Two Books about the Matter of Troy

Since I’ve been busy writing my own novel about the Matter of Troy, I thought I’d catch up on some books relating to it.

The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood

There’s been far too many books published about Troy recently for my liking – particularly feminist reinterpretations of events. All very disappointing. – The Penelopiad is very much of this sort, and is certainly one of the laziest novels I’ve ever read. My impression is that Atwood and her publisher came up with the idea over lunch one day (it seems to be part of a series of reinterpretations of classic texts); and probably it seemed good at the time, but when she actually sat down to write it, she found she couldn’t be bothered.

So it’s a version of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view. – Of course, it turns out that staying at home and weaving a tapestry isn’t much of a plot, and unfortunately Atwood doesn’t seem inclined to think of much else that might have happened. Her real interest seems to be in a single line (seemingly) from The Odyssey, which relates that Odysseus, when he arrived home, killed all Penelope’s maids for sleeping with the suitors, when apparently they didn’t have much choice. (No, I guess it doesn’t sound reasonable). At some point during her writing, as well as apparently reading The Odyssey, Atwood has also come across Robert Graves’ weird White Goddess theories about Greek myth, and so she devotes a chapter to them in the middle apropos of nothing. Towards the end she doesn’t seem bothered to decide whether Penelope stayed faithful or not. Seriously I’ve never read a book before where the author really couldn’t care less. – And naturally Helen comes out of the book badly.

The Fall of Troy, by Quintus Smyrnaeus

People read Homer, but they never read Quintus Smyrnaeus. In fact, his work is kind of hard to find.

I’ve long been comtemplating a project of reading the less well-known ancient epics, but up to now had only got as far as reading Musaeus’ Hero and Leander. (This is a kind of epical joke – even if true). – I’d read Musaeus before anyway.

QS’ epic takes us from the end of The Iliad to the beginning of the Odyssey, and this I suppose is largely its merit. I read it lazily in English (a thankfully unrhyming metre), so have nothing to say about its language (though I suppose it’s uninteresting enough). Naturally it’s episodic, having to fit in all the requisite tales (the death of Penthesileia, of Memnon, of Achilles, Achilles’ funeral, the death of Aias, the appearance at Troy of Neoptolemos and Philoctetes, the death of Paris, the horse business, the death of most of the other Trojan characters, and the enslavement of their women, and the Achaeans happily setting sail for home believing it’s all over). A lot of this has an intrinsic interest if you have a passing interest in the Matter of Troy, since it covers episodes which are otherwise lost, whilst linking up a bit of Virgil and Greek tragedy. There’s far too much fighting though.

Part of my novel covers business which is largely only really covered in QS, though I’d already mostly written it before reading it. I stole from QS a few names (always useful) and a simple rhetorical device – perhaps too clever by half, I can’t decide. The only discrepancy between my plot and QS’ is that QS has the Palladion stolen after Paris’ death; but then consistent chronology is not a general feature of Greek myth. I have much wider variations elsewhere; and to be honest, I think QS varies more himself from other versions. – And naturally Helen comes out of the book badly.

(Oh yes, I forgot to say. QS gives Briseis a whole speech of her own. So you know, deeply feminist).

Something about Robert Walser

(I see WordPress have updated their site so that it’s slower and far less usable. – I wonder how long it will take me to figure out how to do accents).

I hardly read anything in the second half of the month. One thing I have started reading in French is Robert Walser’s La Rose. Walser sounds much the same (and just as distinctive) in French as in English, but in almost every instance I prefer his French. (His English often sounds bad and clumsy – perhaps he was not very good at it). Sometimes he even seems to be saying completely different things when he’s speaking in French.

For instance, in his L’Idiot de Dostoievski, he writes in French:

Je ne recherche rien aussi ardemment qu’une Aglaia. Mais helas elle en prendrait un autre.

which I’d take to mean:

I seek nothing as ardently as an Aglaia. But alas, she would take another.

(Just to check myself, this is also what google translate takes this to mean).

But in English, he writes, completely differently:

I’m not searching for someone as lively as an Aglaya. Unfortunately, she would, of course, take someone else.

I prefer my interpretation here of his French. Walser characters would always want to go out with someone like Aglaya Ivanovna, and would always fail. They basically all have the same naive viewpoint as Dostoevsky’s idiot. The second sentence seems a bit odd in English, although I suppose we could suppose that the only reason he doesn’t seek for someone as lively as Aglaya is that he already considers she will reject him (which would be Walserian enough).

Maybe though, if we could find a third language which Walser wrote in and compare it with the other two, we might be able to decide which is true.

Livres Lu – Mar 21 (Balzac, Première Partie)

I’d say that in English Balzac is more or less entirely represented by the following books: Pere Goriot, Eugenie Grandet, Cousin Bette, The Chouans, Lost Illusions, Ursule Mirouët, and of course my favourite, The Wild Ass’ Skin. There are a few books of short stories too (though these are rare) and I even have copies of César Birotteau and Cousin Pons, but I’d guess, with the notable exception of The Wild Ass’ Skin, all these books (though I can’t say I’ve read them all) fit very nicely into our view of what makes a realist novel – just as Balzac fits very nicely into our view of what makes a realist novelist. – But what about all the other things he wrote?

Louis Lambert (June-July 1832, pp.102)

Louis Lambert is still realist in a sense, but not exactly the sense we conjure in our minds when we think of a realist novel. Told by a narrator reflecting back on his school-days, when he was friends with a boy called Louis Lambert, who was supposedly a child-genius (at one time sponsored by Madame de Staël), it relates Lambert’s life, as far as our narrator knew it, sometimes through recollection of his own direct observation, sometimes through Lambert’s crazy theories (spoken or written), sometimes through Lambert’s passionate love letters.

I enjoyed the parts about their school-days. If I said they reminded me of anything (aside from my own), it would be something out of Robert Musil: – two boys cut themselves off from their fellows, interested only in themselves and the world of their philosophies. Unfortunately, these philosophies are related at length, and I’m not sure it was just a failure of my French which made me skip quickly over these sections (wouldn’t I have equally skipped over them in English?). Like the Anatole France last month, I struggle with philosophy in books – and only hope to reach again some clearing of story-telling where I can once again see the sun. Those passages however become increasingly sparse during the course of this narrative.

I wonder whether Balzac intends us to take any of this seriously. At first I thought maybe he did (why else go on about it?), but considering how the story turns out, perhaps he intends only to take them for childish fanatic nonsense; for I guess it’s all really part of the story. The last parts of the books are like something out of Schopenhauer or Wittgenstein (Balzac goes on about Swedenborg, so maybe it’s like Swedenborg), and maybe I can’t be faulted for passing over this without much understanding, since even the narrator confesses that some of it’s only comprehensible to “certain spirits habituated to leaning over the edge of the abyss, in the hope of perceiving the bottom” – which has never been my inclination.

I read somewhere that Proust was influenced in his conception of the method of his work by the writings of Balzac, and there are certainly passages in this where one sees the kind of thing that might have been of interest to him, for instance the following sentence:

A qui n’est-il pas, maintes fois, arrivé de penser à une chose futile et d’être entrainé vers une pensée grave par des idées ou par des souvenirs qui s’enroulent?

To whom has it not, many times, arrived of to think to a thing frivolous and of to be dragged towards a thought serious by some ideas or by some memories which roll themselves up? (My translation)

Maître Cornelius (Nov-Dec 1831, pp.72)

Like the above, this appeared in Nouveau Contes Philosophiques, but while it’s clear why you might describe Louis Lambert as “philosophique”, it’s difficult to see how the same term could be applied to Maître Cornelius. In fact, it’s difficult to see why it’s included in La Comédie Humaine in the first place, assuming the purpose of the sequence is Balzac’s analysis of his own time and mores, since it’s entirely set in 1479. (The notes in my edition are a little troubled by this too: they put it down to a vogue for all things medieval inspired by Hugo. Apparently it has much more in common with other non-C-H drolatique stories which Balzac was also writing at the time). Unless of course you take all books, no matter when their subject, to be examples of their own time and mores (in this, Balzac seems to be re-appraising the character of Louis XI). Anyway, it’s a basic love story mixed with a kind of detective plot (with Louis XI as the inspector of police), such as you might indeed find in a medieval romance and all those Italian short stories so beloved of Renaissance playwrights.

La Bourse (May 1832, pp.31)

I thought maybe this would be a satire about the stock exchange, but it was a story about a man who falls first off a ladder, then in love with a girl, who lives with her mother in straitened circumstances. Love takes its usual course in these things. There’s some interest in the interiority of the emotions which are being explored. – In general, I’m finding Balzac has this interest in the experience of being in love; and perhaps his idea of philosophy is simply the contemplation of one’s own emotions and memories.

Madame Firmiani (February 1831,  pp. 94 – so it says, seriously it’s nothing like 94 pages, maybe 20-30)

Another basic love story. A man ruins himself (seemingly) over a beautiful woman, and his uncle investigates. Balzac has great fun at the beginning characterising this woman in the many different ways that the different types and classes of people in Paris see her (i.e. entirely constructed out of rumour and prejudice).

Avant-Propos (1842, pp.)

It’s as well, if I’m going to read through La Comédie Humaine, to understand what Balzac supposed it to be himself. So here’s his preface. – Apparently, in the same ways there are lots of different kinds of animal, so they are lots of different kinds of human-beings; and after all, human-beings are more interesting than animals, because all animals do is chase after other animals, whereas human-beings paint pictures and things like that. Walter Scott already has lots of different kinds of people in his books. What’s missing from the histories of Rome etc is an understanding of their general mores – we just don’t have an idea of their social life. This is something the writer can do, by writing about all kinds of different people and things (about 3,000 should be enough). Not merely this, but the writer can explore the causes of why all these different people are as they are (though Balzac does not claim to have necessarily achieved this).

What’s kind of interesting is that this preface contains what I’d take to be an outright denial of what I’d consider to be realism (realism à la Zola, I suppose). While Balzac explores (and defends his exploration) of humanity’s dark side in his work, he claims that the artist, unlike the historian, is able to be idealistic – things can turn out as he wishes them, and not as they did, according to his plan. (L’histoire n’a pas pour loi, comme le roman, de tendre vers le beau idéal). Balzac’s plan for society is based on two principles: Christianity and Monarchy. (Democracy is never going to work); – the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished, in the end. (Certainly most of the books I’ve read so far have had unsatisfyingly happy endings). – Not things then as they are, a straight depiction of society, but things are they should be in the ideal of the artist. But all the same, while you can base your work on a greater lie, you have to make the details faithful to life. (Mais le roman ne serait rien si, dans cet auguste mensonge, il n’était pas vrai dans les détails). This is what makes Walter Scott tiresome, because all his woman are so virtuous – and this is basically because he’s a protestant, and not a catholic. 

Balzac then recounts all the different sections of his overall scheme: – and indeed, we find the philosophical is intended to look at the motive force behind society.

I suppose then I was wrong, and we should take what Louis Lambert was going on about seriously: – Lambert was mad, but he was mad because he saw the truth.

Le Message (Jan 1832, pp.14)

I was thinking this was a denial of everything Balzac had just been saying: a person who is entirely virtuous had their life destroyed by an entirely random event. But then I realised she was having an affair, so it was entirely right she should pay for it.

La Femme Abandonnée (Sept 1832, pp.39)

Balzac’s view expressed that the only life which a woman who’s committed adultery can enjoy is one of constant penitence and acknowledgement that forever after she must live outside a society which can only shun her and where she can find no pleasure. Any action to the contrary will lead to misery, for her and for others (though possibly they might be years of pleasure to be enjoyed first, which can be conveniently skipped over in a few lines). I can’t help be reminded by this of last month’s La Dame aux Camélias – how different the attitudes of the two authors are: Dumas sees the prejudices of society as the destructive elements in people’s happiness; Balzac sees people’s actions as destructive to their happiness (even though they were miserable in the first place), and the prejudices of society are entirely correct. (More on this in the next part of the month – at least I’m guessing, from the beginning of the next story).

In this half of the month I’ve ended up reading most of what Balzac wrote in 1832 (according to French Wikipedia, though as the dates above will show, some was actually written in 1831): – as far as I can see, I’ve only not read for this year Le Colonel Chabert and another 12 short stories outside La Comédie Humaine. I think 1832 was actually quite a slow year for Balzac.

Livres Lus – Fév 21

Another month spent only reading books in French; – and though I read at random, there was certainly a clear theme. For if last month we observed how, contrary to the English, the French of the c19th seemed to favour a simplicity of style, this month we find a predilection for stories about prostitutes (or at least kept women), a class of people who pretty much don’t feature in c19th English literature. (The last period in which the English wrote about prostitutes – and perhaps they tired themselves out doing so – was the early c18th, the period of the Restoration).

La Dame aux Camélias, by Alexandre Dumas

The story is of a man who falls in love with a courtesan – and peculiarly in this instance the courtesan falls in love with him; but the man has little money, and cannot keep the courtesan, who was to rely on her earnings elsewhere, which enflames his jealousy etc etc. To be honest, I didn’t buy much of it: – or at least, the author didn’t seem to have expended enough effort on the question of why the courtesan fell in love with this particular man (apparently, because he was for a moment sympathetic); and I couldn’t help comparing it the whole time with Swann’s Way, where these matters are entered into in a greater detail – a comparison it doesn’t come out well from. But all the same, it’s enjoyable enough: after all, who doesn’t enjoy stories where people are broken by tragic love.

Boule de Suif, by Guy de Maupassant

There was a point in Boule de Suif, as they were first travelling in the carriage in the snowstorm, where I was sure that the other passengers were going to eat our heroine (this is before they actually mention it jokingly), which just goes to show what my expectations are from a Maupassant story. – It’s as well though that they don’t, or we’d lack one of the all-time great short stories (and another for Obooki’s favourite short stories list). – I wondered if I’d ever read this before; I’ve certainly owned copies. You’d think I would remember, but experience shows I’m quite capable of forgetting anything, no matter how interesting. – This turned out to be, though not advertised as such, Boule de Suif et autres nouvelles – though as usual with Maupassant, the autres nouvelles weren’t exactly up to much.

I also read, on the courtesan theme, but didn’t finish, La Fille Elise by the Goncourt Brothers (which I’ll finish at some point) and Thaïs by Anatole France (which I won’t). I read about half of Thaïs, and it was fine up to that point: a hermit in the Egyptian desert, in the period around Constantine, decides to return to the city in order to save (spiritually) a woman of the demi-monde, Thaïs. Whether he does or not, I don’t know, because a long (presumably) philosophical section got in the way of my further interest in the book.

Dans Un Mois, Dans Un An, by Françoise Sagan

This may be the first book I’ve now read twice in French. At least, parts of it seemed very familiar as I was reading. Rather than bother writing my own view, here are some words on Sagan generally from Martin Seymour Smith’s Guide to Modern World Literature, which sum it up:

Francoise Sagan has one distinction: her lucid style, though even this has deserted her in her most recent romances, dismaying in their unintelligent mediocrity. She writes of bored, shallow, boring, spoiled people seeking relief in brief sexual contacts … [Her] ‘sophisticated’ manner is as effective a cover for mental vacuousness as money is an effective substitute for intelligence – we may judge of this from her devoted readers as well as her characters.

Always amusing, Martin Seymour Smith – until he writes about a writer that you like.

Other things

I read (re-read mostly) most of Perrault’s Contes (the prose ones, anyway), which are ever wry and amusing – and this time also La Métamorphose d’Orante, which is worthy of Ovid (although Ovid would no doubt have compressed it down to about 40 lines [note to self: check whether it doesn’t come from Ovid in the first place]). – What else? – Mérimée’s Vision de Charles XI: an account of Charles XI having a vision. – And also Balzac’s L’Élixir de Longue Vie, a sort of magical moral fable about indulgence, trust and a potion which resurrects the body after death.

I’ve decided to devote most of next month to reading stories by Balzac, and seeing what variety we might find. He wrote a lot of long short stories / novellas (between 30 and 80 pages, the kind of length most writers don’t write), which I reckon will fit pleasingly into my reading schedule. I do find Balzac a little harder in French than most of the other writers this month, which I put down to a certain informality in his approach. (This is excepting the Goncourt Brothers).

Shakespeare in Love

A post for Valentine’s day, a kind of draft of an essay, from an exploratory series on the process of artistic creation (I omit the conculsion as I haven’t really formed it well enough in my mind – as I say, it’s an exploration).

We don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life, but we know that the plot of the film Shakespeare in Love isn’t true. For in Tom Stoppard’s vision, we have Shakespeare deriving the entire story of Romeo and Juliet from his own ill-starred love for Viola de Lesseps: – there is the same “undying” love for another woman; the same meeting at a ball; the same balcony scene. It seems Shakespeare was struggling for ideas, and it is only the inspiration engendered by his love which makes him capable (indeed, contrary to all known human behaviour, it is that first burst of the passion of his love which grants him precisely the concentration he needs to settle down with his quill and write his play); – and it is the subsequent impossibility of his love affair with Viola which inclines him to shift his play from comedy to tragedy, and to come up with the notion of their twin poisoning. As the film maintains, in its wager with the queen as to whether art can ever manage to show love as it really is, it is life as it is really lived which inspires the best art.

And yet, we know it didn’t happen this way. We know that really Shakespeare lifted the plot of Romeo and Juliet – his “undying” love for another woman, the meeting at the ball, the balcony scene, the twin deaths by poison – wholesale from the translations by Arthur Brooke and William Painter of Matteo Bandello’s Italian short story. None of it is his own invention. If love inspired anything in the play, it must have been the language – or we might say perhaps, the inspiration to find in the passivity of the short story a dynamic dramatic core, and to compress the passage of time. And yet still, if this were so, Shakespeare must always have been in love (or hate, or filled with jealousy, or envy, or pride, or ambition), because he employed the same methodology, with (largely) the same results, in almost all his plays.

As well as Shakespeare in Love, I’ve recently been watching the comedy series Upstart Crow, which takes that film’s central idea (that all Shakespeare’s plays are derived from incidents in Shakespeare’s life) and runs with it much further. Because of this Upstart Crow encounters at times a fundamental paradox, which is that Shakespeare, who understood human nature to its core, is constantly shown as understanding nothing about life unless it is shown to him plainly. Such a paradox, of course, is fine for comedy, but as always it should point us towards the truth that our premisses are incorrect.

To me, these are artistic lies – cleverly fancies of their authors – which, like so many discussions and teachings about art, seek to simplify the process of artistic creation – and the nature of art itself – for mass consumption. It is absurd to suggest that Shakespeare lived all his plays before writing them; – yet all the same he must have gained the experience to write them from somewhere.

Livres Lus – Jan 21

I was intending, as my contribution to the many new vistas of opportunity afforded us by Brexit, to make sure that half the books (fiction only) that I read this year are in French. However, I couldn’t even keep to my resolution for a single month – because this month everything I read was in French.

La Symphonie Pastorale by Andre Gidé

One of those odd French books which are actually known in English by their French title (I presume because it’s a reference to a piece of music, though I don’t see why that means it can’t be translated into English).

I read this in English many years ago, and obviously don’t remember a thing about it. Now I discover that it’s a version of the Casper Hauser story – in this case, a blind girl has grown up as if in isolation; she’s rescued by a priest of some sort, who finds a divine perfection in her innocence, which he ultimately destroys by his own corruption when he falls in love with her. This idea of the innocence of the character who has not been exposed to the corruption of the human world is also very much the concern of Casper Hauser, but in that book the rescuer becomes disabuse of the notion not through his own corruption, but through the natural corruption inherent to man. 

Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune, by Gaston Leroux

What impressed me most about this, was that I read half the book in a day (which, based on my estimation technique of Kindle pages, is up to somewhere around 150 pages). This seems something a break-through for me, particularly insofar as I never felt fed up with reading French and wanting to read some English instead, but it’s also, I suppose, attributable to the page-turning nature of the work.

This is your typical locked-room detective mystery, with the variation that it has two competing detectives. I’d kind of guessed most of the twists as I was going along (one of which did seem a bit silly), but it was very absorbing, and kept me on edge throughout, because I was so afraid the explanation was going to be a let-down.

Leroux is very easy-going French for the most part. I imagine I shall read some more. I suspect popular c19th French fiction which is not so common in English is going to be a theme in the coming months.

A few short stories by Prosper Merimée

I read, from Romans et Nouvelles Tome 1, the following stories, all of which I’ve read before in English – Matéo Falcone, L’Enlèvement de la Redoute, Le Vase Étrusque, and Tamango. The remaining 400 pages of this 500 page book, which I’ll come to, are stories I haven’t read before.

Merimée is very straight-forward French. (I’m actually not reading this on the Kindle). All the stories I read are more or less classics. (Somewhere lost in the private part of this blog is a list of my favourite short-stories, and Matéo Falcone is my choice for Merimée).  Merimée, like Stendhal (his friend), favours stories of noble savages (i.e. non-French), over the French with their degenerate civilisation. His stories are rarely happy affairs.

Vittoria Accoramboni by Stendhal

My English edition of Chroniques Italiennes has only 3 of the 8 stories in my French edition, and none of them is Vittoria Accoramboni. And yet, as I was reading it, I had a strong sense that this was something I’d read before; and I was wondering whether I’d managed after all to come across it in some other English edition, or if I’d read it in French already (for I’m already beginning to forget what I’ve read in French); – but somewhere in the middle, it actually struck me where I knew the story from: – it’s the source for John Webster’s The White Devil. (I saw a production of The White Devil a few years ago – probably the worst theatrical production I’ve seen, at least recently: the acting was poor, the staging uninteresting, but most of all, I suspect – which is in fact what intrigued me to see it – it just isn’t a very good play). Stendhal tells the story in a very straight-forward manner (as opposed, he says notably in his introduction, to what George Sand might have made of it), with very straight-forward language. His purpose is, like Merimée, to demonstrate how much preferable are the attitudes and mores of the Italians of the c15th compared to the French of today (I.e. c19th) with their degenerate “civilisation”.

Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I’d never read Le Petit Prince before: – by which I mean, I’ve often read the first few pages, about his drawing of a hat, and always found it very funny; but I’ve never read the rest of it. This seems a pity now, because it’s a delightful book throughout – as much of humanity aside from me has no doubt previously discovered. The child’s view of the nonsensical adult world is a joke which can be extended ad infinitum. – Unsurprisingly, this book for children is relatively straight-forward to read.

Some of Les Diaboliques, by J Barbey d’Aurevilly

I read the first 4 stories (which is about half) of this. To be honest, this is much harder French than any of the above, because Barbey d’Aurevilly has a penchant for long rambling sentences with many parentheses, and likes to insert into them many phrases I don’t understand. I was assuming this was the source for the film of the same name by Henri-Georges Clouzot: – the matter of all the stories, tales of heightened passion, recounted (often by one of the protagonists) in disturbed retrospect, often leading to murder or some other form of tragedy, seems to fit the bill. – But on the other hand, imdb says the film is from a novel by Boileau / Narcejac (so maybe not). – All very enjoyable though, even if you do get the impression after a while that Barbey d’Aurevilly considers all women to be psychotic. A work which, as far as I’m aware, is almost totally unknown in English.

Having spent a month reading only French, surprisingly perhaps I feel no particular envy to return to English.

Idylls of the King, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

I thought I’d cover the second half of the year with just this single review of Idylls of the King.

I guess Tennyson is one of those writers I’ve always held a prejudice against, to the extent that I’ve never even been conscious that it’s something I should be challenging. I only bought this book because of my interest over the last few years in Arthurian legend.

In Idylls of the King, Tennyson pretty much adds everything to Arthurian legend which always seemed to me to be missing. I’d noted in a previous post the peculiar artlessness of Arthurian writings in comparison to works like The Iliad/Odyssey. Tennyson alters all this, adding in such things as subtlety and human psychology. Particularly I enjoyed his exploration of the paradox which seems at the heart of Arthurian legend: the nature of Lancelot, who is at once the exemplar of Arthurian virtue and at the same time carrying on an affair with Guinevere. This essential corruption of the purity of the Arthurian ideal – the idea that, in the end, living in the way of Christ is inhuman – is a recurrent notion underlying most of the poems in this work, and binds it into a coherent whole. Although curiously (and, to me, inexplicably) this all changes in the last 2 poems, where Tennyson reverts to a more traditional and dull defence of Christian virtue (Guinevere reminds us that it’s all the woman’s fault, because she committed adultery).

Tennyson doesn’t seem to me to be a writer whose much read anymore – or at least, much talked about. I wonder if this is because he hasn’t been eclipsed by modernism. What is essentially an epic poem about Arthurian legend doesn’t exactly fit in with c20th artistic interests. Maybe it’s time for a revival.

Since we’ve now left the EU, here’s an appropriate line from the epilogue:

The voice of Britain, or a sinking land / Some third-rate isle half-lost among her seas?

(There were no oranges in the shop today).

My film recommendation from the second half of the year is Maria Saakyan’s The Lighthouse.

Spanish Literature Month – Two Books

Facundo, by Domingo F Sarmiento

This book was on my pile of books to be disposed of without reading (something of a necessity these days) – I think because it seemed, from the opening chapter, too much of a sociological / economic type history, rather than a kings and battles type history, which is the only kind of history Obooki likes. In reality it’s a mixture of both, and the sociological, and indeed geological, bit is of vast importance to Sarmiento’s ideas: – basically that Argentina is divided between a coastal area of European-influenced civilisation, and an interior area of barbaric pampas. Not that it’s that straight-forward, but essentially this is the conflict which Sarmiento sets up – the barbaric being personified in the character of Facundo Quiroga, brutal gaucho commander and ruler of some interior area of Argentina (where exactly anywhere in the hinterland of Argentina actually was, as described in this book, is beyond Obooki’s knowledge); and civilisation, pretty much, by the city of Buenos Aires (and such representatives as existed in other cities). Anyway, slowly Facundo, and other commanders such as Rosas, dismantle civilisation to replace it with their own barbarism.

It’s all interesting enough in itself, but what I found equally interesting was how much this book seeped into the other Spanish language books I was contemporaneously reading. The absolutism of Facundo, as a regional commander, over the people over whom he ruled – especially as regards any woman who took his fancy – reminded me remarkably of the position and attitude of the wicked commander in Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna – though without a king to restore order. Facundo’s ultimate death, in which his arrogance of his own prowess leads him to being incautious, is much the same of Don Alonso’s in Lope de Vega’s The Knight of Olmedo. Almost as if Facundo is merely a character born out of these earlier stories, a physical extension of old Spanish notions of honour and manliness.

And then there’s Borges. He has a quote on the back of my edition, claiming Facundo to be the “most memorable character of Argentine literature”. Maybe so, but I can’t help thinking Borges is even more influenced by Sarmiento’s juxtaposition of civilisation and barbarism, for he seems in his own stories to be obsessed by the idea (and the idea of contemporary events in reality seeming to be of different eras, and events in different eras being contemporary) – e.g. the story I read yesterday, The Story of the Warrior and the Captive (the reaction of a barbarous man coming into contact with civilisation; and a civilisation woman transported into a world of barbarism). Hopefully it will help me understand a bit more all his stories about gauchos and knife-fights.

Anyway, I’m glad I decided to read it, rather than give it away.

Reasons of State, by Alejo Carpentier

Already one of my favourite Latin American writers, especially for Explosion in a Cathedral (less so the books I’ve read since), I was very taken by the first half of this book, but I did get bogged down for a long time in the middle. It’s another of your typical Latin American dictator novels (as, in many ways, is Facundo). This time our hero is the dictator of an unnamed Latin American country around the time of the first world war, who spends as much of his time as he can living in France, only occasionally having to return to the world over there in order to suppress insurrections against his rule. But the world is changing; his brutal methods of suppression in his own country are being publicised in the US and Europe, and his friends in high society are increasingly refusing to see him. Now the spectre of communism too threatens his overthrow.

I liked all of Carpentier’s rich language, but to me his downfall is his obsession with lists, in which he perhaps could challenge the great Emile Zola.

In Spanish the book’s title is El Recurso del Metodo, which I take to mean “recourse to the method” (a phrase which appears in the book) – the method in this case being the one of retaining power, which works repeatedly, as they say, right up to the moment when it doesn’t; but also seems to have reference to Descartes, whose quotes appear constantly as chapter headings (though I don’t really remember Descartes being so political). On the other hand, bearing in mind the subject matter, Reasons of State is an equally sensible title. I’m just left wondering why they changed it. It was also published by an organisation called The Writers and Readers Publishing Co-operative – a name which makes me think of some sort of anarcho-syndicalist publisher – and yet I wonder if this book espouses exactly the ideology they imagine: – I don’t know Carpentier’s affliation, but to my mind he spends far too much time in the book describing the Parisian life of decadence and wealth, for any reader to think he was wholly opposed to it. You’d hardly mistake it anyway for socialist realism.


Books Read – June 2020 (Part 2)

The Prelude, by William Wordsworth

I think this is the first English language epic poem I’ve read (at least, in its entirety). I guess it’s a literary form which has been pretty much out of fashion these last two centuries; today it would just be an autobiographical novel. Basically it’s an enquiry by Wordsworth into how he became Wordsworth: the growth of the artist within, how he’s sustained by his love of the natural world (mostly the Lake District), and less so by human society (more specifically the French Revolution, or what it led to). In general interesting enough, but that didn’t prevent me getting very bogged down at times. I’m still not sure epic poetry is at all suited to English.

The Invitation, by Claude Simon

If you’ve read all of Faulkner, and want to read some more Faulkner, then you could read some Claude Simon. He even employs a lot of Faulkner’s syntactical tics. Structurally, his works tend to be more broken up, and the subject matter is certainly not Faulknerian. This novel is about an invitation extended to 15 famous figures from around the world to visit the newly perestroikaed Russia (or, at least, this is what I derived from the text – the essay afterwards says it would be reductive to claim this was what it was about). It kind of starts and ends and doesn’t really go anywhere or say anything or have a point. (I’ve got another novel, which I must finish reading, called Perestroika in Partygrad, by Alexander Zinoviev, which is much the same, but from a Russian satirical point of view). But as with Faulkner, I mostly enjoyed just the pure writing.

Dom Casmurro, by Machado de Assis

This is certainly my favourite of his novels – far better than his other two more Sterne-like, post-modernist affairs (Epitaph of a Small Winner and Quincas Borba, the latter of which I remember not enjoying at all – and possibly not finishing). This is the accepted view too. (Although I did enjoy the previous more realist novel of his I read, which I haven’t the effort to look up now but I’m sure is somewhere on this blog [I looked it up later, it was Yaya Garcia]). Basically a story of adolescent love flourishing, perhaps, into mature adult love (i.e. marriage) – and not even particularly against the wishes of anyone’s family.

The Double Tongue, by William Golding

This the last novel Golding wrote, and the last of his novels I had yet to read. (It’s very rare for me to actually finish an author’s complete works). I think it’s far from his best novel. As we observed a few months ago about Golding, he has a great interest in extreme states of mind (far from the modern Western one). This novel is about a woman who becomes the voice of the Pythian oracle at Delphi, but it didn’t really satisfy on this account. There was too little examination of what the mind of an oracle might be; and too much religious scepticism (I’m always sceptical towards scepticism of ancient religion; in many ways the ancients took religion a lot more seriously than we do). Additionally, there’s a counterplot about a Greek conspiracy to rid themselves of Roman imperium which, while I’m inclined to believe lots of people living under the Romans would rather they didn’t, I found unlikely (especially for the Greeks, who ultimately throve to the extent of completely taking over the eastern empire).

Ion, by Euripides

I re-read this because it’s referenced in The Double Tongue, though aside from being set around the oracle of Delphi, and occasionally the Pythian priestess appears in it, it doesn’t have all that much in common with it. The back of my copy claims it’s a play about “reconciling religious faith with the facts of human life”, but this seems to me a very Christian point of view and not at all evidenced in the text (though now I guess I’m going to have to read it again to make sure!). The ancient Greeks had no difficulty in reconciling religious faith with the facts of human life: they simply didn’t believe the gods had our best interests at heart in the first place. Something of a proto-#MeToo play as well, in which the central character Creusa finally years later decides to speak out about how she was raped as a young girl.

Knight’s Gambit, by William Faulkner

Usually I take months (if not years) to complete any given book of short stories, but these six I read in six days. There are all detective – or at least crime – stories, revolving around that familiar Faulknerian character, Gavin Stevens. Aside from the first story, which is mostly a Poirot-like everyone-gathered-together-to-reveal-the-mystery affair, mostly in these pieces one wonders if the chain of detection is quite as important to Faulkner as the cultural environs of the crime and the corruption of the legal process (or society at large in which it exists), not to mention the extension of the general mythology of Yoknapatawpha County. The last and longest story is somewhat different, in which Faulkner’s digressive garrulousness itself is used to distract you from the clues as to what’s going on. Far-fetched perhaps at times, but wonderfully written – he is in his full story-telling mode.

Books Read – June 2020

I’m going to divide this month into 4 parts (probably), there’s so much I’ve read (or, at least, finished).

Andreas, by Hugo von Hofmannstahl

This is a novel (or part of one) from last month which I forgot. I really enjoyed it, and it’s a great pity Hofmannstahl couldn’t overcome his hang-ups about writing and finish it. On account of the bizarre nature of the happenings in it, it reminded me a lot of ETA Hoffmann. The whole business of the servant seems like the typical Hoffmann story starting off normally and then spiralling off into unexpected dimensions; – and then, as far as I remember, there was a woman who climbed up walls like a spider. I’d like to have known more what that was all about.

A Maze of Death, by Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick is an author who can be divided more easily than most into his good and bad books. A Maze of Death falls into his good category. From what I’ve read before, it’s closest to Ubik. The set-up is the same (a group of people start mysteriously dying in a world which for some reason is disintegrating), and so are a lot of the preoccupations (mostly, death). That is to say, like most Dick, it’s not your run-of-the-mill sci-fi. The reader is left with the usual sense of not really knowing what’s going on throughout, though unlike Ubik, where the ultimate “explanation” for all this leaves you strangely none the wiser, A Maze of Death‘s explanation – like the previous Dick book we read, Time Out of Joint – seemed a bit disappointingly (ahem) deus ex machina.

Plays 2, by Dario Fo

I can’t say I was much impressed by these, although 2 of the plays (Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay – a sort of socialist strike play – and The Open Couple – about what it says) were better than the other two. Elizabeth, the longest play, has the problem of competing in my mind with Miranda Richardson’s portrayal of Elizabeth, against which nothing can compare, and is in the end rather silly (which is a harsh criticism of a farce).

The Saga of Gisli

I think this is so far my favourite Icelandic saga. It’s short, only about 60 pages, and is the usual Icelandic story of murder and revenge. Four friends are destined to fall out and kill one another. The explanation as to why is left very vague (perhaps one friend commits adultery with another friend’s wife?) the reader remaining as uncertain as the characters seem. It all escalates, until our hero Gisli ends up an outlaw (no one is allowed to give him shelter, though naturally many do) and is hunted down (rather like say The Running Man – i.e. the book, not the film).

The Mabinogion

I’ve been reading this for a while, and it’s only the last two romances I read this month. (The four books of the Mabinogion themselves are very strange – in fact, beyond the first one, they’re reasonably incomprehensible. I guess it’s what happens with oral story-telling, once everyone’s forgotten what the story was originally about). These last 2 pieces are Arthurian romance. I’m not sure I quite grasped the point of Gereint son of Erbin: – because he paid too much attention to his wife, and not enough to his kingdom, he was ashamed and made her ride in front of him on a purposeless quest, killing any knights who approached them (the bit about mists at the end reminded me of Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant). Peredur son of Efrawg, on the other hand, I found fascinating as another version of the grail story, but this time without the grail, or any of the appropriate elements of the grail legend. Peredur is Percival (Parsifal), who grows up not knowing what knights are, becomes a knight, only to fail to ask the question of the Fisher King, just like in Chrétien de Troyes, but the stories thereafter differ – presumably around the point when Chrétien de Troyes died and left his story for other people to complete, and they decided to hedge it around with all kinds of Christian mysticism; whereas here in the Mabinogion the whole business has a much more prosaic explanation, it’s nothing to do with Christ or the last supper or Joseph of Arimatheia. There’s some scholarly discussion (so my introduction says) of which story influenced which, or if it all just comes from the same source. I can’t help feeling myself that this is probably how the original story was completed – and would have been how Chrétien finished his (but I need to re-read Chrétien some time).

The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, by Joseph Conrad

I was going to review this in light of Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Conrad as a racist (primarily, if I recall, and without actually looking up the article, because he feels Conrad refuses to ascribe black men (as Achebe says, Conrad’s favoured term is “niggers”) with humanity, using them rather as mere backdrop to the white man’s issues; though I remember at the time thinking it was odd that the article omitted all mention of The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus‘, which as I recall might at least have attempted to imbue one black man with humanity), but since I started re-reading it, the issue’s become too close to the zeitgeist for me to be bothered with it. Besides, it’s the kind of novel you could argue almost any position on. (If you’re looking for an undergraduate dissertation though, and don’t want to do Heart of Darkness like everybody else…)

What did trouble me in thinking about this matter, was who the narrator was in this novella. It’s told from an “I” point of view, which is often in truth a “we” point of view, like a Greek chorus. The narrator is clearly a member of the crew, observing events, and yet as a member of the crew he is invisible, a ghost – there is no interaction between him and anyone else. The only time he appears as an actual sentient being is at the end, when he says goodbye to one of the crew members (Belfast, the one who was best friend’s with James Wait, the “nigger” of the title – you see, Conrad even gives him a name). Otherwise the story is basically a comparison (in some way and for some purpose) between James Wait, who claims he can’t do any work about ship because he’s dying, and a character called D – who is a shirker, and perhaps proto-socialist shop-steward (I’m not sure Conrad says much difference) – who just doesn’t want to do any work; – and the attitudes of the crew to the two of them (generally, they’re favourable to Wait and dislike D). Or perhaps it’s just about a storm.

Let the Wind Speak, by Juan Carlos Onetti

After enjoying The Shipyard and Body Snatcher, I’ve struggled with the last few Onetti novels I’ve read. Even with this one, I’d previously read the first 80 pages, and believe I enjoyed them. The reason I never went on, I think, is that I put the book down for a month, and when I picked it up again, I had no idea what the book was about or who any of the characters were. This is perhaps not so surprising, as the book doesn’t put in much effort to make any sense, either in plot or structure – or even, one might say, consistency of character. As far as I can ascertain, a character Medina is living in Lavanda (a world parallel to Onetti’s usual Santa Maria, and which in the real world parallels Onetti’s own exile in Madrid), where he’s in a relationship with Frieda, and some other characters, and maybe has a son; and then he goes back to Santa Maria, where he is the police chief, and is still in some way having a relation Frieda, who is also having a relationship with his supposed son. The unwillingness to be comprehensible naturally began to grate after a while.