Sunday, December 31, 2023

European Reading Challenge Wrapup 2023


Well, I squeezed in one last book review just yesterday, but there will be no more squeezing in, and my bookish travels in Europe are done for the year. The final list:

1.) Henry James/The Wings of the Dove (Italy)
2.) Robert Gerwarth/November 1918 (Germany)
3.) Eric Ambler/The Levanter (Cyprus)
4.) Samuel Butler/The Way of All Flesh (UK)
5.) Victor Gruen/Shopping Town (Austria)
6.) Honoré de Balzac/Cousin Bette (France)
7.) Georgi Gospodinov/Time Shelter (Bulgaria)
8.) Robert Aickman/Go Back At Once (Croatia)
9.) Olga Tokarczuk/The Books of Jacob (Poland)
10.) Ivo Andrić/Omer Pasha Latas (Bosnia)
11.) Owen Matthews/Overreach (Russia)
12.) Anna Comnena/The Alexiad (Turkey)
13.) Josef Škvorecky/Sins For Father Knox (Czech Republic)
14.) Janwillem van de Wetering/Outsider in Amsterdam (Netherlands)
15.) Homer/The Iliad (tr. Emily Wilson) (Greece)
16.) Leah Horlick/Moldovan Hotel (Moldova)
17.) Herta Müller/The Fox Was Ever the Hunter (Romania)

Seventeen isn't my best ever number for this challenge, but is pretty good for me, and is in any case well over the five I pledged for. 

There are two new countries I haven't previously visited for this challenge: Cyprus and Moldova. There continue to be six I've visited every year: Italy, Germany, the UK, Austria, France, and Romania. This year's best visits were Poland and Italy, though Croatia was fun and quirky, too.

Thanks again to Gilion for hosting!

Friday, December 29, 2023

Herta Müller's The Fox Was Ever the Hunter

 "Where does it come from, he asked, this sympathy?"

Adina is a schoolteacher in the late years of Communist Romania. Her circle of friends include Paul, a musician, and Clara, who works in a factory. Paul's band gets in trouble with the secret police because some apparatchik thinks their latest song is about the dictator Ceauşescu, and so Paul, even though he's not the lyricist, ends up in trouble dragging down Adina and the others.

Then somebody, surely the Securitate, start to invade Adina's apartment and cut off the tail and then one by one the legs of a fox fur she's sentimentally attached to. She and Paul decide to flee to a more remote part of the countryside. Do they dare to flee the country? Escapees are frequently shot at the border. 

But they're saved by the bell as it were: 1989 happens, and it's of pictures of the dead Ceauşescus that the question I opened with is asked. Sympathy is hard to imagine.

This is the second novel of Herta Müller's I've read, and the setup is somewhat similar to The Land of Green Plums, which I read earlier: a group of young people in the late years of Communist Romania, potentially intellectuals, oppressed by the secret police. Cooperate? Escape? Lie low? The Land of Green Plums takes place a few years earlier than this and there's no rescue in sight.

I thought this was good, but I was more impressed by The Land of Green Plums (1994 in German) I felt the characters were better differentiated in that novel, which made the choices feel more poignant. This is a shorter book, only 220 pages, with fairly large margins, practically a novella in length. The opening started with quite a lot of folkloric elements: gypsies who are afraid of hares, the tooth fairy, who's a mouse in Romania, it seems:

"Mouse O mouse bring me a brand new tooth
and you can have my old one."
This felt a little odd at first, like it was more anthropological documentation than dramatically necessary, though in the end I did feel it helped set up the fairly folkloric bit about attacking Adina's fox fur. The novel got better as it went on. Still. The wisdom of the Internet suggests that The Land of Green Plums, The Appointment, and The Hunger Angel are her best works. I'll probably try one of the two of those I haven't read next, but I will try them. She's good.

Müller was born in 1953 to the German-speaking minority in Romania, got out of the country in 1987 and settled in Germany where she still lives. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009.

I was (grimly) amused by this joke one of the characters tells in the novel: a Romanian who's led a bad life is whisked off to Hell after his death where he's buried up to his neck in boiling mud. Once he's settled in, he looks around and sees Nicolae Ceauşescu in the boiling mud, but only up to his shins. Our anonymous Romanian complains to the demon in charge of the boiling mud department, What's up with that? The demon replies, What can you do? He's standing on the shoulders of his wife.

This came out in German in 1992, was translated into English by Philip Boehm in 2016, and is my visit to Romania for 2023.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Boccaccio's The Decameron (Classics Club Spin)

"...if what young people do in the name of love should be called a sin..." [435]
...then this is is not the book for you.

Giovanni Boccaccio started writing his The Decameron some time shortly after the Black Death of 1348, and finished it in 1352. Ten young people (Fiammetta, Lauretta, Panfilo, etc.)
are left rootless by the plague and decide to leave Florence and live in the countryside to escape. There they spend their time in dancing, singing, eating well, and most importantly telling stories, quite often about what young people do in the name of love. These ten (seven girls and three boys) each tell a story a day for ten days (over a period of two weeks) making a hundred stories.  Dioneo claims the privilege of telling the last story on each day, and his are pretty reliably the extra-bawdy ones.

Eight of the ten days have a theme assigned--magnanimity, trickery, or tragedy, for example. Most of my favorite stories came on the day where the theme was love, dogged by troubles, comes a happy end, (Day 5) but maybe that was just the mood I was in.  '...where he lived with her in peace and prosperity for a great many years to come.' [429] There were a bunch of stories that day ending like that and I liked 'em. 😉
"Now, since the reason we are here is to enjoy ourselves and have some fun,..." [715]
Lauretta, as imagined by Jules Lefebvre
Boccaccio gathered his stories from earlier collections in Latin or other languages; though influenced by Dante's Divine Comedy, he also tells stories of real people. Maybe he's telling those for the first time? Though it's also possible he's slotting historical people into traditional stories. Generally characters are new in each story, though some reappear. Calandrino, a not very bright painter, who is a historical figure, appears in several stories, together with his (?) friends Bruno and Buffalmacco, always suckering poor Calandrino into some gaffe. You can go see the paintings of all three even today (albeit in lesser-known Italian churches).

Did I mention the sex? One of the most famous stories is where a priest teaches a naive young woman how he's going to put the devil in hell. Do I need to explain? Probably not and anyway, I'm not going to. 

Boccaccio is mostly OK with religion, but he's pretty anti-clerical:
"a friar who was, without doubt, some gluttonous soup-swilling pie muncher" [259]
A bit ahead of the curve, but I kept thinking he'd made a fine Protestant. 

The stories went on to be reused by others. Chaucer is clearly swiping from Boccaccio in several places. I hadn't realized (and anyway it may not be true) but some consider that Chaucer met Boccaccio (and Petrarch) on one of Chaucer's trips to Italy on royal diplomatic business. Two of Shakespeare's plays have a story from the Decameron as a clear antecedent, though the the line of influence may not be direct, even in the form of translation. (Shakespeare had little Latin, less Greek, and even less Italian.) But the ninth story of Day 2 is the Cymbeline, and the ninth story of Day 3 is All's Well That Ends Well. Another of Boccaccio's stories suggested to me The Winter's Tale, though neither the notes in this volume, nor the Internets in general seemed to see what I saw. 

After I finished it I reread Poe's Masque of the Red Death, whose connection to the  Decameron in the end is pretty slight, I thought, but also Keats' long poem 'Isabella, or the Pot of Basil', which was based on a fairly Gothic story from that day of tragedies. I don't think it was Keats at his finest, and it was the day of tragic stories, my least favorite day, but another example of Boccaccio's influence.

Anyway, a substantial tome...
"Nothing will seem long to those who read in order to pass the time." [858] my Classics Club list that I've been hemming and hawing over for a while. I'd started it once years ago in the Penguin translation before I even started blogging, but didn't finish it; for this reading I used the Wayne Rebhorn translation in a Norton paperback (shown above) that first came out in 2013. (The page numbers are to that version.) It won some awards and is pretty readable, I thought, though the Other Reader (who read it before I did) was put off by the use of Amurrican to represent what must have been a regional dialect in Italian. Well, translating dialect is always tricky.

However, the Decameron is a work that can usefully have notes, and the notes didn't strike me as very good in this, which was too bad. Oh, well. I did finish this version, even if I started skipping the notes after a while, which is more than I can say of the Penguin.

It was my Classics Club spin book, and I finished it a while ago (though not quite on time) but there have been things to do, movies to see, parties to attend or host, cookies to bake, etc., so it's only gotten its blog post now... 😉

Monday, December 25, 2023

Happy Holidays!

 Have a cookie!

Happy Holidays to all! Thanks for reading.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Leah Horlick (#poem)



At first, like a head cold--then, three glasses of wine--no five.
Hour twelve, a low-grade fever. Hour fourteen, your whole body is
on fire --

each joint snaps open, heat coiled inside your knees. A reaction to
the measles booster, days before the trip. Fades like a hangover,
then rears

its host of heads again. We chose not
to go to Chișinău -- We have no business

being here anymore. Reroute to Iași. It's the heat,
driving stick, a last hiss,

writing to the chief rabbi

I'm sorry we're not going to make it--
the GPS, the roads, Russian, the car

which really means
I'm sorry we are afraid

-Leah Horlick

I've never had a measles booster, but I had the shingles one not too long ago.  That's about how it was.

Leah Horlick's book Moldovan Hotel came out from Brick Books, a small Canadian press, in 2021. It's her third book of poetry. (I haven't read either of the earlier ones.) She'd gotten a fellowship to go to Romania and Moldova in 2017 to attempt to come to terms with the tragic history of her Jewish family in the region.

Ritual Instructions for Transnistria

Avoid all travel to Transnistria in northeast Moldova.
-travel advisory from the Government of Canada, December 2017

In your right hand, take the ten-hour tourist visa. Form a window with
your left, frame the last functioning hammer and sickle flag. Walk six
times around the last twenty thousand

tonnes of Soviet ammunition. A tanker spills cigarettes out of its side
like a whale and so we say May the memory of this whale be a blessing.
Wash your hands before you dunk your head

beneath the x-ray at the checkpoint, the x-ray that pretends not to notice 
you. Rabbi, is there

a blessing for the border?

A blessing for the border--

May God bless and keep the borders, seen and unseen, far away from us.

-Leah Horlick

Transnistria is that breakaway region in Moldova (across the Dniester River) that's propped up by Russia. 

She says in an afterword she lifted that final line from Fiddler on the Roof, but I knew that. 😉("Is there a proper blessing for the Tsar?" "May God bless and keep the Tsar...far away from us.")

The title poem is probably the best, but too long to quote. Interesting stuff.

Friday, December 8, 2023

Patricia Wentworth's Who Pays the Piper? (Mystery, DeanStreetDecember)

"I always get what I want," said Lucas Dale.

That's the opening line of Who Pays the Piper? and it's Lucas Dale who ends up dead. He didn't get what he wanted that time! (And ever is such hubris rewarded?)

Lucas Dale is a Brit who went to the U.S. and made a pile of money, in likely dodgy ways, and returned to England. He's just bought King's Bourne, an old country manor from the nearly bankrupt estate of James Bourne. Bourne is survived by one of his twin sisters, Millicent O'Hara, Mrs. O'Hara's daughter Catherine and Catherine's cousin Susan Lenox. 

Dale falls in love with Susan Lenox--she's one of the things he wants--but she's already in love with Bill Carrick, the son of the local doctor, who's still got his way to make (as an architect).

Dale also comes with a private secretary, an ex-wife who's on the stage, and an American business partner with a grievance. Plenty of suspects, especially after Dale starts using strong-arm tactics to get Susan to marry him.

Some pearls appear to be stolen, then reappear where they're not supposed to be, and then Lucas Dale is found dead, shot in the back of his head. Scotland Yard is called in, in the person of Chief Inspector Lamb, who brings along his dashing sergeant, Frank Abbott.

Now if you know anything about Patricia Wentworth, you'll know the evidence will look bad for Susan and Bill at first, but that it won't be either of them who committed the murder. And it's not.

This is the second (1940) of the Ernest Lamb series, and he's fine form here, curmudgeonly, sexist, and tender:
"He had three daughters of his own, and was sometimes put to it to conceal a most obstinate softness of heart where girls were concerned."
but at the same time quite observant. Later, after Lamb and Abbott are absorbed into Wentworth's most famous detective series, that of Miss Silver, his curmudgeonly is played up, and his observational skills are less used, and he's mostly that useful thing for a PI, a friend on the force, but in this one he and Abbott are on top of all the needed clues. A completely enjoyable entry, though the witness who has the one crucial clue keeps silent until the very end for reasons that seem a little improbable. (Other than the needs of a mystery novel...)

The first Ernest Lamb novel on the blog is here. I've also got the third and final one, Pursuit of a Parcel, as an eBook, and hope to read it this month. 

It's Dean Street December, and Liz is hosting an event.

Also, though I'm already a bit over the top on this challenge, it also fits My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt:

Vintage Mystery, Gold, Hat. Those are some stylish hats, even if I'm not quite sure who the people under them are. Bill and Susan, I guess, though Susan is supposed to be blonde.

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.