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, August 06, 2007

European Apocalypse Pools

Map of Eastern Europe 1878, with the Ottoman Empire to the South and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the North.

pp 806-820

Following Decency Jigsaw's example from last week, let's start with numerological chapter and verse, this being Chapter 57 which consists of ten smaller installments that can be divided into three larger groups.


It's October of 1908 and "all hell" breaks loose when Austria announces its annexation of Bosnia, with Theign visiting Cyprian in Trieste at Bevis Moistleigh's underground crypto shop. Theign orders Cyprian on a dangerous mission in the Balkans and tells him to take Bevis along "if you feel you need a bodyguard." Though Moistleigh agrees to join Cyprian, he's also horrified by Theign once again after the latter gives them an absurdly undetailed map (page 807:11): "No, no, he doesn't care, can't you see that, none of the details matter to him, not only the map, he knows we won't live long enough to use it..."

Also being banished at the same time is Yashmeen in Vienna, who finds her dress shop suddenly closed and her landlady calling her a Jew Pig before evicting her, which leads Pynchon to a rumination about longtime Viennese mayor Karl Lueger and the city's anti-semitism which "really went far beyond feelings, had become a source of energy, tremendous dark energy that could be tapped in to like an electric main for specific purposes, a way to a political career...or in Yashmeen's case a simple method of chasing somebody out of town" (807:39). The short section ends with a visit from Cyprian, presumably to Vienna, where he tells her she should leave and come join him in Trieste. Cyprian makes fun of the Viennese calling Trieste a Jewish city with "they think Shanghai is a Jewish city" which leads to Yashmeen's "Well, actually..." (Click the link here to get the joke.)

In the third vignette, Cyprian meets up with old schoolmate Ratty in Graz, and the latter gives an entertaining account of all the double-dealing going on with the Bosnian Crisis (click on the link for a good, short Wikipedia account that unties a lot of knots). The Austrian foreign minister, "the vile Aurenthal," was seemingly the Henry Kissinger of his time. Ratty expresses concern for Cyprian's safety on his dangerous mission, but all Cyprian really cares about is securing Yashmeen's safety, and Ratty promises to do his best while reminding Cyprian that there is "his own op, the neo-Uskok chap, Vlado Clissan, as well" who conveniently hates Theign.


Yashmeen takes a train from Vienna to Trieste where she stays at a pensione in the nightwalking ladies' section of the Old City which Cyprian has secretly arranged for her.

In Venice, Cyprian asks Theign for protection for Yashmeen (811:26), but is rudely turned down because Yashmeen "is a person of interest to the Okhrana...with the Anglo-Russian understanding still so new, so fearfully sensitive, we must all support F.O. in this, set aside our unimportant little personal dreams and wishes mustn't we." Cyprian replies that "We had an agreement. and you might as well be an Austrian double, you contemptible pile of shit." This sets Theign to slapping, which Cyprian artfully dodges, and finally Theign says "I suppose you want to be released from your end of the agreement," but Cyprian says no, which puzzles both Theign and Max Khautsch in Vienna when they gossip about it later. "Perhaps," Khautsch would speculate in the peculiar whisper he reserved for shop talk, "he is tired, and wishes for an end."

Cyprian takes a train to Trieste and tells Yashmeen the bad news, but she takes it calmly, and Cyprian marvels "at the ease with which she could let hope glide away."

The final vignette in the section is a beautiful scene on the Trieste waterfront as Cyprian and Yashmeen say goodbye together, and Cyprian resolves not to cry. In a flashback, we are told that the last time he had cried was "one drunken evening in Vienna after discovering Derrick Theign in the embrace of a miserable little five-kroner Strichmadchen." Still, his resolve dissolves when embarking on his boat and a waterfront band strikes up that classic of Victoriana, "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma Variations," Cyprian "felt the taps opening decisively."

Senj Nejahgrad castle, 1558.


Yashmeen adopts a stray cat and names her Cyprienne, and "one day" finds herself in a bora wind which causes her mathematical brain to start whirling again, "into her old Zetamania." She ruminates and almost solves Ramananujan's Formula before the vision disappears. (Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar, 1887-1920, from India is another weird historical mathematical genius in a book literally peppered with them. Click here for a short, interesting article.). The wind blows Yashmeen's hat away, undoes her hair, and lifts her skirts just in time for Vlado Clissan to meet up with her in a doorway, "and in the moment one of his hands had seized her, down between her bared legs" and a wild stand-up public sex scene ensues.

The sexual affair continues, hot and heavy with "Sur savam!" being screamed during the many orgasms both in Trieste and at Vlado's digs in Venice, where Yashmeen ends up spending more and more time.

The final vignette is a train trip the couple make to Fiume (now called Rijeka in Croatia) and a boat ride to Zengg (now called Senj in Croatia) where Vlado gives a short history of the Croatian Uskoks and their ambivalent relationship with Venice. "You were pirates," Yashmeen said, and "Vlado made a face. We try to avoid that word," and then tells her that his people always root for "Antonio to come to grief" in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," a feeling I sometimes share with the Uskoks. Yashmeen accuses, "You ate people's hearts, so the stories go." and Vlado shrugs it off with "Myself, personally? no. Raw heart is an acquired taste." After he leaves on a day-long mission, and Yashmeen makes it to a little church "kneeling and praying for his safety," Vlado returns and fucks her "savagely from behind," sending Yashmeen into involuntary orgasm and the cry, "You have eaten my heart."


At Wednesday, August 08, 2007 7:09:00 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

Cyprian is is one of the most intriguing characters of the story. When we first meet him he seems the emotional opposite of the Traverses. Femmy, out of control, obsessed with Yashmeen. No obvous containment or toughness or independence. I am not quite sure where the pull to espionage and service to empire fits in. Ideas? But his experience with Theign(thane |θān| noun historical (in Anglo-Saxon England) a man who held land granted by the king or by a military nobleman, ranking between an ordinary freeman and a hereditary noble. • (in Scotland) a man, often the chief of a clan, who held land from a Scottish king and ranked with an earl's son. One also thinks of the thanitoids from the land of the dead) has disabused him about the nobility of those he works for. His love for Yashmeen is real enough that we begin to see changes, a deepening, a questioning. Cyprian , Yashmeen and Vlado are all caught between warring intrigues, wrung tighter by the twists of the great game.

At Sunday, August 12, 2007 2:14:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Dear Brooktrout: Thanks for the memory jog. Macbeth is addressed by the first two witches in Shakespeare's play as "Thane of Glamis" and "Thane of Cawdor."

And fellow Chumps, I know it's summer holiday and everything, but the lack of feedback after putting in quite a bit of time and energy putting this week's summary together is sort of insulting. I'll try not to take it personally.

At Sunday, August 12, 2007 4:47:00 PM, Blogger i am he said...

I agree, sfmike. Now, of course, I'm new here (first entry) and while I wish I could contribute somethin enlightening, all I can really put in is thank you, Thank you, Thank You for working up all the effort in this Chumps site. I'm with you guys on the pages but this is my second time through reading AtD and what I'm coming to see--or probably more accurate would be to say, suppose (project, even?)--is a likely/alternate/possible/probable kind of fringe history of the twentieth century formation of what we now know as the modern middle east. That is, this deal with Cyprian being tossed to and fro as kind of an instrument to show the complicated and, in retrospect, generally regarded as ignorant and prejudice-ridden (soiled and corrupted) correspondences between the intelligence forces who would later assume control of the various portions of Ottoman territory. Perhaps Cyp's escapades could be reflections of England's growing nervous and disinterested in governing less local sections (Ireland) of its Empire and miring itself in the mess of Europe's politics.

These are all big stretches so apologies, all, for time wasting. Best wishes, in any event!

At Sunday, August 12, 2007 6:55:00 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

Ben, I don't don't think the stretch is so big. I think that alternate history is a big part part of what P is doing, showing the depth of global reach of the contending empires and omnivorous appetites for resources and control of the Imperial players.

I found the scene in Baku horrific and enlightening in this regard. The battle for control of Oil in this region going further back than I understood. I think WW1 is the war least understood by Americans and that is a great loss, with the consquences of our ignorance being played out by the Butch oil-baby neo Nazi con-men.

I think part of what distinguishes this chapter is the focus on the emotional lives of the characters which P is often accused of neglecting.

At Monday, October 29, 2007 7:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi,sfmike, please don't take the scarcity of comments a personal insult, though the cooling down of this group-reading campaign is indeed frustrating.

Millions of thanks for your lucid summation and carefully selected pictures, which means so much for my first read.

I've read every post you chums contributed to this congenial place. I bet Ol' Tom is also an anonymous visitor who might grin upon reading our far-fetched speculations.

I'm a grad student from China and English is my acquired language. I appreciate what you've done for all Pynchonites, especially those from non-English-speaking places.


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