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...

Monday, October 11, 2021

PKD & Zelazny & Moorcock (#1976Club)


It's the start of Kaggsy & Simon's 1976 club! 

Deus Irae

Philip K. Dick & Roger Zelazny teamed up to write this post-apocalyptic tale of a quest to find (or at least see) god. 

Carleton Lufteufel (air-devil) was the head of a U.S. war agency from 1983; in a conflict with the Chinese he dropped the 'gob', the great objectless bomb, and the atmosphere was destroyed. The Krankheit (sickness) followed, and those few humans who do survive are at higher risk for genetic mutations and can barely scrape up enough food to eat. Intelligent lizards and bugs and leftover robot A.I.s have taken over some of the space once occupied by humans.

And in the process Carleton Lufteufel became a god.

The process to becoming nor the powers Lufteufel has as god are particularly specified, but there is a new religion, the Servants of Wrath, devoted to his worship. Tibor McMasters, born without limbs but still a notable painter, is tasked with painting a church mural (a 'murch') to exalt his worship. McMasters declares he can only paint this mural properly once he's seen his god, but since Lufteufel is still out there somewhere it ought to be possible. He sets out on a 'Pilg', a pilgrimage to see his god, in a cart drawn by a cow, across the ruined and desolate country.

Pete Sands, on the verge of converting to Christianity, which still exists in our post-apocalyptic world, has been taking drugs to see the Christian God, a technique his spiritual adviser disapproves of. Pete Sands follows McMasters on his quest, either to help or hinder or both, since he likes McMasters personally, but doesn't like the new religion.

Do all pilgrimage narratives suggest Pilgrim's Progress? I've been reading Bunyan lately, and it feels like there are similarities, but maybe it's just the similarity between like objects. I couldn't point you to a particular point of reference. (Though maybe the use of allegorical names?)

Lufteufel meets up with the pair by design, under the name of Schuld (guilt), and arranges his own death, and the world feels a certain lightening. 

Hmm. Why someone who blew up the planet might feel guilty I can understand; why this particular death--even though it is the death of the human embodiment of a divinity--should make the world better, I'm not sure I do.

I know PKD pretty well, but Zelazny hardly at all. Wikipedia tells me that man become god and/or god become man is an important Zelazny motif. Drugs to see God and the use of German are definitely PKD contributions. I find PKD a pretty great writer, but too much production and carelessness mar a lot of his work. This one, for whatever reason, didn't entirely convince. Still, it was fun.

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate

This is the second of the original Elric novels by Michael Moorcock, though two of the (three) stories had appeared before and were then rewritten for the novel. 

I reread the first in the series Elric of Melniboné to get into the proper space. Elric ("It is the colour of bleached skull, his flesh;...") is the albino emperor number four hundred and somety-something of the decadent kingdom of Melniboné. Sickly and doomed. Humanoid, but not human. At the end of the first, he's just recovered after an attempted usurpation by his cousin Yyrkoon and he's acquired his sword Stormbringer. Nevertheless he decides to leave Yyrkoon on the throne as regent, and go off on a wanderjahr.

In the first adventure he sails into the future and is tied into the Moorcock eternal champion mythos, united with Corum, Hawkmoon, and Erekosë to defeat a brother/sister pair of evil sorcerers.  I thought this the weakest of the three.

In the second he comes across a figure from Melnibonéan legend Saxif D'Aan, who, across the centuries, has been pursuing the one girl he loved, the girl he killed in a fit of jealousy. Now in the present Saxif D'Aan has found a lookalike. Is there a way to right this ancient wrong?

In the final tale, Elric with a few companions journeys up a river through a jungle to ruins that may mark the origins of the Melnibonéan race. Seeking his past. Our Elric is a melancholy hero and unhappy with his role as emperor. Are these his roots? If he learns them, what will it do? Is this a journey to the heart of darkness or the heart of light? He does find a Kurtz, but maybe no real answers.

And in this his sentient sword Stormbringer first reveals its treacherous nature.

I knew, but had half-forgotten how good these were. Have I just committed myself to rereading the whole series? Maybe...

"You feign cynicism, yet I think I've rarely met a man so much in need of a little cynicism," Count Smiorgan tells Elric at the end of the third story.

Oh, and drugs. Elric is only kept alive by his sorcerous drugs, at least until he acquires Stormbringer. Well, it is 1976... 😉

Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting. (Love the logo!)

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Eça de Queirós' The City and The Mountains

 "So this is Portugal, eh? Hm, it smells good."

Jacinto is born and raised in Paris, the only son of an only son of a wealthy family and Jacinto is fantastically rich. His grandfather, an ardent royalist, left Portugal when Miguel I was exiled in 1834. It's the 1890s when the novel starts and Zé Fernandes is in Paris for his studies. The two become friends, and it's Zé Fernandes who narrates Jacinto's story. "It's for this reason we named him 'the prince of Great Good Fortune.'"

In Paris, Jacinto lives alone but for his servants at No. 202, Avenue des Champs-Élysées. This appears to be an imaginary address, but if it existed, Jacinto would live right next to the Arc de Triomphe. Did I mention wealthy?

Zé Fernandes goes back to Portugal for family duties; when seven years later he returns to Paris, he renews his acquaintance with Jacinto. In the interim Jacinto has used his great wealth to acquire and enjoy all the technological marvels available in Paris in the 1890s.

Or, maybe, not enjoy them.

The Paris part of the novel, the first third or so of its nearly 300 pages, is a wonderful satire of the state of technology in the 1890s. If there's a gadget, Jacinto has to have it. There are those I could name now. This goes well beyond electric light and the telephone. Jacinto has a teletype news service in his home. There's the Théâtrophone, a dedicated phone line that connects the user to the opera or theater. But these gadgets inevitably fail, the electricity just before an entertainment Jacinto had planned. The hot water system breaks, scalds and then floods the household. A prize fish course is stuck between floors when the dumbwaiter fails. And can you imagine listening to even a comic opera singer over a telephone line of the 1890s? ("Nothing but squeaks and buzzes!")

Then even the library,...

"My friend brushed his finger lightly against the wall and a circle of electric lights, which glowed against the carved wooden ceiling, lit up the monumental ebony shelves. These were filled by over thirty thousand books--bound in white, scarlet and red, with just a few touches of gold--as stiff and erect in their pomp and authority as an assembly of learned doctors."

...fails to delight after a while. (Nooooooo!)

When the gadgets fail, Jacinto goes on to obsess over various philosophical fads: Nietzsche, Ruskin, finally pitching on Schopenhauer and pessimism. (Yes, yes, I did just reduce Nietzsche & Ruskin to fads, but that is their function in the novel.)

Something must be missing from Jacinto's life. Just what could it be? 😉

Eventually Jacinto is obliged to go to Portugal, a country he's never been to, but the source of his wealth. He will be present for the rededication of the chapel in his ancestral family home. He owns several other estates, but this one is in the remote northern mountains of Portugal in a town called Tormes. The region is primitive and poor even by the standards of Portugal of the time. 

Jacinto attempts to import all his gadgets to Tormes and when he discovers the real state of the countryside decides to improve the lot of the locals: new housing, modern farming techniques, new industries. (A cheese dairy!) His estate manager Silvério and Zé Fernandes attempt to instil a little realism in him, but...

It's not giving much away to say it's marriage that removes the megrims from Jacinto's life--halfway through I was describing the plot as I'd read it thus far, and the Other Reader said, well, Jacinto is going to get married and that will solve everything. 

And so it was.

I'm not one to necessarily object to predictability, especially in a marriage plot, but the second half of the novel, while still fun, is not the equal of the first. The girl has little character other than her great beauty, and there's no real tension to keep them apart. But happily ever after isn't a bad ending, and suitable enough for our 'prince of Great Good Fortune.'

Though the 'happily ever after' doesn't extend to Zé Fernandes, whose romantic interest moves to Brazil and who makes a last unhappy trip to Paris.

José Maria de Eça de Queirós was the Portuguese consul in Paris when he was writing the novel, though he traveled to Portugal more often than Jacinto. It was his last novel, almost, but not quite, completed, with most of it in proofs, at his death in 1900; the last page or so was written by a friend after his death based on notes.

I read his novella The Yellow Sofa a couple of weeks ago and that seems to have sent me on an Eça de Queirós binge. The library assisted:

with The Maias also on the way. 

Comparisons to Flaubert seem to be de rigeur--three of the six blurbs on the back of The City and The Mountains cite Flaubert and apparently this trend goes back a while: Wikipedia tells me Zola compared Eça de Queirós with Flaubert to Flaubert's disadvantage. I have the suspicion the two I've read so far are unrepresentative, but this seems weird to me. Eça de Queirós is far funnier and much more genial than Flaubert. But if it is true, then this is his Bouvard et Pecuchet: it was unfinished at his death (though much closer to finished than Flaubert's novel) and is built around an encyclopedia of absurdities. I can't imagine Flaubert would have solved Bouvard or Pecuchet's mania by marriage, though...

If you know Eça de Queirós, which should I read next? Which should I have already read?

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Mateiu Caragiale's Rakes of the Old Court (Europe)

"They were talking about you today, before you came, they said you were working on a novel of manners, set in Bucharest, and I could barely keep from laughing...maybe if you wrote about Paşa, me, Panta--with anyone else you won't know what you're doing..." [70]

That's Pirgu talking to the narrator of Rakes of the Old Court. There are four main characters in the novel: Paşadia, Pirgu, Pantazi, and the narrator.

Mateiu Caragiale's novel came out in 1929 and is set around that time in Bucharest, though there are some flashbacks to earlier periods. Our four rakes don't do much: they meet in bars and drink; pursue sex, mostly with women, though there are definite suggestions of homosexual affairs. They're rich, (with the exception of Pirgu) sophisticated, the cream of Romanian society. Or are they? 

This short novel (100 pages) doesn't have a lot of event. The first chapter shows the gathering (in a bar) where the four characters are fully introduced. (They had some awareness of each other in society before that.) Each of the remaining three chapters reveals the backstory of three characters. The narrator himself is never fully explored.

First up is Paşadia.  The name suggests--and according to the introduction it would to a Romanian as well--a Turkish origin, which is the case. Paşadia's great-grandfather escaped Turkey; he was wanted there for a double murder. He comes to Romania-to-be, 'concealed his origins because they were too base', [29] sets up as a strongman and a lord. The women marrying into this line are also all foreigners: a Serbian, a Greek, a Braşovan at a time when Braşov was not yet part of Romania. Paşadia himself is cultivated, sophisticated. Where does that come from?

Pantazi next reveals himself. Though he was born in Bucharest, he declares, "I am earliest ancestors, as far back as I know, were seafaring thieves." [42] Though there are also mentioned in that ancestral tree 'Sicilian', 'barbarians', and 'quite possibly Norse, as all until the last two [of us, my father and me] preserved red hair and blue eyes'. Nevertheless when the war to finalize Romanian independence from Turkey breaks out in 1877, Pantazi feels Romanian enough to go fight. Russia aids Romania but then betrays the nascent Romanian state; nevertheless Romania, which had had a sort of de facto independence before the war, becomes an actual nation state under King Carol I.

Pirgu gets the last word. The narrator frequently sneers at Pirgu, and the other two treat him somewhat condescendingly as well. Pirgu had been trying to get the narrator to go to the Arnoteanus', proprietors of a gambling den and whorehouse, and finally he succeeds, and the story ends with our four characters either gambling or whoring or both. We also learn more about Pirgu: he is our one true (?) Romanian; he'd been impoverished through shenanigans, and through shenanigans he regains some of his wealth at the end.

Amusing, but all clear enough in its way. I have to imagine in 1929 there was a considerable amount of discussion about what is Romanian identity, with many, no doubt, praising its great purity and nobility. Romantic nationalism was dangerously on the rise all over Europe. Caragiale demurs, suggesting Romanians are a bunch of mutts (like everyone else) and pretty corrupt bunch at that. The introduction says the novel, while it may not have been the communists' favourite, made it through that era without suppression, and you can see why: it can be read--maybe merely--as a satire on decadent aristocrats.

But the introduction, by Sean Cotter the translator, also says this is a major Romanian novel, quite possibly the greatest Romanian novel of the 20th century. Well. There's something more going on here, and that something is clearly the language. One of Cotter's Romanian friends asked when Cotter said he was translating the novel if he was going to translate it into Romanian first. Ha, ha. The language is apparently difficult, and Cotter reproduces that in the translation. There are subtleties, though, that he can't very well reproduce though he clues us in to their presence. Paşadia's story is full of Romanian words of Turkish origin; Pantazi--whose very name suggests to me a bit his Greekness--uses language full of words of Greek origin. Pirgu is given a fairly coarse demotic--he's the one who swears and uses slang. True Romanian, as it were?

Turkish is the hard one: there just aren't that many words in English of Turkish origin, and Cotter resorts to extravagantly Latinate words to reproduce the feel. Caragiale is one of those writers who has a vocabulary and ain't afraid to use it neither: think, maybe, Mervyn Peake in English. I wouldn't want to be the one to translate Peake into another language. The problem reminded me of Apuleius' The Golden Ass and Jack Lindsay's translation, which I find quite successful. Reading Apuleius in Latin one comes across a bunch of words that don't show up in other authors and seem to be obscure even for the time; Lindsay translates with words equally alien to a normal English vocabulary. But Cotter's problem is even more challenging since he's faced with words of different etymological origins.

Perhaps an example is in order, especially since the bits I've quoted so far are pretty lucid...
"I would have started conversation, if the musicians had not begun precisely that waltz for which Pantazi had a weakness, a slow, dragging waltz, voluptuous and sad, almost funereal. In its mollitious oscillation, it traced a nostalgic and endlessly somber passion,..." [5]
That passage very nearly mollitiously oscillates back into the novel a second time quite near the end. (So the novel begins with a waltz and ends with a waltz.) Anyway there's more of that. You've been warned. 😉

And another warning:
"Nene, when are you going to give this stuff up? When? You'll turn your brains to mush with all this bookwork." [69]

That's Pirgu to the narrator. But since it's Pirgu maybe us bookish types can treat him condescendingly as well... 

All in all, though, I have to say I found it pretty interesting, if not exactly a rollicking read, and even though I'm quite sure a good deal of it went past me and would be pretty hard to reproduce in English in any case. However, this is one of those few books where I could have wished for even more notes.

It came out this year from Northwestern University Press. I came across it here. (Michael Orthofer's Complete Review.) Since I needed to keep up my Romanian streak for: 

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Report From Paradise

Report From Paradise

In paradise the work week is fixed at thirty hours
salaries are higher prices steadily go down
manual labour is not tiring (because of reduced gravity)
chopping wood is no harder than typing
the social system is stable and the rulers are wise
really in paradise one is better off than in whatever country

At first it was to have been different
luminous circles choirs and degrees of abstraction
but they were not able to separate exactly
the soul from the flesh and so it would come here
with a drop of fat a thread of muscle
it was necessary to face the consequences
to mix a grain of the absolute with a grain of clay
one more departure from doctrine the last departure
only John foresaw it: you will be resurrected in the flesh

not many behold God
he is only for those of 100 per cent pneuma
the rest listen to communiqués about miracles and floods
some day God will be seen by all
when it will happen nobody knows

As it is now every Saturday at noon
sirens sweetly bellow
and from the factories go the heavenly proletarians
awkwardly under their arms they carry their wings like violins

-Zbigniew Herbert
(tr. Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) was a Polish poet, born in Lwów. 'Report From Paradise' is from his book Inscription of 1969. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka

 "An expression of extreme sadness appeared on the lieutenant's face."

Which means Lieutenant Boruvka has solved another case...

Lieutenant Boruvka is a homicide detective in Prague; the twelve stories in this volume date from the mid-60s--it's still communist Czechoslovakia. Lt. Boruvka is saddened every time a death turns out to be a homicide--it's not always clear at first--and then is further saddened when he finds the crucial clue that tells him who the killer was.

The stories themselves are quite funny.

The stories nod to golden age detective fiction (and earlier). Holmes, C. Auguste Dupin, Dr. Thorndyke are all referenced. In one of the cases, Lt. Boruvka gets the needed clue from reading Ellery Queen's The Roman Hat Mystery. (Or maybe Skvorecky got the plot element he needed from Queen?) At one point Lt. Boruvka remarks about possible suspects with the murdered man's servant:

"He and Farina are the only two men in the whole house who can be taken into account because it certainly wasn't me."
The major-domo coughed. He seemed to be offended.
"You don't regard me as a man, sir?"
"But of course I do," the lieutenant hurriedly covered up. "But in any decent murder case the murderer is never one of the servants. That simply isn't done."

Paging Mr. Van Dine! (See number 11.)

There are a few recurring characters. In the office there's Sergeant Malik, officious and a bit blood-thirsty and prone to miss the obvious; there's Constable Sintak, to whom "Lieutenant Boruvka was a wizard." And the beautiful policewoman Eva with her chignon. Lt. Boruvka's wife, and especially his daughter Zuzana, are important. A vacation promised to Zuzana means that two of the cases are set in Italy, where Lt. Boruvka stumbles into a couple of murders (and Zuzana is crucial to finding the solutions.)

There's a plot arc through most of the stories in which Lt. Boruvka is attracted to Eva; in one he's arranged to meet her at the Tomcat (!) Club for dinner and drinks and who knows what, when a couple of accidents drag him into a case in which he manages to prevent a murder only by standing up Eva. Saint Sidonius features in the case in a couple of ways, giving Lt. Boruvka, who's perfectly happy with the official state atheism of Czechoslovakia at the time, a moment of wonder. And keeping him from doing something he shouldn't...

A lot of fun.

Covering the Czech Republic for this years European Reading Challenge.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

August wrapup (and summer reading)

My August reading (and looking at that #20booksofsummer list, ha, ha...)

Like most blogger memes, monthly summaries turns out to be another I'm pretty sporadic about doing.

The Mystery Department

Which was Philo Vance by S. S. Van Dine this month. I recently discovered that the whole series is available at Project Gutenberg Australia. Are they legal in Canada? I dunno. But I downloaded the ones I hadn't read and then read three of them.

Philo Vance may be an idle aesthete, but he's effective in tracking down murderers.

"If you will refer to the municipal statistics of the City of New York, you will find that the number of unsolved major crimes during the four years that John F.-X. Markham was district attorney, was far smaller than under any of his predecessors' administrations." [Benson Murder Case, Introductory]

Philo Vance was the reason why. 

The Benson Murder Case (#1 in the series, 1926)

Alvin Benson was a Wall Street broker and man about town; he was shot one night at home in the forehead. Harassed actresses and jealous boyfriends make up a good collection of suspects, but as the police go through one suspect after another, Vance keeps insisting the psychology is wrong. Until it isn't.

The Scarab Murder Case (#5 in the series, 1930)

Benjamin Kyle is a philanthropist financing an expedition to excavate in Egypt. Early one morning his head is crushed by the statue of an Egyptian god and the dead hand is clutching an ancient scarab. The curse of the old gods for looting pyramids? Or a more terrestrial murderer? Howard Carter & King Tut's tomb weren't so far in the past at this point. Vance is once again mostly tasked with keeping the police from arresting the wrong person, but in this case the actual murderer is doing his best to frame somebody else, anybody else. 

The Dragon Murder Case (#7 in the series, 1933)

In an old estate on the north end of Manhattan, there's a swimming pool formed from a river. (Think Tryon Hall, now Fort Tryon Park.) Sanford Montague dives into the pool and never comes up. A few days later his body is found a couple of miles away. Murder? Or accident with a clumsy attempt to hide the outcome? Or is it the dragon of Lenape legend? 

The solution depends on the latest in technology in 1933, which was also true of 1927's The Canary Murder Case, probably my favorite in the series and an excellent locked-room murder.

However. "Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pants," wrote Ogden Nash, and it's kind of true. I enjoy the series and it's historically important, but. Willard Wright, for whom S. S. Van Dine was a pseudonym, was also an art critic while under one of his other hats, and there's far more art history than any of the mysteries require. There may be some use to discussions of Egypt's 17th dynasty in The Scarab Murder Case, but mostly you have to just like the long digressions for their own sake. I don't entirely mind them myself. But what's pretty continuously hard to take is Wright's inability to write dialog that sounds like anything an actual human being might speak.

I knew early Ellery Queen was quite influenced by Philo Vance, but what struck me in these was how much Rex Stout was paying attention, too. And it's not just that there's a butler who cooks!

In the Time of Nero

My Classics Club spin book was Henryk Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis. That sent me off to Petronius' Satyricon and Tacitus' Annals. Thoughts were written up here.

The Poetry Department

Richard Crashaw/Selected Poems

Crashaw (1613-1649) was the son of a Puritan sympathizer, but he became a high-church Anglican and eventually a Catholic. Not a politically astute move for an Englishman in those years, Crashaw fled to France and then died in the Papal States. 

Crashaw considered George Herbert his poetic master, which shows good taste as far as I'm concerned. Very much a metaphysical, with elaborate conceits: one poem voices the tears that Mary Magdalene cried. A couple of impressive long poems devoted to Teresa of Avila.

The edition I read was selected by Michael Cayley for Fyfield Books (Carcanet Press) in 1972. He wrote a useful introduction.

H. D./Sea Garden
H. D./Hymen

These early volumes of H. D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961) are available at Project Gutenberg. I've got a couple other volumes of hers in hand. I like her handling of classical allusions, but I'm not going to say much at the moment.

G. K. Chesterton/Wine, Women, and Song

Ahem. Not very politically correct, and not just in the ways suggested by the title. (The en passant anti-Semitism was pretty hard to swallow.) Still, he's a skilled versifier and there was some amusing stuff in it:

You will find me drinking rum
Like a sailor in a slum
You will find me drinking beer like a Bavarian
You will find me drinking gin
In the lowest kind of inn
Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.

Available from Project Gutenberg. 

Richard Howard/RH 🖤   HJ

New York Review Poets volume. It draws from Howard's career as a poet of fifty years. (He's also a translator, of E. M. Cioran among others.) HJ is Henry James, and a number of the poems selected concern James in some way. I find Richard Howard very good, but I'm not sure this is the selection of his poems I would have made. Quoted from it here.

Women in Translation Month

Two by Amélie Nothomb (Thirst, Tokyo Fiancée). Thoughts here.

Dorthe Nors/Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

It's possible I'll still say more about this, but I haven't yet.

Sonja Hansen lives in Copenhagen and is the translator of (imaginary) Swedish thriller writer Gösta Svensson. She's 40 or so and wants to get a driver's license so she's a little freer to go where she wants, but she suffers from positional vertigo--if she swings her head too fast, she gets dizzy and disoriented. She thinks about doing yoga, gets massages, feels like a country mouse (she's from rural Jutland) in the big city of Copenhagen. Not much happens, but that's kind of the point.

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker International in 2017, but lost to David Grossman's A Horse Walks Into a Bar. That was also the year of Mathias Énard's Compass.

Some Other International Fiction

Jose Maria Eça de Queiroz/The Yellow Sofa

A novella by the 19th Century Portuguese realist. The merchant Godofredo da Conceiçao Alves discovers the younger partner in his firm is having an affair with his wife. What to do? A duel is just one of several possibilities. 

I thought this was very good. It's the first of his I've read, but I've now got several more from the library.

Stanislaw Lem/Fiasco

An expedition from Earth to a distant star system sets out with the idea of making contact with an alien civilization. No humans have ever been in contact with any aliens before--this is a story of first contact. The title gives away the outcome, but how it fails and why are the questions of the novel.

It would be Lem's hundredth birthday this year, leading to overviews. Lem is almost always a science-fiction writer, but he ranges from scientifically hard to fabular, from serious to uproariously funny. I liked this, though I didn't think it was his best--it took a little while to really get going. It's on the serious, more technologically-minded end of his spectrum.

Sholem Aleichem/In The Storm

Quite good, I thought. More here.

So that's a month's worth of reading for me. As for that 20 Books of Summer, as you might guess from this one month's reading, I read twenty books. But as for that list, umm...eleven, plus two I had suggested I might read. Ah, well...

The August books that are still around the house

Senhor Dorsey decided I wasn't using his service properly--probably by not using it enough--so there's a new Twitter account follow button...

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Heinrich Heine (#poem)


Sapphires are those eyes of yours,
Ravishingly sweet,
Oh, triply fortunate the man
Whom lovingly they greet.

Your heart is like the diamond
That sparkles noble beams;
Oh, triply lucky is the man
For whom with love it gleams.

Your lips are like twin ruby stones,
None lovelier anywhere;
Oh, triply fortunate is the man
To whom they love aver.

Oh, if I knew this lucky man
And found him thus in clover,
Just tète-a-tète in the deep green wood
His luck would soon be over.

-Heinrich Heine (tr. Walter Arndt) 

I've been reading Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) lately, looking first at the German, but then quickly cheating and reading the English. Heine was the major German poet after Goethe, Jewish but not usually practicing. He got into trouble with the authorities and lived his later years in France. 

The German (if it helps):

Saphire sind die Augen dein,
Die lieblichen, die süßen,
Oh, dreimal glücklich ist der Mann,
Den sie mit Liebe grüßen.

Dein Herz, es ist ein Diamant,
Der edle Lichter sprühet.
Oh, dreimal glücklich ist der Mann,
Für den es liebend glühet.

Rubinen sind die Lippen dein,
Man kann nicht schönre sehen.
Oh, dreimal glücklich ist der Mann,
Dem sie die Liebe gestehen.

Oh, kennt ich nur den glücklichen Mann,
Oh, daß ich ihn nur fände,
So recht allein im grünen Wald,
Sein Glück hätt' band ein Ende.

I've found the Arndt translations pretty good overall, but I'm not really sure why he changes up the third line refrain in this.

Poem For A Thursday is a meme started by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. Also Brona has a poem.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Sholom Aleichem's In The Storm

"Hearken, O ye nations! Heed, O ye peoples of the world, what my mouth will utter now. Waken from your slumbers, raise your eyes, look about you and see the darkening sky. Black clouds are gathering above, a mighty wind drives them with great speed and they cover the entire sky. Soon, soon, a storm will be breaking. Soon, soon, the thunderclouds will burst and a great storm will pelt down, not of water but of blood." [187]

That's the storm of In The Storm, Sholom Aleichem's novel set in the year 1905. Lippa Bashevitch, an uneducated wood-hauler, has been driven half-mad by events.

But it's not all in such a high register and even Lippa can't sustain that. Immediately afterwards one of the other characters says, "Reb Lippa! Perhaps you would like something to eat?"

1905 is an important year in Russian history. Russia has just--shockingly--lost the Russo-Japanese War. The events of the Russian Bloody Sunday--where peaceful marchers in St. Petersburg are fired on by police--is an important moment in the novel. The Tsar feels compelled to offer the people, temporarily as it turns out, a constitution. "Constitutzia, constitutzia!"

(It's also the time of the movie Battleship Potemkin, though none of those events show up in the book.)

The novel starts in Kiev: "Three different Pesachs were being prepared at No. 13 Vasilchikover Street." These Passover preparations are in the apartments of Itzikl Shostepol, Solomon Safranovitch, and Nehemiah the shoemaker. (Lippa Bashevitch supplies the building with firewood.) Itzikl Shostepol is a well-to-do merchant and religious; Solomon Safranovitch is a middle-class pharmacist and secularizing; Nehemiah is poor and lives in the basement. But all three have children who are engaged with the ideological currents flowing through Russia at the time.

At the start of the novel Tamara Shostepol and Sasha Safranovitch are about to return to Kiev for the holiday from St. Petersburg where they have been studying. They arrive on the same train, and, while as far as their fathers are concerned, they're not supposed to know each other since they're from different economic classes, they do, having grown up in the same building. 

The novel then flashes back to events in St. Petersburg and that Bloody Sunday in January. The second half of the novel returns to Kiev. The tsar revokes the constitution later that year and scapegoats the Jews for Russia's failures. A series of pogroms erupts including one in Kiev. Our characters have to make serious choices.

Sholom Aleichem himself lived through that Kiev pogrom, though he was well-enough off at the time to take his family and hole up anonymously in a hotel. But that was the event that led to Aleichem leaving Russia. "Palestine and America--what a choice!" [219]

Aleichem is often written off at the sentimentalizing chronicler of shtetl life, he of Kasrilevke and Tevye and Fiddler on the Roof. (Great as I find Fiddler on the Roof to be.) I already knew there was more to him than that, but still this novel was a surprise. It's a very urban setting. It also represents the division between a more politicized second generation and their more accommodationist parents, a novel of the sort you see in The Demons (Dostoevsky) and Fathers and Sons (Turgenev). It's also stylistically quite interesting, with various modes: a telegraphic biography of a police spy, e.g., or what seem to be excerpts from police reports. Reading it in translation the interplay between Hebrew and Yiddish will inevitably mostly go past me, but the translation by Aliza Shevrin seems strong and she's able to make some of that apparent.

A few years ago I read Jeremy Dauber's biography of Aleichem and I got it back from the library to see what he said about the novel. The novel was first serialized in the spring of 1906 in the left-wing New York Yiddish paper Varheit, under the title The Deluge. Aleichem rewrote it before it appeared as a novel under the current title. 

At that time Aleichem was new to New York, having fled the Kiev pogrom. His family was still in Europe, his older children at school in Switzerland. He had just had two failures on the New York Yiddish stage, possibly because Aleichem, not knowing New York, had offended the wrong claques. Already a pretty well-known writer, but never, it seems, very astute with money, he needed it badly at the time, and a contract for a serialized novel was a huge boon. (I also have to assume that the Yiddish press was not so well-established at the time that it could pay its authors all that well.)

Highly recommended.
"Come with me, reader, give me your hand, let us proceed--we have a long, long way to go!" [21]

"Why are we standing here? It's time to say goodbye!" [220] 

Not such a long way as all that at 220 pages, but a good one.  

Note: His name is usually transliterated Sholem Aleichem these days, but I spelled it Sholom throughout since that's the way it appears on the cover of my edition of In The Storm. 

Monday, August 23, 2021

Two by Amélie Nothomb (#WITMonth)

It's Women in Translation month! I had one unread Amélie Nothomb novel on the shelf, and I got another one from the library.


I read the library book first. Thirst is her most recent novel in English; it came out earlier this year. The French dates from 2019, but it isn't her most recent novel in French. (Well, she keeps busy.) 

Christ tells his own story, from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate until after his resurrection. He's wry and jokey about it until the pain doesn't allow that any more:

"The jailer said to me:
'Try to get some sleep. You need to be in good shape tomorrow.'
On seeing my ironic expression, he added:
'Don't laugh. It takes good health to die. Don't say I didn't warn you.'" [17]

"As to calling her Mary, [Mary Magdalene] that's out of the question. It's never a good idea to confuse your sweetheart with your mother." [27]

He discusses, wonders almost, about the nature of religious inspiration, of mysticism:

"It's no coincidence that I chose this part of the world...I needed a land of great thirst. No other sensation more eloquently evokes what I seek to inspire than thirst. That is surely why no one has experienced it as I have.
Truth to tell: what you feel when  you are dying of thirst is something you must cultivate. Therein lies the mystical urge. It is not its metaphor. When you are no longer hungry, that is called satiety. When you are no longer tired, that is called rest. When you cease to suffer, that is called comfort. When you are no longer thirsty, there is no word for it.
There are people who do not consider themselves mystics. They are wrong. It takes only a moment of extreme thirst to attain such a state. And the ineffable state when the parched man raises a glass of water to his lips: that is God." [34-5]
I thought Nothomb's handling of the psychology of Christ's moment of doubt was well done. (The "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" moment.) On the whole I thought it was a sympathetic portrait of Christ, and one that, while not orthodox, wouldn't necessarily offend a believer. (Though there are those believers who are easily offended.) The least orthodox moment was after the resurrection. Christ appears, but it's a distinctly non-bodily resurrection.
"To experience thirst, you must be alive. I lived so intensely that I died thirsting.
Perhaps that is what is meant by eternal life." [90]

It's a thoughtful and interesting volume and not what I expected. (Which is generally a good thing.)

But. There was some classical Greek in the book which was wrong. Christ distinguishes between why and how in Greek and then misspells how. I'm not sure what to make of that. (I looked and saw it was also wrong in the French.) Additionally Christ says, "Christ means gentle."[40] Maybe the actual Christ is gentle, though he claims not in the context. (Rather, it's mother who is gentle.) But the word doesn't mean that. It means the anointed one. 

On the other hand, while his Greek may be poor, he can quote Latin. (A language the historical Christ was less likely to know.) "Homo sum. Humani a me nihil alienum puto." "I am a man. I think nothing human is alien to me," is from Terence's Heautontimorumenos, and Christ paraphrases it twice. 

Tokyo Fiancée

My first experience of any sort with Amélie Nothomb was the movie version of Tokyo Fiancée. Before that she was just a name to me, but when the movie showed up for the film festival here in Toronto in 2014, I thought, oh, I'm curious about her, let's see that one. I usually try to read the novel before seeing the movie, but I didn't and just read it now. The novel came out in French in 2007, in English in 2009.

'Amélie,' the character, lived in Japan until she was five years old. Now twenty or so, she decides to go back to Japan to get in touch with her roots, learn the language. She's going to teach French to pay her way. 

Her first pupil is Rinri, the son of a well-to-do family of jewellers. She and Rinri get along from the start. He may be more interested in her than she him, but she definitely likes him. But his parents are suspicious of this footloose foreign woman (and his grandparents even more suspicious) and she has a roommate. Where to meet? "In love, as in anything, infrastructure is everything." [49] Eventually her roommate goes off for a trip; then his parents leave for a while. Rinri is capable of good cooking. (Though not always--when he tries Western dishes he fails.) They go on the sort of jaunts that young Japanese couples go on. Eventually Rinri, who has easy access to good jewelry, proposes with a ring and 'Amélie' accepts. Was this the right thing for her to do? 

Our 'Amélie' is also interested in writing. Is marriage compatible with a career as a writer? The novel is set in the late 80s, and 'Amélie' writes a novel with the same title as the first novel of the actual Amélie Nothomb.

The movie pushes events forward by twenty years, and while the first two-thirds of the movie corresponds pretty well to the novel, the endings are quite different. But both are pretty engaging.

I've now read four of Amélie Nothomb's novels, which might sound impressive except that they are all pretty short and they represent a mere 14% of her novels. Nevertheless...I'm going to make a sweeping generalization. 😉 She starts off with jokes--good jokes, they are pretty funny--but then she swerves into something more serious and the novels engage--in an interesting way--with more serious issues. (Mysticism, career, war, friendship.) Of the ones I've read, I thought Tokyo Fiancée was the best, but I will read more.

Both of these were ably translated by Alison Anderson.
"As always in my life I was the only Belgian." [25]
Most of Tokyo Fiancée takes place in Japan, but a bit of it takes place in Belgium, making it my entry for Belgium for the European Reading Challenge...

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Richard Howard (#poem)


from Decades 

(for Hart Crane)


Laukhuff's Bookstore. I am fourteen, I live
on the Diet of Words, shoving a ladder around
high shelves while the German ex-organ-maker
smokes with a distant nightmare in his eyes
("You have heard of Essen," he murmurs, "you never
will again": it is nineteen forty-three),
his body on hinges, his elbows hovering wide
over the Jugendstil bindings (Werfel, Kraus...)
like a not-quite-open penknife. "Hart Crane?

He came here to marry the world...You understand?
Maritare mundum: it is the work of magic,
Mirandola says it somewhere, to marry the world...
And not much time to do it in, he had
to read all the books, to marry, then to burn,,,
It is one kind of greatness to grow old--
to be able to grow old, like Goethe;
it was Hart's kind to refuse. You understand?"
Laukhuff is asking me, laughing through smoke

his postponing, renouncing laugh. No, I don't--
that much I do. I climb down, clutching The Bridge
and hand it over. "Will I understand this,
Mr Laukhuff? Should I buy it?" "Cross it first.
You won't, but there is a certain value, there is
poetic justice in the sense of having missed
the full meaning of things. Sure, buy it. Spend
all you have, your mother will give you more."
The German penknife closes with a click.

Marriage, Hart. The endless war. The words.
Cleveland was our mother-in-lieu. We left.

-Richard Howard

I've been reading a lot of Richard Howard lately.

'Decades' is about Howard's lifelong engagement with Hart Crane, author of The Bridge. Both Richard Howard and Hart Crane grew up in Cleveland. The poem consists of five sections--this is the second--set at ten year intervals. Each section is three nine-line stanzas of accentual pentameter, plus the final couplet, generally unrhymed. 'Decades' was first collected in Fellow Feelings, 1976, though I have it in the New York Review Books selection.

Howard's poems are often long (and so hard to quote). Many are dramatic monologues or duologues (think Robert Browning) with some spoken by famous figures, such as Walt Whitman, Henry Irving, or Edith Wharton. This passage is a little funny (I think) but he's often laugh-out-loud funny.

And Laukhuff's Bookstore! It closed before I was even born in a city I've never been to and now I miss it.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Of the Time of Nero (#ccspin)


Here we have Hubert arbiting some elegances 

My spin book this time was Henryk Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis, which set off a mini-reading project.

Petronius' The Satyricon

I knew Caius Petronius was a major character in Quo Vadis, and I thought I'd reread The Satyricon in advance. It's mostly accepted (though not universally) that Petronius, author of The Satyricon, is that Caius Petronius mentioned as the Elegantiae Arbiter of Nero's court in Tacitus. (Though maybe not: it's a common enough family name in Rome.)

What we have of The Satyricon is pretty fragmentary; parts, we're told, of Books XV and XVI, amounting to 164 pages in William Arrowsmith's translation. Even the exact meaning of the title is uncertain. For a Roman (as also a bit for us) it probably suggests several things: Satyrs (and thus lechery), satire, but also satura, a Roman word meaning heap or medley. The longest continuous surviving stretch is the dinner at Trimalchio's, who is a freedman working for the Imperial court, with lots of money and little taste and maudlin when drunk. It's amusing to see the sort of thing a rich Roman would have been eating at the time. It makes turducken look like an exercise in restraint.

It's not possible to say much with certainty about the work. If the note attached to the late medieval manuscript is correct about books XV and XVI,  it would be a very long work, even if there were only 16 books--and 24 would be a significant number for an ancient author.  Encolpius--the (loosely speaking) hero--of the book cons his way through life, cadging free dinners where he can, and sleeping (or trying to) with anything that moves. He hangs out with grammarians, professors of rhetoric, poets, so he seems to be an educated man, but there's something criminal in his background. Also he's managed to offend the god Priapus, with an unwelcome effect on his, umm, priapic appendage, and is on a quest to get back in good with the god, and go on sleeping around. (Probably. The book is fragmentary.) It is a severe judgment of its society. I find it funny in places, but your mileage may vary: some of the jokes are pretty insider-y Roman.

I took an undergraduate class on Petronius. We read a good chunk of the book in Latin, and as well as all of it in Arrowsmith's translation. I must have read the introduction--which is quite good--but I was amused now with how engaged Arrowsmith was with Lolita. (His translation comes out in 1959.) He calls Lolita a failure--twice. I'm sure I hadn't read Lolita at the time. It's not a comparison that would have occurred to me though. The sexual abuse of children is the meeting point, I suppose, but they're not really very much alike. Rather The Satyricon's embedded poetry, commentary thereon, and comically epic plot is more Pale Fire than Lolita. (Though The Satyricon is not either of them, of course.)

Tacitus' Annals

I enjoyed The Satyricon, but in the end I don't think rereading it brought much to Quo Vadis. Sienkiewicz accepts the attribution to Caius Petronius, but it doesn't otherwise feel like it impacts. Much more useful were the Annals, Tacitus' history of Rome from the death of Augustus to the death of Nero. (A.D. 14 - A.D. 68). Moses Hadas, in his introduction, notes that "Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis... [has] long sections which are but adaptations of Tacitus." True that, Moze.

I thought one of the best things in Quo Vadis was the portrait of Petronius. Sienkiewicz is certainly taking off from Tacitus:

"His [Petronius'] days he passed in sleep, his nights in business and pleasures of life. Indolence had raised him to fame, as energy raises others, and he was reckoned not a debauchee and spendthrift, like most who squander their substance, but a man of refined luxury. And indeed his talk and his doings, the freer they were and the more show of carelessness they exhibited, were the better liked, for their look of natural simplicity...Then falling back into vice or affecting vice, he was chosen by Nero to be on of his few intimate associates, as a critic in matters of taste, while the emperor thought nothing charming or elegant in luxury unless Petronius had expressed to him his approval of it." [Annals 16.18, tr. Church and Broadribb]

Also, the great fire of Rome during Nero's reign. (July, A.D. 64) Tacitus would have been somewhere around six years old at time, but he doesn't use his own memories of the event (assuming he had some); instead he draws on earlier histories. It's a vivid moment in the book. Tacitus doubts Nero was responsible for the fire, but notes the rumors of Nero's guilt spring up almost immediately. The persecution of the Christians after the fire--Tacitus is our earliest source for this--he attributes to Nero's need to find a scapegoat to stifle those rumors.

The other thing that struck me (though irrelevant to Quo Vadis) was how important Armenia was in Roman thinking at the time. It was an ally, practically a client state, stuck on Rome's eastern border, wedged between Rome and the Arsacid-ruled empire of Parthia (corresponding roughly to modern Iran) who were a major rival to Rome at the time. Quite a lot of energy is devoted to keeping a friendly king in Armenia.

Tacitus is a famously difficult author in Latin. The (small) amount of his Latin I read in grad school impressed me; his tricky sentences frequently end with a sharp ironic sting in their tail. He reminded me of George Eliot, though of course the lines of influence run the other way, and I'm quite sure George Eliot knew her Tacitus perfectly well. The Church and Broadribb translation is fine, but it doesn't capture what I remember of the magic of Tacitus' prose.

Henryk Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis

And on to the main event...

The handsome soldier Marcus Vinicius meets Callina (also called Lygia) and his knees tremble such as they never did in battle; the beautiful Lygia blushes bright pink and scampers off without a word out of Marcus' presence. "Ah, ha!" says the trained literary mind. "What we have here is Romantic Comedy!"

In romantic comedy the Question is what keeps our lovers apart and what it takes to get them together again in the end. Well, in Nero's Rome, there are plenty of things to keep them apart, maybe, just possibly, too many...

Not least is the fact that Lygia is a secret Christian. Years before she had been handed over to the Romans as a hostage and guarantee of a treaty between the Lygii and the Iazyges. The Romans were a neutral party in that conflict. But Lygia's father dies in battle and her mother dies as well, so Lygia, though an official state hostage, is more or less forgotten, raised by a nice Roman couple of the senatorial class.

Lygia is dark-haired with blue eyes and is so good-looking everyone is worried when she's in a room with Nero for a couple of hours he will fall into uncontrollable lust. Ah, but Petronius has a plan for that. (I suspected, and later verified, that the Lygii inhabited what is now Poland. A little Polish boosterism on the part of our author.) What Petronius didn't take into account was that the equally good-looking Marcus would attract the eye of Poppaea, the empress. Complications ensue.

This lightness doesn't last, though. (Well, the subtitle does say it's a narrative of the time of Nero.) The great fire and the persecution of the Christians are yet to come. For the purposes of the novel Sienkiewicz always assumes of the worst of Nero. Every time when Tacitus says some historians say this and some say that, Sienkiewicz always chooses the darker that, even when Tacitus says the milder this is likely true. For instance, the fire is started at the instigation of Nero, and, according to Sienkiewicz, he really does fiddle (or at least play a lyre) while Rome burns.

If it's not already clear, I preferred the earlier, lighter part of the novel. There were even some of those insider-y Roman jokes. When Petronius says of something it involves more fish than even Apicius ate in his life, I laughed. But it helps to know Apicius was the author of a cookbook. Petronius also snarks about Lucan's skill as a poet.

Later I felt it descended a bit into religious tract. The Christians (which include Peter and Paul) are all annoyingly noble, with the partial exception of Crispus, a fire and brimstone type who gets the occasional reprimand. Saint Paul asks Petronius (and we're reminded of it a second time), "If Caesar [Nero] were a Christian, would ye not all feel safer?" I'm afraid I wouldn't, and, alas, I don't think the question was meant ironically. The torture scenes began to feel a little voyeuristic. I was also a bit alarmed by Sienkiewicz' handling of Poppaea's purported Judaism. Josephus, the Jewish historian, is the source for this, and he meant it as a compliment. It doesn't come across that way in the novel.

Still, the later part has more portraits of well-known people and more big events. Not just Peter and Paul and Petronius. Nero and Poppaea do make good villains, even if their villainy is a bit played up. Seneca and Lucan have small roles. The danger and drama do pick up.

And as for our lovers? Well, you'll just have to read it and see... (if you haven't already.)

Antonine Propaganda

There's an exhibit on currently about Nero at the British Museum. I won't get to see it, but I did read the recent New Yorker article... It reminds us it's the winners who get to write the history. Tacitus, the most balanced of the surviving historians covering the period still clearly hates the Julio-Claudian emperors (that sequence of emperors who were descended somehow from Julius Caesar. Nero was the last.) Suetonius makes no pretence of balance. Both Tacitus and Suetonius flourished under the Flavian and then even more under the Antonine emperors, dynasties that were happy to have the previous guys slandered. It's just possible Nero wasn't quite *so* bad. Augustus had Maecenas, his PR guy, and consequently got pretty good press. The rest of the Julio-Claudians not so much. It doesn't necessarily matter for a novel, but it's worth keeping in mind.

Bit of a rainy week at the Internet-Free Zone so lots of reading. But there was a moment of sun when we caught this guy catching some rays...

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Independent People

 "The chief point and the point to which I have always directed my course, is independence. And a man is independent if the hut he lives in is his own." [65]

That's Bjartur of Summerhouses speaking, the protagonist of Halldór Laxness' Independent People, and the most independent of the lot. After eighteen years of indentured servitude, he owns his own croft and flock of sheep. 

You learn what it's like to live in a thatched roof croft in a remote valley far from Reykjavík. It's around the year 1900. It's not pleasant. Cooped up all winter with wormy sheep, a leaky roof, and a fire that smokes. This is realism.

But it also connects to a more mythic era in Iceland's history. Bjartur composes poetry in the old style; I think it's supposed to be pretty good in Icelandic. People do actually believe in elves and trolls. The land Bjartur's house is on is supposedly cursed by Saint Columba (Columcille in Irish) who has been re-branded by the locals as the demon Kolumkilli. Bjartur sneers at this as mere superstition, but isn't entirely able himself to disbelieve.

The Fell King (a neighbor, always referred to as the Fell King, and at this time Bjartur's father-in-law) goes on after Bjartur makes his declaration:

"The love of freedom and independence has always been a characteristic of the Icelandic people. Iceland was originally colonized by freeborn chieftains who would rather live and die in isolation than serve a foreign king. They were the same sort of men as Bjartur."

Ah, Bjartur, the iconic Icelander. But then the Fell King goes on to ask his daughter Rosa, Bjartur's wife, how she likes life in the croft.

"'Oh, it's very free, of course,' she replied, and sniffed." [66]

So, the book is grim, mythic, and often laugh-out loud funny. 

Rosa dies in childbirth, but the daughter survives. Bjartur names her Asta Sollilja, ('beloved sun lily') a rather exotic name. She's the beginning of a considerable amount of flower imagery.

Some years pass, and Bjartur has remarried. Now in addition to Asta Sollilja, he has three sons who have survived their infant years, Helgi, Gvendur, and Nonni. His second wife's mother also lives with them. There's some comic business with a cow--Bjartur is very much a sheep man--whom the local grandee tries to give to Bjartur. Bjartur insists on paying for the cow, though he can't really afford it. (There's also backstory here between Bjartur and the grandee.) Briefly life looks up with the cow, but then an especially bad winter comes that nearly wipes out Bjartur (and does wipe out some of the family.)

The co-op movement comes to Iceland; Bjartur remains loyal to the merchant from whom he buys goods and to whom he sells sheep. The co-op movement is much celebrated in Denmark; it's a bit more ambiguous in the novel. Eventually World War I comes and in Iceland, which remained neutral, it's suddenly boom times.

Bjartur: "Oh, let them squabble, damn them. I only hope they keep it up as long as they can. They aren't half so particular about what they eat now that they're face to face with the realities of life. They'll eat anything now. They'll buy anything from you. Prices are soaring everywhere. Soon they'll be buying muck from your middens." [374]

Not the usual view on the first World War, but not necessarily wrong for that...

Bjartur is stubborn and sure of himself. How good a man is he? He does real damage. Both his wives die young, and while the poverty is so great that high mortality is unsurprising, Bjartur bears some responsibility. "You've always been a cross-grained swine," someone tells him at some point, and it's true. 

He meets with triumph and disaster, and mostly treats those two impostors just the same, but not entirely. His opinions get him and others into trouble, but if he'd stuck to his opinions (especially on debt) just a little more, he might have been better off. But it's also the case that forces outside of his control, that are too big for an independent person, dominate his life. Well, the novel did come out in two parts in the 30s. Maybe it was important to gang together to deal with tough times. The fates of Bjartur's three sons suggest the possibilities of rural Icelandic crofters at the time.

The reprint edition has an introduction by Brad Leithauser, which is interesting and informative. Leithauser met the author late in Laxness' life--Laxness was already starting to suffer from the Alzheimer's that would eventually do him in:

"When I spoke of my admiration for Bjartur, a look of perplexity gave way to one of alarm. 'Oh, but he's so stupid!' he [Laxness] objected.

'Oh, but he's so wonderfully stupid!" I replied, and the old man peered at me and pondered darkly a moment; then his features cleared and he abruptly laughed with pleasure."

That does give a good sense. But on the whole the introduction gives away too much. It's not especially a plot-driven novel, but there is one half-hidden mystery that is gradually revealed over the first third of the novel, and it's not until near the end that we fully understand what Bjartur knows. Leithauser spills the beans. Save the introduction for an afterword.