Monday, December 30, 2019
So once again I completed ten (well, nine and a half-ish) categories this year for Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge. Here's the list:
Classic in Translation:
Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso
George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion
Classic From Africa:
Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between
Classic From The Americas:
Malcolm Lowry's Under The Volcano
Twentieth Century Classic:
Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil
Very Long Classic:
J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
Classic by a Female Author:
George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life
Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth
Henry Fielding's Tom Jones
(though I've only just finished the last one & haven't blogged about it yet.)
Thanks to Karen for hosting! I guess that's two entries. Should it come up I can be reached by email at reese (at) reesewarner (dot) com.
Saturday, December 28, 2019
It's been quite the European tour this year, but it's time to acknowledge it's over...I didn't go quite as over-the-top as I did last year, but I still passed the Five Star level and then some, for a final total of twelve countries. Still I wonder more at the ones I missed. (What? Nothing from Russia this year?)
Here's my final list:
1.) Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday. Austria.
2.) Robert Gerwarth's The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed To End. Latvia.
3.) Boreslav Pekic' Houses. Serbia.
4.) Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Italy.
5.) Endre Farkas' Never, Again. Hungary.
6.) Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad. Poland.
7.) Eric Ambler's The Light of Day. Turkey.
8.) Mircea Cartarescu's Blinding. Romania.
9.) Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian. France.
10.) Hannah Arendt's Men in Dark Times. Germany
11.) George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life. UK.
12.) Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Monaco.
Thanks to Gilion for hosting and looking forward to the new edition!
Friday, December 27, 2019
"I bought Moby-Dick today for 6d. That's more like the real stuff. White whales & natural piety."
-Samuel Beckett, in a letter of Aug. 4, 1932
Andrew Delbanco is definitely in the spirit of the thing: he begins his biography of Herman Melville with "EXTRACTS (supplied by a Sub-Sub-Sub-Librarian)." The quote from Samuel Beckett above is one of the extracts, but there's also Conrad, Updike, Roth, Ken Kesey, and Ray Bradbury all commenting on Melville or his works. There's also a transcript of a Sopranos episode. (A.J. Soprano is reading Billy Budd in high school.)
I thought it was a very good biography. Large stretches of Melville's life are poorly documented; he didn't keep letters written to him, though some letters he wrote still exist. Delbanco is judicious on the question of Melville's homosexuality, by which I mean, he says neither yes nor no, and doubts the term is even very applicable in the 19th century.
Some interesting facts I learned:
I knew about Melville's use of the account of the whaling ship the Essex, but I'd never heard this: "In May 1839, just before nineteen-year-old Herman Melville sailed for Liverpool, J. R. Reynolds had published in the Knickerbocker Magazine an account of 'an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength' that, like the 'Ethiopian albino...was white as wool,' and became the object of a vengeful hunt. Named after the island of Mocha just off the Chilean coast where he was first sighted, Mocha Dick was freakish not only in appearance but also in that he had repeatedly turned to attack his human pursuers." Mocha Dick!
'Total earnings from the American sales of Moby-Dick would ultimately come to $556.37, considerably less than Melville had realized from any previous book."
Though in general Delbanco doesn't want to say too much about Melville's politics, he does think that Ahab is strongly reminiscent of John C. Calhoun, both in look and demeanor.
Melville was always a heavy drinker, it seems, but after the failure of Moby-Dick and subsequently Pierre, he may have really overdone it. Again Delbanco doesn't have enough evidence to be certain, but Melville may very well have become by modern standards alcoholic. There were also signs of strain in the marriage brought on by the failure of his career as a writer, relative poverty, and the suicide of their oldest son, all of which were likely exacerbated by his heavy drinking. There were also concerns for his sanity. This in the 1860s and 1870s. He and his wife never permanently separated, though, and seem to have been reconciled by the end of his life.
Anyway an interesting and enjoyable read.
As for Moby-Dick itself, I was ahead for a while, but now I'm behind again. Onward!
Wednesday, December 25, 2019
Monday, December 23, 2019
That means it will be Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own for me. A very good spin choice indeed. I'm not really sure why I haven't already read it.
I suspect there may be lots of Classics Clubbers out there who have already read it. Do I have a treat in store?
Tuesday, December 17, 2019
It's spin time at the Classics Club again. This is the Classics Club challenge where we pick twenty unread books from our Classics Club list and wait for the power of the random number generator to tell us which one we're going to read in the near future.
Between the holidays and the fact that I'm going to be in California for half of January I'm not sure how much reading and blogging time I will have, so I'm not putting any of the dangerously long ones on this list. The last chunkster challenge, the spin machine picked the shortest book on my list, but I'm not going to rely on that happening again.
A couple of these would be effectively read-alongs, and two would be the same author as other bloggers (Brona - though not the same book.) Feel free to do further matchups if you like.
1.) Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
2.) The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
3.) The Waves by Virginia Woolf (Same author with Brona)
4.) The American by Henry James
5.) Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw
6.) Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (Faith at Household Diary)
7.) A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
8.) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
9.) The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
10.) Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac
11.) 20000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne
12.) The Black Arrow by R. L. Stevenson (Helen at She Reads Novels)
13.) A Room Of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
14.) The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham (DebNance at Readerbuzz)
15.) One of Ours by Willa Cather (Same author with Brona)
16.) Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
17.) The Forsyte Sage by John Galsworthy
18.) Lives by Plutarch
19.) Count Robert of Paris by Sir Walter Scott
20.) Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy
Plutarch's Lives would be the challenging one on that list. I'm not really sure which one overall I prefer. Which look good to you?
And the winner is...#13! A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf.
Monday, December 16, 2019
I had always planned on reading it as a tragedy; I put it on my list for Karen's Back to the Classics challenge as this year's tragedy, and I knew (without knowing much about it) it didn't end well. And it doesn't. But is it tragedy? I say yes, but I do think it's a bit tricky and unexpected in that regard.
Lily Bart, our tragic heroine, doesn't always make good choices; often she can't seem to decide what it is she wants; and sometimes she makes outright poor choices. Now if bad things happen to a person who makes bad choices, does that count as tragedy? Or is it simply just desserts?
Think about some of the classics of tragedy: when we first meet Oedipus, he's determined to find out what's causing the plague in Thebes, no matter the cost, no matter who's the guilty party. (Plagues generally had a guilty party back then, not a guilty bacterium.) It's his determination--a good quality--and his history that bring about his downfall. Or Pentheus, of The Bacchae, who declares that running around, naked and drunk, on a hillside at night is not a good thing. Reasonable, right? Well, no, as it turns out.
Also these men are significant figures--both kings--and most tragedies concern themselves with significant figures. Even women in classical tragedies are princesses or queens: such as Antigone or Phaedra.
But Hamlet is largely a tragedy of someone who can't make up his mind: if he'd just gone off and killed his stepfather at the start--that stepfather who was guilty of murder--wouldn't everything have turned out much better for him? But he can't make up his mind to do it. And Lily Bart can't make up her mind whom to marry, but she really needs to marry somebody.
OK, a quick plot summary: (skip if you prefer not to know.)
Lily Bart is in her late 20s at the start of the novel, and when we first see her she's considering marrying Percy Gryce. She's orphaned and is dependent financially on the dubious kindness of relations. She goes to visit her old friend, Lawrence Selden, whom she pumps for a few salient facts about Americana, Percy Gryce's hobby. She and Selden have a somewhat flirtatious conversation so we know there's something more than friendship there. As she's leaving Selden's bachelor apartment (a no no!) she's seen by Simon Rosedale, a rising Jewish businessman.
But when she meets Percy Gryce at a friend's country estate, she sabotages her chances to marry him by associating with Selden and ignoring Gryce. (She doesn't go to church! The horror!) She gambles, out of boredom, and ends up owing money, word of which gets back to Gryce. She blows her chance by not concentrating.
After her gambling debts and other expenses she needs money, which she accepts from Guy Trenor, a wealthy married man. Ostensibly this is coming out of investments he makes for her, which Trenor is able to put into a 'sure thing,' but we suspect he's just giving her the money.
In subsequent conversations with Lawrence Selden, we learn he might marry her, but his freedom is important to him and he wants to know that she's willing to live on what he makes--he's a lawyer, and presumably middle class, but certainly not rich--and she pushes him off. She can't commit to a life, as she sees it, of impoverishment.
She discovers Guy Trenor wants more than just a handshake in return for the 'investments' he made for her. She also discovers that everyone else assumes that the idea of 'investment' is just a fig-leaf covering up that he's giving her money. She decides she has to pay him back.
Rosedale proposes marriage. He's certainly rich enough, and in some ways he seems a pretty kindly man. Lily sees him with children, and he's good with them. But she can't get past her feeling that he's outside her circle, that he's crude. But she's feeling particularly pinched by the money she needs to return to Trenor, and so she almost says yes, but can't decide to.
At just this moment, her friend, and I use that word advisedly, Bertha Dorset invites Lily to go sailing in the Mediterranean. Bertha is bringing along both her husband George and her lover Ned. Lily is there as a distraction, though she may not entirely recognize this. In a shocking scene, when things are at their worst between the Dorsets, Bertha, to cover up her own sins, effectively accuses Lily of having an affair with her husband. Society buys Bertha's version, and Lily is ostracized.
The Dorset marriage is clearly on the rocks, and friends suggest Lily could snag George. George is drawn to Lily, and he's wealthy, but he's also a bit pathetic, and can Lily really marry the divorced husband of her 'friend'? (Though Bertha is no friend to her.) She can't make up her mind to do it.
Rosedale is still willing to marry her, but now she would need to silence Bertha Dorset because Rosedale is determined to break into society. She has the means, letters suitable for blackmailing Bertha, but does she have the will? No, it would seem.
There were two other possibilities than marriage presented for Lily, though Lily certainly sees her life as leading to marriage. Her cousin Gertie Farish lives modestly on a small inheritance and spends her time in good works. Lily fleetingly helps Gertie with this, but I wasn't convinced this was more than a momentary pleasure for Lily, that it was something she really wanted. In any case the inheritance she might have expected was lost when her aunt got (partially incorrect) word of Lily's bad behavior.
Also Lily could work, and she does a bit at the end, but really has no skills; she wasn't raised to it. She can manage a little light decorative sewing, but when it comes to toiling in a sweatshop, she can't keep up.
She realizes she's falling out of life, and has bad dreams, and takes chloral hydrate to sleep. A pharmacist warns her it's easy to accidentally overdose, and well...you did know it was going to end badly, didn't you?
**End of plot summary**
So Lily has four marriage possibilities within the frame of the novel, and it's implied there were others earlier. Percy? Boring and a prude. Lawrence? Insufficiently rich and too committed to his own freedom. George? Pathetic, a divorcé, and you should never marry somebody on the rebound. Simon? A social outsider too stuck on breaking in. All are flawed, though maybe not impossibly, but she can't commit to either of her non-marrying prospects--working or a quiet poverty--either.
So is it a tragedy? Well, what are our characteristics? She's not a queen or a princess. But her great beauty gives her significance sufficient for tragedy. When she's run off to Gertie's apartment in despair and falls asleep there, we see Gerty's thoughts in looking on her: "To look on that prone loveliness was to see in it a natural force, to recognize that love and power belong to such as Lily,..." (Book I, Chapter 14.) This comes partly from Gerty's own despair, but it is also the general feeling about Lily. Rosedale says something similar: (Book II, Chapter 11)
Lily continued to meet his expostulations with a smile. 'I don't know why I should regard myself as an exception--' she began.
'Because you are; that's why;...'There is something special about Lily. And so, when something bad happens to her, it's at least potentially tragic.
Lily's great beauty gives her fate the necessary magnitude, I'd say. What then of her own actions? Are they simply self-destructive? Well, as I mentioned, Hamlet's is also a tragedy of somebody who can't make up his mind. Hamlet's doubts are more intellectual--he needs proof, definitive proof, in order to act--while Lily's are moral, born partly, it's true, out of a certain fastidiousness. But twice she makes a definite moral choice (to pay back Trenor, and to finally burn Bertha's letters) and both are admirable; both also materially hasten her decline. She doesn't dither quite as much as Hamlet. She hasn't got Oedipus' or Antigone's stubborn determination, but when she has a good choice to make, she can make it and does, even if those choices bring her closer to the end.
And what other choices did she really have? We discussed whom she should have married, but really were any of them satisfactory? For myself I felt Selden was the best of the lot, but Lily made the decision not to marry Selden because she knew herself and knew she could not live on his income; that was admirable in its way; Undine Spragg made the opposite choice vis-a-vis Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country, and that was the destruction of Marvell. Moreover, Selden all too readily jumps to the wrong conclusion about Lily when he sees her with Trenor; how well did he really know Lily as a person? Or was she just a thing (albeit a thing of beauty) to him?
The other marriage choices seem even more doubtful. Rosedale seemed possible for a bit, but his insistence that Lily use Bertha's letters to silence Bertha made him considerably less sympathetic to me.
Could she have become like Gertie Farish? That seems the most admirable path, but Gertie was pining for Selden, and doesn't seem completely happy herself.
Lily's exasperating: but tragic heroes can be exasperating; Ismene tells her sister Antigone as much in Sophocles' play. The real question is, given who she was, could she have done something different? Are the choices she made the only right and possible ones? I think Wharton has constructed this cleverly so that we do feel a sort of tragic horror as Lily's options are compressed from few to none, and that those choices she does make, when she does realize what's happening, are both right and also deadly.
Anyhoo, in the end I talked myself into this. But sometimes I just wanted to take Lily and shake her and say, Look, you're being stupid! What happens to you is no tragedy! But in the end I really did feel the pity and the horror.
Thanks to Cleo for organizing the readalong. It's been great fun reading everyone's posts.
This was on my Classics Club list, and is the tragic novel I'd always been planning for Karen's Back to the Classics challenge. Even if at moments I doubted it's tragic-ness.
And I wasn't expecting this, but the big scene--in some ways the novel's most important moment--when Bertha Dorset subtly accuses Lily of sleeping with her husband--takes place in Monaco, which means it's a Monaco novel for the European Reading Challenge hosted by Gilion. If you'd asked me would Monaco be on my list for two years running, I'd have laughed. But first there was Rebecca. And now The House of Mirth. Rich people hang out in Monaco, I guess. I may have to read a biography of Grace Kelly next year just to keep up the streak.
Tuesday, December 10, 2019
"We've got far too much of everything."
But as for the mystery! Tuppence says the above of the story at one point and I'm afraid it's true. Dame Agatha must have realized. There's a gang that's been pulling off spectacular heists for years--the Irish Mail, etc.--that Tommy hears about in his professional aspect; there's some maniac who's killing children around Sutton Chancellor; and there's another serial killer doing in elderly women in nursing homes. Because this is Agatha Christie and not, say, Ed McBain or J. J. Marric (John Creasey) I suspected that all these cases would tie together and they do, but it is just a little too much of everything...
Oh, well, it was still amusing, and I would definitely read another Tommy and Tuppence story. In fact I picked up N or M? at the same charity sale as this one and as it's earlier I should probably have read it first, especially as this one refers to it (I think) on several occasions.
Just The Facts Challenge, Silver Era
Who: Professional is the Main Sleuth.
Tommy and Tuppence run a detective agency, though frankly there's not much sign of it in this one.
Tuesday, December 3, 2019
"...this strategy was a bitter necessity in order to achieve a certain humorous leavening of the somber material..."
from Thomas Mann's The Story of a Novel
That bit about humor? I think Mann succeeded: the novel is funny, except, of course, when it isn't. Tom at Wuthering Expectations reminded recently that Mann's Magic Mountain is funny, and this is, too. Magic Mountain is funnier than Doctor Faustus, but then World War I was a barrel of laughs compared to World War II. Still, there's some laughs in this one. The narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, spends the first chapters comically complaining that he doesn't know how to write. In very elaborate prose. When our hero, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, is worried about the symptoms of early-stage syphilis, his doctors are comically unavailable: suddenly dead, hauled off to jail, etc. (The devil may have done it.) The names of characters are simply silly. Someone whose German is better than mine should feel free to comment, but I make out the names of the conservative circle of intellectuals around Sextus Kridwiss as Mister Chaos, Mister WoodenShoes, Mister Birdy, and Mister PorridgeMess.
So you probably know this as that crazed, howling cheese of a novel about the musician who slips into syphilitic dementia, full of dry theory about twelve-tone music, a novel unintelligible to mere mortals, and yes, it is all those things. It's an allegory about the collapse of German culture into Hitler-led barbarity.
But, hey, it's funny, too, so that makes it all OK...right?
Anyway, a quick summary: Adrian Leverkühn is born on a German farm around 1890; his friend (and future biographer) Serenus Zeitblom is born in the nearby town, two years earlier. Everyone pretty quickly realizes young Adrian is a musical genius and takes the time to nurture his talent. Adrian first studies theology, but finally comes around to the study of composition. He writes some apprentice works, but then deliberately gives himself syphilis by sleeping with a prostitute known to be infected. This deepens his aloofness and separates him from normal family life; it also liberates his creativity.
Or something does. Adrian writes a confession that Zeitblom reproduces in which Adrian makes a deal with the devil for twenty-four years of musical productivity. Was it just a midnight dream, like Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor? Adrian is discreet and ironic, but he always treats subsequent wonderful events as if some power was assisting him. If there is a devil, one of the concessions the devil extracts is Adrian can have no normal human contacts; well, syphilis makes one type of contact awkward; and Adrian's shy and aloof, given to migraines, so all he can do is work anyway. He produces a number of masterpieces, though they're experimental and not universally loved.
The novel in the last third or so becomes, as Mann notes in The Story of a Novel, more novelistic: there is romance, murder, suicide, the death of Adrian's father. Finally in 1930, the twenty-four years are up, and Adrian submerges into syphilitic dementia. His last two compositions are based on the Apocalypse of John and the death of Faust. Götterdämmerung indeed.
Is this Faust saved? We don't know. Marlowe's Faust isn't, but Goethe's is. Mann suggests, but I haven't read, that the original Faust book is ambiguous, and certainly this is. The novel runs in two time tracks: the events of Adrian's life from 1890 to 1930 or so, with Adrian's death coming in 1940. But there is also the time that Zeitblom is supposedly writing it in: from 1943 to the fall of Berlin in 1945. The Russian advance from the East, the invasion of Sicily and then the fall of Italy, D-Day, the Ardennes offensive leading to the Battle of the Bulge. But Adrian's dead, and salvation for Adrian would mean his music would be performed and understood; that the German culture he is the stand-in for would once again have a place on the world stage. In 1945? Well, a German could only hope. Or then again, maybe hope against is more appropriate? Is German culture irredeemably compromised? Zeitblom articulates both possibilities.
In The Story of the Novel, Mann tells us that when he read the final chapters to Adorno, (who was serving as his adviser on musical theory) Adorno told him that the ending was too optimistic, and Mann decided that was right, and rewrote it to be darker. Certainly Mann did not think Germany redeemed enough to return to live there, though there were calls for him to do so, even to become president of a newly freed Germany, something like Vaclav Havel.
I was thinking about rereading it after I read Broch's The Death of Virgil earlier this year. (Still thinking about The Death of Virgil!) Both novels were written in the US in the closing years of World War II. Mann was living in Los Angeles; Broch in D.C., but according to The Story of a Novel, they met a couple of times during those years. Mann was also deeply involved in war work and traveled to D.C. a few times. When I read The Death of Virgil I thought it was surprising how little political a novel it was, given the time it was written and the nature of the (Austrian exile) author. Doctor Faustus is a very political novel. Though I've now read them relatively closely together, two big Modernist stories about major artists, I'm not sure I have much else to say about that comparison in retrospect...
But I'd already been thinking about rereading Faustus after I read Rolland's Jean-Christophe a bit over a year ago. Here I think the connection is quite clear: both characters are musicians; both represent German musical culture of their era, its relation to the rest of Europe; both protagonists die young. Both authors are closeted homosexuals. (At least likely so. The evidence on Rolland is thin.) Mann was engaged with Rolland, even dreaming about him according to his diary. Rolland, writing just before World War I, is more hopeful. That reflects the times, but as well the temperaments, of the two authors.
One notable difference is that the music theory in Mann is quite difficult and authentic-feeling; Adrian's compositions feel like they really do exist. Rolland is quite general about the works that Jean-Christophe Krafft has written. Most of Adrian's compositions are vocal music and set a text; Jean-Christophe's are purely instrumental. (I think Mann's choice is wiser from a writing point of view.) This makes for very different novels: the Rolland is a much easier read, with considerably more emphasis on the personal relationships; Mann is more difficult, and much of the first half of the novel feels frankly didactic. (Though the fact that Mann can write about Brentano, Keats, Shakespeare, or the Bible help ground it.) All that makes Mann's more believable. I wondered if Mann was thinking specifically about Rolland in The Story of the Novel when he wrote this:
"There is nothing sillier, in a novel about an artist, than merely to assert the existence of art, to talk about genius, about works, to hail these and rave about their effects upon the souls of the audiences. No, concrete reality, exactitude, were needed--this was utterly clear to me."But short of including a score or a CD, the reader can only estimate musical works from the description of their effects on others. Doctor Zhivago includes Zhivago's poems and we can judge of them, though less so in my case, since I have no Russian. But a novel about a musician? Music is inherently harder. Is Mann's the right approach? I think a lot of people don't read Mann because of his difficulty, because of all that music theory, but then I think hardly anybody reads Rolland at all. (Which is a shame.)
Also reading The Story of a Novel was interesting from the perspective of a working writer. Of course, in 1943 (when he starts the novel) Mann is famous and celebrated as a novelist in ways that seem almost impossible anymore today. From the outside one might assume he has an almost Goethean level of self-assurance. Turns out it wasn't entirely so. Some here's some quotes, mostly about the writing process, I copied out of the book:
How much Faustus contains of the atmosphere of my life! A radical confession, at bottom. From the very beginning that has been the shattering thing about the book.
Has any man who ever bore the incubus of creation on his back, always concerned, obsessed, preoccupied with the the work of days and years--has any such man ever been an enjoyable companion? Dubito.
Protracted psychological low, intensified by horror at the misguidedness of the novel I began with so zestful a sense of experiment.
Why, yes. Certainly! On with it! We'll cut a page and a half; we'll cut three pages. That will make it more readable, somewhat more readable.
The fact remains, never before has any work so agitated and moved me!But also these, more general:
Switzerland is where the most gloriously un-German things are said in German.
People who feel held back and not given their due, and who at the same time present a distinguished appearance, often seek redress in racist self-assertion.
Life is pain, and we only live as long as we suffer. [Ouch! Tell me it ain't so, Tom!]
There is no doubt in my mind to whom we are indebted for this victory. It is Roosevelt.Mann was an enthusiastic American citizen at the time and a great partisan of FDR. Still the House Un-American Activities Committee hounded him out of the country a couple of years later.
Anyway, a great--and affecting--and sometimes funny--novel, even if the music theory pretty much still goes over my head. It's impact falls at the conflux of the intellectual-political-emotional, with emotional perhaps being the least, but certainly not null, term.
|Humpty's eyes may look a little dazed.|