Saturday, June 18, 2022

The Black Sea: A History

"There is a deep landlubber bias in historical and social research. History and social life, we seem to think, happen on the ground."

A couple of years ago I read Charles King's Midnight at the Pera Palace (looking at 20th-century Turkey though the lens of a luxury hotel/night club in Istanbul) and liked it a lot. More recently I read his Gods of the Upper Air (about American anthropologists, such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead) and liked it, though a bit less. I didn't manage to blog about either. 

But then, in a moment of idleness, I was looking through Charles King's back catalog and checking what my library had, and there was this volume: The Black Sea: A History. We've all been thinking about the Black Sea far more lately. I thought I should check this out. (Both literally and figuratively.)

The volume begins by discussing why we should consider the Black Sea a unit; it's often not these days; the countries involved are divided under Russian studies or Balkan studies or Near Eastern studies. He makes a good case, but I have to say I wasn't necessarily engaged with that question. Then he discusses the geography and geology of the region, which was pretty fascinating. Good harbors, which products were available for trade, where and when the fishing was good are all hugely important questions to anyone near the sea. 

But that's all pretty quick. Then we're on to the history. As I said once before, any history that can conceivably start with Herodotus ought to do so, and the historical part of this one does, too. One of King's recurring motifs is that the Black Sea is an inland sea for somebody--or it's not. Is it a place of trade or of conflict? For the Greeks, it seems, at least in the early years, it was an inland sea, with a number of Greek colonies trading with their respective hinterlands, but in fairly regular communication with each other and the Greek homeland. Most of the Greek colonies were of Milesian origin. But already by the time we think of as high classical Greek civilization (5th-4th century B.C.) this was falling apart. Alexander's ascendancy didn't last long, and none of the successor kingdoms dominated the sea.

Nor did the Romans. Their inland sea was, of course, the Mediterranean (Mare Nostrum) and the Black Sea was the frontier, where they fought against states they bordered on the east: Pontus, Parthia, Armenia.

It was closer to an inland sea for the Byzantines at their peak, but never quite. Italian city states--Venice, Genoa--pick up a fair amount of the trade and maintained entrepôt of their own. And by the later years of their empire the Byzantines controlled very little of the Black Sea littoral.

But then the Ottomans, after they took Byzantium (1453) again held the sea under one power. Some of the states on the Black Sea were tributaries and not directly part of the empire, but for roughly 300 years after the fall of Byzantium, the Black Sea was an Ottoman lake, and trade was relatively free and easy. 

Eventually the Ottoman empire grew weaker--and the Cossacks came on the scene. The Cossacks were perfectly happy--and perfectly capable--of conducting piracy on the sea in addition to their raids on horseback. But by themselves they weren't able to dominate the Black Sea. But their piratical successes were one of the things that revealed the increasing weakness of the Ottomans. The Russians took note.

The latter history of the Black Sea is story of the conflict between Russia and Turkey over control of the Black Sea--and the efforts of other players, the British, the French--to keep one party from dominating. The Crimean War, among other conflicts, was the result. Among the results of the Crimean War was an attempt to de-militarize the Black Sea.

The book comes out in 2004 and at that time King was optimistic. There were new environmental initiatives to counteract years of neglect and damage. "[C]onflict among the states of the Black Sea zone is now virtually unthinkable." [p.240] Alas. As Yogi Berra may (or may not) have said: It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

Still, it's a pretty fascinating book, even if it needs updating. If you've read his other books you'll know, King likes anecdotes and uses them well. There's some good stories in it and it's pretty readable. And especially now, worth reading.


As King notes in the beginning, six countries currently border the Black Sea; if you counted the countries in the Black Sea drainage area, there are 22 possibilities. Out of all those choices, I guess I won't pick the most obscure... King is a professor in the foreign services school at Georgetown, and at least at the time of this book held the Ion Raţiu chair in Romanian studies. Romania is important in the book, I need to keep up my Romania streak, and so...Romania it is! for the European Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Memoirs of Mme. Vigée-Le Brun (#ccspin)

"I will begin by speaking of my childhood, which is the symbol, so to say, of my whole life, since my love for painting declared itself in my earliest youth."

Elisabeth Vigée was born in Paris in 1755 to Louis Vigée, a provincial portrait painter who encouraged her love of painting. "I made a picture by lamplight of a man with a beard...When my father saw it he went into transports of joy, exclaiming, 'You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!" 

Unfortunately he died when she was twelve, and her mother remarried a jeweller, who did not encourage her, but did take any money she made as a painter. "I detested the man."

To get out of her hated stepfather's house, she married the art dealer, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, in 1776. Le Brun encouraged her painting, but now her husband took all of her money instead of her stepfather. He was a successful enough dealer--later he was instrumental in making the Louvre into a public museum--but he was also a compulsive gambler, and no amount of money could do much to keep him afloat.

She was, however, starting to succeed in a big way. She painted Marie Antoinette, and the queen liked the portrait, so there were several more, also the king, with or without the children. 

In a few years though, being Marie Antoinette's preferred portrait painter was not particularly a recommendation with the public. She threw a toga party, and there was a rumor going round that it had been financed by the state to the tune of twenty-thousand francs. (She claims she spent fifteen and used a few old bedsheets. Since my idea of a toga party is more Animal House than Trianon, I guess I believe her...)

Self portrait
As the Revolution began to get hot, she decided to leave France. In 1789, the royal family was arrested, and she fled with her daughter (but not her husband) to Italy. It was the beginning of thirteen years of exile. She was abroad ostensibly to study the great masters of painting--and she did--but it was also safer. After Italy, she went to Vienna, to Saint Petersburg, to Moscow, to Berlin. She was commissioned to paint Catherine the Great (and did paint her granddaughters) but Catherine herself died before the portrait was begun. Only in 1802 was she able to safely return to France. She made later trips to England (which she didn't much like) and to Switzerland.

She wrote these memoirs in the later 1830s, when she was in her early 80s, her husband and daughter both dead by then. They're pretty fascinating, though it's true (and occasionally exasperating) that she never met an aristocrat she didn't like. I've seen her paintings in various museums.

The memoir is available on Project Gutenberg, translated by Lionel Strachey, the brother of Lytton. I first learned of its existence from Mudpuddlesoup

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Pictures from Spain

Back from two and a half weeks in Spain. We flew into Madrid, but were mostly in the inland south.

Granada:

Finally got to visit the Alhambra, which I was prepared to visit two years ago:

Our hero


The Court of the Lions

Úbeda:


Vázquez de Molina square and the El Salvador chapel

Córdoba:

The Mezquita interior

It's nice to be able to travel again.

I finished my spin book, The Memoirs of Mme. Vigée-Lebrun, and should write about it soon.

Friday, April 15, 2022

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine

Serhii Plokhy's The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine is a history both of the land occupied by the contemporary nation of Ukraine, but even more of the people who are Ukrainians. It covers 2500 years ending with 2020 in the revised edition. (The revised edition came out in 2021.)

Especially now it made for a pretty fascinating read.

The history begins with Herodotus, which any history that justifiably can ought to do. 😉 The area was not then inhabited by Slavic speakers, but Cimmerians and Scythians, who spoke Iranian languages. Plokhy also makes use of Procopius' history, to discuss the area's relation to Byzantium, but he mostly moves over this period pretty quickly.

Slavic speakers first move to the area as part of the migrations caused by Attila the Hun. (5th or 6th century.) As the power of the Huns wanes, a new state, Kievan Rus' is established covering most of what is now Ukraine, Belorussia, and European Russia. Kyiv is the capitol. The nobles, led by the Rurikid dynasty, are a mix of Vikings and Slavs; the people, mostly Slavs. It reached its political apex under Yaroslav the Wise (978-1054).

It seems the word Rus' (the basis of Russian) comes (via the Finns) from the Swedish word 'ruotsi' used to describe the Vikings as the 'men who row.' 

Yaroslav partitioned out the kingdom to his three eldest sons. Plokhy compares this division to that of Charlemagne. Like Charlemagne, Yaroslav did it to prevent inheritance squabbles among his sons, and it succeeded about as well as Charlemagne's attempt did. (That is, not at all.) New successor kingdoms were the result. These fought among themselves and tried to work with their more powerful neighbors (the Khazars, Byzantium). The word Ukraine first appears in the historical record at this time (in the 1180s). Then everything was swept away by the Mongol Horde in 1240. This was the beginning of differences between the various east Slavic states though none of them exactly correspond to three current ones. (Belarus, Ukraine, Russia).

Two east Slavic vassal states are formed in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion. One is Muscovy, with its capital Vladimir (near Moscow) and is the area around Moscow. The other, Galicia-Volhynia, was centred in Kyiv but moved its capitol to Kholm (now Chełm in Poland) and occupied the area of what's now western Ukraine and eastern Poland. The two vassal states received different treatment; the Muscovy state, closer to the Mongol heartland was more oppressed; the Kholm state was allowed a looser rein. 

In 1323 the last male heirs (grandsons of the founder) of the Galicia-Volhynia dynasty died. The Mongols were a bit weaker. Galicia was taken over by the Polish kingdom; Volhynia by the Lithuanians. 1386 marks the beginning of the joining of Poland and Lithuania in a commonwealth. But the administration of the two areas remains separate. Plokhy thinks this is the beginning of a separate identity for Belarusians and Ukrainians. 

The Cossacks begin as a sort of peasant rebellion in what is now eastern Ukraine, but in 1648 Bohdan Khmelnitsky creates a state (the Hetmanate) out of Polish-Lithuanian lands in what is now eastern Ukraine. Plokhy doesn't play down the pogroms that have left Khmelnitsky as little more than a swear word in Jewish history, but he did create a sort of Ukrainian state. But by 1780 the Hetmanate been absorbed into Russia. Western Ukraine is split between Austria-Hungary (Lviv) and Russia (Kyiv) during the partitions of Poland.

There's an attempt to set up a new Ukrainian state in the immediate aftermath of World War I, but it doesn't last, doesn't really even get on its feet.

Plokhy discusses the state of education in the Ukrainian language in the various jurisdictions as one of the formative elements of a Ukrainian identity. The ability to use one's native Ukrainian in a public setting comes and goes at the political whim of the various powers. For instance, Austria-Hungary at one point trying to beat back Polish nationalism allows schools to use Ukrainian. Later to placate the Poles, Ukrainian is no longer taught. 

Plokhy makes a good case for a Ukrainian identity, which is, of course, like anybody else's, only strengthened by persecution. In the 19th century a number of nationalities were finding their feet; Plokhy does suggest that the Ukrainians were a little late in finding theirs, though they did not really have a state of their own at any point in the 19th century.

I felt like I learned a lot from the book, especially in the time frames that were more obscure to me: the Middle Ages in Slavic lands. Looking at Plokhy's list of publications on Wikipedia, (he's now a professor at Harvard) it's clear one of his real interests is the formation of Ukrainian identity, and I found that the most interesting part. 

This is a book for a non-specialist reader. (Like me!) It reads well, but it does cover 2500 years in 360 pages, so there are a few places where it felt a bit thin--World War I, for instance. Still. Full of fascinating and timely and suddenly--unfortunately--much more important things to know. Recommended.

R W Wood (#poem)

 



The Penguin. The Sword-fish.
We have for many years been bored
By that old saw about the sword
And pen, and now we all rejoice,
To see how Nature made her choice.
She made, regardless of offendin'
The Sword-fish mightier than the Penguin.

-R. W. Wood

Various byways led me to a discover The Norton Book of Light Verse (1986) edited by Russell Baker. My library had it! I have a few other anthologies of light verse already, and this one had a number of the usual suspects: Ogden Nash, Don Marquis, Dorothy Parker. Always fun to read them again. But it had a few I didn't know at all, and one of those Robert Williams Wood. (1868-1955) He was an important figure in optics, pioneering infrared and ultraviolet photography, according to Wikipedia. But he also wrote (1907) this book,... and for our purposes today... You can find it here at Project Gutenberg.

A couple more, while we're here:

The Clover. The Plover.

The Plover and the Clover can be told apart with ease,
By paying close attention to the habits of the Bees,
For, Entomologists aver, the Bee can be in Clover 
While Etymologists concur, there is no B in Plover.

The Parrot. The Carrot.
The Parrot and the Carrot one may easily confound.
They're very much alike in looks and similar in sound,
We recognize the parrot by his clear articulation,
For carrots are unable to engage in conversation.

 

The drawings are pretty amusing as well:



 


Thursday, April 7, 2022

Richard Howard's At Sixty-Five (#poem)

 


At Sixty-Five

The, tragedy, Colette said, is that one
does not age. Everyone else does, of course
(as Marcel was so shocked to discover),
and upon one’s mask odd disfigurements
are imposed; but that garrulous presence
we sometimes call the self, sometimes deny
it exists at all despite its carping
monologue, is the same as when we stole
the pears, spied on mother in the bath, ran
away from home. What has altered is what
Kant called Categories: the shapes of time
change altogether! Days, weeks, months,
and especially years are reassigned.
Famous for her timing, a Broadway wit
told me her “method”: asked to do something,
anything, she would acquiesce next year—
“I’ll commit suicide, provided it’s
next year.” But after sixty-five, next year
is now. Hours? there are none, only a few
reckless postponements before it is time . . .
When was it you “last” saw Jimmy—last spring?
last winter? That scribbled arbiter
your calendar reveals—betrays—the date:
over a year ago. Come again? No
time like the present, endlessly deferred.
Which makes a difference: once upon a time
there was only time (. . . as the day is long)
between the wanting self and what it wants.
Wanting still, you have no dimension where
fulfillment or frustration can occur.
Of course you have, but you must cease waiting
upon it: simply turn around and look
back. Like Orpheus, like Mrs. Lot, you
will be petrified—astonished—to learn
memory is endless, life very long,
and you—you are immortal after all.

-Richard Howard


Richard Howard (1929-2022) passed away last week, a favorite as a poet and an important translator from the French.

As a consequence there have been links: the NY Times obituary, an article, emphasizing his Jewishness in the Forward, a conversation at a Pen event between him and Susan Sontag. That last, from which I lifted the poem, also has an amusing anecdote involving Hermann Broch: it seems Broch, assisted in his emigration from Europe by Howard's adoptive mother, flirted with her, bringing on young Howard's jealousy. To no avail. (The romance didn't come off anyway.)

I also learned that Howard's husband insisted that one book leave their New York apartment every time a new one came in. The horror! There was generally large stack of books by the door to be schlepped down to the Strand and sold.

The poem uses a syllable-counting pattern. Ten syllables in each line, though it's not five accents, and so it's not blank verse.

For Howard, at sixty-five, next year wasn't yet now. He went on well past that. But 'you are immortal after all.'

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Kate O'Brien's Farewell Spain

 "...and in any case, say only [blank] were fighting this war it is being fought for an issue which is everyone's immediate concern everywhere. It is a war waged by the forces of militaristic absolutism against democracy."

You might guess from the title above that the nationality I've blanked is 'Spaniards', and that the time of its writing in early 1937, and of course it is. But it resonates.

Kate O'Brien (1897-1974) was an Irish-born novelist. She worked as an au pair in Bilbao, Spain, in the early 20s, and fell in love with the country. She had come back as a tourist in 1936 and this book, half travelogue, half angry lament that the republic is under attack is the result. As she's writing it, late in 1936 and early 1937, it's not clear who will win, but, of course, in the end it was Franco and the nationalists, and O'Brien was denied entry to Spain until 1957 because of this book.

But half the book--probably more, actually--is travelogue, and witty and amusing travelogue at that:
"But it is no good. The cathedral is on your conscience. You paid good money and took some trouble to get here to see it, and you can sit in a café anywhere. Ah, turismo, what a slave-driver you are!"

O'Brien arrives by boat in the north. She visits Santander, Compostela, Salamanca, Ávila:

"All the rest of the town [Ávila] is lovely. It slithers carelessly about the sides of a golden hill and west and south down to the Adaja. It is placed high, but far away on every side the cold points of mountains fence its landscape in."

O'Brien is quite taken with Saint Teresa of Ávila, and went on to write a book about her. (She had been raised Catholic, but was agnostic as an adult.) She gets to Madrid, by then under attack from the Nationalist forces, though it hasn't yet fallen. Her final stop is Burgos. The edition I have is a Virago reprint from 1985 with illustrations and an introduction by Mary O'Neill, her life partner.

I've never read anything else by Kate O'Brien (have you?) and I quite liked it. She's best known as a novelist, I think. I'm going to have find other of her books.

I read it now because we're going to Spain soon for a little over two weeks. (Yay!) This was the trip we'd planned for two years ago, but then had to cancel at the last minute. We'll mostly be in the south (Córdoba, Granada, the Alhambra) so, in fact, the book didn't do much to prepare me, but that's OK, but it was still pretty good...

It's nice to be able to go somewhere again.

And not only is this a place I want to go visit, it is a place I'm actually going to go visit!



Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Two by Andrey Kurkov (#GoUkraine)

"An odd country, an odd life which he had no desire to make sense of. To endure, full stop, that was all he wanted." 

-Andrey Kurkov, Death and the Penguin, p. 34

I've been thinking about the Ukraine lately. Well, who isn't? There's a park near my house where school groups play if the weather is at all tolerable. I went by the other day and a bunch of six-year-olds were chanting, "Go Ukraine, Go Ukraine..."

So I ordered up some Ukraine books from the library.

The two Andrey Kurkov novels I got both date from 1996, both are set in Kiev, and are both translated from the Russian by George Bird. I read Andrey Kurkov's A Matter of Death and Life first, because it was the shorter... ;-)

Tolya has just lost his job and his wife. He contemplates suicide, but doesn't have the nerve to do it himself. He's got friends in dodgy places and decides he'll hire a hit man, ostensibly to kill the wife's new lover, but instead of the lover, he supplies a photo and location details for himself. Suicide by hit man. But then he meets somebody new, gets a job (though a fairly corrupt one). By an accident of timing, he survives the planned attempt on his life, and then decides he'd rather live.

I enjoyed this, and the twist that resolves his dilemma was pretty good, but it is slight. If it was longer than its 110 pages it would have definitely felt overstuffed.

Death and the Penguin is the better-known, and better, novel. I found it very good indeed.

Viktor Zolotaryov is a not very successful writer. He's written stories, unpublished, and dreams of writing a novel, but hasn't got the oomph. He makes (not much of) a living writing occasional journalism. Viktor's one distinction is he has a pet penguin. The impoverished zoo was giving away animals to those who promised to feed them.

Then a newspaper editor sees one of Viktor's stories, likes the style, but doesn't publish fiction. But he asks Viktor, for a handsome salary, to start writing obituaries--for the files. 

Viktor has a talent, or so it seems, but this isn't exactly a way into print because the obits are just kept on file for when they're needed. Initially he gets to pick his own subjects; a Mafia-connected figure comes by and asks Viktor to write an obit for a friend who's ill and offers extra cash for the job. But the friend recovers, and Viktor complains to the Mafia figure that he'd like to appear in print, but none of his subjects has died. The Mafia figure asks which of his obits does Viktor think the best and Viktor tells him.

Then one of his obituaries does appear in print. Somebody's died. Guess who?

"How did he die?" Viktor asked.
"Fell from a sixth-floor window -- was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn't his. And at night." [30]
The dam's burst; there's more deaths. Viktor has clearly gotten himself into the middle of something he can't control or even comprehend. Viktor is advised to disappear for a while for safety. His editor disappears for a while -- also for safety. The Mafia acquaintance disappears -- for safety -- and entrusts his daughter Sonya to Viktor -- for safekeeping. Viktor hires Nina, the niece of a friend, to help him watch over Sonya. Viktor and Nina become involved.

What is the nature of a normal life?
"...an ordered, normal life -- for which the essential requisites: wife, child, pet penguin, were present..." [149]

Is that what Viktor has? 

It's the mid-90s and Ukraine is newly independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Corruption is around every corner; differences of opinion are solved by violence; maybe a little exaggerated, but not inaccurate, I suspect. Is this violence and corruption normal and expected?
"The pure and the sinless did not exist, or else died unnoticed and with no obituary. The idea seemed persuasive. Those who merited obituaries had usually achieved things, fought for their ideals, and when locked in battle, it wasn't easy to remain entirely honest and upright." [61]

Russia doesn't loom as large in these two novels of the early independent Ukraine as it does now. 

The back of the novel cites Bulgakov; certainly it is a black comedy (and is definitely funny) along the lines of Gogol and Bulgakov, though perhaps not quite as extravagant as those two: nobody's nose runs off to a separate existence, nor does the Devil appear. (Though the penguin's story arc is definitely weird.)

The two novels are actually fairly similar in their structure: the protagonist gets in over his head and requires a twist to get out of the dangerous world of corruption he's fallen into. But the twist in Death and the Penguin is both better setup and more surprising. Highly recommended. 

I need to return these to the library soon; initially I got them pretty quick, but now everybody wants them. But in exchange I get to pick up Serhii Plokhy's The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.

Go Ukraine.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Classics Club Spin #29

 


It's time for another Classics Club spin--this one is #29! You likely know the rules. One of these books will need to be read by April 30th.

I'm breaking up my list into two categories.

Remaining books from my Classics Club List:

1.) James Baldwin/Go Tell It On The Mountain
2.) Samuel Butler/The Way of All Flesh
3.) Willa Cather/A Lost Lady
4.) William Faulkner/A Light in August
5.) Oliver Goldsmith/The Vicar of Wakefield
6.) Thomas Hardy/Wessex Tales
7.) Henry James/Wings of the Dove
8.) Sir Walter Scott/Count Robert of Paris
9.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves
10.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

And...books I've downloaded from Project Gutenberg (but haven't read yet):

11.) Élizabeth Vigée Le Brun/Memoirs
12.) Goncharov/Oblomov
13.) G. K. Chesterton/The Man Who Was Thursday
14.) Thomas Peacock/Crotchet Castle
15.) Herbert Croly/The Promise of American Life
16.) Francis Parkman/Vassall Morton
17.) Israel Zangwill/The Big Bow Mystery
18.) Emile Gaboriau/The Larouge Case
19.) E. Philips Oppenheim/The Great Impersonation
20.) R. Austin Freeman/The Red Thumb Mark

I recently read Michael Dirda's Classics for PleasureOblomov, Crotchet Castle & The Man Who Was Thursday were all praised there. Mudpuddle read the memoirs of Vigée Le Brun not so long ago & it got downloaded then. I've read all of Francis Parkman's non-fiction, so why not his novel? I used to subscribe to The New Republic and have thought about reading The Promise of American Life for years. (Croly was the founder of The New Republic.) I downloaded it on to my Kindle; when the battery on the Kindle died and I bought a Kobo, I downloaded on to the Kobo. It would fit in with my recent Edmund Wilson reading. And the last four are classic early mysteries for free! Why not?

I've been a pretty sluggish blogger lately (though reading lots). Maybe this will get me my off my duff...

Which look good to you?


Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Forlorn Sea

 


The Forlorn Sea

Our Princess married
A fairy King,
It was a sensational
Wedding.

Now they live in a palace
Of porphyry,
Far, far away
By the fòrlorn sea.

Sometimes people visit them,
Last week they invited me;
That is how I can tell you
They live by a fòrlorn sea.

(They said: Here's a magic carpet,
Come on this,
And when you arrive
We will give you a big kiss.)

I play in the palace garden,
I climb the sycamore tree,
Sometimes I swim
In the fòrlorn sea.

The King and the Princess are shadowy,
Yet beautiful
They are waited on by white cats,
Who are dutiful.

It is like a dream
When they kiss and cuddle me,
But I like it, I like it,
I do not wish to break free.

So I eat all they give me
Because I have read
If you eat fairy food
You will never wake up in your own bed,

But will go on living,
As has happened to me,
Far, far away
By a fòrlorn sea.

-Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith (1902-1971) is a favorite of mine, especially the poetry. Her sketches (as above) are fun, too.

Why is there a grave accent over the o in 'the fòrlorn sea?' Who knows? But it works somehow...

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Come Dance With Kitty Stobling (#ReadingIrelandMonth)

 


Come Dance With Kitty Stobling

No, no, no. I know I was not important as I moved
Through the colourful country, I was but a single
Item in the picture, the name not the beloved.
O tedious man with whom no gods commingle.
Beauty, who has described beauty? Once upon a time
I had a myth that was a lie but it served:
Trees walking across the crests of hills and my rhyme
Cavorting on mile-high stilts and the unnerved
Crowds looking up with terror in their rational faces.
O dance with Kitty Stobling, I outrageously
Cried out of sense to them, while their timorous paces
Stumbled behind Jove's page boy paging me.
I had a very pleasant journey, thank you sincerely
For giving me my madness back, or nearly.

-Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) was an Irish poet. This sonnet was first published in 1958, and collected in book form in 1960. I don't know, I've always liked it. 😉 According to the editor, Antoinette Quinn, of The Collected Poems, Kitty Stobling is an invented name for Patrick Kavanagh's muse.




Thursday, March 3, 2022

My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers

 


My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers

My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant's bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare.
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
"To eat these things,"
said my uncle,
"You must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what's solid
BUT
you must spit out the air."

And
as you partake of the world's bill of fare,
that's darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air,
and be careful what you swallow.

-Dr. Seuss

What can I say? Yesterday was Dr. Seuss day, i.e., Theodor Geisel's birthday. He would have been 118 if he'd still been with us.

It seems Dr. Seuss got talked into giving a commencement address once upon a time and was given an honorary doctorate as a sweetener. He was shy and hated the idea of talking at a bunch of people. And this, in its entirety, was his commencement address. It would have been a lot more memorable than my commencement address... (Details here.)

I can't say such silly stuff, sir. And happy belated Dr. Seuss day! 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Robert Fitzgerald on Dudley Fitts (#poem)


 

Dudley Fitts

for C.H.F.

The organist has closed his instrument
After recessional, and closed his book;
Counterpoint that his fingers undertook
Into the world of light has made ascent.
Airy agilities for perfection spent
Have quieted at last, but not the look
From the musician's eyes that will not brook
A blundering word upon a great event.
Far from New England's leafiness I write
In that land of the old latinity
And golden air to which at length he came,
My master and friend, as to his own birthright.
What farther land he found I hope to see
When by my change our evenings are the same.

-Robert Fitzgerald

Robert Fitzgerald (1910-1985) is best known as a translator, largely from Latin and Greek. (Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, among others.) But he was a poet in his own right. Dudley Fitts, (1903-1968) was also a translator and poet. Fitzgerald had Dudley Fitts as an instructor at Choate as a teenager; they later went on to cooperate on several translations from Euripides and Sophocles. 

Dudley Fitts was also an organist.

C.H.F. will be Dudley Fitts' wife--or, I suspect, widow, though I'm not entirely sure when this poem was written--Cornelia Hewitt Fitts.

New Directions didn't feel the need to do anything fancy with the cover to sell this book, did they?


Thursday, February 17, 2022

Jean Toomer (#poem)

 


Beehive

Within this black hive to-night
There swarm a million bees;
Bees passing in and out the moon,
Bees escaping the moon,
Bees returning through the moon,
Silver bees intently buzzing,
Silver honey dripping from the swarm of bees
Earth is a waxen cell of the world comb,
And I, a drone,
Lying on my back,
Lipping honey,
Getting drunk with silver honey,
Wish that I might fly out past the moon
And curl forever in some far-off farmyard flower.

-Jean Toomer

This is from Cane, the first book, a novel, of Jean Toomer (1894-1967). It came out in 1923 and is told in a combination of poetry and prose. 

Toomer was the grandson of P. B. S. Pinchback, the first African-American governor of a U.S. state, Louisiana, in the 1870s.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Wendy Cope's Valentine (#poem)


 


Valentine

My heart has made its mind up
And I'm afraid it's you.
Whatever you've got lined up
My heart has made its mind up
And if you can't be signed up
This year, next year will do.
My heart has made its mind up
And I'm afraid it's you.

-Wendy Cope

'Tis the season! I don't quite yet know where the elements in that picture are leading me, but somewhere, I guess...

The form of the poem is a triolet. I had more to say about that here.

Happy (upcoming) Valentine's Day to all. (And one Other Reader in particular!)




Thursday, February 3, 2022

Constantin P. Cavafy's The God Abandons Antony (#poem) ... or maybe Forsakes...


The God Forsakes Antony
When suddenly, at the midnight hour
an invisible company is heard going past,
with exquisite music, with voices--
your fate that's giving in now, your deeds
that failed, your life's plans that proved to be
all illusions, do not needlessly lament.
As one long since prepared, as one courageous,
bid farewell to the Alexandria that's leaving.
Above all, don't be misled, don't say it was
a dream, that your ears deceived you;
don't deign to foster such vain hopes.
As one long since prepared, as one courageous,
as befits you who were deemed worthy of such a city,
move with steady steps toward the window
and listen with deepest feeling, yet not
with a coward's entreaties and complaints,
listen as an ultimate delight to the sounds,
to the exquisite instruments of the mystical company,
and bid farewell to the Alexandria you are losing.

-Constantin P. Cavafy (tr. Evangelos Sachperoglu)

One of the most famous of Cavafy's poems. I should have picked something less well-known, but in the end, I didn't. 😉 The final version of the poem is from 1911. Cavafy is, of course, a native of Alexandria.

It alludes to Plutarch's Life of Antony (ch. 75, here from the 'Dryden' translation). Dionysus, Antony's patron god, leaves him to his fate. Antony is bottled up by Octavian's forces in Alexandria:

'That night, it is related, about the middle of it, when the whole city was was in a deep silence and general sadness, expecting the event of the next day, on a sudden was heard the sound of all sorts of instruments, and voices singing in tune, and the cry of a crowd of people shouting and dancing, like a troop of bacchanals on its way. This tumultuous procession seemed to take its course right through the middle of the city to the gate nearest the enemy; here it became the loudest, and suddenly passed out. People who reflected considered this to signify that Bacchus, the god whom Antony had always made it his study to copy and imitate, had now forsaken him."

Antony commits suicide the next day rather than be taken by Octavian, shortly to be followed by Cleopatra.

I was spouting off about Cavafy translations recently, and have been wanting to look them up. I generally prefer the Sachperoglu versions (in Oxford World Classics) except I prefer the alternative title 'The God Abandons Antony', more commonly used. The first few lines from the Keeley and Sherrard version:

At midnight, when suddenly you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don't mourn your luck that's failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive--don't mourn them uselessly:
as one long prepared, and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
And the opening of the Daniel Mendelsohn version:
When suddenly at midnight, there comes the sound
of an invisible procession passing by
with exquisite music playing, with voices raised--
your good fortune, which now gives way; all your efforts'
ill-starred outcome; the plans you made for life,
which turned out wrong: don't mourn them uselessly
Like one who's long prepared, like someone brave,
bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, who is leaving.
Your preference?

The Sachperoglu is bilingual; the Mendelsohn has more poems and more notes. Keeley & Sherrard is probably the best-known.

I started to type in the Greek, but doing that on my English keyboard began to feel like a chore...

I believe there is also a version by Rae Dalven, who was the first to translate a volume of Cavafy into English, in 1961, but I couldn't conveniently find it. But in looking for it on line, I discovered Leonard Cohen set a version to music on his album Ten New Songs of 2001. He sings it as a duet with Sharon Robinson. Alexandria gets changed to Alexandra, so it can pass as a breakup song if you like.



I thought it was pretty good.

Cavafy is important in the Durrell Alexandria Quartet series.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

S. S. Van Dine's The Garden Murder Mystery

 "Chacun à son cheval"

Since I can't be reading Edmund Wilson all the time...

In The Garden Murder Case, Floyd Garden is playing the ponies. He's a rich dilettante and he's set up an off-track betting station in his elaborate New York home with a direct line to a bookmaker and a speaker system that reveals the results of the races. He invites a bunch of friends to join him for the Riverton Stakes and Philo Vance wangles an invitation after he receives an anonymous phone call suggesting trouble.

And trouble there is. Woode Swift, Floyd's cousin, is in over his head, laying out ten thousand dollars on Equanimity to win, money he doesn't have, and money he desperately needs. But after Equanimity fails to even show, Woody (to his friends) is found dead, with a bullet to the head. It looks like suicide.

But, of course, you didn't fall for that, and neither did Philo Vance, who immediately announces it's murder. 

Various romantic entanglements and inheritance questions supply the needed number of suspects for this one. Floyd's mother is also murdered before Vance solves it. One suspect falls in love with Vance and another tries to murder him. Or are they the same suspect?!

Philo Vance may very well be best known nowadays because Ogden Nash said, "Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance." 😉 At one point I tried to figure out where and when that Nash quote came from, but never succeeded. But now I do know when Van Dine first read it: as he was writing this 1935 novel. He alludes it four times over the course of the novel... (I think it may have got to him.)

"She shrugged and then added: 'I'm beginning to think that maybe Ogden Nash had the right idea.'"

That's the suspect who fell in love with him. 

I finished the novel a week or so ago. I was going to watch the movie, which is available-ish on YouTube, but, alas, is geo-blocked out of Canada. Which is too bad because the preview looks pretty amusingly crazed:


Is this the only classic mystery I will read this year? Will it be the best? Certainly not, and quite probably not. But it was fun and it was the first, so I'm counting it for:


A Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic!

Does Philo Vance need a kick in the pance?

Thursday, January 27, 2022

W. B. Yeats' The Stolen Child (#poem)

 


The Stolen Child

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, etc.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, etc.

Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.

-W. B. Yeats

Wilson discussed the poem in Axel's Castle as representative of Yeats' early verse. (Yeats wrote it in 1886.) It's been a bit of an ear-worm for me since then, especially the chorus.

It's been set to music several times. I know the Waterboys' version pretty well (from Fishermen's Blues), but in looking for it, I came across this lovely version by Loreena McKennitt:




Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle

"[These writers] break down the walls of the present and wake us to the hope and exaltation of the untried, unsuspected possibilities of human thought and art."

The six main writers of Wilson's Axel's Castle are W. B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. So, you know, a pretty serious bunch. For Wilson, these are the representative Symbolists and his book is a study of 'imaginative literature of 1870 to 1930'. 

The book first appeared as a series of articles in The New Republic before coming out in book form in 1931. Keep that year in mind because it's crucial to Wilson's read of these authors.

What is Symbolism? "It was the tendency of Symbolism...to make poetry even more a matter of of the sensations and emotions of the individual than had been the case with Romanticism..."

Or:
"...the symbols of the Symbolist school [unlike the cross for Christianity or the Stars and Stripes for the USA] are usually chosen arbitrarily by the poet to stand for for special ideas of his own--they are a sort of disguise for these ideas." 

The book is full of sharp and unexpected insights on his subjects; on Proust, for instance: 

"These latter scenes, indeed, contain so much broad humor and so much extravagant satire that, appearing in a modern French novel, they amaze us....it seems plain that Proust must have read Dickens and that this sometimes grotesque heightening of character had been partly learned from him."

Not what one thinks of when mentioning Proust, and yet it's true. 

But it is 1931. Is this the literature the world needs? Wilson doesn't use the phrase art for art's sake, but maybe art should also be a bit for society's sake? He says Valéry's and Eliot's criticism is engaged in 'an impossible attempt to make aesthetic values independent of all other values.' He finds The Vision--Yeats' attempt to create a universalizing set of symbols--unserious and unhelpful, not to metion Yeats' experiments in automatic writing. He quotes disapprovingly, twice I think, Eliot's declaration from his essay 'For Lancelot Andrewes', that he is "a classicist in literature, an Anglo-Catholic in religion, and a royalist in politics." Wilson is distinctly none of those things.

I also found this on Valéry amusing:

"...one cannot help rebelling against what appears to be Valéry's assumption that it is impossible to be profound and to write as lightly and lucidly as [Anatole] France did."

A goal I suspect dear to Wilson's heart...

After the crash on Wall Street in 1929, Wilson was drawn to Communist ideas, though never becoming an actual Communist. But he did travel to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1935; once there he was put off by the increasingly totalitarian atmosphere, and certainly would have nothing to do with the Soviet Realist idea of art for politics' sake. Wilson doesn't fully construct his middle ground in this, and probably it can't be precisely defined. But technique matters and engagement matters, too. For that the book is applicable now as well, but maybe that's a perennial question. I do find it a very great work of criticism.


And one I tried to read before...at some point in my 20s I started this, but the only authors I'd then read were Yeats (whom I didn't know well) and Eliot (whom I knew only a little better). I thought, well, before I read this, I should read some of these authors. Now, (ahem) a few years later..., it was time to try again. One of Karen's categories this year was 'Classic on your TBR the longest'. Is this absolutely the one? I don't know, but it's been there a long time...

"What!" says Humpty, "I need to read all those books just to read the one?"
Well...maybe not entirely...


Thursday, January 20, 2022

Beowulf (tr. Seamus Heaney) #Poem

 


Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,
chieftain's sons, champions in battle,
all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
mourning his loss as a man and a king.
They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
and gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,
for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
and cherish his memory when that moment comes
when he has to be convoyed to his bodily home.
So the Geat people, his hearth companions,
sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.
They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.
-Anonymous, tr. Seamus Heaney

That's the closing of Beowulf in Seamus Heaney's translation, lines 3169-3182.

(The picture, though, is the opening, which is what I could easily snag from Wikipedia. Hwæt!)

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Millay's To Love Impuissant (#poem)

 


To Love Impuissant

Love, though you riddle me with darts,
And drag me at your chariot till I die,--
Oh, heavy prince! Oh, panderer of hearts!--
You hear me tell how in their throats they lie
Who shout you mighty: thick about my hair
Day in, day out, your ominous arrows purr,
Who still am free, unto no querulous care
A fool, and in no temple worshiper!
I, that have bared me to your quiver's fire,
Lifted my face into its puny rain,
Do wreathe you Impotent to Evoke Desire
As you are Powerless to Elicit Pain!
(Now will the god, for blasphemy so brave,
Punish me, surely, with the shaft I crave!)

-Edna St. Vincent Millay

Take that, Cupid!

I came across this in reading Edmund Wilson's The Shores of Light. It first appeared in the magazine Dial in 1920, where Wilson read it. Millay would have been 28 at the time, and she lived on until 1950.

Wilson hadn't at that time met Millay, but knew her poetry and liked it and says he hoped maybe he would be the one she would fall in love with. It wasn't to be...

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Reading the fatuous policeman: Edmund Wilson's Shores of Light

He arrives full of excitement and high expectations; eagerly he gets to know everybody who is writing, as he already knows everything they have written. He rushes about from one group to another. He attends all the literary teas, the publisher's luncheons, the theatrical openings, the miscellaneous drinking parties. And he brings to it all his shrewdness, his audacity, his humor, his extraordinary memory and his undiscourageable enthusiasm for literature. He makes us feel, as we read this record, that there is something really important in the air, that the work of all these people is interesting, that their opinions deserve attention.
Edmund Wilson's The Shores of Light came out in 1952, but it's largely a collection of his literary journalism in the 20s and 30s.  It's a fascinating history of the American cultural scene of the time. That quote above is from Wilson's review of Burton Rascoe's A Bookman's Daybook, but it could have been about Wilson himself.

Wilson really was in the center of everything. He was the managing editor of Vanity Fair for two years starting in 1920 (he was only 25!) and then later the literary editor at the New Republic for five years. He reviews the first publication of 'The Waste Land'. He's reading André Malraux in French before Malraux has appeared in English. He's involved in the controversy over James Joyce' Ulysses. (Demolishing the criticism of the New Humanist critic Paul Elmer More.) He's praising Hemingway and Dos Passos when those authors are nobodies.

Still, on the whole, I wouldn't go to this book for actual literary criticism, especially in the earlier sections. There's better literary criticism out there. Wilson himself wrote better criticism--I'm reading Axel's Castle at the moment. Think of this as history or chronicle. As I noted earlier, he's not very good on Willa Cather. He writes a series of columns about the state of American poetry that are simply swingeing takedowns and not very insightful: [of Robert Frost, for example] "I find him excessively dull, and he certainly writes very poor verse." 

But the book was assembled in the fifties, and he's aware of his limits. In a footnote to one of those poetry assessments, he notes:
"Maxwell Bodenheim [the Chicago, later New York poet] described me in some such phrase as 'a fatuous policeman, menacingly swinging his club.' In rereading this essay...I have sometimes been reminded of this."
Wilson later told his future biographer Lewis Dabney that he didn't really learn to write until about 1925. This is...kind of true, and represents about a quarter of the book. It's interesting to see him get better in something approaching real time.

The book is at times touching. It's framed by essays written in the 50s, the first, at the death of Christian Gauss, the Princeton professor whom Wilson had studied under; the last, at the death of Edna St. Vincent Millay, which was especially good, remembering life in Greenwich Village in the 20s--Wilson had proposed to Millay at the time, but she turned him down. (I also learned from Dabney's biography that Wilson lost his virginity to Millay, which may have added a little extra poignancy to his recollection.)

Willa Cather aside, Wilson is actually quite good on female authors, praising them, but also treating them seriously. Millay, in particular, who is, of course, a major poet, but also Louise Bogan, Elinor Wylie, Edith Wharton.

The book can be paired with Wilson's The American Earthquake, a similar collection of his journalism covering the 20s and 30s, but on political topics. I read that a couple of years ago. Two 800-page books, representing a mere fragment of what he wrote in the period. The man kept busy.

Also there was this, amusing for bloggers:
"I have recommended lenience toward reviewers who use the books they are supposed to be reviewing as pretexts for expressing themselves; but only in cases where their articles--what happens comparatively rarely--are interesting in themselves. There is no excuse at all for an uninteresting review that tells nothing about the book. The reviewer, at the very least, should be expected to supply information. The retelling of the story of a novel, the summary of an historical or philosophical book, the selection of representative passages and the attempt to communicate the quality of a poet, is the most boring part of the reviewer's business, but it is an absolutely essential part."

And it left me with a bunch of new books I want to read. What more can a book about books do? 

Two literarily-engaged figures with large heads

I got Lewis Dabney's Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature (2005) from the library to go with this; I've only read it so far through the period in question, but I will finish it. That's where I got the skinny on Wilson and Millay. Dabney also edited the Wilson Library of America volumes. 

The biography is pretty good, but editing, even, it seems, at a prestige publisher like Farrar, Strauss, is a lost art. The phrase 'shores of light' as Wilson tells us, comes from the Latin 'in luminis oras'. Wilson got it from Virgil, (Georgics, Bk II.47) though it appears a few other places as well. In Virgil, it's a comment about the heliotropism of plants; prosaically I might translate the line: "On their own plants grow toward light sources." Wilson romanticizes the line a bit in a poem he wrote (I'm quoting the end of his poem which appears in the essay on Millay):

    My stubborn heart to-night
Divines the fate of souls who have not died,
Buried in sullen shadows underground--
That reach for ever toward the shores of light.
I guess that's his sense of New York artists in the 20s and 30s.

Well and good. But Dabney quotes the tag twice, once as 'ad liminas oras' and once as 'in liminas oras', neither of which are what Virgil wrote and also not what appears in my beat-up Wilson paperback. They're not even good Latin. Argh!

I'm willing, possibly, to let Dabney slide on this: editing and typesetting are no longer processes over which authors have much control. In any case FSG should have done better. But then Dabney calls Robert Service an 'inspirational' poet! I'm not sure I'd even want to meet the folks for whom 'A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon' was inspirational. And anybody who found 'The Cremation of Sam McGee' inspirational would be just downright creepy. 😜

The Shores of Light was the first book of the year for me, though it took me a week to write about. A good start! How's your reading year going?