Friday, July 31, 2020

Bouvard and Pécuchet I

I'm in my usual summer lull, in which I don't read much, and have chosen this novel by Gustave Flaubert because, for literature, it is fairly light reading. On the surface, it is simple, about the lives of two middle-aged French copy-clerks who take up various hobbies and, after failing at one, simply move on to another. The tone is that of a farce or comedy, but I am hoping that something more substantial will emerge – it may not. So far, in some respects, it isn't entirely different from Madame Bovary, in the sense that a person's obsessions can be a sign of poor judgment, and, if never examined, can lead to tragedy. I was never sure how sympathetic Flaubert felt toward Emma Bovary as she pursued a life of folly until it did her in. Something of the same mood exists in this book, but, since Flaubert never finished it, dying at the age of fifty-eight, there may be no clear answer. It is possible that, like me, Flaubert noticed the role of stupidity in people's lives, and that he wanted to sum up his thoughts on the topic in a literary fashion. Now as much as at any time in the past, it is easy to identify the blunders that people make and the sometimes-disastrous consequences. However, I'm not counting on that from Flaubert and am just taking the book as I read it. Flaubert did an enormous amount of research for this book, because he wanted to familiarize himself with the subjects that Bouvard and Pécuchet pursued. It is a bit of a challenge to contextualize much of the action, given that most of the books available to someone at that time would have been riddled with inaccuracies. But it is still relatively simple to identify the conspicuous blunders made by the protagonists. 

Bouvard is a widowed bachelor who runs into Pécuchet, a never-married bachelor, one day on the streets of Paris. They discover that they both have a passion for exploring new fields, and when Bouvard inherits a large sum from his deceased father, he and Pécuchet retire in order to pursue their ideal lives. Bouvard buys a manor house and farm in Normandy, near Caen, and farming and gardening become their first hobbies, though they had some experience with gardening in Paris. They rush headlong into the latest techniques that they've read about, and one plan after another backfires. Though they do consult local farmers, their farming experience culminates in a huge fire, apparently caused by spontaneous combustion, which destroys their haystacks. After this, they turn over the farming to a tenant and become interested in medicine. That leads them to try out cures on the locals and eventually brings them into conflict with the town doctor, who threatens to have them arrested for practicing medicine without a license. Their next hobbies become geology and natural history, which result in their causing a landslide while digging for fossils on a coastal bluff. Since Flaubert was a contemporary of Darwin, it is interesting to me that he knew something about evolution and modern geology – yet Bouvard and Pécuchet are unable to persuade a priest that the biblical flood doesn't explain some geological formations. After hearing the priest's arguments, they give up on geology.

I still have seven chapters left and will comment as I go. It occurs to me that Flaubert lived at a time when the phenomenon of the amateur hobbyist was at a peak. As Thomas Piketty has noted, during the late nineteenth century in France and England there was excessive wealth. Hobbyists in England were churning out inventions and scientific ideas at a phenomenal rate, and I assume that the same occurred in France. I am reminded not only of people like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, but of literary people such as G.H. Lewes. After working as a failed dramatist and novelist, although he lacked the resources to become a full-time hobbyist, Lewes undertook private research in marine biology. It seems likely that Flaubert was acquainted with many such hobbyists, and perhaps, in combination with a personal skepticism regarding scientific progress, he found them to be a good topic for satire. Some reviewers think that Bouvard and Pécuchet represents the first postmodern novel, but I think it is more likely that it is a satirical skewering of some of Flaubert's contemporaries. Even so, Flaubert usually portrays his characters sympathetically.

In any case, Flaubert writes with such precision that he's always a pleasure to read – even in translation. Describing Bouvard and Pécuchet during their brief infatuation with chemistry, he writes:

What a marvel it was to find that human beings were composed of the same substances as minerals. Still, they felt a kind of humiliation at the thought that their persons contained phosphorus like matches, albumen like egg whites, and hydrogen gas like street lamps. 

Monday, July 20, 2020


I finished reading Mary Trump's book and didn't find it enlightening at all. From reading it, you would never know that she is a Ph.D. psychologist, and the book was obviously rushed to press: it contains typos. I think that her level of analysis is crude, and too much of the book is devoted to salvaging the reputation of her father, Fred Trump, Jr., and blaming Fred Trump, Sr. From the information provided, I think that Fred Trump, Sr. was a fairly typical entrepreneur, not a sociopath, as she describes him. Successful entrepreneurs tend to be miserly, scheming and slightly dishonest, and that more or less sums him up. The fact that he had a cold, Germanic personality, I think, is incidental. Though his wife was Scottish, everyone in the family, including Mary, seems cold and tone-deaf. At times she also tries to portray Donald as a victim of abusive parenting, offering the standard theory used in developmental psychology. I think that the primary cause of coldness is in the family's genes.

The actual story of interest, which Mary doesn't describe accurately, is simply one of management succession in a family business, and in this respect the Trumps were hardly unique. The only one who knew the business – or cared about it – was Fred, Sr. The eldest son, as is usually the case, was the designated successor, and, as is quite common, he took no interest in it. Fred, Jr. grew up wealthy and liked rich-kid hobbies such as flying and boating, which his father considered frivolous. Fred, Jr. also seems to have been psychologically weak: he married badly, became an alcoholic, and died at the age of forty-two. Although Donald was not by disposition suited to running a real estate company, his father propped him up and allowed him to be the front man for the company, which was about all that Donald was good for.

Mary doesn't mention another obviously problematic real estate company succession example: the Durst family. The Dursts were far more prominent in New York City real estate than the Trumps and had done well in Manhattan, where Fred, Sr. hadn't. As a family, if anything, the Dursts were more dysfunctional than the Trumps. The successor to Seymour Durst was expected to be his eldest son, Robert. However, Robert didn't like the work and dropped out of management there. The current head of the Durst Organization is Robert's younger brother, Douglas. Rather than dying young from alcoholism, Robert went on to become a probable serial killer and is currently on trial, at the age of seventy-seven, for the murder of his friend, Susan Berman. Although the Dursts have their share of problems, on the whole they seem more sophisticated than the Trumps.

Mary Trump's book does include some new information, such as the fact that Donald hired someone to take the SAT for him, which helped him gain admission to the University of Pennsylvania. She also discusses Donald's attempt to assume full control of the Trump Organization by adding a codicil to Fred, Sr.'s will – which failed. There is also some discussion of probable tax evasion by Fred, Sr. and his children, which came to light earlier in the New York Times. Where Mary is accurate, I think, is in her depiction of Donald as a narcissistic person who eschews details and is used to getting his way by bullying. She makes clear that Donald was never a success in business and was propped up financially by Fred, Sr. for years. As soon as he started his own initiatives, such as his casinos in Atlantic City, they began to fail. His depiction of himself as self-made is a lie. The more that you look into Donald's background, the more obvious it becomes that he could never be anything other than a completely incompetent president.

In other news, I've been doing a little more stargazing and looked at the comet NEOWISE. It was larger than expected, and you can see it with the naked eye, but it shows more detail in binoculars. This comet was only discovered in March and won't be back for 6766 years. If you look north after sunset, it sits below the Big Dipper. It can be seen whenever it's dark, but will soon be moving out of view. Since it's far to the north, it may not be visible from the southern hemisphere.

I also came across these photos, which I think are very good. Most were taken locally in Addison County.

Monday, July 13, 2020


I've been reading Carl Zuckmayer's autobiography, A Part of Myself, which was published in 1966, to fill in some of the details left out of his wife's book. He is far more specific than Alice is about their New York and Los Angeles periods. Their journey to the U.S. was greatly facilitated by Dorothy Thompson, an American journalist whom Zuck had met in Germany. She was extremely well known at the time and was married to Sinclair Lewis. When they arrived at Ellis Island, they were initially quite apprehensive, but they soon discovered that Dorothy had arranged for Franklin Roosevelt to recommend their entry. Furthermore, Dorothy was the person who introduced them to Barnard, Vermont: she had a house there and invited them up.

Zuck and Alice eventually got an apartment in upper Manhattan, and while in New York they visited many friends and acquaintances from Europe. Soon Zuck traveled alone to Hollywood, where he also had several friends. However, he was not impressed with the environment:

In Hollywood, too, there were many invitations at the beginning, but in contrast to New York, life was very expensive. In order to count for anything you had to live in a top-class hotel or have your own showy home. To prove yourself, you had to frequent the expensive restaurants of the movie industry's upper crust. Moreover, if you wanted to 'belong' permanently, you had to be issuing invitations yourself. You had to act as if you were rich and happy—nowhere have I heard the word 'happy' so often as in that anteroom to hell called Hollywood. And since nobody was, everyone drifted into drinking even when he was in no mood for it, and ended up in a morass of joyless, humorless, and dreary night life.

Some weeks after 'happiness' had come to me in the form of a contract and a weekly paycheck, I happened to be attending a Sunday afternoon party at Max Reinhardt's house. Almost the entire German colony was present. 'I'm not staying here long,' I remarked. 'This is no life for me.' Those words provoked roars of laughter. Everybody, I was told, had said the same thing after three weeks, everybody in this room, but they were all still here—some of them had been for many years. The check...Where else in America could you drift so comfortably?

...In spite of the check, in spite of the presence of so many friends, Hollywood did not make me 'happy.' Never have I been so wrapped in the mists of depression as in this land of eternal spring, in whose irrigated gardens, with their chlorinated swimming pools and dream castles perched on the slopes of canyons, short-lived pleasure is at home, while in the depths sprawls a dreary, murderous wasteland: the city of Los Angeles, one of the ugliest and most brutal metropolises in the world.

Alice also spent time on the West Coast, and they stayed briefly in San Francisco. However, Zuck gave up on a Hollywood career when he discovered that there was no demand for his work, and that the only work available to him was hack writing for the studios. Back in New York he found a low-paying job teaching in the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research, and by the spring of 1941 he was planning to move to Barnard permanently and become a farmer. He received a generous advance from Alfred Harcourt but saw no future in writing for American audiences. Their financial condition wasn't good at that point, and Alice was depending on hand-me-down clothing from Dorothy. The farming plan actually proved to be quite efficient, because, after an initial outlay for equipment and animals, they paid only $50 per month rent for the house and one hundred eighty acres. The play that Zuck wrote during this period later turned out to be a great success.

I find it interesting that Zuck had much the same reaction to the U.S. as Czeslaw Milosz did immediately after the war. Of course, I've lived here longer than either of them and had much the same reaction when I came to understand it. My affinity for Vermont is much the same as Zuck's.

I don't have much of a personal nature to report at the moment. A bear came last night, pushed over the bird feeder pole and ate the nyjer seeds in the tubes by breaking them open. That is the first time that a bear has eaten nyjer seeds here. It could be because there aren't enough berries to eat due to the dry weather, or perhaps because the bear population density is increasing. I'm going to stop feeding the birds until December, when the bears go into hibernation. The stargazing conditions have been poor, with the moon up at night, though I did get glimpses of Jupiter and Saturn. So far this year there hasn't been an extremely clear night. But both telescopes are still set up. I am at a loss for good reading material and will be reading Mary Trump's Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man. There probably isn't much reason to comment on it, but I felt that I would like to know what an insider who also happens to be a psychologist has to say about her uncle. Even though Donald Trump has nothing but deficiencies, we are stuck with him, and this is going to be the Trump era whether we like it or not. With any luck, he will disappear from the news in a few months.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Farm in the Green Mountains

This memoir, first published in Germany in 1949, covers the lives of Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer and her family while they lived in Vermont during World War II. Alice was born in Austria to a wealthy family. Her second husband, Carl Zuckmayer ("Zuck"), was born into a wealthy German family. They met in Berlin and married. She had a daughter from her first marriage, and they soon had another daughter. Zuck was a successful playwright, and he had also written the screenplay to "The Blue Angel," the popular film starring Marlene Dietrich. Zuck had served during World War I in the German army, but he became out of favor as Hitler rose to power, because one of his plays was a satirical portrait of the rise of militarism in Germany. They lived in Germany and had a house in Austria, but in 1938 they moved to Chardonne-sur-Vevey in Switzerland because of Nazi pressure. In 1939, when they were officially exiled from both Germany and Austria, they decided to move to the U.S. Ironically, although they both had Jewish ancestries – a fact that doesn't come up in the book – that apparently had nothing to do with their exile.

During their first three years in the U.S., which are not described in detail, they spent summers in Barnard, Vermont and had an apartment in New York City. Zuck apparently also spent time in Los Angeles, but, although no details are provided, he seems to have given up entirely on the idea of writing screenplays in Hollywood. Thus, in late 1941, they decided to move from New York City and live for the duration on a rented farm in Barnard, known as Backwoods Farm, which was different from the ones they had occupied on the previous summers. The U.S. entered the war that year, and most of the book describes the details of life on the farm, where they lived until 1946, at which point they returned to Switzerland and lived in Saas-Fee.

I was interested to know what life was like in Vermont then. Barnard is located in Windsor County, which is adjacent to Addison County, and we drove through there last fall on the way back from Woodstock. Their farmhouse was primitive by current standards, and all of the heating was done with wood and coal. Although they had enough money to build large new chicken coops and send their daughters away to school, they do not seem to have grasped how much labor would be involved when they purchased chickens, ducks, geese, goats and pigs. Operating on a European model, they must have thought that cheap labor would be available when they needed it, but it wasn't. Then and now, most small farms, with the exception of dairies and orchards, require no employees, as nearly all of the work can be done by family members. The physical labor at times became overwhelming, and during wartime there were even fewer adults available to help them. Nevertheless, Zuck enjoyed the lifestyle and even managed to write a play, which became a hit when they returned to Europe. Although they were Germans living in the U.S. during the war, there was no stigma placed on them, and they were merely required to remove the shortwave components of their radio and were not permitted to own guns.

They were shocked by the severity of the winters, which were extremely cold, though I think the temperatures are exaggerated a little, and the snow made travel difficult. Mud season was also bad for travel, since few roads were paved. The chapters each describe specific events that occurred during their stay. Perhaps the most harrowing was the sudden and enduring attack by Norway rats, which chewed their way into the chicken coops and ate the chicks. Eventually, with poison, they killed most of the rats, and finally the remaining rats left. They relied heavily on the USDA for information and found it quite helpful. Many of their household items were purchased from the Sears, Roebuck catalog.

Portraits emerge of the Vermonters who helped them, and they sound much the same as Vermonters today. Their telephone was on a nine-party line, and they got to know their neighbors quite well. My theory is that a sort of natural selection occurred in Vermont, with the people who stuck around being less interested in acquiring wealth and more interested in quiet country lives than those who moved off because they were more financially ambitious. Most of the people who moved here from the late 1700's to early 1800's seem to have moved west by the mid-1800's.

At times it seems that Alice was rather depressed, though she describes this only obliquely. Her relationship with Zuck is never examined closely, though on the surface it seems harmonious. One of her hobbies was making solo trips to the Dartmouth College library, which were harrowing experiences during the winter. I think that she wanted to be a literary person, like Zuck, and the stated origin of this book, as letters to his parents written after the war, seems contrived. However, there can be no question that their Vermont experience was truly moving to both of them, and they briefly attempted to live here again after the war but gave up due to various practical considerations. As I've mentioned before, the U.S. has been alluring to many, but those who have other options often choose not to stay. Certainly there are better places to live for civilized people, and everyone seems to come here for money.

Alice's writing is occasionally rather poetic:

That was the house in which I was to live now, and around the house were the meadows, and around the meadows the woods with their uncut underbrush.

There was a pond out of which dead trees stretched their arms like drowning people.

A brook flowed steeply down into a wood in which raccoons climbed up the trees, snuffling porcupines scraped and slid through the bushes. There were sometimes lynxes that crouched with glowing eyes on the rocks and screamed shrilly. 

There wildcats spat, there wild rabbits ran, there skunks shuffled and stamped, there a bear sat in the bushes and ate raspberries. In the autumn cranes flew over the woods to the pond, in the summer the hummingbirds whirred in front of the windows, unfamiliar birdsongs came from the trees, and in the shed giant spiders with mighty bodies sat in their webs.

At night the moon stood like a half-lowered sickle over the landscape with its strange animals.  

Zuck, much later, also wrote a memoir, which I have ordered. I'm not sure whether I'll read it closely, but I am curious as to some aspects of the story that Alice seems to have glossed over.