Monday, September 14, 2020

Jules Verne's 20000 Leagues Under The Sea


OK. You know the basic story. But a few details first.

In 1866 there are reports of a giant sea monster attacking ships, probably something like a narwhal. An expedition on the ship Abraham Lincoln is outfitted to find it, presumably kill it and mount it on a board for some museum. Pierre Aronnax, a French scientist with a taste for adventure joins the expedition. Aronnax brings along his servant Conseil. The other important person on this expedition is the Canadian harpoonist, Ned Land. (Because what sea-monster hunting expedition doesn't need a savage harpoonist?)

They find what they're looking for, and well, it's not a giant narwhal.

Captain Nemo's ship, Nautilus, is attacked by the Abraham Lincoln, and in fighting off the attack, Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land are thrown overboard only to be rescued by the Nautilus. Rescued, but not released, and our trio in the company of Captain Nemo go sailing around the world, having adventures.

The book is an early science-fiction story, and like a lot of later hard science fiction, it spends a good deal of its time speculating on the nature and possibility of future inventions, submarines and diving suits in particular. Here Verne did pretty well, it seems to me. The novel is also interested in actual contemporary science, especially lesser known instances in biology. This is Aronnax' field, and he is forever fascinated by sightings of species he knows about only by repute. He tells us about them:

A flight of sea-swallows rested on the Nautilus. It was a species of the Sterna Nilotica, peculiar to Egypt; its beak is black, head gray and pointed, the eye surrounded by white spots, the back, wings, and tail of a grayish color, the belly and throat white, and claws red.

Most people seem to find this sort of stuff dull, and, well...I'm most people, too. I suspect this went over better in the 19th century when it wouldn't have had to compete with National Geographic specials.

There are two sources of tension, interrelated. Our trio of rescuees are happy to have been rescued, and are mostly enjoying the adventures, but have occasional thoughts about getting back to civilization. Captain Nemo says he never will set them free. We know they must have gotten off the Nautilus eventually, because we're reading the book Aronnax has written. So how did it happen? 

The other great question is Captain Nemo himself. Who is he and why does he hate the world so much? Why will he not even have contact with the world to the extent of setting our trio down on a shore someplace out of the way? He doesn't seem to be a monster, just deeply injured. We get various clues, but no complete answer, at least until the sequel The Mysterious Island.  Which I haven't read. I do wonder a bit if any answer can be good enough. 

Anyway, pretty fun. It was weirdly a much timelier read for me than I would have guessed. Moby-Dick is alluded to on the third page and it seems to me Verne might actually know the book. I'd sort of long been under the impression nobody had read Moby-Dick until it was rediscovered in the 30s. That doesn't seem to be entirely true. Stevenson knew it and now it seems it Verne did, too.

The other even stranger connection was Pontoppidan. Turns out there's a Bishop Pontoppidan (1698-1764), ancestor of Henrik Pontoppidan, author of Lucky Per, who wrote a treatise on sea monsters, cited by Aronnax early on. It's not every day you see the name Pontoppidan.

My Heron Books edition doesn't say who the translator was, which is bad form, but I believe it to be the Miller revision of the original Mercier translation. The introduction tells me that '20000 Leagues Under The Seas' would be a better translation of the original French; it gives a better impression of what happens, too. They zoom around a lot, rather than going to the absolute bottom of the ocean and staying there.

I've finished all my books of summer, but haven't finished blogging about them. But I took the book back outside for its photo op, and read a good chunk of it while here.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Zadie Smith's Intimations


The Other Reader and I sometimes wonder if Zadie Smith is a better essayist or novelist; the real answer is, why choose? Her two previous volumes of essays (Changing My Mind and Feel Free) were both great; there's a great deal of incisive intelligence in them, not necessarily a thing one expects in a novelist. I found the first more of a revelation: I particularly loved her reminiscences of her father in the earlier volume. It may also be that I'd already read a good deal of the second (in the New York Review of Books) by the time I read the collection.

Intimations is a short volume (under a hundred pages) and a product of our current crazy times: she's donating her royalties to charities for racial justice and pandemic relief. It deals with perceptions of race, being in New York in the pandemic, too much quiet (especially when one has children). Something to do, when there's nothing to do.

But the longest and best essay is called Screengrabs, written, it seems and as the subtitle suggests, 'before the virus', and it's largely a series of character sketches: 'a character in a wheelchair', 'a woman with a little dog', 'an elder at the bus stop'. They feel very true.

So maybe she's a novelist after all.

I was in a new bookstore for the first time in a long time (Type Books here in Toronto) and it felt wonderful, even if I had to wear a mask, making my glasses fog up. So nice to once again see what's on the table at a good independent bookstore.

I also picked up the Vivian Gornick book on rereading, but the first book she discusses rereading is D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers.  I thought maybe I ought to read it first, for the first time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Wordless Wednesday

 Killarney Provincial Park

Where I was while I was away from the Internet...

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Amélie Nothomb's Life Form (#WITMonth)

In Life Form, the character Amélie Nothomb (sort of to be confused with the author, but not completely) receives a letter from Iraq, from Melvin Mapple, who writes, "I'm a private in the US Army...I've been posted in Baghdad ever since the beginning of this fucking war, over six years ago."

She decides to write back. 

The correspondence is basically the book. It turns out the Melvin Mapple has become terribly obese--this was a problem among American soldiers in Iraq, though Mapple is an extreme case--and is unhappy with the whole situation. Though both are now against the war, Amélie tries to help him make sense out of the situation.

I thought the letters from Mapple were brilliantly convincing. They sounded like I would imagine a fairly literate, but not especially educated, young American writing. So all kudos to Nothomb, but then also to the translator, Alison Anderson. 

This is the second novel I've read by Nothomb and I've seen the movie version of a third. She's a Belgian writer now living in France, so generally is the Amélie Nothomb character in the books. Nevertheless they are clearly fiction. Pétronille, that I read earlier, was funnier, but the Iraq War and obesity are not exactly funny subjects.

Still Melvin's obesity gets transformed into an artistic statement against the war, which is a little funny, and allows for witty double-edged observations on the nature of art. 

" obesity has become my life's work.' [49]

"I had not known how to provide him with one essential artistic quality: doubt." [64]

"There is a crook in every writer." [108]

The novel ends in a surprising twist.

I don't think either Life Form or Pétronille are considered among the very top Amélie Nothomb novels, yet I found both of them funny and thoughtful. They're also short and easy-to-read. But if she gets better than these, she could be very good indeed. Hygiene and the Assassin, The Prince's Act, and especially Fear and Trembling have all won major French language prizes.

Not sure about that picture of her on the cover, though.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Love In The Time of Cholera

"Take advantage of it now, while you are young, and suffer all you can, because these things don't last your whole life."

Love in the Time of Cholera is funny, romantic, and wise about love in all its seasons: young, old, and in-between; in sickness and in health, etc.

But I also have to admit I had higher hopes for the book.

In the approved fashion, the book begins in medias res, or not exactly the middle since our main characters are in their 70s, but certainly not at the beginning nor at the end.

Fermina Daza and Dr. Juvenal Urbino are an old married couple. They're tender with each other, though she's getting frail and his memory is going. As an old married couple their relationship is not without its grumbles, but they still care for each other.

Then Dr. Urbino dies in a tragic, but also comic, accident involving a parrot.

Immediately after the funeral Florentino Ariza proposes to Fermina Daza. He's waited, he says, fifty-one years, nine months, and four days for this moment.

The chapter ends and the novel flashes back to when Florentino and Fermina first met as teenagers and they fell passionately in love. He lurks where she might see him; composes a violin sonata in her honor and plays where she might hear it; and most of all, writes her love letters, dropping them off where he knows she will find them.

Eventually Fermina's father gets wind of this budding romance and drags her off--Florentino is a bastard son and has yet to make his fortune--and Florentino is left in Colombia, heartbroken. (That's Florentino's mother quoted at the top.)

Trips to remote lands so that one party gets over some inappropriate love is a frequent trope in novels and we know how that works in general: it doesn't. Except this time it does. Fermina comes back two years later, looks at the badly dressed Florentino, figuratively slaps her forehead, and says, "What was I thinking!" 

At the end of the book, the novel returns to the now mature romance of Fermina and Florentino. This newly refounded romance surprises, and is also handled with tenderness and humor.

It's all the stuff in the middle I had my doubts about. Florentino makes his everlasting pile in the steamboat business. That was expected. He romances some vast binder of women--we're given a number--but all that flesh never diminishes his longing for the lost Fermina. (Well, maybe once, a little bit, but before long he returns to Fermina even in his thoughts.) It was not very convincing, but worse: I thought it was dull. I'd have liked better a book that was a hundred pages shorter with less incidencing in the middle.

Ah, well. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a Nobel prize winner and I'm a...blogger. Maybe I'm wrong...

The Other Reader read the book earlier in the year and liked it better than I did. One question we discussed was how seriously were we to take Florentino's writing talents. I thought we were to assume he was effective: the start of Fermina's love is with the letters. Well, they were teenagers, perhaps not especially discriminating, but it certainly wasn't his clothes, or his looks, or his manners that Fermina found engaging. Later we learn that Florentino writes love letters for hire in town; they work; and several love matches are engendered by the letters he wrote. He becomes the godfather to a child whose parental romance he facilitated. The widowed Fermina is appalled by Florentino's proposal after the funeral; understandably; Florentino is balding and constipated and not the substance of love, but it's his written philosophical meditations on mortality that first put Fermina back on the hook.

The Other Reader, though, argued that none of these people are especially discerning; that we're told Florentino read everything, even the worst sort of romantic trash, and modelled his love letters on that. 

I dunno. I suppose a book that people can read differently in serious ways has something going for it. 

If you've read it, what did you think?

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Anna Seghers' Transit (#WITMonth)

 "Aren't you fed up with such thrilling stories?"

The narrator of Anna Seghers' Transit buttonholes the reader and asks that question--with exasperation. With cause. He's a German, persona non grata with the Nazis, stuck in Marseille, in Vichy France. He's neither able to stay, nor to leave, nor to return home. A life less thrilling would be welcome.

Nevertheless, Transit is a story with thrills.

At the start of the novel, the narrator Seidler is in a work camp for enemy aliens in the north of France. He'd already escaped from a Nazi prison into France; as the Nazis roll into France in 1940, the prisoners have to convince the French guard to look the other way as they flee the camp, Seidler escaping for a second time, because most of them would be doomed if caught by the Nazis. 

Seidler makes his way south with other refugees, passing through Paris. He agrees as a favor for a friend to deliver a letter to the writer Weidel, but when he finds Weidel's place of residence, Weidel has committed suicide, leaving only a manuscript and his documents. The letter he was meant to deliver, now undeliverable, tells him that the writer's estranged widow needs the documents, as well as Weidel himself, to get a visa so she can leave France. Seidler takes the manuscript, the documents, the suitcase, and goes south to Marseille to deliver all these things to the waiting widow.

So far the story could easily be by Helen MacInnes or Alan Furst. But Seidler is not a naif caught up in a romance, nor a dedicated anti-Nazi; he's just a mechanic who doesn't like the Nazis (and whom the Nazis do not like.) He'd like to settle in Marseille, stop running. He becomes attached to the child of friends, a child who lives in fear of abandonment. The local authorities tell him he can only stay in Marseille so long as he can demonstrate that he's making efforts to leave. So in addition to MacInnes and Furst, you can throw in a bit of Kafka. Everyone in Marseille is facing the same conundrum: you have to have an exit visa, a transit visa for any country you pass through on your way out, as well as an entry visa for your destination country. Any one of those visas can expire while you're still trying to acquire the others.

He helps people who really do want to leave, who have to leave, but for himself he dates, falls in love, discovers pizza. He just wants a normal-ish life, but he's been thrust into a thriller story, albeit one with Kafka-esque twists.

Anna Seghers herself was German and was arrested in 1933 by the Nazis for being a communist. She was released, but she was also of Jewish ancestry and left for France soon after. She passed through Marseille on her way to Mexico where she spent the war years before returning to East Germany after the war. Transit first appeared in English and Spanish translations in 1944, and not in German until 1948, and then only in East Germany. My edition has an afterward by Heinrich Böll for its first publication in West Germany.

I thought it was very good. One of the interesting things about it were the characters who did not want to go. Sure, Rick Blaine decides to stay, but he never seemed like he would be in danger. I mean, he's Humphrey Bogart after all. In Transit, Seidler is not the only one who doesn't want to cross the ocean. Another returns to Lithuania, his home, even though it's almost certainly a death sentence. Others decide to quit running, knowing or suspecting the cost.

It's Women in Translation month! This was translated by Margot Dembauer Betto for New York Review of Books.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Master and Margarita

What if the devil came to Moscow in 1930?

Professor Woland arrives from somewhere (never quite specified--maybe Germany? Maybe someplace a little hotter...) and arranges to give a demonstration in black magic, after which, in a nod to the official rationalism of the Soviet Union, he will explain how the tricks are done.

Except he doesn't. Because those tricks can't be rationally explained.

We're not exactly told Woland is the devil, but it's pretty clear from the start. Wikipedia tells me that voland is an archaic German word for demon. At the very beginning of Bulgakov's novel, in arranging his demonstration of magic, Woland meets Mikhail Berlioz, the director of MASSOLIT. He predicts Berlioz will die within the hour when his head is cut off by a woman. Which proceeds to happen. Did Woland make it happen? Or did he just foresee it?

The epigram to Bulgakov's novel is another clue: he quotes Goethe's Faust: "'Say at last -- who are thou?'/'That power that I serve/Which wills forever evil/Yet does forever good.'" The quote is from the scene in Faust's study after Faust has first summoned Mephistopheles. Is Woland doing good by doing evil to those who deserve it in 1930s Moscow? Hmm. A bit. But I'd say Bulgakov's novel is far too anarchic to be so simply categorized.

But it's a great anarchic ride. There are three strands woven together: there's Woland, and his devilish entourage, in Moscow, afflicting the comfortable, getting rid of minor bureaucrats as needed. There's the final days of Yeshua ha-Notsri, that is, Jesus of Nazareth, recognizably parallel to the biblical account, but not identical to it. Is that a tale told by the devil? Or is it the novel of The Master, thought burned? Or is it the actual historical record? Don't ask me; evidence for all three theories appear.

The third strand is the one that gives the novel its title, but is the last to get started. It's a love story. The thirteenth (numerologically significant?) chapter is titled 'Enter the Hero' and it's where we first meet the Master, who has a written a novel about Pontius Pilate and his search for philosophical wisdom, which may be identical to some of the chapters we've already read. But the Master, otherwise unnamed, is confined to a madhouse, and believes his manuscript burned, that his one true love has forgotten him. 

The nineteenth chapter is titled 'Margarita.' It begins:
"Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no such thing as real, true, eternal love? Cut out his lying tongue!
Follow me, reader, and only me and I will show you that love!" 

Margarita believes she has lost the Master; he thinks she has forgotten him. But maybe by becoming a witch, and with a little help from the Devil...

Bulgakov was unable to publish this during his lifetime--or really anything during the last decade of his life. (He died in 1940, at age 48, of kidney disease.) He must have known this novel had no chance. He had reason to be angry at Stalin, at the snivelling Stalinist bureaucrats who managed to keep him from publishing. Yet the satirical parts struck me as surprisingly genial. Embarrassment and discomfiture are the rule, not anything more dire. Berlioz dies, grotesquely, but the director of the theatre, who has done some actual bad things, is magically carried off to Yalta and returns to Moscow at the end unharmed. There are other restorations of the sort.

It's funny, it's affecting, it's a remarkable tour-de-force. Basically it's a great book that bears rereading and I've only just read it, so maybe I'll simply not say anything else. (And I've been a slow blogger of late.) But I can see that I will be rereading it. It's been translated multiple times. I read it in the Michael Glenny version. I didn't compare this version to others, but it read quite well.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Churchill's Novel

Churchill in 1895.
Not yet the bulldog
he became later.
Did you know there were two Winston Churchills? I didn't until recently. I was reading Mencken's A Book of Prefaces (1917) and he kept talking about Winston Churchill as a well-known American novelist. This threw me off. In the usual Mencken way, he referred to Churchill dismissively, as kind of a hack, though maybe not the worst hack. Really? I thought. Churchill? 

I knew Churchill's mother was American, but still this seemed odd. Some googling later and I realized there was an American Winston Churchill (1871-1947) who wrote a bunch of novels and was once upon a time more famous, and the Winston S. Churchill we all know wrote one novel, a Ruritanian romance, in 1897.

I'm a sucker for Ruritanian romances and Project Gutenberg was there for me.

In Savrola, A Tale of the Revolution in Laurania, General Antonio Molara is well on his way to becoming president for life. Five years earlier there was a revolution; Molara led it and seized power. Molara has no real intention of going away. But the country is growing restive and demands the restoration of elections. Molara agrees, but cuts the voter rolls in half, figuring if he can get rid of the wrong sort of voter he can still win an election. (Where have I heard that sort of thing?)

The Reform Committee comes to the presidential palace to register a formal protest but are dismissed with nothing. Savrola is the leader of the Reform Committee. A magnetic figure, with a Europe-wide reputation, Molara needs to know just how close Savrola is to the people who are ready to pick up guns. Arresting Savrola would be bad publicity, possibly dangerous. He sends his wife Lucile, beautiful and lively, to flirt with Savrola and pick up what information she can. Just how far does Molara intend for his wife to go? Lucile assumes it's just to talk to the man.

Savrola knows who the men with the guns are--Strelitz is just across the border with his rebel troops itching to return--but he would prefer a more peaceful change of power. Lucile learns little, though, and returns impressed with Savrola. 

Events intervene.

Laurania is somewhere on the Mediterranean; the names are mostly Spanish-sounding or Italian. The country has a colony on the east coast of Africa, reachable only via the Suez Canal. A crisis precipitated by the U.K. means that the navy has to steam off to solve that. The navy is loyal to Molara; nobody's sure about the army. With the navy leaving, Strelitz crosses the border, and the revolution, against Savrola's wishes, begins. 

Churchill writes well about the house-to-house fighting in the capital; the siege of the palace is well-handled, I thought. Well, he was a war correspondent at the time. The politics are reasonably well thought out. The romance part of it was OK, but not as good. You can see the outlines of the triangle Molara/Lucile/Savrola in my description of the setup, but there wasn't much surprise there. The final ending of the revolution owed more to realism than romance. Anthony Hope (The Prisoner of Zenda, the original Ruritanian romance) has nothing to worry about. At the same time the politics showed nothing of the sophistication found in that novel set in Costaguana

Ah, well. Wikipedia tells me that Churchill wrote in a volume of his autobiography, "I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it." He was doing himself a disservice--it's better than that. If you like the Ruritanian, Graustarkian, Orsinian, Fenwickian sort of story, the Lauranian isn't a bad addition.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Classics Club Spin #24

It's time for a new Classics Club spin. Oh, dear. I have neither finished my last one, nor given up on it--well, it was Plutarch's Lives and it was 1300 pages. I figured I could allow myself a bit of time. I've made more progress and I really should blog about it some more, but I couldn't see posting for every pair of lives or anything like that. It invites reading in bursts.

So I'm both prepared but also cautious about a new spin. Here's twenty remaining from my Classics Club list. There will be no super-long choices in this...

1.) James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
2.) James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain
3.) Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh
4.) Willa Cather's A Lost Lady
5.) Willa Cather's One of Ours
6.) Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield
7.) Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales
8.) W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge
9.) Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar
10.) Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow
11.) Virginia Woolf's The Waves
12.) Balzac's Cousin Bette
13.) Henry James' The Wings of the Dove
14.) Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
15.) Henryk Sienkewicz' Quo Vadis
16.) Jules Verne's Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
17.) James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son
18.) Mary Wollstonecraft's The Vindication of the Rights of Women
19.) George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara
20.) Sir Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris

I suspect The Wings of the Dove would be the challenging one in there and is long enough! Which look good to you?

And the winner is...#18! Mary Wollstonecraft's The Vindication of the Rights of Women. It's short!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Brandes on Nietzsche

After finishing Henrik Pontoppidan's Lucky Per, I was wondering how well-known Nietzsche was in Scandinavia, and when. The main events of Pontoppidan's novel take place in the 1880s; there's a lot of Nietzschean-sounding language, though no actual reference to Nietzsche; was that anachronistic? For other reasons I had a bunch of Project Gutenberg books by Georg Brandes already on my eReader. (Post on James Huneker coming maybe some day?) One of them was Brandes' short book on Nietzsche.

Brandes was a well-known Danish critic in his day. He died at the age of 85 in 1927. He wrote mostly in Danish, but had a European reputation and his works were rapidly translated into other languages, including English. He was Jewish. The introduction to Lucky Per told me that the Dr. Nathan of that novel was a stand-in for Dr. Brandes, a not entirely flattering portrait Brandes took in good humor anyway. (Per calls him an ineffectual aesthete at some point, but perhaps Per is not entirely to be trusted.)

This book consists of three essays written on Nietzsche at different times, the earliest in 1889, just after Nietzsche's embracing the horse and descending into madness; the last in 1900, just after he died. They're sensible, I thought, taking Nietzsche seriously, but not completely reverently. He chastises Nietzsche for his attitude on women, preferring Mill. He emphasizes Nietzsche's opposition to anti-Semitism. There are better introductory works on Nietzsche now, though.

The most interesting part of the book were the letters between Brandes and Nietzsche. Nietzsche had his publishers send copies to Brandes of two of his books in the hope that this prominent European intellectual would do something with them. Brandes ignores the first couple (Beyond Good and Evil and Human, All Too Human) but then reads the third, The Genealogy of Morals. He writes a letter to Nietzsche apologizing for ignoring his earlier books, explaining he gets so many...But now he plans to read them and say something. This is the opening letter between them in November of 1887.

Nietzsche for us is Nietzsche, i.e., terrifying, one of the unscalable mountains of philosophy, but in 1887, even though he'd written a good deal of his major work, he's still pretty much a nobody, and he's charmingly thrilled and deferential that such a luminary as Brandes is reading him. Now that's reversed. My spell-checker is perfectly happy with Nietzsche as a word. Brandes is underlined everywhere. So fleeting is fame.

And Brandes does take Nietzsche seriously. In the spring of 1888, Brandes gives a two-lecture series on Nietzsche in Copenhagen; the first was poorly attended, "since no one knew who and what you are", and Brandes apologizes for that; but his first lecture got a favorable notice in the newspaper and so the second was better attended. Nietzsche writes from Turin, "I am so relieved, so strengthened, in such good humor...Have I not the good north winds to thank for it, the north winds which do not always come from the Alps?--they come now and then even from Copenhagen!"

The last of the letters is a postcard from Turin, one of the so-called Wahnzettel, the madness letters, written after Nietzsche's breakdown. He signs it 'The Crucified.'

Anyway, that more or less answered my question. Per almost certainly would not have read Nietzsche at the time he was saying rather Nietzschean things. So you have to just assume it was in the air. But the question usefully got me to read the book...

Some more quotes (all from Brandes' letters to Nietzsche):

"There is a writer who would interest you, if only he were translated: Søren Kierkegaard."
  --Letter of Jan. 11, 1888 (Ha! I can just imagine.)

"I am not an intruder by nature, so little in fact that I lead an almost isolated life, am indeed loth to write letters and, like all authors, loth to write at all."
  --Letter of Apr. 3, 1888 (Amusing, though a bit disingenuous.)

"In my early days I was passionately polemical, now I can only expound; silence is my only weapon of offence."
  --Letter of Nov. 23, 1888

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Lucky Per

Peter Andreas Sidenius (Per) is a middle child in a large family. His father is a severe and pious minister; his mother, an invalid. They live in a small town in the south of Jutland, which was then, as now, considered the sticks of Denmark.

Prayers and hymns are the order of the day for the family, but not for Per, who rebels against all that. We feel Per is an irritable and objectionable young man, but his sins, while in his home town, are pretty minor: with a gang of boys, he steals apples from a farmer's tree; he sneaks out of the house to go sledding after dinner. Nevertheless his father shames him publicly for these transgressions. Per is determined to get to Copenhagen as soon as he can; he's going to be an engineer, none of this piety for him.

But when he gets to Copenhagen and university, he can't be bothered with classes or even exams; instead he spends all his time drafting a proposal to create a canal network for Jutland. As far as we can judge such things the canal network seems clever, but Per hasn't the patience to master the preparatory training and offends the financial and political powers he will need to make things happen.

(Weirdly my professional career as a computer consultant involved three business areas; two of them were shipping and finance. I would say Pontoppidan, who trained as an engineer, understood shipping--canal dredging in this case--in a deep way; his knowledge of financial markets and stock issuances feels pretty shallow.)

Per is a pretty objectionable hero, and the narrative voice doesn't let us forget that. There's a lot Nietzschean-sounding language: is Per an Übermensch who will remake the world if only all those little people get out of his way? Sometimes he thinks so. Still we care about him. He definitely does some bad things, but some of the worst are only fantasized: he thinks about dumping his rich fiancée to chase after an even richer girl, but doesn't. Like many a young man he can't bring himself to say, "I love you." Too socially maladroit to say it, he writes her a rather charming love letter, but decides it's all sentiment and burns it rather than send it.

And whatever he does brings on the clucking condemnation of his father and his oldest brother.

That rich fiancée is Jakobe, the daughter of a Jewish merchant, and is a fascinating character in her own right. She has a younger, more conventionally pretty sister, Nanny, who attracts all the boys, including Per, until Per decides he's more interested in her more serious-minded older sister. I was reminded of Dorothea (though Nanny is flightier--and less likeable--than Celia) from Middlemarch, though the other Eliot comparison is clearly Daniel Deronda (a point made in the Introduction as well) and here Pontoppidan wins hands down. Pontoppidan's view of the Jewish community is equally sympathetic as Eliot's but far more nuanced and convincing.

Too much more of the plot would start to feel spoilerish, so I'll refrain, though I will say the novel surprised me all the way through. Even thirty pages from the end I couldn't see how Pontoppidan would end it, but end it he did and more than satisfactorily. (Though there may have been a little too much forgiveness at the end. I don't know. But maybe.)

Hans im Glück from my student edition of Grimm's Fairy
Tales. Clearly I once knew what vorteilhaft meant, but
had to look it up to reread the tale.
One of the questions in the novel is which fairy tale best represents Per's trajectory. (You can decide if you think Nietzsche just another fairy tale.) It seems that an issue at the time was whether Scandinavian literature was all just fairy tales, or did it address real people with real problems. Pontoppidan suggests, why choose?

Is Per the stable boy who does a service for the king, marries the princess, and gains half the kingdom? Or--apparently a well-known Scandinavian fairy tale, though unknown to me--is he the troll that crawls out from under his rock, looks around, and then decides to crawl back under? Or a Cain doomed to wander? His father calls him that at one point. The German translation of the novel uses Hans im Glück for its title, one of Grimm's fairy tales, which would seem a bit to give it away, except after rereading the Grimm Brothers tale, I'm not so sure it's a perfect match either.

Lucky Per came out in in eight volumes from 1898 to 1904 (eight volumes making just under 600 pages in this edition) and is, I read, one of Henrik Pontoppidan's major novels. But it's only one of them. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1917. Still the novel wasn't translated into English until 2010 and I don't know that even then it made much noise; Modern Library reissued it last year and that seems to have helped. I know a group of bloggers read it last year; James Wood reviewed it in The New Yorker; etc., etc. Those other novels haven't yet been translated into English. For something that seems to me quite clearly great this is pretty shocking. Germans were better served and took notice: my Modern Library edition features a rave blurb by Thomas Mann, and Georg Lukacs looked at the novel in depth in his The Story of the Novel.

So, yes, read it. It's touching, with love and ambition and philosophical questions (Nietzsche, but also very much Kierkegaard) on the go, it's troubling and thoughtful, and at least sometimes funny--forgot to mention funny earlier--and you care about the fate of the characters, Per and Jakobe, particularly.

But. I feel like I've been complaining about translations a lot recently, and I hate to grumble (no, of course, I like to grumble, I just don't want to be thought a grumbler) but the translation didn't strike me as very good. Garth Risk Hallberg, author of City on Fire, who wrote the introduction, says it's considered a stylistic masterpiece in Danish, and our Danish friend (also from rural Jutland in fact) told us the same. In English, it's not. Now I have no Danish, and I'm unlikely to learn Danish in this lifetime, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but there were a number of ungainly moments. Nanny eventually marries Dyhring, an editor and publisher:
"There was no question, on either side, of real passion. Dyhring's love expressed itself, after a while, mostly as a kind of impudent affection, and, despite the comparative meaninglessness of this inclination, Nanny showed herself willing to accept his provocative kisses. In fact, it was really the exigent satisfying of their mutual vanity that bound them together." [295]
This is funny, or meant to be, but 'showed herself willing'? And 'exigent'? Surely the register doesn't come across as so Latinate and pedantic in Danish. Or if it does, it's probably even more over the top, as satire.

Or this:
"When it was revealed that the cakes on the table were Frøken Inger's own handiwork, the baroness and her sister vied with each other to eulogize them,..." [427]
Now it's true the cakes were about to die the death all cakes deserve--thrown headlong down the gullet--but is a eulogy quite what's implied in Danish? I ask you.

There were a few slangy Americanisms that pulled me up ("cut him some slack") but on the other hand The Beautiful Game was called football and not soccer.

Now maybe all of these translation choices can be defended on the basis of the Danish--I don't know and can't tell you--but then there was this:
"By this famous, snaking drive, they reached the Janiculum, with the wonderful view of all of Rome and mile-wide vista from the Campagna to the shining Albanian mountains in the distance." [302]
Wow, I thought! Was the pollution really so much less in Rome in 1885 that you could see the Albanian mountains? Surely not!

And, indeed, not. Even on Rome's clearest day you can't see the mountains of Albania from the Janiculum. The Apennines are in the way. What you can see is the Alban Hills. This is simply illiterate, both geographically and verbally. Sigh.

Oh, dear. Well, #NameTheTranslator...though maybe I shouldn't. But it's Naomi Lebowitz; she's an emerita professor from Washington University who wrote about European literature, and in particular, Scandinavian literature. She ought to be good. I'm afraid I don't feel she was.

Nevertheless, having slagged this translation (a slangy Britishism--probably out of date, too) I would note it took us a century to get to this first translation into English. The novel really is great. Don't wait for the next.

I know some of you have already read it. (I'm late to the party as usual.) Am I getting it right?

Monday, June 29, 2020

Manhattan Transfer (#20BooksOfSummer)

"I think that this city is full of people wanting inconceivable things...look at it."

'This city' is New York, and the novel, like the city, is full of people wanting things. And maybe those things are inconceivable, but more likely just un-gettable.

The novel starts in 1896 when the law is passed that unites what are now the five boroughs of New York into one city. It continues on until the early 20s (the novel appears in 1925) and has maybe a dozen major characters. That's Ellen Thatcher quoted above. She's born in 1896 to George and Susan Thatcher; he's a reasonably successful accountant; she never really recovers from the pregnancy and dies when Ellen is still young.

There's also Jimmy Herf, aged five or so when his single mother returns with him from Europe to New York. There's Jimmy's uncle, Joe Harland, the Wizard of Wall Street, until he ruins himself with drink. George Baldwin is a young lawyer who has just opened an office when he hears about a milkman injured by a train; getting that milkman compensation is his first case and makes his name.

That milkman is Gus McNeil, who goes on to be a labor organizer; while McNeil is still laid up, Baldwin has an affair with Ellie McNeil, Gus' wife, which is the start of Baldwin's other notable career, as a philanderer. There's Stanwood Emery, a Harvard graduate and maybe going to be a poet? But also too fond of the bottle. There are two French sailors--Emile and Congo Jake--who pitch up in New York; Anna Cohen, a Jewish seamstress; Bud Korpenning, from Cooperstown; Cassie Wilson, who weeps; Ruth Prynne, who doesn't; Tony Hunter, who weeps because he can't have Jimmy; Frances, the flapper bandit, and her partner Dutch; and still others. Jimmy and Ellen get the most space, but we see into the head of all of the above characters at one time or another.

The novel is powerfully influenced by Joyce's Ulysses and makes effective use of stream of consciousness. Here's Gus McNiel daydreaming just before that accident with the train:
The morning has grown bleak. Leaden clouds have settled down over the city. "Git up old skin and bones," shouts Gus jerking at the gelding's head. Eleventh Avenue is full of icy dust, of grinding rattle of wheels and scrape of hoofs on the cobblestones. Down the railroad tracks comes the clang of a locomotive bell and the clatter of shunting freightcars. Gus is in bed with his wife talking gently to her: Look here Nellie, you wouldn't moind movin West would yez? I've filed application for free farmin land in the state of North Dakota, black soil land where we can make a pile o money in wheat; some fellers git rich in foive good crops....Healthier for the kids anyway..."Hello Moike!" There's poor old Moike still on his beat. Cold work bein a cop. Better be a wheatfarmer an have a big farmhouse an barns an pigs an horses an cows an chickens...Pretty curlyheaded Nellie feedin the chickens at the kitchen door...
The influence of Joyce shows up in 'freightcars', 'wheatfarmer', and 'curlyheaded' as well. Newspaper headlines, bits of song float through people's heads. Stan Emery recites Swinburne to himself at one point. Ellen, a successful actress during of the most of novel, has one scene where she's memorizing lines while half-heartedly carrying on a conversation.

Mostly I was pretty amazed by the novel. It's 350 pages in my edition. Not especially easy pages, but not too terribly difficult either. Dos Passos juggles his dozen major characters, moves their stories along, and gives a broad picture of life in New York over the course of twenty-five years. Several of the characters have real depth. That's a lot to pull off successfully. There may be one too many drunks. I had to double-check at one point which drunk was which.

He's pleasantly (and a bit surprisingly) sympathetic to the difficulty of being homosexual at that time.

It's a dark vision of New York, though. A lot of people fail, fall by the wayside, poverty, jail, accidents, suicide. The few who succeed feel morally compromised or empty. Ellen is a successful actress, what she wanted to be, but it doesn't make her happier. The novel ends with Jimmy, leaving town:
"Say will you give me a lift?" he asks the redhaired man at the wheel.
"How fur you goin?"
"I dunno...Pretty far."
The novel is sometimes simply considered a first crack at the broad-picture style he developed further in the USA trilogy of later in the 20s. That is kind of true. Though this is still awfully good, the USA trilogy is better, I think: it gives a more rounded picture of society; its characters go a bit deeper. It's also three times the length... Not what I did, but if you're curious about Dos Passos, you may want to start here and see what you think.

One other curious fact I noticed. 1896, the year the novel starts, is the year Dos Passos was born. Jimmy Herf pretty clearly owes a lot (though not all) of his details to Dos Passos' own biography.

If you have read it, what did you think?

I slotted this in because Fanda and Laurie were hosting Jazz Age June:

I had it in my head more of this novel took place in the Jazz Age than is in fact the case; we're already two-thirds through by the time World War I is over. Still there are bootleggers:
"Of course what you kids dont realize is that the difficulty under prohibition is keeping sober."
Thanks to Laurie and Fanda for hosting!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Wheat That Springeth Green (#20BooksOfSummer)

"As for feeling thwarted and useless, he knew what it meant. It meant that he was in touch with reality."
The novel is not actually cockeyed,
only my ability to resize a photograph.
I read this book too fast, which is a good sign in a novel, but makes it more difficult to write about. Oh well. It is a very good novel.

Joe Hackett was a kid in the 1920s. His father owns the town's coal delivery service and they're reasonably well off. The family is Catholic, and young Joe plans to grow up and be a businessman like his father--or a priest.

A priest is what he becomes.

At the seminary Joe is part of a crowd (which includes Cooney, Mooney, and Rooney!) that aspires to an ascetic sort of sainthood. There's some amusing by-play about who gets to keep the hair shirt. (It's funny in context...ya gotta believe me...) One of the circle goes on to join the Trappists, but Joe becomes a regular priest, serving first as a curate, then in an office with Catholic Charities, finally in charge of a parish of his own.

Powers made a specialty of priests and the bureaucracy of the church; his debut novel Morte d'Urban (1962) is, for my money, a masterpiece of the first rank. He's funny and touching both; his priests are imperfect, but well-meaning. The church bureaucracy is...a bureaucracy, just like a lot of other bureaucracies.

Still this is quite different than Morte d'Urban. Fr. Urban Roche is a mover and a shaker; he's climbing up the church hierarchy, while struggling to maintain his goodness. Fr. Joe Hackett never means to be ambitious in that way; once he's passed on his youthful dreams of an austere sanctity, he means only to be a good priest and he's interested in 'priestly fellowship.' But he's a bit unsocial and insecure; that's his thought in the statement I quote above; and those things he feels strongly about--anti-militarism, and that the church shouldn't appear money-grubbing--aren't going to endear him to his fellow priests or the church hierarchy in the 50s and 60s. There's a funny bit in the middle where he excitedly learns he's going to have a curate--a fellow priest!--but he fails to learn his name, and is too shy to ask when the curate does show up.

Eventually he does learn his curate's name--Fr. Bill Schmidt--and tells Bill to invite his seminary friends round to the church for dinner; Bill does, but then the younger contingent all retreat to Bill's room, leaving Joe to watch the Twins on TV by himself. No priestly fellowship.

A couple of crises happen: since he's socially maladroit, he takes to drinking too much, and probably qualifies as an alcoholic. He's set up a scheme whereby his parishioners contribute yearly and aren't dunned for money from the pulpit, but higher assessments from the diocese messes up his arrangement; and the son of a local reporter (the reporter is also a bit of a friend) is going to dodge the Vietnam draft and comes to Joe for advice; that reporter/father is gung-ho for the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Can he resolve these and still be a good man and a good priest?

Well, the ending is positive, but the future is not certain. This passage comes from near the end. Greg is that draft-dodger; at this point Greg's in Montreal, working at a Dorothy Day Catholic Worker charity, and Joe has just finished helping out for a couple of weeks during his vacation:
"Do me a favor," Greg said.
"Sure. What?"
"Keep it up."
"What?" Joe said, though he knew what.
Greg just looked at him.
"We'll see," Joe said then, and drove away.
The final chapter shows him keeping it up.

The title comes from an old hymn; the book prints the first verse and I suppose that's a clue to how the novel should be read:
Now the green blade riseth
  from the buried grain,
wheat that in dark earth
  many days has lain;
love lives again, that
  with the dead has been:
Love is come again like
  wheat that springeth green.

Highly recommended, though I would recommend Morte d'Urban even more. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Plutarch, Comparing translations

I've been a bit curious to compare the available translations of Plutarch. I did make a snarky comment about the rendering of the verse in the 'Dryden' translation in my earlier post. So is the 'Dryden' better or worse? This is a subject that may not be all that interesting, but I've written this post and you've been warned...

I'm now about halfway through, and my already beat-up looking edition
 is looking even more beat-up than it was in this photo...

The whole of Plutarch's Lives has been translated into English several times, but I believe the most recent (1914-1926) complete one is by Bernadotte Perrin for the Loeb series. I've been reading Arthur Hugh Clough's revision of the 'Dryden' translation (1683-6, Clough's revision 1864) because that's the one I have. John Dryden, it seems, had not much to do with it. In addition to the 'Dryden', Project Gutenberg has the Stewart and Long (1880-1882). Parts of this had been done by the time Clough was organizing his version; he thinks highly of what he'd seen at that point; says he wouldn't have bothered revising the 'Dryden' if Long (who began it) had planned at that time on continuing.

The Langhorne brothers' translation of Plutarch (1770-1772) seems to be generally panned, including by Clough, but it's available at the Internet Archive; and then there's the famous English translation of Sir Thomas North, famous for being plundered by Shakespeare. It's translated not from the Greek, but from the French of Jacques Amyot. The final edition of North dates from 1603.

Here are several examples of a passage from The Life of Alcibiades. At this point Alcibiades has set off with the Athenian expedition to conquer Sicily; he was widely viewed as the instigator of the expedition, and also the only one who could pull it off. But as he leaves, there's a cloud hanging over him: in the days before the expedition set sail, some group of youths ran around town defacing (or de-penis-ing, really) the sacred statues of Hermes in Athens. It was suggested around Athens Alcibiades was involved. Already in Sicily, he's summoned back to Athens to face charges of sacrilege, conviction for which warrants the death sentence.

Here's the one I read (Dryden/Clough):
"When he arrived at Thurii, he went on shore, and concealing himself there, escaped those who searched after him. But to one who knew him, and asked him if he durst not trust his own native country, he made answer, 'In everything else, yes; but in a matter that touches my life, I would not even my own mother, lest she might by mistake throw in the black ball instead of the white.' When, afterwards, he was told that the assembly had pronounced judgment of death against him, all he said was, 'I will make them feel that I am alive.'"
The Stewart and Long:
"At Thurii he landed, and concealed himself so he could not be found. When one of his friends said to him, 'Alkibiades, do you not trust your native country?' He answered, 'Yes, in other matters; but when my life is at stake I would not trust my own mother, for fear she might mistake a black bean for a white one.' Afterwards hearing the Athenians had condemned him to death, he said, I will show them I am still alive.'"
The Loeb (translated by Bernadotte Perrin):
"Arrived at Thurii, he left his trireme and hid himself so as to escape all quest. When some one recognized him and asked, 'Can you not trust your country, Alcibiades?' 'In all else,' he said, 'but in the matter of life I wouldn't trust even my own mother not to mistake a black for a white ballot when she cast her vote.' And when he afterwards heard that the city condemned him to death, 'I'll show them,' he said, 'that I'm alive.'"
And lastly North:
"Afterwards when he came to the city of Thurii, so soon as he landed, he went and hid himself incontinently in such sort, that such as sought for him, could not find him. Yet there was one that knew him where he was, and said: Why, how now Alcibiades, darest thou not trust the justice of thy country? Yes very well (quoth he) and it were in another matter: but my life standing upon it, I would not trust mine own mother, fearing lest negligently she should put in the black bean, where she should cast in the white. For by the first condemnation of death was signified: and by the other, pardon of life. But afterwards, hearing that the Athenians for malice had condemned him to death: Well, quoth he, they shall know I am yet alive."

The North has a certain charm, but I think I'd actually prefer to read the Stewart and Long to the Dryden/Clough that I am reading. The Perrin is closest to the Greek: appropriate since the Greek is on the facing page in a Loeb. I also looked up the Langhornes' version, but it's a little worse and not enough different to warrant quoting. Which look best to you?

I picked this passage because I'm pretty sure I read somebody somewhere (and not me) who translated that final line as 'They will feel my life.' Which I quite liked. But now I can't find it.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Coming to Canada

Coming To Canada is an autobiographical sequence of poems by Carol Shields from her birth in Chicago that ends when she moves to Canada, newly-married, at the age of 22. It came out in 1992.

The edition I have came is 1995 from Carleton University Press and includes selections from her first two volumes of poetry, other uncollected new poetry, plus an introduction by Christopher Levenson, a Canadian poet.

I never quite know what to say about poetry, so maybe I'll just quote one. From the autobiographical sequence, but not especially autobiographical:

Aunt Ada
Aunt Ada never  went to church
Her head ached or her back
and no wonder 
She had the pies to bake
and the wash and the children under
foot and not so much 
as a minute to sit and ponder
how she'd earned such
blessings or how to take 
the anger from her look
or thunder
from her touch. 
No one remembers
Aunt Ada much,
except she stayed home sick 
on Sundays, rebuked
God, did her work
and grew a little kinder.
I suppose I could make sure you notice the rather sly slant rhyme scheme.

Levenson, in the introduction, almost, but doesn't quite, blame Carol Shields for being so impersonal. Titles of other poems (not from the sequence) include things like "Our Old Aunt Who Is Now In A Retirement Home" and "A Friend Of Ours Who Knits." I think I actually preferred these kind of impersonal poems. Or there was this:

A Physicist We Know
Even while
we talk, he abstracts
himself, making terrier
leaps of speculation
on the quiet. 
His smile
is detached and social,
disenfranchised by
his secret alphabet
of air. 
he emerges in fractions,
lopsided with camaraderie,
looking rather hysterical
and frantic. 
Then we see him sympathetically
as an exile
and don't dare
ask, is it lonely in there?
"terrier leaps" and the closing particularly make that poem work for me.

Still there's no doubt that she's better known as a novelist, and for reason. Levenson's introduction spends at least as much time talking about her novels. I've read some, though not all, pre-blogging, and her biography of Jane Austen more recently. The last of her novels I read was The Stone Diaries, her most famous, so brilliant and so heart-breaking I haven't dared to read another since. I've long felt I need to, and am now beginning to feel I have the strength to, revisit that.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

In My Father's Court

"No man is judged in his hour of grief."

Those are the words of Singer's father when he hears a woman curse after her son had committed suicide.

Isaac Bashevis Singer has been on my mind lately. Various bloggers have been reading I. B. Singer (and also I. J. Singer); the Other Reader has recently finished Enemies, A Love Story and that's been a topic of dinner conversations. I was spouting off about his memoir In My Father's Court, and also Shosha, but then I wasn't really certain I'd read In My Father's Court. (I'm quite sure about Shosha. A great novel.) The database says I hadn't, but I thought I remembered parts of it. It's possible I didn't complete it previously, or it's also possible the database was wrong.

I went through a serious Singer phase in the 80s--this was when a friend suggested I should try reading a living author before they won the Nobel prize--and read a bunch of them. They're generally great.

In My Father's Court runs from Singer's earliest memories--he was born in 1902--until the end of World War I. The book is a series of short pieces that first appeared in Yiddish in the Jewish Daily Forward in the 60s (under a pseudonym) and were then translated into English before being collected into book form. Singer's father was an impoverished Hasidic rabbi who moved the family to Warsaw before the war; his mother was the daughter of a more prestigious Hasidic rabbi from Bilgoray in southeast Poland.

From the introduction:
"The book tells the story of a family and of a rabbinical court that were so close together it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. The rabbinical court, the Beth Din, is an ancient institution among the Jews...The Beth Din was a kind of blend of a court of law, synagogue, house of study, and, if you will, psychoanalyst's office where people of a troubled spirit could come to unburden themselves."
And, perhaps we can add, a good training ground for a future writer.

There are stories of his father deciding in cases of divorce, wills, Talmudic disputations. At the same time events happen in their lives: his sister, his parents' first-born, marries into a Jewish family in Amsterdam and moves there. His brother, Joseph, ten years older, loses his faith, becomes a communist and an artist (he both writes and paints; now he's more famous for his writing); I. B. is studious, is fascinated by Jewish traditions, but at the same time reads Dostoevsky, gradually begins to doubt, discovers girls. The greatest part of the episodes take place in Warsaw, on Krochmalna Street, in the Warsaw ghetto. But during World War I, after Warsaw falls to the Germans and Austria-Hungary takes Bilgoray, it becomes possible to travel to his maternal grandfather's home, and with food short in Warsaw, he goes with his mother and younger brother to the country. The book ends with them in Bilgoray and his father and older brother still in Warsaw.

Very good and very touching. I'm not quite sure what the cover has to do with the book--though what do covers ever have to do with books?--unless it's the last lines:
"Suddenly I was dazzled by a particular narrow face, a dark girl with coal-black eyes and an indescribable smile. I became confused and when she asked me a question I did not know what she was saying. Many novels and a lot of poetry had filled my mind by then; I was prepared for the turmoil that writers call 'love'..."

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 The 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.