I am genuinely ambivalent about Mary Shelley’s place in the literary canon. There are so many problems with her novel, so many obvious flaws, and yet, clearly Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus has claimed an unassailable place in our culture, and over and above that, Shelley succeeds in constructing an ethical landscape as tangible as all the ice-covered mountains and seas she describes.
Somehow I’ve failed to see the major films that claim this novel as their progenitor – both the classic Boris Karloff (a significant departure from the text) and the modern Robert DeNiro (apparently much more faithful) iterations. I can’t help but feel, though, that my unawareness made it a bit easier for me to go to the original work with relatively fresh eyes.
And the novel really is a very different creature from its pop cultural legacy. Much of the monstrous opportunities are sidestepped, as Shelley explicitly avoids the creation scene twice, and endows the “daemon” with size, speed, power, a great capacity to learn, and even eloquence, burdening him only with his hideous looks and his complicity about killing. When Frankenstein and his monster meet, they engage in nuanced conversations, and frequently it is the man, not the creature, who exhibits the more savage notions. Yes, the monster murders four people, but he wrestles with a deep existential crisis, makes nuanced psychological assessments of others, and delivers a moving speech of repentance and anguish at the deathbed of his creator. Not at all the bolt-necked, fire-fearing cretin we know today.
I do think some of the weaknesses of this novel can be attributed to a combination of the literary conventions of the time and to Mary Shelley’s odd relationship with writing – strongly encouraged by her husband, yet constrained by gender roles which seem to have prevented her from taking full ownership of the manuscript until the second edition was published five years later. But the writing is uneven – in many cases, the descriptions of landscape are more vivid than her handling of scenes of human interaction – the sweeping beauty of nature being the ultimate rebuttal to the ugliness of the life Frankenstein has dared to create. And logical problems abound. We are asked to believe that the monster tracked Frankenstein across Europe and back. And we are asked to believe that when Frankenstein went off to a remote island to create the requested female companion, he took along a bunch of body parts along with whatever considerable apparatus must have been required to put them together and bring them to life.
And yet, this novel flares to life in two aspects: First, in Frankenstein’s monologues, in which his flaws of character, reasoning, and ethics make it clear that we should regard his monster as nothing more than a physical expression of his own inherent evils. Second, in Frankenstein’s dialogues with his monster, which repeatedly pit nature against culture, quality of life against selflessness, noble ideals against human failings. Here we truly grasp the ethical dilemmas inherent in a Frankensteinian creation. Even if we have no expectation of ever doing what this madman did, we find ourselves regarding the very condition of living differently, walking around the statue called Valuing Human Life to see it from a new, unsettling angle.
On a few occasions while reading, I thought of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist – a harrowing meditation on Christian faith that became an exceptional film, but one which largely stripped away the novel’s philosophical component. I’m not nominating Blatty to the canon, mind you, but my reaction to Frankenstein is along similar lines. It turns out to be a worthwhile read, but for reasons largely distinct from our pop-cultural notions of this myth. Whether that makes it canonical or not, I’m not quite sure.
Giovanni Verga’s Little Novels of Sicily sounded so charming, so downright quaint to this reader’s ear, that I was unprepared for the picaresqueness and even the morbidity of these stories. But they are deeply affecting, and strike an unusual balance between expressiveness and subtlety, which I suppose is only helped by having a translator like D.H. Lawrence.
My awareness of this novel depends on the particular judgment of Harold Bloom, who places Little Novels on his canonical list, but leaves off I Malvoglio, which, apparently, is Verga’s better-known work. But I have discovered so many obscure treasures through Bloom that I relish opportunities like this to broaden my literary spectrum. It’s like setting aside all the Chardonnays and Pinots to taste a Frappato.
The little novels are more properly a series of twelve linked stories spanning 225 pages in total. They immerse the reader in the bleak life of nineteenth-century Sicily, where poor growing years, the tyranny of the landed gentry, and the godlessness of the clergy have boxed the peasant class into abject poverty and not-so-quiet desperation. Verga offers nearly every perspective on this microcosm, even that of a poor donkey, whose value steps down each time it is resold and its new owner abuses it further.
The stories are bleak, with few if any instances of upward mobility, even among the wealthy. The entire system is spinning on entropy and malfeasance until it reaches such a nadir that the peasantry engage in bloody revolt – an actual historic occurrence in Siciliy in 1860. Even in the last story, in which the characters symbolically escape through emigration, they trade physical deprivation for soulless, empty lives, as though they are psychically trapped in codependence with their homeland. Verga leaves us with, “Farewell, sweet melancholy of sunset, silent shadows and wide, lonely horizons of our known country,” and he is speaking as much of the entire collection of stories as he is of the experience of the enervated lovers at the end.
In addition to the picaresqueness of this writing, what will stay with me is the sketch-like quality of Verga’s style, in which short stories veer from one character to another, even one plot to another before they end, giving the reader an experience that is less linear and more impressionistic. The centerpiece of Little Novels is “Black Bread,” the longest story by far, at fifty-four pages. It begins with one unhappy couple, shifts around to a shepherd and then another unhappy couple, and finishes with a near-apocalyptic frenzy of clanging bells, agitated animals, and devilish symbolism. Verga tells this story as an older person might recount memories of their youth, flitting from person to person, theme to theme, as the fragments of history pass before their eyes, while the listener holds on to various threads, waiting for a connection that may never come.
The result is a reading experience that is disarming and transporting, but in a manner unlike many others. For every finely-etched moment of dark despair, there is a passing distraction that fills in the quotidian Siciliy, allowing us to feel these lives more fully, even as we long to escape them. Verga’s message at the end, however, seems to be that people are inexorably tied to their culture, their homeland, and their collective destiny, for better or for worse, and for the Sicilians, that has been a rough row to cultivate.
I’ve seen Giuseppe Ungaretti regularly on lists of canonical poets of the modern era, but I didn’t know what to expect from him. I have a passing interest in the hermetic tradition, so my curiosity was piqued when the introductory essay in the volume of his selected works identified him as a founder of the hermetic school in Italy, and I did a little companion research as I read the poetry. Among the hermetic poets, Salvatore Quasimodo is the only one I had previously encountered (and just last year), though I definitely owe time to Montale and Vittorini one of these days. In some ways aligned with the symbolists in France, hermetic poetry is a fascinating and thoroughly modern genre.
The parallel research came to feel more and more helpful as I read Ungaretti because a significant portion of his work – largely indicative of the rest of the hermetic school – is unapologetically cryptic and even solipsistic. As I did with Quasimodo, I ask whether such a poetry (or a literature, for that matter) deserves credence if it is necessarily inaccessible, but the academic position is that Ungaretti and his colleagues achieve a particular density of language in which meaning is secondary to expression. That explanation may seem precious on its face, but it does have merit, especially when one considers Ungaretti’s works as an inflected whole rather than concentrating too hard on individual poems.
It is useful to know, for example, that as the fascists came to power in Italy after World War I, words and images became increasingly politicized, and writers and artists found their works scrutinized for their implicit support for or rejection of the dominant political ideas instead of their aesthetic achievement. Ungaretti’s reaction to this oppressive, groupthinking climate was twofold: he embraced a style that was intentionally oblique and opaque to avoid accusations from the fascists, and he reached for language that encouraged a purely aesthetic appreciation, developing structural and technical forms that encouraged the reader to focus on the construction of words – their phonics, their rhythms, their forms – and place less emphasis on their meaning.
The result in many cases – for Ungaretti and for the other other hermetic poets – is poetry that exists on an enchanted surface, leaving a quixotic void in the middle depths of meaning and narrative, but reaching new depths of epistemology and metaphysics. But that doesn’t mean the reading experience isn’t one of alienation and bewilderment. Concrete and abstract images collide and incomplete analogies pile up. Occasionally lovely turns of phrase are taken up and quickly abandoned. In many cases the poem is over as soon as it begins, lasting only three or four lines, and even in that compressed space, frequently the impression is of listening to the murmurs of a dreaming person.
With many translated reading experiences I have not been too troubled by the compromised experience of not reading in the original language. I admire the work of the translator, and feel as though I have received a significant impression of the original work, even if that impression is compromised. With Ungaretti, though, I’m not so sure, and I while admire Andrew Frisardi for his efforts, this may be a poetry that is largely resistant to translation. I’m sure the meanings of each word and phrase have been faithfully rendered, but keep in mind that literal meaning is not Ungaretti’s primary objective in most cases. I can look across the book to the Italian en face and easily see that the order of phrases, the way they are broken between lines, and the rhythm and confluence of their letters and sounds, are significantly changed when they arrive in English. I can’t help but feel as though much of Ungaretti’s achievement is sequestered in his native tongue.
There are lovely moments that linger and resonate, though. Consider “Outcry” from 1928:
Evening having arrived,
I rested on the monotonous grass
That perpetual desire,
Dark and flying outcry,
Which the light when it dies holds back.
Or the even briefer “Starry Silence” from 1932:
And the trees and the night
Don’t move anymore
Except from nests.
There is a certain mysticism in these moments that succeeds even in translation. I do feel, though, that the major impression Ungaretti has made on me has not been on the level of individual poems. His selected works as a unity give an impression of a man who has taken the substance of his life – war, an oppressive regime, the formative experience of youthful years in Paris – and used them as a point of departure, a willful but organic loosening of the boundaries of language, in hopes of achieving a loosening of the boundaries of thought. There is apparent a serious delight in rolling words around on the tongue, of shaping phrases for their own sake, and of using language to point in several directions at once without following any of them.
To read Ungaretti, then is to embrace disorientation, trusting that something interesting will follow in its wake. And frequently, something does.
I am somewhat ashamed that I went as long as I did without reading Don Quixote; it was a huge blind spot in my literary education. I’m very happy to have corrected that, and I join the legions of astonished readers (and writers) who hold this book in the highest esteem. I have had few reading experiences as strange, as wondrous, and as compelling as this novel.
The book has seeped into our cultural consciousness to the point that we know the story even without having read it. Don Quixote has a series of picaresque adventures, most of which are characterized by the knight making fundamental misinterpretations of banal situations, asserting himself with aggressive acts for which he is not sufficiently strong or skilled, failing comically, and reinterpreting the entire encounter in a manner that salvages his pride and conviction. The well-known episode in which he attempts to spar with a cluster of windmills he believes are giants is an early and key example of these adventures.
Part Two is not as farcical as the first, and it is here that the already exemplary literary qualities of Part One are elevated to even stranger and more provocative degrees. On several occasions people go to great lengths to indulge Don Quixote’s madness, devising elaborate staged quests for him that at times require the participation of entire villages, in part to have fun at his expense, but in part, too, to marvel at the purity and the depth of his convictions.
Talk about something being greater than the sum of its parts. Don Quixote is a ludicrously unbelievable man. His condition of sanity tempered by a single strain of insanity is difficult to understand. Sancho Panza’s loyalty to him strains credulity. The fact that Don Quixote survives all his dangerous adventures (and then ironically dies of natural causes in his bed at home) doesn’t ring true. It’s tough to pinpoint the motivations of the people who toy with the Knight because in most cases their fascination is stronger than their mischief.
And yet… How to describe the singular impression this novel makes, at once farcically comedic and existentially tragic, both a book of its time and a book of the world for all time? For everything can be found here – the critics who call Don Quixote the progenitor of modern literature are not exaggerating – everything we know about storytelling, about the importance of writing characters with inner lives, about the way plots and ideas dance in close hold through great literature, is here.
What astounds me is that Cervantes not only engendered all of these things with this greatest of works at the end of a life littered with other novels, plays, and poems of not nearly as estimable quality – he established them so brilliantly that four hundred years later, few, if any, works, have approached that level of artistry. What happened at the turn of the seventeenth century, for Cervantes to write Don Quixote at the same time Shakespeare was writing Hamlet and Lear up in England? Everything can be traced back to these two men.
Written in two parts published a decade apart, Don Quixote even ventures into postmodern territory, as characters in the second half suddenly have read part one, even though no time has elapsed. With its translation-of-a-translation convention and its comments both on itself and even on an unauthorized sequel written by another author, the novel practically deconstructs in front of you.
Nonetheless, the themes of Don Quixote are deep and abiding – which is the real reason this book remains vital. The relationship between seeing and perceiving, between knowing and believing, between truth and interpretation, is even more relevant for us today. At various times I thought about examples of what passes as public discourse now, in which facts and objectivity are trumped by suspicion and emotion.
The fundamental message I take from this novel, though is this: We all make decisions to believe in things, frequently without proof. Life requires that. Our beliefs may be unpopular or even crazy, and perhaps a healthy amount of perspective is required to balance our leaps of faith. But if we waver in our belief, if we are inconsistent in our pursuit of the goals we set for ourselves, we might as well never have believed in the first place. Don Quixote’s heroic strength is in his consistency, and it is instructive that the moment he stops believing, he dies.
The reading experience of Don Quixote is singular. One has the constant sense of how strange, how unreal Don Quixote and his story are, and yet, he emerges as such a complete character – a complete person, even – that his story explores the heights of comedy and the depths of tragedy at virtually the same time. Before Cervantes, novels stayed on the surface, with characters who achieve things but do not develop in other than material ways. Don Quixote introduces characters with psychological interiors so rich, so complex, and so dynamic, that their actions take on a new world of resonance because those actions are grounded in reflective human experience. It is truly amazing that Cervantes did this so effectively that four centuries later, I can join the chorus who declare it one of the best novels ever written.
P.S. The Edith Grossman translation from 2003 is highly recommended for its accessibility and felicity of language.
I stumble around the dark, barren room, breathing hard, trying to remember how I got there, while random bits of black-and-white pictures swirl around my head. “Calm down,” I tell myself as my breath makes clouds in front of me, “this must be a dream,” but suddenly, the bright floating fragments coalesce into an old man with a bald head and a chain around his neck, and I gasp as I recognize my father. “I’m sorry I left you,” he says, pulling a locket from the chain; “this is your way out of here.” As he disintegrates into a thousand pixels of light, I see a door on the far side of the room, and the key in the locket fits the lock. I open the door and wake up on a table in a lab, and I struggle against the restraints while the scientists try to figure out how I got back.
Written by the group at Concord Library in a ninety-minute creative writing workshop this afternoon.
As water drips from the reddish-gray stalactites in the cave under the extinct volcano, we are inserting the sharpened hollow nail into our captive’s skull to extract his teleporting abilities. After three generations before us failed, we finally found the elusive teleporter, crawled under his house to cut the power, and then broke into the den where he had been watching TV with his family. Through our night-vision goggles we found him in the darkness, opened the lid of our containment tube, and sucked him inside so he couldn’t teleport away before we got him back to the lair, while the rest of his family crashed around in the dark, yelling, “Did they get him? Where is he?” Now, our power extractor seems to be malfunctioning because nothing is happening, when suddenly the entire cave begins to shake, and a million little pieces of light coalesce and flicker like a television screen to form the man’s family. We reach for our stun guns, but the family waves their hands and explains through their laughter, “You got the wrong guy, but you can have him because he wasn’t ever going to be one of us anyway.”
Written by the group at Harrisburg Library in a ninety-minute creative writing workshop this afternoon.
Love & Rockets - Mirror People
Kissing The Pink - Watching Their Eyes
As the sun begins to set, I wander into my office, where the imprints of the furniture still show in the plush, ivory carpet, and slide down in the corner of the empty room. I start to twist my wedding ring on my finger, but realize it’s gone; it must have fallen off. Less than an hour ago, my wife and daughters had each climbed into their luxury cars and driven away in different directions, and already, it feels as though my memories of them are fading like photographs. On the flickering screen of my smartphone, I stare at the list of bank accounts whose funds have all dwindled to nothing. With a shaking hand, I lift the gun to my temple, but pieces of my head begin to fall away, and I never have the chance to pull the trigger.
Written by the group at Kannapolis Public Library in a ninety-minute workshop yesterday.
Joy Disaster - Artemis
Billy Idol - Catch My Fall