Thursday, December 31, 2020

Back To The Classics 2020 Challenge Wrapup


Time for a wrapup post for the 2020 edition of Karen's Back To The Classics Challenge. This is the first year I managed to read a book for all twelve categories; I only managed to write blog posts for ten of them, though. Here are this year's categories and what I matched up against them: (Matched up in the end. Not in the beginning...)

19th Century Classic

--Henry James' The American

20th Century Classic

--Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar

Classic by a Woman Author

--Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own

Classic in Translation

--Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt

Classic By A Person of Color

--James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room

A Genre Classic

--Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea

Classic With A Person's Name in the Tile

--Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita

Classic With A Place in the Title

--Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra

Classic With Nature in the Title

--Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country

Classic About A Family

--John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga

Abandoned Classic

--Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History

Classic With An Adaptation

--Charles Dickens' David Copperfield

I thought they were all really very good--no lemons in the bunch--well, they're classics, ya know? David Copperfield and Peer Gynt were rereads for me. I was a little surprised how much I enjoyed Tales of the Alhambra.

Reading a book for all twelve categories is the best I've ever done at this challenge, so, even though I didn't write about two of them--I'm still counting that very much as a success. I finished Carlyle only a couple of days ago; I'm likely to write about it soon and have half a post finished. I finished Giovanni's Room a couple of months ago now; I'll probably need to reread it before I do write about it. That only counts as ten books though for the draw. Should it be necessary I can be reached at reese (chiocciola) reesewarner (punto) com.

Thanks to Karen for hosting! Looking forward to the new version (for which I need to write a signup post...)

This is the third year I've done the challenge and I find I piled up all the books on the dining room table and took a picture with the Christmas tree in the background the first two times. Since one must keep up traditions...

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Bell Jar

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick,..."

It's a fairly famous opening, and it has a darkly ironic suitability to the events of the novel. We see it's a loaded statement, but just how is it loaded? Now all its subtlety is gone. We find the book with the name Sylvia Plath on the cover, and we all know all about her...but in 1963 it came out under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas and while that first edition cover was a bit ominous, you simply couldn't know, not like we think we do now.

It can still surprise, though, and the big surprise for me was that it's funny. It's funny for quite a while, until it isn't, and then it's horrifying. I was expecting the horrifying. I wasn't expecting the funny.

Esther Greenwood is a poor girl from the provinces (in this case the provinces are suburban Boston--so, not all that provincial) who goes to New York. She's bright, she's accomplished, she's observant. She's one of twelve girls who've won an internship given by a fashion magazine, in Esther's case for an essay. This background allows for funny bits as she comes into contact with a richer level of society:
"That was where I saw my first fingerbowl. 
The water had a few cherry blossoms floating in it, and I thought it must be some clear sort of Japanese after-dinner soup and ate every bit of it, including the crisp little blossoms. Mrs. Guinea never said anything, and it was only much later, when I told a debutante I knew at college about the dinner, that I learned what I had done."

There are hints of the depression that's going to descend upon her (like a 'bell jar') and cover her over, but again it's hard to read those as Plath probably meant them to be read. About her state when the depression descends, the novel is utterly convincing--and frightening. Treatment for depression is not all one could want now. It was genuinely horrifying in the 1950s.

I'm a little less certain about the transition between the one state and the other, and while Plath does foreshadow the event, it still felt very sudden. Likely this is deliberate on her part: if it could happen to the nice, normal-seeming Esther Greenwood, it could happen to anyone.

Very good and very gripping. I do think Plath is a better poet than novelist, though, since I think she's a very good poet indeed, that still leaves a lot of room for goodness here. I also don't imagine Plath would mind that characterization. 

This was one of my Back to the Classics books (for the category 20th Century Classic). I've read all twelve for the challenge, but I have two still to review. Am I going to write up two books in the next 36 hours? Probably not! Especially since I read Baldwin's Giovanni's Room a while ago now. Oh, well...

Also I recently read Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye (another book I didn't write about...) but it got me wondering about entomologist fathers. Both books have an autobiographical component, and both authors (and both lead characters) have entomologist fathers. Just what is it about a dad who's gone a little buggy?

Monday, December 28, 2020

European Reading Challenge 2020 Wrapup


Gilion at Rose City Reader hosts a challenge to visit European countries by reading books set in them; this is one of the funnest challenges going as far as I'm concerned. My evidence this is true? It's the one I go the most over the top with and this year has been no different. And it was the only form of travel possible for most of this year.

The Deluxe tour is five countries. I visited a few more than that...

1.) Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. (UK)
2.) Henry James' The American. (France)
3.) Joan B. Flood's Left Unsaid. (Ireland)
4.) Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra. (Spain)
5.) Arthur Schnitzler's Late Fame. (Austria)
6.) Nino Haratischvili's The Eighth Life (For Brilka). (Georgia)
7.) Karel Čapek's R.U.R. (Czech Republic)
8.) Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. (Norway)
9.) I. B. Singer's In My Father's Court. (Poland)
10.) Henrik Pontoppidan's Lucky Per. (Denmark)
11.) Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. (Russia)
12.) Anna Seghers' Transit. (Germany)
13.) Amelie Nothomb's Life Form. (Belgium)
14.) Matei Calinescu's Zacharias Lichter. (Romania)
15.) Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover. (Italy)

My favorite countries this year were Russia, Denmark, and France.

This was my third year taking part. No surprise, I guess, that I visited the UK, France, Germany, and Italy all three years. A little more surprising was that I got to Poland and Austria each year. (Well, Austria is not that surprising. I'm a big Vienna-ophile...) The real surprise was I've been to Romania all three years. Maybe it's a sign I need to go in person? 

Thanks to Gilion for hosting! The signup for the new year is available. I need to do it!

Wednesday, December 16, 2020


Benjamin Moser's biography of Susan Sontag won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography earlier this year. If you're interested in Sontag and read literary biographies, you're going to want to read it.

It's the first full-dress biography as well. It was authorized by David Rieff, Sontag's son, and Moser had access and cooperation. It wasn't the first biography, but it easily supersedes the others. 

Sontag was born in 1933 in southern California, grew up mostly in Arizona, lived in New York, Paris, elsewhere, and died in 2004 of the cancer that had been haunting her for years. She was bisexual, probably mostly Lesbian. She wrote, you know, a bunch of pretty good books. 

The book got mostly rave reviews, but it did generate two controversies. I'm 70% sure Moser was perfectly happy with the controversy. (Sells more books, amirite?) The first, the bigger one, was around the book Freud: The Mind of a Moralist. The second was about Sontag's failure to come out in the 80s. 

Freud: The Mind of a Moralist

Sontag married Philip Rieff, one of her professors at the University of Chicago, when she was 17, after a week-long courtship. As the older (but not that old!) of the two parties, Rieff should probably take most of the blame, but both of them should have known better. The marriage was a success for a very short while and then it wasn't.

But while the marriage was still at least functional that book about Freud came out. Moser makes it out as entirely written by Susan Sontag, sort of like Glenn Close in The Wife, with Jonathan Pryce doing Philip Rieff in the next room, making breakfast and wondering what his new book is going to be about. The Scottish juror in me has to say, not proven. Now if you look up Freud: The Mind of a Moralist on Amazon (it's still in print) the only author credit is Philip Rieff. I have no doubt that's wrong. Early editions of the book listed them both, Sontag under the name of Susan Rieff. But just because while the divorce was happening, Sontag said things like, I wrote that whole damn book by myself, well, that doesn't exactly count as evidence. Rieff was the one doing work on Freud when they met.

Worse, Moser seemed to feel the need to blacken Rieff's own achievements, the better to highlight Sontag's. There's no doubt Sontag will have the greater afterlife. There was no need. For example, Moser writes:

 "'Yeah, your husband's crazy,' the family court judge said. 'You get the kid.'" 

I thought, a family court judge says anything anywhere near that? Not likely. Now Moser's honest enough to properly footnote; that quote comes from Sigrid Nunez in an interview. Nunez (author of a wonderful memoir of Sontag) was a typist for Sontag years later and then David Rieff's girlfriend for a while. However, she may not even have been born when this family court judge made that purported comment; that quote is definitely second or third-hand. But you have to read the footnotes to know that.

Moser also says that Rieff grew up in the slum of Rogers Park (a neighborhood in Chicago.) That hurt. I grew up in Rogers Park (and Edgewater, the area immediately south) and I didn't know I was a slum kid. But take it from me, no matter how poor Rieff was as a child or where exactly he grew up in Rogers Park, it was not the Lower East Side.

Anyway, I know an underdog when I see one, and Philip Rieff is the underdog in this. On this controversy Moser doesn't come off very well.

On the other hand Moser was quite interesting on the intellectual hothouse atmosphere of the University of Chicago at the time. My father went there for a year--I think it would have been the year before Sontag started--didn't much like it and transferred to Northwestern. But Moser's description certainly gibed with some of my dad's stories.

Coming Out

Susan Sontag certainly did not come out of the closet in the 80s. She slunk out in her final years, but would have preferred not to discuss it. 

There was a very strong argument to be made that coming out in the 80s would have made the lives of less well-known homosexuals easier. There was even the argument (one aspect of Silence=Death) it would save lives: a good chunk of the reason AIDS was ignored was because only *those* people got it. Would Sontag's coming out have had had a substantial impact? Hmm. Maybe. Though not like Rock Hudson's death.

And there would have been repercussions. Moser quotes Edmund White as saying if Sontag had come out then she would have lost two-thirds her sales. Her public reputation would have suffered. She might have lost publishers, friends. 

Still she could have.

Benjamin Moser gave a talk at the Appel Salon at the Toronto Public Library a bit over a year ago and we went. Back when you could do that sort of thing. I knew I was likely to want to read the book. During the question period, in person he was pretty forgiving of her decision, and understanding of the psychological difficulty someone of Sontag's generation might have in coming out. The book does come across as more condemnatory. One can always hope for and celebrate heroism. For myself I'm not particularly inclined to judge if it doesn't appear. 

I do remember some reviews beat up the book because of that condemnatory attitude, but maybe not entirely deservedly.


I do think it was pretty good. Lots of fascinating stuff about Sontag. It's neither hagiography nor hack job, though I'd probably have gone for a little more hagiography myself. Literary biographers can concentrate either on the life or on the works. Moser spent more time on the life, but not drastically so. You may or may not prefer that. On the works, I thought he was solid about On Photography, that impossible but fascinating work. It was amusing to read that Leni Riefenstahl knew exactly what Sontag had done to her in 'Fascinating Fascism' and hated her for it.

But by talking himself into thinking Sontag was solely responsible for the Freud book, I think he's skewed his sense of her intellectual direction. I've read pretty much all of Sontag at least once. (Not the first novel, the filmscripts, the play, and, of the diaries, only what's been published.) Moser, I'm sure, has read more. Still. It would be impossible for an American who comes of intellectual age when Sontag does to be free of considering Freud, but I don't think Freud is anywhere near as important to her thought as Moser does. She underwent analysis at one point. Well, was there a New York intellectual who didn't? 

Sontag's important writers are the a- or anti-Freudians. Canetti, Benjamin, Artaud. Mann. The nouveau roman doesn't have much brief with Freud. She doesn't write about Nabokov directly, but he's clearly important to her; he famously disdains Freud.  Illness as Metaphor seems very anti-Freudian to me. Sontag is much more politically engaged than a pure Freudian would be. Camp is a way around Freud; Freud was notoriously dismissive of homosexuality. Why would she be particularly engaged with Freud?

This is a question of interpretation of course, and your mileage may vary. In rereading Under The Sign of Saturn, Sontag's best book for my money, she does cite Freud in discussing Canetti, a citation I doubt Canetti approved of. 

One note: Moser says Canetti's first language was Spanish. This is either a weird political statement (Is Ladino just a dialect of Spanish?*) or more likely a simple error.

Mere Sontagisme!

*"a sprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot" - A language is a dialect with an army and a navy. A classic bit of Yiddishkeit.


Monday, December 14, 2020

The Volcano Lover

 "Nothing can match the elation of the chronically melancholy when joy arrives."

I've been on a bit of a Susan Sontag kick lately; after I'd been waiting a while, my library coughed up Benjamin Moser's recent biography. When I saw it was 'in transit' I read some of Sontag's essays; before I got to Moser's description of that period in her life, I decided to read The Volcano Lover. It first came out in 1992. Sontag was 59.

The story is set in the Napoleonic era; its basis is the love triangle of Sir William Hamilton, English ambassador to the kingdom of Naples, Emma Hamilton, the most famous beauty of the day, and Lord Nelson. Sontag gives herself a good story and good characters to start with.

Moser tends to read all of Sontag's books as if they were disguised autobiography (post on his biography coming soon?) and, while I didn't mean it to, that colored my reading of this. That quote above is Sir William Hamilton in the novel, but it might very well have been about Sontag herself when this, her third novel, was a critical and commercial success. 

But even without Moser's help you might be inclined to read this as disguised autobiography. Sontag deliberately flirts with that sort of reading. Like Proust writing his book where the narrator is Marcel. The opening:
"It is the entrance to a flea market. No charge. Admittance free."

Sounds like now. It is:

"But I would be entering it here. In my jeans and silk blouse and tennis shoes: Manhattan, spring of 1992."

Call this narrator 'Susan' if you like. She portrays herself as a collector, at least potentially: postcards of movie stars, Navajo rings, World War II bomber jackets, knives, model cars, cut-glass dishes, Roman coins. The things one might find at a flea market. But notice how our collectibles are moving back in time. We then drop some space and switch to the collector that is the main character of the novel, Sir William Hamilton:

"It is the end of a picture auction. London, autumn of 1772."

And we're off. 

Most of the novel takes place in Naples; Hamilton in addition to collecting pictures and statuary, studies Vesuvius, the volcano outside of Naples. He's the volcano lover. (Ignoring metaphorical readings.) He thinks of himself at times as a new Pliny the Elder, though he doesn't plan on dying in an eruption.

Sontag never refers to Hamilton as Hamilton; he's always the Cavaliere. Emma Hamilton is the Wife, and Nelson is the Hero. Other characters from the historical record are given their actual names, but the center of the drama is shifted a bit into an archetypal space.

It's Hamilton who's Sontag's historical alter ego, and it's Hamilton who's given the most space, and who's the best portrayed character in the novel. The first section, a hundred pages or so, shows him with his first wife, unwell and eventually dying. They were in love, she more than he, but his grief is genuine.

Then Emma comes into his life. Except for small items such as her beauty and her intelligence, Emma is not exactly marriageable in 1791. She'd been the painter Romney's model, known to be the mistress of various men, born way over on the very wrong side of whatever tracks there might have been. Hamilton is independent enough to not care. He accepts he will never be able to present her at court in London, though he does eventually in Naples. Emma comes to love him. 

Then Nelson comes to Naples. And here's the hole at the center of the novel. It's a romantic triangle. Sontag has emphasized the archetypal nature of the triangle. But the three of them all get along. It's very annoying. I also wasn't really convinced. 

I've never read anything about the real persons who appear in the novel. Maybe they did all get along. But there's not much subtlety here. The Cavaliere is convincing as a character. The Wife, less so; and the Hero, not at all. There's drama and tension in the novel, real human relations: the Cavaliere and his first wife; Emma and her mother. Sontag writes fiercely about the atrocities perpetrated at the fall of the Parthenopean Republic, with Nelson taking a good chunk of the blame. But the main romance I just found dull, which seems wrong. 

Ah, well. The beginning was good. The end was good, too: it ends with retrospectives written by dead characters, including the Cavaliere's first wife, whom I was happy to see more of:

"I cannot speak of myself without speaking of him. Even when I do not mention him, he is present by omission. But I will speak of myself, too.

I was his first wife.

I was plain. I was often unwell. I was devout. I loved music. He married me for my money. I fell in love with him after we were married. My God, how I loved him! He grew to love me, more than he had expected."

Overall I quite liked it, but curiously more for what happened at the margins than at the center.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter

"One way or another, all philosophical insight derives from an awareness of the mendacious nature of language. In fact, in language, truth is always relative, partial, circumscribed--a fragment of a fragment, an echo of an echo, a mere shadow." [p.126]


That's not an unrepresentative sample from Matei Calinescu's The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter. (1969, tr. Andrea Calinescu and Breon Mitchell, 2018.) It is labeled a novel, were warned.

I tend to be OK with that sort of thing. And while the talk may be philosophical, and the plot near to non-existent, it does have characters. The 'Biographer' who is telling us about Lichter, Lichter himself, and several figures in Lichter's circle: the drunk and silent philosopher Leopold Nacht,  Adrian Leonescu, a specialist in English phonetics, and Doctor S., a psychotherapist, the villain of the piece, if that's not too exalted a term. (He keeps wanting to explain Lichter, to explain Lichter to himself.) A few others. Zacharias Lichter is culturally Jewish, but not practicing.

The book is divided into short chapters, many of which are philosophical treatises in miniature. The quote above, for example, comes from a chapter 'On Lying.' Others include 'Regarding the Devil,' 'Responsibility and Freedom,' and 'On Mathematical Language.' At points it suggested Wittgenstein, if you leave out the math.

Lichter is also a poet, and we see his poems, though Lichter treats his own poetry dismissively. One poem presented in the text, the 'Biographer' tells us he had to rescue from the trash. They're typically held together with a sort of Biblical anaphora. Here's the opening to 'Mouth Full of Flowers': [p.56]

Beggars, lunatics, old friends,
It's been raining so long we have no shelter,
It rains of winter, of spring, and of other seasons,
It rains of thought and death, and without a purpose, it rains
Of fright and of cold words, of words, words.

But mostly, in addition to being a philosopher and a poet, Lichter is a sort of secular saint. He takes up an almost Buddhist begging rather than accumulate possessions. He's kind to the downtrodden and concerned with the aetherial. Lichter, himself, though denies this, saying that the silent (stille? und so heilige? 'Tis the season...) Nacht is the embodiment of love in the world. 

Norman Manea in the introduction says that 1969 was a period of relative liberalization in Romania; the book came out then. Also maybe the censors were too stupid to see. The novel takes place in a no-time, possibly the 1930s, but not very explicitly so, so how could Calinescu be complaining about Ceausescu? Nevertheless Calinescu was not allowed to publish afterwards, and got out of Romania, ultimately taking a position at Indiana University. He died in 2009. 

Life and Opinions suggests to English readers Tristram Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, and apparently it does to a Romanian, too. Cioran said of the novel, it's the story of the Baal Shem Tov as told by Sterne. It's not a bad comparison. Lichter is more analytic and less purely genial than the Baal Shem Tov, at least as the latter is presented in Buber and I. B. Singer. But like the Baal Shem Tov, and Socrates for that matter, Lichter doesn't write much:

"The fiery truth can only be transmitted orally." [p.80]

When he does write, he considers it shameful. (Hence, the poem in the trashcan.) 

While it's as plotless as Tristram Shandy, it is plotless in a different way and its prose is quite different. It reminded me of George Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, though I wonder if Calinescu could even have seen that work. But Gissing's short book has a biographer, G. G. as character, and a series of texts on philosophical or spiritual issues. Ryecroft is more of a nature writer than the urban Lichter. Anyway, Zacharias Lichter is its own thing, and I liked that thing. But it may have been wise on Calinescu's part to keep it short... (145 pages in translation).

"And now, may I ask what moved you to write my biography? Don't you see that my 'biography' is the last thing that could possibly be written? If I knew, at least that you meant to write a fictional life of Zacharias Lichter, so be it!...I predict that the biography you write will be serious and boring, cold, perhaps awkwardly ironic; something fitting only for yourself." [p.144]

Maybe, maybe not...

Nearing the end of the year, but one more for Gillion's European Reading Challenge!