Wednesday, May 27, 2020

John Galsworthy's To Let (The Forsyte Saga 3)

"Soames Forsyte emerged from the Knightsbridge Hotel, where he was staying, in the afternoon of the 12th of May, 1920, with the intention of visiting a collection of pictures in a Gallery off Cork Street, and looking into the Future."

That's the opening of the third novel, To Let, of Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga. Twenty years--and World War I--have passed since the events of the second novel, and the Future is that much more present--and ominous. "The new generation mocked at anything solid and tenacious."

At least for Soames. Painting has moved beyond even the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, which were nothing but blurs and dots anyway. Taxes are going up and Labour could be elected on a platform of the confiscation of all property, at least as Soames sees it. And his beloved daughter Fleur is now nineteen, and looking for new males to conquer. Her father is no longer enough.

We remembered, or, if not, we're quickly reminded, there are two strands of the Forsyte family that don't get along at all: cousins Jolyon Forsyte and Soames Forsyte. Soames Forsyte is still absorbed in the idea of Irene, his first wife, who went on to marry Jolyon. Indeed there are two and only two women in Soames' life: his ex-wife Irene and his daughter Fleur. His second and current wife Annette exists on a distinctly lower plane.

Jolyon has a son, another Jolyon, called Jon, who's the same age as Fleur, and as that epigraph from Romeo and Juliet,
"From out the fatal loins of those two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life"
ought to make very clear, they're destined to meet and fall in love. Of course in Shakespeare, 'take their life' has a double meaning. Does it in To Let? Well, that would be telling.

Neither young Jon nor Fleur have any notion of the nature of the quarrel; at the beginning they barely know they even have these cousins. Various adults suggest they need to be told, but they aren't, and the lure of the forbidden only adds spice to the romance between these two eighteen-year-olds.

Unlike in Romeo and Juliet where the nature of the feud is largely unexplained--chalk it up to the sort of clannish political rivalry found in Renaissance towns--we know perfectly well why Soames and Irene can't bear the sight of each other. The drama is driven by how Future discovers the Past still exists and will impact its Present.

I thought this was very good, better than the second and as good as the first. (Well, a middle novel. What can you do?) Soames is rather a villain all the way through, uncertain to himself why, and certainly unable to articulate it. But I felt the second novel rather stacked the deck against him, while in the this one he was once again able to make his own mistakes.

Now I need to see the BBC mini-series version.

One other thing I wanted to note. I briefly alluded to it in my first post on the saga, and that's the prose. I mostly think it's pretty effective, but there are certainly some odd quirks in how he handles free indirect discourse:
"Where was Annette? With that chap, for all he knew--she was a young woman! Impressed with the queer charity of that thought, he entered the summerhouse and sat down. The fact was--and he admitted it--Fleur was so much to him that his wife was very little--very little; French--had never been much more than a mistress, and he was getting indifferent to that side of things! It was odd how, with all his ingrained care for moderation and secure investment, Soames ever put his emotional eggs into one basket. First Irene--now Fleur. He was dimly conscious of it, sitting there, conscious of its odd dangerousness. It had brought him to wreck and scandal once, but now--now it should save him! ... [skipped a spoilerish couple of sentences here] ... Fleur's future! 'I want fair sailing for her,' he thought. 'Nothing else matters at my time of life.' A lonely business--life! What you had you could never keep to yourself! As you warned one off, you let another in. One could make sure of nothing! He reached up and pulled a red rambler rose from a cluster which blocked the window. Flowers grew and dropped--Nature was a queer thing!"
There are eight (!) exclamation marks in that passage. A shocking thing! I was told by at least one writing teacher--advice I ignored--never to use them--ever. (Another said no dashes, and especially unpaired dashes. Oops.) It's pretty clear Galsworthy uses them to distinguish what are Soames' thoughts in free indirect discourse from the general flow of the paragraph. It's not the only thing he uses: repetition and dashes also function for that purpose: "very little--very little;" or "but now--now."

But the exclamation mark gives a certain breathlessness to Soames' thoughts. That may be OK in this passage. In the early part of the passage, we're told Soames' thoughts in something close to an authorial voice: "Impressed with the queer charity of that thought" or "he admitted it" or "dimly conscious." Later Soames' thoughts are actually quoted in words: "'I want fair sailing for her,' he thought." Also the use of exclamation marks builds up over its length so that most of them occur near the end of what I've quoted, at the moment of that rather symbolic rose. So well and good.

But Galsworthy uses exclamation marks to indicate everyone's interior consciousness in free indirect discourse! This isn't the only passage! So is everyone thinking breathlessly and excitedly? No--no, certainly not! Or, at least, not at all times! So, it's also a bit of a tick, one that I'm not sure Galsworthy has worked through and has entirely under his control. At the very least reading the Saga one needs to diminish in one's mind the significance of the exclamation mark.


Posts on the three volumes of the Forsyte Saga collected here. But for me there are still more Forsytes to go, (A Modern Comedy, et al.) and I will most definitely be going...

Thursday, May 21, 2020


Last year was my first year joining Cathy's #20BooksOfSummer event and it was a sort-of success.

Sort of, because while I did read twenty books over the summer, as the summer wore on what I read increasingly diverged from the books I piled up on the table in the backyard. So this year I figured I'd simply acknowledge my wayward ways and pick ten books. Then I could read however many books & not (necessarily) feel like I wasn't reading the ones I should. Plan, right?

So, from the top:

Patricia Moyes/Falling Star
Patricia Moyes/Murder Fantastical
-I'm going to need some fluffy summer reading in summer, right? I read my first Inspector Tibbett mystery a year or two ago, & picked these up at a charity sale last fall.
Jules Verne/Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
-The Classics Club spin machine keeps cheating me out of reading this one. So I'm now I'm going to!
J. F. Powers/Wheat That Springeth Green
-First of three books The Other Reader read recently that come highly recommended. Powers' Morte D'Urban is amazing.
Anna Seghers/Transit
-Planning ahead for #WIT (Women in Translation) Month!
Gabriel Garcia Marquez/Love In A Time of Cholera
-The second #TheOtherReader book
Amelie Nothomb/Life Form
Mikhail Bulgakov/The Master and Margarita
-This one would fit a number of challenges for me.
John Dos Passos/Manhattan Transfer
-Laurie & Fanda are hosting #JazzAgeJune. I've been wanting to read this for a while after loving the USA trilogy.
Henrik Pontoppidan/Lucky Per
What looks good to you?

Thanks to Cathy for hosting!

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Plutarch, Introductory

Well, this is Plutarch, Introductory, both because it's an introduction to my reading of Plutarch, but also because I pulled all the various (mostly unread) editions of Plutarch off the shelf and read or reread their introductions to fix a certain amount of knowledge about Plutarch in my head. And then munged it all together to produce this.

Plutarch is born in Chaeronea (120 kilometers northwest of Athens) to a wealthy family about 45 AD and dies around 120 AD. Greece is subject to the Roman Empire at this time--it has been since 146 BC, though it has a fairly privileged place in the empire.

Pretty much everything we know about Plutarch comes from incidental remarks in his writings. He went to Athens when young and studied philosophy there under the Egyptian Ammonius; he was in Athens when Nero toured Greece and stopped there in 66 AD. He mentions visiting Alexandria in Egypt. Sometime around 90 AD, he goes to Rome on public business, and, as he's already a philosopher with some reputation by then, gives public lectures. He learns Latin, not very well he tells us, and I have to say, I would agree...more on that momentarily.

The various things I read disagree about how long he spent in Rome, but in any case he returns home at some point to Chaeronea. Since it's cute, and most of my sources quoted it, I will too: "As to myself, I live in a small town and am fond of staying in it, that it may not be the smaller for the absence of a single inhabitant." [Life of Demosthenes.]

Plutarch was happily married, though of their five children it seems only two boys survived to adulthood.

Only about half of what he wrote survives, but that's still quite a lot. In addition to the 1300 pages of Parallel Lives in my edition, there is also the Moralia, a series of writings on moral subjects, of about equal length. As a general rule, the Lives were written toward the end of his life, the Moralia earlier. There are 46 extant lives in the Parallel Lives, but he refers to others he'd written now lost. The concept was to pair one Roman and one Greek life, and then write a comparison; some of the comparisons for extant lives were lost, or possibly never written.  The order of the Lives as generally given is roughly chronological, beginning with the mythical figures, Theseus for the Greeks and Romulus for the Romans. It ends with Julius Caesar's assassin Marcus Brutus ("Et tu, Brute"), though there are four additional lives (the Hellenistic general Aratus, the Persian king Artaxerxes, the Roman emperors Galba and Otho) that were probably not intended as part of the Parallel Lives, but are generally included.

But the fact that the Lives are arranged chronologically betrays Plutarch's purpose: he's explicitly not writing narrative history, and he's not particularly interested in the world-historical events of any individual life; rather he's writing these biographies as studies of character for use as ethical examples. They were not written in the chronological order they're presented in. Holden, the editor of the Themistocles I have, groups them into four series. The first series is written at the request of friends; these are more historical and include, among the Roman figures, Cicero & both Catos. The second series was written for Plutarch's own satisfaction (or so he says) and in these, his approach is more explicitly ethical. He describes his methodology for these at the beginning of the Pericles. In the third series, of only two pairs, he writes of bad examples; one of those pairs is Alcibiades and Coriolanus. The last series, and seemingly the last written, are another two pairs of mythical figures, given first in my translation.

On that translation, the so-called 'Dryden' translation. I now know to call it 'so-called.' It was translated by a number of anonymous hands; Dryden's name was affixed to it to help it sell. It's unclear how much Dryden actually contributed, if any. Based on this bit of awfulness:
"The numerous nations of the Celtic foe
Bore her not living to the banks of Po;
Their heavy shields upon the maid they threw,
And with their splendid gifts entombed at once and slew." 
[Life of Romulus]
I rather hope Dryden had nothing to do with it. I'm quite sure giggling is not the reaction Plutarch wanted.

Finally on Plutarch's Latin. Now linguistics and proper etymologies are a thing simply alien to most ancients, but this is particularly poor:
"...they [Roman priests] have the name Pontifices from potens, powerful, because they attend the service of the gods, who have power to command over all...The most common opinion is the most absurd, which derives this word from pons, and assigns the priests the title of bridge-makers." [Life of Numa Pompilius]
This is simply silly. No Roman would derive pontifex (pontifices in the plural) from anything but the words pons (bridge) and facio (make or build). A bridge-builder. In fact if one is to hold the ethicist Plutarch to ethical standards, why is he insistent on changing the derivation to something from 'power'? The metaphor implied by bridge-builder, I find much more appealing than Plutarch's implied metaphor. (Or for that matter, the autocratic, controlling metaphors implied by Father or Pastor.)

Pelling, the editor the Cambridge Life of Antony, notes that Plutarch happily quotes Greek poetry, likely from memory, but he shows no sign of knowing the great Latin poets even when quoting them (in the later Roman lives) would be useful. No Vergil, no Horace, etc. Pelling suggests Plutarch could make his way through a prose text, but his Latin wasn't good enough to enjoy Roman poets and have them at his synapse-ends as he does Greek poetry.

Of course if Plutarch could cadge a ride on the TARDIS and quiz me on my Latin skills these days he wouldn't be very impressed with me either. Nevertheless I stand by it.

Well, this post is long enough as it is. I should be further in the Lives than I am, but I'm making progress.

Though I will add this quote I copied out. Don't know why it struck me now...
"Anacharsis...repressed his wonder at the fact that in Greece wise men spoke and fools decided." [Life of Solon]

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The White Plague by Karel Čapek

"No more shaking hands now, Baron."
There's the debate at the moment, of course: read books about the plague, or avoid them like the... Mostly I've gone with the latter, but I pulled this collection off the shelf to read R.U.R. for the #1920Club, but then there it was: The White Plague, Karel Čapek's play from 1937, calling to me to read it. So I did.

I'd seen the play 30+ years ago in Chicago, but I didn't really remember the details. But, surprise! it does feature a plague. The first symptom is a white spot, frequently on the chest, but from there it proceeds rapidly to leprosy-like symptoms and within six weeks is fatal. It strikes people fifty and over generally.

But that's just the groundwork; it's not really a play about a plague, nor does the plague particularly serve as a metaphor for something else. (No Camus, here, or not exactly.)

Professor Sigelius runs a clinic; they're studying the disease and doing what they can for sufferers, but haven't gotten very far when in Act I, Doctor Galen shows up and claims to have a cure. It needs to be tested and he asks to work in the indigent ward. He refuses to try it on anybody else. Galen had been a brilliant researcher at the clinic years earlier, but then went off to work with the poor.

By Act II, it's clear Galen's cure does work. But he's still refusing to treat anyone but the poor. Unless they meet his conditions: stop the approaching war. Well, it is 1937 and Karel Čapek is a very endangered species at that time: a Czech democrat. The head of accounts at Krug Armaments first gets the disease and approaches Galen; Galen delivers his conditions, but he's just gotten this job. How can he give it up now? Then Baron Krug himself is stricken. Shut down the munitions factories. Krug won't, but then he will, before being ordered not to by the Marshal.

It's the Marshal who's behind it all:
Galen: You can do anything you want. 
Marshal: I cannot. Must I explain it to you like a baby? Do you really think war and peace depend on me? I must obey the interests of my nation. If my people go to war, it's my duty to lead them to their destiny. 
Galen: If it wasn't for you, they wouldn't fight in the first place. 
Marshal: No they wouldn't. Now, thank God, they can fulfill their historic mission. I'm just the agent of their will... 
Galen: Which you've whipped up. 
Marshal: I've awakened their will to live.
In Act III, the Marshal is stricken by the white plague.

Does Galen's plan work? Well, 1937, in Czechoslovakia, was a tough time to be an optimist. But there are a few good twists at the end.

And like most things I've read by Čapek, there are also young lovers as well as a long-married bourgeois couple all affected by the events around them. While I wouldn't call it Čapek's best work by any means, I can see where it would play very well, which is how I remembered it.

And how about that crazed picture on the cover of my edition? That's from an early (perhaps the first?) production of The Insect Play by Karel Čapek, which is now the only play in the volume I haven't read.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Poem For A Thursday (#pocketpoem)


Ben-Arabie was the Camel
  Belonging to the Zoo.
He lived there through a dozen years,
  With nothing much to do,
But chew, and chew, and chew, and chew,
  And chew, and chew, and chew. 
He wondered when he might go home,--
  And what they kept him for;
Because he hated Zooish sounds
  And perfumes--more and more;--
Decidedly he hated them
  Much more, and more, and more. 
And why the world turned white and cold
  He did not understand.
He only wanted lots of sun
  And lots and lots of sand;
Just sand, and sand, and sand, and sand,
  And sand, and sand, and sand. 
He longed to see an Arab Sheik,
  And Arab girls and boys;
The kind of noise he yearned for most
  Was plain Arabian noise;
(The sound  of little drums and flutes
  And all that sort of noise.)
He leant against the wind to hear 
  The sound of harness bells;
He sniffed the air for scent of spice
  The nomad merchant sells;
He dreamed of pleasant tinkling bells,
  Of spice, and tinkling bells. 
The keepers said that he grew queer.
  They wondered why he sighed;
The called him supercilious
  And crabbed and sun-dried;
(Indeed he was quite crabbed and
  Exceedingly sun-dried.) 
But ere his woolly fur was gone
  They put him on a train--
For a rich old Arab bought him
  And sent him home again;--
O joyous day! He sent him home;
  He sent him home again!

-Virna Sheard

The biographical note from my Canadian Poems says:
Shird, Virna (d. 1943) Born in Cobourg, Ontario; educated there and in Toronto. Author of several books of fiction, for children and adults; her selected poems, Leaves in the Wind, appeared in 1938.
I learned from Deb Nance that today, the last day of National Poetry Month, is also Poem in a Pocket day. Share a poem on social media. Well, alright then! For a weekly poem, see Holds Upon Happiness. This week it's Jane Kenyon.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Peer Gynt

"But just what is the Gyntish self?"

I reread this to prepare for reading something else in the future. We'll see how that pans out...

Peer Gynt (1867) is a long dramatic poem, a play if you will, by Henrik Ibsen, but so long as to be almost unperformable. At any rate, Ibsen didn't imagine it being performed, until later when he did, and got his acquaintance Edvard Grieg to write some now-famous incidental music for a production.

Peer Gynt is the (anti-?) hero of his namesake play. His father is dead, having died drunk and nearly broke; his mother is still alive, exasperated by her wayward son, but not to the point where she will let anybody else say the bad things about him she allows herself to say.

There was an actual Peer Gynt fifty or a hundred years before the play, but he had already moved into folklore by the time Ibsen took him up as a subject.

The problem with Peer is that he's an irresponsible liar. I'm not sure I should be reading any more things (more than I already do) at this time about irresponsible liars, but be that as it may. When the play starts, Peer, returning home after a month supposedly hunting--his clothes are shredded--tells his mother he was abducted by a flying reindeer. She doesn't believe him, but his lies are so vivid, she starts to retroactively fear for his life anyway.

The play/poem, 200 pages in my edition, is Peer's entire life; the irresponsibility overwhelms the early lying, but then sheer immorality overwhelms the irresponsibility. Peer and his mother need money; there's a neighbor heiress who is attracted to Peer and is about to be married against her wishes. At that wedding Peer sees Solveig; maybe she's the one he wants? Instead Peer abducts the bride, but in the end refuses to marry her; and so now he's now wanted by the law.

What does Peer really want? What is that Gyntish self? He meets the daughter of the king of the trolls (or is that just a fantasy?) and could marry her, but then he'd have to live the trollish life, adopt the trollish motto: "to thy own self, be...enough." (There's also the little matter of a required eye surgery that makes anything ugly look beautiful.)

You see the beginnings of the existentialist crisis here. He flees Norway to try on various roles, all of which temporarily seem the proper Gyntish self: rich man, prophet, lover, even archeologist. None of them last. He behaves pretty badly in doing these things: it's the slave trade makes him rich, etc.

In the end he returns to Norway an old man. He meets the devil, (presumably, not so named) but worse he meets the Button-Moulder: if you go to heaven, then great, you've gone to heaven; if you go the other way, well, then, at least you were a great sinner, and you have preserved your identity. But the Button-Moulder! He recycles the soul-stuff from wishy-washy types by melting it all down to start anew. If you've never found yourself, your true Gyntish self, it's the Button-Moulder for you! And the Button-Moulder tells Peer that Peer is his kind of material.

This makes it all a bit Faust with a twist.

Does Peer save himself from the Button-Moulder? The ending is deliberately ambiguous. Should he have been saved? Enh, I don't know. Poking around, I found this quote from Robert Bly, "He does horrible things throughout the play and yet you end up loving him very much." I'm not sure I entirely felt that love, but clearly some do, and your mileage may vary...

In any case, I suppose even basically horrible people need to find themselves, too.

The edition I read was an older Penguin translated by Peter Watts. It was a verse translation and it was OK, but I wasn't amazed. I found the Robert Bly quote looking for alternative translations. Watts:
"...with a huge concern like mine,
that gave employment to some thousands,
to close the firm down altogether
becomes particularly hard."

"Thousands worked for me--to an enjoyment.
But I became concerned about unemployment!"
I'm not entirely sure between those two. I assume the Watts is much closer to the text, but Ibsen rhymes in Norwegian, and the Bly has more brio. The Bly doesn't seem to have ever been printed, though it was the text for a production at the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota, with Mark Rylance (!) as Peer Gynt in 2007. That would have been fun. Penguin has replaced the older Peer Gynt I have with a new translation by Geoffrey Hill; Oxford has one translated by Christopher Fry. If you have ideas, let me know! Because my copy has basically dissolved after this reading, and Peer Gynt is after all a classic...

Some other quotes I copied out from the Watts translation:

The King of the Trolls: "My son, we trolls aren't as black as we're painted--
that's another difference between us and you!"
-Act II

(Meaning, we humans *are* as black as we're painted?)

The Great Boyg: "He was too strong. There were women behind him."
-Act II

Peer Gynt: "'Exalted?' Yes, that's what will happen to me;
Anything else is unthinkable."
-Act IV

Peer Gynt: ...I've just one question first:
what, after all, is this 'being one's self'? 
The Button-Moulder: A curious question indeed, on the lips
of a man who has just-- 
Peer Gynt: A direct answer, please. 
The Button-Moulder: Being one's self means slaying one's Self
But that answer's presumably wasted on you,
and therefore let's say: 'Above everything else
it's observing the Master's intentions in all things.' 
Peer Gynt: But what can one do if one's never found out
what the Master intended? 
The Button-Moulder: One just has to guess. 
Peer Gynt: But a man's intuitions so often prove wrong,
and then one is sunk, as it were, in mid-ocean! 
The Button-Moulder: Exactly, Peer Gynt, it's when insight is lacking
that the lad with the hoof makes the best of his captures.
-Act V

So: to thine own self be true?

Monday, April 20, 2020

Classics Club Spin #23. And the winner is...

Which is Plutarch's Lives. For the first time that durned spin machine picked the longest book on my list. I'm both looking forward to it, but also dreading it.

My beat-up edition is the Modern Library Giant, translated by Dryden and revised by Arthur Hugh Clough. I've dipped into it before, and have even read a little bit of Plutarch in Greek, (see those Plutarch Loebs in the background) though not very much. But this one's 1300 pages. One of my professors once said, quoting, I think, one of his professors, "You're not a real classicist until you've read all of Plutarch." I believe he meant, read it in Greek, but at this point I'll settle for what I can get...

And speaking of Arthur Hugh Clough...I once wrote poem about him. (Ahem!)

Just Got A Clough

Arthur Hugh Clough, Selected Poems, Fyfield Books.

The book arrived Fedex today;
I read the preface straight away.
I had to know just what to do
to say the name of Arthur Clough.
It didn't say--I still don't know--
how I should say Arthur Clough.
The editors at Fyfield Press
have left me in an awful mess:
enough to make me want to cough
worrying about Arthur Clough!
I know it shouldn't get to me--
so what if it's a mystery?
I'll just keep calm--no need to curse--
I will just simply read the verse:
"Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat
when 'tis so lucrative to cheat..."--
That's from The Latest Decalogue
by you know who--Arthur Clough!

Wikipedia tells me that the proper rhyme is...oh, enough!

How does your spin look? Did you get something fun?