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..."
" 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...