Sunday, December 29, 2013


Without really intending to, I seem to be following the course of the French novel in reverse chronological order, which, if you ignore the niceties of causation and the direction in which time is actually understood to flow, yields such discoveries as the recognition of Flaubert's Frédéric as the model for Balzac's Rastignac and the profound influence of the extended deathbed sequence in Roger Martin du Gard's la Mort du père (Book VI of The Thibaults) on the identically titled final section of le Père Goriot.

This is a curious book, one that could just as well have been entitled Rastignac, since it devotes at least as much attention to the ambitious young social climber from the provinces as it does to the pathologically doting father who divests himself of a considerable fortune, and thus dies penniless and unmourned, in order to satisfy the whims of his two shallow and disastrously married daughters. Among the other characters are Vautrin, Rastignac's voluble fellow boarder in the pension of Mme. Vauquer, who is improbably unmasked as a criminal mastermind, arrested, and then largely forgotten, the pathetic Victorine, who is smitten with Rastignac but simply disappears from the novel's pages as soon as she is poised to inherit a fortune, and Bianchon, the young medical student obviously modeled (again, disregarding chronology) on Martin du Gard's Antoine Thibault. Some of these eccentricities can no doubt be set down to the manner in which Balzac constructed the overall scheme of la Comédie humaine, in which many characters reappear in various of the component novels; but all of these difficulties are dispelled when one recognizes that the true protagonist of the novel is money, the pursuit of which and (especially) squandering of which is revealed as the true source of agency in human affairs.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

From the House of Bondage

Yale University's Beinecke Library has announced the acquisition and authentication of a 304-page manuscript said to be the earliest known prison memoir by an African-American. Entitled The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison, the manuscript has been traced to one Austin Reed, who was born to a free black family in Rochester, New York around 1827, was assigned to the New York House of Refuge, a reformatory, at an early age, and served multiple terms in Auburn State Prison. He was apparently imprisoned at Auburn when the manuscript was written, sometime in the late 1850s, and he was still alive as late as 1895, when he wrote a letter to the warden of the House of Refuge seeking records of his confinement. Reed clearly had a keen, and longstanding, interest in documenting his own life; an unbound scrap of paper that accompanies the manuscript appears to instruct an unidentified person (Ms. Ives?) "this is the beg[inn]ing of the first chapter of my book — please [do] not lose it."

There are a number of well-known African-American slave narratives from the nineteenth century, including those of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Solomon Northup, but Reed was evidently never enslaved, though the conditions of his own civil captivity are said to have been appallingly brutal. His detailed account was preserved and passed down, in a manner not publicly described, until it was sold to Yale by the rare book dealer Between the Covers in 2009. Random House has acquired the rights to the manuscript, which, however, won't be available until 2016, presumably in order to give the editors time to a prepare a definitive text and supply additional material on Reed's life and confinement. Update: details on the edition are here.

For those disinclined to wait, the Beinecke Library has made images of the entire manuscript available online. I've dipped into it just enough to be able to predict that the final result should be eye-opening and fascinating, but I suspect I'll wait for the published version before I read it as a whole. This kind of discovery inevitably raises the question of how many other accounts of comparable interest may have been lost, or are still preserved tucked away in someone's attic or bookshelf; from a first look at this manuscript, however, the answer would seem to be "not many."

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Les chansons d'Émile et Zachary dans l'univers

Hard on the heels of his 2012 CD Le fou, (which is currently up for a Grammy), the Louisiana singer and songwriter Zachary Richard has released this genial album, which has an unusual backstory. A few years ago, Richard's grandson Émile Cullin announced that he wanted to make a record. Carrying on a family's musical tradition isn't that uncommon, of course, but Cullin was all of ten years old at the time; moreover, he was born with some neurological deficits (in Cullin's words, he is "handicapé... un peu mais pas beaucoup"). Richard could easily have gently put Émile off about the matter, but instead he presented his petit-fils with a challenge: if he wanted to make a record, he had to come up with some songs. What did he love? Émile's answer, j'aime la vie, became the genesis of the album's first track:

Eight of the ten compositions here are Cullin-Richard collaborations; Émile provided the ideas and most of the words; Richard (along with his musical collaborators) polished them into songs. The lyrics (and the liner notes) are in French, but they aren't hard to follow for anyone who has even a soupçon of that tongue. (Richard is bilingual and has also made records in English, but he has been a passionate advocate of the preservation of French in Louisiana.)

It should be made clear that J'aime la vie is not what typically gets called "a children's record," though it certainly will be enjoyed by children; it's musically very much a Zachary Richard record, and is of a piece with his other work, in particular with Le fou. The lyrics are light but thoughtful and inventive, and sometimes wise and profound:
Et pourtant, ce n'est pas très clair
Mais je me sens beaucoup moins solitaire
Sachant que te es dans l'univers.
As of this writing, autographed copies of J'aime la vie are available through Richard's official website.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Your Shoulders Hold Up the World

A time comes when you no longer can say: my God.
A time of total cleaning up.
A time when you no longer can say: my love.
Because love proved useless.
And the eyes don’t cry.
And the hands do only rough work.
And the heart is dry.

Women knock at your door in vain, you won’t open.
You remain alone, the light turned off,
and your enormous eyes shine in the dark.
It is obvious you no longer know how to suffer.
And you want nothing from your friends.

Who cares if old age comes, what is old age?
Your shoulders are holding up the world
and it’s lighter than a child’s hand.
Wars, famine, family fights inside buildings
prove only that life goes on
and nobody will ever be free.
Some (the delicate ones) judging the spectacle cruel
will prefer to die.
A time comes when death doesn’t help.
A time comes when life is an order.
Just life, without any escapes.

Poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade; translation by Mark Strand.

The version above, which I prefer to the revised one included in Strand's Looking for Poetry, is from Souvenir of the Ancient World, published in 1976 by Antaeus Editions in an edition of 500 copies. The typography is by Samuel N. Antupit. I've cropped the page a bit.