Thursday, February 28, 2019

Poem For A Thursday

After finishing David Slavitt's translation of Orlando Furioso--and commenting that I had liked translations of his I'd read earlier--I went and looked up those translations. The one I really remembered was Ausonius, and while he may be helped by the fact nobody actually reads or translates Ausonius, I'm glad he did:

Epigrams: LXXXIX
Give me a mistress cute and pert,
quick to quarrel, and common as dirt,
not too truthful, moody, vain
an exquisite balance of pleasure and pain.
Otherwise, if she be good,
modest, always cheerful in mood,
and an ornament to any man's life,
I'm apt to want her to be my wife.
The mistress comes off rather better than the wife, as Ausonius, or certainly Slavitt, realized. I didn't go read the Latin, though in theory I could, but it strikes me as Very Roman. There are others in the volume equally amusing.

From Slavitt's introduction:
"Decimus Magnus Ausonius was born about A. D. 310 in Bordeaux to Julius Ausonius, a physician, and Aemilia Aeonian, the daughter of one Caecilius Argicius Arborius. He was educated at Bordeaux and then Toulouse, where his maternal uncle Aemilius Magnus Arborius was a professor. When this uncle was summoned to Constantinople to become tutor to one of the sons of Constantine, Ausonius accompanied him....After thirty years or so of [our Ausonius'] teaching, he was summoned by the emperor Valentinian I to be the tutor to the young prince Gratian...The exact date of his death is not known but it was probably toward the end of 393 or in 394, there being nothing any later from his pen."
Be sure to go see the ur-Poem For A Thursday at Holds Upon Happiness.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Endre Farkas' Never, Again

Never, Again (2016, Signature Editions) is the story of Tomas "Tomi" Wolfstein, an eight-year-old who, with his Jewish, Holocaust-surviving parents, escapes Hungary during the chaos of the Russian invasion of 1956.

I assumed from the start it was an autobiographical novel and, in an afterword, Farkas does say that he draws from his own experiences, but that it should be read as a novel. But Farkas was eight in 1956, and emigrated at that time to Canada with his Holocaust-surviving parents.

Farkas is a poet and playwright based in Montreal, but I believe this is his first novel.

Most of the chapters are told from young Tomi's viewpoint in 1956. He first appears in what seems a pretty idyllic childhood in a small town in Hungary: he wants to be a soccer star and actually seems pretty good; Hungary had won the gold at the 1952 Olympics so it's popular. He's a good student. His relationship with his parents is lovely and charmingly presented; his cousin is his best friend; his aunt and uncle also look out for him. Only gradually do we learn how protected, how limited Tomi's view is.

There are flashbacks to when that aunt and uncle tried to leave Hungary (in 1948) and were arrested and convicted as enemies of the state. Then there are more flashbacks to the actual events of the Holocaust his parents suffered and survived.

Farkas writes extraordinarily well about childhood and Tomi's limited viewpoint is sweet but also allows us to be shocked by what happens. It's great for building suspense: the actual days of the escape across the border to Austria do thrill, even though we know or at least suspect what's going to happen.

The flashbacks I found less successful. The look at 1948, when his aunt and uncle tried to leave and failed was interesting enough and probably necessary. I'm afraid I found the actual episodes in the concentration camps to be unnecessary and second-hand. I wish I felt that the literature of witness was enough to prevent it happening again, but I don't: those who least need to be reminded are the likeliest to consume the book, and, as a society, we're informed about one horrible example and fail to see it when it occurs the second time, just a bit differently.

The interesting historical thing in the book to me was the fear of resurgent anti-Semitism in Hungary in 1956; the parents in the volume are anti-Communist to the extent they can be, but they also don't trust the Hungarians not to resort to right-wing anti-Semitism, especially in the chaos of what might be revolutionary times. In the village where they live, the family is targeted because they are Jewish. We think of Imre Nagy as heroic, and he did die for his resistance to Russian tyranny. But were all the elements of his coalition equally admirable? An interesting question.

Well, Farkas does change the rallying cry of "Never again" to his title Never, Again.

Anyway, quite a strong novel, even if I found the 1956 parts better than the others.

Good for a couple of challenges for me: it completes my Canadian Literature challenge at thirteen, though I'm sure I'll read a few more before next Canada Day. And it actually also completes my European Reading Challenge at five books by covering Hungary, though I'm quite sure I will go way over the top again this year...

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sunday Salon

By the way, that's apparently an old postcard of where Madame de Stael held her salons. I really should probably pick a graphic not dusty and in black and white, but that's what I found...

Top of the Stack

Since I finished Orlando Furioso earlier this week, it's time for some new things on the stack. And one of those things is The Faerie Queene. Spenser did love him some Orlando...

The #1965Club is coming up at the end of April. Both @BuriedInPrint and I pulled Miss MacIntosh, My Darling off the shelf for this one, but it may be time to start now.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is on my TBR for Roof Beam Reader's 2019 challenge. @books4Maphead was recommending it and now maybe it's the next one.

And, hmm, those all qualify for the chunkster challenge. Maybe I should find a shorter book, too?

Around here

Because the size of the picture worked better, one cat (Puff) got to be my avatar picture. But the other cat (Fluff) wants equal time, or at least to get in the picture...

The Fabulous Uff Sisters

Friday, February 22, 2019

Ariosto's Orlando Furioso

Orlando Furioso (Crazy Orlando) is one of those sequels more famous than its precursor. Matteo Maria Boiardo wrote a poem Orlando Innamorato (Orlando In Love) which was published, unfinished, after his death in 1495. Ariosto said I've got to finish that, and so he did, publishing his final version in 1532.

The simple part of the story is this: Orlando, the top knight in Charlemagne's court, falls in love with the beautiful pagan Angelica. She mostly dodges him, but for a long time doesn't tell him no definitively. But when she meets Medoro, who needs her for more than her beauty, she falls in love with Medoro; Orlando goes nuts when he finds out--not wearing any clothes and wandering the countryside.

But that's just one thread in this monumental work, which can't be easily summarized. There's also the love of Ruggiero and Bradamante, the mythical ancestors of the house of Este, dukes of Ferrara, Ariosto's patrons. There's war between Islam and Christianity, with the Muslim army on the verge of sacking Paris. (Hmm, not very historical, that.) And there's magical armor, lances, and swords. For you Quixote readers out there, the actual helmet of Mambrino makes an appearance. There's even a hippogriff, that various people fly around on, including the English knight Astolfo, who heads up to the moon to get the cure for Orlando's insanity. So, you know, stuff happens.

I was reading it in David R. Slavitt's verse translation, published by Harvard. I'd read it before in the prose translation of Guido Waldman. You need to know that the Slavitt translation published by Harvard is incomplete, with only a little over half included. Slavitt is discreet about this in his introduction, but apparently it wasn't his idea to publish only a partial version. The economics were such Harvard was unwilling to publish the whole as a two volume book. (A little over half is still 650 pages.) The rest of Slavitt's version came out eventually as Lacunae with a lesser-known press. I haven't read it.

I've liked other Slavitt translations I've read--he does a nice job with the obscure Latin poet Ausonius for instance--and when I saw he'd done Ariosto I thought I'd have to read it. And it reads well. It seems to demand the word brio; in any case Michael Dirda uses it in a review that gets blurbed on my paperback edition. Ariosto writes in ottava rima, the eight line stanza of iambic pentameter that rhymes ABABABCC, a meter that's trickier in English than it is in Italian. That's two triple rhymes per stanza. The most famous poem in English in this meter is Byron's Don Juan (deeply influenced by Orlando Furioso) and it opens like this:
I want a hero: an uncommon want,
  When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
  The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
  I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan--
We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.
You see that the triple rhyme allows some comic possibilities. (And yes, I'm quite sure Byron knows that Juan is not supposed to rhyme with true one.)

So in comparison how does Slavitt handle the verse form? (And yes, I'm comparing him to Byron. That is a high standard. He merits that.) Here's a couple of stanzas I picked out:

This is the very net that Vulcan made
of finest threads of steel, and with such art
that no one could untangle any braid
or pick the knots that held it together apart.
This is the one in which Venus and Mars laid.
(Lay, surely? No, no. One another! Start
paying attention. It's transitive. Use your head.)
But this is the net that caught those two in bed.
-Canto XV stanza 56
Women have achieved in every art
and craft the highest distinction, and their fame
is great indeed. They're strong and they are smart.
Without them history couldn't have been the same.
I rather think it is envy on man's part
that keeps concealed the honor and acclaim
they have deserved. If their work is not taught in schools
it is because men are jealous--or are fools.
-Canto XX stanza 2
Here's a couple of things I'd note: Slavitt allows more substitutions in the meter than does Byron. Well, he is a couple of centuries later and free verse has happened. 'But this is the net that caught those two in bed.' It's an anapaest for an iamb in that second foot. I guess that's fine by me. The scansion of the previous line in that stanza is even trickier.

There's also a lot more enjambment: "Start/paying attention," "fame/is great indeed." I'm less certain about this. That sort of thing really de-emphasizes the rhyme and, for me, makes it feel just a bit prosaic, especially used as often as Slavitt does.

Another minor grouse is that Slavitt continues to use the Italian version of everybody's name. Well, it wouldn't feel right to change Orlando back to Roland. But that so many names end in 'o' means he has to rhyme on them a little too often. Ruggiero could be Roger. Once or twice a triple rhyme like "hero/Ruggiero/hear: 'O!'" is amusing. That exclamatory 'O!' ends a lot of lines. There are perhaps too many of them because too many of them are required.

There are also liberties. The first stanza quoted above jokes about the trouble even English speakers have with lay and laid. That joke could not conceivably exist in Italian. Well, they say, Ariosto is funny in Italian. So how do you do that in English? Slavitt's way is one way, and you may or may not be comfortable with it. Also Slavitt uses anachronisms, though I suspect so did Ariosto. At one point The Other Reader picked up the book, saw a reference to Freud and Ferenczi (with two other rhymes on Ferenczi!) and exclaimed, "He's not even trying!" Well, yes, he was trying. And maybe you find him trying. You'll have to decide how you feel about that.

I took a bunch of notes about how Ariosto is also placing himself in the tradition of classical epic. Since I've reread the Aeneid relatively recently, that's the one that struck me the most. (Nisus and Euryalus become Medoro and Clorindo; Rodomonte does the Turnus in the walls thing, etc.) But there's also an Odyssean Cyclops episode. Had I read Dante more recently, I'm sure there would be a bunch of resonances there. However, this post is already long enough...and I've just made it that much longer with this sneaky bit of praeteritio...

Anyway, should you read Orlando Furioso? Would you like it? If you're the sort of person who's read to this point in my blog entry, 😉and you haven't read it, then the answer is almost certainly yes. It's funny, it's engaging, and it's important in Western literature. Should you read David Slavitt's translation, especially as your first approach to it? Hmm, I'm less certain about that. I liked the Slavitt,  but I'd read Orlando before. The Penguin is also in ottava rima, by Barbara Reynolds, and it's complete (though the second volume of that seems like it might be out of print.) Slavitt accuses it of being insufficiently funny, but now I'm inclined to make that my third reading of Orlando Furioso. Someday.

But for now I'm keen to go read The Faerie Queene from my Classics Club list, another of those works deeply influenced by Orlando Furioso.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Poem For A Thursday

In homage to Holds Upon Happiness' series...

This is from Jack Gilbert's collection Refusing Heaven of 2005.

Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

-Jack Gilbert

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sunday Salon (#3)

I'd better get typing or it's going to be Monday Salon...

Interesting Link

You are following Holds Upon Happiness Poem for Thursday, aren't you?

Top of the Reading Pile

Orlando Furioso could still be on that stack. But not for much longer!

It will probably take me a while to read Don Paterson's book of collected aphorisms, The Fall At Home. But that's the way it should be read, a page or so at a time.
"We are only expressions of physical law, and therefore if we decide we are not without purpose--then the universe is not without purpose."
I'm a sucker for books of aphorisms: Pessoa, Cioran, La Rochefoucauld, Sarah Manguso, even Nietzsche. Anybody else have this compulsion?


What me plan? But I am thinking about either Reading Ireland or the Wales Readathon for March. Or maybe both. Reese is a Welsh name, you know.

Where I Am

Despite the weather, it was an errand-running weekend. I got tea at the tea store today (to fill the cup next to that stack above) and yesterday it was the grocery store...

I've got a nice picture of the ceramics museum from January, but I'll save it for some weekend when I really don't have a picture.

How goes it with you?

Friday, February 15, 2019

Borislav Pekić' Houses

Since I have now reached those years in which man's allotted span comes to its natural end, and moreover since my health is no longer of the best, I, Arsénie Negovan, son of Cyrill Negovan, rentier here residing, have decided, being fully lucid and in possession of all of my mental faculties as prescribed by law, to set down this testament,...

So opens Houses of Borislav Pekić. We soon learn it's Belgrade in June of 1968, so you may have some doubts about how lucid Arsénie Negovan actually is, if he thinks he's a rentier. You're right to doubt.

Arsénie is 77 when he's writing this combination last testament/memoir and earlier that day he'd been caught up in Belgrade's version of the 1968 student riots. Arsénie can't stick to a timeline, but we gradually learn that he acquired or had built, with the help of a contractor cousin, a number of houses in Belgrade during the 20s and 30s and he really was a rich property owner renting out residences and living off the proceeds.

But he doesn't think of himself as a typical exploitative property owner. He loves his houses; he gives them all girls' names, Sofia, Irina, Eudoxia, above all, Simonida and the lost Niké. He doesn't feel he has to maximize his income. The houses have a soul only he can preserve.

" that the Possessor becomes the Possessed without losing any of the traditional function of Possession, and the Possessed becomes the Possessor without in any way losing the characteristics of the Possessed."
Hmm. Is it houses we're talking about?

Then the Second World War and Communism came to Yugoslavia. I had to remind myself from Wikipedia, but Yugoslavia remained neutral even after the Italians tried to invade Greece, but failed. When it came time for Hitler to rescue his Italian ally, he put pressure on the Yugoslav government to join the Axis and at first the Yugoslavs did so under the regent Prince Paul, but riots in 1941, encouraged by the British, led to the overthrow of the Regency, allowing the seventeen-year-old Peter II to assume the throne. The Germans subsequently invaded Yugoslavia, as a by-stop on their way to Greece.

Arsénie was caught up in that 1941 riot and badly injured; from that day until 1968 he never left his house. Well, a few things changed in the meantime. Because Arsénie was presumed to be frail and with heart trouble, his wife Katarina and his nurse Mlle. Foucault 'took care of' his property, and Arsénie's folie was nurtured. Until he feels Simonida is threatened by renovation and he must once again leave the house.

There are number of details about Negovan family relationships that come out over the course the novel, Arsénie's brother, his cousin, his son, his nephew. How good (or bad) a person is Arsénie? It's a question the novel invites us to ask. Well, he's bad enough that this novel about a haute bourgeois can be published in Yugoslavia under Tito. But not so clearly villainous that as a result Pekić felt more comfortable emigrating to London a year after it was published. Pekić had already spent five years in jail as a Center-Left Democrat in the immediate post-war period.

The introduction compares Arsénie to Don Quixote and that's not a bad comparison, though perhaps a little too forgiving. Arsénie does real damage and only sometimes means well, less reliably than Don Quixote.

Anyway, I thought it was very good, though a little difficult to get into at first, because the narration is a bit mad and disjointed (and I know very little about Belgrade). But I was glad I stuck it out. It seems Pekić wrote another seven novels about the Negovan family, as a group called The Golden Fleece, not yet translated into English. I say, get on them!

Pekić was born to a prominent family in Montenegro, but this is so clearly a Belgrade novel, I really feel uncomfortable using it for anything but Serbia in Gilion's European Reading Challenge. So Serbia it is!

As a side note: in reading Wikipedia about the events of the time, I discovered that Peter II, that 17-year-old king who took over in 1941, spent a great deal of time in Chicago after the war where there was a large Yugoslav community. My father's boss in Chicago when he worked at RCA in the 60s and 70s was a Serb royalist, Milan, I no longer recall his last name, who had, I was told, seen some terrible things fighting as a partisan during World War II. I met Milan once or twice, maybe when I was seven or eight. Could I have met the former king of Yugoslavia when I was child? Well, I'm quite sure I didn't, but perhaps it was only two degrees of separation...

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sunday Salon

Interesting Link

I read this article about ideophones and what they might tell us about the origin of language. I got 70% on the opening quiz, though it's not that sort of quiz: the fact that most people get more than 50% correct is proof (?) de Saussure's assertion words are completely arbitrary signs may not be entirely correct.

Top Of The Reading Pile

Yes, Orlando Furioso was there last week, too. It's hard to tell but the bookmark has advanced. Really.

Doing the #OneCoverADay challenge led me to go look at my Don Marquis collection with illustrations by George Herriman of Krazy Kat fame. It also made me think ("wotthehell wotthehell") I should reread archy and mehitabel. (All lower case completely appropriate.) Maybe look for a Thursday poetry post.

Also my copy of Circe arrived from the library on Wednesday. I now have two and a half weeks to read it. (Since I won't be able to renew.)

Where I Am

Last week's snow is now looking grey and yicky, so how about this picture of a vintage (1951) streetcar that passed near my house in early January:

Sunny and no snow to speak of, then. It doesn't look like that today...

How are you all doing?

Robert Gerwarth's The Vanquished

"On 23 March 1919 we raised the black flag of the fascist revolution, the forerunner of European renewal. Veterans of the trenches and young men gathered around this flag, forming squads that wished to march against the cowardly governments and against fatal Eastern ideologies, in order to free the people from the influence of 1789. Thousands of comrades fell around this flag, fighting like heroes, in the truest meaning of the Roman word, in the streets and squares of Italy, in Africa and in Spain. Their memory is always alive and present in our hearts. Some people may have forgotten the hardships of the post-war years, but the squadristi have not forgotten, they cannot forget."
That's from a speech of Benito Mussolini gave in 1939, and quoted in Robert Gerwarth's The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed To End. It's pretty representative of why Gerwarth thinks his period is important, and I would agree.

The main period he covers in his book runs from the revolutions in Russia in 1917 until the Treaty of Lausanne between Atatürk's new Turkey and the victors of WWI in 1923. It covers pretty much every country that was engaged in that war, plus a few that weren't (Spain, for instance) but brings all the major events together in a way I hadn't seen before.

Some of them are well enough known, even to English readers, particularly the Russian Civil War of the early 1920s and the negotiations of the Versailles Treaty. Maybe less well-known, but not completely obscure, are the revolutions in Germany that led to the founding of the Weimar Republic, and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919 to 1922, but there are lots of other events are described or alluded to: the war of Irish Independence, the coup in Spain that led to the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in 1923, the March on Fiume and the Regency of Carnaro, the Hungary of Béla Kun, so many others.

The bio on the back flap tells me that Gerwarth is a professor of Modern History at the University College Dublin, but Wikipedia adds that he was born in Germany and mostly educated there. The (extensive) bibliography includes works in English and German, unsurprisingly, but also Italian, French, Greek, Spanish, Russian, Serbian, and Bulgarian. Does he know all these languages? Yikes! Maybe so. It does seem he's ridiculously competent to write this book.

Anyway, it's a period that interests me, and it's well-done. Recommended, if you're at all interested in World War I, its politics and its impact. The book came out in 2016 and I saw it recommended as one of the best history books of that year by Steve Donoghue of Open Letters Monthly. I can't conceivably keep up with Donoghue's level of reading, but I think he was probably right.

With it touching so many European countries, I could use it for practically anywhere in my European Reading Challenge, and so I will use it for one of the more obscure ones, of course... 😉

It was full of information I didn't know about the Finnish Civil War or the Finnish War of Liberation, depending on how you look at it, of 1918. It also covered the short-lived Republic of Armenia of 1920 and 1921. But one of the most interesting bits was the early history of Latvia when it first established independence at the end of World War I, an independence later obliterated in 1939. Freikorps troops--independent German soldiers--fought against Russian revolutionaries at the instigation of the British and French, but then also fought against Latvian nationalists. And I discovered Marguerite Yourcenar wrote a novel in 1939 about that conflict, titled Coup de Grace. Who knew? (Well, I'm sure there are many somebodies who did, but I wasn't one of them.) So I'm going to call this one for Latvia for my European Reading Challenge.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Eileen Chang's Love In A Fallen City

Shanghai's clocks were set an hour ahead so the city could "save daylight," but the Bai family said, "We go by the old clock." Ten o'clock to them was eleven to everyone else. Their singing was behind the beat; they couldn't keep up with the huqin of life.
That's the opening paragraph of the title story in this collection of Eileen Chang stories Love In A Fallen City. It gives a good sense: these six stories are about families, mostly stuck in tradition. People refer to others by their place in the family hierarchy: Second Master, Fourth Mistress, Third Sister. The men are incompetently in charge; the women, trying to scrape up a little power by whatever means. The young of both sexes are trying to get out from under. For the girls, prostitution is an available option. Money is tight, but opium is readily available. Generally nobody gets what they want.

The stories take place in either Shanghai or Hong Kong, or both, in the years leading up to and then including the Japanese occupation; the stories were written (in Chinese) during the occupation and slipped past the censors. They're apolitical and generally don't mention the Japanese. They give a sense of how much and how fast China was changing in those years, though mostly without the cooperation of the characters.

My favorite was the title story. Bai Liusu has divorced her husband and returned home because he beat her. The Bai family take her back in, but they grumble about it, and when her ex-husband dies, they suggest Liusu return to her husband's family and take the role of widow. She refuses.

A family friend, Mrs. Xu, takes Liusu to Hong Kong; maybe there she can meet a male protector. But what will be her role? Will she be his wife, his legal concubine, his whore? Liusu doesn't really trust Mrs. Xu to do the right thing for her, and Liusu's position is delicate. She meets Fan Liuyuan, who's interested in her; he's kind enough and rich enough. Liusu is willing to accept legal concubinage, she figures she's twenty-eight, divorced and widowed, but wishes for more. First Hong Kong falls to the Japanese, then Shanghai. Everything is in chaos, the couple are reduced to living in poverty in an occupied city--and it's still the happiest story in the collection.

Grim, but I thought they were very good. New York Review Books have reissued at least two of her novels as well. I'm now likely to read them.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sunday Salon

Interesting Links

I found this post about Auden's first arrival in New York to be fascinating. And, bonus, it includes an obscure Auden occasional (written as a thank you to the manager of the hotel he stayed at) poem I'd never seen, but is pretty amusing.

I'm reading Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with a friend. It's the only way I'll manage it. This article at Aeon about Frank Ramsey, Wittgenstein's friend, first translator, and all-around genius was useful.

A number of things have made me interested in Virginia Woolf's diaries lately. (This is includes you, O, at Quaint and Curious) and this at The New Republic was definitely interesting. Multiple simultaneous diaries! Hmm. Did Doris Lessing know about this?

Top of the Reading Pile

The Baldwin is for If Beale Street Could Talk, because I'm thinking about seeing the movie. What usually happens is by the time I read the book, the movie will be gone.

Where I Am

Looking out over my and my neighbors' backyards in Toronto. It's warmer today, but still this would be a good week to be somewhere else...

How about you?