Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

 "...I adhere to my determination of giving you my observations, as I travel through new scenes, whilst warmed with the impression they have made on me."

In the summer of 1795, Mary Wollstonecraft sailed from Hull, England for Scandinavia, making her first stop Gothenberg (Göteberg) in Sweden. 

By 1795 Wollstonecraft is an established author, with several important and popular books in her past, including Vindication of the Rights of Men (a response to Burke's attack on the French Revolution) and Vindication of the Rights of Women.

She travels with her older daughter, Fanny, and a French nurse. She mentions she has business reasons, though the text doesn't offer details. But it's also clear that it's an opportunity for a new book and while the 'you' of the letters, the 'you' of the quote above, is an actual person, it is also you, the reader.

But the original you is Gilbert Imlay, Fanny's father, who was capable of claiming to be married to Wollstonecraft without having done so, and had just left her for another woman. He was engaged in some dodgy commerce, likely trading confiscated Bourbon wealth for food, and the ship on which his goods were traveling had gone missing somewhere in Scandinavia. Wollstonecraft volunteers to go look, hoping to win Imlay back.

I liked this even better than Vindication of the Rights of Women. Vindication is, whether we've read it or not, a book we know--it's been that influential. And by and large (though, alas, not entirely) the grounds for debate have moved beyond it. This was more of a surprise. 
"Talk not of bastilles! To be born here, was to be bastilled by nature..." [of Sweden]

"...the Danes are the people who have made the fewest sacrifices to the graces." 

Of the three countries Norway is her clear favorite. Since the Other Reader is a quarter Norwegian, I was pleased to be able to report this. 

But it's not all snark--much as I enjoy a good snark. There's some fine nature writing, which leads her to meditate on our relative need for nature and civilization. 

"...the line of beauty requires some curves..."

She compares government and society in the three countries: at this time Sweden is going through a conservative, anti-Jacobin phase, and its finances are problematic because of a recent war against Russia and Denmark; Denmark is led by a Crown Prince who's an enlightened despot, which is (marginally) better than a plain despot; and Norway, nominally under Danish suzerainty, is suffering benign neglect, and its sturdy yeomanry little troubled by aristocrats. Anyway, that's what she says...

A map of her travels:

I read the book in the Oxford edition shown above, which has some nice additions: an introduction, the map, contemporary reviews, and several of the Wollstonecraft's original letters to Imlay. And notes. Glad to have them, though the description of England as 'impatient at the neutrality of Denmark' struck me as rather an odd phrasing. Not how the Danes thought of English actions when I was there. The book is also available from Gutenberg.

Then I read Sylvana Tomaselli's overview of Wollstonecraft, which came out from Princeton earlier this year. I think I would have preferred a more biographical approach, though this was quite good. Tomaselli organizes Wollstonecraft's thought by subject. Wollstonecraft is an important thinker, and one of the nice things about Letters is watching her think; still, for better or worse, she's a (successfully) practicing journalist, not an academic philosopher, and I'm not sure there's entirely a system there to be found. I'm suspicious of systems anyway. 

But it was fun to discover that Letters was Wollstonecraft's most successful book, rapidly translated into the Scandinavian languages. Coleridge was inspired by the book to plan a trip to Scandinavia, but like a lot of Coleridge's projects, it didn't come off. Likely he got no further than Porlock

The book works for a couple of my challenges this year:

"Adieu! I must trip up the rocks..."

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Gwendolyn Brooks (#NationalPoetryMonth)


a song in the front yard

I've stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it's rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it's fine
How they don't have to go in at a quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George'll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate.)

But I say it's fine. Honest, I do.
And I'd like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

'a song in the front yard' is from Gwendolyn Brooks' first book of poems A Street in Bronzeville. Brooks was the Poet Laureate of Illinois from early in my childhood until her death in 2000 at 83. Bronzeville is a Black neighborhood on the near south side of Chicago. 

She's always been a favorite of mine.

Poem For A Thursday is a meme created by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Robert Hass (#NationalPoetryMonth)



Amateurs, we gathered mushrooms
near shaggy eucalyptus groves
which smelled of camphor and the fog-soaked earth.
Chanterelles, puffballs, chicken-of-the-woods,
we cooked in wine or butter
beaten eggs or sour cream,
half expecting to be
killed by a mistake. "Intense perspiration,"
you said late at night,
quoting the terrifying field guide
while we lay tangled in our sheets and heavy limbs,
"is the first symptom of attack."

Friends called our aromatic fungi
"liebestoads" and only ate the ones
that we most certainly survived.
Death shook us more than once
those days and floating back
it felt like life. Earth-wet, slithery,
we drifted toward the names of things.
Spore prints littered our table
like nervous stars. Rotting caps
gave off a musky smell of loam.
'Fall' is from Robert Hass' first book of poetry Field Guide (1973). It won the Yale Younger Poets prize that year. One could cook from it for weeks, eating well the whole time. The younger Robert Hass from the back of the book:

He looks like he just came back from mushrooming. Or maybe it was something else that 'late at night' messed up his hair.

Poem for a Thursday is a meme started by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. Brona has a poem by H.D. this week.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

March Wrapup

My reading month in March:

Koren Shadmi's Graphical Biographies

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television

I saw this reviewed in the New York Review of Books--yes, yes, I'm running behind--and ordered it from the library. I was never particularly a fan of The Twilight Zone--too black and white for me at the age I would have watched the show in reruns--but I liked the graphical style of the clips in the review and the book looked interesting. It was. In fact, really quite good--it got me interested and I might try to see some Twilight Zone episodes. It recapitulates Serling's life story in a narrative frame you might find in a Twilight Zone plot.

Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D (text by David Kushner)

Looking up Shadmi in my library's catalog, I also came across this. I was a fan of Dungeons and Dragons and so I got this one, too. Though it's Gary Gygax in the title, don't worry: Dave Arneson gets equal time. It was enjoyable, and even though it spoke to me more, I do think it was a less successful work than The Twilight Zone volume. The text is written as if by a dungeon master, or even more, as if it were from that early computer game Colossal Cave/Adventure. (That game's author Will Crowther gets a couple of pages.) "You are in a maze of twisty passages all alike." "You are likely to be eaten by a grue."

The Mystery Department

Michael Innes' Hare Sitting Up

An Inspector Appleby story from 1959. Take identical twin brothers, one a schoolmaster, the other a biowarfare scientist, add a rural lord half(?)-crazed with bird-watching, throw in a blackmailer and a pretty girl with a Ph.D., and you've got a story. It's mostly Innes in his silly mode, which I actually prefer, though Innes does want to say one or two serious things about the morality of WMDs. Not his best by any means, but fun.

Julie Campbell's The Gatehouse Mystery

Trixie and Honey find a diamond in the old gate house on the Wheeler property. Are they going to turn it into the proper authorities? Of course not!

This book has the first appearance of Trixie's older brothers, Brian--and Mart, the snarky one with a propensity toward Brobdingnagian vocables. Always my favorite character. I'm sure I don't know why.

The next in the series is waiting at the library for me to pick it up.

Chester Himes' Blind Man With A Pistol

The last of the Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones mysteries Himes completed, from 1969. This is a very ambitious book, bursting the bounds of Himes' already capacious sense of what a mystery can be. All in 191 pages. Several plots; several time frames. Pretty great & at some risk of sending me down a Himes rabbit hole--I've ordered up the recent biography of Himes from the library. But if you're interested in Himes as a mystery writer, you should probably start with something earlier in the series.

"'There ain't going to be any facts,' Grave Digger informed Anderson."


Cathy at 746Books has organized a year long read of Brian Moore's books in honor of what would have been his hundredth birthday. 

Brian Moore's The Color of Blood

Political tensions in an unnamed East European country just before the fall of the Iron Curtain. I thought it was very good. More here.

Brian Moore's Fergus

That I enjoyed The Color of Blood so much led me on to read Fergus. Not as good, I said, though still good.

This month's Brian Moore is the great, but grim, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Will I reread it? Maybe, but I haven't yet.

The Poetry Section

George Bradley's Of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

This collection came out with Knopf in 1991. A living American poet (b. 1953). The first volume of his I've read--though a couple of these poems appeared in The New Republic in the 80s, so it's possible I read those before. I thought it was very good. Expect something to appear in a poem post in the future. Bradley's poem 'The Lives of the Chinese Poets' begins 'About suffering they were reticent,...' O my Auden

Georgi Gospodinov

Natural Novel, And Other Stories, The Physics of Sorrow

Contemporary Bulgarian novelist, poet, story writer. That's most of what of his is available in English. I think he's pretty good. More thoughts here, mostly on The Physics of Sorrow.

Hilary Mantel's Cromwell

Wolf Hall

I reread this for Brona's readalong, but I'm *still* organizing my thoughts on this one. Not very organized thoughts, eh? I should have finished rereading Bring Up The Bodies to be on schedule, but I haven't...

Shakespeare's Henry VIII

That sent me off to this. Not necessarily one of the better plays, but there are some great speeches--Buckingham's (Act II, Sc 1) on his sentence of death:

The law I bear no malice for my death
'T has done upon the premises but justice
But those that sought it I could wish more Christians

or Wolsey's farewell to greatness.

Andre Alexis

Contemporary Canadian writer. He's four books into a series of five he's termed a quincunx. I read the first, Pastoral (2014). I thought it was very good. A newly minted priest takes up a parish in a small town near Sarnia, Ontario. The second one in the series--Fifteen Dogs--is the celebrated one; it won the Giller, one of Canada's two major novel prizes, as well as various other prizes. I might have more to say when I finish the sequence, at least as it stands now. I have the others on hand.


Rex Warner (no relation?--though that first name could so easily slip into...) translated three Euripidean plays with strong female characters in the 40s & 50s: Medea, Hippolytus, Helen. I was interested in the Helen, but then I carried on. Medea, Phaedra, & Helen are all women who do bad or tricksy things and suffer at the hands of men. These are quite often read now as feminist or proto-feminist; would an Athenian of the time have thought so? Mmm. Certainly as Aristophanes presents it (Women at the Thesmophoria) Euripides wasn't popular with the ladies...but then, that's Aristophanes.

No longer the standard translations, but I thought they were quite good. I especially liked Warner's handling of the choruses. He's an interesting novelist (The Aerodrome) and poet, but best known now, I'm guessing, as the translator of Thucydides.

The books that were still around the house (at least when I took the picture):

I wrote most of this post a while ago. It was long past time to either delete it or publish it. Yet another month of much, but muddled, reading--I sometimes get embarrassed by the desultoriness of my reading. Oh, well. Any of these strike thoughts in you?

Sunday, April 18, 2021

#CCSpin: And the Winner is...


Which means R. L. Stevenson's Travels With A Donkey for me. That was probably the most fun thing that I put on my list. Woo-hoo! And it will do convenient double duty with Karen's Back To The Classics challenge.

Did you get something good?

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Robert Frost (#NationalPoetryMonth, #1936Club)

Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be--
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

-Robert Frost 

Robert Frost's book A Further Range came out in 1936. 'Neither Out Far Nor In Deep' is from that book. 

In a rather click-bait-y essay 'The Other Frost', Randall Jarrell calls it one of Frost's ten or twelve best poems; he doesn't include the ones you might guess. Is it better than 'The Road Not Taken' or 'Stopping By Woods'? Hmm, I don't know, but I do like it.

Jarrell goes on to say, in a different essay, 'To The Laodiceans':

'It would be hard to find anything more unpleasant to say about people than that last stanza; but Frost doesn't say it unpleasantly--he says it with flat ease, takes everything with something harder than contempt, more passive than acceptance. And isn't there something heroic about the whole business, too--something touching about our absurdity?'

The Poem For A Thursday meme was invented by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness; she, too, has a shore poem this week, by Emily Dickinson. Brona has a 1936 poem, Parrots by Rex Ingamells.


Wednesday, April 14, 2021

John P. Marquand's Thank You, Mr. Moto (#1936Club)

 "...but it doesn't matter, does it?"

Tom Nelson is an American living in Beijing; he's a lawyer, and had been on partner track, when, after a dispute, he chucked it all and moved to China. We're told he's gone native; he's become fluent in Chinese, knowledgeable about Chinese art, but with the presumed passiveness of the locals as well.

The novel starts at a party. His friend, decayed aristocrat Prince Tung is there; so is Major Jameson Best, cashiered for unknown reasons from the British army. He meets Eleanor Joyce, an American woman in China for reasons she doesn't disclose, and also Mr. Moto.

That's Nelson's tagline above. Nothing matters to him, until, well, it does. 😉

Major Best asks him to visit him at home when he leaves the party and Nelson agrees. When they meet later, Best tells Nelson he may want a formal introduction to Prince Tung, but is very mysterious about his reasons. Nelson leaves and sees Eleanor Joyce arriving. Later that night Best is murdered. Was Nelson the last person to see Best alive? Was Eleanor Joyce?

It's a pretty rollicking story, with elements of both mystery and spy thriller. At the time the novel is set, Japan is already the dominant power in north China, having taken over Manchuria a couple of years earlier. Mr. Moto is connected to the Japanese occupying forces (not quite yet occupying Beijing) in some sort of unspecified intelligence role. At the time the novel starts what Chinese forces are stationed in Beijing have been called away for reasons no one is quite sure of. But everyone is sure there's a plot afoot. And so there is.

After Earl Derr Biggers, the author of the Charlie Chan mysteries, died in 1933, the Saturday Evening Post was looking for a new series with a sympathetic Asian detective to replace it. Marquand, already established with them, took up their offer, traveled to China on their dime to soak up some local color, and produced Mr. Moto.

This is the second in the series, and the formula is established. An American going to the dogs in Asia--the passive Tom Nelson in this one, the drunk pilot Casey Lee in the first--meets a beautiful woman on a somewhat suspect mission and also Mr. Moto, who is neither enemy exactly nor friend.

Mr. Moto is a stereotype, however well-intentioned, but not quite as much as the Charlie Chan he replaced. He's loyal to his country, competent, polite, honorable, but also realistic, and not given to holding a grudge when he's lost the play. Perfectly capable of killing enemies, though only the ones that deserve it. Various characters defend Japanese imperialism because, well,... everyone else does it--the Brits, the Russians, the Americans--and, of course, that's true. I'm not quite certain how seriously Marquand intends us to take that as a defence, but pretty seriously, I fear. 

That does make it a good 1936 book in its way, representing attitudes of the period. Marquand is also pretty up on the political situation. One of the elements in the plot must be an attempted replay of the provocation of the Mukden Incident of 1931. A formula that would improve cruising ranges and eliminate the need for coaling stations is the MacGuffin of the first novel.

I read a couple of the stories from later in the series years ago, and I don't remember them that fondly, but the first two, at least, are pretty good yarns. 

Thank You, Mr. Moto, is also one of the movies in the series with Peter Lorre (!) as Mr. Moto. That's a rather Peter-Lorre-ish Moto above on the cover of the edition I read. The movie's available on YouTube, so we watched it last night. It's cheesy, but fun, and doesn't have much to do with the novel, except some of the characters having the same names:

This week is the 1936 club. Thanks to Kaggsy and Simon for hosting!

I finished this yesterday while waiting around after I got my coronavirus jab. Yay!

Link back to organizing post.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Classics Club Spin #26


It's time for the latest Classics Club spin, Numero 26! You probably know the rules. I'm running low on books from my original list, (and skipping a couple for a spin) but I have started assembling a second list so I'll pick a few of those and then there will be some doubling up. 

Let's go straight to the list of books:

From my first Classics Club list:

1.) Samuel Butler/The Way of All Flesh

2.) Willa Cather/A Lost Lady

3.) Willa Cather/One of Ours

4.) W. Somerset Maugham/The Razor's Edge

5.) Sir Walter Scott/Count Robert of Paris

6.) R. L. Stevenson/The Black Arrow

7.) Honoré de Balzac/Cousin Bette

8.) Johann von Goethe/Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

9.) Henryk Sienkewicz/Quo Vadis

10.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara

From that new Classics Club list:

11.) R. L. Stevenson/Travels With A Donkey

12.) Barbara Tuchman/A Distant Mirror

13.) John Ruskin/Unto This Last

14.) Thomas de Quincey/Lake Poets

15.) Dee Brown/Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

And some stacking the deck:

16.) Willa Cather/One of Ours

17.) W. Somerset Maugham/The Razor's Edge

18.) R. L. Stevenson/The Black Arrow

19.) Johann von Goethe/Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

20.) Henryk Sienkewicz/Quo Vadis

I think that chapter-a-day readalong of Quo Vadis (which I didn't originally commit to) may going on now so that would timely, but other than that I don't have any strong preferences.

Have you read any of these? Which look good to you?

And happy spinning to all!

Monday, April 12, 2021

Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper (#1936Club)

 "...and how is it do-day, how is it to-day in this year of 1936, how is it to-day?"

Well, that's the question we're here to ask this week, isn't it?

Pompey Casmilus is the private secretary in the publishing business. She's the narrator of the novel. She's well-educated--the book drops into German, French, Italian, Latin, Greek along the way--and she has literary aspirations of her own: she writes poetry. We're given samples. "That a poem I wrote, the way I wrote that other one I was saying and never got published. That's two off my hands."

We see things in her life; her boyfriends, two main ones, Karl the German that was, and Freddy the London suburbanite that is; her other friends; her relationship with her father, that abandoned the family; her mother, who died was Pompey was still young; the aunt (the lion Aunt of Hull) who raised her. The WWI veteran who convalesces in her town, with whom she becomes friends; she's twelve at the start of that war. She goes to Germany before Hitler, but just, and is shocked out of her own, much milder, anti-Semitism. 

Pompey is interested in the intellectual currents of those years. Not only is there the situation in Germany, but the advent of sex education, Freudianism. I was particularly amused by her critique of classical scholarship--she dislikes Gilbert Murray's translation of Medea, because she finds it too emotional, insufficiently pure in its tragedy, not 'classical' enough. She prefers Racine's Phedre to Euripides' Hippolytus. At the time there was a growing awareness that the ancient Greeks weren't the icy Spock-ians they were long thought to be; Pompey is in favor of the old order. E. R. Dodds' Greeks and the Irrational (1951) would have just sent her round the bend. 

Correspondingly it's not a plot-driven novel. It's interested in the state of the 'modern' woman, and the back cover asks, '...but must she marry?' And it's true that's a question, but it's not the question; there is no conflict with an epiphany to wrap it all up.

Instead, I say it's a novel of voice. So, let's have some quotes!

"I'm typing this book on yellow paper. It is very yellow paper, and is this very yellow paper because often sometimes I am typing it in my room at my office, and the paper I use for Sir Phoebus's letters is blue paper with his name across the corner 'Sir Phoebus Ullwater, Bt.' and those letters of Sir Phoebus's go out all over the world. And that is why I type yellow, typing for my own pleasure, and not sending it by clerical error to the stockbrokers for a couple of thou. in Tekka Taiping, and not sending it to the Chief of Police with a formal complaint, and not sending it to Great Aunt Agatha asking her to, and asking her to..."

Yes, it really does say often sometimes, and it ends on the ellipsis in the original. 

"But first, Reader, I will give you a word of warning. This is a foot-off-the-ground novel that came by the left hand. And the thoughts come and go and sometimes they do not quite come and I do not pursue them to embarrass them with formality to pursue them into a harsh captivity. And if you are a foot-off-the-ground person I make no bones to say that is how you will write and only how you will write. And if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation. So put it down. Leave it alone."

That comes on page 38 in my New Directions reprint. So the warning is pretty early--but not at the very beginning...

"Astarte, Gave a Party, In Cromarty, Everyone was Rather Hearty."

A poem Pompey makes up spontaneously for Sir Phoebus.

"Harriet is also having troubles with her young man that sweet boy that is so very serious, and very teaching. Harriet is much more intelligent I think because she is not always being so serious. But this boy friend who is called Stephen, he is very serious indeed, and has never grown up out of being an undergraduate."

Anyway, you get the idea. Funny, thoughtful, but perhaps just a bit exasperating? If you've read it, what did you think?

There are several of Stevie Smith's own illustrations in this; the cover art is drawn by her. They're always fun.

I do think I like her poetry better.

It's the 1936 Club hosted by Simon and Kaggsy this week. Thanks to them for hosting!

Pompey Casmilus typing her novel (on yellow paper)

Link to my organizing post.

Saturday, April 10, 2021



Simon's amusing graphic

Monday is start of Kaggsy and Simon's biannual year reading project; this year it's 1936 we'll be time-traveling to. Immediately after they announced the upcoming year, I created a gigantic list of books I had read, could read, might conceivably read. I've pared down, but still have more candidates than I actually will read:

That's (from top to bottom):

Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps

John P. Marquand's Thank You, Mr. Moto

Noel Coward's Tonight at 8:30 (in a collection with other plays)

Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper

James T. Farrell's A World I Never Made

Karel Čapek's War With The Newts

The bottom two would be rereads. In fact it would be the fourth (fifth?) time I've read War With The Newts, but that would be OK, it's worth it. I read Čapek's R.U.R. for the 1920 club a year ago, and I've been thinking about rereading War With The Newts since then. I'm unlikely to read them all, but I might! I'm better than halfway through the Stevie Smith currently. There are a few other things that might slip in in their place.

James T. Farrell is likely the obscure one, which makes that particularly tempting. He should be better known. He's a Irish Catholic Chicago novelist (though he later moved to New York in a fit of pique with Chicago.) He died in 1979. A World I Never Made is the first of his Danny O'Neill series, though Farrell is more famous, as much as he is, for his Studs Lonigan novels, which got the Library of America treatment a few years back. They're very good and he really oughtn't be so little-known.

I've read one 1936 novel since I started blogging: Graham Greene's A Gun For Sale. It's reviewed here.

But I definitely will *not* be reading John Maynard Keynes' General Theory, despite having read some Keynes and Keynes-related things recently and the temptation to do so...

Have you read any of these? Which look good to you? Do you have plans for the 1936 club?

What I actually did read (most likely different from above):

1.) Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper

2.) John P. Marquand's Thank You, Mr. Moto

Thursday, April 8, 2021

George Starbuck (#NationalPoetryMonth)


Last Straw


-George Starbuck

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: the condensed version.

I'm showing it in Courier, a monospace font, to emphasize the lines. Starbuck wrote a series of poems like this, called SLABS, Standard Length And Breadth Sonnets. He wrote a number of other shaped poems ("Sonnet In The Shape of A Potted Christmas Tree") and light verse. And maybe some serious poems, too...

Annoyingly the editors did not actually include this in my selected Starbuck shown above; I have no idea where I first came across it; it's written in an old commonplace book of mine. In googling to check the text, I found it difficult to come by on-line. (Googling "Starbuck Last Straw" turns up worthwhile initiatives about plastic. I had to include a line to get anywhere. And the last few lines I couldn't find at all.) But it seems it appeared in his final collection, Visible Ink, 2002, after his death in 1996.

Bonus Poem: this *is* from The Works and is one of my favorite double dactyls:

High Renaissance

"Nomine Domini,
None of these prelates can
Manage your name.

Change it. Appeal to their
Sign it 'El Greco.' I'll
Slap on a frame."

It's National Poetry Month in the Canada and the U.S.!

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Sexta Aprilis: Day Fatality, or Some Observations of Days Lucky and Unlucky

From John Aubrey's Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects

"Upon the sixth of April, Alexander the Great was born. Upon the same day he conquered Darius, won a great victory at sea, and died the same day.

Neither was this day less fortunate to his father Philip; for on the same day he took Potidea; Parmenio, his general, gave a great overthrow to the Illyrians; and his horse was victor at the Olympic games. Therefore, his prophets foretold to him, 'Filium cujus natalis,' &c. That a son whose birthday was accompanied with three victories, should prove invincible.

At the hour of prime, April 6, 1327, Petrarch first saw his mistress Laura in the church of Saint Clara in Avignon. In the same city, same month, same hour, 1348, she died."

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Georgi Gospodinov's The Physics of Sorrow

 "We needed quite some time to pull ourselves together after the battles, to climb down off our horses, and reenter the dull Bulgarian world."

The Physics of Sorrow (2011, 2015 in the English translation by Angela Rodel) is Georgi Gospodinov's second novel. In it, the main character, whose name is Georgi Gospodinov, has the ability to enter the thoughts, the consciousness, the soul of other figures, human, but also not just human, a snail, a fruit fly, a cloud.

A metaphor for what a writer does?

The final paragraph of the Prologue reads, "We am." (Though in an interview I read, Gospodinov says it's more like 'I are' in Bulgarian, but that he preferred 'We am' in English.)

But most of the figures, whose consciousness our narrator inhabits, are members of the Gospodinov family: the father, a veterinarian, is born in the closing days of World War II; his grandfather, also Georgi Gospodinov, just before the beginning of the first world war. The book wanders pretty freely, but at its core, it's family history as novel.

There are other Georgi Gospodinovs in the novel, not just the ones in the family; in the book (maybe in real life, too?--but I don't know) the name turns out to be the John Smith of Bulgaria. 

This capacity to suddenly be inside someone else's thoughts first manifests itself when he's a child, and it alarms narrator Georgi, as well it might, when suddenly you see the events of World War I as if through your three-year-old grandfather's eyes. As a young man he goes to a doctor where he's given the comic diagnosis of 'pathological empathy or obsessive empathetic-somatic syndrome.' The doctor tells narrator Georgi it's OK, it's usually something people grow out of, and narrator Georgi does, at least partly. Though this entails a sense of loss, too. 

The Minotaur (that's a stylized minotaur on the cover, though I did wonder at first if it was an ungeheueren Ungeziefer) serves as a leitmotif. In the communist era, narrator Georgi is a latchkey kid in a basement; which makes him the Minotaur; but others are as well. A sympathetic minotaur, who's internalized that sense of monsterhood.
"We bang around like Minotaurs in these basements."
"We're talking about the abandonment and forcible confinement of a child, branded by his origins, for which he is not to blame."

The novel is also interested in the nature and purpose of stories:

"I can't offer a linear story, because no labyrinth and no story is ever linear."

"...stories always end in one of two ways--with a child or with a death."

"Researchers believe that the conscious cultivation of empathy, including through the reading of novels (see S. Keen), will make communication far easier and will save us from future world cataclysms." 

The novel is essayistic and episodic in the way of W. G. Sebald or Olga Tokarczuk's Flights. If you like that sort of thing. I do, and I did in this case--quite a lot, in fact. I was on a bit of Gospodinov bender the last month. This was the third of his I read--pretty much all of him in English--and I thought this the best. The others were his first novel Natural Novel and a collection of stories And Other Stories. (But kind of schematic titles, don't you think?) He's also a poet, which should probably be published under the title, Some Poetry, but I don't know that any has made it into English. My visit to Bulgaria for the European Reading Challenge at Rose City Reader:

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Seamus Heaney (#BrianMooreAt100)

Brian and Jean Moore's home in Malibu

Remembering Malibu

for Brian Moore

The Pacific at your door was wilder and colder
than my notion of the Pacific

and that was perfect, for I would have rotted
beside the luke-warm ocean I imagined.

Yet no way was its cold ascetic
as our monk-fished, snowed-into Atlantic;

no beehive hut for you
on the abstract sands of Malibu --

it was early Mondrian and his dunes
misting towards the ideal forms

though the wind and sea neighed loud
as wind and sea noise amplified.

I was there in the flesh
where I'd imagined I might be

and underwent the bluster of the day:
but why would it not come home to me?

Atlantic storms have flensed the cells
on the Great Skellig, the steps cut in the rock

I never climbed
between the graveyard and the boatslip

are welted solid to my instep.
But to rear and kick and cast that shoe --

beside that other western sea
far from the Skelligs, and far, far

from the suck of puddled, wintry ground
our footsteps filled with blowing sand.

Via Wikipedia I came across this lovely reminiscence (by Scott Bradfield for the LA Times) of Brian and Jean Moore and their house in Malibu. The house was sadly destroyed in the Woolsey fire. And via that I realized there was a Seamus Heaney poem for Brian Moore set at the house. It's from Station Island (1985)

which was likely the first collection of Heaney's poems I read. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

Brian Moore's Fergus (#BrianMooreAt100)


Hubert and Fergus and weather that looks more Ireland than LA

A couple of weeks ago I read Brian Moore's The Color of Blood and enjoyed that so much I thought I should try another Moore. Cathy at 746Books and Brian Moore At 100 are hosting a readalong of Moore's novels and this month's book is Fergus, his novel of 1970. I saw I could get it from my library, so I did.

Fergus Fadden is a novelist and scriptwriter living in the LA area. He's 39, recently divorced and is short of money for alimony and child support; he's taken a purportedly lucrative Hollywood job scriptwriting for the team of Redshields (director) and Boweri (producer). He's living with Dani, 21, and is more interested in marrying her than she is him. He's haunted by his Irish past.

And when I say haunted, that's more literal than metaphorical. His father, who is long since dead, is the first to show up. Page 2, in my edition:

"Fergus was afraid. He looked away as a child looks away when it sees something which upsets it. Then, uneasily, he looked back at the yellow sofa. His father was still there."

Fergus quite rightly wonders if he's losing it. And we're allowed to wonder for a while, too. But when his sister Maeve shows up, who's living in Ireland and not in LA, and at an age younger than she would be in life, she eats a plum. Fergus later finds the pit and deduces only Maeve could have eaten it. Hmm.

Other figures than Fergus' parents and siblings show up as well. Aunts and uncles. A couple of priests from Fergus' youth. The married neighbor Fergus once lusted after, and her dentist husband. Ex-girlfriends. Friends from the places he's lived--Ireland, New York. He talks to them, wants to talk to them, feels they're real enough he has to talk to them, even though other (likely real) people might be in the room and seem unable to see whom it is he's talking to. This leads to comic complications.

Various factions accuse him of terrible things: the priests, the neighbor's husband; others stand up for him, his parents at times, his friends, though often ironically. It's an odd setup, but actually fairly successful. It gives a real picture of a man going through a personal crisis. Not I'm not necessarily that sympathetic--any more--to someone who's worried his life is already over at 39... ;-)

The Boweri/Redshields episodes, though, I have to say, I liked less. They're a bit background to the main personal crisis, but I wish they had been further in the background. The pair are a bit too much stock Hollywood movie-producing villains. And, what's especially disappointing, as I learned from Cathy's review of the book, this is based on an actual episode in Moore's life as a scriptwriter for Alfred Hitchcock. Whatever one may think of Hitchcock, he should at least make for a more interesting figure than these two. 

Having previously noted Moore's failure in 1987 to predict the fall of the Iron Curtain, I was also amused by this:

"...twenty years from now, when birth control will be permitted for Catholics..."

This, in 1970. It's a good thing Moore didn't hang up his shingle as a pundit.

All in all, though, quite a good novel, funny and poignant both, even if this one didn't quite rocket up to be among my favorite Brian Moore novels. Next month's book in the year-long readalong is The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, undoubtedly one of Moore's most celebrated. I have a copy, which I read something like twenty-plus years ago, not too long after emigrating to Canada. I remember it as pretty great, but terribly sad. We'll see whether I have the emotional wherewithal to reread it next month...

For more information on Moore, I definitely recommend the pages from Cathy's blog and University of Exeter Brian Moore at 100 blog linked above.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Thomas Wyatt



Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
  But as for me, alas, I may no more.
  The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
  I am of them that farthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
  Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
  Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt
  As well as I may spend his time in vain;
  And, graven with diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
  Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am
  And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

-Sir Thomas Wyatt

The very first sonnet in that Oxford Book of [English-language] Sonnets.

For the moment this is standing in for the fact that I finished rereading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. While nobody really knows for sure who slept with whom in the 1500s, the hind of this poem is generally taken to be Anne Boleyn. Mantel certainly assumes this poem is about Anne, and alludes to it, though she also has Wyatt tell Thomas Cromwell he had not slept with her. In fact, for Hilary Mantel, Anne Boleyn is still a virgin the first time she sleeps with Henry.

If indeed this poem is about Anne Boleyn, then Caesar is Henry the VIIIth. Noli me tangere is 'Hands off!' or more literally, 'Don't touch me.'

I am intending to try to say something about Wolf Hall, which I reread recently because Brona is hosting a readalong.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Brian Moore's The Color of Blood (#BrianMooreAt100)

"It is a reminder that there are times when resistance, violence, even death, are preferable to tyranny...I am an inadequate leader. I have allowed my people to come to the brink of such violence, to a confusion between the wrongs that some have done to us and the wrongs that some among us now advocate that we do in return...Remember that, no matter which government rules us, we remain a free people, free in our minds, free in an unfree state."

That's from a speech Cardinal Stephen Bem gives at a religious celebration near the end of the novel. Bem is the leader of the Church in an unnamed Catholic country in Eastern Europe. (Call it Orsinia or Ruritania if you like.) The time is before the fall of the Iron Curtain (the novel comes out in 1987) and the country is still under the thumb of Russia. The cardinal is being driven to the Residence when, on the second page, someone tries to assassinate him. It's a novel that doesn't mess around. It's a swift 180 pages in my edition.

Moore's earliest publications were pseudonymous thrillers. This isn't a thriller (or not just, because it does thrill) but I'd say his training from those early books shows up well in this.

The cardinal survives, but neither his chauffeur nor the man holding the gun pointed at him do. The gunman was a passenger in another car, and the driver of that car, a woman, disappears. Who was he, who was she, who was behind the assassination attempt, who can the cardinal trust? And what is the right thing for a genuine, though not perfect, man of God to do in this troubled situation?

A few pages later he's taken into custody. He's told it's protective custody, but is it? And just who is it they are they protecting him against?

A popular blurb on Moore's novels declares he was Graham Greene's favorite living novelist; of the half-dozen Moores I've read this is easily the most Greene-ean. There is nothing wrong with that by me. Cardinal Bem has to make sense of various factions, all with their own agenda: unions, Security Police, church officials of at least three different political stripes, Communist officials of the state--the Prime Minister is an old schoolmate--but also those officials' Russian minders. Some of them want violence, and some of them want to avoid it at any cost. But as Bem notes in his speech above, sometimes avoiding violence at any cost is, in fact, a cost too high. But I don't want to give away Cardinal Bem's final choices.

Moore did not foresee how close the fall of the Iron Curtain actually was in 1987, but then almost nobody did.  

'...the tyranny of an age when religious beliefs have become inextricably entwined with political hatreds...'

I thought: which age isn't that? But of course Moore was from Northern Ireland. He may very well have known that to be a problem that wasn't ever entirely going away.

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker its year, but lost out to Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger. I quite liked Moon Tiger, but I probably would have picked this. I thought The Color of Blood was very good. This may very well have just rocketed up to be my favorite Moore, though such comparisons are always silly and it's been twenty years since I read Judith Hearne and Ginger Coffey so I might rethink that if I reread them. Highly recommended.

This year would be Brian Moore's hundredth birthday and Cathy at 746 Books (with help) is hosting a celebration.

And while Moore emigrated to Canada, became a citizen, was living in the US when he wrote this book, and it's a book about somewhere in Eastern Europe, he *was* born in Northern Ireland, so...I think we get to count it! 

Reading Ireland Month

Friday, March 5, 2021

February Wrapup

Hmm. Am I going to be a person who now writes monthly wrapup posts? I doubt it, but I'm trying it on for size.


Michael Pollan's How To Change Your Mind

About recent research into, and experimentation with, psychedelics. A friend's been recommending this for a while. (Who has acted on it.) It was also, through the weird channels in which my brain works, related to a project I was reading on. When I got it from the library, I wasn't actually sure I would read it, but then the first chapter was full of people I knew, and so I was hooked. I worked, as a computer programmer, for the pharmacology department at the University of Chicago in the mid to late 80s. All those people were no longer researching psychedelics by then, for reasons expounded by Pollan, but they had been.

Pollan strikes me as a pretty good writer of non-fiction, and while LSD and mushrooms aren't really my thing, I'm now inclined to read The Omnivore's Dilemma. Eating meat, while maybe feeling you shouldn't, is my thing, and now I'm curious to see what Pollan has to say.

Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell

Unsurprisingly this is an important book in Pollan. It didn't do much for me when I first read it thirty years ago, and it still didn't. I have loved Brave New World on each of several readings, and I keep thinking that some other Huxley book will mean as much. None has yet. I was surprised how much art criticism was in this; that probably all went over my head the first time.


Cees Nooteboom's Venice

Visiting Venice. Important living Dutch writer and this was really very good. More here.

Donna Leon's Death at La Fenice

That sent me off to Donna Leon. The first Commissario Brunetti story. The mystery was so-so, but the characters and setting are fun. I might also read/reread some Michael Dibdins at some point.


Megha Majdumar's A Burning

I really ought to have written about this one at length, but it arrived from the library after a long wait and I wasn't going to be able to renew it. Molotov cocktails are thrown into a commuter train in India, and what happens to various characters peripherally associated with this terror attack. Her debut novel, there's been some buzz, and I definitely enjoyed it. I read somewhere that it has done better in North America than in India. That makes sense to me. Her politics are well-intentioned, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that an Indian found them shallow while a North American thought them insightful. It's the voice that interested me. It's possible the same criticism could be made (felt shallow there, but impressive here) but I was impressed. I'd read another of hers.

Susanna M. Smith (#ReadIndies)

Susanna M. Smith's How The Blessed Live

It was #ReadIndies month hosted by Kaggsy and I really should have blogged about these on time. I already had the idea of digging into a couple of small Canadian publishers and had these when I saw her announcement. How The Blessed Live is about two fraternal twins and their father. The daughter goes to Vancouver and hangs out with artists; the son goes to Montreal to university. The mother died at their birth, and the father lives in lamentation on an island in Lake Ontario. Isis and Osiris are mentioned. There may have been brother/sister incest.

I mention that mostly because I tend to dislike it in a novel and still I liked this novel. Brother/sister incest goes back to Egypt, to Greece; anything after about Malory starts to feel derivative. I was willing to forgive it here, so that means it must have been pretty well done. A fairly poetic style. This came out with Coach House books in 2002. If I'd written that Coach House books post (this one came from the public library, but I have several other of their books here already) I would also have mentioned how I love, love, love the paper stock they use.

Susanna M. Smith's The Fairy Tale Museum

This book (her second and only other book I believe) came out with Invisible Publishing in 2018, the press I was more interested in (and knew less about) when I ordered them up from the library. A collection of stories on similar somewhat magical themes: a fairy tale museum. (Truth in advertising.) I liked this even better. She retells various fairy tales with a twist and in different contexts. Think, I suppose, Angela Carter.

More stuff related only in my own mind to Propertius

Shakespeare's Henry V

I started it looking for that speech about tennis balls and mockery--and found I had misremembered the line I was looking for. That speech is in Act I and I could have stopped there, but it is Henry V. The second act is weird, but otherwise such a great play. I carried on. We few, we happy few. We are the makers of manners.

Robert Herrick's Poems

Herrick has a more obvious connection to Propertius, maybe not just in my mind. ("Come, I will drink a tun/To my Propertius.") My edition is not complete, a compact thing from Blackie and Son that I probably bought in the U.K. years ago. But it does have a good couple hundred of his (mostly short) poems. Reading it this time, though I was supposed to be thinking about Propertius, the pandemic kept coming to mind:

Stay then at home, and do not go,
Or fly abroad, and seek for woe.

I ask you: could I help it? And, Ted Cruz, were you listening?


Antonio Tabucchi's Indian Nocturne

Another book I should have blogged about. Novella length. Pretty great. A character much like Tabucchi himself travels to India, both for academic reasons, but also to hunt up an old friend who may be in trouble. We learn about the back story with the friend; we learn about the writing of books. Does he find the friend? Well. Tabucchi was a professor of Portuguese and the story ends in Goa. It's not the equal of his Sostiene Pereira, but then, so very few things are.

Trixie Belden

Julie Campbell's The Secret of the Mansion

I found this in a Little Free Library a few months ago, and thought, wow, I could recapture my childhood. It hung around my reading chair for those few months and then, one night, when nothing else was working, I reread it. I was surprised how well it held up.

I had not yet read Little Women when I read these as a child--I only read that as an adult--and I was surprised at how much this owes to Little Women. Julie Campbell likes the poor little rich kid next door motif so much she uses it twice. It's Honey Wheeler in this one; Diana Lynch is only mentioned in the second book and joins the gang still later. Oh, the chores! And is that Moms? Or Marmee?

Just who is it living in the old Frayne mansion next door? And is there treasure hidden in there? Sleepyside-on-Hudson...not so sleepy any more!

Julie Campbell's The Red Trailer Mystery

I enjoyed that one so much, I ordered up the next several from the library. The Red Trailer Mystery is practically one novel with the The Secret of the Mansion. Jim Frayne disappears at the end of the first; Trixie and Honey and the ever-competent Miss Trask hunt him down--in order to tell him he's inherited a million bucks--in the second. And find some trailer thieves. And help a poor family, who aren't yet dying of tuberculosis, but could be.

More of these to come!


Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus

Let us continue the I-should-have-blogged-about theme. Maybe I even did so, though pretty danged obliquely.

Two Australian orphan sisters, Grace and Caroline, move to England. Their lives. Grace, the sweeter and blonder one, marries the son of an astronomer. Caro leads a life with more detours. This is a novel one needs to read several times before saying anything, but it is a novel one wants to read several times, so maybe that's OK.


E. M. Cioran's On The Heights of Despair

Cioran's first book, (1934, tr. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, 1992) originally written in Romanian.

Ha. My heading is probably not entirely fair. Oh, wait, of course it is. I mean, look at the title. "On the heights of despair," the introduction suggests, was a stock phrase from Romanian suicide notices of the time. 

Cioran is an essayist/aphorist in the Nietzschean/Schopenhauerian pessimist tradition.

By no means his best. It felt a little windy. While it's his themes, his later writing in French forced him to pare down. (I suppose. Or maybe he just learned to.) This is also more clearly derivative. Nietzsche is never very far from Cioran, but this reeks of it. Though, correspondingly, there is more appreciation of the Dionysiac in this, it's not all gloom and doom, more than in later Cioran. Nevertheless Cioran strikes me as standing more on his own feet afterwards. It wasn't bad--if you like Cioran--but The Trouble With Being Born remains my favorite. If favorite is quite the right word to use...

That's a month's worth of reading. Actually, for me, probably more than a month's worth under normal circumstances, but what else can you do these days? I'm also in the middle of rereading Wolf Hall and The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Well, when I say middle, that's appropriate enough to Wolf Hall, somewhat less so to Nickleby.

The books that are still around the house

How was your February reading?

Thursday, March 4, 2021



from Canzoniere, Number 7

Gluttony, sleep, pillows of idleness,
have banished every virtue from the world
whereby our nature, conquered by its habits,
has almost lost its way along the road;

so spent is every good light from the heavens
which should inform our human life that he
is pointed out as some remarkable thing
who would make water flow from Helicon.

Who wishes for the laurel, or for myrtle!
"In poverty and naked goes Philosophy,"
the masses bent on making money say.

You will have few companions on that road,
so all the more I beg you, noble spirit,
do not abandon your magnanimous task.

-Petrarch, tr. Mark Musa

Petrarch to a friend thinking of abandoning the writing of poetry.

This edition is from University of Indiana Press, translated and annotated by Mark Musa, with an introduction by Musa and Barbara Manfredi. This edition a bit overdoes the notes, I feel, but still, perhaps useful: the friend to whom this poem is addressed would seem to be unknown. Helicon is the spring sacred to the Muses. 

I also am not sure what Warhol's Liz Taylor is doing on the cover.

My knowledge of Italian from the 1300s is strictly limited, but I do think magnanimous is probably not well-chosen, though it fits his blank verse scheme. The Italian is magnanima, it looks alike, but magnanimous has a very specific meaning in English these days. At the very least I think the force of the original Latin words in magnanima would be much more present for Petrarch's audience, more than we sense in magnanimous now. Think 'great-souled.'

The Italian, for whom it's useful:

La gola e 'l sonno et l'oziose piume
ànno del mondo ogni vertù sbandita
onde' è dal corso suo quasi smarrita
nostra natura vinta dal costume

et è si spento ogni benigno lume
del ciel per cui s'informa umana vita
che per cosa mirabile s'addita
chi vol far d'Elicona nascer fiume.

Qual vaghezza di lauro, qual di mirto?
"Povera et nuda vai, Filosofia,"
dice la turba al vil guadagno intesa.

Pochi compagni avrai per l'altra via:
tanto ti prego più, gentile spirto,
non lassar la magnanima tua impresa.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Dance of the Intellect among Words, or Thinking about Propertius

 Round, round, the roof does run;
  And being ravished thus,
Come, I will drink a tun
  To my Propertius.

-Robert Herrick, from 'To Live Merrily, and to Trust to Good Verses'

The only literary celebration of the spins that I know of.

But anyway, Propertius:

The word around town these days is that I've become lazy
  and that Cynthia must be the reason. Alas, not so.
She is as far away from my bed as the River Po
  is from...What's out there, remote and exotic? The Bug!
Cynthia hasn't been feeding my passion lately. My soul
  is starved for her kisses. My ear thirsts for her whispers.
It's not the way it was when we pleased each other, defying
  Envy itself. It's as if some god had decided
I was in need of a little refresher course in human
  pain. Or is it some herb from Prometheus' peaks
that Medea kept in her kit to interfere with lovers?
  Whatever it is, I'm sadly diminished. Distance
changes a woman's heart, and the great strength of our passion
  is undermined. I spend my nights alone,
morose and full of self-pity. (I begin to bore myself.)
  That man who, in his pain, can complain to his mistress
who is there with him in the room, ought to be
counting his blessings,
  for love, when it's sprinkled with tears, will grow like a weed.
At the worst, he can work himself up to a kind
of righteous anger,
  enough to give him the nerve to break it off
and look somewhere else for love. I'm unable to do that.
  For me, it's Cynthia, first, last, and always.

That's Ode 12, from Book I, translated by David Slavitt. W. A. Camps, Pembroke College, Cambridge, writes, "Very little is known of Propertius' life beyond what he tells us himself in his works." What Propertius tells us, the last line of that ode, is, "Cynthia prima fuit, Cynthia finis erit." He was in love with a girl. Cynthia. First, last, and always. (Though more literally: Cynthia was first, Cynthia will be the end.)

We can piece together a few other details. Propertius was born around 57 BC, in Umbria, probably close to Assisi. The Roman civil wars were ongoing and this was a region not yet fully absorbed into the Roman state; Propertius' family lands were confiscated for the benefit of Augustus' (still Octavian and not yet Augustus) veterans in 41 BC. His father died while Propertius was in his teens, his mother somewhat later. Still there was money enough left for him to go to Rome where he was no doubt supposed to study law or oratory or something useful, but spent his time writing poetry instead. He meets Cynthia around 30 BC.

In fact, poetry could be a paying gig at the time. His poems, all written in the elegiac meter, are divided into four books. The first, called the Monobiblos, is the one most absorbed with Cynthia, and seems to have become famous already while Propertius was still young. Which meant he caught the ear of Maecenas, Augustus' cultural commissar, and voilá, Propertius' fortune was made. Once you were in with the new hegemony...

There's not much evidence, and anyway, I'm probably entirely wrong, but I imagine Maecenas as having good taste in literature, not necessarily political, but feeling obligated to support the new way of things. By 27 B.C.--when Octavian becomes Augustus--Rome has suffered fifty, almost a hundred, years of civil war, and everyone is just so damned tired. Sure, Augustus is a square, daddy-o, but he's got the money, and he's fixed everything up real sweet, and if you just would write a few poems about how things now are cool, like it was a return the good old days, know, it would help...Vergil did it, Horace did it, too. So it's OK for you, too. Propertius does appreciate the new calm, writes some 'Roman odes' in honor of the new politics, but can't quite pull it off, or maybe doesn't entirely want to. He just wants to write about a girl.

Anyhoo, that's a bit what I like about Propertius. There's a whole world there you can only get glimpses of; real people, half seen, half filled out by your imagination; people interacting with the events of the day, but not enslaved by them, still living their own romantic lives. These characters feel like real people, well, they are real people, but characters, too: Propertius himself, and Cynthia, that learned girl, but also Lygdamus, Propertius' slave--we all know about tricky servants, the Leporello type--his poetry-writing friends show up here and there, maybe some rivals in his worship of Cynthia, of whom he could be jealous--should he be jealous?--, other romantically possible girls. A whole circle. It goes on until it fades; some die; some just abandon poetry. It's Bolaño telling the story of the Visceral Realists in The Savage Detectives.

Enough for now. I've slogged at this post a while. And still I didn't get to Dante or Goethe and Ezra Pound is no more than an allusion in the title of the post. Housman. Housman remains to be considered. Imagery. Ears and boats. Maybe more Highet. I also didn't babble on about elegiacs, Goethe or Schiller or Coleridge or Clough, though I had every intention of doing so...

Thinking about Propertius:

Dates, and other 'facts', taken from the introduction to Propertius' Elegies, Book I, edited by W. A. Camps, Cambridge University Press, 1961, shown above. They're reasonable, but not to but to be taken as gospel truth. The year of his birth is particularly doubtful.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

At Castle Boterel


At Castle Boterel

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
  And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
  And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
    Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
  In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
  To ease the sturdy pony's load
    When he sighed and slowed.

What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
  Matters not much, nor to what it led,--
Something that life will not be balked of
  Without rude reason till hope is dead,
    And feeling fled.

It filled but a minute. But was there ever
  A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill's story? To one mind never,
  Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore
    By thousands more.

Primaeval rocks form the road's steep border,
  And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth's long order;
  But what they record in colour and cast
    Is--that we two passed.

And to me, though Time's unflinching rigour,
  In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
  Remains on the slope, as when that night
    Saw us alight.

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
  I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
  And I shall traverse old love's domain
    Never again.

In March of 1913, Thomas Hardy took a trip to Cornwall and visited the places he'd been with his first wife, Emma, when they were young. Emma had died the previous year, and while the marriage had been difficult, it would seem there had been at least some good times in it. (Whatever it was that filled but a minute...) Castle Boterel (Cornish: Kastel Boterel; English, Boscastle) is a picturesque fishing village on the northern Cornish coast. 

This is probably standing in for anything I might say of Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus, which I read recently. The novel takes place among a set that read and quote poetry: Kipling, Yeats, Nicanor Parra, Beaumont and Fletcher, Hardy. Caroline Bell reads the stanza that begins 'Primaeval rocks...' to her husband Adam, and weeps. The novel is pretty great, subtle, with intricate, half-hidden plotting, and I'm probably not up to writing about it. Francis Steegmuller, the novelist and Flaubert scholar, wrote, "No one should have to read The Transit of Venus for the first time." But since he was Shirley Hazzard's husband, he may very well have been the only one who didn't have to.

But how about that Ted Tice? I'm not sure whether that's romantic or excessively heroic torch-carrying.