12 Winters Blog

Dostoevsky’s “The Double” and Earl’s “Forbidden Beowulf”

Posted in September 2010 by Ted Morrissey on September 4, 2010

It’s been awhile since I entered the blogosphere, so I thought I’d do a post.  As I’d written about a couple of times, at the end of the summer I was reading a collection of Turgenev’s stories that I enjoyed very much, which encouraged me to pick up a collection of Dostoevsky’s shorter works that I’ve had lying about for, well, years, and have been wanting to crack open.  So I have.  I’ve been reading the collection’s opening tale, “The Double” (1846, trans. George Bird), and have found it a classic indeed.  Thus far it’s been both haunting and funny by turns.  The descriptive paragraphs are most remarkable.  Here’s the opening to one that I read over again and again because it’s just so good:

It was a dreadful night, a real November night, dark, misty, rainy and snowy, a night pregnant with colds, agues, quinsies, gumboils, and fevers of every conceivable shape and size — put in a nutshell, bestowing all the bounties of a St. Petersburg November. (p. 38, Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, ed. Ronald Hingley, Perennial Classic, 1968)

There is much to love here, but I especially admire the image of the pregnant night and the sarcasm of referring to the bounties of such a night. My first encounter with Dostoevsky, I believe, was reading Crime and Punishment in a world lit seminar while working on my doctorate. I’m partly on my Russian writers kick because I’ve always been interested in their works but have managed to miss most of them in my life as a student — but also the great William Gaddis scholar Steven Moore said somewhere (maybe it was on the Gaddis list serve) that there hasn’t been much work done on the Russians’ influence of Gaddis’s fiction, and there ought to be. Moore’s comment, wherever I read it, has stuck with me, and I fancy that eventually I’ll try to connect some of the dots between Gaddis and the Russians.

In addition to Dostoevsky, I’ve spent the last couple of days reading through James W. Earl’s article “The Forbidden Beowulf: Haunted by Incest” in the March 2010 PMLA. I’m a great admirer of Earl’s Beowulf scholarship, and it was very useful to me when working on the Beowulf chapters of my dissertation, though I came to it rather late in the process. A fellow after my own academic heart, Earl brings much to bear on the poem from other (perhaps unexpected) disciplines — psychology, yes (which, of course, is expected), but, as in this article, a little astronomy and quantum physics as well.  He writes,

How can we tell whether an author knows or does not know such backstories [e.g., Homer’s knowing the judgment of Paris] if he or she does not tell them? The situation is a little like detecting dark matter in the universe: the best we can do is try to detect subtle distortions in the matter that we can see. (p. 289)

Something that I really appreciate about Earl’s technique in the article is that, while he does put forward a thesis, his organizational strategy is essentially thinking through the related issues and the various scholars who have weighed in on them, and considering how their views may affect his own leanings. He concludes his third paragraph by saying, “I pose many questions and try to untangle such a mess of evidence that it is bound to get confusing at times” (p. 289). His erudition is impressive, to put it mildly, yet his tone is . . . inviting, one might even say conversational, at times anyway — of course, it’s a conversation with a very learned scholar who wants you to be learned too, someday, if not today exactly. Earl suggests that the mood of foreboding that Beowulf tends to cast upon readers, experienced and inexperienced ones alike, has more to do with what’s not said in the poem than what is on the page:

Beowulf is haunted by these [Scylding] analogues, and much of what is disturbing about the poem is due to this haunting. The poem is disturbing in many ways, among them the feeling one gets after long familiarity with it that something is missing, that something important is not said — or, as Freud might say, that something is repressed. (p. 292)

Given my interests in the psychic origins of creativity — of creating fictive narrative especially — Earl’s observations are most provocative.

On the creative writing front, the editor of Pisgah Review, Jubal Tiner, suggested that my story “The Composure of Death” should keep its title, but that we use the quote from Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” — where I derive the phrase — as an epigraph to the story: a good suggestion indeed. I sent an electronic copy of the story, epigraph included, to Jubal last week. I’m not sure which issue the story will appear in.

With the arrival of September, the floodgates have opened and lit journals across the land are accepting submissions again. As such, I’ve been busily getting “Melvill in the Marquesas” (the opening chapter of my unpublished novella Weeping with an Ancient God) in the mail (e- or otherwise). In the process of looking for journals to send it to, I came across a unique one: Textofiction, which is “an online literary publication dedicated to bringing the best writing in under 140 characters” — clearly inspired by Twitter. When I was working on my masters, Kent Haruf (who ended up being my thesis chair) liked to begin writing workshops by having us write complete stories in under 250 words, and that was a challenge. I’m not sure how one writes a complete story in 140 characters or less. I’ll have to keep an eye on the journal to see what writers come up with.

As far as  I know, my publisher, Punkin House Press, is still planning on releasing Men of Winter in October, but I haven’t seen a page proof or a cover design yet; perhaps soon.

tedmorrissey.com

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