16 June, 2008

Monday cat blogging

Aubrey is a discerning little catlet. When he's not chasing shadows or gnawing up Lily's finger, he goes for my books. And his favourites, evidently, are Joyce and Rabelais. I regularly find my 1946 Cape Portrait, and my Pléiade Oeuvres—he scorns translations—tossed out on the floor. Not for Aubrey the Lewis or Stein sharing shelf-space with Joyce, nor the Walküre zu zwei Händen score, or back-issues of the JWCI, next to Rabelais. Who could have expected such fine literary taste in a beast not yet old enough to read?

Rabelais would not have approved. He was evidently no great lover of cats, for neither of the two felines in his work are very attractive. The first of these, and the more famous, is Raminagrobis, an old poet who fobs Panurge off with some silly verses. Sainéan deciphers the name for us:
The name antedates Rabelais. One finds it first, with its primary meaning of 'tomcat', in a manuscript of the fourteenth century in the Mazarin Library: we see here two superb pen-drawn cats with the legend, Raminagrobis. . . This name, like its root grobis, is in fact the vulgar or provincial label for a male cat, and means literally a cat who has arched his back [fait le gros dos], or a cat who purrs, from raminer, to murmur with satisfaction, when speaking of a cat.
The other cat is the monstrous Rodilard, who makes Panurge conskite himself with fear. Rodilard, according to Sainéan, is properly ronge-lard (gnaw-lard). Both of these cats reappear in La Fontaine. As Sainéan points out, cats are also associated with furcollared lawyers as the chats fourrés (punning on chaffouré, a bit of argot for 'bruised, blotted')—the animal, being 'at once cruel and greedy', becomes a token for 'hypocritical and presumptuous magistrates'.

Joyce, likewise, was probably aware of the cat's demonic nature when he sent the beast headfirst into the devil's arms, in his children's fable, The Cat and the Devil. But in Ulysses another moggy excites Bloom's sympathies:
The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.


—O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.

The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writingtable. Prr. Scratch my head. Prr.

Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees.

—Milk for the pussens, he said.

—Mrkgnao! the cat cried.
In The Apes of God (1930), which reads as a pastiche of the marmoreal prose of Ulysses, Lewis would choose a cat as his very first image:
A cat like a beadle goose-stepped with eerie convulsions out of the night cast by a cluster of statuary, from the recesses of the entrance hall. A maid with matchless decorum left a door silently, she removed a massive copper candlestick. She reintegrated the gloom that the cat had left. The cat returned, with the state of a sacred dependent, into the gloom.
For a modernist there is something beautiful in the désinvolture of a cat: it is to be matched with a désinvolte prose, careful and steady. The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, and so on. Myself, I find little to admire about Aubrey's grace and poise, little of the Ulyssean prose. He has a tendency to tumble inflexibly from furnitures, scratching or tearing the surface as he slips. His claws got two damned holes in my Portrait, the bastard! God help him if he does any damage to my 1946 Random House Ulysses—the prettiest edition of the masterpiece, at least for those of us who can't afford this.

"Will I have to use a dictionary to read your book?" asked Mrs. Dodypol. "It depends," says I, "how much you used the dictionary before you read it." — Darconville's Cat (1983).
Alexander Theroux is looking on with amusement from the next shelf. Theroux, you see, was an aelurophile like his bellamy Edward Gorey, and would no doubt have approved of Aubrey's antics, as he would have approved the heteroclite but authentic orthography of aelurophile. Theroux is heir to the marmoreal proses of Joyce and Lewis, and to the bare erudition of Rabelais. He is an aspiring DWEM (not long to go now), and is therefore unlikely to feature on any trendy freshman reading-lists.

Spellvexit, the cat in Darconville's Cat—Theroux's Ulysses—is, on the face of it, a minor presence. He is a token, an opportunity for a few passages of désinvolte prose in the key of Theroux's modernist masters. We meet him early:
Darconville's cat leaped onto the windowsill and peered up, as if calculating the thoughts of his master: where were they? How had they come to be here? What reason, in fact, had they to be in this strange place?
Spellvexit continues to be associated with Darconville's thoughts. Isabel, the hero's love and trahiseuse, watches his house at night:
All are not abed that have ill rest, and one of them, lacking most because longing most, begins to pace out notions. Of these notions one lodges itself finally in her mind with cautious exactitude as the very thing indicated by the occasion. It's a cat's walk, a little way up and back. Then it's not a cat's walk. The figure is gone.
That second sentence—read it again. Theroux never wastes words. So why the pleonasm of 'cautious exactitude', why the apparently clumsy 'thing indicated by the occasion'? We want to see, and so will see: cautious exactitude, the thing indicated. The cat, which is there and is not, announces itself in the text, as a prelude to its actual half-appearance. Elsewhere he affords moments of quiet and elegant, semiperceptible musical comedy:
Darconville quickly rolled up and forward, bouncing Spellvexit in a high bumbershot from the top of his chest into a hollow of the blanket where he lay low and pouched for safety. A little vimbat of a face slowly appeared, with whiskers twitching. "Swowns!" squeaked the cat, who'd been brought up better than that.
Nobody alive writes like this. I have no idea what 'vimbat' means, and neither do any of the resources I've checked. It sounds right. Bumbershot is a portmanteau of bumbershoot, 'umbrella'—describing the cat's arc—and bumble, shot. Swowns reinterprets the core vowel of Mkgnao to suggest swounds, ie. 'God's wounds'. This is clever writing: but its words sing for themselves, and so can be enjoyed without interrogating a lexicon.

John Leonard, in the first and more complimentary review of the novel offered by the New York Times (the other is here), remarks: 'Perhaps you were wondering about that cat. That cat is art, vision, the erotic, Jesus, jealousy, memory, conscience and everything else that is silent and black and vanishes'. The cat, indeed, vanishes, out of his owner's hands in the courtyard of Adams House, Cambridge, MA: 'A cat never says goodbye. It just walks away.' But is Leonard right: is the cat of Darconville's Cat less a cat than a multivalent Symbol? On one level the cat serves to defuse romantic gestures:
Spellvexit, who despised philosophy, showed an utter disregard for Darconville's neautontimoroumenotic pain and preferred to stay outside clacking his teeth at birds until all this blew over.
The rhythm of the prose says it all: 'stay outside clacking his teeth at birds until all this blew over' is the classic riposte to the ausserweltlich Greek coinage that it follows. The coinage itself is a mistake. It should be heautontimoroumenotic, from Terence's Heauton Timoroumenos, 'The Self-Tormentor'. Shall we attribute the error to a printer, a copy-editor—or to Theroux himself? It seems to matter little. The cat is also, at times, highly symbolish. In the second chapter we are told:
At six, [Darconville] won the school ribbon for a drawing of the face of God—it resembled a cat's—and illustrated a juvenile book of his own dramatic making which ended: "But wait, there is something coming toward me—!"
While at the end of the antepenultimate chapter, as Darconville reaches his death in a Venetian palazzo near the Corte del Gatto:
Groping blindly, he made a motion with his hands as if something were coming towards him and stumbling forward, just before he fell, reached up in a last fatal moment of blindness to cry out inexplicably and desperately and loud, "My cat! My cat!"

Then something came towards him at last.
So here the cat is definitely a Cat: God, Death, the Nameless, whatever. Thus Theroux's title can salvage its claim to high literary dignity.


But all this is getting ahead of myself, isn't it? You don't want to read a thesis on 'The Portrayal of the Cat in Theroux's Darconville's Cat', surely one of those awful and imaginary monographs, 'of which necessity was hardly the mother', that Theroux awards to the mediocrities of a Southern university faculty:
"English Nose Literature"; Stephen Duck: More Rhyme Than Reason; "The American Disgrace: Overabuse of the Verb 'To Get'"; "Fundavit Stones in Crozet, Va."; Much Ado About Mothing; "The Psychopathological Connection Between Liquid Natural Gas and Agraphia"; The Story of Windmill Technology; "The Significance of Head Motions in Peking Ducks"; "Infusions as Drinks"; "Abraham Lincoln, Quadroon?"
No, you want to know what the book is actually like, and why Theroux's erudition is more worthwhile than Eco's. The simple answer is that it is more varied: it is a tool which is put to use, although it can be enjoyed for its own sake. Compare the above passage, for instance, to Eco's reuse of imaginary titles (De optimitate triparum) from Rabelais. Theroux knows that it is better to invent in a traditional style than simply to steal outright. And unlike Eco, he is not afraid of bad or pretend erudition when it suits him. For instance:
"Elbow room," repeated Prof. Wratschewe, interlacing his fingers. "Do you realize, Miz McAwaddle, that Shakespeare was the first person ever to use that expression?"

Mrs. McAwaddle was utterly adsorbed.
This joke is written for the connoisseur. Not only is Shakespeare (King John 5.7) not the first attestation of 'elbow room'—the OED offers a 1540 quotation and, uncharacteristically, ignores Shakespeare—but even if he were, we know that the first written attestation is rarely going to be the first actual use. The punchline is the killer, and it too plays with the truth. 'Adsorption' is the 'process by which specific gases, liquids or substances in solution adhere to the exposed surfaces of materials, usually solids, with which they are in contact'. But here the word is obviously used as a dry, easily-missed antonym of 'absorbed'. It has the decided ring of an off-the-cuff folk coinage, like pointful. The fact that Theroux, who knows his dictionary back to front, feels free to invent, and invents well, is what marks him out from the Ecos of literature. He is a master of, not a slave to, his (linguistic) erudition. To bring home the point, here is another snatch of the wretched Wratschewe in action:
"Potato," observed Prof. Wratschewe, graciously bowing a cup of punch to his colleague. "Did you ever stop to think that if 'gh' stood for 'p' as in 'hiccough'; 'ough' for 'o' as in 'dough'; 'phth' for 't' as in 'phthisis'; 'eigh' for 'a' as in 'neighbor'; 'tte' for 't' as in 'gazette'; and 'eau' for 'o' as in 'beau'—he snapped out his ball-point and scribbled on a flattened cup—"then the correct spelling of potato would be ghoughphtheightteeau?" He looked up smiling. But Mrs. McAwaddle was already on the other side of the room.
This is erudite in the broad sense that its force derives from its reference, although that reference is not high but popular. Theroux is playing on the well-known 'ghoti' joke, but prodding it, reshaping it, seeing what he can do with the material. Again, he is in control, but having fun. It rather reminds me of the scene in Nabokov's Ada where the protagonists work out the highest-possible scoring word in Russian Scrabble ('TORFYaNUYu').

So Theroux can be funny with low-level popular reference. He can do high as well: sometimes subtle, sometimes aggressive. Here's a bit of subtle: Darconville stumbles on a classroom of six narcoleptics snoozing to a lecture by one 'Floyce R. Fulwider':
This [tap] is a pot-walloper of the Flemish rubricator who called himself Pieter De Hooch, the grandfather of American gin. You may or may not be disheartened to know that he wanted nothing heroic [tap] in his art. His dry, domestic, explicit-as-arithmetic masterpukes [tap] tend nevertheless to narrative. Now let us look at this bit of scrumpy [tap]: Courtyard of a Dutch House.
Stylistically, Theroux is making subtle allusion to an early section from Finnegans Wake ('Floyce' is suggestive, isn't it?), in which the reader is shown around a 'museyroom' (museum): 'This is a Prooshious gunn. This is a ffrinch. Tip. This is the triplewon hat of Lipoleum. Tip. Lipoleumhat. This is the Willingdone on his same white harse, the Cokenhape. Tip. This is the three lipoleum boyne grouching down in the living detch.' (And so on: it goes on for a bit.) Now, I could be completely imagining the Joyce in the Theroux: but there is a fine, or possibly non-existent, line between exegesis and projection. It is always a danger. Darconville's Cat is full of tantalising suggestions like this, dreams and plays on earlier works.

There are plenty of more forthright displays of learning in the novel. Perhaps the most spectacular example is chapter 68, which consists solely of nine pages, listing misogynist books and parts of books end to end, from 'Burton on Infidelity' to 'The Eroticon of Paul the Silentiary'. When I first read through this list, several years ago, I took copious notes and hunted down some of the items, such as John Knox's First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, and Aretino's Ragionamenti. It's the idea, more than the execution: the idea that an entire personality or character can be formed by an accumulation of texts, especially if chosen laterally. I thought this was wonderful. Darconville's Cat manages to combine a linguistic and literary playfulness with a genuine gravitas: Theroux is not afraid to confront the obsessive, either in love or in erudition, and so he is not betrayed, as Eco always is, by a failure of nerve. He remains, in this respect, engagé.


At least, he is engagé in Darconville's Cat. I have read only the first chapter—available online—of his latest book, Laura Warholic, but it is enough to put me off the rest of the novel. The writing is, frankly, embarrassing. I don't know what has happened in the intervening 26 years to take the edge off Theroux's pen; but I disliked this from the very first words.

DC prefaced each chapter with an epigraph, which was fine, because the passages were quirky and well-chosen. Laura begins with five epigraphs, from R. Buckminster Fuller, Anne Carson, Kafka, Eluard and Stephen Crane. The Eluard is a cliché, and the Bucky is Bucky cliché: at least, it feels superficial, and present only for the impact of contrast. At any rate, putting five disparate epigraphs at the beginning of your novel is trying too hard. It lacks wit. Lacking wit, also, is the first chapter title: 'Womanifesto'. This is woefully inelegant as a portmanteau: the rhythm is all wrong, the sort of thing you'd find in an MA dissertation from UC Irvine. Lacking wit, also, are the first two sentences: 'One lover is always murdered in the act of love. A man poetically "dies"—Elizabethan slang for orgasm—at the moment of crisis.' This, from an ex-Trappist classicist? It is insultingly hackneyed. The fact that it is presented as the writing of the novel's protagonist, a sex columnist, does nothing to mitigate the squirm. I am only asking, in the final detente of coupledom, who survives and why? This is a poor rendition of Norman Mailer doing Carrie Bradshaw for Playboy. It is certainly not what I signed up for.

In the first narrated paragraph, we are offered a bit of ekphrasis:
He glanced out of his office window to a sky the color of pewter. It was the kind of late September afternoon, dark and rainy, smelling of fog and old quilts, that reminded him he lived in a seaside city.
Contrast this to the opening of Darconville's Cat, chapter 2:
SEPTEMBER: it was the most beautiful of words, he'd always felt, evoking orange-flowers, swallows, and regret. The shutters were open. Darconville stared out into a small empty street, touched with autumnal fog, that looked like the lugubrious frontispiece to a book as yet to be read.
The latter passage is descriptive but oblique, evocative without being too sentimental: the zeugma of 'swallows and regret', and the 'lugubrious frontispiece', have just the right light touch of surrealism. The former passage, from Laura Warholic, is autopilot: nothing more.

The chapter continues at the same miserable level. The onomastic fantasias of the earlier book ('Hypsipyle Poore', 'Xystine Chapelle', and so on) have been replaced by leaden caricatures crying out for profundity, notably in the hero's name of 'Eugene Eyestones'. There are issues, such as racism, indelicately broached. And there are terrible, terrible sentences like 'Staring in at her face, pure and meltingly lovely, he wondered was E. M. Cioran correct when observing, "The hermits of the first centuries of Christianity were saints at grips with the dearest of all their possessions: their temptations"?'—or 'What lines of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa had he once written down and kept under his helmet?', preceding some Pessoa lines. Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa?? Never show thy face again, Theroux!


Greg Afinogenov said...

I haven't read any Theroux, but God, is that first chapter awful. Even beyond the overuse of the meaningless (and unliterary) academese "in a real sense," beyond the subsequent reappearance of "poet Fernando Pessoa," the text is just a nasty pile of self-indulgent pseudo-autobiography, peppered with stale mouthbreathing cheap shots at political correctness. He sounds like he's been taking writing lessons from Ayn Rand.

(My father's cat's name is Stylianos, after the pillar-dwelling saint. Pretty creative, I think, though his temperament is hardly saintlike.)

John Cowan said...


Must I point out that (a) Theroux is a snob, an absolute snob; (b) telegony is a long-exploded notion; (c) those "savage, unrepentant black rapists" (so called by Theroux, not by his character) were in fact innocent?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Er. . . no, on all three counts I think.

Anonymous said...

Shall we attribute the error to a printer, a copy-editor—or to Theroux himself?

As proud as I am of my profession, and ready to leap to its defense when called for, I think there's little doubt the former is the case; n for h is a classic typo.

You've left me with a strong desire to read Cat. (My own cats, I fear, have shown no such literary sensibility as yours; Pushkin, despite his name, prefers the newspaper, and leaves the room when Proust or George Eliot is read.)

[I seem to be having some trouble proving my identity to the satisfaction of the comment system, so I'll settle for anonymity plus the cryptic signoff: LH.]

Raminagrobis said...

Clearly Aubrey has the sufficiently well-developed feline sense to respect the Baudelaire, Borges or Eliot on your shelves while justifiably mauling the unenlightened cat-maligners like Rabelais and Joyce. Good for him!

I must read Darconville’s Cat some time, your account of it really whets the appetite. Where does the name ‘Spellvexit’ come from?

John Cowan: please don’t begin comments with the word ‘Sigh’, it’s a real pet hate of mine. You are of course under no obligation to modify your posting style on my account, but it does come across as infuriatingly condescending sometimes.

Also, Conrad: ‘trahiseuse’?!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, I'm glad to have inspired at least two people to read Cat. Stylianos and Pushkin are both good literary cat names. Aubrey was named by my wife after both John Aubrey and Aubrey Beardsley, but especially the former--good for her!

R: I don't know whence 'Spellvexit'. Trahiseuse: betrayeress. It works for me.

Mrs. Lily-Plum Roth said...

My dear Mr. Roth, and readers,

I feel that I ought, for the sake of accuracy, mention that I named our little Aubrey solely after John Aubrey. I do admire Aubrey Beardsley, but I did not name our little catlet after him.

Mrs. Lily Roth

P.S. While you've been in Paris, Aubrey has been leaving your Rabelais alone. He has transferred his attentions to my pewter reliquary replica jewellery box. It makes a very good alarm clock as it crashes to the floor in the morning.

Jeff Berger said...

I would encourage all not to dismiss the "Warholic" book. Granted, the bile can be overwhelming, but a bleak bilious worldview was perhaps been portended in "Darconville" for its author approaching 70, a tragedy of non-recognition. If "Humboldt's Gift" were the death knell of the American literary intellectual, then "Warholic" is its mad thunder-clapped funeral rite. There are virtuosities in this book which stagger the mind. Invective far outweighs grace in most of the characters' talk, but it is some of the most trenchantly inventive talk one is likely to encounter. "Darconville's Cat" was written by a man who could still dream, whereas "Warholic" is the Rumpopulorum of the dark angelic hierarchies of today, ranging from the publishing world to the pervasive middle-aged adolescence in even our more 'progressive' cities. It is true that Theroux here is working more with caricature than the sublime, and it all is comparatively unredeemed; but he gets inside of character like few do. That this is a guided tour of hell with a microscope does not make it an unnecessary book. It isn't the real world, but the grotesque picture of a negative-leaning mind, and that mind's book of the night. In that regard, and I think this is how Theroux intends it, "Warholic" is a book of deep spiritual warning, and close to the final word on emotional devastation. Much of the book is painful to read, and there are great awkwardnesses, as has been demonstrated, but the rewards are far greater. It is easy to dismiss this as the unimaginative "Vineland" which lacks the transcendance of the author's masterpiece, but something subtle invariably happens when a great author turns his attention to "the real". If Theroux set out to somehow redeem gross matter into something sublime, then it took him 860 pages to fail, but the lessons learned along the way are invaluable. What emerges as worthwhile is the attempt itself, the examining of the raw material of human nature, sparing no indiscretion. In conceiving the romantic sublime, an author is driven to his greatest work, but once accomplished, he can either keep believing in his fantasy of transcendence or face reality. For this loss of belief an author cannot be blamed, and should he not be commended for attempting to recover it or create it anew?