“It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for something you are not.” – André Gide
Corydon by Andre Gide (image courtesy Goodreads)
The complex and provocative André Gide is known for his unconventional examinations of morality in which he usually pits the conventions of accepted public morals against the individual moral (sometimes amoral) views of his characters. In novels such a The Immoralist, Strait is the Gate, and The Vatican Cellars Gide explores alternate lifestyles, failed relationships, and Nietzschean acts of ubermensch-iness for both tragic and comic effect. These works won Gide the Nobel Prize in 1947.
I’ve read all of the above mentioned works by Gide. My favorite is The Vatican Cellars (Les Caves du Vatican), a comic adventure that crosses elements of The DaVinci Code sort of conspiracy theory nonsense with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In the hands of an arch satirist like Gide, a plot about saving the Pope from the machinations of the Masons goes sideways because of the actions of a Raskolnikovean sort of ne’er-do-well named Lafcadio who decides that what he really needs to do with his life is kill someone at random so that there is no motive at all to connect him to the murder. Unfortunately, the man he decides to kill turns out to be a vital cog in the aforementioned Pope v. Masons business. Hilarity of the darkest shades ensues. Really. It’s a very funny book – in dark, dark ways.
Unfortunately, this sort of funny stuff was an anomaly in Gide’s oeuvre. He mainly focuses on the unhappy effects of rebelling against (L’immoraliste) or falling prey to (La porte étroite) accepted social and cultural institutions and behaviors. Corydon, his attempt to justify homosexuality as a natural human behavior, is firmly on the serious side of the Gide ledger. Continue reading
Knowledge in our chosen fields of endeavor is important, certainly…knowledge of ourselves is essential….
The Burgundy Briefcase by Roberta Burton (image courtesy Goodreads)
Roberta Burton’s The Burgundy Briefcase is a difficult novel to discuss because it doesn’t seem quite sure what sort of novel it wants to be. It’s part star-crossed love story, part therapeutic confessional, part self-examination. Its settings shift from place to place as its main character, a doctoral student named Lee Lindsey, moves around Tallahassee, Florida where she is completing her doctorate in marriage and family counseling at Florida State University. It moves, sometimes rather blithely, through time from present to past and back again. It has a shifting cast of characters who appear, disappear, and reappear in those weird ways that people sometimes do in life.
Perhaps The Burgundy Briefcase is best described as a picaresque novel about education. The work is filled with various types of educations, and Lee Lindsey, willingly and unwillingly, gets educated in all all of these education types. Continue reading
“Any attempt to examine the moral foundations of our exceedingly complicated world requires a certain amount of learning.” – Thomas Mann, Joseph the Provider
Thomas Mann (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Since Alfred Nobel established his prizes at the turn of the 20th century, there have been any number of recipients who have been, shall we say, arguable choices. The two prize areas where perhaps the greatest arguments have occurred have been the prize areas for peace and literature. On at least two occasions I have weighed in myself, once concerning Peter Handke, once concerning why the Nobel committee has refused to award an American writer the literature Nobel since Toni Morrison in 1993.
In making my way through the world literature section of the 2015 reading list, I’ll be looking at several literature Nobel winners including Sigrid Undset, Andre Gide, Herman Hesse, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Yasunari Kawabati. In the case of finalists not selected, such as Yukio Mishima from the reading list and the aforementioned Handke, their non-selection has spurred argument and controversy proving yet again the truth in that old and variously attributed adage, all art is political.
Thomas Mann won the literature Nobel in 1929. If one has read Mann’s work, one knows the Nobel committee got his selection right.
To Joseph the Provider… Continue reading
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…parent dotes on children who are ingrates and…yeah, well…
Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac (image courtesy Goodreads)
It is easy to make arguments against Père Goriot. It’s a rather sloppy book because the author, Honoré de Balzac, wrote quickly and rarely labored over his words. It’s a frustrating book because Balzac veers back and forth between Romanticism and Realism, sometimes on the same page. Two characters who would seem to be major figures disappear from the novel without adequate explanation. The ending is both overly long and abrupt, quite an accomplishment in itself, but not the preferred effect one would expect a great author to achieve.
In spite of all these flaws, it’s a magnificent book and one that will haunt anyone who has been a parent or had a parent who, for all the best intentions in the world, can’t seem to get that most fundamental life relationship right.
A couple of rambling asides before I get to Goriot. This is another of those books that I read a very long time ago (I believe Nixon was POTUS) and decided to re-read for this year’s world lit themed portion of the 2015 reading list. Continue reading
For art and artists, these are interesting times…as Adam Marsland reminds us, that’s a Chinese curse…
I’m currently working my way through a re-read of Honoré de Balzac’s marvelous Pere Goriot as part of my 2015 reading list. While the opportunity to savor Balzac’s loquacious piece of realism that examines parental love and Parisian society is certainly pleasant for a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of realism in its various literary expressions, both foreign and domestic, I have found myself with nothing to write about unless, as Mr. Micawber optimistically, invariably expected, something turns itself up.
One of the representations of the always inimitable, sometimes unfathomable Bjork at MoMA (image courtesy Vulture via Getty Images/Timothy A. Clary)
Since you are reading this, you know that my own Micawberean expectations have not been disappointed. A piece by art critic Jerry Saltz at the Vulture blog of New York Magazine caught my attention because it addresses one of the unresolved cultural questions left to us by the 20th century: to wit, how do we reconcile the merging of popular and what was once termed “high” culture and make intelligent determinations about what is culturally worthwhile for us to explore, discuss, even preserve in this merged culture?
This issue is one that I have explored extensively before, and, despite my best efforts to offer some explanations/insights/whining complaints, it pops up again and again and smacks me (metaphorically, of course) upside the head saying, “How do you like me now, Jim?” and forcing me to take yet another look at this perhaps never to be resolved issue.
So. Here we go again…. Continue reading
“Contradiction is, with me, an innate passion; my entire life has been nothing but a chain of sad and frustrating contradictions to heart or reason.” – Grigoriy Pechorin in A Hero of Our Time…
A Hero of Our Time by Mihail Lermontov (image courtesy Goodreads)
Another Russian classic from the 2015 reading list. Mihail Lermontov, like Pushkin, whom I write about last time, is a Russian Romantic era writer, and his only significant work, the novel A Hero of Our Time, is as good an example of the enormous impact of Byron on European literature as a reader will ever find.
The Byronic figure, a response to proto-Romantic figures like Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling or Goethe’s Werther, was a world weary, bored, self-destructive figure who cannot find peace anywhere. Lermontov’s Grigoriy Pechorin is just such a figure. His inability to relate to his fellow human beings is not simply excused – it is admired and forgiven:
…if all people reasoned more, they would be convinced that life is not worth worrying about so much…
Pushkin’s prose tales, mostly uncompleted, tantalize and torment readers both with their beauty and with the wistful sense of ‘what might have been’ that their incompleteness conveys….
The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin, trans. Gillon R, Aitken (image courtesy Goodreads)
This selection from the 2015 reading list is a re-read from my undergraduate days. The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin in the Gillon Aitken translation includes every piece that Pushkin worked on. Like any scholarly edition, it has that painstaking sense of completeness that can feel like both a blessing and a curse. It is wonderful to read all the prose that Pushkin attempted in his life; it is painful to be left wondering again and again as stories and novellas break off with the translator’s too oft repeated message:
(Pushkin never completed this story.)
Pushkin is Russia’s first great modern writer. Renowned even more as a poet than as a prose writer, his magnum opus, Eugene Onegin, tells a story that is haunting in its prescience: a sensitive poet is drawn into a duel and killed due to his flirtatious fiancée.
Pushkin himself was killed at the age of 37 in a duel caused by his flirtatious wife. Art can imitate life with disastrous consequences. Continue reading
George Harrison’s 72nd birthday…a bittersweet reminder that All Things Must Pass…
George Harrison (image courtesy Wikimedia)
In many ways it’s pointless to write or say much more about The Beatles. They remain, despite revisionist rock historians’ best efforts, rock music’s most important band. Arguments about their merits as solo artists follow similar paths. John is better because he was truest to rock and roll’s founding principles. Paul made what Dave Marsh once called “the Decision for Pop” because he wanted to be loved. Ringo was – well, Ringo was better than anyone expected but still the luckiest sod in musical history.
Then there is George. Known during the Fab Years as “the quiet Beatle,” his release from what had become for him the prison of being a Beatle led to a creative outburst and the best of all Beatle solo efforts, the magnificent All Things Must Pass. Many critics think George had the best solo career of any former Beatle. I think Paul has done so but then, I’m his buddy.
On to the music…
Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm‘s compilation of stories known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales are powerful, perhaps shocking (perhaps not), entertainment for children of any age – and a structuralist literary critic’s dream…
The J. H. Sears edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (image courtesy Etsy)
The next book from the 2015 reading list is another of those “rescued” books of mine. Lea and I were wandering around a local antique/junk shop when we came across a “children’s edition” (or what passed for a children’s edition early in the 20th century). The book I have was published by J.H. Sears and Company of New York, although the edition I have was “set up, printed, and bound” by the Kingsport Press of Kingsport Tennessee. There is no publication date, but the book is inscribed, “Nancy Ivey/Grade 1/1929-30″ so this book is at least 85 years old, perhaps older. Continue reading
The poems of Ou-yang Hsiu reflect both the poet’s refined understanding of the complexities of his life as part of a multi-layered, ritualized culture and his desire to look beyond that culture at the question of being human….
Love and Time: The Poems of Ou-yang Hsiu, translated by J.P, Seaton (image courtesy Goodreads)
Another look at Asian poetry in this essay, one that might serve as a companion to the work I discussed last week, The Ink Dark Moon. Love and Time is a collection of the poems of 11th century scholar/imperial official/literatus Ou-yang Hsiu.
Ou-yang was a fascinating figure. A highly principled public official, he helped to implement important reforms that made the Song dynasty’s government more efficient and honest. As a historian he contributed both a history of the Chinese imperial dynasties and promoted epigraphic historical study. It is perhaps as a prose stylist that Ou-yang was most influential as a writer: he is considered a master of the Classical Prose style and is noted for having added a rich expressiveness to Chinese prose, especially to travel writing.
As a poet, Ou-yang was playful and experimental. While he developed mastery of two classic Chinese styles Shi and Ci, Ou-yang, especially in his middle age, expanded the subject matter from the traditional hymns, odes, eulogies, and expressions of romantic desire. Ou-yang added topics such as family life, friendship, drinking wine, and politics. He also played with tone, poking fun at himself and exaggerating for comic effect. Continue reading
Diderot’s most well known piece, the dialogue Rameau’s Nephew, is a discourse on what good behavior is – delivered with droll irony by one who has found being good beyond his capabilities….
Denis Diderot by Louis Michel van Loo (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Part of the pleasure of reading is finding those odd connections between works that at first seem unlikely to be related in any way. Such is my experience with this re-reading of Denis Diderot’s masterful dialogue concerning good behavior and bad, Rameau’s Nephew. As I made my way again through this witty, ironic masterpiece of argument about morals and ethics, for some reason I was reminded of another work whose thematic focus was on that elusive goal of being good: Nan, the late Victorian children’s book by Lucy C. Lillie that I read (and wrote about) a year and a half ago. The object lessons of Nan are simple and straightforward, of course: tell the truth, don’t steal, mind your manners, obey your elders. One of Nan’s most ingratiating traits is her desire to help the less fortunate – a trait that the book clearly describes as more than compensating for her lack of intellectual and artistic talent. She may not be the brightest bulb in the lamp, but she’s a good, kind-hearted bulb and that, Ms. Lillie tells us, is what matters. Continue reading
As women members of the Heian court of medieval Japan, poets Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu lived lives that were proscribed and governed by artifice. Through poetry they found ways of expressing their feelings and insights about those lives.
The Ink Dark Moon – Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu – translated by Jane Hirschfield and Mariko Aratani (image courtesy Goodreads)
This book from the 2015 reading list was recommended to me by my wife Lea who has a deep affection for, appreciation of, and skill at Asian poetry and its forms. The Ink Dark Moon is a collection of poems by two women of the Heian period of Japanese history. This particular period of Japanese history was one of great cultural achievement in both art and literature. Interestingly, most of the outstanding poets of the period are women and the two poets represented in this work, Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu, are perhaps the finest of these poets.
The dominant verse form used by the poets is the Japanese classical waka in its short form known as the tanka. In Japanese a tanka has 31 syllables arranged in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. (One can compare this to the more familiar haiku which is even briefer and which follows, in Japanese, a syllabic pattern of 5-7-5.)
[Note: these syllabic forms are impossible to reproduce in English because of the difference between an inflection-based language like Japanese and a word order based language like English. This translation by Hirschfield and Aratani does an admirable – indeed, a remarkable – job of bridging the gap, but the translations are that – translations. They are not literal word-for-word reproductions of the works of Kamachi or Shikibu.] Continue reading
Call it Simplicius Simplicissimus or The Adventures of a Simpleton – H.J.C. von Grimmelshausen’s picaresque novel of the Thirty Years War is the godfather of all great anti-war literature whether solemn indictment like The Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front or absurdist comedy like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five.
The Adventures of a Simpleton also known as Simplicius Simplicissimus (image courtesy Goodreads)
The Adventures of a Simpleton, also know as Simplicius Simplicissimus (and by other titles) is a book that I have long loved, though this re-read is only my third of this classic satire of the lethal nonsense we call war. The edition I used this time was one I picked up in my favorite used bookstore, my original copy from undergraduate school having disappeared on its own picaresque adventures at some unknown moment in the last 40 years. This entry on the 2015 reading list moves us forward in time several hundred years from the folk literature (with some Horace thrown in) of the last few weeks. As a result we get a known author (although we don’t know a lot about him) and we get our first prose work since those outliers about World War I and John Winthrop I wrote about at the beginning of the year.
More interestingly, from a literary standpoint anyway, we get what will come to be called variously a novel, a mock-heroic romance, a picaresque novel, or a picaresque. The adventures of the hero, initially called Simplicius because of his naivete (and because discovering his real name, indeed his true identity, becomes an important subplot of the work) are episodic, disjointed, and certainly varied. Continue reading
The Welsh collection of ancient tales called The Mabinogion is an intriguingly messy collection of tales that run the gamut from myth to romance with a disregard for continuity…
The Mabinogion (image courtesy Goodreads)
The last of the “folk literature” I’ve completed for this year’s reading list isn’t an epic at all. The Mabinogion is a collection of Welsh tales that offer insights into Celtic mythology, Welsh national legend, and Arthurian romance. It’s the earliest prose collection in English literature. The tales themselves are somewhat older, several of them coming from the oral tradition. There’s some controversy about the collection. One leading medieval literature scholar even argues that The Mabinogion isn’t really meant to be a collection at all. Given what is known about the source works, he has a point. The Mabinogion links mythological tales with heroic tales with Arthurian romances without any other connection than that they’re all Welsh medieval works. That may be enough to satisfy scholarly readers, but it would make the work a challenge for others, even serious readers, without some guidance. So, as I have mentioned before, if you find this work intriguing and decide to read it, choose a good critical edition and read the scholarly information.
The tales divide into three groups. “The Mabinogi” is a set of four tales, one that offers a combination of mythology and folklore. There are two important characters to be noted: the witch Rhiannon (a name know to readers, perhaps, from the Fleetwood Mac song) and Pryderi, a sort of prototype for the important character who shows up in later tales, Arthur of Britain. Continue reading
Horace, like any admirable figure, seeks both to model – and teach – what excellence is in his field….
Horace as whimsically portrayed by painter Giacomo Di Chirico (image courtesy Wikimedia)
We end our review of The Works of Horace as translated into English prose by the redoubtable Christopher Smart with a look at the work that has been the anchor for his reputation over at least the last 200 years or so. “Ars Poetica,” or “The Art of Poetry,” is, as I mentioned last time, considered one of the classic works in the history of literary criticism. Like all of Horace’s work, “Ars Poetica” is personal and idiosyncratic. Like all of Horace’s work, it is filled with moments of pathos, bathos, and brilliance.
Some critics have found cause to dispute with Horace, noting that he focuses his critique on epic and dramatic poetry – neither of which he wrote – and that, unlike, say, Aristotle, he is not orderly and systematic in his discussion, wandering from topic to topic, often abruptly. There are a couple of ways of responding to that. Continue reading
In his Epistles, Horace discusses, in a series of verse letters addressed to friends, philosophy, virtuous and independent living, social behavior, and being a poet.
Quintus Horatius Flaccus – the artist otherwise known as Horace (image courtesy wisdomportal.com)
This third in a series of essays on Roman poet Horace looks at his verse epistles. Most readers are probably at least slightly familiar with the form in either verse or prose: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is a famous prose example; Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” is usually considered the finest example in verse written in English. In both cases the aim is identical – the writer seeks to offer explanation, defense, justification for him (or her)self and for his/her beliefs, practices, or, as in the cases of both Horace and Pope, poetry style choices.
Horace’s Epistles have some of the gentle sting of his Satires, but there is an ease in these works that one doesn’t find in those previously discussed poems. This is Horace writing to friends for one reasoin earlier essaysn or another on one occasion or another, opening up about his work, his health, his pleasures, his annoyances, his hopes, his fears. There’s a freedom to the poet’s writing here that both intrigues and enlightens the thoughtful reader and gives us insight into Horace the man that neither the Satires, aimed as they are at allowing the poet to show off his mastery of analysis and commentary, nor the Odes, meant as they are to be “public” works demonstrating poetic skill and mastery of craft, allow. These works, while equally as skilled as those mentioned above, are the poetic equivalent of good conversation over drinks between friends. Continue reading
Horace uses satire in a gently amused (and bemused) way to point out the foibles of human nature. He’s not so much wanting to tear people a new one for being the way they are as he is interested in a thoughtful, even academic way in why we do the foolish things we do to ourselves.
Horace, by an unknown Roman sculptor (image courtesy crystallinks.com)
This second essay on the Works of Horace in the Christopher Smart prose translation looks at the great poet’s satires. Horace wrote two books of satires, a total of 18 poems. These satires were his first great successes as a poet and signaled that Horace was one of the great poets of the Augustan Age. on His influence on this genre of literature was so great that his style of handling the genre is known in literary/scholarly circles as Horatian satire.
Before we dig into the works themselves, however, it might be good to make clear what’s meant by “Horatian.” Horace’s greatest rival as a satirist is a Roman poet named Juvenal who lived roughly 100 years after Horace. Where Horace is gentle and good natured in his criticisms of the foibles of his fellow Romans, Juvenal is biting, even bitter in his attacks on human frailties. Where Horace hopes to see better from people, Juvenal demands that people should behave more acceptably. Continue reading
The Saga of the Volsungs and The Song of the Nibelungs share source material, to be sure, but it is the cultural ethos that they share that makes them fascinating – and appalling, in a heroic culture sort of way….
The Song of the Nibelungs, i.e., Das Nibelungenlied (image courtesy Goodreads)
As promised, we come now to a pair of works that share a common story ancestry as well a commonalities in cultural ethos. Heroic epics and sagas reflect a culture based on power, strength, violence, and what Frank Zappa famously called “a great deal of personal hurt.” Most readers are likely familiar with at least one of the heroic epics (these are sometimes called national epics because there seems to be one for each major European country – Das Nibelungenlied for Germany, La Chanson de Roland for France, El Cid for Spain, and, of course, Beowulf for England), so dust off those memories of, you know, that class you took that time where you read that loooong poem….
While both works tell the story of a hero murdered through treachery and his beloved’s revenge on the murderers, there are significant differences between The Saga of the Volsungs and The Song of the Nibelungs. A look at those differences might be a good place to start and can lead us into a discussion of the similarity in, to use the German term, the weltanschauung of heroic culture. Those similarities are valuable to note, for some of the assumptions of heroic culture still pervade our own world views. Continue reading
One of the reasons Horace’s odes have been so admired and imitated is best described by one of his foremost admirers, Alexander Pope. Horace is a master of “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed…”
Horace as imagined by painter Anton von Werner (image courtesy Wikimedia)
As I mentioned in my essay on La Chanson de Roland, I’ve been working my way through Horace at a pretty deliberate pace, mainly because I’m using an old “pocket” edition of The Works published in 1896 with a prose translation by one “C. Smart, A.M., Pembroke College, Cambridge University.” This is the remarkable – and slightly mad – poet and scholar Christopher Smart. Smart’s madness manifested itself as religious mania (slightly odd in a high church Anglican of his time, a group who were more often political than devout, but there we are) and he became a cause célèbre among poet friends in his day because they often had to fetch him out of St. Bethlehem (know as Bedlam in the local parlance), the institute for those with mental illness. Smart was most noted for falling to his knees in public places and beginning to pray loudly. When asked if he thought such behavior made Smart a public danger, Dr. Samuel Johnson replied calmly, “I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else.” Continue reading
Disagreements about whether The Song of Roland is about Roland’s heroic (and foolhardy) geste or about the ultimate triumph of Charlemagne over enemies within and without his empire seem less important with this re-reading than noting how many people die for that amorphous and deadly social construct we call honor….
The Song of Roland, trans. Robert Harrison (image courtesy Goodreads)
As I make my way methodically through the works of Horace (3 books of odes down, one more to go, then epodes, satires, and his “Art of Poetry”), I’ve been reading at the same time in the epics on my 2015 reading list. I’ve finished The Saga of the Volsungs and am now digging into the Song of the Niebelungs. This made more sense to me than my original plan which was to read about the Volsungs, then go off and do some medieval Chinese poetry before Das Nibelungenlied. Since the German epic tells a version of the Volsung story, I’ll write about those two together – and be able to discuss how a Viking saga got changed for the purposes of courtly literature. Given this dive into epic lit, I’ll probably take on The Mabinogion, the Welsh epic, before heading east for Chinese courtly poetry.
That said, astute readers (and I know you all are) will notice that this essay is clearly going to be about a work not even on the original 2015 reading list. I was (where else?) in my favorite used book store last week when I came across this version of The Song of Roland. It was nearly a giveaway it was so cheap, so naturally I scooped it up. As I mentioned above, it seemed apropos given that Horace is, while most rewarding, in an 1890’s prose translation sans notes (always read the notes, students) that is costing me extra time as I do some background work so that I understand both poet and translator fully, that I read something along with that noble Roman. I raced through the Volsung saga (in a good critical edition) and now the Chanson de Roland (in a good critical edition). Continue reading