Friday, December 1, 2023

Homer's Iliad (tr. Emily Wilson)


Erechtheum the Owl says, This is important stuff. Get obsessed!

from The Iliad
(Bk. XV, ll. 82 ff)

Let Hector turn the Greeks around again
and make them panic, lose their will to fight,
and run away until at last they fall
amid the mighty galleys of Achilles,
the son of Peleus. He will send forth
his friend Patroclus, who will slaughter many,
including my own noble son, Sarpedon.
Then glorious Hector, out in front of Troy,
will kill Patroclus with his spear, and then,
enraged at this, Achilles will kill Hector.
And after that has happened, I shall cause
the Greeks to drive the Trojans from the ships,
and force them to retreat continuously
until, through great Athena's strategies,
the Greeks have seized the lofty town of Troy.
Until that time, my anger will not cease.

-Homer (tr. Emily Wilson)

That's Zeus announcing the program of the second half of the Iliad. Hector eventually foresees his death:

(Bk. XXII, 398ff)

Then Hector understood inside his heart,
and said, "The gods have called me to my death,
I thought Deiphobus was at my side.
But he is on the wall. Athena tricked me.
The horror of my death is near me now,
not far away, and there is no way out."

-Homer (tr. Emily Wilson)

And does eventually die:

(Bk. XXIV, ll. 997ff, the very end of the poem)

After the mound was built, they went back home,
then came together for a glorious banquet
inside divine King Priam's house. And so
they held the funeral for horse-lord Hector.

-Homer (tr. Emily Wilson)

Line numbers are those of Emily Wilson's translation, and not those of the Greek. She's translating it into blank verse in English, a nice choice, but you can't get as much into a line, so it's a bit longer. Though comparisons of this sort are a little suspect, an English blank verse line has ten or eleven syllables; a line of Greek dactylic hexameter, the original meter, has twelve to seventeen syllables. (And lines of twelve syllables are very rare.)

The Iliad is a major poem, a foundational work of Western literature, a classic. If you haven't read it recently, or know it only by repute, it might surprise: it's more cleverly structured than you might think, and 'Homer' left out many of the most famous episodes (there's no Trojan horse, no death of Achilles, no several other things) in order to produce a tighter story and poem. But I'm not going to say anything about the greatness of the Iliad. It just is. I want to think about Emily Wilson's new translation, out a month or so ago.

I was very much looking forward to this. I loved her translation of the Odyssey. Ever since I read that earlier translation, I assumed, I hoped! she would carry on and translate the Iliad. Maybe that enthusiasm was too much. Sadly I don't think this is as good. 

What should a translation of Homer look like? Let's go to the most famous commentator on the subject, Matthew Arnold in his On Translating Homer: 
"...the translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities of his author;--that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is both in his syntax and his words; that he is plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble;..."
Arnold goes on to say, "I probably seem to be saying what is too general to be of much service to anybody." 😉 But in fact Arnold is considered kind of an expert.

My favorite of the passages I quoted above is the middle one. If one is judging for 'plain and direct', I think Wilson succeeds pretty well on both counts, that is in syntax and in ideas. Here's Richard Lattimore (1951) for comparison:
And Hektor knew the truth inside his heart, and spoke aloud:
"No use. Here at last the gods have summoned me deathward.
I thought Deiphobus the hero was here close beside me,
but he is behind the wall and it was Athena cheating me,
and now evil death is close to me, and no longer far away,
and there is no way out.
Lattimore is pretty good himself here on plain and direct, but Wilson feels to me more rapid. And her use of blank verse adds a nobility that feels lacking in Lattimore's free verse. (Lattimore's line is loosely six beat, like Homer, but not rigorous in its versification.)

But I wouldn't always say that. Here's Lattimore's final line to the whole poem:
Such was their burial of Hektor, breaker of horses.
I prefer Lattimore here; the double alliteration on B and H, which correspond across the caesura (that break, the breath you take in pronouncing the line, at the comma). It reminds me of that other great verse form for English epic, that of Beowulf. 

There are places where Wilson is just flat (this is part of the description of the newly-forged shield of Achilles, Bk. XVIII, ll. 681-2):
The earth grew black behind them as if plowed,
though it was made of gold. It was amazing.
Homer does not sound like a breathless teenager. I feel we have fallen short of nobility here.

Or, this (Bk. XVI, ll.23-4):
  Speak up! Do not
conceal your thoughts. We ought to share our knowledge.
Tell me, do not hide it in your mind, and so we shall both know.
Now this is not Homer at his rapidest either, but Homer is swifter than either, and Lattimore is swifter than Wilson. 'So we shall both know' in Lattimore is 'ἵνα εἶδομεν ἄμφω' in Greek, a mere three words in Homer, and is a much more ordinary expression than either translation in English.

Now why did I like her Odyssey so much better than her Iliad? My library remains messed up, so I can't get a copy of her Odyssey to tell you exactly.

But here's one thing that occurred to me.You probably know that the first word in each epic is important. It's 'wrath' (Μῆνιν) in the Iliad, and 'man' (Ἄνδρα) in the Odyssey. Vergil announces his intention to combine both epics by beginning his Aeneid, 'Arma virumque', which Shaw turns into English as 'Arms and the Man'. But almost as important is the adjective that describes that initial noun. The wrath is described as ούλομένην and the man is πολύτροπον. In her translation, Wilson makes Odysseus, the man, 'complicated', and I loved that. To call a person complicated, well, we can all think of a bunch of things that might suggest, and of Odysseus, they're all true. The very word implies a new and interesting interpretation. The Greek means something more like 'of many turns', which is what it usually gets translated as. That's suggestive, but not as interesting here as 'complicated.' (The Latin root of 'complicated' suggests 'with folds', which isn't a bad change.)

She translates the adjective describing wrath as cataclysmic, not for me as interesting a word, one that suggests a flood, which isn't really quite right. (The Greek word means something closer to accursed.) So:
Tell me about a complicated man
hooked me from the start. But: 
Goddess, sing of the cataclysmic wrath
put me off a bit.

I don't know. It might also just be the case I like the Odyssey better. You might, too. Wilson says in her introduction she's always been more drawn to the Iliad, and this is a common enough opinion. The Iliad is men and war and tragedy, while the Odyssey is mixed company and romance and adventure, and so the Iliad has historically been considered the greater poem. But is it? That's not really an argument I want to get into. (The Oscars are the same. Should Julia Roberts have won her Oscar for Erin Brokovich or for one of her great romantic comedies? Or think about best picture Oscars.) I've read both poems multiple times and in Greek. But I do mention that as it might have colored my interpretation.

Anyway, it's a fine translation, should you want to read the Iliad. (And you should!) But after reading her Odyssey, I was ready to throw out all my other translations and get hers in its place. (I didn't quite do that.) I did not have that reaction after reading her Iliad. 

Monday, November 27, 2023

November challenges wrapup (new to the TBR)


The prompt for the last week for both these challenges is the same: What new books did you learn about and add to your TBR? I'm going to be lazy and lump them both in to one post... 😉

Walter Lord/A Night to Remember 
    (Readerbuzz, non-fiction)
François Mauriac/The Kiss of the Leper 
    (NancyLN, novella)
Mike Harris/Mike Nichols: A Life 
    (NancyLN, non-fiction)
Philip Larkin/Letters to Monica 
    (Intrepid Angeleno, non-fiction)
Charles Montgomery/The Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
    (Adventures in Reading, non-fiction)
Travis Elborough/Atlas of Vanishing Places
    (Volatile Rune, non-fiction)
Louisa May Alcott/Behind a Mask
    (KlasikFanda, novella)
Patrick Modiano/Sundays in August
    (NancyLN, novella)

Now if only my library would start working again...but they say not until January. Yikes!

Fortunately I've got a few Dean Street Press mysteries lined up for next month.

Thanks to all our hosts!

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Two by Patrick Modiano (#NovNov)

So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood

Jean Daragane is an elderly man living on his own, suspicious and irritable. Then a stranger Gilles Ottolini calls up to say that he's found Daragane's address book: could he bring it by? (Daragane had written his phone number and address in the book in the space supplied after 'If found please return to...'). Daragane doesn't want this stranger to come to his house, but they arrange to meet at a café the next day.

Daragane is a well-known writer, famous for his book Le Noir de l'Eté about the Paris demimonde. He has genuinely lost his address book and, despite his suspicions, supposes he should get it back. Ottolini shows up the next day with a 'friend', Chantal Grippay, and it's clear Ottolini knows quite a bit about Daragane. Ottolini has read through the address book and he's interested in a name from it, Guy Torstel, which was also a name that Daragane had used in that famous novel. Who is Torstel? Daragane claims he can barely remember the actual Torstel, and that he remembers nothing about the novel he wrote so many years ago. But he agrees to try to remember something and to meet again with Ottolini when Ottolini's back in town. 

But before that Chantal Grippay comes by and warns him not to trust Ottolini. Daragane tries to work out the connections between Torstel and his mother and the woman (not his mother) who raised him and the other figures from that novel. And what do they have to do with Ottolini and Grippay? And just what has he got himself into? 

Interesting and evocative, but in retrospect not the one to have started with. In the real world, Modiano's first novel was La Place de l'Etoile.

155p. And with rather wide spacing and margins. Translated by Euan Cameron.

In the Café of Lost Youth

Louki is an habituée of the café Condé. The place is a little downmarket even for students, with a somewhat rough clientele of youths, with a few dodgy elders mixed in. Louki seems just a bit more glamorous than the rest of the crowd. But Louki is just a nickname. Who is she?

The novella is structured as four different narrators telling us what they know (or what they want to tell us) about Louki. The first is an actual student: he studies at the École Supérieure des Mines; because he's a student, though one perhaps not entirely committed to his studies, he feels isolated from the core crowd at the café. Still he observes Louki without ever knowing her real name.

The second figure is a private detective who's looking for Louki on behalf of her abandoned husband; he learns Louki is actually Jacqueline Choureau née Delanque, that she'd been in minor trouble with the law as a teenager, that her mother was a dancer at the Moulin Rouge. He has to decide what exactly to report to the abandoned husband.

The third chapter is from the point of view of Louki herself; the last chapter is that of a writer from years later who had hung out with this crowd at the time. We learn Louki's fate.

Wikipedia says the novel is loosely about the circle around the Situationist Guy Debord, philosopher, Marxist, provocateur. In any case, the novella begins with an epigraph from Debord:
"At the halfway point of the journey making up real life, we were surrounded by a gloomy melancholy, one expressed by so very many derisive and sorrowful words in the café of lost youth."
Also evocative, and less dependent on a familiarity with the Modiano oeuvre. Pretty good, I thought and it would have been a better start. (Though as you can see I didn't stop after the first that I did read.)

118p. Translated by Chris Clarke.

Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, and I've been meaning to try him out since then. That's all the Modiano I've read, but I liked them both and it made me curious to read more. I'll probably go next to the beginning and read La Place de l'Etoile. (Same title in English.) It's the first in a trilogy, it seems. Do you know Modiano? Is that a good plan? Any others to be sure not to miss?

November is Novellas month!

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Tony Hillerman's The Blessing Way (#Mystery)

"I asked around some in re your inquiry about witchcraft cases and it looks only moderately promising."

But if you're looking for a mystery, it's very promising.

Luis Horeseman is a young Navajo who has just injured a man in a drunken knife fight. But he's worried he's killed his opponent, and so is living rough in an uninhabited canyon. Or so he thinks.

Joe Leaphorn is a detective with the Navajo police and he's pretty sure he knows where Horseman is, but rather than go hunting him, he drops hints among Horseman's relatives that young Luis won't be guilty of murder after all and should just turn himself in.

Bergen McKee is a professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico and he's interested in Navajo witch stories. He's also an old college chum of Joe Leaphorn, and that's from Leaphorn's letter to McKee above. Even though Leaphorn's not very encouraging about the research, he still would like McKee to come visit, and anyway there just happens to be one report of a witch, otherwise unexplained.

Then Horseman is found dead, far from where Leaphorn expected him to be hiding out. At first glance the death looks accidental, but Leaphorn sees through that right away.

There are three more deaths before it's done and a good thriller scene in backcountry Arizona.

It's the first entry (1970) in Hillerman's series of mysteries set in Navajo lands, and the series started well, I thought. I've read most of them (and maybe this one before? But it felt new.) As it's the first neither Jim Chee or Bernadette Manuelito are on the scene and it's all up to the (not yet) Legendary Joe Leaphorn.

Vintage Mystery, Silver, Any Other Animal: That's a wolf shadow on the cover. Unless it's a witch (Navajo witches are either gender and take the shape of animals, most commonly wolves). Or, just possibly, a murderer in a wolf mask...

That completes Silver Age Vintage Mystery challenge for me, though who knows? I could very well read another mystery or two yet this year written between 1960 and 1989...

Monday, November 13, 2023

Two Novellas (Elizabeth Smart, Boris Pasternak) #NovNov

Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

The narrator has fallen in love with the poet on the basis of his poems. She invites the poet and his wife to Monterey, California, where she's living, to meet him. She's just as enthralled by the poet in person as she was when she only knew him through his poetry. But can she do this to his wife?

Oh, yes she can.

The narrator is Elizabeth Smart and the poet is George Barker; his wife is Jessica Barker, and the events more or less follow actual events. So, auto-fiction, avant la lettre?

Yes, but. The prose definitely makes this. You see the Psalms there in the title: is that Grand Central Station or the rivers of Babylon? The Song of Solomon is all over the book. So are the Latin and Greek classics, slyly grandiose: "Jupiter has been with Leda, and now nothing can avert the Trojan Wars."

There's also interesting things happening with metaphors from the natural world. The main events take place in the late 30s, but Smart is writing the book during World War II in England. Comparisons to natural features from North America--the Mississippi, Niagara Falls--are inundating, but positive as a rule; those of Europe--the pools in Epping Forest, e.g.--smaller, withdrawn. All mostly involve water, or its absence: the Mojave Desert makes a metaphorical appearance.

But the occasional funny pinprick from outside the bubble lets us see another side. A policeman (and yes, the police do get involved): "'What a cad,' he said, 'And the girl's a religious maniac.'" Why, now you mention it, quite possibly yes... "Are all Americans chaste? All, by law." "Like Macbeth, I keep remembering that I am their host."

The book was first published in England in 1945. Smart came from a well-to-do Ottawa family, and her mother, appalled Elizabeth was publishing her shame (as she saw it) bought up as many copies of the book as she could get her hands on. It was also the end of the war, so, between those things, not much happened with the book at the time. But when it was reissued in the 60s, its reputation took off. Smart continued her bohemian life, bearing four children to Barker, but never marrying him. (Barker continued his caddishness.) She wrote other works (which I haven't read) but this is considered her masterpiece. She died in 1986.

Weird and wonderful. "Girls in love, be harlots, it hurts less."

112p. including an introduction by Brigid Brophy.

Boris Pasternak's The Last Summer

Serezha has just finished his exams, and takes a job as tutor to the eleven-year-old Harry Fresteln. The Fresteln estate is in the Ural Mountains, well away from Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Serezha finds his duties light, writes and gallivants at night.

Mrs. Anna Tjornskold is the widow of a Danish pastor who died young. Suddenly near destitution she takes a job as paid companion to Mrs. Fresteln, but once she's stuck in the remote Ural Mountain region, she discovers her role is more maid than companion. She feels denigrated and trapped and unhappy.

There's a frame set in 1916, but the main events take place in the summer of 1914, the last summer before everything goes to pieces.

Then Serezha proposes to Anna.

It's a promising enough premise for a story, but I can't recommend it, at least in this form. (Penguin, 1960, reprinted many times.) There's an introduction by Pasternak's younger sister Lydia, interesting, though it doesn't tell you what you want or need to know. 

But the main problem is the translation. I guess I'll credit the translator (George Reavey) with trying to reproduce things he found in the original, but it just doesn't read well in English. There's undigested bits of Russian: izvoschik (a cabman, it seems), mahorka (a coarse tobacco), calatch (still not perfectly sure about this one. Kolach? Maybe.) I don't know how you would have sorted those before the Internet. There's awkward bits of English: 'a tent of tremblingly-moist, sultry-laurel birch trees.' And extravagant words, even if they are English. Canicularly? Know that one? Canicular: having to do with the dog days of summer. -ly, adverb. In retrospect, you can probably see the can- of canine in it, but it's certainly a long ways from Basic English. Is the Russian word in Pasternak equally obscure?

Anyway, it needs notes or a new translation or likely both. I don't know if those things exist.

92p, including Lydia Pasternak Slater's introduction.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Sunday Salon



A post on the new biography of Lou Reed by Will Hermes. The skinny: if you like Lou Reed, you'll probably be interested in the biography. If not, not...

That sent me to rereading Delmore Schwartz, who was Reed's teacher when he was an undergraduate. One of Schwartz's poems here.

Then Rebecca Solnit's most recent Orwell's Roses. Pretty great, I thought. 

I read (The third time? I think.) Rex Stout's Fer-de-Lance, the first Nero Wolfe mystery, because...does one really need a reason? It was there. I could blog about it, but I've already finished that challenge. It's a good one.

Two novellas from my list of novella candidates. They should get their own post soon.

Where I Am

This guy showed up. (It doesn't look like the same hawk as previously.) We have seen hawks with their pigeon kills in the back yard before, but lately they've been peaceable enough...though this one doesn't seem to be underfed. (Does the photo make me look fat? Yes, yes, it does!)

But!...The Horror!

The Toronto Public Library has been hit by a ransomware attack, and the website has been down for two weeks (as of tomorrow). 

Library branches are open, but my local branch is quite small and was originally built as a children's library. The books I want almost never come from there, but I go to the website and request they're sent to my local branch. Under normal circumstances that works beautifully. But now I'm not likely to go hunt them down elsewhere, and, in any case, I don't have any clue where to find them without the website. (TPL has a lot of branches.) So I'm limited to the books I have.

For myself, I'm not too worried about the data breach. I'm good about passwords, and my PIN for the library is different from every other PIN. My address and phone number wouldn't be that hard to come by anyway, and if they can figure out how to monetize the knowledge that I read a lot of books, well, God bless... It's the fact I can't get more books that's driving me nuts.

The poop on the Internets is it's some outfit calling itself Black Basta. They're shadowy, of course, that's the point, but they seem to be Russian and quite possibly state-adjacent. Not that I didn't already have enough reasons to dislike Putin, but if now he (or his minions) have taken down my library, it's...time for Regime Change!

But it's the rare cloud that doesn't have at least a little silver on the inside... 😉 I read the New York Times via the library. The way it works for us is that you get a three day subscription, and then you have to renew. Maybe you can renew and maybe you get an 'All of your institution's passes are currently in use. Try again later' message. I can play Wordle without the NYT subscription, but I can't use the WordleBot to find out how my guesses stacked up unless I'm connected. But with everything frozen in place at TPL, my three-day subscription has now lasted two weeks. The Other Reader and various friends are locked out of the newspaper, but the WordleBot (and any of the awful news I want...hmm) I can get to.

Hope your week has been good. (And your library is working!) 

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Rebecca Solnit/Orwell's Roses (#NonficNov)

"In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses."

That's the opening line of Rebecca Solnit's most recent book Orwell's Roses, and the writer-slash-gardener is George Orwell. Orwell wrote about the roses (and also the fruit trees and gooseberries he planted) in his essay 'A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray' of 1946. Solnit calls it 'a triumph of meandering that begins by describing a yew tree in a Berkshire churchyard.' It takes one to know one: Solnit is a champion of the meandering essay herself.

Back to the Vicar of Bray for a moment. He's not a hero: what he's famous for is the slipperiness of his politics:
And this is law, I will maintain,
Until my Dying Day, sir,
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, sir! 

Still, the Vicar planted that yew tree. Orwell:

"An oak or a beech may live for hundreds of years and be a pleasure to thousands or tens of thousands of people before it is finally sawn up into timber. I am not suggesting that one can discharge all all one's obligations towards society by means of a private re-afforestation scheme. Still, it might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at an appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground."

Or roses. 

Solnit was in England for a book tour and was interested to see what was left of Orwell's plantings. Only the roses survived.

"There are many biographies of Orwell, and they've served me well for this book, which is not an addition to that shelf. It is instead a series of forays from one starting point, that gesture whereby one writer planted several roses. As such, it's a book about roses..."

An interesting topic for a meander.

So many fascinating things: Emma Goldman, the photographer Tina Modotti, Stalin and lemon trees. Columbia is the source for 90% of North America's commercial cut roses and is infamous for its terrible labor practices. Solnit manages to visit a rose farm there. It's not a long book, but it's fascinating and I won't even try to tell you all the things in it.

One of her main themes is the frequent puritanism of the left. Orwell is sometimes absorbed into this. Is he a dour political writer who can only tell us the terrible things are going to happen, the terrible things that are happening? Maybe not just. Turns out nature is important in 1984 and is written about well. This leads her to Emma Goldman, the anarchist, and Tina Modotti, the photographer and Communist. 

It is also about what a political essayist can and should do: in Solnit's case in this book, feminism, labor issues, the creeping return of totalitarianism, climate change.

Pretty great stuff. It's the fourth I've read of her twenty-five or so books. (River of Shadows, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, The Faraway Nearby and now this.) Right now it's my favorite, and is likely to stay so at least until I read the next one. 

    "Orwell's signal achievement was to name and describe as no one else had the way that totalitarianism was a threat not just to liberty and human rights but to language and consciousness, and he did it in so compelling a way that his last book casts a shadow--or a beacon's light--into the present. But the achievement is enriched and deepened by the commitment and idealism that fueled it, the things he valued and desired, and his valuation of desire itself, and pleasure and joy, and his recognition that these can be forces of opposition to the authoritarian state and its soul-destroying intrusions.
    The work he did is everyone's job now. It always was."


Thursday, November 9, 2023

Delmore Schwartz (#poem)


"I Am Cherry Alive," the Little Girl Sang

For Miss Kathleen Hanlon

"I am cherry alive," the little girl sang,
"Each morning I am something new:
I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited
As the boys who made the Hallowe'en bang:
I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too:
When I like, if I like, I can be someone new,
Someone very old, a witch in a zoo:
I can be someone else whenever I think who,
And I want to be everything sometimes too:
And the peach has a pit and I know that too,
And I put it in along with everything
To make the grown-ups laugh whenever I sing:
And I sing: It is true; It is untrue;
I know, I know, the true is untrue,
The peach has a pit, the pit has a peach:
And both may be wrong when I sing my song,
But I don't tell the grown-ups: because it is sad,
And I want them to laugh just like I do
Because they grew up and forgot what they knew
And they are sure I will forget it some day too.
They are wrong. They are wrong. When I sang my song, I knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold, I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me, I will always be new!"
-Delmore Schwartz

After I finished the Lou Reed biography, I pulled the Delmore Schwartz off the shelf, which I probably haven't opened in years. I'm pretty sure I bought the book years ago, because I knew he'd been Lou Reed's teacher. There's a bunch of good things in it! 

The first edition Summer Knowledge: Selected Poems came out in 1959, and went on to win the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, as well as other prizes. Schwartz was already falling apart by then, though, and went on to die in poverty in 1966, at the age of fifty-two.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Will Hermes' Lou Reed: The King of New York (#NovNonFiction)

"A hustle here and a hustle there/New York City is the place where..."

Lewis Allan Reed was born in Brooklyn in 1942, but mostly grew up further out on Long Island. He went on to, you know, make a bunch of records.

And take a lot of drugs. 

Will Hermes' biography Lou Reed: The King of New York was released at the beginning of last month.

Reed grew up in a practicing Jewish family; his father was a successful accountant. His mother stayed at home; he had a sister five years younger. He cut his first record, a single ("So Blue/Leave Her for Me") in high school, at age sixteen, with a band called the Jades. It had some local success, got played on Murray the K's radio show, but quickly faded. But not a bad beginning.

He may have had a troubled childhood--he often said so himself, though little that Lou Reed says about his life can be trusted: he told the musician Lenny Kaye once, "I created Lou Reed. I have nothing even faintly in common with that guy, but I can play him pretty well." His sister said that while Lou was a bit fragile as a child, theirs was a quite normal household.

In any case something went a bit off the rails. He wanted to be in Manhattan for college, but at the end of his first semester at NYU, he had a nervous breakdown, or something, and moved back with his parents, where he underwent a course of electroconvulsive therapy. Was it anxiety, depression? Or was it--as Reed sometimes said--his homosexual impulses? (Though his sister says that was not the cause for his ECT.) Though it seems astonishing now, ECT was considered an ordinary enough treatment at the time. After those horrors, he started college again at Syracuse in upstate New York.

There he met Delmore Schwartz, once a poetic enfant terrible, but by then a drunk, and mostly just terrible. Still he was impressive to the young Lou Reed, who was interested in doo wop, R&B, rock, and popular music in general, but also in literature and poetry. Schwartz became the first of Reed's great mentors.

After Reed graduated from college, he worked as a songwriter for Pickwick Records in NYC, a sort of Brill Building outfit, where his biggest success was a dance track 'The Ostrich'. He also met the avant-garde violist John Cale. The two of them became the core of the Velvet Underground; the classic lineup was completed with Sterling Morrison on guitar and Maureen ('Moe') Tucker on drums. The band caught the eye of Andy Warhol, who was--ahem!--a famous enough guy, though maybe not the best music promoter. In any case Warhol goes on to become the second of Reed's great mentors. In the late 60s, the Velvet Underground made some great records, famous now, but they hardly sold at the time. 

The commercial breakthrough, Transformer, with 'Walk on the Wild Side', came out in 1972, his second solo album.

Did I mention drugs? Reed was probably already injecting in high school. Somewhere early on he caught hepatitis from shared needles. Heroin was an early favorite, one he shared with John Cale, and the topic of several early VU songs. Later he did mostly amphetamines. This was partly the influence of Warhol, who famously emphasized work ethic and did speed to keep going. There were various reasons why Reed and Cale couldn't get along--Reed's ferocious difficulty as a person being the main one--and that version of the VU ended in 1968. But Cale also suggests that while he was still doing heroin, Reed was then on speed. A cultural difference.

Reed also seemed to be genuinely bisexual. He had long term relationships with both men and women. He may have slept with Warhol--some say yes and some say no--though Hermes thinks not on the whole. Reed's longest homosexual relationship was with the trans woman Rachel Humphries, and went for about 5 years in the late 70s. It fell apart when Reed decided he finally had to get clean of drugs. (He meant also to get free of alcohol, but doesn't seem to have ever succeeded entirely with that.)

Hermes' book speeds up after the 70s. His previous book was about NYC music in the 70s, so that's his main period of interest. But it's also the case that established success in an artist can be a little dull in a biography, so he may have chosen to spend less time on that. His second marriage--to Sylvia Morales Reed--helped him sober up and was the inspiration for a number of his 80s solo albums (the period I was hearing him). But it broke up when she wanted a kid and he didn't. He later married the avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson, who survived him. 

There's enough testimony that Lou Reed could be sweet and caring that it's probably even true, but it certainly wasn't always, and he could be terribly difficult. Insecurity? Amphetamines? Alcohol? Perfectionism? Rockstar entitlement? Who knows? Something could make him turn nasty. Reed between the hepatitis, the drugs, and the alcohol did enough damage to his liver he needed a transplant, which he got in 2013. It seemed to have worked for a couple of months, but then his body rejected it, and he was dead in October of that year. Hermes quotes a hilarious bit from the Onion that was true even when it appeared in the optimistic months, but then sadly was even more true:
New Liver Complains of Difficulty Working with Lou Reed

"It's really hard to get along with Lou--one minute he's your best friend and the next he's outright abusive,' said the vital organ, describing his collaboration with the former Velvet Underground frontman as "strained at best." "He just has this way of making you feel completely inadequate."
Anyway, Hermes' biography was solid, better on some periods than others (of course,) best of all on the late sixties through the seventies. I don't know that it will make any new converts, but if you were already a fan...

...I think you'll enjoy it.

It's the second week of Nonfiction November and the prompt is, How do I choose which non-fiction to read? I'd say it's generally by topic, as was this. I don't remember where I first saw mention of the biography, but since that review wasn't a pan, and I knew was interested in the subject, I put it on my library holdlist. I've read a few other music biographies, though it's not a large category for me. General-audience literary criticism is a perennial for me, history--a lot of Ukraine and eastern Europe lately, alas--regularly appears by my reading chair, some (non-technical) philosophy. Some books related to professional concerns: computers, finance, containerized shipping. Cookbooks.

I also then to fix on particular authors. I read Robert Gerwarth's most recent, November 1918, because I'd enjoyed his earlier book. I'm likely to read the new Christopher Clark soon. I might also read that earlier Will Hermes. And the next book non-fiction book I'll read will score in two categories: it's the latest by Rebecca Solnit, whom I quite like, and it's about her engagement with George Orwell, so literary criticism.

Project Gutenberg also has some interesting things, and I sometimes just read from there, mostly because it's so simple to come by, and I want something for the eReader.

I'm not completely opposed to judging a book by its cover 😉 though I certainly wouldn't call the cover of this Lou Reed biography much of an enticement...but it *has* gotten harder to browse bookstores: it's a pretty good ways now for me to get to a good new bookstore, when ten years ago there was one a block away. (I should be buying fewer books anyway...) In any case more books in general, and non-fiction in particular, is likely to come from the library where I just order it up from the website and it appears at my local branch magically, after I've just read about it at somebody's blog. I'm expecting to request a whole bunch of books at the end of this month...

Thanks to Frances at Volatile Rune for hosting this week!

Thursday, November 2, 2023

My Year in Novellas (#NovNov23)


Another of the great November challenges is Novellas in November. The first prompt is an overview of novella-reading from the last year. So, on with a few highlights!

The Man Who Was Thursday is G. K. Chesterton's mystery-ish novella of 1908, well before his Father Brown stories. Gabriel Syme, a Scotland Yard agent, becomes Thursday in a circle of anarchists; the mysterious Sunday is the leader. Syme is out to expose Sunday and does so in the end, but what does that signify? Was there really ever a plot? It's both thriller, but also a bit of an allegorical Piers-Plowman style of story. Entertaining and very Chestertonian. I gave it a fuller review here.

Ethel Wilson's Hetty Dorval of 1947 is Wilson's first book, and a CanLit classic. The teenaged girl Frankie Burnaby is fascinated by the mysterious Mrs. Dorval after she moves to their small town in British Columbia. Mrs. Dorval seems sophisticated--maybe she's too sophisticated? (She is given the first name Hetty/Hester; think The Scarlet Letter or Adam Bede.) I'd sort of long known of the book, but read it this spring for the first time, because Alexandra Oliver's most recent volume of poetry, Hail, The Invisible Watchmen, includes a sonnet sequence based on Hetty Dorval. The novella is pretty great. (And well worth a sonnet sequence.)

Maggie Millner's Couplets: A Love Story is a verse novella that came out earlier this year. Our (female) artsy NYC heroine has a steady boyfriend, but then falls in love with an older woman. I don't know that I thought the story was astonishing, but it was entertaining enough, and I quite enjoyed the poetry, which is written in a series of (Heroic? Un?) couplets, appropriately enough. I quoted a stanza and discussed it at more length here.

Lots of Golden Age mysteries are probably effectively novellas; certainly Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery is. I read the text from Project Gutenberg, and just now copied it and subjected it to a word count. Approximately 43000 words. It came out in 1892 and is a very early locked-room mystery, one of the classics of the genre. It got its own post here.


But, hey! how about a couple of short non-fiction works, too?

I've read it a few times, but once more didn't seem to hurt. And it is short. Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor is about tuberculosis and cancer (she wrote a sequel about AIDS) and the way we make metaphors out of diseases--things that are really not metaphors--but bacteria, or viruses, or cellular malfunctions. It's also a very hidden autobiography--she wrote this after being diagnosed with the breast cancer that went on to kill her some years later, but doesn't mention it at all in the book. One of her main examples of illness as metaphor is Henry James' The Wings of the Dove, whose Milly Theale dies of tuberculosis. I reread Sontag after reading the James, and discussed both (and a few other odds and ends) here.

Paul Muldoon's To Ireland, I originated as the Clarendon lectures of 1998, and is an abecedary of Irish literary criticism. I read it before we went to Ireland in the spring, then read a bunch of Irish literature, and have been thinking I could reread it and maybe (maybe!) then say something about it. But it was quirky, opinionated, and fascinating. 


But what's past is prologue (as the master says...) What novellas might I read this month? We have a picture for that, of course!

Mr. Dickens says, But these books are all so short!

Elizabeth Smart/By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Another classic CanLit novella. About her long-term affair with the British poet George Barker. (I believe.)

Cesare Pavese/The Moon and the Bonfires

Our hero leaves Italy for the U. S. early in the Fascist era and returns only after the war is over. What's changed?

Boris Pasternak/The Last Summer

Don't know much. 😉 The back of the book says, "Set in the winter of 1916, The Last Summer has an autobiographical basis." That, and it's shorter than Doctor Zhivago

Patrick Modiano/So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood

That makes two Nobel prize winners on this list. Hmm...

Which look good to you? Are you taking part in Novellas in November?

Monday, October 30, 2023

My Year in Non-Fiction

One of the great November challenges is November Nonfiction:

This week's prompt, My Year in Nonfiction, is hosted by Heather.


Readers, let me tell you, the state of our Non-Fiction reading is sound. 😉 I seem to have hit a fairly high (for me) 20% of my reading this year as non-fiction. Some highlights (in the chronological order I read them):

Brigitta Olubas/Shirley Hazzard

This new biography (2022) of Shirley Hazzard was the first book of the year for me. It was a superb literary biography, but I didn't manage to blog about it. I'm a big fan of Shirley Hazzard's novels (The Transit of Venus especially, of course) and when I saw this came out and was getting glowing reviews I had to read it. If you care at all about Shirley Hazzard you will want to read it. (If you haven't already.)

Michael Hingston/Try to be Strange

A history of the notional Kingdom of Redonda, which is a literary in-joke. It didn't get a full review, but it did get a somewhat substantial mention in a Sunday Salon post here. This led to a bit of a reading project, which also included:

Javier Marias/Dark Back of Time

Pretty great, though I am rather a Marias fan. Another book I didn't manage to blog about. It's Marias writing about the reception of his novel All Souls, his history with John Gawsworth, the king of Redonda somewhat before Marias was, and a bunch of other things... I trust some of it was fictional, but I couldn't quite tell you what. The novel A Heart So White remains Marias' masterpiece, but this is one of his better ones.

Victor Gruen/Shopping Town

An autobiography by the Jewish Austrian emigré architect who designed the first shopping mall (outside Detroit). Pretty fascinating. It got a full review here.

James Baldwin/Notes of a Native Son

His first volume of non-fiction. It came out in 1955, and reprints essays he'd written over the previous ten years or so. Fascinating. Literary criticism, what it meant to be Black in the U.S., life in Paris in the 50s. From my Classics Club list, it deserved (and got) a full review.

Anna Comnena/The Alexiad

Anna Comnena's history of her father's reign in Byzantium from 1081 to 1118. A primary source for the place and period, but also, I was a bit surprised to discover, a pretty great read.

Harvey Sachs/Schoenberg: Why He Matters

Another new release. This one's about the 20th Century composer Arnold Schoenberg. There was a review in the New York Times that made me want to read it. The review suggests it's pretty readable and so it was, no technical knowledge of music required. I'm not especially knowledgeable about serious music--my interest in this was because of Schoenberg's importance to Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus. But I did go off afterwards and listen to a bunch of Schoenberg's pieces on YouTube and actually enjoyed them.

There were others, some quite fascinating, that also got blogged about, listed here.


So what's to come for the rest of the year? I couldn't provide a picture of a stack of all those books (because who doesn't want that?) since almost all of those came from the library. But I can provide a picture of the non-fiction books likeliest to get read in the near future (and one ringer...)

Once again it's Chuck and a stack of books!

The library has provided Rebecca Solnit's Orwell's Roses, and I'm a fan of hers. One great essayist engaging with another.

Tilar Mazzeo's The Widow Clicquot. She took over the champagne house after her husband died and now it's named for her. I've been interested since I saw the movie

Will Hermes' new biography Lou Reed: The King of New York. This is the one that will have to be returned the soonest.

Robin Lane Fox' Homer and His Iliad. Lane Fox is a serious classical scholar and an emeritus professor. (At least I think he's emeritus. He's getting up there.) This volume came out earlier this year and is supposed to be for a fairly general audience. I was a classics major, I'm rusty now, but I do try to keep up a bit.

And then the ringer in the pile: Emily Wilson's new translation of The Iliad.  I loved her translation of The Odyssey that came out a few years ago, and I've been looking forward to this one. We'll call it the ringer, because I assume it's basically fiction--though Heinrich Schliemann managed to find the original location of Troy by assuming it was true. But I hope to read both the Fox and the Wilson by the week where the prompt is to pair up a non-fiction book with a fiction book.

There are a few other things from the library around here as well...Plus, well maybe, I could read a book I already own...


I'm currently in the middle of a translation of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's commentary on Hogarth's series of prints Marriage A-la-Mode. Will I blog about it? Maybe! Lichtenberg was a professor of physics at Göttingen in Germany, roughly contemporaneous with (and friends with) Goethe. Lichtenberg is better-known as an author of epigrams, like La Rouchefoucauld, and that was what I more interested in, but this was what my library could produce on short notice.

Which look good to you? Are you taking part in November Nonfiction?

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Sunday Salon



Two posts last week: a review of a Dutch mystery from 1975 by Janwillem van de Wetering--pretty good, but not amazing--and a poem by Charlotte Mew. (Approved by Thomas Hardy!)

There were some books for the #1962Club.

Upcoming: November is a blogger's busy season. I hope to participate in Nonfiction November, Novellas in November, and Margaret Atwood Reading Month. But what will I read? I dunno... I've got several non-fiction books from the library in a pile by my reading chair, and one of them is short. I should read them!

In any case, I've made a list of my year's reading in non-fiction and novellas and should post that soon.

The Classics Club spin result means I will also be reading Boccaccio's Decameron in the near future.


"When one's time is as brief as mine is, it is far better to gawk than write."
-Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, on his first visit to London

As good an excuse as I've ever heard for not writing a letter. 😉

Where I Am

'Tis the colorful season!

The city planted this Freeman Maple in our front yard maybe ten years ago. It always puts on a spectacular show. But I'm afraid most of those leaves fell in a rainstorm on Thursday morning, and were then raked up on Saturday...

I saw this on the way to the grocery store the other day:

An inflatable skeleton unicorn! With a happy pumpkin, and a rainbow mane. Not very scary, but you just know there's some happy six-year-old girl in that house. But it occurred to me the unicorn could be multi-use: Gay Pride Day, Día de los Muertos, and if the Grateful Dead ever came to town again, it would be simply perfect. But, in any case, it's just the thing to wish you a Happy Halloween!

Janwillem van de Wetering's Outsider in Amsterdam (#mystery)

"Killers are very scarce in Amsterdam so why should we suddenly run into a whole bunch of them?"

Piet Verbloom is found hanged in the Hindist Society building. Suicide? Could be, but then why was he banged on the head before he died?

This is the first Grijpstra and de Gier case; they're detectives on the Amsterdam force; the fat Henk Grijpstra is married with kids, and is the senior of the pair; Rinus de Gier is a sergeant, single and living with his cat Oliver. They're called in. They argue back and forth: is it suicide? But they both know that bump on the head means they will have to investigate. 

The Hindist Society is interested in a mishmash of Eastern religions--the book comes out in 1975--and their building houses a bar, a meditation center, a shop, and a commune. Verbloom sees himself as the chief priest. He's married, but should any other females appear on the premises, he feels authorized to pester them.

An early seventies society interested in Eastern religions? There's drugs, of course, hash at the very least. Are there more serious drugs? Maybe.

If it is a murder, the suspects are Piet's estranged wife, his pregnant lover, his accountant, a couple of drug dealers who frequented the bar, and the various people living in the commune, the bartender, a Papuan immigrant looking for cheap rooms. 

I've read one van de Wetering before, The Mind-Murders of 1981, the eighth in the series. I think I preferred this one. I started the series because I read somewhere it compared well with Edmund Crispin, one of my favorite mystery writers, and I continue to fail to see the comparison. It is a bit funny, but it has none of Crispin's inspired zaniness. I felt this one started well, and ended well, but I was less certain about the middle. It can't quite make up its mind whether it's a police procedural--other cases our detectives are involved with intrude--or a fair-play-cluing mystery. But if it was meant to be the latter, the red herrings weren't very red and I knew who the murderer was almost from the beginning, though the motive remained a bit mysterious until the end.

Read for the Vintage Mystery Challenge:

Vintage Mystery, Silver, Noose. That's our opening scene portrayed on the cover. With a very 70s shirt.

And for the European Reading Challenge:

It is pretty fascinating as a Netherlands book. Amsterdam was famous for its drug culture not so long afterwards. But as of 1975 (or presumably the novel represents the events of a little earlier) the city wasn't quite so ready for all that implied.

Van de Wetering was Dutch, though he lived in the U.S. later on for quite a while. It seems he wrote his novels first in Dutch, but then did his own translating.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Charlotte Mew (#poem)


Fin de Fête

Sweetheart, for such a day
  One mustn't grudge the score;
Here, then, it's all to pay,
  It's Good-night at the door.

Good-night and good dreams to you,--
  Do you remember the picture-book thieves
Who left two children sleeping in a wood the long night through,
  And how the birds came down covered them with leaves?

So you and I should have slept,--But now,
  Oh, what a lovely head!
With just the shadow of a waving bough
  In the moonlight over your bed.

-Charlotte Mew

Thomas Hardy was a booster of Charlotte Mew's (1869-1928) poetry, and he liked this one so well, he wrote it out in his own handwriting. It was found among his papers after his death, and later given to Charlotte Mew herself. 

A copy of it is reproduced in the anthology Recent Poetry 1923-1933, ed. Alida Monro, and published by The Poetry Bookshop.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

J. F. Powers' Morte d'Urban (#ThrowbackThursday,#1962Club)

"It had been a lucky day for the Order of St. Clement the day Mr. Billy Cosgrove entered the sacristy of a suburban church after Mass and shook the hand of Father Urban."

That's the opening line. Billy Connolly will prove to be a rich donor.

What makes a good man and a good priest? That may be the question Powers is asking here--though I'm not certain. But it's the question I was left with when I finished the novel.

If that's what the novel is asking, it's not so strongly put as something like Graham Greene's The Power And The Glory (good priest) or Dostoevsky's The Idiot (good man). Instead J. F. Powers has written a funny novel, sometimes very funny, that leaves you, the reader, to decide if you're interested in the deeper question. But you don't have to care and you can still enjoy the book. The blurbs on my edition talk a lot about the satire--crisp, bitter, and sharp, it tells me--but I think that takes a limited, though not entirely wrong, view of the book.

The novel came out in 1962 and won the National Book Award (U.S.) in the following year.

The story is this: Fr. Urban Roche is a popular preacher of the (imaginary) Clementine order. He's based in Chicago and is in demand to do revivals at various Catholic churches around the midwest. It's 1960 or thereabouts; John XXIII is pope and Senator Joe McCarthy is dead. Near the beginning of the story Father Urban is transferred from Chicago to a Clementine retreat in central Minnesota. Urban sees it as a demotion and a place where his real skills will not be used. He aspires to be the Father Provincial, the head of the local Clementine district, based in Chicago. But most of the novel takes place in small-town Minnesota.

One of the other characters calls Father Urban an 'operator' and it's true. It's the vita activa and not the vita contemplativa for Father Urban. Not that such high-falutin' terms ever appear. He pursues wealthy donors, tries to get a new church built for a crowded local parish, wangles a nine-hole golf course for the retreat so they can attract more (and a higher class of) retreatants.

He also tries--and mostly fails--to do good in smaller ways: to get Father Jack to write brochures that are more up-to-date, more relevant to parishioners, to help Katie, an Irish maid, who's lost her wages in gambling with her employer and is homesick, to moderate the vindictiveness of Billy Cosgrove, that rich man who's their major donor.

The satire comes from the hapless ineffectiveness of the church in most things, stumbling over small motives and petty politics. But isn't that always the way of the world? Maybe Father Urban is still a good man. From trying to do good and avoid evil, Father Urban has to twice (!) swim home across a cold Minnesota lake. But those two times are both successes for him, of a sort.

Father Urban had preached a great many thrilling sermons on saints who had really asked for the martyr's crown, but he believed that there were others from whose lives we might learn more that would serve us better in the daily round. What of those who remained on the scene and got on with the job? The work of the Church, after all, had to be done for the most part by the living. There was too much emphasis on dying for the faith. How about living for the faith?

Despite the title Father Urban is alive at the end of the novel, and has been elected the Father Provincial, though by then his health is so poor he's unable to be much of a force for change. Things muddle on. Father Jack is doing a Catholic children's edition of King Arthur and his knights, and the title is more an allusion to Malory's Morte D'Arthur than a plot summary. Like Malory, there's a distinct sadness at the end of the book, and you wonder just when was that moment of high glory? First there was scrabbling to get established, and then the brotherhood broke up to go questing, and then it was over. Yet the glory must have been in there somewhere.

Funny, sad, and thought-provoking.

I've posted this for Throwback Thursday and the #1962 Club. The post originally appeared on my blog on April 26th, 2018 and has been lightly edited. It's far too great a book not to be better known. 

It has been reissued by New York Review Books, so you don't have to hunt up some poor-quality paperback edition for a dollar. 😉

Three other 1962 books that made it on to my blog, all highly recommended:

Edmund Wilson/Patriotic Gore

Wilson's history about the effect of the Civil War on American literary prose.

Barbara Tuchman/The Guns of August

Tuchman's history of the opening of World War I.

Eric Ambler/The Light of Day

One of Ambler's best spy novels. The post also covers a second, considerably lesser Ambler, plus his autobiography.

Several people have mentioned how rich a year 1962 was, and have listed books and it's true. I could repeat all of those, but I won't. But I will pimp for three I've read and haven't seen mentioned and would highly recommend:

W. H. Auden/The Dyer's Hand

A collection of literary studies, quirky and brilliant. I've read it at least twice.

Edward Albee/Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

And then there's Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor version.

Thomas Kuhn/The Structure of Scientific Revolution

It was my favorite Latin teacher in college who told me I had to read this and she was right. A sociology of the way science changes. Hugely influential and you *can* actually read it!

Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting!