Monday, June 29, 2020

Manhattan Transfer (#20BooksOfSummer)

"I think that this city is full of people wanting inconceivable things...look at it."

'This city' is New York, and the novel, like the city, is full of people wanting things. And maybe those things are inconceivable, but more likely just un-gettable.

The novel starts in 1896 when the law is passed that unites what are now the five boroughs of New York into one city. It continues on until the early 20s (the novel appears in 1925) and has maybe a dozen major characters. That's Ellen Thatcher quoted above. She's born in 1896 to George and Susan Thatcher; he's a reasonably successful accountant; she never really recovers from the pregnancy and dies when Ellen is still young.

There's also Jimmy Herf, aged five or so when his single mother returns with him from Europe to New York. There's Jimmy's uncle, Joe Harland, the Wizard of Wall Street, until he ruins himself with drink. George Baldwin is a young lawyer who has just opened an office when he hears about a milkman injured by a train; getting that milkman compensation is his first case and makes his name.

That milkman is Gus McNeil, who goes on to be a labor organizer; while McNeil is still laid up, Baldwin has an affair with Ellie McNeil, Gus' wife, which is the start of Baldwin's other notable career, as a philanderer. There's Stanwood Emery, a Harvard graduate and maybe going to be a poet? But also too fond of the bottle. There are two French sailors--Emile and Congo Jake--who pitch up in New York; Anna Cohen, a Jewish seamstress; Bud Korpenning, from Cooperstown; Cassie Wilson, who weeps; Ruth Prynne, who doesn't; Tony Hunter, who weeps because he can't have Jimmy; Frances, the flapper bandit, and her partner Dutch; and still others. Jimmy and Ellen get the most space, but we see into the head of all of the above characters at one time or another.

The novel is powerfully influenced by Joyce's Ulysses and makes effective use of stream of consciousness. Here's Gus McNiel daydreaming just before that accident with the train:
The morning has grown bleak. Leaden clouds have settled down over the city. "Git up old skin and bones," shouts Gus jerking at the gelding's head. Eleventh Avenue is full of icy dust, of grinding rattle of wheels and scrape of hoofs on the cobblestones. Down the railroad tracks comes the clang of a locomotive bell and the clatter of shunting freightcars. Gus is in bed with his wife talking gently to her: Look here Nellie, you wouldn't moind movin West would yez? I've filed application for free farmin land in the state of North Dakota, black soil land where we can make a pile o money in wheat; some fellers git rich in foive good crops....Healthier for the kids anyway..."Hello Moike!" There's poor old Moike still on his beat. Cold work bein a cop. Better be a wheatfarmer an have a big farmhouse an barns an pigs an horses an cows an chickens...Pretty curlyheaded Nellie feedin the chickens at the kitchen door...
The influence of Joyce shows up in 'freightcars', 'wheatfarmer', and 'curlyheaded' as well. Newspaper headlines, bits of song float through people's heads. Stan Emery recites Swinburne to himself at one point. Ellen, a successful actress during of the most of novel, has one scene where she's memorizing lines while half-heartedly carrying on a conversation.

Mostly I was pretty amazed by the novel. It's 350 pages in my edition. Not especially easy pages, but not too terribly difficult either. Dos Passos juggles his dozen major characters, moves their stories along, and gives a broad picture of life in New York over the course of twenty-five years. Several of the characters have real depth. That's a lot to pull off successfully. There may be one too many drunks. I had to double-check at one point which drunk was which.

He's pleasantly (and a bit surprisingly) sympathetic to the difficulty of being homosexual at that time.

It's a dark vision of New York, though. A lot of people fail, fall by the wayside, poverty, jail, accidents, suicide. The few who succeed feel morally compromised or empty. Ellen is a successful actress, what she wanted to be, but it doesn't make her happier. The novel ends with Jimmy, leaving town:
"Say will you give me a lift?" he asks the redhaired man at the wheel.
"How fur you goin?"
"I dunno...Pretty far."
The novel is sometimes simply considered a first crack at the broad-picture style he developed further in the USA trilogy of later in the 20s. That is kind of true. Though this is still awfully good, the USA trilogy is better, I think: it gives a more rounded picture of society; its characters go a bit deeper. It's also three times the length... Not what I did, but if you're curious about Dos Passos, you may want to start here and see what you think.

One other curious fact I noticed. 1896, the year the novel starts, is the year Dos Passos was born. Jimmy Herf pretty clearly owes a lot (though not all) of his details to Dos Passos' own biography.

If you have read it, what did you think?

I slotted this in because Fanda and Laurie were hosting Jazz Age June:

I had it in my head more of this novel took place in the Jazz Age than is in fact the case; we're already two-thirds through by the time World War I is over. Still there are bootleggers:
"Of course what you kids dont realize is that the difficulty under prohibition is keeping sober."
Thanks to Laurie and Fanda for hosting!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Wheat That Springeth Green (#20BooksOfSummer)

"As for feeling thwarted and useless, he knew what it meant. It meant that he was in touch with reality."
The novel is not actually cockeyed,
only my ability to resize a photograph.
I read this book too fast, which is a good sign in a novel, but makes it more difficult to write about. Oh well. It is a very good novel.

Joe Hackett was a kid in the 1920s. His father owns the town's coal delivery service and they're reasonably well off. The family is Catholic, and young Joe plans to grow up and be a businessman like his father--or a priest.

A priest is what he becomes.

At the seminary Joe is part of a crowd (which includes Cooney, Mooney, and Rooney!) that aspires to an ascetic sort of sainthood. There's some amusing by-play about who gets to keep the hair shirt. (It's funny in context...ya gotta believe me...) One of the circle goes on to join the Trappists, but Joe becomes a regular priest, serving first as a curate, then in an office with Catholic Charities, finally in charge of a parish of his own.

Powers made a specialty of priests and the bureaucracy of the church; his debut novel Morte d'Urban (1962) is, for my money, a masterpiece of the first rank. He's funny and touching both; his priests are imperfect, but well-meaning. The church bureaucracy is...a bureaucracy, just like a lot of other bureaucracies.

Still this is quite different than Morte d'Urban. Fr. Urban Roche is a mover and a shaker; he's climbing up the church hierarchy, while struggling to maintain his goodness. Fr. Joe Hackett never means to be ambitious in that way; once he's passed on his youthful dreams of an austere sanctity, he means only to be a good priest and he's interested in 'priestly fellowship.' But he's a bit unsocial and insecure; that's his thought in the statement I quote above; and those things he feels strongly about--anti-militarism, and that the church shouldn't appear money-grubbing--aren't going to endear him to his fellow priests or the church hierarchy in the 50s and 60s. There's a funny bit in the middle where he excitedly learns he's going to have a curate--a fellow priest!--but he fails to learn his name, and is too shy to ask when the curate does show up.

Eventually he does learn his curate's name--Fr. Bill Schmidt--and tells Bill to invite his seminary friends round to the church for dinner; Bill does, but then the younger contingent all retreat to Bill's room, leaving Joe to watch the Twins on TV by himself. No priestly fellowship.

A couple of crises happen: since he's socially maladroit, he takes to drinking too much, and probably qualifies as an alcoholic. He's set up a scheme whereby his parishioners contribute yearly and aren't dunned for money from the pulpit, but higher assessments from the diocese messes up his arrangement; and the son of a local reporter (the reporter is also a bit of a friend) is going to dodge the Vietnam draft and comes to Joe for advice; that reporter/father is gung-ho for the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Can he resolve these and still be a good man and a good priest?

Well, the ending is positive, but the future is not certain. This passage comes from near the end. Greg is that draft-dodger; at this point Greg's in Montreal, working at a Dorothy Day Catholic Worker charity, and Joe has just finished helping out for a couple of weeks during his vacation:
"Do me a favor," Greg said.
"Sure. What?"
"Keep it up."
"What?" Joe said, though he knew what.
Greg just looked at him.
"We'll see," Joe said then, and drove away.
The final chapter shows him keeping it up.

The title comes from an old hymn; the book prints the first verse and I suppose that's a clue to how the novel should be read:
Now the green blade riseth
  from the buried grain,
wheat that in dark earth
  many days has lain;
love lives again, that
  with the dead has been:
Love is come again like
  wheat that springeth green.

Highly recommended, though I would recommend Morte d'Urban even more. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Plutarch, Comparing translations

I've been a bit curious to compare the available translations of Plutarch. I did make a snarky comment about the rendering of the verse in the 'Dryden' translation in my earlier post. So is the 'Dryden' better or worse? This is a subject that may not be all that interesting, but I've written this post and you've been warned...

I'm now about halfway through, and my already beat-up looking edition
 is looking even more beat-up than it was in this photo...

The whole of Plutarch's Lives has been translated into English several times, but I believe the most recent (1914-1926) complete one is by Bernadotte Perrin for the Loeb series. I've been reading Arthur Hugh Clough's revision of the 'Dryden' translation (1683-6, Clough's revision 1864) because that's the one I have. John Dryden, it seems, had not much to do with it. In addition to the 'Dryden', Project Gutenberg has the Stewart and Long (1880-1882). Parts of this had been done by the time Clough was organizing his version; he thinks highly of what he'd seen at that point; says he wouldn't have bothered revising the 'Dryden' if Long (who began it) had planned at that time on continuing.

The Langhorne brothers' translation of Plutarch (1770-1772) seems to be generally panned, including by Clough, but it's available at the Internet Archive; and then there's the famous English translation of Sir Thomas North, famous for being plundered by Shakespeare. It's translated not from the Greek, but from the French of Jacques Amyot. The final edition of North dates from 1603.

Here are several examples of a passage from The Life of Alcibiades. At this point Alcibiades has set off with the Athenian expedition to conquer Sicily; he was widely viewed as the instigator of the expedition, and also the only one who could pull it off. But as he leaves, there's a cloud hanging over him: in the days before the expedition set sail, some group of youths ran around town defacing (or de-penis-ing, really) the sacred statues of Hermes in Athens. It was suggested around Athens Alcibiades was involved. Already in Sicily, he's summoned back to Athens to face charges of sacrilege, conviction for which warrants the death sentence.

Here's the one I read (Dryden/Clough):
"When he arrived at Thurii, he went on shore, and concealing himself there, escaped those who searched after him. But to one who knew him, and asked him if he durst not trust his own native country, he made answer, 'In everything else, yes; but in a matter that touches my life, I would not even my own mother, lest she might by mistake throw in the black ball instead of the white.' When, afterwards, he was told that the assembly had pronounced judgment of death against him, all he said was, 'I will make them feel that I am alive.'"
The Stewart and Long:
"At Thurii he landed, and concealed himself so he could not be found. When one of his friends said to him, 'Alkibiades, do you not trust your native country?' He answered, 'Yes, in other matters; but when my life is at stake I would not trust my own mother, for fear she might mistake a black bean for a white one.' Afterwards hearing the Athenians had condemned him to death, he said, I will show them I am still alive.'"
The Loeb (translated by Bernadotte Perrin):
"Arrived at Thurii, he left his trireme and hid himself so as to escape all quest. When some one recognized him and asked, 'Can you not trust your country, Alcibiades?' 'In all else,' he said, 'but in the matter of life I wouldn't trust even my own mother not to mistake a black for a white ballot when she cast her vote.' And when he afterwards heard that the city condemned him to death, 'I'll show them,' he said, 'that I'm alive.'"
And lastly North:
"Afterwards when he came to the city of Thurii, so soon as he landed, he went and hid himself incontinently in such sort, that such as sought for him, could not find him. Yet there was one that knew him where he was, and said: Why, how now Alcibiades, darest thou not trust the justice of thy country? Yes very well (quoth he) and it were in another matter: but my life standing upon it, I would not trust mine own mother, fearing lest negligently she should put in the black bean, where she should cast in the white. For by the first condemnation of death was signified: and by the other, pardon of life. But afterwards, hearing that the Athenians for malice had condemned him to death: Well, quoth he, they shall know I am yet alive."

The North has a certain charm, but I think I'd actually prefer to read the Stewart and Long to the Dryden/Clough that I am reading. The Perrin is closest to the Greek: appropriate since the Greek is on the facing page in a Loeb. I also looked up the Langhornes' version, but it's a little worse and not enough different to warrant quoting. Which look best to you?

I picked this passage because I'm pretty sure I read somebody somewhere (and not me) who translated that final line as 'They will feel my life.' Which I quite liked. But now I can't find it.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Coming to Canada

Coming To Canada is an autobiographical sequence of poems by Carol Shields from her birth in Chicago that ends when she moves to Canada, newly-married, at the age of 22. It came out in 1992.

The edition I have came is 1995 from Carleton University Press and includes selections from her first two volumes of poetry, other uncollected new poetry, plus an introduction by Christopher Levenson, a Canadian poet.

I never quite know what to say about poetry, so maybe I'll just quote one. From the autobiographical sequence, but not especially autobiographical:

Aunt Ada
Aunt Ada never  went to church
Her head ached or her back
and no wonder 
She had the pies to bake
and the wash and the children under
foot and not so much 
as a minute to sit and ponder
how she'd earned such
blessings or how to take 
the anger from her look
or thunder
from her touch. 
No one remembers
Aunt Ada much,
except she stayed home sick 
on Sundays, rebuked
God, did her work
and grew a little kinder.
I suppose I could make sure you notice the rather sly slant rhyme scheme.

Levenson, in the introduction, almost, but doesn't quite, blame Carol Shields for being so impersonal. Titles of other poems (not from the sequence) include things like "Our Old Aunt Who Is Now In A Retirement Home" and "A Friend Of Ours Who Knits." I think I actually preferred these kind of impersonal poems. Or there was this:

A Physicist We Know
Even while
we talk, he abstracts
himself, making terrier
leaps of speculation
on the quiet. 
His smile
is detached and social,
disenfranchised by
his secret alphabet
of air. 
he emerges in fractions,
lopsided with camaraderie,
looking rather hysterical
and frantic. 
Then we see him sympathetically
as an exile
and don't dare
ask, is it lonely in there?
"terrier leaps" and the closing particularly make that poem work for me.

Still there's no doubt that she's better known as a novelist, and for reason. Levenson's introduction spends at least as much time talking about her novels. I've read some, though not all, pre-blogging, and her biography of Jane Austen more recently. The last of her novels I read was The Stone Diaries, her most famous, so brilliant and so heart-breaking I haven't dared to read another since. I've long felt I need to, and am now beginning to feel I have the strength to, revisit that.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

In My Father's Court

"No man is judged in his hour of grief."

Those are the words of Singer's father when he hears a woman curse after her son had committed suicide.

Isaac Bashevis Singer has been on my mind lately. Various bloggers have been reading I. B. Singer (and also I. J. Singer); the Other Reader has recently finished Enemies, A Love Story and that's been a topic of dinner conversations. I was spouting off about his memoir In My Father's Court, and also Shosha, but then I wasn't really certain I'd read In My Father's Court. (I'm quite sure about Shosha. A great novel.) The database says I hadn't, but I thought I remembered parts of it. It's possible I didn't complete it previously, or it's also possible the database was wrong.

I went through a serious Singer phase in the 80s--this was when a friend suggested I should try reading a living author before they won the Nobel prize--and read a bunch of them. They're generally great.

In My Father's Court runs from Singer's earliest memories--he was born in 1902--until the end of World War I. The book is a series of short pieces that first appeared in Yiddish in the Jewish Daily Forward in the 60s (under a pseudonym) and were then translated into English before being collected into book form. Singer's father was an impoverished Hasidic rabbi who moved the family to Warsaw before the war; his mother was the daughter of a more prestigious Hasidic rabbi from Bilgoray in southeast Poland.

From the introduction:
"The book tells the story of a family and of a rabbinical court that were so close together it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. The rabbinical court, the Beth Din, is an ancient institution among the Jews...The Beth Din was a kind of blend of a court of law, synagogue, house of study, and, if you will, psychoanalyst's office where people of a troubled spirit could come to unburden themselves."
And, perhaps we can add, a good training ground for a future writer.

There are stories of his father deciding in cases of divorce, wills, Talmudic disputations. At the same time events happen in their lives: his sister, his parents' first-born, marries into a Jewish family in Amsterdam and moves there. His brother, Joseph, ten years older, loses his faith, becomes a communist and an artist (he both writes and paints; now he's more famous for his writing); I. B. is studious, is fascinated by Jewish traditions, but at the same time reads Dostoevsky, gradually begins to doubt, discovers girls. The greatest part of the episodes take place in Warsaw, on Krochmalna Street, in the Warsaw ghetto. But during World War I, after Warsaw falls to the Germans and Austria-Hungary takes Bilgoray, it becomes possible to travel to his maternal grandfather's home, and with food short in Warsaw, he goes with his mother and younger brother to the country. The book ends with them in Bilgoray and his father and older brother still in Warsaw.

Very good and very touching. I'm not quite sure what the cover has to do with the book--though what do covers ever have to do with books?--unless it's the last lines:
"Suddenly I was dazzled by a particular narrow face, a dark girl with coal-black eyes and an indescribable smile. I became confused and when she asked me a question I did not know what she was saying. Many novels and a lot of poetry had filled my mind by then; I was prepared for the turmoil that writers call 'love'..."