Tuesday, August 20, 2019

David Elias' Elizabeth of Bohemia

Elizabeth of Bohemia was the eldest daughter of James I of England; her brother was Charles I, executed by Cromwell. David Elias' Elizabeth of Bohemia is a historical novel that encompasses her entire life.

It's a fascinating period, with lots of great walk-on parts. Shakespeare makes an appearance; so does René Descartes. She could have been married to Gustavus Adolphus. Elizabeth has a crush on the dashing (and older) Sir Walter Raleigh, and sneaks into the Tower of London to visit him. The events of her life are the opening chapters of English Civil War and the Thirty Years' War.

Elizabeth tells her own story: the novel begins in 1612, when she's sixteen, and her father is arranging her marriage to Frederick V, the Elector of Palatine, to shore up alliances among Protestant countries. Elizabeth is hostile to the idea of arranged marriages, especially her own arranged marriage. (She does have that crush on Sir Walter Raleigh.) But she has no power, and the marriage is hastened on, despite the death of her beloved older brother Henry.

In Heidelberg, the capitol of Frederick's realm, she catches the ambition bug, and though she no more than tolerates her husband, she decides to propel him into becoming the king of Bohemia, and make herself queen. Her plot succeeds and they're crowned in Prague. But the Hapsburg and Catholic Ferdinand II can't tolerate this usurpation, and their reign is brief: hence she's the Winter Queen.

Elias' novel has a tripartite structure: the sixteen-year-old Elizabeth in England takes up about a third of the novel; then there are her young married years in Heidelberg, her constant child-bearing; lastly the years after her brief queen-ship, in Heidelberg and finally, a widow, back in England. The realization of her ambitions are glossed over in a page or two--well, they didn't last very long in reality in any case. Frederick was off to fight, before surrendering the throne; there are no war scenes in the novel; we very much see the story as Elizabeth could.

It's an engaging voice, though I have to admit I'm not particularly convinced that it could be the voice of a woman of the 1600s. But then maybe that doesn't matter as long as the story carries you along...

One from my #20booksofsummer list.

And one for the Canadian Book Challenge:

The book just came out last month. ARC provided by ECW Press

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Akhmatova

The Stray Dog Cabaret

All of us here are hookers and hustlers.
We drink too much, and don't care.
The walls are covered with birds and flowers
that have never seen sunshine or air. 
You smoke too much. There's always a cloud
of nicotine over your head.
Do you like this skirt? I wore it on purpose.
I wanted to show lots of leg. 
The windows here have been covered forever.
Is it snowing out?...maybe it's rain.
You've got that look in your eyes again,
like a cat in a crouch for a kill. 
Sometimes I feel this awful pain
as if someone were breaking a spell.
Take a good look at that one over there!
She's dancing her way into hell!

-Anna Akhmatova (tr. Paul Schmidt)

The Stray Dog Cabaret was an actual location in St. Petersburg where Akhmatova, as well as Blok, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, among others, hung out in the years immediately before World War I. This poem dates from 1913. 

Akhmatova lived on until 1966, though her first husband was executed by the Soviet police and her second died in the Gulag. She was nominated several times for the Nobel prize.

This poem has a certain happy bravado; that was not the norm in her life. This is from 1917:
This is the moment they told us would come some day
when there's nobody left alive to hear what we say.
The world is no longer the place it used to be.
Be still, don't break my heart. Be silent, poetry.
Jennifer is featuring Sylvia Plath this week. Brona has a timely Herman Melville.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

War and the Iliad (#WITMonth)

"It is hopeless to look in the Iliad for a condemnation of war as such. People make war, they put up with it, they curse it, they even praise it in songs and verses, but it is not to be judged any more than destiny is." 
-Rachel Bespaloff

A very serious Humpty engaged in some
late night lucubrations.
Despite that...there might yet be some judgment on war in this volume.

War and the Iliad, a New York Review Books reissue, contains two essays--by Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff--about Homer's Iliad, written in the early years of World War II.

Weil's essay is the first out and the first in this volume; it's published in Vichy France in the winter of 1940/41. The title is 'The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,' and it begins: "The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away..."

Rachel Bespaloff was already working on her own essay 'On the Iliad' at this time, though she seems to have read Weil's before finishing her own; hers came out in French in 1943.

Both essays are more about the times than the Iliad, though I would say this was particularly true of Weil's. I don't know that I felt Weil was that insightful about Homer's text, but it was powerful and moving about war. It's often considered an anti-war or pacifist document, and while it is certainly anti-war, it's too despairing to be pacifist, I'd say; to argue for pacifism implies a measure of hope that something can be done.

The quote from Bespaloff above is I think partly in response to Weil, but I also think it's closer to the spirit of the author of the Iliad. Homer is not under any illusions as to what war is really like; he does not romanticize it; but it is material for stories; it is possible to behave well in wartime, though so very often men do not.

Both were translated into English by Mary McCarthy with idea that they would be published in one volume, but rights for Weil's essay were unavailable in 1947 so Bespaloff's essay with an afterword by Hermann Broch came out in an edition with Bollingen press. New York Review Books was able to put together the two essays with Broch's afterword and added an introduction by Christopher Benfey in 2005.

I had assembled a lovely pile of novels I thought I could read for #WITMonth, but I'm still thinking about Hermann Broch and I knew this had that final essay by him so that's what came of the top of the stack. I'm still hopeful that at least one of those novels gets read this month, but I also pulled Hannah Arendt's Men In Dark Times off the shelf because it has an essay on Hermann Broch. Half the Arendt volume's essays were originally in English, but half were translated from the German, including the essay on Broch, making it another possible #WITMonth book. I've already read the Broch essay.

And Weil and Bespaloff made me want to reread the Iliad. I was going to wait for the Emily Wilson translation, since I so much enjoyed her Odyssey, but now I may not be willing to wait.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Szymborska

In Praise Of Feeling Bad About Yourself

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean. 
A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right? 
Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
In every other way they're light. 
On this third planet of the sun
Among the signs of bestiality
A clear conscience is number one.

-Wislawa Szymborska 
(tr. Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak)

Wislawa Szymborska was a Polish Nobel Prize-winning poet who passed away in 2012. It's WIT (Women in Translation) Month!

Holds Upon Happiness, the originator of Poem For A Thursday, has previously featured a different poem of  Szymborska.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Last Manly Man (#20booksofsummer)

"For weeks after my reported death, I made light of it with friends, asking them, 'Where were you when you heard I died?'"
Well, it is a Book of Summer
Robin Hudson is a reporter and unit leader for ANN, a cable news agency. She's doing a series on the Man of the Future, in which she talks to an anthropologist, the founder of a multi-level marketing company, a specialist in great apes, and a feminist predicting the demise of men. Except she gets distracted into a murder investigation. The subjects of her story are also the suspects in her murder investigation. Such are the rules of mystery novels...

Since that's the opening sentence of the novel I give above, we know she's reported dead for a while, but isn't. By the end of the novel, the murderer is revealed, although this is less by her Holmesian cleverness than by her reportorial persistence.

The story involves bonobo chimps, atavistic males, and Manhattan, as the cover kind of gives away.

This is the fourth of Sparkle Hayter's comic mystery novels starring reporter Robin Hudson, and it came out in 1998. I read the first three more or less when they came out, but then somehow lost track of them. There was only one more written (which I haven't read) but when I saw this at a charity sale last year I reminded myself of the series. It won't change your life (at least I think I hope it won't...) but it is fun.

One thing that did surprise me was how much of a period piece it now feels. ANN is a stand-in for CNN where Hayter worked, and its business was growing at the time; now not so much. In the novel everybody uses beepers. Pheromones, the attitude toward AIDS, the distinction between separatist and sex-positive feminists. All these things haven't gone away, but they just don't seem as much in the news. I've reached an age where twenty years doesn't seem like it should be that long a time, but I guess the world has changed...

This is the eleventh book from my list for #20booksofsummer, though I've read another six not on that list. I knew I wasn't going to be very good at keeping to a list!

Friday, August 2, 2019

Olivia Manning's School For Love

Felix is an orphan, dropped off with Miss Bohun, a very distant relative, in Jerusalem, in the winter of 1944-5. His father was a war casualty, and his mother died of typhoid in Baghdad, and transport back to England is still impossible, so Miss Bohun is the only option. Felix must be in his mid-teens, but he's young for his age, and his understanding of just who is this Miss Bohun is wildly and hilariously mistaken.

Miss Bohun runs a rooming house and so long as Felix can pay, she's willing to take in this relative. Miss Bohun is forever finagling her boarders, and feeling put upon for having to do it, but for a while Felix has a home. The other inmates of Miss Bohun's house provide his company and that most particularly includes Faro, a Siamese cat.

How did Olivia Manning become obscure, even for five minutes, much less years? The world is cruel. I've now read the six volumes of her Fortunes of War series and this and she strikes me as an incredibly brilliant writer. Funny and observant and touching all at once. As far as I'm concerned one of the best of the New York Review Books rediscoveries. (Up there with Patrick Leigh Fermor and The Long Ships.)

Does Felix finally come to understand the monstrous Miss Bohun? Is she really as monstrous as all that? (Oh, pretty much...) Is his name destiny? Well, read it: it's short, and for me it served as the perfect chaser after reading the weighty tomes of Under The Volcano and The Death of Virgil and before starting Moby Dick. Highly recommended.

A book that actually came from my #20booksofsummer list!

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Herman Melville

Humpty sitting with some poetry in the afternoon sun

The Maldive Shark

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril's abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat--
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

-Herman Melville

I was browsing through my old paperback of American Verse (ed. Oscar Williams) for something to use for today because it's Herman Melville's 200th birthday and found this. Which amused me. It's also the beginning of the Moby Dick readalong organized by Brona, so you can think of this as a signup post, for that too.

Honestly I try not to think of politics all the time--I don't think it's healthy--but how brilliant was it of Herman Melville to write an allegory of the current White House so many years in advance? I mean, I ask you? Was the man a genius or what?

Jennifer is featuring a wonderful John Donne love poem this week.