ArtSunday

Pushkin’s Prose Tales: Russian Romanticism, Russian Literature…

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 Birthday…

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…

Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtSunday

The Brothers Grimm and the functions of the folk tale…

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

ArtSunday

How to be good: Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew

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

ArtSunday: LIterature

The art of war as explained by a simpleton…

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

Horace IV: ave Horatius, Scrogue exemplarium…

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

ArtSunday: LIterature

Horace II: more rambling, this time about the Satires…

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

ArtSunday: LIterature

Horace: a few rambling thoughts on the Odes…

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

ArtSunday

Apologia and Apology: Edmund Morgan’s Puritan Dilemma

Edmund Morgan’s The Puritan Dilemma is an interestingly apologetic biography of Massachusetts Bay Colony’s leading figure, Governor John Winthrop.

The Puritan Dilemma: the Story of John Winthrop by Edmund S. Morgan (image courtesy Goodreads)

The other “outlier” from the 2015 reading list is a brief (less that 300 pages, a mere glance by scholarly biography standards) biography of a founder of Massachusetts Bay Colony (and its multiple term governor), John Winthrop. As I mentioned in my discussion of this year’s list, I picked up this interesting volume before hitting upon the “global/local” reading plan. And so it becomes the second book essay of 2015.

Over the last three years I have read Williams Bradford’s history of the Plymouth colony, Ed Southern’s compilation of accounts of the Jamestown colony, and now this biography of Winthrop which serves as an account of the first two decades of Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, however, is a somewhat different sort of book from those other two in a couple in interesting (and significant) ways: first, it is an apologia of John Winthrop’s life and career, and by extension for the Puritan experiment. Yet it’s also an apology of sorts, or maybe a wistful expression of regret, by Professor Morgan to Winthrop that somehow historians have not treated him as kindly – indeed, reverently – as they should. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The 2015 reading list

Sometimes one reads to see what one is thinking – sometimes to see what others are thinking – and sometimes one should read to find out where one is….

As you may have already guessed, cats read when we aren’t looking in order to understand and control our species better… (image courtesy stockfreeimages.com)

For 2015 I’ve decided to change the pattern of my reading list adventures and split the list into two segments. The first of these will be a tour of what used to be called “world literature”: great works by authors writing in a language other than one’s own – in my case, English. The second half of the list will focus on authors from North Carolina primarily, the American South generally. My slogan for the year will be “Read globally, then locally,” I suppose.

For the first half of the list I will be in the hands of translators for the bulk of my reading (I read, speak and write French, and I plan also to learn Spanish – at least conversational level – this year, but most of my reading choices are in languages other than those). So as part of my series of essays on these works I will make observations – informed or not – about the quality of the translations I encounter.

So, to the list. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Defoe’s Moll Flanders: The Economies of Life

What Daniel Defoe depicts in Moll Flanders is the story of a person who lives purely for pursuit of “the main chance”: accruing wealth at the cost of family, friends, self-respect…in the hope that once one has “a stock” there will be time for reflection, repentance, reclamation….

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe (image courtesy Goodreads)

I went off the 2014 reading (updated) list(s) for this last “non-holiday” themed book as a result of some comments on the first of my “art and tech” series of essays. An argument advanced by a commenter whose opinions I value and whose friendship I treasure suggested that the only reliable arbiter of human achievement is the marketplace – and argued, at least indirectly,  that economic success = validation of one’s efforts. I freely admit that I find such arguments about how life and life’s work should be valued, and they are numerous in these times, troubling. I find them most troubling because, given the amorphous nature of human culture and its values, this may very well be the view that most people choose to adopt.

When I feel troubled by issues of this sort, I turn, as I have for many years, to literature. When I go to literature I am seeking, not answers of the smug and certain sort constantly promulgated by news outlets both left and right. Instead, what literature gives me is perspective – the perspective of fellow artists as well as in most cases (since my penchant is for classics of the canon), historical perspective. Continue reading

The Arts

Art and Tech Pt. 1: Known Knowns and Known Unknowns…

We live these days in a weird era where art and tech are linked in ways which I don’t believe we understand very well and don’t think about enough. Maybe we are in some transition to a culture in which tech is believed to be art and art is believed to be -I don’t know – tech…? Whatever the artist says it is…? Obsolete…?

This started out, as sometimes things do, with a conversation:

Claude Monet, technology freak (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Lea, my wife, and I were coming home from one of her art exhibition openings last night and somehow we got on the subject of Claude Monet.  The art opening was part of a series of events in which artists, writers, and craftsmen and women had simultaneously occurring book fest, art exhibition opening, and crafts fair.  This is the sort of event that arts groups hold more and more often in these same days of this our life. Artists hoped that book lovers would stop by the art exhibition, writers that art lovers would stop by the book fest, crafts people – well, people still buy crafts, kinda sorta (more than they buy fine art and books, at least), so the crafts people were likely simply being helpful.

I don’t know how well the whole series of events went off (I didn’t even go to the crafts fair because I – I don’t know – well yes I do: at least half the tables at the “book fest” were selling – crafts – yeah, I know). I hope that the artist and writer friends I ran into at the two events I attended made some sales. But at one point last evening Lea looked at me and noted, “I think everyone at this exhibit is an artist.”

Yeah. I know. This is all too common these days.

And yes, I’m rambling, but I’ll get to something in a minute. Bear with me.  Continue reading

1977

The Ark of the Covenant, well,

I use it as a coffee table now.

It holds many remotes with which

I flip channels to see the world.

The world doesn’t bother me,

what people say about how it used to be does.

A straight arc is a line.

These Fritos in my pockets,

I’ve had them since 1977.

Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Love, art, mystery: Lawrence Durrell’s Justine

Durrell raises a question we are most afraid to answer: whether, as his character Clea asserts, “Lovers are never equally matched….” Is that, he asks, the source of the pain so many experience in love…?

Justine by Lawrence Durrell (image courtesy Goodreads)

We come now to another novelist who, like Paul Bowles, skirts the edge of wide acceptance as a major literary figure. Lawrence Durrell’s reputation rests on a group of novels called The Alexandria Quartet. The first of these is called Justine after the main character, a reluctant siren whose mystique pervades the work. It’s the latest from my 2014 reading list, and it’s a work that offers one the challenge of deciding whether to focus one’s discussion on the quality of the writing, the themes the novel explores, or the complexity of the  story.

To treat Justine fairly, it’s probably best to talk at least a bit about each. This is a novel in which writing, story, and themes are intricately woven. Durrell came under consideration for (and close to winning in 1962) the Nobel Prize on at least two occasions based on this work (and the others in the tetralogy). Justine offers a good example of why. Continue reading