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.