Wednesday, May 27, 2020

John Galsworthy's To Let (The Forsyte Saga 3)

"Soames Forsyte emerged from the Knightsbridge Hotel, where he was staying, in the afternoon of the 12th of May, 1920, with the intention of visiting a collection of pictures in a Gallery off Cork Street, and looking into the Future."

That's the opening of the third novel, To Let, of Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga. Twenty years--and World War I--have passed since the events of the second novel, and the Future is that much more present--and ominous. "The new generation mocked at anything solid and tenacious."

At least for Soames. Painting has moved beyond even the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, which were nothing but blurs and dots anyway. Taxes are going up and Labour could be elected on a platform of the confiscation of all property, at least as Soames sees it. And his beloved daughter Fleur is now nineteen, and looking for new males to conquer. Her father is no longer enough.

We remembered, or, if not, we're quickly reminded, there are two strands of the Forsyte family that don't get along at all: cousins Jolyon Forsyte and Soames Forsyte. Soames Forsyte is still absorbed in the idea of Irene, his first wife, who went on to marry Jolyon. Indeed there are two and only two women in Soames' life: his ex-wife Irene and his daughter Fleur. His second and current wife Annette exists on a distinctly lower plane.

Jolyon has a son, another Jolyon, called Jon, who's the same age as Fleur, and as that epigraph from Romeo and Juliet,
"From out the fatal loins of those two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life"
ought to make very clear, they're destined to meet and fall in love. Of course in Shakespeare, 'take their life' has a double meaning. Does it in To Let? Well, that would be telling.

Neither young Jon nor Fleur have any notion of the nature of the quarrel; at the beginning they barely know they even have these cousins. Various adults suggest they need to be told, but they aren't, and the lure of the forbidden only adds spice to the romance between these two eighteen-year-olds.

Unlike in Romeo and Juliet where the nature of the feud is largely unexplained--chalk it up to the sort of clannish political rivalry found in Renaissance towns--we know perfectly well why Soames and Irene can't bear the sight of each other. The drama is driven by how Future discovers the Past still exists and will impact its Present.

I thought this was very good, better than the second and as good as the first. (Well, a middle novel. What can you do?) Soames is rather a villain all the way through, uncertain to himself why, and certainly unable to articulate it. But I felt the second novel rather stacked the deck against him, while in the this one he was once again able to make his own mistakes.

Now I need to see the BBC mini-series version.

One other thing I wanted to note. I briefly alluded to it in my first post on the saga, and that's the prose. I mostly think it's pretty effective, but there are certainly some odd quirks in how he handles free indirect discourse:
"Where was Annette? With that chap, for all he knew--she was a young woman! Impressed with the queer charity of that thought, he entered the summerhouse and sat down. The fact was--and he admitted it--Fleur was so much to him that his wife was very little--very little; French--had never been much more than a mistress, and he was getting indifferent to that side of things! It was odd how, with all his ingrained care for moderation and secure investment, Soames ever put his emotional eggs into one basket. First Irene--now Fleur. He was dimly conscious of it, sitting there, conscious of its odd dangerousness. It had brought him to wreck and scandal once, but now--now it should save him! ... [skipped a spoilerish couple of sentences here] ... Fleur's future! 'I want fair sailing for her,' he thought. 'Nothing else matters at my time of life.' A lonely business--life! What you had you could never keep to yourself! As you warned one off, you let another in. One could make sure of nothing! He reached up and pulled a red rambler rose from a cluster which blocked the window. Flowers grew and dropped--Nature was a queer thing!"
There are eight (!) exclamation marks in that passage. A shocking thing! I was told by at least one writing teacher--advice I ignored--never to use them--ever. (Another said no dashes, and especially unpaired dashes. Oops.) It's pretty clear Galsworthy uses them to distinguish what are Soames' thoughts in free indirect discourse from the general flow of the paragraph. It's not the only thing he uses: repetition and dashes also function for that purpose: "very little--very little;" or "but now--now."

But the exclamation mark gives a certain breathlessness to Soames' thoughts. That may be OK in this passage. In the early part of the passage, we're told Soames' thoughts in something close to an authorial voice: "Impressed with the queer charity of that thought" or "he admitted it" or "dimly conscious." Later Soames' thoughts are actually quoted in words: "'I want fair sailing for her,' he thought." Also the use of exclamation marks builds up over its length so that most of them occur near the end of what I've quoted, at the moment of that rather symbolic rose. So well and good.

But Galsworthy uses exclamation marks to indicate everyone's interior consciousness in free indirect discourse! This isn't the only passage! So is everyone thinking breathlessly and excitedly? No--no, certainly not! Or, at least, not at all times! So, it's also a bit of a tick, one that I'm not sure Galsworthy has worked through and has entirely under his control. At the very least reading the Saga one needs to diminish in one's mind the significance of the exclamation mark.


Posts on the three volumes of the Forsyte Saga collected here. But for me there are still more Forsytes to go, (A Modern Comedy, et al.) and I will most definitely be going...

Thursday, May 21, 2020


Last year was my first year joining Cathy's #20BooksOfSummer event and it was a sort-of success.

Sort of, because while I did read twenty books over the summer, as the summer wore on what I read increasingly diverged from the books I piled up on the table in the backyard. So this year I figured I'd simply acknowledge my wayward ways and pick ten books. Then I could read however many books & not (necessarily) feel like I wasn't reading the ones I should. Plan, right?

So, from the top:

Patricia Moyes/Falling Star
Patricia Moyes/Murder Fantastical
-I'm going to need some fluffy summer reading in summer, right? I read my first Inspector Tibbett mystery a year or two ago, & picked these up at a charity sale last fall.
Jules Verne/Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
-The Classics Club spin machine keeps cheating me out of reading this one. So I'm now I'm going to!
J. F. Powers/Wheat That Springeth Green
-First of three books The Other Reader read recently that come highly recommended. Powers' Morte D'Urban is amazing.
Anna Seghers/Transit
-Planning ahead for #WIT (Women in Translation) Month!
Gabriel Garcia Marquez/Love In The Time of Cholera
-The second #TheOtherReader book
Amelie Nothomb/Life Form
Mikhail Bulgakov/The Master and Margarita
-This one would fit a number of challenges for me.
John Dos Passos/Manhattan Transfer
-Laurie & Fanda are hosting #JazzAgeJune. I've been wanting to read this for a while after loving the USA trilogy.
Henrik Pontoppidan/Lucky Per
What looks good to you?

Thanks to Cathy for hosting!

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Plutarch, Introductory

Well, this is Plutarch, Introductory, both because it's an introduction to my reading of Plutarch, but also because I pulled all the various (mostly unread) editions of Plutarch off the shelf and read or reread their introductions to fix a certain amount of knowledge about Plutarch in my head. And then munged it all together to produce this.

Plutarch is born in Chaeronea (120 kilometers northwest of Athens) to a wealthy family about 45 AD and dies around 120 AD. Greece is subject to the Roman Empire at this time--it has been since 146 BC, though it has a fairly privileged place in the empire.

Pretty much everything we know about Plutarch comes from incidental remarks in his writings. He went to Athens when young and studied philosophy there under the Egyptian Ammonius; he was in Athens when Nero toured Greece and stopped there in 66 AD. He mentions visiting Alexandria in Egypt. Sometime around 90 AD, he goes to Rome on public business, and, as he's already a philosopher with some reputation by then, gives public lectures. He learns Latin, not very well he tells us, and I have to say, I would agree...more on that momentarily.

The various things I read disagree about how long he spent in Rome, but in any case he returns home at some point to Chaeronea. Since it's cute, and most of my sources quoted it, I will too: "As to myself, I live in a small town and am fond of staying in it, that it may not be the smaller for the absence of a single inhabitant." [Life of Demosthenes.]

Plutarch was happily married, though of their five children it seems only two boys survived to adulthood.

Only about half of what he wrote survives, but that's still quite a lot. In addition to the 1300 pages of Parallel Lives in my edition, there is also the Moralia, a series of writings on moral subjects, of about equal length. As a general rule, the Lives were written toward the end of his life, the Moralia earlier. There are 46 extant lives in the Parallel Lives, but he refers to others he'd written now lost. The concept was to pair one Roman and one Greek life, and then write a comparison; some of the comparisons for extant lives were lost, or possibly never written.  The order of the Lives as generally given is roughly chronological, beginning with the mythical figures, Theseus for the Greeks and Romulus for the Romans. It ends with Julius Caesar's assassin Marcus Brutus ("Et tu, Brute"), though there are four additional lives (the Hellenistic general Aratus, the Persian king Artaxerxes, the Roman emperors Galba and Otho) that were probably not intended as part of the Parallel Lives, but are generally included.

But the fact that the Lives are arranged chronologically betrays Plutarch's purpose: he's explicitly not writing narrative history, and he's not particularly interested in the world-historical events of any individual life; rather he's writing these biographies as studies of character for use as ethical examples. They were not written in the chronological order they're presented in. Holden, the editor of the Themistocles I have, groups them into four series. The first series is written at the request of friends; these are more historical and include, among the Roman figures, Cicero & both Catos. The second series was written for Plutarch's own satisfaction (or so he says) and in these, his approach is more explicitly ethical. He describes his methodology for these at the beginning of the Pericles. In the third series, of only two pairs, he writes of bad examples; one of those pairs is Alcibiades and Coriolanus. The last series, and seemingly the last written, are another two pairs of mythical figures, given first in my translation.

On that translation, the so-called 'Dryden' translation. I now know to call it 'so-called.' It was translated by a number of anonymous hands; Dryden's name was affixed to it to help it sell. It's unclear how much Dryden actually contributed, if any. Based on this bit of awfulness:
"The numerous nations of the Celtic foe
Bore her not living to the banks of Po;
Their heavy shields upon the maid they threw,
And with their splendid gifts entombed at once and slew." 
[Life of Romulus]
I rather hope Dryden had nothing to do with it. I'm quite sure giggling is not the reaction Plutarch wanted.

Finally on Plutarch's Latin. Now linguistics and proper etymologies are a thing simply alien to most ancients, but this is particularly poor:
"...they [Roman priests] have the name Pontifices from potens, powerful, because they attend the service of the gods, who have power to command over all...The most common opinion is the most absurd, which derives this word from pons, and assigns the priests the title of bridge-makers." [Life of Numa Pompilius]
This is simply silly. No Roman would derive pontifex (pontifices in the plural) from anything but the words pons (bridge) and facio (make or build). A bridge-builder. In fact if one is to hold the ethicist Plutarch to ethical standards, why is he insistent on changing the derivation to something from 'power'? The metaphor implied by bridge-builder, I find much more appealing than Plutarch's implied metaphor. (Or for that matter, the autocratic, controlling metaphors implied by Father or Pastor.)

Pelling, the editor the Cambridge Life of Antony, notes that Plutarch happily quotes Greek poetry, likely from memory, but he shows no sign of knowing the great Latin poets even when quoting them (in the later Roman lives) would be useful. No Vergil, no Horace, etc. Pelling suggests Plutarch could make his way through a prose text, but his Latin wasn't good enough to enjoy Roman poets and have them at his synapse-ends as he does Greek poetry.

Of course if Plutarch could cadge a ride on the TARDIS and quiz me on my Latin skills these days he wouldn't be very impressed with me either. Nevertheless I stand by it.

Well, this post is long enough as it is. I should be further in the Lives than I am, but I'm making progress.

Though I will add this quote I copied out. Don't know why it struck me now...
"Anacharsis...repressed his wonder at the fact that in Greece wise men spoke and fools decided." [Life of Solon]

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The White Plague by Karel Čapek

"No more shaking hands now, Baron."
There's the debate at the moment, of course: read books about the plague, or avoid them like the... Mostly I've gone with the latter, but I pulled this collection off the shelf to read R.U.R. for the #1920Club, but then there it was: The White Plague, Karel Čapek's play from 1937, calling to me to read it. So I did.

I'd seen the play 30+ years ago in Chicago, but I didn't really remember the details. But, surprise! it does feature a plague. The first symptom is a white spot, frequently on the chest, but from there it proceeds rapidly to leprosy-like symptoms and within six weeks is fatal. It strikes people fifty and over generally.

But that's just the groundwork; it's not really a play about a plague, nor does the plague particularly serve as a metaphor for something else. (No Camus, here, or not exactly.)

Professor Sigelius runs a clinic; they're studying the disease and doing what they can for sufferers, but haven't gotten very far when in Act I, Doctor Galen shows up and claims to have a cure. It needs to be tested and he asks to work in the indigent ward. He refuses to try it on anybody else. Galen had been a brilliant researcher at the clinic years earlier, but then went off to work with the poor.

By Act II, it's clear Galen's cure does work. But he's still refusing to treat anyone but the poor. Unless they meet his conditions: stop the approaching war. Well, it is 1937 and Karel Čapek is a very endangered species at that time: a Czech democrat. The head of accounts at Krug Armaments first gets the disease and approaches Galen; Galen delivers his conditions, but he's just gotten this job. How can he give it up now? Then Baron Krug himself is stricken. Shut down the munitions factories. Krug won't, but then he will, before being ordered not to by the Marshal.

It's the Marshal who's behind it all:
Galen: You can do anything you want. 
Marshal: I cannot. Must I explain it to you like a baby? Do you really think war and peace depend on me? I must obey the interests of my nation. If my people go to war, it's my duty to lead them to their destiny. 
Galen: If it wasn't for you, they wouldn't fight in the first place. 
Marshal: No they wouldn't. Now, thank God, they can fulfill their historic mission. I'm just the agent of their will... 
Galen: Which you've whipped up. 
Marshal: I've awakened their will to live.
In Act III, the Marshal is stricken by the white plague.

Does Galen's plan work? Well, 1937, in Czechoslovakia, was a tough time to be an optimist. But there are a few good twists at the end.

And like most things I've read by Čapek, there are also young lovers as well as a long-married bourgeois couple all affected by the events around them. While I wouldn't call it Čapek's best work by any means, I can see where it would play very well, which is how I remembered it.

And how about that crazed picture on the cover of my edition? That's from an early (perhaps the first?) production of The Insect Play by Karel Čapek, which is now the only play in the volume I haven't read.