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November 2015

52 Authors: Week 48 - Mary Renault

Although Mary Renault was not a trained historian, she is best known for her historical and mythic-historical novels set in ancient Greece. I won't say much about the mythic-historical novels, which read like historical novels but are distinguished by the presence of characters from Greek mythology. They feature clever inventions that satisfy both naturalistic storytelling and the myths that have come down to us. For instance, Minos is the title of the Cretan king and he wears a mask shaped like a bull's head; the labyrinth where Theseus kills him is the underground warren where captives are trained to dance with bulls. In these books, Renault indulges in some Christian prefiguring. There is much discussion of the need for the king to go willingly to be sacrificed for the sake of his people. There's a boy from "the back hills beyond Jericho," whose people are so simple that their god has no sons, and they think he is concerned only with them. Otherwise, these books are interesting for the same reasons as the straight historical novels.

Paul will wince at this: when my husband was a graduate student in philosophy, Renault's historical novels were recommended to him as a way to get a sense of the world in which the Greek philosophers lived. That is indeed the best aspect of Renault's work, to my mind. The historical accuracy is almost irrelevant, because what's really fascinating is the vividness with which she conveys certain aspects of ancient Greek life and the techniques she uses to accomplish that.

Her foundational virtue is that her characters clearly share our human nature, while having vastly different priorities and motivations from ours. Like us, they consider what their actions say about them; but instead of caring about whether they are being kind, for instance, they care whether they are acting nobly and in keeping with their station. Like us, they care about religion to varying degrees: some of them participate in rituals more for social than for devotional reasons and some of them pray fervently. But their prayers include blood sacrifices to gods whom they claim as their progenitors, and their petitions may be for dynastic vengeance.

Here's one of my favorite examples. In the contests for control of Alexander's empire after his death, Alexander's mother Olympias captures Alexander's cousin Eurydike and has her husband butchered before her eyes. Murder in the pursuit of ambition is recognizable to us, but we don't send messengers who say to our captive foes, "Eurydike, daughter of Amyntas. I act under command, do you therefore hold me guiltless before the gods.... Because you were born of royal blood, ... [Olympias, Queen of the Macedonians,] gives you leave to end your own life, and offers you a choice of means." Eurydike chooses hanging, but first makes the guard wait while she composes her husband's body. We recognize, as something we could share, Eurydike's loyalty to her husband and the familial loyalty that originally drove her to join the blood feud. But we would not seek to pursue such a feud as she does, stretching out her hands over the bloody earth and mangled corpse and crying out, "Witness, you gods below, that I received these gifts from Olympias. I call upon you, by the waters of Styx, and by the power of Hades, and by this blood, to give her in her turn such gifts as these."

In keeping with the genre, most of the historical novels have a first-person narrator who's a spectator to or a secondary actor in the historical events. The presumed audience are the narrator's contemporaries, which means that familiar events and customs are referred to without explanation. For the reader this device can lead to confusion at first (What's a hetaira?), but eventually it makes for a more immersive experience. The Last of the Wine opens with these words:

When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.

You will say that there is nothing out of the way in this.

It goes on to detail the circumstances of war and plague through which the narrator was given to a wet-nurse (instead of being exposed as his father had ordered) and that killed his mother, brother, and uncle. When the father returns from the war, he decides to bring the boy up after all.

He had been, I believe, fond of my mother; I daresay too he called to mind the uncertainty of life, and thought it less disgraceful to leave even me behind him, than to perish without offspring as if he had never been.

The Greek world is also conveyed through encounters with other cultures. This is, naturally, an important theme in the books about Alexander the Great, especially The Persian Boy. Bagoas, the boy of the title, is a slave in King Darius's household when the time comes to march against Alexander. "We started in a week. It was without precedent, for the Household to move so fast. The Palace was in an uproar...." Later, having been given as a present to Alexander, he sees the Greeks set off: "We moved camp soon after. The speed of it amazed me. When the trumpet sounded, everyone seemed to know his task without orders.... We were on the march, an hour before Darius would have been wakened."

If he's awed by Greek military efficiency, Bagoas is scandalized by the informality of Alexander's court. Alexander's companions address him by name and even contradict him. Sent to carry a message, Bagoas finds Alexander playing ball with his friends—and they're all naked! "It is something, I thought, when a king can put a courtesan to the blush." Alexander visits the sick tent, gets blood and pus on his clothes, picks up a stool with his own hand, and lets a man undergoing surgery clutch at him for support--"the sacred person of a king!"

Renault loves heroes, and her Alexander is a hero through and through. From his boyhood, he is marked out by his radiant good looks, his athleticism, his delicacy of feeling, and his intelligence. He epitomizes Greek excellence, in contrast both to the effete Persians and to his coarse Macedonian forbears. In Fire from Heaven, Philip of Macedon receives a deputation from Athens that includes the great orator Demosthenes. Early in the morning, Demosthenes unwittingly meets the boy Alexander and insults him. When Philip later learns of this, he asks, "Why didn't you tell me?" But Alexander has meanwhile devised a humiliation, a much neater revenge than anything Philip could exact on a diplomat: he revealed his identity just as Demosthenes began his oration, thereby frightening him so much that he became completely unable to speak.

Enthusiastic as I am about Renault, there is one area about which I am somewhat suspicious. Probably not coincidentally, it's the area about which she has been accused of writing with an agenda. Renault lived most of her adult life in South Africa, where her long-term relationship wth another woman was more tolerated than in her native UK, and almost all her books feature a homosexual relationship that is everything relationships are supposed to be: close, affectionate, long-lasting, faithful, mutually respectful, etc., etc. Family life, on the other hand, gets short shrift. I think The Last of the Wine is the only book that includes any normal domestic scenes of a husband, wife, and child. Well-developed female characters are rare; those that exist are mostly unpleasant and their actions are almost all driven by political ambition.

My personal favorite of her books is The Mask of Apollo. The narrator being an actor, we get lots of backstage views of Greek theater. He's a sympathetic character and truly pious in his devotion to Apollo. Perhaps I also like it because I'm completely ignorant of the political background (the attempts to rule Syracuse under Plato's influence) and don't feel the need to worry about whether it's accurate.

The_Mask_of_Apollo_cover

--Anne-Marie is a math tutor and homeschooling mother who lives just outside Washington, DC.


52 Authors: Week 47 - Walker Percy

I've read all of Walker Percy's books, some of them two or three times, with the exception of the non-fiction Message in the Bottle. (I consciously chose not to read it because I was under the impression that it was a fairly technical piece of philosophy and linguistic theory, but I've been told that I'm mistaken about that and should read it.) But it's been quite a few years since I read most of them. The most recent was Love in the Ruins, and that was ten years or so back. So what follows represents views formed ten to thirty-five years ago. I'm just going to list the books in order of publication, with a brief opinion.

First, a very quick biographical note on Percy, because his life is more directly and obviously relevant to his work than is sometimes the case. You can't read more than one of his novels without surmising that his main character is pretty similar from book to book and is most likely pretty similar to the author as well. Moreover, the novels are, as Percy himself said, novels of ideas, and the ideas are also connected to his life in a very straightforward way.

So: he was born in 1916, to an affluent family in an affluent suburb of Birmingham (Alabama). When he was thirteen, his father committed suicide, as had his father before him. When he was fifteen, his mother was killed in an automobile accident that may have been suicide. Thereafter he and his two brothers were raised by "Uncle Will," William Alexander Percy, actually a second cousin, a Southern aristocrat with significant literary talents and interests. Walker Percy went to medical school at Columbia, graduating in 1941. Not surprisingly, he had psychological troubles, and undertook psychotherapy around this time. In 1942 (I think) he contracted tuberculosis while working in a hospital. He spent several years recovering, during which time he did a great deal of reading and thinking.

In 1946 he married. In 1947 he and his wife ("Bunt"--very Southern) were received into the Catholic Church. He never got around to practicing medicine--family money, I suppose--but began writing, and in 1961 published his first novel, The Moviegoer. He published more books over the next thirty years and died in 1991.

One more thing before I look at the novels: Percy's scope is limited, and the Percy Protagonist (henceforth PP) is fundamentally consistent throughout the six novels. He is an upper-class Southerner in comfortable material circumstances but in psychological difficulties, sometimes quite serious. He feels himself disconnected and disoriented in the world, unable to participate in it as other people seem to do, finding himself miserably at sea in everyday life but exhilarated at times of crisis: he often feels bad when he should feel good, and feels good when he should feel bad. And he's trying to figure out what's wrong with the world, and what's wrong with him, all the while observing both carefully with a dry and whimsical humor, and a very sharp eye for the physical detail, not to mention for southern culture and manners. 

The Moviegoer (1961) won the National Book Award. The PP here is Binx Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker, fairly young and single.

The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

The movies are more real to him than real life, but this is not the simple case of escapism that you might suppose. It's not that his life is miserable, and so he prefers fantasy to reality--his life is entirely pleasant--or that he's delusional and can't tell the difference--he is all too well aware of the difference. It's that reality and movies have swapped ontological status. The supposed actual has been emptied of its actuality, which is now possessed by the movies. 

I consider The Moviegoer to be Percy's best novel in purely literary terms. It's not necessarily my personal favorite, but it is a beautifully polished gem.

The Last Gentleman appeared in 1964. It's a much longer and more rambling book than The Moviegoer. The PP is Will Barrett, and he's considerably more messed up than Binx Bolling. 

He began to get things backward. He felt bad when other people felt good and good when they felt bad. Take an ordinary day in New York. The sun is shining, people live well, go about satisfying their needs and achieving goals, work at creative jobs, attend cultural attractions, participate in interesting groups. This is, by every calculation, as it should be. Yet it was on just such a day as this, an ordinary Wednesday or Thursday, that he felt the deepest foreboding. And when his doctor, seeking to reassure him, suggested that in these perilous times a man might well be entitled to such a feeling, that only the insensitive did not, etc., it made him feel worse than ever. The analyst had got it all wrong. It was not the prospect of the Last Day which depressed him but rather the prospect of living through an ordinary Wednesday morning.

He is a southerner living in solitary exile in New York City. Having worked for a while as a "maintenance engineer" running the heating and air-conditioning equipment at Macy's, he is, from the point early in the narrative where this fact is revealed, referred to as "the engineer." I seem to remember that there is some explanation for this, that it's an ironic way of describing his effort to assemble the pieces of his personality and the world around him. Or perhaps that's something a critic said. At any rate, it seems applicable.

It is a strange wandering story which, to tell the truth, I could not begin to reconstruct. It opens with Will at the eyepiece of a telescope through which he hopes to spot a peregrine falcon, but which instead brings into his vision a girl named Kitty. Kitty is also a southerner, and the engineer gets very involved with her and her family, the Vaughts: Sutter, a sort of nihilist who wants to kill himself; Val, a nun; Jamie, the youngest, who is dying. As you might imagine from that setup, the theological and philosophical stuff gets fairly thick, and the engineer ends up in Birmingham dealing with the entire Vaught family at Jamie's deathbed. 

I've often named Love in the Ruins (1970) as my personal favorite of Percy's novels. As a novel it isn't the best, but it's certainly a lot of fun. Subtitled "The Adventures of a Bad Catholic At a Time Near the End of the World", it could perhaps technically be classified as science fiction. It is very much a novel of the 1960s, dealing with all sorts of topical matters: liberal vs conservative politics, race relations, sexual liberation, hippies. The PP is Dr. Thomas More, a Louisiana physician whose wife, now deceased, had taken up spiritual chicanery of the sort that would soon be called New Age-ism. He has invented a device called the ontological lapsometer, which measures how far a person has fallen (from grace?). Unfortunately he goes a step further and gives the device the capability of remedying that fall by tweaking the chemistry of the brain. The story which follows is preposterous but very entertaining, involving the intrusion of the, or perhaps just a, devil, who is very interested in promoting the wide distribution of the lapsometer. A motif which I believe is mentioned in the earlier books comes to the forefront here: the longing of a middle-aged man to escape the dreariness and decay of middle-class life and, with a younger woman, start not just a new life but a new society. (Yes, the recurrence of this motif does cause one to worry a bit for Percy.)

The first three novels are, in my opinion, his best. The remaining ones show a definite falling-off, though they're still very much worth reading if you like Percy, and to my taste much more worth reading that most fiction of our time.

Lancelot (1977) is a very dark book. The PP, the Lancelot of the title, is in prison, and for good reason. The first-person narrative is addressed to a priest who visits him in his cell. Lancelot is angry, disgusted by the emptiness and moral squalor of the modern world--if my memory is correct, there is some pretty effective satire of the combination of moral pretension and corruption which were making the entertainment industry so loathsome by the 1970s. 

The Second Coming (1980) brings back Will Barrett, now twenty years older. He did not marry Kitty, nor did he join the Vaught family's Chevrolet dealership in Birmingham. He married a New York Episcopalian, became a corporate lawyer and made a lot of money, led a normal life, but is beginning to come apart again. His father, like Percy's, committed suicide, and this book deals with that trauma in a painfully direct way. His wife is, like Thomas More's, now dead--conveniently for the younger woman/new world dream--and Kitty has re-entered his life. But middle-aged Kitty is a somewhat crass woman, and it's not she but her schizophrenic daughter Allie for whom Barrett falls. The climax of the book is an elaborate plan set up by Barrett to force God to prove his existence. Leafing through the book now, I wonder if it might be better than I originally thought. But I also notice that it is, as I recalled, more harsh and crude than the first three. I doubt that I'm going to change my view that it isn't quite up to them, but I do want to re-read it.

Lost In the Cosmos (1983) is a delight and a triumph. Subtitled "The Last Self-Help Book", it's not a novel, but a unique mix of psychology, humor, philosophy, theology, and narrative. It is unfortunately not practical for me to reproduce as much of it here as I would like to in order to communicate to you the combination of amusement and enlightenment to be found here. I'll give you a bit of the opening.

LOST IN THE COSMOS: THE LAST SELF-HELP BOOK

or

The Strange Case of the Self, your self, the Ghost which Haunts the Cosmos

or

How you can survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself, this despite 10,000 self-help books, 100,000 psychotherapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians

or

Why it is that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos--novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes--you are beyond doubt the strangest

or

Why it is possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life...

Most of the book consists of a

Twenty-Question Multiple-Choice Self-Help Quiz to test your knowledge of the peculiar status of the self, your self and other selves, in the Cosmos, and your knowledge of what to do with your self in these, the last years of the twentieth century.

The twenty questions each constitute a chapter of the book, and to communicate the outrageous humor and acuity of these questions would require typing in the entire chapter. But each one begins with a statement of the general ground covered by the question, and here is one:

(9) The Envious Self (in the root sense of envy: invidere, to look at with malice): Why it is that the Self--though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill--in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossip about Neighbors Getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgraces

There is also an "intermezzo of some forty pages" about halfway through, and these are among the most important forty pages in Percy's work. They lay out in a way that the average reader can understand "an elementary semiotical grounding of the theory of self taken for granted in these pages." It is the answer, or at least a crucial component of the answer, to the question "What is Percy driving at, really?" that plagues the reader of the novels. If someone who had never read Percy at all asked my advice, I would say "First get Lost in the Cosmos and read the semiotic primer that lies between chapters 12 and 13. Then take your pick of The MoviegoerThe Last Gentleman, and Love in the Ruins."

 The Thanatos Syndrome (1987) was Percy's last novel. I have to say that I don't remember it very well. I may like it better than The Second Coming, but I'd have to read both again to be sure. If my very general memory is correct, it's different from all the other novels except Love in the Ruins in being about more than the psychology of one man. Both are more external, more social stories, with a stronger component of social commentary--not that it's absent from any of them, but it's more in the foreground in those two. And the PP is the same in both. In Thanatos, Dr. Thomas More returns. He has settled down and married Ellen, one of his three girlfriends in Love in the Ruins. He practices medicine in a reasonably conventional manner (apart from a short prison term, I think for selling prescription drugs illicitly) in a small Louisiana town. He discovers that something sinister is going on. Someone is tampering with the water supply, with the purpose of chemically shutting down those troublesome elements of the human psyche that cause envy, depression, anxiety, reckless love affairs, wars, and all the rest of it. There's actually an element of mystery story here, even a touch of thriller. 

Signposts in a Strange Land (199) is a collection of short non-fiction pieces published over a period of 35 years or more. They're a mixed bag, but while I wouldn't say the book is essential reading for those who are not devotees of the author, many of them are worth reading anyway. And Percy enthusiasts most definitely shouldn't miss them.

To tell you the truth, writing this post has been, is, a frustrating experience. There is just far too much to be said in too little space and too little time. I have about 2500 words already, and I can think of a dozen more points that should be made. And although I've covered all of Percy's fiction I haven't really given you a very good idea of what it's like. I haven't communicated the sheer pleasure of reading him at his best. So I'm going to close by turning the lectern over to Percy. Here is the opening of Love in the Ruins:

In a pine grove on the southwest cusp of the interstate cloverleaf

5 P.M. / July 4

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happend at last?

Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won't and I'm crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.

Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by a rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap.

Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me.

Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

Or is it that something has stopped happening?

Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.lS.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?

It is still hot as midafternoon. The sky is a clear rinsed cobalt after the rain. Wet pine growth reflects the sunlight like steel knitting needles. The grove steams and smells of turpentine. Far away the thunderhead, traveling fast, humps over on the horizon like a troll. Directly above, a hawk balances on a column of air rising from the concrete geometry of the cloverleaf. Not a breath stirs.

 If that doesn't make you want to read on, I don't know what's wrong with you.

Walker-Percy

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


Three Small But Worthwhile Movies

The little town where I live, Fairhope, Alabama, has always had an artsy element, which is nice, but over the past few decades the town has grown fashionable and attractive to wealthy people, which is not so nice. And now the artsy crowd also tends to be wealthy and fashionable. I don't care for this development, but it does have its positive aspects. I mean, would you rather live in a small town that's dying, like so many are, or one that's thriving, even if you aren't keen on the way it's thriving? 

One of the positive aspects is that for three years now there has been a Fairhope Film Festival. My wife and I spent last Saturday from early afternoon till 9pm or so viewing three movies that we had picked from the roster of several dozen. There were many more I'd have liked to see, but they were shown at times when I couldn't attend. I liked the three a great deal, though (and so did my wife). Here's a brief description of them. You aren't likely to find them in a theater except perhaps at another festival, but the second two are on Netflix, and perhaps the first one will be in time. The first two are documentaries, the third is a drama.

County Fair Texas

This was my favorite, but for very personal reasons. You would probably like it, but you probably wouldn't like it as much as I did. I grew up in the country, on the family cattle farm (although my immediate family didn't farm, we lived on the property). I was in the 4-H club, and every year for four or five years in my early teens (I think), my siblings and cousins raised steers that were shown at a local exhibition, and then at the state fair in Birmingham (after which they were auctioned off and became beef). I suppose if you'd asked me I'd have said nobody does that anymore. But they do, and that's what this movie is about. I found it really affecting. It brought back very vividly things I hadn't thought about for at least forty years, perhaps fifty.

The kids in this movie aren't raising steers. Some of them are raising heifers (a steer is a castrated male, a heifer is a young female). Some are raising pigs. One boy wants to be a rodeo rider. Here's the trailer.

 

This was enormously moving to me. For instance, that bit at the end where the girl is patting the heifer's face: I hadn't thought about that since my last steer, I guess, but I felt it again. It was almost like time travel. Sometimes I think I should have stayed on the farm.

Oh, and by the way, coincidentally, the day before I saw County Fair I read this excellent article by Francesca Murphy about the ethical treatment of animals.

Stray Dog

A very engaging, respectful, and affectionate picture of people who don't ordinarily get either respect or affection from sophisticated America, which caused me to be very surprised when I saw in the credits (I always watch the credits) that it was produced by something called the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. Less surprising is the name of the director: Debra Granik, who directed the very powerful Winter's BoneStray Dog is also a portrait of rural Missouri. I'll save myself the trouble of describing it by pasting in the description from the web site:

Ron “Stray Dog” Hall lives in Southern Missouri where he owns and operates the At Ease RV Park.  After seven years of living with four small dogs as his only companions, he is adjusting to life with his wife, Alicia, who is newly arrived from Mexico.  Anchored by his small dogs and big bikes, Stray Dog seeks to strike a balance between his commitment to his family, neighbors, biker brotherhood, and fellow veterans.  As part of the legacy of fighting in the Vietnam War, he wrestles with the everlasting puzzle of conscience, remorse, and forgiveness.

Wildlike

 I said these are small films. This is a small drama. It doesn't have many characters, it doesn't have brilliant or profound dialog, and it doesn't have grand ambitions. But it's a good and touching story, well produced. It's about a very unhappy fourteen-year-old girl who's sent from her disintegrating family in Seattle to live for a while with an uncle in Alaska. For very good reasons she runs away. She falls in with a backpacker who has troubles of his own. And I'll leave it at that. I agree with the comments of the reviewers included in the trailer.

 

I want to mention one thing that I think deserves particular praise: it deals with some painful sexual stuff, but does not exploit it in a prurient way. And in one particular aspect, which I can't reveal without giving away too much of the plot, it really goes against the predictable movie pattern. In fact, thinking about it a bit more, I think it's somewhat subversive.


52 Authors: Week 46 - Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy_html_363b1ede

Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station

I am not a Tolstoy expert, but I sometimes play one in my personal life. But really… I have only read War and Peace once, Anna Karenina 2.5 times, and The Death of Ivan Ilych (once also); and that’s it. At the time I read War and Peace, around seven or so years ago, I felt like it changed my life. That is too broad a statement – perhaps (and more likely) it changed the way I look at the world, and literature, and writing in general. Teen-agers sometimes read big books and they’re proud. When I was in high school I read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, and I suppose I thought I was something. Yeah, you may have slogged your way through The Stand by Stephen King, but try a little Ayn Rand on for size! Or don’t, really, there’s no reason to. I think young people these days, or maybe days several years back now … might feel that way about Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. A big book about something, ideas maybe? You haul it around and impress people with its girth.

War and Peace is the real thing. Back immediately upon finishing it, when I strutted around the Spring Hill College campus (to Mac’s office among other places), I probably made grandiose statements like “all of life can be found in War and Peace”. As annoying as it is for someone to show up to your office and say this, it is true. Tolstoy takes the Napoleonic Wars as his centerpiece and displays Russian society, as much as he can tell you about them, while the French army marches towards Moscow. Upper-class Russians at this time are very French in their behavior, language, mannerisms … they want to try to be European. Moscow is so far from everything, it seems just barely part of Europe. The first sections of the novel are full of characters speaking to each other in French and in English. Oh, well, I suppose it is French and Russian, but in my volumes there are no Cyrillic characters. As the novel progresses you see less and less French, for obvious reasons.

This brings me to one of my favorite subjects – which translator of Russian literature is your favorite? There are of course the old standards: Constance Garnett (she met Tolstoy once), and Louise and Aylmer Maude (they knew Tolstoy!). Of the new ones, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are currently all the rage. The War and Peace I read is the Penguin edition translated by Anthony Briggs. Ever loyal, I had first begun Garnett’s version because I had found her Anna Karenina to be quite nice. Sadly, I had to give up after a few hundred pages and go elsewhere. In one of the many magazine internet articles I have read on the subject of Russian Literature in Translation I learned that Garnett translated War and Peace very late in her life when she had pretty much gone blind, having the Russian read to her and then reciting it back to her clerks/transcribers in English. It does not read as nicely as many of her other translations do. If you go with Pevear/Volokhonsky, be advised that they decided to leave in all the previously mentioned French, with the English translation on the same page below the text of the novel. I do own this edition (see picture) and plan to read it at some point in the future; but this does make slow going (unless you can read French). I found Briggs to be fine, easy reading; complaints about him tend towards Russian soldiers speaking in cockney – I did not notice. I have this (probably) ill-informed, and (certainly) non-scholarly opinion that Tolstoy is such a great writer that the translator does not matter. Whereas Dostoyevsky (for example) had a way of writing that is very different, and certain translators just don’t seem to be able to effectively express his prose in English.

Pierre, the main character, has a conversation with a Freemason about his lack of belief:

“He [editor: “God”] is not apprehended by reason, but by life,” said the Mason.

“I don’t understand,” said Pierre, fearfully sensing doubt arising in him. He feared the vagueness and weakness of his interlocutor’s arguments, he feared not believing him. “I don’t understand,” he said, “how is it that human reason cannot apprehend the knowledge you speak of?”

The Mason smiled his meek, fatherly smile.

“The highest wisdom and truth is like the most pure liquid, which we want to receive into ourselves,” he said. “Can I receive this pure liquid in an impure vessel and then judge its purity? Only by purifying myself inwardly can I keep the liquid I receive pure to some degree.”

“Yes, yes, that’s so!” Pierre said joyfully.

“The supreme wisdom is based not on reason alone, not on the secular sciences of physics, history, chemistry, and so on, into which rational knowledge is divided. The higher knowledge has one science – the science of the all, the science that explains the whole universe and the place man occupies in it. To contain this science, it is necessary to purify and renew one’s inner man, and thus before one can know, one must believe and perfect oneself. And to achieve that, a divine light, called conscience, has been put in our soul.”

“Yes, yes,” Pierre agreed.

This is just one little part I found that I love so. There is so much in War and Peace; so much that is quotable. Napoleon is a character! Pierre is in a duel! There is dancing, and singing, and travelling, and drunkenness. All of life. A scene that I am unable to find has a family ready to leave for a trip. Before doing so they all stop and sit in the front room together. Is this a Russian custom before travelling? One of many incidental moments in the novel that I loved.

Anna Karenina is different. Tolstoy said that Anna Karenina was a novel, while War and Peace was not. The latter is certainly a historical novel, and the former a novel more contemporary to the period in which Tolstoy wrote. Anna Karenina is about adultery, families, love, men and women. But of course there is so much more. Re-reading the novel recently I was struck by how sympathetic these adulterers are: Anna – lovely, loving, stuck in a loveless marriage; and Stiva (her brother) – a happy man, whose good nature is catching to all around him. His is the unhappy family described in the first sentence; but of course that first sentence is about more than him and Dolly and the governess. They are sympathetic in a way in which Emma Bovary is decidedly not. Gustave Flaubert is not wishing to express the same love for his characters as Tolstoy displays here.

Stiva and Dolly’s story is almost comic-relief for the plot of Anna Karenina, though melancholy for Dolly who must come to terms with the fact that her husband will always be a charming philanderer. More intense are the stories of the other couples: the love triangle of Anna, her husband Karenin, and her lover Vronsky (both men are named Alexie); and the story of Kitty and Levin. Kitty is initially fascinated with Vronsky, but later realizes Levin is the one for her.

Alongside all of this Harlequin Romance soap-opera drama resides the fabric of life in Moscow, and in St. Petersburg. There is the question of the serfs, and whether or not they should have more rights. There is life in the country as opposed to life in the city, and which is more worthwhile for your soul. There are upper-class people, and those who are not; intellectuals, and people who are moved by their emotions instead.

One of the wonderful pastoral passages in Anna Karenina occurs when Levin is back at his farm with the peasants. He has been rejected by Kitty and is scornful of her, of Moscow, of his friend Stiva, of anything that in any way reminds him of the woman he loves. In order to not think about all of this he joins the workers in the field:

He thought nothing and desired nothing other than not to lag behind the peasants and do the best work he could. He heard only the clanging of the scythes and in front of himself saw the erect figure of Titus pulling ahead, the semicircular mown swath, the grass and the blossoms near the blade of his scythe bending in slow waves, and ahead of himself the end, the road, where his rest would come.

Without understanding what it was or where it had come from, in the middle of working he suddenly experienced a pleasant sensation of cold across his hot, sweaty shoulders. He glanced at the sky while they were sharpening the scythes. A low, lumbering cloud ran up and rain came pouring down. Some of the peasants went for their caftans and put them on; others like Levin merely shrugged their shoulders in delight under the pleasant refreshment.

This passage is like something out of Thomas Hardy, except in a more warm and inviting setting.

As mentioned before, Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenina is perfectly fine. As is Rosemary Edmonds’ translation. I have the Pevear/Volokhonsky edition and have read passages in comparison, and theirs seems a little clunky. The other “half” I read was one of the two new (2014) ones, Marian Schwartz; hers reads very nicely as well. Rosamund Bartlett translated the other 2014 edition.

I had intended to read A Confession and Other Religious Writings in preparation for writing this blog post on Leo Tolstoy. I bought it, and it is a slim volume of essays which of course I have not yet read. Tolstoy is noted for his thoughts and writing on non-violence (he is said to have influenced Gandhi), the Gospels, love, morality, and more. I did find one small quote which I will close with:

‘The soul of man is the lamp of God,’ says a wise Jewish proverb. Man is a weak and miserable creature when God’s light is not burning in his soul. But when it burns (and it only burns in souls enlightened by religion), man becomes the most powerful creature in the world. And it cannot be otherwise, for what then works in him is not his own strength, but the strength of God.

This takes us nicely back to the freemason speaking with Pierre.

—Stu Moore inexplicably moved from New Mexico to Mobile, Alabama thirteen years ago. He remains there surrounded by books, which concerns his wife.

TOLSTOY


Food For Thought On the Paris Attacks

When some calamity like this happens, I generally don't remark on it here or on Facebook. Unless I personally know someone affected, it seems like an empty gesture. Does anyone reading this care one way or the other if I express my sympathy for the victims? I doubt it. But of course I have been reading about it and thinking about it. This piece by Richard Fernandez seems especially interesting to me. Is it an accurate description of the situation? Maybe. 

A lot of people are expressing surprise at the attacks. I'm only surprised that there haven't been more such over the past fifteen years or so. Either Western governments have been pretty adept at stopping them, or the jihadists have not really been trying.


Apropos

From Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins, spoken by the narrator but probably the author's view:

Students are, if the truth be known, a bad lot. En masse they're as fickle as a mob, manipulable by any professor who'll stoop to it. They have, moreover, an infinite capacity for repeating dull truths and old lies with all the insistence of self-discovery. Nothing is drearier than the ideology of students, left or right....

People talk a lot about how great "the kids" are, compared to kids in the past. The only difference in my opinion is that kids now don't have sense enough to know what they don't know.

On the other hand, my generation is an even bigger pain.

And later:

Students are a shaky dogmatic lot. And the "freer" they are, the more dogmatic. At heart they're totalitarians: they want either total dogmatic freedom or total dogmatic unfreedom, and the one thing that makes them unhappy is something in between.


52 Authors: Week 45 - Jane Austen

I love reading Jane Austen and have read all her novels, but I wouldn't want to be the subject of her satire! I think I'd be scared to death, if I had ever met her, which thankfully is not possible in this life. I first read Pride and Prejudice when, unaccountably, I checked a book out of the school library. I say unaccountably, because I didn't read very many books until I was in my twenties and those I did read were mostly for school. Until then, Pride and Prejudice had been just a name to me, but I'm glad I read it.

I didn't do anything more about reading the lovely Jane Austen until after I watched the BBC's (Firth/Ehle) Pride and Prejudice in the mid-nineties. I had forgotten almost the whole story by then, but the production was every bit as enjoyable as my first reading had been. The children and I still like to watch it. Within a few years, I had read Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. The last three are not my favourites and Persuasion least of all, I think, but I'm not yet sure why. I think the characters of the first three I named were more appealing to me and perhaps the story-lines too.

PrideAndPrejudice

I'm not surprised that there are men who don't like reading Austen. It is after all, mostly ladies sitting around in parlours talking, or taking walks in the country-side, talking. Sometimes the ladies “murmur gently” at one another and sometimes they are confiding in each other and at other times they are ridiculing the hero, as yet unknown to them as the hero. When put like this, it's terribly dull stuff, but if I let the author and characters speak for themselves it might create more interest.

Before I do, it came to my attention recently that someone I know of had given up trying to read Austen after trying P&P for the third time and not being able to get into it. If I ever have the chance, I will probably suggest to him that he try Emma and to give the story a good three chapters or so before giving up on it. I once made a couple of attempts at Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, but the third time I skipped to the second chapter and never looked back. Today I make it a rule to read at least a few chapters before giving up on a novel which does not appeal at first.

The introduction to Northanger Abbey is pretty amusing.

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard — and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings — and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on — lived to have six children more — to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any... she was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.

Such was Catherine Morland at ten. At fifteen, appearances were mending; she began to curl her hair and long for balls; ...“Catherine grows quite a good–looking girl — she is almost pretty today,” were words which caught her ears now and then; and how welcome were the sounds! To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

...But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.

This is probably my favourite opening chapter of Austen's. I really wish I could quote the whole chapter, but you can find it here.

Here are some quotes from Emma:

“Better be without sense than misapply it as you do. ” - Mr. Knightley to Emma.

“Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives.” - Mr. Knightley to Emma.

“The ladies here probably exchanged looks which meant, 'Men never know when things are dirty or not;' and the gentlemen perhaps thought each to himself, 'Women will have their little nonsense and needless cares.”

“Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs. Elton's beginning to talk to him.”

“Miss Bates…had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will. It was her own universal goodwill and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in every body’s happiness and quick-sighted to every body’s merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body and a mine of felicity to herself.” 

“A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter.” - Emma to Mr. Knightley

The following section (about 1100 words) was written by my daughter, Eilidh, for one of her English assignments. She was required to write a Marxist-Feminist analysis of Emma. I included it because I found it enjoyable, and I am a proud mother and also the concept of a Marxist-Feminist reading of Austen is a hoot! But perhaps don't read on if you haven't yet read Emma, as there might be a bit too much information in it. I'm not sure it really includes spoilers as such. My contribution now over, I do hope someone is inspired to give Jane Austen a try!

***

Emma

Equality and Inequality between Emma’s Romantic Leads: A Marxist-Feminist Analysis

The relationship between Emma and Mr Knightley, in Jane Austen’s Emma, is as endearing to the Marxist-feminist reader as it is to the Austen-loving romantic. The two characters, perhaps unusually for their time, are equal in many respects, such as verbal intelligence and social power. The chief inequality between them is one of morality, and this stems not from gender or material circumstance, but age.

Emma and Mr Knightley's relationship, in general, is one of mutual respect and affection. Knightley is “a very old and intimate friend of the family...the elder brother of Isabella's husband” (Austen, Emma 8). This suggests that he and Emma have a warm, sibling-like relationship. And since he has a “cheerful manner” (9) and she a “happy disposition” (5), it comes as no surprise that they like to tease each other: “Mr Knightley loves to find fault with me you know—in joke—it is all a joke. We always say what we like to one another” (9). It is significant that, in a story where conversation is so important, Emma and Knightley have a comfortable, bantering relationship—as is demonstrated, for example, during their first scene together (9-12), the Coles' party (167-8), and when discussing Emma's childhood (362-3). Emma can also hold her own in an argument against Knightley; when they disagree about Harriet (48-53), it is Knightley who gives up (albeit out of anger), and although “she [does] not always feel...entirely convinced that her opinions [are] right” (53), Emma makes a reasonable case for her actions. In verbal intelligence, therefore, Emma and Knightley are equal, and this is emphasised by their sibling-like relationship.

A primary theme in Emma is marriage. Significantly, Emma, unlike the novel’s other female characters, “does not need to marry” (Pinch, Introduction ix). In her own words: “I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I have never been in love; it is not my way, or my nature” (68). When Emma does marry, it is because her mind has changed, not her circumstances; she marries purely because she wants to. The same can be said of Knightley, who “sacrifice[es] a great deal of independence” (353) in giving up his home for her. Regarding courtship and marriage, then, the power dynamic between the two is, on the whole, equal.

Another important theme is Emma's moral development, which is strongly influenced by her relationship with Mr Knightley. As part of “the town's traditional elite” (Pinch, Introduction xiv), Emma and Knightley have fairly equal material and social power. Knightley is not dependent on his father, but then, Emma's “privileged social position” allows her to view “[t]he hard facts of economic life...with complaisance” (Pinch, Introduction viii). However, unlike Knightley, “Emma uses her wealth and position, her charm and her attractiveness—her real power—to coerce others” (Juhasz, Reading Austen Writing Emma), and “[she] blunders through the novel, misjudging the motives and best interests of one character after another.” (Craig, “The Value of a Good Income”: Money in Emma).

Emma is essentially a spoiled brat, “having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself” (Austen, Emma 5). Conversely, Knightley is “a sensible man about seven or eight-and-thirty” (8), so he “has the advantage of age, and thus perspective, a perspective both critical and rational, but also empathetic” (Jackson, The Dilemma of Emma: Moral, Ethical, and Spiritual Values). This, in addition to their sibling-like relationship, gives Knightley the “privilege” (Austen, Emma 294) to hold Emma accountable for her actions. Knightley is “one of the few people who [can] see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever [tells] her of them” (9-10). While this “privilege” may be “endured rather than allowed” (294), “[Emma has] a sort of habitual respect for [Knightley's] judgement” (52). This is shown when Knightley challenges her behaviour towards Miss Bates (294-5), “which finally forces Emma to acknowledge her own folly and to grow as a human being” (Craig, “The Value of a Good Income”: Money in Emma): Emma deeply regrets having “exposed herself to such ill opinion in [someone] she value[s]” (Austen, Emma 296).

Knightley shows Emma respect by confronting her about her behaviour instead of condemning her behind her back. He “loves the person who is both beautiful and not” (Juhasz, Reading Austen Writing Emma). As he says: “This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,— I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by faithful counsel” (295). And Emma admits that she “was very often influenced rightly by [him]” (363). However, she usually feels free to question his judgement or ignore his advice—regarding Harriet, for example (54)—and although this never turns out well, it shows that she considers him a trusted advisor, but does not permit him to have absolute power over her.

The theme of moral development is linked to that of marriage, as many of Emma’s mistakes revolve around love, marriage, and motivation. Juhasz (Reading Austen Writing Emma) writes:

If Emma began her novel self-absorbed to a fault...thereby abusing [her social power], she needs to be able to use that power responsibly. To do that she needs to be able to feel as well as think, and to let the actuality of others’...subjectivity, affect her, rather than...inventing them as creatures who can do her bidding. Falling in love, for the Emma who says she never will, is precisely an experience of vulnerability to another which will allow for this kind of maturation. It is of course her very own true love who says, “‘I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good’” (41).

So, although Emma and Knightley are equal in many things, they are unequal in moral development—an inequality caused not by gender, or lack of social power on either side, but by age and differing levels of experience. But since it is alleviated by mutual respect, lessened by the end of the novel, and will likely continue to diminish as Emma ages, it is an inequality that is not intrinsic to the relationship, but eradicated by it.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. 1815. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Craig, Sheryl. “‘The Value of a Good Income’: Money in Emma.” Persuasions On-Line 22.1 (2001): n.pag. Web. 30 August 2015.

Jackson, Karin. “The Dilemma of Emma: Moral, Ethical, and Spiritual Values.” Persuasions On- Line 21.2 (2000): n.pag. Web. 30 August 2015.

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Reading Austen Writing Emma.” Persuasions On-Line 21.1 (2000): n.pag. Web. 30 August 2015.

Pinch, Adela. Introduction. Emma. By Jane Austen. Ed. James Kinsley. Oxford UP, 2008. vii-xxix. Print. Oxford World’s Classics.

Austen

 

—Louise is an Australian homeschooling mother of six, currently living in Texas.


The Bonzo Dog Band: Hunting Tigers Out In Indiah

Off and on for the past week I've realized that this song was playing in my head, or rather the chorus was, because that's all I could remember. At first I couldn't figure out why it was there, and then I realized that it was because of all the talk about India in the Rumer Godden post and discussion.

 

The band was also and I think in fact officially known as The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.