Sunday, March 17, 2013

Views of Bohemia

These two postcards were mailed five years apart, the first to an address in Kutná Hora (or Kuttenberg) in Bohemia and the second from Kutná Hora to Cleveland, Ohio. Both recipients were named Čermák, and if the abbreviated first name on the first card is Antonín, as I suspect, then the two cards were either mailed to the same person or to two (probably related) people of the same name.

Čermák seems to be a fairly common family name, but during the period these cards were mailed a prominent violin maker named Josef Antonín Čermák was active in Kutná Hora, and the later card appears to be signed either Jusef or Josef. Coincidentally or not, one of the violin maker's students, Jan Baptista Vavra, was active in Smichov in Prague, which was where the first card was postmarked. The signature on the front of the card, however, is definitely not that of Vavra.

The printed message at the top of the first card reads Podrav ze Smíchova! -- "Greetings from Smichov!" It was issued by F. J. Jedlička, a well-known publisher of postcards in Prague. There's a somewhat uncanny quality about the left side of the image, which shows a couple walking together along a deserted street that hardly seems to belong with the view of the Vltava to the right. The view of Kutná Hora was published by one Josef Zajíc.

I can't read Czech and can't transcribe the handwriting on the later card, so for now that's about as much as I can say.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Reading Martin du Gard (VII): Residue

One of Roger Martin du Gard's first published works was a dissertation on the ruins of the abbey of Jumièges in Normandy, and it's often been observed (sometimes disparagingly) that his scholarly training as an archiviste paléographe carried over into his literary works. Perhaps it was simply that he had an underlying disposition towards the methodical. In any case, I can't help thinking that he must have taken particular pleasure in writing the tenth chapter of La mort du père (the sixth part of Les Thibault), in which Antoine Thibault goes through the abundant personal papers of his father after the latter's death. The papers include not only Oscar Thibault's will and the instructions regarding his funeral arrangements, but also bundles of letters between him and his wife (who had died giving birth to Antoine's younger brother Jacques many years before), an aborted "History of Paternal Authority" that he had embarked on before either of his sons had even been born, various testimonial letters from former inmates of the reformatory for boys that he had founded, and a kind of commonplace book in which he had recorded quotations from various worthies as well as some more personal reflections that hinted obscurely at temptations, possibly but not necessarily of the flesh. And then there is this:
In the bottom of the drawer, a little box without a label: three amateur photographs with curling corners. The largest showed a woman of some thirty years of age, in a mountain landscape, at the edge of a group of fir trees. Antoine leaned over under the lamp; the woman's features were completely unknown to him. In any case, the ribboned bonnet, the muslin collaret, the puffed sleeves bespoke a very old-fashioned style. The second, smaller photo showed the same person, seated this time, hatless, in a square, perhaps in the garden of a hotel; and, under the bench, at her feet, a white poodle, crouched like a Sphinx. In the third image the dog was alone, standing on a table in the garden, its muzzle upright and a ribbon on its head. An envelope in the box contained the negative of the large photograph, the mountain landscape. No name, no date. Looked at more closely, and even though her figure was still slender, the woman appeared to have reached or even passed forty. A warm regard, serious in spite of the smile on her lips. An attractive physiognomy which Antoine examined, intrigued, without deciding to close the box again. Was it his imagination? He was no longer certain that he had never seen the woman before.
The photographs are not the only surprise Antoine comes across in his father's papers. He finds several pages of a letter from a woman who identifies herself only by initials. A longtime widow, the woman had taken out an advertisement in a newspaper in hopes of finding a second husband; Oscar had apparently written to her once before. The letter ends in mid-sentence at the bottom of the fourth page; its conclusion is missing. From the date, Antoine is virtually certain that the writer of the letter could not have been the woman in the photographs.

A lesser novelist would weave whole Gothic tales out of the hints offered by these discoveries, but that's not what Martin du Gard is up to. He isn't quite done with these mysterious women — one of them, if it is indeed her, will privately leave flowers on Oscar's grave — but what interests Martin du Gard is not uncovering some profound secret but the very fact that people are, ultimately, to a large extent unknowable to each other, even to those who supposedly know them best. The seemingly meaningless details — the picture of the dog standing by itself, the lost final pages of the letter — are just the kind of evidence a trained archivist or archaeologist would be used to dealing with on a daily basis. That is the pattern of how human lives leave traces behind them: a bit here, a bit there, sometimes planned, sometimes by chance, and more often than not with all of their associations and connections stripped away forever.

In the end, Antoine is left reflecting on how little he knew the father who had dominated his life for thirty years, and whom he will now never have the chance to know better.
"The residue of an existence," he thought. "And, in spite of everything, the breadth of such a life! A human life always has infinitely more breadth than one knows!"
(I have reworked Stuart Gilbert's translation but have taken his word for it about the "muslin collaret.")

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The platform

Three women in elaborate hats, two men in railway uniforms, a third man — and a very large dog. Real Photo postcard, location unidentified but evidently rural; printed on a variety of Azo photographic paper reportedly manufactured between 1904-1918. There's no inscription or address on the back.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Re-reading Martin du Gard (VI): Funeral Rites

After a long illness, Oscar Thibault, the grand paterfamilias of the Thibault family, has died, and among his papers his son Antoine finds instructions for his funeral which demonstrate the same robust mixture of self-regard, compulsion for control, pious embarrassment, and rationalization that had characterized Oscar's entire adult life. In the version below I have retranslated the funeral instructions but used some of Stuart Gilbert's readings from the original translation. The "Institution" at Crouy is a reform school, and the "pupils" could equally well be called "inmates."
I desire that after a low mass has been said at Saint Thomas Aquinas, my parish, my body be brought to Crouy. I desire that my obsequies be celebrated there in the Institution's chapel, in the presence of all the pupils. I desire that, in contrast to the service at Saint Thomas Aquinas, the funeral service shall be carried out with all the dignity with which it may please the Committee to honor my mortal remains. I would like to be led to my last resting place by the representatives of the charitable works that have, over the course of many years, accepted the good offices of my devotion, as well as by a delegation of that Institut de France of which I have been so proud to have been welcomed as a member. I also wish, if the regulations permit, that my rank in the Order of the Legion of Honor might assure me of a military salute from that Army which I have always defended in all my words, writings, and my votes as a citizen. Finally, I wish that those who express the desire to pronounce a few parting words over my grave be permitted to do so without restriction.

In writing this, it is not that I hold any illusion about the vanity of these posthumous glories. I am already filled with anxiety at the thought of having one day to make my reckoning before the Supreme Tribunal. Nevertheless, after exposing myself to the illumination of meditation and prayer, it seems to me, that in those circumstances, the true duty consists in imposing silence on a sterile humility, and to arrange matters so that, at the time of my death, my existence may, if it please God, be held up one last time as an example, with the aim of inspiring other great Christians among our grand French bourgeoisie to devote themselves to the service of the Faith and Catholic charity.
This is all, by the way, prefatory to the "detailed instructions" Antoine also finds, which Martin du Gard spares us.

I can't help thinking that it would have been amusing if Harry Mathews had these instructions in the back of his mind as he drew up, for The Conversions, the elaborate Last Will and Testament of Grent Oude Wayl, which decreed, among other things:
That the organist of St. James's Church, Madison Avenue and 71st Street, Manhattan, choose a suitable musical composition to accompany the departure of my remains to their place of burial; that the score of this composition (notes, rests, clefs, key and time signatures, and all indications of speed, phasing and dynamics) be reproduced at fifteen times its printed size in the form of pancakes; and that these cakes be obligatorily eaten by any and all such persons who attend the reading of this my Last Will and Testament, excepting those specifically invited thereto. (In the event of non-compliance with this provision, I have instructed my faithful servant Miss Gabrielle Dryrein, of 2980 Valentine Avenue, The Bronx, to give to the press all information kept in my files concerning liable parties.)
I'll leave the unexpected outcome of Mr. Wayl's funeral for future readers of The Conversions to discover, but as for the pancakes, "The organist at St. James's, who had planned a twenty-nine minute Tragic Rhapsody of Widor, was warned of the consequences and changed to a unison version of O God Our Help in Ages Past; so that the forced feeders had only twenty-eight notes to swallow between them, and — the hymn being all in wholenotes and halfnotes — hollow ones at that."

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Sapporo to Boston

Dear Dr. Wight,

How have you been since I left M. G. H.? I have arrived at Yokohama at the beginning of last June and I am now with all my family having happy time. Since I returned to Japan, I have been so busy that I could not write you. I am always thinking of you and others in White 4 Lab. How pleasant my life in M. G. H. was! I am dreaming to come over there once again in future. I do hope you work hard and in future in best health. Please remember me to all members in White 4 Lab.

With all best wishes to you.
Your friend

The sender, Dr. Teruyoshi Hashiba, was a fellow in the neurosurgery department at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1953-1954; from the stamps and partially legible postmark it appears that the postcard was probably mailed in 1954. The recipient may have been Dr. Anne Wight (later Anne Wight Phillips), said to be the first woman to perform surgery at Massachusetts General. Coincidentally, the head of the hospital's neurosurgical service at the time, a man who Dr. Hashiba must also have known, was named White (Dr. James C. White), but it seems unlikely that Dr. Hashiba, who demonstrates a meticulous if slightly unidiomatic command of English, would have confused the names. (The building that housed "White Lab 4" was probably the George R. White Memorial Building, completed in 1939 and named after yet another White, the onetime president of the Potter Drug and Chemical Corporation.)

After he returned to Japan, Dr. Hashiba authored a number of papers in the field of neurology. According to the Department of Neurosurgery at Sapporo Medical University he died on February 2, 1982. Dr. Anne Wight Phillips died in 2009.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Re-reading Martin du Gard (V)

Oscar Thibault, the grand Catholic autocrat who looms over the first six parts of Roger Martin du Gard's Les Thibault, has finally died, after a long and luridly described bout of uremia marked by episodes of horrifying convulsions. His long-estranged younger son, Jacques, has returned to Paris from Lausanne in time to see his father, but Oscar is too far gone to know him. Antoine, his older brother, a physician, finds among their father's papers detailed instructions for his funeral, which takes place, in bone-chilling weather and accompanied by resounding tributes from various worthies with whom the old man had been associated — at a reformatory for boys (Martin du Gard uses the word pénitencier — prison) at Crouy that Oscar had founded and for which he had long felt a special benevolent concern.

Jacques doesn't attend the funeral; years before, after running away as an adolescent, he had been confined, at his father's insistence, in that very institution, and had suffered isolation and abuse there for which he has never forgiven him. He does, however, go on his own to visit the grave, when he is sure that he will be alone. He takes a train from Paris, gets off at the Crouy station, and makes his way on foot through the snowy fields and past the inn where he had once been locked up in a laundry room while his keeper, under the pretext of taking his charge for a constitutional, had pursued amusements of his own. Finally the reformatory looms ahead of him:
He had reached the end of the village. As soon as he passed the last houses, he saw, in the middle of the plain, isolated behind its enclosure of high walls, the great edifice topped with snow and ringed with rows of barred windows. His legs trembled. Nothing had changed. Nothing. The treeless road that led to the entrance was a river of mud. A stranger, lost in that winter dusk, would no doubt have struggled to decipher the gold letters engraved above the first floor. As for Jacques, he had no trouble reading the proud inscription upon which his eyes were riveted.
I can't help, reading these lines, which I have re-translated with a few borrowings from Stuart Gilbert's version, but think of the following passage, written no more than five or six years before:
It was late in the evening when K. arrived. The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.
That, of course, is the opening of Franz Kafka's The Castle, as translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. It's not a question of influence; Kafka was dead before La mort du père was published, and there's only a slight chance that Martin du Gard had read The Castle at that time. But there seems, nevertheless, to be some very real affinity between these two haunting, snow-covered landscapes and the two towering edifices they reveal — or in Kafka's case, the edifice that is concealed in an emptiness that is not really an emptiness at all but only an illusory emptiness.

What a difference in literary fates between Kafka, the obscure, emotionally tormented insurance bureaucrat who struggled to complete many of his works and died young but who has come to be regarded as a pivotal modernist, and Martin du Gard, the methodical creator of one of the most ambitious novel sequences of the 20th century, a man who was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature in his lifetime but who is now widely dismissed, at least in the English-language world, as the epitome of a kind of narrative that is now firmly regarded as passé if not downright reactionary.

Melvin Jules Bukiet — who to his credit is among the few recent critics to have defended Martin du Gard's legacy — has said of The Thibaults, "written a third of the way into the 20th century, it may be the last great 19th century novel." He intended that as a compliment, and so it should be taken, but I would argue that Martin du Gard might have been more of a 20th-century writer than he is generally given credit for. Though he chose not to pursue the techniques of formal experimentation pursued by some of his contemporaries, is there not something quintessentially modern in his relentless, unsentimental realism, his avoidance of narrative gimmickry, his meticulous delineation of the interior lives of his characters? Does he represent an arrière-garde or simply an avenue left unexplored?