Saturday, June 28, 2008

Lévy-Dhurmer's art on book covers

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I've long admired the work of Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, a French symbolist painter active in the 1890's and early 1900's. It's difficult to find art books that include his work, but I've been noticing some of his images adorning book covers. For instance, to the left is an image of Lévy-Dhurmer's painting 'Eve' on the cover of Lilith from Waking Lion Press.

Next we have his portrait of Georges Rodenbach, which adorns Dedalus's edition of Hermann Ungar's The Class:

Speaking of Rodenbach, his classic Bruges-la-Morte (also from Dedalus) has Lévy-Dhurmer's 'Tower in Bruges' on its cover:

Finally, here is 'Silence', which appears on the cover of Timothy Findley's Pilgrim (available from Chapters), published by Harper Perennial (they're now using a different cover):

I've discovered from Melanie Davis, a fellow Torontonian, that Lévy-Dhurmer contributed artwork for books by the French poet Renée Vivien. Ms. Davis includes an image of one such cover on the Renée Vivien site (it appears about 1/4 of the way down).

The results of this Google image search include images of many of Lévy-Dhurmer's paintings. Other sites with his art are on the net.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Lamb & Jerome

I've been reading essays, an endeavour that (hopefully) will improve my own writing. I've heard that Hazlitt, Lamb and Carlyle are especially good. I plan also to take a look at Burke and Macaulay. Masters of English prose!

I've begun with Lamb's Essays of Elia. I'm enjoying my leisurely stroll along his rambling lines.

I saw in a bookstore a new copy of Jerome K. Jerome's collection, Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (issued by Hesperus in 2007). I didn't know much about Jerome. I'm glad I purchased his book, but his reflections are more uneven than Lamb's. Even though Jerome's works appeared about sixty years after Elia, it's in the former writings that outmoded attitudes preponderate with disturbing effect. Several of Jerome's articles are blighted by his smug sexism.

While Jerome sinks lower in places than Lamb, he also rises higher on occasion (so far), particularly in 'On Being Shy' and 'On Cats and Dogs'. In the latter case, we find the now cliche contrasts (cats are clever, dogs are stupid but more affable, etc.), but encounter also some nice remarks on rats ('They are ... so cruel, so secret'). Then, in the midst of his brief bestiary, Jerome breaks his humorist's pose to plumb the depths with some reflections on the Pied Piper. The children, says Jerome, "hear the weird, witched music and must follow." He continues,

"One day the sweet, sad strains will sound out full and clear, and then we too shall ... follow. The loving hands will be stretched out to stay us, and the voices we have learned to listen for will cry to us to stop. But we shall push the fond arms gently back and pass out through the sorrowing house and through the open door. For the wild, strange music will be ringing in our hearts, and we shall know the meaning of its song by then." (p. 76)

His other reflections on this fairy-tale bring out its 'uncanniness' (a term that he applies to rats).

Here are a couple of passages in which Lamb and Jerome advance similar ideas in their very different ways.

"Antiquity! thou wondrous charm, what art thou? that, being nothing, art every thing! When thou wert, thou wert not antiquity -- then thou wert nothing, but hadst a remoter antiquity, as thou calld'st it, to look back to with blind veneration; thou thyself being to thyself flat, jejune, modern! What mystery lurks in this retroversion? or what half Januses are we, that cannot look forward with the same idolatry with which we for ever revert! The mighty future is as nothing, being every thing! the past is every thing, being nothing!" -- Charles Lamb, 'Oxford in the Vacation' in Essays of Elia (c. 1820)

"It is this glamour of the past, I suppose, that makes old folk talk so much nonsense about the days when they were young. The world appears to have been a very superior sort of place then, and things were more like what they ought to be. Boys were boys then, and girls were very different. Also, winters were something like winters, and summers not at all the wretched things we get put off with nowadays. ... [T]he young folk of today will drone out precisely similar nonsense for the aggravation of the next generation." -- Jerome K. Jerome, 'On Memory' in The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886)

Incidentally, here's a neat site that includes many classical essays with recent commentaries.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Die Judenbuche (The Jew's Beech) by von Droste-Hulshoff

I've just read The Jew's Beech (Die Judenbuche), an 1842 novella by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. This story is her only completed prose work. She is known mainly for her poetry. Before Germany adopted the Euro, her image adorned the 20-Deutsche-Mark note, and an asteroid is named after her.

This month, Oneworld Classics is re-issuing the Calder & Boyars 1958 translation by Lionel and Doris Thomas (pictured above in orange), which also appeared in a volume of Continuum's German Library series. I read Michael Fleming's more recent translation. (The on-line translation, by Sir Edwin Nathaniel Bennett, was published by Oxford University Press in 1934 in a collection called German Short Stories [vol. 415 in the World's Classics series].) The above image on the right is of the cover of the new Oneworld edition.

The narrative is loosely based on a true story and is set in the village of B. (believed to be Bellersen, now part of Brakel) in Westphalia shortly before the French Revolution. Droste-Hulshoff characterizes the locals as a rowdy bunch who show little regard for the law -- they frequently poach game and pilfer timber from the surrounding woods.

The central character is Friedrich Mergel. We're told about his rough, lonely upbringing. His father, a wife-abusing alcoholic, dies while Friedrich is a child. The boy is then raised by his mother, Margreth, a bitter woman who shows him little, if any, tenderness. Margreth's malign character is revealed in a brief exchange with her son about Hulsmeyer, a neighbour. When Friedrich says that Hulsmeyer robbed and assaulted a Jewish acquaintance and also steals wood from the forest, Margreth insists that the neighbour is a good and respectable man. She doesn't deny that Hulsmeyer acted in the ways described by Friedrich. Instead, she tells her son that it's okay to take wood from the forest and proceeds to vilify Jewish people as swindlers and 'rogues'. Ironically, these traits are best exemplified by Margreth's younger brother, Simon.

The other villagers' superstitious nature leads them to believe that Friedrich's deceased father is an evil spirit haunting the woods. As a result, they generally don't interact with poor Friedrich.

The worst influence on the boy is his uncle, Simon, for whom Friedrich works in his adolescence. Simon, it seems, is part of a particularly destructive band of timber thieves. It also seems that he has co-opted his nephew into his criminal operation by putting him to work as a lookout. It's in this capacity that Friedrich sends an unwitting forest ranger to his death -- he deliberately gives the ranger inaccurate directions so that Simon can ambush the ranger. At least, that's what appears to happen. The ranger's murder, like the other three deaths in the tale, isn't portrayed in the story. In fact, throughout the story the narrator can convey only an unclear, incomplete presentation of the central facts. So it is possible that Friedrich himself killed the ranger. However, it is suggested in a later conversation between Friedrich and his uncle that Simon committed the murder and the boy merely set the ranger up (probably without realizing that the ranger would be killed rather than -- say -- beaten).

In the face of such corrupting influences, Friedrich reaches adulthood as a vain, nefarious ne'er do well. His debased character is most in evidence when Friedrich (apparently) commits manslaughter. He borrows money from Aaron, the same man who was robbed by Hulsmeyer, but doesn't repay the loan. Aaron locates Friedrich at a rowdy wedding reception and demands payment. Humiliated, Friedrich flees. As he is leaving, pursued by Aaron, others at the reception yell anti-Semitic insults, encouraging Friedrich to hit Aaron. Later, Aaron's lifeless body is found in the woods. Evidently he was beaten to death by Friedrich.

It is noteworthy that in both his crimes, Friedrich extends his mother's values. His complicity in Simon's timber-stealing is not surprising in view of Margreth's earlier defence of Hulsmeyer's activities; also, Margreth expressed virulent bigotry toward Jewish people and even condoned Hulsmeyer's assault, a judgment that found its echo in the taunts yelled by the people at the wedding reception. So, Friedrich may be seen as a conduit for the vicious values of his community. His adult personality has concentrated all that hatred, violence and rapacious greed into an especially toxic mix.

The community's greed is signified by the gradual disappearance of the trees. One tree stands out: the beech tree mentioned in the title. All four deaths in the story occur in its vicinity. After Aaron's death, the Jewish community buys the beech tree as a sort of memorial, engraving in its wood a line that expresses their desire for the killer to be brought to justice. By the end of the story, this happens (apparently). Friedrich, who had fled the authorities after killing Aaron, returns as an old man and, out of remorse and perhaps a desire for atonement, hangs himself in the beech tree. When he does this, the beech tree stands alone, the other trees having perished before the woodsman's axe. The villagers were poor stewards of their patch of creation. In their greed, they have laid waste to their environment.

Among the more interesting features of Droste-Hulshoff's story is the mysterious Johannes Niemand. His name translates into English as John Nobody. He appears to be Simon's son, born out of wedlock. He so resembles Friedrich that Margreth at first mistakes him for her son. But even as she does so, Johannes appears to her as a pared down, more timid version of Friedrich. Her misapprehension falls away when the real Friedrich enters the room. This is the first appearance of Friedrich as a bolder, more adult individual than before. Johannes is generally regarded by critics as Friedrich's double and, perhaps, is a distillation of Friedrich's old, more childish attributes. For more about this uncanny scene, I recommend Wuthering Expectations' post.

Another interesting feature of the tale is that the two people who were killed (Aaron and the forester) perished at the moment when they were trying to enforce obligations on members of Friedrich's bilious little village. Both victims were killed by members of that community but both killings were eventually blamed on distant outsiders (unidentified timber thieves and a criminal from a distant town).

Update added June 8: This novella is remarkable for its use of a blinkered narrator. Narrators are either omniscient, affording a God’s-eye view of events, or have only limited knowledge. In the latter case, the narrator is typically a character in the narrative who provides a fallible, incomplete, blow-by-blow account of events as they transpire. The odd thing about Die Judenbuche is that the narrator is not omniscient but also is not a character in the story. Since the narrator sometimes recounts things that only one or two characters could know about, and since the narrative establishes that neither of those characters is the narrator, it isn’t even possible to regard the narrator as a flesh-and-blood inhabitant of the world about which s/he narrates.

The result is a disembodied but not omniscient perspective, a flawed-God’s-eye-view, of events. This is just one of the things that makes Die Judenbuche such a strange novella.

Update (March 22, 2010): Here's an analysis of this story by Katje.