Tuesday, June 29, 2021

No Other Life (#BrianMooreAt100)

 "'There is no other life,' my mother said."

Fr. Paul Michel is a priest, an Albanesian, who has spent his career teaching at an elite school in Ganae, an island in the Caribbean. He's about to retire and return to his country of birth, Canada, where he no longer has any particular connection. The novel is a reminiscence about the one important event, the one important person, in his life. 

Early in his teaching career the school established, reluctantly, a few scholarships for the impoverished, who are generally blacker than the elite, and one of the students they took in, on Fr. Michel's recommendation, was the orphaned Jean-Paul Cantave. Cantave becomes Fr. Michel's boy, his Petit. Cantave is a brilliant student, who goes on to become a priest and join the Albanesian order, studying in Europe, and finally returning to Ganae to help his native land. 

And become its president. 

It's still the era of liberation theology, though just barely. John Paul II is pope, and the future Benedict XVI is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and they have little brief for left-wing priests in politics. 

There are no Albanesians, there is no Ganae, and--it is a novel--there is no Jean-Paul Cantave. But the Albanesians are more or the less the Salesians, Ganae is more or less Haiti, and Cantave is more or less, though probably less, Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Well. Aristide's own story is not yet ended. No Other Life came out in 1993, so Moore couldn't know its complexities, but he clearly has some understanding what they might be like. Aristide had been elected president of Haiti in March of 1991 and turfed in a coup later that year. Cantave faces a coup as well. Is Cantave a good man? What does it mean for a priest to be a good man in a dire political world? Dedicated to this world or the next? Fr. Michel's mother had encouraged him to become a priest, but on her deathbed has a crisis of faith, and declares to her priest/son there is no other life. But does Fr. Michel believe that? His own faith doesn't seem to be rock-solid. The ending gives a hint of the conclusion Fr. Michel came to, but remains ambiguous.

I thought this was very good. Like The Colour of Blood that I read earlier this year, it's a novel of a man of faith facing a difficult political situation and wondering what to do.

It just so happened that I was reading about the Plain Style in an entirely different book (Timothy Steele's introduction to The Poems of J. V. Cunningham). Moore is the absolute master of a spare, pared-down style. Steele quotes Cicero (from Orator):

"He follows the ordinary usage, really differing more than is supposed from those who are not eloquent at all. Consequently the audience, even if they are no speakers themselves, are sure they can speak in that fashion. For that plainness of style (orationis subtilitas) seems easy to imitate at first thought, but when attempted nothing is more difficult."

This could equally have applied to Moore. But it makes him difficult to quote, because it all looks so danged ordinary.

I admit to having found Moore uneven in the past, and until this year I thought his best books were about terribly sad lives of poverty and limited scope (Judith Hearne, Ginger Coffey) and so difficult to read for their subject. But The Colour of Blood and No Other Life make it clear he's got another very sharp arrow in his quiver.

It would be Brian Moore's 100th birthday this year. Cathy at 746books is hosting a readalong.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Betrothed

 "This is not just a book, it offers consolation to the whole of humanity."

It's not every novel that gets that as its blurb, and then to have it written by Verdi...but such is Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed.

It's 1628, and Renzo and Lucia think it's their wedding day. But their parish priest tells them he can't, he won't, marry them that day, with patently thin excuses, finally claiming he's too sick to do it. But it's Don Rodrigo, the local grandee, that's threatened our pastor, on the pain of death, against solemnifying the marriage.

All because Don Rodrigo saw the beautiful Lucia in the village, and made a bet with his cousin, he would have that girl.

It's not giving much away to say that, after a whole heap of troubles, and a chunkster's worth of pages, Renzo and Lucia are, in fact, married, and look to live happily ever after.

But, oh, those troubles. Don Rodrigo's enmity is only the start. Renzo and Lucia live in a village close to Milan, which, at that time, is under the sway of Spain. Don Rodrigo's goons lead a night-time raid on Lucia's house in order to kidnap her; she escapes by luck. But Renzo and Lucia have to flee their village and so get caught up in the general troubles of the era. Which include war and the plague, both by-blows of the Thirty Years' War.

The first edition of Manzoni's novel comes out in 1827; he revised it and the fuller second edition came out in 1842. So it's a historical novel, and Manzoni, like everyone else, has been reading Sir Walter Scott: he's got Scott's antiquarian interests, and his mock scholarship.

But he's also interested in the Catholic church, the religious life, and in redemption; the novel's main historical figure is Federico Borromeo, the cardinal of Milan, and younger cousin of Saint Carlo Borromeo. The Cardinal is a genuinely good man, who leads others to goodness. But it's also made clear that not everyone is meant for the religious life, and one extended episode involves Gertrude, of a wealthy family, and educated by nuns. But her parents railroad her into a nunnery afterwards, because they're too cheap to provide a proper dowry.

Manzoni has clearly done a bunch of research on the plague and I wrote out a bunch of parallels with our current situation--lockdowns that come too late, denial that anything is happening, contact tracing, and socializing only in the open air. But perhaps we're all tired of thinking about pandemics...

All in all, a pretty fun story. Sometimes the good were a little too good, and the evil a little too evil, though. There's a recent review at Mudpuddlesoup as well.

"There's justice in this world, in the long run."

A Note on Translations

The novel has been translated twice in recent-ish times, by Archibald Colquhon in 1951, and by Bruce Penman in 1972. The Penman is what Penguin has on offer and is easy enough to come by; the Colquhon was last reprinted in Everyman's Library in 2013, and seems to have gone out of print since. I started with the Penman--and the Other Reader read the Penman all the way through without complaints--but, while I was enjoying the story, I got annoyed with the translation and decided to switch. Here's an example. The situation (from Chapter 9) has our future nun Gertrude stuck at home; with her parents deliberately ignoring her. Here's the sentence from Penman that did me in: 😉

"But she could not help noticing that one of the pages, very different from the rest of them, showed a respect and sympathy that had something special about them."

Argh! 'Them' twice in the sentence, both (of them!) not really necessary, and with different referents. After I finally parsed it and realized the second use of 'them' didn't mean the pages, I started Googling other translations. There's an anonymous 1845 translation available at Internet Archive, but unfortunately it's not at Gutenberg:

"She could not, however, but observe that one of the servants, a page, appeared to bear her a respect very different to the others, and to feel a peculiar kind of compassion for her."

Much clearer, though maybe a little old-fashioned. Here's what Colquhon does:

"She could not fail to notice, however, that a page, in striking contrast to the rest, treated her with respect, and showed a particular compassion towards her."

Not brilliant, but better. The Italian (from Gutenberg):

"Dovette però accorgersi che un paggio, ben diverso da coloro, le portava un rispetto, e sentiva per lei una compassione d'un genere particolare."

The Italian is the most compact and strikes me as the best (unsurprisingly, I suppose). I have some Italian but if I read a seven-hundred page book in Italian, it would have been the one book of summer instead of the twenty, I'm afraid...

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Hearing Homer's Song

"In 1934 and 1935, [Milman] Parry spent fifteen months in Yugoslavia, driving his black Ford sedan from town to town with his young assistant Albert Lord. They stopped at village coffeehouses, spread word they were looking for local singers, recorded the songs they sang while strumming their rude, raspy one-string gusles."

That field work upended Homeric studies and indeed the study of pretty much all traditional epic poetry: The Song of Roland, The Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, etc. I'd earlier read Robert Kanigel's biography of the Indian mathematician Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity, and quite enjoyed it, and when I saw his new biography was of Milman Parry, I knew I would want to read it. 

Parry was born in 1902 to a not especially successful druggist in Oakland, California, the youngest of five children. He did well in his Oakland high school, and went to the University of California, Berkeley, just a couple of miles up the street from where he grew up, where he majored in Classics, but also studied under Alfred Kroeber, the important Native American cultural anthropologist. (And father of Ursula Kroeber Le Guin.) 

From there he went on to get his doctorate at the Sorbonne, but as a Berkeley undergraduate he'd impregnated his girlfriend, Marian Thanhauser, also a student. The two married, and the young family went off to Paris and three years later he was Dr. Parry. He taught a year in Des Moines, Iowa, but then got an appointment at Harvard, taught there, and cadged up enough grant money to spend a total of eighteen months, over two trips, with a team that included Albert Lord and Nikola Vujnović, recording traditional singers in the kingdom of Yugoslavia.

And in 1935, he died, from a bullet to the heart, in a Los Angeles hotel.

There's your basic facts. Why do we care? I cared because of that upending of Classical scholarship, and Kanigel is pretty good on its importance and the history of how it came about. Parry started his investigation with the use of epithets in Homer--rosy-fingered dawn, fleet-footed Achilles, Poseidon the earth-shaker--and what that might tell us about the methods of composition. At Parry's thesis defense, one of the outside readers, a professor of Slavic literature, told him he should go listen to traditional singers in Yugoslavia and so he did, recording hundreds of hours of traditional song, until he was able to demonstrate that a Homer could compose a poem of many thousands of lines, using the technique of oral composition, on the spot, as it were. (As long as you think of that spot as a week or two's worth of recitation.) 

The standard exposition of the Parry-Lord thesis (as it's called in the Classics biz) is Albert Lord's The Singer of Tales, which is readable by a general reader. Well, pretty readable. That is, just now glancing over my copy, if you don't mind texts in Greek, both archaic and Byzantine, and Serbo-Croatian. And charts. And musical notation. And footnotes. And appendices in small print. And uh, oh well, Kanigel does actually do a nice job, possibly as good a job as can be done, explaining the Parry-Lord thesis if you're going to eschew all that. (But if you do want to read Lord, it seems you can read the 3rd edition, Harvard University Press, on-line for free. It really is quite good, and important, too.)  

The other reason, though, we're supposed to care is that rather noir-ish bullet to the heart. Was it accident (as the police determined) or was it suicide? Or was it murder! Mrs. Parry was the only other person in the hotel room at the time. There's no evidence any longer as to the death. Kanigel spends a lot of time speculating about the state of the Parry marriage; there's not a lot of evidence about that either. Was Marian Parry bored and unhappy as the wife of an impoverished grad student stuck with a child in a Paris suburb? As the neglected, frequently slighted, faculty wife in Harvard? (She was Jewish, though not practicing, and Harvard was rife with anti-Semitism in the early 30s.) Or later, raising two kids, isolated in Dubrovnik, while her husband was off on week-long collecting jaunts in that Ford through the Yugoslavian countryside? I have no doubt she was unhappy. Was she murderously unhappy? Enh. We'll never know.

There's a certain sort of book these days--I think of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City as the ur-example--that thinks the best way to palliate some quite fascinating intellectual history is to throw in a murder, or three thousand. These books clearly sell, and most readers probably do enjoy the true crime part. But as for me, I wanted more about the Burnham plan for Chicago in Larson and less about the psychopath, and here I wanted more about guslars and recording equipment and, even, more about the hephthemimeral caesura, and less idle speculation about things unknowable. Sure I read about plenty of murders, but I prefer them decorous, not too bloody, with six well-differentiated suspects, preferably isolated in a country house, with a clear resolution by the end of the book. True crime? Bleah. But I suspect I'm in the minority.

Anyway, I liked the book, but I wanted more of some things and less of others...

Hubert groovin' to some tunes

That's Avdo Međedović with a gusle on the cover of The Singer of Tales. We meet him in Kanigel's book; he'd been a butcher and a soldier and in 1935 was a farmer in the Montenegrin village of Bijelo Polje; he'd been shot in his soldiering days and was unable to raise his right arm above his shoulder; and he's the climax of that part of the book I was most interested in: he recites, composes really, at the rate of four hours a day for over a week, the thirteen-thousand-line epic Osmanbey and Pavičević, published subsequently in a translation by Albert Lord, roughly the length of the Odyssey, and thus was the key to demonstrating what Milman Parry went to Yugoslavia to demonstrate. 

And is my visit to Montenegro for 2021... 😉

Thursday, June 3, 2021

To Any Reader (#PoemForAThursday)


To Any Reader

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there. 

-R. L. Stevenson

Since it seems to be Stevenson week around here...

This is the final poem, after several other dedications, in A Child's Garden of Verses. Even if you've read it before, it's probably been a while. 😉

Poem for a Thursday is a meme originated by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. Brona also has a poem this week. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Black Arrow

I had four blak arrows under my belt,
Four for the griefs that I have felt,
Four for the number of ill menne
That have oppressid me now and then.

It seems to be Stevenson week here at Typings.

The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses is a boys' adventure set during the War of the Roses. It was serialized in Young Folks in 1883, after Stevenson's Treasure Island and before Kidnapped, a good period for Stevenson. This one was a great success as a serial, but since then has never been as popular. Is it less good than those? Hmm, maybe, but still it's an awful lot of fun.

Young Dick Shelton is the ward of Sir Daniel Brackley. Henry VI is king--for now--just recovered from one of his periodic fits of madness. A black arrow fells Dick Appleyard, an archer in the service of Sir Daniel and the threatening poem I quoted above is attached. Sir Daniel is named as another of the oppressors; one of the griefs is the death of Henry Shelton, Dick's father. What does all this mean for young Shelton?

At first he's loyal enough to Sir Daniel, who does look after him. Sir Daniel's a competent military leader, good with his troops and decisive in battle, but he's also intemperate--well, who isn't in 1460?--greedy and more attentive to his own interests than those of England.

A battle is brewing between Lancastrians and Yorkists. The partisans of the Black Arrow are stalking the countryside. Sir Daniel has captured John Matcham--well, we quickly learn that John is really Joanna, a rich heiress. She escapes, runs into young Shelton traveling cross-country with a message. He still sees her as John. They fight, become friends; he saves her; she saves him (he can't swim). It's not giving much away to say you know how this one goes.

That's all in the first fifty pages. But I think I'll stop there with plot summary. To carry on would be put me in competition with Stevenson in telling a story, not a good place to be. It is a rollicking good yarn, with lots of adventure.

Historical fiction requires a few famous individuals to show up: this one has Richard Crookback, that is, Richard of Gloucester, Richard III to be. Stevenson admits to fudging his dates; Richard should be about eight when the novel takes place, but here he's a young, but effective, soldier-captain. It's a good portrait, and well, dates, shmates. Catesby also makes an appearance. I know him less from the actual historical record than from his turn in Shakespeare. I suspect that's probably true of Stevenson, too, though Wikipedia says Stevenson did read the Paston Letters for background.

Anyway, like I said, rollicking. Perhaps the occasional archaizing in the language has put people off? 
"Ye be mortal small made, master," said Hugh, with a wide grin; "something o' the wrong model, belike."

Hugh is talking to John/Joanna. He clearly sees through her disguise, even if young Shelton doesn't. Anyway, there are passages like that. This sort of thing doesn't bother me, maybe even sets the mood. But this was the first book in my complete Stevenson--which I have read about half of--that I had to cut the pages.

The novel is dedicated to his wife, which they both thought a great joke, since it was the one she wouldn't read. She had no tolerance, it seems, for tales of knights in armor.

The Other Reader's knight is a bit grizzled for young Shelton, but since Shelton fights with a crossbow for half the novel, there he is on top of the volume. 

The first of my books of summer, and one actually from the list!