

(Oddly, few of the examples I'm about to offer really count as "spoilers": to understand their defiance of expectations, one must have developed those expectations in the first place. The truly itchy can feel free to request story-wrecking explanations from me.)

Such an ending is more likely to speed the traveller on with a slamming of the door than with a gentle swinging to, treating readerly expectations so aggressively that they could almost be called rebuttals to their own books. (Ulysses is one such rebuff after another.) Closure is, after and above all, a refusal of further story.

1.
Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

Madame Beck prospered all the days of her life; so did Père Silas; Madame Walravens fulfilled her ninetieth year before she died. Farewell.

2.
"That was the happiest time we ever had," said Frédéric.

"Yes, perhaps you're right. That was the happiest time we ever had," said Deslauriers.

3.
I remember them all with such happiness.
4.
I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn't really that I hadn't three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.
5.
"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
6.
He bent to pick it up, then stopped. Don't touch it, he thought, don't touch it.
[The first remains the most chill-enducing and daringly experimental ending I've ever read, as befits Charlotte Brontë's Villette, the pinnacle, in English literature, of characterization through narrative voice: The plot is resolved in the imperative! or, more accurately, via the narrator's very use of the imperative! Aided by the unemphasized selectivity of her seemingly conventional last paragraph wrap-up! (I think we can agree that exclamation marks are called for here, given the tightrope-acrobat precision of the performance.)

The second concludes Flaubert's most brilliant closing movement: that of the infinitely self-undermining Sentimental Education -- whose influence can be clearly seen in my third entry, from M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, and perhaps also in Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife" (as cited in Eclogues).

Next, and speaking of characterization through narrative voice, the befuddled detective of Henry James's The Sacred Fount finally manages to reach a conclusion. Fifth is Dashiell Hammett's last word on the murder mystery genre (or perhaps on fiction in general) in The Thin Man, and lastly Patricia Highsmith's The Cry of the Owl abruptly becomes non-Highsmithian -- and freezes.]

Some end with a flourished signature:

1.
And by what I have written in this document you will see, won't you, that I have obeyed her?
2.
And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight.
3.
Having seen this time what I needed to see, I started writing; and in time wrote all that you have read.
4.
"You and Capablanca," I said.
[Janet Frame's Faces in the Water throws mental health into our eyes like vitriol; Virginia Woolf's Orlando shoots its arrows of desire right through the temporal barrier; Jack Womack's Going, Going, Gone goes home; Raymond Chandler's The High Window gives everyone a fucking break.]
Some with a gleeful or furious or heartbreaking -- but perfectly definite -- denial of closure:

1.
That is said nowadays by the most modern of the physicists. If that is true, then that is how it is with Pooch and with Carmen and with all the others.
2.
I'd always felt the future held wonderful things for me. I'd never quite caught up with it, but quite soon I would. I felt sure I hadn't long to wait.
3.
Something further may follow of this Masquerade.
4.
Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes.
[Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog; Barbara Comyns's Mr Fox; Herman Melville's The Confidence Man; and the devastating final sentence of John Crowley's Engine Summer, whose subject (in several senses) might be said to be the tragicomedy of incompletion.]
And some are simply, disturbingly or delightfully, accomplished:

1.
"Nothing, Mamma. I was just thinking."

And, drawing a deep breath, he considered the faint whiff of scent that rose from his mother's corseted waist.

2.
He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.
3.
The beautiful weather was compared with the Great Disappointment of '44, when Christ failed once again to appear to the Millerites.
[Robert Musil's Young Törless enters sentimental grad school; Djuna Barnes's Nightwood pays tribute to Aphrodite; Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon lights out for the hills.]

2015-06-21 : Guy Lionel Slingsby kindly directed my attention to this trimmer and more Twitter-friendly approach.

. . .

Heathcliff, Come Home

(Written for The Valve)

I suppose many readers of The Valve eventually get around to The Yale Journal of Criticism on their own, but if un-lit blogs can point you to the New York Times front page, it must be OK for me to point you to "Petted Things" by Ivan Kreilkamp, starring the Brontë sisters as animal rights pioneers.

Kreilkamp's essay pleasingly draws from history, the authors themselves, and recent Derrida in the service of (to me) a novel, amusing, and evocative association of realism with anthropomorphism. The critic even shows good reason for having treated "the Brontës" as a group rather than as individual novelists.

Potential Disney adaptors of Jane Eyre should especially note the story of Clumsy, A Dog:

"Tell how he grows ugly in growing up;... Madam's disgust for him; the rebuffs he suffers.... Clumsy, for that is what she calls him now, banished to the yard; his degradation; detail his privations, the change in food and company."

Everyone else should especially note that Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog carries far more entertainment value than its equivalent in Lucas-movie-and-junk-food.

+ + +

Afterthought: The Brontës as potential writers of noble-dog stories reminds me of one of my own favorite alternate-literary-history scenarios: What if, rather than giving up their shared fantasy worlds, the Brontë sisters had successfully brought their mature styles and concerns into Gondal and Angria, weirdly anticipating Joanna Russ's Alyx, M. John Harrison's ret-conning of Viriconium, Samuel R. Delany's Nevèrÿon...?

Pointless, I know, but at least it's a break from imagining the rest of Emma.

. . .

Liar, liar, pants on ice

Starting from friend G. T., most of my favorite unreliable narrators are free indirect discoursers well, I suppose that's almost the defining lesson of free indirect discourse, for readers, anyway, that one's access to narrative truth is tainted by person.

What Villette's Lucy Snowe teaches by first-person example is that one's access to personal truth is tainted by narrative. Intent on rectitude but powerless in worldly terms, Snowe should, like the Duchess of Newcastle, be able at least to discover freedom in words. Instead, cold feet bleeding at a crux, she prevaricates, taking a three-decker plunge into both non serviam self-damnation and redemptive acceptance Lear's end retold in a whispered snarl.

"First Chill then Stupor then the letting go —" Best say nothing; next best, speak truthfully and next? It depends how glibly we reached the question mark. As fond as I am of Beckett, the more encumbered Brontë carries more weight. In sweeping the bullshit away, he clarified the problem but changed it, too, to something with a solution clean enough to be called formula. The latter-day avant-lite, let-go from the get-go, with white lies conveniently stacked in their grocer's freezer, give no second thought to fudging the story for the sake of a gag.

Responses

Peli Grietzer restates (

Wait, by unreliable narrators in free indirect discourse, do you mean when the indirect quoter is unreliable, or when the indirect quotee is unreliable?

) a question first raised by Bouvard & Pécuchet and first answered by Ulysses: "Yes".

Although, as Peli pointed out in later email, there have been other answerers since:

Actually Ulysses is small change here: The absolutely unquestionably utterly most insane thing in the history of free indirect discourse is on The Man Without Qualities, page 97, first two sentences of second paragraph (the 1996 Random House edition). In fact, I think it might the craziest mind-fuck in the history of literature, Sterne and Nabokov and Grillet and Borges not even managing to give it a fight.

A friendly anonymous proofreader reminds me:

Snowe

Of course, properly we should be speaking of her under a different name altogether....

 

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