Lucrezia Borgia, by Ferdinand Gregorovius

Now my view of Lucrezia Borgia was that she was an evil woman who poisoned people; but according to Gregorovius, this wasn’t the case at all; it was all just anti-Borgia propaganda. A lot of people, for various reasons, just didn’t like the Borgias. In fact, as Gregorovius argues, aside from being the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia), Lucrezia Borgia was, as a person, pretty much an insipid non-entity. (I imagine her a bit like Princess Diana: less beautiful than her admirers make out, not quite as intelligent – although Gregorovius does let me down a bit by claiming she probably never did have an affair with the poet Pietro Bembo). Which is, of course, a bit of a problem if you’re writing a biography of her.

Another problem Gregorovius has is that there’s not really much information available about her life, which leads him, for her childhood and education, to recount instead what a typical childhood and education for someone of her background (illegitimate daughter of a pope) might have been. Also, it means he really goes to town on that one moment in her life which is well-sourced: her marriage into the Ferrarese Este family: – pages and pages and pages of it, full of eye-witness accounts about what people were wearing and letters sent to and fro wrangling over the nature of the dowry.

There is no doubt a truth in this, in that, in keeping with the position of most women of her time, this marriage was the only significant event of her life; and that otherwise she lived almost entirely in the shadow and under the control of the two men of the family: her pleasure-loving father Pope Alexander, and her psychotic brother Cesare, who one feels at times are living the real story off in the distant foreground, arranging her marriages for her, dissolving them again, and occasionally murdering people (sometimes, the very people they’ve recently married her to) and instigating wars; although it does serve as a good record of the shifting fortunes of the leading Italian families.

At least Gregorovius has done his research, digging about in Italian archives, which I take to have been a novel means of historiography back then (1870s?) and associate largely with c19th German scholars (in terms of ancient history in particular Theodor Mommsen, who was forever collating disparate information); sometimes perhaps not practised otherwise in the preparation of history since the days of Herodotus.

I might next have a go at the apparently far more idiosyncratic Chronicles of the House of Borgia, by that literary eccentric Frederick Rolfe.

Ovid’s Fasti – New Year’s Day

I forgot to mention, one of my ideas for this year was to read Ovid’s Fasti. I actually conceived the idea for this last February, but since the Fasti was intended to consist of twelve books representing the seasons of the year (though Ovid only wrote the first six – or, at least, only six survive), I decided to wait till we got back to January again so I could read it a month at a time.

I don’t know much about Ovid’s Fasti other than it’s about the Roman calendar, explaining the significance of all the dates in the year and the festivities which accompany them. I suppose that doesn’t appeal much to a modern audience – rather in the same manner as Virgil’s Georgics.

Here is Ovid’s intent, explained in typically concise fashion in the first line:

tempora cum causis Latium digesta per annum

Events with their causes arranged throughout the Latin year

With what I take to be a more subtle motivation slightly further down:

Caesaris arma canant alii, nos Caesaris aras

Others sing Caesar’s arms, we Caesar’s altars

So this is a book not representative of the civil wars which culminated in the rule of Augustus, as for instance the arma virumque of Virgil, but of the subsequent peace.

Ovid begins with a dedication to Germanicus, then discusses why Romulus foolishly started with only ten months (apparently to fit in with the term of pregnancy – scilicet arma magis quam sidera, Romule, noras – truly you knew arms more than stars, Romulus), but Numa added another two months at the beginning of the year, the first of which was January.

Ovid then digresses about the existence of lawful (fas) and unlawful (nefas) days (i.e. days on which you can and cannot transact business), all of which reminded me very much of the Heian Japanese who allowed a similar superstitious obsession to determine their lives. Apparently it is not the Ides you should beware of (or the Kalends or the Nones) but the day after, which was defined as ater – that is, “black”, just as we define days of particular calamity in the stock market.

One thing we shall particular look out for reading Ovid is the variety of ways he manages to introduce what we’re thinking is otherwise going to be a tedious list of events. So for January, he has the god Janus appear to explain who he is (me Chaos … vocabant – they call me Chaos), why the year doesn’t begin with spring instead (because the real turn of the year is the winter solstice), why New Year’s Day is not a holiday (because you should start as you intend to go on, and not in idleness), why we wish one another a Happy New Year (sympathetic magic – if we say it, so it will be), why we give people honey and sweet dates on New Year’s Day (sympathetic magic), why we give people small coins on New Year’s Day (sympathetic magic).

Which is as much as he says about the first day of the year, so for now is where we shall stop (this is about a third of the way through the first book already; he’s going to pick up the pace over the rest of January).

I am reading this in an 1899 edition with typically schoolboy commentary (on the basis of a schoolboy’s ability in the late c19th) but no facing English translation, so requiring me to think a bit more than usual, which is good. Ovid is reasonably easy Latin, I find.

As usual, reading Latin at times causes me to reflect on the meanings of words in English. So today I contemplate the word difficilis, which gives us the word “difficult”, which in Latin has its opposite in facilis, from which we get not “facult” (though of course we have “faculty”) but “facile”; but “facile” isn’t really the opposite of “difficult”, “easy” is. “Facile” has other connotations. English really is such a strange mishmash of languages.

Whither Blog 2017?

Whither, indeed – for in 2016 I managed a grand total of 9 posts on this blog, which coincided, though was not wholly caused by, a large drop in books read (I couldn’t say exactly how many, since I’ve stopped keeping count); but recently I find myself undergoing a reversion, a relapse into literature, so I thought really I should get back to writing more posts. Yet the problem I think with the posts I’ve written of late is that they’ve taken too much the form of book reviews, and I’m not sure I’m any good at book reviews, and this dispirits me somewhat. So I was thinking I would write them instead in a rambling form of stream-of-consciousness, taking into account spurious matters such as my mood at the time, my predilections, how my thoughts provoked by the book evoked other books, all that sort of thing, and by so doing hoping to approach a closer approximation of my experience of reading. Well, we’ll see how that goes. My better posts, I’ve always felt, have been my more unorthodox.

And since I’m just going to ramble, I thought I might impose another kind of order on my posts, and publish them specifically every Sunday and Wednesday (although I can’t as yet contemplate producing 104 posts in a year).

What am I going to read? – As usual, anything that happens to take my desultory interest. But we’ll start off with some of the German literature left over from last year. In fact, we’ll start off with Ferdinand Gregorovius.

The Arrow of Gold, by Joseph Conrad

There’s those Conrad works which people read and write about and study at school and copies of which you can easily come across in nice Penguin Modern Classics editions in any bookshop you walk into (Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Victory, Under Western Eyes etc.), and then there’s those works by Conrad which nobody ever talks about and copies of which you’ll never come across unless you look quite hard, usually in secondhand shops, and will only be in editions from the 70s or earlier (The Inheritors, Romance, The Nature of a Crime, Suspense, and The Arrow of Gold).

This is actually my second attempt to read The Arrow of Gold – or, as I’m inclined to see it, my third, since there was such a large gap even in this attempt, slightly under halfway through, at which point I’d put the book down and was uninclined to pick it up again. Let’s just say, there are problems in the first half of this novel, some of which are retained right through to the end. For a start, it’s got a first person narrator; and Conrad at times finds himself ill-at-ease, it seems to me, with the concept of manhandling him into scenes in which he does not belong. But the main issue was I just didn’t know what Conrad was going on about half the time; and this led to the suspicion that Conrad had no idea what he was going on about either: that in some way he hadn’t really thought it through. Critics at the time seem to have been of a similar belief, since Conrad mentions some of this in his introductory Author’s Note, “Suspicion of facts concealed, of explanations held back, of inadequate motives. But what is lacking in the facts is simply what I did not know, and what is not explained is what I did not understand myself, and what seems inadequate is the fault of my imperfect insight”. The whole thing seems very confused. There are long conversations, I seem to recall, in which I really had very little idea what anybody was talking about.

But in the second half the story becomes much clearer and easier going. Basically it’s about this young man (the narrator) who becomes infatuated with a woman, whose nature is to infatuate men and who is a strong supporter of the Carlist cause – this, all the while, taking place in France, so that we are in that familiar story-ground of the Spanish (and supporters from other nationalities) in exile in France which forms the backdrop to many a later Spanish Civil War story. The young man thus starts running guns on behalf of the Carlist cause, but really just because he is in love and without the least political conviction, all the while staying as a guest in a house run by the woman’s sister, who is her diametric opposite, a religious fanatic who sees her sister as the devil. It is the portrait of these two sisters that is in truth the best of the novel.

Anyway, the story rumbles on amiably enough, before coming to a reasonably unsatisfactory conclusion. The arrow of gold of the title is a hair-piece worn by the woman, which has some obvious symbolic meaning but in keeping with the novel I couldn’t really decide what the meaning was. I know if I had York Notes to explain it to me, I’d be in a moment aghast at my own lack of comprehension.

Anyway, an interesting mess. I might read Romance next.

Ingrid Caven, by Jean-Jacques Schuhl

I was sitting watching the opening credits of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The American Soldier and noticed the name Ingrid Caven on the screen, and I thought to myself, I’ve got a book called Ingrid Caven by some French writer – part of that project I had once to read some of the winners of the Prix Goncourt; – I wonder if there’s a connection. So I dug it out of my pile of books and started reading it.
It turns out she was a German singer, who occasionally worked as an actress, and who was Fassbinder’s muse – she even married him (seriously, I’d always thought Fassbinder was gay!) – and then later also was Yves Saint Laurent’s muse. So we have this tale of her life, from being a little girl in Hitler’s Germany and serenading the troops, to becoming a famous singer and actress and hanging round with Fassbinder and Yves Saint Laurent and other celebrities in that sixties and seventies world of film-making and fashion and drug-taking (with occasional brushes with the Baader-Meinhof gang) in Germany, in France, in New York – a world which can’t help but fascinate; – and Schuhl is for the most part such an attractive writer – just along the lines Obooki likes: all nice long flowing jumbled sentences and human insight; – thinking again, here’s another writer who deserves to be better known; – the structure of the book all a jumble too, jumping about here and there in her life; going round in circles; and it is only towards the end – or maybe halfway through – that you start thinking, I’ve read all this before, this novel really isn’t getting anywhere anymore and maybe it could have done with being cut by half (it’s only 240 pages); Schuhl just doesn’t know where to stop.
But at times thinking too, what is all this? The life of Ingrid Caven, a real person, who meets other real people; so where is Schuhl getting all this information from – not merely the things that happened to her, but her thoughts and reflections on them, the causes of her personality; really quite intimate things. Is he just making all this up? The novel is told from the point of view of someone called Charles, who is now Ingrid’s lover – her companion – who has replaced Fassbinder and Yves Saint Laurent; but there’s not much to this Charles character in comparison – one wonders why she’s taken up with him; he seems outside it all, an onlooker; – and it is only in the last part that Schuhl lets it slip that he is Charles; that he is Ingrid’s companion in reality – in a post-modern postscript which otherwise adds little to the foregoing.
But I did enjoy it for the most part, especially as per the beginning of this post, because I’m gradually making my way through all of Fassbinder’s films at the moment.

Little Novels, by Arthur Schnitzler

After the last late post for Spanish Literature Month, here’s an early one for German Literature Month (if you like).

I’d never read any Schnitzler before. For a long time I had him confused in my mind with Stefan Zweig: that is to say, I considered him a fairly dull bourgeois writer I wouldn’t be interested in (a bit also like Thomas Mann). I think on the whole, without doing any other research than reading these stories, that he does probably come from that world. I was spurred on to read him when I came across his name mentioned in Éduoard Dujardin’s simultaneously self-deprecating and obsessively self-regarding essay, Interior Monologue, as someone who used the stream-of-consciousness technique prior to Joyce. In fact, he seems to be the only writer (aside of course from Dujardin himself) whom Dujardin is (albeit churlishly enough – “(o)ne cannot deny, in any case, that it is very near to it”) inclined to admit as a forerunner of Joyce; and who, much to Dujardin’s chagrin, didn’t, unlike Joyce, derive the idea from Dujardin himself, but just came up with it of his own accord because it seemed an obvious thing to do. This is of course his book Leutnant Gustl, which I didn’t read.

I read instead a collection of novellas/stories, Little Novels (published 1929), which seems to be a selection from throughout his career, in which there is very little trace of the stream-of-consciousness technique, with perhaps the exception of the story Blind Geronimo and his Brother, which is in time quite close to Leutnant Gustl. Here is Carlo, Geronimo’s brother, deciding whether to commit a robbery:

Carlo got up, as if something were driving him thither, and laid his forehead against the cold window-pane. Why had he got up? … To think it over? … To make the attempt? … What! … It was impossible and besides it was a crime. A crime? … What do twenty francs mean to such people who travel a thousand miles for their pleasure? They would not so much as miss it. He went to the door and opened it gently.

But really, it’s like Schnitzler doesn’t consider stream-of-consciousness to be a new way of conveying inennerable aspects of the modern world, but merely a technique one might or might not use in telling a story – and which, for the most part, at least here, he doesn’t. For quite fundamentally all the pieces in this book are stories, of the very traditional story-teller variety – which is probably why Schnitzler is largely overlooked these days – in this country at least; – just try to find any of his works in a bookshop – saving A Dream Story of course, which was used as the basis of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and which at the time of its release was given away free by a Sunday newspaper so that copies of it continue to flood secondhand markets (and which of course I’ve never read, despite being the one person who actually liked the film); – but no one wants stories these days, not with good ideas and plots and twists; they want dull stories about everyday lives with no surprises in which someone learns something not very interesting about something or about themselves.

The writer in fact whom Schnitzler reminded me of the most is Isak Dinesen, which is high praise in Obooki’s world: stories with their own intrinsic interest and insight into human affairs, aside from a good plot. I assume this collection is chronological, though I only have a few dates to go by and the fact that the stories get better, and more insightful, as the collection goes along. In particular, I’d pick up the first story, The Fate of the Baron (about jealousy), and then everything from Andreas Thameyer’s Last Letter (also about jealousy) to the final story, The Death of a Bachelor (again, about jealousy), which I think, along with Dead Gabriel (once again, about jealousy), is the best: the former, because it’s such a good idea; and the latter because it’s an interesting investigation into particular human emotions; – in fact, I’d have to admit, as an observer of humanity Schnitzler seems to have a lot of the same interests as me.

So I’ll be reading some more Schnitzler soon, specifically Fräulein Else, which certainly does look like it’s written using interior monologue, since that’s the other one I have (annoyingly there were two other Schnitzler books I could have bought but which had vanished by the time I returned to the shop, forcing me to buy instead Conrad’s Romance and something dull by William H Gass; – seriously, do people actually think William H Gass is a good writer?).

Plays: One, by Ramón del Valle-Inclán

During Spanish Literature Month (it is still Spanish Literature Month, isn’t it?) it’s traditional for me to read something by Ramón del Valle-Inclán: the past few times it’s been his seasonal sonatas, a series of novellas about the Marqués de Bradomín, a Don Juan sort of character and fervent Carlist, which I remember as fairly traditional; – this time I read Plays: One – and I have to say, the contrast is vast. In fact, the contrast between the three individual plays in this edition is pretty vast; and it’s unusual to come across such discrepancies in the body of an author’s work, even if that work is spread of a wide period of time (here, from 1902-5, the sonatas, to 1919-22, the plays).

Plays: One contains three plays: Divine Words (1919), Bohemian Lights (1920), Silver Face (1922). Divine Words is pretty extreme: a bit perhaps like Beckett transposed into a Spanish picaresque setting. The plot is basically this: a boy who is born with severe physical disabilities is used by his mother to beg off strangers; when his mother dies, there is a dispute between over who will look after – and thus exploit – this child; and then there’s a large cast of other picaresque characters – thieves, charlatans, mountebanks, whores – who proceed across the stage. We are very much dealing then here with the lowest rung of society, where everything is to be exploited in the fight for survival and there is an absence of any worthwhile human qualities. (It’s more extreme than anything you’d find for instance in Zola, or probably Faulkner).

Bohemian Lights is set in entirely different world, although one which again suffers from an acute shortage of money: the world of artists. What is this like? It’s like the Nighttown episode from Ulysses (or, I was more inclined to say, since I’d read it so recently, it’s like the central section of Luis Martin-Santos’ Time of Silence). Two artists, Max Estella and Don Latino, wander through the artistic demimonde of Madrid (?), meeting other artistic folk, becoming involved in a revolutionary protest, being arrested and jailed, visiting a brothel (they always visit brothels in these things). And that’s it, pretty much: a vision of the talented and rejected – a self-portrait; – oh, and Rubén Darío (who was a friend of Valle-Inclán) makes an appearance, along with the Marqués de Bradomín.

Silver Face is a bit more of a return to the world of the Marqués de Bradomín, and is largely concerned with the demonic Don Juan Manuel Montenegro (Bradomín’s uncle), who is the archetypal feudal lord and an even more notorious womaniser than his nephew, and who decides one day to ban anyone from crossing his land – mostly peasants on the way to the market, but also later some churchman doing the Lord’s work. Anyway, things escalate and once again any concept of morality is generally far from the thoughts of any of the characters (particularly the clergy).

All good fun. None of the plays has a traditional theatrical plot: they are more like visions which gradually start running out of control – the introduction compares them to Brecht, and since I happen to be reading some Brecht at the moment (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui; The Life of Galileo) I found myself having the same thought. Nor do Valle-Inclán’s plays seem to get put on much, not just because he continues to be as overlooked as he was when he was writing, but because they don’t seem much written with the theatre in mind; – the commentary here suggests they are cinematic; but I feel they are probably just whatever visions Valle-Inclán found running about his head.