The Chumps of Choice

A Congenial Spot for the Discussion of Against the Day, by Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Cornell '59, and Any Other Damned Thing That Comes Into Our Heads. Warning: Grad Students and Willie-Wavers will be mocked.

Monday, June 25, 2007

"Hand Me That Jar of Cosmoline!"

pp. 712-723

Venedig in Wien (Source)

We're still with Cyprian in this section. As the chapter opens, we are given a fairly blatant hint from Mister P. that it might be of some benefit to throw on the family Victrola the music that's going on "either inside or outside of [Cyprian's] head," the Adagio movement from Mozart's Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488.

So let's give that a shot, shall we? (Pops a new window. Fazil Say, Howard Griffiths and the Zürcher Kammerorchester, November 2006.)

In your reporter's view, Pynchon, while of course an astonishingly deep writer on a mindbendingly large volume of topics, is at his most insightful and masterful on the topic of music. I think of what I call the "Rock and Roll Chapter" of Mason & Dixon, which depends for its fullest effect on the reader's knowledge of Platonic philosophy, eighteenth-century polyphony and the evolution of musical keys, the origin of the American National Anthem in a drinking-song, and the history of the Blues. It is, trust me, a stunner.

Cyprian isn't actually listening to the music, which, says Our Tom, "might have been prophetic"; the convoluted sentence that follows is a corker, punning on "romance/Romance," (that is, the emotion and the artistic style, in the time of this scene a dying genre) and hinting very darkly at "a hateful future nearly at hand and inescapable." Read that into the little tune you're listening to now....

Cyprian's in Vienna, Mozart's home when he composed this Concerto, being debriefed (ouch!) at the Hotel Klomser. I confess I'm a little unclear on whether Colonel Khäutsch -- Franz Ferdinand's minder in Chicago and recently reunited with Lew Basnight -- is the same person as the Colonel who debriefed Cyprian in a rather different sense in the last chapter. Accompanying illustrations really should be compulsory, don't you think?

The coffee's very good, it seems, as one would expect from Vienna, as are the pastries Cyprian's glomming during his interviews. It's always a pleasure to pick up a new word; apparently a "little-go" is a British university word for a minor mid-term exam.

We learn that Derrick Theign (interesting spelling for that first name) has extensive contacts in Vienna; we meet three of them: Miskolci, "not exactly a vampire" but certainly given to the occasional nip in the neck; Dvindler, whose cure for constipation had me squirming a bit in my seat; and Yzhitza, a specialist in erotic "Honigfalle [what we'd call 'honey-trap'] work" who's good enough at her work that even the "ambivalent" Theign gets a rod-on.

Cyprian, who's put on a pound or two from all the pastry, is given to evening jaunts to "his old sanctuary of desire," the Prater, a large public park in Vienna. The events that lead Cyprian into this nostalgia must have taken place offstage -- or at least at some point in the book where I wasn't paying the strictest attention, because they're a mystery to me. Clearly, now, he's cruising the park for boys, but his recent weight-gain earns him only rejection as a Fettarsch (fat-ass). He now chooses other haunts in the city, and in so doing keeps "blundering into huge Socialist demonstrations" ("talk about the slow return of the repressed!" is a nice Marxo-Freudian pun) where he occasionally gets his head busted by the pigs.

On one of these jaunts, he hears from an open window a piano student, "forever to remain invisible" (why???) playing a common piano exercise by Carl Czerny. (iTunes strikes out on Op. 299, but search on Czerny with it and you'll quickly get the idea: early nineteenth-century didactic -- formal, stiff and very Classical.) As the notes play out their "passionate emergence among the mechanical fingerwork," who should pop around the corner but ol' Yashmeen Halfcourt. The music's the cause of their meeting; "if he had not stopped for the music, he would have been around another corner by the time she reached the spot where he was standing."

Yashmeen's working at a milliner's, a job she thinks has been arranged for her by T.W.I.T.; one of Snazzbury's Silent Frocks showed up on the rack one day. She's aware of being followed around Vienna by someone "local. But some Russians as well." Cyprian reassures her that he can help her deal with the spies if she's willing to wait a few days.

They approach a simulacrum of Venice called Venedig in Wien. Yashmeen's hurting; she's doubtful about her future, and Cyprian's genuinely desperate to help. He calls on Ratty McHugh, the old school chum, who meets Cyprian and Yashmeen at the Dobner, a high-class cathouse, and repair to a safe-house of Ratty's. He plies her with questions about who's following her, and as she speaks, the depth of her predicament becomes desperately clear. Not only is she being dogged by Russians of unclear provenance, but a "Hungarian element" has entered the picture while she was offstage, "peculiar people in smocks... This sort of anti-fraud uniform everyone has to wear when they're doing research into...the 'parapsychical.'"

Ratty speculates that somebody among the T.W.I.T. contingent may have had a psychic foreshadowing of upcoming unpleasantness, because it seems they've all skipped town, leaving Yashmeen vulnerable. She thinks they had something going on behind her back, something malign, because "Whatever they had expected of me in Buda-Pesth, I had failed them."

A brief diversion to Buda-Pesth, (the mention of Váci út gives it away) where the T.W.I.T. contingent is bickering; Swome, bitched at by the Cohen, offers to stick the telephone earpiece up his ass. This scenelet turns out to have been related to Ratty by Yashmeen -- a neat little authorial trick.

Yasmeen brightens after her chat with Ratty. "Lovely to see you back to your old self," compliments Cyps. "And who would that be?" shoots back Yash. (Zing!) They go out walking on the Spittelberggasse, where prostitutes (a lot of them in this chapter, no?) display their wares in shop windows. One of them is a dominatrix, and at the sight of her, Cyprian gets himself a stiffie (lot of them in this chapter, too!) Noting this, Yash takes him into a café to discuss Cyps's "frightfully irregular" sex life. Cyps describes himself as a "catamite," a kept boy, whose "pleasure has never really mattered. Least of all to me."

Yash, ever-helpful, places her "closely laced wine-cordovan boot" (grrrrowl!) against Cyps's willie and does the kind deed under the "virginal tablecloth." Cyps goes Number Three in his pants. He is now A Man! Perhaps even, mirabile dictu, a Straight Man!

Cut to Venice. Derrick Theign is not at all pleased that Cyprian now has a "sweetheart." While his displeasure appears to arise for professional reasons, there is throughout his tirade (a pretty funny one, btw) a strong hint of sexual jealousy -- not of Yashmeen, but of Cyprian. The coin finally drops for Cyps: "Derrick. You want me to assault you... If this isn't as manly as it gets."

The closely laced wine-cordovan boot, it seems, is now on the other foot.

Suggested Discussion

In my own small way I'm just as fucked-up as Cyprian Latewood. (Oh! I just got that name!) So how come no Yashmeen Halfcourt's ever given me a spontaneous foot-job under a Viennese café table? Discuss. At length.

10 Comments:

At Tuesday, June 26, 2007 6:23:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Ned sed: or at least at some point in the book where I wasn't paying the strictest attention . . .

698:11-12 - Cyprian's descent into the secret world had begun [. . .] in the course of another evening of mindless trolling about the Prater.

I do think Colonel Khautsh (pron: couch??) is the same fellow whose taste for inflicting sexual torture is in line with Cyprian's avidity for receiving it.

In all candor, the exasperation I felt in the section previous has lingered. The air may be filled with music and menace, but what exactly - aside from ill-defined forbodings of a Hell just under the horizon - is at stake here?

We are given more glimpses, themselves not unentertaining, of a sexual underworld, and told that it links, in ways utterly opaque to the reader, with rings of espionage, such as the one run by Derrick Theign, but -- so what?

Now I suppose it is enough to be a pawn in Pynchon's game, as the sympathy in all his novels is for pawns over the kings, knights, and bishops. However, and here perhaps I am being harsh, does anyone really care about Cyprian and Yashmeen here? Has the reader grown so attached to them that he or she doesn't care why they are being run by diverse shadowy forces from pillar to post (or Vienna to Venice)?

It is fine to send characters through a shadow world where, for example, the Great Powers' search for a mythic city takes on the import of the Trans Siberian railway, however the presented shadows then need either an emotional weight or a clearly defined mission (what Hitchcock called the MacGuffin.) to bind the reader to the tale.

 
At Tuesday, June 26, 2007 6:33:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Pynchon is at his most insightful and masterful on the topic of music

Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 makes a great companion to AtD. Of special interest are the chapters on anarchism and the one called "Neroism is in the Air," centering on Richard Strauss but radiating across all the arts. It captures the German (and Austrian) version of that sense of feverish, this-can't-go-on brilliance in the Melanie section of V.

 
At Tuesday, June 26, 2007 6:52:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Will, I don't find the setting as arbitrary and McGuffinish as you do. Austro-Hungary was desperately worried about Slavs, Moslems, restive Hungarians, and increasingly big-brother Germany as well as Serbia. England and Russia did have (or think they should have) irons in the fire from Berlin to Baghdad. And a striking number of political and espionage scandals of this period did turn on sexual blandishment and blackmail. For an Anglospheric equivalent, think of Roger Casement.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Casement

 
At Tuesday, June 26, 2007 6:56:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

The problem I have is the lack of a MacGuffin here. Yeah, all that Austro-Hungarian history is simmering somewhere, but exactly what bearing it has on Cyprian and Yash in the course of the story is left pretty damn hazy.

 
At Thursday, June 28, 2007 4:58:00 PM, Blogger sfmike said...

I loved Neddie's identification with our dear Cyprian: "In my own small way I'm just as fucked-up as Cyprian Latewood. So how come no Yashmeen Halfcourt's ever given me a spontaneous foot-job under a Viennese café table?" I've often thought the same thing.

And since you did such a great job on the other German slang such as "fat ass," how would you translate "Dickwanst"?

The "Electricity! the force of the future" dude with his jar of Cosmoline also made my pooper pucker, and I'm glad we didn't have to dwell in the suburban baths with Derrick too long.

Carl Czerny, by the way, isn't known for his "Classical" style so much as his for his Mechanical Style, having written reams and reams of music that aren't so much for listening as they are for practicing one's pianistic "velocity." They are really quite fun to play, like scales on steroids, with the occasional "passionate emergence among the mechanical fingerwork."

I also enjoyed the exchange between Ratty and Cyprian as the former is asking Yashmeen what kind of Russians are after her (page 718:31): "For or against the Tsar I mean, it does make a difference...the other lot, though technically Russians I suppose, are also the most evil sort of bomb-chucking Socialistic dregs aren't they, more than happy to see all Romanoffs obliterated, and no hesitation to make deals with anyone, including Germany, that might hasten the day." "Why, Ratty," said Cyprian, mild as could be. "Some would say they're the only hope Russia has."

Good for Cyprian, the instinctive Socialist dreg with an upper-class English exterior. And I do find the phrase "hasten the day" interesting in this context.

Will: I don't quite understand why you think this section is any more arbitrary and hazy than any other section of this book. I'm just coasting along on faith that there is a reason behind all of it and noting the particulars as I float by.

 
At Thursday, June 28, 2007 5:40:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

German compound word (aren't they all?)

Dick = Thick

Wanst = Something neither BabelFish nor my little OSX desktop translator doohickey seems to have heard of. Waist? Middle? (Guessing... Might be Austrian slang, which would explain its absence from a "standard" German dictionary.)

I do think Colonel Khautsh (pron: couch??)

The umlaut over the U indicates to pronounce it Khoitsch (soft K to begin). You wouldn't remember the joke in Gravity's Rainbow, where a woman, unable to pronounce umlauted German vowels, trying to yell "Hübsch Raüber!" ("cute robber!" --"raüber" having that same ""oi" sound as in "Khaütsch") -- and it comes out "Hubschrauber" ("screwlifter") and gives somebody the idea to invent a helicopter?

Miiiiiighty long way to go for a pretty dreadful pun.

 
At Thursday, June 28, 2007 5:44:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

Good for Cyprian, the instinctive Socialist dreg with an upper-class English exterior.

Jesus! It's only just hit me, but Cyprian is a direct antecedent of the Philby/Burgess/MacLean Cambridge Five spy ring... Same fey aesthetic, same squishy ideology...

 
At Saturday, June 30, 2007 7:17:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

From sfmike: Will: I don't quite understand why you think this section is any more arbitrary and hazy than any other section of this book.

The short, churlish, answer is that I'm getting tired of it. But, really, a hazy and arbitrary plot design is fine so long as there are characters you can cling to, sympathize with, root for -- however you'd like to think of it.

(How I was educated to consider it the author's responsibility to his or her readers, and characters, to engage this sympathy in as complete a way as possible, I will leave for another day.)

While Pynchon has done the spade work for the Traverses, the Chums and Lew Basnight, I, personally, find precious little reason to care for Cyp and Yash at this advanced juncture. Their characters, I think, are too slight for the job their author gives them.

Now, I am happy to follow along and see what transpires. AtD is consistantly entertaining. But literature should compell the reader to care, to be swept up, as-to be sure-I was swept up by GR, M&D, and even Vineland. At this stage in a very long novel one should feel pulled forward, not left to mark time.

 
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