Sunday, July 28, 2019

Sunday Salon (special Women In Translation Month edition)


I haven't done a Sunday Salon post in a while, but there I was thinking about what I might read in August for WIT (Women in Translation) Month hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. (You do know about #WITMonth, don't you?) So I heaped up a pile o' books and what better excuse is there for a post than that?.... 😉


Marguerite Yourcenar/Memoirs of Hadrian
Assia Djebar/Fantasia
Dorthe Nors/Mirror, Shoulder, Signal
Ingeborg Bachman/Malina
Anne Hébert/Am I disturbing you?
Vicki Blum/Grand Hotel

And somewhere I have an unread Amélie Nothombe, which I couldn't find for the picture, but was sort of saving for WIT month. I'm unlikely to read them all, alas. Any experience with them? Which sound best to you?

Earlier This Week

In the Internet-free zone,

I knocked off two thick modernist tomes from my Classics Club list: Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, and Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil. Post on the Broch coming soon.

They were both on my #20BooksOfSummer list, but while I'm on track to read 20 books over the summer, what I've read is increasingly diverging from that prospective list. Whoops!

Where I Am

Well, I'm finding it plenty warm here, but I certainly don't want to complain, especially given what's happening elsewhere. And there are certainly charms to Toronto in the summer. With friends we took a road trip to the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada:

And it allows backyard locavore dining:

The beans and the swiss chard (in the quiche) come from our garden.

How are things with you?

Under the Volcano

Under The Volcano is--famously--a novel about a drunk. It's often taken as a simple roman á clef about Malcolm Lowry's life, and Lowry was a drunk, and so...maybe it's little more than autobiography, a sort of addiction memoir, of the sort we see all the time.

I've set up that straw man to push back at it: not to push back against Lowry being a drunk; I don't know, but the evidence seems strong; but rather against it being simple, against it being a roman á clef, against it being unmediated portrait of the day-to-day existence of Malcolm Lowry.

The story goes something like this: Geoffrey Firmin, the (ex-)British consul in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, is drinking himself to death. The majority of the novel takes place on the Day of the Dead, November 2nd, 1938, though the first chapter takes place a year later and in it, we learn that Firmin is dead. In the second chapter, Firmin wakes up hungover after a party the night before, and he's in search of (and in need of) the hair of (some, many) dogs. His half-brother Hugh is due back that same day; Geoffrey Firmin's ex-wife Yvonne, estranged because of his excessive drinking, also arrives, unexpectedly, with the idea that maybe things can still be patched up. How he gets through that day (and then doesn't) is the story.

Yvonne seems serious in her wish to patch up things with Geoffrey, but she's also clearly attracted to Geoffrey's younger half-brother. She and Hugh may have had an affair in the past. She's certainly had an affair with Laruelle, Geoffrey's best friend, a French filmmaker, but that occurs only after she's given up on Geoffrey because of his drinking.

Not a lot happens that day. Hugh and Yvonne go horseback riding. The main trio run into Laruelle. Early that evening Geoffrey, Hugh, and Yvonne go to a bull-riding event that's a bust because the bull doesn't buck enough. And then Geoffrey's final end. That's pretty much it. Most of the pages of the novel are devoted to unwinding how we got here.

One thing that's not resolved is why Geoffrey's a drunk. It's sometimes implied that Geoffrey's a drunk because Yvonne has had an affair, maybe more than one, but we learn Geoffrey was a drunk before that; maybe he's a drunk because of the trauma he went through as a naval officer in World War I, but we know he was drinking earlier; maybe it's due to the complications of his Anglo-Indian childhood and orphanhood? But he had opportunities after that; he developed a close relationship with his foster father. Geoffrey writes, and is working on a book--contributing to that feeling of a roman á clef--and could it be the stress of a creative career that sends him to the bottle? Well, in the end, we're not told, and it sort of doesn't matter: by the time of main events, Geoffrey Firmin is already a lost person.

It's the unwinding, the revelation of the backstory, I found fairly sophisticated and interesting. It's where the drama in the book is. The chapters are generally from the point of view of one character, largely rotating among those main three: Geoffrey, Hugh, and Yvonne. At some point in each chapter, the character enters into fugue state, half remembrance, half fantasy. So, during the boring part of the bull-riding, Yvonne's mind drifts off and we learn about her acting career, a successful enough star of second-tier Westerns as a teenager, a withdrawal from Hollywood, then ending with a hope and dream of returning that doesn't pan out. Elsewhere she also dreams of leaving Mexico with Geoffrey and going to Canada with him sober and working on his book.

In other chapters we learn about Hugh's career as a reporter, and his dream of being the hero of the saved Spanish Republic, just as (in 1938) Franco's forces are about to win conclusively.

But it's Geoffrey's memories and fantasies that are the most problematic, the most confused. And this, very subtly, is how we learn that Geoffrey really is lost. In person, people like him: Yvonne wants to reconcile; he has friends still, despite his compulsive drinking, who care about him; they think him capable of reform. But in his fantasy life, his thoughts are substantially past-directed; few of his thoughts touch upon that work he might write, and those confused; a few upon the renewed life he might build with Yvonne; but mostly they revolve around where that next drink is coming from. Hopes and fantasies may be unrealistic, but without them you're dead.

It's a bleak novel to be sure. But there's hope in it, too, just not much for Geoffrey Firmin.

The good news is Malcolm Lowry was at least partly Hugh, and not entirely Geoffrey: he was Hugh's age, not Geoffrey's; he did escape to Canada with the woman he loved; he doesn't seem to have ever escaped his alcohol problem, but he did write a novel that shows up on the Modern Library list of great 20th Century novels as well as other lists of great novels.

The edition I read is shown above and has an introduction by Stephen Spender. I thought Spender's essay was pretty good--he compares and contrasts Under the Volcano with works of high modernism like Ulysses or The Waste Land, which this book both is and isn't--but it should have been an afterword. He gives too much away. We know from almost the start that Geoffrey Firmin dies, but there's a bit of a mystery about the details, and those should have been left mysterious. If you read this edition, save his introduction until after.

Anyway, this one does multiple duty for me: it's on my Classics Club list, my #20BooksOfSummer list, my Back to the Classics list, and counts for my Canadian Book Challenge. Whew!

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Clough

Amours de Voyage, Canto I, Introduction

Over the great windy waters, and over the clear crested summits,
  Unto the sun and the sky, and unto the perfecter earth,
Come, let us go,--to a land wherein gods of the old time wandered,
  Where every breath even now changes to ether divine,
Come, let us go; though withal a voice whisper, "The world
that we live in,
  Whithersoever we turn, still is the same narrow crib;
'Tis but to prove limitation, and measure a cord, that we travel;
  Let who would 'scape and go free go to his chamber and think;
'Tis but to change idle fancies for memories wilfully falser;
  'Tis but to go and have been."--Come, little bark! let us go.

-Arthur Hugh Clough

Umm. The selection of this is feeling a little over-determined for me at the moment. (1.) I recently learned that Amours de Voyage was reissued by Persephone--I don't see Persephone volumes here very often. But I would have reread it for the recent Persephone reading month. (2.) I'm currently reading Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil in the English translation of Jean Starr Untermeyer, and he apparently wanted the Vergil quotes in the translation to be in dactylic hexameter. It's clear to me Untermeyer went off and studied Clough for how to write dactylic hexameter in English. A very good choice, I'd say. And (3.) we're thinking about our own trip to Italy in the late fall, which is where Clough's voyaging lovers go. (From England to Italy, over the great windy waters and the clear crested summits, while poetic, is also literal. It doesn't work quite as well from here: more water, less mountain. Though given the likelihood of changing planes in Frankfurt...)

Arthur Hugh Clough was a British poet who died in 1861. Amours de Voyage is a story poem in five cantos about a group of young English people who travel to Italy in 1849, the time of Garibaldi's defense of the Roman republic. It's about 40 pages in my edition. Except for the proem to each canto, written in elegiacs, it consists of a series of letters in dactylic hexameter written by the young people in Italy to their friends back home in England; various of them fall in love, with decisions to be made about that. I really find it very good.

There's a great John Masefield poem at Holds Upon Happiness this week. More great windy waters!

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

C. S. Lewis' The Four Loves

Cleo at Classical Carousel organized a readalong of C. S. Lewis' The Four Loves, which, even though I knew my June was going to be a bit discombobulated, I was excited to join. Cleo has written a series of lovely, thoughtful, and informative posts that were a great help.

And, though I suspect this comes a little late, and I only found it three-quarters through my reading, I found these annotations (by searching for the quote that turned out to be Masefield) to be helpful.

So, having just given you those far more useful and informative posts, I have nothing left to say, right? Actually, kind of...You're better off with those posts than me. But I'll squeeze in a few words around the margins anyway...because a blogger can hardly be usefully silent...

I was dimly aware--I was a Classics major--about the distinction in the Greek language between types of love (storgé, philia, eros, agapé) that we, in English, lump together under the one word Love. Lewis is quite lucid about this, and in particular, I found Lewis' distinction between Need-love and Gift-Love (not concepts that necessarily occurred to the Greeks) insightful. Need-love is that form of Love where we expect something--a child needs nourishment from its mother, and the child loves mother for it; Gift-love is that more purely beneficent form of love that just gives--a mother nourishing that child. (Though more on that later.)

Now Lewis, a Christian, sees a sort of progression in the four types of love: Storgé (Affection) is a more mechanical form than its successor, Philia (Friendship). In turn, Philia isn't as strong a force as Eros (Erotic love,) and the summit is Agapé, sometimes translated as Charity (Caritas in Latin,) though I'd say a bit more complicated than that. (And Lewis would agree.) Lewis didn't express himself this way, but I rather wonder if his un-Greek, but useful terms Need-love and Gift-love could helpfully express the progression. The more advanced forms of love have a smaller portion of Need-Love and more Gift-love. In fact, I might say that any type of love expressed by actual humans has an admixture of Need-love and Gift-love; only divine love is purely Gift-love. Lewis doesn't say that, but I think he'd agree. Human loves, even the largely Gift-love forms of human love, such as charity or the love of a parent for a child, have some Need-love in them: my name will be glorified if I donate the money that leads to a cure for cancer; if I look after Junior now, Junior will help me when I am old and decrepit. Lewis by no means condemns those, but neither are those purely divine forms of love.

Now that I've speculated about what Lewis might have said (but didn't)...😉...I thought I'd also make an observation about the sort of thing he did say. Because he does see that all of his forms of love have both good and bad forms, he tries to distinguish what's good and what's bad. Mostly I would agree with his distinctions. For example one of his early forms of love (Love for the Sub-Human he categorizes it as) is patriotism. Now patriotism these days is a thing I'm particularly suspicious of--too often it seems to be "the last refuge of a scoundrel" and all that. Now Lewis is perfectly well aware there are bad manifestations of patriotism, and he identifies them pretty much as I would identify them, though I do think memorializing Waterloo may be a bit more ambiguous than Lewis seems to think. But where I do wonder is how can we tell the good forms apart from the bad forms? Now Lewis, as I said, mostly distinguishes them as I would, and (*naturally*) that marks him as sensible person. But if somebody should insist the proper form of patriotism involves liking only people of my ethnicity, how do I demonstrate that isn't a proper of patriotism? Unclear.

Later he discusses what are sometimes characterized as 'neurotic' forms of love, though he doesn't like that terminology. Fair enough. I'm not very fond of Freud myself. Freud was more highly rated in 1960, the year Lewis' book came out, than today, though, and it's quite easy now to see Freud as less helpful. Lewis says he might sort through some of the more difficult issues with his spiritual adviser, but that also strikes me as a not very satisfactory answer; spiritual advisers come in all stripes, and he doesn't seem to me to give any guidelines as to how to distinguish the good from the bad in spiritual advisers as well as in manifestations of love.

Well, Lewis doesn't have to answer all the questions--it is a short book--and I certainly don't have the answers myself; only to note that there are still some questions, and, in any case, this post has taken me quite long enough (!) to write.

Thanks to Cleo for prodding me to read this fascinating book!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: The Owl Writes A Detective Story

The Owl Writes A Detective Story

A stately home where doves, in dovecotes, coo--
fields where calm cattle stand and gently moo,
trim lawns where croquet is the thing to do.
This is the ship, the house party's the crew:
Lord Feudal, hunter of the lion and gnu,
whose walls display the heads of not a few,
Her Ladyship, once Ida Fortescue,
who, like his Lordship very highborn too
surveys the world with a disdainful moue.
Their son--most active with a billiard cue--
Lord Lazy (stays in bed till half past two).
A Balkan Count called Popolesceru
(an ex-Dictator waiting for a coup).
Ann Fenn, most English, modest, straight and true,
a very pretty girl without a sou.
Adrian Finkelstein, a clever Jew.
Tempest Bellairs, a beauty such as you
would only find in books like this (she'd sue
if I displayed her to the public view--
enough to say men stick to her like glue).
John Huntingdon, who's only there to woo
(a fact, except for her, the whole house knew)
Ann Fenn. And, last, the witty Cambridge Blue,
the Honourable Algy Playfair, who
shines in detection. His clear, 'View halloo!'
puts murderers in a frightful stew. 
But now the plot unfolds! What déjà vu!
There! In the snow! -- The clear print of a shoe!
Tempest is late for her next rendez-vous,
Lord Feudal's blood spreads wide--red, sticky goo
on stiff white shirtfront--Lazy's billet-doux
has missed Ann Fenn, and Popolesceru
has left--without a whisper of adieu
or saying goodbye, typical mauvais gout!
Adrian Finkelstein, give him his due,
behaves quite well. Excitement is taboo
in this emotionless landowner's zoo.
Algy, with calm that one could misconstrue
(handling with nonchalance bits of vertu)
knows who the murderer is. He has a clue. 
But who? But who? Who, who, who, who, who, who?
-Gavin Ewart

The Other Reader's favorite poem--oh, perhaps not entirely, but definitely a favorite. As a habitual reader of mysteries, it may work for me, too, and then especially when read aloud...

Gavin Ewart (1916-1995) was a British poet. Not always comic verse, but often. Since one of my grandfather's two given names were Rob and Roy, I've always appreciated this poem by him as well:


The Irish are great talkers,
persuasive and disarming.
You can say lots and lots
against the Scots--
but at least they're never charming!

I'm once again in an Internet-free zone as this appears, so I can't yet, but do go see the original Poem for a Thursday at Holds Upon Happiness.  I will as soon as I can.

Friday, July 12, 2019

(Belated) Poem For A Thursday: Lindsay

The Eagle That Is Forgotten
(John P. Altgeld. Born December 30, 1847; died March 12, 1902)

Sleep softly...eagle forgotten...under the stone.
Time has its way with you there, and the clay has its own. 
"We have buried him now," thought your foes, and in secret rejoiced.
They made a brave show of their mourning, their hatred unvoiced. 
They had snarled at you, barked at you, foamed at you day after day.
Now you were ended. They praised you,...and laid you away. 
The others that mourned you in silence and terror and truth.
The widow bereft of her crust, and the boy without youth,
The mocked and the scorned and the wounded, the lame and the poor
That should have remembered forever,...remember no more. 
Where are those lovers of yours, on what name do they call
The lost, that in armies wept over your funeral pall?
They call on the names of a hundred high-valiant ones,
A hundred white eagles have risen the sons of your sons,
The zeal in their wings is a zeal that your dreaming began
The valor that wore out your soul in the service of man.
Sleep softly,...eagle forgotten...under the stone
Time has its way with you there and the clay has its own. 
Sleep on, O brave-hearted, O wise man, that kindled the flame--
To live in mankind is far more than to live in a name,
To live in mankind, far, far more...than to live in a name.

-Vachel Lindsay

John Peter Altgeld was elected governor of Illinois in 1892. He resisted the use of federal troops to combat the Pullman strike and pardoned the (surviving) Haymarket rioters. He was one of the first progressive politicians elected to office.

Vachel Lindsay was an American poet who died in 1931.

Jennifer has a great Robert Frost poem this week.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries won the 2013 Booker prize. So, you know, you probably don't need me to say nice things about it. But I will anyway... 😉

It's set in 1866, the time of the gold rush in Hokitika, New Zealand, with some flashbacks to a year or so earlier. A dozen men, mostly white, but with one Maori and two Chinese, discover events that seem to implicate them in crimes or diminish their public reputation; it looks like a malign conspiracy, but could any conspiracy be so far-reaching? They decide to meet quietly to discuss, pool their knowledge, and see if they can determine what happened. A thirteenth man, Walter Moody, a young lawyer, happens upon their assembly by accident, and then leads the investigation.

The prose is extravagant, but the pacing is still superb: it's clear to me that Catton is a devoted reader of mysteries: twelve men determining the actions of a villain (if there is one) suggests a jury as well as a certain Agatha Christie novel you may have heard of...; at one point Walter Moody suggests what better place to hide a body than in a coffin (paging Ellery Queen!); and a mention of one red herring (Oh, Ms. Sayers!) made me check to see if that was an anachronism in 1866. (It's not.)

But at the same time Catton writes with the personable omniscient voice of a Victorian like Thackeray:
"Let the man speak for himself!" Nilssen snapped. "What's going on?" 
We shall omit Mannering's answer to this question, which was both inaccurate and inflammatory; we shall omit, also, the ensuing discussion, during which Mannering and Nilssen discovered that their purpose in journeying to Chinatown was one and the same, and Frost, who could intuit quite plainly that the commission merchant was holding him in some suspicion over the sale of the Wells estate, maintained a rather sullen silence. The clarifications took some time,...
I found it an engaging voice and a compelling read, and funny as well. But it also has real darkness to it, too: Catton does not soft-pedal the casual sexism and especially racism that would have been all too common at that time; nor, unlike say in Dickens, does she particularly fix things up at the end. Racist acts in particular have no repercussions, alas, a thing all too true to the time and place, I'm sure.

It begins with an astrological chart, and the plot, according to Catton's afterword, is actually partly determined by the horoscopes she cast. Now that part is very un-Victorian, and rather pomo-ish, something like Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies. I'm afraid all that went over my head, though I didn't really mind. I read most of it while off the grid, with no internet access. I'm an Aries, and that's about the extent of my astrological knowledge.

I did find the second half, the unwinding and explaining of what the 'conspiracy' was a bit slower than the first half; there weren't quite enough revelations there, but it didn't matter: I was already completely hooked...

One of my #20booksofsummer, and here's the summer-y location where I was when I read it...

Monday, July 8, 2019

The A to Z of TBR

Jean and Brona have both recently done an A to Z listing of books on the TBR pile and likewise I thought I'd browse through as an incentive to look at some half-forgotten choices. The idea is to pick titles that begin with the letter in question. I had to cheat a little for X, but was able to make all the other letters...

A: Axel's Castle, by Edmund Wilson
B: Bible and Sword, by Barbara Tuchman
C: C, by Tom McCarthy
D: Diaries: 1899-1941, by Robert Musil
E: East Lynne, by Mrs. Henry (Ellen) Wood
F: Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh
G: Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier
H: Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, by J. K. Rowling
I: Incident at Badamya, by Dorothy Gilman
J: Jacques the Fatalist, by Denis Diderot
K: Kalevala, assembled by Elias Lonnrot
L: Life Form, by Amelie Nothomb
M: Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar
N: Near to the Wild Heart, by Clarice Lispector
O: Obasan, by Joy Kogawa
P: Present at the Creation, by Dean Acheson
Q: Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkewicz
R: Rates of Exchange, by Malcolm Bradbury
S: Save Me The Waltz, by Zelda Fitzgerald
T: Tigers Are Better Looking, by Jean Rhys
U: Under the Greenwood Tree, by Thomas Hardy
V: Vathek, by William Beckford
W: War and the Iliad, by Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff
X: The Anabasis with Vocabulary, by Xenophon
Y: You've Had Your Time, by Anthony Burgess
Z: Zibaldone, by Giacomo Leopardi

Since I had to cheat on the X, and go with the author's name rather than the book title, I can offer up titles beginning with a symbol:

$1000 A Week, and other stories, by James T. Farrell

and a number:

10:04, by Ben Lerner

Which have you read? Which look good to you?

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Lazarus

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

-Emma Lazarus

Browsing for something to post for Poem For A Thursday, I reminded myself of this. You likely know it, especially the famous lines from the sestet, but it is a pretty great poem. And a good one to remember, especially today.

And Emma Lazarus herself was the descendent of Jewish refugees to the United States.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Two from Two Dollar Radio

Earlier this year I discovered the small press Two Dollar Radio, out of Columbus, OH; I saw a copy of The Deeper The Water, The Uglier The Fish by Katya Apekina at Type bookstore here in Toronto. I read that and liked it, and then I read Found Audio by N. J. Campbell from them. I didn't blog about either of them, but I thought it looks like they've put together an interesting list, and I decided to try some more. The Toronto Public Library kindly sent a pair of them to my local branch.

The Glacier by Jeff Wood

The first thing to note about The Glacier is it's written in the form of a film script. It jump cuts back and forth between several groups of characters whose connections gradually develop over the course of the novel.

In each group there's a figure who's troubled in some way, for whom there are demons externalized in horrific form. So, for Robert, who lives in a suburban subdivision, there's MUD MAN, a being of mud who appears in a neighboring house, follows Robert before killing himself in front of Robert saying that their is no ghost in the machine. Other externalized demons are a drug pusher and the nuclear holocaust.

The ending brings our alienated individuals together; the meaning of the ritual at the end is deliberately ambiguous.

I did feel this would be better as a film. But as an experimental, somewhat surreal film with a big cast, elaborate effects, and correspondingly large budget requirements, I expect that's unlikely to happen.

Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney

While I liked The Glacier, of these two I much preferred Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney.

Iris works as the receptionist for Larmax, Inc. She doesn't really know what the business does, and she sees very few of her fellow employees. One of them, an elderly man from Vienna, tells her she should travel, but then is never seen again in the office; her boss is increasingly away traveling, or so he says, but then once she sees him in town. We might guess the business is going bankrupt, and the boss is hiding it, but Iris doesn't think that: she's dreamy and alienated from the whole corporate world.

We also see her brother Neil, who works in sales, equally alienated from his job, but in a boy's way, given to anger and irritation. There's a tragic accident in the siblings' past; we're given several versions, not completely compatible. Neil went through some therapy for it when he was a child; Iris was presumed to be too young to be affected by the event, but was she?

Another company is next door to the Larmax office, but there only seems to be one young man there, living in the office or possibly in a van in the parking lot. Iris becomes obsessed with him, leaving notes (is he returning her notes?) and drilling a peephole between the offices. They do eventually meet. Is he the answer? Or is it something else?

I thought this was very good. Funny, mysterious and affecting.

Two of the books from my #20booksofsummer list: