Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka

 "An expression of extreme sadness appeared on the lieutenant's face."

Which means Lieutenant Boruvka has solved another case...

Lieutenant Boruvka is a homicide detective in Prague; the twelve stories in this volume date from the mid-60s--it's still communist Czechoslovakia. Lt. Boruvka is saddened every time a death turns out to be a homicide--it's not always clear at first--and then is further saddened when he finds the crucial clue that tells him who the killer was.

The stories themselves are quite funny.

The stories nod to golden age detective fiction (and earlier). Holmes, C. Auguste Dupin, Dr. Thorndyke are all referenced. In one of the cases, Lt. Boruvka gets the needed clue from reading Ellery Queen's The Roman Hat Mystery. (Or maybe Skvorecky got the plot element he needed from Queen?) At one point Lt. Boruvka remarks about possible suspects with the murdered man's servant:

"He and Farina are the only two men in the whole house who can be taken into account because it certainly wasn't me."
The major-domo coughed. He seemed to be offended.
"You don't regard me as a man, sir?"
"But of course I do," the lieutenant hurriedly covered up. "But in any decent murder case the murderer is never one of the servants. That simply isn't done."

Paging Mr. Van Dine! (See number 11.)

There are a few recurring characters. In the office there's Sergeant Malik, officious and a bit blood-thirsty and prone to miss the obvious; there's Constable Sintak, to whom "Lieutenant Boruvka was a wizard." And the beautiful policewoman Eva with her chignon. Lt. Boruvka's wife, and especially his daughter Zuzana, are important. A vacation promised to Zuzana means that two of the cases are set in Italy, where Lt. Boruvka stumbles into a couple of murders (and Zuzana is crucial to finding the solutions.)

There's a plot arc through most of the stories in which Lt. Boruvka is attracted to Eva; in one he's arranged to meet her at the Tomcat (!) Club for dinner and drinks and who knows what, when a couple of accidents drag him into a case in which he manages to prevent a murder only by standing up Eva. Saint Sidonius features in the case in a couple of ways, giving Lt. Boruvka, who's perfectly happy with the official state atheism of Czechoslovakia at the time, a moment of wonder. And keeping him from doing something he shouldn't...

A lot of fun.

Covering the Czech Republic for this years European Reading Challenge.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

August wrapup (and summer reading)

My August reading (and looking at that #20booksofsummer list, ha, ha...)

Like most blogger memes, monthly summaries turns out to be another I'm pretty sporadic about doing.

The Mystery Department

Which was Philo Vance by S. S. Van Dine this month. I recently discovered that the whole series is available at Project Gutenberg Australia. Are they legal in Canada? I dunno. But I downloaded the ones I hadn't read and then read three of them.

Philo Vance may be an idle aesthete, but he's effective in tracking down murderers.

"If you will refer to the municipal statistics of the City of New York, you will find that the number of unsolved major crimes during the four years that John F.-X. Markham was district attorney, was far smaller than under any of his predecessors' administrations." [Benson Murder Case, Introductory]

Philo Vance was the reason why. 

The Benson Murder Case (#1 in the series, 1926)

Alvin Benson was a Wall Street broker and man about town; he was shot one night at home in the forehead. Harassed actresses and jealous boyfriends make up a good collection of suspects, but as the police go through one suspect after another, Vance keeps insisting the psychology is wrong. Until it isn't.

The Scarab Murder Case (#5 in the series, 1930)

Benjamin Kyle is a philanthropist financing an expedition to excavate in Egypt. Early one morning his head is crushed by the statue of an Egyptian god and the dead hand is clutching an ancient scarab. The curse of the old gods for looting pyramids? Or a more terrestrial murderer? Howard Carter & King Tut's tomb weren't so far in the past at this point. Vance is once again mostly tasked with keeping the police from arresting the wrong person, but in this case the actual murderer is doing his best to frame somebody else, anybody else. 

The Dragon Murder Case (#7 in the series, 1933)

In an old estate on the north end of Manhattan, there's a swimming pool formed from a river. (Think Tryon Hall, now Fort Tryon Park.) Sanford Montague dives into the pool and never comes up. A few days later his body is found a couple of miles away. Murder? Or accident with a clumsy attempt to hide the outcome? Or is it the dragon of Lenape legend? 

The solution depends on the latest in technology in 1933, which was also true of 1927's The Canary Murder Case, probably my favorite in the series and an excellent locked-room murder.

However. "Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pants," wrote Ogden Nash, and it's kind of true. I enjoy the series and it's historically important, but. Willard Wright, for whom S. S. Van Dine was a pseudonym, was also an art critic while under one of his other hats, and there's far more art history than any of the mysteries require. There may be some use to discussions of Egypt's 17th dynasty in The Scarab Murder Case, but mostly you have to just like the long digressions for their own sake. I don't entirely mind them myself. But what's pretty continuously hard to take is Wright's inability to write dialog that sounds like anything an actual human being might speak.

I knew early Ellery Queen was quite influenced by Philo Vance, but what struck me in these was how much Rex Stout was paying attention, too. And it's not just that there's a butler who cooks!

In the Time of Nero

My Classics Club spin book was Henryk Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis. That sent me off to Petronius' Satyricon and Tacitus' Annals. Thoughts were written up here.

The Poetry Department

Richard Crashaw/Selected Poems

Crashaw (1613-1649) was the son of a Puritan sympathizer, but he became a high-church Anglican and eventually a Catholic. Not a politically astute move for an Englishman in those years, Crashaw fled to France and then died in the Papal States. 

Crashaw considered George Herbert his poetic master, which shows good taste as far as I'm concerned. Very much a metaphysical, with elaborate conceits: one poem voices the tears that Mary Magdalene cried. A couple of impressive long poems devoted to Teresa of Avila.

The edition I read was selected by Michael Cayley for Fyfield Books (Carcanet Press) in 1972. He wrote a useful introduction.

H. D./Sea Garden
H. D./Hymen

These early volumes of H. D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961) are available at Project Gutenberg. I've got a couple other volumes of hers in hand. I like her handling of classical allusions, but I'm not going to say much at the moment.

G. K. Chesterton/Wine, Women, and Song

Ahem. Not very politically correct, and not just in the ways suggested by the title. (The en passant anti-Semitism was pretty hard to swallow.) Still, he's a skilled versifier and there was some amusing stuff in it:

You will find me drinking rum
Like a sailor in a slum
You will find me drinking beer like a Bavarian
You will find me drinking gin
In the lowest kind of inn
Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.

Available from Project Gutenberg. 

Richard Howard/RH ­čľĄ   HJ

New York Review Poets volume. It draws from Howard's career as a poet of fifty years. (He's also a translator, of E. M. Cioran among others.) HJ is Henry James, and a number of the poems selected concern James in some way. I find Richard Howard very good, but I'm not sure this is the selection of his poems I would have made. Quoted from it here.

Women in Translation Month

Two by Am├ęlie Nothomb (Thirst, Tokyo Fianc├ęe). Thoughts here.

Dorthe Nors/Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

It's possible I'll still say more about this, but I haven't yet.

Sonja Hansen lives in Copenhagen and is the translator of (imaginary) Swedish thriller writer G├Âsta Svensson. She's 40 or so and wants to get a driver's license so she's a little freer to go where she wants, but she suffers from positional vertigo--if she swings her head too fast, she gets dizzy and disoriented. She thinks about doing yoga, gets massages, feels like a country mouse (she's from rural Jutland) in the big city of Copenhagen. Not much happens, but that's kind of the point.

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker International in 2017, but lost to David Grossman's A Horse Walks Into a Bar. That was also the year of Mathias Énard's Compass.

Some Other International Fiction

Jose Maria E├ža de Queiroz/The Yellow Sofa

A novella by the 19th Century Portuguese realist. The merchant Godofredo da Concei├žao Alves discovers the younger partner in his firm is having an affair with his wife. What to do? A duel is just one of several possibilities. 

I thought this was very good. It's the first of his I've read, but I've now got several more from the library.

Stanislaw Lem/Fiasco

An expedition from Earth to a distant star system sets out with the idea of making contact with an alien civilization. No humans have ever been in contact with any aliens before--this is a story of first contact. The title gives away the outcome, but how it fails and why are the questions of the novel.

It would be Lem's hundredth birthday this year, leading to overviews. Lem is almost always a science-fiction writer, but he ranges from scientifically hard to fabular, from serious to uproariously funny. I liked this, though I didn't think it was his best--it took a little while to really get going. It's on the serious, more technologically-minded end of his spectrum.

Sholem Aleichem/In The Storm

Quite good, I thought. More here.

So that's a month's worth of reading for me. As for that 20 Books of Summer, as you might guess from this one month's reading, I read twenty books. But as for that list, umm...eleven, plus two I had suggested I might read. Ah, well...

The August books that are still around the house

Senhor Dorsey decided I wasn't using his service properly--probably by not using it enough--so there's a new Twitter account follow button...

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Heinrich Heine (#poem)


Sapphires are those eyes of yours,
Ravishingly sweet,
Oh, triply fortunate the man
Whom lovingly they greet.

Your heart is like the diamond
That sparkles noble beams;
Oh, triply lucky is the man
For whom with love it gleams.

Your lips are like twin ruby stones,
None lovelier anywhere;
Oh, triply fortunate is the man
To whom they love aver.

Oh, if I knew this lucky man
And found him thus in clover,
Just t├Ęte-a-t├Ęte in the deep green wood
His luck would soon be over.

-Heinrich Heine (tr. Walter Arndt) 

I've been reading Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) lately, looking first at the German, but then quickly cheating and reading the English. Heine was the major German poet after Goethe, Jewish but not usually practicing. He got into trouble with the authorities and lived his later years in France. 

The German (if it helps):

Saphire sind die Augen dein,
Die lieblichen, die s├╝├čen,
Oh, dreimal gl├╝cklich ist der Mann,
Den sie mit Liebe gr├╝├čen.

Dein Herz, es ist ein Diamant,
Der edle Lichter spr├╝het.
Oh, dreimal gl├╝cklich ist der Mann,
F├╝r den es liebend gl├╝het.

Rubinen sind die Lippen dein,
Man kann nicht sch├Ânre sehen.
Oh, dreimal gl├╝cklich ist der Mann,
Dem sie die Liebe gestehen.

Oh, kennt ich nur den gl├╝cklichen Mann,
Oh, da├č ich ihn nur f├Ąnde,
So recht allein im gr├╝nen Wald,
Sein Gl├╝ck h├Ątt' band ein Ende.

I've found the Arndt translations pretty good overall, but I'm not really sure why he changes up the third line refrain in this.

Poem For A Thursday is a meme started by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. Also Brona has a poem.