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 serious 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 acknowledge, 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 warnings...it 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 pieces that came out in 1968. The pieces came out in 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 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.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Frost

Fragmentary Blue

Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue? 
Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet)--
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.

-Robert Frost

We're off to New Hampshire later today to visit family, so I thought I'd better do Robert Frost, right? The photo above is from near Unity, NH, two years ago, and we'll be there again.

I was going to pick Fire and Ice, a poem by Frost I've known forever, but it didn't really fit the picture, and this was the poem immediately above it in my collected Frost. Both come from his collection of 1923 titled New Hampshire.

Hmm...'our wish for blue.' Well, heaven is not presenting it in sheets in the photo above, and even there it's fragmentary. But we seek it out anyway.

Jennifer has a lovely Mary Oliver poem this week, with a similarly New-England-looking photo. Actually as I think about it, mine doesn't look especially New-England-y, but it is.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Why Read Moby-Dick? (#MobyDickReadalong) by Nathaniel Philbrick

Why? Well, because Brona's hosting a readalong, of course!

Actually, I found out about this 2011 book from Brona who read it at the very beginning of the readalong. So I didn't need his answer to the question: I was already committed. But our library had copies and, while Brona's review of the book was not unmixed, I thought I'd take a look. It's definitely worth reading, though not least because it's short. 😉

It's not a full biography, but it does contain useful information about the relationship between Hawthorne and Melville at the time of the writing. He did make me want to read Melville's letters to Hawthorne. I did not know, but there was an earlier draft of Moby-Dick in which there was no Captain Ahab! Melville started on his new larger plan for Moby-Dick only after meeting Hawthorne in 1850.

And Hawthorne started writing The House of Seven Gables when he met Melville. Should I reread that? It would be also be a good #RIPXIV book, but that way madness lies, I fear...

Philbrick is quite interested in tying Moby-Dick to the issue of slavery, though, and I have some doubts about that. Now it is a big question in the nation already in 1850. And I agree that race issues do interest Melville: the opening comic misunderstanding which becomes friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg; or the story of Pip, the cook's boy. And while I have no doubt that whale ships were typically a motley collection of sailors from wherever, the Pequod seems to be particularly international, and that's no doubt deliberate, to represent the world in miniature. So race, yes, but I'm less certain about slavery in particular as a theme. But now I will pay attention to the idea. 

And Fedallah as Iago, and Pip as Lear's Fool? Maybe so!

Philbrick has also got some interesting things in his bibliography, though that's another direction in which an Ahab-ian obsessive madness lies...but I did order Delbanco's biography of Melville from the library, so we'll see. I also noticed Philbrick has Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville in his bibliography, which I've been thinking about rereading, but probably not until I finish the novel. I remember the Olson pretty well, though it's been thirty years since I read it (and I hadn't read Moby-Dick at the time.) I thought the Olson didn't seem to have much impact on Philbrick, but then near the very end he writes, (about Moby-Dick's afterlife) "What Moby-Dick needed, it turned out, was space."

Well, after the prologue, Olson begins his study,
"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,..."
I noticed Biblioklept highlighted an earlier post about Olson for Melville's birthday at the start of the readalong, which I enjoyed. So, you know, if you can't wait for my profound thoughts...

Anyway, on with the Pequod!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Footsteps at the Lock (RIPXIV)

Ronald Knox is probably better known for his ironic ten commandments on the writing of mysteries than for the actual mysteries he wrote. But he did write some. He also translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate version. And he's Penelope Fitzgerald's uncle and features in the collective biography she wrote of her father and uncles, The Knox Brothers.

The Footsteps at the Lock is the second of five novels featuring insurance investigator Miles Bredon. It involves two cousins: one going to the bad; the other, to the worse. The bad: drink, debt, and drugs. The worse: poetry, aestheticism, and Oscar Wilde. There's a grandfather who has written a will that contingently leaves a fortune to the older (bad) one of the cousins, if he survives to his twenty-fifth birthday; otherwise the worse cousin inherits. You see where this is going...

The two cousins go on a canoe trip down the upper reaches of the Thames; the older one disappears. Drowned? Drugged? Murdered?

Partway through the novel a second will appears in which a great aunt leaves an even larger fortune to the older cousin on slightly different terms. The aunt has an adoptive son who might stand to inherit depending on the exact order of everyone's death; Bredon's interest in really only in that question. His friend, Leyland, of Scotland Yard, is naturally more concerned to find the body, and the body's killer, should there be one.

Anyway, pretty amusing. I thought it was a bit overwritten at the start, but it settled down. And while I know pretty much nothing about serious drugs, opium being the drug in question here, I think it's safe to say Ronald Knox knows even less. No doubt that's to his credit. But I suspect everything he knows about opium can be derived from some lurid biography of Coleridge.

So, how does Knox do with his ten commandments? Mostly, I'd say he follows his own rules, but he does rather violate number six:
No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
He goes to a hotel and unexpectedly discovers a letter waiting for one of the suspects. On the other hand, several of his other rules involve prohibitions against unnecessary duplication--no identical twins! no more than one secret passage!--but not against the duplication of wills, so the letter, if not the spirit, of his commandments is (mostly) preserved.

There is, however, another famous list of rules for mystery writers, that of S. S. Van Dine, and he definitely violates number seven. If you want to avoid spoilers, I suggest you don't follow that link...

And while it's not so very spooky, it is a mystery, and so the first of my RIPXIV books!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Classics Club Spin #21. And the winner is...

#5...which means The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton for me. I read Age of Innocence years ago, around when the movie came out, and a selection of her poetry a few years back, but I scarcely know Wharton, and this novel not at all, but I'm looking forward to it.

I think Hubert looks just a bit excited!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Poem for a Thursday: Auden

Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose. 
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why. 
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone. 
Aulus goes hanging about her place,
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face. 
Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish. 
She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay. 
When I'm a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

-W. H. Auden

Well, having just posted about Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian yesterday, and reading in Lives of the Later Caesars today, this poem was on my mind. It's been a bit of an earworm. Especially as I just learned that Tungria is Tongres/Tongeren, a town now in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium. And that because I also learned today, the assassin who murders the emperor Pertinax in 193 A.D. is a Tungrian member of the imperial guard. I suspect Auden had been reading Lives of the Later Caesars, too.

Anyway, this one is an old favorite. Hope you like it, too.

Jennifer has a lovely poem by Carl Dennis, a poet new to me. Brona compares two translations of a Wislawa Szymborska poem. Szymborska is definitely a favorite of mine.

Margaret Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian

"I fell to making, and then re-making, this portrait of a man almost wise."
I admit to being uncertain about this book until at least halfway through. I mostly kept reading it because it came highly recommended. (This means you, O!) At one point, though, I told The Other Reader (who had read it before we were even a couple, had liked it, but had half forgotten it) that it was like 'a campaign biography. It's just a resumé of all the good things Hadrian had done and wants to do.' I may even have accused Yourcenar of being French, and thus incapable of irony. But I was wrong...

The quote above (from the afterword in my edition, 'Reflections On The Composition') is a bit of a clue. Yourcenar definitely admires Hadrian, but is capable of seeing his limitations. It's actually a fairly subtle portrait.

The work is structured as a letter from Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius, emperor-to-be, and is in her understanding of the voice of Hadrian, and, of course, to Hadrian himself what he does is reasonable and wise. Hadrian dutifully intends to do well by the empire. Now this does lead to statements like:
"I put the finishing touches to the long and complex reorganization of imperial domains in Asia Minor; the peasants were the better off for it, and the State, too."
or, of the reconstruction of a library in Athens:
"Particular attention had been paid to the choice of lamps, and to their placing."
Which makes him sound like a well-intentioned, but micro-managing, Jimmy Carter. And he kind of is.

A bit of background: Hadrian is the middle of the so-called 'Five Good Emperors,' who ruled Rome from 96 AD to 180 AD. After the mad incompetence of Nero and Claudius, and the harsh tyranny of Domitian, this was almost a century of relatively stable and somewhat tolerant rule; Hadrian himself was emperor from 117 to 138 AD. Marcus Aurelius, the recipient of the memoirs, was the last of those five emperors and the adoptive grandson of Hadrian. Hadrian takes over from Trajan, who expanded the empire, and enters into a period of consolidation.

Also Hadrian was almost certainly homosexual or bisexual, and Yourcenar presents him as such.

Now the idea that this is a letter to Marcus Aurelius fades a bit as you go along; well, even in pre-Tweet days, a letter of 300 pages would be a bit improbable. And as the book ends with Hadrian dying, presumably he's not writing a letter at that point. Hadrian starts his discourse mentioning his illness (dropsy or edema) which Hadrian knows will kill him, but then backs up to go through the course of his life. What impact did his childhood in Spain have? The loss of his natural father?  What is his relationship with Trajan, his predecessor and adoptive father? This presents a less secure, but still vigorous Hadrian. Then when he becomes emperor, what are his plans and visions for the state? The two quotes above come from that phase, and are a fair sample of Hadrian in his prime. But later the sick and tired Hadrian comes to the fore, and this was in some ways the most engaging, as Hadrian reckons with what he had done, and what his legacy was likely to be.

My edition has a fifteen page bibliographic note, and it's clear Yourcenar has done her homework. She means for this to be a real representation of Hadrian's inner life as far as we can know it, and, though we can't ever know for sure, I have to say, it really works. Even if that does include a bit of boring, but successful, do-gooding-ness in the middle of his life.

The two main early sources for the life of Hadrian are Dio Cassius, and The Augustan History. I immediately went off and started the latter...

I pulled this off the shelf for Meytal's Women In Translation month, but didn't quite finish it in time, though I've been hacking away at this post for a while now. It covers France--Yourcenar was born in Belgium, but mostly grew up in France, and was the first woman elected to the French Academy--for my Europe reading challenge, hosted at Rose City Reader.

I had a few other ideas for this post, but it's taken me long enough already!

Monday, September 16, 2019

Classics Club Spin #21

October is Spin Month. This will be my fifth spin. The idea is make up a list of twenty books remaining from your original Classics Club list, and by the awesome power vested in the random number generator, one of them gets read in that spin period.

So going back over the old spin lists, a couple of categories...

Ever The Bridesmaid

There were four books that had been on three (out of four) spin lists without being picked. Maybe this is their turn!

1.) Henry James/The American
2.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
3.) James Baldwin/Notes of a Native Son
4.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara


But there were six books that never made it to any spin list. That wasn't very fair to them, so on the list they go! (Except one...)

5.) Edith Wharton/The Custom of the Country
6.) James Baldwin/Go Tell It On The Mountain
7.) Somerset Maugham/The Razor's Edge
8.) Jules Verne/20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
9.) Thomas Hardy/Wessex Tales

Thomas Hardy's Collected Poems has never been on a spin list either: I've been dipping into it, and they're great, but reading a lot of short poems on a forced march doesn't seem like fun.

Third Time's The Charm

Six longish ones that I've dangerously put on the list twice before, but have slipped by.

10.) Sir Walter Scott/Count Robert of Paris
11.) Plutarch/Lives
12.) John Galsworthy/The Forsyte Saga
13.) Willa Cather/One Of Ours
14.) Boccaccio/Decameron
15.) Balzac/Cousin Bette


A few shortish ones, because I've run out of category ideas!

16.) Sylvia Plath/The Bell Jar (previously appeared twice)
17.) Yasunari Kawabata/Snow Country (once)
18.) Mary Wollstonecraft/Vindication of the Rights of Women (twice)
19.) Virginia Woolf/A Room of One's Own (once)
20.) Robert Louis Stevenson/Black Arrow (twice)

Plutarch would be the challenging one on that list. It's that old Modern Library Giant, but I have been reading some other classical stuff lately (well, yes, The Death of Virgil, but other posts to come!) so it would be timely. Otherwise I've really been meaning to read more Baldwin (#2, #3, and #6.)

Which look good to you?

And the winner is...#5! Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country. (Previously neglected--all it wanted was to be given a chance!)

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Parker

One Perfect Rose

A single flow'r he sent me, since we met.
  All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet--
  One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret;
  "My fragile leaves," it said, "his heart enclose."
Love long has taken for his amulet
  One perfect rose. 
Why is it no one ever sent me yet
  One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it's always just my luck to get
  One perfect rose.

Well, I once threatened to do Dorothy Parker, and it turns out today's the day...

Jennifer has a Billy Collins poem this week.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Readers Imbibing Peril (the Fourteenth) Signup

Last year was my first year with Readers Imbibing Peril. And since I wasn't there from the start, what could be better than starting with #13! Fourteen doesn't have quite the same scary charm, but it was such fun last year, here I am again.

My peril this year, though, is likely to be less gothic and creeptastic, and more like my usual rather cozy-ish mysteries. Once again I'll sign up for Peril the First (four books.) I piled up a stack of books, because who doesn't like to do that?--but I'm just as likely to change my mind again. But here's some candidates:

[Clockwise from upper left]:

Ronald Knox/The Footsteps At The Lock
Various/The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes
Michael Innes/The Long Farewell
John Dickson Carr/Death-Watch

Carr has the possibility of being a little bit gothic, but mostly I suspect they won't be, and that's just fine. I'm also contemplating George Eliot's novella The Lifted Veil.

Which sound good to you?

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Mircea Cartarescu's Blinding: The Left Wing

"Bucharest, my city, my alter ego"

Blinding: The Left Wing is the first novel of a trilogy by Mircea Cărtărescu. He seems to be an important Romanian poet and novelist, but one ill-served in English, probably unsurprisingly. This came out in Romanian in 1996, and was translated into English by Sean Cotter for Archipelago Books in 2013. The trilogy was completed in Romanian in 2007, the rest hasn't yet appeared in English.

The narrator of the novel is named Mircea and lives in Bucharest; the parents of the novel-Mircea met in 1955; the actual-life-Mircea was born in 1956, in Bucharest. But the novel isn't all that grounded in time; and while it's definitely centred in Bucharest, it isn't entirely grounded in place, either. It flashes back to the narrator's mother's family, the Badislavs, a Romanized family of Bulgarians who relocate to Romania in the 1850s. There are also sections that follow Cedric, a black jazz drummer from New Orleans, who ends up playing a club in Bucharest in the early 40s, and becomes the lover of Mircea's aunt.

It's a novel with surreal/magical/folkloric elements: The migration of the Badislavs involve the ritual sacrificing of the shadow of a young boy, to safely cross a frozen river; we're told earlier generations would have sacrificed the boy. Scenes involving Cedric take place in Louisiana, and involve the ritual exploration of an arch that opens like a vagina. I admit to finding the use of Cedric as symbol dangerously close to offensive, though I'm pretty sure it wasn't meant that way.

I found the jumping back and forth in time and place a bit difficult, though I do think an actual Romanian reader would pick up on the clues faster than I did, and it may not be so difficult for a Romanian.

There's quite a lot of symbolism involving butterflies. The other two volumes of the trilogy are Blinding: Body and Blinding: The Right Wing, so make of that what you will.

Also the narrator's mother's name is Maria/Mary. A revelation occurs at the end, after that trip into the Louisiana vagina/arch:
It heralds the Gospel for all. There is no other annunciation than a person' birth. And every birth creates a religion, it is an annunciation. And religion itself has no other meaning than birth. It shows us the Way, it reveals the Steps to us. It preaches Happiness. Already our eyes, fallen out of their sockets from such blinding blinding, will see the embryo, the child, wonder, ransom. Black and white, Asian, women, men, and children, we wait, on the edge of the abyss, rejoicing. We take light from light and never die again...
I think this means well, but I'm not entirely sure. What got us here, to this revelation, was impressive, but for me at least, not entirely lucid or convincing. I'm no longer entirely certain what got me interested in this book, and while it's not really my thing, I have the suspicion it's pretty well done. Interesting, at any rate, in the Bucharest sections. A blurb on the back page compares it to Borges, García Marquez, the Brothers Grimm, some others. I'd say no. The best cite from the back of the book is Bruno Schulz. But if I was picking a comparison title, I'd say Witold Gombrowicz.

Covering Romania for the European Reading Challenge, hosted by Rose City Reader.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Colluccio

Where Has All The Mayo Gone?

Hungry late I clank around
the kitchen for a snack.
A pickle first and then why not
I peel apart a pack
of luncheon meat, some Swiss, a leaf
of something limp and wan.
And now oh no the lid's on tight
but look--the mayo's gone. 
It feels like only yesterday
I parked my father's car
and peeked at other shopper's carts
and tootled to a jar 
for slathering on hot dogs
and for dolloping on frites--
there's loads of foods whose fatty goodness
mayonnaise completes. 
My pumpernickel won't go down.
It's like a warning bell,
the chilly clink of stainless steel
on glass. I know it well. 
And wonder under nibbles
if at bottom human lives
aren't always scraping empty jars
with tips of pointless knives.

-Pino Colluccio

I'm more a mustard person myself, but I will admit to being amused by this poem nevertheless. It's classic close observation leading to a more general insight. I especially like 'tips of pointless knives.'

Pino Colluccio is a contemporary Canadian formal poet. This is from his first book of 2005. He has a new book of poems out from Biblioasis titled Class Clown.

Jennifer is featuring a great W. B. Yeats poem this week. 

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Tsvetaeva

I'm still alive. That may be soon
a sin. Perhaps these days to live
is not the human thing to do.
Perhaps this age is iron and all
must fall. Perhaps it's not the poet
anymore who writes the poem.

-Marina Tsvetaeva
(tr. Paul Schmidt)

This poem of Marina Tsvetaeva dates from 1918; I'm afraid her life got only worse from there, and the poem was all too prophetic. Her husband was killed by the Soviet regime in 1941; she herself committed suicide soon after.

One last poem themed for Women in Translation month, hosted by Biblibio

I'm scheduling this post in advance, but here's hoping Jennifer (the founder of Poem for a Thursday) has posted something new.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Ngaio Marsh' Overture To Death (#20BooksOfSummer)

Overture to Death (1939) is a classic village mystery from the golden age: there's Jernigham, the master of the local manor house; his son; Copeland, a rather high Anglican rector; his daughter; the village doctor; the husbandless Mrs. Ross; and two absolutely impossible (but amusing!) spinsters.

You know what happens to the son and daughter, of course...

It's one of the spinsters who gets murdered, though there's a question if the other one was the target. The event takes place an amateur theatrical performance for the benefit of the local church. Miss Campanula sits down to play the piano for the overture, and well, consider the title.

I found this one very amusing; the two spinsters and their rivalry was very deftly handled, very amusing. The lovers were believably plagued. Marsh knows her theatre and her writing on casting and rehearsals was hilarious and altogether believable. The list of possible suspects was small and it was pretty clear who had done it, but the cluing was very well done.

Marsh wrote thirty-three mysteries involving her detective Roderick Alleyn and I've read ten or so; this jumped to the top of the list of those I've read, and the interwebs (at least in the form of the late mystery blogger Noah Stewart) seem to agree. Recommended!

An entry in the Just The Facts mystery challenge hosted by Bev at My Readers' Block.

Golden Age. When. During a performance of any sort.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Beatritz de Dia

Estat ai en greu cossirier

I have been in heavy thought
over a cavalier I'd had.
I want it clear to everyone
that I've loved him to excess,
and now I see he's left me: pre-
text, I refused him my love.
I seem to be mistaken, then,
as to what was going on,
dressed or in bed.
I'd love to hold my cavalier
naked one evening in my arms,
he would think he were on fire
if I'd be his pillow then.
For I burn more for him than
Floris did for Blancheflor,
deliver him my love, my heart, my
sensuality, my eyes, my life.
My dear and lovely friend, if ever
I come to have you in my power
and get into bed with you one night
and give you love-kiss, know it:
I'd have such a great desire
to hold you in my husband's place,
if you'd promise to do
everything I'd want you to.

-Beatritz de Dia
(tr. Paul Blackburn)

Beatritz de Dia was a troubadour poet of the second half of the 12th century. The following vida dates from a couple of centuries later:
The countess of Dia was the wife of William of Poitou and a good and beautiful lady. She was in love with Raimbault d'Aurenga and made him many good songs.
The notes suggest even that even that brief bit of biographical information can't really be trusted. There are a half-dozen surviving poems.

Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness is featuring Emily Dickinson this week.

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.

"Caesar, his enchanter" or Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil

"(A) strong candidate for the least readable alleged masterpiece in the European canon."

-John Lanchester, New York Review of Books

Ha, ha. Well, I can't say that Mr. Lanchester is entirely wrong...

I found that quote, though, at Michael Orthofer's review at his site Complete Review and he grades it as one of his few As, and quotes a number of other more positive reviews.

So opinions are divided.

It's written mostly in an elusive, philosophical language, often suggestive more than actually descriptive or informative. Jean Starr Untermeyer, the English translator, says it should be thought of as a poem not a novel. Certainly it doesn't have much plot. It represents the last twenty-four hours of Virgil's life; he's dying the whole time, and his thoughts sail off into feverish meditations, though his fevered musings are still more profound than anything I could come up with...

Broch mostly follows what limited biographical information we have about the death of Virgil. Our earliest source is Aelius Donatus, mid-fourth century, a scholar--he was St. Jerome's Latin teacher--who wrote a life of Virgil. In his late 40s, Virgil goes to Athens to put the final touches on his nearly finished Aeneid. Augustus runs into Virgil in Athens and insists Virgil come back to Italy with him. Virgil picks up a fever somewhere and as they pull into Brindisi, he's already dying. It's here Broch begins his story.

There's one other element of the Virgil biography that's important for Broch: even though parts of the poem had been 'published,' Virgil wanted his friends to burn the unfinished Aeneid.

Broch divides the work into four parts: Water, Fire, Earth, and Air. Virgil is already confined to a litter, and in the Water chapter, he's carried from the ship to Augustus' palace in Brindisi. Fire is later that night, and the exhaustion of even that form of travel leads Virgil to spend a feverish night. The following day is Earth, and Virgil is somewhat rested and more coherent; but visits from his friends, from a doctor, and finally from Augustus wear him out. Air is the final chapter, the fever takes over again, and Virgil is dying, his consciousness dissolving into the elements around him.

I feel like I should quote some prose to give a sense. Here's a passage I noted from early in the Fire section:
"He was listening to dying; it could not be anything else. The knowledge of this had come over him without any shock, at most with the peculiar clarity which usually accompanies a mounting fever. And now, lying and listening in the darkness, he understood his life, and he understood how much of it had been a constant hearkening to the unfolding of death, life unfolded, consciousness unfolded, unfolded the seed of death which was implanted in every life from the beginning and determined it, giving a twofold, threefold significance, each one developed from the other and unfolding through it, each the image of the other and its reality--was not this the dreamforce of all images, particularly of those which gave direction to every life?"
That's the beginning of a paragraph of six pages in my edition, and the beginning of Virgil's feverish night. It's not exactly difficult in the way of Joyce (though Broch and Joyce were friends) or Mann (also a friend) or even Proust, but it is difficult, especially at length. A bit like reading philosophy, or perhaps even more, like reading a mystic. This is especially true of the final section Air. I was reminded at times of Eliot's Four Quartets.

The Earth section is the longest and the most straightforwardly novelistic. Virgil's friends, Plotius Tucca and Lucius Varius Rufus come to visit him; they try to jolly him along: "You'll be fine in a few days," and pooh-pooh his wish to burn his manuscript of the Aeneid, telling him he'll have plenty of time to fix it up; the doctor Charondas, sure of himself and self-important, too, does little for Virgil, but is sure he's done much. The third visit, with Augustus, was handled very subtly, I thought. Virgil starts by addressing Augustus very much as subject to emperor, but that's not the whole of their relationship, and they take to squabbling about the meaning and merit of the Aeneid in a more personal tone, with Augustus, now plain Octavian, piqued Virgil thinks *his* (Octavian's) poem unworthy; Virgil's Eclogues and Georgics had other dedicatees. Finally Augustus, the emperor again, simply browbeats Virgil into accepting his manuscript will not be burned.

So why does Virgil want to burn the Aeneid? What is the relationship between an artist, the work of art, and posterity? Does art have a separate value? And is Virgil right to want to burn the unfinished (though nearly finished!) Aeneid? The conflict in the book lies in these questions, and isn't easily summarized.

One of the motifs is should Art be beautiful or true? They're not the same (pace Mr. Keats) it seems:
"I have made my poems, abortive words...I thought them to be real, and they are only beautiful..."
"...no one grasped the truth, no one knew that the divinity of beauty was only a sham-divinity, the shadow cast by the coming of the gods."
Virgil foresees a new yearning to the divine, and art must serve that coming divine, which was never the Aeneid's purpose. Augustus is happy to identify the new divine with the State and sees the purpose of poetry as political; Virgil resists this. Broch never explicitly mentions Christianity, which in the year (19 BC) of Virgil's death, would be an anachronism; but much of his imagery felt to me Christian. And, of course, Virgil is often absorbed into Christian belief: as Dante's guide in the Divine Comedy, as author of the Fourth Eclogue, which supposedly prophesies the birth of Christ. But Broch isn't wrong about this: there are other signs the old religions are no longer working in that era: the importation of new gods to Rome, Mithra and Cybele, the Great Mother, so this emphasis is not completely ahistorical. But also, I'd say, writing a perfectly accurate historical novel is not Broch's primary concern.

Anyway, this is turning into one of my longer posts and I've already been puzzling over it for a few days. I had a couple of other things I'd wanted to mention, but maybe I'll save them for other posts, or maybe they'll just live in my journal...

So: should you read this 'candidate for the least readable alleged masterpiece?' (Though frankly it's nowhere near in the running with Finnegans Wake.) I'm going to give a qualified yes. It's not an everyday sort of read for sure, and I'm going to need a chaser next. But the fact that it gave me so much to think about, even if I'm not sure of any of my answers, says to me there's a lot going on. It goes after some big questions. I'm often drawn to these big modernist slog-fests, but then I wonder did they have to do that so difficultly? In this case, maybe so. Anyway, I'm glad I put it on my Classics Club list, and I'm glad I read it, even if I can't entirely tell you why...