Monday, December 30, 2019

Back To The Classics Wrapup 2019

So once again I completed ten (well, nine and a half-ish) categories this year for Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge. Here's the list:

Classic in Translation:

Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso

Classic Play:

George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion

Classic From Africa:

Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between

Classic From The Americas:

Malcolm Lowry's Under The Volcano

Twentieth Century Classic:

Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil

Very Long Classic:

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

Classic by a Female Author:

George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life

Classic Tragedy:

Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth

Classic Comedy:

Henry Fielding's Tom Jones

(though I've only just finished the last one & haven't blogged about it yet.)

Thanks to Karen for hosting! I guess that's two entries. Should it come up I can be reached by email at reese (at) reesewarner (dot) com.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

2019 European Reading Challenge Wrapup

It's been quite the European tour this year, but it's time to acknowledge it's over...I didn't go quite as over-the-top as I did last year, but I still passed the Five Star level and then some, for a final total of twelve countries. Still I wonder more at the ones I missed. (What? Nothing from Russia this year?)

Here's my final list:

1.) Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday. Austria.
2.) Robert Gerwarth's The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed To EndLatvia.
3.) Boreslav Pekic' Houses. Serbia.
4.) Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Italy.
5.) Endre Farkas' Never, Again. Hungary.
6.) Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad. Poland.
7.) Eric Ambler's The Light of Day. Turkey.
8.) Mircea Cartarescu's Blinding. Romania.
9.) Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian. France.
10.) Hannah Arendt's Men in Dark Times. Germany
11.) George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life. UK.
12.) Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Monaco.

Thanks to Gilion for hosting and looking forward to the new edition!

Friday, December 27, 2019

Andrew Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work (#MobyDickReadalong)

"I bought Moby-Dick today for 6d. That's more like the real stuff. White whales & natural piety."
-Samuel Beckett, in a letter of Aug. 4, 1932

Andrew Delbanco is definitely in the spirit of the thing: he begins his biography of Herman Melville with "EXTRACTS (supplied by a Sub-Sub-Sub-Librarian)." The quote from Samuel Beckett above is one of the extracts, but there's also Conrad, Updike, Roth, Ken Kesey, and Ray Bradbury all commenting on Melville or his works. There's also a transcript of a Sopranos episode.  (A.J. Soprano is reading Billy Budd in high school.)

I thought it was a very good biography. Large stretches of Melville's life are poorly documented; he didn't keep letters written to him, though some letters he wrote still exist. Delbanco is judicious on the question of Melville's homosexuality, by which I mean, he says neither yes nor no, and doubts the term is even very applicable in the 19th century. 

Some interesting facts I learned:

I knew about Melville's use of the account of the whaling ship the Essex, but I'd never heard this: "In May 1839, just before nineteen-year-old Herman Melville sailed for Liverpool, J. R. Reynolds had published in the Knickerbocker Magazine an account of 'an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength' that, like the 'Ethiopian albino...was white as wool,' and became the object of a vengeful hunt. Named after the island of Mocha just off the Chilean coast where he was first sighted, Mocha Dick was freakish not only in appearance but also in that he had repeatedly turned to attack his human pursuers." Mocha Dick!

'Total earnings from the American sales of Moby-Dick would ultimately come to $556.37, considerably less than Melville had realized from any previous book." 

Though in general Delbanco doesn't want to say too much about Melville's politics, he does think that Ahab is strongly reminiscent of John C. Calhoun, both in look and demeanor. 

Melville was always a heavy drinker, it seems, but after the failure of Moby-Dick and subsequently Pierre, he may have really overdone it. Again Delbanco doesn't have enough evidence to be certain, but Melville may very well have become by modern standards alcoholic. There were also signs of strain in the marriage brought on by the failure of his career as a writer, relative poverty, and the suicide of their oldest son, all of which were likely exacerbated by his heavy drinking. There were also concerns for his sanity. This in the 1860s and 1870s. He and his wife never permanently separated, though, and seem to have been reconciled by the end of his life.

Anyway an interesting and enjoyable read.

As for Moby-Dick itself, I was ahead for a while, but now I'm behind again. Onward!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas!

Who says great whales just come in white? 

Best of the season to everyone! Thanks for reading!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Classics Club Spin #22. And the winner is...

That means it will be Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own for me. A very good spin choice indeed. I'm not really sure why I haven't already read it.

I suspect there may be lots of Classics Clubbers out there who have already read it. Do I have a treat in store?

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Classics Club Spin #22

It's spin time at the Classics Club again. This is the Classics Club challenge where we pick twenty unread books from our Classics Club list and wait for the power of the random number generator to tell us which one we're going to read in the near future.

Between the holidays and the fact that I'm going to be in California for half of January I'm not sure how much reading and blogging time I will have, so I'm not putting any of the dangerously long ones on this list. The last chunkster challenge, the spin machine picked the shortest book on my list, but I'm not going to rely on that happening again.

A couple of these would be effectively read-alongs, and two would be the same author as other bloggers (Brona - though not the same book.) Feel free to do further matchups if you like.

1.) Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
2.) The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
3.) The Waves by Virginia Woolf (Same author with Brona)
4.) The American by Henry James
5.) Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw
6.) Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (Faith at Household Diary)
7.) A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
8.) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
9.) The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
10.) Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac
11.) 20000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne
12.) The Black Arrow by R. L. Stevenson (Helen at She Reads Novels)
13.) A Room Of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
14.) The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham (DebNance at Readerbuzz)
15.) One of Ours by Willa Cather (Same author with Brona)
16.) Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
17.) The Forsyte Sage by John Galsworthy
18.) Lives by Plutarch
19.) Count Robert of Paris by Sir Walter Scott
20.) Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy

Plutarch's Lives would be the challenging one on that list. I'm not really sure which one overall I prefer. Which look good to you?

And the winner is...#13! A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth

There have been a lot of wonderful posts about The House of Mirth (thank you, Cleo, Fanda, Marian, --that I know of!) as well as discussion at Cleo's site. Reading the novel and the discussion got me to wonder about tragedy, so that's going to be my organizing principle...

I had always planned on reading it as a tragedy; I put it on my list for Karen's Back to the Classics challenge as this year's tragedy, and I knew (without knowing much about it) it didn't end well. And it doesn't. But is it tragedy? I say yes, but I do think it's a bit tricky and unexpected in that regard.

Lily Bart, our tragic heroine, doesn't always make good choices; often she can't seem to decide what it is she wants; and sometimes she makes outright poor choices. Now if bad things happen to a person who makes bad choices, does that count as tragedy? Or is it simply just desserts?

Think about some of the classics of tragedy: when we first meet Oedipus, he's determined to find out what's causing the plague in Thebes, no matter the cost, no matter who's the guilty party. (Plagues generally had a guilty party back then, not a guilty bacterium.) It's his determination--a good quality--and his history that bring about his downfall. Or Pentheus, of The Bacchae, who declares that running around, naked and drunk, on a hillside at night is not a good thing. Reasonable, right? Well, no, as it turns out.

Also these men are significant figures--both kings--and most tragedies concern themselves with significant figures. Even women in classical tragedies are princesses or queens: such as Antigone or Phaedra.

But Hamlet is largely a tragedy of someone who can't make up his mind: if he'd just gone off and killed his stepfather at the start--that stepfather who was guilty of murder--wouldn't everything have turned out much better for him? But he can't make up his mind to do it. And Lily Bart can't make up her mind whom to marry, but she really needs to marry somebody.

OK, a quick plot summary: (skip if you prefer not to know.)

**Plot summary**

Lily Bart is in her late 20s at the start of the novel, and when we first see her she's considering marrying Percy Gryce. She's orphaned and is dependent financially on the dubious kindness of relations. She goes to visit her old friend, Lawrence Selden, whom she pumps for a few salient facts about Americana, Percy Gryce's hobby. She and Selden have a somewhat flirtatious conversation so we know there's something more than friendship there. As she's leaving Selden's bachelor apartment (a no no!) she's seen by Simon Rosedale, a rising Jewish businessman.

But when she meets Percy Gryce at a friend's country estate, she sabotages her chances to marry him by associating with Selden and ignoring Gryce. (She doesn't go to church! The horror!) She gambles, out of boredom, and ends up owing money, word of which gets back to Gryce. She blows her chance by not concentrating.

After her gambling debts and other expenses she needs money, which she accepts from Guy Trenor, a wealthy married man. Ostensibly this is coming out of investments he makes for her, which Trenor is able to put into a 'sure thing,' but we suspect he's just giving her the money.

In subsequent conversations with Lawrence Selden, we learn he might marry her, but his freedom is important to him and he wants to know that she's willing to live on what he makes--he's a lawyer, and presumably middle class, but certainly not rich--and she pushes him off. She can't commit to a life, as she sees it, of impoverishment.

She discovers Guy Trenor wants more than just a handshake in return for the 'investments' he made for her. She also discovers that everyone else assumes that the idea of 'investment' is just a fig-leaf covering up that he's giving her money. She decides she has to pay him back.

Rosedale proposes marriage. He's certainly rich enough, and in some ways he seems a pretty kindly man. Lily sees him with children, and he's good with them. But she can't get past her feeling that he's outside her circle, that he's crude. But she's feeling particularly pinched by the money she needs to return to Trenor, and so she almost says yes, but can't decide to.

At just this moment, her friend, and I use that word advisedly, Bertha Dorset invites Lily to go sailing in the Mediterranean. Bertha is bringing along both her husband George and her lover Ned. Lily is there as a distraction, though she may not entirely recognize this. In a shocking scene, when things are at their worst between the Dorsets, Bertha, to cover up her own sins, effectively accuses Lily of having an affair with her husband. Society buys Bertha's version, and Lily is ostracized.

The Dorset marriage is clearly on the rocks, and friends suggest Lily could snag George. George is drawn to Lily, and he's wealthy, but he's also a bit pathetic, and can Lily really marry the divorced husband of her 'friend'? (Though Bertha is no friend to her.) She can't make up her mind to do it.

Rosedale is still willing to marry her, but now she would need to silence Bertha Dorset because Rosedale is determined to break into society. She has the means, letters suitable for blackmailing Bertha, but does she have the will? No, it would seem.

There were two other possibilities than marriage presented for Lily, though Lily certainly sees her life as leading to marriage. Her cousin Gertie Farish lives modestly on a small inheritance and spends her time in good works. Lily fleetingly helps Gertie with this, but I wasn't convinced this was more than a momentary pleasure for Lily, that it was something she really wanted. In any case the inheritance she might have expected was lost when her aunt got (partially incorrect) word of Lily's bad behavior.

Also Lily could work, and she does a bit at the end, but really has no skills; she wasn't raised to it. She can manage a little light decorative sewing, but when it comes to toiling in a sweatshop, she can't keep up.

She realizes she's falling out of life, and has bad dreams, and takes chloral hydrate to sleep. A pharmacist warns her it's easy to accidentally overdose, and did know it was going to end badly, didn't you?

**End of plot summary**

So Lily has four marriage possibilities within the frame of the novel, and it's implied there were others earlier. Percy? Boring and a prude. Lawrence? Insufficiently rich and too committed to his own freedom. George? Pathetic, a divorcé, and you should never marry somebody on the rebound. Simon? A social outsider too stuck on breaking in. All are flawed, though maybe not impossibly, but she can't commit to either of her non-marrying prospects--working or a quiet poverty--either.

So is it a tragedy? Well, what are our characteristics? She's not a queen or a princess. But her great beauty gives her significance sufficient for tragedy. When she's run off to Gertie's apartment in despair and falls asleep there, we see Gerty's thoughts in looking on her: "To look on that prone loveliness was to see in it a natural force, to recognize that love and power belong to such as Lily,..." (Book I, Chapter 14.) This comes partly from Gerty's own despair, but it is also the general feeling about Lily. Rosedale says something similar: (Book II, Chapter 11)
Lily continued to meet his expostulations with a smile. 'I don't know why I should regard myself as an exception--' she began. 
'Because you are; that's why;...'
There is something special about Lily. And so, when something bad happens to her, it's at least potentially tragic.

Lily's great beauty gives her fate the necessary magnitude, I'd say. What then of her own actions? Are they simply self-destructive? Well, as I mentioned, Hamlet's is also a tragedy of somebody who can't make up his mind. Hamlet's doubts are more intellectual--he needs proof, definitive proof, in order to act--while Lily's are moral, born partly, it's true, out of a certain fastidiousness. But twice she makes a definite moral choice (to pay back Trenor, and to finally burn Bertha's letters) and both are admirable; both also materially hasten her decline. She doesn't dither quite as much as Hamlet. She hasn't got Oedipus' or Antigone's stubborn determination, but when she has a good choice to make, she can make it and does, even if those choices bring her closer to the end.

And what other choices did she really have? We discussed whom she should have married, but really were any of them satisfactory? For myself I felt Selden was the best of the lot, but Lily made the decision not to marry Selden because she knew herself and knew she could not live on his income; that was admirable in its way; Undine Spragg made the opposite choice vis-a-vis Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country, and that was the destruction of Marvell. Moreover, Selden all too readily jumps to the wrong conclusion about Lily when he sees her with Trenor; how well did he really know Lily as a person? Or was she just a thing (albeit a thing of beauty) to him?

The other marriage choices seem even more doubtful. Rosedale seemed possible for a bit, but his insistence that Lily use Bertha's letters to silence Bertha made him considerably less sympathetic to me.

Could she have become like Gertie Farish? That seems the most admirable path, but Gertie was pining for Selden, and doesn't seem completely happy herself.

Lily's exasperating: but tragic heroes can be exasperating; Ismene tells her sister Antigone as much in Sophocles' play. The real question is, given who she was, could she have done something different? Are the choices she made the only right and possible ones? I think Wharton has constructed this cleverly so that we do feel a sort of tragic horror as Lily's options are compressed from few to none, and that those choices she does make, when she does realize what's happening, are both right and also deadly.

Anyhoo, in the end I talked myself into this. But sometimes I just wanted to take Lily and shake her and say, Look, you're being stupid! What happens to you is no tragedy! But in the end I really did feel the pity and the horror.


Thanks to Cleo for organizing the readalong. It's been great fun reading everyone's posts.

This was on my Classics Club list, and is the tragic novel I'd always been planning for Karen's Back to the Classics challenge. Even if at moments I doubted it's tragic-ness.

And I wasn't expecting this, but the big scene--in some ways the novel's most important moment--when Bertha Dorset subtly accuses Lily of sleeping with her husband--takes place in Monaco, which means it's a Monaco novel for the European Reading Challenge hosted by Gilion. If you'd asked me would Monaco be on my list for two years running, I'd have laughed. But first there was Rebecca. And now The House of Mirth. Rich people hang out in Monaco, I guess.  I may have to read a biography of Grace Kelly next year just to keep up the streak.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Agatha Christie's By The Pricking of My Thumbs

"We've got far too much of everything."

This was my first of Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence mysteries, and I quite liked them as a detective couple. Tommy is the more pragmatic one; Tuppence (derived somehow from Prudence) the more intuitive one, the one more interested in just having adventures. (It would be dull otherwise to be a housewife...) This one comes out in 1968, and the couple are middle-aged with a grown daughter, but we hear allusions to their earlier adventures. (Espionage in war time!) The story starts when they go off to see Tommy's Aunt Ada, who's declining in a comfortable nursing home.

But as for the mystery! Tuppence says the above of the story at one point and I'm afraid it's true. Dame Agatha must have realized. There's a gang that's been pulling off spectacular heists for years--the Irish Mail, etc.--that Tommy hears about in his professional aspect; there's some maniac who's killing children around Sutton Chancellor; and there's another serial killer doing in elderly women in nursing homes. Because this is Agatha Christie and not, say, Ed McBain or J. J. Marric (John Creasey) I suspected that all these cases would tie together and they do, but it is just a little too much of everything...

Oh, well, it was still amusing, and I would definitely read another Tommy and Tuppence story. In fact I picked up N or M? at the same charity sale as this one and as it's earlier I should probably have read it first, especially as this one refers to it (I think) on several occasions.

Just The Facts Challenge, Silver Era

Who: Professional is the Main Sleuth.

Tommy and Tuppence run a detective agency, though frankly there's not much sign of it in this one.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Mann's Doctor Faustus and its Story

"...this strategy was a bitter necessity in order to achieve a certain humorous leavening of the somber material..."
from Thomas Mann's The Story of a Novel 

Mann wrote The Story of a Novel shortly after completing his novel Doctor Faustus, in 1949. It was translated into English in 1961 by the Winstons. I thought I'd read them as a pair.

That bit about humor? I think Mann succeeded:  the novel is funny, except, of course, when it isn't. Tom at Wuthering Expectations reminded recently that Mann's Magic Mountain is funny, and this is, too. Magic Mountain is funnier than Doctor Faustus, but then World War I was a barrel of laughs compared to World War II. Still, there's some laughs in this one. The narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, spends the first chapters comically complaining that he doesn't know how to write. In very elaborate prose. When our hero, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, is worried about the symptoms of early-stage syphilis, his doctors are comically unavailable: suddenly dead, hauled off to jail, etc. (The devil may have done it.) The names of characters are simply silly. Someone whose German is better than mine should feel free to comment, but I make out the names of the conservative circle of intellectuals around Sextus Kridwiss as Mister Chaos, Mister WoodenShoes, Mister Birdy, and Mister PorridgeMess.

So you probably know this as that crazed, howling cheese of a novel about the musician who slips into syphilitic dementia, full of dry theory about twelve-tone music, a novel unintelligible to mere mortals, and yes, it is all those things. It's an allegory about the collapse of German culture into Hitler-led barbarity.

But, hey, it's funny, too, so that makes it all OK...right?

Anyway, a quick summary: Adrian Leverkühn is born on a German farm around 1890; his friend (and future biographer) Serenus Zeitblom is born in the nearby town, two years earlier. Everyone pretty quickly realizes young Adrian is a musical genius and takes the time to nurture his talent. Adrian first studies theology, but finally comes around to the study of composition. He writes some apprentice works, but then deliberately gives himself syphilis by sleeping with a prostitute known to be infected. This deepens his aloofness and separates him from normal family life; it also liberates his creativity.

Or something does. Adrian writes a confession that Zeitblom reproduces in which Adrian makes a deal with the devil for twenty-four years of musical productivity. Was it just a midnight dream, like Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor? Adrian is discreet and ironic, but he always treats subsequent wonderful events as if some power was assisting him. If there is a devil, one of the concessions the devil extracts is Adrian can have no normal human contacts; well, syphilis makes one type of contact awkward; and Adrian's shy and aloof, given to migraines, so all he can do is work anyway. He produces a number of masterpieces, though they're experimental and not universally loved.

The novel in the last third or so becomes, as Mann notes in The Story of a Novel, more novelistic: there is romance, murder, suicide, the death of Adrian's father. Finally in 1930, the twenty-four years are up, and Adrian submerges into syphilitic dementia. His last two compositions are based on the Apocalypse of John and the death of Faust. Götterdämmerung indeed.

Is this Faust saved? We don't know. Marlowe's Faust isn't, but Goethe's is. Mann suggests, but I haven't read, that the original Faust book is ambiguous, and certainly this is. The novel runs in two time tracks: the events of Adrian's life from 1890 to 1930 or so, with Adrian's death coming in 1940. But there is also the time that Zeitblom is supposedly writing it in: from 1943 to the fall of Berlin in 1945. The Russian advance from the East, the invasion of Sicily and then the fall of Italy, D-Day, the Ardennes offensive leading to the Battle of the Bulge. But Adrian's dead, and salvation for Adrian would mean his music would be performed and understood; that the German culture he is the stand-in for would once again have a place on the world stage. In 1945? Well, a German could only hope. Or then again, maybe hope against is more appropriate? Is German culture irredeemably compromised? Zeitblom articulates both possibilities.

In The Story of the Novel, Mann tells us that when he read the final chapters to Adorno, (who was serving as his adviser on musical theory) Adorno told him that the ending was too optimistic, and Mann decided that was right, and rewrote it to be darker. Certainly Mann did not think Germany redeemed enough to return to live there, though there were calls for him to do so, even to become president of a newly freed Germany, something like Vaclav Havel.

I was thinking about rereading it after I read Broch's The Death of Virgil earlier this year. (Still thinking about The Death of Virgil!) Both novels were written in the US in the closing years of World War II. Mann was living in Los Angeles; Broch in D.C., but according to The Story of a Novel, they met a couple of times during those years. Mann was also deeply involved in war work and traveled to D.C. a few times. When I read The Death of Virgil I thought it was surprising how little political a novel it was, given the time it was written and the nature of the (Austrian exile) author. Doctor Faustus is a very political novel. Though I've now read them relatively closely together, two big Modernist stories about major artists, I'm not sure I have much else to say about that comparison in retrospect...

But I'd already been thinking about rereading Faustus after I read Rolland's Jean-Christophe a bit over a year ago. Here I think the connection is quite clear: both characters are musicians; both represent German musical culture of their era, its relation to the rest of Europe; both protagonists die young. Both authors are closeted homosexuals. (At least likely so. The evidence on Rolland is thin.) Mann was engaged with Rolland, even dreaming about him according to his diary. Rolland, writing just before World War I, is more hopeful. That reflects the times, but as well the temperaments, of the two authors.

One notable difference is that the music theory in Mann is quite difficult and authentic-feeling; Adrian's compositions feel like they really do exist. Rolland is quite general about the works that Jean-Christophe Krafft has written. Most of Adrian's compositions are vocal music and set a text; Jean-Christophe's are purely instrumental. (I think Mann's choice is wiser from a writing point of  view.) This makes for very different novels: the Rolland is a much easier read, with considerably more emphasis on the personal relationships; Mann is more difficult, and much of the first half of the novel feels frankly didactic. (Though the fact that Mann can write about Brentano, Keats, Shakespeare, or the Bible help ground it.) All that makes Mann's more believable. I wondered if Mann was thinking specifically about Rolland in The Story of the Novel when he wrote this:
"There is nothing sillier, in a novel about an artist, than merely to assert the existence of art, to talk about genius, about works, to hail these and rave about their effects upon the souls of the audiences. No, concrete reality, exactitude, were needed--this was utterly clear to me."
But short of including a score or a CD, the reader can only estimate musical works from the description of their effects on others. Doctor Zhivago includes Zhivago's poems and we can judge of them, though less so in my case, since I have no Russian. But a novel about a musician? Music is inherently harder. Is Mann's the right approach? I think a lot of people don't read Mann because of his difficulty, because of all that music theory, but then I think hardly anybody reads Rolland at all. (Which is a shame.)

Also reading The Story of a Novel was interesting from the perspective of a working writer. Of course, in 1943 (when he starts the novel) Mann is famous and celebrated as a novelist in ways that seem almost impossible anymore today. From the outside one might assume he has an almost Goethean level of self-assurance. Turns out it wasn't entirely so. Some here's some quotes, mostly about the writing process, I copied out of the book:
How much Faustus contains of the atmosphere of my life! A radical confession, at bottom. From the very beginning that has been the shattering thing about the book.
Has any man who ever bore the incubus of creation on his back, always concerned, obsessed, preoccupied with the the work of days and years--has any such man ever been an enjoyable companion? Dubito. 
Protracted psychological low, intensified by horror at the misguidedness of the novel I began with so zestful a sense of experiment.
Why, yes. Certainly! On with it! We'll cut a page and a half; we'll cut three pages. That will make it more readable, somewhat more readable. 
The fact remains, never before has any work so agitated and moved me! 
But also these, more general:
Switzerland is where the most gloriously un-German things are said in German.
People who feel held back and not given their due, and who at the same time present a distinguished appearance, often seek redress in racist self-assertion.
Life is pain, and we only live as long as we suffer. [Ouch! Tell me it ain't so, Tom!]
There is no doubt in my mind to whom we are indebted for this victory. It is Roosevelt.
Mann was an enthusiastic American citizen at the time and a great partisan of FDR. Still the House Un-American Activities Committee hounded him out of the country a couple of years later.

Anyway, a great--and affecting--and sometimes funny--novel, even if the music theory pretty much still goes over my head. It's impact falls at the conflux of the intellectual-political-emotional, with emotional perhaps being the least, but certainly not null, term.

Humpty's eyes may look a little dazed.
Anyway, this post (and the process of writing this post) has gone on **way** too long. I was also reading the books with the idea of #GermanLitMonth, and in fact finished them a while ago. But I've been a particularly slow blogger of late.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Judith Wright (#AusReadingMonth)

The Man Beneath The Tree
Nothing is so far as truth;
nothing is so plain to see.
Look where light has married earth
through the green leaves on the tree.
Nothing is so hard as love--
love for which the wisest weep;
yet the child who never looked
found it easily as his sleep.
Nothing is as strange as love--
love is like a foreign land.
Yet its natives find their way
natural as hand-in-hand. 
Nothing is so bare as truth--
that lean geometry of thought;
but round its poles there congregate
all foliage, flowers and fruits of earth. 
Oh, love and truth and I should meet,
sighed the man beneath the tree;
but where should our acquaintance be?
Between your hat and the soles of your feet,
sang the bird on the top of the tree.

-Judith Wright

I've been reading Judith Wright's Selected Poems: Five Senses a few poems a day for #AusReadingMonth, and quite enjoying it. And since The Other Reader has been berating me for not posting poems, I thought I'd better hop to...  😉

I thought about picking one of her poems more distinctly Australian, but I liked this one.

I've had this book on my shelf for a while now, and while I've dipped into it before, this will be the first time I've read it through. My fellow undergraduate/poetry mentor saw this on a shelf at a used bookstore and told me I ought to read Judith Wright, so I dutifully bought it. Now I'm puzzled why I waited so long.

This volume is a selection made by Judith Wright herself; mine is the second edition (with more poems!) from 1972. She died at the age of 85 in 2000.

Jennifer, the founder of Poem For A Thursday, has a lovely (and amusing! as he so often was) Clive James poem this week, doubly timely because of his recent death and #AusReadingMonth. Brona has another wonderful Australian discovery (for me) by Ali Cobby Eckerman.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life

"Mine, I fear, is not a well-regulated mind: it has an occasional tenderness for old abuses; it lingers with a certain fondness over the days of nasal clerks and top-booted parsons and has a sigh for the departed shades of vulgar errors."

Scenes of Clerical Life represents Eliot's first published fiction; its three stories came out in Blackwood's Magazine in 1857; they were collected into the book the following year. She was already reasonably well-known under her real name as an essayist and translator from the German, but the first story was published anonymously before she coined the pseudonym for subsequent publications.

The stories take place in the past, twenty, thirty, sixty years ago. They are either the times of George Eliot's childhood or represent stories of the further past that might have been told in George Eliot's childhood. They're narrated in a first-person voice, but the narrator is not a character in any of the stories, and in at least one is explicitly recalling childhood. They all take place in the same fictional space (closely based on Nuneaton, Wikipedia tells me, where George Eliot grew up) and characters overlap between the stories.

"The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton" is the first of the three stories. Amos Barton is the Vicar of Shepparton, happily married with six beloved children. He's a reasonably good vicar, though no saint. To be sure he holds multiple livings, but has to pay curates to do the work for all except the one, and he doesn't make enough to live on. He loves his wife, but doesn't think much about her. The Bartons get involved in charity toward the fairly dubious Countess Czernacki, and their finances go from bad to worse. George Eliot's ironic tolerance is in fine form and it's the funniest of the stories until, well, it isn't.

The second story is "Mr. Gilfil's Love Story". Mr. Gilfil is just before Amos Barton's time, and the town thinks of him as old and sedate, just a little bit boring, and fortunately given to preaching short sermons. But, as it turns out, that's not the full story.

"Janet's Repentance" is the last and longest of the three stories. The Rev. Tryan comes to town, working among the poor weavers; he wants to start an evening lecture at the church. But the respectable elements of the town accuse Tryan of Methodism or worse; his case is not helped by the support of Mr. Jerome, the town's one well-to-do Dissenter. The lawyer Dempster organizes the opposition to Tryan, with the aid of his wife Janet.

The town admires Dempster as a clever and not overly scrupulous lawyer, but he drinks too much. Janet joins her husband in his campaign to smear Tryan, not so much out of conviction, but as a way to reignite the love between them that had soured since they first married.

I thought this one took a little long to get going and in the beginning there was too much simple picturing of the people of the town, so I'd say it's the weakest; but it does get going and makes a pretty good story as well.

So, are these Middlemarch? Well, no. But even second-rate George Eliot is still awfully good, and it's nice, in a way, to see that she didn't first appear full-grown in armor like Athena from the head of Zeus, but had to work to get better. And did. Gives some hope for the rest of us...

A book from my classics club list

and one for the Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge.

It also means I've only got one volume left to read in that collected Eliot shown above, the volume with the poems, a play (!) and The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, Eliot's last work.

The collected George Eliot posts on the blog.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (#RIPXIV)

This is a collection of thirteen stories written by English authors from the years 1891 to 1914. The editor of the collection is Hugh Greene, brother of Graham. Hugh Greene seems to have collected old mysteries and, since he worked in television, this collection was a basis for a British television series (which I haven't seen.)

Greene says he limited the selection of mysteries to characters who had an identifiable London address, like 221B Baker Street. But they're not all consulting detectives. Some are; but Lady Molly is with Scotland Yard; the Old Man in the Corner solves crimes for his own amusement, but doesn't worry about bringing the criminal to justice; Mr. Pringle is a con man; and Simon Carne is simply a thief.

I think we can safely say that Sherlock Holmes actually doesn't have any rivals... ;-) but some of these are nevertheless fun. I particularly liked the two by Baroness Orczy, better known as the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel. But her stories about Lady Molly and The Old Man in the Corner are quite good. Also good was R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke story, and Ernest Bramah's story about Max Carrados, the blind detective. Several of these detectives are represented on the Haycraft-Queen list of classic mysteries.

And because they're early, a bunch of these are available at Project Gutenberg, and I'd previously read the first collection of Old Man in the Corner stories and the collection of stories about Max Carnacki, the ghost finder, by William Hope Hodgson.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Lifted Veil (#RIPXIV)

"For I foresee when I shall die, and everything that will happen in my last moments."

Latimer, the narrator of George Eliot's The Lifted Veil, is, to borrow sci-fi terminology, a precog: he sees (some) events of the future in complete detail. His first vision he treats with scepticism; it is of him standing on the Charles Bridge in Prague at a future date and he considers it at first just a daydream. But then it happens exactly as he foresaw it and he comes to trust that these visions are his real future. Like all accurate visions of the future it turns out to be a double-edged sword.

Latimer is dreamy and poetic, though not, he says, a poet: "You will think, perhaps, I must have been a poet, from this early susceptibility to nature. But my lot was not so happy as that." Indeed, he doesn't seem to do much in his life, but he has an income, he doesn't need to. When we first see him, he's a young man of twenty or so; he has an older half-brother Alfred who's engaged to Bertha Grant. Bertha is beautiful and blonde, witty in company, but perhaps just a bit empty. At least, Latimer is unable to see into her. (As he claims he can with others.) He falls in love with her anyway, or maybe because of his inability she seems mysterious; in any case he never believes Bertha is in love with his brother. They marry, after Alfred dies in a hunting accident.
"[This inability to see into her] only brought me more completely under her power: no matter how empty the adytum, so that the veil be thick enough." 
The lifting of the veil--the revelation of that hidden chamber at the back of the temple--is the climax of the story.

It's an odd piece and unlike most of the rest of George Eliot. It dates from 1859, the same year as her first novel Adam Bede, and appeared in Blackwood's. I wondered to what extent Latimer's uncertainty as to his future, his indecision about his artistic calling, represented George Eliot herself. 

Also I believe it's the only work of George Eliot narrated in the first person, and the aura is that of a Gothic novel, unlike the rest of her fiction. (Especially the spooky ending, which I won't reveal.)  

But it does have at least one element in common with other works by George Eliot. Rosamond Vincy has nothing on Bertha Grant. The wisdom of George Eliot? Boys, don't marry that blonde!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019


Hubert is thinking about adventures

I'm not going to say much about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If you're the sort of person who's going to like them, you already know about them. I didn't actually read the much-read and battered copy of the trilogy in the photo. My parents gave me that one for Christmas in 1977 and I can't bear to get rid of it, but I have a newer copy for reading.

My booklog tells me I last read it through in 2012, a pretty long time for me between readings. When I was a graduate student one of my fellow students told me he was afraid to reread it--he'd liked it so much in high school, but was worried it wouldn't hold up. I was rereading it at the time. That struck me as foolish for several reasons: one, even if it wasn't that good, if he had such a strong reaction to it at one time, it's interesting to look back at who you were; but mostly two, it is that good, and he wasn't wrong to like the book in high school. There are things to be said against it, of course: the female characters are thin, the prose is sometimes archaicizing. Still, it's great. If you have any susceptibility to epic tales of fantasy, it's one of the best.

But what I will particularly mention is E. A. Wyke-Smith's The Marvelous Land of Snergs. I found out about it via Michael Dirda at the Washington Post. On the cover of the Dover Reprint (shown) is a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien, "I should like to record my own love and my children's love of E. A. Wyke-Smith's Marvellous Land of Snergs." Unwanted children are removed to a mysterious land by  Miss Watkyns, leader of the benevolent Society for the Removal of Superfluous Children. Sylvia and Joe find the controlling benevolence of Miss Watkyns a little too much and set off in search of adventures.

It's pretty clear that Tolkien did love the book: Snergs are about eighty percent hobbit and twenty percent dwarf, but Snergs precede both. If you don't know Wyke-Smith, but love Tolkien, you should hunt it up, especially if you're one of those who prefer The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. It has The Hobbit sense of humor. Unfortunately it seems to be out of print, but my library had that Dover reprint of 2006.

And so while I still intend to read the Decameron, I'm going to call this as a Very Long Classic for Karen's Back to the Classics challenge. It's definitely long and I say it's a classic.

And remember, as (the possibly imaginary) Ernesto says, (on his blog!) Don't settle for any watered-down, derivative Tolking...

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Mystery Mile (#1930Club, #RIPXIV)

Mr. Albert Campion

Coups neatly executed
Nothing sordid, vulgar or plebeian
Deserving cases preferred
Police no object

That's the business card our hero hands out, and it pretty much all applies to the case related in Mystery Mile.

Judge Crowder is the target of the so-called Misfire Murders, in which four other people are murdered, presumably in attempts to kill the judge. Judge Crowder has earned the ire of the Simister gang, and has a clue as to its anonymous leader, though he's not entirely sure what he's got. He heads to England with the idea that being away from the gang's main base of operations will make him safer; but he's unwilling to hide or much change his life, and leaving New York is all he's willing to do. The novel starts when a fifth attempt on his life is made shipboard and is foiled (by accident?) by Campion. 

Since the judge won't put up with police protection, his son hires Campion to do what he can.

This is more adventure than mystery; after those first four murders that occur offstage, as it were, there are no others, though there is a kidnapping; the judge survives; the identity of Simister is only thinly hidden, I thought.

I've only read a few of the Campion stories. This is the second in which he appears, but the first where he's the major figure. Campion is famous for his non-sequiturs, his distracted conversational style. I have the feeling that gets tamed as the series goes along, but he's in full inscrutability here, babbling (or is he?) about his pet mouse's birthday in the first chapter. The world around Campion is still being built: this is the first appearance of his formerly criminal assistant, but now his butler, Magersfontein Lugg. It's also the first appearance of that useful thing, a friend at Scotland Yard, Stanislas Oates.

Anyway, very entertaining, I thought. Made me wonder why I hadn't read more Allingham.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Custom of the Country (#CCSpin)

My Classics Club spin selection was Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, and once again the spin machine did right by me.

The Custom of the Country is the story of Undine Spragg and her quest for a suitable marriage. The Spraggs are from Apex City (wherever exactly that might be, but it's in the western United States; the Dakotas are mentioned) and Mr. Spragg has had some financial success in his hometown. His daughter convinces him to move to New York so she can mingle with old wealth. He agrees, to please her, but also to put distance between Undine and her attachment to the unsuitable Elmer Moffatt. Young Moffatt may be a man on the make, but he's of unknown provenance, and working, if at all, as a groom.

And that's about all I feel like I should say without spoiler warnings. There are novels you know will end tragically: the fate of Tess is never in much doubt; there are novels you know will end in marriage: after reading, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," it can only be the case Elizabeth Bennet will get married, even if you know nothing of Jane Austen. And in those sort of novels it's OK if you know what's going to happen.

But The Custom of the Country is not a novel like that. So:


The novel seems at first like it might be simply a satirical romp. Undine's two best girlfriends, but also rivals in her quest to marry a rich man, are (in their maiden nomenclature) Indiana Frusk and Mabel Blitch. Yowza. Undine is named, her father says, for a hair-curler, one of his first commercial successes.

But Undine (or Ondine) is also the name of a mythological water sprite. The description in the Wikipedia article is so comically apt (or is it?) to our Undine, I have to quote:
"Although resembling humans in form, they lack a human soul, so to achieve mortality, they must acquire one by marrying a human."
When she arrives in New York her guide to society is the rather questionable Mrs. Heeny, a masseuse. Undine and her mother know nothing about old money New York, but under Mrs. Heeny's dubious tutelage, they learn, and Undine learns quicker. Undine captivates Ralph Marvell, the heir to an old money fortune much diminished over the years. Certainly Ralph is more aware of the poetic overtones of the name Undine, though the exact nature of the legend is never mentioned in the novel. Even more than her Romantic name, though, her beauty snares him; that, and the belief she's unformed, and he can do the forming.

Well, we've seen the way she manipulates her father, so we know how that will go.

We're told of the 'Marvell tradition':
The only essential was that he should live 'like a gentleman' -- that is, with a tranquil disdain for mere money-getting, a passive openness to the finer sensations, one or two fixed principles as to the quality of wine, and an archaic probity that had not yet learned to distinguish between private and 'business' honour.
This is all pretty much satire to this point, but Ralph Marvell becomes a pretty sympathetic character; he may be a little romantically naive, but does he deserve Undine?

At one point (Chapter 15) Charles Bowen, a minor character in the old money set, tells Ralph's sister, that men become obsessively interested in their jobs, ignoring their wives, and that women become grasping and consumerist, is 'the custom of the country.' Ralph's sister asks him:
"And is Undine one of the exceptions?" 
Her companion took the shot with a smile. "No -- she's a monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph. It's Ralph who's the victim and the exception."
And so it proves.

But that's not the end of the novel either. Undine spends Ralph--and her father, too--into something like bankruptcy, and abandons her child with Ralph. She plots a marriage with Ralph's richer cousin-in-law, Peter van Degen, a noted playboy, and gets a divorce.

But Peter van Degen won't marry her, and Undine is without a husband and without an income. Undine now sees the usefulness of her child, and agrees to leave the child with Ralph if he can come up with the money she needs. This is Undine at her most villainous; it's what makes her one of the most hated protagonists in literature.

Ralph can't find the money; Undine takes back their child, and Ralph commits suicide; this clears the way for Undine's marriage to Count de Chelles, French and Catholic enough to hesitate in marrying a divorced woman, but not a widowed one. But this marriage isn't a success either. Count de Chelles, unlike Ralph, is perfectly capable of ignoring Undine's tantrums, and eventually falls out of love over her inability to maintain a tone suitable for his Faubourg Saint-Germain set. (Swann's Way came out the same year as The Custom of the Country. Undine Spragg meet Duchesse de Guermantes!)

It's another low for Undine; she brought them both on herself, of course: but this one feels a little less earned than her previous low (after she was abandoned by van Degen.) Raymond de Chelles really does simply ignore her most of the time, and his sense of who her friends should be is quite controlling. Maybe this is a novel like The Red and The Black: a grasping provincial claws her way to the top, only to suffer a fatal comeuppance. But no, this isn't that novel either, and Undine Spragg is not Julien Sorel.

She divorces a second time, which will leave the Catholic Raymond de Chelles in the lurch. With no legitimate son to inherit, his spendthrift, but fecund younger brother will inherit the title and the Hôtel de Chelles. We've seen Elmer Moffatt along the way, succeeding, though with some questionable methods, but it's now he comes back into the picture in a big way, and...


...well, she marries him. But that's not the spoiler; you may not be surprised at that. The Other Reader is currently reading the novel and has already guessed that.

The surprise is she was married to Elmer Moffatt back in Apex City; that unsuitable attachment wasn't just an engagement, but resulted in the first of her three divorces. So two ambitious, not overly ethical, young people from the provinces finally discover in each other what they've always wanted. They could have been married the whole time, with none of the casualties along the way. But Elmer has now got the money to keep even Undine in jewels, and Undine has acquired a tone that, while it may not be sophisticated enough for the de Chelles family, will do just fine for an Elmer Moffatt. A happy ending? A dark comedy of sorts? And if one likes categories, that will probably have to do.

But there's one more twist. One of the Apex City set is appointed the U.S. ambassador in London, and Undine thinks that's what I really want to be, an ambassadress. But she can't, because she's been divorced. The novels ends with:
But under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador's wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.
Ha! So the scheming provincial gets her comeuppance anyway. But in a tiny way. And why was she divorced? Because her father compelled her to get divorced; back then Elmer Moffatt seemed unsuitable, though we've come to see they're all too suitable to each other. To what extent is Undine even the author of her own fate? If she'd stayed married to Elmer, as she wanted, she could have been an ambassador's wife! That is, if Elmer had still succeeded, dragging along the spendthrift Undine. And Undine had acquired the tone to be an ambassador's wife as the wife of Elmer Moffatt.

And even then would she have been happy? Or are Undine's (and all human) wants simply unlimited, as economists say? Well, you'll just have to decide.

If you got this far...ignoring all my spoiler may be you've read it. What did you think? Did Undine get what she deserved? What did she deserve?

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Sunday Salon


My Classics Club spin choice was Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country. It's very good: post coming soon. But Indiana Frusk, Mabel Blitch, and Undine Spragg! I am very glad I don't come from Apex City if I was going to be saddled with a name like that.

Nobel Prize Watch

This is the week. The Swedish Academy were really trying for a while there to destroy the mystique of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but I still get excited for the Thursday announcement. When I was an undergraduate a friend told me I should try to read a living author before winning the Nobel prize. I think that was when I had a stack of Elias Canetti under my arm. But in my defense I was a classics major...

The Italians have a word -- papabile -- for somebody who could plausibly be elected pope. And I do now sometimes read those who could be considered nobelabile, instead of just laureates. The betting shops put Anne Carson on the inside track this year, who would be a very good choice, but I just read the newest (in translation) by one of my favorites, Claudio Magris.

It's a collection of very short essays or observations, from his travels or from around Trieste, and often poignant or funny or both.

Currently Reading

I piled up a stack of books for #1930club earlier this week and started one of the two long ones: Holbrook Jackson's The Anatomy of Bibliomania.

I'm also reading Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving along with Cleo.

Where I Was

We went to New Hampshire to visit my sister-in-law and brother-in-law. The other thing I'm reading these days is Moby Dick for Brona's readalong, and while Portsmouth, NH, may not quite be the fons et origo of New England whaling, it ain't so far neither. I hadn't paid any attention to it before, but we were greeted by a whale welcome mat, and that wasn't the only opportunity for a #mobydickinthewild picture:

Hope all's well with you!

Thanks to DebNance at Readersbuzz for hosting the Sunday Salon.

Saturday, October 5, 2019


It's year book club time again and this year it's 1930. This semi-annual club is hosted at Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings; the idea is participants read books set in the given year and blog about them; it gives a fun overall picture of the year in question. Naturally I used this as an excuse to pile up books:

We've got some large, medium, and small choices there. The first volume of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Holbrook Jackson's The Anatomy of Bibliomania count as large; J. B. Priestly's Angel Pavement, which looks bigger than it is, and Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes are my mediums; and the shorties are Margery Allingham's Mystery Mile and P. G. Wodehouse's story collection Very Good, Jeeves.

The pile is aspirational, of course,... 😉and, in particular, I'm unlikely to read both the larges. I'm tempted by Musil, which was the subject of a series of great blog posts at the Bookbinder's Daughter, but it would be a reread for me. The appeal--to me--of a book titled The Anatomy of Bibliomania is not hard to figure out, and, well, I've already started it.

Also, because I feel like I should deprecate rereads at the moment, Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, and Simon Templar all stayed on their shelves. But I read Enter The Saint recently enough that I do have a blog post for it.

Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting!

Which look good to you?

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Hannah Arendt's Men In Dark Times

Men in Dark Times is a collection of Hannah Arendt's occasional articles that came out in 1968. The pieces were from the previous fifteen years and cover figures such Karl Jaspers, Pope John XXIII, Walter Benjamin, Hermann Broch, Bertolt Brecht. Despite the title two women are included: Rosa Luxembourg and Isak Dinesen.

Arendt is probably best known for her great book Eichmann in Jerusalem, her controversial report on the trial in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann for his part in the Holocaust. It's the source of the phrase, 'the banality of evil.' She was also a political philosopher and a scholar of totalitarianism.

I pulled this off the shelf to read her essay on Hermann Broch because I was still thinking about The Death of Virgil, but that was actually the least interesting essay in the book: it's the introduction a volume out of the collected essays of Broch, and it was simply too specialized for me.

Some of the other essays are slender: she has some interesting ideas about Dinesen, for instance, but the context was a biography of Dinesen she was reviewing that she didn't think was very good, and that distracted her from the more interesting parts, I thought. Half the essays are translated from German.

But the essays on Benjamin, and particularly on Brecht, were very good. That on Benjamin was from a foreword to the collection of Benjamin essays titled Illuminations, but I thought it would serve as a pretty good introduction to Benjamin, even if you didn't go on to read that particular book. And her essay on Brecht was even better: it was a piece from the New Yorker ten years after Brecht died, and was looking at the state of his reputation at that time, the relationship between his poetry and his politics. Brecht died in a somewhat bad odor; he had been chased out of the United States after World War II for his (never very doctrinaire) communism, and further chased out of West Germany, ending up in East Germany. He was unhappy and unproductive there and most likely afraid in those last years of Stalin. Arendt, the great scholar and opponent of all totalitarianism, sensitively considers the relationship of the work to the political morality of the artist. I wondered to what extent this also reflected her thoughts on Heidegger, who had been her teacher--and lover--in between the world wars, but was later a Nazi supporter.

Recommended particularly for the essay on Brecht.