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 is 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's 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: Coluccio

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 Coluccio

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 Coluccio 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.