Friday, July 12, 2024

James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (#ParisInJuly, #ClassicsClub)

"For shame! For shame! That I should be so abruptly, so hideously entangled with a boy."

David is an American expatriate, living in the south of France as the novel starts. "I may be drunk by morning but that will not do any good. I shall take the train to Paris anyway." Why? That next morning Giovanni will die by the guillotine. (The 'knife', as David thinks of it.)

The story is told as flashbacks. That affair with Joey back in the U.S. Cadging money from Jacques, an older homosexual, who indulges him. David denies he's gay, but still hangs around the gay bars in Paris, and Jacques' attitude is a knowing, well, we'll see.

There's Hella, to whom David proposes, but who goes off travelling in Spain for months to decide what she thinks. By the time she decides yes, David is 'entangled 'with Giovanni, both living in Giovanni's tiny room.

Guilliaume, the last of an aristocratic family, runs the gay bar where Giovanni is a bartender, and is where David and Giovanni meet. Guillaume has unrealized designs on his attractive bartender, but in the meanwhile, a good-looking bartender is good for business.

David hooks up with Sue, out of despair, more than love, more even than interest.

It's a pretty great novel.

"'Love him', said Jacques, with vehemence, 'love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?'"

But David can't just let himself do that. And Jacques hadn't been able to take his own advice earlier, when he had the chance. Now Jacques 'loans' money to attractive young men. In hopes of something.

The novel comes out in 1956, and represents that time in Paris and the U.S. David has absorbed existing homophobia and applied it to himself, but it's also true that even if hadn't, even if he was perfectly OK with his own attraction to boys, it would be impossible to live the ordinary life he'd like--home, yard, kids--and be with the sort of person he loves.

And the publishing history of the book a bit tells the same story. It was Baldwin's second novel. His first, Go Tell It On The Mountain, had been a success as had his other literary efforts, a play, essays. But Knopf, his publisher, refuses to publish this one. It's for your own good, they say. And while David is white, and from an upper middle-class background, so clearly not Baldwin himself, it is also clear that Baldwin is quite believably familiar with the homosexual milieu in Paris in the 50s. It came out with Dial instead, at that time a bit edgier a press.

I read the novel in 2020 for the 1956 Club, but didn't manage to blog about it then. I'd put it on my Classics Club list as well. It's one you likely enough know, and I'm not sure I'm adding much here, other than to say that while it's tragic, it is also a masterpiece. 

And, well, it's now Paris in July hosted by Emma at Words and Peace:

I hope to get another book read for Paris in July, something a bit less well-known.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Josef Škvorecky's The End of Lieutenant Boruvka (#mystery, #europe)

"In the few works of fiction written so far by Czech authors about the events of the year 1968 and their consequences, the heroes have inevitably been intellectuals. In this collection of crime stories, however, I have tried to look at some of the causes and results of that bust-up of Marxism through the eyes of a simple man."

The End of Lieutenant Boruvka is the third of Škvorecky's four books about Boruvka, the Prague homicide detective. It came out in 1975 in Czech, and was translated into English by Paul Wilson in 1989. That quote is from Škvorecky's introduction.

The book contains five stories set in the years 1967-1969. Lieutenant Boruvka is melancholic as a rule, and never more sad than when he solves a case. The earlier books were nevertheless pretty funny. This one, set around the years of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, is not without humour, but distinctly darker.

In the first story, 'Miss Peskova Regrets', a club dancer, who may occasionally engage in a little light prostitution, is found dead in her apartment, asphyxiated when the gas on her stove is no longer lit. Accident? Suicide? Of course not.

'Strange Archaeology': Years before Boruvka was a homicide lieutenant, he was a lowly investigator in the Missing Persons department. His first case was the disappearance of Kvetuse Rerichova. Rerichova had taken all her money out of her account, packed up all her clothing, and told her mother she was going away for the weekend. She never came back.

Rerechova's father and brother had escaped to New York earlier, and Boruvka wraps the case up as a successful escape to the West. His work is so clean he's promoted for it. Then years later a body's found while excavating for new construction. Rerechova? Yes.

In 'Ornaments in the Grass' two sixteen-year-old girls are found gunned down in a meadow by a sub-machine gun. Various military units had been engaged in maneuvers in the area and the girls had been flirting with the soldiers. Surely one of them had to do it, right?

The invasion (August 20-21 of 1968) occurs between the third and fourth stories. There's personnel changes in the office. Major Kautsky, Boruvka's boss's boss, who serves the usual function in such stories of obstruction and illogical requests, turns out to be a hero in the aftermath, and is now in jail himself. Boruvka is saddled with a new sergeant, Pudil, a zealous communist and an anti-semite.

In the fourth story 'Humbug', a delivery driver Krasa for a candy company is banged over the head with a wrench. It turns out Krasa's last name had once been Schoenfeld and he'd served time for thinking about fleeing the country. Pudil is happy to label the victim as a bourgeois Jew and not look very deep.

The final story is 'Pirates'. A spy for the secret police is living in an apartment and clearly spying on one of his neighbours. Then he's murdered. Which of the neighbours was he actually spying on and which one did it?

In the first four cases, Boruvka has pretty clearly determined the murderer, but is not allowed to bring the case to a conclusion for political reasons. In the fifth, he takes matters into his own hands. (Consider the title. Though I will note there is yet another book, which I haven't read.)

Many of the recurring characters reappear. Sergeant Malek, Boruvka's impulsive but wrongheaded underling, performs the same role here, though in the last two stories he's outclassed in his wrongheadedness by Pudil. Eve Adams, the lounge singer, who pretty much served as the protagonist/detective in the previous one, also appears here. And Lieutenant Boruvka's wife and daughter also reappear. There's a plotline through all five stories about Zuzanna, the daughter. It turns out she's pregnant, by somebody she's not married to and won't be getting married to. 

The title of the first story is an allusion to the Cole Porter song 'Miss Otis Regrets' and at the beginning Zuzanna is listening to the song. Lieutenant Boruvka doesn't yet understand what's up with his daughter, but when he hears the song, he gets worried.

We're not told which version Zuzanna is listening to, and I suppose Ella Fitzgerald is more likely, but I figure you can't go wrong with Fred Astaire, even if, by 1960, his voice (and his dancing) were no longer what they'd once been:

I may very well now think this is the best of three I've read, though I reserve the right to change my mind back to the first one. 😉 All three are a lot of fun.

Covering the Czech Republic for this year's European Reading Challenge.

Monday, July 1, 2024

June Wrapup

All of my reading in June in one swell foop...

The Mystery Department

Harini Nagendra/Murder Under a Red Moon

Kaveri Murthy's second case. Set in Bangalore, India in the 1920s, I liked the first last summer. Kaveri enjoyed her successful detectivizing in that case; she was a bored housewife, but now she's going to have an agency. Her husband's OK with it, her mother-in-law less sure. But she's got a friend on the police force, some Bangalore Street Irregulars, and friends and acquaintances know she's good at it. This starts as embezzlement, but ends in murder. Perhaps not too mysterious, but charming and enjoyable. 

The third and most recent is on order at my library. 

Craig Johnson/The Cold Dish

A couple of years ago four boys gang-raped an indigenous girl; they were convicted, but their sentences were shockingly light. Then the leader of the boys is shot dead. Wyoming Sheriff Longmire takes into account it could be just a hunting accident, but suspects somebody's out for revenge. When a second boy is shot, he knows.

I know Lark likes the series and somewhere else I saw it compared to Tony Hillerman's, strong recommendations, so I tried it. This is the first. The interactions between the characters were fun, and while I was worried the plot would be a little too grisly for my taste, it was OK on that front. However, it was 400 pages and I did keep feeling it could be a hundred pages shorter and better for it. (Dame Agatha can do it in 250, if not 200.) Still I enjoyed this one & I'll carry on.

The Poetry Department

Matthew Arnold/Selected Poems

I didn't know Matthew Arnold's poetry very well--really only 'Dover Beach', I guess--and I thought maybe I didn't like it very well. But after rereading a bunch of Anthony Hecht last month (and his response to 'Dover Beach') I thought I'd try some Arnold. He's better than I thought... 😉 Except that his poems are mostly too long, I might even put some on a poetry post. Anyway, I'll be reading him more closely.

Richard Howard/Inner Voices

Him, I knew I liked. Inner Voices is a selection of his poetry from 1963-2003, so covering most of his career, but not all: he died in 2022. Howard was gay; in era when confessional poetry was king, his early poetry was pleasantly out-of-step, voicing Edith Wharton or John Ruskin. His book Untitled Subjects won the Pulitzer for poetry in 1969; it's a series of monologues by Victorian-era commoners, funny and touching.

By the late 70s though he's mined that vein and I felt there was a falling off. Then come the 80s and it's become both possible, but also maybe required, to acknowledge one's homosexuality. There are AIDS poems; it was a tough period. But it added a new weight to his poetry, without taking away his humour.

Two books by Ana Blandiana

Ana Blandiana (a pseudonym) is a Romanian poet born in 1942. She won this year's Princess of Asturia Prize in Literature. I quoted from a couple of her books with some more thoughts here.

Big Ole Literary Novels

Thackeray/Henry Esmond

Henry Esmond is born abroad under dodgy circumstances to parents who may be dead. He's shuffled home to be raised a bit neglectfully by an aunt and uncle and falls in love with their daughter, his flirty first cousin. Eventually he goes off to fight in the wars of his time.

Henry's home country is England. The war of his time is the War of Spanish Succession. (Marlborough, Malplaquet, all that. 1701-1714.) Also going on is the question of English succession. Will it be the Catholic Stuarts or some other Protestant dynasty that inherits the English throne? Henry is involved in both struggles.

Virginia Woolf says in A Room of One's Own, that 'the critics often say that Esmond is Thackeray's most perfect novel.' I doubt the critics would say that now, and Woolf had her doubts--this is when she tries to get into a specialist library and is turned away because she's a woman. Still the Thackeray is a pretty good read, even if the flirty Beatrix Esmond is a bit Becky Sharp (of Vanity Fair) in less vibrant colours.

I read it now because last month I finished Ippolito Nievo's Confessions of an Italian. Change Henry Esmond to Carlo Altoviti in the first paragraph and you've got the plot of Confessions. Carlo's cousin is called Pisana, and his wars are Napoleon in Italy and then the early wars of the Risorgimento. (Garibaldi, the defense of the Roman Republic. 1793-1848 or so.) Henry Esmond came out in 1852, just a couple of years before Nievo was writing, and he thought, now there's a plot I can plunder. (Nievo also stole manfully from Ugo Foscolo's Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, mostly for his thinking about the nature of Italian patriotism.) It also was a pretty good read, even if it was twice the length of the already longish Henry Esmond. La Pisana was a more psychologically believable flirt than Beatrix Esmond, I thought. The final twist is our young soldier-hero's obsessive romance was maybe less weird in Nievo. (Though pretty weird in both.) 

I did have to keep Wikipedia open for both novels for explanations of historical background. The first full translation into English of the Nievo, by Lucy Riall, came out in 2014.

And how about that dapper Italian on the cover? He's neither Nievo, nor supposed to be Carlo Altoviti. But who cares?

Jean d'Ormesson/The Glory of the Empire

This was a delightfully odd one. D'Ormesson's novel came out in 1971. It was his sixth, and the earlier ones apparently hadn't done much. This won prizes and got d'Ormesson elected to the Academie Française in short order. It was translated into English in 1974--superbly--by Barbara Bray. I read it in a New York Review Books reissue.

The Empire grows from two feuding cities who finally unite and conquer the known world. There are three famous emperors--Arsaphes, Basil, Alexis--though with periods of chaos between them; the third creates a golden age of culture and eventually peace that will not last. So far it could be any of various world-building fantasy novels, and, in fact, Tolkien gets a nod--we're told at one point he's the author of a history of a minor war on the Empire's eastern edge.

And that's a small example. The founding cities code as Sparta and Athens (one militaristic, one cultural) but are set geographically (if they're anywhere) on the west coast of Turkey. The Empire exists in our world and it impacts our world's poets, novelists, historians, and that's where d'Ormesson really goes to town. Corneille's last play, a failure, was the story of Arsaphes and his love; d'Ormesson quotes (creates) lines from the play, writing them in the alexandrines of the 1600s. (Bray amusingly translates them into heroic couplets, purportedly by Dryden, and does it well.) When Bergotte dies in Proust, it's not that Vermeer:


he's remembering; it's a Piero della Francesca painting of Alexis and his mother. D'Ormesson 'quotes' the passage in Proust. (I.e., makes it up.) Historians from Burckhardt to Bloch discuss episodes in the Empire. Sexual theorists from Freud to Foucault consider the consequences. Edmund Gibbon's The Rise of the Empire features in the bibliography. Renan doesn't write a Vie de Jesus, but a Vie de Alexis. No word on whether that book, too, is sometimes considered a precursor to Nazi thought. We're told Alexis is the only pagan who has ever been decreed a saint; we're given--in Italian!--the lines from Dante's Paradiso where he appears. The last source mentioned in that bibliography is Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, but the only Hadrian in The Glory of the Empire is Pope Hadrian VIIth. Is that then an allusion to the Baron Corvo novel? Maybe!

One long collection of egghead-y easter eggs mixed in with a couple of doomed love affairs and some battle scenes might just drive you nuts, and I certainly didn't read this in one sitting. As you might guess, Borges is a clear precursor (and shows up several times). But if you're the sort of person who thought the only thing wrong with 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' was that it wasn't long enough, you'll love this.

A few sensible-sounding (?) quotes:

'History is never about anything but the folly of men.' [p.152]

'People are not interested in the past any more. And yet it was the past that made us.' [p.200]

'History fabricates its own sources.' [Supposedly this is Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Maybe it even is.] [p.257]

'...novelists given to the lamentable genre of historical fiction bear a heavy responsibility...' [p.273]

Obviously all deeply ironic coming from such a book.

When Marguerite Yourcenar became the first woman elected to the French Academy in 1980, there was considerable opposition. Jean d'Ormesson was her primary advocate.


When I get cookbooks or food-related books from the library I often just skim them. These two got read cover to cover.

Hazebroek & Elenbaas/Hot Coals

I got a fancy kamado-style grill for my birthday a while back, which I am still learning how to use. (My old Weber kettle was rusting away...) This was heavy on history, theory, and practice, which is great as far as I'm concerned and why it got read cover-to-cover, unlike the other two kamado cookbooks, which are being browsed.

Dolinsky/The Ultimate Chicago Pizza Guide

A mix of recipes and descriptions of Chicago pizza places as of the end of the pandemic. The list of pizza places was a trip down memory lane; the recipes made me want to mix up my pizza-making game. (I do both flat and deep dish pretty often.)

He can be a bit repetitive, but he's got a punchy way with metaphors that suggests he was reading sportswriters from the 30s: 'a nice even browning, like a retiree in Boca'  or 'the top layer is as thin as the Trib's business section' that keeps one reading.

He introduces the concept PIGUE (pizza I grew up eating), suggesting that people in general become uncritical about their childhood favourite. He says a lot of people feel this way about Barnaby's in the northern suburbs of Chicago--a pizza I'd totally forgotten about until reading this book. (And apparently I ate at a satellite branch, not the mother ship.)  But my PIGUE is My Pi pizza, a deep dish pizza, but not especially deep. And I am certainly unable to think about it critically. I had thought the last of its two branches had closed in the late 80s, but it turns the son of the former owner has refounded it, and Dolinsky thinks it's good. That next trip to Chicago...

And speaking of Chicago:

David Mamet in Chicago

I read/reread three plays by David Mamet set in Chicago. Sexual Perversity in Chicago has two guys and two girls. One guy and one girl are cynical about love; the cynical guy, Bernie, in particular is an obnoxious fabulist. The non-cynical pair fall in love--for a while. The play premiered in Chicago in 1974. I'm not sure about this play: on the page at least the love story didn't feel very convincing. It was the basis for the movie About Last Night, which I haven't seen but now want to. I expect it to be watered down, though.

Then I read Duck Variations. Fourteen short scenes where two old guys meet on a park bench and talk about ducks. No plot, but it was great. Mamet says in the stage notes it could be any park bench looking out at a lake, but no, it's Chicago: they discuss the pump houses at one point. Toronto doesn't have pump houses out in the lake where they get water, and I imagine most other lakeside cities just have hoses under the lake that you can't see. First there was Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, then there was Fourteen Ways of Talking about Ducks. Take that, Wallace Stevens.

Then I finished by rereading American Buffalo, my favorite of Mamet's plays that I know. (I've seen Glengarry Glen Ross twice--the movie once and on stage once. Maybe it could be done differently, but there was too much scenery-chewing in both. Death of a Fuckin' Salesman, indeed. That's often considered his best, but not for me.) In this a junk shop owner has a buffalo head nickel and sells it to a collector. But maybe he sold it for too little? He decides he's going to steal it back. How that goes. This takes place on the north side of Chicago--somehow I think of it as in my neighborhood, though it's probably south of where I grew up. We're told the collector lives on Lake Shore Drive--which would make him rich. A pretty great play, I think.

The books still around the house:

I've been reading plenty, but not blogging much. Oh, well. My blogging mojo has gone missing. (Department of Missing Mojo? Hello? Have you seen...) Maybe this omnibus post will get me over the hump.

Next month? It's Paris in July. Maybe when I reread Giovanni's Room this time, I'll actually blog about it? We'll see. I'm also thinking more Chicago books, particularly covering the late 70s and early 80s. Sara Paretsky, Michelle Obama, maybe something I haven't read before, though I'm not sure what just now. [Suggestions welcome!] What are your plans?

Happy Canada Day! To Canadians and those thinking about moving to Canada depending on election outcomes in your jurisdiction. The fireworks are starting as I'm finishing this.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Ana Blandiana (#poetry)

Dies Illa, Dies Irae

It will come,
It has to come,
That day
Postponed for ages
Will arrive,
It's going to come,
It's getting closer,
You can hear
Its beating pulse
On the horizon,
It will come,
It's in the air,
It can't be put off any longer,
Have no doubt, it will come,
That day,
Like a shining sword,
In the blinding light.

-Ana Blandiana
Ana Blandiana (b. 1942) is a Romanian poet. It was recently announced (a month or so ago) that she won this year's Princess of Asturias Literature Award for her lifetime's work. I'd never heard of her before (I think) but I find the Princess/Prince of Asturias Award to be a good selector. In addition to various people who went on to the Nobel Prize but won this first (Mario Vargas Llosa, Doris Lessing, others) they also selected a couple of writers I liked, but didn't win the Nobel, and wouldn't have minded seeing win, such as Álvaro Mutis, Susan Sontag, and Claudio Magris. So, with a list like that, I thought I'd better check her out... 😉 and my library came through.

'Dies Illa, Dies Irae' is, of course, the title of the poem/song/chant on the day of the Last Judgment. ('That day, the day of wrath' is what the Latin says.) This poem was printed on the front page of the newspaper the day after the fall of the Communist government in Romania in 1989 and then collected in her book of 1990, The Architecture of Waves. 
A couple of more examples. Several of her poems from before the fall of Communism use sleep as a metaphor for the state of the Romanian people:

Full Moon

Come, moon, and wake us from our sleep,
Cast your nets into our waters
And bring us out,
Pour us
Into the insomnia of air!
We may not survive,
Our lungs have turned to gills from so much sleep,
In spite of the risk, wake us
And leave us, alone and free, at sea:
So we can slowly move,
With infinite care,
Forward across the waters,
A shifting architecture of waves,
A horizon stretched like a rope
Between two hells,
Staring into your lunatic eye, crazed with hope.

-Ana Blandiana

A number of her poems seem to use ballad meter:

Gara de Nord

Dirty platform, carefully guarded
After papers exploding in the air,
Two fists handcuffed at a back, and
Lots of uniforms, may this rare

Image be the stop-frame emblem
Of hope beneath a colourless sun! To see
Through the spectacles of handcuffs
The future of the verb to be.

-Ana Blandiana

Both those poems were also collected in The Architecture of Waves (1990). Here's one from her book of 2016, Clock Without Hours:

That Year

Small things started to grow that year
And they didn't stop. Nature's laws transcended.
Flourishing growth, perverse, was everywhere.
Birds looked like bulls and their flying ended.

Purslane, nettles, grasshoppers, mites,
Sorrel and burdock, mandrake and sedge
Grew and grew to an amazing height,
Delirious waves beneath the outsized thistles' heads.

Elephants with giant spiders entwined,
Eagles, quite sad, from claws of sparrows hung,
Lions in the desert trembled and whined,
Discordant hymns from puffed-up crickets rang.

Worms in a year to snakes had grown.
A blade of grass became a club;
A speck of dust, a boulder stone.

-Ana Blandiana

I assume that year is 1989 and that's her sense of the outcome, but I'm sure the poem can be read in more than one way. Five Books is (as you might guess...) a collection of five of Ana Blandiana's books from across her career, and was issued by Bloodaxe Books (in the U.K.) in 2021, translated by Paul Scott Derrick & Viorica Patea. All the poems I've quoted come from that volume. The Sun of Hereafter and Ebb of the Senses are two of her books, in one volume, also from Bloodaxe with the same translators; that volume came out in English in 2017. 

I've stuck with political poems just for a theme, but there are also quite a lot of love poems, some happy, some sad: she married Romulus Rusan, also a writer; he died in 2016, at the age of 81. Poems from the later books also frequently deal with mortality, whether her own or that of her husband's.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Serhiy Zhadan's The Orphanage (Ukraine)

"People aren't meant to keep so much fear and anger in their memories."

Pasha teaches at a school in the east of Ukraine. It's 2017 and the war in Ukraine is already in full swing in the east by then. But Pasha prefers to pay no attention to politics, speaks both Ukrainian and Russian, doesn't have a side, doesn't watch the news. 

Pasha's nephew is living in a nearby orphanage. The nephew's mother travels for her job, the kid's father's long gone, and with that background and the current situation, the kid was kind of a handful. Against the will of Pasha and the kid's grandfather, the mother had dropped him off at this orphanage. But now it's spring break, and Pasha's father browbeats Pasha into going and picking up his grandchild, Pasha's nephew.

But Pasha also doesn't watch the news. The orphanage is out in the countryside, in theory a short tram ride away. But overnight there'd been a shift in the front line Pasha hadn't heard about. He feels it, though, the moment he gets outside.

There are no trains and there are new checkpoints. Who's manning them? There are Russian-speakers with some Ukrainian; there's Ukrainian-speakers with some Russian; and then there are actual Russians, though in 2017 they're still pretending they aren't Russian, but Pasha hears Russian accents that aren't local.

The novel is structured as a three-day there and back journey. Through Hell? It occurred to me, even if the only soul who gets harrowed is one cantankerous but basically OK nephew. It is quite the hellscape he travels through.

But it's also a journey of discovery for Pasha. There's no my guys, your guys for Pasha at the beginning. (And wouldn't that be nice?) He's had a defective hand from childhood and couldn't be a soldier anyway. (Though somebody tells him at one point they've seen soldiers with worse.) But Pasha's a teacher of Ukrainian, and in the east that's already a political statement. And what he sees gradually changes him. When he gets to the orphanage at the end of the first day, there's only two adults left, the director and the gym teacher. Pasha and the gym teacher bond over their apoliticalness, but then Nina, the director, tells them both off.

Pasha sees worse in the two days it takes him to get back from the orphanage to his flat and his father, but he does make it with his thirteen-year-old nephew in tow. Pasha, who'd been passive as well as apolitical, starts to lead. He's also starting to decide.

The novel came out in 2017 in Ukrainian and was translated (ably, I think) into English in 2021 by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. From the Ukrainian, it says, but I suspect there's quite a lot of subtlety where speakers shift between Russian and Ukrainian that the translators were obliged convey differently. 

A powerful portrait of a grim time and place, but one that ends with family and country and a glimmer (?) of hope. But things have only gotten worse in the Ukraine since then.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Christ Stopped At Eboli (European Reading Challenge: Italy)

 "'We're not Christians," they say. "Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.'"

'They' are the peasants of Gagliano, superstitious and pagan and so not entirely Christian.

 In 1935, Carlo Levi was banished to a small hilltop town, Gagliano, in Basilicata, the deep south of Italy. Levi had been a member of the anti-Fascist organization Giustizia e Libertá [Justice and Liberty] and an opponent of the war against Ethiopia. Before Gagliano, he'd served a spell in solitary confinement and then an earlier period of internal exile in Grassano. The book begins as he's being transferred from Grassano to Gagliano.

Levi was born to a culturally Jewish and well-to-do family in Turin, in the north of Italy. He'd studied for a medical degree and his older sister Luisa became a famous neuropsychologist. But Levi himself, though he had qualified as a doctor, quit practising, and began to paint. He spent time in Paris in the 20s (he's born in 1902) painting, but on his return to Italy, had been caught up in the politics of the era.

The book is a pretty fascinating look at what the life of an isolated peasant culture was in the south of Italy in the 30s. Levi suggests--and it seems so--it hadn't changed all that much in centuries. Levi spends about a year there, grows to like the peasants he meets but remains unromantic about them. There's an amnesty after Italy wins its war against Ethiopia, and Levi is freed. He vows to come back to the south of Italy when he can, but doesn't, at least until his body is buried in Gagliano. The book came out in Italian in 1945, and made a stir among Italians who didn't have any clue about what was going on in the rural peasant south. Highly recommended.

I had a few more insightful things I meant to say, but, oh well, it's been three weeks since I finished it. I read it now because we were going to the south of Italy and I thought, it's time! But we didn't get to Gagliano, nor even to Eboli. (We stopped well short.) The farthest south we got was Paestum:

Temple to Hera (probably; it used to be thought Poseidon's)

Also south of Naples is the Amalfi coast. We walked to Ravello (a hill town hangout for Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence and Richard Wagner) from Minori, a town on the coast. My phone registered 74 flights of stairs that day. Three-quarters of the Empire State Building!

The view from the Villa Rufalo in Ravello. The brochure said everybody takes this photo & I did, too.

I first read Virgil at a formative age. I wanted to see Phlegraean Fields, the purported entrance to Hades and Hephaestus' workshop, near Naples.

Lunch by Roman ruins in Pozzuoli, our first supposed temple of Serape, but really just a market.

We arrived at and then flew out of Rome. There are always things to see there, of course, and we didn't see them all. One of them was Hadrian's Villa, about 30 km east of Rome:

The building on the island was Hadrian's mancave.

Our second so-called temple of Serape

When you're king of the world and you've just come back with a boatload of plunder from Romania, you get to build this sort of thing. This so-called temple also wasn't, but apparently was just meant for (very) fancy picnics. We'd intended to see the villa on our visit ten years ago, but then ended up spending the entire day at the nearby (and also very cool) Villa d'Este. But now having read The Memoirs of Hadrian, I wanted to see it.

I probably ought to have read Christ Stopped at Eboli in Italian, but didn't. But look what my library was able to deliver:

It's nice to travel, but it's also good to be back!

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Virginia Woolf's The Waves (#ClassicsClub)

"...said Bernard...said Susan...said Rhoda...said Neville...said Jinny...said Louis..."

This is the story of six friends from an age where a first kiss is possible, but still a little shocking, on to maturity and death. They're upper middle class, articulate, privileged, a sort of Bloomsbury set in miniature. (The Wikipedia article suggests who each of the six characters is based on, but I didn't find that very helpful, or even necessarily convincing.) 

They're given backstories: Louis is scholarly, but insecure, because his father is 'a banker in Brisbane' and he doesn't have the right accent. Bernard tells stories. It's Jinny who delivers that first kiss. Susan goes to live in the country. Neville is obsessed with Percival, a not very explicit, but pretty clearly sexual, obsession. Rhoda is insecure--well, they're all insecure in one way or another.

The story takes place at interludes over the course of their lives. At first the boys and girls are relatively equal; that changes with schooling; the boys go to some Eton-like school and the girls go to some much less demanding institution. Then there's university for the boys, but not the girls. Then jobs, marriage, etc.

The interesting thing is the structure of the novel--well, Wikipedia says Woolf didn't want to call it a novel, but a playpoem, and perhaps that is a better term, even if a neologism. Though if it's a play, it's unperformable, and while the language is evocative, I'm not sure I'd call it a poem either. It's told entirely in the spoken statements--monologues--of the six characters, all of whom always speak in well-rounded sentences. Maybe some examples?

"'A shadow falls on the path,'  said Louis, 'Like a shadow bent.'"

"'Birds are singing up and down and in and out and all around us,' said Susan."

"'I burn, I shiver,' said Jinny, out of this sun, into this shadow.'"

Those are all from the first section when they're young and the monologues are typically just one sentence. The speeches get longer as the book goes on. Here's Louis, when first in school:

"'Now we march, two by two,' said Louis, 'orderly, processional, into chapel. I like the dimness that falls as we enter the sacred building. I like the orderly progress. We file in we seat ourselves. We put off our distinctions as we enter. I like it now, when, lurching slightly, but only from his momentum, Dr. Crane mounts the pulpit and reads the lesson from a Bible spread on the back of a brass eagle.'"

Each jump in time--from childhood, to that first school, to college, to jobs--is separated by an impersonal description of the waves at the shore, beginning in the morning and ending at evening:

"Now the sun had sunk. Sky and sea were indistinguishable. The waves breaking spread their white fans out over the shore, sent white shadows into the recesses of sonorous caves and then rolled back sighing over the shingle."

That's a representative start of a waves section from later in the book.

Bernard gradually becomes the primary speaker: "'Now to sum up,' said Bernard. 'Now to explain to you the meaning of my life.'" The girls fall out first and then the other two boys. But Bernard is the teller of stories. Not entirely alone, though, but as part of a representative generation. A wave.

Anyway, something like is Virginia Woolf and I'm not sure I entirely got it. 😉 Compared to the other novels of hers I've read I still think Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse are superior. (I'm not that big a fan of Orlando.) This was probably easier than those, certainly easier than To The Lighthouse. That abstract speechifying she uses gives a sense of a generation in time, but at the same she gives up a useful tool for creating believable characters, which diminishes the emotional engagement. I don't know even Bernard in the way I know Mrs. Dalloway, and that does feel like a loss in a novel.

But it is one of the last off my Classics Club list!

Thursday, March 21, 2024

A Sonnet from George Santayana



O world, thou choosest not the better part!
It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But is wisdom to believe the heart.
Columbus found a world, and had no chart,
Save one that faith deciphered in the skies;
To trust the soul's invincible surmise
Was all his science and his only art.
Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights the pathway but one step ahead
Across a void of mystery and dread.
Bid, then, the tender light of faith to shine
By which alone the mortal heart is led
Unto the thinking of the thought divine.
-George Santayana

This is from Santayana's first book of poems, titled Sonnets and Other Verses, of 1894. After posting a poem about George Santayana last week, I went and found those few poems of his that I have around here (four sonnets are included in this collection) and this is the one I liked the best. This book is early in Santayana's career, and I suspect this poem is early even within that selection.

George Santayana (1863-1952) is better known as a philosopher, but it turns out wasn't a bad poet either...😉

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Upon The Death of George Santayana (#poem)

Upon The Death of George Santayana

Down every passage of the cloister hung
A dark wood cross on a white plaster wall;
But in the court were roses, not as tongue
Might have them, something of Christ's blood grown small,
But just as roses, and at three o'clock
Their essences, inseparably bouqueted,
Seemed more than Christ's last breath, and rose to mock
An elderly man for whom the Sisters prayed.

What heart can know itself? The Sibyl speaks
Mirthless and unbedizened things, but who
Can fathom her intent? Loving the Greeks,
He whispered to a nun who strove to woo
His spirit unto God by prayer and fast,
"Pray that I go to Limbo, if it please
Heaven to let my soul regard at last
Democritus, Plato and Socrates."

And so it was. The river, as foretold,
Ran darkly by; under his tongue he found
Coin for the passage; the ferry tossed and rolled;
The sages stood on their appointed ground,
Sighing, all as foretold. The mind was tasked;
He had not dreamed that so many had died.
"But where is Alcibiades," he asked,
"The golden roisterer, the animal pride?"

Those sages who had spoken of the love
And enmity of things, how all things flow,
Stood in a light no life is witness of,
And Socrates, whose wisdom was to know 
He did not know, spoke with a solemn mien,
And all his wonderful ugliness was lit,
"He whom I loved for what he might have been
Freezes with traitors in the ultimate pit."

-Anthony Hecht

George Santayana (1863-1952) was a Spanish-American philosopher, poet, novelist. Perhaps his most famous work is The Sense of Beauty: Being an Outline of Aesthetic Theory. He was born a Catholic in Spain, lived most of life in the U.S. He lost his faith somewhere along the way and did not wish to regain it. But he lived out the end of his life by choice in a Catholic hospital in Rome.

Anthony Hecht  (1923-2004) was an American poet. There was an article I read recently by A. E. Stallings about Hecht, lamenting (a bit--her feelings are mostly positive, but occasionally mixed) how he isn't as well-known as he once was. There is a new collected poems volume as well as a new biography that she reviews.

She mentions several of Hecht's better-known poems, but not this one, which is a favourite of mine. She does mention Hecht's sometimes rococo vocabulary, which you can possibly find in evidence here. (Unbedizened, any one? 😉)

 I do think Hecht (or Socrates) is a little hard on Alcibiades, though.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Konstantin Stanislavski's My Life In Art (#CCSpin)

"...we donned all sorts of costumes, footgear, stuffing, to feel the image of the body; we glued on noses, beards, moustaches, we put on wigs, hoping to strike accidentally on the things that we did not as yet know and for which we were painfully searching."

Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) was a Russian actor, stage director, and teacher of acting. My Life in Art is his autobiography of 1924.

Stanislavski was born Konstantin Andreyev to a wealthy family with an estate near Moscow. He was one of many children in a happy family; his parents were interested in the arts and indulged the children's enthusiasms. Young Konstantin quickly caught the theater bug, playing in masquerades, watching a visiting puppet theater troupe, engaging in amateur theatricals with his cousins. 

But his father's supportiveness only went so far; he was expected to have a more respectable career. In his twenties Konstantin takes a part in a racy French comedy and adopts Stanislavski--Polish-sounding so it should fool people, right?--as his stage name, but nevertheless his parents come to see the production, and are appalled to see their son in such a thing. His father tells him to set up an amateur society and limit their productions to 'decent' scripts. So that's what he does.

Until he's thirty-three. Then with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. In 1897, after an epic luncheon--it began at ten AM on one day and ends at 3 AM the next--he founds the Moscow Art Theater. They sell shares in their new corporation and decide to open their season with Tsar Feodor, a play by A. N. Tolstoy (cousin to Leo).

But Nemirovich really wants to bring in Anton Chekhov. Chekhov's first play was The Seagull. Nemirovich and Chekhov had shared a prize for the best play of the year in 1896, but Nemirovich refused his half of the prize and insisted it be given to Chekhov, as author of the far superior play. Still the first production of The Seagull in St. Petersburg was not a success--Chekhov famously fled town after opening night--and had refused to write anything else for the stage or to allow The Seagull to be played again. That is, until 1898, when it became the fourth play in Moscow Art Theater's opening season. It was such a hit, the Moscow Art Theater adopted the seagull as their emblem.

That's Chekhov reading in the center, Stanislavski seated at his right, and Olga Knipper, Chekhov's future wife in profile next to Stanislavski. 

Stanislavski directed all four plays of Chekhov, jointly in the case of The Seagull with Nemirovich, and acted in them as well, as Trigorin (The Seagull), then originating the roles of Astrov (Uncle Vanya), Vershinin (The Three Sisters), and Gaev (The Cherry Orchard). Chekhov's sister told Stanislavski his production of Uncle Vanya had better be a success, because Chekhov had had an attack of tuberculosis, and a failure would kill him. Yikes! Pressure. By the time of The Cherry Orchard it was clear Chekhov was dying and they hastened the production so he could see it.

Apparently the group reading was a standard feature of Moscow Art Theater productions. I was amused that for The Three Sisters, none of the troupe's member understood it was meant to be a comedy. I read Chekhov before I saw him played, and I certainly didn't understand he could be hilarious.

Moscow Art Theater also originated productions of Gorky, as well as reviving classic plays, particularly Ibsen and Shakespeare. This is Stanislavski and his future wife Maria Lilina in Schiller's Love and Villainy (more commonly translated now as Intrigue and Love).

The company made their first tour abroad in 1906, starting in Berlin. 1906 was a troubled year in Russia, and they couldn't play at home. It was a success, but their real international reputation started with the production of Hamlet of 1911-12, which Stanislavski discusses in detail.

Now the book is called My Life in Art, not My Life in Business or My Life in History or My Married Life, so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise...but though he lived in interesting times, there's almost no discussion of it. There's no discussion of what the family business was or what his part was in his 20s while he was still involved. We learn about 1906 because the company has to go abroad. The Russian Revolution features largely as free tickets handed out to workers. The Russian Civil War is important because half their crew (including Olga Knipper, Chekhov's widow) are trapped on the other side of the white Russian general Denikin's lines. Even his wife and kids--theirs seems to have been a happy marriage--we learn about mostly in relationship to the theater. Maria Lilina is pregnant? Oh, no, she can't act!

Is this because he feels he shouldn't say anything about Soviet politics, or because he's genuinely apolitical? A bit of both, I suspect, but probably more the latter. Lenin was supposed to be a fan. 

The book was came out in 1924 after a successful U.S. tour and had been commissioned by a U.S. publisher. Wikipedia tells me Stanislavski would have preferred to have written about his teaching methods, but there was no interest in such a book at that time, so he smuggled in his ideas about how to become an actor in this autobiography. He later went on to write the books more directly discussing his ideas. In English, they're: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role, the last from his notes. They were all first published in English.

After the book: in 1926, he directs Bulgakov's The Day of the Turbins, a success and a play that Stalin was supposed to be fond of. When I read Bulgakov a while back, something suggested that it was The Day of the Turbins that kept Stalin from executing Bulgakov. Maybe that good feeling extended to Stanislavski. 
In 1928 Stanislavski had a heart attack--on stage, but kept playing until the curtain fell. But that's the end of his acting career.  He still directs, but now mostly works on his teaching system. Maybe he's too famous for Stalin to kill, but Stanislavski is also living quietly at this point. Stanislavski announces his true heir in the theater is Vsevolod Meyerhold, who had played Treplev in that production of The Seagull, and gone on to direct, but Meyerhold is executed by Stalin in 1939, shortly after Stanislavski's death. His widow Maria Lilina dies in 1943 at the age of 77.

All in all a pretty fascinating book and a successful spin choice!

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

What an odd thing the novel was.

Goethe's second novel Wilhelm Meister's Years of Apprenticeship came out in 1795. It's a Bildungsroman, a novel of education, maybe the very first. Young Wilhelm is the son of a successful upper-middle-class merchant; his father expects him to join the family business. But Wilhelm has caught the theater bug, from a traveling puppet show that played at his house when he was a kid.

When the novel starts Wilhelm is having an affair with the actress Mariane. He's maybe twenty. (We learn about the puppets when Wilhelm bores Mariane with his backstory, when all she wants is to hop in the sack. Our man Goethe is capable of irony, as it turns out.)  Mariane is genuinely fond of Wilhelm, but she's got somebody else, somebody richer, on a string, too. What will Mariane do? Will it be Wilhelm or Norberg? 

Mariane doesn't entirely get to decide. She's guided by her maid/procuress Barbara; Wilhelm is led by his friend Werner, who's sure all actresses are unfaithful; the lovers' relationship wasn't meant to be. Mariane flees and the heartbroken Wilhelm takes to his bed. Eventually Wilhelm rouses himself and decides to renounce all artistic aspirations. Those poems he'd written for Mariane? Burned.

Really, renunciation? Ha! Wilhelm sets off on a commercial trip pursuing his father's interests with the intent of putting art behind him. He manages to complete a few business visits, but soon falls in with actors, decides to act himself, writes plays and adaptations of plays. He pays little attention to the business he was supposed to be transacting. (Somewhat improbably it seemed to me, but that's the way it was.) He takes the money he has, and finances an acting troupe, but the sets and costumes are destroyed when they are attacked by bandits.  Wilhelm manages to wangle them jobs with another impresario.

What should be the nature of a German national theater? Wilhelm knows the French classics, Molière and Racine, but then one of the characters introduces him to Shakespeare. In real life much of Shakespeare had just appeared for the first time in German in a prose translation by Christoph Martin Wieland; Wilhelm and crew decide to do Hamlet, with Wilhelm playing the title role. There's much discussion of what's a proper production. (The manager Serlo suggests that the audience would like the play much better if Hamlet didn't die at the end...Wilhelm vetoes that.)

Wilhelm has a habit of falling in love repeatedly; that's OK, because the girls fall in love with him in return. (That's a young Goethe painted by Angelica Kaufman to the left. Rather dashing, don't you think? Maybe a little autobiography here?) Should he stay with that second actress, lively and fun? The practical housekeeper? The Countess? (Already married, though.) Natalie the Amazon? (As he thinks of her.) At least some of these relationships aren't chaste because by the end of the novel Wilhelm learns he has two children by different women. Somebody slips into his bed the night of a cast party and he's not sure who.

That's most of the novel, but then there are some very odd twists. We get a couple of embedded stories, one the story of a woman who becomes a pietistic Moravian Brethren; this story provides comfort to the dying sister of an actor. The other embedded story involves characters in the present whom we've met in other contexts, an incest plot, and more Moravian Brethren. Wilhelm feels bad when he learns he may have unintentionally driven some of the characters into this rather ascetic religious practice. 

And then! We get a secret society, which has been guiding Wilhelm's actions all along. Which I'm not sure I really comprehended at all.

I read most of the novel in Thomas Carlyle's translation from the 1800s, available at Project Gutenberg, then started over and read the whole thing in H. M. Waidson's translation from the late 1970s. (Waidson was a British professor of German at Swansea University.) I can't say that either translation amazed me. Carlyle is Carlyle, perhaps overly rhetorical. The Waidson felt flat in places, though my reprint at least was marred by typos. (For example, 'natter' where 'flatter' was meant; I had to look up the German, also available on Gutenberg, to figure out what was meant. The German word was schmeicheln.)

Goethe wrote a sequel, Wilhelm Meister's Years of Wandering, which came out in installments in the 1820s.

The book--it is Goethe, after all--includes poetry, verse from plays or songs sung by various characters. Some of them are famous: 'Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt' has been set to music by Beethoven, by Tchaikovsky, by Schubert (multiple times) and that's not the whole list.  Here's one of the Schubert versions, one of a collection of songs that all come from Wilhelm Meister:

One from my Classics Club list.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Journey to the Edge of Reason

"That he is an important man is shown again and again, but he is a little crazy."
-Oskar Morganstern

Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) is famous as the mathematician who proved that mathematics doesn't quite work. The result is known as the Incompleteness Theorem, and before Gödel's proof, mathematicians assumed anything you could say with elementary mathematics (from 2+2=4, e.g., and on up) could be proven either true or false. It might be hard, it might be impossible for me or you, but it could be done. In 1930 Gödel demonstrated it can't. 

You can create mathematical statements, using math no more complicated than addition and equality, whose truth is unprovable.

Gödel was born in Brno, now in the Czech Republic, but then the largely German-speaking town of Brünn in Austria-Hungary. His father owned a textile factory and was reasonably well off. After the breakup of Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I, financially the Gödels were better off with their money in Czechoslovakia, but when it came time for young Kurt to go to college, in 1924, he went to Vienna, the old imperial capital, which still had the best universities. (It was also becoming uncomfortable in Czechoslovakia for German speakers). 

Budiansky is clearly in love with Vienna. (Understandable.) He spends quite a lot of time on the atmosphere in Vienna, citing figures whose connection to Gödel is pretty non-existent--Joseph Roth, Robert Musil--but whose interest to readers is large. Vienna was Gödel's home for roughly fifteen years, and a large portion of his important work was done there, so it's appropriate enough.

But Vienna was becoming problematic. Gödel wasn't Jewish, but his friends were; as things got worse, the sort of mathematics that Gödel did got labeled 'Jewish mathematics' (What's that?) and after Anschluss, the university wasn't going to allow that sort of math any more. Gödel did a semester as a fellow at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study when it opened in 1933--Einstein was one of their first hires--and though Gödel didn't much like Princeton, his friends there kept suggesting he come back.

He was subject to paranoid fantasies (though one of his mathematical colleagues was assassinated by a right-wing student, so maybe not entirely paranoid).  His girlfriend Adele was married and under Catholic Austrian law she couldn't get divorced, so the two of them couldn't leave the country as married. Also he was inclined to be apolitical, and was politically naive. 

But after Anschluss in 1938, German law applied in Austria, allowing divorce and remarriage. Kurt and Adele married. Gödel was still sluggish about the need to leave, but after much prodding he did, ultimately taking a full-time position at the Institute for Advanced Study.

And became close friends with Einstein

Through the forties, he continued to do mathematics, working with Oskar Morganstern and John von Neumann. The later years he taught (though he was a terribly shy teacher) and continued to suffer periods of paranoia.

And why was I interested in a biography of Kurt Gödel you might ask?

I read Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach around when it came out, devoured it more like. It was probably the first serious non-fiction book I read on my own. There were various essays in 2019 for the fortieth anniversary of the book, and I thought about rereading it then, but didn't, but when I saw about the new biography of Kurt Gödel, I was primed to be interested. The biography was well done. The proof of the Incompleteness Theorem is relatively (...?) easy to understand, but Budiansky saves the explanation of that for an appendix, where he does a pretty good job, and otherwise you can read the biography without math.

And am I about to reread Hofstadter? Well, if you look closely you can see a purple bookmark there...

Austria. Could be the Czech Republic, I suppose, but no, not really. Vienna is where it happens. Last year's Austria book for the challenge was another biography of an intellectual who left in the 30s and came to the U.S., Victor Gruen.

Monday, January 22, 2024

And the winner is... (CC Spin #36)


That means Konstantin Stanislavski's autobiography My Life In Art. Though not what I expected--it's gotta be a number more in the middle, doesn't it?...😉--it should be a good read. 

Stanislavski (1863-1938) was an actor, director, and co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. He acted in and directed many (all? but I didn't look) of the premieres of Anton Chekhov's plays, such as The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. He lived through the Russian Revolution and on into the Stalin years, though his autobiography comes out in 1924 and so misses the worst part. He's also the inventor of the Method acting system.

Did you spin? What are you reading?

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Classics Club Spin #36


It's time for the latest Classics Club spin. You likely know the rules. A list of twenty books and next Sunday reveals the book we should read over the next month and a bit. So let's go straight to the list of twenty books.

I'm even nearer to the end of my list than I was at the last spin, so I'm going to concentrate on the books I need to finish my first Classics Club list. 

The First Quatrain:

1.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
2.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister
3.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
4.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

A Second Quatrain:

5.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
6.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister
7.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
8.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

Quatrain the Third:

9.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
10.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister
11.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
12.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

And now, for the Quatrain of quatrains!

13.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
14.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister
15.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
16.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

The pirates say, Just finish the danged books already.

Only one of those is long (the Goethe) and as I've already read two of the others (Giovanni's Room and Major Barbara) but didn't manage to blog about them. (Which I would do if they spin machine chose them.) I really should just finish the stack over the course of the month. 

But as that repetition is looking a little dull, and who doesn't want a bit of danger (?) in a spin, here's a few books from a potential new Classics Club list I've been thinking about:

17.) Luis Vaz de Camões/The Lusiads
18.) Harald Laxness/The Fish Can Sing
19.) Benito Perez Galdos/That Bringas Woman
20.) Konstantin Stanislavsky/My Life in Art

The Stanislavski would be the long one in that last quatrain.

Which look good to you? Are you spinning this time out?