Total Fears, by Bohumil Hrabal

Total Fears has been my favourite read so far this year. I guess over the years I’ve read almost all of Hrabal works that are in English, and in general enjoyed them – he has a world-vision I find pleasing. Perhaps I’ve been least impressed by Too Loud a Solitude, which a lot of people (including Hrabal himself) consider his best book: – by which I imagine, as quite often, they mean: most intentionally meaningful book. I enjoyed far more the last thing I read by him, a collection of short stories called The Death of Mr Baltisberger.

Total Fears is a collection of Hrabal’s essays, extracted from a larger collection in Czech, written in a free associative way: that is to say, Hrabal starts writing about a subject, then just wanders in his thoughts wherever he likes for the next twenty pages, before usually bringing the affair back round to the starting-point in the pleasing manner of ring composition. The essays are all written as letters to an American woman who visited Hrabal once and invited him on a lecture tour, which eventually he does go on – though this tour, and one also of Britain (he found it cold), I thought the least interesting episodes in the book; the better, and larger, parts dealt with the course of Czech history during his lifetime and his place in it, which seems mostly to have been in the pub. For Hrabal spends most of his time drinking, or at least this is how he portrays in it (when he visits America, he takes particular interest in places Dylan Thomas habituated) – both the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, he spent in the pub, excitedly watching events unfold, proud of the people taking part in them, sitting there drinking his beer.

The eponymous Total Fears essay, perhaps the best in the collection, also seems something of a key: a naked, unflinching piece of self-analysis. It is sparked by a journalist asking him one day how he come he never suffered as a dissident writer – along with some other reminiscences, among which is an essay on Hrabal by Ivan Klima, the emigre Czech writer (who, along with Kundera and Skvorecky, are pale shadows of writers beside Hrabal), about there being two sides to Hrabal, though Hrabal never says explicitly what the essay was about, only that he is “glad to have read Ivan Klima’s piece, he’s a man of character, whereas I, as I discover and am afraid to say in essence, am rather a man of no character”, and then goes on to relate how, out of fear, he passed information to the authorities about dissidents and those involved in publishing his own samizdat literature, despising himself as he did so but, living in a constant state of terror and humiliated as a human-being, nonetheless finding himself incapable of acting in any other way.

All enjoyable stuff.

My Novella

I – or at least my alter-ago, MJ Iles, has a novella out. It’s called Urquell I. When I say “out”, I mean I’ve stuck it on Amazon. No editors, no publishers. You can purchase a copy here for £1.99 (or your local monetary equivalent). It’s about 50 pages long.

Why Don’t You Send It To a Publisher Then?

Because:

a) Publishers aren’t the least bit interested in 50 page novellas

b) The sentences and paragraphs in it are long and tortuous and contain strange grammar and punctuation; and nothing like that is ever published these days

c) I can sell it to you for £1.99 if I don’t have one (I wanted to sell it cheaper, but Amazon doesn’t agree)

But Why Write a Novella?

Because:

a) I’ve never finished writing a novel in my life, usually out of boredom and a loss of belief in my original purpose

b) I’ve become convinced that novels are actually too long and far from an ideal art-form; art is much better consumed as a unified whole (e.g. cinema, theatre)

What’s It About?

Boy meets girl, that sort of thing

Is It Like This Blog?

I doubt it’s quite the kind of thing you’re expecting; but on further consideration, perhaps it does make some sort of sense.

Can I Get a Review Copy Off You, Or Just Read it Free?

Yes, ok. Email me at emjayiles3@gmail.com and I’ll send you it. It will be in some computer format, probably Acrobat. (Also, if you’re signed up to Amazon Prime, you can read it for free anyway).

Can I Not Get a Hard Copy?

No.

But I Only Read Literature Translated From Foreign Languages / Literature Prior to 1930

Yes, I know that. So do I.

If I Criticise Your Novella, How Are You Likely To Feel About It?

If you say something good, I’ll suppose you’re just being kind; if you say something bad, I’ll think you know nothing about literature. If your views – whether positive or negative – happen to coincide with my own, I’ll consider you a very astute critic.

Do You Think The Novella Is Any Good Yourself?

There’s bits of it I like; though I’m troubled by nebulous doubts whether I should publish it at all. (In fact, if you substitute the concept of love in the novella for art, that’s how I feel about it).

What Are You Writing Next?

Another novella, about Helen of Troy.

Electra, by Sophocles

Reading Electra, I was surprised how similar the basic plot is to Hamlet (or I assume it is, since it’s a long time since I last read or saw Hamlet): a daughter finds her father murdered by a man who has now married her mother, and the play describes her mental struggle to react to the situation.

For Electra, this problem is exacerbated by her being a woman in a world where women fundamentally have no power to act of their own accord; they are obliged instead to get a man to act on their behalf. So Electra is waiting for her brother Orestes to turn up and sort everything out; and it is only her worry that this is never going to transpire – and later, that Orestes is dead – that drives her to consider the mad step of acting on her own behalf. Her sister Chrysothemis provides a neat counterpoint: she’s not happy with the situation either, but what can one do other than resign oneself?

I found this powerless position of women in society similar to the situation of Deianeira in Women of Trachis – and no doubt also Antigone in Antigone, though I need to re-read it – and not far either from how I view the position of women in general in Athenian society in Sophocles’ time. Reading Women of Trachis, I was partly thinking Sophocles was intending it as a comment on his times; and partly thinking he was just using the position of women as a set-up for his tragedy; – but the similarities in Electra make me think it must be something of an on-going theme of his. Traditionally of course it is Euripides, Sophocles’ contemporary, who’s seen as the playwright more interested in female roles; but three out of Sophocles’ seven plays have female leads, and Women in Trachis and Electra have almost all female casts. Maybe Euripides’ women have more freedom to act, I must re-read some and see.

I was always taught that Electra possesses a ridiculous plot device in which Electra learns of Orestes’ return when she recognises a lock of his hair on an altar; but re-reading it, this turns out – like many things we’re taught about Greek tragedy – not to be true at all. It is Chrysothemis who discovers the hair and assumes it belongs to Orestes; Electra actually ridicules her assumption; but in reality Chrysothemis has other, less absurd, reasons for believing what she believes.

Next up, Philoctetes: a tragedy in which no one dies and which has a happy ending.

An Outcast of the islands, by Joseph Conrad

Even as I struggle to read most other novels, Conrad and Faulkner manage to entertain me, though I find I’m content enough not to look too deeply into why – perhaps it’s just the simple mix of plot and human understanding.

An Outcast of the Islands is impressive as only Conrad’s second novel; I read his first, Almayer’s Folly, years ago and can’t remember the least thing about it. Outcast has a lot of similarities with Lord Jim: it’s about a man who commits a transgression and who, in need of being removed beyond the bounds of civil (i.e. western) society, ends up in a distant part of the Malayan jungle where he becomes embroiled in local politics. Where it differs from Lord Jim, is in his redemption; – for in this he doesn’t redeem himself at all: given the opportunity to act reasonably, he commits a further transgression against the one man who’s tried to help him. Perhaps this incorrigibility on the part of the main character is why it’s not as well-known as Lord Jim; people in general are no doubt less content with a man who merely fails and fails again, even if it is largely through no will of his own; but I on the whole preferred it to the other book. Both the outcast, who has no intention of acting badly but does nonetheless, and the man who helps him constantly through his life and is only rewarded with betrayal, are fascinating portraits of humanity. Much like Faulkner, nothing is clean or clear-cut in this world.

I notice a similarity too with the last Conrad I read, The Arrow of Gold, in that it is the love of a woman that drives our anti-hero to act as he does, at least on the second occasion; and to act essentially against what is good for him. I’ve a vague recollection this idea persists elsewhere in Conrad too, but I imagine it is nothing more than romanticism; the notion that people should in the end by overtaken by their passions, even if it is to their detriment.

Conrad’s attitude towards colonialism I find in this very similar to Kipling, and his ironic use of traditional imperial attitudes in order to debunk them. Here again it is the characters who are interested in this other world who are approved; and yet it is, on the other hand, never quite as clear-cut in Conrad; for none of his characters are wholly applaudable; they are all out for their own interests; and this includes the Malays. Indeed, quite a significant amount of the novel is taken up from the point of view of the Malays, their own interal politics, and the impact of the white man (or at least, the foreigner) upon them. For while the outsiders fight to control the trade with the Malays; so the Malays fight to control the trade with the outsiders – each succeeding only in swapping one trading partner for another.

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying was the first Faulkner novel I read, aged about 16 or 17, and I remember exactly what I thought about it at the time: the story was good, but it had been badly written. After the passage of time, do I disagree with my youthful self?

As I Lay Dying certainly has in the Bundrens the least eloquent narrators that appear in Faulkner; and I’ve no doubt it was this I didn’t like when I was young, and which I still don’t like now. I know now that this style is not in fact typical of Faulkner: he has rather a penchant for the excessive long and rambling sentence, and consequently for characters who tend to think this way. My prejudice extends from As I Lay Dying to almost all modern literature, which is all similarly ineloquent, whether because of incapacity or otherwise affectation; though sometimes I think it is not mere prejudice.

No, I don’t like it. I feel, when Faulkner tries to get his characters to have thoughts more complex than their verbiage allows, everything becomes abstract and unclear. This is particularly true of Darl, whose character in this novel I frankly struggle with: he is meant to be insane, but doesn’t really come across this way at all in the first two-third of the novel. In fact, he seems the most sensible of the Bundrens. And I still have little idea what Vardaman is going on about most of the time. I was lost on how old he is meant to be, since he often comes across as about eight, but actually I think it is likely he is about sixteen. Faulkner does in fact give away the ages of the children during the course of the novel and I don’t think it’s entirely what I’d been considering: Darl and Cash are both about thirty, Dewey Dell is about nineteen (it is given exactly in the text), and Jewel is about eighteen. Vardaman is merely younger than this, though perhaps not much. On the whole, it is the less contemplative characters, and especially the supporting cast, who I think succeed much better.

These characters, the children in particular, are already now becoming familiar Faulkner types; comparable especially with those in The Sound and the Fury. Darl is Quentin; Vardaman like Benjy in the way he expresses his thoughts and his lack of a full understanding of the world around him; Dewey Dell has aspects about her of Caddie, especially the younger Caddie; and Jewel is very much like Jason, the son privileged by his mother whom the other children are not entirely enamoured of. The book is, like The Sound and The Fury, about the children, their inter-relations, and their relationship with their parents, particularly with their mother.

This is the only novel of Faulkner’s (I think) which has a constant changing of points of view; quite a few of his other novels have long sections told by different narrators; and Faulkner uses the effect of this quite plainly, merely building up a multi-sided picture of events. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring any of the less natural, more literary possibilities of this formal structure (contradiction, misunderstanding, irony etc). The only moment I noticed in this novel, is where Cora observes Darl is the only child who has any feeling for his mother, and her reasons for stating this are then directly contradicted in other passages. Perhaps it is not in keeping with the subject. I’m not sure he explores these things much in his other novels either. Not really much of one for experimentation for experimentation’s sake, eh?

A Snopes appears, though off-stage, as a horse-dealer. I notice a Snopes has appeared so far in every one of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels, a pattern I’m beginning to believe is deliberate.

This wasn’t actually the novel Faulkner started after finishing The Sound and The Fury; he first started on Sanctuary, but put it aside to write this. It is Sanctuary which will be up next.

Women of Trachis, by Sophocles

Last week I read Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine, a drama retelling the Oedipos myth, which is of much wider breadth than Sophocles’ Oedipos Tyrannos (it begins with the business of the Sphinx), though I couldn’t help wondering what the point of Cocteau’s effort was. His essential concept, of the Infernal Machine, is that of the fateful machinations of the plot as it works itself out to Oedipos’ destruction – and this is frankly much better done in Sophocles’ version.

Woman of Trachis in this sense I find very similar to Oedipos Tyrannos: it contains that the same ideal tragic plot, where a character acts sincerely and innocently without understanding the terrible consequences their actions are going to bring about. Not merely once but twice does Sophocles play the trick: with Deianeira’s giving of the fatal cloak; and with Hyllus’ blaming his mother for her evil actions when she is innocent.

I find myself wondering a few things. Is there dramatic irony in Women of Trachis (and is there in Oedipos Tyrannos)? I’m not so sure. – Women of Trachis is perhaps more useful in this respect, because at a guess you, like I, don’t already know the story – and it is this foreknowledge, not the playwright’s art, in Oedipos Tyrannos, which creates any dramatic irony (or so I suppose, without actually re-reading). Instead we learn of Deianeira’s error at the same time Deianeira does – at the same time our chorus, the Women of Trachis, does – and so the dramatist leads us into those feelings of empathy and sympathy which we might say are the basis of the tragic art.

And what of the gods? I find myself frustrated that my favourite E.R. Dodds essay on the subject has disappeared seemingly for good behind paywalls, because I’d have liked to have reminded myself what his argument was here (I just remember I didn’t feel I quite agree with it); but like Oedipos Tyrannos, Women of Trachis has the relation of men and gods very much in mind, particularly in the last scene between Heracles and Hyllus, which otherwise seems like something of an appendage to the main play. I don’t find any of it though so different to what I already expect of Sophocles, and of the ancient world in general: that the gods certainly work in mysterious ways, but that isn’t to suggest like later Christian thought, that they have our good in mind when they do so.

So Hyllus ends the play, addressing the chorus:

Women of Trachis, you have leave to go.
You have seen strange things,
The awful hand of death, new shapes of woe,
Uncounted sufferings;
And all that you have seen is God.

Cicero’s Pro Caelio (and some Catullus)

Cicero may have been a pompous self-important ass, but he was also the world’s greatest rhetoricians, and the incandescent brilliance of his forensic oratory is often both mesmerising and amusing.

I was lead to the Pro Caelio while contemplating Catullus’ Poem 58 (surely one of everyone’s favourites!):

Caelius, our Lesbia, Lesbia herself,
That Lesbia, whom Catullus loved
More than himself and all his friends,
Now on street-corners and down back-alleys
Jerks off the grandsons of great-hearted Remus.

Now if we follow tradition in identifying Lesbia with Clodia, then it seems reasonable to identify Caelius here with the Caelius Rufus of the Pro Caelio (though some have denied it), who also had an affair with Clodia, which is largely the subject of Cicero’s speech. So what light, I wondered, might the Pro Caelio shed on this mysterious woman? – And how does this match Catullus’ portrayal? And how did Roman society work anyway in the late Republic? Who knew who, and what side was everyone on?

Cicero is defending Caelius Rufus on two charges: a) that during his affair with Clodia, he borrowed gold off her in order to pay some slaves to murder a certain Dio of Alexandria; and b) that he attempted to procure poison in order to murder Clodia. Roman society had no concept of state prosecution; all cases were private matters and therefore prosecution tended to be politically motivated (by which I probably mean, helpful to prosecutor’s / defender’s reputation; beneficial in establishing the right political connexions – least of all any concept of public service). Cicero maintains that these charges are nonsense (he certainly makes a masterly case, but then he would make it seem that way), and that in fact the prosecution, instigated by the Clodii faction (the notorious Publius Clodius himself is one of the prosecutors), was only brought about because Caelius Rufus has been prosecuting them over some other matters (against his advice, Cicero adds, no doubt because in defending Caelius he doesn’t want to alienate those he’s defending him against, who are probably also at times useful friends and allies). Anyway, he makes his case, which includes a great farcical scene in a bath-house, and wins.

It’s only in the latter part of the speech that he actually gets to these issues however; a lot of the early part of the case is basically concerned with the character of young Caelius Rufus, whom the prosecution seemed to have characterised as something of a skirt-chasing hell-raiser; to which Cicero responds that there’s nothing wrong with this – in moderation; – we were all a bit like this when we were young; and anyhow, Caelius is just a nice boy who’s been led astray by an evil woman – which leads him to his extended character assassination of Clodia.

He starts upon Clodia (as he says) gently, in order to build her character in his audience’s mind (not, of course, that they wouldn’t have known her anyway). First he brings in one of her famous dead ancestors, to wonder why it is she was acquainted with this Caelius Rufus at all since he wasn’t related to their family, and has him bang on about the historic virtuousness of the Claudii and the Metelli (into which latter family she’d married; – they were serious aristocracy the Metelli, not of course that the Claudii weren’t) (“Was it for this that I broke the treaty which was concluded with Pyrrhus, that you should every day make new treaties of most disgraceful love?” moans her ancestor). Then he takes on the guise of her younger brother for much the same effect, before coming out with this quiet breath-takingly brazen piece of rhetorical imputation:

I am not saying anything now against that woman [Clodia]: but if there were a woman totally unlike her, who made herself common to everybody; who had always some one or other openly avowed as her lover; to whose gardens, to whose house, to whose baths the lusts of every one had free access as of their own right; a woman who even kept young men, and made up for the parsimony of their fathers by her liberality; if she lived, being a widow, with freedom, being a lascivious woman, with wantonness, being a rich woman, extravagantly, and being a lustful woman, after the fashion of prostitutes; am I to think any one an adulterer who might happen to salute her with a little too much freedom?

Later on in the speech, once Cicero feels the audience knows their woman, he’s quite happy to call her a whore and a prostitute without any such formalities of deceit, as if this was what everyone knew all along.

Let’s put it slightly differently however: she was a woman who used her beauty to sleep with young men she fancied, until she got bored of them and dumped them. Isn’t this exactly the arc of Catullus’ poetry about her / his relationship with women in general? Usually, it seems to me, Catullus is frustrated in love. But still I don’t think we should take Catullus’ poems in the manner of a verbatim account, just as we shouldn’t believe Cicero when he suggests Caelius Rufus was an innocent dupe whom Clodia was leading astray; I’m sure they both knew perfectly well what kind of person she was from the beginning; and so I’m inclined to read Catullus’ poem as written by a lover pretending to commiserate with another lover about a revelation of the true nature of the woman they both love when in fact both of them were perfectly aware of this in the first place, laden at the same time with a feigned vituperative bitterness.

Catullus also wrote a poem about Cicero (poem 49), which is open to almost any interpretation:

Most eloquent of the grandsons of Romulus
As many as are or ever were, Marcus Tullius,
And as many as there ever shall be,
The greatest thanks to you gives Catullus,
The worst poet of all –
As much the worst poet of all,
As you are the best patron of all.

Again, we sense some sarcasm in this poem. No doubt Catullus doesn’t believe himself the worst poet of all (that was more like Cicero’s crown, with his famous epic about his own consulship and how he defeated Catiline); but what is implied about Cicero’s patronage? What does the poem really mean? And is the any significance in him talking of the grandsons of Romulus (Romuli nepotum) here and the grandsons of Remus (Remi nepotes) in the poem? Is there a connexion between the two poems? Are they even connected to the Pro Caelio? Cicero was certainly a patron to Caelius Rufus. And he wasn’t a grandson of Romulus – both Cicero and Catullus were outsiders in Roman society.

In the end, Catullus just drives you mad.

(I know you want to ask: does Cicero go on at all about Catiline in the Pro Caelio? Yes; yes he does. But it’s not his fault. You see, the prosecutors – I imagine, for a laugh, because they knew Cicero would be defending the case – alleged that Caelius was a great friend of Catiline’s and a party to his conspiracy).