Thursday, February 24, 2022

Diane and Her Friends

In reading books of mystery and detective fiction from the late Victorian and Edwardian age for a possible book project, I find many that would be of interest only to the specialist. They all have novel features, but some are not as well-written as the ones that have achieved deserved fame: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, G. K. Chesterton’s tales about Father Brown, and a few others. But in a fair number of cases I’ve come across a book that is well-written and interesting, but for some reason has failed to keep public attention over the last century. One of these is a book that Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, who wrote together as Ellery Queen, listed among the most important books in detective fiction, but which I’d never heard of before my research, Arthur Sherburne Hardy’s Diane and Her Friends, whose eleven connected stories first appeared in Harper’s Monthly in the years 1908-1912; the book was published in 1914. The detective here is Inspector Joly, but he makes up only one part of the book.

In fact the book has three moving parts. The circle of Diane Wimpffen’s immediate friends is small, and includes her husband Raoul, General Texier, an old family friend who becomes Raoul’s boss at the war ministry, and Monsieur de Sade, who begins as an acquaintance—interesting, provocative, and so irritating that Diane, insulted by him, fights a sword duel with him and prevails. Yet he is also one whose manners abruptly return after this breach, and in the course of time his wisdom and capacity for empathy make him Diane and Raoul’s most trusted friend.

Diane meets by chance Countess Anne, who owns a chateau in the village of Freyr and holds there an unofficial position somewhere between that of a magistrate and a parish priest. The countess takes Diane and her young daughter in, inspiring Diane’s friendship and the daughter’s hero-worship; the girl demands, after getting to know and love the countess, to be called not Diane, her given name, but Anne. Having her mother’s strength of will, she prevails in this. But the whole village becomes Diane’s friend, and the village is depicted with Chaucerian sympathy and Flaubertian precision. The hotel upon whose terrace Diane and the countess meet is thus introduced:

It was called the “Hotel d’Italie et d’Angleterre.” Why? Neither Italians nor Englishmen frequented it. Nor had M. Achille, its proprietor, ever visited these countries except in imagination. Why not “Peking and Timbuctoo?”

With such brushstrokes Hardy creates a believable village he calls Freyr. Its police commissaire, its reverend abbot—secretly in love with its chateau owner, Countess Anne, its fiercely rationalist doctor, its mysterious recluse, and the countess’s donkey Balafre, all inhabit a village on the Meuse, with a steep path up to the chateau, the river with its long-abandoned ferry replaced by a bridge, its hotel with a terrace overlooking the river, its Café de la Regence, its bakery, and its fountain by Girardon. The mysterious figure in the village, known only as Le Vieux, turns out to be an escaped murderer, and to Freyr an inspector of the Paris prefecture to apprehend him. This is Inspector Joly, the third moving part, whose immediate purpose is defeated because the countess has used her influence with General Texier (yes, he is also the countess’s friend, because a tissue of acquaintance and coincidence also links Diane’s friends), who persuades the Minister of Justice to grant Le Vieux a pardon. The countess makes him her gardener.

Before he leaves Freyr, M. Joly picks up a clue to a Paris mystery that allows him to capture a bomb-throwing Russian revolutionary. Joly becomes an admirer of the countess and a friend of Diane. Joly is an unassuming but effective police detective who also finds the diamonds of the Vicomtesse Celimène de Caraman (another of Diane’s friends), and recovers the stolen plans for France’s defenses stolen from the War Ministry, where now Colonel Raoul Wimpffen works with General Texier. Inspector Joly is  “clean-shaven, with round, rosy cheeks,” has a cardinal principle not to form an opinion prematurely” and a belief “that his best thoughts came, not logically from established facts, but from God knows where—motherless and fatherless offspring.”

The fortunes of Diane and Raoul and those of Madame and Inspector Joly are paralleled in the last couple of stories, where the two sets of parents deal, in very different ways, with the romances of their young daughters.

A soupçon of sentimentalism seasons the pages of Diane and Her Friends, probably more than is fashionable these days. But if you can stomach Dickens you won’t find it difficult to take here.




Thursday, July 15, 2021

If You Were Thinking of Reading Alain de Botton, Read This First....


            When I finished reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, I was curious about what other people had to say about this remarkable book. Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), with its intriguing title, had been published only half a dozen years before my long-deferred project to read Proust, so I picked it up. I was glad to see that de Botton had used not only In Search of Lost Time, but also Proust’s letters and journalism to come up with his advice. My first impression that was that there was more than a little of the tongue-in-cheek about his book’s presentation as a self-help book and its chapter titles: “How to Love Life Today,” “How to Read for Yourself,” How to Take Your Time,” “How to Suffer Successfully,” “How to Express Your Emotions,” “How to Be a Good Friend,” “How to Open Your Eyes,” “How to Be Happy in Love,” “How to Put Books Down.” 

Some of these seem much more obvious topics than others; taking one’s time in assessing an emotion, for example, looks like Proust’s main strength, and there are many observations by the young narrator of In Search of Lost Time about how art helps us to see the world.  As far as being successful in one’s emotional life and in love, de Botton does not reveal any awareness that the ill success of Swann and the narrator in these regards is expressed in the novel as a general principle.  People don’t learn from experience in Proust.  All they learn is how they will react to an emotional situation like falling in love, and then they proceed to react that way again and again and again.  Thus we watch both Swann and the narrator replaying their parallel scenes of love and jealousy, Swann with Odette, and the narrator with Albertine. De Botton quotes a letter to Gide in which Proust says he can be of help to people in love, not from his own success, but in a general way; de Botton takes Proust seriously here and does not seem aware that the letter is in Proust’s puckish manner.

I didn’t learn anything about Proust from de Botton, though the author’s manner is very ingratiating. The wonder to me was that aside from some grammatical gaffes, he managed to write a book that could pass, among those who had not read Proust’s novel, for serious appreciation of a subject about whom he had such a wrong-headed idea.

About a year later, I began reading de Botton’s, The Art of Travel (2002). I had probably forgotten de Botton’s curious misreading of Proust, or perhaps I just thought that this book, on a topic that I find perennially interesting, would have much to say about the subject by many people other than its compiler.

To some extent that idea proved true.  De Botton writes about the anticipation of travel by invoking the experience of Huysman’s Duc des Esseintes in À Rebours (1884), where anticipation is the whole experience, and Des Esseintes never leaves Paris for his anticipated voyage to London. “Journeys are the midwives of thought,” writes de Botton. Are they? What does that mean? Because of a picture in travel brochure, de Botton resolves to travel to Barbados.  When he arrives, he muses about how much of real experience is left out by both anticipation and memory.  Some of this experience is novel and exotic, but most is banal.  Of the last, we must include the experiences having to do with the fact that the traveler must, perforce, bring himself along on the trip, and the self decreases our ability to see the novel and exotic: “another paradox” is that “we may best be able to inhabit a place when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there” (23). Wherever you go, there you are.

            A second chapter talks about the poet (Baudelaire) and the artist (Hopper) of travel, using de Botton’s own examples of a gas station/fast food place, a 747 coming into Heathrow after having spent eleven hours in the air over places around half the globe, and the arrival/departure screens in the airport with their continually changing list of faraway cities. “Few seconds in life are more releasing than those in which a plane ascends to the sky,” he writes, and this time I agree without quibble. De Botton connects the appeal of travel to the Romantic shift in sensibility that makes a hero of the outsider, the loner, the wanderer.

“On the Exotic” juxtaposes de Botton’s fascination with signs and houses in Amsterdam with Flaubert’s obsession with Egypt and the Middle East.  He wonders whether the appeal of the exotic goes beyond that which is merely novel and different: “we may value foreign elements not only because they are new but because they seem to accord more faithfully with our identity and commitments than anything our homeland can provide.”  He tries this awkwardly-phrased idea out on Flaubert, but what seems to come through there is the appeal of the Middle East being proportional to the novelist’s hatred of France and its bourgeoisie.  De Botton quotes Flaubert in a letter he wrote after returning from a holiday in Corsica as a schoolboy: “I’m disgusted to be back in this damned country where one sees the sun in the sky about as often as a diamond in a pig’s arse.”

“On Curiosity” contrasts de Botton’s lack of interest while visiting Madrid with Alexander von Humboldt’s prodigious energy in cataloguing everything during his travels to South America at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He suggests, following a suggestion of Nietzsche’s about using facts to enhance life, that “we might return from our journeys with a collection of small, unfeted but life-enhancing thoughts.”  He also notes that we have to have directed curiosity: a question, like that of von Humboldt about regional variations in nature, generates excitement about the particulars of a place.

“On Eye-Opening Art” recounts the author’s visit to Provence and the towns of Arles and Saint-Rémy, and the way in which Van Gogh’s pictures from his time in Arles really do open the eyes to the reality of cypress trees in the wind, olive orchards, and the night sky.  A place “can become more attractive to us once we have seen it through the eyes of a great artist,” writes de Botton, with characteristic surprise at the discovery of a platitude. De Botton describes how Ruskin taught drawing as a way of actually seeing the places one visited and asks, Why not photography?  “Rather than employing [photography] as a supplement to active, conscious seeing,” most travelers who take pictures “used the medium as a substitute, paying less attention to the world than they had done previously, taking it on faith that photography automatically assured them possession of it.” This discovery about the tourist who uses his camera to get between himself and experience, already made by so many writers on photography (Sontag, Berger) is here combined with an odd insensitivity to the materials and methods of art forms: drawing makes us look closer, analyze, and find proportion in the subject; photography leads us to refine its own features of light receptivity and depth of focus.

In a concluding chapter, “On Habit,” De Botton uses Xavier de Maistre’s 1790 Journey around My Bedroom to illustrate that it’s a state of mind we travel with rather than a destination we travel to that determines the pleasure and interest we derive from our travels.  He ends with an exhortation: receptivity and humility seem to be the keys. Did you happen to notice how well-travelled de Botton is?

            When I saw that de Botton had written a book about status, I couldn’t resist.  Status Anxiety was published in 2004. De Botton begins well enough by presenting our desire for “the love of the world” and affirmation from others as a parallel for our desire for sexual love. Incredible material progress since the Industrial Revolution has not led to less, but more anxiety about our status. We don’t envy those who have vastly more—de Botton suggests that hierarchical societies are free from resentment or envy of those higher in the scale. Those happy peasants! But democratization and increased opportunity means that we ask ourselves, “If anyone can make a fortune, why haven’t I?” William James said that happiness depended on the ratio between our success and our expectations of success. Media growth and advertising keep before our mind what the rich are doing and the number of things we should need or want. The author says that status anxiety is aggravated by uncertainty about jobs and the future, by the snobbery of others, and by a reversal of the ideas that have always been the consolation of the poor (the poor do the world’s work, are not responsible for their poverty, and are more virtuous than the rich, who stole what they have from the poor) with new narratives (it is the rich who create wealth and jobs, your place on the totem pole is a measure of your talent and determination, and therefore of your moral worth).

            The consolations that de Botton offers are those of philosophy—stoicism or misanthropy—art, politics, religion, and Bohemianism. The people that de Botton quotes illustrate, as the Guardian reviewer pointed out, that there is nothing new in these ideas—when de Botton gets the ideas right; he ascribes to Romans and Greeks an attitude toward slaves that is really that held by American slaveholders toward their African captives, for example.

            Alain de Botton had an original idea for a book that plays on the self-help genre when he wrote How Proust Can Change Your Life in 1997. Although it was based on a misunderstanding of Proust—de Botton argues we can learn about love from the book, for example, when in fact Swann and the narrator prove and say again and again that one in love learns nothing but keeps making the same mistakes—nevertheless de Botton had read Proust and was ingenious in suggestions about what might be learned from such a reading. This book, however, seems like a joyless parody of the self-help form.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

It Can Happen Here


            Americans had all sorts of reasons for ignoring the fascism that gripped Italy and Germany in the thirties. The national tendency toward isolationism is perennial, and even the less xenophobic often convinced themselves that the autocratic regimes in Europe were necessary to keep the threat of Communism at bay. Less understandable was the complacence with which Americans watched so many of their fellow citizens turn into fascists. Some American writers and artists—not many—sounded the alarm, among them Sinclair Lewis and Mari Sandoz.

Sinclair Lewis published It Can’t Happen Here in 1935, two years after Hitler took power. His villain is not Hitler but a very American kind of con man. Lewis begins in Fort Beulah, Vermont, where Doremus Jessup, the editor and owner of the local paper, can read the signs that the demagogue Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, assisted by the radio evangelist Methodist Bishop Paul Peter Prang and the kingmaker Lee Sarason, will win the Democratic nomination and the presidency. And so he does.

            Lewis says of Fort Beulah, “It was a town of perhaps ten thousand souls, inhabiting about twenty thousand bodies—the proportion of soul-possession may be too high.”

            Windrip gets elected because the white trash (represented by Doremus’s handyman, Shad Ledue) think he’s promised them incomes of five thousand dollars a year, the anti-Semites love his Jew baiting, the businessmen and bankers ignore his claim that he’ll nationalize various industries and strictly regulate the banks, thinking that he’s really for them, the militarists see him as the answer to American laxity, and so on. With Windrip no one reads the signs, or everyone ignores them. With Hitler, no one read the book, or everyone ignored it. Windrip organizes a militia before his election, and arms them afterward. He calls his Brown Shirts the Minute Men.

            Windrip consolidates power and Doremus feels it closing in, but not until he is called into court (just as his lover, Lorinda Pike, is leaving the courtroom) and his son-in-law is murdered by the Minute Men does he realize how far things have gone. He collaborates for a while by helping the local pedant Emil Staubmeyer to take over as editor of the paper. An attempt to flee to Canada fails. As more and more people (the Jewish merchant Rotenstern who supported Windrip, for instance) are sent to concentration camps, Doremus quits the paper. When he is approached by an agent of exiled Walt Trowbridge, the candidate who lost to Windrip, Doremus organizes a local chapter of the New Underground.

            He is eventually sent to a concentration camp, and while he is there, Windrip is deposed by Sarason, and then Sarason is overthrown by a general named Haik. Lorinda Pike arranges Doremus’s escape, and they have an idyllic few weeks before she goes to start another New Underground chapter. He goes first into Canada, but then returns to spread information in aid of a real armed uprising that begins in the Midwest. Lewis leaves it hanging here with the future in doubt, but with some hope.

  Mari Sandoz’s Capital City, published in 1939, is not a national allegory like Lewis’s. Sandoz concentrates more on midwestern complacencies and bigotries, and on a portrait more specifically fashioned by her knowledge of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Franklin, the capital of Kanewa (as in Kansas-Nebraska-Iowa), is smaller and more provincial that its larger neighbor Grandapolis, from which it somehow wrested capital status in the past. The Grandapolis paper loves to publish any news showing Franklin’s provincialism, gaucherie, and brutality.

The Franklin establishment—the old money, the elite banking and high-end-merchant class, the police, the legislature, and the local paper—are anti-labor, anti-poor (they call them “the reliefers”), anti-Semitic, and pretty much anti-anything-that-ain’t-us.

The Capital City is the main character of the book, according to Helen Stauffer (Mari Sandoz, Boise State University Western Writers Series 63). But if so, the main character is an antagonist, and the protagonists are the people who try to hold back the corruption and the worst of the damage. These include most importantly Hamm Rufe, who, although living in obscurity in a squatter’s camp called “Herb’s Addition,” on a hill above the city, belongs to one of the city’s most prominent families. His real name is Rufer Hammond, and he is named after his progressive grandfather, George Rufer, who started the university and published a liberal newspaper. The family has since become as reactionary as the other elite families, though Hamm’s mother, Hallie Rufer Hammond, shows some awakening of conscience at the end of the book, rebuilding some of the squatter’s shacks in “Herb’s Addition” that have been torched by an arsonist. Another of the protagonists is Hamm’s friend Dr. Abigail Allerton, author of an exposé of the city titled Anteroom for Kingmakers (ostensibly about the history of the Frontier Hotel) and a history professor at the Franklin university until her fellow townspeople find out what’s really in her book and put pressure on the university. Lew Lewis is another, a labor leader who takes a bullet for his efforts to organize his strikers, but recovers. There is also Carl Halzer, a farmer who watches with dismay the increasingly corrupted farmers’ association and becomes a candidate for senator of the state. Entering the action of the book late is the woman who nursed Hamm back to health after a severe beating in Boston and whom he married and lived with for some years, Stephani Kolhoff.

Sandoz ‘s prose here lacks any stylistic polish, and she throws names at us—hundreds of them—with fire-hose force. The reader has to sit back and try to keep up, relying on her repetition to stay oriented. It helps to read the book in large chunks.

Reactionary Franklin is brutal and violent, most notably in strikebreakers hired by the transport company with the connivance of the politicians, and in the activities of the fascist group, the Gold Shirts, who include prominent young men of the town such as Harold Welles, the son of Hamm’s oldest friend, Colmar (Cobby) Welles, whose suicide really starts the action of the book. Cobby’s is one of two suicides among Franklin’s elite, the other being Penny Hammond, wife of Hamm’s brother Cecil (Cees) Hammond, who takes sleeping pills when she finds herself pregnant with a child fathered by someone other than her husband. There are a number of murders: the orphan Spaniard and Jewish kids taken in by a town doctor and a university professor are killed by a hit and run driver, apparently deliberately; an Italian immigrant is nearly wrongfully convicted of the murder of his hunting buddy, who was killed over sexual jealousy; and the murder of two small twin boys by the strikebreakers, who shoot up their car by mistake, precipitates some of the book’s concluding action, which results in the state supreme court striking down the anti-picketing law that has been the cover for much strikebreaking violence. That decision is a bit of irony, however, as it comes at the same time as the election of a governor who promises not to be restrained by any law in his strikebreaking activities.

On the eve of the election Halzer makes a barn-burning speech against the reactionaries that gets him arrested, though he ultimately wins the senate race, and Abigail sells the film rights for Anteroom. But the governor’s election goes to the demagogue Stetbettor, the negotiations with the strikers break down, and the new governor calls in the national guard. Curiously, Sandoz chooses to give this bleak apocalypse happy endings for her couples: Carl Halzer and Stephani Kolhoff get together, with Hamm’s blessing, and the young couple whose troubles we’ve been watching since the first pages, Mollie Tyndale and Burt Parr, get the blessing of her father, along with a wad of cash and orders to get out of town and make a life for themselves somewhere far away from the benighted streets of the Capital City.

Both books are funny, though the humor can be very dark. The focus of Sandoz’s book is narrower than that of Lewis, enabling a little more depth of character, but neither writer is aiming at character study. What comes through clearly in both books is the precariousness of a political order and standard of decency that we imagine, at our peril, to be unchanging and unchangeable.