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.