Friday, October 23, 2015

Francis Jammes: On the Life & Work of a Modern Master (Kathryn Nuernberger / Bruce Whiteman, editors)

This tribute volume to the turn-of-the-20th-Century rural poet Francis Jammes (1868-1938) is self-recommending to those interested in French literature of the period (or in the Pays Basque where the writer lived), and is perhaps most valuable for the Introduction and six essays that place Jammes in context and argue for his importance.

Much of this critical writing discusses Jammes’ relation to Modernism, which looks very slight from this distance (although it was also debated when he was alive). Simplicity is indeed a hallmark of one type of Modernism which we can associate with William Carlos Williams as an exemplar. Jammes does not seem so radically simple as Williams, partly because, as critic Christopher Howell points out, he relies a lot on conventional Romantic phraseology, as Williams certainly did not. The most apt comparison for Jammes in English-language poetry might actually be Thomas Hardy, although Jammes’ forms are freer.

Howell eventually absolves Jammes of conventionality on the grounds that he means his clichés; I’m not sure it’s a convincing argument. The danger with a simple poet is shading into the simplistic, and the language which Howell quotes, and which is on display elsewhere in this volume, does sometimes seem simplistic.

Kathryn Neuernberger, one of the book’s editors, makes a better case for the tougher, sharper, more acutely observant Jammes that emerges in the late Four Books of Quatrains, written in the poet’s 50s.

I was very glad to read this volume, but as a vehicle for getting to know Jammes better, it fails in two signal ways, both related to the presentation of his writing. The rather short selection of his poetry, offered in translations by different hands, does not include the original French on facing pages. In 2015, this is practically a deal-breaker. All translated volumes of poetry in the major European languages (at least) ought to contain the original texts. All it takes is a smattering of the original language (true of my French!) to be able to discern much better what the translators are up to.

The second failing is that the selection gives a very limited impression of Jammes’ writing. He was voluminous in prose as well as poetry, but apart from a three-page “Literary Manifesto,” none of his prose is here. Probably including some of it would have entailed commissioning and paying for new translations that would have been beyond the book’s budget; but without a fair array of Jammes’ output, which included fiction, memoir, and drama as well as lyric poetry, the volume falls short of representing him in the most rounded way. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Party's Over

Alas, I am pulling out of the reviewing game. As many of you may have become aware, Amazon is suing more than 1,000 reviewers - and although yes, they are fake reviewers and I am an honest one, still, the climate for reviewing just got very, very chilled. Amazon is big guns and can obliterate small fry, and they also own Goodreads, IMDB, and probably other platforms I'm not even aware of. Reviewers at Yelp have also been sued for libel, and a negative reviewer of an academic book in France was sued for defamation a while back. It is getting crazy out there.

The reviewers who are being sued by Amazon are associated with the Fiverr website. I do writing-for-pay through Fiverr, too, although not reviews. I write articles and blog posts, mainly on business-related topics.

Although I will leave my existing content up wherever it is, I vow here and now NEVER to again post content or links to content at ANY Amazon-owned website, including Amazon itself, Goodreads, and IMDB. The corpocracy has really gone far enough for me. 

I will complete some reviews for books I have already finished, hard copies that have been sent to me, and content that I have actively solicited. However, the reviews will ONLY be posted at this site. Nowhere else: I will not even post links back to this site. 

Eventually, the site will just fade out. 

It is a very dangerous world.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (Tobias Smollett)

I have said it before and I'll say it again: I am never disappointed when I read a classic. Always there is at least historical interest to be gotten out of them, and usually a great deal more than that.

Despite a good grounding in 18th Century British fiction, I had somehow failed to explore the works of Tobias Smollett up until now, so when I spotted the Heron Books hardcover reprint of Smollett's final novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, on a sale table at one of the weekend book fairs here in Queretaro, naturally I snapped it up. (The frontispiece illustration below is from a different edition of approximately the same vintage, the Folio Society printing of 1955.)

Humphry Clinker draws in genial fashion on several literary traditions - the travelogue, the picaresque, and the epistolary novel.

The story follows the peregrinations of a Welsh squire, Matthew Bramble of Brambleton Hall, his husband-hunting sister Tabitha, his nephew and niece Jeremy and Lydia Melford, and their servants and occasional fellow-travelers, as they make their way in literally roundabout fashion through various spa towns - Bath, Harrogate, Scarborough - and prominent cities - Gloucester, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow - across the whole Island of Britain. This positions the book in the company of such non-fictional specimens as Daniel Defoe's A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain.

Smollett wrote an account of his own travels in France and Italy just a few years before Clinker, and apparently was an even more dyspeptic chronicler than his own Matt. Bramble, who may be taken as a somewhat autobiographical portrait. Bramble finds travel a great fuss and bother, but is willing to undertake it for the possibly salutary effects on his health - he suffers from gout - and the edification of his younger relations.

As an epistolary novel, Humphry Clinker is perhaps unusual for highlighting letters by men - in most novels of this kind, the women are the more enthusiastic correspondents. By my count, there are 27 letters by Bramble here; 28 by Jery Melford; and a total of 28 by four others - Tabitha, Lydia, Tabitha's scattered servant Winifred Jenkins, and Lydia's now-you-see-him-now-you-don't suitor Wilson (who gets but a single brief missive). The letters by Matt. Bramble and Jery Melford are epically longer than those by the others, which together can't take up more than 15% or so of the word-count of the novel. The novel belongs to the two men.

Matt. Bramble's letters to his friend Dr. Lewis are a combination of the philosophical and the somewhat petulant; Jery Melford's letters to his fellow Oxonian Watkin Phillips are observant, amused, and largely carry the thread of the narrative.

Matthew characterizes his nephew as a "pert jackanapes, full of college-petulance and self-conceit; proud as a German count, and as hot and hasty as a Welch mountaineer." Jery is a splendid depiction of a post-collegian male who would seem at home in any era, but oddly perhaps, he is not especially lusty. Oh, he makes the occasional admiring comment about this or that woman. But he is skeptical about the "permanence" of female charms, and to that extent resistant of them. Although Humphry Clinker is full of love and lust - all the women are hot for beaux in one way or another - it is decidedly not a tale of Jery Melford's love-life.

And what, you may wonder, of Humphry Clinker himself? He does not, surprisingly, figure very largely in the book named for him. He comes on the scene late, insinuates himself into the family's graces as a manservant for Squire Bramble, has a few misadventures, writes no letters, and makes a pretty minor character overall.

So why is this novel titled The Expedition of Humphry Clinker? It may have to do with the picaresque element, which is the weakest of the major strands here. A picaro is a rogue who lives by his wits. Humphry Clinker is lower-class and marginally roguish, with a penchant for getting into scrapes - but is also very religious. Nothing in "his" novel is related from anything close to his POV, which would ordinarily be standard in a picaresque narrative. So I am afraid he is a half-picaro at best - but apparently just enough of one to score a title. Frankly, I would have named the novel something else.

No matter ultimately, for this is a joyous book despite all of Matt. Bramble's grousing. It has high spirits for days. The late-arriving character who stands out is not actually Clinker, but the Scotsman Lieutenant Lismahago, who once spent an extended period with a Native American tribe, thereby securing a "colorful" status for all time, and who although interesting to talk to is confoundedly contradictory of whatever position one might choose to take. Matt. Bramble can't quite decide whether he likes this fellow or not, but sister Tabitha has no such qualms - he is an available male of appropriate age and social class, and she moves in for the kill.

All resolves nicely, as is appropriate for a comedy - although one must admit that the long-term prospects for a couple of the couplings do not look all that bright.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Closer to God (dir. Billy Senese)

Indie films that try to behave commercially run the risk of falling between two stools, and Billy Senese's cloning thriller Closer to God is a classic example of this. It starts with a team of unglamorous scientists - shades of The Andromeda Strain (1971) - guiding the birth of a human clone, and although crucial questions are left unanswered (such as, where's the funding for all this coming from?), the widescreen visual style is controlled enough to suggest that the movie might just be interested in tackling an explosive and controversial subject in a serious manner.

Vain hope. It never attains the seriousness of The Andromeda Strain, even, let alone its obvious forebear, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Naming the chief scientist "Victor" was a cute, bad idea, although the character is played well by Jeremy Childs. Our Dr. Victor, alas for him and even more so for the film, is hiding the existence of some missteps on his scientific trail that will return to haunt everyone concerned in full-blown horror-movie fashion. The protestors who rise up against the scientists for dabbling in cloning in the first place, because of concerns about dangers in execution / bioethics issues /researcher hubris (take your pick), have no idea, really.

Since Closer to God abandons any pretenses to thoughtfulness or subtlety early on, it is fair to say that it was designed not as a potential succès d'estime but as a "calling card" - a chance to show the Big Money Boys that a director can deliver the Hollywood goods on a small budget. Needless to say, I don't find that as worthy a goal as making a genuinely interesting film, and wanting to continue to do so. To take one example, if a Rian Johnson "graduates" from Brick to Looper to (heaven help us) Star Wars: Episode VIII, the quality going down as his paychecks go up, that is more of interest to his accountant than to film lovers.

But there are good calling cards and bad calling cards, and if Closer to God really worked as a genre piece, I'd be happy to point that out. It doesn't, though. I can't say how it doesn't without giving away too much plot, but the third-act borrowings will be pretty obvious to a seasoned movie buff. The proceedings never become boring, and the film remains watchable till the end, but that is kind of low praise. A calling-card-type film should knock your socks off in the manner of Steven Spielberg's Duel. Otherwise, why bother?