Thursday, December 30, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 Wrapup

It's time to wrap up for the Back to the Classics Challenge for the year. As is becoming a motif,... I read books for more prompts than I managed to write about. (Read all twelve, blogged about nine.) Here are the ones I blogged:

20th Century Classic

Ivo Andrić' The Bridge on the Drina

Classic by a Woman Author

Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters Written from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

A Classic in Translation

Halldór Laxness' Independent People

A Classic by a New-to-you Author

Henryk Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis

New-to-you Classic by a Favorite Author

R. L. Stevenson's The Black Arrow

A Children's Classic

Howard Pyle's Men of Iron

A Humorous Classic

Jose Maria Eça de Queirós' The City and the Mountains

A Classic with an Animal in the Title

Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark

A Travel Classic

R. L. Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes

The Eça de Queirós and Wollstonecraft were library books and so missed their photo op. That's nine of the twelve categories of which I predicted...3 (!) in the original post. Even for me that's a particularly poor rate of followthrough.

Then there were the three that got away...

I've had half a post for Major Barbara in the queue for a while, but it probably won't get published now. The Maias is the book I finished most recently and I might yet write about it, (Very good! Though tricky to write about with its couple of surprise twists...) but I won't by the end of the year.

In any case All Hail! to Karen for hosting this great challenge again. 😉 And Happy New Year to all!

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Emma Lathen's Double, Double, Oil and Trouble

There's been a couple from the John Putnam Thatcher series featured lately at Major Yammerton's, which reminded me I had one I haven't ever read. (Or maybe I have, but it's been a while & I've forgotten. Good enough!)

John Putnam Thatcher is a high-powered executive at Sloan Guaranty Bank on Wall Street. He's in Switzerland for other business reasons when he's called in to make a ransom payoff; Davidson Wylie, a key employee at Macklin Drilling, one of Sloan's clients, was kidnapped in Turkey by 'Black Tuesday.' Macklin will be paying, and Thatcher is asked to hand over the money to a numbered Swiss bank account.

But Wylie isn't released. What went wrong? And who is Black Tuesday? Palestinians? Eco-terrorists? (It is an oil company under attack.) 

It's an important moment for Macklin: they're in the process of bidding for a North Sea oil site off the coast of Scotland; a German company is their main rival. Wylie was crucial to the bid.

Three weeks later, after some half-hearted negotiations, Wylie is released. By then the bid has been decided, and Macklin won even without Wylie's presence. Wylie is terrified and refuses to help police track down his kidnappers. He flies off to Houston (Macklin's headquarters) for some R&R, but is murdered a few days later.

There's another body--this one in London--before Thatcher solves this one. Pretty fun.

This comes out in 1978 when North Sea oil and OPEC are important issues. (That's assuming they aren't always.) But Emma Lathen isn't a writer of political thrillers, or not exactly, instead owing more to Golden Age mystery conventions, and we've met all the possible suspects by about page 40. (Emma Lathen also isn't Emma Lathen. It's a pseudonym for two high-powered professional women: one a New York lawyer; the other an economics professor.) This is the seventeenth in the series. There were seven more to come.

As it is the world of high finance and oil exploration, it moves around: Switzerland, Istanbul, Greece, Houston, New York, London, Scotland facing the North Sea. It was amusing to see Houston in the 70s, where I was for my undergraduate years. (Though this would be a little before my time.) 

And all that traveling means I get to count it for:

Though the chat between the Istanbul cops was pretty entertaining, I think we'll go with that opening scene in the world of Swiss bankers...

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Sally Simpkin's Lament (Poem For A Thursday)


Sally Simpkin's Lament

"Oh! What is that comes gliding in,
And quite in middling haste?
It is the picture of my Jones,
And painted to the waist.

It is not painted to the life,
For where's the trousers blue?
Oh Jones, my dear! Oh dear! my Jones,
What is become of you?"

"Oh! Sally dear, it is too true,--
The half that you remark,
Is come to say my other half
Is bit off by a shark!

Oh! Sally, sharks do things by halves,
Yet most completely do!
A bite in one places seems enough,
But I've been bit in two.

You know I once was all your own,
But now a shark must share!
But let that pass--for now to you
I'm neither here nor there.

Alas! Death has a strange divorce
Effected in the sea.
It has divided me from you,
And even me from me.

Don't fear my ghost will walk o' nights
To haunt as people say;
My ghost can't walk, for oh! my legs
Are many leagues away!

Lord! Think, when I am swimming round
And looking where the boat is,
A shark just snaps away a half
Without a quarter's notice!

One half is here, the other half
Is near Columbia placed:
Oh, Sally! I have got the whole
Atlantic for my waist.

But now adieu--a long adieu!
I've solved Death's awful riddle.
I would say more, but I am doomed
To break off in the middle!"

-Thomas Hood

I no longer have any clue where I first came across this poem--it doesn't seem to be in any book I have--but nevertheless it sticks in my head...

Thomas Hood lived from 1799 to 1845 and that's his portrait up there from the National Portrait Gallery. Is there just possibly a hint of a smile on his face?

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark

"She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it; time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. She would have it, what the trumpets were singing! She would have it, have it--it!"

Jules Breton's Song of the Lark
Thea Kronborg, the heroine of Willa Cather's novel The Song of the Lark, is in Chicago and has just heard an orchestral program beginning with Dvorak's New World Symphony and concluding with music from Wagner's Ring Cycle.

And well, what then? She gets it.

Thea grows up in a small town in rural Colorado in the late 1800s. The big city is Denver--not that big at the time--and the bigger is Chicago. The family background is Swedish. Her father is a minister, rival to the Baptists across town, and she's in the middle of a mess of children. Her parents are good people and are good with her, but she needs to get out, to get to the big city, and even they recognize it. She takes piano lessons from the washed-up Wunsch, a drunkard, but once a solid German musician, who knows she has a gift; the town doctor, Howard Archie, saves her from pneumonia; Ray Kennedy, a brakeman on the railroad, plans to marry her when she gets older; the Mexican community in town--Spanish Johnny, Mrs. Tellamantez--loves to hear her sing.

Still the challenges are hard: she's a girl, in the 1800s, lower middle class at best, born in the back of beyond, 'hating a world that let her grow up so ignorant.' If she didn't have her gift--of a voice--even her intelligence, her solid grounding in music, wouldn't have been enough. And if she didn't have people looking out for her--Dr. Archie, Ray Kennedy, Wunsch, her parents--she wouldn't have made it either, she would have died on the way, either literally or figuratively. But she does, and she does.

So: it's the story of a girl becoming an artist, a Künstlerroman. (Or should it be Künstlerinroman?) What's the formula to success? (In case you wanted to know.) Early training--though her Hungarian piano teacher in Chicago tells her she didn't start the piano early enough to become a great concert pianist; support from those around her; luck; talent, naturally. Hard work, of course.  Thea's considered a bit of a grind by most everyone around her:

"A growing girl needs lots of sleep, Ray providently remarked.
Thea moved restlessly on the buggy cushions. "They need other things more," she muttered.
But she also has to be strong. Thea gets various things from the men in her childhood: her father is learned, the town doctor looks after her, her music-teacher, but from her mother she gets her 'constitution,' and that's a crucial ingredient. In Mrs. Kronborg's case, her strong constitution means that she can bear seven children, raise them, and never be sick; it plays out differently in Thea's case, but she, too, has incredible stamina.

It seems Willa Cather regretted the title. Lark-song ended up suggesting twittering small birds to most, but Cather didn't mean that: she was thinking of the painting by Breton. There's a solidity to the farm-girl in the painting and that was what Cather wanted to convey.

The last element to come to Thea was a certain self-knowledge. She goes to Panther Canyon in Arizona and lives in an Anasazi cliff-dwelling until she achieves the necessary confidence and self-awareness. Panther Canyon is Walnut Canyon (near Flagstaff) in disguise:

Walnut canyon cliff dwellings

And so she becomes not Thea, but Kronborg, a major opera singer.

I went through a bit of a Willa Cather phase twenty years ago or so, and I read the novel then. It's a great novel, and I was glad to reread it. At the time, though, I figured it was basically autobiographical, with a change of art from writing to opera for dramatic purposes. (Also the love object changed from a Frederica to a Fred because Cather would have felt she had to.) And that's not entirely wrong--there is a lot of autobiography in the book. But what I didn't know, until I read Alex Ross' Wagnerism earlier this year, is that's not all there is. Quite a lot of Thea Kronborg is drawn from the actual Swedish-American opera star Olive Fremstad. Cather wrote a fair amount of journalism, especially early in her career, reviewed several of Fremstad's performances, and later wrote an extended profile of Fremstad. The two became friends. Also Alex Ross, who would know--he's the music writer for the New Yorker--thinks that Willa Cather actually knows quite a bit about opera. I'm sure that all went past me the first time--and kind of did again this time, though I tried to think about it more--because I don't really know anything about opera. 

Anyway, a great novel, and I'm glad I put it on my Classics Club spin list

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days

 "The end of a day on which a life has ended is still far from being the end of days."

Lives end pretty frequently for the female protagonist in Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days, people die around her, but those deaths also include her own. Four times she dies and we see what that death does to the people around her; four times, through the magic of fiction, she avoids her death and carries on; only the fifth, at the age of ninety does she die for good--or ill.

The protagonist (unnamed, so I'm going to have to awkwardly keep calling her the protagonist) is born in Brody around 1900, a town now in the Ukraine, but then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. She's the eldest child of a Jewish mother and German father.

I'm going to unpick Erpenbeck's structure and give the story of the protagonist straightforwardly; it's easier; but it's also the case the suspense is in how she dies, and revealing the causes of death feels a bit spoiler-ish. And there are so very many ways for a woman with that background to die in Eastern Europe in the 20th century. 

Her father is a civil servant with the Austro-Hungarian empire, initially working for the railroad, and of the lowest pay grade. Even in a provincial town, the family can barely make ends meet. A younger sister is born. The father has the opportunity to take a job with the meteorological institutes in Vienna. He moves up a couple of grades, but then Vienna is so much more expensive. Then WWI comes, the Austro-Hungarian empire is broken up, and Austria is impoverished. "One month's salary, if she [the girl's mother] stretched it skilfully, would last a week." The novel does have its moments of grim humor.

The opening quote comes from those years. The protagonist's best friend dies of the Spanish flu; the protagonist is half in love with her dead friend's boyfriend. At this time the protagonist is sneaking off from the house; the mother assumes she's prostituting herself, but in fact she's joined the Communist party. She writes a novel. She leaves for Russia and marries a German Communist there. (From here on in, she's referred to as Comrade H., or Frau Hoffmann, so maybe I will, too.) The years of the Stalinist terror come. Another dark joke:
"Three prisoners are sitting in a cell and they get to talking.
Why are you in prison?
I was for Bukharin.
What about you?
I was against Bukharin.
And you?
I am Bukharin."
After the second World War ends, Frau Hoffmann moves to East Germany. Herr Hoffmann is dead, but she had a child by another man and the child comes with her. In East Germany she's a celebrated author, but her reputation doesn't extend outside the Communist world. Late in life she suffers dementia and her son is forced to commit her to a nursing home.

The novel came out in German in 2012 and was translated into English by Susan Bernofsky in 2014.

Two of her four premature deaths are political; the other two more domestic. It gives a great sense of how contingent life was in that time and place. The Holocaust lurks, but none of Frau Hoffmann's deaths are caused directly by the Holocaust. It's a novel as history of the 20th century, like The Eighth Life (For Brilka) -- I thought this much better -- or Earthly Powers -- hmm, Earthly Powers is awfully good. I understand Erpenbeck was trying to universalize her character by leaving her unnamed, but it did sometimes lead to awkward moments in the prose, I thought. Still this was very good, touching and surprising both.

Ukraine, Germany, Russia and--though I still need Russia--Austria, which is how I'm counting it...


Thursday, December 2, 2021



I care not for these Ladies
That must be woode and praide,
Give me kind Amarillis
The wanton country maide;
Nature art disdaineth
Her beautie is her owne;
  Her when we court and kisse,
  She cries, forsooth, let go:
  But when we come where comfort is,
  She never will say no.

If I love Amarillis,
She gives me fruit and flowers,
But if we love these Ladies,
We must give golden showers;
Give them gold that will sell love,
Give me the Nutbrowne lasse,
  Who when we court and kisse,
  She cries, forsooth, let go:
  But when we come where comfort is,
  She never will say no.

These Ladies must have pillowes,
And beds by strangers wrought,
Give me a Bower of willowes,
Of mosse and leaves unbought,
And fresh Amarillis,
With milke and honie fed,
  Who when we court and kisse,
  She cries, forsooth, let go:
  But when we come where comfort is,
  She never will say no.
-Thomas Campion

Reading Longus' Daphnis and Chloe the other day sent me off to read Theocritus' Idylls. Virtually all the names in Longus are first found in Theocritus (about 400 years earlier). It may be I'll show up with some Theocritus one of these days, but today we have something else in the pastoral tradition from, oh, a few years later... 

In Daphnis and Chloe, Philetas is the elder herder whom everyone considers the best singer, and who passes on his panpipes to Daphnis; Philetas' beloved in Longus is Amarillis (spelling may vary) who becomes his wife. (And is his wife at the time of the story.) 

And then once I started thinking about Amarillises, (Amarilli?) there was Thomas Campion (1567-1620) and his beloved. Campion, of course, also wrote music:

"She gives me fruit and flowers," but in Longus, it's cheeses! In Daphnis and Chloe, somebody is always giving away a cheese.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Graeme Gibson's Five Legs (#MARM)

 "And just because they're Canadians you know, it doesn't mean they aren't any good." [128]

Five Legs was Graeme Gibson's debut work of fiction, first published by the Canadian independent House of Anansi in 1969. The back of my 2012 reissue suggests it was 'a breakthrough for Canadian experimental fiction.' The need for a breakthrough was certainly felt, and the main characters in the novel are all wondering what it means to be--is it even possible to be?--a Canadian artist.

The basic story is this: Lucan Crackell is an English professor at the University of Western Ontario, when one of his M.A. students, Martin Baillie is killed by a hit and run driver. Baillie had only just become engaged to Susan. Baillie hailed from Stratford, Ontario and the funeral will be there (an hour's drive from London normally). Crackell is planning to take two of Baillie's fellow students with him; at the last moment he's cadged into taking a third, Felix Oswald, as well. It's winter; there's a snowstorm with black ice and whiteout conditions, but they make it; the funeral happens, and Baillie's remains are put into the ground.

But that bald outline doesn't much give a sense. You did notice the word 'experimental' up there, right? The novel is told entirely in stream of consciousness and quoted speech. (The opening quote is a discussion among painters overheard by Crackell.) Of the six sections, the first three are in the consciousness of Lucan Crackell, the last three in that of Felix Oswald.

We wake up the morning of the funeral with Crackell and his wife Rose. The opening paragraph in its entirety:
"RRRINGGG! And aware suddenly of the day. Grey chills. Blessed Jesus what a night, what a terrible night. Like a mouth full of." [1]
There was a cast party the night before--Rose does makeup for a play--and Crackell is badly hungover. Rose, too, feels a bit nauseous, but Crackell is hoping in her case that's morning sickness and not alcohol. "Within her perfumed body grows my seed. Dear Heaven I hope it's true!" [37]

But otherwise Crackell's thoughts generally revolve around the past. He has three events which haunt him: the abuse he suffered from both boys and masters at his boarding school; his affair with Vera, who carried his child but would neither marry him nor have an abortion and moved to England--does he have a ten-year-old child running around in England?--; and, most relevantly for his current trip to Stratford, his dismissal from his job teaching there for public drunkenness. At times he feels his life is over: "And my life's ploughed under in this world; the seeds are dead." [35] 

I don't--or at least not any longer...--have much sympathy for people who feel their life is over at 30. 😉

Should he have gone to Europe? Would Vera have had him if he'd thrown it all over and followed? Quotes from T. S. Eliot run through Crackell's head; it's pretty clear Crackell once had artistic aspirations, and England is the place of writers--at least if you're a Canadian in the 60s. Now his aspirations don't much run past propagation.

Going to Europe's a motif. Martin Baillie was torn between two women: Susan and Valerie. It's Susan who wants him to finish his degree, settle down, teach; she has long, creepy conversations with Crackell about how Martin will settle down, won't he? Valerie would have run off to Europe with him; he could have lived cheaply and wrote. He'd decided on Susan--at least according to Susan--and then later that night was killed. Though Oswald believes this was true, and unfortunate.

Then we switch to Felix Oswald. While the jumble of thoughts in Crackell's head run to the events that sank him in the past, Oswald's run to fantasies in the present. Oswald, as Baillie's roommate, is pressed into service as a pallbearer. I suppose anyone who has ever served as a pallbearer has had fearful thoughts about what if I drop this thing; Oswald's run to comic excess and are aided by the ice and snow of the day.

There's a hostility between Oswald and Crackell. Crackell failed Oswald on an exam once, which led to Crackell hating Oswald, though not necessarily vice versa. (Which strikes me as absurd, but also quite true.) But it's the hostility of sameness. From one of the Felix Oswald sections, Oswald's thought: "He [Baillie] had a choice you see, just like I've, maybe even you [Crackell] had once." [218] The choice between escape and buckling down. Accepting responsibilities, if indeed that is what it is. Oswald, too, is writing:
"You're doing some writing." [This is Crackell to Oswald in an Oswald section.] Sudden pain and glaring. I...Nodding, and. It's crap, all crap he.
"Yeah." Ducking my head, thinking. I've been thinking. Uncertain and smiling.
"How's it going?" Who told him, shifting; how does he know?
"Well, uhm," it's...
"Difficult, yes...Particularly in Canada, it seems,..." [236]

Does Oswald escape, to Europe, assuming that is the answer? We don't learn, but the novel ends in an Oswald fantasy, "...then running ahead to the heat, he's running, skipping, free-sliding." [268]

The introduction, by Canadian cultural studies professor Sean Kane, says that the novel sold well when it first came out, even as well as a non-experimental Canadian novel might, but I had a hard time finding any contemporary reviews online. One quoted on the back of the book compares it to Pynchon, but that doesn't really seem convincing, despite those two alluring women whose names begin with V. Kane calls it "the first novel to bring the full artistry of literary modernism to Canada." Is that true? Only in 1969? I don't really know. 

But the use of stream of consciousness is the signal of literary modernism and, of course, the ancestor is Joyce, Ulysses in particular, and the consciousness of Leopold Bloom, and not Molly, in even more particular. (And certainly not Mrs. Dalloway.) "Couldn't, no I couldn't ugly thing disease I might." [187] Poking around in my copy of Ulysses, I can't entirely tell you why that reminds me of Joyce, though it does. But then this: "Tastes of urine, it does! I can always taste it." [223] There, I know. Just take a look at the start of chapter two in Ulysses.

While I couldn't find much in the way of contemporary reviews, the book is an important exemplar of Margaret Atwood's theses in Survival, her 'Guide to Canadian Literature,' of 1972. She notes the interest in what it means to be--to survive as--a Canadian artist, the theme I've highlighted, in one chapter, but she also looks at the relationship to wild animals and nature that's definitely there--the title comes from a deformed ox one of the characters sees--a theme I've basically glossed over...

From Survival I know (though I haven't read the novel myself) that Gibson's next novel in 1971 Communion continues the story of Felix Oswald.

In any case Gibson must not have been offended by her analysis because a year or two later he became Mr. Margaret Atwood, though in the mid-70s, it was perhaps not yet clear she was going to become the more famous author. They remained married until his death in 2019. Maybe ten years ago we saw the two of them here in Toronto at a small theater's production of a Molière play, where their very appearance generated an audible buzz. 

And is the reason I read the novel now for the Margaret Atwood Reading Month hosted at BuriedInPrint. And thanks to Marcie for hosting!

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Daphnis and Chloe (#NovNov)

"Love is a god, my children; he is young, beautiful, and winged; and so he enjoys youth, pursues beauty, and makes souls take wing. Zeus has not so much power as he has; he rules the elements; he rules the stars; he rules his fellow gods--"

François Gérard's Daphnis and Chloe

And Eros looks out for his favorites, and that includes Daphnis and Chloe. 

Daphnis and Chloe are probably better known through painting these days than through Longus' original novella, which is kind of a shame. (Though the paintings can be a lot of fun!) I found the above painting with a bunch of other Daphnis and Chloe paintings here. A nice selection, and by no means complete--it's easy to find more, including a series by Marc Chagall.

But Longus is the originator of the story. Nothing is known about him, though it's assumed he lived on Lesbos, where the story happens. He probably wrote it around 200 A.D. It's a work of great charm.

At the very beginning the narrator sees a painting:

"I saw the most beautiful sight I have ever seen, in a grove that was sacred to the Nymphs: a painting that told a story of love."  

The narrator asks around, learns the story in the painting, and decides to write it down as an offering to the gods.

You can see why this appealed to painters.

We know from the start that Daphnis and Chloe are special: the slave goatherd Lamon finds Daphnis when his goat keeps running off to a thicket. Lamon investigates and discovers his goat suckling the infant Daphnis; next to Daphnis are tokens that indicate he was well-born: a purple cloak and a tiny sword. Lamon and his wife Myrtale decide to adopt the boy, but hide the signs of noble parentage. The name they give him, Daphnis, indicates a rustic origin. (And hopefully hides his true parentage.)

Two years later something very similar happens with an infant girl, except that the nurturing animal is a ewe. Her tokens are golden sandals and anklets. She's raised by Dryas and Nape (pronounced with two syllables) who give her the equally rustic name Chloe.

Flash forward to when Daphnis is fifteen and Chloe thirteen. Both adoptive fathers have a dream (which they don't communicate to each other) that their wards are meant to be out of doors herding where they will each be touched by the arrow of Eros. And so Daphnis and Chloe are trained in the arts of their respective herding specialties. And so the two of them are out in the fields with their sheep and their goats--and each other. And so...they fall in love. It's Chloe who falls first; Daphnis stumbles into a pit-trap dug for a wolf, he's fine, but muddy, and with Chloe nearby takes off his clothes to wash up in a spring.

"And that thought was the beginning of love. She didn't know what was happening to her: she was a young girl brought up in the country and hadn't even heard of anyone speak of love... 'Now I feel ill, but I don't know what my illness is; I feel pain, although I've not been injured; I feel sad, although I've lost none of my sheep; I feel hot, although I'm sitting in deep shade. How many times I've been scratched by brambles and I've not wept! How many times I've been stung by bees, and I've not cried out!'"

She's lost none of her sheep! And still!

Don't worry: Daphnis' turn comes soon enough. 

Oh, there's threats to their love: Dorcon, the cowherd, falls for Chloe, tries to win her over, then win over her adoptive father, and then finally resorts to more violent means. Pirates raid the coast, stealing the livestock, but see Daphnis and decide he would be the better prize. Daphnis inadvertently starts a war between Mytilene and Methymna, the two main cities on Lesbos, and Chloe is captured and carried off. Gnathon, the hanger-on of the estate's owner, falls in lust with Daphnis and persuades that owner to give him Daphnis as his personal slave.

All resolved most satisfactorily. But you never really doubted that, did you? And that's what you wanted all along, wasn't it? 😉

Even the villains, so long as they're named--Dorcon and Gnathon and one or two others--are redeemed, in their way, in the end. Though some anonymous pirates do die.

Anyway, like I said, ridiculously charming.

There's some lit-crittery things I could possibly say, about ecphrasis, or how each of its four chapters corresponds to a season, suitable enough for an agricultural poem, or how it derives from the twin fountainheads of Theocritus and Greek new comedy (Menander, later echoed in Plautus and Terence, and then Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors), but nah...

Oh, and while I'm not perfectly sure I should admit this: but, without leaving the house. I could come up with five different translations, and only one of them I found online. I've been quoting from Christopher Gill's, which appears in Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon. I'd previously read the story (I'm pretty sure) in a translation by Moses Hadas in Three Greek Romances (1953). It's not bad:

"A god is Eros, my children, young and handsome and winged. Therefore does he take pleasure in youth, and he pursues beauty and he endows souls with wings. He possesses greater power than Zeus himself. He rules the elements; he rules the stars; he rules his fellow deities;..."

W. D. Lowe renders in 1908. (I have it in an Ayer reprint):

"Love, my children, is a god, youthful, handsome, winged; and so his pleasure is in youth, his chase is beauty, his task to wing man's soul. None has such power, not Zeus himself. He rules the elements, rules the stars and rules his fellow-gods..."

I rather like this, especially 'to wing man's soul'.

My older Loeb edition, with translation by Stephen Gaselee in 1916, gives:

"Love, my children, is a God, a young youth and very fair, and winged to fly. And therefore he delights in youth, follows beauty, and gives our fantasy her wings. His power's so vast that that of Jove is not so great. He governs in the elements, rules in the stars, and domineers even o'er the Gods that are his peers."

That old Loeb not only has 'young youth'--argh!--but also changes the name of Dorcon (bad enough, but accurate) to Dorco, which I'm afraid just makes me laugh. (Hey you, Dorko!) It's not completely crazy: a Roman would likely enough translate the original Greek of Dorcon to Dorco in Latin, but it *is* just a wee bit unfortunate in English...

All these would appear to be out of print, though the Loeb series has a new version of Daphnis and Chloe with a translation by Jeffrey Henderson I haven't seen.

The novella is also available at Project Gutenberg, which is probably the easiest one to come by, in a translation by Rev. Rowland Smith:

"My young friends, he is a god, young, beautiful, and ever on the wing. He rejoices, therefore, in the company of youth, he is ever in search of beauty, and adds wings to the souls of those he favours. He has power far beyond that of Jove himself. He commands the elements, and he rules the stars, and even the gods themselves, who are otherwise his equals;..."

Whew...that's a lot of Love. 😉

Looking at my Greek text (I have one of those, too...) I see I was supposed to have read about a quarter of it in Greek for a class once upon a time. Based on some penciled-in vocabulary notes, it's possible I even did my homework...

Anyway, it's 50-70 pages depending on the edition, making it too short really to be a novel, but a little long for a short story, and so...

Also I've not managed to visit Greece yet this year:

"Apples do not give off such fragrance, nor do pears. But I'm frightened of kissing her. Her kiss stings my heart..."

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Unknown Citizen


The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07/M/378, This Marble Monument Is Erected By The State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car, and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinion for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong we should certainly have heard.

-W. H. Auden

This could almost have been yesterday, except for the Instalment Plan, which lost out to credit cards, and five children, which would nowadays be a statistical anomaly, but Auden (1907-1973) wrote this in March of 1939. (Oh, and newspapers are going...)

This was the first Auden poem I ever knew, and for a long time while I remembered half the poem, I didn't know it was by him.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Edmund Wilson's The Scrolls From the Dead Sea (#NovNov)

"At some point rather early in the spring of 1947, a Bedouin boy called Muhammed the Wolf was minding some goats near a cliff on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Climbing up after one that had strayed, he noticed a cave that he had not seen before, and he idly threw a stone into it. There was an unfamiliar sound of breakage...he later came back with another boy, and together they explored the cave...[He] found long manuscripts, inscribed in parallel columns on thin sheets that had been sewn together. Though these manuscripts had faded and crumbled in places, they were in general remarkably clear."

That's the opening of Edmund Wilson's The Scrolls from the Dead Sea.

Those scrolls Muhammed the Wolf discovered were the first of the Dead Sea scrolls, ancient documents that would upend the understanding of the gospels, of Christianity and Judaism both. Though not everyone agreed at first, or even for a long while--likely there are some doubters even now--they were written in the first two centuries preceding the Christian era. 

Muhammed the Wolf and his fellow Bedouins were not scholars but they had the sense that they had gotten hold of something that might be of interest. Or at least, of value, and they let it be known they had scrolls for sale. Eventually Mor Samuel, the Metropolitan of the Syriac Orthodox church in Jerusalem purchased the scrolls then available on the market. Even he didn't entirely know what he'd just bought, but he knew they were written in Hebrew, a language he didn't know.

1947 was an 'interesting' time in the old Palestine mandate. The Brits were about to give up and run away, and Jews and Muslims were jockeying--frequently violently--for a better position in what would be the new order. (I am making a great effort to not come down on one side or the other here. 😉) Bedouin goatherders who were accustomed to roaming according to the needs of their goats were now subject to borders and armed checkpoints. 

It took a while for the manuscripts to make their way to appropriate scholars and not all of them ended up with Mor Samuel. It was a dramatic and important story and in 1954, Edmund Wilson persuaded the New Yorker to send him to Israel to report on it. He filed a series of articles for the New Yorker starting in May, and later that year a book, composed out of those articles, came out.

He discusses the discovery of the scrolls, the people involved in the discovery, the Essene order (a Jewish monastic order from the time around Christ who were responsible for the preservation of the scrolls), and historical figures, such as the Teacher of Righteousness. Ernest Renan, the 19th century French author of Vie de Jésus appears.  Wilson also went to visit the caves at Qumran and writes about his visit.

Edmund Wilson was not a scholar, but he was a literary journalist of a very high order and at this point in his career he'd acquired a little Hebrew. In the 30s he'd been a Marxist, and after he turned against communism, he decided that one of the things Marxism had done for him was to supply a religious feeling he'd been lacking. He didn't ever become a believer, but he was interested in the things believers were interested in, and in any case, the Dead Sea Scrolls were big news. 

There are probably better introductions to the subject now and discoveries have been made since--even Edmund Wilson wrote a second edition later, but I was only able to get hold of the first--but this is still a pretty good read, in the way of the New Yorker. And it's a non-fiction book of 121 pages, so it's particularly seasonal...

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Some clerihews by E. Clerihew!


Sir Christopher Wren
Said, "I am going to dine with some men.
If anybody calls
Say I'm designing St. Paul's"


The younger Van Eyck
Was christened Jan, and not Mike.
The thought of this curious mistake
Often kept him awake.


The intrepid Ricardo
With characteristic bravado
Alluded openly to Rent
Wherever he went.


Professor Dewar
Is a better man than you are.
None of you asses
Can condense gases.


John Stuart Mill
By a mighty effort of will
Overcame his natural bonhomie
And wrote "Principles of Political Economy"

Mill demonstrating a mighty effort of will

Until recently the only clerihews by E. C. Bentley I had read were ones found in various anthologies of light verse. Auden, who clearly likes them, has a bunch in his Oxford Book of Light Verse, for instance. But then I thought about the dates and realized that the first of his three books of clerihews, Biography for Beginners, might be available at Project Gutenberg. And so it was! And with illustrations by G. K. Chesterton. (Whom I didn't know could draw, but clearly can...) 

I had to look up James Dewar, but he invented the vacuum flask. 

Note: the index to Biography for Beginners is pretty hilarious, too. I don't know why Bentley has it in for Christopher Wren, but he clearly does.

Via Carol I came across this useful introduction to the form. 

Turns out clerihews are even more catching than I realized! 

The idea of publishing poem posts on Thursday originates with Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. Brona has some great animal prayer poems in an inadvertent teaser 😉 for Rumer Godden reading week.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Willa Cather's One of Ours

 "Why was everything so mysteriously hard?...The world was too rough a place to get about in."

That's Claude Wheeler, the protagonist of Willa Cather's One of Ours, her novel of 1922. Claude is the middle child of three boys raised on a Nebraska farm. Sometimes his name is pronounced 'Clod', but he isn't: he's good on the farm, handier than his older brother Bayliss who now keeps a shop in town, more responsible than his flighty younger brother Ralph, who's always futzing with cars. But Claude is intelligent and sensitive, qualities that don't do him much good on the Nebraska plains. 

He yearns for something more. He goes to Lincoln for college, but to a religious school. He finds the instructors second-rate and would prefer to go to the state university, but his mother, who's pretty churchy, won't approve. His father doesn't much see the point of college at all.

His father buys a cattle-ranch in Colorado and takes the younger brother off to run that, so Claude has to give up university and look after the home farm. He undertakes successful innovations, marries the miller's daughter Enid Royce, builds his dream house for the two of them, but none of those things turn out to be what he was yearning for.

The WASPs in Nebraska are full of feeling but unable to express it; this includes Claude, but isn't limited to him. His future father-in-law Mr. Royce tells Claude, "Enid is a vegetarian, you know," and Claude dismisses that as irrelevant, and so maybe it is, but, while Mr. Royce likes both parties, he worries that the marriage won't work:
"He [Mr. Royce] found himself unable to touch upon the vast body of experience he wished to communicate to Claude."
The German-Americans are more open and expressive and Claude is drawn to them, but can't quite be comfortable as part of their circle.

Prohibition comes to Nebraska over the course of the novel, and ahead of the rest of the country. Claude doesn't himself seem to drink, but since he's friends with various German immigrants, he doesn't object when they do. His wife Enid canvasses for the Prohibition cause. Theirs is not the only mixed marriage: generally it's the men who don't mind drinking, and the wives who object, but Bayliss is a staunch Prohibitionist. At Claude's wedding, his father and his father-in-law go off for a quick bourbon together, and when they come back,
"...the preacher smelled the tang of spirits and felt slighted. He looked disconsolately into his ruddy goblet and thought about the marriage at Cana. He tried to apply his Bible literally to life and, though he didn't dare breathe it aloud in these days, he could never see why he was better than his Lord."

The other great political event is the approach of World War I:

"The German army was in Luxembourg; he didn't know where Luxembourg was, whether it was a city or a country; he seemed to have some vague idea it was a palace!"

(Of course, it is actually all three, though the Palais is in Paris.) 

It will be World War I that provides the something more that Claude is yearning for.

When the novel came out, it had good sales and won Cather the Pulitzer Prize, but the reviews were fairly mixed. (I'm mostly getting this information from the Wikipedia article, though I also read Edmund Wilson's negative, but not very well-informed, review from The Shores of Light.) The general poop seemed to be that the war scenes weren't very good, and my feeling is the general poop was kind of right. (Though what do I know of war?) Sinclair Lewis' remarks seem accurate to me, "truth does guide the first part of the book," the Nebraska part, but in the second part Cather used "all the commonplaces of ordinary war novels."

Pretty true. But I would add that the Nebraska part is about 2/3rds of the novel, and is easily the equal of Cather at her best. That part shouldn't be missed.  Then comes the troop ship over, which is afflicted by an early appearance of the Spanish flu, making it--unexpectedly to me at least--a pandemic novel, and was quite convincing. It's only when the novel reaches France--and is close to done--that it gets weaker.

By 1922, when this came out, American opinion had turned pretty strongly against the war. Cather acknowledges this in the person of David Gerhardt, a professional violinist turned soldier. Was this war going make the world safe for Democracy? 

"You don't believe we are going to get out of this war what we went in for, do you?"

Claude asks David. David replies,

"Absolutely not."

But Claude does go on believing, and he's the protagonist; that may have been a bit intolerable to elite opinion by 1922.

Cather's primary source material for the war parts were letters home written by her cousin Grosvenor Cather. I suspect this may also have colored her approach. A soldier writing home can admit fear, can admit (though maybe downplay) danger, but it's much harder to admit despair and purposelessness. Maybe he should have. But Claude doesn't. 

In a fascinating letter about the book, Cather writes to her friend, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, the educator and novelist, "Yes, it will be classed as a 'war story',...and God knows I never wanted to write a war story...It's a misfortune for me and my publisher that anything so cruelly personal, so subjective, as this story, should be mixed up with journalism and public events with which the world is weary and of which I know so little." To call it a 'misfortune' is considerably overstating the case, but it is best thought of as the story of Grosvenor Cather/Claude and not a war story.

She goes on, "I tried to keep the French part vague, seen from a distance, and only what he sees." 

Anyway, a very good novel, I thought, even if not Cather's best.

My spin book this month is The Song of the Lark by Cather, and this was just a warmup! 😉

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Some clerihews by W. H. Auden


Edward Lear
Was haunted by the fear
While traveling in Albania
Of contracting kleptomania.


Louis Pasteur
So his colleagues aver,
Lived on excellent terms
With most of his germs.


No one could ever inveigle
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Into offering the slightest apology
For his Phenomenology.


When the young Kant
Was told to kiss his aunt,
He obeyed the Categorical Must,
But only just.


Charles Dickens
Could find nothing to say to chickens,
But gossiping with rabbits
Became one of his habits. 

W. H. Auden's series of clerihews appears first in Homage to Clio, but then with illustrations by Filippo Sanjust in Academic Graffiti. That's Sanjust's drawing above of Dickens/with rabbits and chickens. The chickens look rather offended to me.

The clerihew form was invented by E. C. (Edmund Clerihew) Bentley (1875-1956), also author of the mystery series featuring Philip Trent, the first of which is Trent's Last Case. (The last shall be first?) Since we're here...I can't resist quoting my favorite Clerihew clerihew:

George the Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.

And, oh heck, it's catching...

Edmund Clerihew Bentley
acted most irreverently,
like he was one of the playahs
with Dorothy L. Sayahs.
Or supply your own concluding couplet! 😜

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Past Is The Present (Marianne Moore)


The Past is the Present

If external action is effete
  and rhyme is outmoded,
    I shall revert to you,
  Habakkuk, as on a recent occasion I was goaded
      into doing, by XY, who was speaking of unrhymed verse.

This man said--I think that I repeat
  his identical words:
    "Hebrew poetry is
  prose with a sort of heightened consciousness. 'Ecstasy affords
      the occasion and expediency determines the form.'"

-Marianne Moore

I've been looking into Marianne Moore (1887-1972) again after reading Richard Howard. Though in most ways they're pretty different, both use a syllable-counting scheme in their poetics. (Moore, pretty much always; Howard, frequently.) For example, the first line of each stanza in this has nine syllables. There is a rhyme scheme, though it's not very intrusive: effete/repeat, outmoded/goaded, words/affords, with the last one being only a sight rhyme.

XY is the Rev. Edwin Henry Kellogg, Moore tells us in a note.

Moore was an inveterate rewriter of her poems; this is the first version, published in 1915 and first collected in her book Observations of 1924. There is another version. Her most famous poem, 'Poetry', the one that begins 'I, too, dislike it...' goes from thirty lines in the earliest version to three in the final.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick

"The book you hold in your hands is a very peculiar book. In it I have tried to depict the life of Philip K. Dick from the inside, in other words, with the same freedom and empathy--indeed with the same truth--with which he depicted his own characters."

Emmanuel Carrère's 'biography' of Philip K. Dick came out in French in 1993, thus nine years after Dick's death, and was translated into English by Timothy Bent in 2004. 

Inside the head of Philip K. Dick is a fascinating, but pretty unstable place to be.

It's not a very conventional biography, even though Carrère seems to have done a lot of the work of conventional biography--interviewing friends and lovers, visiting locations, reading letters, reading earlier biographers, and above all, reading the work of Dick himself. But Carrère doesn't footnote or cite, and except for the occasional moment where he mentions talking with one of Dick's friends, it's unclear where he has gotten information. Worse (or different) he's clearly deducing ideas--and says as much--about Dick's life and mental state from the novels. A terrible no-no, of course, but so what? It works.

The facts are there: Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in December of 1928. He had a twin sister who died young--of hunger. It was the Depression, but the boy survives and the girl dies. It's no wonder Dick was tormented by this his whole life. The family moves to California when he's still a child, but his parents divorce and he's raised by his mother. He goes to Berkeley High School, and then to Cal-Berkeley for a year, but drops out. He works in a record store on Telegraph Avenue. He meets Anthony Boucher and starts writing science fiction stories. He marries--and marries--and marries: five times in all. 

Dick had a reputation as a druggy, which was both true and not: he took LSD once, in 1964, was terrified by it and never did it again. He smoked marijuana occasionally, but mostly socially, and not, it seems that much. But he did both Benzedrine and Valium--prescription drugs--to stimulate his writing, and wind down afterwards. A lot. But then so did W. H. Auden.

He was difficult to live with: needy and clinging, but also a know-it-all. (Well, he really did know a lot.) Bad in social situations, but with deep friendships at times. Pretty seriously agoraphobic. He wrote to (barely) pay his bills, too much and too fast, but still some of the books are pretty great. He may have had some religious experiences, or it may have been the drugs. He never said for sure, and may not have fully decided himself. The drugs (probably) did for him in the end. He died in 1984, after a series of strokes, at the age of 53.

But Carrère's handling of the facts, while seemingly fine, is not what makes the book so interesting.
"One day, a new young woman rode into his life, on the back of a Harley-Davidson driven by a guy covered in tattoos. 'Donna,' like almost everyone else who appears in this chapter, has been extrapolated from a character in A Scanner Darkly...The real Donna had another name--as did others I write of here--which she has asked not to be used in print."
"Another time, Phil became convinced that Donna was a narc. He confronted her. She replied that she understood why he would think that. In their world it was the kind of thing that was entirely possible."
"Another time, sitting down to drink a cup of coffee that someone had made for him, Phil couldn't let go of the idea of how easily it could have been laced with a potent strain of acid that would set an unstoppable film rolling in his head, a film that would last his entire life."
"Another time, Phil convinced himself that the house was under twenty-four hour surveillance. He knew the phone was tapped, and even if it wasn't, basic prudence dictated that one act as though it were."
These cuts are from one chapter and is very much the world of A Scanner Darkly. Is it fair to mix the life with the works? Maybe not entirely and maybe you would want--or want also--a different sort of biography. But this was fascinating, and it is a very phildickian thing to do.

Could you read the book if you didn't already know Philip Dick pretty well? I'm not so sure about that. As a general rule I only read author biographies for authors I've read a substantial amount of the work. That might be an especially good rule here, I suspect.

The books Carrère looks at in depth:

  • Eye in the Sky
  • Time Out Of Joint
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • Martian Time-Slip
  • Now Wait For Last Year
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 
  • Ubik
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Valis
  • The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer
  • The Exegesis

Of the novels in the list I've read all but Time Out of Joint, and now I want to read that one. It's a good list, and if one wanted to read that many, I might say just go with that. I haven't read the Exegesis, Dick's millions-of-words meditation on the nature of divine experience, nor am I likely to, but I have the volume of selections, and it sits next to Leopardi's Zibaldone, that shelf of things I dip into once in a while when the mood strikes.

I don't know where I first heard of the book. I got hold of it after I read Deus Irae recently, but the library didn't deliver it fast enough for me to use in writing that post. It wouldn't have mattered. Carrère mentions Deus Irae, but in passing and only slightingly, which is probably about all it deserves.

But Carrère is pretty celebrated these days. There's biographies, novels, memoirs. A few days ago it was announced he won this year's Princess of Asturias award for literature. He's been on the list for the Neustadt prize a couple of times. These things are often considered signposts for a trip to Stockholm. Could the biographer of Philip Dick actually win the Nobel prize?

Who knows? Anyway, it was the first Carrère I've read. It was pretty good. It won't be the last.

Are you a fan of Philip Dick? Or Emmanuel Carrère?

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Osip Mandelstam


All I want to do is
escape the madness here.
To rise into the light
where I can disappear.

Where you can be like light--
and happiness is mine!--
and learn from every star
what it means to shine.

All I want to say is,
the whispering you hear--
that's the sound of light
I whisper in your ear.

The thing that makes us light
the thing that makes us shine
is that I whisper words
and that this voice is mine.

-Osip Mandelstam (tr. Paul Schmidt)

I've been reading Mandelstam in W. S. Merwin's translation and I'm afraid that has sent me back to reading those few poems of Mandelstam's that are in Paul Schmidt's collection of 20th century Russian poetry The Stray Dog Cabaret. I don't know, but for me, the best thing that can be said about the W. S. Merwin translations are that there are more of them. (And, yes, that is damning with faint praise.) What was (is?) it about American (and Canadian) poets of a certain era that they were so very afraid of rhyme? Whether it's appropriate or not for one's own poetry, it feels false to translate somebody like Mandelstam without it.

This poem dates from March 23, 1937. Mandelstam had been arrested in 1934 after the Stalin Epigram came to light. He had assumed its discovery would mean a death sentence, but after interrogation and torture he got off lightly (?) with internal exile to the Ural mountains, only to be rearrested in 1938. He died later that year.

Monday, October 18, 2021

#ccspin: And the winner is...

...number 12, which, for me, is The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. I'm definitely looking forward to this one.

Charles thinks the operations of chance have been a success!

Did you get something good? 

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Hitching into Frisco (#1976Club, #Poem)


Hitching into Frisco

Truck put me off on Fell.
I'll walk to Union Square.
And watch the homeless there
From jailhouse and hotel.

And liable to none.
I've heard the long freight trains,
The cars marked with home names.
Mom wouldn't know her son.

I was a gentle boy.
That dusty Texas town
Was good for settling down.
The girls were clean and coy.

Had everywhere to go,
And thumbed around the nation.
It's like improvisation
Inside a tune you know.

The highways in the bone
Phrase after phrase unwind.
For all I leave behind
There is a new song grown.

And everywhere to go.

Thom Gunn (1929-2004) was a British, then American poet, moving to the US when he was about 30, finally settling in San Franciso. Jack Straw's Castle was his volume of 1976. A few of the poems are set in New York City, but most in California. 'Hitching into Frisco' is one 'Three Songs' from that volume. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Classics Club Spin #28


It's time for another Classics Club know the rules. Here's my list of twenty books:

Some books that would also work for Karen's Back To The Classics challenge...

1.) George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara
2.) James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
3.) James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son
4.) Sir Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris
5.) Henry James' Wings of the Dove

Some books from my Classics Club list...

6.) Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
7.) Virginia Woolf's The Waves
8.) Willa Cather's One of Ours
9.) Willa Cather's A Lost Lady
10.) Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh

Some books I've been meaning to read since I recently read other books... 😉

11.) W.E.B. Du Bois' Autobiography (Wagnerism)
12.) Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark
13.) Eça de Queirós' The Maias (The City and the Mountains)
14.) R. L. Stevenson's An Inland Voyage (Travels With a Donkey)
15.) R. L. Stevenson's Across the Plains
16.) John Ruskin's Stones of Venice (various Richard Howards)
17.) John Ruskin's Unto This Last
18.) Tacitus' The History (Annals)
19.) Henryk Sienkiewicz' With Fire and Sword (Quo Vadis)
20.) Ezra Pound's Literary Essays (Propertius)

Some of these would be rereads. Which would you wish for me?

Charles contemplating the operations of chance...