Friday, December 30, 2022

Back to the Classics Challenge 2022 Wrapup


This is not the first year I read books for all the prompts, but it is the first year I managed to blog about a book for all the prompts. Woo-hoo! Here's the list:

19th Century Classic

Sir Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris

20th Century Classic

Thomas Pynchon's V

A Classic by a Woman Author

Willa Cather's A Lost Lady

A Classic in Translation

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun's Memoirs

A Classic by a BIPOC Author

James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain

Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic

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

A Short Story Collection

Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales

Pre-1800 Classic

Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield

Non-Fiction Classic

Edmund Wilson's The Shores of Light

Classic on your TBR the longest

Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle

Classic Set in a Place You'd Like to Visit

Kate O'Brien's Farewell Spain

Wild Card

William Faulkner's Light in August

Chuck displays The Stack (minus the Van Dine, which I also read on the Kobo): 

As for that original set of predictions of what I might read for each category, I got three (!) correct, plus one by the same author I originally planned (James Baldwin) and one that I planned but switched categories (Willa Cather's A Lost Lady). Predicting three in advance is pretty standard for my abilities as a prognosticator...

Thanks to Karen for hosting this challenge again! I'm reachable at reese (at) reesewarner (dot) com.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain

"But don't you think that the Lord can change a person's heart?" [174]

That's kind of the question in this, James Baldwin's debut novel of 1953. 

The novel starts on John Grimes' fourteenth birthday, a Saturday in March, 1935, and ends the next day. John is the oldest of four children of Gabriel and Elizabeth Grimes. They're a poor family in Harlem; Gabriel works as a day labourer, but he's a deacon and occasionally preaches at a revivalist church, Temple of the Fire Baptized. 

The novel is divided into three sections: 'The Seventh Day', 'The Prayers of the Saints', and 'The Threshing Floor'. The first ('The Seventh Day') shows us the family as a not very functional unit. John is the good boy, well, pretty good, but Roy, his younger brother, is his father's favourite. This may be because Gabriel is only John's step-father; he was born out of wedlock to Elizabeth and another man, dead by the start of the novel. But it may also be because Gabriel and Roy are similar, angry and intolerant. That same day, John's birthday, that he wanders around with a little money given him by his mother and then into a movie, Roy crosses town with friends to get into a gang fight with white boys and comes home cut with a knife. Florence, Gabriel's older sister, tells Gabriel it's his own fault Roy is who he is; Gabriel somehow casts blame on John for this, and then strikes Elizabeth; Roy curses his father. 

'The Prayers of the Saints': That night John goes to the church, to help clean the building. Neither his father, nor John's older friend Elisha, consider John saved, nor is John himself quite sure what he thinks about religion. After cleaning the church, with a few members arriving for service, he falls to the floor in a frenzy:     

    "'Rise up, rise up, Brother Johnny, and talk about the Lord's deliverance.'
    It was Elisha who had spoken; he stood just above John, smiling; and behind him were the saints...
    He tried to speak, and could not, for the joy that rang in him this morning." [199]

John spends the night on the floor, managing only a few words. The saints are the members of the church in good standing; they stand around John, praying, in honour of this new manifestation of the Lord's power. Three of those saints are his step-father Gabriel, his mother Elizabeth, and his aunt Florence, and we hear each of their prayers. 

None of them are entirely concentrating on prayer, though, and while they're meditating we learn the backstory that brought them to this point. Florence's resentment that Gabriel, the boy, received her mother's love even though Florence was the good one, and Gabriel showed no signs of spirituality as a twenty-year-old, catting and fighting as Roy does in the present. We learn about Gabriel's conversion, which does nothing for his anger and lack of love. We also learn about his own hypocrisy. Last of the praying saints is Elizabeth, still guilt-ridden over the episode that produced John, and how her subsequent hopes in Gabriel's faith were shattered.

We knew from the first chapter, none of them were saints in the usual sense of the word. Does our understanding make any of them more saintly? I don't really think so, but do learn they are more sinned against than sinning. (Though Gabriel is the hardest to forgive.)

In 'The Threshing Floor' we return to the present. On the threshing floor, Jesus separates the saved wheat from the damned chaff. Did John's conversion experience change anything? In some ways clearly not, but I don't think we're meant to have a clear answer. The question I started with up above is asked by Elizabeth, of Gabriel, to her sister-in-law, Florence. Florence's answer:

"I done heard it said often enough, but I got yet to see it." [174]

Though Florence gives that answer before John's conversion experience, and maybe hers is not a reliable voice anyway.

Poking around at what critical commentary I could easily find, it seems that readers are divided as well. The novel is clearly autobiographical (well, it is Baldwin's first) and Baldwin later lost his own faith. But I don't think it's quite fair to read back from Baldwin's subsequent story to divine what this one means, and I do think John's conversion is meant to be read as sincere. To be sure, there are psychological considerations--John wants to win over his step-father; he hadn't known his birth father, who died before he was born--but the language (very biblical) feels sincere to me:

"Then John saw the Lord--for a moment only; and the darkness, for a moment only, was filled with a light he could not bear. Then, in a moment, he was set free;..." [197]

Will that moment last? For the real James Baldwin it didn't, but for John Grimes, at least as long as the novel runs, it's a different story. 

I like the cover I've shown above, but that's the first edition, and alas I don't have that. I read it in James Baldwin's Early Novels and Stories, edited by Toni Morrison, from the Library of America, and the page numbers refer to that edition.

I found it a pretty great novel, it's on that Modern Library list of 20th Century novels, I'd put it on my Classics Club list, and it finishes off the Back to the Classics challenge for me for the year.


Saturday, December 24, 2022

Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales

Wessex Tales is a collection of seven short stories by Thomas Hardy published as a volume in 1888. I like Hardy, but I think of him as somebody you need to be in a certain mood for. But this collection of stories was quite varied. Taking them in order:

'The Three Strangers' - Shepherd Fennel and his wife are celebrating the christening of their second child, a daughter. It's a dark, wet night and three strangers come to knock at their door. Shepherd Fennel thinks because it's a party, he can't turn anyone away, though his wife is a little peeved when one of the strangers starts guzzling all the good mead. The three are strangers to Shepherd Fennel, but not to each other. It looks dodgy for a bit there, but this story started off the book on a very un-Hardy note.

'A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four' - Think about that year. You might guess Napoleon is involved, "his bullet head, his short neck, his round yaller cheeks and chin, his gloomy face, and his great, glowing eyes." And so he is! One of two stories set on the south coast of Wessex.

'The Melancholy Hussar' - Phyllis has an understanding (a little less than an engagement) with Humphrey Gould, "neither good-looking nor positively plain," "an approximately fashionable man of a mild type." Then a regiment of German hussars, in the service of the King, show up.

'The Withered Arm' - a tale of magic. The well-to-do dairy farmer Lodge brings home his new wife Gertrude. But he has a child in the neighbourhood by one of his milkers, Rhoda Brook. Almost at once Gertrude's arm develops a mark and begins to wither. What could be causing it? She's willing to try folk-magic to heal it and keep her husband.

'Fellow-Townsmen' - Downe and Barnet are acquaintances. Downe is a lawyer, poor at first but coming up; Barnet is a rich farmer who inherited. Barnet made a 'good' marriage, but wishes he'd married the poor girl Lucy he loved before. Downe is blissfully happy in his marriage, with his two children. But accidents occur.

'Interlopers at the Knap' - The wealthy farmer Darton is off to propose to Sally Hall, but gets a little lost in the rain and the dark. Darton had been in love before, but had been refused; a marriage with Sally seems like it would be good for everybody. He arrives eventually, but not before Sally's brother Philip, with his wife and children, arrives at the Knap, the Hall home. Philip has been in Australia where he was not a success. His health was ruined and he dies that very evening. Of course the engagement and the wedding must be put off. But for how long?

Those two stories, while perhaps not Tess of the D'Urbervilles tragic, are more what one thinks of as typically Hardy.

'The Distracted Preacher' - The Other Reader said, surely you're not still reading Hardy? And it's true: I was laughing out loud while reading this story. Stockdale, a newly-minted Methodist preacher, is assigned the chapel at Nether-Moynton until the town's permanent Methodist minister can arrive. He's told Mrs. Lizzy Newberry, a widow, is the only person in town who rents rooms, and when Stockdale arrives at the house and meets an older woman, he assumes that's who he's met. When a young woman comes into the room, he inquires, "Miss Newberry?" But no, she's Mrs. Newberry; it was her mother, Mrs. Simpkins he'd met earlier.

He's good-looking and so is she. But Nether-Moynton is on the south coast of Wessex, convenient for smuggling brandy from France. The whole town's in on it, and the church makes a convenient place to stash the goods.

Hardy says he based this on a real story he'd heard, and it ended differently from what he wrote in real life. He would have followed the actual events more closely, but what the market wanted at the time (the story is from 1879, the earliest in the book) was something different. And "the stories are but dreams, and not records."

Anyway quite entertaining, and much more varied than I was expecting. One off my classics club list, and good for this years Back to the Classics challenge.

Happy Holidays to all!

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Patricia Wentworth's The Blind Side (#DeanStreetDecember)

"Oh, I wish Ross was dead!" - Chapter 2

"I won't let Ross so much as cross the threshold. If he tries...There'll be murder done." - Chapter 3

"Mr. Ross, he'll go too far one of these days." - Chapter 4

"Shooting's too good for him--that's what I say!" - Chapter 5

Guess who ends up dead? Shot, in fact?

Ross Craddock has just inherited a block of London flats as well as some other property, so he's well-to-do. He inhabits one of those flats; Lucy, a maiden aunt another. A second maiden aunt recently dead inhabited a third flat. There are a dozen altogether, some unoccupied at the time of Ross Craddock's murder.

Ross is just about to evict Lucy; has just tried to seduce Mavis, a distant cousin; has feuded with Rush, the concierge, accusing him of blackmail. (Rush is important in determining just who can have gotten in and out of this locked-building mystery.) 

Chapter 1 gives a family history, which is important, but so complicated as to be incomprehensible; fortunately Wentworth gives us a table later on. Should you like a romance in your Golden Age mystery (as I do!) there's one on between Lee Stratton and Peter Renshaw (also distant cousins).


The mystery came out in 1939. World War I is important, but it's before World War II and no sign of it yet. The economy has begun to recover after the depression.

This is the first of the Chief Inspect Ernest Lamb mysteries; Frank Abbott is his public-school-educated assistant. Wentworth wrote three mysteries with Lamb as the main detective before he was absorbed into her most famous series, which has Miss Silver, former governess, as a professional detective. Two Miss Silver mysteries had appeared before this, but without Lamb or Abbott. I find the Miss Silver series pretty wonderful.

Lamb is much the same as he is in the Miss Silver stories, curmudgeonly, and a bit sexist: "Difficult to stop girls doing it nowadays, but if he found one of his [own daughters] with her mouth made up to look like an orange peel..." Dum, dum, de dum. Abbott is more modern, amenable to women in roles they didn't use to have and admires Miss Silver as a P.I. But Lamb isn't a fool in this or in other books; he recognizes Miss Silver gets results when they're paired together; and he finds the murderer in this one, mostly on his own. (Though with a little help.) Very entertaining.

And that romance? Well, if you've read any Patricia Wentworth, you'll know what happens.

All the non-Miss Silver mysteries were reissued be Dean Street Press a few years ago. And since Liz is hosting a Dean Street Press event at the moment...

Monday, December 19, 2022

Shirley Hazzard in Italy

Humpty and Shirley and Italy

I read a couple of Shirley Hazzard books I got from the library recently. I started with:

Greene on Capri

This is a memoir of her and her husband's (Francis Steegmuller) friendship with Graham Greene which came out in 2000. She met Greene on Capri in the late 60s. If you've read any Shirley Hazzard, you will be unsurprised by how she met him.  She and Graham Greene were sitting at nearby tables in a café on Capri. She knew who Greene was by sight, but didn't introduce herself. Greene was discussing a poem of Robert Browning's with a friend, but neither Greene nor his friend could remember the last line, until she supplied it as she was walking out the door. Later that evening she and her husband were dining at the same restaurant as Graham Greene--Capri is a small place--and Greene introduced himself.  It was the beginning of a twenty-years' friendship that lasted until Greene died.

They mostly met on Capri--Greene had a house on the island and shortly afterwards the Steegmullers rented a place (for $70 a month! I learned here. Not anymore, I'm afraid.) where they spent six months of the year.

The memoir is a delight. It doesn't whitewash Greene, who could, it seems, be difficult, and whose best writing was mostly behind him by that point. She was pleased, she writes, that she could genuinely tell Greene she liked The Honorary Counsel, (which is one of the better late Greene books) and is sensible on the strengths and weaknesses in Greene's writing. Greene was helpful in getting one of Steegmuller's Flaubert translations published by The Bodley Head.

The memoir is also a reminiscence of the Capri of that era. Capri has long been a bit glamorous, popular with foreigners, but not yet what it was to become. One amusing story, though, involves Steegmuller trading Russian phrases with an aged woman whom Lenin had tried to teach Russian when she was a girl; her father had been the gardener at the villa where Lenin stayed with Gorky in 1908. The Steegmullers, Greene, and Greene's partner at the time, Yvonne Cloetta, walk up to the Villa Jovis, the fortress from which Tiberius ruled the Roman empire in his later years. (I've been there!)

Both Greene himself and her husband Francis Steegmuller are dead by the time she writes this. It has a melancholic tinge. But she remembers those times fondly and well.

And it ends, as it began, with that missing bit of Robert Browning: 'Or so very little longer.' (from The Lost Mistress.)

The Bay of Noon

Then I read her short novel of 1970. The main events take place a few years after the end of World War II. Jenny, running away from her family, takes a job as a secretary for a commission studying the NATO base in Naples. (Primarily, then as now, the home of the US Sixth Fleet.) She knows no one there, but comes with a letter of recommendation to Gioconda. Gioconda is the author of a novel Del Tempo Felice, that was made into an Italian neo-realist movie. (It gets compared to Open City and The Bicycle Thieves.) Gioconda's lover is Gianni, the director of Del Tempo Felice. Various people around the office feature, her boss, the Colonel, but most particularly Justin Tulloch, a Scottish marine biologist to whom she's detailed for a while. She and Justin trade lines from Sir Walter Scott's Lochinvar at one point.

The novel mostly takes place in Naples, though, of course, they do make it to Capri. It's very good on place:
"An open-air nightclub, wedged into the tufa near my building, lay in wait for its season; and a bedraggled restaurant or two commanded, from scruffy terraces, the incomparable, lake-like prospect of the bay."

I won't say much about the plot. There is a twist, although I have to say I felt like I saw it coming. Still, a good read, even if it's not The Transit of Venus

And are my trip to Italy this year for the Rose City Reader European Reading Challenge.

There would have been several good reasons to have read these books last month, but I didn't... I'm reading them now because I just got my copy of the new Shirley Hazzard biography from the library on Friday.

I knew I would want to read it in any case, but I was pleased to see that Steve Donoghue listed it as his best biography of the year. His are really the only end-of-year lists I read, funny, cantankerous, and with (for me at least) more hits than misses.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

#ccspin: And tonight's number is...

That means Henry James' The Wings of the Dove, probably the most challenging choice on my spin list. I have to admit I admire, but do not necessarily love, the late Henry James novels. (While early to middle Henry James is a different, happier story...) But I've had this volume on my shelf for years and clearly now's the time!

Hubert looks maybe just a bit daunted?

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Patricia Wentworth's Dead or Alive

Liz at Adventures in Reading is hosting a Dean Street December event. The idea is to read books from Dean Street Press, who republish vintage mysteries. They have a few other categories of books, notably their Furrowed Middlebrow line, but it's going to be the mysteries I will read. (I'm pretty sure.) 

I'm a huge fan of Patricia Wentworth's mysteries: her best-known detective is Miss Silver, a former governess who hung out her shingle as a private detective after she retired. But that's not all Wentworth (1877-1961) wrote, and Dean Street has published all her non-Miss Silver mysteries. I've read a few of those, but this challenge was a good excuse to read another.

Dead or Alive (1936) is the first of two Colonel Frank Garrett mysteries. The Colonel is head of Intelligence for the Foreign Affairs office, but his main function in this is to snark at the people who are actually involved in the case and then in the end to appear (he actually tells us) as the 'deus ex machina.' Except even then he doesn't make a very good deus... (but no spoilers!)

The main characters are Meg O'Hara and Bill Coverdale. Bill was interested in Meg even when they were teenagers, but then Meg married Robin O'Hara, dashing, but not, as it turned out, good husband material. Bill has just returned from several years working abroad in Chile, where he went after Meg married Robin. Robin also worked in Intelligence and had discovered something damning about the Vulture's gang. The Vulture ends up in jail, but Robin ends up dead, or so the report is at the start of the novel. 

But! Somebody keeps hinting Robin's alive. Meg gets a letter saying Robin's alive. Somebody slips into her apartment--only she and Robin had keys--and leaves a message suggesting he's alive. So is Robin 'Dead or Alive'? A body was found, but it had been rolling around in the water for a while, and the identification is likely, but not certain. What to do? Meg always liked Bill, but if her husband's still alive...

This is more thriller than mystery (a thing Patricia Wentworth sometimes does) and the outlines of the solution were pretty clear from early on. For a while I was rather annoyed with Meg, who seemed a bit dither-y. There's nothing worse than a character who makes unnecessary mistakes and then using that as the source of tension. Later it got better, and Bill and Meg's escape from the bad guys at the end was pretty thrilling, and I enjoyed it well enough. Still, while I highly recommend Patricia Wentworth, this is definitely not the one to start with. I don't usually do stars, but this would be 2 out of 5 for me.

In general I've had good luck with Dean Street Press and some others made it on to the blog:

Patricia Wentworth:

Touch and Go - again more thriller than mystery, but I quite enjoyed this one. Non-series.

E. R. Punshon's Bobby Owen mysteries:

Diabolic Candelabra - set early in WWII. I liked this one a lot.
Music Tells All - early post-war. I liked this, but not as well as Diabolic Candelabra.

Winifred Peck (Penelope Fitzgerald's aunt! Ronald Knox's brother!):

The Warrielaw Jewel - (1933) a wacky family murder mystery.

I've got a couple of other unread Dean Street Press eBooks. I'll try to read another one this month.

Thanks to Liz for organizing this.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Classics Club Spin #32


I've been a little slack about spins lately, but I'm getting organized for this one.

You likely know the drill: a list of twenty books, a random number generator, and a book to read by the 29th of January, 2023. So...straight to the list:

1.) James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son
2.) James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain
3.) Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales
4.) Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh
5.) Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
6.) Henry James' Wings of the Dove
7.) W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge
8.) Virginia Woolf's The Waves
9.) Balzac's Cousin Bette
10.) Boccaccio's The Decameron
11.) Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog
12.) Andrei Bely's Petersburg
13.) William Sherman's Memoirs
14.) Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica
15.) Harry Mark Petrakis' A Dream of Kings
16.) Dawn Powell's Turn, Magic Wheel
17.) Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding
18.) Nella Larsen's Quicksand
19.) Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters
20.) George Gissing's New Grub Street

I'm fairly determined to read Wessex Tales in the near future as well as Notes of a Native Son. I'm currently halfway through Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

Are you doing the spin this time? Which look good to you? Which should I be sure not to miss?

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Jacques the Fatalist and his Master

I can see with a little bit of imagination and style, nothing is easier to rattle off than a novel.

And so, Diderot rattled off a novel. But what imagination! And, especially, what style!

Jacques is the servant to his unnamed master; in some ways, though not entirely, they're more friends and equals than master and servant. Jacques is a fatalist because 'everything that happens to us on this earth, both good and bad, is written up above.' But is it? That's kind of the question. And if so, who does the writing?

That sort of thinking meant that Diderot's novel, though likely finished by 1778, didn't appear until 1796, after the French Revolution got under way and after Diderot's death in 1784.

The master and Jacques are traveling:
Where were they coming from? From the nearest place. Where were they going to? Does anyone really know where they are going to?

But as travellers do, they tell stories to pass the time, with Jacques doing most, but not all, of the storytelling. He's going to tell the story of his loves:

MASTER: Has the moment come for hearing about those loves?
JACQUES: Who knows?
MASTER: Well, on the off chance, begin anyway...

But there are interruptions:

MASTER: Do you know what you are doing there? It is very common and very impertinent.
JACQUES: I'm certainly capable of it.
MASTER: You complain of being interrupted and yet you interrupt me.

Some of those interruptions are by the narrator. The interrupting stories are mostly love stories, and there's a reason for that:

It is also a fact that since I am writing for you I must either go without your applause or follow your taste, and you have shown a decided preference for love stories.

But not always! Don't get your heart set entirely on those love stories. Sometimes Jacques' horse bolts and deposits him at the foot of a nearby gallows. Is it 'written up above' that Jacques will end up with a halter round his neck? I can't tell you that!

There was not a single time that he [the master] took a pinch of snuff, nor a single time that he looked to see what time it was, that he didn't say with a sigh: "What has become of my poor Jacques?"

It even comes with literary criticism. But don't think that's just a way to interrupt love stories, because I'm sure it's not.

MASTER: Italian poet called Dante who wrote a work called The Comedy of Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise.
JACQUES: That is a strange subject for a comedy.
MASTER: By God, there's some good things in it, though... 

Hmm. But the more pertinent criticism relates to Laurence Sterne, and The Adventures of Tristram Shandy, 'because of the particular esteem in which I hold Mr. Sterne.' I think we could guess that, Denis.


And what is this, Reader? One love story after another! That makes one, two, three, four love stories I've told you and three or four more still to come. That is a lot of love stories.

One of those love stories, probably the most famous, is that of Marquis des Arcis and Madame de la Pommeraye. It's told by the hostess at an inn where Jacques and his master are trapped for several days due to flooding. Marquis and Madame are in a love affair, an affair they'd pledged each other would last forever. Madame senses the Marquis' growing coldness and tests him by telling him that unfortunately she seems to be falling out of love with him. He replies, oh, good, let us be civilized about this, and we can be just friends.

But she was lying: she hasn't fallen out of love. Instead she plots revenge. Does she get it? I could tell you that, but I won't!

It's also the reason I took the book off the shelf recently. Robert Bresson's film of the story Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne was playing here as part of a series last weekend.

Robert Bresson did less well on this year's Sight and Sound poll of all-time great movies, and this isn't one of his absolute best anyway. Still it was interesting. It made me realize I'd seen another film version a couple of years ago, Mademoiselle de Joncquières:

It had its merits, too, but neither of them are quite what appears in Diderot. But then I'm not sure they entirely intended to.
MASTER: Madame, you tell a story quite well, but you are not yet skilled enough in dramatic art. [He gives some specific criticisms, but to tell you them would be spoiler-y.] You have sinned against against the rules of Aristotle, Horace, de Vida, and Le Bossu.
But our film directors did listen to the master's criticism. Were they right to do so? I can't tell you that!

Is it 'written up above' we learn the story of Jacques' loves? Have you read it? Then you know...otherwise, I'm not going to tell you!

Pretty fun.

I read the Penguin, shown above, translated by Michael Henry.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore

Avenge the patriotic gore,
That flecked the streets of Baltimore.
-from Maryland, My Maryland 
(former state song of Maryland) 

Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore (1962) looks at U.S. literature written by authors affected by (and affecting) the Civil War. It starts with Harriet Beecher Stowe, "the little lady who brought us this big war," according to Lincoln, and her Uncle Tom's Cabin, and ends with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who died in 1935, having retired as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, but who'd been wounded at Ball's Bluff, left for dead at Antietam, wounded again at Chancellorsville. 

But it's not a history of the Civil War and its aftermath like other histories. There's little discussion of military campaigns or economics--there are other books for that. Grant's memoirs, as well as Sherman's and Mosby's all feature, but Wilson discusses their prose style, not the battles. He writes about stories and myths as such, the myth (and he certainly thinks it is mostly myth) of the Southern Gentlemen or the nobility of the Lost Cause.

One of the great things about the book, though, is exactly that analysis of prose. Wilson suggests that the Civil War affected the style of American writing, that before the war, the influence of Sir Walter Scott was strong in the U.S., as everywhere in the world, but that the need to communicate quickly in wartime meant a new spareness came to the fore. Grant's dispatches feature, and Wilson makes a fascinating comparison between the speeches Edward Everett (once the most famous orator in the U.S.) gave at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery and that now better known--and much shorter--one that begins, "Four score and seven years ago,..." (which, I don't know about you, but I had to memorize in high school.) In the long run, maybe, this leads to Hemingway, however you might feel about that.

Many of the figures he writes about are obscure, and even some that aren't, were best known for something other than their writing. Sure, Grant's and Sherman's memoirs are ensconced in the Library of America now--and Grant's memoirs at least, I think, are great, and now I want to read Sherman's--but I don't think they were so celebrated as literature in 1962. If you think about who now are judged the major figures in U.S. literature in the period, you might come up with Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Henry and William James (those James boys), Henry Adams, Walt Whitman.  They're all mentioned, but none of them get a chapter. Frederick Douglass doesn't even get a mention. Wilson might say he wanted figures who saw the effects of the war first-hand: Twain was a two-weeks cavalryman, before deciding to heck with it and going to California; the two older James brothers were discouraged from serving by their father, and didn't, though the two younger brothers did, and Wilkie James was seriously wounded; Henry Adams was in London, serving as secretary to his father, the ambassador to Britain. An important role, but away from the fighting. Only Whitman was close to the action, serving as a nurse to the Union Army.

But it's also true, I think, Wilson just likes to search out lesser-known, but fascinating figures. He writes in The Shores of Light, "There are few things I enjoy so much as talking to people about books which I have read and they haven't." And I don't think he was fibbing... There's a great chapter on the diaries of Southern women, another on the philosophy of Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy. (Stephens was anti-slavery, and initially against secession, but felt strongly the South could, that United States was a compact of states and not an indissoluble Union.) There's a chapter about the novelist John De Forest, who's known now (if at all) as the originator (more or less) of the idea of the Great American Novel. (I highly recommend Lawrence Buell's The Dream of the Great American Novel). A chapter on poetry discusses Melville (well-known, though less as a poet), Sidney Lanier (known somewhat?), and Frederick Tuckerman (scarcely known at all, but what Wilson quotes makes me want to find his work). If you're interested in reading about obscure writers (and, ahem, you *are* reading my blog at the moment 😉) I think you just might find the book to your taste...

One other thing has to be mentioned, though, and that's the introduction. It's weird. If you look at the Wikipedia article on the book, and follow up the references there, Henry Steele Commager's contemporaneous New York Times review or David Blight's article in Slate for the book's fiftieth anniversary, you'll see the introduction (of 30 pages) gets as much coverage as the rest of the book (nearly 800). Wilson was seriously pacifist at this time and got into tax trouble in the 50s--he refused to pay taxes that would support the nuclear arms race (Henry David Thoreau gets a couple of mentions in the book, though he's already dying by the start of the Civil War) and Wilson attacks Lincoln from the Left in the introduction, objecting to the suspension of habeas corpus, and considering him equally imperialist with Bismarck and Lenin. Umm. Because of the introduction, Wilson is sometimes viewed as pro-Southern, though I don't think that's true. He didn't count Reconstruction a success, but that's hardly an unusual point of view.

Now everyone reads the past in light of present events, though perhaps we shouldn't, and I myself can't help but think that seven Southern states, at least, seceded when they had no conceivable source of grievance against Lincoln--he hadn't even been inaugurated yet. They lost an election and refused to acknowledge it.  (Why is that in my head these days? I'm sure I don't know.) In any case the introduction seems to have colored interpretations of the main body of the book, but I think it's best ignored. The book mostly appeared as a series of New Yorker articles in the ten years preceding their collection into a book; the introduction was written at the end when Wilson was squabbling with the IRS. The main body of the book doesn't actually seem to me to affirm the thesis stated in the introduction.

I took it along as topical reading on our recent trip to Washington, D.C. We went to see Lincoln's Cottage in northern D.C. on the grounds of the Old Soldier's Home:

The admission fee included this cool (?) bookmark, which I of course had to then use for the book...

The house just to the left of center is Lincoln's getaway cottage.

From my Classics Club list, good for November Non-Fiction, and distinctly inappropriate for Novellas in November...

Friday, November 4, 2022

The Jena Set

"Listen, this good old Jena really is a den of murderers after all. You have no idea how everyone gossips about everything behind your back, even the people you wouldn't expect."
-Letter from Caroline Schlegel to her husband August Wilhelm Schlegel, 5 May 1801

That's a little strong but there is a lot of gossip in Andrea Wulf's new book Magnificent Rebels about the figures of what she labels the Jena set. At the time (1795-1806) Jena was an important German university town near Weimar. The gossip includes: Who's sleeping with whom. Who's feuding with whom. Who's pro-Napoleon and who's not. Who's dying and who pulls through.

But they're people worth gossiping about, with Goethe the best known. He's the old man of the group, 46 at the start, respectable, though not entirely, since he's living with, and not yet married to, Christiane Vulpius. There's a boatload of Friedrichs, and Wulf conveniently provides a Dramatis Personae, because among those Friedrichs are Schiller, Schlegel, and Schelling, plus one (Friedrich von Hardenberg) whose name fortunately doesn't start with 'Sch', and better known as Novalis anyway. Poets, translators, philosophers. Kant is an early booster, and Hegel a late addition to the group. 

At first there's harmony. They start magazines, philosophize together, read each other's poetry. Goethe and Schiller edit each other's work. Goethe arranges for Johann Fichte a job as professor at Jena; his lectures become enormously popular. Later Goethe is equally instrumental in getting Friedrich Schelling an appointment as a professor of philosophy. It's Friedrich Schlegel who popularizes the word Romantic in its modern sense, from the French word 'roman', meaning a novel.

Wulf is most interested in Caroline Schlegel. (Her name through most of the book. At the start she's the widow Böhmer; near the end, after a long affair with him, she marries Schelling.) August Wilhelm Schlegel is her second husband, and the two of them are responsible for what Wulf says are still the standard translations of Shakespeare in German. But the affairs, the literary feuds, the short tempers, begin to tell. Fichte is fired from his professorship for atheism. The Schlegels and Schiller end up in a bitter feud over editing and won't talk to each other, though Goethe attempts to mediate. By 1806, the year of the Battle of Jena, where Napoleon decimates the army of Prussia and its allies, most of the principals have already left town. The town itself is battered. But their legacy lives on, propagated by figures who write books about them, such as Madame de Staël and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

A pretty fascinating crowd in its own right, but especially fascinating if you're a fan of Penelope Fitzgerald's delightful The Blue Flower.

And of course I then had to reread it. It centers around the poet and novelist Novalis, but ends in 1797, when Novalis' fiancée dies of tuberculosis. Most of the same figures appear, though. 
"Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history."
  "...What did they talk about?"
"Nature-magnetism, galvanism, animal magnetism and freemasonry."
"I see the fault in Fichte's system. There is no place in it for love."
"If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching."
"But I have, I can't deny it, a certain inexpressible sense of immortality."

All sayings of Novalis in the novel and I suspect based on his writings, though only the first (which serves as the epigraph) is given a citation. It's funny and touching. A great novel.

Novalis himself dies in 1801, at the age of 28, also of tuberculosis.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Mimnermus 1 (#poem)


τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσῆς Ἀφροδίτης,

  τεθναίην ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα μέλοι,

κρυπταδίη φιλότης καὶ μείλιχα δῶρα καὶ εὐνή,

  οἷ᾽ ἥβης ἄνθεα γίγνεται ἁρπαλέα

ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξίν: ἐπεὶ δ᾽ ὀδυνηρὸν ἐπέλθῃ

  γῆρας, ὅ τ᾽ αἰσχρὸν ὁμῶς καὶ κακὸν ἄνδρα τιθεῖ,

αἰεί μιν φρένας ἀμφὶ κακαὶ τείρουσι μέριμναι,

  οὐδ᾽ αὐγὰς προσορῶν τέρπεται ἠελίου,

ἀλλ᾽ ἐχθρὸς μὲν παισίν, ἀτίμαστος δὲ γυναιξίν,

  οὕτως ἄργαλέον γῆρας ἔθηκε θεός.


Mimnermus is an ancient Greek poet about whom almost nothing is known. The Suda, the Byzantine encyclopedia, says he lived around the 37th Olympiad, which occurred in 632-629 B.C. He may--or may not--have lived in Smyrna (now in Turkey). His works only survive in quotations from other authors. This, which is generally labeled as Mimnermus 1, (and may be a complete poem--we don't know) is found in the Florilegium of Johannes Stobaeus, a collection of fragments assembled around the fifth century A.D.

What? You don't want to deal with that great wodge of ancient Greek up there? No? Conveniently...I wrote a translation which came out here earlier this week.

What is life? What's joy? When golden Aphrodite's gone,
  I'd rather die should she fail to fire me.
Hidden kisses, cajoling gifts, and bed, those are
  the blossoms we kids grabbed so greedily,
girls and boys both. But then tedious old age attacks--
  it makes a man both worthless and ashamed--
so much does stressful care abrade your ability
  you hate to look upon the sun enflamed.
You're boring to boys, no longer glorified by girls;
  miserable age--god's gift!--has you tamed.

Possibly 'then' in line 5 should be 'when', I went back and forth on that. Line 9 could also be thought of as children and wives rather than the more explicit reading I gave it. Then it would be something like 'hated by your kids, dishonoured by your wife.'

Still thinking about Propertius is how I got to this. In his ninth ode in Book I, Propertius says he prefers Mimnermus to Homer. That's supposed to be a bust of Homer up above, though we don't have any idea what he looks like either.

Asses of Parnassus is a pretty fun poetry website. One of my poems came out there earlier. More are yet to come. So pay attention! 😉

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel (#1929Club)

"...that indefinable smell of Berlin in March..."

An aging Russian ballerina, an unimaginative company director, a stenographer who also does nude photos, an impoverished baron doubling as a thief, a bookkeeper with a fatal cancer diagnosis, a morphine-addicted doctor whose face was destroyed in World War I--they're all staying in a grand Berlin hotel.

That sounds like a series of character sketches, which is, according to the introduction, the way Vicki Baum first began to think about the novel, but she's worked out a plot that brings them all together. There's love, there's death, there's fortunes won and lost--or are they? The meeting of Grusinskaya, the ballerina, and Baron Gaigern (Greta Garbo and John Barrymore in the movie!) is both delightful and amusing. 

The novel--or the characters at least--affect a certain cynicism about love: the stenographer Flämmchen (what a name! Joan Crawford in the movie) tells Baron Gaigern, "True love? There's no such thing," and says of the sexual act, "It was like having a tooth filled by a singularly incompetent dentist." Gaigern himself is quite calculating about love, until, maybe, he isn't. The novel itself is less certain about that cynicism, but still a little cynical. Do unexpected characters fall in love? "No," says the third-person narrator. "Life is very far from producing such delightful surprises." Yet, even so, some hearts might be warmed.

Closer to the feeling of the novel is a concern for money. Kriegelein, the bookkeeper, says at one point, "Only with money can you begin to be a decent human being." Which room you're in, what clothes you wear, career choices and life choices. All the characters think about money, and a possible corporate merger is one of the main plot threads. 

It ends--but no spoilers!--with a big scene that involves all the major characters, even if one has already left town. Very enjoyable.

It's the week of the 1929 Club, hosted by Kaggsy and Simon, and this is very much a 1929 book...

Over the years, I've posted a couple of other 1929 volumes on the blog:

and Mateiu Caragiale's The Rakes of the Old Court in the Sean Cotter translation.

Brona's post about her 1929 book reminds me that the A Room of One's Own is actually a 1929 book as well, though the lectures were given in 1928. My thoughts about it here.

Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting!

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield

"...a very discreet and serious dialogue upon virtue..." [Chapter 9]

Well, nah.

Charles Primrose, the Vicar of Wakefield, is a good person who suffers great losses which are then restored to him in the end. You may remember this as the story of Job. I just reread the Book of Job to go with this, and the events of Job's story in the Bible take about as long as this paragraph. The rest of that book is indeed a discreet and serious dialogue about virtue (and God and sin and some other Very Important things.) But Oliver Goldsmith subs most of that out for some humour and romance...

We first see Dr. Primrose in a disputation with his fellow vicar, Mr. Wilmot, on the eve of George, his eldest son's, marriage to Wilmot's daughter. The dispute becomes so heated that the marriage is broken off. Well, that, and that, at the same moment, Primrose discovers his scoundrelly agent has absconded with his fortune.

It will be necessary for the Primroses to retrench. 

George heads out into the world to make a living. The rest of the family move to a smaller place where they will be able to grow their own food to help out. In the course of moving, Sophia, the younger daughter, nearly drowns crossing a river, but is rescued by Mr. Burchell, and there's nothing like a rescue to make a girl take notice. Burchell will now be involved in their lives. For good? For ill? 

They rent their new living quarters from Squire Thornhill. Thornhill has a bad reputation, but seems nice; Mrs. Primrose is determined that Olivia, the older daughter, should catch his eye. This requires new clothes, which requires money, which they don't have. Moses, the second son, is sent to the fair to sell one of their two horses, but is deceived by a conman. The other horse must be sold as well and Primrose himself goes to the fair where he is deceived by the same conman.  

They run into George; he has not made his way in the world. (He almost became an actor. The horror! I believe Goldsmith--also a playwright--is being a little ironic here...) Thornhill loans the money to buy George a commission, but as soon as George is out of the way, Thornhill has Primrose thrown into debtor's prison, and seduces Olivia, who's willing because she believes it an elopement.

Primrose in debtor's prison is pretty much the same man he'd been all the way through: patient, helpful, trying to improve lives of the people around him, his parishioners and now his fellow inmates. And maybe also a little ridiculously, dangerously innocent? But that goes with goodness. 

But. I did mention this often gets compared to the book of Job, right? By reforming the right person in the prison (that same conman) and with a little (well, a lot) of outside help, Primrose's life and fortune and restored. A sort of well-intentioned goodness makes everything right in the end. Which is what you wanted to hear, isn't it?

Anyway, while it may well be a 'dialogue upon virtue', it's a funny and engaging one, not discreet and serious at all.

It went on to become a pretty famous book. It shows up in Middlemarch, in Frankenstein. It's one of the few books young David Copperfield has left from his late father's library. It's the only thing other than agricultural reports that Robert Martin, Harriet's intended in Emma, has read. And once Jo (Little Women) has put Great-Aunt March to sleep by reading devotional literature, "I whipped The Vicar of Wakefield out of my pocket and read away, with one eye on him, and one on Aunt. I'd just got to where they all tumbled into the water, and forgot, and laughed out loud." But even Great-Aunt March comes to like The Vicar of Wakefield.

So...maybe it's a classic?

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Willa Cather's A Lost Lady

"The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold." [58]

Willa Cather's A Lost Lady came out in 1923. It had previously been serialized in Century Magazine, and when the novel was issued by Knopf in book form, it was Knopf's largest print run to that date. Which then sold out, and required two more printings within weeks. It was a hit.

The lady is Marian Forrester. She married an older man, Captain Daniel Forrester, a successful railway contractor in the Western United States. They settle in Sweet Water, Colorado, a town on the railroad where Captain Forrester has built his dream house. The story of their courtship is told near the end of the novel.

Marian is mostly seen through the eyes of Niel Herbert, who grows up as a boy in the town. He's nephew to Judge Pommeroy, the town's lawyer, and as a young man goes east to study architecture. He's fascinated/half in love with Marian Forrester already from his boyhood.
"But we will begin this story with a summer morning long ago, when Mrs. Forrester was still a young woman, and Sweet Water was a town of which great things were expected." [6]

Niel Herbert is just a boy, off fishing--or horsing around and only pretending to fish--with his friends. That first scene includes a bit of horrifying cruelty to animals, the sort of thing boys are reputed to do, but much worse than pulling the wings off flies, and our novel's villain is identified.

The novel covers a number of years, and while Cather is coy about dates, that first scene is likely around 1880. The transcontinental railroad has just been pushed through Colorado. Captain Forrester is a successful, and still vigorous, man.

Later Captain Forrester has a horse-riding accident and can only walk with a cane; a bank for which he's a principal fails; he honourably makes good on the bank's debts, but at the cost of his own fortune. This must be the panic of 1893.

Later still Captain Forrester has several strokes and, with the money gone, it's up to Marian to take care of him. She does it, she probably even still loves the Captain, but she tells Niel, "I feel such a power to live in me, Niel." [70] She drinks too much, she has an affair with Frank Ellinger, a man she knew before her marriage, ends up drunk-dialling Ellinger, in Niel's presence, when she learns Ellinger has married. Is she lost?

Great things may have been expected of Sweet Water but they don't come off. Judge Pommeroy's business stalls, and he's not the only lawyer in town anymore: that villain mentioned above has become a lawyer:

"'...rascality isn't the only thing that succeeds in business.'
'It succeeds faster than anything else, though.'" [69]

Eventually Captain Forrester dies. Marian returns to California, and Sweet Water's lady is lost. The last Niel hears of her, the last we hear as well, is that she's remarried and living in Argentina.

"Long, long afterward, when Niel did not know where Mrs. Forrester was living or dead, if her image flashed into his mind, it came with a brightness of dark eyes, her pale triangular cheeks with long earrings, and her many-coloured laugh. When he was dull, dull and tired of everything, he used to think that if he hear that long-lost lady laugh again, he could be gay." [39] 

But who or what is it that's lost? Maybe she did laugh in Buenos Aires.

It's a pretty great novel, I think.

It seems F. Scott Fitzgerald thought so, too. He read it while he was working on The Great Gatsby, and after Gatbsy came out (1925) he wrote a letter to Cather saying how much he admired A Lost Lady, and hoped she wouldn't think he'd plagiarized it to produce Daisy Buchanan. Cather wrote back to say she admired Gatsby in return, and no, she wasn't worried about it. (Frankly, while Gatsby is amazing as a whole, I find Daisy Buchanan thin beer in comparison to Marian Forrester.)

Page numbers come from the Library of America edition of Willa Cather's Later Novels

If you've read it, what did you make of the 'lost' of the title?  

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Sir Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris

 "...let the devil of knight errantry, which has such possession of thee, take thee upon his shoulders, and carry thee full tilt wheresoever he lists."

Count Robert of Paris (1832) is a late novel of Sir Walter Scott's. It's set in Constantinople at the beginning of the First Crusade (1096-1099).

Hereward, a Saxon, fought at the battle of Hastings. His father was killed there. He believes his intended, Bertha, was slain during the chaos that followed. Hereward abandons England and takes a job as a member of the Varangian Guard, sworn to protect the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus at the time. Which Hereward does, so successfully, he's called in for an interview with Anna Comnena, composing a history of her father's reign. 

And so he's caught up in palace intrigues.

The Byzantine empire at the time is caught between the rising power of the Seljuk Turks and new kingdoms in the Balkans. And then the knights of the First Crusade appear on their doorstep. Are they friend or foe? Will they attack Constantinople? (The Crusaders didn't sack Constantinople until their fourth trip through.) Alexius already has one Frank bandit/king in his dungeons, Ursel (Roussel of Bailleul) from an earlier war.

And one of those crusader knights is Count Robert of Paris. Robert is the son of William the Conqueror; Hereward's his enemy at first sight. Robert's the one that 'the devil of knight errantry' is about to carry off.

William the Conqueror did have a son Robert who did go on the First Crusade, but our Robert owes more to those tales of knight errantry, even to Don Quixote, than he does to the historical record. And his wife, Brenhilda (!) of Aspromonte, armor-clad and perfectly happy to joust in the lists, feels more like Orlando Furioso than anything historical. Though Scott is at pains to tell us there's an armor-clad female warrior by the name of Gaita in Anna Comnena's history (which I haven't read).

Robert behaves like a tool when he first gets to Constantinople, lounging on Alexius' throne, breaking ancient artworks. Alexius is irritated enough to throw Robert into prison even as he's doing all he can to move the rest of crusaders on their way. 

But there's a conspiracy on to overthrow Alexius. It's led by Achilles Tatius (Hereward's commander), Nicephorus Briennius (Anna Comnena's husband and so the emperor's son-in-law), and Agelastes, the aged court philosopher. Each of them imagines he's the one that will end up on the throne, and, while Alexius would let Robert go after a bit, the conspirators plan on using Robert as part of their plot. In addition Nicephorus has fallen into lust with the amazonian Brenhilda. 

You probably don't need me to tell you the plot fails. Scott isn't one to rewrite the historical record so blatantly, and Alexius' actual reign lasted until 1118. You probably also don't need me to tell you that beautiful Bertha isn't really dead, and that somehow she ends up in Constantinople, too. The cool-headed Saxon Hereward and the hot-blooded Norman Robert are forced to get along to sort this all out. Which they do.

One of the nice things about this novel is that it reminds that Scott can be funny. There's Robert, who, except for the fact that he can actually fight, could be Don Quixote. Hereward, Sancho Panza-like, is forever trying to get him to show some sense. There are couple of running gags: Anna Comnena's literary soirées bore everyone to tears, and Alexius is forever saying that if Anna doesn't want to lose her husband she should quit forcing him to listen to her read. Well, Nicephorus does decide he prefers Brenhilda. Also the emperor can never remember Hereward's name, generally settling on Edward after trying a few other possibilities.

Now, nobody would claim this as one of Scott's great novels. His prose style is what it is--generally feeling pretty archaic now--and his tendency to write overly fulsome dialog is definitely on display here. But if you're a fan...

Actual engraving of Scott's home hanging behind me as I type... 

...I think you'll enjoy it. Anyway, I did. 😉

From my Classics Club list and this year's Back to the Classics list.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Brooke Clark's Urbanities (#poem)


Hot Tip

Here's my advice on how to shine on the epigram-writing scene:
  a poem should not mean, or be; but it should be mean.

Take that, Mr. MacLeish! Brooke Clark's Urbanities came out from Fitzhenry & Whiteside, a small Canadian press, in 2020. It's a collection of mostly epigrammatic poetry adapted from classical models:

from Advertisement here's my pitch: I've tried to write some poems you might enjoy--
  a radical idea now, to deploy
the resources of poetry, not to stretch and strain
  syntax until it cracks, but to entertain.
He writes in the afterword, "The original impulse behind this book was to try to capture some of what I loved about Martial in English." (Both the poems I've quoted above are adaptations from Martial.) But he goes on, "These are not direct translations, however, and none of the poems in this book is a particularly good guide to what the original actually says."

An example of his method is his treatment of Catullus 2, the poem about Lesbia's sparrow, now a cat:

from To A Fortunate Feline
A sweet deal, Toast, being Chloe's pet:
you hop up on her lap and get
a giggle or a happy sigh;
your paw slides up her inner thigh
demesnes denied the human hand...

Catullus, at least based on where he placed Lesbia's sparrow, was more a breast man. There was also a version of Catullus 51, which is Catullus' version of the Sappho poem. Clark's version begins, "That man seems like a god to me." I quite liked his two Horace adaptations, but they're a little long to quote. There's also Mimnermus (a favorite of mine in Greek), Callimachus, others.

I do wish he'd identified the poems he was adapting from. Some I recognized, but especially with the Martial poems (a poet I hardly know at all) it would have been fun to compare, but I generally couldn't.

One last Martial adaptation to end (and nearly the end of his book):


So that's my book. Such trifles don't make a literary star,
  but they can't have been all bad--you read this far.
Stardom's for those whose luminous lines sear with sincerity.
  You laughed a few times? Good enough for me.
Brooke Clark also edits the contemporary poetry website Asses of Parnassus, whose self-proclaimed brief is short, witty, formal poems, and so they generally are...