Thursday, April 2, 2020

Snow Country

"There was something far from ordinary in all this, Shimamura told himself."
The thing that most struck me in reading Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country was its extreme reticence: about emotional matters, about the backstory of the main characters, even, in the end, about the actual events that take place in the novel. When Shimamura muses the above quote, Komako has just visited him twice. We more or less know what's going on, but never precisely, and neither do the characters in the book.

Here's what I do know...Shimamura is a well-to-do Tokyo resident likes to go to Japan's snow country (in the western part of the main island) for a winter getaway. The story is set in the 1930s. On the visit at the beginning of the story, he sees a girl Yoko on the train, who is looking after an ailing man. (Who is he? We eventually learn his name--Yukio--but not much else.) They get off at his stop.

Once established in his hotel, Shimamura calls for a geisha. The maid in the hotel says that due to various parties in town, none of the town's geishas are available but that there is a part-time geisha who might be available. The introduction (by the translator Edward Seidenstecker) tells me geishas in small resort towns work more generally as prostitutes than even geishas in the city. The part-time geisha is Komako; Shimamura is interested in her, but not at first to sleep with her, because she seems too pure to be a geisha in that sense.

A relationship develops between the two of them. We see at least two examples of geishas who found rich patrons who were going to set the girls up for life; both examples fail, but no doubt Komako has hopes.

Shimamura comes and goes between this resort town and his urban home. Komako is eager and hopeful for his returns. We eventually learn, perhaps unsurprisingly, Shimamura has a wife in town.

Shimamura eventually learns of the existence of a former triangle of some sort between Komako, Yoko, and Yukio; he never learns the exact nature of it, and we don't either. Yukio eventually dies of tuberculosis; Komako feigns to not care, but we don't believe her. Shimamura is also attracted to Yoko, making Komako and Yoko (possibly) doubly rivals.

The ending is especially ambiguous; there's a fire, but we're not meant to know what happens to the principals, so I can't tell you...

I think if I had more experience with Japanese novels and culture, I could probably read between the lines a bit better, but I am quite convinced (and the introduction assures me I am not wrong) that the novel is meant to be mysterious. It is, quite successfully, I think. How well can you ever know somebody else? And yet I definitely feel that these people are there, that they have their mysteries they aren't telling and may not know themselves.

Most of Snow Country appeared in serialized form in the 1930s; a final section was added in 1947 and it appeared then in book form. Kawabata went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1968.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Two Novellas by Arthur Schnitzler

Late Fame

In Late Fame, Eduard Saxberger is an unmarried civil servant in Vienna; he's approaching seventy. His life is quiet, but he has a few friends he meets regularly at his favorite restaurant.

But forty years ago he published a book of poetry The Wanderers which sank without notice; but in the 1890s, young poet Wolfgang Meier finds the book again, loves it, hunts down the aging Saxberger, and draws him into his circle of young literati. Late Fame has come to Saxberger.

At first it's nice. None of his restaurant regular friends knew he once had aspirations to poetry; he scarcely believed it himself anymore, but now Meier and his circle are telling him he's inspirational. Fräulein Gasteiner, the actress in the group, flirts with him, and the circle organize a reading and wouldn't he write something new to be the star of the evening?

Of an earlier draft, Schnitzler wrote in his diary, "...end not sad enough." You'll have to see if you think the end is now sad enough, but it's not as sad as it possibly could be, and there's definitely humor in the middle parts.

The younger characters in the novella in the novella are partly caricatures of the Jung-Wien group of the 1890s in Vienna, of which Schnitzler himself was a young member. But the novella's artists are a little more hapless than the Jung-Wien group, which did have some notable successes among its members: Schnitzler himself as well as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and (for a while) Karl Kraus.

The novella was written at the time it was set for a weekly magazine Die Zeit (not connected as far as I can tell to the current German newspaper) but it was deemed too long for that and so it never appeared while Schnitzler was alive. His papers were rescued with the help of the British embassy in the aftermath of Anschluss; otherwise it would have been lost. It came out in English in 2015 and is translated by Alexander Starritt with an afterword.

Fräulein Else

Else is a nineteen-year-old girl staying a vacation spot in the Italian Alps; she's chaperoned by an aunt and her cousin is also present, but her parents are at home in Vienna. A nice life, right? Well, not entirely.

A letter arrives from her mother--written at the instigation of her father--asking Else to ask Herr von Dorsday for money. The situation is desperate; her father, a society lawyer, has been caught pilfering from a trust he administers in order to feed his gambling habit; if the money isn't restored in a few days, he'll be taken up for embezzlement, which means dishonorable jail or an honorable-ish suicide. Hours later a telegram comes from her father saying even more money is needed.

Herr von Dorsday is ostensibly a friend of her father, if her father still has any friends; his gambling compulsion and consequent need to sponge is well-known in Viennese society. And worse, what everyone knows, including both Else and her father, is that Herr von Dorsday is an old roué, who can't keep his hands off the girls. Does her father want Else to ask because it's an emergency and the personal touch is better? Or does he figure the 'personal touch' is better and it's Else who will be touched?

The novel is told in stream of consciousness--Else's--and it follows every twist and turn of her thought throughout this impossible situation she's been thrown into. I found it very convincing, but also very painful. So, though it's impressive, you might want to be sure to save it for a moment you can bear to read such a thing. It is timely, though, as Harvey Weinstein (hopefully!) is going off to jail.

The novella came out in German in 1924. My copy is from Pushkin Press and is translated by F. H. Lyon.

Collected Arthur Schnitzler on the blog.

Unsettled times. Keep well!

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra

"The peculiar charm of this old dreamy palace is its power of calling up vague reveries and picturings of the past,..."

Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra (1832) relies upon the power and charm of the Alhambra to work its magic. Though no doubt Irving worked on those reveries for a while himself.

In 1829, Irving, already a professional writer, traveled to Spain, and in particular to Granada, where he had arranged to live in the Alhambra. Though he had originally intended to stay longer, he was only there six months before he was drafted into taking on the secretary role at the American embassy in London. But he gathered enough material in those six months to write this book.

It's structured as a travel or guide book, and it begins with his crossing the lonely mountains north of Granada and worrying about bandits. He arrives in Granada, establishes himself in the Alhambra, and hires Mateo as his guide/valet. He looks around the Alhambra and describes its various features, famous towers and halls, and here it functions particularly like a guide book.

But the truly fun part is the embedded tales, unsurprising from the man who brought us Rip van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Irving knew Spanish and ten years later he was the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, and he presents these tales as picked up in conversation, quite often from Mateo. They're Romantic--Irving was influenced by Sir Walter Scott--but have an ironic humor to them that lightens the romanticizing. There's the tale of the three Moorish princesses in the Tower of Princesses, or the Two Discreet Statues that indicate (to those who know) where (one of the) buried Moorish treasures are. My favorite story was the longest, the story of Ahmed the Perfect, or the Pilgrim of Love. Ahmed is a Moorish prince, and the prophecies say he will live long and happily in a happy realm if only his father can keep him from thinking about love until after his teen years are done. Well, we know how that will go, don't we? (Or do we?)

His prose is a little fulsome, with more adjectives than it needs (see above) but also is also capable of amusing ironies like this, "Mohammed the Left-handed was acknowledged to be a wise king by his courtiers and was certainly so considered by himself." He's also, especially for a New England Protestant of that period, surprisingly tolerant of Catholicism and even of Islam.

Anyway, quite a fun book and a better read than I thought it was going to be. My edition is printed in Spain, in Granada in fact, and has an introduction by R. Villa-Real, though I bought it in Chicago. Mr. Royal House is almost too appropriate as the author of an introduction to a book on the Alhambra. It also comes with colored engravings from the 19th century of the Alhambra that are an amusing accompaniment.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Poem For A Thursday (#Dewithon20 edition)


Job Davies, eighty-five
Winters old, and still alive
After the slow poison
And treachery of the seasons.
Miserable? Kick my arse!
It needs more than the rain's hearse,
Wind-drawn, to pull me off
The great perch of my laugh.
What's living but courage?
Paunch full of hot porridge,
Nerves strengthened with tea,
Peat-black, dawn found me 
Mowing where the grass grew,
Bearded with golden dew.
Rhythm of the long scythe
Kept this tall frame lithe. 
What to do? Stay green.
Never mind the machine,
Whose fuel is human souls.
Live large, man, and dream small.
-R. S. Thomas 

"Grumpy old clergyman, sour old sod," is the description of Thomas at this link from the Guardian, but the author also made Thomas' Collected Poetry one of his ten best Welsh books. 'Lore' is from his 1961 book Tares. Here's another of my favorite Thomas poems.

I got that Guardian link from Paula's organizing post for her Welsh readalong Dewithon, which is full of other great resources.

Jennifer is featuring a poem by Kim Addonizio this week.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Kate Briggs' This Little Art (#Fitzcarraldo Fortnight)

Well, I've got a couple of hours to squeeze in one last book for Kaggsy's and Lizzy's Fitzcarraldo Fortnight, but I can't dilly-dally...

This Little Art by Kate Briggs is an essay/meditation on the translation of works from one language to another. Briggs herself is the translator of two of Barthes' late lectures from French to English and she brings that experience to bear, but she also looks at other translators, in particular Helen Lowe-Porter (the person responsible for originally translating most of Thomas Mann into English) and Dorothy Bussy (who was André Gide's first translator into English.) And, in fact, the title of her book comes from an off-hand, possibly meant as disparaging, comment by Lowe-Porter about her own work.

Lowe-Porter has taken a bit of a beating over the years, and Briggs is supportive of her work and gives reasonable indulgence to Lowe-Porter's method and the possibility of errors. She's even better, I thought, on the complicated, but loving, relationship between Bussy and Gide, which comes across as touching in Briggs' telling.

For me, one of the most interesting suggestions in the book is Briggs' notion that the translator/artist has a sense of recreating the original work, adopting it as one's own, pushing it almost into the area of original creation.
"All books are made from other books and so, in their way, all books are translations in one way or another." (p.138)
She cites an essay by Elena Ferrante with an interesting example about Ferrante's reading of Madame Bovary and wanting to write a story in Italian that could the very sentence Ferrante found in Flaubert. She doesn't cite, but could, something like Zadie Smith's retelling of Howards End as On Beauty. Is that a translation? Well it is a carrying-across (the Latin root of the word) of a story on class relations, on the relations between art and commerce, from 1900 to 2000. From a white England to a multiracial United States.  It's a fascinating idea and Briggs pushes it hard, but is careful not to push it farther than it should go.

The other thing that definitely needs to be remarked is the prose, and here, I'm afraid, I was less taken with the book. I wrote 'essay/meditation' above with deliberation: Briggs has a way of meditatively circling around an idea without ever quite lighting upon it. Some of this may come from Barthes, whom I scarcely know (and haven't read the works Briggs translated.) Sometimes it may be to remind of the way a translator works, trying out different words before settling on the preferred one. But some of it I just found maddeningly repetitive. Robinson Crusoe's table! I love Robinson Crusoe. But I will not be able to reread Defoe for quite a long time into the future without thinking, "Robinson Crusoe needs a table...He wanted a table because it was wanting." (p.237) And yes, I did definitely elide there.

Ah, well. Still a fascinating read.

In Googling for an image of the cover, I saw that Benjamin Moser reviewed the book for the New York Times. Moser himself is sometimes a controversial figure, but he cares about translation and is responsible for our most recent versions of Clarice Lispector. (As translator, but also as general editor.) But he fundamentally misread this book, I'm afraid. He sees Briggs as advocating some sort of translatorial relativism, as if all translations are equally good. No. "Translation cannot dispense with...the effort to get it right." (p.140) Now maybe Briggs' way of talking around an issue and seeing all sides made it a bit more difficult to see what she was saying, but, heck, I got it, and I felt Moser was just phoning it in, working out some issues he'd been irritated about in the past. Bah.

And that leaves me with no unread Fitzcarraldo Editions books! I may very well have to do something about that...

Thanks to Kaggsy and Lizzy for the great idea and for hosting!

Friday, February 28, 2020

The Indian Vampire Story

A few weeks ago I read Phillip Ernest's novel The Far Himalaya and enjoyed it. That led me to read his first novel The Vetala, even though I would have said from the description it's not my kind of thing. I think it's even better, and very good indeed.

I haven't read much vampire literature--Dracula fairly recently and one Anne Rice novel years ago--and I generally steer clear of the films, so I don't particularly know, but this strikes me as fairly innovative. And even if I'm wrong, and it's not innovative in the world of vampires, I think it's still a very good story.

That story takes place mostly in India, and Nada Marjonivic, a Sanskrit scholar, is studying a seven-hundred-year-old book, the Amrutajijnasa, or the Inquiry into the Undead. Just from the translation of that title you may suspect how her investigation is going to go, and, of course, you're partly right. But there are complications.

Dr. Marjonivic has just returned to India from her European university to study what she believes is the only existing copy of the book; her elderly mentor and fellow Sanskrit scholar has just died and she will now be in charge of the study and of the manuscript itself.

Vetala is a Sanskrit word and vetalas are actual undead figures in Indian lore, though the manuscript Inquiry into the Undead is a creation for the novel. Dr. Marjonivic has experience of these Indian undead in the past; now in her mid-40s, her boyfriend twenty years before was killed by one. The Inquiry is not just an inquiry; it also indicates, though imperfectly, how to lay one to rest. The titular vetala of the novel became one at the time the Inquiry was written, and has carried on, wreaking havoc, for those seven hundred years.

I thought the novel made very good use of its Indian setting. Hindu reincarnation complicates the more familiar Western version of the vampire; an episode from the Mahabharata influences the choices the characters make; the multilingual nature of Indian society is important; the countryside, with its temples, are where the events take place.

The reader gradually comes to understand the emotional tangle that accompanies the more spectacular supernatural events.

Very enjoyable.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Poem For A Thursday

General Summary

We are very slightly changed
From the semi-apes who ranged
  India's prehistoric clay;
He that drew the longest bow
Ran his brother down, you know,
  As we run men down to-day.
'Dowb,' the first of all his race,
Met the mammoth face to face
  On the lake or in the cave:
Stole the steadiest canoe,
Ate the quarry others slew,
  Died--and took the finest grave. 
When they scratched the reindeer-bone,
Some one made the sketch his own,
  Filched it from the artist--then
Even in those early days,
Won a simple Viceroy's praise
  Through the toil of other men.
Ere they hewed the Sphinx's visage
Favouritism governed kissage,
  Even as it does in this age. 
Who shall doubt 'the secret hid
Under Cheops' pyramid'
Was that the contractor did
  Cheops out of several millions?
Or that Joseph's sudden rise
To Comptroller of Supplies
Was a fraud of monstrous size
  On King Pharaoh's swart civilians? 
Thus, the artless songs I sing
Do not deal with anything
  New or never said before.
As it was in the beginning
Is to-day official sinning,
  And shall be for evermore!
-Rudyard Kipling

This is the lead poem in Kipling's first published collection, Departmental Ditties of 1886.

Jennifer is back in town and has a poem this week she brought back with. Yay!

Monday, February 24, 2020

Call Me Ishmael

"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.
It is geography at bottom, a hell of a wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story (Parkman's): exploration." 

Charles Olson was born in Massachusetts in 1910 and grew up there. He attended Wesleyan, Yale, and finally worked on a Ph.D. at Harvard in American Studies. In 1939 he won a Guggenheim grant to study Melville. Call Me Ishmael was the result. After various war-related jobs, and a stint working for the Democratic party and FDR's re-election in 1944, the book came out in 1947. Though he had academic qualifications, as the quote above might show, it's not exactly an academic book.

Olson might have seen SPACE as the crucial American quality because he occupied a lot of it: he was 6'8" tall.

The book has a certain oracular quality to it:
"I am interested in a Melville who decided sometime in 1850 to write a book about the whaling industry and what happened to a man in command of one of the most successful machines Americans had perfected up to that time--the whaleship. 
This captain, Ahab by name, knew space. He rode it across the seven seas. He was an able skipper, what the fishing people I was raised with call a highliner. Big catches: he brought back holds barrel full of oil of the sperm, the light of American and European communities up until the 19th century. 
This Ahab had gone wild. The object of his attention was something unconscionably big and white. He had become a specialist: he had all space concentrated into the form of a whale called Moby-Dick. And he assailed it as Columbus an ocean, La Salle a continent, the Donner Party their winter Pass."
"Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives."
After the publication of Call Me Ishmael, Olson first taught and then later became the rector of Black Mountain College, in the 50s the gathering place of a substantial strand of modern American art: poetry, dance, music, sculpture and other visual arts; Robert Duncan, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly. Olson himself was also a noted poet.

I read the book umpteen years ago and I remembered it more for its oracular quality about the nature of American art--about which I think he's interesting and astute--and I suspect that's what it's read for now. After all my edition is City Lights Books, and not some university press. I was twigged to it by friends interested in the American avant-garde, not by Melville scholars. He's definitely influenced by his era: the Great Depression has led him to think about American art in terms of economics and industry.

But in reading it again, and right after reading Moby-Dick, I have also discovered that he did real work on Melville. The Melville revival--the Moby-Dick revival--is, in 1947, not to mention 1939 when he gets the grant, still quite new. It's not so long since Melville died. Olson has gotten hold, from Melville's granddaughter, of Meville's personal copy of Shakespeare, in six volumes, the one Melville read just before composing Moby-Dick, and there are scribblings in it and Olson builds arguments around them. He's seen Melville's copy of Don Quixote, which Melville read in 1856 and has other scribblings, and Olson has things to say about that.

Olson has also read around in the history of the whaling industry and is full of fascinating facts: whaling was the third largest source of export goods for the US in the 1840s; of 900 whaling ships world wide in 1846, 735 were American; the Essex, the ship destroyed by a whale and model for the Pequod, set sail on its fatal voyage in 1819, the year of Melville's birth; of the eight survivors from the voyage of the Essex, at least five went on to become captains of their own ship.

It's fascinating, short, (120 pages) and very highly recommended.

Actual facts about Olson come from Robert Creeley's introduction to Olson's Selected Writings, which I also pulled off the shelf to look at.

One more book for Brona's Moby-Dick readalong!

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Two by Brian Dillon (#FitzcarraldoFortnight)

I first read Brian Dillon's Essayism (2017) just under two years ago. I didn't blog about it, but I did feel it was one of the best things I read that year. So when I saw In The Dark Room late last year, I picked it up. I read it this week and then reread Essayism.

In The Dark Room (2005) is Dillon's first book, and the Fitzcarraldo Edition is a reprint with an introduction by Frances Wilson.
"...a reflection on memory might also be a reflection on my memory..."
-p. 235

That quote is a bit of an aside in context, but gives a strong sense of the way the book (I suspect) came into being for Dillon. He had a sad and (what has fortunately, in the West at least, become) a rare childhood: he was orphaned at twenty. His mother died when he was fifteen after a long bout with a painful disease, scleroderma; she was also afflicted by depression. Then his father died of a heart attack five years later. So when he started thinking about memory as a topic, it's understandable he might not want to include an examination of his own. But what memories do any of us have more readily available to examine?

So he centers his study of memory around his memories of his own childhood, and of his parents. There are five organizing areas in the book, hooks that memory often gets hung on: the house he grew up in, the things that survived his parents, photographs of his parents, their actual bodies, and revisiting the places associated with his childhood. What does it mean to look at a photograph of one's parents together before one was conceived? What can you say about them, though knowing them well, but not in that moment?

Dillon is forthright about his own battles with depression, and 'The Dark Room' alludes more to that than to the process of making photographs. He writes with deep reference to other literary investigations of memory, with Augustine's Confessions and Proust being particularly important, but also Joe Brainard's I Remember, Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, Virginia Woolf, Sebald. A fascinating investigation.

Then I went back to Essayism. Dillon takes the word from Musil's The Man Without Qualities. The title of chapter 62, in the Sophie Wilkins translation, reads:

I remembered Essayism as a wonderfully insightful book about the glories of reading essays, sometimes (and especially for Dillon) a melancholic pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. And it is very good on a number of essayists. When I first read it, I was so overwhelmed by his (judicious, but real) praise for Palinurus' (Cyril Connolly's) impossible masterpiece The Unquiet Grave I immediately went and reread that. He was equally good, I thought, on Sontag, on Sir Thomas Browne, on Elizabeth Hardwick, on Montaigne. Less time was spent--but still it was quality time-- with Didion, Benjamin, Barthes, Cioran, Gass. For instance he says of first volume of Sontag's diary, (from when she was a teenager and in her early twenties) that it is 'quite endearing in its pretension.' Which is exactly what I thought when I read it, though without the wit to phrase it so well. He was so good I wished he'd told me about essayists I already loved, Hazlitt in particular.

I remembered from that first reading there was an autobiographical component as well, but it was only in reading it immediately after In The Dark Room that I realized how important that was to its conception. That old black dog had been hanging around again and Dillon needed to work. For Dillon, essayism, to essay, to look closely at things and write about them, is a crucial part of maintaining who we are. Good thoughts for a blogger.

I think both of these are very good. Essayism is a little more outward-looking, and I prefer it, probably for that reason, but In The Dark Room is also very good, and especially if your tastes run more to autobiography or memoir.

I also have a copy of This Little Art by Kate Briggs and I'm hoping to read it this week. I earlier read Flights and actually as a Fitzcarraldo book; it was later released by Riverhead (Penguin) and the Fitzcarraldo isn't distributed here anymore. I liked it, but it did occasionally make me squeamish, I admit. I very much liked Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of Dead, but read that in the Riverhead hardback and didn't blog about it.

Thanks to Kaggsy for the great idea of hosting this!

Side note: I'm forever fascinated by the vagaries of my spellchecker. Didion and Barthes are famous enough that my spellchecker approves. Cioran and Gass, enh, not so much. I think of Palinurus as a pretty important character in the Aeneid, as well as being Cyril Connolly's pseudonym, but that's not good enough. Aeneas himself checks out OK, unsurprisingly. Anchises yes, but Achates, however faithful he might have been, no.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Poem For A Thursday

The Seasons
They whom their mothers bare through Summer heat,
Are boys of Autumn, and a fruit complete. 
They whom their mothers bare through April rain,
Are new as April, and as April vain. 
They whom their mothers in dark Winters bare,
Wake to a barren world, and straight despair. 
But they that hold through Winter to the Spring
Despair as I do, and, as I do, sing.
-Hilaire Belloc

I'm a spring baby myself, though early spring. Might have been closer to that season of 'dark Winters' in my more northerly climate. 

This comes from my commonplace book of years ago. My handwriting has only deteriorated since then. I no longer have any idea where I first came across this poem, but in Googling to check the text it seems to show up in the Internet Archive's version of the second edition of Belloc's Sonnets and Verse(1938) but it doesn't show up in the earlier version of that book at Project Gutenberg. According to the Internet Archive, the capitalization should be as I've typed it, not as I've written it.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Outline for a long post on Moby-Dick

"And so here, O Reader, has the time come for us two to part. Toilsome was our journeying together; not without offence; but it is done...Yet our relation was a kind of sacred one; doubt not that!...Ill stands it with me if I have spoken falsely; thine also it was to hear truly. Farewell."

Humpty and Herman sitting around with some poetry in the background.
Shakespeare is above and to the right. Milton further above and to the left.
Quoting Carlyle (from the very end of The French Revolution) may seem a little odd in thinking about Moby-Dick, but that peroratio comes to mind for me pretty much every time I finish a long and difficult book.

So what are the things that occurred to me on this, my second complete reading of Moby-Dick?

Funny: It really is funny in the beginning. First, Ishmael's voice is comic. He's going to knock the hats off people if he doesn't cut loose in some other way. Then he gets cozened into sleeping with a cannibal. Bildad and Peleg are the Mutt and Jeff of ship-owners.

Three Parts: The novel comes in three parts. There is a little intermingling of the parts here and there, but basically they are separate. The first is everything up till they lose sight of shore and Ahab appears. This is the funny part. We learn about Ishmael, we like him. We learn about some of the other crew members as well, Queequeg in particular. Queequeg, of course, is simply a funny name.

The second part is reportorial/scientific. It's the longest. We learn about whales and the process of whaling. This is the part that bores people now, and I believe where I punted on my first attempt (in high school) to read Moby-Dick. But it is interesting, if less so than the rest. Reading Delbanco's biography earlier informed me to some degree the reportorial was the reason people read Melville's earlier, more successful books. Curiosity about a subject is definitely a reason to read novels, as well as non-fiction.

The third part is the symbolically-loaded tragic ending. I'm not going to do a plot summary. You know how it ends. It is both exciting and affecting, in a tragic flaw kind of way.

Epic Similes: I could have been reading the Iliad. I mean, really, I could have.
"As in the hurricane that sweeps the plain, men fly the neighborhood of some lone, gigantic elm, whose very height and strength but render it so much the more unsafe, because so much the more a mark for thunderbolts; so at those last words of Ahab's many of the mariners did run from him in a terror of dismay."  -Chapter 119
"The ship tore on; leaving such a furrow in the sea as when a cannon-ball, missent, becomes a plough-share and turns up the level field." -Chapter 134
Homer's got nothing on this dude.

Language: Which brings me to language. Nearing the end of my reading I made a list of roughly contemporary novels. (Moby-Dick comes out in 1851.)
David Copperfield, 1849-50
Wuthering Heights, 1847
Jane Eyre, 1847
Villette, 1853
Vanity Fair, 1848
Scarlet Letter, 1850
The language in Moby-Dick doesn't sound like any of those to me, though I didn't go back and look. Not even Wuthering Heights or Scarlet Letter. It's weirdly out of its time. The Delbanco biography said that Melville had ordered up Shakespeare, Milton, and Sir Thomas Browne from his bookseller before he started writing Moby-Dick in earnest, and Melville is clearly channelling a language already around two hundred years old for him. Quite successfully, I'd say. But also: Carlyle. Sartor-Resartus comes out in book form in 1836, and Melville could have read that as well as The French Revolution (quoted above) and On Heroes and Hero-Worship. I have no idea if Melville did read Carlyle, but Carlyle is famous (so it's likely enough) and he's the one roughly contemporary author whose language sounds to me something like Melville's. It may just be that both of them were absorbing Burton and Browne, though.

Macbeth: As long as we're thinking about those Shakespearean precursors, I've seen mention of King Lear. Well, of course. But not Macbeth. But just as Macbeth had two pledges he would not die, so does Ahab. But Birnam Wood did come to Dunsinane, and a man not of woman born showed at the just the wrong moment for Macbeth. So, too, does the Parsee go before Ahab, but appear again; and so, too, does Ahab die by hemp, though in the middle of the ocean.

Quotes: I haven't been issuing quotes from my reading as I went along (though thanks! to Brona and Rick and Denise and Laurie for some great ones.) But I couldn't resist a few myself, even though they're likely enough to be duplicates now...
"It is not down in any map; true places never are." - Chapter 12
"Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth--" -Chapter 29 (Oh, that Stubb. Another comic.)
"God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught--nay but the draught of a draught." - Chapter 32 (What, was he reading Pessoa, too?)
"For what he ate did not so much relieve his hunger, as keep it immortal within him." - Chapter 33 (Flask sounds a bit like myself as a teenager.)
"I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing." - Chapter 39 (Another fine Stubb-ism.)
"To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all the tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order." - Chapter 46
"Thou should'st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens hate ye, that thou can'st not go mad?" - Chapter 113
"There is no steady unretracing progress in this life;" - Chapter 114 
Some Critics: A couple of years ago I read Lawrence Buell's The Dream of The Great American Novel. I got it back from the library recently, and though I didn't reread the whole book, I looked at the Moby-Dick part; he lumps Moby-Dick with Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as one of four approaches to the Great American Novel; these three are under the heading 'Imagined Communities.' (The other approaches are: up-from narratives, examinations of race, and The Scarlet Letter, which he puts in its own category.) I recommend the Buell if you're interested in the subject.

I'm also likely to try to read Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael by the end of the month, and maybe (maybe!) D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature. Here are the other posts of mine mostly relating to critical work on Moby-Dick and Melville.

One Amusing Fact: Starbucks, the coffee chain, was named for Moby-Dick's Starbuck, but only after Howard Schultz convinced Gordon Bowker, "No one's going to drink a cup of Pequod!" True that, Howie. (At least according to Schultz' own book , co-written with Dori Jones Yang, about Starbucks and titled Pour Your Heart Into It, quoted in Buell.)

And: you know, Moby-Dick really is something great.

Thanks to Brona for organizing the readalong!

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Poem For A Thursday

On A Fly Drinking From My Cup

Busy, curious, thirsty fly!
Drink with me and drink as I:
Freely welcome to my cup,
Couldst thou sip and sip it up:
Make the most of life you may,
Life is short and wears away. 
Both alike are mine and thine
Hastening quick to their decline:
Thine's a summer, mine's no more,
Though repeated to threescore.
Threescore summers, when they're gone,
Will appear as short as one.

-William Oldys

I'm kind of hoping for something north of four score myself, but William Oldys (1696-1761) beat his projected three score by only a little. The numbers may be up in the air, but the sentiment applies whatever the numbers.

This is considered a classic example of English anacreontics. Which has nothing much to do metrically with the actual Greek poet Anacreon. The English anacreontic is a seven-syllable line beginning with an accented syllable. Anacreon wrote poems in an eight-syllable line, and his metrics didn't even care about accents.

On the other hand, both the authors of English anacreontics and Anacreon himself wrote poems about drinking. Though you wouldn't necessarily know it from the text, I suspect that cup is likely to hold wine...

Jennifer shared a great Yeats poem this week.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Joan Flood's Left Unsaid (#CanBookChallenge)

Left Unsaid is the story of Delia Buckley, a Catholic Irish woman born in the late 1940s. The story is mostly set in Kiltilly, what I assume is a made-up village, near to Limerick, in Ireland. The novel occurs in two times:

In 1967, Delia has an affair with Daniel Wolfe, married, twenty years older, a famous author, Protestant, and owner of the village's Big House. She gets pregnant, thinks maybe he'll leave his wife for her, but, of course, she's wrong.

More of the novel occurs in 1990. Daniel Wolfe is now widowed and recently diagnosed with terminal cancer; Delia Buckley is an established nurse specializing in end-of-life care. Daniel offers to hire her--at well above her usual rate--to look after him until the end. He's presumably feeling guilty, and she's wary of the tangle, but she needs the money: her sister is institutionalized and her aging parents' farm is mortgaged to the hilt.

The novel starts with a bang, and it ends well, too, with a satisfying amount of surprise and resolution. There was a point in the middle, though, where I was a little less happy. With a title like Left Unsaid and the backstory outlined above, we expect some secrets. Quite unsurprisingly Delia didn't get the abortion Daniel gave her the check for in 1968. Ah, but where's the child? was a question we were clearly meant to ask.

But there were too many secrets. (So very many secrets!) This led to some portentous prose in the middle whose double-meaning irony I admit to not quite seeing through, but was too obviously there. "Surely she'd understand that if her mother felt the need to stay away from the family all those years there was a good reason for it." "Your mother kept things from you for a good reason, I'm sure." There were a few too many statements along those lines.

Ah, well. I still enjoyed it. The prose is clear and straightforward, with a pleasant acknowledgment of Irish dialect. (For example, streelish--a word I didn't know and which I see my spell-checker disapproves of, but is easily Google-able.)

Left Unsaid came out with Signature Editions in 2017. Part of my process of poking around in Canadian small presses. Joan B. Flood is a Canadian who emigrated from Ireland. She's written an earlier YA novel, plus some shorter works, none of which I've read.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Poem For A Thursday: Cardinal Wolsey

So farewell to the little good you bear me.
Farewell! a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man, to-day he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes; to-morrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost;
And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventur'd,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of glory,
But far beyond my depth: my high-blown pride
At length broke under me, and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream, that must forever hide me.
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye:
I feel my heart new open'd. O! how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes' favours.
There is, betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have;
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again.
This is a soliloquy by Cardinal Wolsey from Henry VIII. Wolsey, has just been fired from his job as Lord Chancellor, because Wolsey was unable to secure a papal annulment of the marriage between Henry and his first wife, Katharine of Aragon. Ahem. Henry usually didn't just fire people, and Wolsey is on the run for what he fears is his life.

Henry VIII is a late play in the Shakespearean corpus, probably not entirely written by Shakespeare, but with the help of John Fletcher. If you look, you'll note a lot of the lines are eleven-syllable, ending with an unaccented syllable. This is supposed to be characteristic of Fletcher. But nevertheless an annotated edition I read once said this had to be written by Shakespeare, it was too good to be written by Fletcher. Poor Fletcher, maybe he had a good day, and still it was discounted...

Well, be it Fletcher or Shakespeare, this is one of my favorite soliloquies, and from a play not often read or performed. I bring it out now for all you who are (re)-reading Hilary Mantel in preparation for the drop of the final part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy this spring. I haven't started rereading myself, but I'm planning on it.

'Mercy/of a rude stream' served Henry Roth as the title of his magnum opus.

Jennifer has a powerful Tony Harrison poem this week.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Henry James' The American

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
Hunh. You caught me. That's actually Jane Austen and not Henry James at all. But one of the people in that universe of truth-acknowledgers is Christopher Newman, the titular American of Henry James' novel. He's got a fortune and he wants a wife.

That's not the only thing he's up to, of course. He's in Paris to civilize himself and marriage, he figures, is part of the civilizing process, along with learning to eat with a fork.

We first meet Newman in the Louvre, a suitably civilized place, in 1868, where he's trying to educate himself about art. Newman is pretty clearly meant to be the best type of American: though he was forced to go to work at fifteen and forgo any advanced education, he's interested in culture and recognizes the value of higher things. But when he worked, his labors were rewarded:
"Made your everlasting fortune?"
Christopher Newman was silent for a moment, and then, with a tranquil smile, he answered: "Yes."
As a consequence Newman can go to Paris and cheerfully gallivant around Europe in search of culture. And he wants to. Because the process of acquiring wealth hasn't coarsened him.

Soon after Newman arrives in Paris, he meets an old acquaintance, Tom Tristram. Tristram is quite the contrast, 'a great gossip and tattler...' [whose] '...only aspirations were to hold out at poker, at his club, to know the names of all the cocottes...' But then he meets Tristam's wife, who is more cultured than her husband, and it's through her the main thread of the plot begins. He tells her:
"Since you ask me," said Newman, "I will say frankly that I want to marry. It is time, to begin with; before I know it, I shall be forty."
Lizzie Tristram suggests the most eligible woman in Paris is Madame de Cintré, a widow at twenty-five, a daughter of the aristocratic de Bellegarde family. She arranges the two of them meet, Newman is convinced, and the plot is set in motion.

Over the course of the novel, we learn some backstory about Newman. He's ironic and deprecating about the sources of his wealth: did well with washtubs, not so well in leather, 'successful in copper, only so-so in railroads, and a hopeless fizzle in oil," he tells us. He fought for the Union during the Civil War (Tristram steered clear) and rose to the rank of Brigadier-General. The most telling episode of his wealth-acquisition comes early in the novel when he's talking to Tom Tristram: he had the opportunity to pull off a coup and deprive an avowed enemy of $60,000; in the end he decides vengeance wasn't worth it, and as for the money, it wasn't that much. (Though Tristram says he wouldn't have forgone it.)

Newman's naiveté in the face of European customs is also well-portrayed. In the very first chapter at the Louvre, he meets Mademoiselle de Noémie, and makes the acquaintance of her father, who will go on to give him French lessons. She is in the Louvre, apparently an art student, copying one of the masterpieces; Newman is taken with quality of the painting and buys it on the spot, commissioning her to paint more for his soon-to-be established private collection. Newman thinks it good, and we do, too, as far as we can tell; but it soon appears that de Noémie is not a very good painter, and is, in fact, one of those Parisian cocottes.

Newman goes on to befriend Valentin de Bellegarde, Madame de Cintré's younger brother. He, too, tells Newman his sister is a worthy catch. But the other members of the de Bellegarde family are less certain about this rich, but not aristocratic, American.

So this is our hero: hard-working, curious, willing to learn, honorable, naive. A good American. Does he marry Madame de Cintré? Should he want to? Well, you'll just have to find out...

The American (1877) is early Henry James. If you're one of those people who goes around in terror of late Henry James (Reese raises a hand here...) this is not one of those: it's really quite readable. I felt the ending a little unnecessarily melodramatic, so it doesn't replace Washington Square as my favorite early Henry James, but it's a very good entry. Recommended.

A book off my Classics Club list...

Also the novel is set almost entirely in Paris; James had moved to Paris' Quartier Latin in 1875. I'm using it for my France book for Gilion's European Reading Challenge

Friday, January 31, 2020

Virginia Woolf's A Room Of One's Own (#CCSpin)

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by A Room Of One's Own. Though I hadn't read it before I sort of thought I knew all about it. (To an ancient Greek, this is called hubris.) What I thought (in advance): In order for a woman (or anyone, really, but women were very much less likely to have it) to become a writer five hundred pounds a year and a room of one's own was needed.

And the essay does make that argument, it's true. But it still surprised me, stylistically I guess. I'm not that well-read in Woolf by any means. But the novels I've read--To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando--are complex, difficult in their language, and deep. Her essays--I've read the Common Reader series--on the other hand, are leaner in their language, full of sparking ideas, and deep. I don't know, I expected this to be like the Common Reader series. But it was neither one nor the other--neither fiction nor essay--exactly.

The initial occasion for the essay was a two-night talk on the subject 'Women and Fiction' Virginia Woolf gave at two women's colleges at Cambridge in October of 1928. She then rewrote the talks as a single essay which was published, in both the U.K. and the U.S. a year later, and is the text in this volume. But she refers several times in the printed essay to the occasion of the talks and starts her essay by saying what her hosts and audience likely mean by 'Women and Fiction' is not what she will address.

What surprised me was the almost fanciful, the fictional, aspect of her essay. The introduction appropriately quotes Woolf herself from The Pargiters, "I prefer, where truth is important, to write fiction." And so she does here. Woolf supposes a sister of William Shakespeare named Judith, equally talented, and how her purported career as a writer would go. (Short answer: not well.) The essay more stops and starts, circles around its argument with its fictional conceit, and demonstrates more by example than by any close-reasoned progression. I'd say it was closer to Orlando, than to anything in the Common Reader volumes. In short, the truth here is important, and she is writing fiction.

My edition (shown above next to Hubert) is the Penguin, and also includes Three Guineas, which I haven't read. It contains a pretty good, though not brilliant, introduction by Michèle Barrett.

Two other things I did notice: Woolf writes at one point, apropos of the British Library catalog: "Why are women, judging from this catalogue, so much more interesting to men than men are to women?" I hate to argue with Virginia Woolf, and I certainly know nothing about the state of the British Library catalog in 1928, but I doubt that's really true. Her basic point, that men want to control women in that time, (we'll ignore for now whether anything's changed or not) I don't doubt: but that's (alas) not the same thing as really wanting to know anything about them. I think she's confusing two different activities here. At some point I might write about men writing about women in fiction, contrasting that with women writing about men. It's a thing I've been thinking about.

The other is that Barrett includes a footnote explaining the name Coleridge: "Coleridge: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), poet and essayist." Really, I thought? A reader of Virginia Woolf will need to be told such basic information about Coleridge? There is no "Shakespeare: William Shakespeare (1564-1616), poet and playwright." But then I decided Barrett was probably right. These days I can imagine this book assigned to incoming college students--possibly high school students--students so young they don't yet even know who Coleridge is. What would Virginia Woolf herself have thought about this turn of events? I have to imagine she would be shocked Coleridge was no longer a household name, and she herself was read first. So: maybe the world has changed.

This was my book for the Classics Club spin #22. I finished the book a couple of weeks ago, but between traveling to California and just generally being slothful, here I am writing this post at the last possible minute...

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Poem For A Thursday: Seth

All You Who Sleep Tonight

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right,
And emptiness above-- 
Know that you aren't alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.
-Vikram Seth 

This is the title poem from Vikram Seth's poetry collection of 1990.

I don't know about you, but I'm eagerly awaiting his A Suitable Girl, which keeps getting promised to us and keeps not arriving. I suspect it's perfectionism on his part that is holding him back. Vik! I'm sure it's very good! Let us have it!

On the other hand is it perfectionism that's kept me from completing my post on my current spin book? (Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.) In my case, it's probably just laziness...

Jennifer (the founder of Poem for a Thursday) is featuring U. A. Fanthorpe this week. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

Jim Nason's Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals (#CanBookChallenge)

Jim Nason's Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals came out from Signature Editions in 2017. It's the story of Skye Vannan and her grandson Duncan Johnson. It covers a great swath of time from 1938, when Skye is just eighteen and deciding on her path in life, to 2011, when Duncan Johnson finds love as his grandmother dies.

Skye Vannan makes for quite a fascinating character. Though not as extreme, she has a bit of the irascibility of Olive Kitteridge. She's born into a wealthy family in Edinburgh, and though she's not a beauty we're told, she could marry well. (As her mother expects her to try--we see how Skye comes by her difficult nature.) Instead she wants to be a veterinarian, still an unusual profession for a woman in Scotland. She marries a Canadian soldier at the end of World War II and moves to rural Ontario (Kincardine) where she becomes the region's vet. Her wealthy family mostly drops her.

Skye's one child, a daughter, dies in a car crash; her daughter's husband, wracked with guilt--he was driving--descends into the alcoholism he was already approaching. Skye is left to raise her two-year old grandson. Duncan shows a preternatural talent for drawing animals.

Can Skye come to terms with her own brusque nature? Can she break the cycle of difficult parents producing difficult children? Those are the questions of the book, and they're well-handled. Though she can't make it work out perfectly in the end, there's a measure of hope for the future with Duncan, though I did feel he was the less interesting character.

The other thing particularly to be said about the book is Jim Nason's astute handling of time. It covers a period of seventy-plus years, and the book moves successfully back and forth in time, revealing as it needs to to move forward, but with mysteries still hidden.

The title, though? It's suitable enough, I guess, with a veterinarian as the main character, and it has particular  reference to the veterinary school in Edinburgh she attends. But not particularly appealing, I thought.

Read because I'm poking around in contemporary Canadian literature from small presses, for the Canadian Book Challenge.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Poem for a Thursday: Dickinson


Our lives are Swiss,--
So still, so cool,
 Till, some odd afternoon,
The Alps neglect their curtains,
 And we look further on. 
Italy stands the other side,
 While, like a guard between,
The solemn Alps
The siren Alps,
 Forever intervene!

-Emily Dickinson

In picking an Emily Dickinson, I wanted to pick one that wasn't one of the better known ones, but was still particularly a favorite of mine. So here it is!

Jennifer has a stirring Robert Service poem, and not the one you know. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Poem For A Thursday: Steele

Jardin des Tuileries
The boy stood weeping in dismay,
Duffle-coated against the cold,
Watching his sailboat bob away
On a pool vast and granite-bowled.
No aid was asked, but seeing him,
I rolled my trousers to my knees
And waded from the basin's rim
To where the boat had sought the breeze 
And, like a giant, lifted her
Up by the mast and centerboard.
Still sniffling, with "Merci, monsieur,"
The boy walked off, his loss restored. 
This happened thirty years ago.
The trees were pollarded and bare,
The benches empty, and light snow
Fell to the powerless parterre. 
For several weeks, I'd launched campaigns
To all the tourist sites I could.
Most I've forgotten. What remains
Is how the boy drew up his hood, 
Cradling his boat in winter light,
While I sat down and bowed to muse
Upon the gravel and draw tight
And tie the laces of my shoes.

-Timothy Steele

Timothy Steele is a contemporary American poet (born 1948) generally given to more formal verse, and associated with the New Formalist movement. This is from his book of 2006 Toward the Winter Solstice.

He is also the dedicatee of Vikram Seth's first novel (in verse) The Golden Gate.

Jennifer is featuring a poem by Willa Cather this week.

I typed this up in advance, but I'm in California currently and should have picked a California poem. However here's a picture of the Jardin des Tuileries from when we were there ten years ago or so. (No
boat-sailing pool, though.)

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Phillip Ernest's The Far Himalaya

Phillip Ernest's The Far Himālaya came out last year from Linda Leith Éditions. It's the story of Ben Doheny, living on the streets in the late 90s near the downtown campus of the University of Toronto.

The novel starts with scenes where Ben, sleeping on campus, is violently harassed by campus police, then later at the Scott Mission, where he is further harassed by his fellow homeless. (The Scott Mission is an actual shelter near to the main University of Toronto campus.) These scenes are painful and, alas, utterly convincing: the author bio tells us that Phillip Ernest lived on the streets of Toronto himself for thirteen years from the age of fifteen.

But it's not (just) a grim and realistic novel of homelessness. Ben is sustained by his love of the Sanskrit language, which gives both him and the novel a view into a larger world. Part of the reason he's drawn to the campus area is the library and the books. He claims to be a graduate student of Sanskrit when he's not, though later he manages to gain some cover from an emeritus professor in the department. He also becomes romantically entangled with Aditi, who is legitimately earning an advanced degree in Sanskrit. Her adviser, Professor Boylan, is the only active member of the department, and he's an utter monster, an abusive drunk, but he does provide the elements of the plot.

Boylan demands Aditi translate the works of classical Sanskrit which Boylan will then publish under his own name; he's so lost to alcohol and drugs he can't manage sustained work any more. Only under these circumstances will he ever--and even then there's uncertainty--approve her thesis. Ben, with his fellow street-dweller Moksha Das, does the translations for Boylan, thus leaving Aditi the time to work on her own thesis. Aditi also has a dark secret in her past that Boylan knows of, and he can, should he wish to, ruin her academic career at any time.

Will Aditi be allowed to finish her thesis and then move on to a career? Will Ben, homeless and still troubled, be able to keep the love of Aditi? The plot moves along with considerable tension to its final resolution.

It was a fascinating novel, set where I live with landmarks I see every day, and full of a cross-section of life I know nothing about. (And, yes, that also means Sanskrit scholars.) I do feel the ending relied overmuch on a deus ex machina character not previously introduced. And, while I have to imagine being homeless implies bodily functions loom much larger than they might otherwise, a little of that goes a long way for me, and there was more than a little here. Still, a very good read.

The Far Himālaya is Ernest's second novel; his first The Vetala (an Indian vampire novel!) appeared earlier, also from Linda Leith Éditions. I'll definitely read others from both the press and the author.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Poem For A Thursday: Wilbur

Sunset from our house on New Year's Day


Treetops are not so high
Nor I so low
That I don't instinctively know
How it would be to fly
Through gaps that the wind makes, when
The leaves arouse
And there is a lifting of boughs
That settle and lift again. 
Whatever my kind may be,
It is not absurd
To confuse myself with a bird
For the space of a reverie: 
My species never flew,
But I somehow know
It is something that long ago
I almost adapted to.

-Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur was an American poet who died in 2017. This comes from fairly late in his career.

The Other Reader refers to him as that poet who loved his wife, and it's true there are several wonderful poems he wrote for his wife. But he was also one of the lyricists for Leonard Bernstein's musical Candide and is capable of quite funny poems.

New year, new commitment to #PoemForAThursday? We'll see.

Jennifer (reliably, unlike me...) has a poem each week at Holds Upon Happiness. This week she's featuring Philip Booth. Brona also a poem this week by Dorothy Hewitt.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Cambridge Introduction to Melville

"I shall have a fine book of travels, I feel sure; and will tell you more of the South Seas than any writer has done--except Herman Melville, perhaps, who is a howling cheese."
-R. L. Stevenson, in a letter to Charles Baxter

 I came across that quote (via Holbrook Jackson's The Anatomy of Bibliomania) and it sent me down a Google rabbit hole in order to decide what the heck Stevenson really thought of Melville. (A howling cheese? If somebody called me a howling cheese, I think my first instinct would be to slug them.) But it seems Stevenson only meant good things about Stevenson by that quote.

At least that's what Kevin Hayes says in The Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville. ("It means something similar to the proverbial phrase, 'to take the cake.'") Also Stevenson compares the Master of Ballantrae in that novel to Captain Ahab--The Master of Ballantrae comes out in 1889, when Melville's reputation is probably at its lowest, yet Stevenson knows his works well.

Overall I can't say I particularly found the Hayes book helpful, though; on Moby-Dick itself Hayes seemed too taken with the idea of the double or Doppelgänger. Old Ishmael telling the story of course has a relation to young Ishmael living the story, but it doesn't strike me as useful to refer to them as doubles. When Hayes calls Ahab and the whale doubles he has a better, though still not entirely convincing to me, argument. Your mileage may vary. 

Still there were a few fun things. One of the contemporary reviews said this of the chapter 'The Whiteness of the Whale':
It 'should be read at midnight, alone, with nothing heard but the sounds of the wind moaning without, and the embers falling into the grate within.'
I'm sure I didn't succeed in doing that, but it sounds good. The next time I read the book. Also 'The Whiteness of the Whale' was Sergei Eisenstein's favorite chapter in the book.

I also learned about Giorgio Federico Ghedini, an Italian composer who died in 1965. His best-known work is the Concerto dell'Albatro, which includes spoken text from Moby-Dick. For classical music fans, here it is from Youtube: (the spoken word part is in the third movement beginning around the 17th minute.)

I previously shared elsewhere in a slightly abbreviated form, this quote from Hayes:
"Moby-Dick demands readers who are unafraid to confront the strange and the unusual, those willing to use their minds, if not their palates, to face the mysteries of existence as reflected through an epic whaling quest."
Aw, shucks. You shouldn't have. You really think so?

And Hayes' final words on Moby-Dick?
"Moby-Dick is the greatest book in the history of the English language."
So now you know.

Friday, January 3, 2020

2020 Challenge HQ

I've decided to do an omnibus post for challenges in 2020. I was originally thinking this would be a mini-omnibus, but it's gotten a bit larger as I think about it. Oh, well...

For full descriptions of each challenge, follow the link to the original post. I include brief descriptions here.

Erica has devised a new challenge to get us to read some classics. Half the fun of these is thinking of a list of classics in advance to match the prompts, so I've included tentative choices. She invites us (and I intend to!) double up with Classics Club books. Her prompts are as follows:

A Classic Over 500 Pages
 -Bocaccio's The Decameron
A Classic By a POC Author and/or with a POC main character
 -James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain
A Classic That Takes Place in a Country Other Than Where You Live
 -Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country
A Classic In Translation
 -Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
A Classic By A New To You Author
 -John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga
A Classic Book of Poetry
 -Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene
A Classic Written Between 1800 and 1860
 -Herman Melville's Moby-Dick
A Classic By An LGBT Author or With an LGBT Main Character
 -Willa Cather's One of Ours
A Classic Written By A Woman
 -Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar
A Classic Novella
 -James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
Classic Non-fiction
 -Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own
A Banned or Censored Classic
 -(Not certain yet. I'll have to do a little homework.)

I'm sure I'll be switching them around. In particular I've put Goethe and Bocaccio on similar lists in the past, and yet they're still here...

Erica allows us to use one book for up to two prompts, but I'm going to try to avoid that. The Virginia Woolf is my winter spin book, so it should get read first.

Well, I'd assembled a list for Erica's challenge and then I saw Karen was doing hers again, so now I'm doing them both! Though there will be some overlap in books. Here's Karen's list of prompts, together with the books I've tentatively matched against them:

Nineteenth Century Classic
Twentieth Century Classic
 -Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar
Classic by a Woman Author
Classic in Translation
 -Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
Classic by a Person of Color
 -James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain
A Genre Classic
 -Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Classic With A Person's Name In The Title
 -James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
Classic With A Place in the Title
Classic With Nature in the Title
Classic About A Family
 -John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga
Abandoned Classic
 -Bocaccio's Decameron (Yes, it's true. I tried once before...)
Classic With an Adaptation
 -Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge

Which of these look good to you?

The goal is five different European countries, but let's think about the maximum, which is fifty! Unless the Scots get independence before the end of the year, then I can aim for fifty-one.

Bev challenges us to read books we already own. I've done this challenge a few times now, increasing the number each year until I flopped on it last year. (I believe this is called Test To Failure.) So this year I'm dialling it back, and going for Mt. Vancouver (36 books) which is what I would have successfully done this year. (Meaning it's not really a challenge, right? Oh, well...)

1.) Henry James' The American
2.) Brian Dillon's In The Dark Room
3.) Kate Briggs' This Little Art
4.) Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra
5.) Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own & Three Guineas
6.) David Jones' In Parenthesis
7.) Arthur Schnitzler's Late Fame
8.) Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric
9.) Arthur Schnitzler's Fräulein Else
10.) Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country
12.) etc.

Keely at A Common Reader is hosting a Russian literature challenge for the year. No particular number of books, just a chance to share thoughts about Russian literature. I'm likely to try to read The Master and Margarita at the very least and hopefully a couple more.


Here's a list of the books I've read this year from my multi-year Classics Club list.


Canadian Book Challenge

The 13th Canadian Book Challenge now hosted by Shonna at Canadian Bookworm runs from Canada Day to Canada Day, but here's a list of the books I've read for this challenge in 2020:


Am I overdoing it again? Probably I am!

A link to last year's challenge omnibus post.