Thursday, April 30, 2020

Poem For A Thursday (#pocketpoem)


Ben-Arabie was the Camel
  Belonging to the Zoo.
He lived there through a dozen years,
  With nothing much to do,
But chew, and chew, and chew, and chew,
  And chew, and chew, and chew. 
He wondered when he might go home,--
  And what they kept him for;
Because he hated Zooish sounds
  And perfumes--more and more;--
Decidedly he hated them
  Much more, and more, and more. 
And why the world turned white and cold
  He did not understand.
He only wanted lots of sun
  And lots and lots of sand;
Just sand, and sand, and sand, and sand,
  And sand, and sand, and sand. 
He longed to see an Arab Sheik,
  And Arab girls and boys;
The kind of noise he yearned for most
  Was plain Arabian noise;
(The sound  of little drums and flutes
  And all that sort of noise.)
He leant against the wind to hear 
  The sound of harness bells;
He sniffed the air for scent of spice
  The nomad merchant sells;
He dreamed of pleasant tinkling bells,
  Of spice, and tinkling bells. 
The keepers said that he grew queer.
  They wondered why he sighed;
The called him supercilious
  And crabbed and sun-dried;
(Indeed he was quite crabbed and
  Exceedingly sun-dried.) 
But ere his woolly fur was gone
  They put him on a train--
For a rich old Arab bought him
  And sent him home again;--
O joyous day! He sent him home;
  He sent him home again!

-Virna Sheard

The biographical note from my Canadian Poems says:
Sheard, Virna (d. 1943) Born in Cobourg, Ontario; educated there and in Toronto. Author of several books of fiction, for children and adults; her selected poems, Leaves in the Wind, appeared in 1938.
I learned from Deb Nance that today, the last day of National Poetry Month, is also Poem in a Pocket day. Share a poem on social media. Well, alright then! For a weekly poem, see Holds Upon Happiness. This week it's Jane Kenyon.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Peer Gynt

"But just what is the Gyntish self?"

I reread this to prepare for reading something else in the future. We'll see how that pans out...

Peer Gynt (1867) is a long dramatic poem, a play if you will, by Henrik Ibsen, but so long as to be almost unperformable. At any rate, Ibsen didn't imagine it being performed, until later when he did, and got his acquaintance Edvard Grieg to write some now-famous incidental music for a production.

Peer Gynt is the (anti-?) hero of his namesake play. His father is dead, having died drunk and nearly broke; his mother is still alive, exasperated by her wayward son, but not to the point where she will let anybody else say the bad things about him she allows herself to say.

There was an actual Peer Gynt fifty or a hundred years before the play, but he had already moved into folklore by the time Ibsen took him up as a subject.

The problem with Peer is that he's an irresponsible liar. I'm not sure I should be reading any more things (more than I already do) at this time about irresponsible liars, but be that as it may. When the play starts, Peer, returning home after a month supposedly hunting--his clothes are shredded--tells his mother he was abducted by a flying reindeer. She doesn't believe him, but his lies are so vivid, she starts to retroactively fear for his life anyway.

The play/poem, 200 pages in my edition, is Peer's entire life; the irresponsibility overwhelms the early lying, but then sheer immorality overwhelms the irresponsibility. Peer and his mother need money; there's a neighbor heiress who is attracted to Peer and is about to be married against her wishes. At that wedding Peer sees Solveig; maybe she's the one he wants? Instead Peer abducts the bride, but in the end refuses to marry her; and so now he's now wanted by the law.

What does Peer really want? What is that Gyntish self? He meets the daughter of the king of the trolls (or is that just a fantasy?) and could marry her, but then he'd have to live the trollish life, adopt the trollish motto: "to thy own self, be...enough." (There's also the little matter of a required eye surgery that makes anything ugly look beautiful.)

You see the beginnings of the existentialist crisis here. He flees Norway to try on various roles, all of which temporarily seem the proper Gyntish self: rich man, prophet, lover, even archeologist. None of them last. He behaves pretty badly in doing these things: it's the slave trade makes him rich, etc.

In the end he returns to Norway an old man. He meets the devil, (presumably, not so named) but worse he meets the Button-Moulder: if you go to heaven, then great, you've gone to heaven; if you go the other way, well, then, at least you were a great sinner, and you have preserved your identity. But the Button-Moulder! He recycles the soul-stuff from wishy-washy types by melting it all down to start anew. If you've never found yourself, your true Gyntish self, it's the Button-Moulder for you! And the Button-Moulder tells Peer that Peer is his kind of material.

This makes it all a bit Faust with a twist.

Does Peer save himself from the Button-Moulder? The ending is deliberately ambiguous. Should he have been saved? Enh, I don't know. Poking around, I found this quote from Robert Bly, "He does horrible things throughout the play and yet you end up loving him very much." I'm not sure I entirely felt that love, but clearly some do, and your mileage may vary...

In any case, I suppose even basically horrible people need to find themselves, too.

The edition I read was an older Penguin translated by Peter Watts. It was a verse translation and it was OK, but I wasn't amazed. I found the Robert Bly quote looking for alternative translations. Watts:
"...with a huge concern like mine,
that gave employment to some thousands,
to close the firm down altogether
becomes particularly hard."

"Thousands worked for me--to an enjoyment.
But I became concerned about unemployment!"
I'm not entirely sure between those two. I assume the Watts is much closer to the text, but Ibsen rhymes in Norwegian, and the Bly has more brio. The Bly doesn't seem to have ever been printed, though it was the text for a production at the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota, with Mark Rylance (!) as Peer Gynt in 2007. That would have been fun. Penguin has replaced the older Peer Gynt I have with a new translation by Geoffrey Hill; Oxford has one translated by Christopher Fry. If you have ideas, let me know! Because my copy has basically dissolved after this reading, and Peer Gynt is after all a classic...

Some other quotes I copied out from the Watts translation:

The King of the Trolls: "My son, we trolls aren't as black as we're painted--
that's another difference between us and you!"
-Act II

(Meaning, we humans *are* as black as we're painted?)

The Great Boyg: "He was too strong. There were women behind him."
-Act II

Peer Gynt: "'Exalted?' Yes, that's what will happen to me;
Anything else is unthinkable."
-Act IV

Peer Gynt: ...I've just one question first:
what, after all, is this 'being one's self'? 
The Button-Moulder: A curious question indeed, on the lips
of a man who has just-- 
Peer Gynt: A direct answer, please. 
The Button-Moulder: Being one's self means slaying one's Self
But that answer's presumably wasted on you,
and therefore let's say: 'Above everything else
it's observing the Master's intentions in all things.' 
Peer Gynt: But what can one do if one's never found out
what the Master intended? 
The Button-Moulder: One just has to guess. 
Peer Gynt: But a man's intuitions so often prove wrong,
and then one is sunk, as it were, in mid-ocean! 
The Button-Moulder: Exactly, Peer Gynt, it's when insight is lacking
that the lad with the hoof makes the best of his captures.
-Act V

So: to thine own self be true?

Monday, April 20, 2020

Classics Club Spin #23. And the winner is...

Which is Plutarch's Lives. For the first time that durned spin machine picked the longest book on my list. I'm both looking forward to it, but also dreading it.

My beat-up edition is the Modern Library Giant, translated by Dryden and revised by Arthur Hugh Clough. I've dipped into it before, and have even read a little bit of Plutarch in Greek, (see those Plutarch Loebs in the background) though not very much. But this one's 1300 pages. One of my professors once said, quoting, I think, one of his professors, "You're not a real classicist until you've read all of Plutarch." I believe he meant, read it in Greek, but at this point I'll settle for what I can get...

And speaking of Arthur Hugh Clough...I once wrote poem about him. (Ahem!)

Just Got A Clough (or Arthur Hugh Who?)

Arthur Hugh Clough, Selected Poems, Fyfield Books.

The book arrived Fedex today;

I read the preface straight away.

I had to know just what to do

to say the name of Arthur Clough.

It didn't say--I still don't know--

how I should say Arthur Clough.

The editors at Fyfield Press

have left me in an awful mess:

enough to make me want to cough

worrying about Arthur Clough!

I know it shouldn't get to me--

so what if it's a mystery?

I'll just keep calm--no need to curse--

I will just simply read the verse:

"Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat

when 'tis so lucrative to cheat..."--

That's from The Latest Decalogue

by you know who--Arthur Clough!

Wikipedia tells me that the proper rhyme is...oh, enough!

How does your spin look? Did you get something fun?

Saturday, April 18, 2020

John Galsworthy's In Chancery (#1920Club)

"Their hearts were full of feeling, but they could give it no expression--Forsytes that they were."

In Chancery (1920) is the second novel of John Galsworthy's Forsyte SagaThe Man of Property (1906) was the first; I read that recently as well.

In the new novel, Irene Forsyte is separated from her husband Soames Forsyte; she's retaken her maiden name, calling herself Mrs. Irene Heron, but they aren't divorced. 

Irene at 37 is just as beautiful as ever, but Soames, at 44, is feeling the winds of time at his back. He and Irene never had a child; he wants one, a son in particular. Should he, can he, reconcile with Irene? It's not too late. But he's also attracted by Annette, the daughter of the French proprietor of a restaurant he likes. Its Soames' dissatisfaction and yearning that sets the main thread in motion.

Jolyon Forsyte, Soames' cousin, is administering a fund the income of which goes to Irene. It was set up by Jolyon's father (the events happen in the interlude/short story "Indian Summer of a Forsyte") so Jolyon has occasion to see or at least correspond with Irene regularly as he pays out the income. Jolyon is now widowed for the second time.

At the same time Winifred Dartie, Soames' married sister is abandoned by her husband. After years of gambling and fast living, he's run off with a dancer to Buenos Aires. Should she accept the scandal and divorce him? Marriage, and property in marriage, is a theme in the new novel as well.

But also, between the composition of the two novels, World War I happened; significant years, and I thought this novel was much more political than the first. In the world of the saga about the same number of years have passed, but it's all still before the war: the events of The Man of Property take place in 1886; those of In Chancery in the years from 1899 to 1901. But the (Second) Boer War stands in the place of World War I, and thoughts about the Boer War, already ironic enough, become doubly ironic when the Great War is taken into account:
"His grandfather, [Nicholas Forsyte] of course, pooh-poohed the notion, too thoroughly educated in the feeling that no British war could be other than little and professional,..."
James Forsyte, Soames' father, is not so sanguine about the conflict. There are ironic comparisons between the acquisitiveness of the Forsytes and the imperial acquisitiveness of the British empire.

Or, in a lighter vein:
"And, sick with nervous anxiety, he [Soames] sent out for one of the 'new-fangled' motor cabs...The cab was passing villas now, going a great pace. 'Fifteen miles an hour now, I should think!' he mused; 'this'll take people out of town to live!'" 
The land speed record was already over 120 MPH in 1920. And one that's amusing for us, though not yet ironic in 1920:
"Never again would a queen reign so long!" [at the death of Victoria]
Not at least until the very next reigning queen...

So I thought this was a very good follow up in the series. In comparison to the first, it shows the same satirical wit overlaying a family drama with feeling and sadness. It adds a political layer, not surprising in a novel written in 1920; one had to either completely ignore the events of the world, as escape, or deal with them. I did think the portrayal of Soames was a bit less rounded in this one: in The Man of Property, one feels for Soames a certain amount of pity, though in the end he behaves badly. He behaves badly from the start in In Chancery, but I thought the deck was a bit stacked against him. For instance,
"...he had spent five hot weeks in Italy--looking into the Renaissance--not so much in it as he had been lead to expect--..."
In the first volume that sort of dig that would have been made about a generic Forsyte; here it's about Soames.

Also, seriously, what the world needs is a non-spoilerific Forsyte family tree.

On to the next interlude, and then volume, of The Forsyte Saga!

For another #1920Club review of In Chancery, see Ruthiella's here. Thanks to Kaggsy and Simon for hosting!

Friday, April 17, 2020

Classics Club Spin #23

May is spin month again at the Classics Club so it's time to put together a list of twenty books from your Classics Club list and see this Sunday which of them the random number generator suggests I read.

"Anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin." 
-John von Neumann. 

Somebody is doing just that!

I'm currently two thirds through The Forsyte Saga, so I feel like it would be cheating to put that on the list. I have ruled out a few of the very long ones, but then correspondingly I left off a couple of the very short ones. Here's my list:

1.) Edmund Spenser/The Faerie Queene
2.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
3.) Mary Wollstonecraft/Vindication of the Rights of Women
4.) Edmund Wilson/Axel's Castle
5.) Edmund Wilson/Patriotic Gore
6.) Plutarch/Lives
7.) Jules Verne/20000 Leagues Under The Sea
8.) Willa Cather/One of Ours
9.) Henryk Sienkowicz/Quo Vadis
10.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister's Apprentice
11.) Boccaccio/Decameron
12.) Balzac/Cousin Bette
13.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves
14.) Sylvia Plath/Bell Jar
15.) Sir Walter Scott/Count Robert of Paris
16.) Robert Louis Stevenson/Black Arrow
17.) W. Somerset Maugham/The Razor's Edge
18.) Thomas Hardy/Wessex Tales
19.) Oliver Goldsmith/The Vicar of Wakefield
20.) Willa Cather/The Lost Lady

With social distancing measures extended here for at least another four weeks, I could read one of the long ones. Which look good to you?

And the winner is...#6. Plutarch's Lives! The longest one on that list...

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Poem For A Thursday (Special #1920Club edition)

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
-Wilfred Owen

This poem was first drafted in October of 1917, but then revised. It only appeared before the public in Owen's first book of poetry of 1920, edited by Siegfried Sassoon. By then Owen was dead, having died in action in France in the last week of World War I at the age of 25. I've used the text given in edition shown, edited by C. Day Lewis.

'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' is from Horace's so-called Roman odes (III.ii) and the old Latin lie means, "It's sweet and honorable to die for one's country." Interestingly the other poet I was considering for today was Ezra Pound, whose volume Hugh Selwyn Mauberley also comes out in 1920. In it Pound, too, goes after Horace: "Died some pro patria, non dulce not et decor..."

There are so many things one can note, but I find it particularly terrifying that he rhymes drowning with itself in the center of the poem.

The idea of blogging a poem on Thursdays comes from Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. She's much more reliable than I am. This week she's featuring Peter Everwine.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Karel Čapek's R.U.R. (#1920Club)

"Well, the story begins in 1920,..."
A rather cool poster for a 1939 production.
Czech author Karel Čapek's play R.U.R. is famous, as much as it is, because it's the origin of our word robot, which is related to the Czech word for serf or slave. It's a four act play about a company that makes a fortune building robots for industrial production. Those robots have already, when the play starts, transformed the world through low-cost labor. R.U.R., the name of the play, is the name of the company, that is, Rossum's Universal Robots (English even in the original Czech.)

In Act I, Helen Glory arrives at the remote island location where the robots are made. She's the daughter of the famous Sir Edward Glory (and is very beautiful) so she's immediately shown in to see Harry Domin the managing director of the company. Domin--and all the other directors, Alquist, Busman, Fabry, Gall, Hallemeier--comically fall in love with her on the spot, and so, even though they see right through her scheme to liberate the robots, they don't care and show her all their secrets.

But it isn't Helen who convinces the directors; it's the directors who convince Helen. That opening quote is Harry Domin starting to explain the history of Rossum's Universal Robots and all the great things they've achieved. In 1932, Old Rossum (Old Reason in the version I just read) discovers the key to manufacturing life. He putters around with his discovery, but young Rossum sees the potential and makes a fortune. In Act I, around the year 2000, both Rossums are dead, but the company is a worldwide powerhouse. People don't have to work any more; the world is rich; robots do everything.

Act II finds us ten years later: Helen is married to Harry Domin, the director, but not everything is Utopian in this Utopia. Humans, including Helen, are no longer having babies. Robots are breaking down faster. Worse there's a new manifesto calling for robot liberation making the rounds.

By Act III, the robots are in active rebellion, and in Act IV? Well, you'll just have to see for yourself what happens in Act IV.

It's definitely a case where the road to whatever that outcome was is paved with good intentions. Čapek writes of his play:
"General Director Domin shows in the play that the development of technology frees man from heavy physical labor, and he is right. Alquist, with his Tolstoyan outlook, believes that technology demoralizes man, and I think he is right, too. Busman believes that only industrialism is capable of meeting modern needs, and he is right. Helena instinctively fears all these human machinations, and she is quite right. Finally, the robots themselves revolt agains all these idealists, and it seems they are right, too."
So with everybody being right, how can anything go wrong?

I read the play in the pink volume on the right (tr. by Peter Majer and Cathy Porter) from Methuen Press, but I'd read it previously in Catbird Press edition translated by Claudia Novack-Jones. I think I now prefer the Majer and Porter translation, but as far as I can tell with no Czech, both are fine. One major difference between the two is that the Majer and Porter translation makes clear the impact of the name Rossum for a Czech by changing the founder's name to Reason. (Rozum is the Czech word for mind/reason/intellect.) I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that; it seems a little heavy-handed, but maybe I'm just used to the name Rossum in the play.

Of course, why not have both? I do! With the exception of the play R.U.R., there's not much overlap between the two volumes. The Čapek quote above comes from the Catbird Press edition. Čapek died young, in 1938, of pneumonia; he'd suffered a crippling problem with his spine for his entire life. But not before he became world-famous and had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

And the other thing that must be mentioned is that R.U.R., great in its own right, is also a first crack at themes that Čapek revisits in his brilliant (brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!) novel, War With The Newts. Don't miss it. I've probably just talked myself into rereading it in the the near future.

The play was first printed in Czech in 1920 (though the first production wasn't until January of 1921) and as such it's my first contribution to Simon and Kaggsy's #1920Club. Thanks to them for hosting!

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Man of Property ("...a palpitating tale of passion...")

"We are, of course, all of us slaves of property, and I admit that it's a question of degree, but what I call a 'Forsyte' is a man who is decidedly more than less a slave of property."

Hubert, surrounded by Forsytes, and looking particularly Forsytean.

The Man of Property (1906) is the first novel of John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga. While virtually every Forsyte in this novel crowded with Forsytes could be considered a man of property, the man of property is Soames Forsyte. 

But we first meet the Forsytes gathered at an open house to announce June Forsyte's engagement. There are ten Forsytes in the elder generation, six male and four female, but in this novel the two most important of the elder generation are Jolyon (old Jolyon) Forsyte, June's grandfather, and James Forsyte, Soames' father. June is to be engaged to Phillip Bosinney, a modern, possibly up-and-coming architect who has no money. But Jolyon is fond of his granddaughter and she will have money someday. He's all the more fond because he's estranged from his son, his only child, who ran off with June's governess when June was a small child. But we're early given clues that the strong-willed June may be more interested in Bosinney than he in her.

Couples not in love is a recurring theme in the novel, and Soames' wife Irene is not in love with him as well; he doesn't know what to do about it, nor does he really understand why; but he undertakes to build a house--a property--in the country and hires Bosinney to design and build it. It seems like such a good idea: he and Irene will have a place to get away to, maybe fix their marriage, and June's young man will make some money, making him a better prospect, and more acceptable to the family.

Seems like such a good idea. Oh, well.

The novel is often written as if it were a satire of the philistines of a haute bourgeois society and as such it's frequently funny:
[The Forsyte philosophy:] " could reckon on having love, like measles, once in due season, and getting over it comfortably for all time."
"As every Forsyte knows, rubbish that sells is not rubbish at all--far from it."
 [A Forsyte thinking about Titian:] "There are things, he feels--there are things here which--well, which are things."
"...that fellow Wagner had ruined everything..." 
"The core of it all is property...And yet I imagine all these people are followers of One who never owned anything."
But while the novel does satirize the Forsytes as a group, it has an underlying sadness to it that touches upon each Forsyte as an individual. The men in particular, but also the women, are inarticulate, ostensibly only caring about the value of a pound, and who has the most of them, but there's a yearning we see even if they can't express it.

Old Jolyon, probably the most likeable Forsyte, can't bear to be estranged from his son though society demands it; he manages an opening to young Jolyon; his reasons are selfish--he's about to lose the company of June--but also tender. James, the least expressive of them all, sees that his son Soames' marriage is a mess but can't do anything about it, or even say much; and Soames behaves horrifically and knows he behaves horrifically but can't think what else to do.

The powerful ending leaves most everything the way it started, except for Bosinney and June, but badly broken.

However, if you're a person who worries about the overuse of exclamation marks, you may want to steer clear.

I thought it was very good.

Which frankly surprised me a little bit. Galsworthy's reputation is a bit better than it was, I guess; I think the BBC mini-series (which I haven't seen) helped, but his reputation took some hits from authors I like and take seriously. Virginia Woolf pans him in passing in her essay 'Modern Fiction' (1919, found in The Common Reader) preferring Conrad and Hardy and Joyce; Orwell also contrasts Galsworthy unfavorably with Joyce in his 1942 essay 'The Rediscovery of Europe.' And in his 'In Defense of the Novel' of 1936, Orwell writes of The Man of Property, well, I can't resist quoting, for he calls it:
"A palpitating tale of passion, a terrific soul-shattering masterpiece, an unforgettable epic which will last as long as the English language,..."
Wow. But since it's Orwell you might guess he doesn't quite mean that; the full quote is:
"But on a scale of values that makes The Way of an Eagle a good book, The Constant Nymph is a superb book, and The Man of Property is--what? A palpitating tale of passion, a terrific soul-shattering masterpiece, an unforgettable epic which will last as long as the English language,..."
Clearly Orwell thinks The Man of Property is the best of those three novels, but it is rather damning with much too extravagant praise.

I expect to read the two remaining volumes--In Chancery and To Let--of The Forsyte Saga soon.

Saturday, April 11, 2020


Monday is the start of Kaggsy's and Simon's 1920 Club and as usual for such an occasion, I've heaped up a pile of books which I will not entirely read...

Starting with the book next to Hubert, that's:

James Gibbons Huneker's Painted Veils

Huneker was an American critic who died in 1921. I've read a good deal of his non-fiction--he's unjustly neglected, I think--writing well on classical music, painting and literature, with tastes that are quite progressive and European-oriented for his time. I've never read his novel, though I've had it for years. His autobiography Steeplejack also came out in 1920 and it's available online. Just in case I haven't got enough to read...

John Galsworthy's In Chancery

Another volume I've had for years. In Chancery is the second book in The Forsyte Saga and came out in 1920. I can't read that without reading The Man of Property, the first volume first, right? So I'm in the middle of that currently. I was going to have finished it earlier, but oh, well. I'm enjoying it.

Joseph Conrad's The Rescue -

One of three novels about Captain Lingard, together with Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands. It's the last composed and late in Conrad's career, but chronologically the first of the three stories about Lingard.

Karel Čapek's R.U.R. -

Czech author Karel Čapek's play is the origin of the word robot. The play was published in 1920, though the first production was in 1921. I've read this before but not (I think) in this translation. I read Act I standing in line outside the grocery store earlier today (sigh) and it's everything I remembered.

What looks good to you?

Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting!

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Eighth Life (For Brilka)

Well, that was a bit disappointing. Not terrible or anything--I did finish it--but from everything I'd heard I had higher hopes.

Nino Haratischvili's The Eighth Life (For Brilka) is a multi-generational epic looking at the history of the twentieth century from a Georgian (the country, not the state) perspective. The first of the sections of the book focuses on Anastasia Jashi, born in 1900 in a provincial town in what was then the Russian empire. Anastasia dies in 1999 in independent Georgia, having lived through the entire Soviet era. The eight lives--the eight sections of the book--are her, her half sister, her son, her daughter, her granddaughter, each of her two great-granddaughters, and lastly her great-great-granddaughter, Brilka. The book is written in the form of a family history for Brilka by Niza, one of those great-granddaughters.

OK, so I think of myself as a sucker for big fat novels with historical sweep and lots of characters. Georgia should be exotic and interesting. The novel was winning prizes for German books, its original language, and it had been longlisted for the Booker International Prize. Because of all that, when I put my name on my library's hold list, I figured I wouldn't see this for months; but when the library told me I could get it now, in the middle of lockdown, I thought great.

And it does have historical sweep. Georgia looms large in the history of Soviet Russia because Stalin was Georgian, as was Lavrentiy Beria. Stalin is only distant and ominous in the novel, but Beria, the head of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, is a definite dark presence in it until his death.

Bad things happen to the characters--well, it is the Soviet Union, much of it the years of Stalin. Acid-throwing, forced abortion, rape. Characters die in the Gulag, die in battle, die in the siege of Leningrad, or, captured in battle, are forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union, only to die once they get 'home.' Those who survive, well, survivor's guilt is a recurring theme.

One can hardly complain given the period. And much of the emotional impact of the novel occurs precisely in those moments. Haratischvili writes as well as she ever does about those moments of terror. I did often feel that the lives of the characters are manipulated too much to get them to where they needed to be for a big historical scene. Now this is a thing in historical novels--Prince Andrei meets Napoleon after all--but there can be too much of it, and here the believability of the characters suffers. They felt a bit too often like useful tools. The male characters especially were unconvincing.

'As well as she ever does,' I wrote, and meant it. The bigger problem is the prose. Now I read it in translation, but I have to assume the translators (Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin) are at least competent, and not wantonly introducing flabbiness. I wrote down several examples before giving up, but one will suffice. At the start of Operation Barbarossa, our narrator writes, "...the Generalissimus' [Stalin's] huge empire was being attacked from all points of the compass..." Now this metaphor is old and clichéd, but worse it's also completely wrong. The Germans came from the west and attacked, at most, from three points of the compass. And, as Haratischvili knows perfectly well, because she gives us the facts some pages later, it's important Japan doesn't join in the attack: the Soviet Union is able to transfer crucial reinforcements from the Far East (one of those unattacked compass points) at a critical moment, which may very well have been the one thing that saved Stalin's 'huge empire.' Relying on a clichéd metaphor, bad enough in its own right, is also a factual error. Orwell would no doubt approve the anti-Communism, but he'd cringe at the prose.

I don't want to go on, and as I say I did finish it. The novel is at its best, I thought, in the later sections: it's closer to Haratischvili's own life, and the stagnant final years of the Soviet Union and the troubled early years of Georgia's re-founded independence are things I know less about, and it was interesting to see them from the inside. But there are plenty of positive reviews of the novel to be found, and I felt some need to push back.

But it does cover Georgia as part of my tour of Europe for Gilion's European Reading Challenge!

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.